This was a surprisingly tough list to write! There was a lot of good TV this year, but more importantly, there was a lot of interesting TV this year, and that’s no bad thing. Although I’m happy with how this list turned out, here’s a bunch of shows I really want to talk about before we put 2018 in the pile with all the other terrible years: Sharp Objects & Insecure, for being the best shows I only watched a couple of episodes this year and also for probably belonging on this list; The Good Place, for being almost perfect when binged but also kiiiiind of a chore to watch week-to-week; unREAL, for being the absolute messiest show four years running; The Terror, for being my problematic fave; The Haunting of Hill House, for its unbelievably strong first half and skin-peelingly awful second half; and Big Little Lies, for being the show that would’ve topped my list had I watched it in time last year.
10. BoJack Horseman Season Five
BoJack Horseman might be the only known example of a creative team properly applying praise, and for that alone it deserves some measure of accolade. As you might expect from a television show that is regularly a pure manifestation of anxiety and depression, BoJack is fully aware of its strengths and its weaknesses, doing its best to lean into the former and course-correct the latter. Diane’s trip to Vietnam feels like the show trying to balance its pre-Ghost in the Shell whitewashing with a story about non-white cultural identity, while this season’s big Industry Project leads to plenty of shots at how disturbingly ready we are to forgive male anti-heroes both in media and in real life.
That same project also leads to plenty of shots at the mad dash to produce original video content, since BoJack Horseman remains as much a comedy as it is a sucking-air-through-teeth-style drama, expertly combining both tones in series highlight and Will Arnett acting flex Free Churro. This is probably the most Intentionally Uncomfortable™ season of BoJack Horseman to date, but it’s still just as funny as ever. Take all that how you will.
Best Episode: Free Churro (obviously)
9. Mr. Mercedes (Season Two)
Hey, speaking of the mad dash to produce original video content! I guarantee none of you have seen this show, and unless you resort to illegal means, you likely never will! It’s AT&T Original Programming, available only to subscribers of the DirectTV-only Audience Network, and I have to imagine that’s a fairly slim demographic. Based on the sheer glut of corporate interests in that sentence alone, I think it will be quite some time before you can expect to see this show on Hulu, which is a genuine shame.
Mr. Mercedes is a real page-turner of a TV show, following the occasionally supernatural cat-and-mouse game between serial killer Brady Hartsfield (Harry Treadaway) and retired homicide detective Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson), set apart by some of the best character writing in the business. Conversations flow naturally and the protagonists are both smart and proactive, keeping the show’s pace moving at a perfect clip as the balance of power constantly shifts. If people manage to keep the Mr Mercedes torch alive, I think this show will be remembered very fondly once the Audience Network inevitably crashes and the whole series ends up in syndication. Just keep an eye out for this season’s even weirder left turn into mind control, the characters just go with it and you should too.
Best Episode: Missed You
8. Killing Eve (Season One)
Hey, speaking of cat-and-mouse dynamics and good character writing! Killing Eve is an interesting counterpoint to Mr. Mercedes, in part because the dynamic between offbeat but indomitable MI6 agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) and stylish international assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer) is far more complex than the mutual hatred that powers Mercedes. It’s legitimately unclear how the two feel about each other, but not because the writing isn’t there – rather, it’s because even Villanelle and Eve aren’t completely sure either. Do they want to kill each other? Are they falling in love? Do they think they can flip the other to their respective worldview? Eve claims she’s just fascinated by female psychopaths, and the show practically states outright that Villanelle sees something in Eve that reminds her of a love from her past, but whatever their initial reasons for crossing paths, the characters rethink their relationship after each clash, beautifully intertwining story progression and character development. Both the leads are putting on classic performances, buoyed by a memorable and often genuinely funny supporting cast that I hope will get more time to shine as the show continues to blow up in popularity. The only reason it’s not higher on this list is the show’s use of licensed music, which often interrupts the drama and keeps you from getting invested in whatever’s happening.
Best episode: God, I’m Tired
7. Ugly Delicious (Season One)
I don’t love the fact that Netflix is as prominent on this list as it is, but I didn’t want to punish Ugly Delicious for the ubiquity of its parent company – because it’s one of the best docu-series I’ve ever seen. Ugly Delicious attempts to patch the extremely tragic Anthony Bourdain-shaped hole in popular culture with an illuminating and deeply personal look into a wide variety of comfort food. The show is framed more around conversation and even the occasional debate, giving restaurateurs and chefs a chance to get excited about their craft with equally knowledgeable people. Netflix’s brilliant new content strategy of being the home of warm, inviting reality television (see also: Terrace House, Tidying Up, Queer Eye) is what the company should be remembered for, not garbage like Bird Box.
Best Episode: Shrimp and Crawfish
6. Joe Pera Talks With You (Season One)
I don’t even know how to sell this show, which makes me respect the writing team all the more for being able to pitch it. Pera’s comedic style is that of a great-grandfather trapped in the body of a 30-year-old; a warm and naive man who finds excitement in the most mundane facets of life. Speaking directly to the audience like he belongs in a kinder, bizarro version of House of Cards, Pera explains his thought process on concepts such as breakfast, dancing, and fall drives. Of course, the fall drive is to “re-grow [his] soul” and the endgame for the drive is gently pushing a slightly rotten jack-o-lantern off a waterfall in an obsessive-compulsive ritual that will prevent his grandmother from dying. It’s hard to critique this show, because its funniest moments are so deeply entrenched in their own context that explaining why I laughed so hard and so frequently isn’t possible unless you’ve seen the actual episode. At the very least, the show’s dedication to making the mundane seem weird and vice versa certainly makes it worth a look, especially if you’re in the mood for something weird yet non-confrontive.
Best episode: Joe Pera Reads You The Church Announcements
5. Atlanta: Robbin’ Season
This year’s list was a real challenge to order, in part because there really is nothing else like Atlanta on television right now. Why would there be? The Glover brothers (along with a stable of talented directors that includes critical darling Hiro Murai) have effortlessly iterated on their shared vision for a show that manages to unite the disparate tones of magical realism, horror, and dramedy, all while delivering some of the most uniquely structured social commentary you’re likely to find on any network.
More than anything else, Atlanta is deeply memorable, each episode is packed with little moments of every kind that just stick deep in your subconscious and refuse to shake themselves loose; a nuance of performance, an extremely funny joke, an unsettling visual, a surprisingly heartfelt moment, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Even if the show’s inventive spirit begins to fade, well-rounded characters like Van, Alfred, and Earn should keep Atlanta in the good books for quite a while.
Best episode: Teddy Perkins
4. American Vandal (Season Two)
American Vandal’s second season is just as good as the first, in all the ways that matter. The new characters are well-realized, this season’s crime is a welcome escalation, the investigation develops in creative & unique ways, and it’s still as uproariously funny as you would expect. But the sequel to last year’s word-of-mouth-powered critical darling makes its mission statement clearer than ever with a shockingly complex look at online personae and the concept of the “real you,” delivered through some of the all-around best high school characters ever seen in fiction. DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg) is a particular revelation, a beautifully layered character performed exceptionally well by Gregg, balancing the audience’s constantly shifting interpretations of his character against who that person truly is deep down with aplomb. American Vandal is just as timely and relevant as the documentaries it parodies, thanks to its fictional nature, but it’s also a hell of a lot more relatable.
Best Episode: The Dump
3. The Americans (Season Six)
In the endless grind of Prestige Television, The Americans was my oasis away from theorycrafting and thinkpieces. There’s no complicated timeline to work out, nor a growing dissatisfaction that gives the final season a sense of obligation, or even an anthology gimmick that eventually peels away to reveal a shared universe. No, The Americans was just a really damn good TV show that kept being good until it was over.
The show’s last season delivered on almost every promise set up by the pilot episode, paying off years of slow-burning character work in one fell swoop. The Americans has always rewarded careful viewing – not through intense foreshadowing, but rather through meaningful silences and layered performances. You could always see vague sketches of the future in the characters’ eyes, so even though the show’s last season never really surprised, it still brought all the sharp personality-focused drama the audience had come to expect.
Best Episode: START
2. Barry (Season One)
Barry is about a Midwestern hitman who travels to Los Angeles for a job, only to decide that he wants to stay there and become an actor rather than keep killing people. He then splits most of his time between a crummy acting class and pulling a series of jobs that will get him supposedly get him out of the game for good. Since the best weapon in Barry’s arsenal is its ability to surprise, I don’t want to spoil anything about the show beyond that. Just know that it’s the funniest show of the year and Bill Hader absolutely kills it. No pun intended.
Best Episode: Loud, Fast, and Keep Going
1. Better Call Saul (Season Four)
I didn’t know Bob Odenkirk had it in him. The former Mr. Show star’s eponymous performance as future criminal lawyer Jimmy McGill is the foundation of Better Call Saul; if the character-centric prequel doesn’t have a compelling central character, the whole show doesn’t work. But it does, so it does. Odenkirk’s McGill is a better version of the same arc seen in Breaking Bad with Walter White, in part because Walter is obviously a put-upon jerk from the word go, and the show’s arc is about slowly revealing the person Walter truly is to the rest of the world and, arguably, himself. Jimmy is aware of his weaknesses and foibles, but struggles against them in the hopes of becoming a better person, which makes him more dynamic and sympathetic. For all of Odenkirk’s career-best moments as an actor in this show alone, he truly shines whenever Jimmy is alone with his thoughts, ruminating on a life as a square peg in a round hole.
Odenkirk’s quality of performance is matched across the entire series, but Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler is one of the real standouts. Kim is the protagonist of a whole other show – and inarguably the hero of Better Call Saul – who is doing her best to guide the man she loves through an extreme crisis of character while also kick-starting her career in banking law. Seehorn plays someone who is often the smartest person in the room, but still has the self-awareness and heart necessary to not lord it over everyone else.
It’s challenging to both write and portray a Good Person who the audience is generally supposed to like, but Kim Wexler is the current standard bearer for that archetype in television. Kim feels like Gilligan’s second draft of Skyler White; the love interest who will be the most painful emotional casualty of her partner’s turn to darkness – except this time she’s not as much of an antagonistic force in Jimmy’s narrative. And won’t that make things even sadder when Jimmy finally snaps at her in a way he can’t take back?
The show’s direction also brings forward the stylistic departures seen in Breaking Bad’s last season, resulting in a show that’s as visually dynamic as it is narratively. Even the Jimmy-adjacent tale of the southwestern drug cartels is buoyed by meaningful visual storytelling, which itself is anchored by superb character work. Each aspect of Better Call Saul works in symbiosis to make the best TV show possible, which in turn makes it the best show of the year.
Best Episode: Quite A Ride