The Best TV of 2018 (So Far)

Previewing my end-of-year list, here are a baker’s dozen shows worth binging on this summer — plus my tribute to Anthony Bourdain.

Traditionally, this is my opportunity to throw bones to good series that may not make my final Top 10, but you should still check out if you love good television. And there was no shortage of options, even without including critical favorites like The Good Fight, Billions, and One Day at a Time that I simply haven’t seen. You’ll also not see Westworld here, because I tapped out on that after the second week, and judging from the response to its finale that was the right move. Sorry to all the fans of inscrutable robots out there.

Anyway, in alphabetical order:

The Americans (FX)

After a surprisingly dull penultimate season, The Americans came roaring back for its final run of episodes — culminating with a parking garage standoff six years in the making, and a gut-punch of a denouement that will forever change how I hear U2’s “With or Without You.” Smartly set against the 1987 summit that effectively ended the Cold War as our characters have known it, the Jenningses were forced to choose between their ideologies and their marriage; their spats were just as fraught as Elizabeth’s increasingly deadly missions. Meanwhile, Stan continued to get closer and closer to the truth, possibly sacrificing his career, a longtime friendship, and even his own marriage to finally catch the spies next door. This season wasn’t the perfect clockwork machine that the series was at its peak (Season 4’s Martha saga), but it boasted the same Emmy-worthy performances and hit all the right emotional beats, with a conclusion that was both unexpected and altogether Americans. One of the great shows of our time.

Atlanta (FX)

It’s hard to see a scenario where Donald Glover, Stephen Glover, and Hiro Murai’s series doesn’t comfortably remain at #1. Here’s a sampling of brilliant moments in a season full of them: Alfred’s journey through the seven circles of “Barbershop” hell; he and Earn testing the limits of their relationship in “North of the Border” while frat pledges dance naked in front of a Confederate flag; the horror and heartbreak of middle school in “FUBU.” But the crown jewel, of course, and the greatest episode of television this year (and also the strangest), was the singular “Teddy Perkins,” an installment that prompts new layers of meaning each time it’s viewed and discussed. Donald Glover’s genius is well documented, but the series’ egalitarian spirit — giving Lakeith Stanfield, Zazie Beets, and especially Bryan Tyree Henry entire episodes to shine — is what makes it rewarding. If it ended here, I could cope, but the early announcement of Season 3 coming in 2019 is cause for celebration.

Barry (HBO)

It’s not often that you talk about a series being “bold” and “taking risks” and really, really mean it — the absence of Legion from this list shows that there’s a line between artiness and exhaustion — but Barry did just that in its quietly audacious rookie season. Created by Bill Hader and Alec Berg, the series walked a near-impossible line with its veteran-turned-hitman protagonist: How long would we root for a guy who desperately wanted to be good, but kept doing irredeemable things? It played Hader’s natural likability against us, using the “criminal stumbles into an acting class” setup as a diabolical trap, while still milking the silliness of it. With its Coen Brothers-inspired mixture of dark comedy, graphic violence, and moral uncertainty, Barry could have been a belly flop. Instead, with Hader’s exceptional performance at its center, it soared.

Dear White People (Netflix)

The first season was great. The second found a new gear and quickly established itself as perhaps the best television series to bear the Netflix stamp. (We’ll see if GLOW can hold on to the title when it premieres this weekend.) Justin Simien’s collegiate satire is many things: a caustic portrait of race relations on a fictional Ivy League campus; a character study about different facets of the black diaspora; a fiercely political screed about identity and what makes a good ally against injustice; a slyly novelistic mystery story elevated by Giancarlo Esposito’s steady narration; and a simply terrific comedy. The entire ensemble, from Logan Browning to Marque Richardson to Ashley Blaine Featherston on down, give their characters a humanity that’s more real than real. It was a joy to watch, and I’m thrilled Netflix just picked it up for another year.

Detectorists (Acorn TV)

I love Detectorists. I really, really love Detectorists. I could just repeat that for another dozen lines, but I want you to love it, too. Mackenzie Crook decided to bring his warm and winsome comedy back for one more season on British streaming service Acorn TV (its January release date qualified it for this list, though we binged the whole delightful series in just a couple of weeks), and we got to see Crook and Toby Jones’s Andy and Lance make one more run at discovering Saxon treasure in the Essex countryside. It wasn’t just a quiet series, but a comforting one, and it’s impossible not to have affection for these characters no matter how much you know (or care) about metal detecting going in. The finale was, quite frankly, one of the most satisfying I’ve ever seen. Detectorists’ first two seasons are on Netflix. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

The Expanse (Syfy)

Pity The Expanse: always the bridesmaid. This is the thirdstraight year it’s made my “So Far” list, but while that was previously just because I enjoyed it, its third season (which just wrapped last night) saw it finally take the leap towards Battlestar Galactica status. This is now a legitimately terrific show, and all of its world-building and character development proved worthy of viewers’ patience as it hit the gas on some crazy Interstellar sh*t in the season’s back half. What’s more, the sprawling ensemble — especially the intrepid makeshift crew of the Rocinante, where everyone’s a fan favorite — has finally cohered the series into the “Game of Thrones in space” fans of James S. A. Corey’s novels proclaimed it to be; this year saw the addition of David Strathairn (really chewing on his “Belter” accent) and Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell. For the invested, The Expanse delivers at least one “WOW” moment every episode, and now that includes Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who stepped in personally to rescue the series from cancellation. Thanks, my dude.

The Good Place (NBC)

Mike Schur’s singular conscience-teaser has only aired five episodes so far in 2018, but they were all forking great. The series has been chewing through plot at a Homeland or Scandal rate; this season’s game-changing finale dwarfs last year’s big twist by several degrees, making The Good Place the most boldly serialized comedy on television (let alone network television, of which this is the sole representative). The cast has also really gelled this season, led by National Treasure Ted Danson and Manny Jacinto’s unprecedented line-to-laugh ratio, but the series’s sticking power is its belief in the innate goodness of its characters, even those designed to be bad. Nowhere else will you witness a frank conversation about contractualism vs. utilitarianism being interrupted by a goober name-checking Blake Bortles while throwing a Molotov cocktail at a group of hipster demons.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

I’ve wanted to bail on The Handmaid’s Tale so many times. Not because it’s a bad show — its craft and performances are basically unimpeachable — but because every week is another exercise in misery, of wondering how things can possibly get worse before they somehow do. I stick with it because I think it’s an important series that speaks loudly to our present moment. Maybe too loudly: “Smart Power” featured a vindicating clap-back from Canada to Gilead right after our real-world President trashed them. Then, the very next week, as we were inundated by images of families being separated at our border, we had to watch June’s daughter be ripped out of her arms. Margaret Atwood’s novel was published in 1985; this season was written and shot months ago; but watching it is like watching ourselves reflected in a dark funhouse mirror. That’s a punishing experience, like gagging down medicine you’re not even sure is helping you. But that doesn’t mean it’s not great art.

Killing Eve (BBC America)

Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s cat-and-mouse series burst out of nowhere this spring, and ended its season as a massive word-of-mouth success. Count me as one of those viewers who jumped in late, to my chagrin: Killing Eve rocks. It’s funny, it’s suspenseful, it’s continually surprising, and Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer (as an off-the books MI6 agent and the assassin she’s hunting, respectively) are flat-out sensational. We all knew Oh was good, of course. She’s long deserved a headlining role this juicy. But it’s the magnetic Comer whose meteoric rise mirrors the series’s itself: her Villanelle is a cold-blooded psychopath with the emotional development of a teenager; one minute she’s stabbing a target through the eyeball with a hairpin, the next she’s breaking into Oh’s house just to share her dinner, and their mercurial relationship starts to become something else entirely. The second-half teases of global conspiracies and secret organizations aren’t nearly as interesting as the central pair, but Killing Eve has earned the benefit of the doubt.

The Terror (AMC)

This icy anthology exceeded my already high expectations to become my favorite new show of 2018. If “Master and Commander meets The Thing” doesn’t sound like your cup of grog, there’s probably not much I can do to convince you, but the curious will be rewarded with a spooky and sumptuously produced tale, featuring a deep bench of similarly-bearded Englishmen who delivered heartbreaking monologues with equal skill. Jared Harris and Ciarán Hinds played captains leading an ill-fated expedition to find the Northwest Passage; if military and class strictures weren’t enough to generate conflict in the pitiless Arctic, they also find themselves stalked by a murdering demon bear. Bleak? Sure. But strangely beautiful, too. AMC announced last week that the next season would be a ghost story set in a WWII Japanese interment camp, an appropriately timely setting ripe with thematic possibilities.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

It’s been a quiet few years for Kimmy Schmidt, which has been relatively consistent on the joke front since its winning debut in 2015, but inessential viewing. Its last season was a broad farce that evoked 30 Rock‘s nadir, and when word came that its fourth season would be its last, viewers mostly shrugged. And then Netflix dropped the first batch of new episodes (with the rest coming in 2019, which is…weird. Why still say it’s the same season?), and I was surprised to find the series stronger than it’s ever been: the tone is better calibrated, the malapropisms (“New York Tines,” etc.) spray like a fire hose, and the very Kimmy take on the #MeToo movement hits its target. But if you watch anything from this season, make it “Party Monster: Scratching the Surface,” a committed stunt episode that sends up “true crime” series and finds new ways for Jon Hamm to debase himself on camera.

Wild Wild Country (Netflix)

In 1981 a fringe religious group, led by a mysterious Indian guru and his ambitious, confrontational secretary, essentially took over the small retirement town of Antelope, Oregon. The story’s many twists and turns — each more insane than the last — make the docuseries Wild Wild Country riveting viewing. Directed by Chapman and Maclain Way, it features mountains of archival footage as well as interviews with former members of the Rajneeshee “cult,” FBI agents, the townsfolk who witnessed the whole affair and possibly helped exacerbate it, and the firebrand Ma Anand Sheela herself, who is defensive but unapologetic about the crimes (including mass wiretapping and attempted assassinations) tied to her. The Ways know they have a dozen complex issues at play, including the boundaries of religious freedom; no one comes out of the series looking great. Was the Bhagwan a revolutionary, or a con artist? Were his followers just gullible, or victims of prejudice? Truth may be stranger than fiction.

Special Mention: Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (CNN)

This past Sunday may have seen the final episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, and if so, it encapsulated everything good about it: Beautifully filmed, cleverly edited, and a window into a fascinating culture rarely seen (in this case, Bhutan) with an eye on both its past and future. I was more devastated by the news of Bourdain’s suicide than by any celebrity death in some time. Every episode of his shows was an exercise in empathy. You came for the food porn and the sarcasm, but stayed for the clear-eyed history (including of America’s support of unjust regimes), and the hundreds of small stories of people trying to improve their neighbors’ lives.

Whether he was fishing in New Guinea, shooting rifles in West Virginia, exploring abandoned slums in Rome (alongside Asia Argento, who he loudly and proudly supported as she took on Harvey Weinstein), or meeting scientists at the South Pole, he had a insatiable curiosity about the world. The Beirut episode in 2006, where he was trapped in his hotel as Israelis bombed the city to rubble, was unforgettable documentary filmmaking. He was in the Philippines during a typhoon. He ate with revolutionaries, and blue-collar workers, and President Obama, and grandmothers.

Part of what made him such a unique and openhearted storyteller was his own background of addiction. His early brand as the “bad boy chef” was a facade he was happy to break down in later years. Everywhere he went, every new person he met, every dish he tried, he was excited to do it. Someone said on Twitter that he “had one of the only shows on TV that tried with all its might to teach Americans not to be scared of other people,” and that is something we still need desperately. No matter how much he disagreed with one of his subjects, he shared his table, because he knew everyone loves a good meal.

The world is a lonelier place without Anthony Bourdain as a guide. But if we’ve learned anything from him, it’s how to make connections.

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