Best of 2018: Television
1. BETTER CALL SAUL (AMC)
On one level, there's not really a good reason for this odd duck to exist at all, since it's a Breaking Bad prequel about characters whose fates we (mostly) already know and thus would seem to be the definition of unnecessary. Sure, Bob Odenkirk (and talented co-stars like Jonathan Banks and Giancarlo Esposito) all brought their high-quality acting chops, but the nostalgia and Easter Egg factor wouldn't have been enough to keep me hooked through four seasons if the show didn't bring something distinctly unique to the table -- and for me, that narrative key is the way the series leans into its theme of fate, depicting how certain unfortunate people in life are just basically, well, fucked no matter how good or bad they are, how worthy or unworthy or how hard they may work to avoid the inevitable. The methodical pace, off-putting to some viewers, is actually a crucial factor in the overall creative design, underscoring not only how even the best laid plans will often go awry but also how seeing your fate creeping ever closer doesn't necessarily mean you can dodge it -- be it the doomed attempts of Banks’ fallen cop to hold onto the remaining shreds of his soul, the struggle of Michael Mando’s cartel middleman to survive (if not escape) the drug trade he was born into, or the slow implosion of one of the most realistic adult romances on television as Kim Wexler (the amazing Rhea Seehorn) realizes love ultimately won’t be enough to save her doomed relationship with the title character. Sad, slow, and depressing (except when it’s riotously funny or teeth-grindingly suspenseful), Better Call Saul is the best feel-bad entertainment this side of Melancholia. Bonus points for: “Jimmy, you’re ALWAYS down!”
2. THE GOOD PLACE (NBC)
My second favorite show of 2018 (by a razor-thin margin) likewise shouldn’t exist, let alone succeed for three seasons and counting. But somehow, Michael Schur's sitcom about clashing philosophical perspectives of morality, the afterlife, the meaning of existence, and (just for good measure) the necessity of love and friendship between people and demons and omniscient sentient personal assistant programs of all races and dimensional orientations manages to feel effortless, relatable, and extremely funny while unspooling a mythological narrative as complicated as (but far more accessible and coherent than) any number of more “serious” existential predecessors (...cough-cough...Lost...cough-cough). Plus bonus points for: every character played by D'Arcy Carden in Janet’s void.
3. LODGE 49 (AMC)
In a developing theme, Lodge 49 is yet another completely inexplicable show -- but only until you remind yourself that cable and streaming networks have largely replaced the independent film world as a home for offbeat characters and challenging ideas that rarely make it into the multiplex these days -- like, say, the notion that most Americans are slowly being crushed by post-Reagan capitalism but everyone’s supposed to act like everything’s fine and our problems aren’t caused by a stratified economic caste system but merely a lack of gumption, the latter state being the "new normal" for the working and middle class Long Beach waitstaff, salesmen, corporate drones, and semi-employed beach bums who populate this shaggiest of shaggy dog dramedies as they weather tragedies and various romantic, financial, medical, and professional catastrophes. Fortunately, though, some of them are at least lucky enough to have the crucial gift of camaraderie as a shield against despair in creator Jim Gavin’s salute to the indispensable power of friendship, community, and somehow maintaining a spark of cockeyed optimism and wonder, even in the face of the most outrageous fortunes imaginable. Bonus points for the nepotistic yet undeniable star wattage of Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt and Goldie) as the Lodge’s central squire, the spot-on casting of a certain late season guest star, and Kenneth Welsh finally erasing my bad memories of Windom Earle with his memorable new role as crazy like a fox (or possibly just naked and crazy) Larry Loomis, resident Order of the Lynx Sovereign Protector.
4. BABYLON BERLIN (Netflix)
The juicy dramatic possibilities of a murder mystery set amid an international rogue’s gallery of communists, gangsters, showgirls, and scheming future Nazis in 1920s Berlin (plus Tom “Run Lola Run” Twyker’s name in the credits as creator) were the hooks that got me to watch the first episode of this German series on Netflix. The show’s vast socio-political canvas, fantastic writing, cinematic production design, and outstanding cast (especially Liv Lisa Fries as an indomitable crime-solving flapper) kept me watching. But mere interest turned to infatuation the moment the second episode suddenly set aside all the plotting and scheming for nearly five minutes to unleash a breathtakingly Goth-y Weimar showstopper of a musical number just because it could. Bonus points for the heart-stopping scene of the guy dangling from a plane, the terrifying plight of beloved characters trapped in a flooding car at the bottom of a lake, the pulse-pounding seafood restaurant shootout in front of a giant Art Deco fish tank and...well, you get the idea.
5. ATLANTA - ROBBIN’ SEASON (FX)
The fact that Donald Glover’s brilliant, surreal, auteurial anti-sitcom is fifth on this list is both an indication of how good Peak TV has gotten in the early 21st century and how close all of these Best of 2018 shows truly are in terms of quality. Ranging from comedy to horror from week to week (and often within a single episode), Atlanta’s second season wasn’t afraid to make its protagonist downright unlikable as he crashed his romantic relationship and mostly bungled his job managing the rap career of his cousin Alfred, a.ka. Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry). But ongoing plotlines and character arcs were far less important than the show’s sharp sociological observations and wholly unexpected detours, like the instant classic “Teddy Perkins” episode where the quest of Darius (rising star Lakeith Stanfield) to purchase a piano resulted in a bizarrely suspenseful haunted house tale of genius, madness, and fame. Bonus points for Zazie Beetz and Uncle Willie’s alligator.
6. GLOW (Netflix)
Female empowerment, ‘80s nostalgia mixed with timely social commentary, a diverse squad of misfits banding together to put on a show, and one of the most flat-out likable ensemble casts on TV? Check, check, check, and check in Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch’s salute to the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, whose fictional counterparts deepened and expanded their relationships in the show's satisfying second season while resolving the central conflict between Debbie “Liberty Belle” Eagan (Betty Gilpin) and Ruth “Zoya the Destroya” Wilder (national treasure Alison Brie) with a satisfying and believable arc that opened the door for interesting new plot directions and complications in season three. Bonus points for the perfectly cast Marc Maron as disgruntled horror movie director turned wrestling mogul Sam Stein and the show-within-a-show’s entertainingly ridiculous anti-kidnapping music video.
7. POSE (FX)
A grittier ensemble of likable underdogs putting on shows populated Ryan Murphy’s deeply humane and humanizing fictional reimagining of Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning about (primarily) black and Latino drag ball culture in AIDS-ravaged, Trump-ascendant 1980s New York. For these characters, organized into self-selected families (typically after being cast out by their biological ones), community is a key to survival as much as happiness and self-worth -- which doesn’t make their underground fashion face-offs any less cutthroat. Indeed, to paraphrase a common line about academia, the politics and interpersonal drama of the drag balls were even more intense because the stakes were so low: just trophies and bragging rights that meant everything to competitors with nothing (or, more specifically, nothing but style, raw determination, and boundless humanity). Bonus points for Billy Porter’s Golden Globe-nominated performance as Pray Tell, the whip-smart, sharp-tongued, multilayered ringmaster at the center of all the glamour and inter-House social scheming.
8. SILICON VALLEY (HBO)
The danger with a series about struggling characters is the possibility they’ll be less compelling dramatically and comedically if they ever actually manage to achieve their goals. On the other hand, stories that tread water for too long can become repetitive, predictable, and boring -- so it’s a credit to Mike Judge and the writing staff of Silicon Valley that they managed to find so many interesting ways to thwart the actual start-up of the show’s fictional Pied Piper start-up for so long, and it’s an even bigger credit that they finally let that particular journey come to an end in Season 5 with a decisive victory for series protagonist Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) and the crushing (though perhaps not permanent) defeat of his personal Moriarty, rival CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross). Bonus points for piquing my interest in future storylines at a point when most shows are wrapping things up and almost but not quite helping me to understand how cryptocurrency works.
9. MY BRILLIANT FRIEND (HBO)
Game of Thrones has dragons, Dothraki, and White Walkers engaged in an epic battle for the soul of Westeros while the Italian-language adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend has...pimples and fancy shoes. Nevertheless, the suspense, alliances, and betrayals of the latter show are somehow nearly as intense as the former in the story of two girls attempting to escape their working class neighborhood on the outskirts of Napoli in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Lila (Ludovica Nasti as a child, Gaia Girace as a teen) is the eponymous brilliant one who most of the boys want to marry, while bookish, nearly-as-smart Lenù (Elisa Del Genio/Margherita Mazzucco) gets the advanced educational opportunities that are denied to her friend. The premise sounds simple, but the emotions run deep, the setting is rich and fully imagined, and even the supporting characters are layered with surprising nuances. Bonus points to HBO for supporting high class foreign-language filmmaking (which almost but not quite makes up for Entourage).
10. PYEONGCHANG WINTER OLYMPICS (2018)
With Trump tempting fate via taunting "Rocket Man" tweets, nearly every American fighting with nearly every other American online, and the rest of the world (from Brexit to Syria) seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown, it was a cleansing breath of cold winter air to see athletes from around the world skating and skiing and bobsledding together in harmony and North and South Korea making nice at the ceremony -- reminding us of the better angels of humanity during a brief, soothing reprieve from the endless vomit spew of the rest of the 2018 news cycle. Bonus points for the awesomely named Tessa Virtue and reviving my quadrennial interest in curling.
Honorable Mention: The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (especially Judith Light and, of course, Darren Criss) Baskets (especially Louie Anderson), The Deuce (especially Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Haunting of Hill House (until the inexplicably horrible ending), The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Real Time with Bill Maher, Saturday Night Live, Survivor, Wild Wild Country
Okay, fine, I'll finally start watching: Barry
Worst TV of the Year: My Dinner with Hervé
Dinklage was fine. The rest was a finely polished turd of mediocrity.