The best TV shows of 2018 so far
T he good news is that peak TV is still peaking. The less-good news is that we’re all getting “peaked” out. A sense of obligation has settled over viewers. We must watch if we are to be part of the Conversation, or at least fill in our Facebook timelines. If we are asked what we thought of the sixth episode of the second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” then we’d better have a cogent answer.
To make matters worse, there’s so much TV that’s good, often very good, that it’s hard to know where to begin watching. This brief and far-from-exhaustive list merely cites 20 newcomers that launched (or returned) during the past six months. Some made noise, some made none. Each was excellent. Each was worth watching.
My list to date, leading with the best:
1. “Atlanta Robbin’ Season” (FX): “Atlanta” earns the top spot largely on the strength of sixth episode, “Teddy Perkins,” in which Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) goes to a mysterious mansion to pick up his free piano with colored keys. This horror movie masterpiece, compressed over 30-plus minutes, created a whole universe unlike any you — or certainly Darius — has ever seen. Crazy, but remarkable.
2. “Killing Eve” (BBC America): Starring, brilliantly, Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, this series offered a special bonus in legendary actress Fiona Shaw as the desolate Ml5 chief who holds her secrets well. Shaw doesn’t do much TV, and “Eve” reveals what we’ve been missing.
3. “The Americans” (FX): A great TV series about identity, human purpose, marriage, family, Russian history, modern American history and the futility of ideology wraps — and wraps perfectly. That doesn’t happen often, even in this era of peak TV.
4. “Vida” (Starz): Before launch, “Vida” had attracted considerable attention — for its all-Latino cast and crew, for its specificity about life and culture in East L.A., for its exploration of gay and Latin life. But this terrific new series is especially about something everyone can relate to: life and death.
5. “Patrick Melrose” (Showtime): Despite a desperately grim story involving pedophilia, to miss “Melrose” means missing a performance — by Benedict Cumberbatch — unlike any you’ve ever seen. A stunning one, by the way.
6. “Jesus Christ Superstar” (NBC): The musical was about peace, love and understanding. It was also groovy, baby, while David Leveaux’s direction (from the Marcy Avenue Armory in Williamsburg) was beautiful. Among the best restaged TV musicals so far.
7. “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” (FX): OK, fine, we can all agree — not as good as “O.J.” But there were many pleasures here, almost all in the craftsmanship. The performances were uniformly good, while lead Darren Criss turned in a superb one — which earned him an Emmy nomination.
8. “The Terror” (AMC): I didn’t review this, much to my regret, but caught up (as best I could) as time permitted. But what’s here is first-rate, and scary, and nightmare-inducing. Also cold. Very cold.
9. “Mosaic” (HBO): This six-parter directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Ed Solomon was a victim of the Age of Peak TV — few watched because there was so much else on around the same time, including NBC’s (also very good) coverage of the Winter Olympics from Pyeongchang, South Korea. A shame, because this was hugely enjoyable and addictive.
10. “Black Mirror” (Netflix): Yes, I’m cheating a bit here because the fourth season launched about 48 hours before the start of the new year. Nevertheless, “Mirror” was just too good to ignore, with each episode a gem and the best (“USS Callister”) borderline genius.
11. “Planet Earth: Blue Planet II” (BBC America): This worthy successor brought an urgent environmental warning that the first documentary lacked, by demonstrating that the seas are in trouble and that the world must act.
12. “Notes From the Field” (HBO): Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show in which she channeled 18 people (students, judges, police, corrections officers, inmates) for a deeply moving exploration of race and justice.
13. “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” (Amazon Prime): This chilly (albeit brainy) anthology was full of unreliable narrators, trick endings, alien doubles and plenty of great actors, making it a worthy companion to “Black Mirror.”
14. “The Last O.G.” (TBS): Tracy Morgan’s semifictional self-portrait, set in Brooklyn, was about one man’s past and his present, and how he can’t quite reconcile either.
15. “Arthur Miller, Writer” (HBO): Rebecca Miller’s portrait of her father was intimate, immediate, surprisingly optimistic — and above all terrific.
16. “Pose” (FX): A somewhat unremarkable story for Ryan Murphy’s swan song at FX, but there’s nothing unremarkable about the cast — composed almost entirely of LGBT actors — or crew, which arrived here as part of Murphy’s “Half” initiative to bring more people of color and members of the LGBT community into TV.
17. “Altered Carbon” (Netflix): Violent, but also a beautiful and intoxicating mind-bender — based on Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 novel — that can be worth the bender.
18. “Hope and Fury: MLK, the Movement and the Media” (NBC): An excellent NBC News documentary that explored how the TV networks in the late 1950s finally began to cover the civil rights movement, and how Martin Luther King Jr. forced them to.
19. “The Affair” (Showtime): Back for a fourth season, and by the looks of it so far, an improved one, with a more diverse cast.
20. “The Middle” (ABC): The series finale of this beloved ABC sitcom almost perfectly captured why it was so beloved these past last nine seasons.
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