It’s dangerous to begin a breezy Top 10 list with a bit of meta-commentary on lists in general, but some critical voices have started to question the usefulness of Top 10s considering the arbitrary nature of when a year starts and stops. That’s ridiculous and—upon further reflection—a bit naive over what a year-end list can signify in the first place.
Art is always reflective. It portrays our fears, hopes, loves, values, beefs and frustrations, and it illustrates our inner selves in a way that lets other people in. Under that premise, it can be said that every story we tell in popular culture is indicative of the preeminent fears, hopes, values, etc. that pervade culture in that time. So, when we read a Top 10 list, we should be reading a cultural collage of what mattered to people, not just TV, in 2018.
That was the thinking behind this endeavor. Now presenting RELEVANT’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2018, with not just excellence considered, but urgency and import, too. Let’s begin.
Tyler Huckabee said it best when he wrote: “Too often television shows feel like they go through the motions of Christianity, pandering and aping lazy stereotypes, but Daredevil’s religion feels lived-in.” The tragic cancellation of Daredevil marks not just the end of Marvel’s best show, but the end of one of the best faith explorations on television, period. The third season was harder-hitting than ever, but the show’s brutal indictments of religious hypocrisy and deep-felt questions over what solace—if any—faith can provide amid suffering hit harder than any punch Matt Murdock took beneath the mask.
9. Sharp Objects
Sometimes when suffering is explained, it becomes less knowable. The final scene of Sharp Objects is so unforgettable it almost incinerates every impression of the previous episodes, yet the show was great enough to resonate aside from that closing twist. Delivering peak work from Amy Adams and director Jean-Marc Vallée (Big Little Lies), plus an IV drip of dense, lethargic atmosphere, this show lulled you into a trance before its ending rendered you sickeningly, painfully sober. This reality couldn’t be possible. That was the point.
Appropriate given its story, Maniac delivered some of the most delirious highs of the year in television, changing so wildly episode-to-episode the only way to interact with it was on a basic sensory level; turn it on and let yourself go. While some struggled with that in light of the show’s intense metaphor—it begged to be unpacked—others would say this reactivity made Maniac well-suited to repeat viewings (doses?). Jonah Hill, Emma Stone and Cary Fukunaga were experimenting here at a frantic rate, but regardless of its wide variance across genre, style and tone, the rush of Maniac never faded. The aims here were ambitious, but when the risks paid off and you caught the vision, the connection felt sublime.
7. BoJack Horseman
BoJack Horseman is like a kick in the groin: It’s funny on the outside but on the inside oh man does it hurt, and hurt in a deep, uncomfortable, stomach-numbing way. Dark comedies are pervasive on television, but BoJack continually transcends its label by weaving its jokes with astute cultural satire and character beats so raw you have no choice but to turn inward. The fifth season’s sixth episode, “Free Churro,” is a microcosmic highlight. It will make you curl up into a ball whether you’re laughing, crying or both at once.
6. American Vandal
American Vandal is the class clown that becomes valedictorian; it’s a paradox of sophomoric smarts that achieves more and more success with every foul bathroom joke. This year’s second season caught the magic of the first and then some, delivering heartfelt teenager truths alongside some of the best comedic set pieces of the year. High school life is marked by an intensity of feeling, when a crude drawing is the funniest thing ever and one bad IG post can ruin your life. American Vandal is a time capsule of those social anxieties. It feels like being a kid in 2018. It’s a poop show that can make you cry.
5. Better Call Saul
No show justifies the “expanded universe” model more than Better Call Saul, a spin-off of an all-time TV drama that some say surpasses its source material. Regardless of your opinion on those lofty words, Saul is one of the best character dramas on television, painting arcs so vibrant and lush that when the show reaches its small-scale emotional moments—the reading of a letter or a punctuating pair of finger guns—the force equals that of any Game of Thrones death or Mad Men shouting match. The anti-hero construction is alive and well, and Saul proves that done right, it’s still rich ground for ideating on what makes good people do bad things.
Here’s our first unqualified superlative: GLOW has the best ensemble on television. Betty Gilpin and Alison Brie are giving the best performances of their careers, but Britt Baron, Marc Maron, Kate Nash, Sydelle Noel, Kia Stevens and Britney Young are first-rate workers as well, essential pieces in this charming band of wrestling misfits. If you’re still holding out on “that women’s wrestling show,” quit playing heel and turn face: GLOW is one of the best comedies on TV, dealing with important, under-explored themes (female friendship, motherhood, female identity) and doing so with an uncompromising sense of fun. This is the ultimate fist-pump show. How can you not stand up and cheer for it?
The creative highs of Atlanta extend past anything else on television by tens of thousands of feet. The best episodes of season two—”Teddy Perkins,” “Woods,” “FUBU”—double as a short-list for best TV episodes of the year, and even when the show is inscrutable within those episodes, it remains fascinating, revisitable and crackling with energy. Donald Glover might be the person of the year, and Atlanta has become the catch-all bucket for his POV. It contains multitudes, reaching far and wide and encompassing so much about culture, fear, belonging and survival. Other shows in 2018 brought the exact revelations we were hoping for, but Atlanta was essential because it challenged us in ways unanticipated. The one nagging thought in the wake of it all: It feels possible this show can become even better. Atlanta isn’t done with us.
2. The Good Place
This is going to be a weird comparison, but nevertheless, The Good Place is like the greatest granola bar you’ve ever had. It’s rich with energy, chock full of nuttiness, salty in its observations and sweet with its characters. It’s bound together with a smooth honey-like rhythm and dipped in just a tiny bit of indulgent, finger-sticking chocolate. The Good Place is the single most pleasurable thing on television, but the rush it delivers brings pure intellectual and creative fuel, none of the crash. It has the perfect recipe.
And yet, the best thing about The Good Place is how much it messes with that recipe. The series has gone from goofy musings on heaven and hell to deep philosophical pondering that just now is approaching the topics of grace, mercy and works. The show isn’t as much interested in giving answers as it is asking tons of questions, but that’s fine, because asking questions aligns the show with where most of us are right now, and—some might argue—where most of us should be when it comes to our belief systems.
You could devote this entire section to individual pieces of the show: Kristen Bell, the immortal Ted Dansen, D’Arcy Carden’s season-three breakout, Adam Scott’s demonic cameo, the Bad Place jokes, the twists on twists on twists … The Good Place has positives for days. But it also has positivity for days, and that makes for a satisfying, nutritious treat amid a year when we were starving for anything optimistic.
1. The Americans
There was perhaps no greater challenge in 2018 than that of interrogating your allegiances. Brought on by criticism from the White House, scandal in Hollywood, brokenness inside the church and a deep cultural fracturing across almost every aspect of modern life, 2018 demanded you look at your personal values and decide where you align and break away from your family members, friends, coworkers, church fellows and role models. This meant perhaps finding conflicts in your life that were marked before by a simple—but perhaps false—tranquility.
For six seasons, The Americans explored allegiance through some of the greatest dramatic television of the modern era. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell entered the pantheon of Great TV Characters with their portrayal of Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, and showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields sent them out on a high note. This year’s series finale, “START” —through euphoric musical cues (U2! U2! U2!), inevitable confrontations (the parking garage, the hockey bleachers) and cathartic closing monologues—underlined the Cold War-esque paranoia that marks our time. Today, distrust and division comes not just by your national leanings, but by your entire identity.
The Jennings’ greatest enemy was exposure, and that threat still pervades individual American lives. What if your church finds out you’re undocumented? What if your parents find out you decided to study computers instead of medicine? What if politics come up at Christmas dinner? What if abortion comes up? Religion? The NFL protests?
On The Americans, ultimate exposure had consequences. As the Jennings were found out, their relationships to each other, their children, their neighbors and their countries changed forever. They didn’t escape clean. They lost. Nothing felt more true on TV this year. In 2018, being open about your values meant people changed the way they looked at you. For some—for the Jennings—it meant never being able to go home again.
And yet, the series ends on a hopeful note, when Philip and Elizabeth decide, ultimately, to be loyal to each other. They’re still different, but unified. It would seem impossible if you couldn’t see it, but their unity is found by way of a critical distinction, one The Americans illustrated to perfection and one the rest of popular culture doesn’t articulate enough: tolerance and acceptance. One identifies difference and keeps it at a distance. The other sees it, reaches for it, brings it close and—without asking it to change—loves it anyway. There was no more important message on television this year. The Americans is the greatest show of 2018.