10 best TV shows of 2018: The continuing crippling horror of the year-end TV list

There are 495 scripted TV series on this year. Your favorite might not make this list

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 23, 2018 3:30PM (EST)

Sandra Oh as Eve Polastri in "Killing Eve" (BBC AMERICA/Sid Gentle Films Ltd 2018)
Sandra Oh as Eve Polastri in "Killing Eve" (BBC AMERICA/Sid Gentle Films Ltd 2018)

Leaving the house is a luxury for me nowadays.

Oh, my legs work just fine. I have a vehicle. I live in a walkable neighborhood, in a region of the country known for its mild winters (save for rain and the odd power grid-crippling windstorm) and its temperate summer.

In 2018 alone I also had 495 scripted series vying for my attention, according to the annual tally from FX’s research team. The cable channel helpfully compiles this data each year for TV critics to help us understand the challenge it faces in the marketplace, and to help us comprehend the enormity of our task.

That number — 495, help me baby Jesus — doesn’t include unscripted series, or documentaries, or documentary series, or TV movies. Which we’re also tasked with watching. Once you factor those it, we’re well into the 500s.

So, guess what? I haven’t seen every show.

Chances are I haven’t even seen every truly Best Show of 2018. I made a heroic effort, don’t get me wrong. But a few slipped through the cracks.

For example, you may have already seen mentions of Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman,” one of my favorite shows. “BoJack” aired its fifth season this year, and I’ve heard was very good. It’s on many Best of 2018 lists. Not this one, because I haven’t watched yet.

Ditto for “Babylon Berlin,” a favorite of Mary Elizabeth Williams. I’m sure I’ll take a look at it at some point. But sadly I committed to the likes of “Little Women” on PBS. The upside of that regret is that said production fills a slot on an entirely different list.

There’s a contingent out there that would place “Legends of Tomorrow” on every Top 10 list, and I hear they have a strong argument. And there was a very passionate online campaign cajoling me to watch Ovation’s “Versailles” which, again I’ve heard splendid thing about. The “BoJack” problem applies to both these cases, except I’m actually more than a season behind in each.

And there are some series that simply do not need my help or the additional “Year End Best” seal of approval. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is gonna do what it do.

FX “The Americans,” which aired a stellar final season and delivered a smooth finish, a feat most series cannot boast, is over now. There’s no need to beg you to watch it — you should, though —and it doesn’t need my “Best Of” Blue Ribbon. It’s already Hall of Fame material. (Besides, “The Americans” may make an appearance on another list. Just saying.)

I could name loads of other series I’ve been meaning to get to here, but I’m going to level with you: I’m either too tired to dig them out of that 495-deep pile, or I’ve forgotten they’ve existed.

Conversely, a select number of shows leapt to the fore of my memory because I simply could not forget them if I tried. That’s at least a strong qualifier for any best-of list, don’t you think? Another is whether a series is one I’ve recommended off the cuff when people bust the “what should I be watching” question on me.What follows, then, is a personal, subjective list of 2018’s Best TV Shows that I am terrified to present to you and is sure to be deemed invalid by the omission of certain titles. You should watch them anyway.

10. “Cobra Kai,” YouTube

Reviving a famous film franchise as a TV series is nothing new. But making one that’s enjoyable, binge-worthy, smart and emotionally profound does not come easily. And yet, I am as surprised as I’m guessing a number of readers may be to say, without apology, that this series makes the grade. It is the only season of television I re-watched in its entirety several times.

Not content to simply extend the “Karate Kid” universe, “Cobra Kai” utilizes Danny LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence, and the roles they’ve been branded with since 1984, and turns their respective stories of bullying victim and aggressor into case studies of heroism and villainy, success and failure, and fatherhood, asking us to consider the fungibility of those definitions.

And while some scenes are straight-up reprises of takes from the original movie, co-creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg employ these moments as tokens of affectionate nostalgia.

9. “Counterpart,” Starz

Time and again we’re reminded that we’re living in the worst timeline. But what if there were concrete evidence of an alternate and concurrent option, a precise copy of our world containing our doubles, identical to us save for the choices they make?

And what if the occupants of that world decided, without most of us knowing, that there could only be one version of us — and they were determined to ensure they were the winner?

The beauty of “Counterpart” is that it sounds like sci-fi, but plays like a thriller blended with existential examination, man’s inner conflict made flesh. And if parts of your being remain torn by the loss of “Fringe,” which traded in a similar construct, J.K. Simmons’ extraordinary work in this series could mend them. Currently season 2 is airing on Sundays at 9 p.m.

8. “Pose,” FX

“If we must make time for so-called ‘necessary’ television that reminds us of why the struggle still matters, if only to preserve the variety of potential and sparkle all around us, of the gorgeousness of every color and shade, “Pose” may be one of the few shows on television right now that fits.” That’s how I summed up the earth-shaking import of this series about the 1980s ballroom drag scene, fronted by a transgender cast killing it in every scene. That assertion is still strong today — stronger, maybe, as we calculate the toll that bigotry and despair has taken upon our spirit in this year alone.

“Pose” is a period piece set in the 1980s, but its depiction of the valorous determination of marginalized people to exist loudly and in bold color in the face of prejudice rings true in 2018 and beyond. To our great fortune it’s returning for a second season in 2019, and hopefully it will draw an even larger audience this time around.

7. “The Good Fight,” CBS All Access

It was easy to ignore this spinoff of "The Good Wife" in season 1,  give its relatively muted berth on CBS's streaming service. Dismissing Diane Lockhart's second outing, however, is a mistake — particularly for viewers seeking catharsis from our current state of affairs.  In season 2  creators Robert and Michelle King and co-creator Phil Alden Robinson take the fight directly to the White House, bringing out the fire in Diane and inviting Christine Baranski to let loose with some Grade A scenery-chewing. Each episode is named after a day in this administration, as if counting down a prison sentence. Even the credits sequence represents the detonation of so-called "civility."

The reason this take works is that the writers have discovered the high spirit of battle-mode, hanging storylines upon more than just cases. The second season's primary defendant is the justice system itself, with the law and its institutions under assault by opportunistic simpletons. Taking the moral high ground is no longer an option when that ground has turned to quicksand.  “This isn’t about truth anymore, and it’s not about lying,” Diane's colleague Liz observes. “It’s about who’s backtracking, and who’s attacking.”

And what fun it is to watch Diane take pleasure in getting dirty.

By season's end Diane's political enemies are coming at her directly and with ferocity. But by then she's already learned that fighting fair is a losing proposition. And this woman is not about to go out politely, or quietly.

6. “Succession,” HBO

The wealthy, entitled, dysfunctional family is one of those entertainment clichés designed to make the financially average viewer (a.k.a. “we, the poors”) feel better about their sad and desperate lot. Thus “Succession” doesn’t present, at least initially, as an extraordinary series. On TV in 2018 their lot is legion — the Bluths, the Carringtons, even the Gettys got a drab spin this year via “Trust.” We didn’t even have to mention that other spotlight-hogging family whose name begins with the letter T.

But in watching this family slowly, violently begin to digest itself via internecine bickering, “Succession” evolved into a parable of America itself, with a decaying father figure unwilling to cede his power in the name of progress, and children all too eager to unseat him not for the greater good but to secure their own personal gain. Brilliant performances and biting comedy spiked throughout made this show fascinating to sit with, especially the season's closing hours.

5. “Sharp Objects,” HBO

The Gillian Flynn novel upon which this series is based may have been written in 2006, but this story is pure 2018 for an array of reasons. Amy Adams leads us by the hand through a small town choked by air dripping with heat and dread. Jean-Marc Vallée twisted that somatic reaction by playing word games with us that you may have noticed — but if you didn’t, surely you felt their drug effect.

If one were to peg one series that evokes the simmering rage that finally boiled over this past summer, though, there’s a strong argument to be made that this is the one. Adams’ Camille Preaker is nothing if not a creature of quiet anger turned inward and metastasized into acts of self-harm, and in the end we saw in a horrific extreme how dangerous the presumed innocence of white women can be to the people around them.

4. (tie) “The Good Place” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” NBC

Both are NBC series. Both are creations of Mike Schur, perhaps the most down-to-earth champion of joy-filled, feel-good humor working in television right now.

Similar pedigree and sentiment aside, however, separately each of these series speaks in an accessible fashion to the better angels of our nature. “The Good Place” and its weekly exercise in moral philosophy invites us again and again to contemplate what we are to each other, both in the micro and macro sense. Is it enough to be a good person if it comes at your own expense?

Does forgiveness count if the other person refuses to accept it? And what if none of our good works matter to the cosmic accountant supposedly keeping track?

Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” returning Thursday, January 10 at 9 p.m., celebrates the best aspects of true heroism in the world of law and order, where the cops of the Nine-Nine accept and love each other regardless of the slights the world forces upon them. Topmost among them was Fox’s cancellation of the show in May, leading NBC (whose studios produce it) to swoop in and save it.

But if you choose to revisit these series in a holiday viewing binge — highly recommended — you may notice now beautifully each portrays platonic and romantic love, without qualification or disempowerment, but as a state of equilibrium.

Neither series tries to make a case for life being fair, but in this regard, they posit that it’s possible for some parcels within our lives to feel safe and right.

3.  “Better Call Saul,” AMC

OK, yes, there was that whole diatribe above about certain series not needing my stamp of approval. This one doesn’t need it either. But it gets a place on this list due to its consistently rising quality level, and because it achieves the rare feat of being a spinoff that just about equals the quality of the series that spawned it.

Better Call Saul” is a different animal than “Breaking Bad” in its dissections of intelligence, merit and worth — particularly self-worth. Walter White never doubted that he was the smartest player in the game, he only had qualms about the price his family paid for it, and even that diminished over time.

Jimmy McGill, on the other hand, is a man knocked into the gutter by his own brother, even from beyond the grave. In this season, at last, he emerges from his grief to run a long con to rule and, as we know, eventually help other gutter rats terrorize the upstanding folk who pushed them down.

But the secret weapon of this season is Kim Wexler, the stand-in for every workhorse whose diligence and determination is rewarded with an emotional gut-punch of disappointment. S’all good, man.

2. “Killing Eve,” BBC America

Any time a cultural revolution erupts, count on the entertainment industry to make attempts at capture, containment and resale. The outset of 2018 promised a few #MeToo themed series, but none of those that were planned fulfilled that aim as wholly as “Killing Eve,” a spy thriller that happily, twistedly and entirely coincidentally slayed us with its ruthless charm — and, yes, its feminism.

Few series so believably make the complicated affection women can have for each other central to the narrative, without sacrificing the stated mission dictating that one, Sandra Oh’s MI5 agent Eve, must bring the other, Jodie Comer’s assassin Villanelle, to justice. Villanelle is a sociopath, while Eve’s ability to feel makes her an able crime solver. When their male handlers seek to diminish them, both go rogue. But even other women betray them. It’s a bitch-bite-bitch world, after all.

Oh’s outstanding performance earned her a historic Emmy nod. In a flawless world, she would have won. In this one, however, we’ll simply have to content ourselves with the knowledge that she and Comer are returning for a second match.

1.“Atlanta,” FX

There are television series expressly imagined as artistic works; there are works of art painted in the medium of television; and there’s “Atlanta,” a half-hour series that aspires above all to make its viewers feel the black experience in their skin and ends up transforming the definition of what a series can be.

“Atlanta” never forgets its original designation as a comedy, but it doesn’t restrict itself to the common definition of the genre. This season’s greatest episodes, in fact, are horror movies. In one, the monster is a faded celebrity twisted by a father’s expectations of excellence and society’s definition of refinement and acceptability.

In another, it is other predators taking advantage of Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) being caught without the protection of companions or even the shielding of a vehicle, whose fame turns him into prey, forcing him to run for his life in the woods, in the dark.

Season 2 of “Atlanta” opens during the holidays, known to locals as “Robbin’ Season." Creator Donald Glover and the writers define that term differently depending on the episode, mostly circling back to notion that each of us is robbed of our dignity as we walk through life. But never does the series fail in its first central mission of making viewers feel what it is like to be black in America, a well of possibilities and scenarios that isn’t bound to run dry anytime soon.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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