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.

americansfinale590

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!).

06-teddy-atlanta-w710-h473

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”.

screen-shot-2018-01-09-at-4-55-44-pm-e1515545997795

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.

tmp_vbrpvk_a9499953ddbbd41b_jk-simmons

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.

the-handmaids-tale-season-2-ep-7-2018-billboard-1548

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.

22-legion-w710-h473

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.

d0fec0a54223bb72-600x400

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.

wws2-d

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.

xf5

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.

 

Advertisements

With Its Penultimate Episode, HBO’s “Barry” Proves To Be One Of TV’s Best New Shows

There are plenty of reasons to love Barry. The HBO sitcom has really surprised in its freshman season, starting off by pitching itself as a quirky dark sitcom about a hitman who has an existential crisis and decides to try his hand at acting and, well, going places thereafter, over the course of the seven episodes we’ve seen so far. But as we approach this week’s season finale, and coming off of a handful of rousing episodes after the show picked up steam and culminating in the penultimate “Chapter Seven: Loud, Fast, And Keep Going” this past Sunday, I thought it would be fun to take a look at what makes this show tick, and how it’s managed to surprise us by elevating itself to a level I didn’t think possible, even with the pedigree of all the people involved.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s what been happening on “Barry” so far (and be forewarned, this will contain some spoilers: While on a hit in Los Angeles for the Chechen mob, Barry (Bill Hader, who also co-created the show), a former marine and current hitman, gets roped into attending an acting class alongside his target, Ryan. Barry becomes interested in the class as well as one of the aspiring actresses in it, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), so he decides to start attending. He’s a terrible actor, but his real-life story is so absurd and unbelievable that the teacher, Gene Cousineau (portrayed by the incomparable Henry Winkler), thinks he’s improvising and lets him into the class.

Meanwhile, the Chechens think Barry is screwing them, so they send their own hitman after Barry. Things get messy and Ryan and some Chechens wind up dead, attracting the attention of the (mostly incompetent) police but also roping Barry and his handler Fuches (another incredible character actor in Stephen Root) into Chechen affairs. Fuches and the Chechens convince Barry to stick around and do more jobs for them, but things only get messier when (a) a fellow marine that Barry meets insists on doing these jobs with him and (b) the Bolivians that Barry goes after wind up being much more competent than the Chechens had anticipated.

So, long story short, as the events of the seventh episode unfold, Barry has inadvertently started a gang war and gotten his army buddies killed, all while the police is slowly starting to catch up to him. “Loud, Fast and Keep Going” is a particularly phenomenal episode, because it feels like shit is finally starting to get real for Barry. We’ve seen glimpses of him break through his monotonous exterior in the past, like in that first episode when he admits to Gene that he’s a hitman, and when his fellow actors question his time at war and his PTSD kind of snaps through. In this episode, after the army guy Taylor winds up dead in a failed bum-rushing of the Bolivian drug lord, Barry is forced to kill the other guy that was along for the ride, his buddy Chris. Chris had no idea what he was getting into and did not heed Barry’s call to get out of the car as they were on the way to do the job. In fact, prior to getting the drop on one of the Bolivian hitmen, Chris had never even killed anyone. So when he laments to Barry and tells him that he’d rather serve time and come clean to the police than deal with it on his own, Barry has no choice but to kill his friend.

All of this coincides with the big play that the class is putting on. Sally, who Barry is still enamored with even though he previously pushed her away with his antics and lack of demeanor, has brazenly taken on the role of Macbeth. She has everything riding on this as an agent is there to see her. She needs Barry to deliver a line for her. The whole thing is ridiculous because why does any of this matter, and why would Barry delivering one meaningless line make or break her performance? Barry is fucked up because he can’t get the image of Chris’ wife getting the call that she’s now a widow. He’s never had to kill someone he knew before, and even struggled killing Taylor, the crazy army go who finagled himself into Barry and Fuches’ business and caused this mess in the first place. So Barry channels that into his one line about how the queen is dead, and pushes Sally into giving the performance of her life and earning the agent’s card.

android-1770017182-hm_tab_xxhdpi

Considering a lot of the show is about gang wars and a hitman realizing that what he’s doing is crazy and fucked, the fact that the emotional crux of the episode is in a bad student rendition of McBeth for the lowest stakes possible is kind of amazing. The show manages to make you care the most about a mediocre actress getting a business card from a low-end Hollywood agent. And they do it by treating this plot more seriously than it has any right to be treated, more seriously than all the other crazy stuff happening on the show.

Because while the stakes may be low, they’re real. If Sally doesn’t get that card, her career is probably over. She’s put everything into the idea of becoming an actress, to the point where we don’t know who that character is without that identity. Getting that card is paramount for her, and the show has managed to set up a conceit where it all hinges on Barry, even though that’s sort of laughable. And Barry is able to pull it off because he’s finally starting to feel something as it pertains to the things that he’s doing, to the lives that he’s ruining. His job is finally starting to hit close to home, he’s finally starting to realize that there are consequences to his actions. He’s falling apart emotionally because he had to kill Chris and because the job went south. So that line delivery, that pressure on him to deliver a line is merely a vessel for what he’s feeling.

I think that the show insists on us clinging to Sally and her journey because, while the stakes are higher for Barry’s hitman business, we know he’s going to come out on top. Maybe some Chechens die, maybe even Fuches days could be numbered, but there’s no “Barry” without Barry. He’s going to survive and get the job done, even if it breaks him. Sally is probably not at risk at being killed, but she may not “survive” in that acting is her only means of survival, so Barry coming through for her is a big fucking deal.

The fact that the show is able to make us feel invested in all of this is a testament to the people behind it. Bill Hader is proving his brilliance behind the scenes (after proving it on screen for years at Saturday Night Live), and he’s doing it with the help of co-creator Alec Berg (one of the best working comedy writer/directors). The directing is top notch too, not only from Berg and Hader but also from two-episode stints from Maggie Carey and Hiro Murai (who is currently having a hell of a moment between this show and his contributions with Donald Glover). This group of directors has contributed to one of the show’s core strengths; the way the show handles its action. The action on “Barry” is on par with some of the best hour-long dramas, and the way it crafts action sequences is something you wouldn’t expect from a sitcom, similarly to how you wouldn’t expect it to deal with the psyche of a hitman and former marine the way that it has.

But it’s also really good at balancing this out with truly funny moments. There’s a perfect dichotomy between the serious stuff in “Barry” and the gut-busting funny stuff. Not only because that funny stuff is really funny, but because of the source as well. Despite being one of the funniest men on the planet, Hader mostly plays Barry straight. As do most of the aspiring actors in his class, including the aforementioned Sarah Goldberg and others like The Good Place’s D’Arcy Carden. They’re just as serious about acting as Hader is about killing. That isn’t to say that they haven’t had room to be funny on the show, but in comparison, those around them are downright quirky. Henry Winkler plays Gene Cousineau like he would Barry Zuckercorn on Arrested Development. Stephen Root has tapped into something hilarious by like eating something in every scene he’s in. The incompetent police characters are great. And, bar none, the two main Chechens on the show, played by Glenn Fleshler and Anthony Carrigan are the most hilarious part of the show. Carrigan’s NoHo Hank in particular is a standout and maybe my favourite new character on TV this year.

And that’s really the key. Hader can tap into dramatic chops hidden under the surface of the guy known for breaking character on SNL and he can delight up in that sense, but he still knows that the format needs to be funny, and that’s where Stephen Root stuffing his face with complementary hotel breakfast or NoHo Hank sending Barry sad Bitmojis comes in. Or, situationally, we can laugh at how the low stakes McBeth play hinges on a dude having a breakdown delivering one meaningless line. That’s hilarious, even if it’s fucked up, and I’m invested in seeing what happens.

All of this makes “Barry” a special show. It’s hilarious, but it can be serious, and it’s certainly complex. The people behind and in front of the camera are phenomenal, and the plot is compelling. With the season finale airing at the end of this week, I highly encourage everyone to catch up on what’s one of the best new shows of 2018.