It’s an exhausting time to watch TV. There are so many shows. There are so many movie stars. There is so much money being spent. The episodes are so long. The scenes are so dark, literally. All that money spent and no one bothered to turn on the lights!
Between all those robot cowboys staging uprisings, ghosts haunting that Hill House, straight guys being made over by queer eyes, sitcoms being brought back from the dead, and Jason Batemans being dead-serious, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s all just… too much.
That old dad joke back when cable and satellite first started to infiltrate the cul-de-sacs—“all these channels but nothing to watch!”—seems especially true now that there are more than 500 TV series made each year. All those fresh options, and yet Netflix still just shelled out $100 million because, in the end, apparently we all just really want to watch Friends reruns.
Our running list of the best shows we watched this year surpassed 90 series. When reviewing it to compile this piece, we realized it was less a survey of the best TV the year had to offer than a collection of shows that were, sure, fine enough. There’s more TV than ever, but the selection of the truly great is still as finite as it’s ever been. But while the state of television seems to be at an existential crossroads, the best it has to offer is, thankfully, superb.
So here’s our picks. You probably won’t agree! That’s OK! I mean, I’m right, unequivocally. But you’re entitled to your opinion, too. Enjoy:
20. The Great British Baking Show
With trauma, tragedy, unrest, and fearmongering engaged in a seemingly never-ending battle royale, there’s been a spike in the desire for TV “comfort food.” The Great British Baking Show is the quite literal embodiment of that. But more, the baking competition, which premiered its sixth “collection” in America on Netflix this year, is a lesson to the reality TV genre: kindness and earnestness are often more entertaining than conniving and cynicism.
These contestants genuinely love each other, hold hands through eliminations and assist each other during meltdowns. Even host Sandi Toksvig finds herself crying as she bids adieu to favorite bakers. More, for all of its cutesy color saturation and undercurrent of politeness, it still produces a thrilling competition with enchanting characters—the stalwart Briony, brittle Rahul, crush-worthy Ruby—to root for. We once considered the British import a slight indulgence. Now we realize it’s anything but empty calories.
19. A Very English Scandal
It’s the kind of story that’s almost too unbelievable to be true. In the 1970s in Britain, Jeremy Thorpe was a charismatic politician on track to become prime minister, until he was tried on charges of conspiracy to murder his secret gay lover, a stable boy named Norman Scott. A Very English Scandal, which aired on BBC One before coming to Amazon Prime in the States, gleefully digs into one of the most deliciously sordid tabloid trials in modern British history, and in turn unearths the melancholy, shame, and heartbreak behind the media circus at a time when homosexuality was still taboo.
The brilliance of writer Russell T. Davies and director Stephen Frears’ three-episode limited series is in the judiciousness and almost breeziness with which it moves through the lovers’ years-long affair, breakup, and the surreality of all that followed. Opting for zippiness instead of maudlin moralizing, the series earns perfectly pitched performances from Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw in one of the more entertaining, and yet still heartbreaking, watches of the year in TV.
The first episode of Forever, starring Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen as a listless married couple, ends with a twist that changes everything you thought the show would be. Then the second episode does the same. In fact, nearly each entry of the Amazon series upends all of your expectations about the world it had built and the characters who populate it.
What was so surprising about the twist-heavy show, then, was how quiet and meditative it ultimately became, provoking existential questions about love, life, complacency, happiness, and the conflicting ways we all may feel about the phrase “til death do you part.” Then, most of the way through the series, Forever halts the narrative completely for a tender bottle episode starring Hong Chau and Jason Mitchell that will just about shatter your heart into a million pieces. In this case, that’s a good thing.
17. Trial & Error
Asked to explain her character on the second season of Trial & Error, a social maven on trial for murder named Lavinia Peck-Foster, Kristin Chenoweth called her a cross between Madeline Kahn, Carol Burnett, Hannibal Lecter, and Lisa Vanderpump. The remarkable thing is that Chenoweth is… exactly correct. She takes the trope of the Southern steel magnolia and turns it into slapstick comedy so hysterical you happily turn the other cheek for another bruising from the peacock-skin slapping glove.
But a comedy tour de force is but one merit for Best Of consideration. The wackadoo satire of Making a Murderer and Serial-style true crime tales is a tightly constructed homage to Mel Brooks-style zany comedy, with enough respect for audiences to craft a solid mystery narrative to back up all the goofiness. Chenoweth’s star turn is but the delightful fascinator on top of the comedy couture.
16. The Real Housewives of New York City
The inclusion of a show like this on a list like this can give off whiffs of cheeky trolling. But with reality TV as omnipresent and as popular as ever, due credit is owed to the iteration of the genre that has mastered it all, from unabashed trashiness to astute cultural commentary. There was plenty of both in the monumental 10th season, which barreled onto Bravo this fall with two headline-making storylines already on viewers’ minds: Bethenny Frankel’s renegade relief charity work and Luann de Lesseps’ shocking New Year’s Eve arrest, Houdini handcuffs escape, and ensuing journey toward sobriety.
The rest of the season explored the repercussions of drinking while privileged—both through de Lesseps’ struggles but also in concern over friend Dorinda Medley’s alcohol consumption—the slow, painful dissolution of a friendship; the wild comedy of a “boat trip from hell”; and somehow, a throughline of scenes involving poop. Whether you cringed or couldn’t look away, all eyes were still on New York’s ladies who lunch.
15. Sharp Objects
Sharp Objects was a disorienting, violent, and, in brief glimpses, hopeful look at the ways in which women both wear and internalize their scars: from their past relationships, their past traumas, the trauma inflicted on others, and their own psyches. To root such a deliciously pulpy and scandalizing series in that dark realism was a masterful move made by director Jean-Marc Valée, showrunner Marti Noxon, and Gillian Flynn, who wrote the book it was based on.
The show moved through its central mystery with a sweaty drawl befitting its Wind Gap, Missouri, setting. The deliberate pace was just as well, allowing us to spend time with the dysfunctional relationships between Amy Adams’ Camille, her mother (Patricia Clarkson), and half-sister (Eliza Scanlen). And just when the fever-dream directing and booze-soaked performances leave you feeling woozy yourself, you’re jolted to a horrified sobriety by the buzziest three words spoken on TV this year.
There is nothing more irritating and, frankly, inexcusable about the current #PeakTV era than the resigned acceptance of the phrase, “It gets better after episode five.” Who has the time, first of all? But also, what truly great series needs five hours to warm up to the actual good stuff? Yet so went the booming chorus when it came to the first season of HBO’s Succession: that its tonally wonky beginning blossoms into a deranged, delectable second half. Well, you were all right.
The series, landing somewhere between Shakespearean and Murdochian, managed to at once empathize with, fetishize, and indict familial wealth and dynastic corporate control. Honing in on the bungled machinations of the bumbling Roy family, it toed the line between absurdist and darkly dramatic in ways that routinely threw audiences off balance—what initially seemed like accidental missteps, it soon became clear, were made with great intention.
13. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
First impressions don’t come much more charmingly than The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s. As we got to know the titular housewife-turned-comic and the whimsical world around her, we fell further in love, wooed especially by the show’s swoon-worthy production, a romanticized reconstruction of 1950s Manhattan. Season two, then, raised crucial questions, including: Would Midge Maisel outstay her welcome?
The just-released new episodes reset the show in a major way, stopping the narrative and whisking everyone off on a sumptuous jaunt to Paris, before coming back to New York for a handful of major developments but mostly—and kind of refreshingly—to just hang around. While hampered by a bit of stasis, it’s rather a delight to simply spend time with the show’s quirky cast, especially when that time is spent on one of the most expensive sets with the most ambitious, energetic direction—not to mention fabulous coats—a TV comedy has ever seen.
12. My Brilliant Friend
For as often as the phrase “swept away” is used to praise pieces of entertainment, few shows do so as credibly and entrancingly as My Brilliant Friend, HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s blockbuster book. Every frame invites you to bask in the gorgeous, beautifully crafted period Italian set, at the same time beckoning you toward the inner thoughts of two young, gifted village girls who become formidable best friends. You also, however, spend that entire time on the verge of a panic attack.
A huge heart beats beneath the moody stares of Lila and Lenu, depicted over the course of years as they navigate coming of age amid the brutality of a post-war setting where blood feuds and tradition provide the backdrop to their evolution from innocence. It’s all so subtle and specific, then it somehow transfigures into grandeur. Significant, too, is the fact that this is a major HBO drama series airing in primetime entirely in Italian, subtitled in English—perhaps the first time a series in a foreign language was pitched this directly to the masses.
The marveling hysteria over Julia Roberts—Julia Roberts!!!—starring in her first regular role in a TV series could threaten to drown out anything else there is to say about any production. That Sam Esmail’s psychological thriller, based on a popular podcast, managed to stand up to that noise is no small feat.
Credit Roberts for her subtle, decidedly un-movie-star-like work here, playing a woman in two timelines: in flashbacks running a shady treatment program for veterans with PTSD, and in the present day grappling with the horror of having no memory of her damaging actions. And credit a slew of untraditional choices from Esmail: Half-hour episodes. Shooting in two aspect ratios. Bringing Hitchcock-style filmmaking to 2018 TV. Making it so that the audience often isn’t sure what’s going on. And once viewers figure it out, making sure it bowls them right over.
Well, here we are, praising Homecoming’s dynamite first season from down here on the floor.
There’s importance, there’s craft, and there’s fun to watch. The wondrous first season of Pose gets 10, 10, 10: 10s across the board.
Sight unseen, Ryan Murphy’s FX series, which follows a formed family of trans and gay New Yorkers in the city’s legendary ballroom scene circa 1987 against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis was groundbreaking. The cast features the largest assembly of LGBTQ actors ever in a TV series. More, they’re in lead roles. Pose is telling their stories.
But then came the rousing joy of the dance and ballroom scenes. And the emotional atom bombs, detonating each time we learn about these characters’ stories. The dignity finally given to the existence of trans people on TV. The affirming portrait of what it means to be a family, a mother, or a friend. The towering performances from Billy Porter and Mj Rodriguez. Its category is “history,” and the cast and creative team of Pose haven’t just made it. They’ve earned it.
9. Schitt’s Creek
First of all, no TV series has any business making us cry that hard over a rendition of Tina Turner’s “The Best.” Twice. Such is the truly unexpected joy of Schitt’s Creek, which airs on Pop and found a surge in popularity through Netflix bingeing this year.
What began as a pseudo-Green Acres, reverse-Beverly Hillbillies premise, in which the entitled Rose family loses everything and is forced to live in a motel in a Podunk town they once purchased as a gag, blossomed into one of the funniest family comedies on TV. More, it matured into a poignant examination of the ways all of us, even those who come from all the money in the world, can underestimate and undervalue ourselves.
The amount of heart creator Dan Levy injected into season four of the comedy, which features, by our count, four of the most romantic love stories on TV—one of which just happens to be between two men—was thankfully not at the expense of any quips, making the series the most quotable and GIF-able comedy since 30 Rock. It’s pure gravy that such dialogue is delivered by a cast that includes Levy, his real-life father Eugene Levy, and Catherine O’Hara, the latter in a batty, undecipherable accent while sporting a glorious carousel of wigs. And while it is sadly not possible to explain how funny co-star Annie Murphy’s line readings simply of the name “David” are, trust that they are but one of the talented actress’ many comedic gifts. Better yet, hop onto Netflix and check it out for yourself.
8. The Good Place
The adjectives you could use to describe The Good Place—silly, thrilling, heady—shouldn’t go together when talking about a broadcast TV comedy. In fact, no show should be able to pull off being this morally abstract, narratively complex, and punny all at once. Usually, sitcoms that launch into high-concept premises eventually settle into the comedy of mundanity, but Mike Schur’s NBC gem has only elevated its intellect and existentialism as it continues to reboot its narrative and the audience’s expectations of its characters.
Looking back at The Good Place’s three seasons, it’s remarkable how much the show has allowed its characters to change, breaking away from the hallowed tenets of the sitcom genre: familiarity and stasis. Stars Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, Jameela Jamil, William Jackson Harper, D’Arcy Carden, and Manny Jacinto get to fire off some of TV’s most smartly packaged zingers each week, but the belly laughs, quite admirably, are never there to diffuse the stakes. And those stakes couldn’t be higher: enlightenment or eternal damnation.
7. The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story follow-up to his smash O.J. Simpson-inspired season was an easy sell. Who wouldn’t be seduced by the promise of all that glamour and fashion, the retelling of the scandalous murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace, and the juicy performances by the likes of Edgar Ramírez in the titular role, Penelope Cruz in Donatella drag, and Ricky Martin hopping into bed for some steamy love scenes as Versace’s partner? And that’s not to mention the intrigue of Glee heartthrob Darren Criss as serial killer Andrew Cunanan.
The welcome surprise of it all was how the series unfolded, not into a garish exploitation of a gruesome murder, but instead a studied and heartrending examination of what it was like to be gay in the 1990s. We follow Cunanan through his crime spree—Versace was but one of his victims—and discover the ways in which gay lives, and deaths, were diminished and discounted in the era of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The visual fireworks you crave from Murphy were still there, keeping with the backdrop of fashion by never clashing with the emotional stakes, only complementing them.
6. The Americans
As anyone who watches the Olympics know, the Russians always stick the landing. So it should have come as no surprise that The Americans nailed the conclusion to its six-season run. Of course, the brilliant series—one of the decade’s greatest—would never stoop to writing as forced or laborious as that gymnastics gag. Not one moment in the breathless final stretch of episodes rang false or, in a remarkable feat for a series with fans this passionate, even creatively disappointing.
Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys’s performance finally garnered major awards recognition this year, right on time given the acrobatic acting feats the pair executed this last season. For a cable drama that is, on its face, about spies, the most impressive and perhaps boldest thing The Americans did throughout its run was to never abandon the notion that it is, at its core, a show about family. That remained true through the series’ emotional, arguably flawless final outings, as good a send-off as there’s been.
5. Atlanta: Robbin’ Season
The highest praise that I can give to the second season of Atlanta is that its most talked-about episode, “Teddy Perkins,” in which star Donald Glover disappears in prosthetics for an unsettling, commercial-free 41 minutes, isn’t even the best outing of the season. For all the ways “Teddy Perkins” played with form and audience expectation for one of the most bonkers episodes of television, there was the stunning, provocative specificity with which “Alligator Man,” “Helen,” “Barbershop,” “Champagne Papi,” “Woods,” and “FUBU” interrogate race, status, black love, friendship, and privilege.
The authenticity and carefully shaded cynicism Glover and his creative team imbued these installments with allowed the show to eschew the traditional serialized narrative and instead weave together a string of barely connected episodes that, in the end, coalesced into a profound (and, for the record, riotiously entertaining) portrait of the black experience. Not to be overlooked amid all the rightful talk of Glover’s genius and vision are remarkable performances by Lakeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, and especially Brian Tyree Henry, who is possibly the best supporting actor working in all of Hollywood right now.
4. One Day at a Time
The irresistible mood of Netflix’s Latinx reboot of Norman Lear’s One Day a Time is set from the moment Gloria Estefan’s earworm theme song kicks in. “This is it,” she sings, her voice bouncing off the hip-shaking drumbeat. “This is life, the one you get, so go and have a ball.” And so we dance our way into TV’s most heartfelt series, in which the Alvarez family navigates circumstance—the life, they one they’ve got—in all the ways it can serve as both a cage to shrink into and a party to celebrate. Each line delivery in the family sitcom explodes with refreshing flavor—how could it not with a cast like Rita Moreno, Justina Machado, and Isabella Gomez giving it life—but so, too does an unabashed, proud sense of purpose.
PTSD, depression, the struggles of immigrants, coming-of-age, and coming out are all explored with a nuance and dignity we’ve sadly stopped expecting from multi-cam comedy series. There’s an endearing authenticity to the Alvarez family dynamics, stoking gut-busting laughs and ugly cries in equal measure, that elevates One Day at a Time to status as the best sitcom about a working-class American family there is on TV. It’s a show that couldn’t be more timely, but with a humor and heart that, in the great Norman Lear way, is timeless.
“We need to talk about Nanette.” The sentence, referring to Australian comic Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix stand-up special, the most discussed in ages, wasn’t so much a clickbait headline or post-screening reflex as it was a command. A necessity, really. What unfolds in Gadsby’s masterfully structured set requires dissection, conversation, and attention. It was radical. It was moving. It was hilarious, and upsetting. It might have destroyed comedy. Maybe, too, it saved it.
For Gadsby, the stand-up set was an act of self-preservation as much as it was a call to arms and state of the union about the current state of comedy, and how we have misconstrued a certain kind of self-deprecation as a safety blanket, one that is actually a weapon for self-harm. “I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor, and I don’t want to do that anymore,” she says in the special. “Because do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.”
The line comes amidst a seismic shift in her set, in which she recounts her own trauma, indicts powerful men, and, in the end, invites a conversation about whether the entire performance is comedy at all. Debate that if you must, but what’s irrefutable is its genius.
2. Killing Eve
Killing Eve opens with a shot on Sandra Oh’s titular Eve lying in bed, her eyes alight with terror as she shrieks in excruciating pain. This is a cat-and-mouse thriller about a security operative chasing a dangerous assassin. Your mind races imagining what violence must be behind the screams. It turns out her arms have fallen asleep. It’s the perfect entrée into series creator’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s world, a hotbed of dark humor with no qualms throwing its audience off amid an intoxicating chase around the globe.
It’s not long before you lose track of who’s the cat, who’s the mouse, and who’s chasing who, as we learn more about Jodie Comer’s vulnerable, menacing, possibly demented Villanelle and the mutual fascination the killer and hunter have with each other. No show on TV boasts dual lead performances this stellar, a revelation from Comer who rises to the established superiority of Oh. Soon, you’d watch these two performers, as these characters, do anything together. How spoiled are we, then, that what we’re watching happens to be the most tightly scripted, consistently surprising, decidedly female-forward thriller series television has produced in years. (Or... ever?) We can’t remember tales so gruesome ever being this gloriously sarcastic.
1. The Good Fight
Season one of The Good Fight opened with the regal Diane Lockhart watching Donald Trump’s inauguration and echoing a resounding national sentiment: “Fuck.” Season two, then, holds hands with those same kindred spirits as we all move into the next phase of facing our brutal reality: Now what?
The CBS All Access drama, a spinoff of The Good Wife, is one of the only dramas on TV to exist in the real world, with its actual politics, scandals, figures, and errantly tweeting presidents. Not only does it mine headlines—episodes tackle the pee tape, impeachment, Russian collusion, and Shitty Media Men list—but also our collective anxiety and brittle emotional state. The result is a series that leans into the absurdity of it all with the playfulness many of us require to get through the day—Diane, for one, has begun microdosing—without sacrificing any of the gravity that underscores what is happening in Washington, to the world, and, most poignantly, inside our own homes and offices. (The gun debate is broached, for example, in a haunting, highly personal way.)
Still, despite an air of anti-Trump sentiments, the series manages to be even-handed, at least on occasion, providing a viewing experience that plays like both a cathartic gaze into a funhouse mirror and a riveting cautionary tale. If there’s one thing The Good Fight seems to understand better than any other politically-minded show on TV, it’s that the battle is only beginning.