The Top 25 TV Programs of 2018

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Cover image for  article: The Top 25 TV Programs of 2018

You may have read my recent six-part series in which I revealed my picks for the Top 25 TV Programs of 2018.  In case you missed it, here are all of them in one complete list.  Click on the links to read longer reviews of each program.  Or go here to read the original columns in which they appeared.  

U1)  Stand Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action(CNN)

Just one week after the Parkland massacre, CNN hosted a live two-hour Town Hall titled Stand Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action, at which six remarkably composed Parkland survivors – among them a young woman who had been shot – engaged in forceful, emotionally charged conversations with Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch and chilly NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch.  They weren’t debating anything; they were demanding action.

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?)

3)  The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel(Amazon)

TV’s most intoxicating comedy has lost none of its funny, perky, bouncy charm in its second season, and it remained the most talked-about show on any platform.  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 Mrs. Maisel has set it on fire.

4)  Atlanta(FX)

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 Atlanta its power and keeps it so fresh.  Creator, executive producer and star Donald Glover should have his own network.

5)  The Americans(FX)

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) 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.

6)  The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story(FX)

Following The People v O.J. Simpson, Ryan Murphy struck gold once again with the second installment of his American Crime Story franchise, telling the stories of iconic fashion designer Gianni Versace and sociopath Ted Cunanan, the spree killer who brutally murdered him (and several other men, most of them gay) in 1997. 

7)  Bodyguard(Netflix)/ Killing Eve(BBC America)

Two great British imports showed us how it’s done.  After watching Bodyguard and Killing Eve, combined here as the two most riveting and suspenseful drama series of the year, it’s darn near impossible to sit through any of TV’s predictable detective shows, at least for a while.  Every element of each one was simply sensational, especially their episode counts (six and eight, respectively), which hopefully proved to Netflix and other programming services that comparative brevity is an asset.

8)  One Strange Rock(National Geographic)

One spectacular show.  Producer/director Darren Aronofsky staked his claim as one extraordinary documentary filmmaker with this life-changing 10-hour project about how the earth works (it’s complicated), why it came into existence in the first place (even more complicated), how tiny organisms keep the whole planet going (get to know your diatoms) and, somewhat alarmingly, the reasons why it will in all likelihood one day burn to a crisp.

9)  Mom(CBS)

Why isn’t there more love for this consistently hilarious and often painfully profound comedy, which is as topical a sitcom as any other, and better at being what it is than almost any other?  It’s a refreshing throwback to the early decades of broadcast television before all comedies had to revolve around “sexy young things.”  No need for that here, not that a little sex appeal doesn’t have value.  Indeed, Bonnie (Allison Janney) and her beau Adam (William Fichtner), a stuntman now confined to a wheelchair, are sexy AF.

10)  Escape from Dannemora(Showtime)

Congratulations to Ben Stiller for his fine work as executive producer and director of all seven hours comprising the Showtime limited series Escape from Dannemora, which has already received a collective boatload of Golden Globe Award, Critics’ Choice Award and SAG Award nominations.  More a mega-movie than a mini-series, Dannemora is a remarkable achievement, due especially to the brave performance of one of our finest actresses, Patricia Arquette.

11)  The Good Fight (CBS All Access)

Nine years into her portrayal of legal powerhouse Diane Lockhart, 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 also dealing with the increasing anxieties and absurdities of the Trump presidency.  It may not be the cure, but The Good Fight is certainly a tasty tonic for anyone feeling humped by Trump.

12)  Pose (FX)

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, as the master MC at one of the vogueing competitions that flourished in New York City during the party hearty Eighties.

13)  The Terror (AMC) / The Alienist (TNT)

I chose to put AMC’s The Terror and TNT’s The Alienist together because they are both based on best-selling novels set in the 1800s that tell stories of menace and madness set in unrecognizable environments.  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 while on a mission to discover the Northwest Passage circa 1845-48 -- was eerier and more terrifying than the year’s most talked-about horror property, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. Meanwhile, The Alienist -- about the hunt for a serial killer who methodically mutilates and murders boy prostitutes, was similarly eerie and nerve-frying – and a daunting undertaking for any ad-supported cable network.  The ever-more-impressive TNT really pushed the boundaries with this one.

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.  When Haunting focused on the dead it said more about life than almost any other original series this year.

15)  Superstore (NBC)

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 Lucy in 1953, but Superstore in 2018 was the first to tell the story of a hard-working single woman who went through pregnancy and gave birth without money, first-rate health care or a maternity leave.  It was important, topical, instructive and funny, all at once.  I expected no less from what is arguably the boldest, most insightful work place comedy in television history.

16)  South Park (Comedy Central)

Still crazy after all these years, and timely as ever, nothing provokes laughter (not to mention controversy) quite like South Park.  Having some fun with school shootings (while making important points) might have been taking things too far, but then again maybe not.  The same with the banishing of Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo, whose behavior in the title town these last two decades was deemed unacceptable after he behaved a bit like Roseanne Barr on Twitter.  The tag-line for season 22 has been #cancelsouthpark, as advertised on billboards throughout L.A.  Heaven forbid!

17)  The Kominsky Method (Netflix)

Not since The Golden Girls has “old age” (and I use the term loosely) been so much fun.  The first streaming effort from mega-producer Chuck Lorre, the man responsible for such three-camera broadcast comedies as Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory and Mom, frisky Kominsky seems to have been a hit out of the gate.  Michael Douglas has returned to series TV after an absence of 40 years, and his portrayal of Sandy Kominsky -- a once-hot actor now working as an acting teacher while navigating love, loss and a problematic prostate on the mean streets of Beverly Hills, ought to bring him an Emmy Award next year.  Alan Arkin, as his longtime best friend Norman, and Nancy Travis, as his girlfriend (of sorts) Lisa, are also fine.

18)  The Middle (ABC)

Damn, I hated to see this one end.  Arguably the best comedy about a hard-working, economically stressed American family since Roseanne (in its original run), the consistently funny series remained relevant and entertaining from its first episode until its last.  The cavalcade of nostalgic clips from Thanksgiving episodes in previous years (always a big deal on this show) that closed this final season’s Turkey Day delight was a moving reminder of how much fun The Middle has been and how much it will be missed.

19)  Jessica Jones(Netflix)

No scripted series in 2018 did more to advance the position of women in television than Jessica Jones.  The storylines spun around four extraordinary women -- semi-super-powered Jessica, her best friend Trish Walker, her sometime boss and ally Atty. Jeri Hogarth and her unstable mother Alisa Campbell, played with ferocious power by Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Carrie-Ann Moss and Janet McTeer, respectively.  Further, the series was created for Netflix by a woman (Melissa Rosenberg) and every episode of season two was directed by a woman.  Are you celebrating all of that?  #MeToo!

20)  The Dodo – Instagram edition (Group Nine Media)

In these trying times nothing provides the paws that refreshes with more impact and efficiency than quick checks of the day’s Dodo social postings, almost exclusively featuring humbling and heartwarming videos of compassionate people helping critters in need, from bats and bugs to mollusks and mammals, with a heavy emphasis on cats and dogs.  Instagram runner up: This_Girl_Is_A_Squirrel, the daily adventures of a sweet six-year-old squirrel named Jill orphaned during Hurricane Isaac and taken in by a woman who has cared for her ever since.  Their bond is extraordinary.  Follow it and fall in love.

21)  America’s Got Talent (NBC)

The 13th season of America’s Got Talent was its best yet.  The extraordinary individuals that made the Top 20 (never mind the coveted Top 10) were scary gifted and uniformly awesome, so much so that the selection of one winner was painful to watch.  Half the fun this season was watching the slow and steady transformation of the formerly abrasive judge Simon Cowell into a compassionate middle-aged man who went out of his way to guide some of the contestants and was actually moved to tears by some of the performances.  AGT will always be the perfect annual summer TV entertainment; let’s see how the upcoming midseason spin-off America’s Got Talent: The Champions does when it debuts.

22)  9-1-1 (Fox)

I’m happy to note that 9-1-1 is the kind of broad-appeal entertainment that broadcast television was built on throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, laced with contemporary concerns and issues of the day without getting preachy about any of it.  There is something for everyone in this show -- thrilling action scenes, gripping drama, unexpected romance and moments that have to be seen to be believed.  This was the brightest broadcast surprise of the year.

23)  Tosh.0  (Comedy Central)

Every year I include Daniel Tosh’s merry mix of rude, crude and lewd internet-video-based comedy program on my best-of list, and every year people ask me why.  Simple answer:  It is the only show anywhere that makes me laugh every time I watch it; it proves that not everything on TV has to be high-minded or feel like homework and, best of all, it is the most aggressively un-P.C. program on any network or streamer. 

24)  Days of Our Lives (NBC)

No soap opera was more rewarding in 2018 than NBC’s Days of Our Lives.  Under the guidance of head writer Ron Carlivati it was a veritable tsunami of star-crossed romance, hot sex, inside jokes, back-from-the-dead surprises and heaping helpings of crazy.  More often than not, gripping stories kept viewers waiting for more, day after day – very much like the Days of old.

25)  The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (Antenna TV)

Twenty-six years after Johnny Carson ended a remarkable 30-year run as host of The Tonight Show, the invaluable Antenna TV showcased ‘80s-era reruns of the man at his best in the time period he dominated throughout his program’s original run.  Antenna’s timing was perfect: Carson’s restrained jokes about Ronald Reagan are a welcome alternative to the current crop of late-night hosts doing bad imitations of Donald Trump night after night after night.

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