Looking over my list of best shows for 2018, I see that none of them are on network television. All of them, without exception, were seen via HBO, Showtime, Amazon, Netflix, FX, and BBC America. I don’t think network shows, most of them anyway, can compete with the content and quality available to cable channels and streaming services. Fewer restrictions on language, violence, and sex play a huge role in this. It didn’t take long to realize that The Sopranos, which debuted on HBO in 1999, was just as good as, or better than, than most feature films. That show changed the landscape. I’m as excited now by what I can see on our flat screen as I am about feature films in theaters. That said, you still can’t beat seeing something on a theater screen, which is how I’ve seen Roma twice. Roma has had a good theatrical run, though more people will probably see it on Netflix.
There’s so much content available now, too much to keep up with. We only scratch the surface with what we watch, and that’s without having HULU or Starz or the many other outlets. And there’s going to be a lot more. Apple and Disney are launching streaming services soon.
Well, it’s time to get into what I liked best last year, so without further digression, here goes. These are all great shows, but I have to say that The Americans, Babylon Berlin, Killing Eve, and My Brilliant Friend are the best of the best. And Sharp Objects.
The Americans – season 6 (FX) This is a carry over from previous years, but rather than put it in a section at the end, I wanted to have it right up front. I was initially skeptical of the premise when I first heard about it — KGB sleeper agents living in Washington, DC for 20 years, raising a family and carrying out covert operations. And living next door to an FBI agent who becomes their best friend. Sounded a little far-fetched, but my wife and I were hooked with the first episode. It just got better and better with each successive season. Okay, maybe all the wigs and disguises were a bit of a joke, but that didn’t really matter. We went with it. The final episode of the final season was a killer. Everything in the entire series had led to the scene in the parking garage, where we didn’t get what we’d expected, but got so much more. Then the gut-punch of Paige on the train platform. At the end The Americans was sad, bittersweet, and heartbreaking. It earned every bit of that. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. If not, you can stream all the seasons on Amazon Prime.
Babylon Berlin (Netflix) The first two seasons were made available last spring, 16 episodes in all. Reportedly the most expensive German TV series to date, Babylon Berlin begins in 1929 during the Weimar Republic. The main character is Gereon Rath, a police inspector transferred from Cologne to Berlin. He’s a World War I combat veteran who suffers from PTSD and takes morphine to deal with it. It’s a great series with many characters and multiple story lines. Online on Vulture, Kathryn VanArendonk described Babylon Berlin as “part noir, part spy thriller, and part historical portrait.” It’s that and more. The atmosphere is rich and deep, and really wraps you up. Babylon Berlin is based on novels by Volker Kutscher. The series was created by Tom Tykwer (who made Run Lola Run in 1998), Achim von Borries, and Hendrik Handloegten. Each episode was written, directed, and edited by all three of them, so it’s all a tight collective vision.
The following video is set in the Moka Efti club, a central location in the story and a place that actually existed. A song is performed, intercut with scenes from the series. This gives a good sense of the tone and feeling of Babylon Berlin.
Barry (HBO) Created by Bill Hader and Alec Berg, Barry stars Hader as a contract killer who goes undercover in an acting class in Los Angeles and begins to take part in the proceedings. He discovers he enjoys acting more than being a hit man, but it’s not so easy changing careers. Hader is great in the role. He’s probably best known for his eight seasons on Saturday Night Live (his uncanny Vincent Price impression is one of my favorites). Henry Winkler is the teacher in the acting class, and he underplays the puffed-up self-importance of the character. Barry’s handler, who schedules his hits, is played by Stephen Root, an actor who seems to work all the time. He’s had 236 credits since 1988, but will probably always be remembered as Milton in Office Space (1999). Barry is a comedy that gets serious in uncomfortable ways. Barry is, after all, someone who kills people. The show doesn’t shy away from the reality of that when it happens, and as a viewer it’s not always easy to know how to respond. Hader plays this perfectly. Season 2 begins on March 31.
Here are trailers for seasons 1 and 2.
Bodyguard (Netflix/BBC) This British series about a liberal London cop (Richard Madden), assigned to provide security for a right-wing Home Secretary (Keeley Hawes), was hugely popular when it aired in the UK. It shares DNA, along with many other shows, with the Kiefer Sutherland series 24. It’s fast paced, with shocking events, sudden reversals, and a down-to-the-wire momentum.
The following clip is of a sniper attack on the Home Secretary and the way her bodyguard deals with it. It’s pretty intense, so keep your head down.
Homecoming (Amazon Prime) Nothing normal about this one. Julia Roberts is a counselor at a government organization called Homecoming that ostensibly helps returning veterans readjust. Everything feels sinister and the true agenda is slowly revealed. Bobby Canavale is outstanding as Roberts’ supervisor, as is Shea Wigham as a DOD functionary trying to figure out what is going on. Just like the rest of us. There’s a Twilight Zone vibe to this show. You never know what’s coming. Homecoming is ten 30-minute episodes, very compelling and perfect for bingeing.
Jane Fonda in Five Acts (HBO) This fascinating documentary was directed by Susan Lacy, the creator of American Masters on PBS and director of the documentary Spielberg, which aired last year on HBO. Everyone thinks they know who Jane Fonda is, but seeing this survey of her entire life is a bit of a revelation. She’s been around as long as I can remember, but Lacy’s film presents the full range of Fonda’s multiple careers. She’s quite candid, especially about her problematic relationship with her father, Henry Fonda, and her marriages to Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden, and Ted Turner. Her reunion with Turner on his ranch is particularly touching.
Killing Eve (BBC America) Sandra Oh is the greatest as Eve Polastri, an MI5 agent pursuing psychopathic assassin Villanelle, played with ice-cold charm by the equally strong Jodie Comer. They become obsessed with one another in a lethal dance while the body count keeps rising.
The following confrontation in the clip below between Eve and Villanelle from season one is quite something. They are obviously adversaries, but at the same time there’s a weird attraction for each other that drives the series.
Season 1 can be rented for streaming from Amazon. Season 2 debuts April 7 on both BBC America and AMC.
The Kominsky Method (Netflix) Michael Douglas is Sandy Kominsky, an actor who was big years ago and is now an acting coach. Alan Arkin is Norman Newlander, Sandy’s friend and agent. Their relationship, not unlike Felix and Oscar in The Odd Couple, is prickly and filled with insults and clever putdowns, but they obviously care deeply for each other. The chemistry between Douglas and Arkin is great. Alan Arkin, especially, is wonderful. What he does with the dialogue is a constant pleasure. It’s comic, but it’s not a sitcom. There are real things at stake here. Aging and mortality are frequent subjects of their conversations. It’s nice to see both actors so relaxed and supported by great writing.
The Mantis/La mante (Netflix) Carole Bouquet plays Jeanne, a notorious serial killer known as the Praying Mantis, who has been held in isolated confinement for many years in a vast country estate under high security, a prisoner a la Hannibal Lector. When copycat murders begin turning up, the police ask Jeanne for help finding the killer. She agrees, but only if her estranged son Damien, a cop, will be her contact. He’s had nothing to do with her for years and wants to keep it that way. This series goes to some very, very dark places. It’s like lifting a plank of rotting wood out of the muck and seeing what’s underneath. I loved it.
My Brilliant Friend (HBO) Absolutely great. Based on the first of four hugely popular novels by Elena Ferrante that tell the story of a friendship that lasts a lifetime. The first season is set in a suburb of Naples, Italy in the 1950s. Lenu and Lila meet in primary school, where they are clearly the smartest kids in the class. Despite an initial wariness, they develop a strong bond that becomes key to their survival in a restrictive, frequently violent community. You sense the joy that comes with shared discoveries and the recognition of a kindred spirit. The production values are incredible. An entire neighborhood was constructed that looks and feels completely authentic. Nothing looks like a set, this is a totally lived-in environment. Everything about My Brilliant Friend is an achievement of perfection. I was constantly knocked out by the depth and richness of the storytelling. Saverio Costanzo co-wrote and directed all eight episodes, which ensured a consistency of vision. He’s scheduled to do the same for the next three seasons. My wife Nancy was reading the first volume in Ferrante’s quartet when the series started. She subsequently burned through the next three back-to-back. It’s a hit.
Pose (FX) Co-created by Ryan Murphy, Pose is set in the ball culture world of New York City in the late 1980s. Until I saw the excellent documentary Kiki (2016), I’d known virtually nothing about this world. Members of the transgender community compete for trophies and titles in elaborate events held in ballrooms. All transgender characters in Pose are performed by transgender actors. It is extraordinary. Billy Porter is amazing as the live-wire MC of the balls. When I saw Kiki, I noted that it was bursting with humanity. That’s certainly true with Pose as well. Humanity and a full range of emotions at full throttle.
Secret City (Netflix) A dogged individual attempting to expose a cover-up at high levels is nothing new, but it’s all in the telling, and Secret City does it very well. This is an Australian production starring Anna Torv. I first remember seeing her in the excellent series Fringe (2008-2013), and most recently in the amazing Mindhunter (2017). She’s a very engaging actor who makes me care about what happens to her. The deeply ominous Jackie Weaver also stars. The second season is already available on Netflix. We burned through it in a couple of days. Here are trailers for both seasons.
Sharp Objects (HBO) This is a profoundly disturbing series based on a novel by Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl. Sharp Objects as a series was created by Marti Noxon, a name I recognized as a producer of Josh Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Already I was interested. Amy Adams stars as Camille Preaker, a burned-out reporter in St. Louis sent by her editor to report on a murder in her hometown of Wind Gap. It’s the last place she wants to go. Too many ghosts. Patricia Clarkson plays Camille’s mother, the ironically named Adora. She’s anything but. Clarkson does this kind of character to perfection. Adora is a smiling cobra, speaking in a soft, purring voice laced with poison. She’s a master of devastating putdowns and quiet eviscerations. This is a creepy, freaky story. It’s a horror story. You won’t look at a dollhouse the same way again. Amy Adams has reportedly said that she wouldn’t want to do another season, because this was too dark a place to go. It’s easy to see why. And it’s quite thrilling.
Unforgotten – seasons 1 & 2 (Amazon Prime) We watched both seasons of this last year. Nicola Walker (Last Tangle in Halifax and River) plays the head of a police unit that investigates old cases that were thought previously solved. It follows a familiar formula for these types of show, but is very well made and quite engaging. The third season debuts on Masterpiece (PBS) on April 7. Sunday nights are getting very crowded for shows we like. Thanks for the DVR. Here’s a trailer for season 1.
The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling (HBO) Garry Shandling was a singular talent. He had a solid career as a stand-up comic, but most importantly he created two unique series, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1986-1990) and The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998). I kept hearing about Larry Sanders and finally got HBO just so I could see the show. It did not disappoint. In it, Larry’s the host of a late-night talk show, surrounded by egos and insecurities, but none as full-blown as his own. Guests on the talk show were often real celebrities playing versions of themselves. It was great. I especially loved Rip Torn as Artie, Larry’s producer. Zen Diaries was directed by Judd Apatow, who counts Shandling as a friend and mentor. It runs four and a half hours, which might sound daunting, but it could have kept going and I would have been there for it. Per a description at IMDb, Zen Diaries “included conversations with more than 40 of Shandling’s family members and friends, among them Jim Carrey, Jon Favreau, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman. There are also decades worth of TV appearances, along with personal journals, private letters and candid home audio and video footage that depict Shandling in a fascinating, funny, sad and, above all, completely authentic way.”
Better Call Saul – season 4 (AMC) The airdate for season 5 has yet to be announced.
Better Things (FX) Did not air last year, but season 3 is currently on. Based on the episodes we’ve seen so far, it’s better than ever.
Billions – 3rd season (SHO) Season 4 began on March 17.
Bosch – 4th season (Amazon Prime) Season 5 begins on April 19. I don’t think Bosch is as strong as it was the first two seasons, but I’ll be watching for sure. Titus Welliver really owns the character of Harry Bosch, and seeing him with Lance Reddick and Jaime Hector makes my day. Here’s a trailer for the new season.
Glow – 2nd season (Netflix) The release date for season 3 has yet to be announced, but will probably be late summer.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – season 2 (Amazon Prime) Season 3 airdate is yet to be announced.
Mozart in the Jungle – season 4 (Amazon Prime) This excellent series has been cancelled by Amazon, but you can still stream the first 4 seasons.
Veep – 6th season (HBO) The 7th and final season begins on March 31. The writing is nasty and inspired. Julia-Louis Dreyfuss and the entire cast play it for all it’s worth. As farcical and exaggerated as this show frequently is, compared to the actual news from the White House every day, Veep seems more and more like a documentary. It’s probably wise that this will be its final season, because I’m not sure where Veep could go from here.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO)
You may already have heard, but thirteen years after it ended, Deadwood is coming back. Not as a series, but this is better than nothing. On May 31, HBO will debut Deadwood: The Movie. Almost the entire original cast is returning, including Timothy Olyphant as Seth Bullock and Ian McShane as Al Swearengen. Those of us who were fans felt that the series ended much too soon. Hopefully this will allow for some closure.
That about wraps it up for this go-round. See you next time. — Ted Hicks