Daniel Fienberg: The "Next 10 Best" TV Shows of 2018

6:15 AM 12/19/2018

by Daniel Fienberg

A glittery splash of '80s ballroom realness, a rogue female assassin, a reincarnated Norman Lear sitcom and a muscular prison-break genre piece made the Hollywood Reporter TV critic's honor roll, with a special place for Hannah Gadsby's unclassifiable conversation starter.

From left: 'The Good Place,' 'Killing Eve' and 'Sorry For Your Loss'
From left: 'The Good Place,' 'Killing Eve' and 'Sorry For Your Loss'
Courtesy of NBC, BBC America and Big Beach TV

By now, you've hopefully seen my TV Top 10 for 2018, a list that culminates with the remarkable Starz documentary series America to Me, an achievement people are still frequently telling me they’ve never heard of. It's the holidays, folks! Get on that!

But in an era of 495 scripted shows, a Top 10 just isn't enough, so every year I expand my superlatives list out to a Top 20. This year, being able to salute an additional 10 shows lets me finally add a broadcast network entry, as well as two more contributions apiece from Netflix and FX.

Of the shows listed here, at least six were in a version of my Top 10 at some point before getting dropped down, so they're all shows I loved this year.

One bonus listing that I couldn't categorize was Hannah Gadsby: Nanette. This one was tough. I didn't know what to do with this Netflix special, which blended stand-up, autobiography, confession and art criticism in a way that was shocking and cut through the sameness of Netflix's astounding output of comedy showcases.

Nanette was one of the most important and significant things I watched this year. It realigned my expectations and my perspectives in a nearly unprecedented way. But how to rank a 69-minute special with no notable visual component? I still don't know. It could have been anywhere from Top 5 to "Best Episodes" to "Best Performances." Nanette is special. Of that much I'm certain.

Honorable Mentions — or rather, My Third 10 of 2018, in alphabetical order: Barry, Counterpart, The Good Fight, Insecure, Kidding, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, The Little Drummer Girl, Sharp Objects, Superstore, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

Now let's get to My Second 10 of 2018.

  • 20. 'Escape at Dannemora'

    Showtime

    Christopher Saunders/SHOWTIME

    One of 2018's best TV trends was muscular genre tales told in miniseries/limited form. I'm thinking AMC's The Terror and The Little Drummer Girl, Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House and Showtime's Escape at Dannemora, which all told gripping stories with closed endings and still took time to let their worlds breathe. Some people felt that director Ben Stiller and writers Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin's recounting of a 2015 real-life prison break took entirely too much time to breathe. But as a sucker for tales of this ilk, I loved the chance to get down and dirty in this dangerous environment and to get to know the characters played with uncompromising fierceness by Benicio del Toro, Paul Dano and especially Patricia Arquette, whose committed work may allow her to sneak in and grab the myriad awards pundits had earmarked for Amy Adams. The drama's fifth episode, boasting an impossibly long tracking shot — with masked cuts, if you want to get all technical — through the bowels of the prison was top notch in every way and the sixth episode reversed expectations in daring fashion. Only the seventh and final episode, with a running time of 99 minutes, felt padded to me.

  • 19. 'Sorry for Your Loss'

    Facebook Watch

    Courtesy of TIFF

    Facebook Watch put itself on the quality original programming map in 2018 with Kit Steinkellner's half-hour dramedy about grief and healing. The thing about Sorry for Your Loss is that it sounds like it might be unpleasant, what with all the sadness, but the show's tonal balancing act is remarkably deft and the lead performance by Elizabeth Olsen really holds it all together. Olsen is a master of the cry-laugh, which might be the show's official emotional response. The supporting cast, featuring Kelly Marie Tran, Janet McTeer, Jovan Adepo and, in welcome flashbacks, Mamoudou Athie, is also great. Facebook Watch just renewed this important series; the platform's next challenge, having now made a good show, is to push it further into the cultural conversation, where it deserves to be.

  • 18. 'Baskets'

    FX

    Courtesy of FX

    Confession: I'd left Baskets out of my Top 30 entirely, then I glanced at the episodes that were part of its third season, which aired back in the year's first quarter. Then I felt bad. It's a quiet, odd show and so some refreshing was required to remember the Bakersfield magical realism of Christine (the amazing Louie Anderson, basically the star of the show at this point) staging an opera night at the rodeo, or the lovely absurdism of a family Thanksgiving crashed by French clowns (or "cloons"), or the celebration of local advertising that was "Commercial," or the hideously awkward birthday dinner hijinks of "Basque-ets." It was actually a beautiful and sometimes hilarious season that only feels like it aired a million years ago.

  • 17. 'Brockmire'

    IFC

    Courtesy of Erika Doss/IFC

    With Amanda Peet's Jules sidelined for much of the second season, Joel Church-Cooper's brash and inappropriateness-flaunting baseball comedy concentrated even more on Hank Azaria's addiction-prone, self-destructive Jim Brockmire (and Tyrel Jackson Williams as his very funny Sancho Panza). It remains a treat that a character who started life as a sketch parody of baseball announcers has become such a dark and melancholy character study. At this point, the transition of Jim Brockmire from cartoon to a live-action version Bojack Horseman is complete and yet few characters make me laugh harder. As a show, Brockmire is audacious and packed to the gills with references both accessible and esoteric, and it's a disappointment that Azaria has yet to really crack any awards conversations.

  • 16. 'One Day at a Time'

    Netflix

    Adam Rose/Netflix

    Netflix took its sweet time renewing Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce's marvelous updating of the Norman Lear sitcom favorite. This is baffling because One Day at a Time has all of the elements of a wildly popular show. It's broad, consistently inclusive and it's nearly impossible to find a show with more warmth and heart. It's a carefully plotted, defiantly progressive multicam romp, one that, with episodes like "Locked Down" and "Citizen Lydia," continued to prove its ability to branch out and instigate discussion and civil conversation. Justina Machado and Isabella Gomez both remain superb, and if we were in England, Rita Moreno would be Dame Rita Moreno and she'd be so revered she'd be asked to teach classes at Hogwarts. It's not too late to catch up before the third season premieres in February 2019.

  • 15. 'Lodge 49'

    AMC

    Credit: AMC

    I still can't describe what Lodge 49 is. It's like Terriers and John From Cincinnati and The Big Lebowski had a love child adapted by Thomas Pynchon? Does that help? Creator Jim Gavin's trippy, deadpan dramedy is a show about secret societies and Southern California real estate and thwarted dreams and strained family bonds, but it's much more a mood or a state of mind. You just have to let Lodge 49 wash over you and embrace the main partnership between Dud and Ernie — Wyatt Russell and Brent Jennings have a camaraderie that feels effortless — and the delight of Sonya Cassidy's Liz, who was one of my favorite new characters of the year by the time the 10-episode first season ended. Like Succession, Lodge 49 is a show that doesn't exactly get better as it progresses. Rather, it doesn't spell out what it is, letting audiences catch on at their own pace.

  • 14. 'Killing Eve'

    BBC America

    Courtesy of BBC America

    At times this spring, between The Americans and Barry and Killing Eve, it felt like everybody on TV was trying to kill somebody else. In this Year of the Hitman, the standout was actually a hitwoman, played with style, viciousness and childlike elan by Jodie Comer and mirrored by Sandra Oh, as the MI5 agent tasked with identifying her. Comer and Oh are so good and so good together that it's a minor tragedy they can't be nominated for awards as a tandem, rather than Oh, as the cast's bigger name, getting all the recognition. Phoebe Waller-Bridge's BBC America series won't be able to sneak up on viewers and critics in its second season, but it appears to have enough elements of fashion, international intrigue and sexual tension to maintain its specialness.

  • 13. 'The Good Place'

    NBC

    Colleen Hayes/NBC

    Don't like the show that The Good Place is at any given moment? Just wait an episode or two and it'll become something completely different. Probably something wonderful. The 2018 episodes overhauled the series' premise at least three times, all the while maintaining the key pieces at its core, be they the friendship-or-more between Eleanor and Chidi, Jason's devotion to the Jacksonville Jaguars or the awesomeness of D'Arcy Carden's Janet, which seemed to peak when she became a kung fu-fighting machine in "Don't Let the Good Life Pass You By," only to peak again when she became all of the show's characters in the masterpiece "Janet(s)." For the second straight year, this is as good as network TV gets.

  • 12. 'Bojack Horseman'

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Odd. Bojack Horseman was also No.12 on my list last year. Raphael Bob-Waksberg's animated classic offered another tremendous season of fragmented storytelling, addiction-fueled descents and Jessica Biel jokes, expanding its satirical range to tackle the pervasive darkness of prestige TV, the exposed moral rot of "Hollywoo" in the #MeToo Era and the show-killing powers of Kyle Bornheimer. A lot of the season's hype deservingly went to the Bob-Waksberg-scripted "Free Churro," an episode-long monologue brought to life by Will Arnett with flair that really ought to guarantee him a voiceover Emmy. As always, though, even if the crazy stunt episodes get all the buzz, every Bojack Horseman episode is packed full of so many in-jokes that one episode this season mocked viewers for pausing episodes to catch all the in-jokes.

  • 11. 'Pose'

    FX

    JoJo Whilden/FX

    Perhaps because its pre-premiere narrative hinged so heavily on Pose being a boundary-breaking drama about gay and trans culture in New York City in the '80s and on the barrier-smashing casting of trans actors, there were expectations that Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals’ show would be one of confrontational audacity. Surprisingly though, the most audacious thing about Pose was how sincere and welcoming it is. In micro, it's about the NYC ball scene and the unfolding AIDS epidemic and "Greed Is Good" excess and opulence. In broad strokes, it's a show about the families we make for ourselves and the heartbreak and consolation and community that come from loving other people and loving yourself. And in that, it's funny and sad and lovely. From Mj Rodriguez to Indya Moore to Dominique Jackson to Billy Porter, the big casting leaps pay off in an impeccable ensemble.