Emma Stone and Jonah Hill in Netflix's Maniac.
This year’s television shows continued to make the medium difficult to define, let alone rank. Traditional, serialized shows exist side by side with limited series that play more like six-hour-long movies. How does one compare a deftly written second of a character-driven show to a dazzling limited series operating as a showcase for an exciting director? In addition, how we consume these programs that vastly vary from show to show, network to network? HBO still sticks to Sunday nights, Netflix releases all episodes of a season at once, Hulu does a hybrid of dropping a few episodes to start then releasing one episode per week, and Amazon has experimented with multiple releasing strategies. While seemingly trivial, this deeply affects not only how people process shows, but also what shows they even watch to begin with. The CEO of FX announced a record number of scripted shows airing in 2018, making it difficult for critics, and particularly media-obsessed college students such as yours truly, to see all the shows that air in a given year. Plus, with the sheer mass of shows available, viewers tend to stay within their comfort zones, watching shows of only certain genres, topics, and tones.
All this being said, here are a few of the many more shows I wish I saw but sadly did not: Escape at Dannemora, My Brilliant Friend, Lodge 49, Narcos: Mexico, Wild Wild Country, Glow, The Americans, and Better Call Saul. On to the honorable mentions!
Honorable Mentions (from least to most honorable)
To its detriment, Westworld doubles down on creating puzzle box mysteries instead of developing satisfying character arcs in its sophomore season. But what mysteries these are! Watching the show on a week by week basis and stalking Reddit for theories proved an immensely enjoyable experience, earning the show a honorable mention. While the viewing experience may be dampened when binging, watching this season is still worth the time as the finale provides the creators will an intriguing starting point for season three.
Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj
The only non-narrative show on this list, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj updates the political comedy talk show format popularized by The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight. An alumnus of The Daily Show himself, Hasan Minhaj continues to hone the innate storytelling abilities he displayed in his Netflix special Homecoming King. A son of immigrants, Minhaj provides a vitally unique perspective on today’s issues, covering a new topic every week. It looks like Netflix has finally found its hit late night show.
Season: Limited Series
Patrick Melrose allows Benedict Cumberbatch to shine as an upper-class Englishman struggling with alcohol and drug abuse. Despite its mere five episodes, the series covers a lot of time, providing a nuanced glimpse into the life of an addict, from childhood through getting clean as a middle-aged man. Difficult to recommend due to a brutally intense and formidable second episode that depicts Patrick’s childhood traumas, Patrick Melrose nevertheless impresses with an award worthy lead performance and immaculate product designs, narrowly missing out on a place on this list.
10. Killing Eve
Network: BBC America
An international game of cat and mouse between a serial assassin and an agent obsessing over her crimes, Killing Eve features two of the best performances in television this year. Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer imbue their characters with personality, their chemistry on screen selling their characters’ complex relationship. Written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Killing Eve is a female-driven show behind and in front of the camera, but above all else, it is damn entertaining. While the show wanes towards the end, not encouraging for a seemingly forced second season, this remains a delightful season of television.
An interesting pairing with the number ten slot, Barry stars Bill Hader as an assassin, who discovers his true passion of stage acting. After following a mark to an acting class, Barry takes to the stage, claiming he has found his purpose in life. Mixing dark humor and genuine thrills, Barry marks a significant career shift for Hader, who created and even directed some of the series. With episodes clocking in at thirty minutes, Barry represents an enjoyable and low commitment binge for those looking to catch up for its greenlit season two.
8. The Deuce
Time jumping six years to 1977, the second season of George Pelicanos’ and David Simon’s The Deuce immediately reintroduces the show’s characters while showing what six years has done to them. With Vincent now managing a new dance club, Abby takes over managing the Hi-Hat. Candy has cemented herself as a producing talent and seeks to direct her own films that will crossover to mainstream appeal. Frankie, of course, is just as crazy as ever. Continuing to track the sex trade in New York City as prostitution is shuffled indoors, Times Square is slowly cleaned up, and pornographic films become a viable monetary commodity, the second season of The Deuce sees Pelicanos and Simon doing what they do best: delving into a wide exploration of how corruption spreads throughout a city.
Centering on a Murdoch-esque family in New York City, Succession sees the aging family patriarch and owner of a news and mass media company growing ill, throwing his children into a race to see who will assume power. Featuring a strong ensemble cast, many publications have claimed the show takes a few episodes to reach its eventual high quality. While the series does improve as it goes along, this is not the fault of the earlier episodes. The characters are just so despicable that it takes time to fall for their charms and quirks. While I did not find myself rooting for many of the characters to succeed in the show, they eventually became some of my favorite characters on television. Hilarious in its takedown of the rich, Succession is without a doubt one of the most anticipated shows returning in 2019.
6. Big Mouth
Created by Georgetown alumnus Nick Kroll along with his childhood friend Andrew Goldberg, who both based the show on their childhood, Big Mouth continues to explore the adolescent experience. Balancing gross-out gags with the witty deliveries Kroll and fellow Hoya John Mulaney (who voices Andrew) have made their careers out of, the show deliveries laughs at an incredible rate. Standout episode “The Planned Parenthood Show” best conveys the tone of the show, featuring a variety of sketches riffing off of everything from The Bachelorette to Woody Allen films, all highlighting the various functions of Planned Parenthood. God, I wish this show existed when I was in sixth grade.
5. Sharp Objects
Season: Limited Series
Proof that moving from film to television in 2018 is not the demotion it once was, Sharp Objects features immense talent on both sides of the camera. Adapted from Gillian Flynn’s debut novel, the show stars Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson and is directed entirely by Jean-Marc Valée. Adams plays a reporter living in St. Louis, who returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to cover the murder of a teenage girl. The show moves at a slow pace, its director more interested in exploring how the protagonist’s teenage traumas affect her mental state as she re-enters her small suburb and tries to reconnect with her matriarchal mother (Clarkson). For those looking to experience a specific place and mood along with their murder mystery, Sharp Objects provides a satisfying watch.
4. The Little Drummer Girl
Season: Limited Series
Following 2016’s adaptation of The Night Manager, The Little Drummer Girl marks AMC and the BBC’s second adaptation of a John le Carré novel in recent years, and, just as they did the first time, they have managed to produce a magnificent limited series. Going undercover into a terrorist cell, Charlie (Florence Pugh) uses her skills as a stage actress to survive as she is thrusted into the world of international espionage. Director Park Chan-Wook helms all six episodes, which essentially play as a six-hour-long film. AMC even aired two episodes a night for three consecutive nights. Chan-Wook utilizes many mirrors and reflections to visualize the various roles the undercover agents play, blurring the reality and fiction of their identities. Beautifully shot and imbued with impeccable style, few spy thrillers on the silver or small screen have matched the quality of The Little Drummer Girl.
Season: Limited Series
The Greek God of television directors returns! After starting the trend of directing an entire season of a prestige television drama by him/herself with the mesmerizing first season of True Detective, Cary Fukunaga returns to the small screen with Maniac. Starring Jonah Hill and Emma Stone, the show follows two characters, who sign up for a clinical drug trial in a Blade Runner-esque alternate future. The drug in question aims to eradicate emotional pain. In this process, the patients have a series of drug-induced trips where they confront the traumas of their past, which has already lead many subjects to suffer from mental illnesses. These trips allow Fukunaga to play with a variety of genres, including high fantasy, a darkly humorous tale reminiscent of the Coen Brothers, and a supernatural séance. Visually stunning at every turn, Fukunaga and his crew developed a fully fleshed out world that I only wish I could have explored longer.
Taking a break from his duties serving as both writer and director of Mr. Robot, Sam Esmail directs Julia Roberts in Homecoming. Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, a psychiatrist at a transitional support facility for veterans returning from war. Heidi operates at the mercy of her boss Colin (Bobby Cannavale), whose desires skew much more corporate than Heidi’s. The show jumps between this timeline and one in the future, in which Heidi clearly does not seem herself. As an agent from the Department of Defense investigates an incident in this future timeline that Heidi cannot remember, nor any of her time at Homecoming for that matter, the mysteries around program’s true goals slowly unravel. Ever the stylist, Esmail harkens back to the paranoid filmmaking of seventies’ thrillers with his direction, creating a tense atmosphere. A rare thirty-minute drama, everyone with an Amazon Prime account should watch this excellent show.
Far and away the best show on television, somehow Atlanta managed to go underrated in its sophomore season. Delivering iconic episodes such as “Teddy Perkins” and “The Woods,” Atlanta continued to leave viewers clueless about what would happen during each week’s episode. Brian Tyree Henry, Donald Glover, and Lakeith Stanfield continue to deliver the best performances on television, while director Hiro Murai never ceases to provide unparalleled visuals. Switching tones and genres at will, Donald Glover’s show eschews classification, living up to Glover's original description of the show as “Twin Peaks with rappers.” Sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying, but always deeply moving, Atlanta embodies the best the medium can offer, all while echoing the unpredictable and surreal nature of our current society.