7. Homecoming (Amazon)
2018’s best puzzle show hitches the chilly ambience of Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot to the mega-star wattage of Julia Roberts, and the result is a tight five hours of secrets, lies, parallel timelines, and shifting aspect ratios. Roberts gives a notably restrained performance as Heidi Bergman, psychologist at a facility advertised to help returning soldiers re-integrate with society; Bobby Cannavale is great as her aggro boss, who spends most of the series yelling into a phone; I loved Shea Whigham’s weary, magnetic glasses-sporting investigator; and Stephan James shines as Walter, whose chemistry with Heidi could upend the real work being done at Homecoming. Esmail’s stylistic flourishes and nimble camerawork — even the end credits, where the episode’s last shot lingers on uncomfortably, voyeuristically — point toward his fanatical attention to detail. It’s Cinema, but bite-sized.
6. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
The fifth season of BoJack saw the titular horseman (Will Arnett, brilliant as ever) starring in a “prestige” cable drama, but more miserable than ever as he learns that simply admitting to character flaws isn’t the same as actually fixing them. His relationships with his friends are more strained than ever, he’s addicted to painkillers, and then his mom dies. Did I mention that the show is hilarious? Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg infuses his anthropomorphic show biz satire with an extra layer of visual inventiveness, culminating in “The Showstopper,” a dazzling flight of delirium; the incisive writing cements BoJack as the right antihero for this moment in time. And then there’s “Free Churro,” the sixth episode, a standalone at BoJack’s mother’s funeral that entirely consists of a half-hour eulogy/monologue that twists, turns, appraises, self-flagellates, lashes out, processes childhood trauma in real time, and lands with a killer payoff that I completely forgot to see coming.
5. 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 (and real) expedition to find the Northwest Passage; other standouts include a poignant turn from Tobias Menzies, and Paul Ready as the aptly-named Dr. Goodsir. 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. I’m still thinking about it months later.
4. 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. 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 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. “Chapter VIII,” a two-handed bottle episode and the season’s high point, drops activist Sam and her “woke” sometime-boyfriend Gabe (John Patrick Amedori) into a thrilling — and challenging — pas de deux on privilege and allyship.
3. Better Call Saul (AMC)
It just keeps getting better and better. Four seasons into Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s deliberately-paced Breaking Bad followup, I’d suggest it’s surpassed its predecessor in pathos and emotional resonance. We are rooting so hard for Jimmy, even knowing what’s coming, as if our affection alone can stave off the inevitable. He was in his element this year, hocking burner cell phones on the street, saving Huell from imprisonment, and even inspiring Kim (oh, Kim) with his grifts just as they begin to drift apart, both of them counting down the days until his law license is restored — until it is cruelly denied him. Like Jimmy, Bob Odenkirk rose to every challenge, and Rhea Seehorn along with him. The Mike Ehrmantraut, Construction Manager story didn’t have the same kick, but it climaxed with the fixer putting his “No half measures” ethos to its first heartbreaking test. These guys really know how to make television.
2. 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.
1. Atlanta (FX)
Confident in its idiosyncrasies, Atlanta’s mosaic is more than the sum of its distinctive parts. 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.