Welcome, I am your TV-recommending algorithm. This AI swears a lot.
First things first: Why are there 40 shows on this list? Because it’s my site and I make the rules. Unchecked power has turned me into an unpredictable wild-card cyborg. Wheee!
Real talk: There are 40 shows on this list because if you embrace the theory that ten percent of any field of artistic endeavor is good and/or worthy of deeper attention (and about two to five percent is great), this number isn’t hard to understand. Out of the 500 or so scripted and hundreds of other unscripted/documentary programs out there, there are bound to be at least 40-50 worthy or exceptional shows, if not many more.
Because I’m a drama queen, I feel the need to assert that this list does not contain all the shows I watched this year. I continue to watch several shows I’ve kept up with for some time, and I checked out dozens of other shows of varying quality and miraculously lived to tell the tale. This is my attempt to share the best of what I watched (and yes, I had to whittle this roster down from a higher number).
In any event, as a critic these days, you end up functioning as a nicer, more humane version of the algorithms that drive just about every other facet of daily life. Why are we nicer? Well, we sometimes sleep, so we’re not observing your habits and clicks at every moment. More importantly, we have better senses of humor and we are more likely to cry, shout, rant and cheer at random intervals, which keeps everyone on their toes.
Anyone deeply versed in TV is used to being asked the question “What should I watch?” These days, the answer requires a fair bit of algorithmic investigation. I usually reply by asking, “Well, what do you like?” There are thousands of new and old shows I could recommend, and that question gives me a sense of which recommendations to pitch.
Of course, I’m all for people trying shows outside their usual comfort zones — in fact, being curious is essential if we’re to discover the unexpectedly awesome programs we didn’t know we needed. There are some shows I recommend regardless of what a person’s previous favorites have been. But if you get the sense that someone often likes to relax with traditional network comedies and then you recommend a pitch-black serial-killer narrative, everyone involved is likely to look back on that conversation with frustration.
This list is my partial solution to the fact that, these days, there really is something out there for just about everyone. You might not like what I like, not exactly, but that’s OK! Every one of us can both experiment with the new and relax into our comfort zones, and still have plenty to pick from. The result is that we’re not all going to like or even watch the same shows. It’s harder to find consensus and it can be challenging for some new shows to get noticed or create buzz. Those are dilemmas that affect the TV industry, no doubt.
Even so, I don’t know that consensus is the be-all and end-all of cultural commentary. It has its uses and pleasures, but there are many pluses to this expansive television era as well. There is such a variety of tones, protagonists, settings, themes and ideas to choose from, and if you want to do a re-watch of a past favorite, that’s easily done too. (Although it’s worth noting — and lamenting — how many classic programs and interesting shows from the past are not easily available. That’s a real shame for a lot of reasons.)
Being aware of a large number of shows you haven’t watched but come highly recommended can feel like you’ve got a lot of homework to get done; I don’t dispute that that’s a real sentiment I come across (and feel myself at times). However, I’m good with where things are now. I mean, I don’t dig the very niche thing “Patriot” does, but I love how hard Brian Grubb loves it, you know? I’m glad that these days, TV programs have a somewhat easier time finding ways to be incredibly specific about what they do and how they do it.
And honestly, it’s not that hard for a show to gain buzz if it does something innovative, energetic and exciting. “Killing Eve” turned the familiar contours of a cat-and-mouse spy serial into something funny and weird and surprising. It wasn’t just good, it was great counterpoint to the dirge-y tone of too many other one-hours in the Time of Prestige Drift.
But sure, consensus — among critics, or among critics and viewers, among friends — may be a more nebulous concept these days. You may have to wait longer for people whose opinions you care about to see the show(s) you really want to talk about. But there’s a lot to talk about. In the TV realm, it’s still very possible to find thoughtful essays, smartly written features and incisive criticism.
Of course, the job of a TV critic has changed since I started doing it at the dawn of the aughts, back when critics rode dinosaurs to work and we actually still got some screeners in videotape form (it’s true!). It’s less like the gig of a film critic (who usually tries to at least see most movies every year and write about many of them) and more like the job of a book critic (who sifts through information about thousands of releases to see what’s worth checking out, let alone taking the time to cover or opine about). I’m sure it will evolve further, probably to the point where someone invents an AI critic that you just download into your brain. Be forewarned: It may try to sell you on “Spartacus” and “Jane the Virgin.” Just a wild guess.
One observation about this list: As Alan Sepinwall wrote, this was not a year chock full of exceptionally great shows. There was some greatness on display! But it was more a year for a lot of solid B, B+ and A- endeavors (there was also a metric fuck-ton of Cs, Ds and Fs, yeeesh.) A number of new programs established themselves capably, but here’s what predominated in 2018, in my opinion: A number of very good returning shows demonstrated their well-developed chops and showed that they knew exactly what they were doing.
So 2018 wasn’t a year that we saw a big array of flashy debuts or game-changers. It was a year that celebrated craft, discipline and the deep pleasures they can create when married to inspiration, thematic richness and psychological heft.
Stan alert: A lot of shows got a lot of hype this year, and in many cases, that hype is fully deserved (except for the overrated shows, and let’s assume you and I are in complete agreement about which shows were overrated). However, some worthy offerings didn’t get their due in terms of attention, praise, press coverage or overall buzz. Regardless of your taste and inclinations, I would ask you to consider a few under-the-radar gems, especially “The Little Drummer Girl,” “A Very English Scandal,” “Vida” and “The Good Fight.” Of course I recommend everything else on this list! But those are the ones that need the hype, so consider them hyped.
I have supplied you with 40 shows that were good, very good or great (and 14 more Honorable Mentions). But to narrow things down a bit further — because there is nothing critics enjoy more than agonizing over lists — here (in alphabetical order) are my Top 10 TV Shows of 2018: “The Americans,” “Atlanta,” “Better Call Saul,” “BoJack Horseman,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “The Good Fight,” “The Good Place,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Killing Eve,” “One Day at a Time.”
Finally, if a show you like is not listed anywhere here, assume it’s due to one of these reasons:
- I didn’t have time to get to the show.
- I didn’t finish its current season.
- I sampled it and didn’t like it as much as you did.
- I tried it and strongly disliked it. What were they thinking?
- I’m a cruel hellbeast determined to bring pain and suffering to the world. (This is probably the reason.)
My Top 40 Programs of 2018
“Altered Carbon,” Netflix
This futuristic pulp serial was too convoluted at times, but I loved the world-building and the flashbacks to the timeline starring Renee Elise Goldsberry and Will Yun Lee. James Purefoy was also fabulous. More than anything, I want a spinoff starring Poe (the wonderful Chris Conner). My review.
“The Americans,” FX
Exceptional, moving, disciplined, brilliant. All the adjectives for an all-time great final season. Thanks for ruining trains for me, nerds! Here’s a review of the last season and a post-finale interview with stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys.
I know other episodes got a great deal of (deserved) attention, but I think about “Woods” — and its stylized but deeply truthful depiction of depression — all the time. What a buffet of riches “Atlanta” offered this year. The entire cast is fantastic, but Lakeith Stanfield and Brian Tyree Henry are on a whole other level. They’re once-in-a-generation actors, and we get to see them both on this show. I’m so grateful.
“Better Call Saul,” AMC
This bittersweet season was the best one yet; it was beautifully modulated and quietly stellar. We know how good Bob Odenkirk is, but I love how “BCS” has given more and more screen time to Rhea Seehorn, Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks. They’ve made the most of it.
What if “Homeland,” “24” and “Scandal” got together and had a baby? First of all, that would be messy. But the point is, you’d probably get something like the slick and propulsive “Bodyguard,” which contained a lot of ridiculous twists yet remained quite watchable. Richard Madden is very good in this.
“BoJack Horseman,” Netflix
No show mixes silliness with tragedy with more facility — I love how, through some alchemy, the goofier moments of “BoJack” deeply enhance the saddest scenes. This year we got smart and lucid explorations of toxic masculinity, grief, addiction and damage, and as well as lube jokes and an uncontrollable sex robot running a television network. Rami Malek was top-notch as a world-weary showrunner who thinks his anti-hero drama is brave and challenging, when it’s really just dumb, sexist, obvious and entirely unnecessary. Diane and BoJack’s gripping argument in Episode 11 was the animated “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” I didn’t know I needed. That confrontation mined five seasons of character development beautifully, and that was just one of many stellar moments and adventurous gambits. All in all, this was an exceptional show at the top of its game.
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” Fox/NBC
I love this show so very, very much. This year seemed determined to kick us in the face several times per day, but when “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” was uncanceled by NBC, I was both relieved and so freaking happy. This year we really needed pure joy when we could get it, and I got it while watching this excellent comedy and celebrating its survival. To the Nine-Nine!
“Castle Rock,” Hulu
I’m not really a horror gal, nor am I a Stephen King obsessive (I do like a lot of his work, especially the Dark Tower series, but I’m betting a lot of the references in this show passed me by). All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this character-driven study of loss, fear, memory and the difficulty of connection. It had some slower patches, sure, but the cast was outstanding and overall it was a satisfying and effectively atmospheric endeavor. Andre Holland was a wonderfully empathic anchor for everything that transpired, and “The Queen,” which explored the dementia Sissy Spacek’s character was experiencing, was thoughtful and moving.
The first season, which debuted in January and which I reviewed, was quite entertaining. The second season began Dec. 9, and given the strength of the cast — and given that this show stars J.K. Simmons — I’ll watch.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” CW
One of the best shows on TV upped its game this year. The pre- and post- suicide attempt arc was exceptionally well done, and not only were the core character’s dilemmas examined in a compelling fashion, the storylines of the supporting characters were filled out wonderfully. Judging by the first several episodes of the final season, “CEG” is going out very strong. My feature/interview with the co-creators of the show, and a list of some of its best songs.
“DC’s Legends of Tomorrow,” CW
Does your TV show have murderous unicorns, a brusque beer-swilling criminal who writes saucy romance novels on the side, a ship that can take the whole crew anywhere in time, and multiple charismatic bisexual characters having flirty adventures? If not, re-examine your life choices. The John Noble scene from this past spring belongs in the Smithsonian. A couple of my Twitter raves.
“Doctor Who,” BBC America
I was so excited to do a big feature on the past and present of this show this year. I also interviewed star Jodie Whittaker, which was delightful. As for the new season, I think the era of 13 is off to a solid start (“Rosa” was so good).
“Everything Sucks!,” Netflix
My review. This show really found itself by the end of its first — and unfortunately, only — season. Give this a look if you want a gentle, retro coming-of-age comedy. It may be of particular interest to viewers who would be into a thoughtful and sweetly funny story about a young LGBTQ woman coming to terms with who she is.
“The Good Fight,” CBS All Access
It pains me how little attention this show gets, because it’s one of the most frisky and bold dramas around right now (the clunky episode riffing on the Shitty Media Men list was a rare misstep, but everything else this year was so good that I was able to let that go). “The Good Fight” was wobbly in its first season, but it really found its feet by leaning into the surreal vibe and the helpless anger that often characterizes the Trump era. What a fantastic season.
“The Good Place,” NBC
Absolutely delightful. I’m so glad this show exists (speaking of consensus, it’s the one show in our household we all abjectly adore). If I were doing a best episodes of the year list (and I’m not!), the recent “Janet(s)” would have placed very highly there. I had fun doing this interview with creator Mike Schur.
“The Haunting of Hill House,” Netflix
If you would like to have a hourlong conversation with my spouse, ask him if he’s ever seen Netflix’s “Money Heist.” (He has, and he will happily talk about for a very long time.) Better yet, ask him if he liked the final episodes of “The Haunting of Hill House” (reader, HE DID NOT). To be sure, this season was flawed: It was too long, and some underdeveloped characters got too much screen time and others didn’t get enough. And my word, despite having nothing but love for Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino, those parents seemed incredibly clueless and even cruel for letting those clearly traumatized kids stay in that house as long as they did (poor Luke needs eight million hugs). That said, Gugino was great (as were her wedge heels and flowing loungewear), Timothy Hutton, Thomas and several other cast members were also excellent, and one jump scare made me scream and dump an entire glass of water all over myself. When the show was on its A game, it was very good at creating creepy tableaux and disturbing atmospheres, and it was often perceptive about how grief, family history and trauma can be irrevocably intertwined.
Find someone who loves you as much as Sam Esmail loves overhead shots. A twisty and well-performed gem. And if it makes the trend toward economical and rewarding half-hour dramas blow up even further, hooray.
“Howards End,” Starz
I had some real issues with this limited series (Matthew Mcfadyen is a good actor but he was miscast as Henry Wilcox, and thus the central romance didn’t really work). However, I would watch Hayley Atwell in anything, and much of the time, this was a quality showcase for her many skills. If you’re a Hayley fan and/or a costume-drama person, this is worth a look.
“Into the Badlands,” AMC
This action-adventure show just keeps getting better. It’s one of the most beautifully art-directed and shot one-hours on TV, and its action and fight choreography are to die for. In other words, I’m a hardcore stan.
“Jane the Virgin,” CW
“Killing Eve,” BBC America
Science tells us that many of the best TV shows are about believably complicated, often queer female characters who bestow upon us many highly gif-able moments. So damn good. Review.
I am a longtime superfan and I don’t want this show to leave us in 2019! Any functional description of this show — i.e., “found family in space” — is basically my love language.
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” HBO
I remain impressed at this show’s ability to dig into serious issues and smartly explain them even as it remains nimble and entertaining and able to make me laugh until I get a cramp in my side.
“The Little Drummer Girl,” AMC
This miniseries looked great and the central performances were outstanding. Florence Pugh was just sensational in the lead role. Sidebar: As we all know, the central question of 2018 is whether Michael Shannon in “Little Drummer Girl” or Shea Whigham in “Homecoming” was the more awesome obsessed middle-aged guy in retro/weird glasses.
“Mary Kills People,” Lifetime/Hulu
Both seasons of this Lifetime offering are now on Hulu, and each season is only six episodes long. As I said in the reviews that (optimistically) three people read, it’s a brisk and thought-provoking drama that takes a serious topic (terminal people choosing to end their lives) and explores it with respect and insight without ever lapsing into grimness or tipping too far into comedy. The series is really more of a character-driven crime caper than anything, and a generally rewarding one at that.
“Miss Sherlock,” HBO
What’s that you say? You would like to watch a gender-flipped Sherlock Holmes series set in modern-day Tokyo? You would like your female Sherlock to sport a killer bob, have charisma for days and wear a designer trench coat like a champ? Then this bracing, comedically-tinged cocktail is for you.
“My Brilliant Friend,” HBO
Literary adaptations don’t get much better than this.
So many people wrote so many great thinkpieces about Hannah Gadsby’s comedy special; I highly recommend seeking out those essays. Or simply watch “Nanette.” And then watch it again. You may not agree with every conclusion Gadsby comes to, but the point was to move you, make you laugh and make you think. This exceptional and brutally beautiful hour succeeds wildly on those counts. This Gadsby bit is also worth a look.
“National Treasure: Kiri,” Hulu
This U.K. drama has nothing to do with the other “National Treasure” TV series that is also on Hulu in the U.S. (though they share a writer). Anyway, “Kiri” is very good (if dark), and Sarah Lancashire is typically incredible in it. Review.
“One Day at a Time,” Netflix
So, so wonderful. Here is one of my various love letters to this outstanding comedy.
I’m a simple person, I don’t ask for a lot. All I want is for Billy Porter, in character as Pray Tell, to narrate every moment of my life. Let me have this. Shoutout to Mj Rodriguez, who took a difficult central role and made it pulse with transfixing need and vibrant compassion. “Pose” acknowledged the realistic and often deeply unjust problems, biases and tragedies encountered by this varied array of characters — but it’s damned impressive how it folded all that into an overall narrative that brimmed with exuberant energy, gorgeous visuals and defiant joy.
“Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat,” Netflix
Beautiful to look at, informative and therapeutic all at once. Samin Nosrat is a delight as a host and travel guide, and the four-episode season left me hungry for more. The only shared universe that matters to me is the one that I am going to create between “The Wine Show” and “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.” I’m willing to consider a “Great British Bake-Off” crossover. Obviously, in this scenario, Ina Garten is Nick Fury.
“Sharp Objects,” HBO
Thanks for ruining dollhouses for me, nerds.
“The Staircase,” Netflix
Still weirdly transfixing on a whole bunch of levels. I wrote this review/appreciation earlier this year.
Cousin fucking Greg, amirite? Also, Kieran Culkin is next-level fantastic in this. The whole cast is excellent, but I can’t believe how much I enjoy Roman, who on paper I should hate quite a bit. If our planet is going to be run into the ground by sociopathic billionaires, they may as well entertain us richly and well on our way to the apocalypse.
Anyone who ever stated that losing “Roseanne” was a problem because that would mean we wouldn’t have any mainstream comedies about working-class characters clearly didn’t know what they were talking about. Both “Superstore” and “One Day at a Time” (among other half-hours) constantly take on aspects of the lives of working and lower-middle-class Americans and turn them into comedy without being unrealistic about the daily struggle to pay the bills. Also, I truly believe the pack of weirdos from Cloud 9 could absolutely put a hardcore beatdown on the extended family of Logan Roy, for what that’s worth.
“A Very English Scandal,” Amazon
This brisk limited series is absolutely stuffed with brilliant performances: Hugh Grant does stellar work, and Ben Whishaw is (as always) exceptional in every way that matters. Speaking of TV somewhat generally, it gives me an exhaustion migraine when TV creators think the only way to signal that they are exploring complex ideas and and challenging themes is to adopt a bludgeoningly dark vibe, a literally dark palette, or a uniformly joyless tone. No. Life does not work like that! Even in the worst circumstances, human behavior does not stay within one narrow range of emotions or colors. Being almost uniformly joyless or Serious belies a fundamentally adolescent understanding of how tragedy works or how life operates. In any event, an intellectually adventurous, deeply focused work can be energetic and graceful and even fun! It’s true, tell a friend. Back to “A Very English Scandal”: It boasts a jaunty tone, a frisky energy, a slightly shaggy, enjoyably lived-in atmosphere — and a very, very sure understanding of what it wants to say about class, power, homophobia, love and bravery (or the absence of courage). It’s engaging and entertaining while making all those cogent points; it deftly balanced a wry, sarcastic tone with real understanding of — and sympathy for — its flawed characters. Three crisp episodes, and then it was done. Hooboy, I love a charmer that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
What a gem. “Vida” created a world and characters worth following in six concise episodes. A lot of shows could learn from it.
“The Wine Show,” Ovation/Hulu
The biggest mistake I’ve ever made is not watching this show sooner. It involves attractive people — including a (sometimes) magnificently bearded Matthew Rhys in Full Welsh mode — wandering through beautiful villas sampling wines and learning more about what factors and elements can make a wine delicious. Wait a minute: Not watching this show until this year was the most brilliant thing I’ve ever done, because now I still have lots more to watch. Advantage me.
“Wynonna Earp,” Syfy
I love this rollicking, emotionally engaging serial. I continue to be impressed by the skills of its game and talented cast, all of whom really went for it this season, and whoa, did it ever pay off. I can’t wait to see where things go next after that game-changer of a season finale. I have to add, obviously I’m a hardcore Nedley nerd. (Nerdley?) Last but not even remotely least, here is a feature on the show, its history and its delightfully non-chill fandom.
“American Vandal,” Netflix
“Barry,” HBO (My review.)
“Dear White People,” Netflix
“The Deuce,” HBO
“Fresh Off the Boat,” ABC
“Grown-ish,” Freeform (My review.)
“Mosaic,” HBO (My review.)
“Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams,” Amazon (My review.)
“Save Me,” Starz
“Wild Wild Country,” Netflix
Finally: I love checking out other year-end Best of TV lists, and Metacritic has a great collection of those here. Also, I did a fair bit of TV reporting, writing, panel-ing and podcasting during the past year or so. You can find a lot of those links here.