It has never been harder for a television show to rise to the status of “must-watch.”
According to a recent report by the network FX, 2018 saw 495 scripted original series across all the networks and streaming platforms. 495! And that doesn’t even include all the reality shows, the live sports and the Netflix/TV movies that you could stream, too.
With so much competition, television shows had to excel at the highest level or else be forgotten immediately … And most got forgotten right after their premiere.
Thankfully, a few shows actually were exceptional and deserved every minute of my viewership. I have listed them below to help you focus on what I felt was truly worth watching ― or rather, a “must-watch” ― in 2018.
Since this became a year of the miniseries, I decided to split my 10 recommendations between miniseries and shows with seasons ― and excluded reality programs, docuseries and news shows. (I’m defining “miniseries” as shows that only have the intention of lasting one season.) I also did this because I felt it was unfair to judge a show with only a few episodes against a project that needs to sustain a story over multiple years.
To be clear, “best” doesn’t necessarily mean my personal favorite shows of the year. I have tried to highlight the shows that most impressed me and will likely impress you, too. I’ve left off more niche shows that catered to my interests. I think the list below champions the “best” achievements in television in 2018.
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5. “Patrick Melrose” | Showtime
Premise: A rich man grapples with various addictions because he self-medicates to drown memories of abuse from his childhood.
Value: Dazzling images make the pill of an unflinching addiction story go down with ease. Almost every shot features some kind of grandeur, whether that be expensive clothes, expensive rooms, expensive consumption or expensive homes. The balance between these shots and the horror that the protagonist, Patrick Melrose, lives through allows for a long look into a tough subject. The show begs you not to look away even as the people in Melrose’s life become tempted to do so.
Heads Up: The first episode focuses on Melrose’s various addictions. In the intentionally hard-to-watch series opener, he destroys himself in multiple ways with almost no narrative action. Also, each episode jumps around chronologically, which can make the years hard to distinguish. After all, Benedict Cumberbatch playing a well-dressed man in his twenties looks the same as Benedict Cumberbatch playing a well-dressed man a decade or so later.
4. “Howards End” | Starz (On Amazon Prime)
Premise: Two English families occupy London high society in the 1910s, but as their lives merge, the families realize they have different approaches to culture and politics.
Genre: Period comedy drama
Value: Every year needs a stellar costume drama, and “Howards End” fit into that slot in 2018. With a screenplay from writing master Kenneth Lonergan, this shows succeeds as both a fun, romantic look into a different time and a project that tackles intellectual problems within society. You’ll find it hard not to fall in love with just about every character, even as they fail or fight with each other.
Heads Up: The narrative makes little sense, especially in the first couple of episodes. The characters just do things without a clear plot thread. Those actions and reactions to each other also tend to be unbelievable, although that can be forgiven within the period-piece setting.
3. “The Little Drummer Girl” | AMC
Premise: An English actress with Palestinian sympathies transforms into an Israeli spy to destroy Palestinian radicals during the 1970s.
Genre: Espionage thriller
Value: More than any of the other miniseries in this list, the show zips along with constant entertainment and demands a binge-watch. Although much of this has to do with the premise and the inherent joy that comes with watching people try to pull off a high-level scheme, the individual performances also deserve much credit.
While Florence Pugh crushes the high-energy role of the English actress, Michael Shannon has more quiet-but-beautiful moments on the other side of the spectrum. Each scene also drips with a ’70s beauty that makes the show even easier to get lost in.
Heads Up: The Israeli espionage experts create a scheme that falls apart with any viewer scrutiny. You’ll be disappointed if you need your espionage thrillers to have a realistic premise. Also, the politics in this don’t always get the nuanced care that they deserve, even if the show does attempt to humanize both sides.
2. “My Brilliant Friend” | HBO
Premise: Two poor friends grow up together in an Italian city from which they push each other to escape over multiple decades (starting in the mid-20th century).
Value: Having two brilliant characters try to overcome their lot in life is just a winning formula. Even though this show has little action, you root for these characters to achieve their incremental accomplishments.
On top of this, these protagonists are women, and it is unfortunately rare for a show to focus solely on female friendship. This makes the show stand out in a way that it shouldn’t, but in this cultural landscape, it must be celebrated nevertheless.
Heads Up: The first episode comes close to being bad and unredeemable. This opener uses heavy narration to explain the premise, depicts a series of B-plots, features terrible acting and has characters with wild reactions to drama. But after that, this show jumps many levels in quality, and all can be forgiven and forgotten.
1. “Maniac” | Netflix
Premise: Two self-proclaimed broken people enroll in an experimental drug trial that will either save or kill them.
Value: The show’s writer, Patrick Somerville, created a narrative like no other this year. With A-list actors Emma Stone and Jonah Hill attached to the project from the beginning and a big budget from Netflix, Somerville had creative license to do something unique with the rare knowledge that this would still get watched regardless.
With an attempt to recreate the storytelling wheel, this could have been a disaster, but it wasn’t, and those ambitious narrative risks made this so fun. Instead of a show that hums along with familiar beats, each moment feels like a complete and great surprise, which means the viewer can’t know what’s coming next, but wants to again and again. Yes, “Maniac” is funny and has much to say about contemporary society, but what makes it the best miniseries this year is that it succeeds in not remotely resembling the rest.
Heads Up: The show takes various detours away from the main plot to world-build and to have the central characters partake in wacky adventures. Although this zig-zag narrative style adds value to the story, you might get frustrated that it doesn’t just stick to one idea.
5. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” | Season 2 | Amazon Prime
Premise: A former housewife has a successful comedy career while still trying to maintain her Manhattan life in the 1960s.
Value: This show creates a world where wonderful, fast-paced dialogue exists, levity can be found even during moments of adversity and any dream can be made possible if you have enough talent. That’s just great television and fills a role viewers need. Television started and mostly remains a distraction from the real world. These “best-of” lists (including this one) tend to award shows that invent something new, even if the majority of viewers continue to watch re-runs of “Friends” and “Seinfeld” or sports. But “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” succeeds in that old goal of transporting you to a great, infectious place that will undoubtedly put you in a good mood. And that should be championed.
Heads Up: The second season pumps the narrative breaks and spends most episodes telling B-plot storylines. The show shredded much of its storytelling verve while attempting to keep its energetic dialogue and put a semblance of intellectual heft in the margins (think two side characters discussing the meaning of life while watching fireworks). The show also has a problem with its depiction of female characters, as almost every woman except the protagonist, Miriam Maisel, either acts comically crazy or tragically dumb. This appears to be intentional to show how charismatic and intelligent Maisel is compared to her peers, but the choice remains bad.
4. “Killing Eve” | Season 1 | BBC America (On Hulu)
Premise: A female assassin and a British intelligence officer become infatuated with each other during their cat-and-mouse game of mutual pursuit.
Value: This kept finding new ways to be exciting without going entirely off the rails. Focusing on smart, high-octane characters with unique traits as they run around the world and fight each other makes for a thrilling watch. You’re made to care about the central protagonists because they have a strange but hilarious sense of humor, even if they act like sociopaths to the other people in their lives. This all creates an awesomely disorienting viewing experience.
Heads Up: The first couple of episodes might be the best episodes of anything all year, but then the quality drops off a bit. The brilliant Phoebe Waller-Bridge wrote them, and you can tell when another writer takes the reins. By the end of the season, the show can feel rather stakes-less.
3. “Homecoming” | Season 1 | Amazon Prime
Premise: A company tests a PTSD drug on unwitting soldiers until the business plan goes awry.
Genre: Intrigue comedy drama
Value: A horror show in which the supernatural doesn’t come into play, but rather, capitalism serves as the boogeyman. There are various jump scares tied to moments of corporate malfeasance, which comes across as both spooky and hilarious.
Julia Roberts anchors the hell out of this trip into an American nightmare, while the other actors, the writers and the director also fire on all cylinders. That director, Sam Esmail, makes many interesting choices throughout the season to elevate a small, office drama to cataclysmic heights. You’ll probably binge to get answers for the central mysteries within the plot, but you should also try to take in the tiny, nuanced details throughout.
Heads Up: The show has many inventive directing choices that you should love but might hate. If the long shots of peculiar details or the changing frame sizes end up annoying you, then you won’t get much out of this show.
2. “Succession” | Season 1 | HBO
Premise: Members of a family that owns one of the largest media companies in the world vie for corporate leadership and domination over each other.
Value: HBO marketed this as a drama, but “Succession” was the funniest show of 2018. From a joke about a “closed loop” to a character watching his project literally explode on a phone screen in the bathroom during a decadent wedding, the humor in this show came from an esoteric and dark place. But the writers found ways to use their characters’ incredible wealth and high-risk business maneuverings to set up and heighten jokes that knocked them down from lofty places to splat on the ground. Using that classic formula that comedy is “tragedy plus time,” this show spent episodes building up massive horrors that then led to huge payoffs (a narrative system of “closed loops,” if you will).
All of that said, this isn’t just a screwball comedy ― even if it does feature scenes like a character jacking off onto his office window while looking at the Manhattan skyline. The emotional moments and the drama between these warring characters land, too. It’s a narrative achievement to tell a relatively straightforward story without the use of storytelling smoke and mirrors and still accomplish something that feels inventive.
Heads Up: The season starts off by depicting rich people doing horrible things and then starts to humanize theme during their moral digressions. This show wants you to loathe these characters, then find yourself rooting for them to be better and then laugh at them as they fail over and over again. But given our current political climate and disparities in wealth, you might end up hating these people too much to give the strong narrative a chance.
1. “Atlanta” | Season 2 | FX
Premise: An Atlanta rapper and his entourage try to find success in a world that’s designed to make them fail.
Value: If you only have time to watch one show on this list, mini-series or otherwise, make it “Atlanta.” No show came close to competing with “Atlanta,” which achieved a new level of storytelling this season.
The first season wore its influences on its sleeve and had many moments that felt like weirdness solely for the sake of weirdness, rather than for character or narrative building. These early episodes, while great, also relied heavily on magical realism ― a cliche in television these days.
In contrast, the second season invented something new ― something more akin to “realistic magic.” Rather than throwing in strange details to appear interesting, these new episodes had narratives based in strange but believable worlds. Setting an episode in a Fastnacht celebration of scary costumes and drunk white people allowed spooky characters to interact and bother two black protagonists in a way that makes sense, rather than having a paranormal character do so without stakes.
To be more simple about it ― yes, this show had the best writing of the year, and stellar acting and directing performances all around, but it was also just so fun. A whole episode could center around a party at Drake’s house or a “Get Out”-esque horror story about a Michael Jackson-esque character who goes mad.
Many shows in the future will try to copy all that “Atlanta” achieved this year. As such, this second season might end up being among the best of not just 2018, but the decade.
Heads Up: Multiple episodes this season have standalone narratives that veer into hyperweird territory. If you have little patience for writers trying to be capital C “Creative,” you might be out on this, regardless of whether the show succeeds in all these inventive attempts.