Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Best TV Shows of 2018-19 - Part One

Beyond my general feelings about writing at the time, one other reason I could have cited last year for perhaps not wanting to continue these lists was the sense that we were entering a potentially weaker era for TV than there's been in some time, with so many defining series of the last half-decade (RectifyThe Americans, Halt and Catch FireThe Leftovers, etc.) ending in the last couple of years without a ton of immediate replacements, while others like Atlanta are still around but on an extended breaks. What was even going to be left? Not in the sense of there being nothing to write about on a general level, of course, but I mean midway through the year I could sense myself reaching for shows I mostly liked but didn't really merit this high of a spot.

And ultimately . . . I kind of did, to be honest. At the very least the first few entries on this list are shows that, to me, fell just a hair's breadth below the "great" threshold I usually like to see. I have basically no honorable mentions, other than perhaps You're the Worst, whose all-timer of a finale was so good that it retroactively made me like the (merely solid) rest of the season leading up to it a lot more. Perhaps Bob's Burgers would also count, were I current on it; the episodes I've seen of its eighth season, while reliably entertaining, would just miss the cut as well. It just wasn't that strong of a year. But . . . it was enough, largely on the strength of a set of dramedies—including several that premiered just before the end of the season—that have managed to carve out a place in a TV environment that's somewhat lacking its usual strength (or at least lacking its usual depth, as there still are a few standouts) in the realm of both the more traditional sitcom and the drama.

Omissions? Well, a few, including a couple ones that some folks would consider significant: Better Things, What We Do in the ShadowsBarry (I really did not click with the parts of season one I watched but I kind of feel it deserves another chance at some point), and Ramy are perhaps the most notable, in terms of shows that probably could have made a legitimate run at a spot. But I didn't get to them in time, alas.

Anyway, let's get to the main event. As usual there are spoilers but none that I personally would consider all that significant. (I'm not generally too much of a spoilerphobe though, so if you are, take that with a grain of salt.)

10. Jane the Virgin 

Yes, the Montana excursion a few weeks ago was a regrettable choice (or at the very least a poorly executed one). No, that's not going to keep what's mostly been a strong final season of Jane the Virgin from making this list—not when the rest of the season has mostly continued the show's creative resurgence over the second half of its run. I know rehashing the Jane/Michael/Rafael love triangle hasn't pleased everyone, but (again, Montana episode aside) I think it ended up being totally in keeping with the show's typical ethos—that of convoluted soap opera tropes navigated with real, thorny emotional conviction. Most of the show's other storylines, meanwhile, have been firing on all cylinders throughout the season: Petra and JR navigating the continued bumps in their relationship, Xo's health issues, Alba's attraction to Jorge, and lots more. If I have complaints with any of the ongoing arcs, they've surfaced in more recent weeks, with the writers leaning on a few choices to generate conflict (between Jane and Rafael especially) that I haven't entirely believed. Still, the series is carrying plenty of its typical energy as it nears the homestretch, which can paper over some of those flaws. This isn't a pantheon conclusion by any stretch, but it does seem likely to cement Jane the Virgin as one of network TV's best hour-longs of the decade. That'll work.

9. One Day at a Time 

The third (and likely final, because Netflix sucks . . . this will be something of a theme for the first half of this list, by the way) season of One Day at a Time gets off to a rocky start, at least by the show's typical standards—its early episodes aren't bad, exactly (there are at least a few big laughs in each and every one), but it takes until about midseason for it to round into its more typical form. Once it does it's in mostly terrific shape for the remainder of the season, bouncing as usual between an array of terrific character-based gags and sincere portrayals of subjects like addiction, sexuality, and mental health. (As always this latter aspect isn't always handled perfectly—while the show itself isn't solely to blame for this, I've grown uneasy with how substance abuse is framed so often as an all-or-nothing deal by TV, when the reality is sometimes far more nuanced.) I don't have much more to add than that; the cast is still uniformly superb, it's laugh-out-loud funny on a consistent basis, and it wears its old-school multicam heart on its sleeve in beautiful fashion. Rumors still abound that it could find another home if Netflix were to allow it, and while I don't have much hope for that personally, I'd love to be wrong. Three seasons is a decent run all things considered, but if the season finale (a mostly satisfying ending save for one sort-of-cliffhanger, it must be said) is any indication, ODAAT had plenty of places left to take both its story and humor. It should have run for three more, at least.

8. Russian Doll 

I'm probably less impressed by Russian Doll than it appears the vast majority of the TV world is. For one thing I think, broadly speaking, its thematic framework is a tad predictable. And while the show uses the "dying on the same day repeatedly" conceit for some very clever gags, they're not really any funnier than the ones a film such as Happy Death Day has already doneWhere the series distinguishes itself, for me, is in its minutiae—specific character beats, of both the humorous and dramatic variety, that are exceedingly well portrayed. That's particularly true once Natasha Lyonne's Nadia discovers another human (Alan) caught in the same situation; Russian Doll's later episodes draw much of their spark from the contrast between the two as they try to puzzle their way out while coming to terms with their respective emotional baggage. Again, the series never gets quite as weird with the premise as I initially hoped it might, but that's probably on me for projecting my outsized vintage-Charlie-Kaufman-level expectations on it. This is still quality TV with a great thematic payoff—the finale in particular delivers a (relatively) straightforward, non-schmaltzy depiction of caring and support that that's nicely earned. It's almost enough for me to forgive the fact that, like a particularly insidious pop song or jingle, the words "sweet birthday baby" continue to pop into my head at random times even months later. (Almost.)

7. American Vandal 

The first season of American Vandal was one of those lightning in a bottle achievements—so much better than anyone expected it to be (and in such a specific and surprising way) that the mere idea of a second season seemed dubious from the moment it was announced. Well, here we are, and if the surprise factor is now gone, the show's excellent quality remains—indeed, this may even be the stronger of the two seasons, trading in last year's breakout character of Dylan Maxwell for a new school populated by figures who are almost as memorable—most notably pretentious Kevin McClain and basketball star DeMarcus Tillman, who get both some of the season's most hilarious scenes and some of its most quietly heartbreaking. Along the way the series retains its gift for mixing true-crime TV parody with genuine social commentary (the huge role of sports in schools is a big talking point this time around, among other things) while also examining the effects of internet—for both good and ill—in a more thoughtful way than most other shows about "today's generation" have been able to. In sadly typical fashion, this season's proof of the concept's sustainability arrived just in time for Netflix to cancel it. What a shame, because I wouldn't have made the mistake of doubting it again.

6. Easy 

The first two seasons of Easy each had a couple of great episodes apiece, but I watched them more out of previous appreciation for Joe Swanberg's hangout aesthetic than because I was all that compelled by what was happening onscreen. This is decidedly not the case for season three, which goes on the kind of sustained run of excellence that eludes even a lot of good anthology shows. There are a couple of duds, of course, but of the nine episodes that make up the season, seven are good and four or five of those are terrific. Most notable among the bunch for me is episode-of-the-year contender "Swipe Left," in which recurring characters played by Michael Chernus and Elizabeth Reaser reach a crisis in their marriage—its centerpiece is an astoundingly written and acted 20-minute conversation that's reminiscent of (and every bit as good as anything in) the Before series. Several other regulars—perhaps in part because it's the last season, the show sticks mostly to familiar faces, although an episode introducing several street vendors is another standout—also get compelling chapters that don't so much conclude their stories as follow them as they embark on slightly new paths in their lives. It all feels dramatically focused, purposeful, and emotionally weighted—three things I wouldn't often have associated with Easy until this year—without sacrificing the freewheeling, observational qualities that have been the show's hallmark. Before this season I wouldn't have mourned its cancellation too much; honestly, it was a show I didn't think about much when it was on break. Now? I will sincerely miss it.

Part two next week. 

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