Top 10 TV Shows of 2018

The bubble that was peak TV seemed to burst this year, to the point that Elizabeth Olsen, a movie star, played the lead in a show on Facebook Watch–a show that people actually really liked! Honestly, I don’t know how to watch a show on Facebook Watch and I didn’t really have time to figure it out, though it sounds intriguing.

It was an overwhelming year in television and not necessarily in a good way, as I struggled to make a top ten that I felt really comfortable with. TV was broader than ever, but perhaps not better. This year lacked new seasons of my past faves like Fargo; True Detective; Big Little Lies; Stranger Things; Nathan For You; Veep; and Catastrophe. It was top heavy (as you’ll see) and filled with a wide range of shows that range from 10-minute episodes to an hour; fiction and nonfiction; one-offs; and series conclusions. The TV landscape is still exciting and continues to be groundbreaking even as this year was exhaustingly disappointing.

NOTE: I am only two episodes into Killing Eve and enjoy it, if I do end up loving it a lot, I will update this list to reflect that. 

Also: I only include seasons that were completed in their entirety and have indicated the season I have ranked next to the show–this just makes the most sense to me.

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10. Barry, s1 – Bill Hader stars as a regretful assassin whose zest for life is slowly awakened when he accidentally becomes part of an acting class. The show doesn’t shy away from playing at the darkness necessary for Hader’s Barry to live the life he leads, even as he– quite sympathetically–tries to leave it. The show’s got some great LA-centric humor, as well as what might be the funniest line read of the year: Barry’s oblivious and casual take on Alec Baldwin’s famous “Coffee is for closers” speech from Glengarry Glen Ross.

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9. AP Bio, s1 – Today’s network comedies are mostly shams, filled with broad jokes and an overstuffed laugh track that just can’t compete with the raunchy freedom of cable. Yet AP Bio manages to create edgy comedy, maintaining the unlikability of its lead Jack Griffin (played by Glenn Howerton) pretty much from start to finish. His sociopathic tendencies as a failed philosophy professor forced to teach high school biology never really stop even as the show creates sweet moments with his students and coworkers. It’s a fine balance, but one that AP Bio pulls off. It’s a smart and tonally tight show that was thankfully (and miraculously) renewed for a second season and one that I can’t wait to keep watching more of.

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8. Survivor: David v. Goliath – Now in its 37th season, Survivor cranked out one of its best this year. Featuring an initially terrible theme, it surpassed any chance of being held back by its incessant need to categorize every contestant, instead getting by with a cast of compelling, strategically minded players.

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7. Queer Eye, s1, s2 – The surprise cultural unifier of the year, Queer Eye took our need for sincere kindness in the midst of chaotic rage to the highest of heights. It’s a touching show about getting your life back together, but does so through a prism of empathy, with the gentle ribbing of Jonathan Van Ness mocking your hairstyle for good measure. The second season’s premiere is probably the best episode of television to come out this year, showcasing the Fab Five’s grace toward religious institutions that have hurt them in the past. Tissues abound.

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6. Joe Pera Talks With You, s1 – You couldn’t have predicted that the quietest comedy of the year would come from Adult Swim, a channel largely known for buzzing and disgusting cartoons made for late night viewing, but this is television in 2018. Joe Pera plays a version of himself, a muted yet enthusiastic and socially awkward individual who takes pleasures in small-town life and all of its quirks. It’s subtly funny and enjoyable in a way that brings low-key satisfaction.

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5. Big Mouth, s2 – A show that I wholeheartedly do not recommend, but that took me less than a week to plow through. Nick Kroll has again created the sweetest and most poignant show about being a teenager, filtering it through the dirtiest lens you could probably imagine. 

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4. Succession, s1 – The Ringer hype train convinced me to jump on board this Adam McKay produced HBO show about a wealthy family dealing with their CEO’s health issues and who in the family should succeed him. When I say ‘dealing’, I should clarify it’s more like bumblingly plotting against one another as a group of advantaged one-percenters are wont to do. The show also features a cleverly crass insult ratio that rivals Veep, offering itself as the surprise funniest show of the year.  

Three way tie for 1st: The Americans; Atlanta; The Good Place 

I couldn’t decide between three shows that I felt each had brilliant seasons, so I’m cheating and putting them all at number one.

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The Americans, s7 – One of the greatest shows of this decade wrapped up with some of its best work yet, making the most of Elizabeth and Phillip’s relationship by pitting them against one another in a season that leaps forward in time from the ending of season 6. All of the show’s central conceits eventually do build to their crescendo but pay off in a way that’s so fitting of The Americans. So much sorrow, so much regret.

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Atlanta: Robbin’ SeasonAtlanta’s second season is somehow weirder than the first, taking season one’s most off-kilter moments and blowing them into full-on episodic experiments. Paper Boi landed firmly in the limelight in this second season as he navigates depression and his rising fame. Bryan Henree Tyree continues to play him with pathos and charm, notching one of the best TV performances of the year. Meanwhile, Earn continues to flop about each of his relationships, trying to get by while inflicting just a little self-sabotage every step of the way.   

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The Good Place, s2 – The Good Place jumped into its second season head first, having just completely upended the entire show’s conceit with its season one twist ending. This allowed the show’s creators to play around with the format in ways I’ve never seen before. Each episode brought entirely new expectations and somehow the creators were able to keep their balance on the comedic treadmill that is The Good Place. This is truly groundbreaking television. 

Honorable mentions: Salt Fat Acid Heat; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; Homecoming

 

 

 

 

On Anthony Bourdain

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I write, I travel, I eat, and I’m hungry for more.

This was the opening to Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, a travel show that ran for seven years on the Travel Channel.

Bourdain was discovered dead earlier this week in his hotel room while traveling for his latest show, Parts Unknown; suicide was listed as the cause of death.

I’m not sure if there was another public figure who actually affected my life as much as Bourdain did. Those words listed at the top became a mantra of mine in my early post-high school days.

Bourdain had a voracious appetite, he was a rebellious iconoclast, approaching the world with an eagerness to learn that’s rare in our world. 

The lyrics for the Parts Unknown intro go:

I took a walk through this beautiful world / felt the cool rain on my shoulder / Found something good in this beautiful world / I felt the rain getting colder.

The lyric portrays Bourdain perfectly, a hardened cynic that was nonetheless so inspired by what he saw around him that he felt the need to share its beauty with his audience.

His show was filled with gorgeous shots (all inspired by the film classics that he and his crew loved) and earnest conversations that intersected food, culture, history, and politics. He knew that the best way to understand someone was to sit across from them, eating the food they call their own.

I haven’t kept up with Parts Unknown over the last couple years, I don’t have cable and it just wasn’t a priority when episodes were released to Netflix. But his episodes were always there as comfort for me. When there was nothing to do throw Bourdain on and see what was going on in Myanmar or Vietnam or France. 

I honestly don’t know if I would be who I am today without his works, at least not entirely.

He taught me to explore, to approach people with compassion and dignity, to learn from them.

His approach to eating, especially when it was something foreign to him, was to always ask his host the best way to do it, something I’ve tried to adopt while getting to know the fantastic pleasures of others.

He said at one point the best meal he’d ever had was a bowl of pho from a small restaurant in Vietnam. This a) inspired me to try pho for the first time and b) made me realize that the most fantastic culinary (and life) experiences come not from hip, trendy, or fancy places, but from those who cook with historical, cultural, and familial traditions.

I don’t think I would have ever have dragged my family across Kauai, making sure everyone tried plate lunches, loco mocos, poke, and spam musubi without his influence.

He railed against foodie culture, seeing past its often false passions and appropriation; he hoped instead for real conversations and real food.

In doing this he captured the complexities and beauties of life, believing in a gray area that must be accepted when traveling the world and entering into people’s lives. Life is never simple, but it is beautiful.

He talks about this in a little interview for a war blog in 2014, saying:

There is rarely, however, a neat takeaway. You have to learn to exercise a certain moral relativity, to be a good guest first–as a guiding principle. Other wise you’d spend the rest of the world lecturing people, pissing people off, confusing them and learning nothing. 

He wanted to learn about the world and he did just that, emparting that knowledge after deep reflections.

Just last weekend my son was sick with a fever and could not sleep without being held. My wife and I rotated our shifts, staying awake as he slept in our arms.

I watched a new mini-series of Bourdain’s, which features highlights of little pockets in Los Angeles: Little Iran, Little Great Britain, Little Ethiopia, Little Armenia, Little Guatemala, and the Filipino population in Chinatown. It’s far from his best produced work, but it was as salivating and educational as ever. 

When we found out we were pregnant I wrote that the two virtues I hoped I could pass along to my son were curiosity and compassion—that he would be interested in the beauty around him and treat it all with great love. Bourdain exemplified those characteristics in his life’s work and as we attempt to guide our son into “this beautiful world”, I can only hope he finds that same complex beauty.

Good Taste: For Kids

Determining our children’s tastes often comes down to that classic old adage: nature vs. nurture; do our children become products of the way they were raised or are they bound on some track naturally to fall into whatever pattern fits their particular genetic coding? It’s likely some mixture of both, with the nurturing portion likely causing children to actually rebel against their parents’ taste, choosing the newest, youngest, most shocking thing available, to their parents’ horror.

As someone who always tries to keep at the forefront of the new and progressive, not necessarily cool, but what will be considered in an objective sense (as much as that is possible) good, I feel as if I have some sort of advantage in keeping up with the pop culture playground my kids will occupy. I’m not someone who will forever hail the music of my high school days as being the best–for me this was mostly Christian hardcore and emo bands–and I won’t get stuck on the best albums of the last few years—Kendrick, Sufjan, Vampire Weekend, etc… Those albums will always be important, both to me and to culture at large, but they won’t form an eclipse over what’s new, at least not entirely.

But even with such progressive taste, as I obviously have, my kid is bound to reject what I think is good. Whether that’s rejecting the Studio Gibhli movies I put in front of him for the latest iteration of The Emoji Movie or dismissing the punk and hip-hop I think is cool and counter-cultural for whatever sort of weird spacey electronica we were promised would exist in the future. He’s bound to roll his eyes at whatever I think is interesting, it’s guaranteed.

Yet I’m someone who obsesses over this stuff, I have calendars reminding me of what’s new and what’s available so I can make sure that I’m up to date on what I want to be. This is a large part of me and something I can only hope catches on, however small or large, in my children.

That being the case, I thought it’d be fun to document my child’s tastes, particularly as I show them those things that I enjoy (that are age appropriate of course) to see what they react to, what interests them, and just how much I can manipulate them into enjoying eclectic art. This will be a series, updated as often as there’s something worth reporting (which, as I understand, will be little at first and more as he grows), a way of capturing a child’s growth, as well as mine as a parent as I try to come to terms with parenthood in the best way I know how (through pop culture).

This will also be a place to explore his fascinations. I have a strong desire for my child to be a little cinephile running around annoying other kids at his pretentious ideas about movies (New Yorker film critic Richard Brody recently wrote that his daughter used to watch and love Jacques Tati’s Playtime, that’s a #parentgoal if I’ve ever heard one), yet I also, obviously, care about the well being of my child and shaping them personally is more important than shaping their film tastes.

Most experts state that kids shouldn’t watch TV (screen time!) for the first two years of their life. As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time around screens this has proven difficult and even at 4 months old his gaze drifts toward the basketball game or movie we have on the screen. The ultimate goal is to raise a well-rounded child, one who is curious about the world, obsessive of particular fascinations, and draws upon empathy as his ultimate way of acting.

A holistic health is more than movies (unfortunately), so this will involve exploring the physical world, going to museums, partaking in the events of other cultures, teaching the basics of how we treat people, along with movies, music, and books. This will also be a place to express my sarcastic and cynical views of the strange modern parenting world, so watch out.

In Stranger Things 2, Dustin rushes out of the library having overdrawn his book limit, and yells “I’m on a curiosity voyage” as his excuse for stealing the books. This is the desire I ultimately have in this great science experiment called parenting, how can we fill our kids with an all-occupying wonder, one that causes them to explore every fiber of the world, loving it and the people in it? This is my documentation of that.

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