American Crime StoryAndi MackBarryBob's BurgersBritanniaChannel ZeroClawsDivorceFind Me in ParisGreenleafHarlotsHumansInto The BadlandsKiddingOpinionOverthinking with Kat & JunePoseQueen AmericaQueen SugarSchitt's CreekSorry for Your LossStan Against EvilThe Dangerous Book for BoysThe MagiciansThis Close Jan 17, 2019 Shilo Adams
Here we are on the other side of 2018, a year that lasted approximately 285 months and featured almost 500 TV shows being thrown in your face like a half-finished drink on literally any episode ofLove & Hip Hop. It’s been a slog to make it to this point, so it’s tough to look back on the past 12 months with any type of nostalgia. But in order to make it through personal struggles, political trauma, and the seemingly innumerable Bad Things that now populate our world, we all have to find ways to cope.
One of my main devices to escape the noise has been TV, which I’ve further embraced as the number of series available at our collective fingertips has continued to increase. I might not watch the volume that I once did, given broadcast’s regression to the creative mean, a number of cable networks getting out of scripted, and Netflix’s strategy of flooding the market being a major turn-off, but the shows that I watched this year were arguably more important to me than they’ve ever been. They made me laugh, cry, think, and feel; they pushed boundaries, provided needed perspectives, and made their mark on me in some form or fashion. Some improved from 2017, others were newbies that stood out to me in a crowded field; some challenged me, others comforted. As much as TV critics have bemoaned the state of TV in 2018, the depth in the medium, as well as how targeted content has become, meant that there was more than enough quality shows to go around, even in places that you wouldn’t expect.
In looking at my top 25 shows of the year, know that the order is more of about my mindset when putting together this article vs. anything else. I could make this list 25 times in 250 different ways and still not be satisfied, but these 25 shows as a whole were just a bit above everything else that I watched this year. If you don’t see something that you love or something that hit the critical/cultural zeitgeist, know that I likely didn’t watch considering, well, there are almost 500 shows and I’m someone who doesn’t get paid to watch more than what appeals to me personally.
If your #1 show of the year doesn’t show up here, do know that I appreciate its role in making your 2018 just a little less crappy.
25. Into the Badlands (AMC)
AMC martial arts drama Into the Badlands continued to build creative momentum in 2018, slicing and dicing its way through eight episodes of gorgeously choreographed fight scenes, solid political intrigue, and promising world building for episodes to come. It was a season that further humanized series hero Sunny by forcing him to confront his past while on a mission to change his son’s future, a storyline that kept the season’s pace brisk and foregrounded its emotion. With some of the best production design on television, a mythology that’s managed to get deeper while staying coherent, and a narrative whose continued expansion has only been for the better, Into the Badlands season 3A was the richest stretch the show’s had thus far, its examination of trauma proof once and for all that there’s more to this show than immaculate stunt work.
24. The Dangerous Book for Boys (Amazon)
Amazon family comedy The Dangerous Book for Boys had a quiet run in 2018, premiering in the spring without much of a push before getting cancelled at the end of August. It’s a shame, though, because the show, based on the novel by Conn & Hal Iggulden, was one of the pleasant surprises of the year in television. The story of a family of three boys rocked by the death of their father, The Dangerous Book for Boys was a thoughtful, inventive exploration of grief that managed to take the sadness of its characters seriously while using elaborate fantasy sequences to keep the tone from getting too heavy. Its bones might be of a traditional family comedy, in that it still imparts lessons to its young audience while focusing on a single mother trying to raise her children, but the depth that it gives its trio of male tweens (a character type that can be 2D more often than not), its ability to wring pathos from its premise without becoming treacly, and the imaginative ways that it personifies the inner struggles of its protagonist means that it pushed its genre forward.
23. Overthinking with Kat & June (YouTube Premium)
A late addition to the year in television 2018, YouTube Premium buddy comedy Overthinking with Kat & June follows blunt, extroverted aspiring actress Kat and her neurotic new roommate June as they attempt to co-exist while self-actualizing both professionally and personally. Something of a cross between Broad City, The Odd Couple, and Scrubs, sarcastic and decidedly off-kilter Overthinking gets a lot of mileage out of its choice to listen in on the thoughts of its characters, as it further underlines the differences between Kat and June while allowing further embracing its own playfulness. Buoyed by editing that’s active enough to add visual interest to a small show (in scale) and a star-making performance from Alexia Dox, who channels Maria Bamford and MadTV-era Mo Collins in crafting the very strange, very specific June, Overthinking is an extremely funny, deceptively sweet little show that deserves to stand out from the Peak TV pack.
22. Britannia (Amazon)
The historical drama is a TV format that’s easy to make stuffy, overly mannered, and boring. Luckily, Amazon/Sky Atlantic series Britannia is nothing of the sort, as the exploration of Rome’s conquest of Britain in 43 A.D. is admirably nuts in a way that sets it apart from its ilk. Propulsively paced with expensive-looking production design and a series of bold narrative choices, Britannia is a Chosen One story wrapped in Pagan rituals, court intrigue, the Dark Lord, Kelly Reilly looking like Florence Welch: Warrior Princess, and two warring tribes heading toward mutually assured destruction. It zigs when you think it’ll zag, its dealings with the supernatural are spellbindingly kooky, and its battle scenes still manage to shine despite how much is going on around them. With delightful banter anchoring its central relationship and a giddy ability to bounce between its various selves,Britannia is the type of show that, with all of its idiosyncrasies, best exemplifies this TV era.
21. A Very English Scandal (Amazon)
Similar in its vibrant approach to historical content is Amazon/BBC One miniseries A Very English Scandal, which chronicles Britain’s Jeremy Thorpe/Norman Josiffe scandal from the 1970s. While the core of the three-episode series brims with the sadness of a life lived in fear and the impact of homophobia beyond gay bashing, it manages to vacillate fairly deftly between political thriller, screwball comedy, and romantic drama, a mish-mash of tones and topics anchored by career performances from Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw. Still timely in its examination of the relationship between homosexuality and politics, A Very English Scandal likely could’ve been longer considering how densely its 180-minute-ish run-time is packed, but its swiftness is a selling point and adds to its narrative energy, which climaxes in a way that’s deeply moving, sociologically perceptive, and profoundly funny. Even with queer television still having a ways to go, little oddball entries like this are a sign that things are moving in the right direction.
20. Stan Against Evil (IFC)
Following two very solid seasons of demon hunting, IFC comedy Stan Against Evil reached a new level in its third outing this year. As self-assured as ever, the series, described by its stars as The Exorcist meets Scooby Doo, managed to balance its most creatively ambitious standalone episodes yet with a serialized arc that added dramatic weight to something that had been lighter fare until now. The resident silliness and pop culture intelligence of the show is still there in spades, particularly during an inspired Kaiju tribute episode that flirted with the fourth wall, and the structure of two serialized episodes -> four standalones -> two serialized episodes remains a thing of beauty, but letting strong actors like John C. McGinley and Janet Varney pay off seasons of earned emotion in the game changing final two episodes took the show to a place it hadn’t before.Ballsiness like that, combined with an impressive slate of guest stars and a delightfully offbeat sense of humor, more than earned the show a spot on my top 25.
19. Andi Mack (Disney Channel)
Year-end lists can be tough on shows that don’t air one complete season during a calendar year, as you have to look at two incomplete bodies of work and weigh them against the one collective unit that most shows put forth. Such is the case with Andi Mack, which aired 27 episodes across two seasons throughout 2018; naturally, with that type of production output, there were some bumps along the way, primarily when the show leaned into typical teen tropes and made the repetitive Andi/Jonah romance its cause du jour. However, 2018 was a time of great progress for Andi Mack, as the show’s adept subversion of teen archetypes did right by TJ and Amber, love for its adult characters allowed Bex to grow away from her relationship with Andi, and careful way with substantive issues gave great weight to Jonah’s anxiety, Cyrus’s sexuality (and budding feelings for TJ), and Andi’s heritage. Combine that with the refreshingly evolved family dynamic with Bowie’s greater presence and Andi Mack continued to be a trailblazer for its network, a fabulous step forward for Disney in terms of tone, content, and representation.
18. Greenleaf (OWN)
OWN family soap Greenleaf produced arguably its best season ever in 2018 by shaking its foundation through a divorce arc that pitted Lynn Whitfield’s Lady Mae against Keith David’s Bishop.Allowing two actors of Whitfield’s and David’s caliber to tear into one another on a weekly basis and plumb the depths of their characters’ past, present, and future was an absolute treat to behold, as both imbued their material with a sense of gravitas that made each of their scenes together crackle with electricity. The unsteadiness that existed between the heads of the Greenleaf family reverberated outward into an immensely compelling revenge storyline with ties to the beginning of the series, Zora’s domestic violence storyline that produced one of the rawest scenes in series history, and arcs for the three Greenleaf siblings that found them fighting to find (Charity) or foster (Jacob, Grace) their sense of self. It made for a season that lived in the high drama of the first two outings while thoroughly examining each Greenleaf’s place in the family amidst this upheaval and tightening the bonds that held Memphis’s First Family together for so long.
17. Queen America (Facebook Watch)
Facebook Watch beauty pageant dramedy Queen America is something of a bait and switch, in a good way. While Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones does get in her share of withering put-downs while wearing fabulous skirts, the viciousness and cattiness is decidedly dialed down here, replaced with an examination of the self-hatred ingrained in women from an early age and a narrative focused on the lengths we go to in order to escape our past. Queen America does have levity to spare, especially when Judith Light is on screen or Zeta-Jones gets to banter with Teagle F. Bougere, but it’s a much more sober, much more layered show than one might surmise from the premise. Aided by episodes that don’t exceed 30 minutes, an extraordinarily likable underdog played by Bella Shouse, and a love of emotionally complex women, Queen America wears its heart on the front of its sash and is all the better for it.
16. Find Me in Paris (Hulu)
An acquisition from France’s Cottonwood Media, Hulu ballet dramedy Find Me in Paris follows Russian princess Lina Grisky as she accidentally time travels from the early 20th century to present day and attempts to assimilate into a prestigious Parisian ballet school. Part time travel epic, part tween romance, and part performing arts showcase, Find Me in Paris could’ve easily skidded off the rails considering how many moving parts it has and how many shows it has to be at once. However, it manages to zip through 26 well-planned, compulsively watchable episodes with the ease of a prima ballerina, all the while keeping its time travel elements coherent and fun, its romances compelling and earned, and its dance sequences stunning and worth the price of admission alone. Something of a combination of The Lake House, Hindsight, and Center Stage, Find Me in Paris is a beautifully shot oddball of a TV show and something that, despite its younger target demographic, can be appreciated by all.
15. Claws (TNT)
After a first season that was strong on characters and sense of place but shakier when it came to plot, Claws put forth a second season that had all its ducks in a row, telling an operatic story of Niecy Nash’s Desna breaking bad, being betrayed, and exacting revenge upon all those who sought to bring her down. The nail salon dramedy became even more ambitious visually, pairing its candy-coated production design with surreal sight gags that represented the heightened emotions of its characters and tested the bounds of its own reality, while new addition Franka Potente proved a formidable presence as delightfully tacky, feminism weaponizing crime boss Zlata. By further embracing its very specific tone, allowing itself to experiment more narratively, and always keeping its drama grounded in a place of character-based truth, Claws produced a second season that was cleaner in terms of structure while more out there than ever before. Bravo.
14. Queen Sugar (OWN)
OWN’s Queen Sugar remained the best family drama on television for a third season running, as 2018 found the series mixing a searing look into police brutality and the prison industrial complex with a powerful examination of mental health in the black community and inter-family tension that threatened to bring the Bordelon family down from within. Lyrical and earthy, moving and textured,Queen Sugar was as lovely as ever during its third season, whether it be the subtle grown folks problems that plagued Hollywood and Violet or Micah finding his voice as an activist in order to exact change in New Orleans. It was a season that almost pushed itself into thriller territory with Charley’s dealings with Sam Landry all the while retaining its big-hearted romanticism; it was a season that had a lot to say without talking down or at you, instead choosing to talk to its audience like adults and never letting its characters out of focus. Most of all, Queen Sugar is such a specific voice and vision that isn’t replicated anywhere else during Peak TV, which makes it a valuable part of the TV environment.