The medium has had better years — but there are still lots of shows worth watching.
It has not been a great year for television so far.
There have been plenty of treats, to be sure, and even some real treasures. But compared to the way 2017 seemed to haul out new classics with astonishing regularity (to the degree that I couldn’t rank them when it came time to make a list), 2018 has featured a lot of shows where my recommendation comes with a caveat, or where I love it but plenty of my critical comrades despise it, or something like that.
This is fine, in many ways. TV criticism was defined too long by the idea that there were a simple handful of good shows, and critics could mostly agree on them. It’s exciting to get away from that era in some way, to argue about if Westworld is magnificent or malarkey, to discuss whether The Handmaid’s Tale is incisive or exploitative.
But it also means lists like these require far more grains of salt than they might have in the past. So here, presented alphabetically, are 24 TV shows from the first half of 2018 that I gave four stars or more and that have stuck around in my memory in the time since they aired. I hope you like them! But maybe you won’t! And since the TV year typically features more good shows in its first half than its second (due to the Emmys falling in September), my year-end list will likely feature almost all of these shows.
(A few caveats: I typically use the summer to catch up on stuff I missed, so some shows that aren’t here almost certainly will be come December. And I’ve tried to limit this to shows that aired six or more episodes in 2018 so far, cutting out some other favorites. I’ve made a list of things that missed due to one or the other of these caveats at the bottom of this article.)
One of the best final seasons I’ve ever seen, the last 10 episodes of The Americans circled back to what the spy drama had always been about — whether this unlikely marriage between two KGB spies pretending to be ordinary Americans could survive all of the things threatening to rip it apart. The series finale is a pitch-perfect cap to six years of bleak but beautiful television.
The second installment of American Crime Story after 2016’s The People vs. O. J. Simpson was less immediately arresting. But its depiction of ’90s America is just as impressive, tracing the circuitous route of serial killer Andrew Cunanan backward from his most famous victim through a gay scene struggling not to be forced back in the closet. Darren Criss’s work as Cunanan is masterful.
Atlanta, season 2 (FX)
Donald Glover’s laconically loopy trip through the titular city grew bolder and more confident in its second season, as the characters endlessly debated ideas of what it means to be “fake” versus “real.” The season’s standout was the darkly funny horror tale “Teddy Perkins,” about the legacies of child abuse, but every episode stands as a pitch-perfect, beautifully honed gem.
Barry, season 1 (HBO)
So far, 2018 has been a year of uneasy comedies, of stories that are ostensibly funny but hide something dark and sad at their core. No “comedy” embraced this idea more than Barry, about a hitman who would be an actor, played by Bill Hader. The show is terrifically funny, especially in its depiction of the fringes of show business, but what sticks with you is Barry’s inability to change.
How to watch it: Barry is available for digital purchase, or on HBO’s streaming platforms.
Billions, season 3 (Showtime)
A riotous trip through the deleterious effects of income inequality, Billions had its best, most cutting season this year, as the show blew up its own premise (by burying the investigation that had always been at its center), then spent the rest of its season vamping for time by digging into the ways those with money and power seem utterly oblivious to those without those qualities in the 2010s.
How to watch it: Billions is available for digital purchase, or on Showtime’s streaming platforms.
Blue Planet II (BBC America)
You like fish? This has so many fish!
How to watch it: Blue Planet II is available for digital purchase, or on BBC America’s streaming platforms. It will eventually be available on Netflix.
Corporate, season 1 (Comedy Central)
A deeply funny dark comedy about the cost of working for a terrible company, Corporate is one of the most visually audacious shows of the year, turning the workplace comedy into an excuse to indulge in gray, chilly frames, in the style of David Fincher. Somehow, that only makes the jokes, about the dehumanization inherent in trying to hold down a corporate job, even funnier.
How to watch it: Corporate is available for digital purchase, or on Comedy Central’s streaming platforms.
Counterpart, season 1 (Starz)
For whatever reason, 2018 has been full of terrific spy dramas, but this one seemed to get a bit lost in the shuffle. Starring Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, it tells the story of a world that split in two late in the Cold War, with the second universe, initially a copy of our own, slowly becoming more and more different. Forget just having one great J.K. Simmons performance. Counterpart had two.
How to watch it: Counterpart is available for digital purchase, or on Starz’s streaming platforms.
Dear White People, season 2 (Netflix)
This satirical comedy, set on the campus of a predominantly white college, but focusing primarily on the school’s black students, hit another level in its second season. The show crystallizes Trump-era racism — just a new face on a very old American horror — through its storytelling and especially its visuals. The eighth episode, structured as one long conversation, is a marvel.
How to watch it: Dear White People is available on Netflix.
The End of the F***ing World, season 1 (Netflix)
I include the “season one” here in hopes that it’s unnecessary. Netflix has made noise about following up this dark British comedy with a second season, but doing so would be self-defeating, as this first season tells its story so perfectly that to tack on more would feel wrong. So watch this gem of a miniseries about a teenage sociopath and the girl he can’t bring himself to kill before it gets all screwed up.
How to watch it: The End of the F***ing World is available on Netflix.
The Expanse, season 3 (Syfy)
The space-faring political drama tightened the screws and ratcheted up the tension in its third installment, which collapses a full novel and a half from the book series it’s based on into a single season of television. Complete with memorable guest arcs from David Strathairn and Elizabeth Mitchell, the series finally dug into the true nature of the mysterious alien presence in our solar system.
GLOW, season 2 (Netflix)
The comedy about women wrestlers and the basic cable TV show that broadcast them to the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area has a bit more sprawl than it knew what to do with in its second season. But the show is so open-hearted and generous to its characters that it doesn’t matter. Its stories of women navigating men’s spaces and womanhood as a kind of performance make for riveting television.
How to watch it: GLOW is available on Netflix.
Already brutal and bruising, The Handmaid’s Tale became even more so in its second season. It removed some of the cold comforts of the first season to examine how living in a totalitarian society inevitably means that you become complicit in at least some of its horrors, even as those horrors are being visited upon you. Elisabeth Moss and Yvonne Strahovski are fantastic as they navigate a society set up to oppress them.
How to watch it: The Handmaid’s Tale is available on Hulu.
Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (Netflix)
This stand-up set is a must-see, as Australian comedian Gadsby sets up a long series of punchlines that then resolve into a complete deconstruction of jokes and who gets to tell them in a society filled with fatal power imbalances. It’s funny, yes, but also filled with a scorching fury that finally resolves in a sense that to do better, we have to tear apart every assumption we have.
How to watch it: Hannah Gadsby: Nanette is available on Netflix.
Hap and Leonard, season 3 (Sundance)
I’ve always enjoyed this rural noir about two best friends who solve strange mysteries in and around the American South. But the third season, which features the two of them taking on the Klan, felt like the show turning a corner into its examination of how much America is defined by its gruesome past and how little any of us are willing to pay attention to that. Naturally, Sundance canceled it after the season aired.
Jane the Virgin, season 4 (The CW)
The CW’s daffy and inventive telenovela has always been some of my favorite TV comfort food. But in its fourth season, it somehow became something even more, leaning into storylines that underlined the show’s themes of family, perseverance, and love. It’s rare for a TV show to do a “character might have cancer” arc that doesn’t feel like a cheat, but Jane more than pulled it off.
Killing Eve, season 1 (BBC America)
Here’s another terrific spy drama, this one focused on a bored spy (Sandra Oh) who finds herself intrigued — and then maybe even more — by her new quarry, a mysterious assassin (Jodie Comer). Killing Eve takes tropes you’ve seen a million times and makes them feel new again, and it’s the first TV show in ages to remind me of my beloved, dearly departed Hannibal.
How to watch it: Killing Eve is available for digital purchase, or on BBC America’s streaming platforms.
The Looming Tower (Hulu)
The Looming Tower is dry and occasionally impenetrable. But I ended up loving the way this miniseries about the build-up to 9/11 slowly but surely built its case for how US intelligence agencies failed to spot what was right in front of them, leading to one of the biggest tragedies to ever occur on American soil. It’s not an argument for more intelligence work; it’s an argument for smarter intelligence work that remains relevant to this day.
How to watch it: The Looming Tower is available on Hulu.
The Magicians, season 3 (Syfy)
The middle stretch of this season reeled off classic episodes, like the show was in a groove it was never going to leave. What’s more, those episodes are all so recognizable as episodes — from a magic-inflected hour of short stories to a musical — that it became hard not to get caught up in the inventiveness. And the series’s emotional core about sad 20-something magicians trying to bring back the thing that makes them sad (magic) remains rock solid.
One Day at a Time, season 2 (Netflix)
The second season of the remake of the 1970s sitcom of the same name is perhaps the most joyful show of the year, as the Alvarez family at its center struggles through life in these United States with heart and hope. You’ll see few TV performances as terrific this year as the work of Justina Machado and Rita Moreno, as a mother and daughter who are never defined by their conflicts.
How to watch it: One Day at a Time is available on Netflix.
Pose, season 1 (FX)
Ryan Murphy’s final series for FX (before leaving for Netflix) is this delightful, warm ’80s period piece about drag ball culture of the era and the idea of found families among people all across the LGBT spectrum. In particular, the show tells stories about trans women like few TV shows ever have, allowing them to have full lives and desires beyond their transition narratives.
How to watch it: Pose is available for digital purchase, or on FX’s streaming platforms.
Superstore, season 3 (NBC)
My favorite workplace comedy had maybe its best season with its third run, which both deepens the show’s interest in social issues (including age discrimination, something few TV shows would even think to touch) and also serves as a master class in how to spin romantic and sexual tension across an entire season of a TV series. When all of its stories came together in the finale, it felt almost magical.
How to watch it: Superstore is available for digital purchase, on NBC’s site, or on Hulu.
The Terror, season 1 (AMC)
More than 100 men sail into the Arctic in the mid-1800s, sure they’ll win glory for the British crown by discovering the Northwest Passage. None of them return, and this miniseries (the first in a new anthology series under the banner of The Terror), based on a Dan Simmons novel, imagines what might have happened to them, utilizing both historical research and a mighty monster to tell its tale. It’s grim and unrelenting but also starkly beautiful.
How to watch it: The Terror is available for digital purchase, or on AMC’s streaming platforms.
Vida, season 1 (Starz)
Two sisters return to their Los Angeles neighborhood in the wake of their mother’s death, then vow to keep the bar she ran open to preserve their neighborhood in the face of gentrification. This lively half-hour drama examines ideas of identity, sexuality, and class consciousness, but never in a way that feels didactic. Instead, it offers heart, humor, and a touch of magical realism.
How to watch it: Vida is available for digital purchase, or on Starz’s streaming platforms.
Seven I either missed or cut
12 Monkeys and Channel Zero are other Syfy treats I’ve highly recommended in the past, but I’ve been able to catch up with neither so far. The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend technically aired six episodes in 2018 (exactly six), but I really want to see where it’s going with its current story arc. CBS All Access’s The Good Fight is one I just haven’t caught up with yet, to the consternation of my friends. NBC’s The Good Place will surely be on my year-end list but only aired five episodes in 2018 so far. I loved HBO’s The Tale, a searing story about the aftermath of sexual abuse, but it already made our “best movies of 2018 so far” list. And someday I will finish Netflix’s Wild Wild Country, but I liked what I saw.