As we wind down 2018, our best-of coverage continues with the following question:
What’s missing from our list of the year’s best TV?
There’s hardly reason to argue with almost any year-end list these days because of the sheer number of good TV shows out there, but I’m genuinely surprised that HBO’s High Maintenance didn’t make our list. The second season of the HBO run keeps with the anthology-esque spirit of the show, but it goes deeper in ways surprising and touching. So, there’s still the random characters that populate New York and The Guy’s life, but what’s different this time around is a narrative through-line involving The Guy’s ex. That character arc, one of pain and jealousy and moving on, adds so much to a season that’s already achingly honest. Add in the fact that one of the year’s best episodes—“Globo,” reckons with the election of Donald Trump, and the completely indescribable feeling of moving through the world on the morning of November 9, 2016 in a smart, poignant, and stirring way—and you have a season of TV that’s more than worthy of any year-end list.
It’s difficult for an established reality show to make it into a best of TV list: Beyond the fact that critical conversation privileges scripted programming, reality shows are built on iteration, and that feels less novel or memorable when we reach the list-making time of year. And I’m part of this problem, because I failed to put CBS’ Survivor on my own list despite the fact that its fall cycle has been absurdly enjoyable for a show in its 37th—not a typo—season. Yes, the David Vs. Goliath theme is profoundly dumb. No, I couldn’t tell you a single thing that happened during the season that aired in the spring, so 2018 wasn’t all great for the series. But something about the alchemy of casting and game-play has created a season with a succession of satisfying twists and turns, reminding us that although we may not instinctively think of it as list worthy, a reality show 18 years into its run can still create some of television’s best drama and comedy. (I’ll never hear the name “Natalie” without laughing now.)
Making reality TV really pop is an artform: There are hundreds of hours of interactions to film, comb through, and precisely edit into a narrative that will make sense, delight viewers, and feel just slightly off, like humans hanging out too many years in the future to quite make sense to us. So every year, I become more and more impressed with the reigning queen of the genre: Vanderpump Rules. The sixth season is one of the show’s best; over half a decade in, Vanderpump Rules remains an examination of fame, misfired charisma, and the terrors of tenuous social status that would put any 19th century novel to shame. Whether it’s Jax Taylor maybe falling in love with his reiki master Kelsey while his relationship with Brittany Cartwright festers like an untreated sore, Stassi Schroeder’s then-boyfriend creating a new god tier of social faux pas by grossly hitting on Lisa freaking Vanderpump, or the slow-moving car crash of James Kennedy ignoring the “best friend” he was clearly sleeping with (not that anyone else cared), Vanderpump Rules remains mesmerizing. The cast of past, present, and future SUR employees are stuck with each other forever, and it’s incredible. It’s not about the pasta; it’s about dread.
Aw, come on—am I the only person who thought Maniac was one of the year’s best? Well, apparently. Cary Joji Fukunaga’s 10-parter was far from perfect, but it aimed admirably high, wrangling spy action, elven fantasy, late-capitalist malaise, intense family dynamics, corporate psychotherapy and more into a freewheeling caper across several levels of reality. It also got career-best comedic performances out of Emma Stone and Justin Theroux and a fine, sad-sack turn from Jonah Hill. And Ben Sinclair! Not all of its ideas stuck, but it was messy, smart, and light in a way I’d love to see more sci-fi attempt.
I’ll admit, I was worried going into the new, Mary Berry-less (not to mention Mel- and Sue-less), Great British Baking Show era, but I am pleased as rum baba to say that this enduringly endearing and delightfully stressful baking competition series has marched on just as sweetly. Sure, there’s a lingering bitter aftertaste to the great British baking show schism that led to those departures, but not on the Great British Baking Show itself, which rides remaining judge Paul Hollywood’s gruff charms alongside new judging partner Prue Leith and celebrity goofballs Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig without missing a trick. The key ingredient to this series’ success has always been the utterly generous heart that goes into every episode, and Fielding and Toksvig, if anything, seem more emotionally invested in the fates of the contestants they have to expel, one-by-one, from the show’s famous tent. And if Hollywood and Leith continue the necessarily merciless judging of soggy bottoms, overworked and under-proved doughs, and the occasional collapsing confectionary disaster, they, too, provide warmly constructive criticism rather than the traditional reality show scorn. A series—as the departed Berry was wont to say—“cram-jammed” with delights, The Great British Baking Show remains one of the most cozily exciting TV experiences going. [Dennis Perkins]
Maybe it’s the curse of distance that comes from being released way back in January, or maybe it’s simply a victim of the era of Too Much TV, but I’m bummed out to find the Steven Soderbergh-helmed Mosaic failed to crack our top 25. The miniseries is everything you could want in superlative television: a sharply nuanced and well-written mystery, performed by a coterie of uniformly strong actors at the top of their game (longtime character actor Devin Ratray deserves to be getting award nominations for his star turn), and an ace director brilliantly shooting and editing the whole thing into an intriguing puzzle? It’s the one thing I have felt comfortable recommending to anyone all year long who’s asked me what great show they should check out, regardless of individual tastes, and sadly, not a single person to date has responded with, “I’ve already seen it.” (Feel free to ignore the accompanying multimedia app as an experimental lark on Soderbergh’s part.) You’d think an HBO series from an Oscar-winning director wouldn’t need underdog-status championing, and yet here we are. Give it a watch if you haven’t yet—and odds are, you haven’t.
Come on you guys, Netflix’s Queer Eye gave us two full seasons and a special in 2018, and we couldn’t even give it a spot on our list?! I get that it can be hard to stump for reality TV when there’s so much great scripted stuff out there, but Queer Eye at least deserves a special award for being one of the most unexpected joys of 2018. The new Fab Five offered an updated spin on the early ’00s Bravo original, emphasizing self-empowerment, confidence, and empathy along with styling tips and home makeovers. Karamo used his vague “culture and lifestyle” assignment to deliver some really thoughtful therapy sessions, Tan invented a whole new way to wear shirts, Jonathan established himself as an instant icon, Antoni put avocado on stuff, and Bobby did five times as much work as everyone else while getting barely any credit for it. Whether we were bonding over tear-jerking transformations or mocking Antoni’s complete inability to cook, Queer Eye was the rare cultural unifier based on something lovely and uplifting, rather than dark and depressing. I’m guessing we’re still going to need that in 2019, so it’s a good thing the show has a third season on the way. Until then, I’ll just be rewatching A.J.’s episode on a loop.
I watched and loved a lot of TV this year, but it’s possible Wynonna Earp is the show I looked forward to the most, and also the one I wish I was seeing on more best-of lists this December. It’s a Western, a procedural, a Buffy descendant, a horror comedy, and probably a few other things as well. But mostly it’s fun. Its wildly entertaining third season was the strongest yet, and featured a potato-licking mystery, a Christmas tree topper made out of tampons, and one of TV’s sweetest ongoing romances—the usual stuff of great drama. The show’s mythology keeps expanding into an ever larger battle between forces far more powerful than its scrappy team of heroes, but it’s the writing and character work that make the show shine. Wynonna may be tough and merciless in her pursuit of victory, but it’s her sense of humor that keeps her human and compelling, and the bond between her and sister Waverly has provided a grounding emotional force on a show with an increasingly complex central plot. There just aren’t enough shows on TV that would work a Plan B joke into their heist sequence.
Even correcting for James Franco’s involvement, which might put people off for legitimate reasons, it blows me away that The Deuce didn’t crack AVC’s main list. David Simon and George Pelecanos’ bird’s-eye view of the inception and proliferation of the sex industry in the United States represents some of the most mature, compelling television of the year. Simon’s detail-oriented, process-focused approach comes alive when examining a side of American culture that functions as a metaphor for everything: gentrification, the rise of cultural conservatism, urban renewal, late capitalism, and, most potently, the filmmaking process. This season, Simon and Pelecanos pushed their subjects toward broader freedoms that quickly revealed themselves to be traps in disguise. Not only does all social progress come with a price, but also it’s limited to those pre-approved by those controlling the purse strings. Yet, Simon and Pelecanos never forget that the tapestry of human experience is neither exclusively tragic nor comprehensively optimistic. Some people discover happiness, and others lose their way. Rising and falling in America has always been a permanent state because social environments and political context circumscribe life-or-death choices. It’s been a decade since The Wire ended, but its worldview lives on through Simon’s successive work: everything’s connected, follow the money, and bad institutions fail good people every damn day.
Although the show’s title addresses a certain demographic, Dear White People has so much to say beyond calling out the oblivious and privileged. Yes, Justin Simien’s adaptation of his 2014 film of the same name wears its politics on its sleeve, but they’re right next to its heart. The show is much more a winning coming-of-age dramedy than it is a polemic, and even then, it’s still miles ahead of most college-set series in both style and substance. Simien’s created his own visual language to capture both the intimacy of the relationships among the core cast, as well as the microscope they’re under as black students at an Ivy League school. And I really cannot say enough about the dialogue, which crackles and informs. Season one had such a moving coming-out storyline, made all the more so by DeRon Horton’s vulnerable performance; the new season follows Lionel’s adventures in dating and dorm sex, with hilarious and poignant results. Really, the whole cast should be commended, from Logan Browning, who provides a wonderfully complex center as Sam, to Antoinette Robertson, who may have given the series’ best performance in season two’s “Chapter IV.” Dear White People still makes a point of punching up—at racist and sexist institutions, tangible and otherwise—but many of its most extraordinary moments have come from characters like Sam, Gabe (John Patrick Amedori), and Reggie (Marque Richardson) recognizing their personal foibles. Thankfully, Netflix has already renewed Dear White People for a third season, giving you all a chance to get it together.
The odd Amazon sitcom Forever had a lot to say about the monotony of monogamy and marriage: Can you really stay with someone happily for the rest of your life? (Or afterlife, as the case may be.) With anyone but Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph cast as that main couple, Forever might have slowly slid into bland drudgery. But the two gifted comic actors injected a lot of life into the monogamy question, aided by a spirited supporting cast including Catherine Keener, Julia Ormond, and Noah Robbins. Sure, there are some days when you want to talk to anyone but that person sitting across from you at the breakfast table. But who else would discuss with you, ad nauseam, banal topics like the perfect way to spend a half-hour, or the best way to sit in a chair? The standalone episode “Andre And Sarah” makes achingly clear how much finding (or not finding) that person who makes you shine steers the path your life will eventually take, all in a mere 35 minutes.
While I’d love to praise one of the many things that aired this year that I’m sure to revisit in future—someone else is going to mention Wanderlust, Salt Fat Acid Heat, and the dazzling Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert, right?—I feel compelled to bring up a program I’m almost certain I’ll never watch again. It’s unlikely that when HBO snapped up The Tale at Sundance this year, the network was thinking of the benefits of the pause button. Yet it’s a benefit all the same. The debut narrative feature from documentarian Jennifer Fox follows a fictionalized version of the director (played by Laura Dern) as she re-examines a traumatic childhood experience she’d filed away in her mind as loving and consensual, managing to be both gentle and almost unbearably upsetting all at once. Dern’s simple, seemingly relaxed performance belies the nightmare which fuels it, and that pause button may prove invaluable to some—it certainly was for me. The Tale is a film which seems to demand that you witness, rather than merely watch it. Should you need to walk away for a minute, it’ll keep.
I know, I know: At least once or twice a year someone tells you about some cool animated series you should be watching, and talks about how trippy and ambitious and strangely deep it is. But guys, trust me: You need to catch up on Cartoon Network’s Summer Camp Island. Only half of season one has aired so far (20 10-minute episodes, mostly non-serialized), with the rest of the first batch reportedly set to debut before the end of the year. It’s a show parents can watch with grade-school-aged kids or on their own—a treat for animation buffs, and for anyone who enjoys a the kind of surrealism that’s more adorable than upsetting. With its snooty teen witches, dorky monsters, and never-ending parade of anthropomorphic clothes, toys, plants, and foodstuffs, Summer Camp Island is like a weird old Disney cartoon crossed with an ’80s teensploitation picture. And it is glorious.
Mike Flanagan is a Stephen King guy. You could guess that from his adaptation of Gerald’s Game and from the news that he’s doing King’s Shining sequel Doctor Sleep next. Or you could just watch his work and marvel at how plainly influenced it is by the author’s, at how well it captures that signature King touch—the division of perspective among multiple characters, the interest in history and trauma, the graceful juggling of timelines. There’s much more King than Shirley Jackson in Flanagan Netflix take on The Haunting Of Hill House. The miniseries didn’t scare me as much as it seemed to scare a lot of my friends and colleagues—while well-executed, its jolts were mostly of the familiar James Wan spirits-slithering-up-walls variety. But I loved the intricacy of the storytelling, the way Flanagan moved fluidly from the childhood scenes to the adulthood ones and back again, mapping the entwined lives of these damaged siblings to suggest the way that our past and present remain in constant conversation. (It’s memories, of course, that are really haunting the Crain family.) In the end, I found Haunting Of Hill House a better, more spiritually faithful adaptation of It than the real one from last year. Guess that makes me a Mike Flanagan guy.
The contents of The Big List demonstrate that it’s a great time for television comedy of all stripes: Animated, musical, workplace, detail-oriented genre parody, surrealist examination of the agony and ecstasy of existence. And while I would’ve liked to have seen some notice for the humble charms of NBC’s Superstore or a nod to that episode of Joe Pera Talks With You where Joe hears “Baba O’Riley” for the first time, I’m surprised that we didn’t heap more praise on another Michigan-set cable show co-starring Conner O’Malley. Like Myles with Survivor, I’m willing to accept that I’m part of the problem: Detroiters didn’t make my ballot’s final cut, despite all the hearty laughs, shoddily produced TV commercials, and General Getdown dance routines (“He’s a general—he’s the best”) the Comedy Central series gave me this year. Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson’s love letter to their shared hometown will always be powered by the stars’ explosively silly onscreen connection, but season two did some stellar work at fleshing out their characters as individuals, whether it was Sam reuniting with an ex to record a sultry grocery-store jingle or Tim (loudly) grappling with the family legacy of Cramblin Duvet Advertising. If nothing else, these episodes proved that when it comes to comedic news anchors, sometimes the inspiration for Ron Burgundy outstrips the legend himself.