In this rapidly evolving technological day and age, it’s hard to even define what is TV anymore. It used to be just broadcast networks. Then cable TV channels came into the mix. Then satellite stations. Now it encompasses everything from broadband streaming services (Netflix, Amazon) to proprietary, “over-the-top,” direct-to-consumer media services (Paramount Network, DC Direct) to plain-
But at the end of the day, you’ve still got to have something to watch. And it’s got to be good. And that remains an elusive factor. It used to be we had “100 channels and nothing to watch.” Now, we’ve got “400 channels, several thousand websites and a whole bunch of digital streaming services and nothing to watch.” So—sift through that daunting signal to noise ratio—and what was the best TV of 2018?
“Adventure Time” (Cartoon Network)—Pendleton Ward’s fantastically imaginative, post-apocalyptic kids fantasy came to an end this year after 10 seasons. So, yes, this is sort of a posthumous award for services rendered. But Ward’s ever-evolving show went out on a wonderful grace note. The plus-sized episode “Come Along With Me” brought eight years’ worth of occasionally surreal storylines to a tidy, tear-filled end. What promised to be a battle royale for control of the Candy Kingdom turned into a pacifistic struggle to save the Land of Ooo from demonic outside forces (in the form of malevolent chaos deity GOLB). It ended with a song, a long-awaited kiss and the promise that “the fun will never end”—because there’s always another hero, always another adventure around the corner.
“The Deuce” (HBO)—This sleazy-sweet drama about Times Square comes from creators David Simon and George Pelecanos, who gave us “The Wire” and “Treme.” In chronicling the lives of the various pimps, hookers, bar owners, mobsters and pornographers lining 42nd Street, the show has found surprising emotional weight in the journey of its various characters. It seems odd to find redemption and personal fulfillment in the journey from ’70s streetwalker to ’80s porn mogul (to choose one example), but “The Deuce”—particularly in its second season—has managed it with grace and grit.
“The Terror” (AMC)—This historical horror series (which promises to be a yearly anthology) does a tremendously atmospheric job of adapting Dan Simmons’ novel of the same name. Based on the true-life mystery of Sir John Franklin’s lost Arctic expedition of 1845, the story conjures solutions both realistic (starvation, lead poisoning) and fantastical (that unstoppable Inuit demon). Meanwhile, the topnotch British cast (Jared Harris, Tobias Menzies, Ciarán Hinds) keeps the entire thing grounded in freezing, starving, terrified reality. Never has adventure, discovery and scientific knowledge seemed like such a terrible idea.
“The Good Place” (NBC)—How can a lowly sitcom get better every season? Creator Michael Schur certainly has the résumé to pull it off (“The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”). But three seasons in, this brilliant fantasy about death, philosophical concepts and basic human interaction continues to reinvent itself in startling and exciting ways. Plus the cast continues to knock every episode out of the park. If D’Arcy Carden’s turn in Season 3’s “Janet(s)” episode (in which she is called upon to portray all four major characters herself) doesn’t land that lady an Emmy, I don’t know what will.
“Better Call Saul” (AMC)—Is “Better Call Saul” better than “Breaking Bad”? A controversial question, I’ll grant you. But one worth discussing. After four seasons of intense character work on the part of some of the best writers, directors and actors on TV, I honestly feel closer to poor lawyer/con man Jimmy McGill than I did to Walter White. To say nothing of Mike Ehrmantraut, Kim Wexler, Nacho Varga and the rest. The show’s sense of self-generated doom is both gripping and depressing. No matter how good (or bad) our pal Jimmy breaks, he still gonna wind up slinging Cinnabon in Omaha.
“Homecoming” (Amazon)—Sam Esmail, the mad wizard behind AMC’s “Mr. Robot,” is also the controlling hand behind this defense-industry conspiracy thriller based on the dramatic podcast by Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg. Throughout the 10 expertly timed episodes Julia Roberts delivers her best role in ages as a former caseworker at a transitional living facility for veterans uncovering the mystery of what the hell she was doing there in the first place.
Also great: “Barry” (HBO), “GLOW” (Netflix), “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon), “Atlanta Robbin’ Season” (FX).