Another year brought another embarrassment of TV riches, as departing favorites gave way to audacious new series, and streaming services brought viewers a world of outstanding foreign fare.
TV gets better and better, but it does not necessarily do so in a straight line.
The first several months of 2018, I worried I might have a hard time filling this list. The last half of the year, though, came on with a burst of creativity that kept me adding and subtracting to the last minute.
This is one reason I don’t rank it in order. I’d be lying if I told you I liked my No. 7 show measurably better than No. 8, and you could make a solid Top 10 out of my near-misses (“Babylon Berlin,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Better Call Saul” among them).
You had to know the ending was going to hurt. The final season of this family spy drama with a melancholy heart as big as Mother Russia brought the long con of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) to an end. The devastating, though largely bloodless, finale stayed true to the series’s theme that often the greatest sacrifices you make for a doomed cause are emotional. (Streaming on Amazon and FX Plus.)
I cringe when critics say, “You have to watch this” — there’s no better way to make TV sound like a chore. But this 10-part documentary, set at a racially integrated school in Oak Park, Ill., was not homework. The sprawling, nuance-minded story explored the difficulties of racial inequity, even in a socially conscious school. But more than that, it was an involving, big-hearted story of kids, their dreams, their challenges, their triumphs and their everyday drama. You don’t have to watch “America to Me.” But you’ll be glad if you do. (Streaming on Starz.)
The second season of “Atlanta” had a theme: money, scams and the precarious struggle of its characters on the periphery of the hip-hop business to hang on to what they have. But this creation by Donald Glover and company also retained its ability to become anything from episode to episode: gothic horror in the episode “Teddy Perkins,” picaresque comedy in “Barbershop” and poignant coming-of-age in “F.U.B.U.” At a peak moment for pop-culture Afro-surrealism (“Random Acts of Flyness” on TV, “Sorry to Bother You” in the theaters), “Atlanta” remained the kingpin. (Streaming on FX Plus.)
I pair these shows together not to cheat an extra show into my list — well, maybe a little bit — but because they’re two sides of a bloody coin. Both are mordant stories about assassins: Barry (Bill Hader), a burned out ex-soldier who longs to become an actor, and Villanelle (Jodie Comer), a gleeful huntress playing cat-and-mouse with an intelligence-agency bureaucrat (Sandra Oh). But beyond the obvious, these two stories show how some of today’s best TV exists in a gray area between genres. “Barry,” a half-hour “comedy” from Hader and Alec Berg, developed into something closer to a melancholy short drama; the creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge infused “Eve” with the brio of a dark comedy, though its hour length marked it as “crime drama.” Label them what you like; each hit its target. (“Barry” is streaming on HBO; “Killing Eve” is streaming on Hulu.)
All things being equal, I prefer not to list the same show two years in a row. (This was the tiebreaker that barely eliminated “The Good Place.”) “BoJack” is a pristine example; after five seasons, it is so perceptive, moving and hilarious that it is easy to imagine it cemented on this list permanently. Threading a nuanced arc about the #MeToo movement with a running joke about a robot built out of household appliances and sex toys, the season solidified this cartoon’s case as the best series ever made for streaming. (Streaming on Netflix.)
The second season of “The Good Fight” was the first great TV response to the election of Donald Trump, which has been marked mostly by a glut of late-night comedy and nostalgia revivals. As the firm of Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) dove into the politics and conflicts of the Trump era — immigration, judicial appointments, #MeToo and a certain rumored Russian-hotel tape — what had been a perfectly decent sequel to “The Good Wife” returned invigorated, absurdist and energized for battle. (Streaming on CBS All Access.)
This defense-industry conspiracy thriller moved with military efficiency and artistic stealth. Julia Roberts’s first starring role for TV was her best in years, and she turned in an astonishing, finely calibrated performance. Adapting the series from a podcast drama, the director Sam Esmail applied the cinephilic wizardry he honed on “Mr. Robot” to a take on the paranoid thrillers of the ’70s. Best of all, the whole season took a mere 10 half-hour episodes, which flew by but possessed the screen as if they had all the time in the world. (Streaming on Amazon.)
Every year there’s a show or two for which my honest review is: “I can’t describe this. Just watch it.” “Lodge 49” gets to its story eventually, enfolding real estate, surfing and the arcane secrets of alchemy. But this comic-melancholy hangout is most worth watching for its generous portraits of the strivers and losers at and around a fraternal lodge in down-and-out Southern California. Oddball and amiable, “Lodge 49” looked for meaning in sports-bar restaurants and closing aerospace factories, and it found a peculiar magic. (Streaming on AMC.)
On the demanding floor of New York’s 1980s ballroom competitions, the judging standard was flawlessness. But to me, moments of transcendence matter more than lack of faults. And in those moments, Ryan Murphy’s resplendent series soared like a plumed miracle. “Pose” had clumsy and oversentimental aspects. But it also had an immediate verve, cut-to-the-bone performances and heart to spare. I’ll probably think of “Pose” more than anything else when I think of 2018 TV, and if that’s not the definition of “best,” then it’s something better. (Streaming on FX Plus.)
I teetered between this limited series and the excellent “My Brilliant Friend” for what you might call the HBO literary-adaptation slot. “Sharp Objects,” adapted by Marti Noxon from the novel by Gillian Flynn, was the more inventive reimagining for the screen, and thus better TV as TV. Noxon captured the open-wound psyche of Camille Preaker (a wholly committed Amy Adams). The director, Jean-Marc Vallée, created a soundscape and aesthetic that was almost tactile: You could feel the humidity, hear the lazy insects. Few series have done so well at putting you in a protagonist’s mind and in her world. (Streaming on HBO.)
Weimar decadence, Scandi-noir and gentle British comedy.
The magic number that’s used to scare us these days with regard to the excessive population of scripted television shows is 500. But my research — consisting of poring over my own obsessively maintained lists — indicates that in 2018, the number of new seasons of international shows alone was more than 600.
Chinese soap operas and Korean romantic comedies, British conspiracy thrillers, Indian gangster sagas, moody Scandinavian ghost stories, Mexican melodramas, Spanish crime capers, French children’s shows and Japanese anime — the only bar to entry is how many TV and streaming subscriptions you’re willing to spring for.
The other issue is time, of course. The shows on the following list are my 10 favorites among the relatively small share of international series I was able to sample. Please use the comments to fill in the gaps with your own picks. (Before you ask, “The Crown” didn’t have a new season in 2018.)
Hugh Grant takes the self-effacing charm that’s served him so well in romantic comedy and turns it inside out in this insouciant, scathing historical dramedy written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Stephen Frears. Grant is both magnificently creepy and oddly poignant as the British politician Jeremy Thorpe, brought down by scandal in the late 1970s, and Ben Whishaw is also outstanding as Norman Josiffe, Thorpe’s ex-lover, who refused to go away quietly. (Streaming on Amazon.)
The fourth and final season of this Scandi-noir bellwether was, like the first three, complicated, spine-tingling, a little over the top and occasionally quite funny (in the studiously deadpan Nordic manner). It went beyond them in finally unraveling the tormented history of the Swedish super-cop Saga Noren (Sofia Helin), and it provided her with a valedictory moment that was inevitable (if you had watched the whole series) but still devastating. (Streaming on Hulu.)
Adapting a graphic novel by Charles S. Forsman, the British actress and writer Charlie Covell takes the delinquent-teenagers-on-the-run story and makes it both more outré and more delicate than we’re accustomed to. Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther play a budding nihilist and an aspiring psychopath who meet dark (he’s looking for a first victim and she’ll do) and hit the roads of northern England in a stolen car, discovering that the adult world can be a colder place than even they could imagine. (Streaming on Netflix.)
It’s “Law & Order: Weimar Republic,” in a German series (one of its writer-directors is Tom Tykwer of “Run Lola Run”) that combines the nitty-gritty satisfactions of the crime drama with the more voluptuous pleasures of “Cabaret”-style decadence and foreboding. Volker Bruch and Liv Lisa Fries are both excellent, he as a vice cop trying to hide the symptoms of shell shock and she as a sometime clerk for the homicide department who wants to be a detective, but in the meantime has to work as a prostitute to cover the rent. (Streaming on Netflix.)
The last season of Mackenzie Crook’s beautiful miniaturist comedy — hushed but never too gentle — found the metal detectorists Andy and Lance (Crook and the peerless Toby Jones) racing the clock. Their access to a promising empty field was threatened by a solar-energy company’s plans, and magpies kept carrying away the Roman coins they found there. Less time was spent with the quirky members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, but the trade-off was more time with loved ones and family members crisply played by Rebecca Callard, Rachael Stirling and Diana Rigg. (Streaming on Acorn TV.)
Properly titled “La Casa de Papel,” or House of Paper, Alex Pina’s caper story (two seasons totaling 22 episodes were released on Netflix) is a joy ride in every sense. A mastermind recruits and trains eight accomplices to hit the Spanish mint, and the protracted but breathless narrative generously accommodates a sharply drawn cast of thieves, cops, relatives and eventually hostages. (Streaming on Netflix.)
Nicola Walker is everywhere in British TV (six-episode seasons help), and she’s always good. She was at the center of each of these series, as a quietly compassionate cold-case cop in the first and as a quietly angry divorce lawyer with her own marital and family issues in the second. “Unforgotten,” created by Chris Lang for ITV, is melancholic and deliberate while “The Split,” created by Abi Morgan for BBC, is biting and fast-paced. Both are intelligent and thoroughly imagined — they’re melodramas with no artificial aftertaste. (“Unforgotten” is streaming on PBS and Amazon; “The Split” is streaming on Sundance Now.)
A high-spirited, jokey anime series about four teenage girls who join a scientific expedition to Japan’s Antarctic research station might sound like a show with a pretty specific audience. But “A Place,” written by Jukki Hanada and directed by Atsuko Ishizuka, is a funny and moving coming-of-age story that should translate across all boundaries of age or culture. Never mawkish or contrived, it’s an absolutely authentic depiction of how friendship can overcome adolescent anxiety and grief. (Streaming on Crunchyroll.)
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, known for the true-crime documentary series “The Staircase,” directed this proletarian slice-of-life mini-series for the French network Arte. It and its predecessor, “Three Times Manon,” are both available from the Euro-drama streaming service Walter Presents. Across the two series’s six hours, Alba Gaïa Bellugi draws you in and pulls you along as the raging, suspicious and at first barely articulate Manon. In “5 Years On” she’s 20 and recently released from reform school, holding down a job at an auto shop and discovering a hunger for, and terror of, romance. (Streaming on Walter Presents.)
Among the year’s British literary adaptations, this mini-series based on the E.M. Forster novel edges out “The Woman in White” and “A Child in Time” on PBS. Matthew Macfadyen captured the dignity, kindness and obstinacy of the businessman Henry Wilcox; Hayley Atwell and Philippa Coulthard gave engaging, intelligent readings of the highly principled Schlegel sisters (though it was hard not to judge them against the memorable performances of Emma Thompson and Helena Bonham Carter in the 1992 film). But the real star of the four-part series was Kenneth Lonergan’s brisk and lucid screenplay. (Streaming on Starz.)
Top debuts included addictive thrillers and nihilistic satires.
Even though Peak TV shows no real signs of actually peaking, this wasn’t a banner year for new shows — most of the year’s standouts were veteran series. There were hundreds of premieres, which often felt like thousands of premieres, which is why no one person can possibly watch it all. I know I’ve missed some great shows in the last 12 months. All I can say is I’ve caught some great ones, too, and these were the freshmen that stood out.
I’m cheating a little, but these shows debuted within weeks of each other and created an unintentional but wonderful assassin double feature. Each successfully tweaked its ostensible genre’s tone — “Killing Eve” bringing glam, humor and humanity to the often grim espionage thriller, and “Barry” adding icy violence and a sense of true danger and surprise to the showbiz black-comedy genre. And both shows included career-defining performances from actors whose careers were already pretty well defined: Sandra Oh earned her first lead actress Emmy nomination for “Eve,” and Bill Hader and Henry Winkler each won their first acting Emmys for their work on “Barry.”
The dreamy-surfy “Lodge 49” has arguably the best casting of any series on this list. A show this gentle and diffuse only works if all the performances have a strong gravitational pull, and the show lives and dies on Wyatt Russell’s ability to give the dopey but loyal Dud enough grounding. Luckily Russell’s terrific, as is the rest of the cast — especially Brent Jennings as Ernie, Dud’s mentor in the show’s fictional fraternal order, and Sonya Cassidy as Liz, Dud’s twin sister who’s been handling the family’s affairs since their dad died. “Lodge 49” has a radiant internal decency, one that respects its characters’ sometimes silly quests because it’s a series that knows trying new things is hard but worth it.
I’m counting this as a full-on show and not a mini-series because at 10 episodes it feels and moves like a regular series, and also because I hope there’s another season someday. The show comes from the director Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) and follows a handful of students through a school year at Oak Park and River Forest High School, which prides itself on its diversity. But racism pulses through the school’s veins in overt and covert ways, as acutely observed in this intimate and memorable documentary.
Because this is a reboot — new cast, new setting — and not a revival, it qualifies as a new show. And because it’s loving, interesting and jubilant, it qualifies as one of the best new shows. The new Fab Five, based out of Atlanta, give makeovers to deserving individuals and emotional sustenance to viewers. There were two seasons of the show in 2018, and the second is superior, but both have an earnestness and positivity that are a welcome respite from the grinding misery of life. (Streaming on Netflix.)
I ripped through the 10 episodes of “You” like a fiend, like it was salt and vinegar chips, like it was Christmas morning, like I had rabies. It’s that fun and that addictive — and that close to the edge of being straight-up trashy. Instead, the drama about a bookstore manager stalking an MFA student is a savvy sendup of social media culture (well, “culture”) and New York nonsense, packaged in a tight thriller with a gloriously nasty sense of humor. (Streaming on Lifetime.)
TV is not great at depicting grief. Usually shows race through the mourning period, never mention dead characters again and don’t acknowledge the looping nature of despair and the permanence of profound loss. Then there’s this show, which … does. Elizabeth Olsen’s portrayal of a young widow is prickly and real, and the characters around her are all dealing with their own lives in addition to supporting her through her trauma. There’s only so much support anyone can give, and that anyone can accept. (Streaming on Facebook.)
The latest entry in the terrible workplace genre, “Corporate” is as nihilistic as they come, so bleak it often becomes absurd and even supernatural. Because the corporation at the heart of “Corporate” is so large — their slogan is “We don’t make anything, we make everything” — the characters have no respite from their overlords, and even weekends, parties and restaurants are tinged with office-adjacent misery. Because many people will experience work drudgery in their lives, shows or movies about it are better when they’re surgically specific in their critiques — and “Corporate” is. (Streaming on Comedy Central.)
Warning: This show has the catchiest theme song maybe ever, all the more dangerous because its lyrics are just the name of the show, so every time you mention “Cupcake and Dino,” it’s an invitation to just sing the song. This gleeful cartoon about two brothers who take on odd jobs all over their town of Big City is reminiscent of “Adventure Time,” but a little more wild and silly. (Streaming on Netflix.)
Ryan Murphy’s ensemble drama set within the drag world of 1980s New York knows how to balance its sad side with its soapy side with its fun side with its human side. It’s a show about allegiance and community, about characters who have found one another on the fringes and made a life and a world for themselves.