Halfway through 2018, here are my top 10 shows. Obviously, these picks are subjective.
1. Atlanta (FX)
Atlanta isn’t so much a television show as a vehicle — and not just any vehicle. It’s one of those vertical takeoff and landing jets, a powerful and adaptable machine capable of telling almost any story it wants within an episode, all while always feeling Atlanta. To be honest, I don’t totally understand how it’s able to do this. Walking into an episode of Atlanta could mean anything, from a pajama-clad romp through a confederate frat to a standoff with an alligator man. Even within an episode, anything can happen next, and while there is an overall theme to Robbin’ Season and a somewhat cohesive story, Atlanta is more about being transported to a place. You were never sure how you got there or where you were going, but it was always a place you’d never been to before. Each surreal experience brings with it a new perspective that doesn’t just bewilder you, but also shows us something deeper about the specific society that our characters are a part of. It’s also the owner of the best episode of TV in 2018: “Teddy Perkins,” which is something you have to drop everything to watch right now if you haven’t.
2. The Americans (FX)
The Americans wrapped up its sixth and final season at a level on par with, or maybe even exceeding, the highest points of the series. Known for its slow and methodical approach to character building, this final run was somehow able to maintain that pace while still hurtling the plot toward to the finish line. It was an incredibly small needle to thread, but guided by expert performances from Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell (neither of which will ever receive the accolades they deserve for their amazing work on this series), the show was able to do both. Somehow, The Americans was capable of being loud and quiet at the same time as we read the anguish and inner turmoil on the faces of Russell and Rhys and they swallowed hard and did what they had to. No other show could have made a finale about a list of things that didn’t happen, and have it still hit as hard as an episode full of things that did. Even though it might have been a show that came around in a different era, it was still able to adapt to changing times and play the expectation game to perfection, playing on some, fulfilling others, and zigging when everyone thought they would zag — a spy must always be flexible.
3. Killing Eve (BBC America)
Often dark comedies will toggle between laughs and drama, taking turns hitting you with moments of wrought tension and then taking the edge off with some well-timed jokes. Killing Eve is the rare show that doesn’t need to take turns. Somehow it is able to infuse its drama with laughs, often through the brilliant Jodie Comer’s portrayal of Villanelle. Sandra Oh’s performance as Eve is excellent as well, but the show is really about Villanelle and our obsession with her. Eve can’t help herself, and neither can we. Much, much more on this topic here.
4. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Because it can be such a difficult watch, people can be quick to dismiss The Handmaid’s Tale as “torture porn,” but that just simply isn’t true. In its second season, the show has found its voice, making smart and nuanced points about suffering, pain, and endurance in a way that feels as necessary and relevant a conversation to the world of today as there is in popular culture. The moments where the show refuses to provide its audience an escape are meant to feel “too close to home” — that’s the point. The Handmaid’s Tale is interested in making you feel uncomfortable and then forcing you to confront the reasons behind those feelings. While there are tons of criticisms that are worth discussing, the show is consciously playing with an Overton window it created in season one, and making it real by intimately bringing us into the lives of its characters. Elisabeth Moss and Yvonne Strahovski are fantastic and shepard us through that experience where any lesser actor would fail. That’s to say nothing of Anne Dowd, Samira Wiley, Madeline Brewer, and Alexis Bledel who round out the stellar supporting cast or the cinematography that brings us into this nightmare world that feels all too real. You can find a lot more of my feelings on The Handmaid’s Tale here.
5. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has always been a bold show: it’s an hour long comedy-musical dark satire. That’s a lot of different boxes to check in every episode. As a show in its third (of a planned four) seasons with middling ratings in the Friday night death slot, it would have been incredibly easy for the show to fall back on the laurels of its critical acclaim and find a more traditional approach as it enters the home stretch. Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh-McKenna have always had a specific vision in mind for their series and continued to chase it this season in new and exciting ways, leaning into the the things that have made this show great over the years and using a unique storytelling style to tell stories that aren’t often seen on TV. The show continues to find interesting and thoughtful ways to deconstruct the loaded term that is its title year, shedding light on both mental illness and what constitutes “crazy” from a multitude of angles, empathizing with and normalizing an area of society that is unfortunately still stigmatized, while being uncompromising. Being mentally ill is not an excuse, it’s just another piece of the puzzle.
6. Black Mirror (Netflix)
Black Mirror remains as relevant as it did when it premiered in 2011 as our technology continues advance exponentially. While the fourth season technically premiered in 2017, it was December 29th and ended up getting left off most year-end lists, so it wouldn’t feel right to not recognize a show that was mostly watched in 2018. The fourth collection of Black Mirror episodes continues the show’s tradition of pointing out the flaws in human nature with technical precision, using a sci-fi futuristic world to bring the worst out of us. While there were certainly some duds in this season, Hang the DJ and USS Callister were triumphs that peered into the show’s familiar idea of artificial intelligence, and told wildly different stories. Black Mirror remains one of the nimblest and most versatile shows around, being able to trojan horse human stories under the guise of the robotic. Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones have even let a little more hope creep in, suggesting that there’s more to humanity than just our basest instincts.
7. The Good Place (NBC)
Another comedy that is constantly pushing itself, The Good Place has covered an tremendous amount of ground in its two seasons. It’s a show that never stops moving, constantly pushing its characters to grow in new and interesting ways, using the situation part of “situation comedy” to not just bring out humor, but also improvement. Where its first season put its characters in a completely new place by its end, The Good Place’s second season ups the ante, moving them not just to a new headspace, but an entirely different location. Where they are now is a bit of a loaded question, but the second season of the series proves that the show is completely unafraid to push the envelope and challenge itself. Sometimes when a show opens too many more doors than it closes, it can become bloated or feel as though it has jumped the shark. But The Good Place is always grounded in its main cast, and always uses its constantly changing situations to explore them, not the other way around. You can hear more about how I think The Good Place is redefining the sitcom genre here.
8. Counterpart (Starz)
JK Simmons playing two versions of the same character is enough of a reason to watch this show, but the fun doesn’t stop there. Starz’s sci-fi show about similar, but not identical, parallel universes is a truly creative way to explore the philosophical ideas of nature vs. nurture, choice, and self vs. other without ever being too heady. Counterpart isn’t flashy or a spectacle like Westworld or Altered Carbon, but it is much more effective at getting to the crux of its story because of that difference. Instead of mining its premise for huge setpieces of action or mind-blowing visuals, it mines it for character growth and drama, always focusing on how that premise affects its characters and their new realities. It is more a spy thriller than a sci-fi show, and that’s by design. The series uses its sci-fi elements to enhance the central themes of the spy genre (identity) and come at them from a new and different angle. You can read more of my feelings on Counterpart here.
9. Barry (HBO)
This dark comedy is the second best show about an assassin this year, and unfortunately gets knocked down a few spots because of this. Unlike Killing Eve, Barry does need to take turns between laughs and drama, but it is hugely successful at both. From Bill Hader’s hilariously bad performances in acting class with Henry Winkler to Sarah Goldberg’s portrayal of a struggling LA actress that is a complete parody of herself, the show has tons of laughs to go around. Of course, it is also about an assassin who kills countless people over the first season and, as bad as he feels about it, is unable to fully stop for one reason or another. Barry is also incredibly shot, including an intense action sequence directed by Hiro Murai that almost seems to arise from nowhere halfway through the season. That Barry challenges its audience to think about why they root for its main character isn’t new, but the nakedness with which it does so is interesting and entertaining. Also, Noho Hank.
10. Corporate (Comedy Central)
A comedy that feels as though it was written by millennials who expected corporate life to be like The Office, Corporate perfectly captures the soul-sucking essence of working a 9-5 job that you hate. Sure, they’re all doing fine financially, but everything is poisoned by work: that thing you spend the majority of your waking hours doing. Corporate is at the same time commenting on how huge corporations that make everything are bad for society while showing how they suck for the workers involved, all with a laugh-to-keep-from-crying attitude that feels all too familiar. The season can be summed up by the cold open of its third episode: a presentation about the average well-being of Hampton DeVille employees, while our main characters Matt and Jake talk in the back about their coping strategies.
Matt: “I’m so tired, I wish I could be asleep all the time.”
Jake: “You just described death.”
M: “Yeah I guess I want to be dead.”
J: “I can’t wait to die. It sounds so relaxing.”