My Top TV and Films of 2021

Hello! It’s too late to post my favorite TV shows and films of 2021, because it’s now 2022 and no one cares! Or maybe someone cares. In any event, it pleases me to post this information and at least give my WordPress skills a workout.

Normally I write A Whole Thing about what the year in TV meant to me, yada yada. Who has the energy? I don’t! Whatever energy I do have is going into writing a book. I am excited to bring Burn It Down into the world and I am focusing on almost nothing else for the next several months. I am nervous about writing my first book, and the world continues to be A Lot, but I have a new mantra from Gerri:

Here are the usual rules about why some shows/films are not on the lists below. It is possible that: 

  • I didn’t have time to get to it.
  • 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.)

Three lists coming at you: My Top 10 TV Shows (the best of the best in a very strong year!), My Top 10 Movies, and a longer Top 40 TV Shows roster (there was so much variety in what was good this year. Sincere thanks to everyone who worked hard to make good shit during a very hard time).

If I wrote about a given show recently, I linked to that piece within the list. Next to each entity, I’ve listed where to find it. If there is no listing, you’ll probably have to rent it on one of the usual platforms. These titles’ locations, of course, depend on what country you’re in, and some programs and films also migrate around various platforms; it’s best to check JustWatch for the most current information.

If we were in the Before Times and we were at a party, and you asked me, “What have you seen lately that’s good?” of course I’d passionately advocate for everything on these lists. But I’d be especially energetic about recommending these underseen and/or under-discussed gems: For All Mankind, Reservation Dogs, We Are Lady Parts, Yellowjackets, Summer of Soul, CODA, The Green Knight and Plan B.

Update Jan 17, 2022: I wrote this post when I had only seen three episodes of Station Eleven. I watched the rest of the limited series recently, and I was even more deeply entranced by it. I’ve added it to my Top 10 list, which is now a Top 11 list (given the title of that book/show, this development is numerically appropriate, I guess!). I’ve also added a link to a piece I wrote about Yellowjackets, and it’s not spoilery if you haven’t started the show yet.

My Top 10 11 TV Shows of 2021 

  • For All Mankind (Apple TV+) 
  • Hacks (HBO) 
  • Mare of Easttown (HBO) 
  • Reservation Dogs (FX/Hulu)
  • Station Eleven (HBO Max)
  • Succession (HBO)
  • We Are Lady Parts (Peacock) 
  • The Witcher (Netflix) 

My Top 10 Movies of 2021

  • Summer of Soul (Hulu) 
  • CODA (Apple TV+)
  • The Green Knight
  • Dune
  • The French Dispatch
  • Passing (Netflix)
  • Plan B (Hulu) 
  • Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Marvel/Disney+)
  • King Richard (HBO)
  • Spencer 

My 40 Best TV Shows of 2021 

  • The Baby-Sitter’s Club (Netflix) (Is this show in a shared universe with Yellowjackets? It is now!) 
  • A Black Lady Sketch Show (HBO) 
  • The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+) (Glyn Johns’ wardrobe + vibe = 2022 goals)
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine (NBC/Hulu) 
  • DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (CW/Netflix)
  • The Expanse (Amazon) 
  • For All Mankind (Apple TV+) 
  • Girls5eva (Peacock) 
  • Great British Baking Show (Netflix)
  • Great Canadian Baking Show (DailyMotion)  (I continue to insist it’s as good as if not better than the OG GBBO.)
  • The Great Pottery Throw Down (HBO Max)
  • Hacks (HBO) 
  • Hawkeye (Marvel/Disney+) (Bro! Mainly for Florence Pugh + Pizza Dog!)
  • How to With John Wilson (HBO) 
  • I Think You Should Leave (Netflix) 
  • Kim’s Convenience (Netflix) 
  • Life at the Water Hole (PBS) (It’s fantastic family viewing, if you’re looking for something in that arena.)
  • Loki (Marvel/Disney+) (Mainly for Richard E. Grant + Alligator Loki!)
  • Lupin (Netflix) 
  • Mare of Easttown (HBO)
  • Only Murders in the Building (Hulu) 
  • Oprah with Harry and Meghan (CBS)
  • Pennyworth (Epix) (It’s coming to HBO Max soon! It’s fun!)
  • The Pursuit of Love (Amazon) 
  • Reservation Dogs (FX/Hulu) 
  • Rutherford Falls (Peacock)  
  • Squid Game (Netflix)
  • Station Eleven (HBO)
  • Succession (HBO)
  • Sweet Tooth (Netflix) 
  • WandaVision (Marvel/Disney+)
  • We Are Lady Parts (Peacock) (It’s so good! Please give this a shot!)
  • What We Do in the Shadows (FX/Hulu)  
  • The Witcher (Netflix) 
  • The Wonder Years (ABC/Hulu) 
  • Wynonna Earp (Syfy) 
  • Yellowjackets (Showtime) ( I absolutely do not care if this show “sticks the landing” when it ends its first season, in part because it’s already been renewed for a second season, yay! But yeah, that whole “sticking the landing” thing matters very little to me, and these are just a few of the reasons why: 1 The first eight episodes have been so damn enthralling, and even if I guessed some twists, I did not guess them all! 2 I’m entranced by the work of this stellar cast 3 The writers have constructed a truly entertaining, smart narrative and episode after episode, the show’s directors, including EP Karyn Kusama, fucking crush it 4 The majority of characters are women, all of whom are quite different from each other and their relationships are appropriately complex (and all of that is still too fucking rare) 5 Having come of age in the ’90s (often working as a music critic who wrote about a lot of the bands on the soundtrack), and given that I’m a similar age to Shauna, Natalie and Taissa, I relate to so much of Yellowjackets so hard 5 This is one of the few fictional narratives I’ve ever seen that depicts the ongoing effects trauma with intelligence, nuance and accuracy. All of that gets a hearty fuck yeah from me. Get caught up and then read Emily VanDerWerff on Yellowjackets!)

Still here? Want to read more of my work? Do that here! Love you some lists? Here is last year’s Top TV List. My 2019 Best TV list. Also in 2019, I published my 101 favorite shows of 2010-2019, which is infallibly correct. Here is my 2018 Best TV List. That’s a lot of #content! Please stay safe, and know that I’m rooting for you!

The Top TV Shows of 2020

I love reading critics’s end-of-year lists and, because I’m a nerd, I also enjoy making lists of things I should check out (at this point, my Things to Watch Google Doc is one of history’s greatest epics). It’s weird how other critics’ lists are correct and the lists I post annually are also perfectly correct.

But my lists are the most right!  

Before I get to the core of this post, I want to mention that I’m moderating a Better Off Ted reunion for charity on Dec. 27. Stop by if you care to — it should be fun! (Of course, for Veridian employees, this event is a mandatory training session.)

All right, as usual, you could make a pretty good Top 10 list of things I have only seen part of or have not seen at all. Not sure if you were aware of this fact, but there is a lot of #content out there. 

So this list, especially given how often quarantine brain derailed me this year, is not comprehensive. I’m sure, in the next week or two, I’ll watch more things I wish I’d included. Regardless, I’m glad for the existence of all these shows — and movies, documentaries, multi-part documentaries, films-that-are-probably-not-TV, TV-that-might-be-movies and documentary-scripted hybrids, plus unicorns that are also 10-hour films, etc.

Two omissions from these lists that were still important parts of my 2020 viewing experience: The Great British Baking Show (which goes by the nickname GBBO in its original habitat) and the Great Canadian Baking Show. I’d like to unburden myself a bit regarding both of those programs. A bit later in this post, I delve into how what’s good about them relates to key aspects of my favorite scripted programs of 2020. Skip ahead to the lists if you don’t want to wade through this part! 

Like a lot of other folks, we watched every Netflix season of GBBO this year and wow, that’s a lot of marzipan! Here’s one of the things I love about the show at its best: The regular delivery of refreshing and quietly optimistic depictions of how a person’s confidence, competence and feelings of validation can evolve in productive ways over time. 

GBBO is blessedly not about people who seek to dominate, destroy, bully and shit on other people. It’s about people who are frequently modest but who have a set of skills they may — or more likely may not — think are important. They get to hang out in a tent with other generally cool and/or eccentric baking fiends, and their confidence may waver week to week, but it tends to grow in the bakers who begin, ever so gradually and before our eyes, to come into their own.

There’s a competitive element woven through the proceedings — each week’s episode efficiently wrings drama from each baking challenge, which is a good thing (sidebar: The camera crews who film inside the tent and and the editors who edit this show are amazingly good at their jobs). But GBBO does not dwell on — or even really find much — behavior that is destructive, cruel, vindictive, harmful or corrosive. And I feel my battered heart grow three sizes whenever bakers in the tent help each other out — which is often. 

As I wrote in my end-of-year piece about Ted Lasso, for way too long, craven, cowardly, mean, terrible, selfish people have told the rest of us that cruelty, cowardice, thoughtless domination, corrosive shittiness, greed, vindictive agendas and insensitivity are necessary qualities for those who aspire to display “leadership,” “confidence” and “success.” Almost worse than the toxic jerks who embody these garbage qualities and promulgate these abusive ideas are the enablers who let these folks do what they want without putting up any real resistance. Here are a couple of pieces I wrote in 2020 that touch on these all-too-common dynamics; if you need more evidence, well… ::waves hands, gestures at world::

Those who are willing to do the worst — to be the worst — get much further than they should because there are so many weak, spineless, equivocating people who let these lies and these bullshit excuses persist and fester. Let me say — no — yell (again): All these people are wrong and they can eat shit forever. 

And that brings me to this observation: When it’s firing on all the right cylinders, GBBO (and its offshoots) can serve as quiet, tea-drinking rebukes to that kind of thinking. 

After watching the construction of thousands of cakes, pies and pastries, here are the images that are most firmly lodged in my memory: The moments in which people who didn’t have a lot of confidence in their skills and knowledge realized that they were good at this. I like to see generally overlooked people ponder the happiness, however fleeting, they’ve brought themselves and others with their care and creativity.

The best moments may be the ones in which people who are kind, humble, accountable and modest begin to realize that the way they move through the world is actually … good. Really good. To see them have those altruistic, responsible and artistic impulses validated on a national stage, while they’re also making friends with a varied range of welcoming, thoughtful people, well…. You could do worse than seeing that happen a whole bunch. 

I have to balance all that out by saying that GBBO has an enormous array of problems when it comes to race, class, gender and the treatment of various cultures, traditions and foodways. The show is generally quite good when it comes to incorporating disabled contestants into the mix, but it’s also continually tin-eared and problematic on any number of other fronts. There is behavior in the tent that has walked up to the line of inappropriateness and/or harassment (and a few times, that behavior has crossed a line, not that the show appears to be even remotely aware of it).

I’m certainly far from the first person to point this out, but the fact that every judge and every presenter in the mothership’s history has been white is not just notable but quite illuminating. I mean, the 2020 episode centered on Japanese cuisine was, from start to finish, unbelievably oblivious and cringe-worthy. They had a decade to get better on that front, and after that decade of opportunities to improve, GBBO came up with that utter disaster. Sigh.

A secondary complaint I have differs a bit from that whole bucket of problems, but, like most other sentient adults, I spend most of the technical challenges complaining about them. All these critiques contain my roundabout way of saying that, yes, we watched the 2020 edition of the show, but a number of things went awry with it, and the finale was limp and disappointing for a whole bunch of reasons, and I generally agree with Salon critic Melanie McFarland about why that was so.

All things considered, GBBO has real value but it also has deep-seated issues — and, like many established institutions, it displays no real willingness to reckon with the complicated problems and biases at its core in a serious, concerted way. The show is a massive hit, a situation that has caused it to lean into some of its worst tendencies rather than attempt to evolve away from them. (And all that said, did I adore the GBBO Derry Girls holiday special? I absolutely did! What can I say? Shit’s complicated!)

One program the pastry mothership could learn from is the Great Canadian Baking Show, which is not just incredibly Canadian but as sweet and entertaining as you’d want it to be. Dan Levy from Schitt’s Creek was the co-host for the first two seasons, and the hosts in Season 3 — Carolyn Taylor and Aurora Browne — are delightful and bring a lot of terrific, much-missed Mel-and-Sue vibes to the Canadian tent.

Especially in the second and third seasons of GCBS, the bakers are among the best I’ve ever seen on any food-related show. A few of them would have handily won on GBBO, in my humble opinion. So if you’re a GBBO fan, get this show into your eyeballs. In the US, the show is available on a site called DailyMotion (I think legally? Maybe? Who knows?!) To pre-emptively address kind feedback from other GBBO-heads — yes, we’re planning on watching other countries’ editions soon!

Anyway, these shows — like many of my favorite scripted programs — consciously and sometimes inadvertently explored important and highly relevant questions: Who gets to feel confident about their beliefs, their presence, their history, their actions? Whose memories and traditions matter, and why? What does real competence and compassion look like? Who gets their worldview and their plans validated, and who doesn’t? 

What do we owe each other — and ourselves — in a world that sometimes feels like a chaotic collision of many unreliable narrators? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but neither do many of the year’s best programs. That vulnerable, searching humility was kind of beautiful in a year in which many of us desperately needed things to believe in and care about — while having our doubts, anxieties and fears validated in some way.

Other much-glorified modes of TV (which, to be clear, I have frequently glorified!) just hit different this year. Not for nothing, but most of my Top 10 is composed of half-hour shows. Shows that are comfortable with ambiguity, doubt and the vulnerability of connections (with oneself, with others, with reality itself) can be challenging to sit with; longer running times just would not have worked for many of these stories.

Also, if I’m honest, as the year wore on, it got harder for me to get excited about sampling one-hour shows. I’ll just admit it: In this quarantine year, there was a lot of stress for all of us, and my brain was just tired. The whole “it gets good in the sixth episode” phenomenon was just a non-starter for me. In recent years, in the world of TV, one-hours have tended to struggle with structure, pacing and tone more than half-hours have (the widespread phenomenon of streaming drift remains an issue). Not that there aren’t one-hours I love (there are!), but half-hours, which have been rewardingly frisky and inventive for a while now, really shone in a special and unexpectedly necessary way this year.

Speaking of tone, mood and intention, in 2020, what I needed was, well… not certain kinds of trite, predictable violence, not anti-heroes, not rigid or arrogant definitions of catharsis or loud, braying declarations of Meaning. Your mileage may vary, as always, but for me, this year, just… no, thank you. Not so much with the chest-thumping and show-boating and the “bravura” turns.

The shows I loved most were well-crafted and smartly executed, but also intimate; they were willing to be a bit messy and quiet and very artfully picked the moments in which they were in your face (wasn’t the world and its problem in our faces enough?). The shows on my lists threaded the needle of the right incidents + the right characters = awesome but left room for emotions that were hard or even impossible to express.  Don’t know about you, but this year I was often like Connell and Marianne on Normal People — unsure of what to say and whether I should be the one to say it, and yet feeling so much.

In a year in which we couldn’t be around each other, having so much emotion vibrating in the quiet spaces between people who found it hard to connect — that somehow just felt right.

Normal People, like How To With John Wilson, like Ted Lasso, like the devastatingly brilliant I May Destroy You, like Better Things, sat with doubt. These shows are all so different from each other, but they all skillfully and intelligently lived within the spaces that hurt and pain and love and frustration and hope can sloppily occupy together. My favorite shows were so often distillations of the ideas that I tried to explore in this essay, which is still my favorite thing I’ve ever written. As I wrote of The Leftovers, “this show makes me feel seen. Because it doesn’t try to solve these core problems. It is a dramatic recognition of the fact that contradiction and collision define us, and may break us (or not).”

This year, I found a bunch of people to explore with, to sit with, to care about, to feel with. In a year that was brutal, they often gave me the antithesis of brutality (while exploring what brutality can do to human beings and why it’s important to find strategies and communities that can help us resist it).

The ways the best shows found to explore these impossible questions… well, they felt right for 2020. There was redemptive, cumulative power in their willingness to let the unspoken linger — to pose questions and embroider ideas, but not necessarily answer heartbreaking, beautiful, terrible questions about risotto and assault and amends and community and success and failure and the breathtaking simplicity of generosity. 

In a year in which my brain and my soul were so tired so much of the time, I’m glad so many shows came at me sideways, subversively or playfully undermining what television “should” be, could be, can be. The kernels of intelligence, love, tolerance and wisdom embedded in these creators’ works — and in all that well-laminated pastry — made 2020 just about tolerable. I’m grateful.

Here are the usual rules about why some shows are not on these lists. It is possible that: 

  • I didn’t have time to get to it.
  • 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.)

Without further ado, here is my 2020 TV Top 10 in alphabetical order (and if I’ve written about a show recently, I’ve linked to it below): 

My 2020 TV Top 10

Better Call Saul, AMC

Better Things, FX

BoJack Horseman, Netflix 

Harley Quinn, DC Universe/HBO Max

How To With John Wilson, HBO 

I May Destroy You, HBO 

Normal People, Hulu 

Schitt’s Creek, PopTV

Ted Lasso, Apple TV+

What We Do in the Shadows, FX

There were even more things I loved! Below is a list of very good entities that came across my eyeballs in 2020. What is a movie? What is TV? What is time? Are we alive? I’d puzzle all of that out if I had the mental energy to do so, but I don’t, and you’re probably too brain-fried to do anything but be dazzled by this list of movies, films, documentaries, sandwiches and unicorns that I enjoyed this year. (A note on why the Great Canadian Baking Show is not on either list: None of the episodes we watched this year was made or aired in 2020.)

My Overall Top 40 Things on 2020 Screens 

(* denotes a 2020 Top 10 TV Show)

Beastie Boys Story, Apple TV+

Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, HBO

*Better Call Saul, AMC 

*Better Things, FX

*BoJack Horseman, Netflix

The Crown, Netflix   

Dave, FX

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, CW 

Devs, FX


Enola Holmes, Netflix 

The Expanse, Amazon 

The 40-Year-Old Version, Netflix 

The GoGos, Showtime 

The Good Place, NBC 

The Good Lord Bird, Showtime 

*Harley Quinn, DC Universe/HBO Max

Hamilton, Disney+

*How To With John Wilson, HBO 

*I May Destroy You, HBO 

The Last Dance, ESPN 

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, HBO 

Laurel Canyon, Starz

Lucifer, Netflix (and this story too!)

The Magicians, Syfy

The Mandalorian, Disney+

**Mr. Robot

*Normal People, Hulu 

The Old Guard, Netflix 

One Day at a Time, PopTV

Palm Springs, Hulu  

The Plot Against America, HBO 

The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix 

*Schitt’s Creek, PopTV

*Ted Lasso, Apple TV+

Visible: Out on Television, Apple TV+

The Vow, HBO

Warrior, Cinemax

*What We Do in the Shadows, FX  

Wynonna Earp, Syfy

**Yes, Mr Robot, which ended in 2019, is a ringer! I didn’t watch the final season of this show until 2020 (and that is absolutely fine, because linear time doesn’t exist). Anyway, I thought it was really good, with some truly impressive standout episodes. Overall, I thought the show finished strong. Good job, everyone! 

No, I’m not done yet! I will leave you with a few final thoughts:  

Killjoys and Lost Girl: I rewatched both these shows in full in 2020 and not only do I have zero regrets, I may do the whole thing again! If you are looking for truly enjoyable, well-made, quippy and surprisingly deep found-family narratives, get yourself into these shows. You could do a lot worse than losing yourself in the Michelle Lovretta-verse. 

Still here? Want to read more of my work? Do that here! Still love lists? Last year, I published my 101 favorite shows of 2010-2019, which is infallibly correct. Here is my 2018 Best TV List and my 2019 Best TV List.

Be well and thanks for reading! 

The 101 Best TV Shows of the Decade: The Definitive List You’ve Been Waiting For

This is my personal list of the top 100 101* programs of the decade. 

I only considered programs that premiered after January 1, 2010. If you get mad about an omission, there’s a 98% chance that the show you’re cranky about premiered before that date. I’m almost annoyed at myself for imposing that limitation, because it means I can’t include Men of a Certain Age, which is so, so great (and which premiered in December 2009). But that’s the rule I decided on, so it is what it is. 

Here’s what I decided not to consider for the list: Commentary programs (like “Full Frontal”), documentaries, comedy specials or any kind of reality TV. Though I didn’t set out to exclude it, I also ended up without any shows primarily aimed at kids. No hate for any of these genres: I just ended up organically focusing on the kinds of scripted storytelling I love. 

So this list consists of scripted TV released in the last decade that I saw and liked enough overall to put it on this list. My best-of-the-decade roster would have been much longer if I could have put selected seasons of some shows on it. But I went with the “all or nothing” approach. There are shows below that had occasional dips in quality, but they also had something special, were pretty consistently good and/or had a number of excellent or great runs during their lifespans, so they made the cut. And of course some of these programs are notably more ambitious than others! But they each brought something special to the game and I am glad I watched them all. 

I wonder if you will be able to tell what my all-time fave of the decade is. And by the way, if you want more recommendations, here are my lists of the best TV of 2019 and the best TV of 2018. There are yet more best-of lists at the end of this post.

Where to see these shows depends on what country you live in and what company has the rights to a particular show at a given point in time. Given that those circumstances can and do change, I’d consult if you want to know where to find all this delicious content. 

I watched a lot of TV in the past decade. A lot. Probably more than is strictly advisable. No regrets. This is the best of what I saw.  Let’s get into it, shall we?

One-hours, in alphabetical order

The Americans

Better Call Saul



Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

The Crown 

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow

The Expanse*


Game of Thrones

Gentleman Jack

The Good Fight 

Halt and Catch Fire 


Happy Valley 

The Hour 

Into the Badlands 


Jane the Virgin 



The Knick

The Last Tycoon 

The Leftovers

Lost Girl 


Marvel’s Agent Carter 

Mary Kills People 

Mr. Robot 

My Brilliant Friend 

Orange Is the New Back 

Peaky Blinders 

Penny Dreadful 



Les Revenants/The Returned




Stranger Things 

Strike Back




Top of the Lake 



Wynonna Earp

Half-hours, in alphabetical order 

American Vandal



Better Things 

Big Mouth


BoJack Horseman

Broad City 

Brooklyn Nine-Nine 


Derry Girls




Fresh Off the Boat 


The Good Place 

Happy Endings

I Love Dick


Key & Peele

Master of None 

New Girl

One Day at a Time 

One Mississippi 

Regular Show


Russian Doll 

Schitt’s Creek 




Survivor’s Remorse 


Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt 

A Young Doctor’s Notebook

You’re the Worst 

Movies and limited series, in alphabetical order

Alias Grace

And Then There Were None 


The Honorable Woman 

The Little Drummer Girl 

London Spy 

National Treasure 

National Treasure: Kiri 

The Night Of

Olive Kitteridge 

The Pacific 

The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story 

The Night Manager 

A Very English Scandal 

When They See Us 

Wolf Hall 

Update on Dec. 10, 2019: Edited to remove Doctor Who, which had a good decade but, as my son pointed out, premiered decades ago. I knew that! But I had a brainfail on that front. Rather than use a TARDIS to permanently erase this error from the timeline, I removed DW and added Regular Show, which — as my son also pointed out — we both enjoyed a great deal. The point here is that my son is excellent.

*Update on Dec. 31, 2019: When first published, this roster had 100 shows, but I’ve now added The Expanse to make it 101. The Amazon drama released its fourth season four days after this list came out. Around the middle of the show’s second season, I fell behind on The Expanse, in large part due to Peak TV glut and various other time-devouring commitments. Fortunately I’ve had time lately to get caught up, and we finished Season 4 on Dec. 31, 2019. It’s a late-breaking and deserving addition to the list!

The Top TV Shows of 2018

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

“Atlanta,” FX

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.  

“Bodyguard,” Netflix

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. 

“Counterpart,” Starz

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. 

“Homecoming,” Amazon

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

Still great. Here’s a look at one outstanding episode and an interview with showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman

“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

“Killjoys,” Syfy

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. 

“Nanette,” Netflix

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. 

“Pose,” FX

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.

“Succession,” HBO

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.

“Superstore,” NBC

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.  

“Vida,” Starz

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. 

Honorable mentions:

“American Vandal,” Netflix
“Barry,” HBO (My review.)
“Billions,” Showtime
“Dear White People,” Netflix
“The Deuce,” HBO
“Fresh Off the Boat,” ABC
“Grown-ish,” Freeform (My review.)
“Insecure,” HBO
“Mosaic,” HBO (My review.)
“Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams,” Amazon (My review.)
“Save Me,” Starz
“Suits,” USA
“Trust,” FX
“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