I gotta say, I’m pretty proud of Team Unwinnable’s choices for best TV this year. I mean, I’m always proud of Team Unwinnable, but we really went whole hog with the horror choices for our Best of 2018 list, which is of course very #onbrand. The non-horror choices are exceptional as well, proving we’ve got taste for days.
With an assist from Frost, “lovely, dark and deep” is how I’d describe this year’s top ten, as even the comedies reckon with darker themes like murder, ghosts real or imagined, and existential dread. 2018 offered many thoughtful additions to the television landscape, with a number of shows focusing on the intersection of family dynamics and trauma. Others were notable for showing the value of created families, Pose, The Good Place, and even Better Call Saul being prime examples. Don’t even get me started on the “are we brothers” scene in The Terror.
Whether it’s streaming, cable, or network, our Best TV of 2018 list proves that viewers are spoiled for choice, horror aficionado or none. I hope the trend continues. (Sara Clemens, Curator)
Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block
Channel Zero is a horror anthology series based on various creepypasta. The first two seasons “felt” like creepypasta in the worst way; paper-thin concepts stretched to breaking, rendered with the pompous aesthetic sobriety of a third-rung AMC procedural from a decade ago. Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block, however, is quintessential TV, in that it’s a really good third season of a series that largely sucks. It features characters, as opposed to the stiff conceptual cutouts that populated the show previously, and it conjures some genuinely eerie images. It’s pacy, too: each episode has something new to offer. Does this sound like faint praise? I don’t mean it that way. Horror TV is difficult to get right because horror does not typically benefit from long-winded runtimes; or, the people who get to write and direct horror TV have no idea to do with their massive canvas. Butcher’s Block builds to a completely goofy splatter climax and then toes forward, into a disquieting coda that ties off the show’s surprisingly detailed character work in the only way possible. It’s an inevitable finish, but no less horrifying just because you can see its shadow as it sneaks up on you. (Astrid Budgor)
Unlike most TV dramas, Pose feels more like a historical document than a fictional series of events. It feels like an ode to an era that was stripped away from those meant to inherit it. And that is largely because of the incredible emotional investment of its cast and crew, a level of investment that manages to shine through in every scene.
The show takes its inspiration from the documentary Paris is Burning for its setting and themes, but manages to expand the documentary’s focus on queer ball culture in the 1970s onto countless other issues and stories affecting queer folks everywhere, in all time periods. We see couples torn apart by AIDS, trans women of color discriminated against by white gay men, the dangerous sexual hangups and insecurities of cis men and, finally, the struggle of trying to find family and comfort in a famously unfriendly and uncomfortable city like New York.
Pose works because it balances these painful daily injustices against the irrepressible joy and excitement of the ball and the warm solace of belonging to a house. Finding your place and your people is an undeniably powerful force and the arc of most of the show’s characters revolve around turning away from the negative elements threatening to tear down their lives and recognizing that one vital fact. It’s a reminder to find our own families, and to create new ones if we cannot, and I couldn’t think of a better lesson to take into the new year. (Yussef Cole)
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
As a practicing witch who’s also a big fan of pop culture witchcraft, I binged Netflix’s new original series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, based on the Archie Horror comics of the same name. Despite coming from a long line of Satanists, Kiernan Shipka’s Sabrina is, initially, wholesome in the classic Archie sense: she cares about her friends, her sensitive boyfriend and social justice. She’s conflicted about signing the Dark Lord’s book to become a full witch. But the true pleasure of Chilling Adventures is watching Sabrina become more, well, evil. Another great pleasure is the amazing supporting cast: Chance Perdomo as Sabrina’s cousin steals every scene he’s in, I’d like to be mentored by Michelle Gomez’s Madame Satan and I’d happily watch a spin-off about witch-world mean girls the “Weird Sisters.” I never knew “Archie Comics, but evil” was something I wanted in my life, but I’m ready for more. (Deirdre Coyle)
For more on The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, read our interrogation of writer Joshua Conkel in Issue #7 of Exploits.
Atlanta: Robbin’ Season
“Teddy Perkins,” the sixth episode of Atlanta’s second season, is low-hanging fruit for a TV critic, so let me just start this by saying it and Donald Glover’s stunning performance as the title character are masterful, as was Teddy’s appearance at the 2018 Emmy Awards. He even posed with Donald Glover at one point during the ceremony, cementing his status as a character so fully formed that Glover may as well have conjured him into the world on the strength of full commitment to the role.
“Teddy Perkins” isn’t my favorite episode, though. That honor goes to “Woods,” an episode that crystalizes the tense surreality that underscores each of the other episodes. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s merely a manifestation of Alfred’s fears and insecurities as he’s chased through a forest straight out of Twin Peaks, and the episode ends without giving definitive satisfaction on that front. One of the best things about Atlanta is that it’s brave and savvy enough to refrain from letting us off the hook with easy answers. (Sara Clemens)
Barry is a weird show. Bill Hader and Alex Berg created a series that charts parallels between the struggling Los Angeles actor scene and murder for hire. It’s kind of like the latter day Dexter, only it’s intentionally absurd. I love it.
Truth be told, I still haven’t finished the first season (it’s been a busy year) but I had to put it on my favorites list because it’s such a bizarre, meticulously constructed series.
Barry’s journey from a PTSD suffering veteran turned hit man to a burgeoning LA actor is a springboard for a rich narrative exploring the banality of evil, incredibly flawed surrogate father figures and the great search for meaning (also, Chechen gangsters). It’s the LA of Altman’s The Long Goodbye filled with people who probably really loved La La Land. Yes, that sounds like a nightmare but it isn’t, it’s damn funny! (Ian Gonzales)
The Haunting of Hill House
The Haunting of Hill House surprised me. It surprised me with its small touches. It surprised me with its big moments. It surprised me simply by not being bad. It looked bad. I joked with people about it looking bad. And I was surprised it wasn’t bad. It was brilliant.
The brilliance of Hill House is that it’s ultimately a soft, tender look at how a family copes (poorly) with trauma. Though it bares only the most cursory resemblance to Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece (it bares as similar a resemblance as grape soda does to the taste of real grapes), and though the show boldly begins with its weakest character and chooses a saccharine ending more palatable to audiences than is fitting to the overall narrative, it rises above the sum total of its parts to form something greater than should be reasonable given its pedigree.
On the face it’s a ghost story. It remains a ghost story. But the most horrifying ghosts are the ones we all carry with us, our families. (David Shimomura)
Castlevania on Netflix has the best vampires of any recent series because they’re horrifying. Most vampire-based media tries to make them sensual and enticing, turning their feedings into the sexiest sort of food porn. Castlevania is different. These vampires are monstrous, and their leader Dracula is hellbent on the destruction of all mankind. Many of the vampires you see are animalistic in shape and behavior, happily gorging themselves sick on human flesh. The humanoid ones are even worse, cruel in their hunting tactics and killing for the joy of satisfying bloodlust as much as getting in their three squares a day. There’s an episode where they go on a hunt through a small town, and the artists portray it with the same carnage and human agony as one might see in a western Kentucky Golden Corral on a Sunday afternoon. Also Carmilla is terrifying and I love her. Watch it. (Gingy Gibson)
Better Call Saul
If you’re not convinced yet that Better Call Saul has fully usurped its predecessor Breaking Bad, you either haven’t been paying attention or there’s simply no helping you. Showrunner Peter Gould and his team in the show’s fourth season continue to stake out new territory for this ten-years-in-the-making tragicomedy modern western. Bob Odenkirk is as captivating as ever, spinning up new personas for Slippin’ Jimmy McGill to sink down into whilst leaving plenty of space for the rest of the superb cast to breathe. Just when I think this show’s run out of tricks, out comes the box cutter and I’m back in deep. While a continuation and refinement of familiar wares, Better Call Saul still frequently subverts itself in intelligent enough ways to keep you guessing, smiling at its boundless ingenuity, and unlike the Whites and Schraders of Bad, Saul and co. keep it all killer, no filler. (Devin Raposo)
For more on Better Call Saul, read why it made last year’s list.
The Good Place
It’s tough for network television to compete against the overwhelming amount of prestige programming popularized by Netflix, AMC, HBO and so forth. When a show has to appeal to a broad audience while remaining family-friendly enough to appear on prime time, the results are so often watered down that I haven’t watched a single thing on any over-the-air channel since Parks and Recreation concluded.
That was until my wife and I rolled the dice on The Good Place, the latest show from (perhaps not coincidentally) The Office writer and Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Schur. It’s the product of NBC taking a chance on giving Schur the opportunity to create any show exactly the way he’d like, and it masterfully balances multiple constraints (the inability to swear on mainstream TV and the need to appeal to almost literally everyone) by focusing on the most basic ethical question everyone (except narcissists and sociopaths) has struggled with: what does it really mean to be a good person? (Ben Sailer)
The Best TV Show of 2018: The Terror
The finest horror film this year was actually a television show. The Terror, though carved up into ten episodes, maintains an awe-inspiring consistency of vision and execution all the way through.
A fictionalized account of the real disappearance of the HMS Erebus and Terror while searching for the Northwest Passage in the Arctic Circle is an exercise in doomful, existential dread. Yes, there is a monster, but it is the least of the crew’s problem as mutiny, hunger and cold grip them. This is a story about hopelessness; it is about death and how men of different character meet it.
The show’s craft rises to the bleak heights of its narrative material. The endless vistas of grey and white, the unsettling experimental soundscapes and the weight of the performances all measure up. The result is a harrowing, exhausting journey that will leave you crusted in rime. (Stu Horvath)
For more on The Terror, read about the disarming effect of its sound design in “Death Rattles.”