During a year that felt as if it spanned 10 years and produced about a billion television shows, trying to narrow down the best of the best is a nearly-impossible task. Frankly, it’s nearly impossible just to remember all the programs that aired — remember that beautiful High Maintenance premiere? Or the funny-but-canceled Great News? Can you believe Queer Eye aired two whole seasons since February?
Still, there were plenty of standouts throughout the year, coming from both the expected networks (you could make a top 10 on Netflix alone) and the unexpected (Facebook Watch has some surprising gems). What’s notable about the ever-increasing influx of programming is the sheer breadth of stories told: a Cuban-American family grappling with our current politics; trans women living life in the late ‘80s; coworkers at a big box store laughing their way through a frustrating job; and insecure pre-teens awkwardly crawling toward adolescence.
It’s tough to narrow it down to just 10 — and, of course, these are only my personal favorites — but here are the best television shows from 2018:
Pose, created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, is notable for a number of reasons. Not only does it boast the largest number of trans actors in a TV series, but it provides a reversal of the narratives we’re used to: the main leads are almost all trans women of color while the two straight white men (Evan Peters and James Van Der Beek), the men who are usually at the forefront, are instead relegated to the background, as side characters in the women’s stories. It also features trans people behind the scenes —such as Janet Mock, who made her TV writing debut with “Love Is The Message.” It’s proof that when queer people tell our own stories, the results are intimate, honest, and enthralling. Set in the backdrop of ‘80s ball culture, Pose provided a lively, beautiful, and joyous season of television — one that I can’t wait to return to.
Big Mouth (Netflix)
If not for Netflix’s also-great American Vandal, Big Mouth would go down as the grossest show all year — and one of the absolute funniest. Following a group of seventh graders as they navigate puberty (some with the help of crass, hilarious “hormone monsters”), Big Mouth is delightfully disgusting and painfully relatable. The first season was a nice surprise; the second season managed to surpass it. An episode dedicated to Planned Parenthood, a riotous (and beautiful!) musical number about loving your body, the introduction of the “Shame Wizard” (God, I can’t even talk about the Shame Wizard), and every single word uttered by Maya Rudolph (but especially “bubble bath”) — the season was perfect beginning to end. No one ever wants to relive adolescence, but it sure is fun to watch it while far removed.
Sure, you’re probably expecting to see The Good Place on this list — it is, indeed, utterly fantastic and currently enjoying another reinvention — but for my money, it’s NBC’s Superstore that’s the most consistently hilarious sitcom on the air. Set at a big box store in Missouri, Superstore finds humor in the relatable frustrations of working retail, the struggles of lower- and middle-class (particularly in middle America), and the daily mundanity of chatting with the same people over and over. The characters in Superstore are single mothers, undocumented immigrants, uninsured workers, and so on — and the writers are able to depict their struggles and successes with laugh-out-loud jokes. If you hated what the reboot did to Roseanne or miss those early flirtations of The Office’s Jim and Pam, then Superstore is your next favorite show.
There’s a chaotic streak that runs throughout Atlanta’s first two seasons: a vague sense of beautiful anarchy and unsettling horror; a blending of varying genres and tropes, of the down-to-earth with the bizarrely surreal. This year’s robbin’ season was a tour-de-force of storytelling. The obvious example is in the downright spooky “Teddy Perkins,” a haunting episode that’ll stay with viewers for years to come. But my personal favorite was “FUBU,” a ‘90s flashback episode that catapulted me to my own youth as it traced the desperation to fit in with those richer to the devastating cruelty children inflict on each other.
Killing Eve (BBC America)
To recommend Killing Eve, adapted by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is to also remain tight-lipped about Killing Eve, because there are so many surprising twists and turns that you don’t want to risk spoiling anything. The best new series of the year centered on a compelling and violent cat-and-mouse game between Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer — and yes, of course there is plenty of delightful queer subtext — and trust me when I say that the two actresses who give it their all. I’ve watched it twice already, and I’m ready for a third go. (And good news: It’s now all on Hulu!)
One Day At A Time (Netflix)
In 2018, it became abundantly clear that the majority of television isn’t equipped to interrogate our current political climate — look no further than reboots like Roseanne and Murphy Brown, both of which fumbled awkwardly. (Though Roseanne had, uh, a whole other set of problems.) Netflix’s One Day At A Time might be the sole exception, able to address issues with a mix of bite and warmth; this season alone tackled immigration, gender identity, antidepressant withdrawal, and more, all through the eyes of a loving Cuban-American family. And season two in particular confirmed what we already knew: both Justina Machado and Rita Moreno are fierce performers, effortlessly dancing between humor and pathos, and demanding you pay attention.
The Bisexual (Hulu)
Slipping in under the wire is Hulu’s The Bisexual, which premiered just a few weeks ago. Created, written by, and starring Desiree Akhavan (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), The Bisexual follows Leila (Akhavan), a lesbian-identified woman who ends a relationship and begins dating men. Part of what makes this dramatic sitcom work is how uncomfortable it is, pushing viewers — particularly queer viewers — out of their comfort zones, into sticky grey areas, and making us confront our own internalized biases (and internalized biphobia). Yet it’s also remarkably and awkwardly funny (I watched one sex scene half-laughing and half-cringing), and tells more universal stories: navigating a break-up, maintaining friendships, coming out to yourself.
The Assassination Of Gianni Versace (FX)
After the success of American Crime Story’s first, O.J. Simpson-centered installment, the approach of The Assassination of Gianni Versace seemed odd — but as the season went along, the pieces began to fit together, and writer Tom Rob Smith’s agenda became clear. It’s a more subdued and more introspective season than its predecessor, working backward from Versace’s murder to follow Andrew Cunanan’s earlier spree killings. It has much to say about homophobia — personal, internalized, outwardly, culturally — and the standout episode, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” has remained on my mind since it aired. While I was lukewarm on both the format and finale, the more I sat with it, the better it became. (And that’s to say nothing of the performances: Darren Criss and Judith Light are especially amazing.)
America To Me (Starz)
Trying to sell a Starz docuseries when there are countless other shows on is tough, but I strongly feel like America To Me is the only true must-watch of the year. It’s an unflinching look at a “high-performing and diverse” public school in the Chicago area, following a number of students throughout the year. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), America To Me takes all the data and studies about racial and educational inequality and instead depicts it through the eyes of the actual students — providing a first-person (and often heartbreaking) look at what it means to the lone black student in a class, or how to straddle different words when you’re biracial, or the necessity of code-switching in the classroom. It should be a required text for white educators, but it’s educational for everyone.
“Andre and Sarah” from Forever (Prime Video) and “Episode 205” from Take My Wife (iTunes/Starz)
Lately, showrunners love to boast that they approached their TV series as an eight-hour movie, or a season-long film. But there’s still something to be said for the importance of standalone episodes (a necessary shoutout to GLOW’s “The Good Twin”), some of which end up better than the series as a whole. The best example this year is “Andre and Sarah,” the sixth episode of Amazon’s Forever. Forever was a lackluster program, swallowed up by its own premise, but when it detoured to tell a story of two realtors, Andre (Jason Mitchell) and Sarah (Hong Chau) with instant chemistry but stronger roadblocks. We watch them flirt, fight their attraction, lose touch, reunite, and grow old — it’s realistic but whimsical; envious but depressing. It tells a full story in a half-hour, one that works alone but also bolsters the larger serial arc.
Another example is Take My Wife’s “Episode 205.” The queer sitcom features Rhea Butcher and Cameron Esposito playing real-life versions of themselves as a couple gearing up for marriage. Written and directed by Butcher, the episode puts the leads on the backburner to follow three women comedians: Regan (Riley Silverman), Jamie (Irene Tu), and Bethani (Brittani Nichols). We watch them fumble through their days — awkward flirting, being trans in a cis-centric society, explaining the purposes of a binder to a doctor — leading up to their performance. It’s a personal, queer look at the lives of three women we don’t normally picture when we hear the word “comedian” — providing us with a necessary antidote to the glut of white-, male-centric sitcoms about comedians trying to make it.
Honorable Mentions: BoJack Horseman (Netflix); The Good Place (NBC); Jane the Virgin (The CW); Vida (Starz); GLOW (Netflix); You (Lifetime); Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX); High Maintenance (HBO); Claws (TBS); Detroiters (Comedy Central); Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW); Barry (HBO); Aggretsuko (Netflix).