“The golden age of television has become the gilded age of television,” John Landgraf,
the FX CEO and industry Nostradamus who coined the phrase “peak TV,” lamented in August. Signs of decadence were indeed everywhere in 2018: Murphy Brown, Queer Eye, Magnum P.I., Lost in Space, Charmed and more got revived; Roseanne came back from the dead twice. Facebook Watch entered the streaming wars, nabbing Elizabeth Olsen for Sorry for Your Loss and Catherine Zeta-Jones for Queen America. As HGTV’s Flip or Flop franchise swelled to include six series, Fox planned a sitcom based on Property Brothers. Most staggering of all, by some estimates, Netflix has tripled its original programming since 2016, at a cost of up to $13 billion.
It has become impossible to track trends within a landscape that is expanding so quickly, and one whose rapid growth is the most salient trend of all. There were a lot of great shows this year—plenty of them new, many of them driven by women, people of color and LGBT creators and a healthy chunk of them adapted from peak TV’s favorite idea factory: books. Yet there was also a surplus of awful new stuff, from HBO’s absurd Here and Now to Netflix’s dehumanizing Insatiable to ABC’s soppy This Is Us knockoff A Million Little Things. MTV’s How Far Is Tattoo Far?, in which co-host Snooki squeals with delight as real-life friends, relatives and exes punish each other with breathtakingly bad tattoos, may well be a harbinger of the end times.
This endless variety of content is keeping our increasingly fragmented nation entertained, to be sure. But it has also mostly eliminated the possibility for series both popular and beloved enough to define an era—an I Love Lucy, an All in the Family, a Seinfeld, a Lost or even a Breaking Bad. When Game of Thrones wraps next year, what could possibly replace it?
There is, at least, something thrilling about the lack of consensus. I can’t begin to guess how my list of favorite shows (which could’ve been five times as long) will compare to that of any other critic. Without a Sopranos or a Mad Men in sight, 2018’s field of top 10 candidates felt wide open—and a Japanese reality franchise, a TNT crime soap and an adaptation of the darkest semi-autobiographical novel series I’ve ever loved all made the gloriously subjective cut. Finally, after hours of deliberation, a dark horse from BBC America emerged to take the No. 1 spot. If TV’s gilded age has given us a drama as lovely and strange as Killing Eve, it can’t be all bad.
10. Pose (FX)
TV mogul Ryan Murphy and his frequent collaborator Brad Falchuk used their powers for good in 2018, collaborating with first-time creator Steven Canals on this emotional drama set in the same 1980s Harlem ball scene spotlighted in the classic documentary Paris Is Burning. Anchored by queer and trans actors of color, Pose’s boundary-breaking cast inhabited a world shaped by poverty, racism and the AIDS crisis as much as revelry, competition and homespun glamour. The show’s aesthetic captured that duality, juxtaposing characters’ unvarnished daily struggles with stylized fairy-tale flourishes.
9. Homecoming (Amazon)
Homecoming felt like a confluence of small miracles: Julia Roberts came to TV. Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail reined in his most inscrutable instincts. Bobby Cannavale got a role worthy of his jovial yet menacing machismo. A fiction podcast evolved into a visually stunning Hitchcockian serial. A political thriller found something new to say about the military-industrial complex. It all added up to a viewing experience that was uniquely—and bewitchingly—unsettling.
8. My Brilliant Friend (HBO)
Global literary sensation Elena Ferrante conquered television with an Italian co-production that could bring foreign-language shows into the American mainstream. The first of four planned HBO miniseries based on her Neapolitan novels was everything the adaptation of a great book should be: a faithful translation of the author’s introspective prose into a visual medium, endowing the two young, working-class heroines of Ferrante’s coming-of-age tale with not only physical forms but also authentic internal lives.
7. Claws (TNT)
Claws, a bonkers crime thriller about a Florida nail salon that operates as a drug front, was always going to be fun. Yet Niecy Nash makes every show blessed with her presence approximately 17 times better. Her performance as the shop’s proprietor, Desna—who is both an organized-crime queenpin with an all-female posse and an overcommitted businesswoman looking for love while caring for her autistic brother—grounds the soapy story lines. The second season bested the first by using Nash’s talents to explore Desna’s vulnerability.
6. Terrace House: Opening New Doors (Netflix)
Japanese reality franchise Terrace House is an extremely low-drama upgrade of the Real World formula, gathering mostly good-hearted young singles in a luxurious home and hoping they hook up. Though all of its seasons make for satisfying comfort viewing, Opening New Doors, set in the snowy idyll of Karuizawa, also served up a life-affirming romance between self-effacing female hockey player Tsubasa Sato and laid-back male model Shion Okamoto. In a year filled with so much heartbreaking news, their story felt like a rare beacon of hope.
5. The Good Place (NBC)
In its first season, Mike Schur’s sharp sitcom placed four deeply flawed dead people (including star Kristen Bell) in a cheery, nonsectarian “neighborhood” of heaven—only to reveal that their swiftly deteriorating new community was actually hell. Since then, the show has rebooted its plot often enough to keep surprising viewers without losing sight of what it really is: a series of very funny lessons in philosophy and ethics, and an inquiry into whether people can change their own lives for the better.
4. Patrick Melrose (Showtime)
Thank the TV gods for granting Benedict Cumberbatch’s long-standing wish to play Patrick Melrose, the aristocratic antihero of five semiautobiographical novels by British author Edward St. Aubyn. The books should have been unfilmable: spanning 40 years, they chronicled addiction, abuse and deep-seated familial dysfunction, all filtered through Melrose’s drolly bleak internal monologue. Cumberbatch walked an emotional tightrope, honoring the character’s darkness without snuffing out the embers of hope that fueled his trudge forward.
3. Atlanta (FX)
Season 2 of Donald Glover’s surreal dramedy borrowed its structure from—of all things—a long-forgotten Tiny Toon Adventures movie, sending each character on an independent quest. The setup yielded one of the greatest episodes in TV history: a fun-house mirror of black excellence starring Glover as Teddy Perkins, an unhinged musician Frankensteined from elements of Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye. But as a complete statement, the season found thematic unity in a fragmented story and maintained Atlanta’s status as the least predictable show on television.
2. Sharp Objects (HBO)
HBO assembled a dream team—Big Little Lies director Jean-Marc Vallée, UnREAL co-creator Marti Noxon and stars Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson—to adapt Gillian Flynn’s novel about a self-destructive journalist who returns to her Missouri hometown to investigate the murders of two girls. Viewers patient enough to endure the miniseries’ languid pace were rewarded with a timely Southern Gothic meditation on misogyny, the shameful legacy of slavery and how oppressors convince themselves they’re victims.
1. Killing Eve (BBC America)
Amid a year of righteous, if belated, reckoning with women’s disturbing experiences in Hollywood, Killing Eve celebrated the female gaze. Though its form—a cat-and-mouse thriller—was familiar, its central characters felt new: a bored, underestimated British intelligence operative (Sandra Oh) and the glamorous, girlish, maybe sociopathic assassin (Jodie Comer) she goes rogue to apprehend. As interpreted by writer and producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the characters were multidimensional but incomplete, their mutual obsession fueled by the sense that each woman had something crucial the other lacked. Both performances, especially Oh’s Emmy-nominated study in midlife transformation, were breathtaking. For its fervent, largely female fan base, the show was a gift from the goddesses.