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Yesterday, I shared my picks for 2018’s 10 best shows. Now, it’s time to highlight the freshman series that managed to stand out and make an instant name for themselves this year, even though there are more broadcast, cable and streaming competitors than ever.
This was a challenging year for new shows trying to break through. It’s no longer enough to be simply promising out of the gate; to survive in the Peak TV era, a series must immediately be able to hold its own among the other 500-plus scripted entries that came out this year. Otherwise, viewers will quickly throw in the towel, likely never to return.
Each of the shows on this list has risen to the challenge, so during your holiday downtime, be sure to binge some of these impressive freshman entries.
10. The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix)
The problem with most shows in the horror genre is that they simply aren’t scary (I’m looking at you, American Horror Story). But this reimagining of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel—featuring a family still reeling from their brief experience living at Hill House 25 years ago—certainly does. That’s thanks not only to jump scares (though there are several of those), but a creepy, terrifying vibe that burrows into the show’s bones and manifests itself through the season. Creator Mike Flanagan isn’t afraid to expand the limits of the genre, like the exquisite “Two Storms” episode, which seems to unfold in a single take, despite encompassing two separate locations in two time periods.
9. Everything Sucks! (Netflix)
This comedy-drama about high school outcasts struggling with identity and sexuality in 1996 Boring, Ore., was the rare coming-of-age story to be both funny and moving—and to treat its adults with as much complexity and empathy as the teens. This was one of the first (and saddest) casualties of Netflix’s $8 billion original content spending spree, as it was overshadowed by bigger, buzzier competitors and canceled just a few months after it debuted. Like My So-Called Life, which presented a nuanced look at high schoolers decades earlier, this show deserved a better fate than one-season-and-done—and is still worth seeking out, even though its story won’t continue.
8. Cobra Kai (YouTube Premium)
This revival of the Karate Kid franchise—in which Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Ralph Macchio (Daniel LaRusso) cross paths again 34 years after the first film—could have easily been a forgettable one-joke mess. Instead, was this year’s most pleasant surprise, offering a surprisingly layered approach to both characters that shifts your perspective from the original Karate Kid before upending it again later in the season. While several shows involved in TV’s current revival/reboot craze seems like little more than cash grabs, this one is actually bringing something new to the table—and not just rehashing the franchise’s greatest hits.
7. The Conners (ABC)
Yes, The Conners is basically Roseanne without Roseanne Barr, whose racist tweet in May prompted ABC to pull the plug on her hit revival—and then resurrect it as a spinoff in which Barr’s Roseanne Conner has died from an opioid overdose. The show had already shifted focus in the last season’s revival from Barr to daughter Darlene, played by Sara Gilbert. And the unexpected reset allowed the show to move past the Barr-related offscreen distractions that had clouded its revival and concentrate on what it does best: telling funny, heartfelt stories about the struggles of the middle America working class. Not all revivals have proven to be an ideal fit for 2018, but this one certainly is.
6. My Brilliant Friend (HBO)
When you think about the typical HBO fare, you definitely don’t picture this adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel about two girls growing up in 1950s Naples. But this story, alternately breathtaking and heartbreaking, holds its own among anything the premium cable network aired this year. If AT&T’s plan to increase HBO’s programming budget means there will be more opportunity for gems like this to see the light of day, I’m on board.
5. Succession (HBO)
This drama about the patriarch of a global media empire (Brian Cox) and his children fighting for control of the cable stumbled a bit out of the gate, which is a near-fatal error in Peak TV. But stick with it for a few episodes, and you’ll be rewarded with a riveting tale about one of the most dysfunctional families you’ll ever meet.
4. Barry (HBO)
We’ve seen far too many films and shows over the years about A) struggling actors trying to break into Hollywood and B) disillusioned serial killers. Who would have guessed that the key to resuscitating both genres was to combine them? Bill Hader (who also co-created) and his unexpected post-Saturday Night Live turn as a depressed hit man who finds a new lifeline in acting was surpassed only by Henry Winkler’s incredible performance as his acting teacher.
3. Homecoming (Amazon)
Just a year ago, Amazon was reeling on the TV front, but thanks to this drama (and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), it’s once again holding its own with its streaming competitors. Based on the fictional podcast about a social worker (Julia Roberts) who helps a soldier (Stephen James) readjust to civilian life‚ Homecoming boasts superb, confident direction from Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, who helmed the entire season. Plus, each episode is only half-hour—a welcome change in a time where some other drama’s episodes can approach the 90-minute mark.
2. Pose (FX)
In Ryan Murphy’s swan song series for FX before he left for his mega Netflix deal, the creator went out on top. The drama about the underground ball culture in 1980s offers a vibrant slice of life (and death) in New York, and it features one of the year’s most magnificent performances from Billy Porter as ball emcee Pray Tell. But don’t discount the moving work from the largest regular cast of trans actors ever for a series—particularly Mj Rodriguez as House Evangelista mother Blanca.
1. Killing Eve (BBC America)
As the streaming services tried to top one another this year in terms of sheer content volume, BBC America opted for quality over quantity with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s marvelous adaptation of Luke Jennings’ Villanelle novellas about an MI5 operative (Sandra Oh) on the trail of a European assassin (Jodie Comer). With women in the lead roles and behind the camera, suddenly the same old clichés don’t apply, which reinvigorates the genre with a sense that anything could happen—and often does. If you missed the show’s run on BBC America, Season 1 is now streaming on Hulu, making Killing Eve one of the preeminent shows available on that service.
Even though it was a challenging year for new series, these shows also came close to making it onto 2018’s freshman list and are worth your time: All American (The CW), Counterpart (Starz), The End of the F***king World (Netflix), The Kominsky Method (Netflix), Lodge 49 (AMC) and Sorry For Your Loss (Facebook Watch).
We’ll wrap up the year in TV tomorrow with a look at the best shows of the year that you probably didn’t watch.