The Best Shows of the First Half of 2018: Barry, GLOW, Atlanta, and More!

 

TV – there’s so much of it these days! How do you parse the hundreds of scripted shows on at any particular time and figure out what’s worth watching? Well, you have psychos like me, who watch way too much television and try to parlay what’s actually good and worth watching. If the exhaustive list of my favourite shows of 2018 so far is any indication, it’s not a job I’m particularly good at. But seeing as we’ve passed the midway point of 2018, and we’re only a couple of days removed from this year’s Emmy nominations, I thought it would be fun to check in on what I’ve been watching this year that may be worth your time. Some, like Barry, The Americans and Atlanta, you’ve probably seen on similar lists, and some shows like Killing Eve or The Terror I unfortunately haven’t gotten around to watching, but I hope you’ll also find some off-the-beaten path shows on here you might not expect to find

So without further adieu, where are my unsolicited thoughts on nearly 20 shows that have aired in the first half of 2018, presented in the best of orders, alphabetical!


AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D – SEASON 5 – ABC

Phil Coulson and his Agents of SHIELD had a hell of year. They traveled to a dystopian future where the planet has been destroyed, and what remains floats in space under the control of Kree warlords running genetic experiments on survivors in order to traffic Inhumans. The first half of the season was a huge departure from what the show had done in the past, and yet another welcome change for one of TV’s most dynamic superhero dramas. And if that wasn’t enough, the second half of the season transformed General Talbot, a beloved character played by Adrian Pasdar, until the comics supervillain Graviton. Unfortunately, the show didn’t tie into the events of Avengers: Infinity War, despite some generic teases, and ABC put us through the ringer before they finally renewed the show for a shortened sixth season, but that’s not enough to detract from how delightful Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. continues to be.

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THE AMERICANS – SEASON 6 – FX

If the plodding, overlong season 5 of The Americans is what it took to deliver one of the best final seasons in recent memory, including a pitch-perfect finale, then opinions on season 5 need to be retroactively adjusted. With season 6, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields deliver 10 episodes that not only bring the tale of The Jennings (and all the characters around them, notably their lowly FBI agent neighbor Stan Beeman) arc to a satisfying conclusion, but they do it in a way that (without spoiling anything) no one could have possibly anticipated. Philip and Elizabeth, the villains in their own story from the very beginning, don’t get the kind of comeuppance that media has trained us to expect them to get, in a finale that could easily garner two of the top spots in the best TV moments of 2018 (that parking garage scene! With or Without You!).

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ATLANTA – SEASON 2 – FX

What can be said about Atlanta that hasn’t been said already? Donald Glover’s opus (one of many, if we’re being honest) is a unique, creatively rich experience that transcends the traditional confines of what most expect TV to be, even in 2018, when it can be pretty much anything. Everyone points to “Teddy Perkins” at its fulcrum, but almost every episode this season has something to offer worthy of those same accolades. It would be easy to name them all, but my favourites (and each for very different reasons), would probably be “Barbershop”, “Woods”, “North of the Border” and “FUBU”.

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BARRY – SEASON 1 – HBO

I’ve already spoken at length about all the things that made the first season of Barry special. It’s black comedy that can be gut-bustingly funny when it needs to be and uncomfortable or melodramatic in its more serious moments. Bill Hader is a revelation in the titular role, and everyone around him, notably the great Henry Winkler, are perfect in supporting roles. And maybe most importantly, the story goes places you wouldn’t expect it to, to the point where I’m having trouble conceiving what season 2 might look like. And that’s an exciting feeling to have for a show these days.

BROOKLYN NINE-NINE – SEASON 5 – FOX

You probably don’t need a full diatribe to understand why Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a special show that will wind up in the pantheon of single-cam comedies. It’s regularly hilarious, its cast is perfectly balanced between television vets, established comedians and relative unknowns (at least prior to the show), and it has a tendency to be able to get serious when it needs to. It also continues to get better with every passing season. And this past spring, it managed to rally the internet around its cancellation and subsequent resurrection at NBC with the kind of love you simply don’t see for a TV show anymore. B99 is television comfort food and I hope it never goes away.

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COUNTERPART – SEASON 1 – STARZ

Competing with Barry for one of 2018’s best new shows is this sci fi drama about parallel earths and the spy shit that goes on between them. Counterpart feels like it’s drawn straight from a Cold War mystery novel. Its world(s) feel lived in and distict, interesting in the ways they subtly deviate from our own, its characters fully fledged (including a set of doppelgangers played expertly by J.K. Simmons, in dual roles so different from one another that may actually convince you that he has a twin brother who’s just as good at acting as he is). I want to see so much more in the world of Counterpart, and yet it is a show that’s really good at holding back until it absolutely needs to, leading to some very satisfying moments peppered throughout season 1.

GLOW – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX

Back on my old site, I proclaimed GLOW the best new show of 2017. It was a decision I was relatively comfortable with, but one I had to mull, as putting a sitcom about women’s wrestling in the 80s ahead of things like Mindhunter, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and The Handmaid’s Tale in such a stacked year for frashmen shows, especially dramas, felt kind of odd. But I don’t regret it, because GLOW is such a feelgood, uplifting show that perfectly encapsulates its time period and projects it against some of the issues we face in society today, especially women’s rights. Season 2, which recently came out on Netflix, only reinforces my views on the show. It’s just as good, if not better, than the first season, and it’s transformative and different from the first season in the best possible way.

THE GOOD PLACE – SEASON 2 – NBC

This might be cheating, because The Good Place only aired five episodes in 2018, but those episodes were among the best of a second season most of us had no idea what to expect of, and introduced us to Maya Rudolph’s Judge Gen. Since we’re a couple days removed from the second season’s inevitable Emmy snubs, it seemed only fair to give it a shoutout here.

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THE HANDMAID’S TALE – SEASON 2 – HULU

A lot of people have struggled with the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, because it doesn’t hold anything back. It’s a tormenting, depressing, dark, drab show that you don’t feel good about while watching. But it’s an important show, serving as a somber warning about the kind of society we could be headed towards, and it’s expertly acted and made. The sort of existential conversation around this show is whether or not this is the kind of thing people want out of a television viewing experience, as being told that a show is important is a tough pill to swallow in a medium that’s mostly seen as entertaining, but, like, we don’t have a trouble with the idea of the importance of a movie (contrasted with whatever building The Rock is jumping out of this quarter), so why can’t we accept the importance of a TV show?

HOMELAND – SEASON 7 – SHOWTIME

This is probably the only place you’ll see Homeland on such a list. It seems as if critics and viewers have long abandoned Showtime’s once seminal drama, and that’s a real shame, because I truly believe that, with season 7, Claire Danes and co. delivered the Homeland season since its first. Season 7 tells a very pertinent story about the overreach of government, about fake news and media manipulation, about the danger of falling prey to conspiracy theories. It even ropes in the Russians in a very tangible and scary way, all while skirting the obvious places it could have gone in this post-Trump world. Season 7 of Homeland it the most relevant its ever been, and a more realistic and grounded version of 24, a show that’s often been drawn in comparison to Homeland but never previously embraced the way it had this year. Nu-Homeland is hyper-relevant, its storytelling and action is tight and gratifying, and the performances are as good as they’ve ever been. I urge people who were once fans of Homeland to jump on board this train, because season 7 is probably the best season of television in 2018 that you’re not watching.

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LEGION – SEASON 2 – FX

Legion’s best quality is that it’s willing to go places most shows won’t ever want to come near. It’s TV’s high brow superhero drama, its most unique and interesting show about mental illness, and probably the least linear thing you’ll see on mainstream TV this year. But you already knew that after season 1. If anything changes with season 2, it’s probably that the storytelling is more coherent and the action is better, with “fight” scenes that are stylized and weird (ranging from cartoons fighting among the clouds to dance battles of the mind). Almost every episode of season 2 has mesmerizing, entrancing scenes unlike anything else on TV.

THE LOOMING TOWER – MINISERIES – HULU

I kind of don’t know why The Looming Tower exists. It’s a throwback miniseries that feels like it’s using standards abandoned by TV filmmakers years ago, telling a long-form story about the events leading up to 9/11 that don’t seem to be sure about whether they want to tell the story about what led to 9/11, or about the quirks of the people involved. The miniseries has a stacked cast led by Jeff Daniels and Peter Sarsgaard, both of whom act their asses off and bring life to a story that would be hard to tell without the baseline pizzazz that they try and offer. The Looming Tower isn’t perfect, but it’s probably the best narrative take on the most important event of the past 30 years that I’ve yet to see, managing to be entertaining and interesting despite its difficult subject matter.

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LUKE CAGE – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX

After a string of disappointments from the ongoing partnership between Netflix and Marvel Studios, I truly felt as if they finally delivered something that, from beginning to end, felt coherent, worthwhile and not terribly overlong with Luke Cage season 2 (maybe for the first time since the first seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones). While most will probably continue to insist that these Marvel Netflix shows probably shouldn’t be 13 episodes long, this was the first time in a while that I didn’t find myself checking how many episodes I have left or complaining about how long they they were. This was the first time I wanted more from one of these shows, and that’s saying a lot. Could it have been 10 episodes instead of 13? Maybe, but it still didn’t feel as if it dragged. What’s more, they manage to stick the landing better than any of these shows, an ending which transforms the titular character, give him more depth than ever before and sets a completely different, interesting path forward. I suspect I need to do a rewatch of all these shows, but Luke Cage S2 might be gunning for the top spot in my ranking of Marvel Netflix seasons.

SILICON VALLEY – SEASON 5 – HBO

The writers on Silicon Valley took fan complains to heart and finally gave us a season of the show where the characters don’t fail upwards. Seeing a modicum of success in season 5 reinvigorated the HBO sitcom, allowing the show to go different places and do some different things. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s still one of the funniest shows on TV with one of the best ensemble casts.

SUPERSTORE – SEASON 3 – NBC

Speaking of one of the funniest shows on TV with one of the best ensemble casts, Superstore continues its quiet run as a reliable sitcom about the inner workings and relationships at a department store. I don’t have much to say about this one, but it perennially deserves a shoutout.

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WESTWORLD – SEASON 2 – HBO

While I can certainly acknowledge that season 2 of Westworld had more than its fair share of issues with storytelling and pacing, I also can’t deny that it’s a show that’s a compelling, wildly entertaining visual feast. I think the backlash for the second season largely stems from the creators obvious and probably misguided attempts to subvert fan expectations and likely purposely mislead them after they so quickly figured out the “puzzle box” of the first season. And that’s fair. But there also isn’t any other show on television that can give me a downright perfect bottle episode like “Kiksuya”, the Akecheta background episode, or “Akane no Mai”, the long-awaited foray into Shogunworld. There is no other show on television that can simultaneously mistify and entertain, no other show that goes this hard on its sci-fi premises of artificial intelligence and the singularity. Season 2 of Westworld wasn’t perfect, but its peaks, and its potential are among the things that will keep me coming back and keep me hoping that it can get better.

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THE X-FILES – (MOST OF) SEASON 11 – FOX

Just hear me out.

The likely final season of The X-Files ended in a terrible way that I’d extinguish from my memory if I could. It showed me that there is no saying this once revered Mythology. Seeing Chris Carter continuously besmirch his own oeuvre the way he has with these revival seasons has left me battered and broken. But there’s a silver lining. And there’s merit to the continuation of The X-Files, within its procedural Monster-of-the-Week episodes. The clunky season 10 gave us a pantheon-worthy episode in “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”, and several episodes in season 11 proved that this was no fluke, that we deserve to see Mulder and Scully occasionally get together and solve an anthology of good old-fashioned paranormal mysteries, unencumbered by a Mythology that’s beyond saying. So if you haven’t seen season 11 yet, I’d recommend you forget the Cigarette Smoking Man or Mulder and Scully’s super-son or the impending end of the world. Ignore all the bad stuff from this past season, and instead watch the half-dozen or so episodes that don’t rely on the mythology and stand on their own. My two favourites this year were “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”, in which we’re introduced to a third, previously unknown member of team X-Files played by Brian Huskey as the episode explores the Mandela Effect, and “Rm9sbG93ZXJz”, where Mulder and Scully are haunted by AI restaurant staff in search for a tip, an episode presented almost entirely devoid of dialog. These episodes are good enough to overcome Chris Carter’s malice and will hopefully stand the test of time for this show. They deserve to be watched, and deserved to be mentioned on this list.

 

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