It’s been a pretty fantastic year for TV in general, so it’s been fairly challenging whittling down ten shows, never mind five, and I haven’t nearly watched everything that has struck a chord with people in 2018.
The following, in my opinion, have nonetheless been some of the strongest TV of this year. Some new, some older, some just taking off. All still with a lot of led left in their pencil.
Here we go with #5 to #1…
5. Inside No. 9 (Season 4)
Anthology shows have found a real resurgence in recent years, following in the footsteps of classic series such as The Twilight Zone or Tales of the Unexpected. A quieter success, as a BBC2 series in the UK, has been Inside No. 9, from the talented duo of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, best known alongside Mark Gatiss (and Jeremy Dyson) as The League of Gentlemen, but Inside No. 9 has been consistently one of the weirdest, darkest, most inventive comic-horror anthologies in years.
After a third season which didn’t quite contain the kind of classics seen in earlier seasons such as ‘A Quiet Night In’ or ‘The 12 Days of Christine’, Pemberton & Shearsmith find a bit of the older magic with some stunning pieces; the tragic pathos of ‘Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room’ and the cleverness of ‘Once Removed’, which takes a Memento-approach to a twisty narrative. Then they go and top it all with ‘Dead Line’, a haunting, format-breaking Halloween special which recalled the terrifying semi-reality of the BBC’s legendary Ghostwatch, with a social media spin.
Inside No. 9 feels back toward the top of its game once more and we can only hope there are years more left in these creepy and funny tales.
4. Counterpart (Season 1)
It seemed to take a million years for Counterpart to reach British audiences and even then it is buried somewhat on StarzPlay, a sub-channel on the Amazon Prime Video service, which is a shame as the majority of audiences may not get to see one of the most inventive series in recent years. Created by Justin Marks, Counterpart is Fringe for grown-ups, if you want a crude and unfair description.
J K. Simmons is Howard Silk, a mild-mannered UN employee in Berlin, his wife in a coma after a car accident, who one day is dragged into a room and faced by his doppelgänger – a confident, lethal Howard from a parallel universe which is connected via a politically guarded border, who claims ‘our side’ is compromised and a conspiracy exists to destroy the 30 year old peace between universes. Marks’ first season of 10 episodes steadily unfolds a developing mythology and backstory, with flickers of science-fiction, alongside strong character development and a striking double performance from Simmons.
Seek it out as Counterpart is in danger of slipping by unnoticed when it deserves to be heralded as one of the most thrilling new dramas out there.
3. Westworld (Season 2)
It’s quite surprising just how ‘marmite’ Westworld almost immediately has grown to become amongst audiences. Far from each season being more beloved than the next, as seen in HBO’s other major TV series Game of Thrones, Westworld is dividing people in much the same way Lost did as it threw off the shackles of its original premise and started delving into complicated, esoteric and challenging storytelling.
Season 2 of Westworld definitely falls into the same camp. Ten episodes packed to the gills with character work and narratives twisting, turning and overflowing, as Evan Rachel Wood’s ‘woke’ android Dolores begins to command an AI insurrection within the Westworld park, while controlling company Delos seek to stop it, the Man in Black goes on another quest, and programmer Bernard faces a major identity crisis. Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy made this weekly appointment TV as they expanded the world and mythology, sparking legions of theories.
The ending was a mind-boggling, feature-length episode which tees up a radically different Season 3 in a couple of years. Westworld is now love or hate it. I, firmly, love it.
2. Killing Eve (Season 1)
I confess – I had to be talked into this one by Mrs Black. Despite hearing almost universal praise, for some reasons I seemed disinclined to watch Killing Eve, the latest BBC drama from Phoebe Waller-Bridge, best known as the star and writer of Fleabag. Mrs Black binge watched it and frequently suggested we should watch it together. Eventually, I conceded and, well… I was a fool for putting it off. Killing Eve is easily one of the best shows of 2018.
Set principally in the UK, American actress Sandra Oh stars as Eve, a fairly downtrodden MI6 agent, who stumbles upon the case of a slick international assassin known as Villanelle, around whom the net is tightening as her boredom grows, her kills grow more elaborate, and an obsession between she and Eve mutually grows. Based on a graphic novel, Killing Eve is fun, brutal, exciting, mordantly comical and filled with great performances, particularly a chameleonic Jodie Comer as Villanelle, a role which should catapult her to stardom.
Eight episodes, most no longer than 40 minutes, Killing Eve proves so much more can be done with less. A stonking first season.
1. This Country (Season 2)
Every few years, a comedy comes along which just captures something. Peep Show understood the post-90’s malaise of the late-twentysomething. Catastrophe gets the absurd, complex emotions of marriage and parenthood. This Country quite brilliantly exposes the boredom of modern British country life with the expanse of growing social issues in Tory Britain.
Filmed and framed with a significant debt to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office (another of those comedies which found a niche to mine), This Country features real life brother/sister Daisy May and Charlie Cooper as unemployed cousins, both largely uneducated, trying to exist in a tiny corner of the Cotswolds where *nothing* ever happens. This may sound bleak but the characters of Kerry and Lee ‘Kurtin’ Mucklowe are so well observed, both a mixture of poignant pathos and plain unremitting idiocy, the show is a delight in just how funny the majority of its episodes are.
It returned for a second season and a special this year, with a third season on the way, and while it has courted awards attention, it hasn’t yet seeped into the popular consciousness as Peep Show or The Office did, but it truly deserves to. Let’s hope 2019 is its year.
Biggest Disappointment: Doctor Who (Season 11)
How did this go so wrong? Doctor Who‘s 11th season had people more excited for the BBC’s legendary science-fiction show than they had been in years. A new Doctor, the first ever woman in the role in Jodie Whittaker. A new show runner in Chris Chibnall after almost a decade of Steven Moffat. Plus the promise of a raised budget to make the shorter run of 11 episodes (including the New Year’s Day special), including filming in climes such as South Africa. It all had such promise. Initial viewing figures rocketed. Everyone loved Jodie…
…and then it very quickly collapsed in on itself. Chibnall’s writing fell flat. Two of his three companions of the Doctor barely got anything to do. The episodes were a mix of decent historical tales, awful future set stories, and middling modern day plots, none of which had much of any narrative impetus and built to the most underwhelming season finale in modern Who history. In attempting to freshen up the show from the complexity of the Moffat years, Chibnall stripped away most of the intrigue and excitement.
Jodie Whittaker single handedly kept the whole season on the rails, just, but Doctor Who needs to significantly up its game when it returns in 2020.
Honorary Mention: The X-Files (Season 11)
I couldn’t let a TV list go by without mentioning my beloved The X-Files. It returned again for a second revival season, after the brief and middling Season 10, with Season 11 getting ten episodes that fused awkward and underwhelming mythology with some inventive stand-alone stories for ageing FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, in what looks to be their swan song (though we’ve heard that before…).
Honestly, I can’t in good conscience put The X-Files in a best of list. While one or two episodes were genuinely great, and Season 11 is the best year of the show since 2001’s Season 8, as a piece Chris Carter’s show still feels old fashioned and buoyed largely by warm nostalgia. Which, y’know, as someone who is a big enough fan to have a podcast about it, is alright with me. I would rather have The X-Files, and David Duchovny & Gillian Anderson, back on my screen than not. I lapped every minute of it up.
This looks like the end though. Well, until Mulder & Scully get the reboot treatment at least…
That’s it for TV, but check back soon for my Top 5 Film Score Tracks…