Thursday, January 31, 2019

Best Shows of 2018

I'm not gonna lie, Marvel is taking up too much of my TV watching time. At some point I decided to watch everything that's part of the Cinematic Universe, and that's resulted in a lot of hours spent on shows that aren't that good. Hopefully the recent Netflix purge helps with that. For now, I stand by the shows on this list, but I wish I had spent more time watching series that other people seem really into.

Best of 2018

8. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FXX)

One of the things I appreciate about Sunny is that even in its old age it's always trying new stuff. Some of the stuff they tried this season definitely didn't work, but a lot of it did. The most notable was Ripped Mac, which both recalled Fat Mac from back in season 7, but also played into the finale, which I won't spoil but which you might already know about because it was the most talked-about Sunny episode in years. As long as this show exists I'll keep watching it just to see the next weird thing they try.

7. Legion (FX)

Legion's second season was not as good as the first. The weirdness felt like it was for its own sake more often than before, and it was a little more difficult to track whatever main plot there was. Still, I like the show a lot. Interesting characters and performances, the weird scenes are still fascinating even when they ARE weird for its own sake, and I'm really curious where things are going.

6. The Last Man on Earth (FOX)

Unfortunately, this was the final season of the show, and it was canceled before we got to see where it was going. The gang's trip to Mexico provided plenty of the expected laughs and pathos, as well as a great suspense element as flashbacks showed the possibility of a danger they had no way of knowing about. You can definitely say there was a formula at this point, but it was a unique formula that almost always worked. I'll miss these goofballs and their hopes of making a new world in the devastation of the old one.

5. The Deuce (HBO)

The Deuce's second season made a big jump forward in time, to a period when the porn industry was really getting into full swing and New York's government was trying a lot harder to crack down on the city's seedy underground. As expected from a David Simon show, there's a ton of characters and story threads that are constantly being balanced like spinning plates, and they rarely if ever fall to the ground. Sometimes I like a show with a bit more focus, but there's rarely a moment with this show that I don't enjoy on some level.

4. The Venture Bros. (Adult Swim)

I'm absolutely shocked that there was a new season of The Venture Bros. and that I liked it a lot. Due to some weird behind the scenes stuff (the writers had less time last season than they thought, so the beginning of this one is essentially wrap-up for what was supposed to happen a couple years ago) they don't really have time to develop a clear through line, so it's less about the grand overarching story and more just developing the characters some more. That stuff is always great though, so it's hard to complain. It remains the densest animated series I've seen, and assuming another season is coming, I'm ready for the long wait to see what happens next.

3. The Little Drummer Girl (AMC)

I can't really say I'm surprised that one of my favorite directors (Park Chan-wook) made an adaptation of an acclaimed novel by one of my favorite authors (John le Carré) and that it turned out well. There's nothing too unique about this spy thriller (to be brief, Israeli spies hire a British actress to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist cell), it's just exceptionally well put-together. The story is a bit unpredictable, the acting (especially Michael Shannon and Florence Pugh) is fantastic, and Park's directing is up to par for his career.

2. The Good Place (NBC)

The Good Place's second season is one of the most daring and exciting I've seen a sitcom produce. After the twist at the end of the previous season, it was easy to see how they could repeat the formula with a few little twists. Instead, the show constantly invents new status quos and throws them out as soon as it has another cool idea. The writers realize that stagnation is the death of comedy, and when you have a whole afterlife to play with, there's no reason to drain every concept you have until its lifeless. The ensemble cast remains great as their chemistry grows and they get deeper into their characters. I guess it's worth mentioning that as I'm writing this, the third season has already concluded. But that happened in 2019, and I'm writing about TV that had its season finish in 2018. Sometimes this stuff gets weird.

1. Better Call Saul (AMC)

I'm not sure what else I can say about the team behind Breaking Bad and now Better Call Saul. They're masters of this stuff, and they knocked it of the park again. Mike's story continues to do more work establishing how the things that were already in place when Walter White arrived came to be, and it has at least one surprising turn that makes it memorable. Jimmy's story continues to be a bit more vibrant though, exploring territory that isn't quite as familiar. What I'm really curious about is how close we're going to get to Breaking Bad's beginning before the show concludes. At least one more season is coming!

Delayed Entry

This is the best show that didn't air in 2018 but I didn't watch until then.

Oz (HBO)

I partly watched Oz because it was the last show from Alan Sepinwall's book The Revolution Was Televised (a good overview of the most important TV dramas from the late 90s through the 00s) that I hadn't seen. Oz was interesting both as a cultural artifact as well as a show by itself. The cast is full of actors who have gone on to more prominent roles since, and the ways it diverges from the writing structure pretty much every other serialized drama uses are fascinating. It has recognizable character arcs and storylines that run through seasons, but rather than giving each one a few minutes of attention every episode, it's more willing to focus on specific stories for long stretches and ignore others until its time to revisit them. The show occasionally strains credibility - if any real experimental prison unit had anywhere close to the murder rate of Em City's, there's no way it wouldn't be shut down - but it was nonetheless intriguing throughout.

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