Almost 500 scripted shows aired somewhere on television or streaming in 2018. Those are just the scripted shows, too, not the reality shows or game shows or anything else we might have enjoyed in the past year. Needless to say, we’re in an era where there’s arguably too much TV. We only say “arguably”, because at the end of the day, we’re never going to complain about the Golden Era in which we all presently live.
Years from now, when the bubble inevitably pops and the networks become more discerning once again, we’ll be talking about what a wild time it was, when every major website writing about television could manage a different year-end list full of unique series and largely avoid overlapping. When you could turn on your TV and have access to dozens of legitimately game-changing series at any given time. When some of the best art that will likely ever be made within the medium was coming out in deluge form, classic seasons of TV sometimes debuting three to four deep on the same day.
It’s dizzying after a while, but whenever this time of year rolls around, we’re always compelled to remember that we live in a time of very real blessings when it comes to TV. Every network is an embarrassment of riches unto itself, and even if it gets tough to remember all the things you’ve enjoyed in the age of the binge from time to time, we have to. After all, if you only remember the best shows, how many other great ones are slipping by along the way?
Needless to say, culling down our top 25 shows of 2018 took a lot of thought and a lot of work. As many tend to do, we’ll surely be chewing on this list in the months to come. But it’s an absolutely bonkers time for television right now, and we feel privileged to be able to follow along with it in whatever way we can. Without any further preamble, here are our favorite shows of the year.
HONORABLE MENTION: WWE NXT
Showrunner: Paul “Triple H” Levesque
A Quick Word: Yep, NXT is on this list. We couldn’t quite justify adding it to our main ranking, considering that wrestling shows hardly function on a traditional television timeline. There are no season finales, no real points of divide between one “series” and the next, and it’s also an hourly pro wrestling show. At least two of our voting critics were adamant that it be included somewhere, so here we land.
MVP of the Show: Johnny Gargano, by a landslide. Sure, Tomasso Ciampa achieved the level of crowd heat where his entrance music for most of 2018’s first half was just the sound of loud booing. Sure, Aleister Black returned from an inopportune injury to pay off this summer’s outstanding “Who Attacked Black?” story in rousing form. But Gargano, a longtime indie presence, ascended to a higher level of wrestling stardom this year on the strength of one incredible in-ring performance after the next. That’s not just the wrestling, although he’s been crushing that; his character arc from January to now is as compelling as any American wrestler has ever had on TV, and his physical performance of it both in and out of the ring is what took it to that rarefied level.
Must-See Episode: As much as we’d love to recommend just about any standalone hour of the show, we’ll go with our favorite of this year’s live specials, Takeover: WarGames. It’s essentially a four-match card in which every long-running story is given more than enough time to breathe. And if you care about professional wrestling in any casual way, there’s something for you here, whether the character-based storytelling of Gargano-Black, the star-being-born moment of Dream-Ciampa, or the sight of a beautiful, tiny man built out of abs and aerodynamics hitting a double goddamn moonsault off the top of a cage.
Why We Binge: Some will roll their eyes at our inclusion of NXT, and y’know, fine. American wrestling on television, particularly the WWE brand of it, has not looked great in a long time. Whether it’s the most famous wrestler in history being kind of a piece of trash, the presence of a McMahon in the Trump cabinet, the lavishly paid shows for a Saudi government that killed an American journalist, or any of the other reasons a person stopped watching WWE (and usually wrestling with it), it’s not what it used to be by a long shot. But in its modest, indie-looking way, NXT presents a different future for the medium, one which might not be so embarrassing to share with polite company. One that people will be excited about again. Whenever you hear a lapsed fan talking about wanting the energy of the Attitude Era back, it’s (hopefully) not the crash TV storytelling and the drooling misogyny they’re nostalgic about. It’s a show full of wild characters that gives every single one of them, from the very top to the very bottom, something exciting to do. NXT has that energy, so why not give it a shot?
25. Queer Eye/Salt Fat Acid Heat
MVP of the Show: This is an odd case, because we’ve combined two shows that characterize the welcome surge of “nice” reality television into one, Netflix-occupied slot on our list. We could probably be coerced into picking an MVP from within the Fab Five, though it would be quite the heated conversation. This writer is partial to the gentle, often unseen ministrations of Bobby Berk, who takes so much of his charges’ lives into consideration when re-outfitting their homes, but an argument could be made for any (well, almost any) of the quintet. They’re most delightful en masse, and Queer Eye does fine work of giving each of them a chance to shine, explore, and be insanely charming.
Still, this format demands a choice, and our choice is Samin Nosrat. The relaxed, intoxicating energy of Salt Fat Acid Heat made it one of autumn’s most surprising pleasures, and much of that energy comes from Nosrat herself. A cooking show that’s also a travel show that’s also a how-to show that’s also, in a way, a thoughtful look at the way one woman approaches the pleasures of cooking, tasting, and learning, Salt Fat Acid Heat depends wholly on Nosrat’s passionate but easy-going approach to her subject. She invites you in, makes you comfortable, and urges you to stay for as long as you like. The Fav Five are an event. Samin is just living her (admittedly extraordinary) life, and welcoming you into it.
Must-See Episode: Even the dry-eyed Queer Eye installments are lovely, but several of the show’s chapters take the makeover format and extending it to something more akin to a makeover of the soul. Of those five-alarm weepers, the best is unquestionably “God Bless Gay”, in which the Fab Five visit the town of Gay, Georgia (population: 89), to help Tammye, a cancer survivor, teacher, and devoted member of her church and community, who lost her mother to cancer just a year before and now wants to bring her openly gay son back into the fold. To say more about this episode is to diminish its power, so if you haven’t seen it yet, get thee to “God Bless Gay”. If you have, you already remember Tammye vividly, and do not need our help.
Why We Binge: Because both Queer Eye and Salt Fat Acid Heat make the world seem more pleasant, and not in a way that’s merely aspirational. Silly though some may be, Queer Eye’s episode-ending “hip tips” offer one little thing viewers can do that may make them feel better, happier, more confident, or more in control of their lives; it’s as though the Five find time amidst their televised makeovers to makeover their viewers, one French Tuck or face mask at a time. Nosrat’s approach is even more accessible, because while her destinations may be far-flung, the foods she focuses on are often simple, and her show is as much about learning to enjoy as learning to cook. Wonderful, active, warm shows that basically scream “self-care” are an effective antidote to a shitty, shitty year. So yes, this is cheating. We didn’t want to exclude either series, and so found a way to justify pairing them up. But their similarities are essential, and their value immense. Binge, and be happy.
24. Cobra Kai
Where to Watch: YouTube Premium
MVP of the Show: Ralph Macchio mostly sat shotgun to Pat Morita in all of the Karate Kid movies, and now he’s doing the same for the great William Zabka. As an older and not-so-wiser Johnny Lawrence, Zabka gets to chop through layers of pathos that his character really only got in the last three minutes of the 1984 original. When we first find him in Cobra Kai, he’s a drunk loser slumming it around L.A., and his scenes as a low life only get better with each passing episode. However, watching him come to terms with his failures and using his own cautionary tale to inspire others is what makes the show such an intriguing twist on the original formula. He’s neither good, nor bad, he’s human.
Must-See Episode: While there’s no greater joy in this series than being first reintroduced into this world again with the pilot, the way the past informs the present in the eighth episode, “Molting”, is just clever writing all around. Writer Michael Jonathan Smith really capitalizes on the core strength of Cobra Kai by revealing things aren’t as black and white as the original movie portended. Johnny and Daniel LaRusso (Macchio) both have skeletons in their dojo closet, and they contend with them throughout the episode, namely through their own apprentices. By the end, you’re not really rooting for one side over the other, you’re just watching two incredible narratives play out in tandem.
Why We Binge: Cobra Kai stands tall above its flimsy premise. After all, any passing fan has heard of the tongue-in-cheek fan theories about how Daniel is the real jerkstore of The Karate Kid. This series does even more with that theory by tearing a page from Jason Katims’ Friday Night Lights, relying less on pre-destined roles and leaning more into life’s moral grey area. Everyone’s an asshole at some point in their lives, and Cobra Kai never shies away from that reality, but there’s a flip side to that notion in that everyone also has a chance to turn things around. That’s the balance of life and a lesson that too many often forget. Good or bad, sinners or saints, we’re all waxing on and off.
23. The Expanse
Where to Watch: Formerly Syfy, now Amazon Prime
MVP of the Show: Three seasons in, The Expanse has cultivated quite the set of fan-favorite characters, from Shohreh Aghdashloo’s foul-mouthed political pragmatist Chrisjen Avasarala to Wes Chatham’s well-meaning sociopath Amos. But this time around, we have to give the trophy to new arrival David Strathairn as duplicitous Belter pirate Klaes Ashford, the Oscar nominee making the most of the futuristic creole the show has envisioned for its faction of characters who’ve spent their entire lives out in space. He also makes for the best kind of villain – one driven not by greed or malice, but simple conflict of ideology. We sincerely hope they find room for him in season four.
Must-See Episode: The dense, Game of Thrones-y nature of the show makes it hard to just jump in, but The Expanse offers a nice, accessible soft reboot by way of mid-season episode “Delta-V”, featuring a months-long time jump, the appearance of a mysterious alien ring no one understands yet, and a darkly funny subplot featuring a Belter “rock-hopper” slingshotting his way through the ring just to impress a girl (to startlingly gory results). It’s a great entry point for those who don’t want to start from the beginning, resetting the status quo and reintroducing its characters in new contexts and dynamics, and sets off a seven-episode arc that would have served as a great end to the series had it not been miraculously renewed.
Why We Binge: Sure, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is a billionaire madman responsible for horrid working conditions in his factories and the consolidation of ridiculous amounts of wealth…. But he did renew The Expanse, so even Steven? The former Syfy property slowly but surely became a cult favorite among the hard sci-fi set, a near-future political drama/military thriller/detective story that eschewed lasers and aliens for intersectional politics and a Martian-like adherence to the realities of space travel. Miraculously, the show keeps getting better with each successive season, bringing feature-quality production values and a novel approach to space opera to a tale that, at its core, is just Syriana with spaceships. Now that the show has a second life thanks to Bezos’ godlike intervention, it may well be time for an Expanse-aissance.
Showrunner(s): Tanya Saracho
Where to Watch: Starz
MVP of the Show: As tempting as Eddy’s flautas sound, we’d be lying if we didn’t admit that Emma (Mishel Prada) is the anchor of this promising first season of Vida. The older-sister-with-a-tough-shell trope is as old as time, but hardly ever do we see it coupled with so many vulnerable solo moments as well (that killer scene where a vibrator sesh turns into a full-on ugly cry comes to mind). Prada’s performance feels utterly combustible, as if Emma will either propel the Hernandez family forward or be the flame that burns everything to the ground.
Must-See Episode: This season has some telenovela-level drama, and the season’s penultimate episode, “Episode Five”, is when it all comes to a head. Karla corners Lyn at the yoga studio about that whole sleeping with her baby’s father thing (which, by the way, I couldn’t help but thinking these girls should have had their come-to-Jesus moment before the yoga). Eddy, the one person in town who seems legitimately difficult to piss off, basically calls the Hernandez sisters stone-cold bitches to their faces. But it’s Mari and Emma’s heart-to-heart in their jail cell that feels so cathartic. If those two can make amends, there just might be a light at the end of the tunnel.
Why We Binge: You can count the number of Latinx-leading shows on the air on one hand (and, hell, you probably don’t even need the whole hand), so the hunger for representation was probably most early viewers’ gateway in, but the real artistry of Vida is the naked honesty that showrunner and writer Tanya Saracho manages to capture. In only six episodes, the four women at the center of the show have heartbreaking — and relatable — arcs that feel fully realized and respectful to the women who share their experiences.
21. BoJack Horseman
Showrunner(s): Raphael Bob-Waksberg
Where to Watch: Netflix
MVP of the Show: It might be fun to point out other compellingly broken characters like Mr. Peanutbutter or Princess Carolyn (and saying Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale might just be cheating), but BoJack himself remains the withered, self-destructive core to the show’s bittersweet meditations on celebrity and self-perception. Five years in, BoJack remains as beautifully rendered as ever, a self-centered horse endlessly waffling between doing the right thing and holding on to the last vestiges of his wounded ego, let loose in a Hollywoo environment that continually encourages his worst impulses.
Must-See Episode: BoJack Horseman is no stranger to high-concept episodes, but “Free Churro” might be one of its best, an episode-long eulogy given by BoJack ostensibly to his now-dead mother, Beatrice. It’s a heartbreaking confessional about the rifts he and his mother experienced, made ever more tragic by the gut-busting realization that he’s, in fact, at the wrong funeral.
Why We Binge: Five seasons in and BoJack Horseman maintains its hold as one of the most consistently good, searingly adult animated shows of the 21st century. A delectable mixture of goofy animal puns and gut-wrenching treatises on postmodern malaise, Raphael Bob-Waksberg shows no sign of letting up, or giving BoJack a real happy ending. That might just be for the best; after all, we learn as BoJack does, one aching realization of our own human foibles after another.