TV can be a daunting medium to absorb. Most shows have at least ten episodes, and if they’re good shows they will be given multiple seasons. Some episodes are thirty minutes, but others barrel onward up to an hour (or possibly more). This all results in a tremendous amount of time spent watching things. Movies are easier—you watch ’em for two hours and you’re done—or albums, which last forty-five minutes, more or less. But television is a commitment. You gotta suffer through the lives of characters for weeks, months, even years. There’s nothing better than losing yourself in a good binge-watch (losing yourself being the operative phrasing, as it can consume your life and leave you feeling empty once it’s over), but catching up on a challenging or long-running series that everyone tells you to watch immediately on pain of death can be an exhausting prospect. Who has the time?
The good news is, there’s so much TV in 2018, you can curate your viewing habits in a more thorough and personal way than ever before. There’s literally something for everyone. In this golden era of prestige television, movie stars and talented directors are flocking to the small screen, so the quality has never been higher. It’s a bummer you cannot typically enjoy TV in a theater at epic proportions, but you can watch it while you make breakfast or get cozy on the couch in the evening. TV programs have a tendency to become security blankets for people, too—the recent uproar at Netflix eliminating Friends proved that (and I shudder to imagine what will happen if they ever take down The Office). Not all of FLOOD’s TV choices this year are comforting types to re-watch endlessly, we’ll admit—actually, quite a few are frightening or violent—but they are all inventive, relevant, and sometimes even revelatory. So you should binge-watch them, regardless.
Presenting the best TV of 2018.
10. The Handmaid’s Tale
Free with its second season to depart the narrative confines of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, America’s most chillingly prescient dystopian drama plunged to even darker, bleaker, and more uncomfortably resonant depths. Guilt is the pervasive sentiment of this season, as the high price of protagonist June’s (Elisabeth Moss) continual acts of defiance weigh increasingly heavy on her already impossibly tortured, fractured soul. As ever, Moss’s facial expressions are a rich tapestry of emotional nuance, speaking volumes in a society where actual speech is infrequent and meaningful exchanges have been supplanted by the now-famed biblical idioms (“blessed be the fruit”) that fill out the majority of exchanges.
With its vision of a world where strong-willed or infertile females are designated “unwomen” and sent to labor camps, major newspaper headquarters are transformed into desolate graveyards, and expressions of unsanctioned love are a certain death sentence, many viewers have fairly questioned the entertainment value of a show so harrowingly dismal at a time when hope is already in short demand. But while it is not easy watching, The Handmaid’s Tale remains grippingly unpredictable and offers vital insight into the ease with which fascistic movements dressed up in nostalgic, moralistic trimmings can take gradual but irrevocable hold on an otherwise largely progressive society. If the familiarity of it all frightens you…it should. — Elizabeth Breiner
9. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
My favorite part of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat was a question: “Can I try?” Chez Panisse–trained, Beard Award–winning chef Samin Nosrat asks this often; sometimes she means “I want a taste,” and sometimes “I’d like to see if I can do that.” Already a Nosrat fan—I read her cookbook cover-to-cover, like a novel, when it came out in 2017—I savored the four-part Netflix adaptation. Watching the enthusiastic Nosrat taste her way through Italian butcher shops, Japanese salt factories, Mexican markets, and her hometown grocery store would have been delightful enough, but in her generous work as host we get to watch her do things she’s never done before—spear seaweed, pat tortillas flat—and laugh, uproariously, when she makes mistakes. She demonstrates for viewers, as she did for readers, that mastery is not a fixed state but a process: attempting, adjusting, paying attention. Using these techniques, and her four titular elements as “a compass,” anyone can steer their way to improved taste. The only thing better will be going back for seconds. — Corbin Dewitt
In Comedy Central’s Detroiters, Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson star as Sam Duvet and Tim Cramblin, a different sort of “mad men.” Even if the midcentury decor of their ad agency HQ brings to mind Sterling Cooper vibes, Sam and Tim are more likely to shout or break down crying during a pitch meeting than go full Draper. But Detroiters isn’t really about marketing anyhow. Instead, its fundamental focus is on supportive friendship, explored here in all its weird, creepy, or co-dependent complexity. Crafting homespun commercial spots for mid-tier Motor City businesses (often inspired by actual ads from the D’s past), Sam and Tim excel at making the most of what they’ve got, and even when put through the ringer by Detroit luminaries—newsman Mort Crim curses the duo as “Chumps of the Week” and University of Michigan Wolverine head coach Jim Harbaugh beans Sam’s head with a football during an impassioned Little Caesars pitch—Detroiters trades in kindness toward its characters. — Jason P. Woodbury
7. The Haunting of Hill House
Until this year, the most recent adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House was 1999’s The Haunting, and the only good thing that movie did was cause Wes Craven to abandon it and make Scream instead. Luckily, Mike Flanagan’s ten-episode Netflix series will effectively erase it from our collective memories. Taking place in both 1992 and the present simultaneously, the show follows the parents and five troubled children of the Crain family during and after their time living at the notoriously haunted Hill House. Even though the dead are everywhere—like, actually everywhere, in corners and door frames and windows in many, many shots—this version of Hill House is ultimately memorable because of its living occupants, irreparably scarred by the spooky things they witnessed growing up. It’s fun playing spot-the-ghost, but the spirits of relationships past, present, and yet to come are far more chilling, as this is ultimately an emotionally brutal labyrinth of a family drama. — Lydia Pudzianowski
6. Sharp Objects
Sharp Objects has been called a “tone poem,” and that’s precisely what it is. Like director Jean-Marc Vallée’s last HBO offering, Big Little Lies, the new limited series—based on a novel by Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn—is deeply feminine, a tale of mothers, daughters, and the devious ways women have of hurting each other. In place of California sunshine and beach-front mansions, Sharp Objects is set in the gothic south (Missouri), a murder mystery luxuriating in sweat-stained atmosphere and flushed with chirping cicadas. Journalist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams, always revelatory) heads back to her hometown to report on a series of murders there, consequently contending with her cruel mother, a personal history of sexual trauma and alcoholism, and the violent underbelly of the place she grew up. This is perhaps the most visceral, evocative series of 2018: The camera lingers on the female body, strewn with scars; little girls roller-skating down empty roads at night; a villain in a lace nightgown. Things happen slowly, like pulling out teeth. But once they happen, you won’t soon forget. — Anya Jaremko-Greenwold
5. The Good Place
Quick—what was the year’s best series structured around fractured timelines, twisting narratives, and gigantic surprise reveals, stuffed to the brim with an increasingly-elaborate mythology, careful world-building, and discussions of what defines and motivates humanity? Hint: there were no cowboy androids involved. In the ongoing Renaissance of television, network sitcoms can look like cave drawings. But creator Michael Schur has used the “Must-See TV” template to create something that must be seen to be believed: a comedy with as many concepts-per-minute as jokes, and an ambitious over-achiever of a story that constantly raises its stakes and reinvents its mechanics without breaking its own rules. Any attempt to guess The Good Place’s trajectory is hilariously futile; this show goes through a typical season arc in a couple episodes and launches headfirst into unpredictable terrain from there. Of course, the time-and-space-bending misadventures of sorta-soulmates Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason, along with their cosmic handlers Michael and Janet, would be nothing more than clever exercises if you weren’t invested. But the ensemble grounds the story in deep, sincere soul no matter how far it leaps—especially season three standout William Jackson Harper. Chidi’s long-gestating, midseason existential burnout was just so incredibly…well, 2018. — Eric Stolze
4. Joe Pera Talks with You
In Joe Pera Talks with You, Pera plays a fictional version of himself as a self-proclaimed “soft-handed choir teacher who’s just in awe of Michigan’s geological splendor,” puttering around his small Upper Peninsula town greeting familiar faces and extolling the value of a good pancake. The twist? This is an Adult Swim program, not an Antiques Roadshow–caliber, ratings-transcending PBS program with a target audience of AARP subscribers and those who’ve lost their remotes.
Conceptually, Joe Pera is little more than a drawn-out parody of northern Midwest culture, a joke with a lifespan approximately as long as Fargo’s runtime. But in the context of its network, it feels wildly experimental in its ability to maintain a TV-PG rating, offering an earnest fantasy of making conservative America great again hosted by the kind of guy you’d break up with for spending more time with your parents than with you.
It’s a comedy, to be sure, but what catches you off-guard more than Pera’s occasional AS-staple non-sequiturs (“I wish I had a copy of Black Swan on DVD. I’d watch that whole movie right now”) and vulgar interjections courtesy of the neighboring Melskys is the show’s moments of genuine beauty—from its consistently affecting soundtrack to its pastoral cinematography—not to mention the feeling of vicariously re-experiencing “Baba O’Reilly” for the first time. There’s a reason why it’s not called Joe Pera Talks to You: the show is comforting in a way only a conversation with a close friend can be. Even if you had the ability to respond to him, there’s certainly no pressure to. — Mike LeSuer
3. BoJack Horseman
Just about every season of BoJack Horseman now has a bottle episode—a standalone that elevates the show from mere heart-wrenching, blistering animated satire to unprecedented brilliance. In season three, this was BoJack’s silent, scuba-ed attendance at the undersea film festival; season four saw flashbacks fleshing out the tragic backstory of BoJack’s mother and her descent into dementia; and season five has “Free Churro,” the most minimal of them all, essentially a twenty-plus minute eulogy/soliloquy given by BoJack on the occasion of his mother’s funeral. At times, BoJack moves to address Beatrice in her casket—but she can no longer respond, the point being that she never listened to him while alive, so this is glorious payback. At long last the spotlight is on her, but BoJack steals center stage. He cracks jokes, reminisces, and muses on their loveless relationship, clearly a contributing factor in BoJack’s present-day inability to get close to other people. He confesses to the hope that every child with some fraught parental bond has clung to: “That even though your parents aren’t what you need them to be, over and over and over again, at any moment they might surprise you with something wonderful.” Post-death, that hope is dashed.
There are a few other treats this season (Diane’s Lost in Translation trip to Vietnam and the corresponding Girl Croosh listicle; Todd’s sex robot Henry Fondle who becomes CEO of Whattimeisitrightnow.com by issuing coy suggestions that get mistaken for authoritative agency) but for the most part, the elements that make BoJack a delight remain the same as they’ve always been: The whimsical animal characters (corgis in sweaters, walruses wearing lipstick, Mr. Peanutbutter’s new pug girlfriend Pickles—all co-mingling with humans to a bestiality degree), the clever wordplay and puns, and the on-the-nose skewering of Los Angeles, the entertainment biz, and American media at large, so lacerating in its accuracy that anyone who works in these fields will feel both seen and bathed in immediate shame upon watching. — Anya Jaremko-Greenwold
In the early days of his hit FX show Atlanta, creator and star Donald Glover described it as “Twin Peaks with rappers.” With the show’s second season, that aspiration manifests as reality. It isn’t that Glover and his collaborators are dabbling in the same metaphysical themes as David Lynch’s show—though they are, occasionally— it’s that like Twin Peaks, Atlanta is set in a sort of liminal state, in the space between reality and dreams. It doesn’t matter which character an episode focuses on—Glover’s Earn, Brian Tyree Henry’s Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, Zazie Beetz’s Van or Lakeith Stanfield’s Darius—the show’s sophomore set finds each navigating the subconscious. Atlanta is a place on a map, but Atlanta maps inner space.
Appropriately, the tone shifts at will, from the surreal comedy of the Katt Williams vehicle “Alligator Man” to “Champagne Papi,” in which Van encounters Drake’s apparently Hispanic grandfather while Darius spouts gnostic wisdom by the pool, to the Southern Gothic of “Woods,” which finds Alfred chased by a ghostly apparition through his own dark night of the soul. Then there’s the unclassifiable horror of “Teddy Perkins,” an examination of cruel fathers, whiteness, the role of suffering in art, and a supremely disgusting ostrich egg.
Bolstered by one of the most “most likely to break out” casts in TV—catch Beetz in Deadpool 2, Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You and Henry in Widows — Glover’s vision is brought to life by an incredible writers room and aided by such visionary directors Amy Seimetz and Hiro Murai, whose video for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” functions almost like a bonus episode of the show. At turns surreal, hilarious, and terrifying, Atlanta builds on the incredible work of the show’s first season and defies every expectation. If Darius is right and this whole thing’s a simulation, it’s a good one. — Jason P. Woodbury
Let’s not bury the lede: Barry is just as impressive a creation for what it isn’t as for what it is. Audiences could be justified in thinking a show where an SNL alum plays a hitman-turned-actor would aim low for cheap shots, but star Bill Hader and Silicon Valley executive producer Alec Berg elevated that elevator pitch into something breathtaking. The story of a traumatized veteran who kills for money for lack of any other direction in life, only to bumble into an LA acting class while following his target and discover an unexpected love of the stage, is darkly funny, yes—but it’s also tense, thoughtful, and at times, utterly horrifying.
A lot of credit goes to Hader, the leading man who also wrote, directed, and produced for an idea that lies close to home for him; like his titular character, Hader clearly wants to be taken seriously, and even as his considerable comedy chops manifest in gloriously awkward acting lessons, there’s a frightening anger simmering just beneath the surface. It’s an incredible performance as a troubled, lost man who also happens to be a bad actor—ironically, a masterclass in acting. The storytelling around him maintains the standard by always taking the high road. Its humor comes from the characters and their details, like the enthusiastically gregarious gangster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), but never from the savagery; many self-aware post-Tarantino crime stories treat gunshots like punchlines, but the violence in Barry is deeply upsetting. The injuries hurt, the confrontations are shocking, the psychic impacts are tragic. Life is not cheap to Barry once he finds a purpose to pursue, so it’s fitting for this series to treat death with due gravity. Rather than throwing his military background in as convenient justification for his career, the show engages with Barry’s mental health issues and considers the many injustices against veterans trying to readjust to society.
Even in its wry observations of the tightrope between dreams and delusions that every aspiring thespian in Barry’s class walks—usually an opportunity for obvious gags—Barry only has pathos and understanding to offer, making it an unexpectedly great show about Los Angeles, too. Nothing comes easy for Barry, or in Barry, right up to its crushing season finale, in which a flash-forward epilogue cruelly demotes his happy ending back to delusion…and sets up the second season to be, somehow, even more intense than the first. — Eric Stolze