TV News: PCR’s Top 5 Favorite Television Shows of 2018!

PopCultureReview’s Top 5 Favorite TV Shows of 2018
Best of 2018 Lists
December 18, 2018

It’s the time of the year when people start thinking about the year that (almost) was and what their favorite things were (and not so favorite if you’re so inclined). PopCultureReview is not immune from these musings.

We’re rolling out our “Best Of 2018” Lists; click here to see our Five Favorite Movies of the Year! Today, we turn our eye towards our favorite medium, television! Why five? Simple. Three seems too little and ten, too many. 

I watch a lot of TV; I could generate a Top 25 list of my favorite shows and still keep things off that I really like. So, I get it – your favorite show isn’t here; chances are I really like said show and agree with you that it’s awesome but, the way numbers work, there can only be five in a Top Five List. 

Now, remember, these are not necessarily the five BEST television shows of 2018 (though, I’d argue, in most cases they are and certainly in the case of my number 1 pick), but rather, our Top Five Favorite.

So, here is the list of PopCultureReview’s Top Five Favorite Television Shows of 2018 … after the jump! 

5.   Dietland (Season 1; AMC).  

Photo Credit: Erik Madigan Heck/AMC

On television, as well as many other places, 2018 was the year of the woman. Both in front of the camera as well as behind. This was the year that women said, “enough of your gross, abusive, misogynistic bullshit Hollywood” and put gross men in their place. No show, NO SHOW, better encapsulated this outrage, teetering on the edge of revolution, better than Dietland

Based on the 2015 novel of the same by by Sarai Walker, Dietland told the story of Alicia “Plum” Kettle (played by the wonderful, Joy Nash) as she reaches a crossroads in her life. Plum’s had enough of being fat shamed and bullied and taken advantage of. Over the course of the season, Plum becomes radicalized to strike back, to smash the patriarchy (and complicit women that would join in the patriarchy).  As I wrote in my recap of the Pilot

Dietland, based on the 2015 book by Sarai Walker of the same name, is an indictment of our culture and how we allow … no, how we have encouraged and institutionalized the persistent bullying of women and even more so, overweight women.

Through Plum Kettle’s journey, the newest AMC series seeks to shine a hot white spotlight on all of the ways we have stigmatized and beaten down an entire section of our population, and in no uncertain terms, says, Enough.

Its time to fight back and so you have a choice to make … be part of the solution or get the fuck out of the way. Dietland — the show we need now.  

Week after week, Dietland was a roller coaster of emotion, giving us laughs and tears, acting as our catharsis but also revving up our rage.  It deserved so much more than the single season it was given to tell its story but I have no doubt that Marti Noxon, the lightning rod writer, director and producer that brought it from book to screen, will continue to give voice to the outrage afflicting our country.

4.   Killing Eve (Season 1; BBC America).  

Photo: BBC America

Let’s make a spy thriller, let’s put it on BBC America and let’s give it movie-quality production values. Sounds great! Oh, and the two leads are going to be fierce (yet unexpectedly funny) females. Fucking sold. This was Killing Eve. Based on the Codename Villanelle series from Luke Jennings, and developed for television by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag; Crashing), Killing Eve pitted Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), an MI5 case officer turned MI6 spy, against Villanelle (Jodie Comer), a psychopathic master assassin with a dark sense of humor and a sympathetic backstory.

Killing Eve was a spy versus spy type set up where Eve begins to hunt Villanelle when Villanelle’s kills begin to attract attention. In turn, Villanelle begins to hunt Eve when she realizes this woman is on to her, seems to have her figured out. I’d go so far as to say that Villanelle even becomes obsessed with Eve. 

Despite a strong supporting cast made up of heavy hitters in the British scene, including Fiona Shaw, David Haig, and Kim Bodnia, Killing Eve‘s success rests on the strength of Oh and Comer. Sandra Oh, best known to audiences for her long time role of Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy turned in a performance here which was simmering with sharp wit and even sharper intelligence.  Well over her head, Eve’s primary motivation to prove her theory right never rings false, though she’s far more reckless with her safety than we’d like. On the other side of the aisle, Comer, a relative newcomer to the US (she’s best known for her BBC work like Doctor Foster) gives Villanelle  a complexity which is unexpected but engrossing. Even while she’s committing horrible acts of violence, it’s hard to root against the delightfully murderous and macabre, Villanelle.

Killing Eve, which was picked up for a second season before it even premiered, was the height of quality television in 2018 – crisp writing executed by brilliant acting and put together with accomplished direction. The ABCs of great TV. Through twists and turns and shocking violence and beautiful shooting locations, Killing Eve kept you glued to your screen week after week. It never felt boring or laborious, not for a minute.  

3.   The Alienist (Season 1; TNT).  

Photo: TNT

It’s hard to remember that The Alienist was a 2018 show. Premiering at the end of January, it seems so long ago that we went on our weekly adventures with #TeamKreizler. But that does nothing to diminish the lasting effect this wonderful period crime drama had on us.

Based on the novel of the same name by Caleb Carr, the TNT limited series introduced us to “the alienist,” a late 19th Century pre-cursor to modern forensic, criminal psychologists. Starring  Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans, and Dakota Fanning, The Alienist was a little dash of weekly procedural mixed together with season long narrative arc of chasing a serial killer.  With movie quality production values, the series put an emphasis on character development and immersive world building – fans of New York City (like myself) delighted week in and week out in the historically accurate locations and landmarks. New York City was very much a character in The Alienist.

When boy prostitutes begin turning up dead in lower Manhattan in 1896,  Laszlo Kreizler, the titular alienist, convinces his fremeny, Theodore Roosevelt ( the commission of police), to allow Kreizler to assemble a team and work the case to find the serial killer. Using new scientific and psychological methods, Kreizler promises Roosevelt that he can apprehend the criminal far faster than Roosevelt’s own police force which is very bloated and even more corrupted. Rounding out Kreizler’s team is the illustrator (and Kreizler’s moral conscience), John Moore (Evans), Roosevelt’s secretary (and official team liaison), Miss Sara Howard (Fanning), and two police detective sergeants who are versed in modern forensic methods who also happen to be Jewish brothers, Marcus and Lucius Isaacson (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear).  

Each week we learned more about our protagonists, more about our killer, and more about the men (some historical, some fictitious) who opposed the rise of modern policing and criminal investigation. Never one to shy away from graphic depictions of murder, The Alienist was a fast paced yet thoughtful dive into the nitty gritty present in turn of the century police work. Anyone who knows me, knows I am not a fan of weekly procedurals. If The Alienist was just Law & Order set in 1896, I would have hated this show but it was so much more than that. 

Luckily for us, a season 2 has been announced in the form of a limited series adaptation of The Angel of Darkness, the second Caleb Carr novel in the Kreizler series. The core cast will be returning and I cannot wait to go on another adventure with Kreizler and Co. 

At its heart, The Alienist was a character driven psychological thriller where every move and motivation had a purpose and aided in the storytelling. There was nothing gratuitous about this show except for the character development that we got to experience among all of Team Kreizler.  If you’re looking for a crime drama that will make you think, make you pay attention … I cannot recommend enough sitting down and watching The AlienistNote: I highly recommend reading the novel as well. The Alienist was a fairly faithful retelling of the book but there is some context omitted in the series that you get from Carr’s work – it definitely aided in my enjoyment of the show from a world building, immersive experience point of view.

2.   Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger (Season 1; Freeform).

Photo: Freeform

I love superhero shows. It’s hard for me to not like superhero shows … Jesus Christ, I even defended Inhumans for far longer than is healthy. But, I appreciate that not all superhero shows are created equally. And, within the expanding Marvel television universe, where tons of new shows are coming to market on a multitude of channels, this is certainly true.  Riding high from the quality of The Gifted (on Fox) and Legion (on FX), I didn’t think I was going to get any enjoyment from Freeform (FREEFORM?!?!) launching the next new superhero show. But boy oh boy, was I wrong. 

Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, which premiered on Freeform on June 7, 2018, set my hair on fire from the Pilot episode. And it only got better. If you were to tell me that I was going to get quality drama, acting, character development, and storytelling, out of a superhero show? Premiering on Freeform? In the Summer? I would have told you that perhaps you had been hit in the head too many times.

But Cloak & Dagger delivered. Week after week, I became more and more invested in the lives of Tyrone Johnson (Cloak) (played by Aubrey Joseph) and Tandy Bowen (Dagger)(played by Olivia Holt). These teenagers had complex lives and sympathetic stories. Each suffers incalculable loss, each deals with their struggle differently, and each found the other as a source of strength and hope … they are the epitome of what a “dynamic duo” should look like; part crutch to lean on, part person leaning on said crutch. Black and White. Yin and yang. Cloak and Dagger.

In my recap of the Pilot, I wrote the following:

Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger, airing on Freeform, is the newest Marvel TV series to hit the airwaves. Based on the comic books created by Bill Mantlo and artist Ed Hannigan, and following in the footsteps of the most recent installment in the Marvel TV-verse, Hulu’s RunawaysCloak & Dagger focuses on young superheroes just learning about, and simultaneously coming to grips with, the magnitude of their power.

Comic books shows have a mixed history when it comes to the quality of their storytelling and acting. So far, based on the first two episodes, Cloak & Dagger seems to be avoiding both of these deadly pitfalls.  With a deliberate pacing that is in no hurry to rush our protagonists into spandex costumes and emotionally charged and believable turns by leads, Aubrey Joseph and Olivia Holt, Cloak & Dagger is coming out of the gate with a confidence that screams, “we know what we’re doing, sit back and enjoy the ride we are going to give you.” And so far, I am inclined to agree.  

This was true in the Pilot and got even better as the season progressed. On the backs of Holt and Joseph’s thoughtful and realistic portrayal of teenagers having to deal with family issues, school and oh yeah, newly active superpowers obtained when they were younger, Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger works as a badass superhero show — is it the BEST special effects you’ve ever seen? No, but it’s far better than most of what you see on TV and there are some truly spectacular fight scenes and special effects/CGI that will knock your socks off (I am looking at you season finale).

But, Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger also works as high quality drama. The stories being told here are realistic, every day stories. Human stories. Stories that are accessible to all of us because we can all empathize or sympathize what these characters are going through. No knowledge of superhero lore required (excellent costuming, optional). If not for the next entry, Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger would have been my number one show of 2018 with a light dagger bullet.

1.   The Magicians (Season 3; Syfy).  

Photo: Syfy

It’s hard to make one hour of quality television. To tell a compelling story with interesting characters is difficult. To do that week after week after week is a mind boggling, Herculean effort. To create a full season worth, 13 hours, of quality television – television with no lapses, no faults, no drags or dips, no curious choices that on second viewing, you wouldn’t make again … is impossible. But one show this year came really, really, really close to perfect. Season 3 of The Magicians

Said another way, my hands down, no brainer, wake me up in the middle of the night and I’d give you the same answer, winner for Favorite (and Best) Show of 2018 is The Magicians. Period. Hard stop. Season 3 provided not only 13 hours of nearly flawless television, but it also produced two of my favorite episodes of television ever. EVER. When I say ever, I am talking about a lot of fucking TV and this Goddamn show gave me two of my favorites … in one season.  Click Here to see my ranking of the 13 Episodes of Season 3.

Like the late, (not so) great Vizzini was so fond of saying in The Princess Bride … “Inconceivable!” Yet, it’s true. 

Based on a series of books by Lev Grossman, The Magicians tells the story of a group of college-aged magicians who learn magic at university, Brakebills (a magical college located in the Hudson Valley, New York), and over three seasons have had to deal with a variety of magically inspired ordeals: monsters (human and otherwise), royal politics in the magical land of Fillory, the loss of magic, bureaucratic bullshit with a fascist governing body known as The Library; and God shit in the wellspring from which magic flows. It’s been a scene. 

At the end of Season 2, magic was turned off by the proto gods who were mad at Human magicians because one of them, Quentin Coldwater (our story’s main protagonist), killed a hedonistic god, Ember. Don’t feel bad for Ember, he threatened to destroy the magical land of Fillory … because he had become bored with it (Ember was like Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka and Chocolate Factory but with god powers and ram horns), so really, he got what he deserved. Whoopsies. So, Season 3 saw Quentin and his ensemble of friends embark on a quest, a quest to bring magic back!  

I am not going to try and summarize any further the madcap adventures of Season 3, you can read my Season 3 Ranking and Episode Recaps for that. So why was Season 3 the best show on television in 2018? Glad you asked. It  was as great as it was because it broke the mold, it smashed all the rules you’ve ever known about television. About storytelling, and character development, and inter-character relationships, and devices for delivery of narrative. The Magicians, Season 3, Changed Everything. 

To be sure, the fantastical and magical elements and conceits of the show (Fillory, a major setting in The Magicians,is a land where animals talk, sailing ships fly and Fairies are real (and really fucking nasty)) gives the creatives a wide berth in thinking outside the box but this had been true for the first two seasons of The Magicians as well. Yet, it wasn’t until Season 3, though, that something snapped inside co-showrunners, Sera Gamble and John McNamara, and the entire writing staff and cast, and they said fuck it, let’s really play; let’s crank it to 11 and see if this works.  And it worked. It worked so fucking well. 

(You’ll notice I am using the word, fuck, a lot. That’s an ode to The Magicians which, beginning with Season 3, got permission to air its episodes on Syfy with the curse word uncensored. It seems like a small idea but think how often you curse (or think curse words) in your daily life; cursing is reflective of how real people speak and its inclusion in The Magicians is just another ode to doing things right.)

Among the highlights of Season 3, I’d have to include the animated “Tale of the Seven Keys” (think of the animation style used in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when Hermione reads the Beetle the Bard story about the Three Brothers ) which is the cold open to Episode 2 (“Heroes and Morons”).

Or, dealing with consent issues in Episode 3 (“The Losses of Magic”) (kind of a big deal in 2018 if you haven’t noticed), using the Muntjac, a sentient boat, as the narrative device to discuss the issue.

Or, plumming the depths and realistic pitfalls of depression (and suicide), and inner demons, and betrayal, and feeling like an outcast, and feeling like you don’t belong and feeling like no one cares if you live or die, as dealt with in … fuck, every episode of The Magicians is about this need to belong and feeling like an outcast, but Season 3 dealt with this head on in Episode 4 (“Be The Penny”), Episode 6 (“Do You Like Teeth”), and Episode 9 (“All That Josh”).

Or, how about a 9+ minute act done in complete silence, where all of the dialogue is expressed via sign language (with subtitles), as seen in Episode 8 (“Six Short Stories About Magic”). 

Or, how about when a show takes its two main male leads and has them lead an entire life in one act, as in Episode 5 (“A Life in the Day”). From my rankings, “[t]his episode  moved me in a way that TV rarely moves me. The journey of Eliot and Quentin through a life spent together trying to solve the mosaic was not only so well written and filmed but the acting performances from Hale Appleman and Jason Ralph are so powerful that you can’t help but root for them, as a best friends, as lovers, as a couple, as two kings.”

I was not prepared for this episode and now, 10 plus months later, it still stays with me as the defining moment of what TV, as an artistic medium, can do, can  offer. 

The take away from my rambling gushes above is that The Magicians is fearless and bold. It says what it wants to say without reservation or regard for the pearl clutchers and naysayers. It has a message of love and acceptance and embracing your weird and embracing other people’s weird. And, it will repeat this message over and over until everyone has heard it, internalized it, and lived it. 

Season 4 of The Magicians begins in a few weeks and I am already beyond excited for the next chapter in this wonderful series but I am hard pressed to imagine that lightning could ever strike again 13 times like Season 3 did. The Magicians, the my favorite (and THE Best) television show of 2018! 

Notable Mentions.

These are just outside the Favorite Five and honestly, on any given day, may be in the top 3-5 slot (I’m very set on my Top Two Faves for the year): YOU (Season 1; Lifetime); Jack Ryan (Season 1; Amazon); Better Call Saul (Season 4; AMC); All American (Season 1; The CW); New Amsterdam (Season 1; NBC); and Timeless (Season 2; NBC).

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