In the age of Peak TV, the number of shows that get touted as “must see” can be overwhelming. A person would need a Hermione Granger style Time-Turner to watch everything on offer, particularly in a year that has been very good for new, returning and final seasons of critically acclaimed series across broadcast, cable and streaming services.
In terms of genre, the Top 25 featured below includes a broad range of comedy, drama, sci-fi, horror, reality and several which defy categorisation. Notable omissions, such as Better Call Saul, Billions and Bojack Horseman are all on the catch-up list for 2019. Also, if you release something in December, you’re probably not going to make the cut (sorry, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and Mrs Wilson).
Below you’ll find plenty of TV to binge watch over the festive period, but let us know what your favourites of this year have been @LWLies.
Netflix may have cancelled their flagship Marvel series, but don’t take that as a sign of the most recent season’s quality. Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) ditched the red costume as a bid to shed his vigilante alter-ego, but the return of season one villain Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) is what really set this season alight. Plus, an audacious 11-minute single-take fight sequence in episode four is a wonder to behold. And while the finale set Daredevil up for more, it also brought the series to a fitting end.
The discourse before Jodie Whittaker had even put on her yellow braces as the 13th Doctor was maddening. There was also grumbling from some viewers about “issue” episode focusing on Rosa Parks, the partition of India and witch hunts. But Doctor Who has always thrived when showcasing historical events. Not only is Whittaker fantastic as the Doctor, but her three companions have also breathed new life into the iconic series.
TV viewing habits continue to shift thanks to catch-up options and streaming platforms releasing entire series in one go. The communal experience of sitting down to the same episode isn’t as common as it used to be, but for five weeks this autumn, BBC1 drama Bodyguard became appointment viewing. An action-packed series, which included stellar performances from Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes, led to plenty of theorising about what would happen next. It didn’t quite stick the landing, but from that mesmerising opening sequence, a nation was gripped.
The influx of Scandinavian dramas has slowed down in the years since The Killing first graced BBC4 in 2011. Saga Norén’s (Sofia Helin) final case on The Bridge was one of the most challenging yet, with seemingly unconnected victims, creepy clowns and a series of cryptic clues. In the pantheon of TV sleuths, Norén goes down as one that is hard to define; she is both enigmatic and straight to the point. Thankfully the final season didn’t try to solve her, instead, saving that tactic for the puzzling murder mystery.
Mike Flanagan’s loose adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s iconic 1959 horror novel – which has already been the subject of movies in 1963 and 1999 – balances scares with family dysfunction. Set over two time periods, ghosts linger in both the dark corners of Hill House and in the recesses of the mind, delivering plenty of opportunities to shriek and sob. A variety of classic horror techniques are employed from blink-and-you’ll-miss-it apparitions to jump scares, but it’s episode six that stands out. Using a series of one-shot takes (the longest is 17 minutes) it feels like you’re watching an intimate play set in a funeral home.
Somehow The Handmaid’s Tale managed to take the grim events of its standout first season and double down on the horrors June Osborne/Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and the other handmaids must endure in order to survive Gilead. At times this show can be incredibly difficult to watch, particularly when certain moments mirror reality rather than a dystopian fictional world. But the performances, production design and costumes make it hard to turn away.
One of 2018’s funniest shows gives viewers a shot of ’90s nostalgia against a politically charged background. The Troubles might not be an obvious source of comedy, but Derry Girls manages to showcase the mundane and frustrating aspects of living in a tense and potentially dangerous environment. Four teenage girls have other concerns and what makes Derry Girls such a treat is the balance of real-world drama against issues that arise during adolescence. Throw in an English boy who has to attend the all-girls school and you are in for a treat.
Emma Stone and Jonah Hill reunite for the first time since Superbad in this mind-bending Netflix mini-series with new James Bond director Cary Joji Fukunaga at the helm. Adapted from the Norwegian series of the same name, Maniac explores grief and mental health through a variety of dreamscapes. One episode riffs on Lord of the Rings – complete with Emma Stone in a Legolas-like wig – while another is Dr Strangelove adjacent. Maniac swerves between the absurd and the tragic while showcasing Fukunaga’s eye for action in a culottes-wearing kickass sequence.
Somehow The Good Place keeps reinventing itself, sometimes on a weekly basis, packing in plenty of surprise twists and turns even after the mind-blowing season one finale in 2o17. If 2018 is the Bad Place, then this sitcom is the injection of philosophical friendship based hope we need. Turns out questions about what it means to be a good person and whether people have the capacity to change is also the foundation of a very funny sitcom. A strong ensemble cast makes this a dream study group. If only real philosophy classes were like this.
The first season of Netflix mockumentary American Vandal asked, “who drew the dicks?” Season two upped the investigative stakes in its quest to unmask the Turd Burglar, and if you haven’t seen American Vandal, you might wonder what it is doing on a ‘Best Of’ list. Dicks and turds don’t sound like the obvious place to explore the narrative of true crime documentaries and podcasts, but this sadly-now-cancelled series does just this. Not only this, but its depiction of social media and the teen experience is nuanced, hilarious and insightful.
When the Fab Five burst onto the scene in February it was like a breath of fresh confidence inducing air. Netflix’s updated version of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is the TV show equivalent of a warm blanket, something this year has been crying out for. A makeover show that leaves the snark and pessimism at the door; every episode will leave you wanting to sort out your house, fix your wardrobe, make some guacamole, get a haircut to show off your face and hug those nearest to you. Or at the very least it will remind you there is some good in the world.
Casual has always been under the radar despite the indie filmmaking pedigree behind the camera, including Lynn Shelton, Gillian Robespierre and Jason Reitman. A dysfunctional family in Los Angeles may sound ‘been there, done that’, but this exploration of dating, relationships between siblings, and the way technology enhances and detracts from our lives is hilarious and touching. Standout performances from Michaela Watkins, Tommy Dewey and Tara Lynne Barr will have you clamouring for more when you realise it is over. Plus, in the year of Bohemian Rhapsody, Casual features the best use of a Queen track in 2018.
Jane the Virgin straddles the line between over-the-top and grounded in reality, often taking narrative cues from the telenovela that inspired it – including that scream-worthy season finale twist. Immigration issues, a breast cancer storyline, exploring sexuality and complex relationship dynamics all feature alongside a dose of magical realism. Struggles with Jane’s writing career are not sugar-coated, but there isn’t a cynical bone in this show. Star Gina Rodriguez took on a new role this year when she directed an episode, showing she is just as adept behind the camera as in front.
Puberty is an experience most people would not want to go through again, however, Big Mouth definitely makes this period of your life worth revisiting. Equal parts vulgar and profound, this animation from Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett explores adolescent humiliation, depression, rage and sexuality across gender lines. Joining the line-up in the second season is David Thewlis as the Shame Wizard, here to torment and speak to the larger points Big Mouth is making. Maya Rudolph’s voice work as one of the Hormone Monsters is once again a standout including her incredible body confidence anthem.
The Deuce jumps forward to 1977 in season two, which finds Eileen “Candy” Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal) behind the camera as she attempts to portray female pleasure in porn. Resistance is strong to her way of thinking, as are the other changes threatening those making money. From the euphoria of grooving to Barry White while wearing fur and a barely-there jumpsuit to the sacrifices made to secure more funding, The Deuce gets down and dirty, while showing the highs and lows of this industry. And in a behind-the-scenes change making a broader impact, after The Deuce hired an intimacy coordinator for its second season, all HBO shows featuring sex scenes will have this kind of on-set advocate.
Female-driven rage is a big trend of 2018 with countless articles referring to #MeToo storylines, even if they were conceived before the big Weinstein bombshell came out. This was the case with season two of GLOW, which features an executive wielding his power after sexual advances are turned down. What sadly reads as timely, is just a coincidence underscoring the dark underbelly of this industry. Numerous obstacles stand in the way of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, but that doesn’t stop them trying. Their wrestling prowess improves, the costumes and hair are more outrageous, bonds deepen and a desire for more drives the story.
Political news moves at such a fast pace, as one outrageous turn replaces another. The life cycle of a scandal is barely 24-hours, it often feels like we are living a version of Network. Several TV shows have taken on this current US administration as a source for inspiration, but none have been quite as successful as The Good Wife spinoff, The Good Fight, which analyses the Trump era with nuance, while also leaning into the absurdity of it all. One of the most memorable moments of the second season involves the infamous pee tape, which gives off a similar glow as the briefcase in Pulp Fiction when anyone watches it.
Terrible rich people doing terrible things in order to protect their media dynasty doesn’t sound all that appealing, but in the hands of In the Loop and The Thick of It writer Jesse Armstrong, it happens to be one of the most watchable and quick-witted shows of the year. Part family tragedy with Brian Cox as a King Lear-like figure, part black comedy as Kieran Culkin, Matthew Macfadyen and Nicholas Braun duke it out for the title of biggest Fool. It takes a couple of episodes to find its balance, but when it does kick into gear it soars. Family therapy has never felt quite this fun.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s adaptation of Big Little Lies was a huge critical hit last year. He has done it again with his take on Gillian Flynn’s novel ‘Sharp Objects’, which sees a reporter return home to investigate the disappearance and subsequent murders of two young girls. Amy Adams is after the scoop as Camille Preaker, but as Vallée weaves past and present together, it is clear that all in this sweaty town is not what it seems. A Led Zeppelin-infused soundtrack, Adams on the edge of oblivion and a terrific supporting cast make this much more than just another whodunit.
Killers for hire are on-trend in 2018, Bill Hader’s turn as the titular Barry looking for meaning in his life, via acting classes, is a blend of tragic and comic. Shakespeare was an expert at wielding both genres, so it is rather poetic that Barry’s recital of a scene from Macbeth is one of the standout moments in a season full of them. The Fonz himself, Henry Winkler steals pretty much every scene he is in as an acting teacher who can’t score a job himself. Alec Berg and Bill Hader’s writing swings between heartbreaking and serious to farcical and hysterically funny, but it is always grounded in emotion.
A late entry, but Sam Esmail’s (Mr Robot) thriller about a corporate-run program, which is supposedly helping returning soldiers from war, instantly warrants it inclusion here. Esmail employs some striking visual flourishes, including different aspect ratios to denote time and nods to Alfred Hitchcock, The Conversation and Zodiac. Julia Roberts uses her signature smile in a way that is both disarming and devastating. It is moments like this when you realise why she is a Movie Star, but TV is also the perfect home for her talent. The supporting cast is nothing to be sniffed at either, including Stephan James, Bobby Cannavale, Shea Whigham and Sissy Spacek.
For its second season, American Crime Story followed the biggest trial of the ’90s in America with a manhunt that sprawled across state lines and led to the murder of an iconic fashion designer. But unlike The People v OJ Simpson, this story was far less interested in the famous name featured in the title and more with the assassin. Darren Criss gives an excellent performance as the sociopathic spree killer Andrew Cunanan, who is at times both mesmerising and repellent. The focus on his non-famous victims – including a breakout performance by Cody Fern – and the depiction of entrenched homophobia, which hampered the investigation, makes this a vital watch.
There are a number of entries on this list that blur the genre lines, but none more than the second season of Atlanta. ‘Robbin’ Season’ plays like a short story anthology, exploring relationships, love, work, fame, money, and race. One episode goes back to when Earn (Donald Glover) was in middle school, another follows Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) on a normal day, which descends into a nightmare. And there’s a reason why everyone is still talking about ‘Teddy Perkins’, as it plays like a contemporary Twilight Zone. A multi-hyphenate who appears he can do it all, this has been another very good year for Donald Glover and fans of his work.
No one appears to have had more fun on screen this year than Jodie Comer as international assassin Villanelle, in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s adaptation of Killing Eve. Villanelle loves her work and is very good at it, meanwhile, Eve (the incredible Sandra Oh) is bored with her job until she starts investigating the high profile murders popping up around Europe. As flamboyant as Villanelle’s pink Molly Goddard dress, Killing Eve is a ridiculously entertaining game of cat-and-mouse.
Everyone knows how the Cold War ends, but The Americans has always been a marriage story wrapped in an espionage bow. Decades fighting has left an indelible mark on these deep-cover KGB spies. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys both deliver breathtaking performances as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, often saying so much whilst barely uttering a word; a gut-punch of a gasp, a soul-crushing look. A final outing packed full of surprises, which also stayed true to everything loyal viewers had watched up to this point. Flashy car chases and Alamo-style shootouts were never going to be how showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields wrapped things up. Instead, offering up a masterclass in how to craft a satisfying conclusion of a critical darling.
Published 18 Dec 2018
By Emma Fraser
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