Welcome to Damn Fine TV’s coverage of the best in TV from 2018. In this, the final week of looking back on the year in television, I’ll be sharing my favourite shows from 2018.
If you read last year’s lists, you’ll know I’ve been in the habit of tracking the shows I check out throughout the year since 2014. Eventually, they became more detailed; the shows I really enjoyed would receive a “*” or “**” rating, and I began highlighting my favourite episodes and characters, too. Lists, in general, feed the organizational side of my brain, but the creative side needed to put them to greater use. And, so, the (now second) annual Damn Fine TV: Best Of TV coverage was born.
It’s been quite a year for television, one of the best in recent memory as far as I’m concerned. I remember feeling excited about the promise of 2018 all the way back in January when, the now Emmy-winning, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story debuted. Then Atlanta gave us the indelible “Teddy Perkins” and a handful of other superb character-focused installments. Killing Eve burst onto the scene, impressing fans and critics alike. The Americans wrapped up their six-year run in stunningly understated fashion. Pose presented us with the largest cast of LGBTQ actors in TV history and brought with it a truly vibrant and affecting story. By that time, only half the year had passed.
In early September, I assumed my end of year lists were complete; surely we’d been blessed with enough wonderful TV at that point and shouldn’t get greedy, right? Obviously, I was wrong, because along came Forever, The Haunting of Hill House, and Homecoming, sending me back to the drawing board month after month.
Is there too much TV right now? Maybe. According to this extensive list put together by Liz Shannon Miller from Indiewire, over 500 shows aired this year. Does that seem a little overwhelming? Sure. But I can’t help but feel grateful for all the marvellous gems within those 500 offerings. The ones that broke new ground like Pose. The ones that took the visual element of television to a whole new level, like Sharp Objects. Or the ones that inspire us to try new things by piquing our heretofore hidden interests; like how Castle Rock and American Horror Story encouraged me to pay more attention to the horror genre. As long as there are shows that continue to elevate both the medium itself and our lives in general, I don’t care if a billion shows air in one year. (Ok, that’s debatable, but you catch my drift.)
Alright, enough overture, let’s get to it: Damn Fine TV’s Best TV Episodes of 2018.
*These shows are listed in no particular order. Be warned: from here on out there are SPOILERS for all of these shows.
Atlanta, Season 2
I wouldn’t be the first to say Atlanta challenges our expectations of what comedy and TV, in general, can look like. In a way, it defies genre or classification because it just, is what it is. That’s not to imply it’s aimless, though, or that it ever gets lost without a label in this saturated TV landscape. Instead, it continuously stands out in the crowd, enticing us to follow it down unpredictable and occasionally surreal paths. Along the way, it offers sharp and biting criticisms, and wholly unique takes on ordinary slice-of-life topics. It poses intellectual yet never pretentious insights into the human experience and typically cuts deep while doing so. As if it hadn’t already proven itself a valuable addition to TV history with its first season, Atlanta’s second installment pushed boundaries even further. And while “Teddy Perkins” gets a lot of attention – no exceptions here – all of ‘Robbin’ Season’ deserves praise.
Diving into darker themes but never compromising on its signature humour, season two offered an even more distinct atmosphere than what came before. Each of its episodes – which were more character-focused, or so broad in their logline almost anything was possible – contained a thematic throughline, giving them an unmistakable connection. But, from a step back, these parts felt more like a collage than an ordered sequence. There’s an artistry in making that work so well that’s simply undeniable. Donald Glover and Co. have their eye on the prize; their dedication to creating a whole new space for this brand of narrative is inspiring, to say the least. My only complaint with season one was its lack of representation for women. Vanessa was around, but her character left a lot to be desired. In season two, she starts coming into sharper focus, getting better development. It’s saying something about both her character and the season as a whole that “Champagne Papi” – Vanessa’s episode – didn’t suffer in the slightest by following “Teddy Perkins.”
The Americans, Season 6
The Americans was one of the most reliably enjoyable shows on television in the past decade. While it certainly had a handful of weaker episodes, few other shows could boast such consistency in their quality. On the surface, it could almost be mistaken for dull, because of its calm and steady precision in storytelling and character development. Only in that stillness, though, could the show’s distinct brand of tension be enhanced – and this show did tension like absolutely no other – where, before you know it, an episode or season had reached a cumulative boiling point so high there was no chance of return. The Americans operated on subtleties but it always left a massive impact. The writing was truly masterful, but the show’s greatest strength was in the performances that gave the slightest bit of body language or mere facial expressions the depth of a thousand words. It’s why the increasingly grim frown on Philip’s face – which gave Eeyore a run for his money – and the popped vein in Elizabeth’s forehead were enough on their own to lead entire scenes.
It was the most exciting show about the most mundane topics. Sure, there were spies and action sequences, life and death situations; but the crux of everything was about how to have a successful marriage and a happy family, while staying true to who you are. The Americans’ final season only took all of that to new heights, and, as I already discussed, set the bar higher for TV endings in general. In the simple act of exploring a larger divide between Elizabeth and Philip, longtime fans were on the edge from the season’s premiere. Every unrequited glance, every heated word was just a bigger, more jagged version of the knife that came between them in the series’ pilot. In fact, all of the seeds planted in the beginning came to full maturity here; the final ten episodes touched on every aspect necessary to allow viewers some sense of peace in our parting. And that dedication and follow through, that meticulousness from creators Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, only made the beautiful unpredictability, the breathless anxiety of its final moments that much more rewarding.
Killing Eve, Season 1
Killing Eve came in hot and full of life, never losing an ounce of momentum throughout its first season’s run; I truly meant it when I said this show burst onto the scene. Its narrative engines were set firmly at “GO,” perfect for cultivating a suspenseful chase between Eve and Villanelle. These eight episodes offered a darkly playful tone – ranging from sexy to funny to harrowing – and struck a masterful balance between serious and lighthearted tones – a thrilling crime drama with a dash of workplace/buddy comedy. It gave weight to subject matter that required it, while making room for moments of levity when viewers need a chance to catch their breath. The visuals were gorgeous: Villanelle’s personal brand of practical chic was especially striking. The dialogue was sharp: something brought to life with particular skill by the show’s leading ladies, who delivered outstanding performances, which I’ve already discussed in detail.
A lot has been said about how Killing Eve is the fresh take on an old classic, which it very much was, but I worry that some people think its feminine sensibilities are all that set it apart. Giving women the chance to lead a show doesn’t ensure its greatness; it certainly elevates the odds but it’s no guarantee. Thankfully, Killing Eve does more than just place women in familiar, stock roles, and then rely solely on the relative novelty of the circumstances to reel viewers in. Instead, it paints a very complex portrait of these women, much of the credit for which goes to the show’s creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Waller-Bridge seems interminably thrilled to go against traditional storytelling at almost every opportunity. She consistently takes V and Eve, and the show in general, off the beaten path. The result is a narrative that not only gave a much-needed women’s perspective on this otherwise trodden territory, but it also transported the genre to an entirely new level.
Pose, Season 1
With the largest cast of transgender actors in series regular roles, and the largest recurring cast of LGBTQ actors ever in a scripted series, the very existence of Pose is groundbreaking. That’s not to say stories about these communities haven’t been told before, but we haven’t allowed them into the mainstream quite like FX made possible. At its core, though, Pose is so much more than just its history-making parts. Its narrative is as vibrant and bold as the wardrobes; overflowing with beauty and heart. It has melodramatic tendencies, but they’re consistently grounded in so much sincerity of character. The cast is phenomenal, with genuine breakout performances from some actors for whom Pose was their first opportunity. The soundtrack is to die for – and has been the playlist for more than a few gatherings at my house. Its presence may be essential for furthering onscreen representation, but it’s also downright fun, heartwarming, and highly engaging.
In contrasting the lives between different sects of people in the late ‘80s of New York City, Pose illustrates how we’re all really just looking for the same things out of life. To belong and feel accepted in a community, – with an emphasis on how on integral locating a found family can be – to live our truth without fear, and to love and be loved. It’s that simple. And, of course, it’s also not. Pose never shies away from depicting the unfair realities of its characters’ situations. It does, however, offer something far more nuanced than the one-dimensional and destructive doom and gloom, too often seen as the trans experience on shows that should know better by now. Within the very soul of this show, there’s a commitment to portray the joy, love, and victories these characters experience. Be ready to cry both sad and happy tears. Though its first season was tightly constructed, offering a sense of satisfaction and wholeness by its conclusion, eight episodes just would never have been enough of this universe and I am so grateful Pose will return for more.
Sharp Objects, Limited Series
A slow yet seductive summer fling, Sharp Objects was one of the most divisive shows I’ve encountered in some time. For every person who enjoyed its hypnotic stream of consciousness, there was another who had grown aggravated with its audaciously leisured pacing. For me, the show’s willingness to linger, to extend its stay in certain sequences, only added to its appeal overall. I admired its tenacity in forcing us to experience what the characters were going through, even when that meant getting uncomfortable and a little (a lot) anxious. Of course, it never hurt that the show’s substance was paired with such an incredibly pleasing aesthetic; one so intoxicating it was almost impossible to direct your attention elsewhere. From the colour palette and cinematography to the ephemeral trips through Camille’s mosaic-like mind, and the very tactile nature of Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction – you could smell the heat and hog in Wind Gap, feel the intrinsic chill inside Adora’s home – Sharp Objects was rich with visual splendour.
The subject matter was heavy, even miserable at times, but in reaching those dark depths the show provided an empathy and authenticity about trauma and depression I’ve never quite seen before. It took a stark look at the cycles of pain, and while it never exactly provided any catharsis – nobody had a “big win” – connecting with Camille and the thematic elements of her story still felt therapeutic in its own way. These eight episodes often reminded me of the sensation of an open wound, and in doing so, made the material extremely tangible, relatable. Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, and Eliza Scanlen were a transcendent trio. Each of them gave us their own distinct take on complex and chaotic, flawed and messy women, who repress and express their rage in equally distinct ways. If you just open yourself up to it, Sharp Objects has a magnetic, inexorable pull.
Castle Rock, Season 1
Despite my issues with its final destination, Castle Rock provided one of the most exciting journeys on television this year. Even when its pacing was closer to a slow burn than a full flame, there was something highly energizing about its methodical movements. The myriad mysteries underpinning its entire narrative were addictive and captivating. The cast was stacked with talent that continuously delivered. It wasted no time establishing a distinct tone; a creepy and enigmatic atmosphere bathed each episode in the kind of haze that encouraged viewers to keep guessing. Pushed us to seek answers that would clear the mist. So, even when the plot felt a little meandering, the pulsating energy at the very core of the show never allowed us to get bogged down.
I went into Castle Rock with very little knowledge about the Stephen King universe. I came out of it wanting to consume ALL of his works. If this show was meant to feel like a compilation, of sorts, I wanted to see for myself where all those separate pieces had been gathered from. There’s no doubt a small part of that inclination was due to the sheer amount of Easter Eggs hidden within each episode. But it’s not that I ever felt left out of the conversation, forced into a need to read King’s novels in order to understand. Rather, I felt very warmly invited to do so. There’s a lot about Castle Rock that was objectively good, but its place on this list was earned more through what it did for me personally. The show ignited a spark inside me; one that got me back into reading, and connected me with a few people I now consider friends – even if the relationships are only online. I’m all for TV being just a source of entertainment, but when it moves beyond the screen to affect our lives in positive ways, it’s value can only increase.
Forever turned out to be one of the year’s most genuine surprises for me. I was excited about it based only on the fact it starred Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen. Of course, no one really knew more than that until it debuted; the creators kept the premise top-secret and prohibited critics from revealing anything in their early reviews. Usually, I’m of the mind that a good story is impervious to spoilers, and while Forever holds up on subsequent viewings, it is the kind of show where your first watch should be free of prior knowledge. For that reason, I’ll keep the details light here.
What you should know, is that Forever makes bold choices right from the beginning. The opening sequence is a near 5-minute montage, which perfectly captured June and Oscar’s entire relationship up to the point we first meet them. Without a single word spoken, it conveyed their love at first sight, their love at second sight, the happy and humorous moments, the routine, the tougher times, the routine, and the early stages of doubt and disappointment for June. It was the kind of economical yet valuable storytelling most shows should be striving for, to capture and retain viewers’ attention amidst our dense landscape of TV. In just about 4 hours of runtime, Forever covered a great deal of narrative and established a distinct tone – even taking time to deviate from the overall narrative to present a standalone episode, which managed to facilitate the season’s momentum instead of hindering it.
The show was contemplative. In its themes – asking some pretty weighty questions about life, second chances, and explored the sometimes unpleasant meanings of the word forever. But also in its general style – more than hard and fast plot, Forever concerned itself with metaphor and imagery. It’s dreamy and existentialist in an accessible way, though; where something like Twin Peaks might be too out there for some (not me!) Forever, for all its abstract qualities feels incredibly grounded in the mundanity of everyday questions about the human experience. Fred Armisen is just as quirky as you might expect, but there are moments of great sincerity that gave me a new appreciation for him. This was definitely Maya Rudolph’s time to shine, though, and you can read all about how she blew me away with her transcendent performance right here.
The Good Place, Season 3
When The Good Place first debuted, I wildly underestimated its value. I thought it was cute but I didn’t think it had staying power. Girl, was I wrong. By the end of its first season, I was genuinely blown away by the places its narrative had travelled; it went beyond any expectation I had for what a comedy could be and do. The Good Place continues to surprise me by the way it constantly reinvents itself, evolving as the story takes yet another twist or turn. Even as the third season reached its midway point a few weeks ago, I found myself in awe of the rate at which it burns through plot without ever losing steam. It’s anyone’s guess where they go from here – a sentiment which could literally be said at the end of nearly every episode. And though the show feels like it’s frequently in flux, it never feels aimless and you can tell there’s a very steady hand guiding its ship.
Ted Danson and Kristen Bell may have been the initial draw for some, but it’s the entire ensemble that makes the show truly hum. Season three has given us a deeper view of how messy and flawed each of them is, even while attempting to be better people. The show never shies away from showing us the consequences of their “past life’s” actions, and in that way, they feel more sincere, more relatable than most sitcom characters. Still, when you’re just in the mood for a good laugh, The Good Place delivers. It is first and foremost a comedy; with stellar one-liners and biting pop culture references. When you’re looking for something a little deeper, though, The Good Place still fits the bill, offering a bevy of weighty philosophical and existential inquiries to ponder on. Is there any other show so adept at blending (actually funny) pun humour with questions about the meaning of life? I don’t forking think so!
Homecoming, Season 1
By about the second episode of this series, it became obvious I was going to have to make space for Homecoming in my already completed Best Of 2018 lists. I would have been frustrated, except for the fact I was far too busy loving the ride of this slick and addictive show. It’s not just that its story was so excellent, told with a very pleasingly vintage 1970s aesthetic, but I think it’s had a hand in advancing the entire medium. First off, it’s part of a recent – and welcomed – trend of reducing average episode runtimes to a crisp 25-40 minutes. While it may not have been the first dramatic show to do this, it is, in my opinion, the first to be truly successful at finding the right rhythm within that runtime. The pacing never feels rushed, in fact, it always leaves you wanting more. And the tone – an unsettling dread that’s present from the start, but starts to creep in quicker, getting further under your skin and heightening the atmosphere as the episodes progress – is never sacrificed. To boast all the prestige and complexity of Peak TV in half the runtime, is pretty damn attractive.
What’s more was its use of alternating aspect ratios to delineate timelines – again, not the first show to try this, but the first one to do it with a deeper purpose. The past is shot in regular, full screen, while the present looks like it was shot on an iPhone; it’s not poor quality by any means but has an elongated, narrow shape. It suggests there is something missing, and we quickly discover that’s true for Heidi (Julia Roberts) as she doesn’t seem to remember an entire chunk of her life. That narrow shape is beautifully evocative of the blinders she has on; limiting her entire worldview. In case you’re reading this without having watched the show, I’m not going to spoil the season’s BIG moment, but just know the culmination of these dual aspect ratios is highly rewarding and has cemented Sam Esmail as one of my favourite directors. Julia Roberts is the least Julia Roberts-y ever, which is great, and the rest of the cast is highly watchable. And that ending! Delightfully ambiguous in the most satisfying of ways.
The Haunting of Hill House, Season 1
There’s part of me that still can’t fathom how much I love this show. Six months ago it would have flown way under my radar, and my life would have gone on a little less enriched because of that fact. Watching it started off as a kind of challenge to myself: was I really ready to embrace the horror genre, or were the lighter scares of shows like American Horror Story and Castle Rock my limit? I won’t lie, Hill House definitely got under my skin. Just a few nights ago I awoke to find the Bent Neck Lady staring directly at me, only to realize the hood of a sweater I had hung on my bedroom door had drooped to one side. But the show still haunts me in plenty of different, far more emotional ways than simple frights in the night. I fell deeply in love with the Crain family and their stories.
There are a number of reasons for that, too. First, there’s the phenomenal casting. The physical resemblances are so on point – though the transition from younger to older Luke still gives me pause. Like, what happened to those thick glasses, buddy? More importantly, the performances lent such a defined depth to each character and to all of their interactions, making their bonds, their shared history, very present and palpable. The younger versions of the Crain siblings, in particular, deserve special praise for their work. The direction was so precise and attentive. The narrative was intricately woven; the overlaps in time were seamless, the mysteries were built and unravelled with such elegant pacing.
I really admire what Mike Flanagan chose to do with the Shirley Jackson penned source material. Rather than simply adapting it for the screen, which we’d already been given, he used it as a jumping off point to create something wholly fresh and original, while still paying homage to what came first. It gave me an entirely new perspective on adaptations and reboots in general. Despite all the heartache and terror it delivered, Hill House is a world I want to revisit multiple times.
What do you think of my list? Is there a show I missed? Let me know what your favourite shows of 2018 were in the comments, or get in touch via Twitter. Thanks for checking out this year’s coverage. Have a lovely holiday season, and I’ll see you next year!