I’m back with Part Two of my Best TV Shows of 2018. I offered my general thoughts on the concept of lists last time, but I forgot a couple of rules set for myself – to be considered, a series had to air at least six episodes in the calendar year, and I have to have watched all of them. The Patriot would have made the list, but I learned about it late and had two episodes left as 2019 began. On with the list!15. Gotham (FOX) – I’ve spent years justifying the inclusion of this crazy-ass show where all the Batman stuff happens while Bruce Wayne is still a teenager. The fact is, this show is an insane mess of a million ideas that rockets through the season like a bullet train that somebody set on fire, and I love it. This show that was initially promoted as a cop show set in the iconic city featured immortals, blimp attacks, the undead, and a straight up super villain team. It is straight out fun. Five years ago, I was writing articles saying the worst thing they could do was to put characters like Joker and Ra’s al Ghul into the show. They did both of those things and I loved it. David Mazouz’ Bruce Wayne seems like somebody who will credibly grow up to be the Batman I know. Robin Lord Taylor continues to expand on his portrayal of the best version of Penguin ever and if this wasn’t a show where sometimes a guy with cold gun fights ninjas, he’d have an Emmy by now. Erin Richards’ gloriously unhinged Barbara Kean just keeps getting better and better. There’s so much good, fun work going on here, and that’s not even getting into Cameron Monaghan as twin brothers, each of whom looked like they were going to be the Joker at various times. We’re headed into the final season now and it’s the Gotham take on “No Man’s Land”, which is an idea that’s almost too beautiful to hold in the human brain.
Best Episode: “A Dark Knight: No Man’s Land”
14. Baskets (FX) – This is another show that I think would get more play on these lists if it aired later in the year. But despite the seemingly wacky and gimmick-laden premise (Zach Galifianakis plays twin brothers, one of whom is a clown! Louie Anderson plays their mom!), Baskets is a truly beautiful story about a family that’s only barely getting by. The main arc of the season involved Christine (Anderson) buying a family rodeo in an attempt to keep the family together and maybe impress her snooty friends. And it can be heartbreaking because the closest anybody gets to a win on this show is breaking even, but it’s also a celebration of these weirdos. There’s a genuinely touching senior romance that’s been building for two seasons, Chip and Martha’s weird friendship that doesn’t seem to benefit either of them but they also can’t get by without one another, and despite characters who can be mean and petty (Chip’s brother Dale sued his own mother for mismanagement of the rodeo), it’s a show that ultimately celebrates kindness and finds magic in the strangest places. With a perfect cast, including Martha Kelly who’s been wearing that cast for three years now with no explanation, Baskets is something entirely unique and wonderful.
Best Episode: “Thanksgiving”
13. Bob’s Burgers (FOX) – I honestly don’t have much to say at this point because we’re well into the ninth season and it’s made my list every year. This show is rock solid. It’s been consistently good for so long and still remains surprising. I’m out of ways to say how much I love Bob’s Burgers but I’ve been thinking that, given a few years of distance, we could see this show influencing the next wave of comedy as much as the Golden Age of The Simpsons did. It’s that good.
Best Episode: “The Hurt Soccer”
12. Barry (HBO) – Look, I’m pretty much the target audience for a Bill Hader comedy about Hollywood and hitmen, co-starring Henry Winkler, Stephen Root, and Mr. Zsasz. That’s a very specific audience, and I’m it. (Also, spell check did not approve of “hitmen”, so it’s possible the plural is either “hitmans” or “hitsman”.) The idea of a paid killer who wants to up that life once he discovers the joy of acting is an irresistible premise and the complications of the proverbial “one last job” made for a great engine to drive the season. And make no mistake – it’s very funny. The acting class and Gotham‘s Anthony Carrigan as this year’s breakout character NoHo Hank made Barry a blast. But it’s also an occasionally brutal take on toxic masculinity and PTSD and the impossibility of escaping your past. And then with all of that, we got Sarah Reed as Sally, Barry’s acting partner and sporadic girlfriend, who made this more than a story of man pain. There was something almost revolutionary about how the show played her refusal to put up with any of his nonsense and the way her goals exist independently of Barry, as opposed to just forcing her into the quietly supportive role we’ve seen too often. And folks, those last few minutes when it looks like everything is OK and then things go very wrong and Barry learns that maybe he doesn’t get to start fresh? Some of the most gripping TV all year.
Best Episode: “Loud, Fast, and Keep Going”
11. Killing Eve (BBC America) – Can I be honest for like a second here? The subgenre where a law enforcement agent and a serial killer play a deadly game of cat and mouse and become obsessed with one another and maybe there’s a sexy aspect to is it played out. I mean, Mr. Policeman, I gave you all the clues. I maybe would have missed out on Eve if it hadn’t been for Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the star and creator of the excellent Fleabag. When I heard she was the showrunner, well, that seemed like a pretty wild swerve for her but something I definitely wanted to see. I can’t put my finger on what makes it different from all that other nonsense mentioned previously except that it’s good. Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer are incredible, the writing is smart and fast and surprising, and it’s stylish. It’s put together so perfectly that it feels like something you’ve never seen before. There’s a line between guilty pleasure and art, and Killing Eve dances all over that line.
Best Episode: “I Have a Thing About Bathrooms”
10. Westworld (HBO) – I feel like a case could be made that Season Two should be either much higher or much lower on this list. Maybe the best episode of anything I saw all year was Westworld and I was enthralled by everything while it was happening. But with a little bit of distance, the season was a mix of brilliance and missteps. Bernard’s temporal dissonance was sometimes well-utilized and sometimes a cheat to muddy the narrative. Overwriting Dolores with Wyatt’s programming (a thing people could have missed if they weren’t recapping or otherwise freeze-framing) turned last season’s heroine into an unsympathetic character with motivations that never quite gelled. (Go on, tell me why she resurrected Bernard, other than to set up the ongoing conflict for Season Three.) But the good stuff was oh, so good. Akecheta’s story was nothing short of stunning. Virtually every scene with Maeve and her traveling crew was incredible, whether it was the Red Dance or Maeve calmly walking through a stampede of robot buffalo. The fidelity test, Emily, the Cheat Code Cowboy’s backstory and future fate. Fantastic. The revelation of what the park was actually built for was worth the buildup and accidentally timelier than they planned. The home runs outweighed the whiffs. But there were those bad moments and shaky characterizations that left us with a mixed bag. A mixed bag that I loved, even if “this isn’t a dream – this is a fucking nightmare” knocked it two or three spots down the list all by itself.
Best Episode: “Kiksuya”
9. Atlanta (FX) – This maybe isn’t the most musical analogy considering that Donald Glover is also rapper Childish Gambino. But every episode of Atlanta feels like a Tom Waits album. Whenever Tom puts out a new record, there’s this question of what genre it’s even going to be. The man takes big sound shifts from release to release, and that’s the same kind of buzz I get from Atlanta every week. Will it be a weird thriller like “Teddy Perkins”? A middle school flashback with child actors? A classic comedy piece of escalating misfortunes? Is it going to be a surreal episode that ends with an alligator making a run for it, a melancholy piece about the end of a relationship, or an episode that puts Paper Boi in actual danger? All of that happened this season as Atlanta jolted between different genres and storytelling styles and central characters. It could be deeply personal or silly or scary and you never knew what you were going to get. It takes a ridiculous amount of skill to pull that off, and Glover and company nailed it week after week. And somehow this constant shifting accommodated a powerful season long arc about Earn’s place in his cousin’s life. There’s nobody else out there doing what Atlanta does.
Best Episode: “Teddy Perkins”.
8. The Americans (FX) – I’m not going to mince words. This was a brilliant final season. Every single episode delivered an individual punch, which is hard to do in a serialized show anyway, much less in the final season. It gave us real resolution . In the end, nothing felt wasted. This season, we saw an increasingly unnerved Philip step away from espionage to devote more time to his cover business while Elizabeth brought daughter Paige into the spy world. And that was fascinating, because we saw somebody who was devoted to her family and gave everything she could to help, but also grew up as an American. It’s like she had to reverse engineer an allegiance to the Soviet Union to please her parents. Meanwhile, Stan learned just who the spies he’d been chasing actually were, and it was devastating. Stan confronting his best friend in the finale was one of the best scenes of the year. (Only slightly edging out the train scene that almost immediately followed.) When The Americans began it seemed like a ludicrous premise. The Eighties setting felt like it was just there to add a layer of cheese. But it quickly defied expectations and now that all is said and done, it sits comfortably as one of the best dramas of the decade.
Best Episode: “START”
7. The Tick (Amazon) – I’ve written several articles about the first season of The Tick, the comic book turned animated series turned live-action series turned second live-action series. I’ve loved the Tick since he broke out of a mental home in 1989. And this version with Peter Serafinowicz as the big blue hero and Griffin Newman as his reluctant sidekick feels like what creator Ben Edlund has been trying to do all along. Instead of being just a parody, this incarnation has a strong emotional element with Arthur never quite recovering from watching supervillains kill his father. (Valorie Curry deserves special recognition as his sister, Dot – she understands the importance of saving the city from the Terror but also really needs for Arthur to take his medication.) It is beautifully absurd, goofy as hell, and powerful when it needs to be. It’s silly, but when the Tick and Arthur saved Superian and the City from a giant naked man, it felt like it mattered. It’s a show where both a boat and a pyrokinetic dog talk and not only is it funny, but they both feel like characters beyond their gimmick. Did you think you’d care about Dangerboat’s frustrated crush? But you did. Overkill and Miss Lint felt like so much more than very specific parodies. And as a Tick fan of many decades, man, did it ever feel good to see the Terror set his plan in motion. I could mention a thousand things I loved (The Terror taking drum lessons!), but I’ll just convert that to a general love of The Tick, the TV show that, as far as I can tell, loves me back.
Best Episode: “The End of The Beginning (or The Start of The Dawn of The Age of The Superhero)”
6. Joe Pera Talks With You (Adult Swim) – This was maybe the most beautiful thing I saw all year. Comedian Pera plays a fictionalized version of himself – a genial, well-meaning choir teacher who lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and just wants to talk with you about the things that interest him. And that sounds like it might be a parody of instructional films, which is what it seems to be for a couple of minutes until it establishes the world that Joe lives in and the people who surround him. Just as an example, the first episode (“Joe Pera Talks To You About Iron”) begins as an informational piece about the minerals native to Michigan, but is soon interrupted by a family interested in buying his home (the “for sale” sign was in front of the wrong house), which leads to Joe wondering if he’s obligated to sell it and finally tracking down the family to tell them he wants to keep his house, and he’s still carrying those rocks with him the entire time. And there’s no part of it that’s played broadly or crudely. It is a sweet-natured show that has a big heart at its core. As the season went on, Joe met the new band teacher, Sarah (Jo Firestone), and started a relationship that had its ups and downs before ending with a low-pressure and hilarious date in Sarah’s fallout shelter. Joe Pera dropped brilliant ideas casually all along the way like the perfect bite or Joe’s theory on why people clap at the beginning and end of fireworks, an idea so beautiful and plaintive that thinking about it still makes me tear up. It’s offbeat and easy to miss, but it’s also a genuinely kind and hilarious show and it’s not like anything I’ve seen before. I can’t say enough good things about it.
Best Episode: “Joe Pera Reads You the Church Announcements”
Top Five next time!