The Top 20 Best New Shows of 2018

I probably don’t need to remind you of the sheer ridiculousness that is the wealth of content we currently face on television and streaming platforms. It seems like we can barely ever go a week without something new and exciting dropping as Peak TV continues to miss reaching the actual peak we’ve been promised year after year. It’s gotten to the point where new shows are more exciting than most returning shows, not only because they keep attracting bigger and bigger stars both on and behind the camera, but also thanks to the talented writers and creators getting more and more out of the medium creatively. 2018 was no different, as 2018 saw big stars like Oscar winners Julia Roberts, Emma Stone and Sean Penn take their first starring roles on the small screen, competing with the creative apex of talented veteran TV actors and comedians like Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader and Sandra Oh. 2018 saw a surge in horror television like we’ve never seen before, creative original shows which you can barely even talk about without spoiling, expanding cinematic universes and gratifying miniseries. And that’s just the beginning.

You might be sick of hearing this year after year, but 2018 might seriously have been the best year for new shows yet. To the point where I felt I had to delay this list to get in as many shows as possible. And still, I’m missing a lot of shows which will probably get me in trouble with the people reading this. I’m ashamed to say that I still haven’t gotten around to shows like Cobra Kai, Corporate, The Haunting of Hill House, The Terror, Escape from Dannemora, DC’s Titans, and I’m sure that list is missing shows I haven’t even thought of that’s making someone very angry as they’re reading this.

In other words, you can’t make everyone happy, and this is your general disclaimer that this list is very subjective and tailored to my personal taste. So don’t @ me, but please @ me in the comments, and consider this a living list as I fill in the gaps mentioned above throughout 2019.

Still, I watched enough TV in 2018 to come up with a list of over 20 fantastic new shows, so let’s not waste any more time!

But first, a couple of Honourable Mentions to four Netflix talk shows that I really enjoyed: The Joel McHale ShowThe Break With Michelle WolfMy Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman and Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj all gave me a reason to tune in to Netflix weekly for large chunks of the year. And that’s something that I felt I couldn’t really say about Netflix a lot on 2018. While they released a record amount of content, not as much of it hit for me as in years past. They also started cancelling shows for the first time in any significant way (pouring one out for Joel and Michelle), so clearly these talk shows were a means for Netflix to try something new. With only a few of them renewed for more episodes this year, the jury on this experiment is still out, but I would definitely like to see more content like this, even if the algorithm may have told Netflix that this wasn’t really the case. Nevertheless, I’ll always have those dozen or so weeks with Joel!


 

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20. A.P. Bio – NBC: Glenn Howerton’s attempt to branch out from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia started off rocky but really came into its own as this NBC sitcom’s first season wore on. I’m glad this show is coming back for more as it has potential and a great cast.

19. The Looming Tower – Amazon: Amazon’s 9/11 miniseries featuring a great scenery-chewing performance from Jeff Daniels tells the story from the perspective of the FBI and CIA butting heads in the months leading up to the attack. This show earns its spot based largely on its premise, performances and early episodes, as things get kind of muddled, especially when they start reaching the finish line, which, as you may have guessed, depicts the events of 9/11 and ends the whole series on more of a downer than it probably earns.

18. The Kominski Method – Netflix: While I suppose I don’t know what all these awards shows are seeing in Chuck Lorre’s rather pedestrian foray into the world of Netflix sitcoms, portraying LA from the perspective of an over the hill actor/acting coach (Michael Douglas) and his even older agent (Alan Arkin), the two main performances from those aforementioned actors are so good that it lifts the show passed what you might figure is its potential.

17. New Amsterdam – NBC: I’m not really a fan of the current crop of network medical dramas, so NBC’s flashy new medical drama really filled a big gap on my viewing schedule this past fall. It’s over the top, preachy and often ridiculous, but it’s anchored by a charming lead (Ryan Eggold), a good cast and a lot of attention-grabbing tricks like its persistent percussion soundtrack and a good balance between cast drama and interesting medical cases. Let me be clear, this show is probably not good, per se, but it falls perfectly into that territory of dumb network shows you need once or twice a week.

16. Castle Rock – Hulu: I’m not sure I get what’s going on on Castle Rock most of the time. I’m not even sure what the show is supposed to be about, as it’s set in the world of Stephen King’s tales and often references them, but sort of does its own thing. Castle Rock earns most of its points on ambiance and tone, as well as great character actor performances (Sissy Spacek, Andre Holland, Bill Skarsgard, etc). This world feels lives in, and everything is confusing and creepy, and that’s probably what the show’s creators were going for, making me happy to be along for the ride.

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15. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – Netflix: I’ll be honest; I probably disliked as many thing about Sabrina as I liked. The casting is great, the characters are great, the world feels rich and lived-in and the show perennially feels like it’s going somewhere. But I also hate how slow it is, how much each episode drags  (Netflix needs to crack the whip with the editors that make their shows, every episode could be at least 15 minutes shorter), and how far it leans into the CW school of how to make teen dramas. But there’s one thing that sets Sabrina apart and keeps me coming back for more, and that’s the pitch perfect casting of Kiernan Shipka in the titular role. I just hope season 2 is a little more streamlined, a little tighter.

14. The Little Drummer Girl – AMC: Speaking of shows that overstay their welcome, I don’t understand how you can make a show out of a John Le Carre novel so well and yet so utterly boring at the same time. This thing is only six episodes, but it feels like twelve. If I’m being honest, this is a case of Peak TV going too far and making a show out of what probably should have been a movie. Nevertheless, TV is where Le Carre stories have decided to reside, so this is what we get, a show with great performances (Florence Pugh is a revelation, Alexander Skarsgard continues to make me wonder why he isn’t already a movie star, and Michael Shannon is, well, Michael Shannon), a compelling story and beautiful settings that doesn’t really know what to do to put all of it together. It’s almost a wonder that someone could make a show with all of that good stuff (good enough to earn a spot on this list) so boring. Then again I tend to be overly critical on the lower end of these lists…

13. Everything Sucks! – Netflix: The thing that sucks the most about Everything Sucks! is that Netflix didn’t have the confidence in this quiet little show about growing up in the 90s enough to renew it passed a second season. Maybe it was a tad too derivative or reliant on nostalgia, but I really like what they managed to do with a cast of unknowns and with the plot they had. It’s a shame more people didn’t see it, but with a relatively close-ended arc, I’d still highly recommend the one and only season.

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12. The First – Hulu: Between this and First Man, space stories with “First” in the title wound up kind of under-performing, despite big budgets, star power and compelling stories. I think for similar reasons too. Both Hulu’s near-futuristic drama about the first manned mission to Mars and Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic relied a little too heavily on uninteresting character drama. The First is largely build around Sean Penn’s character’s relationship with his addict daughter and whether or not he can leave her behind to go to Mars. First Man centers around Armstrong’s difficulty overcoming the death of his daughter. It’s just unnecessary. I can get this kind of character drama from any show, and it feels shoehorned in in both cases, maybe because some executive didn’t feel confident in a show being capable of enticing audiences on the premise alone. But we’re talking about space, goddamnit. Going to Mars (or the moon) is cool. Center the drama around that. Get me interested in that. Thankfully, when The First isn’t bogged down in what this non-astronaut drug addict girl is doing, it’s actually pretty good.

11. Counterpart – Starz: Counterpart is probably a little too low key (and tucked away on a network nobody watches like Starz) to earn a spot much higher than this, but if this list was about new shows with coolest premises, it might have been a lot higher. Counterpart is a sci fi spy drama about a portal that opens between almost identitcal dimensions, and the spy shit that goes on in order to keep the existence of the other world secret and in control of nefarious higher powers. J.K. Simmons plays a master spy in one world, and a mild-mannered middle-management type in the other in a fantastic dual-role performance, as each character is forced to confront the failings of the other all as cool spy shit happens all around him (them). I think where this show thrives (and weirdly also why I didn’t deem it flashy enough to go higher on the list) is in how quiet and introspective it manages to be despite that crazy premise. In all honesty it probably needed a few more explosions to be truly great (as cynical as that might sound), but it does a lot with the real estate it’s given.

10. Collateral – Netflix: Probably the best and most repeated compliment that people like to give UK TV is how their shows are really good about not overstaying their welcome. Collateral may have been the poster child for those things this past year, as a police procedural about a murdered migrant pizza delivery guy  that somehow manages to weave in all sorts of very topical takes on current events in just four tight, measly episodes. If anything Collateral is probably too short, if you can believe it, as it most certainly leaves you wanting more about where these stories and its characters might go. At the very least, they could probably tell more stories with these characters, but that’s not how UK TV usually works, baby. I hope to someday see John Simms and Carey Mulligan go back to these characters, but if they don’t, Collateral holds up as the perfect little British miniseries.

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9. Maniac – Netflix: I don’t know if this is fair to say, considering Netflix’s Maniac isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill drama, but it sort of feels like this show came a year or two too late. On a list full of unique premises and weird shows that bend the limits of the medium, it feels really weird that Maniac doesn’t do enough to set itself apart. It’s auteur driver (created and directed entirely by Cari Fukunaga of True Detective fame), has two huge stars at the apex of their careers (Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, not to mention a great supporting cast including Justin Theroux and Sally Field), it does that thing I love where it’s a drama but isn’t bogged down by a run time, which most episodes hovering between 40 and 50 minutes, and it’s super weird and quirky with a great story that goes some really weird and interesting places. And yet it’s one of those deals where all of that couldn’t get me as excited about the show as I thought I might be. On paper, this should be my #1 new show based on all of the criteria I’ve set forth. So why is it insteat at #9? I can’t quite put my finger on it. It’s good, it’s unique, it’s weird, it stars people I love… and yet it didn’t put all of that together as well as it probably could. But hey, don’t let my negativity stop you, because it is still a great show.

8. Kidding – Showtime: We were so overdue for Jim Carrey’s renaissance that none of us realized that it might happen on a half hour Showtime dramedy, of all places. But the fit is perfect, as shows about flawed people is what Showtime does best, and Carrey is really underrated when leaning dramatic. Throw in the penchant for the weird and absurd that both he and EP/director Michel Gondry have known to wade in and you have a really unique series in Kidding, a show about a Mr. Rogers-esque children’s figure facing the unbearable and cruelty of the real world persistently trying to push him down, testing his resolve., and Carrey is the perfect person to convey that. The show probably isn’t good enough to suggest that Mr. Pickles is anywhere near his best role, but it often comes close.

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7. Sharp Objects – HBO: This might be a hot take, but I thought Netflix’s 2018 was kind of disappointing for new shows. Despite occupying 5 slots on this list, little on that platform really wowed me. And yet, for the first time in a while, HBO had like three new shows that blew me away, which, per capita, is much more impressive. The first of those shows was Sharp Objects, the latest in the network’s miniseries efforts, and, boy, do they ever knock it out of the park with this one. The idea of a character-driven murder-mystery drama might feel very on brand for HBO, but the writing (led by showrunner Marti Nixon and Gillian Flynn, who wrote the novel), directing (Jean-Marc Vallee) and acting (Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, Eliza Scanlen) are so good that it really puts the show over the top. There are things Sharp Objects does with editing, cinematography and sound design that even the most creative and inventive streaming shows can struggle with. The production values are so high that there’s little I look forward to these days on TV over their yearly (or more often) dark, dramatic miniseries.

6. Killing Eve – BBC America: I hope you’re ready for the hottest take in this article, because while I really enjoyed Killing Eve (clearly, as it’s in my top ten), I think it probably can’t live up to its hype, especially as it goes into its second season in 2019. It’s this year’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as a show with a compelling and relevant story with great (notably female) performances at its core, managing to capture the attentions of a lot of people its first season before we all inevitably realize that the premise isn’t sustainable for as long as a show as successful needs it to be. If anything we probably got to that revelation much quicker than with Handmaid’s, as I’ve been struggling to find anything positive to say about how the first season of Killing Eve ends (no spoilers, obviously). Nevertheless, we’re here to celebrate the first season, which was fun, exciting, action-packed and anchored by two fantastic performances from Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer. Forgetting how they might easily flub this going forward, season 1 of Killing Eve easily stacks up as one of the best cat-and-mouse stories in a good long while.

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5. Forever – Amazon: Forever is a show you can’t really talk about without spoiling the entire reason it’s so good, and that’s probably why it wound up being somewhat overlooked. So many people I recommended it to brushed me off because I couldn’t adequately explain why it’s so good, and those people will rue the day. But it shouldn’t be that difficult to sell you on this show, because it hails from Alan Yang, the Emmy-winning writer of some of your favourite Master of None episodes (as well as 30 Rock and Parks & Rec scribe Matt Hubbard) and stars two of the most talented comedic actors around in Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen. And while I get that Armisen might be offputting to some thanks to his unique comedic sensibilities, Rudolph is a delight and performs the entirety of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” at one point during the first season. So now you have to watch it.

4. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan – Amazon: The reason this post is (embarrassingly) late is because I was (embarrassingly) late in watching Amazon’s big budget Jack Ryan reboot. Even though it came out late in the summer, I kept putting it off, probably because Jack Ryan and Tom Clancy haven’t really been brands that are relevant to me these days, and as I’ve mentioned many times on this list, there are just way too many shows doing crazy, original things for me to get excited about another 24/Homeland clone about terrorist plots and CIA drama. And yet that’s apparently exactly what I needed as a reprieve from a sea of shows trying to reinvent the medium, as I loved Jack Ryan so much that it kept jumping up on this list with every episode I got through, as it’s smart, expertly produced comfort food that you’ll love if you liked those aforementioned shows, featuring a good terrorist plot full of twists, great action and a performance from John Kransinski that transcents those Jim Halpert labels he’s been trying to shake (mainly by showing off all the upper body work he did to prepare for the role, because let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, there are a lot of gratuitous topless scenes in this). With Homeland coming to an end in 2019 and 24 in the history books, probably for good, Jack Ryan is a very worthy replacement.

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3. Homecoming – Amazon: If Mrs. Maisel, Jim Halpert fighting terrorists and my vague but heavy praise for Forever isn’t enough to sell you an Amazon Prime subscription (where’s my money Jeff Bezos? Or should I say Mackenzie now?), let me tell you about a weird, unique, tension-filled show called Homecoming. Hailing from Sam Esmail (the creator of Mr. Robot) and starring Julia Roberts in her small screen debut, Homecoming is filled to the brim with tension as, over two timelines, it unravels the mystery of what happened to the pharmaceutical program for returning army veterans run by Roberts’ character. This is a show that doesn’t hide its pretense or use for tactics that will probably only appeal to the nerdiest of viewers like me (including Esmail’s affinity for odd cinematography choices, or scene-chewing performances from a supporting cast which includes Bobby Cannavale and Shea Whigham), but unlike in Mr. Robot (no offense to fans of that show), I find it all much better here, and pays off in a fantastic way when the big reveal finally happens. Homecoming is a bizarre show that, much like a lot of what Amazon winds up putting out, is hard to sell, so maybe you should just take my word for it. Or maybe I can sell you on its half-hour episode run times?

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2. Succession – HBO: A lot of what you can probably gather from my TV choices these days (at least what I might put forth in a list like this) is that I’m very much interested in meaningful, auteur-driven shows that have something to say. Especially ones with great performances. Homecoming, for example, has a lot to say about capitalism and the military-industrial complex. Killing Eve, much like some of my favourite new shows from last year (Mrs. Maisel, GLOW, Handmaid’s Tale) do not hide their feminist flags. Succession fits nicely into that mold as a show about a lot of things, but, as concisely and bluntly as I can put it, the destructive nature of the Baby Boomer generation on both younger folks and the system at large (more literally, about a media conglomerate and the family at its head thrust into a power vacuum when its patriarch, played by Brian Cox, has a stroke but eventually refuses to step aside and let his children take over) and yet I was shocked at how much I wound up loving it, as it doesn’t have any flashy names attached, its episodes are all standard hours and HBO aired it in the dead of summer. But seemingly by design, it manages to subvert every single one of your expectations by being unexpectedly poignant and funny and the perfect amount of twisty.  On a chart of shows this probably falls perfectly between House of CardsThe Crown, This Is Us, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Veep. I know that probably doesn’t make any sense, but Succession is a show that’s hard to label and that might be why it was such a hard sell for me. And yet here it is, #2 on the list, with the only reason it’s not in the top spot being a weird ending that I felt missed the mark in order to set up subsequent seasons. But otherwise it’s so unexpectedly good and so entertaining that I can’t praise it enough.

1. Barry – HBO: After droning on about how much I appreciated this year’s bounty of new shows that are topical, it might seem peculiar to put a show like Barry in the top spot. After all, nothing about this show is grounded in reality, nor does it have anything really pertinent to say about current events. Instead, it’s unabashedly a character study, about the ennui of a hitman (Bill Hader) so good at his job that he joins an acting class in an effort to change his life. But his old one just won’t let go, as his handler (Stephen Root) keeps pushing him into new jobs that keep escalating and interfering with his new life This show is am abject fantasy, with a main character who lacks the ability to feel empathy and very clearly a bad guy, akin to a Dexter or Breaking Bad. And yet it somehow manages to make you care about Barry better than Dexter ever did, and more impressively even than in Breaking Bad. Barry is a surprising and impressive show, and there’s no better example of what makes it great than its apotheosis in the penultimate episode of the season, where after a particularly difficult kill, Barry is driven to a very emotional moment in the midst of a scene he puts on with his fellow student and love interest (Sarah Goldberg), perhaps the first time Barry is able to communicate how he truly feels. It’s a moment which perfectly juxtaposes the real shit going on in Barry’s life with the absurdly low stakes of the acting class,and the way it’s capable of balancing those things is what makes Barry such a great show, such a unique show.

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The Orville Copies Season 1 Plot Point From Star Trek: Discovery in Latest Episode

The battle between the respective fandoms of Fox’s The Orville and CBS All-Access’ Star Trek: Discovery has been raging ever since the two shows premiered within weeks of one another back in September of 2017, but the purported feud may have reached new heights this week when the Seth MacFarlance-created homage/spoof of the long-running science fiction franchise lifted a plot point directly from the first season of Discovery.

In what has to have been a conscious decision, seeing as the episode aired the same night as Discovery’s second season premiere, the plot of The Orville’s “Nothing Left on Earth Excepting Fishes” revolves around Captain Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) taking his new girlfriend, Lieutenant Janel Tyler (Michaela McManus) on a romantic trip away from the titular ship they work on. They are quickly the target of an attack by the nefarious Krill, often the foil for Mercer and his crew. The two are taken hostage and Mercer is forced to give up his command codes to his captors, fearing that they’ll harm Tyler. It’s however quickly revealed thereafter that Tyler is actually Telaya, a former Krill schoolteacher who Ed encountered in the season 1 episode “Krill”, in which he and Lt. Malloy pose as Krill officers in an attempt to recover a copy of their sacred religious text, the Ankhana. The mission goes awry when they learn the ship is in the midst of destroying an innocent colony, so they use the opportunity to kill everyone on board; with the exception of Telaya and her classroom.

Telaya vows revenge and attempts to deliver it in this episode, after being introduced as Lt. Tyler last week, where she begins her catfishing of the captain. Shortly after the revelation and after an alien attack on the Krill warship, Telaya and Ed are forced to take an escape pod to a nearby planet and work together in order to send a distress signal from the top of a mountain. With the Krill’s sensitivity to natural light, they’re also forced to spend a lot of time together in a cave, where Telaya explains how she was radicalized following Ed’s ruthless murder of her shipmates, her brother counting among the casualties, and elaborates on the Krill’s way of life and beliefs.

It’s actually a pretty evocative episode that does the most work so far to build a larger universe for the show and developer Ed as a character. This second season of the show has been a little weak so far, the episodes feeling disparate and somewhat aimless, focusing on relationship drama rather than any of the usual science fiction tropes. “Fishes” feels like the kind of classic episode of The Next Generation that we were always promised with MacFarlane’s show, which falls somewhere between homage and parody.

With “Fishes”, however, you can feel the show falling more into the territory of the latter, as it lifts its plot directly from a season 1 arc in what some fans might consider to be the competition in Discovery. If any of those details about Telaya/Lt. Tyler sounded familiar, it’s because they pretty much align directly with the Klingon Voq’s arc on the latter show.

In season 1 of Discovery, the Federation enters into a war with the Klingon Empire after a fanatical house leader named T’Kuvma starts a confrontation with Starfleet. T’Kuvma dies in one of the intial encounters, and one of his followers, the albino Voq (played by Shazad Latif) vows revenge, and that T’Kuvma and his teachings will be remembered. Voq undergoes reconstructive surgery to take on the identity of one Lt. Ash Tyler, a casualty of the war who appeals to Discovery’s captain, Gabriel Lorca, and finds his way onto the ship as its chief of security and, eventually, a love interest to Michael Burnham. After his true nature is revealed, he and Burnham are forced to work together to stop the war despite his inherent betrayal.

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There are of course some differences between the stories. Voq’s memories are wiped when he becomes Tyler, in order to maintain his status as a sleeper agent. And his arc plays out over the course of most of the first season. But the similarities are remarkable, even beyond the obvious clues such as naming both human counterparts Lt. Tyler. In both instances, the alien version of the character is lower on the totem poll in their society, thrust upwards and radicalized by a life-altering event and a perceived slight from the enemy. The Discovery Klingons we see in season 1 and religious fanatics, much like the Krill in The Orville, and both seek galactic domination at the expense of the humans. Both of their human versions seek the favour of their new captain, both seek a relationship (in The Orville both roles are fulfilled by the same person) and both are forced to work with the person they betrayed in order to save the day.

And to be honest, both stories are well-done. The Orville, despite making a strenuous callback to the first season and only spending part of a single episode developing the story, makes the most of its time with Telaya/Tyler and uses it to further Ed Mercer’s arc and character development and contextualize why we should care about this show’s version of the Klingons. And while many might not like the character design of Discovery’s Klingons, I spent a lot of time talking about how, esoteric looks aside, they did a good job of updating the side of the species that we do see to the kind of villain one would expect from a science fiction show depicting a futuristic conflict with allegories to present day problems. To put it more simply, I always saw Discovery’s Klingons as a combination of Space ISIS and white nationalism, and there’s actually a lot of depth to them. Voq/Tyler’s arc also has a lot to say about PTSD, religious beliefs, identity and other things, and of course plays out over a longer period of time.

So I don’t really mean to slag on The Orville because they clearly knew what they were doing here. I do, however, question their motives, because not only are a few too many of the details too similar for this to be an homage rather than something akin to a warning shot, especially with Discovery moving to the same night as The Orville, but “Fishes” was also written by two people known for their work on Star Trek ever since TNG, Brannon Braga and Andre Bormanis.

Funny enough, though, Discovery also featured what had to be a shot across the bow of The Orville’s hull, as a weirdly comedic turbolift scene ending in a bit of physical humour is very reminiscent of a recurring gag from The Orville featuring an alien crewmember named Dan.

With Discovery’s concerted effort to adopt a lighter tone with a little more humour, its dig at The Orville could probably seen as a little more light-hearted than an entire arc lifted from a competing show, especially with a fervent fanbase that is quick to judge these two shows against one another even though they are completely different things. I hate taking a side in this debate because I really do enjoy both shows, but for all the talk among fans of how positive The Orville is and how much more in line it is with Gene Rodenberry’s original vision for Star Trek (allegedly, I don’t necessarily believe that), it kind of leaves a bad taste in my mouth to see two writers who are likely bitter that they don’t get to work on the franchise anymore coming real close to actual plagiarism. It almost feels malicious when you really lay it out, or as if they’re encouraging their fans to further bully anyone who likes Discovery. It would have been way simpler and nicer to merely reference something from the show or even straight up make fun of them. If there is indeed a feud between the shows, this won’t help it.

Personally, I choose to continue enjoy both  of them. I think both bring something interesting to the table in this day and age of modern science fiction. The Orville can be an episodic throwback that looks at modern issues from the lens of a well-worn format. Discovery can do what I personally believe is the more “Star Trek” kind of thing and actually push the medium forward by adapting modern storytelling techniques including the more complex serialized storytelling of Voq’s arc. I’m glad that both exist, and I hope that they can find a way to coexist. Fans should be happy to have two shows operating in similar space, yet doing wildly different things in such good ways.

Star Trek: Discovery charts a bold new path for season 2 with ‘Brother’ [Season Premiere Review]

 

If season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery taught us anything, it’s that, for the most part, each episode is only part of the story. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who has witnessed the evolution of storytelling on television over the last twenty years; episodic TV is a thing of the past, and in genres like science fiction especially, serialized storytelling is king. Last season, a lot of people were quick to dismiss what Discovery was trying to do because they only bothered with the first few episodes. But it was over the course of the entire 15 episode first season that the story of Michael Burnham and the war with the Klingons unfolded. It had an arc that didn’t even clearly convey its central thesis (the arrogance of the Federation’s expansionist idea of peace and enlightenment, among other things) until about halfway through.

On top of that, as a serialized show in the 21st century, it took time for it to find its footing. Even discounting the change in showrunners and the added pressure of existing within the framework of an over 50-year-old franchise, and no less as a prequel, that’s a normal thing for TV shows these days. And I really do think it wound up finding its footing. As the season wore in, it become more optimistic, more lighthearted, it featured more technology and exploration, and it made its points, all within the framework of a modern, serialized show, something I think Star Trek in 2019 needs to be.

In season 2, it’s going to have to do all of these things over again, because a subtle promise in the season’s build up and marketing is that this is sort of a soft-reboot of Disovery. The showrunners have changed again (during production, even), fully eliminating Bryan Fuller’s imprint on the show, other than his name as creator in the opening sequence, and making it Alex Kurtzman’s. Some of the pressure has been lifted off Discovery’s shoulders, with the promise of no less than half a dozen other Trek series in the works, including the highly anticipated return of Sir Patrick Stewart to the role of Captain Picard, but the pressure to make Discovery bigger and better persists, all while finding a way to channel that old school notion of what it means to be Star Trek.

I thoroughly enjoyed “Brother”, the season 2 premiere, but I must warn anyone watching or planning to watch that there’s no way that it can satisfy everyone’s desires of what they want Star Trek to be. Watching the episode it was clear to me that Kurtzman and the writers have abandoned the idea of boldly taking Trek into completely new places, instead focusing on balancing this new version of the franchise with a more familiar tone. In season 2, Discovery is funnier, lighter, more positive and brighter. There are times where it’s almost obnoxious, but they always find a way to reel it back.

It’s a premiere and the show is serialized, so it still sets up a story that will play out over multiple episodes if not the entire season, but there are missions within the episode that manage to get resolved, notably a rescue mission on a Starfleet medical freighter thought to have been lost during the Klingon war. The freighter is stuck in an asteroid field where the physics are wonky, due to a mysterious event that the ship is tasked with investigating, but the nature of that event is put on the back burner (since there are seven things they need to investigate) in favour of focusing on the rescue mission, as the crew is forced to take individual pods out to the asteroid where the ship has crashed.

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As a result, like the season 1 premiere, it’s an episode with a lot of action. But a different kind of action, as no phasers are fired, and there is no confrontation with an alien species. It’s purely a rescue mission, and you can tell the writers specifically chose this path to differentiate season 2 from what came before.

The effort appears elsewhere as well. As already noted, this is a much funnier, light-hearted episode, and that’s displayed not only in what they find on the ship (where the surviving officer is a dry-witted engineer played by the driest of dry comedians, Tig Notaro), but also in how the crew copes with its new leader, Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount, joining the cast), who commandeers the Discovery in order to complete the mission of investigating the seven synchronized events after the Enterprise sustains heavy damage. The crew is apprehensive, because they don’t know much about Pike and he sort of steamrolls them, and they’re still reeling from not one, but two Mirror Universe evil captain reveals. Pike makes it a point to prove to them he’s not Gabriel Lorca. He jokes with them, he makes it a point to learn their names, he’s even a fan of furniture in ready rooms. And he understands that he’s encroaching on Saru’s territory, so he gives him the space he needs as the ship’s number one and, up to his arrival, acting captain. As much as this episode is about establishing this new threat and saving that freighter, it’s about establishing Pike as the new captain and starting to build new relationships.

I really like the Captain Pike portrayed in this episode. He’s different than the other iterations we’ve seen, but very much in line with what you’d expect the predecessor to Captain Kirk to be like. He’s funny, incredibly charming and a bit of a rogue or a maverick. He comes from a ship on a long-term deep-space mission, so he plays a little more fast and loose with the rules than a Saru, which puts him in a nice spot between Saru and Burnham, the latter of which has her own tendency to bend rules and do things her own way. Pike knows things are different on a ship that experienced the war, and he feels bad for being ordered to sit it out, so he respects and lionizes Saru, but he very quickly bonds with Burnham, between their similarities and their mutual acquaintance in Spock. That makes Pike the perfect addition to this show, even though some might continue to think this prequel/TOS stuff is shoehorned in, and Anson Mount is pitch perfect in his portrayal.

And, of course, it’s also about Burnham and her family problems, as the arrival of the Enterprise brings up the curious absence of one Mr. Spock, her foster brother, who has taken leave from his duties on the Enterprise and not spoken to Pike, Burnham, or his father Sarek in a long time. The episode starts with a lengthy flashback to Burnham’s first day in Sarek’s home, and Spock’s initial rejection of his new foster sister. Later on Burnham blames herself for their failed relationship as faux-siblings. But visiting his quarters on the Enterprise, she discovers that Spock had something to hide, and that it might play in this larger mission with Pike. We don’t see adult Spock just yet, but we know he’s coming, as Ethan Peck has been cast in the role and seen in some of the trailers.

All of this makes for a lot to set up for the premiere, and we haven’t even mentioned Stamets’ decision to leave the ship for a teaching gig, abandoning his research with the Mycellium network, or the dark matter asteroid that they bring on board. All of this, obviously, will play out over the course of the season, but it sets up a good base, and it balances all of these elements fairly well. That’s kind of the point of making a more action-oriented premiere. You have a lot to set up, it won’t pan out for a few episodes, so here’s an exciting space jump to tide you over (including a pitch-perfect redshirt death). “Brother” establishes a good pace for us to work with as Discovery launches into new territory this season. I’m excited about the Red Angel stuff, I’m curious to see how the Spock stuff plays out, I’m elated at how good Anson Mount is as Pike and the new dynamic with the crew, and I’m optimistic about the show’s promise to be more about science and exploration, between the seven missions they’ve already set up and the dark matter asteroid they have sitting in the shuttle bay. And that’s pretty much what you can expect out of a soft-reboot premiere like this.

“Brother” gets 8 snarky redshirt comments out of 10.

True Detective S03E01&E02 Review: a return to form, or a shameless greatest hits playlist?

The biggest struggle that a third season of True Detective was ever going to have was in toeing the line between reattaining its previous glory and running the risk of becoming a legacy act, doomed to play out the greatest hits from its one good album in perpetuity. With three years having passed since the much maligned second season of the show, it’s been long enough for the wounds to heal and for people to genuinely get excited about what Nic Pizzolato can do by revisiting the show’s original stomping grounds, with an actor of the same caliber and stature as Matthew McConaughey, and a deference to the tone and themes that made us fall in love with the show in the first place. The question is whether or not viewers actually want more of the same, or if there’s no winning for Pizzolatto.

The reasons for season 2’s failures are too many to go into here, but in short, I always felt as if they were bred from the hindsight backlash to the first season. As much as season 1 was beloved by viewers and critics alike, that reverence also came with some well-intended criticism about Pizzolatto’s treatment of the show’s scarce female characters, or it’s faux spirituality and hand-waving of anything remotely supernatural that first season chose to tackle. Of course all about that is up for debate (a show can be about male lead characters, and it can choose not to explain in the inexplicable), but Pizzolatto seemed to take it way too hard, shoehorning commentary about that and other things that didn’t go his way into the second season’s choices. But one could argue that the quality of that second season was also due to lack of time or burnout (it barely took a year for HBO to produce the second season) or possibly the absence of the guiding hand of a visionary director such as Cari Fukunaga.

Season 3 directly tackles these mistakes, but one has to wonder if Pizzolatto swings the pendulum too far in the other direction. In fact, these first two episodes of season 3, “The Great War and Modern Memory” and “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”, almost feel like an homage to the first season. It’s a character driven macabre crime story with hints of the supernatural led by an impeccable A-list performance, set in the moody, hazy deep south. There are multiple timelines, wisecracking buddy cop dynamics, comments about the fluid nature of time, dynamic overhead shots of Arkansas wilderness, unreliable narrators, recognizable character actors in supporting roles (in this case the likes of Stephen Dorf and Scoot McNairy), references to Lovecraft and other horror-tinged literature… all that’s really missing is an epic six-plus minute tracking shot, but the season is still young.

To be more specific, this third season of True Detective follows Wayne Hays (played, as mentioned, impeccably, by Mahershela Ali), an Arkansas detective haunted by the 1980 disappearance of two young siblings. By the end of the first episode, he discovers the boy dead, strewn out in ceremonial fashion in a cave. The second, a girl, is long presumed dead, until we find out ten years later while Hays is being deposed regarding the case and the potential false incarceration of the suspect he inevitably finds ten years prior, that she is indeed alive, after her fingerprints show up in a string of robberies. Twenty-five years later, Hays is old, slowly losing his memory and being interviewed about the case for a true crime reality show (cutely called “True Criminal”), still haunted by the case he never solved.

As expected, the show is littered with imagery and references borrowed from Lovecraft, Chambers and others, to the point where one has to wonder whether or not season 3 might actually be directly connected to season 1. The figurines left in the park where they find the boy are very reminiscent to the ones found in the first season. The story is also told from the perspective of an unreliable narrative, but in added twist, at two different times. In 1990, Hays, shown slightly older with a tighter haircut and having married and started a family with the school teacher he meets ten years prior (played by Carmen Ejogo), claims he still remembers all the details of the case and gets upset when he’s contradicted by those deposing him. In 2015, however, he’s older, needs audio and visual cues to remind him of things, as well as his now deceased wife’s first book on his case, and the second episode even ends on him waking up on the cross street of the children’s home, only to find it burnt to ashes.

Mahershela Ali sells this bill of goods in all three timelines with an impeccable, nuanced performance. You feel with his character when he finds the first child, you’re angry with him in the future, confused about what’s really going on 25 years later. It’s probably unfair to say that Pizzolatto is copying his own greatest hits because of how much Ali lives and breathes this character. And to boot, Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room) provides excellent direction in these two first episodes as first in line among this season’s new contributors (the others being David Milch, one of the only other credited writers for the season, and Daniel Sackheim, who is credited with directing every forthcoming episode that Pizzolatto didn’t do himself). It seems as if such a talented group of people would be remiss to repeat the mistakes that were made with season 2, or to veer the show too far into that dreaded greatest hits territory. Because as much as aspects of these episodes reminded me of the first season, I was at no point bored or offended by what I saw as a retread. In fact, I could see how that could slot into something bigger, akin to an extended cinematic universe, which would be a major step up from a second season that felt as if it didn’t belong.

All of this begs the question; did I like these two first episodes of the new True Detective because it was reminiscent of something I remember loving, because it was step up from a previous rock bottom, or because it stands as something good all on its own? Honestly, the answer is probably some combination of the three. It’s questionable whether that’s enough anymore in a 2019 television landscape that demands more than stories from the brooding male POV, but at a time of the year where not a lot of great TV is dropping, and in an environment where True Crime and its ilk still rules detective media, it’s certainly feels like it’s filling a need. But, again, that might be the True Detective season 1 fan in me talking. We’ll have to wait and see how it comes together, but for now, the premiere of True Detective season 3 gets 8 true crime novels out of 10.