There really is too much TV.
Every time someone in the office kitchen or at the pub brings up another series you’ve fallen behind on, or haven’t even started, the initial bout of excitement is quickly replaced with low-level of anxiety — how are you possibly going to fit another show into your already packed schedule?
When there is that much TV blaring at you, over more and more platforms, it can be hard to discover the very best among the hundreds of “just OK” shows. And 2018 has thrown a lot of series new and old at us.
It takes a lot to stand out from the mundane, been-there-done-that offerings crowding the airwaves and streaming platforms but the best stories enthral and move us, to heartbreak, to laughter or to enlightenment.
It was a good year for new shows with bold, ambitious series capturing our attention as previously exciting TV series wavered in their sophomore years (ahem, looking at you, The Handmaid’s Tale).
But it was the final season of a long-running spy drama that delivered the best hour of TV in 2018.
Here are our picks for the best TV shows of the year and summer is the perfect time to catch up on all of them.
THE AMERICANS (Foxtel)
The under-the-radar show about Russian spies posing as American suburbanites closed out with an extraordinary season that went to the heart of what made The Americans so brilliant year after year. Ostensibly a spy drama, the show starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys was always more about family and identity — who they are versus who they want to be versus who think they should be.
The final episode was nothing short of masterpiece, featuring an incredible confrontation in a carpark, the culmination of all the action, plotting and emotional stakes built up over six years — not since the Six Feet Under finale 13 years ago has a show ended with such earnt poignancy.
The Americans is the epitome of prestige, rewarding, must-watch television.
This Emma Stone and Jonah Hill miniseries was bold, ambitious and a total mindf**k. Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective S1), the visually impressive Maniac follows two emotionally traumatised people as they undergo an experimental drug trial that really messes with their heads, plunging them into simulations that sometimes resemble a Lord of the Rings fantasy quest or a Coen brothers-style crime caper.
With the offbeat vibes of a Charlie Kauffman movie, this genre-bending Netflix series is an exhilarating experience where you’re never quite sure of what’s real and really challenges you as a viewer. Stone and Hill give tremendous performances as two pained people, as they explore the question of whether you can ever really resolve your past. Maniac also features great performances from Sally Field, Justin Theroux and Sonoya Mizuna.
KILLING EVE (ABC)
A dangerous cat-and-mouse game between a sociopathic assassin and an unconventional MI5 agent would always make for good TV. But when those roles are played by Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh it makes for great TV.
The alluring eight-part series traverses Europe as Eve tries to track down Villanelle, while in turn the quirky assassin develops a strange obsession Eve. It’s subversive, really bingeable and it has it all — thrills, chills and two flawed women who can’t stop chasing each other.
THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE (Foxtel)
Fashion designer Gianni Versace was famously gunned down on the steps of his Miami beachside mansion in 1997 by Andrew Cunanan (a pitch-perfect Darren Criss), an insecure young man on a killing spree. Before he pointed his gun at Versace’s head, he’d already killed four other people in violent rages.
Not just a crime series looking at how a man as charismatic as Cunanan wound up a killer, the Ryan Murphy-helmed series is also an indictment on homophobia and shame in the 1990s.
MARVELOUS MRS MAISEL (Amazon Prime Video)
Fun, colourful and with off-the-walls energy to spare, Marvelous Mrs Maisel is pure euphoria, the kind of TV that’s uplifting and addictive. The second season of this 50s-set comedy about a privileged Jewish housewife trying to make a go at being a stand-up comedian is even faster and sharper, building off the momentum of its great debut season.
A mid-season three-episode trip out of New York to a summer camp in the Catskills gives the show room to breathe and introduces us to another very specific world. Created by Gilmore Girls’ Amy Sherman-Palladino, it’s got incredible art direction, excellent writing and an irresistible performance from lead Rachel Brosnahan.
Marvelous Mrs Maisel would be the very definition of “too much” if it wasn’t so winsome, and it’s not as though it’s trying to be some serious social realism project. What it is is an endorphin rush.
HAVE YOU BEEN PAYING ATTENTION? (Channel 10)
Channel 10 and Working Dog’s quiz show with Tom Gleisner, Sam Pang, Ed Kavalee and a rotating roster of funny guests has been consistently entertaining all year and is only getting better with age. It sums up the previous week’s noteworthy events in an irreverent piss-take way, and even manages to make all those presumably mandated Channel 10 cross-promotional stunts feel cheeky.
The chemistry between Gleisner and Pang in particular, with their ongoing “feud”, is part of the charm of a show that is the only series on free-to-air commercial TV that doesn’t make you cringe. If you tune in on a Monday night, you’re guaranteed a good time, and more than a few laughs.
SHARP OBJECTS (Foxtel)
Amy Adams turns in another phenomenal performance, this time as Camille, a surly, distrusting and alcoholic journalist who returns to her small and small-minded hometown after a spate of murders of young girls.
Sharp Objects is a dark, southern gothic series based on the book by Gillian Flynn (who has a writing credit on three episodes) and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Big Little Lies) that doesn’t baulk at the idea of women behaving badly, violently and with malice.
Donald Glover’s creative experiment was more confident in its second season with several outstanding episodes, the top of which is the bizarre and creepy “Teddy Perkins”, a story based around a Michael Jackson-esque character played by an unrecognisable Glover in an almost disembodied mask.
Atlanta is willing to take big risks by chasing stories and tones that you wouldn’t have seen on TV even a handful of years ago, trusting its viewers will go along for its eccentric and thoughtful ride — it’s less narrative or character-driven than it is mood-driven. Which means it’s hard to nail down, but you know when you’re watching it that it’s something special to be savoured.
Barry stealthily came and went on Australian screens earlier this year but it’s definitely worth seeking out. Starring Bill Hader, Henry Winkler and Stephen Root, it really plays off the tension between tragedy and comedy. Even though it is uncomfortably funny, there’s a lot of pathos, sadness and regret laced throughout.
Hader is a former Marine and assassin for hire who, during one of his assignments, comes across a group of aspiring actors in a theatre class. He finds himself drawn to this found family and looks to redeem himself for his crimes, but the past (and still present) is never easy to cast off.
Hader, who created this dark comedy alongside Alec Berg (Silicon Valley) also wrote and directed several of the episodes.
MYSTERY ROAD (ABC)
Take some of the best working Australian actors — Aaron Pederson, Judy Davis and Deborah Mailman — and team them with director Rachel Perkins and you can be confident you’re in for a high end local drama — that’s right, Australia does make bloody good dramas if you know where to look.
A spin-off from the excellent films Mystery Road and its sequel Goldstone, the Mystery Road TV series brings Pederson’s indigenous detective to the outback town of Patterson when two teens disappear from a cattle station. He’s paired with local cop Emma (Davis) when he much prefers to work on his own. As their investigation starts to peel back the layers of the town, secrets are revealed, some dating back 100 years.
There are some shows you just can’t tear yourself away from, where every moment is so bingeworthy, it’s like there’s an otherworldly force that prevents you from stopping, so you just keep watching, licking your lips at how deliciously engrossing it all is. The prickly Succession is exactly that kind of TV series.
Centred on the Roys, a media empire family, it’s a vipers nest of betrayal, toxicity and selfish manoeuvring, as the ageing patriarch decides if and when he should pass on control to one of his awful kids. If you knew any of these venomous people in real life, you’d run in the opposite direction, but as fictional characters, they’re so fun to watch.
You know what’s better than J.K. Simmons anchoring a high-concept sci-fi spy thriller? Two J.K. Simmonses. The Oscar winner plays two versions of the same guy in a series that posits an alternative version of our universe is just on the other side of a door in Berlin, inside an agency that oversees all the “crossings”.
Counterpart is a smart and twisty thriller but it’s Simmons that makes it excellent. The actor expertly modulates between the two characters and is in total command of his craft.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (Netflix)
Netflix’s lavish adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 novel was one of the most talked-about shows of 2018 for good reason. It’s not without its faults — you can practically see the paragraphs and sentences floating in the air as characters deliver long monologues apparently ripped straight from the page.
But creator Mike Flanagan has done the previously unthinkable in bringing a genuine horror experience to the small screen, expertly maintaining a sense of dread across most (there is a marked, and controversial tonal shift in the finale) of the 10 episodes. Genuinely shocking twists — and all the ghosts in the background — warrant a second viewing.
HOMECOMING (Amazon Prime Video)
A breathtakingly crafted series by Mr Robot creator Sam Esmail, Homecoming is Julia Robert’s regular TV debut. She plays Heidi Bergman who runs a returned veterans transition program, but then why doesn’t she remember any of it four years later?
It’s a thriller told over two timelines and Roberts is excellent in both — why didn’t she come to TV and its ability to really explore a character over several hours sooner? Taking its tonal and musical cues from the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Brian de Palma and other classic psychological thrillers, Homecoming is paranoid, visceral TV that will leave you unnerved.
MAD AS HELL (ABC)
In a year when Australian politics descended to new levels of farce, all we can do is laugh about it — also, vote when an election is eventually called. But for now, who better to mock, deride and skewer those clueless pollies in Canberra than Shaun Micallef and his cutting wit?
They, and we, deserve it.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS: Patrick Melrose (Foxtel), Safe Harbour (SBS), You Can’t Ask That (ABC), Wellington Paranormal(SBS), Queer Eye (Netflix), Westworld (Foxtel), Glow (Netflix), Forever (Amazon), The Good Fight (SBS), Pose (Foxtel), Das Boot (SBS), My Brilliant Friend (Foxtel), Kidding (Stan), Bodyguard (Netflix) and Wild Wild Country(Netflix).