In case you hadn’t heard, there was quite a bit of TV this year. Netflix is on overdrive, new streaming ventures are popping up weekly and famous actors are starring in shows you can only watch on Facebook. It’s more than any one critic can watch, much less cover, but before the year is through, I do want to highlight a handful of shows I enjoyed in 2018 that didn’t get enough shine.
If you’re overwhelmed by this year’s Netflix bounty, try:
Regina King earned two Golden Globe nominations this year: one for her role in the celebrated James Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk and the other for her tremendous turn in the quickly forgotten (and prematurely canceled) crime drama Seven Seconds. Helmed by The Killing creator Veena Sud, the show follows a white cop who accidentally strikes a black teenager with his car and, after his crooked colleagues arrive to cover up the incident, leaves the boy for dead. King plays the victim’s mother, a woman unraveled by the apathy of a racist local justice system.
British tabloids worked themselves into a froth over this steamy BBC co-production that casts Toni Collette and Steven Mackintosh (Luther) as a bored yet loving couple who open up their marriage. But there’s nothing mindless about the pleasure depicted in Wanderlust. As the six-part series progresses, an initial wave of long-repressed lust ebbs, leaving behind a mess that illuminates the unconscious motives driving the increasingly erratic behavior of Collette’s character. The result is the rare sex drama that actually feels grounded in human psychology.
TV for teens tends to be aspirational; shows set among impossibly attractive rich kids at private schools or in cute small towns sugarcoat the perils of growing up. On My Block, by contrast, takes place in a Los Angeles neighborhood where kids can get drafted into gangs the minute they graduate junior high. What keeps the coming-of-age dramedy from getting too dark is its characters, a group of brainy misfit freshmen on a mission to save their friend from following in the footsteps of his gangster brother. Sierra Capri’s Monse Finnie is a fascinating heroine, a tomboy faced with unwanted male attention as she grows into a woman.
Gossip Girl star Penn Badgley’s Joe Goldberg is pretty dreamy on paper. An erudite bookstore manager, he dotes on the object of his affection, a young aspiring writer. Unfortunately, he’s also a stalker who will stop at nothing to possess her. It sounds like a classic Lifetime premise, but YOU is actually a wicked satire of social media, self-proclaimed “nice guys” and the twisted ideals of romantic fiction. After disappointing ratings for its first season, it’s heading to Netflix for season 2, which is very good news considering that the show is ideal for binge viewing.
The Terror (AMC)
A fictionalized account of the British Royal Navy’s lost voyage to the Arctic Circle in the 1840s, The Terror is essentially Heart of Darkness on ice, stretching the saga of two doomed ships and their sailors across 10 slow, tense episodes. The show touches on the usual themes that underlie such stories—male ego, Western hubris, the absolute power privileged officers wield over poor recruits—but it does so with rare style, intelligence and detail. An unseen monster adds an element of horror to the mix. And the performances, particularly Jared Harris’ understated turn as the insightful yet dissipated captain of the titular boat, are riveting.
Blood (Acorn TV)
A bleak Irish mystery that comes to the States via the Brit-centric service Acorn, Blood follows a troubled young woman (Cat Hogan) from Dublin to her small hometown, where her estranged family is mourning Cat’s mother, Mary (Ingrid Craigie). The official story is that Mary, who’d long suffered from a chronic illness, hit her head and died on her own property. But Cat isn’t buying it. Since childhood, she’s suspected something isn’t right about her dad (Adrian Dunbar), a popular local doctor, and she finds evidence to support her theory that he murdered his wife. There are plenty of smart twists from there, and the quintessential Irishness of the six-part show—from the emerald landscapes to the readings of Yeats poems—is a pleasure unto itself.
If you’re looking for some great nonfiction TV:
America to Me (Starz)
Of all the shows to take on race in America, the most nuanced of 2018 is Hoop Dreams director Steve James’ document of a year in the life of a racially divided Chicagoland high school. Unlike most stories about teens, America to Me avoids stereotypes—from black vs. white to jock vs. nerd—by profiling individual students, families and educators. The result is both a collection of vivid portraits and a case study in how even the best schools can fail African-American kids.
The Clinton Affair (A&E)
Bill Clinton was impeached two decades ago this month, and the anniversary has not gone unobserved. While Slate’s Slow Burn is the year’s most celebrated reevaluation of what came to be known as the “Monica Lewinsky scandal,” this comparatively detached six-part series from prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions and director Blair Foster has one thing the podcast didn’t: extensive interviews with Lewinsky. Her perspective complicates Slow Burn’s surprisingly sympathetic depiction of Linda Tripp, filling in some gaps in a story that will still never be complete without more real insight into Bill, Hillary and their marriage.
The Fourth Estate (Showtime)
Journalism has rarely been as crucial, controversial or perilous in America as it’s become in the past few years, yet even as the media has increasingly become the story, what happens in newsrooms has remained opaque to the public. This four-part documentary from director Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) illuminates the work of investigative teams, following New York Times staff for the entirety of Donald Trump’s first year in office. Though it’s effusive in some parts and slow in others, The Fourth Estate renders visible the collaborative toil that goes into headlines embraced by free-press superfans and dismissed as fabrications by bellowers of “fake news.” The highlight is the final episode, in which the paper’s leadership is blindsided by accusations of sexual harassment against one of its most visible reporters, Glenn Thrush.
If you could use a laugh:
Corporate (Comedy Central)
Like The Office as scripted by radical pranksters the Yes Men, 2018’s best new Comedy Central series excoriates corporate culture, the military-industrial complex and global capitalism but still gets in a few swings at armchair activism and commodified dissent. At its center are guilt-ridden sellout Matt (Matt Ingebretson) and his scheming officemate Jake (Jake Weisman), beleaguered “junior executives in training” at a fictional megacorp that makes everything from smoothies to weapons of war. Enriched by very funny supporting performances from Aparna Nancherla and Lance Reddick, this dark, surreal lefty comedy is a small-screen cousin to Sorry to Bother You.
The Bisexual (Hulu)
Filmmaker Desiree Akhavan has carved out a niche for herself, making richly observed dramedies about queer women like this year’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Her first proper TV project, which originally aired in the U.K., continues that trajectory, casting her as an American expat in London who splits with her longtime girlfriend and experiments with dating men. Dry British comedy suits Akhavan’s understated jokes, and her character’s ongoing sexual identity crisis puts a fresh spin on the overdone “bi-curious young woman” plot.
British writer and actor Julia Davis breathes new life into it with this tart miniseries about a repressed office worker (Catherine Shepherd’s Sally) who grows increasingly repulsed by her needy, milquetoast live-in boyfriend (Alex Macqueen). Sally’s thirst for adventure makes her the perfect mark for Emma, a freeloading queer artiste (Davis) who seduces her and quickly takes over her life. Riotous character comedy ensues—and Sally4Ever easily surpasses the series that overshadowed it on HBO, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s muddled adaptation of Davis’ UK show Camping.
Schitt’s Creek (Pop TV)
The longest-running show on this list remains underseen after four seasons, probably thanks to its gimmicky title and obscure network. (FYI: You can stream it on Netflix.) But fans of Christopher Guest mockumentaries like Best in Show will love this Canadian sitcom starring Guest stalwarts Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy as a crazy-rich couple who lose everything and end up living in a shabby small-town motel with their adult son (Levy’s son Daniel, who co-created the show with his father) and daughter (Annie Murphy). As so many ostensible comedies turn serious, it’s a rare treat to find such a light, sweet, but still pithy show.
If you need a good cry:
Gentrification. Sexuality. Ethnic identity. Sisterhood. Mourning. These are a lot of heavy themes to squeeze into the six-episode first season of a half-hour drama, but Vida tackles each one gracefully within a story of two sisters who reunite after the death of their mother. Emma (Mishel Prada) is an uptight professional, Lyn (Melissa Barrera) a hedonistic dream chaser—and their mom, Vida, was a bar owner on the Eastside of LA who’d secretly married her female bartender (Ser Anzoategui). Sad, stunned and busy with their own lives, the women make plans to sell the failing business, only to end up reckoning with the knowledge that doing so would help accelerate their neighbors’ displacement.
Sorry for Your Loss (Facebook Watch)
Arguably the best reason to march into the (data) breach that is Facebook in 2018, Sorry for Your Loss casts Elizabeth Olsen as Leigh, a young widow who’s had a few months to process the death of her husband Matt (Mamoudou Athie). Though the backstory is cloudy at first, details surface via heart-wrenching flashbacks to their time together and conversations—that often escalate into confrontations—between Leigh, her mom (Janet McTeer) and sister (Kellie Marie Tran) and Matt’s aggrieved brother (Jovan Adepo). The performances are stellar, each character is vividly sketched, but what’s most refreshing is the way Olsen and the show’s creator, playwright Kit Steinkellner, translate Leigh’s grief into behavior that can be stunningly selfish and thoroughly understandable at once.
If you’re looking for something completely different:
Lodge 49 (AMC)
In the sunny idyll of Long Beach, Calif., a shaggy, aimless optimist nicknamed Dud (Wyatt Russell) and his pessimistic sister Liz (Sonya Cassidy), who’s squandering her potential in a job at a second-rate breastaurant, are flailing in the wake of their father’s death by drowning. She decides he killed himself; Dud wants to believe it was an accident. Meanwhile, in his ample spare time, Dud stumbles upon a fraternal lodge where oddballs of all shapes and sizes (and races and genders) come together to drink away the pain of contemporary life. The meditative dramedy moves at a stoner’s pace, but after a few episodes Lodge 49‘s subtle observations about capitalist alienation waft to the surface.
Random Acts of Flyness (HBO)
Artistic polymath Terence Nance does for sketch comedy what Atlanta does for the sitcom, using dream logic to connect skits, songs and interview segments loosely themed around the black experience in all its diversity. Each episode is a collage, layering explorations of topics like police brutality, gender identity and the politics of hair to create a composite image so provocative, its impact transcends narrative.