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10 top TV shows: Year in Review 2018

December 29, 2018

10 top TV shows: Year in Review 2018

CLEVELAND, Ohio – For the last few years, more and more of the high ground in television has been claimed by the streaming services. But, let’s face it, that’s mostly meant Netflix, which, in terms of quality, has established itself as a worthy rival to such cable channels as FX, AMC, Showtime and HBO.

But 2018 may be remembered as the year that Amazon Prime shoved its way into the quality discussion, more than earning a spot at the table reserved for TV’s stellar programmers. Year-in-review top-10 lists are, without question, highly subjective exercises at best, but it’s certainly indicative of Amazon Prime’s success that three of my selections belong to the streaming services: “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Homecoming” and “A Very English Scandal.”

Yup, there’s a new heavyweight contender in town, and 2018 demonstrated that reality in compelling fashion. It’s the year that Amazon truly arrived.

But that’s not to say Amazon has put a lock on the crown as undisputed champion. AMC, despite the continuing droop in ratings and quality for “The Walking Dead,” also had an extremely strong year.

And, like Amazon, AMC has three spots on my top 10 list: for the ever-intriguing “Better Call Saul” and two very different newcomers, “The Terror” and “Lodge 49.”

Yet none of those shows deserves the No. 1 spot in my estimation. That august ranking belongs to:

“Billions” (Showtime): This shamelessly underappreciated and overlooked drama has become the “Justified” of its time – a superbly crafted, slyly written, magnificently acted drama all but ignored when it comes time for awards and, well, top 10 lists. And this year’s third season was the best yet. The high-stakes Manhattan chess match continues to put the brilliant focus on the intense, often-ruthless rivalry between U.S. Attorney Charles “Chuck” Rhoades Jr. (Paul Giamatti) and billionaire hedge fund manager Robert “Bobby Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis). The third season got an added boost by the elevation of Jeffrey DeMunn to series regular and guest appearances by Clancy Brown as Attorney General Waylon “Jock” Jeffcoat.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon): The recently released second season of this delightful drama-comedy mix was every bit as, well, marvelous as the first season. And this one Emmy voters did notice, honoring it with five well-deserved awards, including the ones for best comedy and lead actress in a comedy series (Rachel Brosnahan). Set in the late 1950s, the charming and clever second season continued the adventures of the title character, Miriam “Midge” Maisel, who, after discovering that her life isn’t as perfect as she imagined, also discovered a gift for stand-up comedy. The wonderful supporting cast includes Alex Borstein as Midge’s manager, Susie Myerson and, playing Midge’s parents, Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle.

“The Americans” (FX): The espionage drama was adored by critics and a fiercely loyal group of devoted fans, with the writing and acting at their dizzying height during the last four of its six acclaimed seasons. But even though the series got better, the ratings went down each season, which meant the mission came to a close in 2018. Sad to see it go, but happy to report that the cable series sprinted to the finish line in brilliant fashion. Set in 1987, three years after the conclusion of the fifth-season finale’s events, it was a grand farewell season for undercover Soviet spies Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell).

“The Terror” (AMC): “The Walking Dead” no longer is AMC’s best horror series. This 10-episode drama was a splendidly eerie adaptation of Dan Simmons’ sensational 2007 novel about a Royal Navy crew trapped in the Arctic ice and stalked by a mysterious and elusive predator. Artfully blending historical fiction and the horror tale, “The Terror” was a fictionalized account of Capt. Sir John Franklin’s actual lost expeditions of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, a doomed 1840s attempt to chart the Northwest Passage. Director Edward Berger’s superb cast included Jared Harris, Tobias Menzies, Ciaran Hinds and Paul Ready. And the gripping newcomer has been renewed for a second season.

“Patrick Melrose” (Showtime): Stylishly directed by Edward Berger, this brilliantly dark five-part limited series starring Benedict Cumberbatch was an enthralling journey laced with pain and overflowing with absolutely riveting performances. Based on the acclaimed series of five richly comic and harrowingly tragic semi-autobiographical novels by Edward St. Aubyn, “Patrick Melrose” artfully drew us into the tortured world of the title character, a man in the throes of addiction. We were immediately fascinated because Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Patrick splendidly captured all of the anguish, hurt, conflict and damage behind the addiction.

“Lodge 49” (AMC): Influenced by Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novel “The Crying of Lot 49,” with shades of the Coen brothers’ “The Big Lebowski” and John Steinbeck’s “Tortilla Flat,” this amiable and affable newcomer introduced us to Wyatt Russell (the “Playtest” episode of “Black Mirror”) as Sean “Dud” Dudley, a usually upbeat ex-surfer and sometime pool cleaner in Long Beach, California. Reeling after the death of his father, this lovable loser was searching for something he couldn’t define, but he found it when his ancient Volkswagen broke down in front of the Ancient and Benevolent Order of the Lynx. To the optimistic Dud, the Lodge was a mystical place holding the promise of renewal, and his optimism was contagious.

“A Very English Scandal” (Amazon): Taking full advantage of the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction aspects of a sordid slice of British history, writer Russell T. Davies (“Doctor Who,” “Queer as Folk”) and director Stephen Frears (“The Queen,” “Florence Foster Jenkins”) crafted a richly textured true-crime miniseries that was, by wily turns, painful, witty, brutal, touching and darkly humorous. Based on the 2016 “nonfiction novel” of the same name by John Preston, it starred Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe, a rising star of British politics in the 1970s. Grant hit every note perfectly, playing the House of Commons Liberal leader as not only disarming and charming, but vain, snobby, manipulative, ambitious, hypocritical, biting, devious, stuffy and, as we discovered, ruthless.

“Better Call Saul” (AMC): Like “Breaking Bad,” also created by writer-executive producer Vince Gilligan, “Better Call Saul” is following a pattern that gradually jettisons the antic, often-bizarre comedic flourishes of the earlier episodes. As with “Breaking Bad,” each season of this spinoff is decidedly darker and more intense than the one preceding it. The searing fourth season demonstrated that this trajectory is even more ideal for “Better Call Saul,” which charts the continuing transformation of struggling New Mexico lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) into his notoriously slimy “Breaking Bad” character, Saul Goodman. And that trajectory is brilliantly reflected in Odenkirk’s endlessly intriguing portrayal of Jimmy.

“The Good Place” (NBC): The only show on the list from one of the traditional broadcast networks, this one continues to prove it’s anything but traditional. Each season completely shakes up the challenges and perceptions of the main characters, using the concepts of good and bad, judgment and morality, free will and hope to explore its underlying themes about ethics and philosophy. It sounds heavy, but you’re in the company of tremendously likable characters winningly played by Kristen Bell, Ted Danson and their able co-stars. The third season will conclude on Thursday, Jan. 24. It has been a heavenly journey so far.

“Homecoming” (Amazon): Swimming in paranoia and suspicion, this masterfully written and structured psychological mystery thriller starred Julia Roberts as a caseworker helping soldiers transition back to civilian life. After starting a new life, she realizes there are haunting mysteries about the job she left. The fabulous supporting cast for this 10-part miniseries included Sissy Spacek, Bobby Cannavale, Shea Whigham and Stephan James. Based on the hit Gimlet Media fiction podcast of the same name, it expertly used powerful dialogue and shifting realities to keep the viewer guessing, wondering and caring.

Keeping the list to 10 always is a challenge, and one of these spots easily could have been claimed by such worthy candidates as FX’s “Atlanta” and “Legion,” Netflix’s “GLOW,” BBC America’s “Killing Eve” and HBO’s “Sharp Objects” and “Barry.”

And before closing the TV book on the year, let’s acknowledge the prime-time stars we lost during 2018: Penny Marshall (“The Odd Couple,” “Laverne & Shirley”), Scott Wilson (“The Walking Dead”), Harry Anderson (“Night Court,” “Dave’s World”), Charlotte Rae (“The Facts of Life,” “Diff’rent Strokes”), Jerry Van Dyke (“My Mother the Car,” “Coach”), Ken Berry (“F Troop,” “Mama’s Family”), Burt Reynolds (“Gunsmoke,” “Evening Shade”), Robert Mandan (“Soap,” “Three’s a Crowd”), John Mahoney (“Frasier”), Clint Walker” (“Cheyenne”), David Ogden Stiers (“M*A*S*H”), Roy Clark (“Hee Haw”), Nanette Fabray (“Caesar’s Hour,” “One Day at a Time”), Joseph Campanella (“Mannix,” “Days of Our Lives”), Tim O’Connor (“Peyton Place,” “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”), Donnelly Rhodes (“Soap”), Anthony Bourdain (“No Reservations,” “Parts Unknown”), Elmarie Wendel (“3rd Rock from the Sun”), Philip Bosco (“Justified”) and Robin Leach (“Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”).

Other notable deaths from the TV world in 2018: sportscaster Keith Jackson, children’s host and voice actor Chuck McCann, writer-producers Hugh Wilson (“WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Frank’s Place”) and Steven Bochco (“Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue”) and writers Neil Simon (“Your Show of Shows,” “Caesar’s Hour”) and Cleveland native Harlan Ellison (“The Outer Limits,” “Star Trek”).

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