20. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Showrunner(s): Rob McElhenney
Where to Watch: FXX
MVP of the Show: Rob McElhenney has rarely been the best performer on his own show. That’s no sin in an ensemble as talented as It’s Always Sunny’s. But in Season 13, McElhenney not only stepped up his game with another insane body transformation, but took his character, and the show, into bold, new territory, whether it be topical, meta, or dramatic. The peak of this approach came in “Mac Finds His Pride”, the season finale where McElhenney drilled down to the uncertainty, insecurity, and pathos of Mac in an extended interpretive dance that very well may be the series’ magnum opus. Either way, McElhenney offered viewers the heartrending culmination of Mac’s thirteen-year journey and a superlative capstone to the season.
Must See Episode: While “Mac Finds His Pride” was an instant classic, “Times Up For The Gang” — the show’s episode-length take on the current anti-harassment movement — was another outstanding installment in season 13. To tackle the issue, It’s Always Sunny enlisted Community veteran Megan Ganz (who joined the show last season) to pen the episode. And in the shadow of her own public #MeToo call out, Ganz spotlights how badly The Gang misunderstands the movement, its principles, and, you know, basic human decency, while using that to highlight how badly all three are needed. At the same time, the episode never sacrifices comedy for commentary, managing to make its points trenchantly, while letting the show’s trademark transgressive humor keep things hilarious in the process.
Why We Binge: Most shows run out of gas by the time they hit double-digit seasons, especially ones that made their bones by being raunchy or controversial when they debuted, as time and the culture catch up with them. Instead, It’s Always Sunny delivered another outstanding season. Even apart from its mind-blowing shift to sincerity in the finale, and its topical takes on everything from sexual harassment and LGBTQ acceptance to women-led reboots and escape rooms, the show proved that it’s still pitching its fastball more than a decade after it debuted. Whether it’s a classic caper when “The Gang Gets New Wheels”, the metatextual reflections on clip shows and Dennis’ departure, or a comic summation of the entire city of Philadelphia and sports fandom writ large, the show continues to be ambitious, bold, and consistently uproarious — an accomplishment that’s all the more impressive for a series wrapping up its thirteenth season on the air.
19. Castle Rock
Where to Watch: Hulu
MVP of the Show: Sissy Spacek’s Ruth Deaver spent the first several episodes of Castle Rock lost in herself, her dementia rooting the majority of her interactions in a sense of dreamlike incoherence. But, slowly and gracefully, Shaw and Thomason gave weight to her musings, as well as a beautiful, mind-bending metaphor for the aging, dissolving mind. Spacek commits to the role with wonder and confidence, capturing every emotion on the spectrum of a character whose mind won’t allow her to stick with one for long.
Must-See Episode: Speaking of Spacek, Castle Rock’s best episode was the one built entirely around her. It finds a resigned Ruth dislodged from time, looping her way through life events both warm and traumatic that often bleed into scenes we’ve seen earlier in the season, thus giving them a renewed context. There’s a graceful, elegiac quality to the episode, as well as an ingenuity that allows it to both stand on its own and factor into the show’s overriding mythology.
Why We Binge: Because, duh, we love Stephen King. But, hey, even if we didn’t host a Stephen King podcast, we still would’ve been stoked for this series, if only for the way it found new, innovative ways to play with existing IP. Castle Rock didn’t pivot off a single King story, but several of them, choosing to build an original narrative around the town where the author has set a number of his novels and short stories, integrating new characters with established ones.
While the references to King’s work could be heavy-handed (Jane Levy’s Jackie Torrance was the show’s one glaring misfire), they only rarely got in the way of Shaw and Thomason’s overarching narrative, which remained gripping, scary, and deeply emotional up until its ambiguous ending, which, though frustrating, is certainly thought-provoking. Still, the show sought not to replicate King so much as capture his distinctive essence, and it did so. The characters are rich, the story ambitious, and the town itself every bit as unsettling as we’d imagined it.
18. Lodge 49
Where to Watch: AMC
MVP of the Show: It just wouldn’t be right to ignore the fact that Bruce Campbell himself shows up halfway through the show’s inaugural season as “The Captain,” a charismatic property developer who wraps our heroes up in cockfights, scams, and hostage situations involving chloroform and penguins. Groovy.
Must-See Episode: Episode four, “Sunday,” is a great showcase for Lodge 49’s deeply original quirkiness, as the lodge members suddenly finds a mysterious room with a robed mummy (sorry, “reliquum corpus”) and try to figure out what to do with it.
Why We Binge: Lodge 49 is a difficult nut to crack; the best Todd VanDerWerff can get to pinning down the show’s mercurial essence is “Don Quixote for scuzzballs.” But Jim Gavin’s quirky, hard-to-pin-down dramedy crafts a weird world of mysterious fraternal orders, seals blocking traffic, and people being impaled by narwhal statues. There’s more than a bit of that Coen Brothers magic in here, a sun-soaked Long Beach mix of Fargo and The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona where even the most well-meaning are driven to desperation by the vagaries of debt, disease and the vagaries of late capitalism. Wyatt Russell’s ostensibly the star, a charming lead who becomes more like his movie-star dad with each inviting smirk, but he’s just the ornate ring that grants you entry into Lodge 49’s endearingly strange universe.
17. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow
Where to Watch: The CW
MVP of the Show: Season Four brought on perennial Arrowverse also-ran John Constantine into the regular cast, and he’s fit into the rest of the gang like, well… gangbusters. Matt Ryan’s charismatic demon-hunter is a perfect match for the Waverider’s gang of misfits, bouncing well off captain/former lover Sara Lance and gruff Mick Rory.
Must-See Episode: While the show’s fourth season continues the show’s ascent to madness, Season Three (which also aired this year) gave us “Guest Starring John Noble”. It’s a fleet-footed adventure that starts with the Legends saving young Barack Obama from a murderous psychic gorilla, and ends with a plan to save off the apocalypse by having real-life Lord of the Rings-era John Noble read off lines to impersonate the season’s Big Bad (also voiced by John Noble). I can’t think of a more perfect example of Legends’ idiosyncratic strengths.
Why We Binge: With Greg Berlanti’s Arrowverse going on six or seven shows at this point, they needed something to do with all those side characters they don’t have time for anymore. Thus, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow was born, a goofy time-travel adventure show starring a rotating cast of superhero backbenchers with tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. This year saw the show grow even further into its silly strengths, seasons three and four delighting with everything from talking Elmo-like dolls with godlike powers (“Beebo loves you!”) to rainbow unicorns impaling hippies at Woodstock. If that kind of whirling-dervish wackiness is your jam, Legends of Tomorrow has jars to spare.
Showrunner(s): Sam Esmail
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime
MVP of the Show: What a cast. You have Julia Roberts in the leading role in her first television performance. You have Bobby Cannavale pitch-perfect as the douchebaggiest of all douchebag bosses. But the real revelation is Stephan James as Walter Cruz, a military vet coming to the Homecoming facility with a terrible mix of PTSD and survivor’s guilt. In this dialogue-heavy script, James holds his own against Roberts. It’s no wonder she falls for him. We do too.
Must-See Episode: As if the cast wasn’t star-studded enough, “Toys” throws in another dynamo: Marianne Ragipcien Jean-Baptiste as Walter’s very-concerned and very-not-going-anywhere-without-answers mom. But beyond this first intrusion from the outside world, “Toys” is the first episode where Sam Esmail’s tightly composed frames feel not just creepy, but outright dangerous. At every turn of Heidi’s encounter with “Hunter,” we’re just screaming at her to run. But at least we have definitive proof for what we knew all along: Anyone who talks to you at the laundromat is a total psychopath.
Why We Binge: We were skeptical that the television adaptation could live up to the intimate voyeur feeling of the original 2016 Gimlet podcast. But, to its credit, Esmail and Roberts are almost religiously faithful to the original script. It feels like a respect to artists everywhere to see big names take a product that works and enhance it rather than own it. The visuals, the sound design, the performances — everything here feels like a master class in mood and raising tension. Also with a return to the 30-minute format, this shit is like popcorn. Just maybe don’t eat the popcorn.
Where to Watch: Netflix
MVP of the Show: In the show’s hit first season, you could entertain a whole debate on this topic. Given the show’s tendency to give at least a little face time to almost every member of its sprawling ensemble, there were any number of fine candidates. Yet this season, it feels thematically appropriate that Alison Brie doing some of the best work of her career as a version of Ruth who’s finally aspiring to more is cut down at the knees by Betty Gilpin. If the first season was as much as anything a chronicle of Debbie finally deciding what life she’d rather be living, season two followed the trajectory of a woman being forced to realize just how difficult living among the greener grass can really be.
Must-See Episode: One of the crucial tenets of wrestling, as a storytelling medium, is being able to trust your partner or partners in the ring. Whatever animus might exist between you, that shit gets checked behind the entrance curtain, because in the ring your fellow competitors are entrusting you with their physical safety. The brutal conclusion of “Work the Leg” feels inevitable, then, given the way in which every moment of the episode builds to it, and how the character beats between Debbie and Ruth from the whole series so far seem to lead them to that ankle lock in the middle of the ring.
Why We Binge: GLOW might have broken out initially as that extremely ’80s Netflix series about pro wrestling, but what’s more heartening about the show’s second season is its escalated understanding of what makes pro wrestling something a bunch of nerds (and perverts, and TV executives) get excited about. You show up for the pomp and the circumstance and glitz, but what keeps you around are the characters, and the ways in which the medium gets you to invest in even the smallest stories at the bottom of the show. In its sophomore frame, GLOW found that same appeal and the balance within. Everyone from Marc Maron’s irreparably flawed Sam to Sheila the She-Wolf got to grow, build, and put together an outstanding show, only to have it all blown up for them. Ah well, that’s the wrestling business. On to the next gig.
14. The Terror
MVP of the Show: By its nature, The Terror is even more an ensemble show than many that are so described. This isn’t the story of, say, Walter White and all the people in his orbit. This is the story of two ships on a doomed expedition; to capture the horrors that await the shipmen with even moderate success, the cast must be sprawling and full of compelling performances. Throw a dart at a cast photo and you’ll hit a winner. Still, every vessel needs its leadership (heh) and the three men who begin the series at the top of the totem pole—played by Tobias Menzies, Ciarán Hinds, and Jared Harris—are among its brightest, scariest lights. Of those, Harris has the heaviest load to bear, and the once-and-former Lane Pryce turns in another performance in which the character’s dark night of the soul is illuminated for all to see.
Must-See Episode: There’s a very good chance that you, dear Reader, have not yet seen so much as a minute of one of the year’s best television shows. This series is so uniformly strong that any episode could easily be called the best, and while the finale “We Are Gone” includes the show’s most haunting images and its most powerful punch, we cannot help but direct you to “Go For Broke”, a startlingly assured pilot that introduces the series’ chilling color palette, tone of relentless yet compelling dread, and a cast of finely drawn characters who prevent the series from sinking into the frozen waters of depressing tedium. You so desperately want them to find a way out of this mess that, even though their doom seems assured from moment one, watching “Go For Broke” and the chapters that follow is an active experience, one that demands your empathy, your anxiety, and your own sense of goddamned human frailty. That all begins in episode one.
Why We Binge: TV has forced us to ask lots of questions over the years. Who shot J.R.? What’s in the Hatch? Why did they think it was a good idea to give Ross Geller a pet monkey? Such questions can be thrilling, and The Terror seemed at first glance to be a series with such a question of its own: What happened to the men of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror when they were lost in the Northwest Passage?
But what we learned from The Terror—besides the fact that you should probably never name a ship Terror if you want things to work out well for those on board—is that its most central questions were of a very different nature. What is civilization? What is death? Is it physical, or spiritual? Can one occur without the other? When is survival not worth the cost? And one more asked by another series further up this list—what do we owe to each other?
Masterfully executed, as well acted as anything on TV in this or any year, and the kind of horror that gets into your bones and doesn’t leave for hours, The Terror deserves your time. Just don’t watch it without a parka.
13. Sharp Objects
Showrunner: Marti Noxon
Where to Watch: HBO
MVP of the Show: Sharp Objects, the Southern gothic mystery based on Gillian Flynn’s 2006 novel, is, deep down, some theatrical and almost comically dark melodrama. Its story of an alcoholic reporter’s investigation into two brutal murders in the small Missouri town where she was raised gives way to over-the-top expressions of violence, twisted school pageants, eerie dollhouses, and a slew of garish, old-money socialites that includes her overbearing mother, Adora, in their ranks.
This would’ve been some seriously campy shit had it been made a few decades earlier, but director Jean-Marc Vallée gives it the air of high tragedy, his dreamy, melancholic style evoking the beats of a restless mind; sounds and images flood his frames, allowing the past to emerge not in flashbacks, but as manifestations of lingering trauma. Some might tire of Vallée’s reliance on the gimmick, especially those who enjoyed his work on HBO’s Big Little Lies, but it’s undoubtedly powerful, not to mention perfectly suited to this particular story.
Must-See Episode: Sharp Objects stuns in moments rather than episodes, whether it be in set pieces like the Calhoun Day play or the languid sounds emanating from Alan’s stereo. The show is a mood piece more than anything, with the town of Wind Gap being a place you drift into rather than forcibly enter. That said, the finale, “Milk”, serves as a strong, cathartic payoff to the show’s (fairly predictable) mystery. And you can’t beat that final beat and post-credit sequence, the ugly, ugly likes of which might be one of the scariest things I’ve seen all year.
Why We Binge: Because there’s something so rich and lived-in about this world. The level of talent HBO assembled for this project is astounding: Vallée gives the show weight, but writers like Flynn and showrunner Marti Noxon have such a firm grasp on the world that it’s hard not to be seduced by its dry, lemony menace. Amy Adams, meanwhile, gives a compellingly grim performance, itself a counterpart to Patricia Clarkson’s mannered Adora and Henry Czerny’s cucked-to-hell Alan. And let us please not forget the work of production designer John Paino, who’s just as responsible for the show’s immersion as any of the aforementioned. Some shows thrive on story; Sharp Objects lives and dies in Wind Gap.
12. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Showrunner(s): Aline Brosh-McKenna
Where to Watch: The CW
MVP of the Show: We could go for Rebecca, or Paula, or even beloved bicon Darryl Whitefeather, but the character with the highest delight-per-minute (DPM) has to be Danny Jolles’ hapless lawyer George. Whether he’s bringing smoked meats to a camping Nathaniel or singing a little ditty while pouring his coffee, we agree it’s … George’s Turn!
Must-See Episode: It’s a ballsy move to recast one of the show’s leads and bring them back in its final season after the original actor left, but Crazy Ex pulled it off wonderfully with Skylar Astin’s debut as returning love interest Greg Serrano in “I’m Not the Person I Used to Be”. Instead of ignoring the recasting, the show leans hard into it, mining it for surprisingly emotional subtext about the ways we change, and how people perceive our new selves. Hello, New Greg, nice to meet you.
Why We Binge: We’ve given a lot of real estate to Crazy-Ex Girlfriend on this here site, and for good reason. Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s brilliant, emotional, insightful musical rom-com achieves a rare alchemy of insightful jabs at the conventions of sitcoms and musical theater, while treating its characters with incredible intelligence and respect. It’s a show in touch with its emotions, endlessly curious about showing the ugly truths of our interactions with each other, and the cyclical ways our own flaws come back to haunt us. Plus, there are ABBA parodies about touching penises. What’s not to love?
11. The Haunting of Hill House
Showrunner: Mike Flanagan
Where to Watch: Netflix
MVP of the Show: The virtue of The Haunting of Hill House’s cast is in the manifestation of their internal confusion. Each of them is quietly grappling with the realities of their youth: Did their father kill their mother? Was the house they were renovating haunted? Did a woman with a bent neck float over me at night? They all have answers, but nobody trusts them. One of Hill House’s more brilliant moments is in how it causes the audience to feel similarly. If you thought you saw something lurking in the background of a shot, something that perhaps subsequently disappeared, well, you’re not crazy. Flanagan packed his frames with hidden ghosts, serving not only to heighten the themes and cultivate atmosphere, but also to make this shit rewatchable as hell.
Must-See Episode: Easy. The sixth episode, “Two Storms”, was not only an emotional stunner, but also a technical one. Flanagan filmed as if it were one continuous take — it was actually five, with the longest take clocking at 17 minutes — and the stunt gave the episode, which unfolds at spirit-ridden funeral, a breathlessness that suits the general sense of anxiety and exasperation pervading the scene. “There was no room for error at all, and if we made a mistake, we had to start over,” Flanagan told Vulture. Watch closely and you’ll see Timothy Hutton, who plays Crain patriarch Hugh, trip over a few lines, a fumble that, by virtue of Michiel Huisman’s in-character, in-the-moment annoyance with it, only serves to increase the tension. Incredible stuff.
Why We Binge: Mike Flanagan is undoubtedly one of the vanguards of modern horror, notable specifically for his ability to produce resonant stories and effective scares while operating within a soulless studio system. Sure, he has saccharine tendencies and leans far too hard on CGI, but he’s a technical whiz who, perhaps most importantly, understands that scares don’t exist in a vacuum; characters, motivations, and relationships matter.
The Haunting of Hill House is, in many ways, a masterclass in his particular brand of horror, which tends to blend spirits and familial trauma until they’re indistinguishable. The Crain family’s struggle between whether or not the ghosts of their childhood were real or, rather, mental spectres born from the death of their mother reflects the grieving process and its impact on memory. Flanagan’s saccharine side flares up in the series’ final episodes, when long, reflective monologues begin to permeate the proceedings, but it’s also refreshing to see horror and drama merged with such care.
Because, in the end, this thing is pure, unfiltered horror. Find me a freakier spirit this year than that tall, floating man with the cane. You won’t.