Favorite 15 TV Shows of 2018 From pot boilers & simmering reality crushes to a manic pixie psycho & cartoon avatars of our saddest moments

Welcome to Screen Week! Join us as we explore the films, TV shows, and video games that kept us staring at screens. More from this series


The horse is anthropomorphized as an unhappy man. The hitman wants to become an actor. The Russians are Americans. The living woman is the dead woman. The MI5 agent loves the killer but also tries to kill her; the killer loves the agent and could renounce killing to be with her. “With or without you,” Bono sings at the end of The Americans. But which will it be? These people have a lot of important decisions to make!

In 2018, nobody is happy with who they are. Nobody is happy with anything, really. I mean, look at these TV shows — they all have dark, unpleasant narratives about people doing bad or dumb things (or, at least the ones I watched did, and if you catch all the references in this intro, you’ll know exactly which ones those were). Everybody wants to be somebody else; or, rather, they want to be rid of a part of themselves that they hate. But do they really want to change? (Do we?) No, not really, because if they did, we wouldn’t have TV anymore, and nobody wants that. Indeed, suffering sustains television, especially today. Life and work bring deep alienation. Family breeds neuroticism and sorrow. People do terrible things to survive. And it doesn’t even stop when we die, at least according to some of these shows. You just keep dealing with it.

“What we do in life echoes in eternity,” says Maximus (Russell Crowe) in the 2000 film Gladiator. And then he dies and goes to heaven. This is also the plot of The Good Place, which stars Kristen Bell. Our favorite shows of 2018 inform us that we will forever struggle to both grasp who we are and become the people we truly wish to be, but also that the things stopping us from really “living our lives” are the institutions that determine a lot of what happens to us. But who put those institutions there? “I didn’t do it!” you say. “It wasn’t me!” You’re probably thinking that right now. And now you’re thinking, “Jeez, I just wanted to see a list of some TV shows, not be forced to think about my life.” Yeah, well, the world isn’t perfect — I mean, Van never even meets Drake! Whoa, sorry for all the spoilers. Here are two more: Better Call Saul and Kidding didn’t make this list. Fuck it, mask off.


15

My House

[Viceland]


In 2018, it seemed like the “love that dare not speak its name” couldn’t stop speaking about Ryan Murphy’s Pose — justifiably so, given the groundbreaking (!) casting of trans POC to play trans POC characters. But Pose, the cultural juggernaut of a documentary that inspired it (Paris is Burning), and the slang memes filtering through RuPaul’s Drag Race were rooted in the past of the vogue and ballroom culture they portrayed. Not so with My House, a documentary series that dipped under the radar to serve scalding hot tea from today’s scene. My House gave evidence of the evolution of vogue, from the angular “old way” style made famous by an appropriating Madonna to today’s “vogue femme” — slinking and soft, yet fierce and dramatic, an homage to the way that, as the style evolved, even “masc” gays couldn’t keep themselves from “voguing like a femme queen” [transwoman]. Gender fluidity was explored both within and outside transition — for example, in star Jelani Mizrahi’s exploits in “realness with a twist,” in which butch thuggery transmutes into feminine flamboyance. It was also a fascinating observation of the interplay of racism, poverty, violence, and outcaste status with the creation of genius art (and the desire to make it big in the mainstream — or at least achieve financial stability). Not to mention the way in which “chosen families” can both represent a lifeline to community and become an unforgiving arena of competition. The ballroom scene may be “legendary,” but its present is as vibrant as its past. Best served over a Kiki, with a twist of Tangerine.


14

The Haunting of Hill House

Created by: Mike Flanagan

[Netflix]


Shirley Jackson is the still-unparalleled doyenne of cozy horror, and the thought of a “reboot” of her classic novel The Haunting of Hill House filled me with dread — and not in a good way. The book seems reliant on its medium, being a gorgeous and hallucinatory narrative of self-harm, surrealism, suppressed sexuality, and subtle scares. But the series, which focused on death in the family at the titular dwelling, was an important entry into the “grief horror” canon (and nervily frightening to boot), joining modern classics like Mike Flanagan’s own Absentia, The Babadook, and Hereditary. Hill House, the series, was a tale in which the real horror was the friends we made along the way — the horror of loss, of betrayal, of greed, of addiction. The horror of our human flaws and the harm we do, wittingly and unwittingly, to others. It also explored a metaphysical question at the root of umpteen religions and philosophies: in a world so full of inevitable suffering, would it be a better choice to simply step out of the cycle, to cease existence and its endless becoming? While it’s unfortunate that all this (not to mention Jackson herself) was betrayed in a saccharine, on-the-nose, gender-normative final episode, let’s just think of that as just another ghost at a dark and delicious banquet.


13

Mosaic

Created by: Steven Soderbergh

[HBO]


2018 gave us another two works (the other being the gleefully regressive lark, Unsane) in a steady run of rewardingly rich yet workmanlike character-driven pot boilers from a living master of the form. While some are content to make splashy would-be Coen-esque mirthfests, Soderbergh patiently put his idiosyncratic archetypes through their paces with a carefully pitched earnestness. Bemusement may have occasionally played a part, but the subtle, simmering performances and intimate cinematography helped the emotional intrigue make a case for itself. The dreamy washes of barely-focused, available-light distortion (a trademark of the director, though here it felt reminiscent of Vinterberg’s Festen) was a big draw, but Jennifer Ferrin’s (a highlight of Soderbergh’s The Knick) raw but sympathetic Petra was a welcome splash of cold water. Hedlund ably subverted his innate sex appeal, letting his character’s latent weakness and despondency show him in proper unflattering form. And Sharon Stone was better than she’s been in years, igniting isolated celebrity Olivia Lake as a woman often both fearless and terrified. All this and a Devin Ratray and one could easily forget they could’ve been clicking through it all on their phone.


12

Homecoming

Created by: Micah Bloomberg, Eli Horowitz & Sam Esmail

[Amazon Prime Video]


As a podcast, Homecoming’s first victory was an illustration of a new radio drama. Some cycle of media nostalgia made an opening for the radio play’s return, and Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg jumped right in. Its second victory came this year in its TV adaptation. The show capitalized on the same nostalgic feeding tubes as the podcast, using practically every overt melodrama tactic in the book. We’re talking vignette, aspect ratio, wide shots, cliffhangers, overbearing music — the whole nine yards. In the same way the podcast overstimulated our ears to draw out its effect, the show overstimulated just about everything we’ve got. It’s easy to turn up a nose at this overdoing, but a dramatic historian could find real pleasure in its playful non-playfulness. There was nothing concealed in its style, only in its story. And, at the end of the day, Homecoming gave a massive dose of poignancy on the same thematic elements that built up its early-20th-century Germanic predecessors on the radio. From Goethe’s Faust: “As long as on the earth endures his life / To deal with him have full and free permission; / Man’s hour on earth is weakness, error, strife.”


11

Barry

Created by: Alec Berg & Bill Hader

[HBO]


On premise alone, Barry sounded like it would be quite the enjoyable half-hour dark comedy. A hitman who has become disenchanted with his line of work travels to Los Angeles for a job, only to discover his true passion after stumbling into an acting class. The Barry of Barry desperately wants to be “normal,” or to at least be perceived as “normal.” But, as you might expect when your job is to literally kill people, “normal” can be kinda hard to come by. Despite how its premise sounds, this show wasn’t some quirky fish-out-of-water tale. Is it funny? Absolutely, it’s hilarious and exceptionally well-written and acted. As Barry gets so caught up in his vision of a “normal” life, however, it all spirals to the point where he does things that really put the “dark” in dark comedy. Barry wants to be an actor, to pretend to be someone else for a living. Yet, up to the final moments of this excellent first season, he is repeatedly reminded just how difficult it can be for one to escape who they really are.

Welcome to Screen Week! Join us as we explore the films, TV shows, and video games that kept us staring at screens. More from this series


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