All The Best of 2018, Part One

For me, the best part of the holiday season isn’t the baked turkey, and it’s not the gifts in their shiny wrappings under the tree. It’s the lists. This time of the year, everyone with an opinion has a list: Best Movies, Best Albums, Best Tweets, Best Fallen Democracies, Notable Extinctions of the Year, and so on. I like reading such lists, and I like making my own. It helps to give the year a concrete shape in my own mind. I keep a journal of books read, films seen, etc., and in some ways they’re bookmarks that help me remember everything else that happened to me over the course of twelve months.

I thought this year I’d work up two lists: favorite shows (this week) and favorite books (next week). I have a lot less to say about the year in movies or music. This aging rocknrolla spent most of 2018 spinning old vinyl — my Van Morrison collection got a workout. I did like one new song, that one that goes:

Oh, Saturday Sun!
I met someone!
Feel such devotion!
It puts on the lotion!

Oh, Saturday Sun!
I met someone!
She’s in the basement —
My skin suit replacement!

That was cool. But otherwise, the only newish stuff that caught my ear were the three Chris Stapleton albums. You call it country if you want, but it’s still rock and roll to me. He’s the Tennessee Bruce Springsteen.

As for film, man, I’d make a top ten list in a heartbeat if I saw ten films I liked. But I didn’t. What’s going on, anyway? Is it me?

I have a theory, actually. (I always have a theory — I’m a professional know-it-all.)

My theory is that television is sucking all the oxygen away from cinema. In a golden age of TV, with five hundred new scripted dramas and comedies coming out every year — something for every taste — movies can’t compete. Television can explore character in a fuller, more thoughtful, more satisfying way. Episodic TV is better at creating tension, too. When you’ve had four or five hours to fall in love with a character and then they’re placed in peril, the suspense can be overwhelming. On the small screen, plots have more room to breathe and storytellers have more room to experiment.

The most compelling films, at this point, are the ones that don’t act like films at all. They’re ongoing television programs disguised as movies. What is the Marvel Cinematic Universe if not a very, very expensive TV show that only releases about one episode every four months?

But that leaves very little to recommend in the theaters, at least if you care about movies that want to be movies. The only thing that really stood out for me as a film, that was doing film things, and doing them with a unique brilliance was the utterly terrifying, instant horror classic Hereditary.

It’s a golden age of TV, but it’s also a golden age of horror, and at this point, there’s at least one picture every year, and often two or three, that feel like they will be enduring masterpieces of the genre. This movie went places I neeeeverthought a wide release horror flick would dare to go (the little girl sticking her head out the car window). And it was twisty and meticulous in a way that brings to mind certain smart horror films from the 70s and early 80s like The Changeling and The Omen.

But yeah, I think the real action was happening in our living rooms this year. I squeezed in 26 complete seasons of television during 2018, which sounds like a lot and maybe it is. On the other hand, I watch a fair bit of British TV, and one season of something like Foyle’s War adds up to just three 90-minute episodes. Most of the shows that stream on Netflix and Amazon and expanded cable are just ten or twelve episodes per season; one episode of a drama is usually about 45 minutes, while one episode of a sitcom clocks in at only 22. You can watch three episodes of Atlanta in just over an hour and suddenly you’re most of the way through the series.

The following ten best list is in alphabetical order, although I’ve placed an asterisk next to my very favorite show of the year. Also, anything was eligible for the list, as long as I watched it this year, even if it was released prior to 2018 — excellence shrugs at time. Or, to put it another way, a show doesn’t have to be new to be new to me. For obvious reasons, any program with a connection to the storytellers in my family was disqualified from consideration.

Here’s what lit me up this year:

AMERICAN VANDAL, season one [Netflix]. The send-up of shows like Making a Murderer I didn’t know I needed… and one of the truest shows about high school ever made. Shame they cancelled it.

ATLANTA, season two [FX]. For me, the ongoing tale of Earn and Paper Boi is not just the most searching exploration of race on TV. It’s also a blunt look at income inequality, finding humor and horror in the kind of lives that almost never make it onto the boob tube. I also admire the show for being whatever the brothers Glover want it to be: blue collar romance one episode, atmospheric horror the next. Remember, kids, Teddy Perkins sings for you.

BARRY, season one [HBO]. Like AtlantaBarry defies easy classification — it’s plenty funny right up until the moment Barry Berkman has to slaughter someone we liked. It’s also one of the best looking half-hour programs I’ve ever seen (It can’t be an accident that Hiro Murari was behind the camera for Atlantaand Barry both). It’s a story full of loquacious low-lifes, depressed and lonely cops, and wannabe stars drunk on their own daydreams, all of which makes it the most Elmore Leonard thing on TV since Justified.

THE BLETCHLEY CIRCLE, season one. The one has been around since 2012, but only caught my eye this year. It drops us into the lives of four hyper-intelligent women who worked as codebreakers during WWII, and who find themselves bored, neglected, and desperate to be useful by the mid-1950s. One of them, Susan Gray, has picked up on a scattered collection of killings that bear unique similarities and is seized by the idea that there’s a sequence killer loose in London. The police encourage her to go back to her pots and pans, but Sue decides instead to get the gang back together and crack a killer’s code. It’s got all the ingredients of the classic English mystery, but there’s also an unexpected rawness here, a willingness to descend into chilly darkness, that this horror fan found delightful.

THE GOOD PLACE*, seasons one through three [NBC, Netflix]The Good Place makes me so happy. Who would’ve thought the funniest, sunniest program of the decade could also be a heartfelt attempt to figure out how to live a good, kind life? I want to send a thank-you card to everyone involved in making this buoyant, lovely, insightful fantasy. It’s one of the best things to happen on TV this century and it’s my favorite show of the year.

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, season one [Netflix]. Alternate title for this show might be: The Bad Place. If The Good Place was my favorite show of the year, Hill House was right on its heels. It’s the best thing Netflix has ever done and an enormous leap for the entire horror genre. Episodes five and six were virtuoso performances of craft and deserve to win all the Emmys.

KLLING EVE, season one [BBC America]. Psychotically fun — it’s the closest anyone has ever come to capturing the feel of Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill on the small screen. Although the makers of Killing Eve are more compassionate and more playful than Quentin Tarantino. Villanelle ought to hook up with Barry Blockman, they’d make a delightful couple.

MINDHUNTER, season one [Netflix]. When I saw David Fincher’s 3 1/2 hour director’s cut of Zodiac, my one regret was that it wasn’t about 6 1/2 hours longer. Seriously, I was at least as obsessed with the Zodiac killer as the Jake Gyllenhaal character. Fortunately, Fincher seems to understand my needs, and answered with Mindhunter, which plays like Zodiac on a much larger, creepier, smarter scale. Bring back Agent Tench, I’m ready for season two.

THE TERROR, season one [AMC]. I love the Patrick O’Brian novels, which are historical adventures about two friends, Captain Jack Aubrey and a spy named Stephen Maturin, battling the French at sea during the Napoleonic wars. I think those books are superior even to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes-Watson tales. So of course I was going to love The Terror, which is like if Jack Aubrey found himself stranded in the Arctic, fighting to save his crew from the predations of a monstrous polar bear that might in fact be a spirit of the land itself.

THE NIGHT MANAGER, season one [AMC]The Night Manger could be exhibit A for the argument that TV is swiftly making film a second tier art form. It’s like if someone made a James Bond picture that was actually aboutsomething: in this case, war profiteering. Or imagine a James Bond film where the characters were allowed full, rich inner lives, in a story more concerned with hearts than gadgets. Lots of people would like to see Hiddleston cast as the next 007, and while I’m sure he’d be amazing, I hardly see the artistic merit. He’s already built a better Bond — why settle for less?

You know me… like the Steve Earle song goes, I ain’t never satisfied. The year isn’t even over and I’m already hot for 2019’s shows. I’ve got one or two of my own in the pipeline: NOS4A2 on AMC, and LOCKE & KEY on Netflix. I don’t know for sure when either will air, although I think we might have Charlie Manx in 2019, while we’ll probably have to wait until 2020 for a trip to Keyhouse. I’m also intensely looking forward to the picture Vincenzo Natali has made out of a story I wrote with my Dad, “In The Tall Grass,” which you will also be able to find on Netflix in the not-too-distant future.

Self-interest aside, I’ve already seen a half hour of what might be the best thing on TV next year: Neil Gaiman’s adaptation of Good Omens for Amazon, based on the novel he wrote with Terry Pratchett. Holy shirtballs, guys. It’s so good. It’s so fresh and funny and irresistible. It’s great like The Good Place is great, like peak Terry Gilliam is great, like The Princess Bride is great… and at the same time it’s not really like anything else, it’s just its own effervescent thing, and I’m glad we get to have it.

And that wraps up today’s transmission — if this issue of Escape Hatch gets any longer it’ll risk cutting into our precious TV watching time. But come on back next week, there’s a few books I need to tell you about. Take care of yourselves, and take care of each other. See you soon.