Was there anything more all-consuming in 2018 than television? In addition to the ever-churning 24-hour news cycle, the streaming services all increased their output wildly, cranking out more shows than anyone could ever possibly watch. Cable networks, too, kept releasing incredibly original content. There was so much out there it was almost impossible to get through a good binge of The Great British Baking Show. (We found time.) But in the vast sands of Peak TV’s beachhead, where were the diamonds? No need to keep searching—we’ve got a few right here.
Homecoming Gets Ratioed
Sam Esmail‘s Amazon adaptation of the popular podcast wasn’t notable simply because it lured Julia Roberts to episodic television, or because it surrounded her with a remarkable cast that included Stephan James and Bobby Cannavale. It made a mark because it let you know, in no uncertain terms, that you were watching something special. The writer-director is no stranger to visual flair, having made Mr. Robot look as skitteringly paranoid as it felt, but on Homecoming he shifted gears, using overhead shots and creative crops to enhance the sense that not everyone knew the whole story. And when Roberts’ Heidi Bergman finally visited the site of the mysterious Homecoming program where she’d worked years prior, and finally turned her head to look in just the right direction, her perspective at last fell into place and everything resolved—from the black-barred 4:3 world she’d been living in to a glorious, relieving 16:9. A variation of Vertigo‘s famous dolly zoom, it may not have been something you’d never seen, but it was certainly something you’d never appreciated quite so much. —Peter Rubin
Killing Eve Takes You to the Hole
Was there a better single season of TV this year than BBC America’s Killing Eve? No, there was not. (See you in the comments!) But in a series that gave us an excellent game of cat-and-mouse between assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and MI5 agent Eve (Sandra Oh), the greatest part was a single line delivery. Villanelle, surrendering herself to a Russian women’s prison in order to take out a former accomplice, has gotten one step closer to her prey but knows she needs to be sent to solitary confinement to complete the task. So she does what any self-respecting killer would: She shivs her cellmate. As the authorities close in on her, bloody and still bruised from a previous fight, she pulls the shank out, raises her hands in the air, and screams “Take me to the hoooole!” with an expression typically reserved for wide receivers who just scored an impossible touchdown. It sums up everything you need to know about Villanelle in one moment—her ruthlessness, her childlike glee at killing, her downright black sense of humor—and cemented Comer’s as one of the breakout performances of the year. —Angela Watercutter
Donald Glover Makes His Late-Night Breakthrough
Before Atlanta, before Community, before anyone had heard of Childish Gambino, Donald Glover auditioned for Saturday Night Live. He was writing for 30 Rock at the time and doing sketch comedy, but fate (and, really, Lorne Michaels) decided that Studio 8H would remain Gloverless for the time being. Ten years later, fate reconsidered, and in May Glover pulled double duty as guest host and musical guest for one of the last episodes of the show’s 43rd season—and one of the best in years. Even setting aside the music performances (he performed “This Is America” for the first time, releasing the now-famous video on YouTube directly afterward), Glover showed that his assured stewardship of Atlanta was no fluke; he committed to one weirdo role after the other, from ’80s R&B sendup Razz P. Berry to Jurassic Park’s embattled/insane defense lawyer. But nothing reached quite so high as the digital short “Friendos,” in which Kenan Thompson and Chris Redd joined Glover to drag the tropes and machismo of Migos-style trap music into therapy. The result was a master class in parody, performance, and pacing, teasing an actual emotional arc out of what could have been an empty send-up. It was more than a skit—it was a skrrt skrrt. —P.R.
Sharp Objects Saves the Best For Last
Sharp Objects is a show about the details: The moments of clarity, the things we remember (and how we remember them), the actual hidden words sprinkled throughout the show’s lush frames. But in an extremely deft move, it saved its best detail for the final seconds (if you don’t count the post-credits scene, that is). Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), thinking that her mother Adora (a stone-cold Patricia Clarkson) has rightfully gone to prison for the deaths of multiple young girls in Wind Gap, Missouri, settles into a new life with her sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen) in St. Louis. It’s there, in Amma’s room within the model of their mother’s Wind Gap house that Amma has been curating for years, that Camille sees what her younger sister has been using to recreate the elephant-tusk floor in the model’s parlor: human teeth. Specifically, the teeth of the girls Amma has killed. As the younger sister enters her room and sees what Camille has found, she near-whispers “Don’t tell mama.” It’s a moment both cruel and childlike and left fans of HBO’s miniseries dead in their tracks. —A.W.
Succession Becomes Everyone’s Number-One Boy
I admit that when I first saw the promo spots for Jesse Armstrong’s HBO family-feud drama, my first reaction was fatigue: oh, hey, squabbling rich people, great. I must not have been the only one; Succession seemed to take everyone by surprise, a refreshing acid bath in a summer of sameness. Armstrong may be British, but his experience—co-creating the truly dark sitcom Peep Show and writing for Armando Iannucci’s scathing The Thick of It—translated perfectly, making the tale of an Rupert Murdoch-like aging paterfamilias and his preening progeny a little like Veep, just if everyone was both evil and competent. (Well, except Kieran Culkin’s Roman. And Tom Wamsgans. But Cousin Greg is coming around!) The race to inherit a media empire is a marathon, not a sprint—but even running from a traffic jam to a vote of no-confidence gets tough when there are so many knives waiting for you to turn your back. —P.R.
Atlanta Finds the Horror in Show Business
TV’s most self-defined and self-propelled series has always expertly balanced on the edge of horror. Not outright horror a la Hereditary or Halloween, but the cruel, creeping horror of the everyday: of, say, being a washed-out, left-for-dead, past-his-prime singer trapped by the cage of the past. Before “Teddy Perkins”—the sixth and most terrifyingly unforgettable episode of Season 2—Donald Glover’s appetite for dark farce unraveled in purposefully uneven bouts. Though viewers had come to occasionally expect it, life for Earn (Glover), Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), Van (Zazie Beetz) and Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) wasn’t a constant cycle of doom and dread. With the audacious “Teddy Perkins”, Glover and director Hiro Murai crystalized a tale so perversely dark and wonderfully disorienting into a 40-minute k-hole of showbiz horror that one will never look at ostrich eggs in quite the same manner again. As standalone episodes go, it was a nifty repackaging of genre expectations, a stylistic trick as much as it was a shock to the series’s instinctive movement. “Teddy Perkins” was Atlanta at its most deliciously unafraid: refusing, as always, to be made small by the constraints of the medium. —Jason Parham
Hugh Grant Gets Scandal-ous
No ’90s-borne movie star has aged quite as impeccably as Hugh Grant, who not only starred as a egomaniacal thespian in this year’s wondrous Paddington 2, but also played an impeccably amoral politician in BBC’s crisp three-part mini-series A Very English Scandal (now streaming on Amazon Prime). Based on real-life events, Scandal casts Grant—his movie-star smile transformed into a polite smirk—as Jeremy Thorpe, a Member of Parliament who winds up having an affair with a desperate, rather daft drifter (an excellent, almost fawn-like Ben Whishaw). As Thorpe’s secret past threatens to become public, Grant’s confident and quietly scheming politico decides to have the young nuisance killed. What follows is a ripping, upscale bit of pulpy non-fiction, full of dim-witted goons, painfully oblivious spouses, and careerist government creeps—a little bit Coen brothers, a little bit Patricia Highsmith. And it’s all led by Grant, whose ambitious MP speechifies with confidence, yet whose expressions discreetly detail his many years of loneliness, sadness, and sacrifice. It’s his keep-calm-and-carry-on performance that allows Scandal to indulge in its sumptuous twists and turns, making for a very unmissable time. —Brian Raftery
Pose Celebrates Mothers’ Day
Beyond being a story about 1980s New York ball culture and family, Pose is also a Cinderella tale: It literally begins with Blanca Evangelista (the enthralling Mj Rodriguez) being harassed by her sisters while her house mother, Elektra Abundance (Dominique Jackson), laughs in the wings. But while that trope necessitates that Blanca have her princess moment, it happens in a far different kind of fairy tale. Done with suffering abuse under Elektra’s roof, Blanca sets out to form a house of her own—adopting dancers Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) and Ricky (Dyllon Burnside), exotic dancer Angel (Indya Moore), and former foster kid (and sometimes drug dealer) Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel). After nearly a year struggling to keep her family together—amid Papi’s drug dealing, Damon and Ricky’s relationship, and Angel’s affair with a married Trump employee—Blanca brings everyone home and defeats her rivals in the House of Abundance in the season’s final ball. She also, naturally, gets crowned Mother of the Year, a better crown than that given to any fairy tale princess. —A.W.
American Crime Story ‘Drive’s You to the Edge
The trick of The Assassination of Gianni Versace—as well as its American Crime Story predecessor, The People v. O. J. Simpson—is that you already know the ending: Andrew Cunanan killed fashion icon Gianni Versace. What the show does is lay out the groundwork for his murder. And those moments, thanks to the Emmy-winning performance of Darren Criss as Cunanan, make for far more drama than the eventual outcome. Like, for example, the scene where Cunanan and his lover David Madson (a heartbreaking Cody Fern, who would go on to play the antichrist in showrunner Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story this year) head to a bar on the road trip Andrew has forced them to go on. As they walk into the small watering hole, none other than Aimee Mann begins singing a cover of the Cars’ “Drive,” and a series of moments of resignation set in. David, attempting an escape through a busted out window in the bathroom, realizes he’ll never get away and that Andrew might very well kill him. (He does.) Andrew, listening to Mann croon “You can’t go on/thinking nothing’s wrong,” realizes David’s fear and his own fright at being left alone and steadily cries listening to Mann in an unbroken 90-second shot. Ryan Murphy shows, including Pose and Glee, are known for their musical moments, but this went far beyond song and dance and cut to the bone—and probably is the scene where Criss secured that Emmy. —A.W.
Queer Eye Comes Out Swinging
Literally every episode of Netflix’s reboot of Queer Eye is a tear-jerker. (There’s a reason they advertised Season 2 with tissues.) However, the episode in Season 1 where AJ, a gay man living in Atlanta, comes out to his stepmother—”To Gay or Not Too Gay”—is the one that inspired the most reach-out-and-touch-someone levels of bawling amongst Queer Eye fans. And with good reason. The crux of the episode is that AJ has a good job, a cool (if messy) apartment, a sweet boyfriend, and good pals. He’s also in the closet when it comes to his family. His father passed away a few years prior and when he tells his dad everything he wanted to say via a letter he reads to his stepmom, well, the floodgates are opened. He chokes back sobs; she cries and hugs him; the audience, including the Fab Five, sit in damp-eyed awe. It’s wonderful and heartbreaking. It does, however, have a very happy ending: AJ and his boyfriend got married shortly after the episode aired. —A.W.
Forever Goes Bananas
Amazon’s Forever is a weird show. Co-created by Master of None producer Alan Yang, it deals primarily in the deep, dark corners where relationships thrive and get dirty. Focused on the afterlives of June (Maya Rudolph) and Oscar (Fred Armisen), it peels back the layers of a failing relationship to unveil what really went wrong in the first place. As with many struggling couples, no one was really at fault—they were both just stuck. This all comes to a head in the first season finale when June and Oscar realize that they agree on one thing: Bananas are the perfect beach food. (They are self-contained, filling, come in a fairly sand-proof wrapper … you get the idea.) It is, as Vulture noted they, and the audience, realize “they are exactly strange enough for each other” and have perhaps their first honest conversation ever. It was often hard to figure out what Forever was building towards. The fact that it was this made it all the more perfect. —A.W.
Netflix Becomes Nanetteflix
On Tuesday, June 19, seemingly out of nowhere, Netflix released Nanette. By itself, this wasn’t surprising; Netflix drops comedy specials willy-nilly all the time. But the performance from Hannah Gadsby—one hour and nine minutes of comedy, searing social commentary, and a little bit of art history—crashed the party with aplomb. By the following weekend, it was the one comedy special on the streaming service that no one could shut up about. With good reason. Gadsby’s brand of humor, which tackles the machinations of comedy, male privilege, and her own attack at the hands of a homophobe, had the kind of bite unseen in comedy in a long time. And for that, we’d like to express our gratitude to Gadsby through the metaphor of a clap. —A.W.