Now that we’re into 2019, I feel like I can safely complete my list for the best shows of 2018. This is a simple concept that needs no explanation, and yet I feel like I need to explain it. My usual list is a Top 25 because I watch a lot of TV. I usually split this into two articles, but this year it’s three – I’m giving the top five a post of their own so I can write more. I haven’t found a good way to really cover shows from week to week without doing full recaps of everything, so I haven’t said much about most of this year’s favorites yet.
This year, TV was so plentiful and weird that it’s difficult to strictly rank one show versus another. To pull some examples that’ll show up clustered in the same neighborhood in part two, you can’t really compare Joe Pera Talks With You to Westworld to Atlanta. They’re doing such vastly different things in different ways that it’s like trying to rank pancakes vs. gasoline vs. the way nostalgia feels. What I’m saying is the individual rankings changed from day to day with me and it’s more the general direction of the list that matters. To the extent that a best of list matters.
I’m making this much too difficult. Let’s go!
25. Big Mouth (Netflix) – I was late to the party on the first season of Nick Kroll’s animated puberty comedy because, despite being a big fan of Kroll, it looked dumb and gross. And it is dumb and gross, but in the most endearing way possible. It’s a show about Nick and Andrew (John “Spider-Ham” Mulaney), middle-schoolers dealing with all the changes that entails. It’s both immensely relatable and fantastic (Andrew is constantly visited by his own Hormone Monster, who gives him usually terrible advice.), and the second season did some really great things with the supporting cast, many of whom were provoked by the Shame Wizard. It’s sweet and funny and insightful and also a dirtbag kid voiced by Jason Mantzoukas gets a pillow pregnant and has to raise a family.
Best Episode: “Smooch or Share”
24. DuckTales (Disney) – Yeah, let’s start off with two animated series in a row. I am not kidding when I tell you this reboot of a nineties property is an absolute weird delight. An amazing voice cast, led by David Tennant as Scrooge, was the original draw for me but this is a really clever take on the characters and a fun subversion of Disney history. (Remember the Three Caballeros short? Oh, there’s an episode devoted to that.) Besides the fact that it’s genuinely funny, it wrapped up the first season with an epic action story that had Magica DeSpell taking over Duckburg with a Shadow War. We’re talking really exciting scenes sitting next to the bits where Donald gets a voice implant so he can talk normally (with Don Cheadle’s voice) and it turns out he’s been really insightful and inspirational this entire time, but nobody could tell. Add in a heartbreaking arc about the boys’ long-missing mother, and this is a show for children that I, an old man, eagerly anticipate every week.
Best Episode: “The Shadow War!”
23. Legion (FX) – There are many reasons why I’m not happy about Disney buying FOX, but the important one right now is that FOX’s control of the X-Men franchise, separate from the main Marvel license, has led to some really weird experiments like this trippy drama. I had some issues with this season – the near complete sidelining of Jean Smart’s Melanie Bird was a big one. The line between the physical realm and the astral plane was so blurred as to make it impossible to recap. But qualms aside, the second season was beautifully bonkers. There was a dance battle, for pete’s sake. The horrific fate of David’s sister. Those weird Jon Hamm narrations that the Shadow King could seemingly enter and leave at will. The ongoing imagery of the whistling tea kettle and the importance of the color blue. There was so much to love, including bad ideas that took physical form, alternate universes, and an upsetting season finale that forced us to deal with the fact that David might be the hero but he’s not necessarily the good guy.
Best Episode: “Chapter 14” (the alternate universe episode)
22. American Vandal (Netflix) – Hey, another Netflix show where I almost missed out. The premise of the first season, a Serial-style investigation of a (fictional) incident of dick-based vandalism, was very funny but it didn’t seem like it would be funny beyond the premise. I was wrong, as it was a hilarious and compassionate parody of true crime documentaries. I’m glad I caught up, because Season Two raised the bat with an investigation as to who caused a mass outbreak of diarrhea. It’s an almost offputting premise depending on where you put poo on the gross/funny continuum. But once again it’s an insightful exploration of the performative lives of high school students that’s also a devastating parody of Making a Murderer. And, it turns out, a pretty good mystery. As somebody who was well out of school before social media existed, I came away with sort of a crushing sense of exactly how that must feel. It’s chilling.
Best Episode: “The Dump”
21. Archer: Danger Island (FXX) – A show that’s been on my list for as long as I’m been doing these lists, Archer followed up last season’s semi-reboot by recasting Archer as a seaplane captain in the late 1930s. And I get if anybody is frustrated that we haven’t seen the main cast or resolved the real Archer’s coma in two years, but on the other hand, these fantasy scenarios have been a blast. Danger Island mixed things up pretty drastically, including turning Cyril into a Nazi and Krieger into a surprisingly talkative parrot. And instead of Dreamland‘s heavily serialized story, this year we had an overarching plot but plenty of standalone episodes, including a real delight where Archer and Pam spend most of the time trapped in quicksand. Wrap it up with a two-parter where Archer and company flat out fight Nazis, and it was a super-fun season. It ended with a look at next season’s 70s sci-fi premise which looks great, but it sure would be nice to see the original crew again.
Best Episode: “Comparative Wickedness of Civilized and Unenlightened Peoples”
20. Wrecked (TBS) – With Season Three, Wrecked mostly moved beyond its LOST parody roots with a season where the Wreckedaways were hunted by a gang of rich men looking for The Most Dangerous Game. They spend much of the season turning on one another, fundamentally misunderstanding the stakes, and even have an entire episode where they argue about their last meal. Having most of the cast share a cage for long stretches meant they actually learned things about one another after two years of constant terror. (The revelation of what Owen’s whole deal is when he’s not trying to survive on a dangerous island was one of my favorite moments of the year.) For a show that I describe as “LOST with idiots”, Wrecked boasted a surprisingly tight and tense storyline that culminated in a crazy manhunt in a mansion. I absolutely adore this crazy show and I will watch it forever.
Best Episode: “Puke and Cigars”
19. Disenchantment (Netflix) – OK, I realize “EJ likes animated show created by Matt Groening” is not exactly a stop the presses moment, but still, this is pretty great. Set in a medieval fantasy world, Disenchantment focuses on Princess Bean, an outcast elf named Elfo, and Luci, a demon dispatched to Bean for reasons that are still unclear. (She’s being observed by people that I think are from the 21st Century – one of them has eyeglasses!) And admittedly, it takes a while to build up steam – there’s a lot of groundwork because there’s actual continuity in this show. Groening and company experimented with running subplots in Futurama, but in the FOX days they never knew when an episode would actually air, so it was all broad strokes referenced only occasionally. Here, there are multiple threads that seem like one-offs that all come together for a cliffhanger finale. And holy smokes, it’s funny. Bean and her crew are as good as any Groening protagonists and it’s great to see a female-led show in his canon. Their quirks are so well-defined out of the gate. I’m a huge fan of Bean’s father, King Zog, played as sort of a working class king by John DiMaggio. The jokes land, the emotional weight of the season builds quietly and then hits full force in the last two episodes, and I am desperate for the next season.
Best Episode: “To Thine Own Elf Be True”
18. Doctor Who (BBC America) – There’s kind of a mixed bag here, and I wish I could put it higher on the list. Because, let me be clear, Jodie Whittaker is fantastic as the 13th Doctor. She’s a little bit David Tennant-y but also very much her own take. I’ve got no beef with her. Her new companions are great, even if some writers haven’t quite figured out how to utilize a group of four. And there have been some stellar episodes, and new showrunner Chris Chibnall took a smart approach in not using any classic characters for the first season – fresh start, new audience. I get it. (Though, as I’ve noted elsewhere, the episode that hooked me was the continuity dense “A Good Man Goes to War”. I’m weird.) The problem is that Chibnall’s past Who scripts have been squarely average and he wrote six of the ten episodes this year. That’s maybe a few too many. And for some reason, outside of the premiere and the co-written Rosa Parks episode, they feel a little bit like fan fiction (an observation made by Twitter pal and very good author Isa-Lee Wolf and stolen by me) and sometimes felt like they didn’t even need to be Who scripts (that spider episode could have been an X-Files script with very few changes). His scripts were a mixed bag, but the episodes written by other people were home runs, with clever hooks and a good use of all the companions (Chibnall created Ryan and then never got a handle on him). Still and all, the high points were very high and the lows were still perfectly acceptable.
Best Episode: “Kerblam!” or “Demons of the Punjab”
17. Love (Netflix) – This came out so early in the year that I almost forgot the final season aired in 2018. Over three seasons, I think this show so perfectly captured those weird early days of a relationship and made us care very much about Mickey and Gus while never quite convincing anybody that they should actually be together. But it also developed them as individuals – I could imagine a season where they were split up and we just followed them separately, because their non-relationship stories were also interesting. I loved the workplace stuff and Gus’ attempts to make his movie, especially coming to the gradual realization that he is making a bad movie. And of course I adore Bertie and Randy, the even more mismatched couple. They absolutely should not be together, but I love them both. I mean, I basically am Randy, except that I don’t sleep in my car. The final season was deeply satisfying, but I’m going to miss this show very much and I’ll be sad when we hit March next year and there isn’t a batch of new episodes waiting for me.
Best Episode: “Bertie’s Birthday”
16. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX) – Honestly, this would be ranked much higher if there had been more episodes this season. I’ve got less than half a season to work with since FOX cancelled it. And while NBC saved it (Yay!), they didn’t air new episodes in 2018. Still, after five seasons, this remains one of the most sure-footed and reliable comedies on TV. The cast clicked almost immediately and they just keep getting better. When a show has been this consistently good for 100+ episodes, it’s hard to keep saying new things about it. It’s amazing. The year kicked off with an episode that had Jake protecting Holt’s husband (Spunkybuddy Marc Evan Jackson) and gave us the amazing library pervert costumes. Adrian Pimento and the Pontiac Bandit returned to great effect, a surprisingly episode had Rosa dealing with an active shooter situation, there was a straight-up Homicide tribute episode, and it wrapped up with a wedding where everything went wrong and it was still beautiful. Damn, folks. This is a really good show.
Best Episode: “The Box”
Next up, it’s numbers six through fifteen! Please don’t yell at me about what I “forgot” until the very end!