Daniel Fienberg: The 10 Best TV Shows of 2018

6:30 AM 12/14/2018

by Daniel Fienberg

A pitch-black teen-com, an Italian coming-of-age saga, a raunchy animated gem, the final season of an FX masterwork and a docuseries about education in America were among the Hollywood Reporter TV critic’s favorites of the year.

From left: 'The Americans,' 'The End of the F***ing World,' 'Dear White People'
From left: 'The Americans,' 'The End of the F***ing World,' 'Dear White People'
Courtesy of FX; Courtesy of Netflix;

Once again, 2018 found more great TV being produced on more services and channels and networks than ever before. And yet looking at my Top 10, I see that with three shows from Netflix and two apiece from HBO and FX, and each network boasting multiple additional strong contenders, there's a bit of a hierarchy taking form.

Still, I think my list, which began with six "Sure Thing" shows and then became a battle between around 15 shows for those final four slots, represents a pretty wide swathe of what's happening in TV. I've got some animation, a documentary series, a show in a foreign language. There are a few new shows that you need to check out and three shows that have featured in my past Top 10 lists. And if you wait a few days, I'll post my “Second 10,” a list of other 2018 standouts that I like very nearly as much as this group.

  1. 10
    10

    'Better Call Saul'

    AMC

    Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures

    If your reason for watching Better Call Saul remains the incremental steps in Jimmy McGill's transition into Saul Goodman, the fourth season continued that journey, played with layered nuance by Bob Odenkirk.

    At this point, though, that's not why I watch. These days, Better Call Saul is most interesting as a sad portrait of a relationship that we assume is doomed and yet constantly gives us new reasons for hope. Peter Gould, who took more of the creative reins this year, and his staff of writers have crafted a romance out of wonderful, brief moments of warmth, the occasional explosions of frustration — the garage rooftop fight was the season's highlight — and long, long stretches of the sort of ambivalent and ambiguous silence most shows would shy away from.

    Odenkirk and the eternally under-recognized Rhea Seehorn make every beat feel plausible and have consistently redefined viewer hopes and expectations about where Kim Wexler might fit or not fit in the world of Breaking Bad. This centerpiece of the Better Call Saul tapestry is so satisfying and effective that it reliably makes up for those moments in which Mike and the Germans or Nacho's further descent into misery and self-doubt didn't come together.

  2. 9
    10

    'A Very English Scandal'

    Amazon

    Ludovic Robert

    Think of A Very English Scandal as a very English take on the Oscar-winning I, Tonya, complete with grandiose thwarted ambitions, bungled murder plots and a media circus mining sensationalism from an entrenched class struggle. In the hands of writer Russell T. Davies and director Stephen Frears, the three-part miniseries finds ample humor in MP Jeremy Thorpe's (Hugh Grant) often absurd attempts to free himself from ex-lover Norman Josiffe (Ben Whishaw), but it never stays stuck in satire for long. Davies is fascinated and horrified by how recently homosexuality was still criminalized in the U.K. He's saddened by the notes of very real love between Thorpe and Josiffe. He's astute about how current the tabloid frenzy of the '60s and '70s still feels today.

    Even as Frears keeps things moving at a breakneck pace punctuated by too-crazy-not-to-be-true cliffhangers and surprises, Grant and Whishaw refuse to cut any corners or cheapen their respective characters, to play either man or his dreams as jokes. The result is that neither actor has ever been better and A Very English Scandal shifts ably between being a tremendous amount of fun and serious business indeed.

  3. 8
    10

    'My Brilliant Friend'

    HBO

    Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

    HBO's Italian-language adaptation of the first book in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan quartet was perhaps the year's most suspenseful drama, without resembling a thriller on any level. This coming-of-age story yielded breathless anticipation from the most mundane of moments. The retrieving of a lost doll. A walk to the beach. Acne. A fireworks display. First love. A fitting for a new pair of shoes.

    Written by Francesco Piccolo, Laura Paolucci and Saverio Costanzo, with Costanzo directing all eight installments, My Brilliant Friend captured the small details of '50s life in Naples, indulging in occasional nostalgia but never wallowing, and grounding the story always in precious exchanges between best friends Lila and Lenu, depicted thus far as elementary-school students and adolescents, played astoundingly by newcomers Gaia Girace and Ludovica Nasti and Margherita Mazzucco and Elisa Del Genio, respectively. Every piece of spot-on casting underlined the struggles of these girls and then young women fighting against a patriarchal culture in a society on the brink of great change.

    Consummately specific, embracingly universal, My Brilliant Friend was groundbreaking as an entirely foreign-language show in a mainstream, primetime cable home and set an exceptional template for respectful literary adaptation.

  4. 7
    10

    'Big Mouth'

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett's foul-mouthed adolescent comedy has taken its place with the still-thriving and still top 10-worthy Bojack Horseman at the pinnacle of Netflix's adult animation empire. The second season offered more relatable mortification including masturbatory mishaps, an episode dedicated to the myriad services provided by Planned Parenthood, an unforgettable school gymnasium lock-in and way more about Coach Steve's sex life than you ever wanted to know. 

    Big Mouth remains unflinchingly gross, but only in that way that puberty and the human body are gross, and admirably committed to an all-embracing approach in which no part of the maturation process is off-limits. Whether you're male or female, gay or straight, a kid pondering pubic hair or a 40-something virginal gym teacher, Big Mouth sees and understands you. There's a Hormone Monster for each of us. And whether it's Kroll's gender-spanning versatility, Jason Mantzoukas' collection of gruff oddballs or Maya Rudolph's ability to make every line, or every word, sound unique, Big Mouth's vocal cast is a treasure.

  5. 6
    10

    'Dear White People'

    Netflix

    Adam Rose/Netflix

    I'm not sure what it's going to take to get more people to talk about Justin Simien's Dear White People. The first season, already a very good run at adapting Simien's well-regarded film, had a scalding episode about police violence directed by Barry Jenkins. The second season featured The Internet's Girlfriend Tessa Thompson, a superb abortion-themed episode directed by Kimberly Peirce and a bottle episode from Simien and writer Jack Moore that was one of the very best examples of that format. Yet we're still sleeping on Dear White People, which has quickly become fearlessly topical, aesthetically daring and boasts an ensemble cast of actors on a launching pad for stardom, led by Logan Browning, who should be in every awards conversation, DeRon Horton, Marque Richardson and Ashley Blaine Featherson.

    The second season saw Dear White People finding more to say about more varied political and sociological issues, getting more value out of each of its deep roster of characters, and experimenting with a tone that can encompass parody, provocative drama and clever comedy in the same half-hour-plus. This is already the rare Netflix show in which every episode feels possibly too short.

  6. 5
    10

    'The End of the F***ing World'

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    James (Alex Lawther), the hero of Netflix's The End of the F***ing World, begins the show by announcing, "I'm 17 and I'm pretty sure I'm a psychopath." Within minutes, he admits to a predilection for killing animals. Make no mistake: You'll know within 10 minutes if James is a character you want to spend another second with, and that's before you meet Alyssa (Jessica Barden), who lambastes their boring hometown and calls waitresses "c—" as an act of rebellion. Will Alyssa and James fall in love or will she be the first victim on his road to serial killer-dom?

    Boasting clear influences including True Romance and Bonnie and ClydeThe End of the F***ing World knows all of the genres it's part of and yet cheats your expectations at every turn, unfolding as a road trip that's violent, profane and frequently sweet, though never in the ways you're expecting, all set to a glorious soundtrack of old-time love songs — Brenda Lee and Dinah Shore and the like — presented with gleeful subversion.

    Charlie Covell's adaptation of Charles S. Forsman's graphic novel, directed with tone-straddling mastery by Jonathan Entwistle and Lucy Tcherniak, won't be for everyone, but if you tap into the show's peculiar wavelength, you'll tear through the efficient eight-episode (all under 22 minutes) first season (and start dreading Netflix's unnecessary second season).

  7. 4
    10

    'The Americans'

    FX

    Courtesy of FX

    Who knew that the secret to successfully sticking the landing on The Americans would be a final season concentrating more heavily on oft-neglected, astronomy-and-hockey-loving Henry? Fine, maybe Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields didn't make the sixth season of The Americans into The Keidrich Sellati Show, but they steered their FX drama to zero in on the morally corrosive effects of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings' professional choices, which meant a lot of time for Sellati and for Holly Taylor's Paige.

    Much talk leading into the final season was about who would live and who would die, but Weisberg and Fields had more complex judgments in mind, building to the sort of ending that satisfied in the moment and has only become richer upon reflection. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys continued to shine, every '80s needle-drop remained flawlessly selected, and several long-desired scenes in the finale were jaw-dropping. I don't want to spoil anything because The Americans never got one of those Breaking Bad-style, Netflix-fueled audience bumps and this is a spy drama that audiences will spend years discovering. The most common response is sure to be, "Why didn't I watch this sooner?" So why wait? 

  8. 3
    10

    'Succession'

    HBO

    Colin Hutton/HBO

    In a TV landscape that thrives on legitimacy, audience word-of-mouth hits are rare — the top 10-worthy Killing Eve, buoyed by near-unanimous early reviews, was one — but critical word-of-mouth hits are even rarer, and initial notices for HBO's Succession were decidedly mixed, with a healthy dose of "Oh no, not another show about rich white people." The narrative is that the show got better at midseason, around the Thanksgiving-themed "I Went to Market" and the impossibly tense "Which Side Are You On?," peaking with the outrageous bachelor party hijinks of "Prague" and the passive-aggressive wedding prep of "Pre-Nuptial."

    I agree that those episodes capture the show as it was building momentum, but if you go back to the opening hours you'll see a series that already had many of its best elements on display. The vicious bickering between siblings Roman (Kieran Culkin), Kendall (Jeremy Strong) and Shiv (Sarah Snook) was there from the beginning, as was the acid-tongued contempt of Brian Cox's pater familias. The comic dynamic duo of Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun) took a couple episodes to come together, but there are hints of their chemistry in the pilot.

    Most importantly, the pilot established a show that didn't care an iota if you liked the members of the Roy family. Sometimes it laughed at the Roys. Sometimes it wanted you to cringe at their callous eviscerations of each other. And gradually, as the performances got deeper and darker, you found yourself unexpectedly caring, maybe not enough to "root" for characters or to "like" them, but surely enough that you couldn't take your eyes off of their crumbling empire, America itself in micro.

  9. 2
    10

    'Atlanta'

    FX

    FX Networks/Photofest

    After a critically adored first season — No. 3 on my end-of-the-year list in 2016 — the question was how Donald Glover and company would top themselves. The answer, it turned out, was by defying expectations on a weekly basis. Tune in for a new Atlanta and you'd never know if you were getting a dark odyssey into urban paranoia ("Woods"), a strange exploration of identity at a German festival ("Helen"), '90s pastiche that validated all Muppet Babies-style flashbacks ("Fubu"), a wacky shaggy-dog comic misadventure ("Barbershop" or "North of the Border") or, best of all, a Lynchian exploration of the cost of fame ("Teddy Perkins").

    With the exceptional cast frequently in demand on other projects, you also didn't necessarily know which actors you'd be watching. Zazie Beetz had a pair of showcase episodes, but was often absent. Brian Tyree Henry and Lakeith Stanfield had two or three focal episodes apiece. Glover had an episode in which he made a joke about Sammy Sosa's face and otherwise spent 30 minutes unrecognizable in latex. You rarely knew whether or not you'd laugh at an episode of Atlanta — I actually always found myself laughing frequently, even in darker installments like "Teddy Perkins" or, less frequently, I guess, during "Woods" — but you always knew you'd see something you hadn't seen before on TV.

  10. 1
    10

    'America to Me'

    Starz

    Courtesy of Starz

    I hate to call the best TV show of 2018 "substantive," because that feels like damning with faint praise — and yet it still feels like the most correct word to describe Steve James' 10-episode chronicle of a year in the life of Chicago's Oak Park and River Forest High School. This is indeed storytelling at its most substantive, a show almost bursting with complicated and frustrating ideas about the state of education in America, the kids who are getting ahead, the kids who are falling behind, and the inextricable links between achievement and race, class and gender.

    You may not feel like you need a 10-hour lecture on the difference between equity and equality, on the generational evolution of white privilege, on the achievement gap and how the system is failing certain demographics in ways both predictable and shocking. Fortunately, that's not what America to Me is. It's an unparalleled triumph of access (James' segment directors were Rebecca Parrish, Kevin Shaw and Minding the Gap director Bing Liu) that makes sure it never becomes too much of a statistics-driven polemic — not when it also functions as a loving series of character arcs that shift in focus and centrality as the school year progresses.

    One episode might focus on freshman Grant, grappling with biracial identity and the early blooming of first love, or senior Kendale, whose popularity and easy-going interest in the marching band covers for a fierce desire to prove himself as a wrestler. The next episode might break your heart with quiet Terrence, a special needs student whose mother refuses to let his teachers overlook him. You'll cheer for slam poet Charles and fledgling filmmaker Jada, tear your hair out over spirited-but-indifferent Tiara and rip your soul out for fragile, gifted Chanti. 

    America to Me is intellectually substantive, but also emotionally substantive, and you'll probably find ample humor as well. No 2018 show made me think or feel more. It's special, and worth seeking out.