This is the third installment in a multi-part series identifying the top TV programs of 2018. As always it is what I hope to be an interesting mix; one that challenges the sameness of so many other year-end lists of this kind. Think of these collective columns as one list of the 25 shows I found the most engaging, or have the most to say about, or both. The many year-end lists that will be found in print and online outlets throughout the month of December will for reasons that continue to elude me be limited to ten shows only, just like they were 50 years ago when national television consisted of three broadcast networks and PBS. There are over 1000 shows available today on broadcast, cable and the major streaming outlets … not to mention YouTube, Instagram, Rooster Teeth, Snap and many more. Frankly, a list of 25 isn’t even enough, but I need to stop somewhere.
15) Superstore (NBC)
The creators, cast and crew of this little gem should be very proud of themselves, because for four years they have quietly but with great purpose given us what is arguably the boldest, most insightful workplace comedy in television history. Not to be too serious about it, because Superstore never fails to deliver goofy fun, either. It doesn’t so much shift between tones as miraculously merge them. For example, Murphy Brown in 1992 may have been the first sitcom in which a hard-working single woman went through pregnancy and delivered the most talked about TV baby since the arrival of Little Ricky Ricardo on I Love Lucyin 1953, but Superstore in 2018 was the first to tell the story of a hard-working single woman went through pregnancy and gave birth without money, first-class health care or a maternity leave. That’s been the reality of life for millions of Americans for longer than any of us care to admit. Like Roseanne (way back in the ‘80s and ‘90s and again in early 2018) and The Middle, the amazing Superstore dares to explore similar trying everyday issues endured by the working class … or should I say working poor? And most of the team members at Cloud 9 don’t have loving families at home to comfort or be comforted by. Nor have they become one of those artificial “work families” that broadcast television is famous for popularizing. In short, weird as they can sometimes be, they are also all too real. So why aren’t more damn people watching this show? (Side note: As seen in the photo at top, apparently MediaVillage critic Ainsley Andrade has decided to take a second gig at Cloud 9.)
14) The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix)
There were maybe 60 seconds of genuine scares in the almost ten-hour running time of Netflix’s new drama series with the misleading title about people traumatized by ghosts that behave like ghosts except when they don’t. But the absence of horror was more than made up for by a surprisingly profound meditation on life, love and the unparalleled power of family ties. (Much of the dialogue in the fright-free final episode was truly moving.) When it became unreal and dove into supernatural territory it made no sense at all, prompting more confusion than fright. So why have I put it on this coveted list? Because when Haunting focused on the dead it said more about life than almost any other original series this year. The cast was uniformly excellent, with Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Julian Hilliard as the respective adult and child versions of tormented Luke Crain the clear standouts. Netflix has designated Haunting as an ongoing drama series, but it is hard to see how it is going to continue without playing more like a limited series franchise.
13) The Terror (AMC) / The Alienist (TNT)
AMC’s The Terror -- about two British Royal Navy ships (the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror) that become stranded in the frozen wastes of the Arctic circa 1845-48 while on a mission to discover the Northwest Passage -- was eerier and more terrifying than The Haunting of Hill House, due not so much to the impact of the harsh weather, claustrophobia, dwindling food supply and mounting fear that pounded the combined crews as to the scary polar bear-like monster that began feeding on them. Based on a true story, this strikingly stylized production, which looked quite a bit different than anything else on TV, was based on the 2007 novel by Dan Simmons. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know whose idea it was to incorporate attacks by a fiendish supernatural beast into the mix of punishing hardships that the men had to endure, but it made a riveting tale even more engrossing -- as did the superb performances of Jared Harris, Tobias Menzies and Ciarán Hinds (pictured below), among many others.
I have chosen to put The Terror and The Alienist together because they are both based on best-selling novels set in the 1800s that tell stories of menace and madness in unrecognizable environments. The Alienist is set in New York City at the end of the 19th century, and it showed just how much the city has changed in 100-plus years. While not a true story, it certainly feels like one because several of author Caleb Carr’s characters are real people from the period. The story is all about the hunt for a serial killer who methodically mutilates and murders boy prostitutes, a daunting undertaking for any ad-supported cable network. The ever-more-impressive TNT really pushed the boundaries (and scored) with this one. (Series stars Dakota Fanning, Luke Evans and Daniel Bruhl are pictured below, left to right.)
12) Pose (FX)
A family drama unlike any other and one so heartwarming it sometimes hurt in the best ways. Ryan Murphy’s incredible year, which included Fox’s 9-1-1 and FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story and (the better than average) season eight of American Horror Story (titled Apocalypse) – not to mention that $300 million deal with Netflix – also saw the debut of this smart, sophisticated soap opera set in New York City’s ball culture back in the ‘80s. A stunning achievement unlike anything else in television history, Pose featured the largest cast of transgender actors ever assembled for a scripted television series and an award-worthy performance by Billy Porter as Pray Tell, an influencer (to use a currently annoying term) in the culture. Season one ended so perfectly, with multiple storylines concluding exactly as they should, that I’ll admit I was a bit ambivalent when FX announced a second season. How could it be better than this year’s run? Given the odds of this show being made, let alone succeeding, I guess that’s a good concern to have.
11) The Good Fight (CBS All Access)
Nine years into her portrayal of legal powerhouse Diane Lockhart, multi-talented Christine Baranski was never better than in season two of CBS All Access’ outrageously satisfying spin-off of CBS’ The Good Wife. Reeling not only from the ever-present daily challenges of her personal and professional lives as one of Chicago’s top attorneys, Diane is dealt with the increasing anxieties and absurdities of the Trump presidency, and they had her leaning as far over the edge as anyone can without falling off of it. (The opening scene of The Good Fight, viewers will recall, showed an incredulous Diane watching television on Election Night 2016 and cursing at the results.) There were many other pleasures to be had, most of them courtesy of Sarah Steele as Marissa Gold, Diane’s fantastically competent assistant; Nyambi Nyambi as Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart's intrepid (and unknowingly undocumented) investigator Jay DiPersia; Michael Boatman as Managing Partner Julius Cain, the one conservative at the RB&L firm; new cast member Audra McDonald as new partner Liz Lawrence; and recurring guest stars Margo Martindale as Ruth Eastman, consultant for the DNC; Carrie Preston as loony but unbeatable Atty. Elsbeth Tascioni, and Denis O’Hare as one of the many eccentric judges who have added great entertainment value to The Good Wife and The Good Fight. It may not be the cure, but The Good Fight is certainly a tasty tonic for anyone feeling the Trump hump. (Christine Baranski, Michael Boatman and Audra McDonald are pictured below, left to right.)
Next up: Shows 10-6
Read Part One of My Top 25 TV Programs of 2018.
Read Part Two of My Top 25 TV Programs of 2018.
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