TV’S BEST AND BRIGHTEST
In the wealth of offerings, 25 shows stand out
Here’s to the year in television. ❚ The small screen brought us more than one quirky assassin, a turd burglar, a prison break, births, deaths, big hair, big beards and the end of the Cold War, in a manner of speaking. ❚ With the explosion of content from broadcast, cable, and streaming, the sheer amount of TV was so overwhelming, you might have missed some of the most thrilling and beautiful series. ❚ Among hundreds of shows this year, here are 25 that stood out from the rest. If you try really, really hard, you might be able to get through them over your holiday break. ❚ OK, maybe not, but it’s a nice to-do list for 2019 (before all the new shows start in January, that is). 1. ‘The Americans’ (FX)
One of the best TV shows of the past decade, “The Americans” delivered a swan-song season with more subtlety and grace than even its most devoted fans thought possible. “The Americans” was a series about international espionage, and the ramifications of the spycraft it depicted play out on the political stage even today. But it was also a deeply personal drama about marriage and family, about who and what demands our loyalty, and whether individuals matter more or less than a cause. Ever the realists, writers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields offered no answers to these big questions, but the stunning series finale achieved closure nonetheless.
2. ‘The Good Fight’ (CBS All Access)
It’s worth subscribing to CBS All Access if only to see this spinoff of “The Good Wife,” which has surpassed its predecessor in so many ways. Dozens of series have struggled for relevancy since the 2016 election by name-dropping President Trump, but “Good Fight” is the only series that captures the exhaustion of our current chaotic cultural moment. That feat is thanks to the writing of creators Michelle and Robert King and the performance of star Christine Baranski, who still finds new shades to attorney Diane Lockhart even after playing her for nine years.
3. ‘American Vandal’ (Netflix)
Netflix’s mockumentary began in 2017 as a pitchperfect parody of true-crime documentaries, equal parts hilarious and eviscerating as two teen filmmakers investigated a high school prank. Season 2 was all that and so much more, shifting to investigate a series of excrement-related “pranks” that were both a great source of scatological jokes and more serious crimes. Laced in with poop puns and conspiracy theories was a shockingly deep portrayal of the loneliness of adolescence. “Vandal” offers the kind of empathy rarely given to teenagers, onscreen and in their real lives.
4. ‘Escape at Dannemora’ (Showtime)
With Ben Stiller behind the camera and Patricia Arquette in front of it, Showtime could do no wrong in its fictionalized retelling of the 2015 prison break in upstate New York. Seven remarkably taut, thrilling and heartbreaking episodes make “Dannemora” an accomplishment that is so much better than you might have expected when it was announced that this scandalous story was getting the Hollywood treatment.
5. ‘Killing Eve’ (BBC America)
There is a unique joy in finding a new television show that completely surprises you, from its writing to its performances to its direction to the names on the poster. Sandra Oh, long relegated to best-friend roles, finally got the star turn she deserves as a messy spy, with Jodie Comer’s assassin as a foil that could match her powerful acting. The spy vs. hitwoman drama had a tiny audience, but its supporters were loud enough to send Oh and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge to the Emmy Awards. The biggest crime of the year is that they missed out on the prizes.
6. ‘One Day at a Time’ (Netflix)
The family sitcom is alive and well these days, but none is better than this reboot of the Norman Lear classic. A celebration of the multi-camera format, in which episodes are filmed in front of a live audience, “One Day” is also a celebration of love. When the series took a more somber turn in the exquisite Season 2 finale, the writing still kept its incredible heart and hope even as the characters (and viewers) cried buckets.
7. ‘The Good Place’ (NBC)
Three seasons in, the lovable quartet at the center of NBC’s existential sitcom are still on a quest to be good people. The series itself, however, has no trouble being good. Just renewed for a fourth season, “Good Place” has a remarkable ability to reinvent itself as it races through plot and planes of existence, maintaining whip-smart writing and affecting performances along the way. The only show that can make philosophy both relatable and hilarious, watching “Good Place” feels like going on an adventure.
8. ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story’ (FX)
Compared with its O.J. Simpsonthemed predecessor, the new installment of FX’s true-crime anthology series landed a bit quietly, but it was no less artful. The operatic and tragic story of spree killer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss, in an Emmy-winning turn) gave equal attention to his most famous victim, fashion designer Versace, and the ordinary men who had their lives cut short. Told in reverse chronological order, Cunanan’s life and crimes only became more devastating as the show went on.
9. ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ (CW)
The ballad of Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) is about to come to an end, and it’s a bittersweet prospect for fans of CW’s musical dramedy. The series’ fourth and final season began with just as many pretzels and music videos as before, but as “Crazy Ex” winds down, it has become a quieter journey for Rebecca. Still, you can’t help but root for some peace and stability in her life, as she comes to terms with her identity. Even without as much scheming and twisting as before, the series remains sharp as ever.
10. ‘Superstore’ (NBC)
We should all pay more attention to “Superstore.” NBC’s sitcom about employees at a big-box store in St. Louis is akin to “Cheers,” a workingclass comedy that doesn’t pander or patronize. The series has been reliably hilarious, thanks in large part to an excellent cast including America Fererra, Ben Feldman, Lauren Ash and Nico Santos (who also stole scenes in “Crazy Rich Asians” this year). The series has grown tremendously, reminding viewers that “will they/won’t they” relationships can still be funny and romantic, and that sitcoms don’t have to be depressing to be smart.
“The Americans” stars Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell.
Christine Baranski leads “The Good Fight.”
Tyler Alvarez and Jimmy Tatro on “American Vandal.”
Rachel Bloom stars in CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”
BBC America gave us “Killing Eve” with Sandra Oh.
Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor.
‘Escape’s’ Benicio Del Toro