It’s part of our job to watch TV here at io9, and it was a damn good year for the airwaves—you wouldn’t believe how spirited the debate was as we narrowed down our list of best shows, emerging with a 10 best (most of which won’t surprise you, since we’ve been singing their praises all year).
Read on for our top picks, as well as four shows that came up short in a 2018 that was thankfully rather packed with TV delights both traditional and streaming.
Even the most diehard American Horror Story fans can admit that the show’s most recent seasons haven’t exactly been its strongest—but all of that changed this year when the series returned to its roots and brought some of its most iconic characters back to the fore where they belong. In telling a story that involved characters from multiple seasons of the show, Apocalypse made it possible for a number of them to get the sorts of happy endings that American Horror Story has never really been known for. More than that, though, what really made Apocalypse feel like a true return to form is the fact that it felt very much like a reflection of the cultural anxieties plaguing us all right now in this time of political and social tumult.
Jodie Whittaker’s debut season as the Doctor has been one of change—not just for the titular Time Lord, but the show at large. Chris Chibnall’s tenure began with some bold explorations of just how Doctor Who can use its incredible premise to educate, inspire, and entertain in ways starkly different than it has before, choosing to focus more on grounded, human stories than on chasing rubber-suited monsters down corridors. It’s fumbled a few times in the process, but it’s also given us some of the show’s most fascinatingly frank and powerful stories. We wouldn’t mind a few of those more traditional Who monster stories to come trickling back when Team TARDIS returns in 2020, but as far as first steps go, Whittaker, Chibnall, and the Who crew hit the ground running in 2018, sorting out fair play across the universe.
An annual fixture on io9's best TV list, The Expanse represents just about everything we love about science fiction: it’s smart (with a consistent emphasis on the science part of science fiction), has incredibly dynamic characters, shows us conflict on both personal and planetary scales, makes the impossible feel real, and brings us hope. It’s also entertaining as hell, and this year’s third season—which cleverly bridged two of the books in the novel series that it’s based on—impressively expanded the show’s scope, as the mysterious “protomolecule” that’s been driving the action since the very first episode finally revealed its true purpose in the form of a gateway to new, alien worlds. We can’t wait to see what happens next on a show that, in a true disaster-averted scenario, almost didn’t make it to season four.
How many times have we thought The Good Place could never actually work through the latest, wild shift to its unique premise? Well, actually, only three times, because there’s only been three seasons so far. But each time, this hilariously inventive series has defied our incomprehensible doubts to deliver some truly joyous television. Season three has been no exception, taking an idea that could’ve broken the entire show—returning Eleanor, Chidi, Jason, and Tahani to the living world instead of the afterlife—and turned it into a deeply funny and deeply human story of growth and change, as we see our hapless misfit crew learn to find their way in life all over again. The Good Place can do damn well anything, it seems, and we’re rather happy to delight in watching where it’ll go next.
Yeah, Mike Flanagan’s Haunting of Hill House was at its heart a ghost story, but the Netflix series, loosely adapted from the classic horror novel by Shirley Jackson, had so many other layers. It was a soap opera about siblings whose childhood stint living in the titular cursed dwelling shaped them into very, very troubled adults. It was a tragic warning that unfinished business in the past will come back to haunt you in ghostly, or even just tortured-emotional, form. It was about mental illness, and really lush set design, and camera trickery, and realizing that Henry Thomas really does look like a younger version of Timothy Hutton. Hell, it was even a cautionary tale about why you should never, ever try to flip a haunted mansion. Hill House was a lot to take in, but its carefully-crafted story more than rewarded observant viewers—and surely fueled more than a few nightmares.
Every time someone asks us whether they should watch Legends of Tomorrow, they always get the same answer: “Why the hell aren’t you watching it already?!” The first season of Legends of Tomorrow may have been so-so, but the CW DC show has quickly grown into one of the coolest superhero tales on TV, largely because it’s a show that knows how to have fun. Legends doesn’t care when it pokes holes into its plot or contradicts itself—hell, it embraces its own absurdity. It brings fans into an experience that isn’t always logical, but is always entertaining and makes them feel part of something special. Come on, the third season ended with a demon fighting a giant blue knockoff of Tickle Me Elmo! Truly, there’s nothing greater in this world.
After seeing how awkwardly Netflix’s Voltron reboot ended up handling its narrative endgame, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power felt like a breath of fresh air, if only for the fact that it felt like a solid reimagining of a classic series that was unabashed in its desire to be a show for a 2018 audience. To put it much more simply, She-Ra was a delightfully queer, inclusive show that emphasized the importance of empathy as a source of strength—the kind of message that more programming, be it for audiences young or old, should be championing.
Technically, just the latter half of the fourth and final season of Star Wars Rebels aired in 2018, but those seven episodes alone are well-worth a spot on this list. The final episodes were basically the Rebels finally doing what Ezra Bridger had wanted to do since season one: Save his home planet of Lothal. Along the way, friends like Kanan were lost, giant mysteries were uncovered, a bunch of wolves came to prominence, and, eventually, Ezra and his Rebels achieved their goal...but not before mysteriously disappearing and leaving fans with a laundry list of massive questions. Still, Star Wars Rebels completed its run with pride, confidence, and more than a little of that Star Wars flair.
Steven Universe has always been a ridiculously fantastic show, but the places the series has gone in its most recent season this year have been satisfying in a way that simply cannot be overstated. It’s been years since we were first introduced to Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl and—difficult as it is to believe—Steven Universe is at a point where their story’s about to come to an end. It’s a bittersweet time to be a fan of the show, to be sure, but it’s also incredibly fantastic to see how this epic plot is finally going to come to a close.
There was no way to casually absorb Westworld’s second season. Viewers had to dig in and really pay attention to the clues, bread crumbs, and occasional red herrings in episodes that frequently flashed back to the park’s earliest origins while poking into its extended mystery—which involved a “door” that seemed to hold the key to both corporate monolith Delos’ true motivations, as well as the Hosts’ ascension to human-level consciousness. Honestly, even if you watched Westworld multiple times you might not come up with an answer for every question the show poses, but its more challenging aspects are a huge part of its appeal. That, and excellent moments like Thandie Newton’s Maeve showing off her deadly swordplay skills, and standout episode “Kiksuya,” which shined a much-needed spotlight on one of the show’s most intriguing supporting characters.
As you can see, we actually had a hard time coming up with enough shows for this list; most of the stuff we didn’t like this year was more underwhelming, disappointing, or generally meh, rather than worthy of public shame. But these four did manage to stand out.
It’s unfortunate that things had to end this way. After most of the original cast of Once Upon a Time left at the end of season six, the show decided to do a soft reboot with its few remaining stars—moving the series to another city and centering the show around an adult version of the Henry Mills character. For a little while, it seemed to work but it became clear that the showrunners had no idea what to do with this premise, and quickly fell back on old habits before getting canceled. What could have been a revitalization of a series that had been around for so long turned into the dying spark of an already dead series. Once Upon a Time may have started out strong, but it ended a dud.
Outlander is usually a damn fine show, anchored by Caitriona Balfe’s Claire, a clever, time-traveling 20th-century surgeon living rough with her 18th-century Highland warrior husband. But the second episode of the currently-airing fourth season, “Do No Harm,” exemplified everything that’s wrong with the series. In colonial America, Claire faces a dilemma: Kill a wounded slave to ease his suffering, or hand him over to a mob for lynching. Choosing to frame the episode from Claire’s point of view and denying every single black person in the episode a voice or agency is a major misstep, to put it mildly. The decision also had us worried about how the show will continue to handle issues of race; the brutal scalping of a Native American woman by a German man in a later episode compounded the problem. This show desperately needs more diversity both on the screen and behind the camera.
A sci-fi horror story adapted from a novella by George R.R. Martin, Syfy’s haunted house-in-space drama Nightflyers samples The Shining, Psycho, Event Horizon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, and other genre touchstones, while also slathering on heaping amounts of body horror, psychic horror, relationship drama, and mental angst (primarily of the can’t-escape-my-past variety). What could go wrong? Well...everything. In the shocking opening scene—a flash-forward to the ninth episode of the 10-episode series—we see one of the main characters cut her own throat to escape the ship’s nightmares. So we know certain doom awaits. Everyone aboard the Nightflyer suffers through the most miserable space flight ever, as the mission to intercept a race of technologically-advanced aliens becomes a shrill parade of unstable, unlikable characters who have no business being in deep space, much less making first contact, tormenting each other while also being tormented by an evil AI, horrific visions, a freaky space cult, spooky kids, and killer space mold. All those terrors start to feel awfully repetitious after a while, and even the “big” reveals feel pretty meh (or even worse, a little too familiar)—a problem compounded by the fact that we’re never invited to care about the characters or whether or not they complete their journey.
The trouble started back in 2016's season 10, when the iconic sci-fi series returned to TV after a 14-year gap. We were generally underwhelmed, but it’s The X-Files—it had a lot of goodwill to burn through before making us turn our backs on the series. Which, after season 11, we did (following in the path of star Gillian Anderson). Sure, there was one really fantastic episode, “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat”—a clever riff on “fake news,” conspiracy theorists, and the X-Files itself, scripted by fan-favorite Darin Morgan. But one enjoyable hour couldn’t cancel out season 11's greatest sins, which began when we learned season 10 was all a dream, or a prophecy, or whatever, in the premiere (ughhhh), and ended by reducing Agent Scully to being a baby vessel for her and Mulder’s second-chance spawn. As io9 deputy editor Jill Pantozzi correctly pointed out in her review of the last episode, creator Chris Carter—who wrote and directed the finale—“has finally brought his once-beloved TV series to a low point it can never, ever recover from.” At least we’ll always have those reruns of the seasons when it was actually good.
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