NPR's Favorite TV Shows Of 2018

Dec 17, 2018

Hundreds and hundreds of series air every year. They are good and they are lousy; they are new and they are old. There's too much television for a comprehensive ranking, so Glen Weldon, Linda Holmes and Eric Deggans round up 16 of their favorite shows from 2018.

The Americans (FX)

The final season of this slow-burn, serious-minded series about a pair of KGB agents planted in the U.S. to raise a family and spy on government officials had its fans worried. Could the show, which so intricately examined the world of '80s spycraft through the lens of a thrillingly intense domestic drama, nail the dismount? Would Philip and Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) survive? Would their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), follow in their footsteps? Would their son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati) ... um, OK, no one wondered about Henry. The series finale managed to feel both surprising and inevitable, in a hugely satisfying way. — Glen Weldon

Barry (HBO)

Bill Hader is best known as a comedic actor, but he delivers drama as well in HBO's dark comedy about Barry, a hit man trying to go straight by studying acting. It sounds like a precious premise. But great work from Hader and Henry Winkler as his acting teacher elevates the story to something that stuck with me stubbornly all year. It's unsettling to begin with the idea of redemption and gradually smother it, and it remains to be seen whether the second season can succeed. But these eight tight half-hours are well worth a watch. — Linda Holmes

Big Mouth (Netflix)

The jokes about the sundry terrors of puberty are many, and filthy, and utterly cringeworthy for all the right (read: deeply earned) reasons. Compared to South Park, an animated series that similarly delights in humiliating its characters, Big Mouth is a filthier show, with even cruder jokes and an obsession with sex that's more relentless. Crucially, however, it's also a much more sincere, more sweet, more intensely empathetic series that, even as it's visiting horrors and humiliations on its characters, never fails to side with them. We care about these poor schmucks, so the jokes land harder and the cringes go deeper. — Glen Weldon

The Chi (Showtime)

Chicago's notoriously violent South Side neighborhoods have long needed a fictional drama that humanizes their struggle the way The Wire characterized Baltimore and Boyz n the Hood depicted South Central Los Angeles. Creator Lena Waithe pulls it off here. The show is fueled by Jason Mitchell's emotional turn as an aspiring chef whose ambitions are threatened by his brother's murder and Alex Hibbert's beyond-his-years performance playing the middle-schooler who saw the killing happen. — Eric Deggans

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)

The series about high-powered lawyer Rebecca (Rachel Bloom), who uproots her life to chase down the boy who represents everything she thinks she wants, deftly transitioned into its fourth and final season by not simply addressing the elephant in the room — Rebecca's mental illness — but wrestling it to the floor. The show managed to engage, responsibly and tastefully, with a character's attempted suicide while remaining the tuneful, breezy, acidly funny show we've come to know and love. It's a risky endeavor that's paying off by giving supporting members of the cast room to develop — and tie up their own storylines. — Glen Weldon

The Good Place (NBC)

There are few comedies as consistently joke-packed as NBC's The Good Place. Physical comedy, dumb puns, brilliant one-liners, unexpected observations — it doesn't discriminate. But the show's other calling card is its genuine — and well-researched! — considerations of philosophy. It asks over and over: What does it mean to be a good person? What do we owe to each other? In its third season, as Michael (Ted Danson) and the gang face new questions together, it remains a high-stakes, thrillingly inventive series with one of TV's most consistently compelling casts. — Linda Holmes

Homecoming (Amazon)

Building a new series from the bones of a popular podcast is the latest fad in TV-land. But Director/Executive Producer Sam Esmail wound up developing an inventive show that stands as the best TV drama of the year. Movie superstar Julia Roberts crushes here, benching her legendary smile — mostly — to play a frazzled, damaged administrator discovering the dark side of a corporate-run program for veterans. And Esmail, whose trippy genius fueled USA Network's Mr. Robot, upends the rules of TV storytelling by turning this show's half-hour-ish episodes into taut bits of visually ambitious drama. — Eric Deggans

Killing Eve (BBC America)

This may be the strangest — and most compelling — story of how opposites attract on TV this year. Sandra Oh is acerbic and knowing as Eve Polastri, a deskbound, low-level staffer in British intelligence who instinctively figures out how to track a notoriously psychopathic assassin, played with maniacal glee by Jodie Comer. Executive producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge subverts every male-centered trope of espionage thrillers as Eve and the assassin play a deadly cat-and-mouse game fueled by their mutual fascination with each other. — Eric Deggans

The Kominsky Method (Netflix)

Okay, it may not sound like much fun watching a silver-haired acting teacher kvetch about aging with his even older best friend and agent. But when those two guys are 70-something Michael Douglas (as actor/teacher Sandy Kominsky) and 80-something Alan Arkin (as his agent, Norman), you've got dramedy gold. Creator Chuck Lorre hits a career high, crafting stories rooted in the pain of loss and aging delivered by stars whose deft touch is informed by over a century of acting experience between them. — Eric Deggans

Legion (FX)

When the guy with a wicker basket on his head (who talks only through androgynous android-clones in Tom Selleck mustaches and Beatle wigs) is the least weird thing about your show, that show can safely be called ... distinctive. Welcome to Season 2 of Legion, FX's not-your-daddy's-mutant-superhero series helmed once again by Noah Hawley (who also runs FX's other stylish, genre-inflected offering, Fargo). It's a visual and aural feast, stylized to the point of gorgeous absurdity, and a testament to what a director with a good eye — and a loose leash — can bring to series television. — Glen Weldon

One Day at a Time (Netflix)

There was much ado about Roseanne returning to ABC, and the hope that it would give "working-class families" more of a presence. Anyone looking for a working-class family, however, already had a few choices. One is the Alvarez family from Netflix's One Day at a Time. Penelope (Justina Machado) is a veteran and a single mom, dating and raising her two kids, living with her mom (Rita Moreno). The cast is divine, the show feels contemporary and smart (its explorations of sexual and gender identity feel particularly profoundly needed), and Rita Moreno can still crack your heart right open. — Linda Holmes

Pose (FX)

There is no more revolutionary act in television than a once-marginalized group rising up to tell its own stories, so this series matters. Pose features an amazing cast of LGBTQ characters exploring 1980s New York through the city's ball culture competitions. Transgender actress Mj Rodriguez is indomitable as Blanca, the house mother to LGBTQ competitors who have chosen each other as family after biological relatives rejected them. Transgender writers like Janet Mock and Our Lady J served as producers, and, according to FX, the show made history by assembling TV's largest cast of transgender actors in regular series roles. Truly a revolution through revelation. — Eric Deggans

Queer Eye (Netflix)

You know the drill: Five gay guys breeze into the lives of hapless schlubs and show them the life-changing magic of ... making a damn effort. The Netflix reboot stays true to the formula, with an all-new quintet of queers — and a willingness to broaden the mission statement to address something other than straight, white man-boys. The new series brings less acid humor and a lot more heart than the original, and while its fumbling attempts to address America's political and racial divides can seem cringingly naive, it's a dependable source of pop-culture comfort food. — Glen Weldon

Shut Up and Dribble (Showtime)

LeBron James is one of the executive producers of this excellent Showtime documentary series examining the relationship between race and the NBA. Inspired by a dismissive cable-news insult directed at James himself, the series looks back at pioneers like Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell, whose activism was fundamental to their careers. But it also considers stories like Magic versus Bird and the branding genius of Michael Jordan. It explores the inescapable links between racial justice and professional basketball — and labor economics as well. — Linda Holmes

A Very English Scandal (Amazon)

Ben Whishaw dithers fetchingly as Norman Scott, who enters into an illicit affair with the very opportunistic and so veddy veddy posh member of British Parliament Jeremy Thorpe. Hugh Grant plays Thorpe with a smarmy sense of entitlement and vowels plummier than moo shu pork. Watching this very — nay, achingly — English affair play out, and then flame out, is what a Brit might call "a right old hoot." It's soapy, funny, by turns gorgeous and grubby, and performed with a kind of headlong verve that's a joy to behold. — Glen Weldon

Vida (Starz)

On the surface, it's a familiar story: Two sisters who left home return after a parent's death to face all the complications left behind. But this series breaks new ground because the sisters are Latinx, they are returning to take ownership of a crumbling bar in a gentrifying East Los Angeles neighborhood, and they never knew their mother was a lesbian who married her partner and left her spouse one-third of their family business. Couching a familiar story in an authentic, specific experience helps create transformative, groundbreaking television. And Vida delivers. — Eric Deggans

Jessica Reedy produced and edited this story.

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