This is the fifth 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 complete 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. Most of them are designed to appeal to one demographic or another, and dozens of them are extraordinary for one or more reasons. Frankly, a list expanded to 25 isn’t even enough, but I need to stop somewhere. Onward as we near the end ...
5) The Americans(FX)
I’m not a big fan of series built around people who murder others (innocents or otherwise). There is something perverse about positioning killers as characters the audience should support and come to care about. (The exception is Showtime’s Dexter,about a man with a driving need to rid the streets of killers and other dangerous people the cops can’t catch.) That’s the reason why I have never been as excited as most critics about FX’s dark Reagan-Era drama The Americans, as well made as it is. Sitting through the story being told was often a miserable experience, devoid of satisfying emotional payoffs (unless you count overwhelming feelings of frustration, loss, despair and sometimes anger). Yet watch it I did, because the performances were magnificent from start to finish – especially at the end, when skilled Soviet spies Philip Jennings (Emmy winner Matthew Rhys) and his wife Elizabeth (shamefully unrewarded Keri Russell, pictured below with Rhys) returned home to Russia empty in every sense of the word, while corrupted daughter Paige (scary good Holly Taylor) gave them the slip and remained stateside. And their showdown with “friend” and neighbor, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), was a masterclass in dramatic acting. This was the best ending to a drama series since The Sopranos, which as you will recall did not so much conclude as come to a profound stop, leaving its surviving characters to navigate their tumultuous lives and Tony Soprano to live with the reality that his wife and children could be taken out at any moment. Perfect. The end of The Americans left Philip and Elizabeth similarly adrift, facing an uncertain and likely very dangerous future, albeit one that they had been forced to make for themselves. Also perfect. In fact, it made for the best hour of dramatic television this year.
Atlanta remains tough to sum up, as every episode was so different from every other in season two, subtitled Robbin’ Season. But it’s exactly that narrative variable that gives this strikingly unique series its power and keeps it so fresh. I won’t quote that overused line from Forrest Gump, but very few shows can make that claim. You just never know what you’re going to get, but you’ll never regret watching. On one hand, Atlanta may be almost too niche to ever reach widespread pop-culture appeal; on the other, each season of this show offers something for everyone. It follows, then, that everyone has his or her own favorite(s) among the 21 episodes we have seen since the series began. Staying with season two, for me it’s darn near impossible to choose between Teddy Perkins, North of the Border, Champagne Papi and FUBU, so I won’t. As regular readers of mine know, the highest compliment I can pay to a drama series today is to say that it takes me back to the best American movies of the ‘70s, which drilled (rather than dove) deep into the psyche of the day. Atlanta does that, too, but it’s classified as a comedy, so there’s something else to think about. There are times when I don’t understand what’s going on in this show, but as wild as it can get, I always know I am watching something urgent and authentic. That is itself high praise during this punishing period known as Peak TV. Atlanta creator, executive producer and star Donald Glover (below left) should have his own network.
3) The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)
TV’s most intoxicating comedy has in its second season lost none of its funny, sexy, bouncy charm. Including it here may be a bit of a cheat, since I have not yet seen all of season two, but I highly doubt that Maisel will crash and burn in the next few episodes. Indeed, I don’t even care if it does, because I made up my mind that it would land in my Top 5 while watching episode one of season two. I was all in after the opening sequence, when our gal Midge (the enchanting Rachel Brosnahan, pictured below) commanded a swivel chair like nobody's business in the switchboard operators’ room of the stunningly recreated Manhattan department store B. Altman’s, and the scene later in the same episode in which she spontaneously took over a drag nightclub in Paris and launched into an extended comedy routine with the help of a translator. And the soundtrack; it’s like butta! Last month Amazon took over the Rainbow Room for a massive party, lit the Empire State Bldg. in pink and created a pop-up version of the Carnegie Deli (featuring sandwiches and treats from the Maiselera, priced true to the period) that was open for a full week, all to promote the show. It could have saved a bunch of money (though heaven knows Amazon has it to burn), because this was already the most talked-about TV show of the year. Remember when everybody knew all about The Sopranos, even if they didn’t have HBO? Like that! Transparent may have put Amazon on the map, but Maisel has set it on fire.
2) Blue Planet II (BBC America)
No need for a full-fledged review here. It would likely read very much like one for the first Blue Planet, or any of the masterful documentaries featured on Nat Geo, Discovery or BBC America that cover much of life on Earth. Instead, a few simple words should suffice. Glorious. (Behold the colorful fish, lovely mammals and sweeping vistas above the surface and below.) Ghastly. (Watch all those beautiful creatures feasting on each other at Nature's Savage Buffet.) Bingeworthy. (How could anyone stop after watching just one episode?) Otherworldly. (The bottom of the ocean is total alien terrain.) Humorous. (Those dancing white Yeti crabs are the bomb.) Educational. (Those sex-changing fish -- pictured above -- can't be beat.) Heartbreaking. (If you aren't moved by that whale mourning her dead calf you must have ice water in your veins.) Frightening. (Beware the horrifying Bobbit worm.) Most of all: Humbling. (Is it possible not to be humbled by the majesty of nature and, in this case, the magic of modern technology that allows productions of this kind to be produced?) As with Nat Geo’s One Strange Rock, the stories Blue Planet II told were more compelling than anything else on TV this year. If the Blue Planet documentaries don’t convince you that humans should take better care of this world -- especially it’s all-important oceans, if only out of respect for the trillions of fascinating creatures that call them home -- then you are hopeless. (Come to think of it, that would be a grand cause for media companies that need to be more purpose-driven to get behind.) The picture at top and those below explain it all.
Next up: The No. 1 TV Program of 2018 (as always it's not what you may think)
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