Hey, what do you say I wrap up my 2018 Best Of list before I have to start working on 2019? I’ve covered numbers six through twenty-five and now it’s time to hit the top with my five best TV shows of 2018.
5. GLOW (Netflix) – I mean, this is just a very good show, right? There was maybe nothing sillier anywhere all year than “The Good Twin”, the episode presented as an actual episode of the show that they’re making. Comedy sketches, commercials, a dream sequence, and the craziest socially conscious pop song you’ll ever hear. You have to be very good at making TV to pull off something as perfectly bad as that. And that’s part of the magic of GLOW – this is stuff that shouldn’t work, but it totally does.
Look, I would watch this show whether or not it was any good, because that’s the deal I have with Alison Brie. But lucky for me, it’s actually great. It’s funny in ways you don’t necessarily see coming. That show within a show episode is a great example, but there are so many flat-out funny jokes all season. The characters who were mostly relegated to the background last year got a little more time to develop, often to surprising effect. Arthie discovering her sexuality, Stacey and Dawn turning out to be idea thieves (but how great was it that they created new wrestling personae and attributed it to toxic waste?), and Kia Stevens’ Tamme (aka Welfare Queen) delivered one of the year’s best performances when she was forced to look at what she was doing through her son’s eyes.
To stick with wrestling tropes, Season Two continued to give us a sympathetic heel in the process of turning face (Brie’s Ruth) and an unsympathetic face turning heel (Betty Gilpin’s Debbie). From the very beginning, Ruth was the one who wronged Debbie, but her enthusiasm and her commitment to even the stupidest bits makes her the one we love. Debbie’s backstabbing (finagling a producer credit and lording it over her co-stars) and actual assault on Ruth (breaking her leg in the ring after doing cocaine) gave Liberty Belle an ugly side, but she’s not an out and out villain. We want it to work out for her. Her happiness and Ruth’s aren’t mutually exclusive, even if Debbie thinks it is. Remember when Ruth wasn’t willing to sleep with a pervy network guy to keep their time slot and Debbie insisted that she should have? That’s a demonstrably awful thing to say, but Gilpin sold it and gave us a look at just how much damage Ruth did to their relationship. Both women deliver complex performances that should have them swimming in awards.
And when they just get crazy, it’s a sight to behold. The cast shooting the most eighties video ever in a mall was so much fun to watch even as it was clear that it took a lot of work for so-so results. Rhonda’s promotional wedding that turned into a real wedding, provided your definition of “real” allows for a groom who’s in deep denial about his sexuality. The episode with Ruth in the hospital was such a joy, including Bash delivering my favorite line of the year and the delivery is so important that I can’t do it justice. But you’ll know it when you see it. It was a season where I thought at three or four times that this was surely the best episode of the season and then the season finale turned out to be the actual best with multiple real life twists resulting in even crazier twists on their show. A wedding battle royale led to the women of GLOW fighting some more famous male wrestlers. And then when a still-injured Ruth learned she was going to win the title, man, Alison Brie’s reaction was the most pre gratitude I’ve ever seen portrayed on screen about the dumbest thing. Deep down, I have a real affection for “let’s put on a show” stories and Team GLOW reminds me of the Muppets in that way. They’re putting their all into the craziest thing whether anybody watches or not. And those final moments when they all learned what was next for their career, well, Season Three has a pretty irresistible hook and I feel like the heightened reality of Las Vegas isn’t going to make it easier for everybody to deal with their problems. Man, I love GLOW.
Best Episode: “Every Potato Has a Receipt”
4. Venture Bros. (Adult Swim) – With nearly three years since the last season, Venture Bros. had a lot on its plate, starting with resolving last season’s major arc. And so they opened with three episodes that blew up Venture mythology, answering some of the biggest questions in series history and calling back to small details from as early as their third episode ever. (We’ve spent six seasons wondering how Jonas Venture died and the truth was in a ghost story an astronaut told the boys in Episode Three!) From there, they had multiple long-running stories to advance, deal with the titular brothers growing up and growing apart, and still have room for crazy action scenes.
One of the things to remember about Venture Bros. is that it’s really never been about what it’s about. It was presented as a Jonny Quest parody with a scientist and his goofy sons going on adventures with their bodyguard. And that sometimes happens, but even in Season One it quickly swerved to being about what happened in between those adventures, or what the fallout is from mad scientists fighting supervillains. From the beginning, relationships have been in flux and the status quo never sits. And it seems to be poised for the next big evolution – new information about Doc and the Monarch may have them re-evaluating their relationship as archenemies, and if the appearance of a time-traveling Doc Venture from the near future is any indication, they’re going to end up on friendly terms sooner rather than later. And for as many things that Jackson Public and Doc Hammer have happily thrown out the window, eliminating fan-favorite characters or separating Brock from the family for an entire season, losing the Monarch’s searing hatred as a story engine is the most massive change they could make. Which is why after seven seasons and approximately 28 years, it’s still the show I think about the most.
With long gaps between short seasons, Jackson and Doc are often forced to strike a balance between world building and servicing the lead characters, and it can be frustrating to realize that Hank and Dean only shared about three minutes of screen time all year. But that all serves a purpose, as in the finale where Dean visits his comatose brother and realizes that they have grown apart. And in the meantime, we got a truly touching story about Dr. Z., the most nothing of nothing characters. His whole deal is that he’s an old Quest villain and that was pretty much the joke. But then there’s a scene where he visits his old enemy in rehab and offers him a place to say and why do I suddenly care about Dr. Z?
This season solved old mysteries and introduced new ones, making their world so much weirder in the process. It paid off very long-dormant gags, took us to an orgy that is going to be hard to watch on the uncensored DVDs, and gave Brock a few chances to just kill some guys who need killing. And somehow also managed to point out that it can be hard to tell the difference between Empire Strikes Back and Barbarella. It was a glorious achievement and I can’t wait for the next season, whenever it comes, because it’s going to be a very different show once again.
Best Episode: “Arrears in Science”
3. Better Call Saul (AMC) – I’m happy to call this TV’s best drama. I mean, there’s been talk of a Breaking Bad sequel movie and that seems at first glance like a terrible idea. But then you remember that they made a prequel that’s arguably better than the original series, and it’s like “Yeah, you guys do what you want. I’ll see you there!”
Ever since the end of the first season, it’s felt like Jimmy McGill is on the verge of becoming Saul Goodman, and that seemed like it would be the end of the show. But here at the end of Season Four, which ends with him actually putting the name “Saul Goodman” on his law license, there’s still so much story to tell.
For starters, Jimmy becoming Saul doesn’t mean the end of Kim Wexler’s story. Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn have played this relationship brilliantly, and watching them grow apart has been gutting. But also, we know that can only be better for Kim. And watching who she is beyond her relationship with Jimmy has been some of the most rewarding storytelling of the series. When Saul wraps up, I’d be so happy to see a Kim Wexler spinoff. There’s no reason they can’t live in this world for years and years.
This season did an impressive job of telling stories that didn’t necessarily need to be told. For example, nobody walked away from Breaking Bad wondering how Gus built that lab. The Secret Origin of the Batcave is nobody’s favorite Batman story. And yet, that’s one of the stories they told this year and not only did it lead to some great scenes, but the climax to this seemingly unnecessary arc showed Mike executing somebody for an employer for the first time. We knew something happened to turn him from the ethically gray ex-cop into a drug empire’s enforcer, and this season we saw it happen. Jimmy’s not the only one who’s a worse person when Breaking Bad starts, and Mike’s fall was devastating.
Losing Chuck was tough, maybe moreso for the viewers than Jimmy, who remained sociopathically emotionless about his death. In fact, as the season went on, we saw him actively faking grief to get his license back. And holy smokes, Odenkirk was fantastic even as Jimmy became less sympathetic with every week. How do you not hate a guy who laughed at the review board for believing his fake sadness over the death of his brother? You keep that little glimmer of humanity that still stands between Jimmy and Saul, and Odenkirk did a beautiful job. And of course, he was as funny as ever between his illicit cell phone business and an amazing run that began with him forging letters of support on a long bus ride and ended with him straight up breaking out the Senator Howard Tankerbell voice from Mr. Show.
There’s so much more to say about this season (I haven’t even touched on Nacho’s increasingly perilous position. There might be a reason he’s not on Breaking Bad.), but the important thing is it’s brilliantly written, beautifully directed, and acted to perfection.
Best Episode: “Winner”
2. BoJack Horseman (Netflix) – This is the only show I truly binge. I come home from work, start watching the new season, and don’t stop until the season finale ends. This may not be the healthiest way to consume entertainment, but I’ve made my choices. And five seasons in, it remains the funniest show about depression ever made.
There’s a whole essay in this season. Maybe multiple essays, given the breadth of the stories. There’s an episode where Diane deals with her divorce by visiting Vietnam and ends up dealing with just how foreign her heritage is to her. BoJack delivers a eulogy for his mother and that’s an episode. It’s Will Arnett talking for 25 minutes and going through a whole range of emotions and climaxing in the dumbest possible joke. It’s amazing. Princess Carolyn spent the season trying to adopt and was consistently stymied. One episode jumped between four Halloween parties in four different years and showed us how much has changed and how much hasn’t. The show covered pop culture’s apology culture in a way that is only slightly sillier than what happened over the rest of the year. And then there was that crazy episode where a married pair of therapists discussed their clients who were, of course, the regular cast but with the details tweaked to hide their identities.
But the bulk of the season went to Philbert, BoJack’s new prestige drama for an obscure streaming service. And it was a dead-on parody of (name of award-winning show you personally don’t like). A lot of this was hysterical, from the overwrought dialogue to the puddle-deep insights (“The darkness represents darkness!”) to co-star Mr. Peanutbutter’s catchphrase “Barf me a river, fartbag.” But it was also a genuinely thoughtful take on the “man pain” TV that’s been inundating us. There’s this bit where BoJack is defending the show’s portrayal of his character’s destructive behavior, saying that it’s not glamorizing that behavior. And then he has this realization that I’ve been thinking about ever since, “but it does… normalize it”. That one moment has forced me to think more about the entertainment that I’m consuming and wondering if some of it is more harmful than I’ve admitted.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Stephanie Beatriz had a key role as Gina, the female lead on BoJack’s show and his real-life romantic interest. Well, they slept together. There wasn’t much in the way of romance. He actually tried to help her career, mostly doing more harm than good. And alongside this, a stunt injury put BoJack on painkillers and sent the addict into another spiral. It culminated with BoJack choking Gina while going through withdrawal and genuinely unsure whether he was acting on the show or living his life. (The Philbert set was based on BoJack’s house.) And that’s the other thing I keep thinking about. Gina didn’t want it to be public – she didn’t want BoJack to acknowledge or apologize because she didn’t want that to be her story. So did he do the right thing by honoring her request? I don’t know. Maybe?
And finally, the season ended with Diane bringing him to rehab, acknowledging that he might be her best friend but she still doesn’t think he’s a good person. And there’s this idea that rehab can maybe help with his addictions, but it won’t make him better. He still suffers from serious depression, he’s still selfish and needy. In a medium where seeking help is portrayed in a victory in and of itself, there’s something very stark about the notion that kicking his addictions won’t fix him. Can he be salvaged? Will he even complete rehab? Should Diane even be in his life or do they bring out the worst in one another? It’s a lot to mull over in the long break between seasons. (Yes, it wouldn’t be such a long break if I didn’t watch it all in one night. I can’t learn!)
Best Episode: “The Showstopper”
1. The Good Place (NBC) – To put it simply, I think The Good Place is one of the most remarkable shows in a very long time. And the fact that it’s sitting there on network television is kind of unbelievable. The crazy swerve at the end of Season One was only the beginning, as the 2018 Good Place (which included part of Season Two and the bulk of Season Three) hit Breaking Bad levels of “Well, clearly the next episode is the series finale, right?”
With Team Cockroach’s ruse exposed, they were forced out of even their fake Good Place, which took them to the chambers of the Judge, the actual Bad Place, and reboots of their own lives. And then Michael and Janet ended up on Earth without their powers and then everybody ended up inside of Janet while regular Janet and Michael learned that nobody had made it to the Good Place in five hundred years. So we have a hilarious show with the most charismatic cast around ending the year on a note of pure existential horror.
And that’s the magic of The Good Place. It is a show that can be profound and profoundly silly in the same episode. It’s one of the smartest treatises on ethics in pop culture and it’s also the quickest and weirdest show you’d find on network TV. For all the crazy stuff, including robot vs. demon fight scenes and pause and you’ll miss it jokes that feel like the height of The Simpsons, it’s also a show about the power of doing good. As cynical that it may seem, with the main characters knowing that they’re damned, they’re still trying to help. Whether it’s redeeming Donkey Doug or setting things right with an estranged mother, these trashbags have their hearts in the right place and in this Bad Place in which we currently find ourselves, a show that’s about goodness without being didactic or preachy is a truly valuable thing.
Yes, there are amazing sequences like D’arcy Carden playing the entire cast for an episode, Ted Danson proving to be good at every kind of TV, and William Jackson Harper turning out to be ripped. And yes, it’s brilliantly funny when it isn’t being stupidly funny. But what means the most to me is that it’s a show that makes great storytelling out of just trying to be better.
Best Episode: “Jeremy Bearimy”
Well, that’s my much delayed list! You’re now free to yell at me, but I’d prefer if you didn’t.