In these divisive times, thank goodness for television’s enduring ability to unite. Everyone can agree, for example, that there’s far too much of the stuff being made these days (with about 500 scripted shows from America alone in 2018). Likewise, I’m sure we’re all in accord that “The Walking Dead” is dying a slow and painful death, and that there was no need for that second season of “13 Reasons Why” or that first season of “FBI.”
We can probably also agree that we’re going to need human-cloning technology to become viable if we’re to have any chance of getting through our Netflix watch lists, and that this has been a pretty good year for new shows. One way of gauging that is by seeing how many acclaimed new shows you still need to catch up on – for me, that list includes the likes of (deep breath) “Homecoming,” “Barry,” “1983,” “Black Earth Rising,” “My Brilliant Friend,” “Patrick Melrose,” “Counterpart,” “Trust,” “America to Me” and “The Terror.” Please start cutting some ethical corners, startups: I need that clone pronto.
Here, then, are my favorite 11 shows of 2018. There were only two criteria: They had to be new, which disqualified series such as “The Staircase,” “The Americans,” “Patriot” and “Unforgotten”; and they had to be series, which ruled out brilliant one-offs like “Hannah Gadsby: Nanette” and “Springsteen on Broadway.”
11. ‘Altered Carbon’
Was there a better-looking show all year than Netflix’s big-budget sci-fi extravaganza, based on the 2002 novel by British writer Richard K. Morgan? Along with futuristic cityscapes and bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase “cloud storage,” this ambitious 10-parter shook off the “Blade Runner” comparisons with ease – in fact, it was much more fun than the ponderous “Blade Runner 2049.” It successfully combined an engrossing whodunit plot with epic fight scenes, fun characters (take a bow, Poe, the AI proprietor of The Raven Hotel) and a killer sibling rivalry, making a second season an enticing prospect.
This was a tough year for Hulu. Its big Mars drama, “The First,” proved a prophetic title as few viewers managed to get past the initial episode. And its road-to-9/11 drama “The Looming Tower,” based on the book by Lawrence Wright, failed to prove the awards magnet it seemed on paper. I loved it, though, with Jeff Daniels and Peter Sarsgaard’s characters allowing petty personal squabbles to overshadow the War on Terror – leaving the FBI and CIA fighting futile turf wars while Al-Qaida plotted its September 2001 atrocity. Gut-wrenching viewing.
There may have been tenser thrillers this year (the BBC’s six-part “Bodyguard,” for example), but none were as much fun as this gripping Spanish heist caper (titled “La casa de papel,” or “The House of Paper,” in Spanish). Over 22 twisting episodes, this perfectly calibrated thriller weaves its magic as a group of specially assembled thieves, led by the Professor, attempt the crime of the century by taking down the Royal Mint. Netflix has already ordered a third season of the show, which could only have been more Spanish if it had forced all watching Jews to convert to Christianity (too soon?).
The last thing we needed this fall was yet another wise-ass comedian making topical jokes about the dire state of the world, right? Wrong. Ex-“Daily Show” correspondent Hasan Minhaj found his own niche in a crowded market with this Netflix series, covering such diverse topics as Saudi Arabia, immigration and the streetwear brand Supreme. Minhaj has an energetic and likeable screen presence, his American-Indian Muslim voice providing a welcome alternative to the “late night” TV comedy scene (even if the show does drop on a Sunday morning).
Facebook Watch has been trying to establish itself as a video content space without much success – who’s even heard of its beauty pageant comedy, “Queen America,” with Catherine Zeta-Jones? But “Sorry for Your Loss” is well worth hunting down. Created by relative newcomer Kit Steinkellner, this California-set drama sees Elizabeth Olsen cry us an ocean as a grieving young widow, trying to restart her life after the sudden death of her husband. Touching and moving, yet also bitingly funny, these short 10 episodes are almost worth giving Mark Zuckerberg all of your private data.
Two of the finest performances of the year were to be found in this British three-parter, recounting the unbelievable-but-true story that ended the political career of U.K. Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe in the 1970s. Hugh Grant plays the caddish head of Britain’s third-largest party, willing to take the most politically incorrect of choices to silence his former lover, Norman Scott (the ever-brilliant Ben Whishaw) – even murder. Both hilarious and tragic, it ensured that Brexit wasn’t the only political farce on show in Britain this year.
The timeliest documentary of the year was this six-parter about the downfall of Richard Nixon in the early ’70s, looking back at how the crazed antics of an out-of-control U.S. president were ultimately thwarted. An impressive array of talking heads from the time are assembled (including Watergate journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward), but the star here is the archival footage of congressional hearings and damning testimonies of key White House aides. Charles Ferguson’s series, about institutional checks and balances triumphing over lawlessness, also offers some hope for the year ahead.
Netflix’s starry 10-parter didn’t make things easy for viewers at the start, offering up a discombobulating storyline that was as easy to follow as a Chinese subway map. If you went with the flow, though, “Maniac” eventually settled down to become an extremely enjoyable and playful thriller that recalled “The Leftovers,” albeit without all that End-of-Days angst. Emma Stone and Jonah Hill had huge fun playing myriad characters, and that enjoyment was infectious. Throw in a cameo from Sally Field and all sorts of silliness, and you had the most madcap show of the year – guaranteed to generate either broad smiles or heavy sighs. For me, it was the former.
There was only one show I watched twice in 2018: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s adaptation of British dance critic Luke Jennings’ “Villanelle” novellas. I wasn’t such a huge fan the first time around, blinded to the series’ charms by the casting of “Grey’s Anatomy” alum Sandra Oh in the title role. On second viewing, however, I just reveled in the delightfully twisted antics of Jodie Comer as assassin-for-hire Villanelle – a stone-cold killer with a brilliant sideline in goofy facial expressions and one-liners. Oh, and Sandra Oh was actually pretty good too.
On paper, “Succession” should have been unbearable – following a family of 1 percenters with 99 problems, principally the battle to succeed media mogul father Logan Roy (Brian Cox), who may or may not be on his last legs. That you actually relish being around the grasping Roy family (and hangers-on) for 10 blissful episodes is largely thanks to jet-black comedy scripts from a predominantly British writing room and some wonderful performances. Kieran Culkin is scoring a lot of nominations for his turn as the depraved Roman, but it’s Matthew Macfadyen’s venal Tom who steals the show.
This was some year for Gillian Flynn, who wrote the screenplay for the mesmerizing Steve McQueen heist movie “Widows” and saw her debut 2006 novel adapted into this brilliant, slow-burning thriller for HBO. Over eight evocative episodes, “Sharp Objects” built to one almighty reveal – which was the single most mind-blowing moment of television in 2018. Do tell Mama to watch, especially for the seamless merging of past and present, and stellar performances from Amy Adams as the self-harming Camille, Patricia Clarkson as the chilling matriarch and, best of all, Australian actress Eliza Scanlen as Camille’s younger sister, Amma. Truly, a show that gave us blood, sweat and tears.