Best TV of 2018 (Part 1)
Feature by Louis Rabinowitz.
Netflix’s memorably absurd parody true-crime series American Vandal was, unfortunately, one of several shows on the streaming service to face the axe this year. On one level, that’s not the end of the world. In part, that’s because Vandal is an anthology, and doesn’t leave any dangling plot threads for following seasons to pick up. But it’s largely because its second and final season was so completely satisfying and as definitive an encapsulation of this show’s themes and interests as it’s possible to realistically imagine. In its second year, which took the show to a Seattle private school to probe the mystery of a prolific poop terrorist (just go with it), American Vandal perhaps lost the brilliant novelty and surprise of its first dick-drawing (keep going with it!) mystery, but more than made up for it with a narrative as dramatically engaging and thematically weighty as it was obsessed with jokes about poop. It was a season that proved this show’s ability to juxtapose the facile (or faecal) and the deeply serious, utilising sledgehammer crude humour as a platform to incisively examine and deconstruct the intense and difficult lives of teenagers in an always-on age of social media. And it’s also where the show fully earned its stripes as a mystery crime drama to rival the best of them; the search for the Turd Burglar becoming a fully realised and fleshed-out whodunnit packed with suspects and red herrings that came to a fascinating and wholly satisfying conclusion. Season two was to television what the terrific Eighth Grade was to film; a sophisticated and refreshingly non-judgemental update of classic tropes for the internet generation with compassion rather than arch condescension for who it depicts. Even as it heads unjustly to the bench after just two seasons, its achievements still stand, and its story is complete.
Better Call Saul
Season four was actually a somewhat quieter and more subdued season of Better Call Saul for its duration. Shrouded in the tragedy of the third season finale, its characters were too paralysed by grief or indecision to work themselves up to the operatic, life-changing decisions of mid-season three, and too downbeat to muster up the wacky, outsize humour of the first two seasons. A show once pitched as a comedy became defined by its pervasive sense of melancholy, and of defeat, while the crime drama side of the show, less shadowed by that bleakness, dialled down on its granular, procedural nature. But that was very much the point. I mean, of course it was. The way in which that slowness and introspection acquires purposefulness and then twists into stunning tragedy by season’s end is perhaps Better Call Saul‘s best magic trick yet. The season ends with the biggest swings the characters have made yet; wholehearted embraces of sadder and lonelier and more violent lives to quench that pain that was sketched out so carefully in the opening episodes, and to fulfil the archetypal sketches of them that have been pressed down upon them by outside forces. Every montage, every detail-oriented dialogue scene, plugged back into those critical moments, providing all the justification one could ever need for those characters we now know so well.
The obvious place to start with BoJack Horseman’s superlative fifth season is Free Churro, the masterpiece pictured above; twenty-five minutes of uninterrupted monologue from the lead character, BoJack, picking into his insecurities, his vanities, his twisted and conflicted parental relationships, and above all his fumbling attempts to articulate an impossibly complicated form of grief. But that only scratches the surface of what BoJack did this year. It was at the vanguard of intelligent and thoughtful responses to the #MeToo movement, skewering Hollywood’s ineffable desire to rehabilitate and ‘redeem’ offending man in the public eye. It remains one of the most formally experimental shows on television, offering up an episode structured as listicle, the aforementioned all-monologue episode, an episode which hops between four separate time-frames separated by decades, and an episode framed as the subjective narration of an outside observer figure. It delights in ridiculous cartoonish farce, like the sex robot Henry Fondle who ascends to the position of CEO of a major company. It continues to make extremely specific and nerdy jokes about the nature of the entertainment history, like a TV pilot that lasts a ‘tight hour and seventeen minutes. Perhaps most significantly, though, it has the most interesting and multi-layered central set of characters of any show running at the moment. BoJack, Diane, Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter might often infuriate and provoke sadness, but it’s impossible to look away from them, because we’ve come to know them so well.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine had an eventful year. A show that trundled on for four years on FOX with a moderate, relatively insular fanbase was catapulted screaming into the spotlight on an unnecessarily stressful weekend that saw its shock cancellation, a minor earthquake of fan support, and then a resurrection on NBC about as unexpected as its initial demise. Within two days, everything was resolved, and in a couple of weeks, Brooklyn will return, likely the same as ever, for eighteen new episodes at the heart of the primetime schedule.
But, other than as a cruel capper to a cruel week of televisual bloodletting, that cancellation/renewal shone a worthy spotlight on just what we would have missed had NBC not swept in. Owing to the show’s midseason move, only half a season broadcast this year, but it was a run of episodes that packaged up just about everything that makes B99 special. There was a dramatically intense bottle episode set entirely in a police interrogation room. There was an investigation into a potentially homicidal ‘health food’ pyramid scheme. There was an episode about an active shooter situation exploring the perspectives of the worried friends far from the crime scene. And there was a delightful wedding finale where a bomb disposal robot delivered the rings. Brooklyn‘s twelve episodes in 2018 ran the gamut from sweet, sad, thrilling and dramatic, and it did it all without breaking a sweat. So, we ought to be pretty thankful that it’s still kicking around when it came so close to an unjust early demise.
Daredevil is, unfortunately, more talked about this year for its late, shocking cancellation than for the thirteen episodes that now serve as its conclusion. Thankfully, Daredevil‘s final season saw the show go out on a high. After the ninja nonsense of season two, Daredevil, in patented Marvel-Netflix fashion, fired all its writing staff and started anew. Confusing and unexplained mythology went out the window, and gleefully pulpy crime drama was back in. The show remembered the appeal of a truly good villain, bringing back Vincent d’Onofrio and his iconic enunciation to play a Kingpin who has now ascended to the role of an unrealistically omniscient chessmaster, and remixing comics villain Bullseye as ‘Dex’, an absurdly creepy man with a proclivity for throwing staplers, and granting both compelling and fully-realised backstories which made the inevitable season-ending conflagration of the foes as gripping as it could be.
The central trio of Nelson, Murdock and Page returned to prominence, as their warm, familial dynamic was carefully and delightfully reconstructed across the season. And those stunts on which the show made its name became even more outsize in their ambition; the eleven-minute one-take fight scene inside a prison setting a hugely impressive gold standard for action filmmaking on any size of screen, whether TV or cinema. Its premature sacrifice to the gods of corporate consolidation is an unquestionable shame, but there’s comfort to be taken in the fact that, unlike its cliff-hanging, cancelled brethren Luke Cage & Iron Fist, season three of Daredevil wrapped on a note of almost complete finality, closing the loop on what now becomes a satisfying, if deeply uneven, trilogy of tales about the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. There are worse ways to go out.