One of the more underrated perks of the “peak TV” era is that because there’s so much worth watching, no two television devotees will forge the same path through the mountains of programming. Below is a list of 20 outstanding series and miniseries that aired in 2018. These are well-crafted and entertaining shows, highly recommended and worthy of just about anyone’s time. Some of the names will be familiar; some may be surprising. Taken as a whole, this list is intended to present just one way of looking at what makes TV great. But that perspective is, inevitably, limited.
Here, for example, is just a partial list of shows and specials that could’ve easily landed in this Top 20: America to Me, Barry, Bob’s Burgers, Brockmire, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Castle Rock, Counterpart, Detroiters, The Deuce, Get Shorty, Haunting of Hill House, Jane the Virgin, Jesus Christ Superstar, Making It, My Brilliant Friend, One Day at a Time, Superstore, The Tale, Waco, and Young Sheldon. That’s an entire alternate 20 right there. It wouldn’t be too hard to come up with 20 more.
So what qualified a show for this list? They were all chosen for their originality, for the unusual way they approach story structure or visual design, or for the unique way they engage with today’s politics and pressures. Too much of what gets called “prestige” television is dark and dour, but for the most part, these shows are colorful and often funny — a genuine pleasure to watch. This is a lively and eclectic bunch, ranging from the sedate English countryside to the furthest reaches of time and space.
THE GOOD FIGHT
The Good Wife’s spin-off series had an entertaining first season in 2017, but the show seemed to lack a sense of purpose, beyond CBS trying to make sure its new subscription service launched with a few titles that committed TV-watchers would recognize. But The Good Fight season 2 is undeniably inspired. It’s so incendiary (right down to its explosive opening credits) that at times, it’s hard to believe what co-creators Robert King, Michelle King, and Phil Alden Robinson have been allowed to do. Episodes tackling fake news, police shootings, ICE overreach, and the “shitty media men” list are as clever and incisive as the best of The Good Wife — a show always much savvier about our modern, interconnected global society than just about anything else about network television.
But season 2 really shines in the way it tackles life in the Trump era. The series satirizes the absurdity of a world where underqualified judges, proudly bigoted politicians, and “the pee tape” are part of the daily discourse. It also hails the people out there in the legal trenches, holding fast to the rules and norms that may keep society from collapsing. The Good Fight does all this in the context of an edge-of-the-seat case-of-the-week courtroom drama, as sophisticated as any in the history of TV.
Where to watch it: CBS All Access
Few works of popular art can ever truly be called “unclassifiable,” but Atlanta is at least hard to pigeonhole. The best way to describe it is as a radical exercise in subjectivity, inviting audiences to experience the sometimes-surreal perspectives of a handful of black men and women as they move back and forth between the worlds of middle-class professional privilege and poverty and crime. The premises of Atlanta’s season 2 episodes are so slight, they’re practically nonexistent: the cast goes clubbing, Al gets a haircut, Darius picks up a piano, and so on. But that lack of sharp hooks means that any given half-hour can wander off in unexpected directions, whether it’s Al getting roped into a meandering quest for Zaxby’s chicken fingers, or Darius meeting the reclusive weirdo Teddy Perkins. The sheer sense of possibility in Atlanta is staggering. It’s downright miraculous that creator Donald Glover and his ace collaborators have chosen to convert that seemingly limitless potential into something so idiosyncratic and personal.
It was a stroke of genius for producers Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals to create a drama that engages directly and honestly with the mysteries of gender, race, and self-identity — some of the bigger issues of our age — and then to set it in the milieu of the late 1980s New York “drag balls.” Having one transgender character on a show means that person has to carry the weight of representation. Having a dozen or so — alongside cisgender gay men — means Pose’s first season explores a wider range of experiences, all grouped under the larger theme of finding companionship and a sense of self-worth in a sometimes unforgivingly cruel city. Pose is a series about New York undergoing a cultural and fiscal revitalization, at the same time that some of its brightest lights were succumbing to AIDS. It tells funny, eclectic stories about people who swing daily between despair and hope, and does so with the swagger, sweetness, and stubborn humanity of the drag scene’s top MC, Pray Tell (played by one of this TV year’s best actors, Billy Porter).
Where to watch it: FX Plus, or by buying episodes or the season on streaming services
Continuing the welcome 2018 trend of shows with good first seasons having even better second seasons, GLOW this year deepened the emotional resonance within its fun, fast-paced story about a low-rent 1980s pro wrestling league. While the Netflix dramedy shares some similarities with misfit sports movies — where a ragtag group of athletes pulls together to beat the odds and win the day — the characters and their situations are more complicated. Old beefs don’t get quashed overnight. Play-acting as a broad stereotype on TV has real-world ramifications. And just because these women are all invested in the success of their new business doesn’t mean they’re sharing everything equally. GLOW balances nostalgia with sly socio-economic criticism, in episodes as speedy and devastating as a clothesline move.
Where to watch it: Netflix
THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL
One of last year’s TV underdogs returned for a second season carrying an armload of Emmys — and perhaps the heightened burden of expectation. The writing-directing-producing team of Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino have risen to the challenge, expanding the scope of their show beyond the late 1950s New York comedy scene, taking little side-trips through the Paris art world, the ups and downs of the garment industry, and — for one especially impressive mid-season stretch — the arcane rituals of Catskills summer resorts. Throughout, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel does keep returning to its title character’s nascent stand-up career, which seesaws between surging (thanks to Midge Maisel’s knack for winning over audiences) and souring (thanks to resentful, mean-spirited men). But as with their previous shows, Gilmore Girls and Bunheads, the Palladinos seem less interested in telling a pointed long-form story about show-biz and gender, and more engaged in using all that as a backdrop for fabulous fashions, snappy dialogue, and some of the most winning characters on television.
Writer-director-producer Sam Esmail used his cyber-thriller Mr. Robot to help change the look of television, disorienting viewers with off-kilter compositions and lighting. With his adaption of the popular fiction podcast Homecoming (a show mostly written by the podcast’s creators, Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg), Esmail again plays with the elements of televisual storytelling, fiddling with the audio mix, the size of the frame, and the placement of the camera, as he tells an eerie, split-timeline tale about a shady, off-the-books program to rehabilitate returning soldiers. Even the length of the episodes is unusual. Homecoming is the rare drama where each installment runs around 30 minutes, which — coupled with an excellent cast that includes Julia Roberts as a lonely therapist, Stephan James as her patient, and Bobby Cannavale as her sketchy boss — makes it easy to roar through the entire season in a single evening.
When Forever first arrived on Amazon back in September, critics were urged to say as little as possible about what the quirky supernatural comedy is actually about. That’s probably still a good idea, given how much of the pleasure of Forever is in its sense of surprise. Suffice to say that it stars Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph as a married couple stuck in a rut, and that nearly every one of its eight episodes ends with something unexpected that resets the show for what follows. Altogether, Forever is an absorbing, insightful, and at times heartbreaking look at marriage and friendships, and at how we sometimes use shared daily routines as both a form of bonding and as a way to avoid deeper communication.
The 1992 big-screen version of E.M. Forster’s novel about subtle English class distinctions is such a classic in its own right that a lot of movie buffs who might’ve enjoyed the new four-hour miniseries never gave it a chance. What they missed was an excellent Kenneth Lonergan screenplay, crisply paced Hettie MacDonald direction, and a cast — led by Hayley Atwell as the strong-willed spinster Margaret Schlegel and Matthew Macfadyen as the conservative widower Henry Wilcox — which found some of the deeper character notes in Forster’s story. Together, they presented a complex vision of society where even some very nice people are bound by their presumptions and privilege.
SUMMER CAMP ISLAND
Though Summer Camp Island is visually and tonally reminiscent of recent animated favorites like Steven Universe, The Amazing World of Gumball, and Adventure Time, this anthropomorphic-riffic cartoon finds its own loopy comic point of view by about five minutes into its first episode. Created by Julia Pott — a former Adventure Time staffer, perhaps previously best known to animation buffs for voicing the adult Emily clones in Don Hertzfeldt’s “World of Tomorrow” shorts — the series follows a group of ordinary pre-teen animals at a seemingly endless summer camp, populated by bossy teenage witches, nerdy monsters, and an infinite number of inanimate objects that come to life and talk. The stories are nearly all one-offs, all about 10 minutes long, and all as wry and witty as they are cute… and they’re super-cute.
Where to watch it: Cartoon Network’s website and via on-demand services
After all the excitement about The X-Files’ return in 2017, the show’s 11th (and possibly last) season came and went in the first quarter of this year with minimal hubbub — which is a shame, because aside from the blah bookending “mythology” episodes, this batch was reminiscent of the series’ classic years. With adventures involving sleep paralysis, a beauty cult, the Mandela Effect, and killer AI, The X-Files plowed past the nostalgia act of season 10 and once again engaged with relevant modern horrors, tying them to the anxieties of two seen-it-all FBI heroes still plugging away in a country that no longer trusts “the deep state.”
Who says TV writers are out of ideas? There’s never been a show quite like Lodge 49, a gentle, soulful social satire about a hobbled surfer named Dud (Wyatt Russell) and his worn-out “breastaurant” waitress sister Liz, who get a belated jolt of ambition when Dud starts digging into the secrets of a dying Long Beach social club. Leisurely paced, and occasionally absolutely bizarre, Lodge 49 is first and foremost an inquiry into values, considering what it really takes to make people feel happy and fulfilled. It’s a show about ordinary, exhausted Americans, sprinkled lightly with references to alchemy and occult ritual.
Where to watch it: AMC’s website, on-demand services
BETTER CALL SAUL
Though season 4 was less dramatic than season 3, the 2018 episodes of AMC’s Better Call Saul functioned as a necessary, and sometimes emotionally devastating, completion of the various origin stories that the Breaking Bad prequel began back in its first episode. By the end of this cycle, good-hearted, corner-cutting lawyer Jimmy McGill finally becomes the “anything for a buck” Saul Goodman, while ruthlessly ethical “fixer” Mike Ehrmantraut begins hiring himself out to drug-lord Gus Fring, and super-attorney Kim Wexler realizes she finds it more rewarding to fight for lost causes than to make a lot of money filing real-estate contracts. As the show nears what may be its endgame, it’s making an inevitable transition from dark comedy to humanist tragedy. The arc is pre-ordained, but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking as it plays out.
THE GOOD PLACE
In its most radical change of pace yet, The Good Place left behind both the Good and Bad Places in season 3, instead sticking its four self-centered humans back on Earth in their old lives, with the reformed demon Michael and the super-computer Janet trying to steer them toward a better afterlife. While just as philosophical — and unpredictable — as ever, The Good Place this year has at times seemed more like creator Michael Schur’s “hangout” sitcoms Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, with more episodes where the characters just ping off each other amusingly, and the plot doesn’t really move forward. Even the most “normal” version of this show, though, is odd and inquisitive, with a lot to say about how we create our own paradises and hells.
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
The past several years have seen multiple sitcoms about big Catholic families (The McCarthys, The Real O’Neals), and more than a few set in the recent past (The Goldbergs, Fresh off the Boat, Young Sheldon), and yet The Kids Are Alright still feels fresh and original, perhaps because it’s so clearly drawn from personal experience. Created by veteran sitcom writer Tim Doyle — who’s worked on the likes of Ellen, Sports Night, The Big Bang Theory, and Better Off Ted — the show is set in early 1970s suburban Los Angeles, where Doyle grew up with his own massive Catholic clan. With its quotable quips and knowing stories about a budget-conscious father, a judgmentally religious mother, and perpetually scheming brothers, The Kids Are Alright is its own confident and accomplished version of what all those other good shows have been doing. It has its own memorable details, about everything from how long it takes for a family of 10 to eat a big bowl of Waldorf salad to how young boys react when they hear a rumor that a TV star has accidentally flashed a nipple on a live show.
The heyday of ABC’s family sitcom slate passed a couple of years ago, but Speechless is just now really coming into its own, in season 2 and now season 3. Initially positioned as a scruffy comedy about the frazzled working-class DiMeos and their special-needs son (J.J., played by Micah Fowler, who, like the character, has cerebral palsy), Speechless has gradually developed the personalities of everyone in its cast, generating good comic material from their individual quirks and flaws. More importantly, the show has become a richer contemplation of what happens when people really start to reckon with their limitations, whether they’re inescapable or self-imposed.
It was probably just a lucky coincidence, but not long after Allison Janney won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for I, Tonya, her sitcom Mom recovered from what had been a slight creative slump, finding new ways to generate jokes and pathos from its central premise: the co-dependent relationships and lingering regrets of recovering addicts. After season 5 came to a strong finish last spring, this fall’s sixth season has been more focused and funnier than Mom’s been in years, highlighted by an episode where Christy (Anna Faris) tries to reconcile with her estranged daughter, and learns that no matter how dramatically she’s turned her life around, she can’t make up for the childhood she ruined.
Given the length of TV production cycles, 2018 was really the first year that writers and producers could start making observations about life under the Trump administration, beyond just telling a few passing jokes. The high-octane political / financial thriller Billions offered two of the more intriguing takes, reflecting the series’ main characters: US Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and hedge-fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis). Both men see their fortunes change in Billions’ wildly entertaining third season, thanks in large part to the government’s new indifference to wealthy folks who ignore regulations. The fun of this show comes from its insider understanding of how our world works, and in its sympathy even for greedy jerks who abuse their power… mainly out of fear that if they don’t, someone stronger will seize it.
Where to watch it: Showtime, streaming purchase services
THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE: AMERICAN CRIME STORY
American Crime Story’s second-season miniseries, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, never came close to turning into the zeitgeist-grabbing sensation that its first season, The People v. O. J. Simpson, became. But in many ways, it’s even more daring. Loosely told in reverse chronological order — the average episode takes place months or even years before the one preceding it — the series is a deep dive into the pasts of two gay men, a murderer and his most famous victim, shaped by a culture that forced them to keep big pieces of their lives a secret. This American Crime Story miniseries isn’t exactly an uplifting way to pass the time, but the unusual structure and Darren Criss’ riveting performance as the sociopathic serial killer Andrew Cunanan make it vital.
Where to watch it: Via season purchase on Amazon
DC’s LEGENDS OF TOMORROW
During the leaden, serious first season of Legends of Tomorrow, there was almost no sign that the show would become not just one of the most reliably funny and escapist hours on television, but also one of the most fearlessly bizarre. The turnaround started in season 2, but the second half of season 3 and the first half of season 4 have been even more sublime, with episodes featuring a giant talking teddy bear, a flesh-eating unicorn, a summer-camp swamp monster, a trip back to the early career of Godzilla director Ishirō Honda, and many, many more curiosities and wonders. Legends did a story last spring where the team enlisted the help of character actor John Noble (playing himself) as part of a larger plan to protect a college-aged Barack Obama from getting killed by a psychic gorilla. And that was only about the fifth or sixth freakiest thing to happen on this series this year.
MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE GAUNTLET
MST3K creator Joel Hodgson deserves a lot of credit for continuing to come up with ways to reframe the show’s shtick. In the second season of the show’s Netflix revival, with Jonah Ray as host, the basic concept of a funny guy mocking terrible old movies alongside his wisecracking robots (voiced by Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount) is still working well, thanks to the chops the cast and writers honed during their first season and subsequent live tour. But Hodgson also stepped up the difficulty level for this latest season, taking advantage of Netflix’s binge-friendly interface to tell one longer story about Jonah and the bots enduring six “experiments” in a row. The films are magnificently awful (highlighted by the hilariously inept 1988 E.T. ripoff Mac and Me), but it’s the willingness to innovate and work within a rapidly changing medium that makes Mystery Science Theater 3000, like so many other shows on this list, a 2018 standout.
Where to watch it: Netflix