Deciding the best TV shows of 2018 isn’t easy.
It was a weird year for television in 2018. Without a signature event like a Game of Thrones season, or a major series finale, the scripted content industry spun out of control trying to strike gold. No longer are there four or five series everyone is watching; with over 500 series of original, scripted content airing annually at this point, the cultural aggregates are few and far in between.
What it made for was a year where there was a lot of really, really good TV shows, but also one where television nearly suffocated under its own bloat, with entire shows swallowed whole by their simple need to exist. As episodes got longer and seasons stretched out their narratives to fill long episode orders, a lot of TV in 2018 wouldn’t (or couldn’t) allow itself to be truly great.
All that being said, there was a lot of fantastic TV that aired in 2018. Goomba Stomp’s Best TV of 2018 list is a pastiche of worlds and genres, a collection married by a few important trends reflective of television as a whole — some creative, some technical, and some necessary, like tackling the narrative hangover of the early Peak TV era, where white dudes with emotional problems and penchants for violence dominated 100% of the landscape. Slowly but surely, television is getting more diverse and interesting with its storytelling, and although it comes with growing pains and all sorts of difficult confrontations, the best shows of the year remind us there’s always potential to be more inclusive, ambitious, and honest — and that if those values are embraced, the possibilities are truly endless.
25 – Dr. Who
The thirteenth Doctor Who, Jodie Whittaker, is wonderful.
Much can and should be said about the long-overdue turn of having the iconic British time lord finally transform into something other than a white man, but the bottom line is that the new series is fun, playful, smart, witty, and contains some of the finest episodes of television being produced. After a dour but ultimately deeply rewarding run of Doctor Who with Peter Capaldi, Jodie Wittaker bursts forth like an optimistic breath of fresh air. She is cheeky and fun, as well as riddled with depth and hope, and I challenge you not to love this lady Doctor.
She is also backed up by an inspiring crew, introducing Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, and Mandip Gill as Graham, Ryan, and Yasmin. Typically, the Doctor is followed by one or two companions at most, but this time the Doctor has three from the jump, and they are all wonderful, building a strong sense that you are watching a team at work.
This new series of Doctor Who also marks a changing of the creative guard, and it shows on all fronts. Long-time legendary (and divisive) showrunner Stephen Moffat has transferred the reigns to Broadchurch’s Chris Chibnall, and the shift is palpable. Aside from the Doctor’s gender and the expanded cast, of particular note is the decision to run a much more serialized season of the show with no over-arching narrative and mostly standalone episodes.
The result is uneven at times, with some plots landing and others not, but it ends up not mattering too much, as the cast is such a delight. Without a grand narrative to track, the through-line becomes getting to know these characters and their inner worlds, and that really feels like enough. It is definitely less epic than previous runs, but that feels like a welcome sacrifice. And within those constraints, standout episodes have already emerged, such as the striking and well-handled civil rights-focused “Rosa” and the hard sci-fi “It Takes You Away.”
With a few episodes to go in the latest incarnation of The Doctor, it’s safe to say that Series 11 of Doctor Who is a welcome change of pace for the beloved time travel show, and the universe can’t wait for more. (Marty Allen)
24 – The Terror
Prior to 2018, I was fairly certain that horror television shows just don’t work. Aside from the masterful horror-tinged episodes of older shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, modern horror shows can’t sustain a dark mood or sense of suspense. Part of it is technical (they tend to look overly bright because of rushed production schedules) and part of it is due to the episodic nature of series, which requires tension to be ramped up and deescalated at arbitrary times. But 2018 was the year that television showed me it still had a few novel approaches to the genre. The Terror approaches the horror story as a period piece, one that finds as much to fear in the supernatural as in the everyday dangers that members of an arctic expedition would face in the mid-1800s.
The story is at least partly based on real events. In 1847, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror became trapped in ice while trying to map the Northwest Passage. After attempting to live aboard the ships for a certain period of time, perhaps even a year or more, the crew trekked across the Arctic ice in search of the nearest outpost. None of them survived.
AMC’s The Terror, based on the fictional novel by Dan Simmons, imagines a mysterious creature that stalks the shipwrecked men, one by one. The expedition, led by Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds, marvelous as a stuffed shirt) is so tied to honor and bravery that the second in command, Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), is ignored when he initially suggests abandoning ship. Depleted (and possibly poisonous) food supplies lead to a sense of desperation among the crew members. Hickey (Adam Nagaitis), a trouble-prone sailor and possible psychopath, devises a mutiny that threatens the survival of all the men, all while the unseen beast brutally murders them.
The story flips many horror conventions — the deaths are seemingly arbitrary and often shocking, rather than working their way up the chain of command. But even more terrifying than the creature is the production design. The Terror creates an Arctic maze as chilling as the bottom of the ocean or the darkest depths of space. It’s an inhospitable wasteland where no one is safe, a feeling the show exploits at every opportunity, to great effect. (Brian Marks)
23 – The Handmaid’s Tale
The second season of Handmaid’s Tale had a lot to prove, as it needed to maintain the momentum and quality of the first season even as it surpassed the original source material. Elizabeth Moss returned as June, a handmaid to a privileged family within a militaristic, patriarchal dystopia. Moss expertly matches the intensity and vulnerability her role required for the first season, continuing to show why she deserved an Emmy for her performance in 2017.
The cinematography and direction remain as extraordinary as it was last year, with visuals so beautiful and powerful that it is nearly impossible for viewers to peel their eyes away from even the most heinous scenes of violence and despair. Though the pacing lags in a few episodes, the world-building adds layers to the already complex society of Gilead, and provides an abundance of context and backstory for the vast cast.
Key players this season included Samira Wiley, Joseph Fiennes, and Yvonne Strahovski. Wiley’s Moira gave viewers a glimpse in the greater world beyond Gilead by seeking refuge in Canada with June’s husband, Luke Bankole. Though her character is safe from the horrors she suffered as a handmaid, Wiley gave a memorable performance as a victim attempting to piece her life back together, showing the strength necessary for her character to survive in a cruel world, as well as the delicacy that makes her human.
Likewise, Fiennes and Strahovski have the difficult task of finding the sliver of humanity in their own characters — architects of a society that has enslaved women. Strahovski’s nuanced role points a finger towards figures in society that aren’t often addressed in media: women who grind their heels into other women to stand tall with toxic men. Strahovski’s slow realization at the horror that she’s helped create builds towards a climax that no one could have foreseen in season one. The final episode set up high hopes for a strong third season, and great things to come. (Meghan Cook)
22 – Brooklyn Nine-Nine
In 2018, crossing the 100-episode mark on a network comedy is an impressive feat, especially for shows not on CBS; since the end of NBC’s signature late-2000’s run of comedy, all four networks have struggled to maintain comedies over a long period of time. Some, like New Girl on FOX, sputter creatively past the century mark, while on CBS, comedies are doomed to live forever, repeating the same cycle of stories and jokes until everyone’s a decade older and a shitload richer. Brooklyn Nine-Nine reached the once-legendary plateau in a much different way: with plenty of creative juice left in the tank, melding the predictable stories of long-running sitcoms with plenty of intriguing character arcs most comedies their age have given up telling.
Their reward, of course, was cancellation. As FOX moves away from having not-Tim Allen oriented comedies, Brooklyn Nine-Nine was unceremoniously cast out to sea. It was a disappointing end for television’s most consistent ensemble comedy, especially one displaying such narrative and comedic versatility. In season five, Brooklyn reinforced known truths about itself in new and exciting ways; the Seamus Murphy arc, Holt’s run for Commissioner, and Jake and Amy’s engagement showed once again Brooklyn Nine-Nine could deliver entertaining multi-episode arcs, while still holding onto the amazing relationship dynamics and challenging character moments in its smaller moments. Although it appeared at times that the show might become devoured by its own ambitions, season five squarely nails the landing in the climatic arcs of the season, pushing itself into an intriguing new era when it “returns” to NBC in January. Nine-nine! (Randy Dankievitch)
21 – Dear White People
When word got out that Netflix was to produce a serial adaptation of the 2014 indie sleeper hit Dear White People, the internet exploded with defensiveness and vitriol. In the increasingly severe climate of political correctness within college campuses, people did not seem to like the idea of a show that either placated to PC mentality, or even dared to challenge it. The fact is, anyone who actually takes the time to watch Dear White People before venting on Twitter will realize that it is a very tongue-in-cheek and insightful look at race, privilege, and hypocrisy.
Season two kicks off with the aftermath of the riot in the season one finale that resulted in esteemed student president Troy Fairbanks breaking a door and getting arrested. After a dorm fire, the traditionally black dormitory of Armstrong-Parker has to take in white students, adding fuel to the fire of racial tension. Samantha (Logan Browning) is being brutally trolled by the alt-right for her eponymous radio show, and Lionel is delving into the history of a clandestine collegiate society called The Order of X.
Each episode focuses on the point of view of a different character, as well as their individual journey through Ivy League life at Winchester University. Troy struggles with deciding what to do with his life, Reggie deals with PSTD after having a gun pulled on him at a party, Lionel further explores his sexuality, and Coco continues to climb the social ladder. Not only is Samantha dealing with an onslaught of anonymous online outrage, but she also deals with her break-up with Gabe and her strained relationship with her white father.
Logan Browning also gives one of the most underrated performances of the year. Behind her stone-cold determination and hunger for justice is a vulnerable and frequently pained young woman constantly at war with her personal beliefs and steadfast moral code. “Chapter IX” makes for one of the best episodes of TV in 2018, as Samantha goes home after a tragedy and has to face to her immense personal guilt with the help of her devoted loved ones.
Dear White People deserves more attention for its strong performances and storytelling than for its ‘controversy.’ It pokes fun at everyone from every side — regardless of race, politics, age, sexuality, etc. — all while still managing to amplify their voices and occasionally validate their arguments. (Sarah Truesdale)
20 – Deuce
In the second season of Deuce, David Simon and George Pelecanos’s drama about the porn industry jumps ahead five years to 1977. A lot has changed in that time, but the most noticeable difference is the beginning of the end for the pimp-dominated era of street-level prostitution. The season opens smack dab in the middle of the seediest section of the Big Apple, with a dazzling tracking shot following former-streetwalker- now-successful-filmmaker Eileen “Candy” Merrell (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) as she walks through the grimy streets of New York City and into Club 366. It’s straight out of Martin Scorsese’s playbook, reminiscent of the tracking shot in of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. The scene quickly reacquaints us with the show’s major players, and sets the stage for what’s to come; it displays how much Candy’s life has changed and shifts the focus of the show by putting its women at the center. It’s an amazing kickoff for an evolutionary change, and maybe the best opening for a series this year. And it’s not even the highlight of the season, nevermind the episode.
It’s crazy to think that Emmy voters didn’t nominate The Deuce for any awards, since this might be David Simon’s second masterpiece (after The Wire). Season two features an incredible cast, excellent character-driven drama, immersive world-building, and a welcome focus on its leading ladies, all carried by a tour de force performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal, who does the best work of her career here. The writing is excellent, the production value is top-notch, and the cinematography is breathtaking at times.
Who would have thought that the most boring part of watching a drama about the porn industry would be the fucking? (Ricky D)
19 – Big Mouth
Is it weird to call the Show of a Thousand Cum Jokes the most responsible show on television? While Big Mouth stands with the most openly vulgar series on television, all of its pubic-hair punchlines and dick shots serve a distinct purpose in telling extremely thoughtful stories about puberty, even offering a few ways to combat the onslaught of sexuality thrown on teens in the 21st century.
In 2018, there were plenty of shows proud to display their burgeoning Wokeness, to varying degrees of success; it’s undeniable that Big Mouth‘s second season is a product of that trend, with entire episodes dedicated to body positivity and Planned Parenthood, but unlike other Netflix animated series brazenly seeking validation for their ability to self-reflect, Big Mouth‘s increased awareness is more a natural evolution in the show’s storytelling rather than some self-important proclamation.
More impressively, Big Mouth intertwines these thoughtful ruminations on pubescence with strong plot arcs and the most brash, disgustingly hilarious brand of humor around. There’s nothing held back with Big Mouth — not with nudity, not with tough conflicts (like divorce, depression, and sexuality), and most certainly not with punchlines. And somehow, it all works; from the Shame Wizard arc that drives the entire season, to the smaller stories like Lola’s depressing relationship with her mother, or Jessi’s struggles to process what’s going on with her parents, and (surprisingly) Jay’s blossoming bisexuality — along with fighting his addiction to fucking pillows, of course. It all melds into one of the finest seasons of television about adolescence I’ve seen in a long time, a fiercely unique show that also boasts one of the best characters in 2018: the ever-optimistic, totally hopeless Coach Steve. (Randy Dankievitch)
18 – Insecure
The third season of HBO’s Insecure is a chimerical work of art, a show that seems to contain the building blocks of multiple series. The first half of the third season offered fresh and invigorating approaches to some of the most interesting territory from previous seasons, especially how Issa (Issa Rae) manages her workplace, a Boys & Girls Club-like organization that attempts to give opportunities to underserved children. In past seasons, she’s prostrated herself before her mostly white coworkers and kept silent amidst their ignorance, but this is the first time we’ve seen her finally take a stand for herself. It’s a thrilling change, one that suggests new stories and opportunities for her character.
Yet just as Insecure was willing to try something new in one area, it clung to the past in others. The return of Lawrence (Jay Ellis) in the second half of the season is a mixed blessing. Ellis has been one of the show’s strongest actors, yet it’s disappointing to see the show bring back a lover, then switch into will they/won’t they mode. The series so often embraces a more realist approach to its stories that it’s jarring when it returns to standard television tropes.
Still, even with the disappointing turn of events in Issa’s storyline, Insecure remains one of the year’s strongest shows. Rae’s early work on the series was sometimes stilted and awkward, but by now she’s flowered into a compelling actor who’s both adept at broad comedy and moving drama. Molly (Yvonne Orji) has also expanded her emotional range in the series, and so it’s no coincidence that the third season poster features both actors, where the first two seasons only focused on Issa. Top it all off with the best music selection on television, and you’ve got another success from Rae. (Brian Marks)
17 – Legion
Legion isn’t just the best Marvel show being produced on television, but one of the best shows on all of TV. It’s subversive pop gone bonkers, and it’s great. When you start watching Legion, you feel like you’ve taken a psychedelic detour, but you never get back on the road. And then you forget that you’re in a car, and eventually that you even have legs or a face.
Created by Noah Hawley (who also made the surprisingly stunning television adaptation of Fargo), Legion is adapted from a relatively obscure Marvel character created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz. The comic book character has tons of weird powers, and never sat squarely within the Marvel universe; this TV-version is tuned appropriately to Sienkiewicz’s scratchy and unmistakable style. Like Sinkiewicz’s lines pushed at the boundaries of comic book panels, Hawley’s adaptation honors it and pushes at the boundaries of genre and narrative.
Featuring Dan Stevens as David Haller, the most unreliable narrator ever found on your television screen, season one of Legion took place largely in a mental hospital, and presumably in David’s mind. That’s the thing with Legion — you never really know where you stand. Half the time you don’t even know what you just watched or where you are in time or space, but your jaw is on the floor, and you’re feeling feelings. Stevens was backed up by the crazy-town, awesome, high-flying tightrope performance of Aubrey Plaza, and she returns here as more mind-bending antics and dances ensue. Season two does give a little more room for linear storytelling, but not a lot. You are often left asking, ”What the hell just happened?” But you are also left eerily wanting more, or else wanting to dance.
Yes, it’s the story of a mutant coping with his overwhelming powers, but it’s also a self-reflective and fearless contemplation of narrative that defies tradition. And somehow, somewhere in the mix, you care about the characters involved. So, yeah, its hard to describe this one, and doing too much of it does this weird beast a disservice. If TV shows were a precious vase, Legion has been smashed and glued back together to look like a talking baby space monster who knows a lot about pop culture. The bottom line is that the show looks great and moves fast as hell. It’s beguiling and thoughtful and bizarre and a fun ride. Legion is tragic, beautiful, upsetting, and overall, unlike anything that has been made before it.
If you like the weird and the wonderful, step inside David’s mind. (Marty Allen)
16 – American Vandal
It’s crazy to think that the second season of American Vandal, a season about shit with lots of people shitting throughout each of the eight episodes, isn’t, well…shit.
After leaving a mark on pop culture with a breakout freshman season, American Vandal returned with an entirely new case, a fresh cast, and enough twist, turns, conspiracy theories and suspects to keep you glued to your television set. The mockumentary-style Netflix series from the creative team Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda follows teen documentarians Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) as they attempt to solve a crime and figure out who’s behind several nasty pranks at a high school. This time around, the Peabody Award-winning true-crime satire trades one type of low-brow humor for another: instead of a investigating a crime as ridiculous as spray-painting 27 dicks on the sides of 27 cars in the faculty parking lot, Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund bring their sleuthing skills to an upper-class Catholic school, where someone has been taking poop-related pranks to new extremes.
What made American Vandal so remarkable the first time around was how it successfully managed to be a clever send-up of the true-crime genre, as well as an insightful look at teen culture. It took one kid’s immature obsession with dick jokes, made him the joke of an entire nation, and then pulled the rug from under our feet by making us care so much about what happened to Dylan Maxwell. The second season of American Vandal raises the stakes, doubles down on the explicit gags, gives us a breakout character in DeMarcus Tillman, and introduces us to Melvin Gregg, a rising new star. (Ricky D)