Showrunner: Jesse Armstrong
Where to Watch: HBO
MVP of the Show: Where to start? Succession’s got a deep, rich ensemble, which is surprising considering the show is so hyper-focused on the Roy dynasty—an amalgam of the Murdochs, Redstones, and Trumps—and the wildly wealthy corporate types in their direct orbit. Characters such as those might sound dangerous in our increasingly corporatized culture, but rest assured that Succession isn’t here to make you like these people or even ogle at their lavish lifestyle (honestly, the show makes pains to emphasize its sterility). Instead, Armstrong’s pen cleverly relies on the grandiosity of each Roy’s personality and how that clashes with their own sense of cultural disconnect.
Brian Cox, Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, Sarah Snook, and Alan Ruck each find moments both sly and volcanic in their turns as the core family, but it’s the perspective provided by outsiders like ladder-climber Tom (Matthew Macfayden) and desperate, doofy Greg (Nicholas Braun) that captivates most. Not only do the pair form a hilariously toxic bond, their status as Roy hangers-on allows them to serve as identifiable links to the outside world as we know it. It’s a wonder, then, to watch both actors cautiously tip-toe into the 0.0001%, where they’re forced to either corrupt standard ideas of morality and, especially in the case of Greg, indulge in the kind of Machiavellian antics that help them stay there.
Must-See Episode: The event everyone assumed might have been the season’s finale surprised us all by occurring in episode six, allowing Armstrong to guide Succession into murkier, infinitely more compelling waters. All of it comes to a head in the season finale, “Nobody Is Ever Missing”, when Tom and Shiv’s wedding sets the stage for each character to drop their gold-flecked, intricately curated facade, if only for a second. Some emerge stronger, others emerge broken. Along the way, the seeds for what’s bound to be a razor-sharp sophomore season are cunningly planted. A Connor Roy presidential campaign? Yes, please.
Why We Binge: Because, like it or not, the show is about America as we know it. Wealth is being consolidated, media conglomerates are impacting politics, and power is a sword that’s increasingly being sharpened by personal slights petty revenge (see: Trump, the Redstones). Succession is a hilarious satire of these people, yes, but it’s also a shockingly empathetic one, exploring sickness, privilege, and resentment as they manifest in a family that’s been raised to prize the bottom line over anything else. The Roys are fucked. Does that mean the rest of us are, too? We might be better off not knowing the answer, but Succession sure helps the medicine go down.
09. The Assassination of Gianni Versace
Showrunner(s): Ryan Murphy
Where to Watch: FX
MVP of the Show: After stealing the screen on Glee, Darren Criss had been noticeably absent from most of Ryan Murphy’s ensuing productions, what with the exception of two episodes on American Horror Story: Hotel. Now we know that Murphy was simply saving the best for later, seeing how Criss’ role as real-life serial killer Andrew Cunanan is the type of career-changing opportunity that any young star might salivate over. The drooling’s mutual, though, as one of the strangest feelings all year long was being both charmed and terrified by Criss on a weekly basis. No doubt influenced by the sordid, hot stuff protagonists of any given Bret Easton Ellis novel, Criss exudes a deadly, charismatic energy that legitimizes the series, saving it from being another maudlin exercise from Murphy. Even when the show sags, and it does, Criss never slouches.
Must-See Episode: One of the draws of Versace is the way in which Murphy and writer Tom Rob Smith ably paint perspectives. It would have been so easy to simply follow the footsteps of Cunanan — and we probably wouldn’t have opposed, given Criss’ performance — but they didn’t. Instead, like the first season of American Crime Story, the action pivots between its revolving door of supporting characters, which winds up providing weight for many of the themes this series dances around. The best example of this is in the season’s fifth episode, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”, where the focus isn’t even on Versace or the murders, but on the affairs of U.S. Navy lieutenant Jeff Trail (Finn Wittrock). It’s a surprisingly patient meditation on the titular policy and its harrowing effect on Trail’s life, whose death is made even more tragic given the in-depth context.
Why We Binge: Stylish, sensual, and curiously affecting, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is a genuine statement from Murphy. On the surface, it’s a total distillation of the veteran producer’s worst tendencies — his hit-or-miss brand of melodrama, his ensemble of larger-than-life caricatures, and his manic, sweeping gesticulations at cultural commentary — but there’s a surprising depth to the glitz and the glam. That depth is drawn though the eyes of Cunanan, who serves as a deadly window into a thriving scene hampered by society around it. It’s a tricky line Murphy toes, and one that hasn’t been without its share of controversy, but he comes out on top, delivering a lavish and sobering portrait of queer culture, not just for yesterday, but today. In hindsight, it was something of a prologue to his next block of historical television in Pose.
08. One Day at a Time
Where to Watch: Netflix
MVP of the Show: One Day at a Time is the kind of series that deeply invests itself in making sure that you love every single character, from the main cast to the two-episode guest stars, as much as humanly possible. That makes it quite a stretch to pick just one member of the stellar ensemble, but then, most shows also don’t have Rita Moreno among their ranks. The veteran performer of every entertainment medium you can think of does outstanding work throughout season two, grappling with a family she’ll always try to understand but rarely can right away, as well as her own encroaching mortality, no matter how hard she might try to stay young of heart. The season finale, “Not Yet”, addresses that latter topic head-on, and Moreno’s poignant work is proof that the cast is so much of what makes this show truly special.
Must-See Episode: In the tradition of so many three-camera sitcoms (including its original namesake), One Day at a Time takes on the major social issues of today, and in a format audiences can more easily relate with. Unlike many of them, it’s incredible at addressing those issues in ways that never feel anything less than genuine. “Hello, Penelope” is an especially haunting example, as Justina Machado’s military veteran Penelope decides to quit her depression medication cold-turkey so that she won’t have to risk endangering a promising new relationship by bringing her PTSD into the equation. From the second she begins, dread hangs heavy over the proceedings, and that she’s eventually forced to confront more than withdrawal is hardly a surprise. Yet the nuance with which “Hello, Penelope” approaches the subject is rare, not just for this genre but for any show on television.
Why We Binge: There are only so many ways a person can call a show “special”, and lord knows we’ve tried this year when it comes to One Day at a Time. The idea of selling a 2018 audience on a laugh-track sitcom about a loving Cuban-American family that teaches each other digestible lessons seems almost impossible, but what the showrunners have done is almost Sisyphean in its modest way. Into that format has emerged a show about generational divides, gun ownership, sexual expression, PTSD, modern divorce, modern dating, and a web of Latinx diasporic conversations that most shows on TV aren’t even sniffing around. There’s still a wacky neighbor, sure, but in a time where “sitcom” is starting to be recklessly thrown around as a pejorative, here’s proof of just how good the form can still be.
07. Better Call Saul
Where to Watch: AMC
MVP of the Show: Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler has often been marginalized throughout Better Call Saul, but that’s not the case in Season Four. Following her existential breakdown at the end of the third season, Wexler spends most of this season finding herself again as she floats around a flavorful legal wasteland. If anything, she has the more legitimate hurdles of this ensemble, namely because she’s the only one trying to go about life in a clean way. That is, until she realizes those parlor tricks of Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) make life much, much easier. Seeing her not only take these kind of shortcuts, but enjoy them enough to start leaning upon them, adds another layer of tragedy to the series, especially since Wexler’s narrative is really the only one in Better Call Saul that has no defined ending yet. For all we know, she could wind up dead or working at Cinnabon, too.
Must-See Episode: Once again, Gilligan and Gould proved they still have enough puzzles in the closet to dust off and keep our minds working. Whether it’s Jimmy’s ensuing smoke and mirrors or Mike Ehrmantraut’s (Jonathan Banks) latest assignment, Better Call Saul, like Breaking Bad before it, is always a treat for the eyes and nerves, chock full of witty escapes and stunning montages. Yet the two also still know how to deliver those crushing, dramatic blows and season finale “Winner” bruises hard. The most shocking thing about these moments is that they’re steeped in prequelitis. After all, we know Jimmy is going to take up the Saul Goodman name, just as we know that Mike’s going to have to take out the trash, but getting there is what makes the difference, and Gilligan and Gould tread lightly in connecting the dots, so that when they finally do… Yeah, drama!
Why We Binge: For AMC, Better Call Saul is an extension of Breaking Bad, which is why we get all the exhausting backstories on Los Pollos Hermanos, something that really reared its ugly head in Season Three. However, Gilligan and Gould found a way to compromise in Season Four, dipping ever so slightly in the novelty of Remember When, while placing a larger emphasis on This Also Happened. Given the news about a Breaking Bad movie sequel, we know that this is less a series and more of a franchise now, and while that may have seemed exhausting or even taxing a year ago, that’s just not the case after watching Season Four. It’s clear that Gilligan and Gould still can mine original stories from the source material, and in an age where IP is the skeleton key to getting stories on the screen, you gotta root for the guys who know all the right parlor tricks to make it work.
06. The Good Place
Showrunner(s): Michael Schur
Where to Watch: NBC
MVP of the Show: Janet may have lost some of her powers on Earth, but she’s still Season Three’s clear MVP. Whether she’s taking down an entire bar of demons Matrix-style or all four members of the principle cast are turned into Janet look-alikes, D’Arcy Carden let’s us know her rendition of Janet is no one-hit robot.
Must-See Episode: “The Brainy Bunch”, hands down. While the season’s individual forays are interesting — we spend time with Eleanor’s mom and we commit crime with Jason’s dad — the show’s always best when the entire ensemble gets to play off each other. And it’s always a plus — well, for the dark side — when head-demon Trevor (Adam Scott) gets to join in the fun, and uh, mix things up.
Why We Binge: Well, because sometimes it really feels like we, the viewers, are the ones in The Bad Place, and we’re terrible people and take joy in seeing Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason suffer instead of us. No, but really The Good Place feels like a relief in such a rage-filled news cycle. And somehow in an oversaturated market with 10 million things vying for our attention, The Good Place has broken through to mass fandom in a way only a handful of current shows have. Just think, in an alternate dimension, they might already be on Season 236. Those forking bastards.
Where to Watch: HBO
MVP of the Show: It’s lazy to just say the titular character is the best part of the series, but it’s true with Barry. Although the show’s littered with larger-than-life characters that often steal the screen, there’s just no topping Bill Hader. As the Marine-turned-hitman-turned-actor, Hader has so many jackets to wear in each episode, and he looks great in ’em all, particularly when he has to be a stone-cold killer. No disrespect to the Saturday Night Live veteran, but he’s not exactly the first choice in anyone’s heads to be a murderous machine, which is why his mechanical disposition in the role is so alarming. Yet it’s more than just simply standing still or moving fast; no, you believe Hader’s seen some shit, and that tumultuous past informs every move.
Must-See Episode: Any comedy tackling dark material runs the risk of suffering from tonal issues, only that hasn’t been a problem for Barry. The show shifts between laughs and gasps with startling ease, and there was no better example of this than “Chapter Seven: Loud, Fast, and Keep Going”. After surviving the most harrowing experience of the season, Barry must deal with the messy aftermath, which involves his partner Chris Lucado (Chris Marquette) threatening to clear his conscience by going to the cops. Obviously, that can’t happen, and so, what happens instead is one of the most shocking scenes on television all year, and Barry’s immediate reaction is why Hader is collecting nomination after nomination.
Why We Binge: “I’d kill for that role.” That’s the big joke, right? In some respects, yes, but Barry is more than just a sly commentary on the dog-eat-dog nature of making it in Hollywood. It’s a taut half-hour of television that manages to feel like a greatest hits of its very form. It’s a spy show at one moment and a romantic comedy the next. It’s amorphous, really, strung together by this undercurrent of dread that seems to suggest that life is really just one long punchline, that we’re all just out here killing each other to make ends meet. Whether that’s true or not, who knows, but it’s relatable, which may be why the series grooves over so many beats without skipping a single one. It’s a shame Robert Altman’s not around to watch it.
Showrunner: Ryan Murphy. It was co-created with Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals.
MVP of the Show: You can read our interview with Billy Porter, Consequence’s TV performer of the year, here. The rest of the cast is also excellent, and Mj Rodriguez (Blanca) and Indya Moore (Angel) in particular give unforgettable performances, but Porter’s turn as Pray Tell is an all-timer.
Must-See Episode: The Janet Mock-directed, Mock and Ryan Murphy-written “Love Is The Message” is one among many standouts in the back half of Pose’s uniformly excellent first season, but since it contains one of the year’s best scenes in this or any series, it ekes out a lead. Porter and Rodriguez get the chance to show off their musical bonafides, as well as their dramatic chops, when Blanca performs at a cabaret Pray Tell has organized for the residents of an AIDS ward in a hospital; by the time they raise their voices together at the end of The Wiz’s “Home”, “Love Is The Message” has earned every inch of its title.
Why We Binge: If you look at Pose piece by piece, it’s a family drama, plain and simple. We meet the people in the family, we see how they’re connected or how they come to be so, and we watch as the characters step into or out of the spotlight, their individual arcs moving together like a braid. It’s all very Parenthood. Yet it’s that familiarity of form that actually makes Pose the revolutionary series that it is. Featuring the largest cast of trans actors in series regular roles in the history of scripted television, Pose doesn’t bother to argue that the stories of Blanca, Angel, Pray Tell, Damon, Elektra, Lil Papi, and the rest of its ensemble are worth telling. It does not feel the need to convince anyone of their humanity. It treats it as fact, which is what it is.
Then there’s the fact that Pose, which peers into the ballroom scene in New York City during the AIDS crisis, has only become more timely and relevant over the course of a very shit year. It would be easy to assume that in this political moment, any series centering on the struggles of the queer and trans communities would be rife with despair. But Pose treats the joys and tragedies of life with equal importance. It’s wildly entertaining, deeply moving, downright inspiring, and important to this moment. It’s one of the year’s best, and we can’t wait for Season Two.
03. Killing Eve
Showrunner(s): Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Where to Watch: BBC America (or Hulu, at least for now)
MVP of the Show: Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer. If you think it’s a copout to avoid sidelining one of the show’s two leads, you haven’t yet watched Killing Eve. As Eve, a low-level MI-5 operative, Oh imbues one of television’s most stock types (an ambitious criminal investigator) with a sense of deeply felt eccentricity. She’s not weird in the Sherlock way, she’s weird in the “you’ve never seen anyone like her on TV before” way. As Villanelle, Comer delivers the kind of flashy performance for which awards shows live. She speaks multiple languages, she delivers handfuls of 2018’s best line readings, and she’s a mix of darkly funny and truly, genuinely terrifying. But as the show eventually teases out, these are symbiotic performances. What each awakes in the other is undeniable, and Killing Eve forms them as perfect inverses of one another.
Must-See Episode: From the second Eve inadvertently meets cute with Villanelle in the pilot, it’s clear that there will be consequences for that before long. But most shows wouldn’t begin with them as quickly, and as cruelly, as Killing Eve does with “Don’t I Know You?”, the show’s third episode. David Haig’s sweetly taciturn Bill seemed like a secondary player who’d be key to the show’s story going forward, the expert MI-5 veteran whose presence would help Eve crack the case of the faceless female assassin. Instead, as Eve and Bill draw ever closer to Villanelle, they don’t yet know her well enough to know that they’re walking face-first into a trap. The look on Comer’s face as Bill sits trapped in the nightclub, too far from Eve to retreat and too close to Villanelle to live, is as horrifying a moment as TV has witnessed all year.
Why We Binge: Waller-Bridge is the kind of comic mind capable of expanding our understanding of that definition, and anybody who watched the unyielding Fleabag knows it. Killing Eve is in a class of its own on TV right now, swinging from pitch-black comedy to genuine pathos to moments of strangling fear with a tonal command unseen anywhere else on the small screen. In a lot of ways, it’s pretty much everything any viewer could want a TV show to be: it’s funny, sexy, violent, whip-smart, thoughtful, consequential, and it trots the globe with regular aplomb. It’s also an entirely unique being in a crowded medium, and much like the singular women at its center, we’re kept rapt with waiting for their continued adventures.
Showrunner(s): Donald Glover
Where to Watch: FX
MVP of the Show: This season, for as great as the show’s central quartet consistently are, it’s Brian Tyree Henry by a mile. If the show’s first season was the story of Earn attempting to come up from the drudgery of everyday hustling, season two followed Paper Boi’s discovery of how compatibly thankless the view still is from the top (or, at least, closer to it). The actor’s deadpan exhaustion has always made for great comic fodder, but here he molds it into something far more palpably exhausted. Getting a bag is hard. Keeping it is even harder. And trying to grow it? That all depends on how much of a man’s personhood and soul he’s willing to trade in the exchange.
Must-See Episode: In a lot of ways, we could just type “Teddy Perkins” here and move on. Even people who don’t watch Atlanta have probably seen, or at least know about, the show’s foray into surrealist horror in the middle of its unnerving second season. But in that same vein, the one that’s kept us talking all year has been “Woods”, the show’s late-season exploration of just how lost Paper Boi has found himself in his constantly changing world. As he moves from vapid dates to violent threats to the insufferable demands of “fans” looking to get another piece of a man falling apart in real time, Atlanta makes one of its most trenchant statements yet about the actual pitfalls of fame.
Why We Binge: For a show to do what Atlanta did with Robbin’ Season is remarkable. Even in the age of prestige television, when a show with enough buzz can get its audience to follow it just about anywhere, Glover and his expert team of performers, writers, and directors offered a defiant fuck-you to any and all expectations. What the show seems to be aiming for now is no less authentic to its central story, but also stands as an uncommonly textural and emotional journey into dialogues about hip-hop, race, America, and so many other high-level ideas. From week to week, watching the second season as it aired, you didn’t know what you were going to watch each week. You didn’t have a clue. And it was about as exhilarating as watching a season of TV in the Golden Era has been.
01. The Americans
Where to Watch: FX
MVP of the Show: In Season Six, everyone was on their A-game, and you could tell by a cursory glance. Matthew Rhys nearly tore off his arm from wearing Philip’s conflicted feelings on his sleeve. Keri Russell poured all of Elizabeth’s anxieties into each and every drag of her million cigarettes. Noah Emmerich left Stan looking like a forgotten stack of worn-out calendars. And Holly Taylor wrestled through each scene like an empty bottle of Xanax. Again, everyone was firing on all cylinders — sometimes literally, ha — which is why it’s just impossible to name any one character. So, let’s instead use this space to applaud the great and oft-ignored Keidrich Sellati, whose role as Henry was every bit as emotional and compelling, even if it was small..
Must-See Episode: You could honestly make an argument for any episode this season, but there’s no denying that ending. It’s never easy sticking to a landing, and Weisberg and Fields experienced zero turbulence on their way down. “START” is an essential swan song, not only for the series but for the Golden Age of Television, and it never wastes a single second as it tragically splits the family apart. Everyone’s in on the moment, too, but they’re too self-aware to be self-aware about it, and that respect toward the gravitas of each moment is why the final hour is so affecting. in the end, though, it’s all about that split, the way “home” and “family” become hollow terms to these characters, despite them all being exactly where they need to be.
Why We Binge: It’s not easy ending a show, especially diamonds like FX’s The Americans. For six seasons, Weisberg and Fields maintained one of the most essential (and underrated) dramas on television, charming critics with its uncanny attention to character and themes. Although the penultimate fifth season drew criticism for meandering around the Big Finale, the sixth and final outing doubled down on the tension, proving to be the sweaty final lap everyone wanted.
But, it wasn’t all just spy games, even if there were plenty of harrowing scenes. No, the show’s most affective facet has always been the connections between its characters, and Weisberg and Fields played those out seamlessly. Seeing the Jennings slowly ripped apart is worse than any death that could have taken place on screen, particularly when we watch the stony bromance crumble between Stan and Philip in that now-iconic parking garage scene. Just tragic.
Yet also prescient. At a time when America finds itself in an identity crisis, The Americans proves that this isn’t anything new, that things change, life moves on, and nothing is sacred. That final shot says it all, as Philip and Elizabeth finally return home to Russia, coming face to face with a country that’s both familiar and alien to them. Still, they can’t run from the changes, they can only contend with them, and that feeling isn’t just palpable, it’s enlightening.