The best TV shows of 2018
From high-brow dramas to binge-quality shows, last year’s television had something for everyone
With Hollywood A-listers falling over themselves to appear on our television sets, we are living in a golden age for the small screen.
Here are our top box set picks from last year:
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Set in New York City in the late 1950s, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel follows the life of Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a housewife with two children, whose life is turned upside down by a sudden break-up and discovery that she possesses a talent for stand-up comedy.
Last year's premiere was a smash hit, taking home eight Emmys, and the second season is due out in December on Amazon Prime Video UK.
“With a much-needed message for our times, a talented ensemble cast, and the period appeal of a Mad Men-with-a-feminine-flair production design, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is well on its way to becoming the next obsession for Gilmore Girls devotees,” says IndieWire.
The reputation of this remarkable spy thriller has only grown since its original broadcast six years ago. It tells the story of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, two Soviet KGB spies in an arranged marriage posing as Americans in the US suburbs in the wake of the election of Ronald Reagan.
Both the Hollywood Reporter and The AV Club have described the show, which wrapped up its sixth and final season early last year, as one of the greatest in the history of television. For almost every year during its run it has been included in the American Film Institute Awards’ Top 10 TV Shows of the Year and nominated for a handful of Emmys. The sixth and final season came out in March.
“The Americans remains the best show on TV about family - and, you know, the best show on TV - because it is both tender and unflinching in its examinations of lies big and small, good and bad,” says Grantland.
Fresh from her role on the incredibly well-received Line of Duty, Keeley Hawes returns to the BBC in Bodyguard. Hawes plays Home Secretary Julia Montague who is protected by heroic war veteran David Budd, played by Richard Madden.
The six-part drama debuted in August 2018 on BBC One, attracting an audience of 6.7 million viewers, making it one of the biggest TV drama launches of the year.
The programme charts the relationship between the pair as they clash over politics and Julia realises that her bodyguard could soon become her biggest threat.
The new political thriller has been lauded by critics with The Daily Telegraph's Michael Hogan describing the show as “riveting” and saying he “had to remind myself to breathe”.
“Starting with a suicide bomb attack and only becoming more breathless, this was edge-of-the-seat, shush-the-family fare,” he adds.
The Guardian's Lucy Mangan also hailed the programme: “The first 20 minutes of Bodyguard would be pure James Bond if it were not for the fear and doubt that convulse Budd when he is preparing to do his flinging or his saving.”
By the end of the episode, it was clear Jed Mercurio - who was also behind Line of Duty - has “created something as dark and moreish as ever”, says Mangan.
BuzzFeed UK's Scott Bryan complimented Mercurio's ability to “take it to the absolute maximum it can go - slowly turning the screw, really building up the tension and never becoming unbelievable and never jumping the shark”.
Black Earth Rising
Autumn “always brings an abundance of TV riches, over-spilling with clever thrillers, witty period pieces and entertaining new series”, Sarah Hughes writes for i News. “Black Earth Rising, however, is a class above the rest.”
The dark, stylised thriller from acclaimed writer and director Hugo Blick centres on the horror of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and its aftermath, as well as Africa’s evolving relationship with the West.
Playing out across three continents, the series stars Bafta-award winning actress Michaela Coel as Kate Ashby, who was rescued during the genocide and brought to Britain as a child by her adoptive mother Eve (Harriet Walter).
Kate and her mother clash when Eve takes on a controversial case at the International Criminal Court at the request of her friend and colleague Michael Ennis (John Goodman). After an attack outside the courtroom, long-buried secrets about Kate’s past slowly begin to unravel.
“As much as it’s an examination of moral boundaries and international justice, it’s also a solid thriller, taking its time to lay the breadcrumbs of several mysteries amid a constant murmur of menace,” says The Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson.
Blick uses the show to ask “big, thorny questions, stoking debate rather than closing it down, not least when it comes to conversations over history and to whom it belongs,” she adds. “This is rich, demanding drama that is well worth investing in.”
On BBC iPlayer
Emmy-winning writer Abi Morgan returned to the BBC this autumn with a new series exploring modern marriage, seen from the view of the Defoes, a family of female lawyers at the heart of London’s emotionally charged divorce circuit.
Starring Nicola Walker, Stephen Mangan, Deborah Findlay and Anthony Head, The Split is “a generous joint, rich, juicy and marbled with possibility”, says The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan.
“The interplay of family and office politics, the shifting perspectives on marriage from people at different stages of loving and being left, the ramifications of abandonment and failure, the fragility of family, all of it refracted – still so rare! Still such potential! – through a primarily female lens is a meal by itself,” Mangan writes.
Morgan has proven pedigree, having won Baftas for Sex Traffic and White Girl and an Emmy for The Hour, but the relentless sniping in her latest series may not be for everyone.
“Like a good divorce lawyer, to watch this unusually complicated drama you will need to do some preparatory work, pay full attention to the proceedings and, most essential, you have to be able to enjoy watching people tear themselves apart,” says Sean O’Grady in The Independent.
On BBC iPlayer
After the shock twist that rounded up the end of series one, Lennie James and Suranne Jones return for a second series of Sky Atlantic drama Save Me.
The entire first series was released on Sky’s Now TV on-demand service early last year, becoming the most rapidly binged box-set in the broadcaster’s history, with 700,000 watching the entire series in the first week alone, according to the Radio Times.
The first series followed Nelly Rowe, an innocent man arrested on suspicion of kidnapping his estranged 13-year-old daughter Jody, and his fight for justice.
On Now TV
Ordeal By Innocence
As the BBC slogs its way through endless literary adaptations to suit all tastes, one of the finest examples of recent years is Ordeal By Innocence, a three-part TV reincarnation of Agatha Christie’s 1958 novel of the same name that went somewhat under the radar upon first broadcast in April.
Featuring Luke Treadaway, Anna Chancellor, Bill Nighy and Morven Christie, this rapturously British crime saga adaption has been described as a “real belter” by The Daily Telegraph, which praised its “doomy soundtrack, gloomy visuals and hyper-intense performances”.
The Guardian says that after such light-hearted Christie adaptations as Poirot and Miss Marple, Ordeal By Innocence gives us “the Agatha Christie adaptation we need”.
On BBC iPlayer
The City and the City
The peculiarly titled The City and the City is an adaptation of China Mieville’s award-winning sci-fi novel that aired on BBC Two early in 2018, telling the story of a murder investigation that ensues when a foreign exchange student winds up dead in a fictional post-Soviet European city that is actually two separate places at the same time.
Mind-bending and mysterious, the original novel received plaudits upon publication, taking home the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and tied for the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel.
The BBC’s intriguing adaptation, starring David Morrissey, is much the same, taking the dark, complex narrative and weaving a sleek four-part drama that the London Evening Standard describes as “a clever take on the crime-show genre that has echoes of past Hollywood classics” and “smart without crowing about it”.
On BBC iPlayer
Based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s Victorian novel, this adaption features an all-star cast including Michael Palin, Suranne Jones and Martin Clunes.
The show is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, following the protagonist Becky Sharp as she attempts to escape poverty and ascend the heights of English Society.
The seven-part series hit our screens in September and received rave reviews, with Susannah Butland of the London Evening Standard saying: “From the entrancing start, you feel as if you are in safe hands. There's an all-star cast...who are such pros that after establishing where you recognise them from, you believe they are their characters.”
Woman in White
“How is it men crush women time and time again and go unpunished?” is one of the first lines of the first episode of the BBC’s adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ classic Victorian novel The Woman in White.
The story follows Walter Hartright, a teacher who encounters a woman who has escaped from a lunatic asylum on London’s Hampstead Heath.
He later takes up a position as a drawing master in Cumbria, but as he falls in love with one of his pupils, he discovers a connection between her family and the strange woman's troubled past.
“To justify this latest going-over of Wilkie Collins’ novel, Fiona Seres’ adaptation foregrounds a dishearteningly ageless theme: the abuse of vulnerable women by sadistic men,” writes Den of Geek. “Like style, that one just never goes out of fashion.”
On BBC iPlayer
Starring Golden Globe nominated actress Anna Friel, Butterfly follows the story of an 11-year-old boy, Max, who makes the huge decision that he wants to live life as a girl. The shows tackles issues that have been at the forefront of debate lately and questions how parents can decide what is best for their child while trying to support and protect them.
Polly Hill, head of ITV Drama, commented: “Butterfly is a beautiful story about a young boy on the cusp of puberty who doesn’t feel comfortable in his own body. It’s a heartwarming and emotional script from Tony Marchant that focuses upon gender identity and one boy’s search to be recognised for who he really is.”
Radio Times describes the show as a “landmark drama” and note that it was warmly received by prominent members of the transgender community, who called it “heartbreaking”, “important” and “beautiful”, and said it “starts a much needed discussion about trans children”.
BBC One's supernatural drama thriller Requiem is already building a fearsome reputation as a sharp, spooky - and often bafflingly complex - series.
Lydia Wilson stars as Matilda, who, after the suicide of her mother, realises that she had a box filled with press clippings about the mysterious 1994 disappearance of toddler Carys Howell in the fictional Welsh town of Penllynith, leading Matilda to the town to chase loose ends.
The Daily Mirror has described the show as “the spookiest TV in years”, with the “same effect as mess-with-your-head movies The Shining, Black Swan and Don’t Look Now”.
On BBC iPlayer
This remake of the classic 1970s sci-fi film was one of the most hotly anticipated new shows in years. It centres on a theme park that recreates the Wild West and is filled with life-like androids, with human guests allowed to partake in all the debauchery and violence of the era they can muster. If that sounds like a recipe for disaster, that's because it is.
HBO calls Westworld "a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the future of sin" which "explores a world in which every human appetite, no matter how noble or depraved, can be indulged".
The cast is the kind of all-star line-up that until recently you would have expected to see in a big-screen blockbuster rather than a cable TV show, with Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris and on and on.
Written by Jonathan Nolan and his wife Lisa Joy, and produced by JJ Abrams, the off-camera talent isn't too shabby either.
On Now TV and Sky Atlantic
Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Aaron Sorkin's TV show is a “slow-ish burner”, says Wired, with the drama building steadily over its three seasons.
It stars Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod, an eccentric billionaire who made his fortune in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks by turning the stock market chaos to his advantage. In his pursuit is Charles “Chuck” Rhoades Jr, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, played by Paul Giamatti, who is convinced Axelrod is using illegal insider trading.
“Billions belongs in a special class of dramas that skyrocket upward in quality from one season to the next,” writes the New York Times. “[It] is the new Breaking Bad, with white collars instead of blue meth.”
On Now TV
Based on Lisa Kudrow’s successful US show Web Therapy, Hang Ups is an unusually structured show that follows a troubled therapist who gives quick-fire therapy sessions through a webcam.
It stars Steven Mangan as Dr Richard Pitt, whose patients are played by a veritable who’s-who of British acting talent, from Richard E Grant to Charles Dance to David Tennant.
The show was a hit with critics. The Guardian says: “these brilliant improvised performances bring such a spontaneous authenticity that it’s easy to forget you are not spying on a real session”.
The Daily Telegraph takes a less lenient view on the show’s loose grasp on reality, saying: “I should imagine that practitioners will roll eyeballs at its flagrant liberty-taking. But taken with a pinch of salt, Hang Ups is a ribald skewering of the talking cure that’s almost too much of a tasty treat.”
On Channel 4
After the release of his hit single and video This Is America under the pseudonym Childish Gambino, you would be forgiven for thinking Donald Glover’s profile couldn’t go much higher.
But the US musician and actor is also turning heads with his comedy-drama Atlanta, described by The Guardian as “the smartest and funniest” show on TV.
It follows music manager Earnest “Earn” Marks (Glover) and the quirky and unusual people he crosses paths with as he attempts to make a career out of the music of Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles, an old friend in Atlanta.
The second season of Atlanta has concluded, and this surreal, irreverent and frequently hilarious show has received rave reviews from critics and the public alike.
“Is Atlanta the best comedy on TV? Or the best drama? The best family saga about the impossibility of either fatherhood or son-hood? The most depressive stoner romp? The most anti-romantic love letter to a city?” asks Rolling Stone. “Simply ‘the best show on TV’ will have to do.”
On Now TV
Based on Stephanie Danler's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, Sweetbitter was adapted by Danler herself and optioned for TV by Brad Pitt's production company Plan B Entertainment in July 2017, Bustle reports.
“Quickly securing an impressive cast in the form of emerging British stars Ella Purnell and Tom Sturridge, as well as UnREAL actress Caitlin Fitzgerald, Sweetbitter hit screens as an authentically millennial tale,” the site adds.
This six-part comedy-drama is set in 2006 and follows the story of 22-year-old Tess (Purnell) in a hyper-realistic coming-of-age story, set against the glamorous backdrop of New York’s most elite restaurants, where she gets a job as a waitress.
“If Sweetbitter were longer”, Variety says, “I suspect it would lose much of its charm, but six 30-minute episodes is a welcome antidote to the number of television dramas with bloated episode runtimes.
“Rather than overstay its welcome, it remains fun and breezy.”
On Amazon Prime
Killing Eve, from BBC America, is a unique and decidedly 21st-century take on the spy genre, with the hero and the charismatic villain played by women.
The show follows Eve, played by Sandra Oh, an MI5 security officer who finds herself caught in a conflict with an assassin known as Villanelle (Jodie Comer). However, this is more than a simple cat-and-mouse chase, according to Autostraddle, which covers LGBT and feminist news.
“First, it’s super queer in a way that is entirely unpredictable and exceedingly interesting,” the site says. “Villanelle sleeps with men and with women – sometimes at the same time. But you can tell it is only women who she becomes infatuated with in a deep and seemingly unconscious way.”
The Verge says: “It’s a recipe that, if executed poorly, could have fallen prey to age-old issues dealing with LGBTQ representation on-screen, like queerbaiting or male-fantasy lesbianism. Yet even with its shocking finale... Killing Eve escaped those criticisms entirely, thanks to a few specific choices - including the decision to let Villanelle and Eve confess, if not fully act on, their feelings for one another.”
On BBC iPlayer
The ABC Murders
With David Suchet hanging up his Hercule Poirot moustache for the last time, it is John Malkovich’s turn to play the famous Belgian detective in the BBC’s latest adaptation, which premieres on Boxing Day.
Set in the 1930s, the three-part mini series sees Poirot face a serial killer known only as A.B.C. As the murder count rises, the only clue is a copy of The ABC Railway Guide left at each crime scene. Poirot’s investigation is thwarted at every turn by an enemy determined to outsmart him.
Adapted by Ordeal by Innocence writer Sarah Phelps, The ABC Murders sees Malkovich square off against Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint as Inspector Crome, with a stellar cast also including Andrew Buchan, Eamon Farren, Tara Fitzgerald and Shirley Henderson.
On BBC One on Boxing Day at 9pm
The Kominsky Method
Rolling Stone describes this heartfelt series about an acting coach, played by Michael Douglas, helping his own agent, portrayed by Oscar-winner Alan Arkin, cope with the loss of his wife as “an oldie (in terms of characters), but a really goodie”.
“A dramedy in the best possible sense, with the sad moments making the jokes feel more potent and necessary, and the humor in turn making the melancholy feel both bearable and real,” the magazine says.
At this year’s Golden Globes ceremony, the show took home two major awards: one for Best Comedy TV Series and the other for Best Actor in a Comedy TV Series for Douglas.
A Very English Scandal
Among the best TV shows of last year is A Very English Scandal, which The Guardian calls a “ravishing study of vengeance, tabloid titillation and the high camp of British politicians”.
The series tells the story of the sex scandal that effectively ended the career of Liberal Party Leader Jeremy Thorpe, played by Hugh Grant, in the 1970s.
Crammed full of obsessive attention to detail, the mini-series races through decades of British political history in just three episodes. “Lively and funny and joyously irreverent, a thumbed nose to propriety that delights in showing the old boys’ club with its knickers down,” says Den of Geek.