To see my choices 6–10 of the favorite shows of the year, click here.
It may be prudent once again to note that much like last year this isn’t a list of the best shows of 2018, but a list of my favorite shows of the year. If you trust my tastes, then maybe you can consider it both.
Escape at Dannemora
Escape at Dannemora is proof that as long as the directing and acting are stellar, creators can take some tired tropes and make important and engaging art from it.
This particular, salacious true story would fit well into a classic movie-of-the-week structure: in 2015, two convicted murderers in upstate New York escape from Clinton Correctional Facility (hence the title), but only after some help from a married female prison employee with whom they’ve both had sexual relations.
It could come off as melodrama or worse. And in other hands, maybe it should be. However, Ben Stiller (yep, that Ben Stiller), directs the hell out of this show. It’s a slow march to the actual escape of the title, but the time in the prison with inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat, played by Benicio del Toro and Paul Dano, respectively, is time well spent. You can’t take your eyes off of them. What will they do next? These are two of the best actors around, and they serve as reminders on how great actors can make or break a work. And that’s saying nothing about the heavy lifting that Patrica Arquette is doing as prison employee Tilly, so sadly wrapped in the charms of these two men. Arquette is transformative in the role of a pitiful, rural, hardworking wife who has little to savor in life but the attention, attraction, and dangers of the two men.
And it’s not just the leads. Every single actor fits so perfectly. Eric Lange as Tilly’s doting and doofus husband Lyle and David Morse (one of the most sublime actors of movies and television and who gets the “That guy!” reaction from anyone who has seen him) as the prison guard who befriends Richard Matt are both utterly human; it’s another added layer that Stiller treats them as people rather than headlines.
The only reason that Escape at Dannemora isn’t any higher on my list is that, as of this writing, it is currently airing on Showtime, which would usually stop me from having it here. I couldn’t help it this time. I love this show.
The Terror may seem off-putting or even boring on the premise alone: taken from Dan Simmons’ novel of the same name, the show is a fictionalized account of a British crew’s failed expedition of the Arctic in 1845 and their attempt to survive their eventual entrapment. While it has elements of a stylized and haughty period piece, The Terror horrifies. It is full of dread. Every scene, especially those on the cold, darkened ships, creaks with worry of what’s coming next, what’s outside, and perhaps the most fearful of all (albeit a bit cliche): what’s inside each of the men who are still alive. Though not historically accurate, there are some realistic, despairing moments, moments that mirror the anxieties of today. (It’s no surprise to learn that Ridley Scott is one of the executive producers for the show.)
Also, The Terror may be one of the most beautifully shot shows of the year. No doubt that this had to have been a feat to create. It’s hard not to feel physically cold when watching it.
While the hunter and prey aspects of the show have slight letdowns, the last two episodes make up for it with some serious, frightening, and unexpected revelations. I’ll not spoil them here, but if you plan to watch, you’ll want to have all hands on deck.
From The Terror to The Haunting of Hill House, 2018 was the year for great horror shows (surprised?), and Sharp Objects may have been the most terrifying of them all. The stinger of the final episode alone will haunt me for years to come. But that wasn’t all.
Knowing nothing about the Gillian Flynn book, I found Sharp Object‘s twists naturalistic, and all the more jolting. The basic outline: Camille Preaker, played by the great Amy Adams, is a journalist who returns to her small hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to investigate the murders of two young girls. While there, she questions the police chief, detective, townsfolk, teens, and, dare I say, reality itself. Camille brings with her all of her unresolved problems to her mother and stepfather’s house, where she stays to gather the facts of the case. Hating her mother (Patrica Clarkson, so menacing) and her sister (a relavatory Eliza Scalen) seemed too easy at first. That’s a credit to both Clarkson and Scalen. Everyone in this is pure amazement.
To say more could be ruinous, but know that director Jean-Marc Vallee uses jump cuts and strange inserts to their most effective to startle and to scare and to surprise. Some critics complained about those edits being too much. Not me. I loved them. Each one felt as though I was inside of Camille’s troubled mind and was only getting it in pieces, much like the character herself.
Vallee did more than just revolve around the mysteries of the murders the teen girls with those razor sharp angular scenes. It’s to both Vallee and Flynn’s credit that the both Camille’s internal and external world felt distorted without being distracting or frustrating. Each of the pieces of the show seemed to work in conjunction to its denouement, and it was a shocker. We’ll all be quoting that final bit of dialogue, right? I won’t tell.
Though a show is more than its ending, The Americans resolved on such a powerful and graceful final set of episodes that it’s difficult not to start there.
Fans like myself wondered how Russian husband-and-wife spies Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) would inevitably clash against F.B.I. agent, neighbor, and friend Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich). How on earth could anyone could get all the plot threads tied together and still leave viewers satisfied? Kudos to showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, who managed to somehow give fans everything they needed to feel satisfied, not to mention heartbroken and mind-blown.
Season six of The Americans found Phillip retired from the spy game while his wife Elizabeth became even more dangerous and frazzled. In the world of espionage, those things will get you killed, or worse. It was a little bit unconvincing that Stan Beeman wouldn’t have put it all together before this season, but perhaps not totally. Whether or not you liked the ending (I loved it), you have to agree that the acting of all the leads was superb. No one wears exhausted and emotionally drained better than Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. And who among us can now listen to U2’s “With or Without You” the same again? What a gut punch. Long live our Russian spies.
Atlanta: Robbin’ Season
Is it hackneyed at this point to have Atlanta in the top spot? No. It really is that good. Anyone who watched it and didn’t think it was the best and most entertaining probably has some issues with it beyond the show itself, even if tastes vary. But, you know, there’s a reason why it’s in the top of so many year-end lists: it is the best show on television. The argument could be made that it’s one of the best to ever air. Throw out any remotely positive connotative set of adjectives that you wish about the show, and it’s likely that they stick: strange, scary, hilarious, haunting, contemplative, weird, fun, joyful, anxious.
Atlanta: Robbin’ Season was even more surreal and, at times, sinister than its previous season. Donald Glover, his cast, crew, and fellow writers constructed a piece of television that not only sought face life’s existential problems but also bring up new ones (as if we needed more). Who knew that being lost in a set of woods in Atlanta could be more tumultuous than what’s happening in our current culture?
Atlanta is also a master of tones. Even when it shifts, it does so masterfully. Take the booze and drug-filled campus hilarity of the episode “North of the Border” that quickly veers into melancholy and trepidation when characters Tracy and Earn’s stop on the side of the road to fist fight, itself sort of humorous to see in writing.
All that and Brian Tyree Henry is a sheer joy to watch. His expressions alone should win him all the awards. Throw in the fact that Robbin’ Season also gave us all the best episode of television of the year with the creepy, yet delicate (like an ostrich’s egg!), “Teddy Perkins,” where Glover played the titular character in whiteface, and this season will be one for the history books.
Man, I love Atlanta.
Check back at The Alabama Take soon for the rest of the top ten favorites.