In 2018, television welcomed one of the most impressive freshman classes in recent memory. It’s a good bet the majority of TV’s Best of Lists for the year will be (or already have been) heavily populated by the bumper crop of shows that popped up on broadcast, cable, and streaming over the course of the year. No matter where you looked, or where your subscription dollars went (premium channels, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.), there wasn’t just something for everyone, but something really good that everyone should have the chance to enjoy.
What that means for television in 2018 is something of a question. Was it that the old, reliable TV staples weren’t that impressive? Not so fast. The Americans headed back to the bosom of Mother Russia with a tremendous series finale, AMC’s Better Call Saul continues to be an impressive feat of narrative engineering, and Atlanta is still the strange, unforgettable, genre-defying series it was in its first season. There were others, too, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine (which defied death to be resurrected on NBC), and BoJack Horseman, which somehow gets better every year (that eulogy episode is one for the record books).
But, by and large, it was the newcomers who made the biggest splash this year, which may be on account of their being the shiny new plaything viewers crave, but it may also prove to be a bellwether of things to come. With peak TV still a thing, and even more scripted shows expected in 2019 and, presumably, the years to come, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see television’s cream of the crop consist of newer and newer shows with each passing year.
Here’s Screen Rant’s list of the Best New TV Shows of 2018:
HBO’s Succession, a darkly comic series about a family dynasty and its dysfunction, took the uncomfortably familiar story of absurdly rich people failing — sometimes upwards, but always, in one form or another, failing — and made it one of the funniest, best-written new shows to hit television this year. The series’ addictive, acerbic charm was thanks in large part to the efforts of In the Loop and Veep writer Jesse Armstrong, but it was also due to the absurdly talented ensemble, that includes Brian Cox (and his masterful ability to sling profanity), Kieran Culkin, Alan Ruck, and Sarah Snook. All were superb, but series standouts Nicholas Braun, Matthew Macfadyen, and, of course, Jeremy Strong consistently managed to top themselves from episode to episode.
The series went on a ridiculous run in the latter half (maybe more) of its first season, delivering one petulant family gathering after another. It was as though all Armstrong had to do was get the Roy family in a room together and the scenes just wrote themselves. Over the course of the season it became clear there’s not a scenario the Roy clan couldn’t turn into an unmitigated, relentlessly watchable disaster. After a dismal Thanksgiving, a failed therapy session, and a debauched bachelor party, it’s no surprise the season was capped off with a wedding that went the full Chappaquiddick.
No other show on television captured the highs and lows of family dysfunction quite like Succession, and no other show made it seem so of a moment, either.
What a year 2018 was for the folks working in confines of fictional clandestine operations. Television loves a good spy story, but this year the genre seemed to be the gift that keeps on giving. While Philip and Elizabeth Jennings said their goodbyes, TV everywhere welcomed a bevy of new spy-centric shows, none with a more compelling and existential twist than Starz’s Counterpart. Headed up by a phenomenal and complex dual performance by J.K. Simmons, the series boasts an impressive supporting cast, most of whom get to pull double duty, too.
What sets Counterpart, well… apart is how it refuses to live down to its status as a genre mashup. Never indulging in the kind of tepid world-building that could stymie a good story, the series threads a multitude of storylines into a nail-biting tapestry that asks big questions about the nature of identity and choice, and, especially in season 2 (which also began airing in 2018), how violent ideologies are sometimes born. As the story progresses, it’s clear that series creator Justin Marks and his writers’ room are interested in splashing around in some of the more familiar spy genre waters, while seriously upping the ante on the question of “Who can you trust?” As the show demonstrates, that question becomes infinitely more complicated when you literally can't trust yourself.
Was there a buzzier series in 2018 than BBC America’s Killing Eve? In the individualistic and very capable hands of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the television adaptation of the Villanelle novellas by Luke Jennings became something altogether new and exciting. A funny, obstinate, and often times violent exploration of obsession and infatuation (sexual and otherwise), the series began with one killer episode (sorry) after another, introducing Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer’s Eve Polastri and Villanelle before eventually putting them on a wicked collision course neither woman would necessarily object to being on.
Just as exciting was how the audience for Killing Eve grew as the season progressed, becoming a rare hit on television that didn’t succeed in spite of shedding viewers over the course of eight or ten (or more) episodes. Mostly, though, Killing Eve brought deserved attention to its lead actors, as well as Waller-Bridge, making the idea of obsession one the audience shared with the show’s characters.
Technically the fourth season in Netflix’s successful Narcos series, but also technically a brand new series from the same team, Narcos: Mexico is the latest offering in the real-world drug trafficking drama, and it’s also an example of how this series can continue to grow and get better with age.
Narcos season 3 demonstrated why Pedro Pascal was leading man material, but it also showed how much better the series was once it freed itself from the narrative yolk that was the story of Pablo Escobar. If that season was a test, then it’s one the Narcos crew clearly learned from, as they not only left Escobar behind, but they ditched South America altogether in favor of, well, Mexico, and a pair of superb leads in Diego Luna and Michael Peña. The result was a completely reinvigorated drama that was not only a far more compelling origin story of a lesser known (at least in terms of popular culture) drug empire, but it also offered up more of what the series did exceedingly well: paint rich, full pictures of individuals on either side of the fruitless war on drugs. Narcos: Mexico even managed to turn its mostly unnecessary voiceover into something interesting by bringing in Scoot McNary’s voice long before the show introduced the character he was playing.
If the series can be this successful in reinventing itself, there’s really no limit to where Narcos can go once it’s time to leave Mexico.
Sometimes it’s okay for a show to just be a solid hang. And while AMC’s quirky Pynchon-esque comedy Lodge 49 certainly lives up to that billing, it also has some intriguing ideas hiding underneath its amiable surfer-bro-meets-secret-fraternal-order exterior. The series also has a terrific lead performance from Wyatt Russell as Dud, the surfer in question who’s nursing wounds both physical and emotional, and just trying to make the most of an increasingly bad set of circumstances.
At times it seems as though Lodge 49 is an experiment in low-stakes storytelling, but the show’s surprisingly deep bench of character actors (Brent Jennings, Sonya Cassidy, and David Pasquesi are among the most memorable) keep what at first appears to be a light and breezy affair from simply floating away. The result is an outrageously charming new series that is, above all else, just a really satisfying hang.
The Little Drummer Girl
Beautiful, compelling, and immensely watchable, AMC’s latest John le Carré adaptation, The Little Drummer Girl, is perhaps the best example of auteur television (inasmuch as there is such a thing) in 2018. With its complex story driven by the idea of performance and where and when the lines between truth and fiction are most (and perhaps best) blurred, the limited series told a captivating tale.
That tale was made more enthralling thanks to the performances of Florence Pugh, Alexander Skarsgård, and Michael Shannon, as well as its stylish period trappings. But mainly, The Little Drummer Girl surpassed all expectations thanks to the direction of Park Chan-wook. Not a scene in the six-episode series is wasted. Whether it’s a dreamy interrogation, a lonely drive though Yugoslavia, or simply a moment of necessary exposition, there’s always something catching the director's attention. What makes the series so worthwhile is the way in which he makes those moments captivating for his audience as well.