One morning in January of this year, in a hotel ballroom near L.A., Roseanne Barr met a few dozen TV critics to talk up the revival of her sitcom Roseanne. It didn’t go well. Surly and defensive, Barr engaged in passive-aggressive sniping at the critics.
I was there and, heavens, was she annoyed.
We’d all seen several episodes of the revival and knew what was coming: Controversy, impassioned argument and, probably, huge ratings for ABC. And so it unfolded, as we knew it would. Barr is a vocal Donald Trump supporter and, on the reboot, her character is exactly that. A vast audience – a vastness rarely engaged by network TV – watched and loved or loathed it. Then it all fell apart when Barr sent out viciously racist tweets. The show was cancelled within hours.
It was a Trumpian incident. And, in determining what to glean from a year of TV, it becomes impossible to extricate content from the political and social conditions that are part of this Trumpian period. The medium, either traditional or streaming, is at a peak level of engaging sociologically and often eerily and concisely with the culture. There is so much ambitious entertainment on so many levels that the pace of arriving content is blistering.
What a packed year this was. Apart from the ceaseless comedy and drama of fiction, there was a Winter Olympics that obliged viewers to arise at an unholy hour and, in the summer, a thrilling World Cup – in Russia of all places. There was the disturbing real-time drama of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and more in news coverage.
In the first half of the year, much drama leaned heavily toward the troubles, such as they are, of the very rich. The FX channel aired Trust, a 10-part series about the kidnapping of the grandson of J. Paul Getty, directed by Danny Boyle. HBO later had Succession (see the list below of important shows), a saga about the Roys, a fictional, megarich American global-media family. Both were essentially about the corruption that great wealth begets. And both stood in stark contrast to the denizens of Roseanne.
The reboot and revival trend continued, in keeping with the longing for an imagined past that is part of this political era, with Murphy Brown, Magnum P.I. and Charmed returning to network TV to limited success.
A striking trend was the shift to short-run series across networks, cable and streaming. The wonderful Patrick Melrose had five episodes and Bodyguard on Netflix had six, as did Wanderlust. Amazon Prime Video’s Homecoming, starring Julia Roberts (who was out-acted by young Canadian Stephan James) had 30-minute episodes, as did the wonder Mr. Inbetween on FX. The age of bloat might be ending.
Herewith are 10 shows that mattered in 2018, many available to stream on demand.
Counterpart (Crave TV in Canada)
The first great, smart thriller to arrive in 2018, it’s an old-fashioned espionage thriller taken to a warped new level. Creator and executive producer Justin Marks said he spent much of his youth reading John le Carré and Graham Greene, and he poured the “tropes, conventions and language” of that thriller genre into a very contemporary drama. It is all that, and an emphatically character-driven show. It’s also sci-fi in a way – double versions of its characters in two worlds, in parallel existences that have small but significant differences. J.K. Simmons is astonishing as two versions of one central character.
New York’s 1980s ballroom competitions are the setting. And Ryan Murphy’s astounding series triumphed over so much competition. At times sentimental and at others hilarious, it had so much heart it was bursting with it. What is this fabulous, ambitious drama series about? As a major character says to a young man entering this world, the ballroom scene is “a gathering of people who are not welcome to gather anywhere else, a celebration of a life that the rest of the world does not deem worthy of celebration.” There is precisely one straight white male, and he works for the Trump organization. That is not a truly major plot point – it’s a deftly placed, slyly nurtured particle in the main body of things. It’s really about the inhabitants of the ballroom scene, the LGBTQ communities intent on celebrating their world, their fashion, their style and their unique sensibility.
Killing Eve (Bravo in Canada)
Easily one of the best, most acclaimed and sizzling series of the year. Canadian Sandra Oh was nominated for an Emmy for her starring role in it, but so many involved deserve praise. Made for BBC America, it’s a killer of a thriller, with loads of dry wit and two brilliant performances. It has a unique tone; fun but unconventional, and a lovable heroine. Adapted by Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge from novellas by Luke Jennings, it’s a cat-and-mouse spy thriller. Eve, the Oh character, goes in search of a coolly efficient assassin, Villanelle (brilliantly played by Jodie Comer) who is murdering people in various European countries. Villanelle then becomes obsessed with Eve. Jaunty, gripping TV.
Kidding (Crave TV in Canada)
Unnerving, and not just because it revealed that Jim Carrey can be a great actor. It’s a grimly funny and sometimes disturbing excursion into the pain that exists behind a very successful showbiz figure. Carrey is in full-throttle strangeness playing Jeff Pickles, a Mr. Rogers-type children’s show host who is enormously popular. But he’s on the edge of a massive breakdown. A man who seems impervious to misanthropy, he’s barely holding it together because his young son died and, in the following period of trauma, his wife left him. Made for Showtime, it’s not orthodox drama, and that should be underlined. Some viewers unprepared for brutal cynicism were chilled by the daunting bleakness that is under the surface.
My Brilliant Friend (HBO)
This is what many discerning viewers fled to at the end of the year – the lovely, poised and fraught adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s first Neapolitan novel. A story of childhood friendship in the slum outskirts of Naples in the 1950s, between narrator Elena and the brilliant Lila, it is coming-of-age classic but never given a sheen of nostalgia. The world in which the girls exist bristles with violence, at times saturated in it, as savagery erupts even from the smallest arguments. A visceral series, with emotions tearing apart the seeming drabness of the locale. As a story of constricting social conventions being transcended through a life of the mind, it is profoundly moving and biting.
Bad Blood (City TV)
It’s the only Canadian drama entry on this list – an indictment of the industry here. The first season of Bad Blood was a solid Mafia/crime-family docudrama, one that rose to achieve a thrilling confidence when the focus became fixer Declan Gardner (Kim Coates). The second season was all Declan as ruthless, lone-wolf drug baron. No masterpiece, but better and more textured, the new narrative is a finely twisted entertainment. Coates brings his characteristic brooding physical presence and dry, sardonic wit to it. (He’s also the driving force behind the existence of the second season.) His character is on top of the mob heap in Montreal and somebody wants to bring him down – always. A top-class thriller with smarts.
The Americans (FX)
The sixth and final season arrived just as staff from Russian embassies and consulates around the world were being expelled after the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in England. That has always been the territory of the exquisitely nuanced spies and espionage drama The Americans. Double-dealing, betrayals and mysterious deaths. The series has always been a masterful portrayal of deceit and moral complications and in its ending added a masterful dose of melancholy to Russian agents Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, both brilliant) returning to a Russia to which they were so loyal, but no longer know. A quietly, emotionally devastating ending.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Bravo in Canada)
If the first season was loosely structured as a thriller in which a mother aimed to reunite with her child and husband, the second is closer to a horror story: a formidably dark tale, relentlessly disturbing. And if the first season had a deep resonance in a Trumpian world, this was more chillingly dystopian. So much torture, so much more visceral and everyone’s nightmare brought to bleak, vivid life. Many will argue the new material derived from Margaret Atwood’s novel was inauthentic. But the stronger argument is that the second season was a testament to the sheer power of premium TV now: gorgeously made, sublimely acted (Elisabeth Moss again unwavering in commitment as Offred/June) and more emotionally disturbing than a year’s worth of news coverage.
According to Adam McKay, who directed multiple episodes, this show is about “dynastic congealed wealth.” True. It had a slow-burning start which gave only hints of how gripping it would become. Like Dynasty dipped in acid but eventually leaning more toward King Lear, it’s about the Roys, a fictional, American media family that is not only wealthy and politically powerful, but also made up of maladjusted people. (It’s written by Jesse Armstrong who, several years ago, wrote a screenplay about media mogul Rupert Murdoch that was never produced, but he clearly never let go of the material.) Ultimately, it is an intense, tightly written family drama that scares you because there’s nobody to root for.
A bloody brilliant crowd pleaser from the get-go, this BBC drama. Mainly it’s about David Budd (Richard Madden, who plays Robb Stark on Game of Thrones), a “special protection officer.” That is, he is the bodyguard to visiting dignitaries. He’s ex-army and served in Afghanistan. And is deeply disturbed. He seems brilliant at his job: stoic, controlled, attentive. When he becomes personal protector to the Home Secretary, Julia (Keeley Hawes), a stone-cold politician with very firm views, he becomes embroiled in an intricate political and terrorist plot. At six episodes, a masterclass in keeping the plotting tight but tangled, and utterly gripping.
Also Notable and Memorable
Sharp Objects (HBO) is adapted by Marti Noxon from the novel by Gillian Flynn, and Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée created a mood and aesthetic that was stunningly perspicuous. Better than the book, the series has a forcefully engaged Amy Adams as the central character.
Money Heist (Netflix) is a joy ride in every sense, upending the clichés and tropes of bank-heist dramas.
Maniac (Netflix) is wildly resourceful and imaginative. Two lonely people (Emma Stone and Jonah Hill) searching for some meaning and being pummelled in an imagined world induced by next-level drugs. Brilliantly imaginative yet bleakly comic.
Howards End (Super Channel) is a remarkably inventive British literary adaptation, based on the E.M. Forster novel; it has a wonderful performance by Hayley Atwell as a woman on the cusp of 20th-century freedoms but held back.
Little Dog (CBC) is that rare thing, a memorable and nuanced CBC production. It has a clean, raw vivacity, rich in rough Newfoundland humour. Principally the work of Joel Thomas Hynes, in a series he created and co-produced, he’s boxer Tommy (Little Dog) Ross, a tough guy trying to stumble back toward dignity.
Barry (HBO) is indefinable. A comedy and a twisted assassin drama, it has Bill Hader as Barry, an ex-soldier and hired killer who longs to become an actor, and tries to achieve that between killing jobs.
American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace disappointed some viewers with its slow burn, but it’s profoundly resonant, with a great, deep performance by Darren Criss as the heartless, soulless young man who killed the fashion designer and others.