If only we had more time to be able to sit down and watch all the great TV shows that aired this year… Thankfully, we have a staff of over fifty writers worldwide that collectively are able to cover the best of the best. Of course, no list is perfect, and there will always be a few shows that didn’t make the cut simply because there were way too many to nominate. Truthfully, each and every one of our writers eventually had to make some sacrifices when submitting their ballots, but we tried our best to compile a list that best represented our staff and what we enjoyed watching most this past year. That said, apologies to the following shows who were all nominated, but didn’t rack up enough points to make the final cut:
Special Mention: American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Bodyguard, Wild Wild Country, Lodge 49, The Good Fight, Sorry for Your Loss, Pose, Cobra Kai, and Homecoming.
15 – Jane the Virgin
Jane the Virgin has walked a particularly thin tightrope since its first episode. The series is inspired by the wild plot twists of telenovelas, but it must always restrain its tone and characters, lest they veer off into wild histrionics. That the show was inspired by a telenovela with the same basic premise — a virgin woman is impregnated via artificial insemination — made that balancing act even more difficult. And yet, Jane the Virgin succeeds — and even astounds — because it remains so tethered to the life experiences of its characters. They’re real people, and even if the situations they end up in seem outlandish, they respond in ways that seem natural to viewers.
The series is held aloft by Gina Rodriguez’s performance as Jane. She’s a gifted comedic actor, with a face so emotive it would make a silent film comedian proud. But she also effortlessly shifts gears during the show’s occasional melancholy sections. Much of the series is quite joyous, but she’s also playing a woman who lost the love of her life — yet these contradictions never overwhelm the show.
The series’ fourth and penultimate season also documented the maturation of the supporting cast. Yael Grobglas, who plays Petra (and her identical twin sister, Anezka), transitioned from being either a villain or the hapless butt of jokes into a more fully developed role, while Rafael (Justin Baldoni) also finally moved away from his one-dimensional playboy character into someone deeper and more fragile. The fourth season was perhaps a bit twistier than it needed to be, and some of the plot strands were snipped away so quickly it made one wonder why they even existed, but it’s forgiven by the finale’s nearly-perfect surprise ending. It leaves the show in great shape for a triumphant final season. (Brian Marks)
14 – Maniac
Maniac is a feverish carnival ride of television-weird carried forward by strong performances and dramatic narratives you can invest in. It is psychedelic, hallucinatory, unnerving, and darkly funny, and it moves at both an exhilarating clip and a self-assured crawl, lead by several inspired performances — notably that of Jonah Hill, who stretches all over the place.
The premise is that two broken folks (Hill’s paranoid-delusional Owen and Emma Stone’s chronically depressed Annie) enter a drug trial. Whether it is chemistry, computer chips, or the cosmos itself, their fates are interwoven; in a series of trippy vignettes, reality is called into question again and again as they explore other versions of themselves inside other genre-based premises — from crime-film to high-fantasy and beyond. The presumable reality they return to is set in a retro-future 1970s-that-never-was lab, and feels like the basement of Logan’s Run turned sideways. It’s beautiful.
Maniac is dense, with precisely shot-and-stylized imagery, as well as countless gorgeous touches, from the bizarre computer hardware and its requisite informational videos, to the jarring shifts in tone and setting — and the totality gels wonderfully. While the premises and settings move quickly, the inner story moves at its own pace. As the drug trials push forward, the characters are thrown into utterly new situations, genres, and personas, slowly unveiling the depth of their inner turmoils and relationships through new and intriguing lenses, all of which build toward satisfying character arcs. Stick around for the final reality shift, a deft and bizarre salute to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (meets E.T. ), with an inspired comic twist from Hill, and you will be rewarded. Hill’s role changes are truly a wonder to behold, and to describe them all does a disservice to the astonishing surprises you’ll find.
Throw in moving performances by support castmates the caliber of Sally Field and Justin Theroux, and as long as you have an appreciation of the weird and the surreal, you’ll find Maniac well worth the brain melt. (Marty Allen)
13 – Better Call Saul
While recent news has been bustling away with the announcement of a Breaking Bad feature film, the spin-off series Better Call Saul has wrapped up another very solid year as perhaps AMC’s best dramatic program.
Centering around the untimely death of Jimmy/Saul’s brother, Chuck, season four sees Jimmy at his most damaged and least vulnerable. Choosing to mask his feelings rather than work them out, Jimmy’s behavior gets riskier as he vies to regain his ability to practice law and hold on to his touchy relationship with fellow lawyer Kim. Meanwhile, as the gap is closed substantially between Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, Gus expands his empire, Mike moves into his permanent position with Mr. Fring, Howard finds his firm challenged exponentially, and Nacho deals with the aftermath of his assassination attempt on Hector Salamanca.
All in all, it was an excellent season, and another page in the good books for Better Call Saul, cementing the series once and for all as a show of its very own — not just an imitation of its forebear. If you still haven’t made time for this show, you ought to pencil it in for an appointment, because you’re missing out on one of the best dramas on television. (Mike Worby)
12 – Daredevil
Daredevil returns to top form with a third season that does away with the fantastical elements that burdened season two, and instead focuses on what makes the show great: the characters. Showrunner Erik Oleson (The Man in the High Castle) picks up the narrative threads from when the Man with No Fear was left presumed dead following the events of 2017’s The Defenders, and season three wisely takes its time fleshing out the supporting cast while introducing new players, gradually picking up the pace and generating plenty of thrills, plot twists, action, and nail-biting suspense to keep viewers glued to their television sets.
Of course, the season is immeasurably helped by the welcome return of Vincent D’Onofrio’s menacing Kingpin, as well as the season’s new breakout performer — Wilson Bethel — as FBI agent Ben Poindexter, a.k.a. Bullseye. While other superhero shows have largely stumbled in introducing their villains, season three patiently builds Poindexter’s character, gradually transforming him into arguably the most notable villain from Daredevil’s “rogues’ gallery.
Meanwhile, shades of Frank Miller’s critically acclaimed storyline “Born Again” are evident throughout the new season, as Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) continues to wrestle with his inner demons. Season three also includes incredible action set pieces and truly spectacular combat thanks to stunt coordinator Gary Stearns (Thor, The Amazing Spider-Man), who strings together a ten-minute tracking shot taking place in and around a prison riot that involves dozens of stuntmen, pyrotechnics, and multiple locations. Not only is it one of the highlights of the entire season, but it is also a clever homage to season one’s beloved hallway massacre. (Ricky D)
11 – High Maintenance
The arc of High Maintenance has been one of increasing ambitions. Going back to its origins as a web series on Vimeo, each season of High Maintenance has been a great leap forward, featuring better music, more interesting stories, more unusual structures, and bigger (though not necessarily better) actors. In its second season of 30-minute episodes for HBO, the series has become one of the most exuberant shows on TV, and one of the few to accurately and sensitively depict our current social and political climates.
The basic building blocks of the series are still intact. Each episode features The Guy (series co-creator and occasional director Ben Sinclair), a bike-riding marijuana deliveryman. Sometimes he shows up at the start of the episode, and sometimes it’s much later. Sometimes he’s a major part of it, and sometimes it’s basically a cameo. The early seasons seemed to be experimented with just how little The Guy could be featured in some stories, but in the most recent season, The Guy becomes something we haven’t seen before — a major character.
One episode features an epic wipeout that sends him to the hospital. He’s doped up on painkillers, which provides some amusing comedy, but also introduces a darker element. Since The Guy only deals in weed, addiction isn’t a big component of the show, but his dalliance with painkillers threatens to upend the logical world he’s built. We also finally learn more of The Guy’s backstory — he’s married, and his ex-wife is forced to reenter his life to help care for him. The storyline is almost certainly inspired by Sinclair and co-creator Katja Blichfeld, a married couple who split up just prior to this season. The split required finding new ways to work together productively on their show, and also led to hiring a writers room for the first time.
The new changes are all for the good. This season of High Maintenance delves into more fascinating stories, with punchier dialogue than ever. (It’s also perhaps the only series to react to the election of Donald Trump in a way that wasn’t instantly embarrassing.) High Maintenance‘s constant upward trajectory makes one wonder if there’s even much further the show can go quality-wise, but they haven’t slipped yet, so here’s hoping the new season in January is even more interesting. (Brian Marks)
10 – The Haunting of Hill House
Produced, cowritten and directed by Mike Flanagan, The Haunting of Hill House is maybe the biggest surprise hit to come from Netflix in 2018. Not only is it one of the most viewed shows of the year, but it is also one of the very best. Loosely based on Shirley Jackson’s legendary novel of the same name, The Haunting of Hill House follows five siblings who grew up in the most famous haunted house in America. Now adults, they are reunited by the suicide of their youngest sister, which forces them to confront their inner demons and the ghosts of their pasts.
Much like the 1963 Robert Wise film adaptation (simply called The Haunting), Hill House is really a tale of psychological terror, focusing on themes of generational trauma, inherited mental illness, and the guilt and fear that burdens the family in question. Issues of mental illness are treated sensitively, as Flanagan makes it clear that the psychological terror is real, and that depression, addiction, and anxiety are every bit as terrifying as anything lurking in the dark. The question of how much of the terror the family is experiencing resides in their own heads can be debated, but as the lines between past present — as well as dreams and reality — blur, you can’t help but fall in love with each of the main characters.
Hill House is heavy on long conversational pieces, but there are still plenty of things that go bump in the night — not to mention two genuinely unsettling ghosts: the woman known as “The Bent-Neck Lady,” and a lanky, floating old man wearing a top and carrying a cane. But as great as the cast, cinematography, special effects, and writing is, what makes The Haunting Of Hill House great is its execution. Plot threads that initially seem to go nowhere eventually reveal dark family secrets, and as the series goes on, these revelations add new context for significant moments that are later reintroduced. Through masterful staging and superb editing, director Mike Flannagan creates a seamless overlap between the past and the present, something best exemplified in the series’ fifth episode, “The Bent-Neck Lady,” which discloses the identity of the ghost that has haunted Nell, the family’s youngest daughter, for almost her entire life. Keeping clear of spoilers, I will say that the moment Nell climbs to the top of Hill House’s spiraling three-story staircase remains the best moment in any television show this year.
Meanwhile, the technically ambitious sixth episode “Two Storms,” has attracted a lot of attention, and with good reason. The entire episode is made up of several long, swirling Steadicam shots (including a choreographed 23-minute tracking shot), some of which are unbroken, and others that keep the illusion going thanks to the magic of post-production. (Ricky D)
9 – Barry
8 – Queer Eye
The wildly successful reboot of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (2003-2007) manages to strike lightning in the same place twice with its equally entertaining and emotional sophomore season. Bobby, Antoni, Tai, Karamo, and Jonathan (aka “The Fab Five”) continue their journey around Georgia to improve the appearance, habitat, and outlook of eight people. There are many moments that provoke laughter, tears, and the occasional “YAAASS.”
The first episode really packs an emotional punch, as the Fab Five help their first female client, Ms. Tammye, prepare her church for a community Homecoming, as Bobby battles with his troubled past being rejected by the church he was heavily involved with after coming out of the closet. Having a gay son herself, the loving Ms. Tammye admits to originally disapproving when first learning of her son’s preference. Anyone who has watched the series has surely admitted to choking up during Ms. Tammye’s now famous speech that even brought the stoic Antoni to tears. Just when your eyes finally dry, they’ll well up again in episode two, when the Fab Five help a shabby but sweet man clean up and orchestrate the perfect marriage proposal to his girlfriend.
The season also shines in the fifth episode “Sky’s the Limit,” when the Fab Five help spruce up the life of a trans man recovering from top surgery. The episode is clearly educational and insightful, not just for the audience, but for the Fab Five, some of whom admit to not knowing a lot about the transgender community.
Despite being soaked in the cheesy, often artificial feel of reality TV — or “structured reality” as it is now called — Queer Eye still manages to accomplish a genuine warmth and frivolity that is infectious and even inspiring. The likeable dynamics of the five men and their sincere passion to better the lives of others makes for engaging television that can pluck the heartstrings and bring a smile to anyone’s face. (Sarah Truesdale)
7 – GLOW
Netflix’s winning comedy based loosely on The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling carries a fresh sheen of confidence into its second season. GLOW is still a show about a group of professional women wrestlers in the ’80s hailing from all walks of life who attempt to turn a sketchy wrestling/variety act into a successful venture while employed by two floundering white men, but unlike the first season, this time the focus is on more on these characters wrestling with their inner demons. GLOW is a complex show about culturally relevant issues, from #MeToo to representations of race and class to other trending female-empowerment storylines, but it never loses its sense of humor and heart. If you liked season one, you’ll love season two which in this critic’s opinion, is a step up thanks to the character growth, plotting, and thrilling finale. (Ricky D)
6 – The Americans
It sounded so silly on paper: a show about deadly Russian spies hidden in suburbia, set in the 1980s and starring Felicity and the guy from Brothers and Sisters. Yet after six seasons, The Americans has provided an indelible critique of American culture, politics, nationalism, as well as our “means to an end” brand of counterterrorism. Coming off a lackluster season five that all but deliberately avoided its most compelling story threads, season six hits the ground running.
Our husband and wife spies are put in danger from the get-go, entangling their daughter Paige, and further attracting FBI agent Stan Beeman on their tail. It all culminates in perhaps the best confrontation set in a parking garage, and the best use of U2’s “With or Without You” ever. Six seasons of hard choices come tumbling down in a masterclass of quiet tension and subtle suspense. Those waiting for an explosive shoe to drop will be left disappointed; The Americans was always a show about the war behind the Cold War — the war for one’s soul, national identity, and purpose among lethal bureaucracies. (Shane Ramirez)
5 – Killing Eve
Killing Eve transcends the limitations of genre in a bizarre blend of espionage-thriller and black comedy. Lead actors Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer are a match made in heaven in this cat-and-mouse misadventure of country-hopping, shootouts, and fabulous French fashion.
Sandra Oh plays the titular Eve, a dissatisfied pencil pusher working for MI5 who dreams of being a spy. After an intuitive hunch, she is hired to lead an investigation in pursuit of Villanelle (Comer), a young, beautiful, psychopathic assassin terrorizing Europe. As Eve gets closer capturing Villanelle, the two women become increasingly obsessed with each other in a way that blurs the lines between the hatred of nemeses and the infatuation of lovers. In what is easily one of the best episodes of the year, “I Have a Thing About Bathrooms” includes Villanelle successfully breaking into Eve’s home, only wanting to sit down and have dinner with her. The tension is overwhelming throughout, and you can’t help but gleefully laugh at the sheer insanity of the spectacle.
Jodie Comer manages to bring a childlike charm to Villanelle that entices everyone (including the audience) into liking her despite her complete lack of empathy, and sadistic pleasure in murdering people. Despite how overwhelmed and occasionally naïve Eve can be in her new position, she has a coolness and determination that makes it easy to see why Villanelle admires her. Villanelle’s only other real relationship is with her duplicitous handler, Konstantin (Kim Bodnia). They have an odd father-daughter dynamic, until the occasional moment they threaten to kill one another. Fiona Shaw plays legendary MI6 agent Carolyn Martens, whose stone-cold disposition and years of experience are an engaging contrast to Eve’s amateur status.
Killing Eve brings its fair share of thrills, laughs, and a homoerotic tension that would make Oscar Wilde blush. After an intense cliffhanger, audiences should count on an equally exciting second season to come. The debut season certainly makes for a high point in television in 2018. (Sarah Truesdale)
4 – The Good Place
Created by Parks and Recreation visionary Mike Schur, The Good Place is unlike any half-hour comedy on television. The elaborate premise, which mainly follows four humans, a demon, and a not-a-girl-not-a-robot in their pursuit of a fitting afterlife, creates high-stakes plot lines on a weekly basis. Though season one ended in a mind-boggling finale that few network shows would dare attempt, The Good Place has been outdoing itself from the get-go, even in its third season.
The talented cast (Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, D’Arcy Carden, Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto, and Ted Danson) is at the top of their game, deftly doling out charming moments of humanity and humor amidst absurd life-and-death scenarios. In particular, Danson and Bell have a camaraderie that has only gotten snappier and more electrifying as the show has advanced.
The most notable episode of season three so far has been the hour-long premiere (“Everything is Bonzer!”), which has the unenviable task of retooling the show for a season set on Earth. After two seasons that directly explored the afterlife, zapping the cast back to their human lives seems at first like a step away from the more preposterous storylines that took place before, but it turns out to be the perfect next step. Mike Schur is adept at creating shows that are built around strong characters, and just like in Parks and Recreation, fans are willing to follow the cast of The Good Place through whatever hoops the writers set before them.
Perhaps most impressive is the show’s ability to encourage viewers to examine their own moral philosophies, and perhaps even change them for the better. As silly and pun-heavy as it may be at times, The Good Place contains a wealth of depth and heart at its center, constantly asking its writers to surprise us, its characters to challenge us, and its message to resonate with us more than we ever thought possible. (Meghan Cook)
3 – Sharp Objects
The surprise of the 2018 television season came in HBO’s wildly ambitious take on Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name, Sharp Objects. With a never better Amy Adams as its centerpiece, Sharp Objects follows middling reporter Camille’s return to her hometown to write the story of her life. An alcoholic with a truly intense history of self-harm and suicide attempts, Camille is one of the most flawed protagonists to grace the small screen in years, but that doesn’t stop the audience from rooting for and sympathizing with her, thanks in no small part to Adams’ one-of-a-kind performance.
This slow burn of a murder mystery format, mixed with painful flashbacks and PTSD fade-ins, has lead to what may be the best thing on TV all year (and in 2018, that’s saying quite a lot). Few dramas have made audiences feel the trauma of a character in the way that Sharp Objects succeeded at doing, and if there’s any justice in the world, Sharp Objects will run away with a no-contest win in the Outstanding Limited Series category of the 2019 Emmys. (Mike Worby)
2 – Bojack Horseman
The most consistently excellent animated show on Netflix shows no signs of slowing its momentum in its fantastic fifth season. The absurdly out-there premise of Bojack Horseman has always made it a fantastic realm to explore the outrageous farce of current events that we live in, a place to poke satirical fun at the trends of the entertainment industry. However, what Bojack has grown shockingly adept at is taking us down the dark and dismal road of an aging actor who happens to be a very damaged horseman being.
In fact, season five took Bojack into its darkest territory yet, coming wildly close to making our favorite horseman into a very unlikable protagonist. As Bojack spiraled into the depths of an addiction to painkillers, and the skeleton of his past misdeeds bubbled to the surface, the series strayed further from its pure comedy roots than anyone could’ve anticipated.
With an all-time great episode of the series (in which Bojack delivers a rambling eulogy at his mother’s funeral) serving as the new benchmark to beat, Bojack Horseman has shown that it’s not just a one-trick pony, and that there’s still plenty of paddle room to beat before it becomes a dead horse. (Mike Worby)
1 – Atlanta
Donald Glover continues to take hold of the zeitgeist, improving upon his masterful first season of Atlanta with a second that captures all the anxieties and absurdities of what it means to be black in 2010’s America. Subtitled Robbin’ Season, season two finds Glover’s Earn losing his managerial grip over cousin Al (a.k.a. Paper Boi), the local hip-hop sensation. The music game proves harder for both men; Earn struggles with his sense of place and his masculine identity as a well-educated black man out of his depth, and Al finds himself in a transitional period where he can either level up or be dragged down by his friends.
On the fringes is Earn’s on-again/off-again girl, Val, who continues to navigate her social status, and oddball Darius, who has his own mystifying misadventure in the season’s crowning achievement, the episode titled “Teddy Perkins.” It’s a credit to Glover that Perkins has already become a pop culture mainstay, an icon for all the terrifying unknowns of fame, blackness, and the loneliness of the modern American landscape. Season two weaves a mesmerizing comic tapestry akin to an adult Adventures of Pete and Pete as dreamt up by David Lynch. As a companion to Glover’s musical alter ego, Childish Gambino, Atlanta‘s second season could easily have been titled This is America. (Shane Ramirez)