Best TV of 2018

Television, that great sop to the common man. Even though TV’s staunchest broadcast empires have stood tall for over 7 decades, the new streamers have wasted no time hacking at their knees this decade. Now, the majority of interesting content is produced by tv streamers like Hulu and Netflix. But that doesn’t make it good content. In 2018, only 3 of the top 10 best shows found on the list here are from streamers, despite them dominating the content hose. Unfortunately, I think this is a trend we’ll see continue. The mass mailer style of attack on the demographic dartboard likely makes good business sense. That’s too bad because the algorithm driven popularity chasing has hardly arrived and it’s already exhausting me, drenching us in pap they’re sure we’ll like (look at this trending graph!). The best way to please no one is to try to please everyone, after all. That's not to say they didn’t push out a few gems in the process of throwing money at the problem. And regardless of the absolute quality, at least the streamers are making a lot of weird stuff with shows like Sabrina and Homecoming playing with expectations, while also making some decent fan content like the wish fulfillment karate soap Cobra Kai and a decent Watership Down adaptation. If there was one theme that linked all the TV in 2018, it was the weirdos. People are getting weirder and more in touch with that emotional weirdness on tv, for good and bad. Let's check out some of the good watches of the year:

Best Show Where You Miss 24 And Don’t Need Too Many Feelings


I’ve already written a little about Bodyguard and there’s certainly no reason to dwell on it. It’s an expertly crafted TV thriller where you gotta get them terrorists and it's got a tired dad in the lead to boot. Is this your alley or ain’t it?? Expect guys aiming down rifle sights, nervously gripping pistols while sitting pensively, frantic driving, and bureaucratic stare-downs, without too much fluff between those things.

Best Show Where You Miss 24 But You Do Need Feelings

Killing Eve

Maybe you heard about metaphors in 5th grade and wondered if action schlock TV could be something more? In comes Killing Eve, a pretty standard fusion of what works from other super spy and counter terrorism TV shows but with the added twist that everyone’s motivations are a little more up in the air. Not in a Game of Thrones way, but more in a psychosexual way. While it doesn’t come close to the masterpiece that was Hannibal’s melding of predatory friendship, Eve finds Sandra Oh game to chase a super secret psycho killer around the globe. Things get messy when she starts to understand this killer’s journey and gets inside their head. I’m not sure I understand the sudden interest in getting all academic and psychoanalyzing FBI agents - no one’s ever even read my thesis and it’s available online free! Okay I admit Killing Eve is probably more fun, as a direct descendant of that snappy 24 style plotting with some extra pizazz. 

Best Gross Animated Show

Big Mouth

There’s a lot to choose from in this category, but it’s easy to go with expert humorist (and previous Cyano Crits Best of awardee) Nick Kroll and his BFF John Mulaney. Their gawky middle schooler comedy hews very close to the disgusting middle schoolers that started it all, South Park, but with Netflix’s tacit permission that anything goes and therefore a decidedly more sexual focus. If you have the stomach for American Pie on grossness-steroids, Big Mouth is a well observed coming of age tale, digging out into the light all those specific feelings and mistakes that made puberty so painful. It’s more of a stand up riff than a smart dramedy, but that makes its depravity more tolerable too (assuming you can handle a solid 20 minutes of material on cum socks).

Best Guilty Nostalgic Pleasure

Cobra Kai

Most reboots make a fatal mistake on starting over, recasting everyone and following the same ole story beats. Or instead doing an events-adjacent prequel with a bunch of people we’ve never seen before and never get interested in. Cobra Kai is smart enough to realize that the writing and “lore universe” is not what makes something like Karate Kid a classic. It’s the kismet of Ralph Macchio’s slightly chubby punchable face, the strip mall California 80s setting, and the slightly absurd but deadly serious dedication to martial arts. Punching their way through interpersonal relationships is a way of life for the Cobra Kai adherents. Flipping the typical setup, Cobra Kai is a sequel that has the dojo emerge as the underdog in this scrappy Netflix series set 30 years later. The show manages to score both of the main child principles from the original film and derives much of its juice from that. The high school stuff is a little too soap opera and the fighting is clearly the work of (self-professed) amateurs, but seeing Cobra Kai and Miyagi-Do go head to head again is pure nostalgic pleasure. As long as you can shrug for the requisite high school story twists that keep things moving (Tory said WHAT about my face???), it’s an easy to enjoy martial drama if you ever crossed paths with sweeping the leg before.

Best Long Running Show Finally Ending That Defined Your Adolescence

Adventure Time

To really put a capper on the end of the 2010 decade,  let’s close with the actual death of childhood here. Adventure Time was a show based on magical reality, but over time slowly became more about practical reality. The show’s approach for talking about coming to terms with family, society, and death, has really never been done better. The core has always been our two heroes Finn and Jake, who are dudes that hang out and make do rather than victims or messiahs. As kids growing up, their steady enthusiasm and willingness to seize adventure was an antidote for the dread cynicism of our modern world. They swashbuckled through 283 episodes that were colorful, hilarious, and probably the most creative thing on television. There’s really only one appropriate response to the ending of Adventure Time. UNACCEPTABLE! I mean of course it was probably time for it to go, it got increasing spaghetti’ed as it added bit after bit to its lore, but it always maintained its low fi bonafides. Seeya Finn and Jake. Glob lives.

Best Long Running Show Finally Ending That Defined Your Teenage Years

Venture Brothers 

On the other end of the spectrum, we have a show that started right away with the snarky deconstructionism that defined many of our teenage years. Over fifteen years, Venture Bros. slowly moved from snotty rebellion towards finding an earned adult compassion for life out of the soup of random events. It was never funnier than the first few seasons of spot on Johnny Quest and comic book parody, but with each passing year it got more familiar and became an increasingly good hang. Eventually its own lore spiraled to match the complexity of anything it  borrowed from. Seven seasons later, we actually know the road most of the characters walked to get where they are, even random background capes, and have seen them pull apart and knit back together several times (sometimes this has involved bombs and sometimes medical cloning). Venture Bros has always been a late night voice of anti conformity hidden away on Adult Swim. Now we know the 7th season was the end of the journey, matching the end of broadcast mandates across the board. While we may still get an epilogue in the future, the journey to adulthood was still already completed more or less. Venture Bros stands as an accomplishment for holding focus on an awkward dysfunctional family until the jokes and bitterness fade and only the people remain.

Best Oh Shit That Was Deep Show


Donald Glover’s trajectory may in time go full Kayne (note-positive 2018 connotations), but with the first seasons of Atlanta he already proved himself to be a vital creative force in the world. Ostensibly about a small hip hop artist and coterie trying to make it big, Atlanta is instead a tapestry of vignettes exploring all the ways the little guy has to grind to just stay afloat in this society. Everyone is trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, with a little help from the god given talent emanating from local rapper Paper Boy, It’s not just Earn, Glover’s central misfit, who is following his eponymous task. Atlanta captures everyone in the city trying to scratch out a living, forced to play the game and deal with the fallout. In this way, it captures the true legacy of the downtrodden, as everyone who hasn’t made it yet has to stand on each other's backs to get their heads above water. What are the limits of fake it till you make it (negative 2022 Kayne connotations)?

Best High Functioning Dramedy


Sometimes it is easy to get the impression that Hollywood types actually don’t like Hollywood very much. Barry, the brainchild of a Curb Your Enthusiasm creator and winning comedian Bill Hader (who has always clearly had slightly higher aspirations than other SNL alumni), is a vicious satirical sweep of The Biz, starting from the ground up with a bunch of no name actors having to treat every glint of a role like it's the part of a lifetime. As many clever shows do, a second genre has been expertly fused to the cynical showbiz takedown; Barry is a somewhat psychopathic hitman for hire who stumbles into the acting stuff during a job and finds himself unable to leave behind either. The cold mercenary matter of factness of the mafia murders and vengeful retaliations match perfectly with the financial calculus and popularity contests that make up the “Dreams” industry. The key to the mix is that the pathos is surprisingly earnest - the action is dark and violent, showing full characters rather than faceless thugs and 5 minute guest stars. Pretty fleshed out people fall into dire circumstances, which all just serves to pique the comedy on top of it. 

Best Fever Dream


At first Maniac seems like it will sell itself as a kind of Inception update, a mind bender that will challenge your Decartian confidence in reality. Once we get into it though, it's very clear that is not the purpose of this show at all. Using its brainwave dream pipe as a PTSD therapy premise, Maniac mostly wants to use its creative license to drop Jonah Hill into different dioramas. Eschewing intricate setpieces or tight drama, we’re mostly left with our two leads who get to try to act the shit out of rapidly shifting identities. In a way, this reminds me of the show Legion, which followed an all powerful mutant but mostly used it as an excuse to explore Mod 60’s secret lairs and set up dance numbers. The actors are game, Emma Stone and Jonah Hill both have star power to spare here and make the story much more charismatic than it might have been. It was originally disappointing to find out Maniac was a remake of a Norwegian show, but I think Fukunaga (True Detective) has succeeded here in using production style to enhance the drama beats and make a weird fever dream. It’s a treat.

Show of the Year

The Terror

I think the thing you most want from a great work is for it to transport you somewhere new. That’s why eventually things have to end and TV changes. Even if we could have had 15 decent seasons of the Sopranos it’s probably better to have 6 amazing ones. So it’s kind of suffocating then that most new shows are cops, or serial killers, or cops chasing serial killers, or serial killers who love cops. While murder is usually a good time on television, execs have found a way to make it pretty boring via oversaturation. Even a 70 year old grandma probably wouldn’t bat an eye reading some awful sex crime report after all that basic cable SVU. What can still stir the terror up in our bored guts then? Take us somewhere new!

The Terror, based on a Dan Simmons novel, is a work of speculative fiction about a naval expedition to the Yukon to find the fabled Northwest Passage, the last great feather meant for the cap of the last great explorer. The desire for a  Pacific-Atlantic passage was such that the USA eventually subjugated a country and dug a 50 mile trench, in which 25000 lives were also buried, to open a similar shipping lane. True story. Imagine the fervor with which a commander armed with only a sextant might search for the easy way, a river through the arctic snow leading to glory. Such a shame then that our two British ships, one of which is named the HMS Terror, tarry a bit too long on an arctic expedition and get stuck in the ice. The ships are locked by the freeze, surrounded by hundreds of miles of white nothing, the occasional barren rocky island, and solitude. Well, not quite total solitude as it turns out there’s something strange out there in the snow with them.

It’s a peculiar setting, and this frozen wasteland is a breath of fresh air. The hundred or so marooned men give plenty of opportunity for your tried and true Drama ™ , but all of the little details of a voyage-gone-wrong wrap and embrace this thing and make it truly fascinating. There’s a ton of attention to ship-builders type detail, chains of command, and just the general effort of living on a boat, stuck in the ice or not, is an interesting thing to show. The atmosphere is thickly created by this careful control of production design and adherence to an older type of pacing. The cast is entirely game too, finding a stodgy 1800s British rhythm that is believable and earnest. Most period pieces currently have given up on avoiding anachronism (this used to be the minimum bar for this kind of thing), sometimes even using out-of-place thematic arcs, so it’s refreshing that this show lodges itself plainly in the reality of the situation. Nice speeches and believing in yourself aren’t solving anything for the men in the Terror.  

In this day of meta fiction, a committed monster story set in an uncommonly depicted setting is an ice cream treat. Jared Harris, that squinty eyed Englishman, leads the pack with a wonderful performance as the platonic captain ideal in a bad situation, but everyone else is appropriately shaggy and at their wits end as the situation calls for it. The explorer searches for autonomy over the world, but by going to the brink the arctic explorers also often were overmatched by their own limits. The men of the Terror face the same situation - marooned in a place they don’t understand very well, how long can their adherence to order and propriety keep the wolves of chaos at bay? As an evocation of the flip side of the explorers coin, the Terror’s full commitment to its1800s naval setting and the empty arctic ice flows make it the best TV of 2018.


That’s the news of the world Cyano critters. The discussion of good TV in a year can be summed up pretty simply - it’s nearly impossible to see even a quarter of it so here’s what I did see. I favored the weird, the nostalgic, the unique. It’s just a little bonus that one of my favorite sci fi authors wrote the story The Terror is based on. Hopefully you find some interesting things to add to your own unforgivably long watch queue. Til next time.