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When I think about the video that drove me to the screen this past year — either the big flat one or the laptop — three things stick out.
One, of course, is the great variety of television that has burgeoned over the years from broadcast to cable to DVDs and streaming. The second is how the networks and PBS have become, at best, bit players in what I watch and what my friends talk about. The third is that with all the choices out there, HBO is still the head of the class. “The Sopranos” changed expectations about what we want from television and television series and HBO is still meeting those expectations better than anyone else. “My Brilliant Friend” and “Succession” were my two favorite shows of the year and if Season 2 of "Westworld" didn’t match the surprises of Season 1 it was still required viewing. I am less a fan of TV comedy than drama these days; otherwise “Barry,” “Insecure” and other HBO comedies might have joined "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" on the list.
So here, in order, are the 2018 shows and videos that resonate as we head into 2019.
'My Brilliant Friend'
Back when networks ruled the roost, the rule of thumb for TV dramas was that they had to deal with matters of life and death in order to draw maximum viewership. That’s why we were overwhelmed by police and hospital shows — and still are. HBO totally flips the script with "My Brilliant Friend," a program that is resolutely concerned with life, specifically the life of two girls/women drawn so intelligently in the novels of Elena Ferrante, whoever she/he/they is, and directed with such quiet style, empathy and wit by Saverio Costanzo, who picked two girls without any acting experience and made them seem like the second coming of Meryl Streep and Greta Garbo. For good measure, it’s a co-production with Italian television and shot with subtitles. But that's hardly a deterrent. Considering how beautifully “My Brilliant Friend” is shot in poor neighborhoods, maybe we’re talking about the second coming of Roberto Rossellini.
If “My Brilliant Friend” is a deeply humanistic series, “Succession” is — what — a deeply inhumanistic series? Has TV ever collected a family that behaved worse than this one, at least outside of "American Horror Story"? These folks make Dexter, the serial killer, look like a mensch. And you can’t take your eyes off of them, particularly Brian Cox as the patriarch who begins the series with a stroke, but then goes from addled King Lear to ferocious Richard III. The Murdoch-like head of an international media company has a lot to say about the worship of power in a greed-is-great world and show runner Jesse Armstrong makes us laugh at his and his family’s machinations while cringing in complicity.
'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel'
You can make the case that Greenwich Village in the 1950s gave birth to every rebellion against the establishment since, at least on the left. The cast of characters — Norman Mailer, Lenny Bruce, Allen Ginsberg — did, however, comprise a boys' club. Make way for the women, cries "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," which bursts through the glass ceiling with wit, charm and dazzling cinematic storytelling. Writer-director Amy Sherman-Palladino is responsible for almost all of that. Her story of Rachel Brosnahan's disaffected and dumped housewife turned burning-down-the-house standup comic deservedly won eight Emmy awards, including best comedy series. And the one who didn't, Marin Hinkle, all but steals the opening episodes of the recently-released Season 2.
Paul McCartney's Carpool Karaoke On 'The Late Late Show'
Talk about laughing and crying simultaneously. The “cute Beatle” has always been a little too cute for my taste, particularly in his solo career. But he and James Corden brought tears to my eyes when an extended “Late Late Show” Carpool segment turned into McCartney revisiting his Liverpudlian past. The look on the pubsters’ faces when the curtain came down and McCartney and band started singing was priceless, as were the shots of the local citizenry running down the street to get into the pub as word spread about what was going on. In a world where everything seems to divide us, it is not mere nostalgia to celebrate a force that still has the power to unite us. Another aspect of the TV universe is finding these late-night segments on YouTube. I recently stumbled across Jimmy Fallon's delightful, Dylanesque takedown of Donald Trump.
As for the world we do live in, the British thriller “Bodyguard” captured the terrorism, cynicism, conspiracies and class divisions in a tense, riveting drama that was probably the most binge-worthy of the season, leaving you dying to find out which characters would survive the bombs — and who would figuratively survive the frame-ups. Producer Jed Mercurio’s pacing is perfect and the cast — headed by Richard Madden as a hero of the Afghan war who thwarts a terrorist bombing and Keely Hawes as a hawkish home secretary — lived inside their characters like no others except Brian Cox this year. "Bodyguard" seems like the logical successor of "Homeland," which began the season smartly investigating the alt-right Russian menace, but couldn't keep it up over the season.
'Better Call Saul'
No list would be complete without Virginia’s own Vince Gilligan among them. In fact, no list since he created “Breaking Bad” in 2008 would be complete without that or his “Better Call Saul” prequel. Some folks think that the series wasn’t as sharp this year, but I didn’t notice any deterioration in Saul’s, or Jimmy McGill’s attempt to create, or connive, a space for himself in the legal universe. (Stop if you haven’t seen this season’s final episode.) And as the dark relationship grows between Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), who can resist watching these two terrific actors together. S’all good, man, indeed.
Janelle Monáe’s long-form video of the album "Dirty Computer" originally posted on her website, is simultaneously in-your-face and tender, feminist and sexy, dystopian and liberating. Both the music and the visuals (by five different directors) speak to a mind meld between Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” and Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” That’s a pretty heady mix as Monáe celebrates bisexuality (with the ubiquitous Tessa Thompson, among others) and individuality in opposition to the forces of evil attempting to quash them. My ARTery colleague, Amelia Mason, was less taken with the visual creation.
Monáe’s revolution was nothing compared to the one staged by AI heroes Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton) in Season 2 of "Westworld," a series that was often misinterpreted in Season 1 as a celebration of patriarchal fantasies. The longer that series like this go on, though, the more puzzles are apt to get muddled and metaphors to get tortured and “Westworld” got a little, er, “Lost,” by the end of the second season. (Yes, we’re talking about you, J.J. Abrams.) Others, like “You” on Lifetime and "Preacher" on AMC, simply go on so long that they wear out their welcome. Still, “Westworld” is of the #MeToo moment like no other. This time, the ubiquitous Tessa Thompson was on the side of the forces of evil.
This quirky thriller, in which the elegant hit woman Villanelle (Jodie Comer) only has eyes for the awkward MI5 investigator (Sandra Oh) who's on her, sorry, tail, kept us going from one European location to another. The show has its laugh out loud comic moments, but every time you begin to be seduced by Villanelle, creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge pulls the rug out with an often startling murder of an often innocent victim. Is there more story to tell in Season 2 or just more of the same? As with “Westworld,” I’m in. At least for a while.
HBO didn’t have the pay-cable spotlight to itself this year. Starz is an increasingly interesting player. It’ll be fun to see if the new season of “Counterpart” (talk about lethal hit women) will live up to the first. Or whether its story of not-so-parallel lives in alternate universes will succumb to wearoutheirwelcome-itis. Sometimes we yearn for the old-school miniseries with a beginning, middle and end. Starz obliged better than anyone else on that score with “Howards End,” expanding the 1992 Merchant-Ivory adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel to create greater shadings of character development. The cast is superb as is the Kenneth Lonergan screenplay and Hettie Macdonald direction.
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