Our picks for the top 10 series of the year. Plus: shows with stellar ensemble casts, very timely series and top-notch Canadian doc series
Last April, Atlanta’s Teddy Perkins episode (think Sunset Boulevard meets Get Out) dominated both watercooler conversations and deep-dive think pieces. A month later, director Hiro Murai and creator Donald Glover garnered the same reaction with the Childish Gambino music video for This Is America. Both Teddy Perkins and This Is America are horrifying and confrontational. They stand out for their lunacy and potency, lacing contemporary anxieties into a blunt that takes you on absurd highs and leaves you paranoid. Both are totally of a piece with the versatile style and perceptive conversations Murai and Glover wove throughout Atlanta’s brilliant and stylistically subversive Robbin’ Season.
Each episode almost plays like a self-contained short film, following rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), his right-hand man Darius (Lakeith Stanfield), laid-back manager Earn (Glover) and Earn’s girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz) as mundane situations escalate into humiliating, philosophical, screwball or nightmarish odysseys that underscore the Black experience in America. There’s humour for miles but – like This Is America – Atlanta often takes you to a sad place.
Top Episode: Alligator Man
In Sharp Objects, memories are ghosts. They haunt mansions and emotions, providing chills and cold comfort in a Gothic generational drama about cyclical violence. Amy Adams is tremendous as Camille Preaker, a boozing and self-harming journalist trying to numb the pain from a traumatic past. She deep-dives into it when a brutal murder mystery lures her back to her Southern hometown. The show’s abrupt and cutting finale leaves you rattled, emotionally gutted and craving more answers – not who committed what, but why. The clues are in author Gillian Flynn’s carefully considered details (the series is based on her debut novel) which are fleshed out on screen by writer Marti Noxon and director Jean-Marc Vallée. With no second season in sight, you’re bound to circle back to the beginning and savour this.
Top Episode: Vanish
After 10 seasons playing the beloved Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy, it’s so gratifying to watch Canadian Sandra Oh in her juiciest, most thrilling role yet. In Killing Eve, she plays the eponymous Eve Polastri, an American working as intelligence operative tasked with catching the psychopath-cum-assassin dubbed Villanelle (Jodie Comer). The series begins as your standard cat-and-mouse thriller, but after the first couple episodes, evolves into a rich character study of the whip-smart and awkward Polastri and the glamorous and charismatic Villanelle, two women whose differences fuel their obsessions with one another. Written and produced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (behind the hilarious Fleabag), Killing Eve is dark and gritty, but with an irreverent sense of humour that adds levity to all the gory murder scenes.
Top episode: Don’t I Know You?
Easily the best television series adapted from a podcast, Homecoming – produced and directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail – stars Julia Roberts, Stephan James and Bobby Cannavale in an increasingly paranoid thriller about strange goings-on at a veteran’s rehabilitation centre in Florida. Working with creators Micah Bloomberg and Eli Horowitz, Esmail expands their audio drama (which starred Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac and David Schwimmer) into a more complex and tangled version of itself, adding a time-shifting element and employing a predatory visual aesthetic that echoes the found-audio aspect of the podcast. Roberts is remarkable as the woman at the centre of a mystery she doesn’t even remember, James undercuts his leading-man charisma with suggestions of PTSD his character is desperate to deny, and Cannavale plays his second magnificent bastard of the year (after his voice turn as a scandal-courting star in BoJack Horseman). But it’d all be meaningless if Homecoming didn’t stick the ending. You’ll see.
Top episode: Redwood
The “family” in “family drama”– modern or otherwise – is usually bound by matrimony so it was refreshing to see chosen queer family given the big-budget, nighttime soap treatment in Ryan Murphy’s Pose. Featuring the largest cast of trans actors ever assembled for TV, the series follows a fledging house mother Blanca (a revelatory Mj Rodriguez) as she establishes herself in New York’s competitive underground ball scene of the 1980s. The soundtrack is expensive, the fashion is ostentatious and the drama is both nuanced and refreshingly feel-good (because queer and trans characters often wind up dead on mainstream TV). The scenarios on Pose are familiar – the other woman, sugar daddies, parenting woes – but through a trans lens they became something we’ve never seen before on TV of this scale. Broadway vet Billy Porter also gives one of the year’s most moving performances as a ball MC who learns he’s HIV positive.
Top episode: Love Is The Message
On shows like The Office, Parks And Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, writer/producer Michael Schur has told stories about unlikely groups of people who really want the best for one another. With his afterlife comedy, he’s expanded that mission to all of humanity. The Good Place is about nothing less than a meditation on ethical behaviour and a consideration of what we owe each other, wrapped up in a very funny comedy about four dead people (Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto) whose afterlives are not at all what they expected. That was the starting point, at least. As of this writing, the show has reconfigured itself so many times that it isn’t even set in the afterlife any longer, its heroes having been returned to their lives on Earth so their former tormentor, Michael (Ted Danson), and his all-knowing assistant Janet (D’Arcy Carden) can steer them toward a happy ending. It’s probably not going to work.
Top episode: Jeremy Bearimy
If Christopher from The Sopranos had lived to realize his dreams of making it big in Hollywood, he might have pitched something like Bill Hader’s HBO series about a hitman who decides to quit the business and pursue his dream of being an actor – only to find the business won’t let him quit. A live-action cousin to Bojack Horseman in its empathy for awful people who want to believe they can be better versions of themselves – and in its stiletto-smooth evisceration of oblivious industry lifers and the hangers-on who follow in their wake. Hader’s ability to go blank is put to great use here, and his skills as a writer, director and producer are showcased in the deadpan tone and remarkable supporting cast, which pairs veterans like Henry Winkler and Stephen Root with relative newcomers like Sarah Goldberg, Kirby Howell-Baptiste and breakout Anthony Carrigan as chipper Chechen mobster NoHo Hank. (Yes, there are Chechen mobsters. It’s a whole thing.)
Top episode: Know Your Truth
This series from American indie filmmaker Terence Nance (An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty) was billed as a late-night sketch show, but it’s unlike anything else on TV. Written and directed collaboratively with Naima Ramos-Chapman, Nuotama Bodomo, Jamund Washington, Mariama Diallo, and Darius Clark Monroe, Random Acts Of Flyness is a kaleidoscopic vision of Black American consciousness (and subconsciousness) that upends TV convention. Expansive, overwhelming and visually striking, the show beautifully, and often scathingly, expresses how gender and sexuality, police brutality, technology and racist media tropes – and so much more – are connected, but not always in linear ways. Expect to hear Nance’s name more frequently: HBO picked up a second season and he’s set to direct Space Jam 2 (starring LeBron James) for producer Ryan Coogler.
Top episode: I Tried To Tell My Therapist About My Dreams / MARTIN HAD A DREEEEAAAAM
The sixth and final season of The Americans is a glorious, heartbreaking and satisfying send-off to Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), the Russian spies working in DC in the 1980s. Unlike so many other dramas, The Americans never lost its way over the years, elegantly and deftly examining both American-Russian politics and familial dynamics. Its final season was full of the requisite bloodshed and backstabbing, but is also a portrait of two parents struggling to protect their kids and country at whatever cost. If you haven’t given The Americans a chance yet – maybe you think Cold War dramas aren’t your thing – now is the time to binge-watch all six seasons.
Top episode: The Summit
Julia Davis has long had a rep in the UK for making boundary-testing comedy, but with her first American co-produced series she just might snatch the title of Bad Taste Heir Apparent to John Waters (ahem, episode four). Pulling triple duty as writer, director and star, Davis plays Emma, a sociopath who shamelessly ingratiates herself into the life of Sally (Catherine Shepherd), an ad exec in a loveless relationship with the resoundingly unattractive David (Alex Macqueen). Things go from hilariously unhealthy to hilariously unhealthier, as Sally and Emma’s budding romance morphs into a funhouse mirror of suburban conformity. With an ace support cast that includes Vicki Pepperdine, Julian Barratt and Felicity Montagu, Sally4Ever mixes sly pop culture satire, deadpan wit and screwball comedy to smartly (and crudely) send-up the cultural norms that enable bad relationships.
Top episode: Episode Two
These five shows were stacked with stellar talent.
Instead of Hollywood-izing this adaptation of the first volume in Elena Ferrante’s quartet about two working-class girls growing up in postwar Naples in the 50s and 60s, this atmospheric series did it right, casting for authenticity and talent rather than international box-office appeal. The two pairs of actors playing frenemies Elena and Lila (Elisa del Genio and Ludovica Nasti as kids, Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace as teens) match up perfectly, and everyone else – from Dora Romano as their stern teacher to Emanuele Valenti as the womanizing poet Donato Sarratore – is as fleshed out and layered as they are in the novel. Bring on book two!
Written by Ed Solomon and directed by Steven Soderbergh, the six-part Mosaic spins a complex story about a murder in a Utah resort town in 2012, and the repercussions that echo through the lives of the people involved four years later. The limited series – aired nightly over a week back in January – assembled a top-flight indie cast, with leads Garrett Hedlund, Sharon Stone, Frederick Weller, Devin Ratray and Jennifer Ferrin supported by Paul Reubens, Michael Cerveris, Beau Bridges, Maya Kazan, Allison Tolman, Jeremy Bobb, Zandy Hartig and others. The story is engagingly twisty, but you’ll come away admiring the idiosyncratic performance choices, and how Solomon and Soderbergh give everyone the chance to do so much more than deliver expository dialogue. Mysteries don’t have to be dour, after all. NW
Not much happens on this Japanese reality series and that’s kind of the point. Six strangers live together in a house, go about their regular daily lives and try to find romance. But there’s no prize, and contestants can leave the show whenever they want. So why bother watching? It’s comforting. Nothing bad happens and the pace is slow enough to read subtitles. The cast is the opposite of Jersey Shore’s crass denizens, and that’s what most of us need now.
Michelle da Silva
Michael McKean may have departed the show at the end of last season, but Better Call Saul continues to boast one of the best casts in television. The secret is that showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould treat each character as the star of his or her own story: Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill might be the official lead, but the series has plenty of time to let Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler, Jonathan Banks’s Mike Ehrmantraut and Michael Mando’s Nacho Varga have a turn in the spotlight, dealing with their own crises as the story creeps closer and closer to the events of Breaking Bad. Giancarlo Esposito hasn’t had his showcase yet, but his ruthless Albuquerque drug lord Gus Fring is actually more unsettling just looming in the background. NW
Succession is a dramedy about a toxically dysfunctional family locked in a Shakespearian battle over stocks at a Fox News-like media conglomerate. The show gawks at the privilege and excess of the titans who lay out tables for the one per cent to come and feed. That we can’t help but get invested in their selfish, cynical aspirations is testament to the absorbing and complex performances by Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin and Brian Cox (among so many others). RS
These shows were plugged into the moment.
Plum (Joy Nash, infinitely relatable) works for teen fashion magazine Daisy Chain(!) ghost-writing responses to letters to the editor (Julianna Margulies, gloriously infuriating). Plum is on the verge of having stomach-staple surgery, but in response to a fat-shaming culture considers joining Jennifer, a terrorist cell that’s been offing sexually abusive men. Crazy, right? The tone of this feminist manifesto swings wildly from tragic to satiric to plain batshit but that’s exactly what makes it so irresistible. See it, love it and pray it gets a second season.
Susan G. Cole
Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s searing Hollywood satire continues to address the present day with unnerving speed. A hot-button episode tackled the celebrity comeback tour in the age of #MeToo, with Bobby Cannavale voicing an actor who’s honed his offend-and-apologize cycle to cynical perfection. The new season dropped just weeks after Louis CK’s surprise return to stand-up – you honestly couldn’t have asked for better timing. But BoJack has always been culturally on point, with Will Arnett’s shallow, depressive sort-of-hero either chasing the next trend or pre-emptively declaring it stupid – while Alison Brie’s fallen journalist, Diane Nguyen, churns out listicles for a hipster web magazine that repackages superficial nostalgia and celebrity gossip as cutting-edge content. Nah, that’s not an indictment of 2018 at all. NW
President Trump has effectively co-opted the social media activism tactics of marginalized groups, so it was satisfying to watch Sacha Baron Cohen use the right’s racist and homophobic fear-mongering against itself in his TV comeback. Playing five characters, Cohen skewers tone-deaf conservatives and liberals. While many bits fall back on Cohen’s usual baiting of politicians and celebs, the best – a PSA for arming toddlers with guns, a proposal to build a mosque in a depressed Arizona town, a quinceañera that almost got two Trump supporters arrested and an undercover assassination mission at the Women’s March – are truly memorable, funny and disturbing. Yes, we all know America has a problem with extremism but this show illustrates the depths of fear and ignorance in shocking fashion. KR
Allegations made against James Franco in a post-Weinstein landscape perhaps made this show about early days of porn in 70s New York easy to ignore – by audiences and awards voters. That’s too bad since few other shows currently on television grapple with the exploitation and violence women constantly face. In The Deuce’s second season, Maggie Gyllenhaal continues her phenomenal work as Candy, the sex worker turned porn director who has the tragic realization that johns and movie execs share a lot in common. RS
Maclain Way and Chapman Way’s addictive documentary is about a series of events in the early 1980s, but its underlying social tensions could be ripped from today’s headlines. The show recounts the story of how a free-love cult led by guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh created a massive community for followers on a 65,000-acre ranch in Oregon. A conflict with conservative townspeople quickly escalates into violence and legal manoeuvering that eventually ensnares federal authorities. The twists and turns are tabloid-level sensational, but ultimately the series is a portrait of people longing to escape the oppressive grind of monogamy and capitalism, and the lengths authorities will go to protect the plain-as-day facade of the American dream. KR
These five shows proved homegrown non-fiction is alive and well.
The CBC’s first in-depth artist profile show in nearly two decades gets intimate access to some of the country’s best working artists – including Lido Pimienta, Adrian Stimson, Dana Michel, Crystal Pite, Chilly Gonzales and Shelley Niro – as they create new work at home and abroad. Many artists are reticent to throw open their creative process and it’s no wonder given the sometimes intensely personal and emotional moments that can arise (see the remarkable Stimson episode). Hosted by Sean O’Neill, In The Making distills a lot of the socio-political conversations Canadian artists are grappling with into an accessible, beautifully shot and enlightening series. Fingers crossed for season two. KR
There were legit criticisms of this music doc’s first season: it told the same New York-led origin story hip-hop heads are used to, and it overlooked female artists. But in travelling into the golden age, the four-part season two gets charismatic-as-hell interviews from legends like KRS-One, Q-Tip and Roxanne Shante, devotes a segment to Queen Latifah’s Ladies First (the first all-women posse cut) and explores early regional scenes in Texas and the Bay. It’s like an alternate history of America, albeit one told by Canadians, including rapper/host Shad.
After more than six decades of television, CBC has a serious chunk of music history in its vaults (take a tour of them here). Many of its performances and interviews are collectors’ holy grails, many unseen since their air dates. Banger Films’ six-part From The Vaults finally re-broadcasts them, from legends like Leonard Cohen, Jackie Mittoo, Oscar Peterson and Buffy Sainte-Marie. It’s also a crash course in the history of Canadian music, and often more so, of the national broadcaster itself. RT
We’re living in a Canadian basketball boom, and Toronto, once known as a hockey town and a hockey town only, is at the centre of it. Beyond the rise of the Raptors, there’s a new wave of renowned basketball programs training players from the high school level and earlier, suddenly producing NBA stars. The intimate nine-part True North follows a few of the young hopefuls (including one very hyped 12-year-old), along with their coaches and parents, as they strive to be the next. Think: Canadian Hoop Dreams. RT
Inspired by that time someone stole $18 million of maple syrup in Quebec, Geoff Morrison’s web series is a true-crime show with an agricultural twist, zipping across Canada telling tales of blueberry burglars, honeybee heists, contemporary cattle rustlers and more – and treating the stories respectfully and with intelligence. (A crime is a crime, and the most disturbing story in the series – a Nova Scotia livestock thief who butchered animals on a free-range farm – doesn’t shy away from the psychological impact of the act on the people who found the carcasses.) If it were a podcast, it’d be a huge hit instead, it’s a collection of 15-minute documentaries just waiting to be watched. NW