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USA TODAY’s 25 best TV shows of 2018

USA TODAY’s 25 best TV shows of 2018

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With so many TV shows available on broadcast, cable and streaming in 2018, there’s a lot you may have missed, but these five are worth catching up on before the new year.
USA TODAY

Here’s to the year in television.

The small screen brought us more than one quirky assassin, a turd burglar, a prison break, births, deaths, big hair, big beards and the end of the Cold War, in a manner of speaking.

With the explosion of content from broadcast, cable, and streaming (did you know Facebook makes TV now?) the sheer amount of television available in 2018 was so overwhelming, you might’ve missed some of the most thrilling and beautiful series.

Among hundreds of shows that aired this year, here are 25 that stood out from the rest. If you try really, really hard, you might be able to get through them over your holiday break.

OK, maybe not, but it’s a nice to-do list for 2019 (before all the new shows start in January, that is). 

1. ‘The Americans’ (FX)

One of the best TV shows of the past decade, “The Americans” delivered a swan-song season with more subtlety and grace than even its most devoted fans thought possible. “Americans” was a series about international espionage, and the ramifications of the spycraft it depicted play out on the political stage even today. But it was also a deeply personal drama about marriage and family, about who and what demands our loyalty, and whether individuals matter more or less than a cause. Ever the realists, writers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields offered no answers to these big questions, but the stunning series finale achieved closure nonetheless.

2. ‘The Good Fight’ (CBS All Access)

It’s worth subscribing to CBS All Access if only to see this spinoff of “The Good Wife,” which has surpassed its predecessor in so many ways. Dozens of series have struggled for relevancy since the 2016 election by name-dropping President Trump, but “Good Fight” is the only series that captures the exhaustion of our current chaotic cultural moment. That feat is thanks to the writing of creators Michelle and Robert King and the performance of star Christine Baranski, who still finds new shades to attorney Diane Lockhart even after playing her for nine years.

3. ‘American Vandal’ (Netflix)

Netflix’s mockumentary started in 2017 as a pitch-perfect parody of true-crime documentaries, equal parts hilarious and eviscerating, as two teen filmmakers investigated a high-school prank. Season 2 was all that and so much more, shifting to investigate a series of excrement-related “pranks” that were both a great source of scatological jokes and more serious crimes. Laced in with poop puns and conspiracy theories was a shockingly deep and caring portrayal of the loneliness of adolescence. “Vandal” offers the kind of empathy rarely given to teenagers, both onscreen and in their real lives. 

4. ‘Escape at Dannemora’ (Showtime)

With Ben Stiller behind the camera and Patricia Arquette in front of it, Showtime could do no wrong in its fictionalized retelling of the 2015 prison break in upstate New York. Seven remarkably taut, thrilling and heartbreaking episodes make “Dannemora” an accomplishment that is so much better than you might have expected when it was announced that this scandalous story was getting the Hollywood treatment. 

5. ‘Killing Eve’ (BBC America)

There is a unique joy in finding a new television show that completely surprises you, from its writing to its performances to its direction to the names on the poster. Sandra Oh, long relegated to best-friend roles, finally got the star turn she deserves as a messy spy, with Jodie Comer’s assassin as a foil that could match her powerful acting. The spy vs. hitwoman drama had a tiny audience, but its supporters were loud enough to send Oh and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge to the Emmy Awards. The biggest crime of the year is that they missed out on the prizes.

6. ‘One Day at a Time’ (Netflix)

The family sitcom is alive and well these days, but none is better than this reboot of the Norman Lear classic. A celebration of the multi-camera format, in which episodes are filmed in front of a live audience, “One Day” is also a celebration of love. When the series took a more somber turn in the exquisite Season 2 finale, the writing still kept its incredible heart and hope even as the characters (and viewers) cried buckets.

7. ‘The Good Place’ (NBC)

Three seasons in, the lovable quartet at the center of NBC’s existential sitcom are still on a quest to be good people. The series itself, however, has no trouble being good. Just renewed for a fourth season, “Good Place” has a remarkable ability to reinvent itself as it races through plot and planes of existence, maintaining whip-smart writing and affecting performances along the way. The only show that can make philosophy both relatable and hilarious, watching “Good Place” feels like going on an adventure. 

8. ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story’ (FX)

Compared to its O.J. Simpson-themed predecessor, the new installment of FX’s true-crime anthology series landed a bit quietly, but it was no less artful. The operatic and tragic story of spree killer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss, in an Emmy-winning turn) gave equal attention to his most famous victim, fashion designer Versace, and the ordinary men who had their lives cut short. Told in reverse chronological order, Cunanan’s life and crimes only became more devastating as the show went on. 

9. ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ (CW)

The ballad of Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) is about to come to an end, and it’s a bittersweet prospect for fans of CW’s musical dramedy. The series’ fourth and final season began with just as many pretzels and music videos as before, but as “Crazy Ex” winds down, it has become a quieter journey for Rebecca. Still, you can’t help but root for some peace and stability in her life, as she comes to terms with her identity. Even without as much scheming and twisting as before, the series remains sharp as ever.

10. ‘Superstore’ (NBC)

We should all pay more attention to “Superstore.” NBC’s sitcom about employees at a big-box store in St. Louis is akin to “Cheers,” a working-class comedy that doesn’t pander or patronize. The series has been reliably hilarious, thanks in large part to an excellent cast including America Fererra, Ben Feldman, Lauren Ash and Nico Santos (who also stole scenes in “Crazy Rich Asians” this year). The series has grown tremendously, reminding viewers that “will they/won’t they” relationships can still be funny and romantic, and that sitcoms don’t have to be depressing to be smart.

11. ‘Barry’ (HBO)

It has been a great year for assassins. In HBO’s “Barry,” a black comedy as dark as Batman’s cape, Bill Hader plays Barry Bergman, a depressed hitman who has long compartmentalized his emotions but finds new purpose taking acting classes in Los Angeles. A concept that sounds too out-there to work is pulled off nearly flawlessly thanks to Hader, Henry Winkler and actor Anthony Carrigan, whose dumb mobster NoHo Hank is a breath of lightness the show sorely needs.

12. ‘Atlanta’ (FX)

Creator and star Donald Glover took the weird and audacious first season of “Atlanta” and went bigger and bolder in Season 2. A meditation on fame, family, race and music, the “Robbin’ Season” experimented with form and style, tricked and terrified its audience and generally was the most surprising show on TV.

13. ‘You’ (Lifetime)

“You” is the kind of TV show that you devour rather than watch. The story of a creepily quiet bookseller stalking and worming his way into the life of a grad student was, surprisingly, one of the least exploitative and most enlightening series of the year. Anchored by Penn Badgley, the juicy, well-written series aptly balanced the soapy with the smart. Netflix has picked up the drama for its second season, and to be honest it would have made a bigger impact had it been there all along, so easily is it binged (the first season arrives on the service Dec. 27).

14. ‘Trial & Error: Lady Killer’ (NBC)

As a true-crime parody, “Trial & Error” is everything that “Vandal” isn’t. Where “Vandal” is an overly deadpan satire of true crime’s best and worst tropes, “Error” is a kooky one, set in a world so off-kilter it makes the Pawnee, Indiana of “Parks and Recreation” look like the most rational city in America. The first season with John Lithgow was funny enough, but this summer’s “Lady Killer” follow-up, starring Kristin Chenoweth, is riotous. Chenoweth is the star this series needed, an infamously over-the-top personality for a gloriously over-the-top TV show.

15. ‘Insecure’ (HBO)

“Insecure” protagonist Issa Dee struggled this year, but series creator and star Issa Rae is sitting pretty on three strong seasons of dramedy. The series forged a new path, pushing fan-favorite character Lawrence (Jay Ellis) to the side so Issa could deal with an early-onset midlife crisis, as she reckoned with her identity in her romantic and platonic relationships and at work. A series-best episode set at Coachella perfectly illustrated the achingly hard transition between the carefree years of your 20s and early 30s, and the looming responsibility and stability of your mid-30s and beyond.

16. ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ (Amazon)

Mrs. Maisel has still got it. Despite a minor misfire at the beginning of its second season, Emmy-winning “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” returns with profanity, peppy dialogue and printed sundresses aplenty, sending its comedienne Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) to the Catskills in 1959 and through her paces. Still funny, still sweet, “Maisel” is just the dash of sunshine you need in December.

17. ‘The End of the F***ing World’ (Netflix)

It’s impossible not to love the charmingly weird duo at the center of this nihilistic British teen comedy, even though one of them is convinced he’s a psychopath. A story of two outcasts who run away together, Netflix released “World” in early January. But you’d be hard-pressed to forget the shocking imagery, blistering dialogue and brilliant performances of its young stars Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther. The title isn’t even the most outrageous thing about it

18. ‘Doctor Who’ (BBC America)

Britain’s decades-old sci-fi juggernaut has a huge advantage over most other shows, because it has a built-in reset button: Occasionally swapping the actors who play the Doctor. This year the show didn’t so much hit the reset button as whack it with a sledgehammer, giving viewers the first woman in the role (Jodie Whittaker). The actress’s electric performance as the time-traveling alien, along with a new creative team that emphasizes the educational and experimental roots of the series, has made the 55th year of “Who” one of its best.

19. ‘Big Mouth’ (Netflix)

Nick Kroll and John Mulaney’s ode to the trials of puberty is, like “Vandal,” one of the few shows on TV that takes kids’ and teens’ problems seriously without exploiting or patronizing them (cough, “13 Reasons Why,” cough cough). In its second season, “Big Mouth” managed to laugh at the disgusting and exhausting aspects of adolescence while slipping in a little more information, much like an after-school special, only with a lot more cursing.

20. ‘Queer Eye’ (Netflix)

In the midst of all the tears, “yasss”es, French tucks and bad guacamole recipes, Netflix’s reboot of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” is about talking and – more importantly – listening to people, whether or not you agree with what they have to say. Although it’s imperfect, that idea is a rare find in 2018, and it scratched an itch many of us didn’t know we had. Thanks to the instantly famous new Fab Five – Bobby Berk (design), Karamo Brown (culture), Tan France (style), Antoni Porowski (food) and Jonathan Van Ness (grooming) – and the Atlanta-area setting, the makeover show transcends its reality TV genre.

21. ‘Jane the Virgin’ (CW)

“Jane” continues to be one of the best crafted shows on television, balancing its telenovela parody with topics that range from career setbacks to cancer. In depicting Xo’s (Andrea Navedo) breast cancer diagnosis and treatment last spring, “Jane” showed everyday challenges can be just as dramatic and terrifying as the melodramatic kind. It ended Season 4 with a classic “he’s not really dead” twist, and its fifth and final season next spring is sure to go out with a bang.

22. ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ (Fox)

Thank goodness for NBC. When Fox canceled this beloved police sitcom last spring, the rival network (which owns it) swooped in to rescue Peralta (Andy Samberg), Holt (Andre Braugher) and the rest of the precinct. But if the series had reached its end, it would have gone out on a remarkably high note. The sitcom shares producers with “Parks and Recreation,” and as it’s aged it has leaned into the more lighthearted and absurd, perhaps best illustrated in a viral clip of Peralta forcing a lineup to sing “Backstreet Boys.” No one can pull off jokes like the Nine-Nine.

23. ‘BoJack Horseman’ (Netflix)

If you thought Netflix’s dark animated comedy about a misanthropic Hollywood horse couldn’t get any darker, you were sadly and devastatingly proved wrong in the series’s fifth season. “BoJack” has long been an indictment of the kind of brooding anti-heroes that fans love, but this year it pushed BoJack’s depravity over the top for a deeper conversation about crimes and redemption than real Hollywood has mustered since the #MeToo movement began. And in spite of all this, it still manages to be funny. It’s a balance few shows can pull off.

24. ‘GLOW’ (Netflix)

The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling are OK at wrestling, but they’re fantastic at making wrestling seem like a big ball of fun. The second season of the 1980s-set series dug deeper into many of its peripheral characters, including real-life wrestler Kia Stevens’ Tammé (aka Welfare Queen), giving us a better portrait of this group of women. And it also exuberantly and shamelessly celebrates professional wrestling, complete with a show-within-the-show episode that featured terrible puns and a “We Are the World” parody. If there was a participation trophy for TV comedy, “GLOW” would win it 10 times over.

25. ‘Maniac’ (Netflix)

The hype surrounding Emma Stone and Jonah Hill’s Netflix series was so big you almost expected it to fail, but “Maniac,” directed by Cary Fukunaga (“True Detective”) succeeded because it was more weird than pretentious. What starts as a story of two troubled young adults seeking answers or a fix from a drug trial, “Maniac” morphs into a fantastical exploration of the human mind and all the little ways we train it to hate ourselves. It takes place in an alternate universe, but its central themes are universally relatable. 

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