2018 saw a lot of impressive debuts on the small screen, including HBO’s black comedy Barry and several excellent horror offerings from Netflix. Several of my old faves, from cartoons to prestige dramas to zombie comedies, also returned with very strong seasons.
Read on for more:
1. iZombie (Season 4)
iZombie has one of the silliest premises on TV – a psychic zombie who solves mysteries by eating the brains of murder victims. But it’s also one of the small screen’s smartest shows.
Created by Veronica Mars showrunner Rob Thomas, this horror comedy excels thanks to witty dialogue, kooky murders of the week, and some truly sinister villains. It’s also got a stellar cast, including Rose McIver as undead medical examiner Liv Moore, Rahul Kohli as her supportive boss Dr. Ravi Chakrabarti, and David Anders as sociopathic criminal Blaine DeBeers.
iZombie’s fourth season takes the show in bold new directions. Now that zombies have been outed, Seattle has become a walled sanctuary under the control of zombie paramilitary group Filmore Graves.
The worldbuilding here is clever. As the city’s remaining human population is the only thing preventing an anti-zombie genocide, Seattle’s disgruntled humans are forbidden from leaving. On the other side of the wall, sick and dying humans are desperate to be turned into zombies – but a chronic shortage of brains makes that situation untenable. Human smuggling is rampant, civilians go mad with hunger, and a charismatic zombie cult murders humans in the streets.
The complexity of the situation is personified by Chase Graves, the iron-fisted Filmore Graves head who uses draconian tactics to maintain order. Jason Dohring (who Veronica Mars fans will know as troubled brat Logan Echols) brings gravitas to the role, as well as a certain hardened charm. Chase is an honourable man forced by circumstance to become a despot, and his descent into villainy is heartbreaking to watch.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. McIver is a gifted comic actress, and Liv (who takes on the personality of the whoever she consumes) feasts on her best brains yet this season. My personal favourites include a fussy elderly socialite and bro-ey Canadian hockey player (the show gets bonus points for correctly portraying how to make poutine). Ravi, who zombifies himself while researching a cure, also gets in on the fun.
The show goes to dark places this season, without sacrificing its quirky tone. Somehow, it all works brilliantly. The political commentary is potent, the comedic moments are funnier than they’ve ever been, and the character development is richer than ever.
iZombie has a lot of heart and a lot of brains.
2. Fauda (Season 2)
The second season of this Israeli political thriller is close to flawless. After the incendiary events of last season, Doron and the unit face a new threat in the form of the ISIS-trained son of Sheikh Awadalla. Meanwhile, Palestinian doctor Shirin (Laëtitia Eïdo, in an award-worthy performance) has been trapped in a dangerous marriage to the unstable Walied, now a Hamas commander. Desperate to escape, she resumes her relationship with an increasingly self-destructive Doron.
It’s not quite as impeccably paced and plotted as the first season – and is perhaps too cruel to its characters – but every scene oozes tension.
3. Bojack Horseman (Season 5)
Back in 2014, this animated series about a celebrity horse pulled a bold bait-and-switch; initially presenting itself as a politically incorrect comedy in the vein of Family Guy, the show took a grim turn midway through its first season and quickly became the grimmest thing on TV.
Its masterful 5th season features Bojack grappling with his past sins, Diane and Mr. Peanut Butter reeling from their divorce, and Princess Caroline desperately trying to adopt as a single career woman. Even Todd, who can usually be counted on for some levity, is struggling to manage his career, his love life, and the homemade sex robot that ends up becoming his CEO (by the end of the season, this absurdist subplot has morphed into a timely commentary on workplace sexual harassment).
It’s depressing stuff, to be sure (one mid-season episode is just twenty-six minutes of Bojack delivering his mother’s eulogy). Thankfully, Bojack Horseman is the type of show that will make you laugh even as it guts you.
4. Barry (Season 1)
This very black comedy, starring Bill Hader as a traumatized hitman-turned-acting student, feels like a spiritual sequel to John Cusack’s Grosse Pointe Blank. The subplots involving wannabe actors and equally harebrained gangsters are quite funny, but the show works best as a character sketch of Barry himself. Hader’s understated performance brings a neurotic edge to the character, making him believable as a killer on the verge of a breakdown.
You can read my full review here.
5. The Haunting of Hill House (Season 1)
Ninety percent of Mike Flanagan’s Haunting of Hill House is masterful – a terrifying, emotionally grueling horror saga filled with hidden ghosts, Shirley Jackson quotes, and the supernatural slight-of-hand that Flanagan is known for. The story goes to dark places, especially as it explores the long-term effects of the Crane family’s childhood traumas; a dream sequence in which the two youngest Crane children seem to predict their tragic fates (unsettling enough in the trailers) was so devastating in context that it left me weeping.
The last episode, however, is blasphemous, a forced happy ending that renders nonsensical everything that came before. By retconning the house as an idyllic sanctuary for troubled souls, the show tries to find beauty in a situation that is inherently perverse. A bold idea, but it doesn’t work, and bastardizes Jackson’s iconic prose in the process.
6. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Season 1)
This reimagining of the Archie Comics character is the best teen horror show to come along since Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Sabrina mixes knowing macabre camp with genuine gothic creepiness, with an old-school horror aesthetic and a stellar soundtrack of creepy vintage tunes. The plot is well-developed and the cast is superb; the Sabrina character could come off cloying in the wrong hands, but Kiernan Shipka’s masterful performance hits all the right notes.
7. Better Call Saul (Season 4)
This little Breaking Bad spinoff is a true tragedy – and for that reason, it’s a better show than Breaking Bad ever was.
Breaking Bad’s Walter White was always a cruel man – he just needed power to make him dangerous. At the beginning of Better Call Saul, sleazy lawyer Jimmy McGill was essentially kind-hearted (if ethically slippery). Over the past four seasons, we’ve watched him harden himself – and this season, he seems to have finally descended irreversibly into immorality.
8. F Is For Family (Season 3)
Bill Burr’s foulmouthed cartoon sitcom is an underrated gem, balancing sharp satire of 1970s America with a sincere storyline about a family under pressure. Its third season has the Murphy family preparing for an unexpected fourth child, while their kids deal with angst of their own.
This season never quite reaches the insane heights of last season’s bloody airport standoff, but compensates with deepened character development. Young Maureen and Bill have matured a bit and are dealing with more interesting problems as a result, and Frank’s explosive conflicts with angsty teen Kevin are as compulsively watchable as ever (Kevin: “I didn’t try to get arrested!” Frank: “I know! It was effortless!”). The voice cast (including Burr, Laura Dern, and Justin Long) do great work as always, and executive producer Vince Vaughn is unsettling as their sociopathic neighbour Chet.
9. Derry Girls (Season 1)
Set against the tumultuous backdrop of The Troubles, Lisa McGee’s coming of age sitcom about a group of Irish schoolgirls (and one out-of-place British schoolboy) is packed with laughs and quirky characters.
10. The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell (Season 1)
The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell is the type of cooking show that Morticia Addams would watch (and likely Elvira as well, though I suspect she’d burn the cake). McConnell’s campy series is a perfect showcase for her beautifully macabre confections, ranging from peanut butter cookies resembling human bones to a massive cake-replica of her spooky mansion.