Ah, the promise of a fresh start. The year of 2018 saw a number of unforgettable endings, but there were even more enticing beginnings. That’s good news for all those viewers starving for content — haha, what a good joke. No one needs more TV in 2018 (not with more than 500 scripted series out there), but everyone can benefit from better television.
Whether that stems from an exciting, previously unheard voice, a new form of storytelling meant to shake up the system, or just a damn solid series eager to capture your imagination, great TV is always welcome. The following 15 scripted shows exhibited all these characteristics and more, making the previous 12 months a banner year for serialized storytelling.
So make a list, set your priorities, and start sampling these exemplary new series. Some may prove too engrossing to ignore, replacing old favorites that have slipped up or forcing you to skip a few movies to make up the time. New beginnings are to be savored. Who knows how much longer the gilded age can continue?
15. “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”
Kiernan Shipka and Ross Lynch in “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”
While creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa proved with “Riverdale” that a darker, more irreverent version of Archie Comics could work on the small screen, his “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” revamp made a pact with the devil to deliver a clever and progressive morality tale that doesn’t skimp on the fun. Full of witchcraft, demons, and other occult trappings, the Netflix series follows hybrid teen Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) as she navigates the mortal and witch worlds. As she tests the boundaries of her free will, the show also experiments with the framework of its storytelling, paying homage to numerous horror stories to enchanting effect.
The colorful cast of characters — ranging from a housebound warlock and squabbling witch siblings to a deceitful demoness and magic-practicing mean girl — help examine societal expectations and the shadow of the patriarchy. Like its anachronistic ‘60s aesthetic, this modern story is full of paradoxes: Satan worshippers with a conscience, nearly immortal beings who run a mortuary, and virginal girls with an affinity for evil. Wicked smart and hella hilarious, “Sabrina” is an addictive, dark delight. Hail Satan! – HN
14. “The Little Drummer Girl”
Alexander Skarsgard and Michael Shannon in “The Little Drummer Girl”
Jonathan Olley/AMC/Ink Factory
As anyone familiar with Park Chan-wook’s striking film work can imagine, there are enough individual elements in his first TV series to elevate it above other spy thrillers. The AMC production was one of the few to shoot the Acropolis after the sun had set. Michael Shannon’s Israeli accent was trumped only by his ferocious spirit. Alexander Skarsgård — and his form-fitting fashions — made for one seductively reserved recruiter. But while all of these are worth admiring on their own, Chan-wook’s John le Carré adaptation tied them all together with the thin line connecting actors and liars. Really, it’s Florence Pugh’s performance that brings the blustery men and the swirling camera together, adding a beating heart and a cunning mind to one of the more finely tuned meta narratives of recent memory. – BT
Jim Carrey, “Kidding”
An earnest man in a cold world, Mr. Pickles (Jim Carrey) works just as well in his imaginary children’s show as he does in Dave Holstein’s black Showtime comedy. The Mr. Rodgers figure has helped educate generations of kids with his lessons in kindness and inspiration. Meanwhile, the man off-camera has tried to live his life by those same ideas, but he’s starting to crack in the face of tragedy. Directed with loving inventiveness by Michel Gondry (among others), “Kidding” represents the image of themselves people strive for as it clashes with the harsh reality they run into every day. Having Carrey’s lively, nuanced turn to guide us through the calamitous blending makes it all the more powerful, and Season 1 set up a future with wide-ranging possibilities. Mr. Pickles should be proud. – BT
At the beginning of the year, this unrepentant, often-bleak comedy about life inside the belly of corporate bureaucracy was a welcome jolt of humor (a trend that will thankfully continue in 2019 when Season 2 arrives). Unmistakably connected by a sense of work-induced dread, each individual episode has its own stylistic departure, be it a dance break, Lynchian dream reality, or borderline unbelievable finale proving nothing was too precious for this show. Giant multinational behemoth Hampton DeVille might see Matt (Matt Ingebretson), Jake (Jake Weisman), and the rest of its desensitized employee base as interchangeable cogs, but the show gifts them their own specific neuroses and small, momentary triumphs. Set at a company that will literally sell anything, there’s no telling where co-creators Pat Bishop, Ingebretson, and Weisman may fix their sights next. But it’s a safe bet no other show will take modern American anxieties and transform them into something so wickedly satisfying. – SG
11. “Howards End”
“Howards End” is shrouded in a certain sense of impenetrability. Social status, reputation, the consequences of past choices, or the secrets that remain unspoken all create a kind of shell around many of the characters in E.M. Forster’s novel. It’s all the more remarkable then, that director Hettie MacDonald and writer Kenneth Lonergan were able to craft a distinct, four-part adaptation that harnessed a spirit of freedom and vibrancy. Even in the face of immense tragedy, there are still moments of levity and sweetness balancing out the way these three families’ fates become forever intertwined. Hayley Atwell and Matthew Macfadyen are ideal anchors for this tale, embodying Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox with a genuine sense of affection. The result is a drama that understands the frustration of repressed emotions without falling victim to the same problems that visit its central players. – SG
10. “A.P. Bio”
Glenn Howerton in “A.P. Bio”
“A.P. Bio” begins its pilot with one of the all-time great character introductions of the year: Jack Griffin (Glenn Howerton) running his car into the sign outside Whitlock High School, walking into his classroom, dropping his lunch (and a crowbar) onto the teacher’s desk, and proceeding to inform his new students they would be learning nothing from him. Just as important: This ousted Ivy Leaguer said he would be learning nothing from them, either. Though that didn’t prove to be entirely true, Jack’s streak of anarchy pervaded the entire first season of NBC’s comedy, which brought with it gifts like Jack’s DGAF wardrobe choices, the subtly bitchy trio of Jack’s fellow students, and the spectacular weirdness of Heather (Allisyn Ashley Arm). A game cast of kids rounded out a winning ensemble, and helped make “A.P. Bio” a class worth taking again and again. – LSM
JK Simmons in “Counterpart”
Nicole Wilder / Starz
J.K. Simmons in a dual role as a mild-mannered office drone named Howard and his far more dangerous and hardened, parallel world version (also named Howard) is enough to make “Counterpart” worth checking out. But the series consistently delivered fascinating doppelgängers of each cast member while pondering (quite literally) if you can be your own worst enemy. In Starz’s sharp sci-fi series, a nexus point in Berlin becomes the genesis of a second world identical to our own, but in the classic examination of nature versus nurture, it’s human development that makes all the difference. An espionage tale with a key twist — spies must outmaneuver themselves, like a grandmaster playing both sides of the chess board — Harry Lloyd, Olivia Williams, Nazanin Boniadi, and Sara Serraioco join Simmons in these exciting shenanigans. But even as tense and thrilling as “Counterpart” can be, like Howard, the show has an alternate persona, one that is wistful and contemplative, yearning for and observing the road not taken. – HN
Indya Moore in “Pose”
One of 2018’s most-needed bursts of joy, “Pose” brings us into the House of Evangelista and the House of Abundance, making 1980s New York ball culture feel like home. There’s a specter of darkness hanging over Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals’ story, but the detail-rich production design and an exuberant cast, including Mj Rodriguez, Billy Porter, and Indya Moore, made this nightly foray truly addictive. – LSM
Even if “Succession” was just the Tom and Greg show, it would still be one of the best new series of the year. That the two characters brought to delicious, contentious life by Matthew Macfadyen and Nicholas Braun, respectively, are only a small piece of the puzzle just goes to show a) how much better Jesse Armstrong’s HBO drama can get in Season 2, and b) how many rich surprises (no pun intended) it had to offer in Season 1. Quickly ratcheting up suspense over a familial power struggle for one of the world’s largest media conglomerates, “Succession” brings you just close enough to each character to make their tragic flaws sting whenever they’re forced into the limelight. Such honest assessments make for biting condemnations, but it’s surprising to see how much you care about select Roy family members during their often disgusting quest for control. “Succession” blends comedy and drama, satire and respect, critiques and matter-of-fact statements about how the modern world works, and it does it all in one sleek, seductive package. Now, if only there was a bit more Tom and Greg… – BT
6. “The First”
Sean Penn and LisaGay Hamilton in “The First”
“The First” was exceptional television for all the reasons it struggled to crack through a busy TV landscape. Released on the bountiful premiere day that also saw “Forever,” “American Vandal” Season 2, and “BoJack Horseman” Season 5 all bow at the exact same time, this drama surrounding the first manned mission to Mars never reverts to the kind of cheap, exaggerated storytelling that have hampered shows in the same genre. Inspirational without being sappy, looking to the future without being locked into flashy tech, and patient without calling attention to the creeping passage of time, “The First” never uses convention as a crutch. Much in the way characters within the series have to weigh sacrifice, duty, and the unknown, the show itself is a flight of faith. Whether or not it’s rewarded with a second season and a chance to fully venture out to another world, “The First” showed how all stories that set their sights upward don’t have to follow the same plan. – SG
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