Best TV Drama 2018

Time for my annual round-up of the best TV of the year.  And I’ve watched a lot for work and pleasure over the last eleven and a bit months. The flood of great shows hasn’t abated, in fact it seems to be increasing.  That’s not going to stop.  Several new streaming services are launching in 2019, including Apple’s and Disney’s.

If you watch only ten shows this year, you could make it the ones in this list. But honestly, so many only just missed the cut, and in the end it came down to margin calls.  And it’s the same at the top end of the list where I went back and forth several times, and would probably come up with a slightly different ranking tomorrow.

I’ll be counting down with one a day, so check back to see what got my viewing and screenwriting juices flowing during 2018.

10. Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina (Netflix)

A Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the modern generation? The big win here is the design of an immersive world that’s like being dipped in a big vat of Halloween. Sabrina’s house, the school, the forest, the pumpkin fields and lonely roads, everything here has a hyper-intense feel that pulls you into a place where the creepy is normal.  The tone is all over the place – and that’s one of the reasons I like it.  Gory, disturbing, playful, but thankfully nowhere near as over-cooked teen drama as its stablemate Riverdale.  Couple that with some great character actors playing it large – Lucy Davis, Michelle Gomez, Miranda Otto and Richard Coyle – and you’ve got a frightening funhouse of a series. Yes, some of the mid-season writing is a bit patchy, but stick with it.  The Midwinter special drops soon.

9. The Good Fight (CBS All Access)

A series with something important to say about the state of the world, and of today’s America.  As a spin-off of the well-crafted but not wave-making The Good Wife, not a lot was expected from The Good Fight.  Indeed, on the surface, this looks like a traditional legal show.

But from the very first scene of the first episode, it set out its stall that this is a critique of Trump and all he stands for, of the vulgarity and the profit-first coarseness that characterises current times.  It’s a series about the huge divide in society, and the inequalities thrown up by a 1% inured to suffering.  The credits come in halfway through the first episode with a reversal that pulls the rug out from under your feet.  And then you can see where The Good Fight is going.

And yet it’s not preachy.  It tells it’s tales with verve and a popular style, with strong characters and a light, yes, traditional, touch where necessary.

8. Homecoming (Amazon Prime)

Another massive critical hit from Prime, after The Magnificent Mrs Maisel, and deserving of all the praise heaped on it, and its star Julia Roberts.  Paranoia runs deep in this series – and paranoia is possibly the key response to the 21st century – as Roberts oversees a facility for military veterans wanting to adjust to the civilian world.  It’s told via different competing timelines, and tackles issues like memory and personality.

The relentless pace – the episodes are only 30 minutes – drag you through the labyrinth.  There’s tricksy direction and graphics, as you’d expect from the director and producer Sam Esmail who made Mr Robot such an interesting and iconoclastic creation.  But the real, emotive performances hold everything together.

7. The Deuce (HBO)

A brave series, in its unflinching attention to every grimy, seedy, brutal aspect of its milieu.  In its examination of the early years of the New York porn industry, it takes you into a world you’ve never seen before, and tells you things you never knew in the process.  As you’d expect from David Simon and George Pelecanos, the flawed characters lie at the heart, raw humanity trying to survive in a time and place determined to grind them down.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is the queen of all she surveys, as both producer, and as Candy, the former streetwalker now photo-feminist demanding agency as she shapes this new industry from behind the camera.  A class act.

6. Atlanta (FX)

The genius that is Donald Glover has achieved something of TV nirvana here – a show that can be absolutely anything it wants to be.  Slice of life, romance, comedy, gritty urban survival, social comment, and, in the episode where the main character goes to buy a second-hand piano, even horror.  Sometimes it’s all of them at the same time.  In the end, the genre here is simply Donald Glover’s worldview, mercurial, wry and witty.  Everyone in the cast gives first-rate performances, and, what makes it great for me, it never fails to surprise.

5. Maniac (Netflix)

A deliriously hallucinogenic comedy-drama miniseries that occupies its own space – post-modern, with heightened performances and a look that often echoes cheap 70s SF movies.  What keeps it from being too quirky for its own good is the big heart at the core, and ultimately it’s deeply affecting.  Emma Stone and Jonah Hill play two broken people volunteering for a new treatment that supposedly will help cure their mental health issues.  This involves flinging them into drug-induced imaginary alternate lives where they can work through their neuroses.  Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction is dreamy yet emotional, but it’s the career-best performance from Emma Stone, and Justin Theroux as a disturbed psychologist that nails this one down.

4. Billions (Showtime)

If this series maintains its trajectory, it has a good chance of being up there with The Sopranos by the end of its run.  There are similarities with the Mafioso drama – turbulent families, gangster capitalism, big egos crossing lines – but Billions ploughs its own furrow.  Its financial machinations are never dull and always subsumed beneath the character dramas, and it sparkles with an urbane wit that adds to its dynamism.  Fantastic duelling performances from Damien Lewis as hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod and Paul Giamatti as NY attorney Chuck Rhoades provide the visceral, Shakespearean core.  But there are two stand-out supporting turns that will keep you coming back – David Costabile as Wags, Axe’s right hand man who plays louche so well you expect him to seize his pleasure in every scene; and Asia Kate Dillon as the non-binary analyst Taylor, a performance that is all about brains and repressed vulnerability.

3. Ozark (Netflix)

Season one took a while to get going, but set out its stall with its aspiration to be the new Breaking Bad. Season two takes that mission to a completely different level.  Every dilemma, every choice made, fires the characters into a new level of hell, which requires more choices and more terrible consequences.  In the end, the tension of that grim spiral becomes almost unbearable.  This tale of a middle class family among the rednecks is a culture clash drama.  But when it asks the question, who has the capacity for the most evil – the sophisticated family, the uncomplicated, uneducated backwoods folk, the monied, the violent criminal gang, even the FBI – that’s when it comes into its own.  And the answer  demanded in every episode is usually not the one you expect.  Also in this series, Laura Linney emerges as the real star as her character edges into Walter White territory, a strong, unflinching person who will do absolutely anything to ensure survival.

2. Sharp Objects (HBO)

A near-perfect adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s chilling debut novel.  Director Jean-Marc Vallee uses the tics that made Big Little Lies such a success – flashes of images that are sometimes memories, sometimes notions, sometimes fantasies, that together create a dreamy atmosphere that echoes the languorous southern setting.  The pacing is deliberately measured, allowing the slow accretion of detail and character that brings the story to life. Which makes the ending so effective – after that oneiric approach the final scene and the post-credits sequence comes like a baseball bat to the face, smashing home the shattering horror of what has taken place.  Great performance too by Amy Adams as the alcoholic emotionally-troubled reporter returning to her disturbed family to investigate dark goings-on in the community.

1. The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix)

From the outset, this remarkable drama transcends its horror roots and becomes something universal.  The scares aren’t the point here, though there are several very effective ones.  This is a story about grief, addiction, depression and the very personal psychological suffering that is part of the human condition.  If that makes it sound heavy or preachy, it’s not at all – the supernatural is used as a powerful metaphor and that keeps everything moving.  But it is possibly the saddest thing you will see on TV.  Some of the episodes, and the characters, are heartbreaking.  The creator Mike Flanagan has made something enduring because he doesn’t pander to the viewer.  Questions are left hanging until Flanagan is ready to give his answers.  Duelling timelines are rolled out and the viewer is left to piece together which character is which and what’s going on.  There’s some brilliant dexterity behind the camera, with several long, prowling takes around the haunted house(s), and excellent work in front of the camera, particularly from Victoria Pedretti, Kate Siegel and Elizabeth Reaser.  This is a complete and satisfying novel, and there doesn’t need to be another series. But there will be, and I trust Flanagan to do something equally interesting.

And that’s it.  Honourable mentions to Narcos Mexico, Killing Eve, Unreal, 13 Reasons Why, Better Call Saul and Westworld, all of which could easily have made the cut.

And a special award to House of Cards for so spectacularly losing the plot.  The denouement was the worst for any highly-rated show in this new golden age of TV, so bad in fact that it effectively destroyed all that had come before.  It outlined a few basic writing issues.  If a character has been shaped to be supporting, you can’t simply elevate them to lead.  And this was always a novel about Francis Underwood, told in chapters.  His story was left hanging, and no amount of running around and dramatic posturing can make it feel fulfilled. Should have ended it with season 5.

Finally a big vat of the sourest grapes is being hauled by Deliveroo to the home of director Steve McQueen who insisted the golden age of TV was now over…minutes after HBO turned down his pitch for a new TV series.  On the evidence of these ten shows he couldn’t be more wrong.

Best TV Drama 2017

I’ve watched a lot this year, for both work – because you need to keep up with what’s out there when you’re a screenwriter – and for enjoyment. There’s plenty I haven’t seen (not got round to Dark yet, or the final season of Bloodline) – there’s so much good TV at the moment, which is great because film has been pretty dire.  But this is what got me excited in 2017.

8. SENSE8

We’ve become inured to great TV in the modern age, but the sheer scale of the Wachowskis’ series is breathtaking.  Shot on location around the globe, it looks fantastic.  The downside is that makes it phenomenally expensive, and they just couldn’t maintain the viewing figures necessary for that level of spending.  It’s been cancelled, but there’s a two-hour wrap-up out in the spring.  The plot here about warring telepathically-linked ‘clusters’ isn’t really the point.  It’s all about the characters, and the really great actors behind them.  And, of course, the underpinning philosophy of interconnectedness and love.  Not one for the cynical.

7. THE OA

Another divisive show.  Part gritty drama about suburban malaise, isolation and mental illness, part-fairytale. this is a truly unique vision from writer/actress Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij.  It combines elements of the supernatural, fantasy, SF and mystery and psychological crime, and keeps the viewer continually wrong-footed.  Oh yes, and it also shows how evil can be defeated by contemporary dance.

6. GAME OF THRONES

HBO’s juggernaut winds to its close.  The measured developments and subtle character turns are all in the past.  Now it’s all about the spectacle.  And that bombast is extremely effective.  It’s become a fantasy WWE with everyone rooting for their favourite characters in the ultimate battle.  And what’s wrong with that?  Lavishly shot, well-acted, it’s such a confident production it can even shoehorn in an Ed Sheeran cameo.

5. MINDHUNTER

Okay, I’ve already had to rewrite this once because I forgot this one (thanks, Stephen Volk) – that’s how much good TV there is out there. David Fincher directs a measured examination of the fringes of psychology, slowly unfolding to reveal the darkness at the heart of the human condition. Coolly paced, with great performances, this shows what can be done when you’re not constrained by the structures of network TV.  Take your time pulling back the curtain and the result is far more affecting.

4. BILLIONS

The first season detailing the Shakespearean battle between Billionaire hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and NY attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) was great, but the second season takes it to an entirely new level. One episode in particular – no spoilers – will blow your mind.  Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin have taken a potentially dry subject – finance – and turned it into a battle as gripping as anything in GoT. The magnetic performances by Lewis and Giamatti only drive the spike home.  I couldn’t decide if this was number three or four, so if you like feel free to switch it with…

3. OZARK

A pretty good opening episode develops into something special and endlessly surprising in Netflix’s crime drama.  Jason Bateman, acting against type in a serious role, is a cipher, as is his wife, played by Laura Linney.  It gets into some interesting areas when financial advisor Marty Byrde relocates his family to the Ozarks in backwoods Missouri to pay off a debt to a drug cartel.  There’s a touch of Deliverance and Southern Comfort as smart, sophisticated city folk find themselves playing a wholly different game with the less-educated but far more cunning and brutal rural rednecks.

2. THE DEUCE

The Wire‘s David Simon and his regular collaborator George Pelecanos take a look at the beginning of the porn industry in 1970s New York, their cameras sharking among the pimps and prostitutes and police on 42nd Street like Scorsese in Taxi Driver.  it’s all about character here, and every single one, from those on centre stage to the incidentals, is drawn perfectly.  Maggie Gyllenhall is brilliant as an independent, no-pimp hooker with more brains than anyone else in the show.  And James Franco gives a career-best performance as twins – and, yes, that works.  Insightful, shocking, heart-warming and surprising, it takes us into an area we haven’t been before.  And a nod to the set design – it looks like it could have been made in the era when it’s set.

1. TWIN PEAKS – THE RETURN

If you go in expecting the third season of some 90s TV show, you’re going to be disappointed.  This is something completely new, which just happens to have some of the same characters.  I’ve written about it before, and I’ll probably write about it many times again because there are just so many levels.  David Lynch and Mark Frost have made an 18-hour art movie, a meditation on reality, and the connective tissue for Lynch’s films Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, the original Twin Peaks series and Eraserhead.  Yes, he’s been telling the same story all along, just from different angles.  Episode eight may well be the single best hour of TV ever.  The series is heavily laden with Lynch’s personal philosophy, and gets into the nature of reality.  But if you’re not interested in the heavy stuff, go for the emotional ride which takes you from terror to humour, often in adjoining scenes.

Honourable mentions: The Get Down, House of Cards, Love, and Halt and Catch Fire.

 

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