It’s never before been so hard to pick the 10 best shows of the year, as streaming services deliver strong short series on a regular basis, and cable and network TV have mostly kept pace with the quality. Some staple entries have dropped out of my top 10 not because they got worse but simply because they were supplanted. Here are 10 shows worthy of special mention even in this age of Peak TV.
10. “The Simpsons” Seasons 29-30 (Fox) – I know this isn’t a sexy pick, but it must be said that 2018 was the animated classic’s strongest year in a long time. The show sharply parodied 1970s private eyes, the Christian movie industry, “Survivor”-type shows, employee-friendly companies, drag queens’ takeover of Tupperware sales, TV recapping websites, Black Friday, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” New Orleans and Denmark. On the personal side, it chronicled Homer’s and Marge’s fall from a happy childless couple to put-upon parents, Moe’s messed-up mattress-selling family, and the sweet relationship between Homer and his late mother. The days where we got two bland episodes for every great one are safely in the past.
9. “This Is Us” Seasons 2-3 (NBC) – Network TV’s best family drama didn’t falter this year, although it has lost some novelty value and is up against so much competition that it did drop down my list. Even though it’s a cliché that “This Is Us” is a tearjerker, I still get misty-eyed at many developments. Most hauntingly, of course, is the tragic heroism of Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) in the post-Super Bowl episode, combined with the cruelly mundane way in which he perishes from smoke inhalation at the hospital. Offering viewers an emotional cleanser of sorts, we’re now learning about his secrecy-shrouded backstory in the Vietnam War. Click-baity questions of “How does all this fit together?” are never overtaken by our connection to the people.
8. “American Vandal” Season 2 (Netflix) – The second season of this parody of serial-murder documentaries once again delivers an incongruously gripping mystery of its own, asking us who is responsible for The Brownout and other poop-related crimes at an Oregon Catholic high school. The straight-faced way in which teens Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck) probe this case is funny, but beneath that plays a smart satire. The season ultimately makes a modern statement about how a student’s social media image (as cultivated by themselves or accidentally virally created) can subsume the reality of who they are. (Full review)
7. “Atlanta” Season 2 (FX) – Donald Glover’s brainchild continues to illustrate the struggle of trying to rise from poverty. Sometimes it achieves this through stark details such as the fact that Earn’s (Glover) and Vanessa’s (Zazie Beetz) daughter is gifted but they can’t afford an appropriate school. But it often paints its portrait via insane side-trips like Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) getting lost in the woods or Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) becoming caught in a surreal haunted house with a reclusive musician while attempting to pick up a free piano. There’s no escape from corruption, cruelty and unfairness in “Atlanta” – starkly illustrated when an angry Earn is beaten to a pulp by Tracy (Khris Davis) as cars zip past – but there are also enough laughs to label it a comedy without irony.
6. “The X-Files” 2018 Event Series (Fox) – Chris Carter’s resurrected series quietly cranked out 10 good-to-great episodes this year, and it’s evident that the lighter workload than the old days makes it fun again for David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Among the highlights: deceased Lone Gunman Langly is trapped on the internet; Mulder and Scully get caught in automation hell, from self-driving cars to an auto-serve restaurant; and the long-simmering William arc gets an emotional and satisfying payoff. Throw in cults, forests and monsters, and these episodes feel like the good ole days.
5. “Joe Pera Talks with You” Season 1 (Adult Swim) – Joe Pera’s comedy is one of a kind. For the sake of comparison, we could start with Bob Newhart’s buttoned-down wryness, but Pera moves that genre into a weirder age. Equal parts melancholy and gut-bustingly absurd, the series follows Joe through daily life as a music teacher in a small Michigan town. He’s smarter than most people he encounters, but also achingly more innocent as we see his interests range from the types of rocks found in the region to the features of his used car. The clincher is his could-be-romance with fellow teacher Sarah (Jo Firestone), another shy but layered character. She dresses like a grandmother yet is also a good dancer and a doomsday prepper comfortable using the toilet in front of Joe after the beans get to her.
4. “The Alienist” Season 1 (TNT) – “Sense of place” is a big factor on the top four entries on my list, but none more so than this mystery set in 1890s New York City and shot on a massive backlot in Eastern Europe. The fog and gaslit streets provide the vibe, but a lot of details show us what daily life and societal strictures were like: cops piss into a bucket at the precinct before indoor plumbing, Laszlo (Daniel Bruhl) is unable to express his love for his Hispanic maid because it is taboo, and Dakota Fanning’s Sara is looked at askance for doing a “man’s job.” The mystery of who is slaughtering young boys is a spice, but the main course is seeing the specifics of how this impromptu group of private eyes goes about solving the crimes.
3. “Sharp Objects” Season 1 (HBO) – It’s a bit slow-moving in the middle, but I never tired of soaking up the vibe of a sticky summer in the old-fashioned and deeply Southern town of Wind Gap, Missouri, which is dominated by the hog-butchering industry. Amy Adams as self-loathing Camille and Eliza Scanlen as younger sister Amma give riveting performances as we see the parallel ways they are dominated by their mother (Patricia Clarkson). The mystery of who is killing young girls may be slow-burn, but it is a good one, and “Sharp Objects” sticks the landing: The answer is something we could guess, but the way it’s revealed in a kicker, with details in the closing credits, is haunting.
2. “The Haunting of Hill House” Season 1 (Netflix) – Horror doesn’t work on traditional TV because the commercials kill the momentum, but this adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s seminal haunted-house novel proves the genre works in a streaming miniseries. The episode chronicling Nell’s (Victoria Pedretti/Violet McGraw) tragic life, where she has been stalked by the apparition of the Bent-Neck Lady, is an instant classic of psychological horror. Meanwhile, jump scares and creep-outs are peppered in, from Luke’s (Julian Hilliard) crawl-space sojourn to that popcorn-flying moment in the car in episode nine. As a bonus, those who are really into the show can play “spot the background ghost.” (Full review)
1. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” Season 2 (Amazon Prime) – A big reason for the appeal of Season 2 is simply following the Weissmans and Maisels through a Paris detour, a vacation in the Catskills and work and life in New York City’s Upper West Side. As fast-paced as the dialog is on Amy Sherman-Palladino shows, this season breathes and lets us into 1959 Jewish-American culture and wonderful characters such as Abe — a Tony Shalhoub performance so funny yet fitting for these transitional times that it displaces Adrian Monk as his best. It’s almost incidental – though no small thing – that the comedy career of Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) continues to lurchingly but steadily move forward. (Full review)