Summer isn’t a time to take a break from television; it’s a time to dig in deeper. With temperatures climbing as high as the humidity, even the most devout sun worshippers will need to beat the heat with a little A/C — and TV.
That makes the halfway mark of the year a doubly perfect time to evaluate the best of what’s come out. Not only does the sheer number of scripted series demand assessing the year’s qualitative best more than once — with over 500 original series expected in 2018, that’s almost 1.5 shows per day — but a June recap should prove timely for anyone officially on summer break (or trying to create their own). Oh, and should any Emmy voters be reading, be sure to get out a pen and paper; there’s plenty to consider here.
Below, IndieWire has ranked the best TV shows of 2018 so far. The list will likely develop over the course of the next six months, but as of now, these 10 programs are a benchmark to be topped by whatever’s in store during the year’s latter half. Good luck. Given what’s already out, everyone should be excited to see the rest of 2018 try to top these.
Corporate doesn’t so much flip the office comedy on its head as it takes it to its natural conclusion. Following two junior-level management pawns in a multinational business empire, this Comedy Central series is a crash course in how to wring dark laughs and pointed commentary out of a familiar premise. Throughout the season, that 9-to-5 rigor slightly gives way to some misadventures outside the cubicles, showing this is a series that can handle more than just the banality of a desk job. Whether it’s in the day-to-day rhythms of HR complaints or the foibles of a monomaniacal CEO, “Corporate” plumbs our collective financial and national anxiety for something that ends up awfully cathartic.
9. “High Maintenance”
David Russell / HBO
It’s about pot… but not. The HBO series has continued to evolve beyond its original Vimeo-based roots, as it ties together beautifully observed vignettes about New York City life often seen through the perspective of Guy (Ben Sinclair), a bike-riding pot dealer delivering to an eclectic clientele. Season 2 improves on the format with stories reflecting the all-too-real fear, dread, and anger now felt when looking at the news; news reflecting an America that can be hard to recognize. But as depicted by Sinclair and co-creator Katja Blichfeld, times may be bad but people still have some inherent goodness, and their optimism proves cleansing. All that, and this season we finally get to meet the Guy’s estranged wife! “High Maintenance” remains a bit of a hidden gem worth watching in the moments when joy feels like an impossible feat. No higher state of being required.
Taking a sci-fi premise that could easily be unwieldy, this Starz show snatches up a pair of Howard Silks (both played by J.K. Simmons) and uses them as a starting point, rather than endpoint. Establishing different versions of modern day Berlin in a still-recognizable alternate reality, “Counterpart” is just as concerned with the world around these duplicates as it is the psychological implications of meeting someone who looks exactly like you. Simmons is phenomenal, establishing two separate characters with the tiniest changes in vocal inflection and movement. Surrounding him with characters who could support shows of their own — the insecure product of nepotism, the wary ex-wife, the reserved criminal mastermind — “Counterpart” is the result of a deep focus at all levels. With Season 2 already on the horizon, this freshman run both exists on its own and holds the promise of an even more impressive show to come.
7. “The Handmaid’s Tale”
The second season of last year’s Emmy winner for Outstanding Drama Series is still not finished, and so the potential is there for the show to fall apart, as it is for all TV shows midway through a season. But while the first six episodes of the dystopian Hulu drama felt somewhat off, as some big narrative swings took chances but lacked the brutal focus of the first season, the back half of the season has amped up the tension while also giving us the briefest spots of hope. Terrible things are happening in the land of Gilead, but thanks to this solid cast, nuanced directing, and writing that’s fully committed to exploring the truth of every moment, it’s impossible to look away.
6. “Killing Eve”
Every day this year, TV viewers should thank Phoebe Waller-Bridge for brightening our lives through her presence on the big and small screens. But even before she brought droid sex appeal and social justice to “Star Wars,” she was killing it (so to speak) over on BBC America. Her adaptation of Luke Jennings novellas wasn’t just exciting and gruesome — which is to be expected from espionage/crime stories — but “Killing Eve” was just far smarter, funnier, and more stylish than anyone had ever dared to dream possible.
Anchoring the series are Sandra Oh, who brings an artless strength to the titular MI5 officer Eve, and Jodie Comer as the bratty and chameleon-like assassin known only as Villanelle. Separately, they’re impressive, but together they’re devastating, as each woman circles the other in a deadly pas de deux of mixed attraction and repressed anger. Mesmerizing and addictive, this show is an unexpected delight that rewards the dark and irreverent corners of our souls.
John P. Johnson/HBO
Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s HBO comedy takes two overused Hollywood stories and brings them together for a unique new tale. A hitman (uh oh) having a mid-life crisis (no no no) takes a trip to Los Angeles (come on now) and finds new meaning in his life through acting (wait… what?). Wayward hitman narratives are almost as popular as self-aggrandizing fiction about the Hollywood dream, but “Barry” turns out to be neither. It’s an incisive takedown of performing for the wrong reasons and an eyes-wide-open appreciation of the craft when done the right way. The hitman aspect drives action and drama equally, but by the end of the first season, it’s almost as forgotten as the lead character wishes it was in his own life. “Barry” is intensely funny and surprisingly dark, yet one never gets in the way of the other, making it an improbable concoction of contradictory attributes that come together for something really special.
4. “The Terror”
A symphony played at the point where the recognizable and the inexplicable meet, this 10-part AMC series is timeless in its specificity. Following a group of explorers in the upper reaches of the Arctic and the precious peace that their arrival tears in two, “The Terror” is a tale about colonialism, masculinity, power, and what the human mind is capable of under extreme duress. Impeccable in its detail and observant throughout, this is a show that takes great care in building a growing, dual sense of dread and hope. Come for the staggering set-pieces, stay for some of the most nuanced and affecting character work you’ll find this side of the Equator.
3. “Dear White People”
When Justin Simien first adapted his 2014 indie film for television, one big question was whether there was enough story in the premise for 10 episodes, let alone 10 seasons. After watching Season 2, though, there’s clearly potential for 100 more. Fearless, hilarious, and whip-smart, this comedy of manners set at a modern-day Ivy League college grapples with the complexities of race, class, love, and power and has quickly become an addictive favorite. “Dear White People” is fully engaged with today while also somehow achieving a timeless quality, helped along by some of the best performances of the year, especially Logan Browning as the truth-telling, bold, yet still deeply vulnerable Sam White. “Dear White People,” for the second year running, is a breath of fresh air for Netflix. Long may it reign.
Guy D'Alema/FX "
What more can be said of FX’s most buzzed-about comedy this year? It ramped up the mythology, the magic, and the malevolent forces even more than “Game of Thrones” did. Whether it’s imagining an existence in which Drake has a Mexican abuelo or someone named Teddy Perkins eats soft-boiled ostrich eggs, Donald Glover and his creative team proved once again adept at world-building. Simultaneously fanciful and frightening, the show loosens expectations of reality, thus liberating itself to explore all possibilities.
With this freedom, Season 2 dives deeper into the psyches of its comedic antiheroes, each revealing hitherto unacknowledged aspects of themselves. For Earn (Donald Glover) it’s ruthlessness, for Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) resilience, for Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) introspection, and for Van (Zazie Beetz) it’s a newfound resolve. But for as layered, insightful, and at times horrifying the show manages to be, “Atlanta” also wrings out the laughs, even if sometimes they’re mixed with rueful tears. This so-called comedy breaks most of the rules in “Robbin’ Season,” and the genre is far richer for it.
1. “The Americans”
“The Americans” is over, but if you think that means critics are going to stop reminding you to catch up, guess again. The propulsive final season only invigorates the series, bringing added momentum to the critically hailed yet publicly under-seen FX drama. Keri Russell carries as much fire in her eyes as she wears wigs on her head. Matthew Rhys has a different button-up shirt for the variant emotions he keeps on his sleeves. The episodes move faster than ever — like a bullet filled with sentiment, burrowing deep into each viewer’s heart. This is the season fans have been waiting to see since the series began, and co-showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg brought one of the best runs in television history; it’s almost as if they’re daring the world not to catch up, for fear of missing out on one of television’s finest hours. Oh, wait. That’s exactly what they did. So get to watching.