This year, there were more than 500 scripted shows on television. I say this not to overwhelm you (because take it from someone whose job it is to sift through them all: thinking about that astronomically high number too hard is a quick and easy way to fall into the “what are we doing and who’s going to stop us” void). No, I tell you this because with more than 500 shows to choose from (let alone watch!), picking a top 10 is a Herculean task that has become even less about selecting the definitive best 10 and more about finding the 10 that resonated most with me, your friendly neighborhood TV critic. The only way this list could come together without my brain glitching into pieces was to wholly embrace the fact that this list, like all lists, is subjective.
As TV keeps proliferating beyond our wildest dreams and the furthest reaches of our DVRs, series that truly stand out are worth celebrating. With that in mind, I chose the 10 shows that stuck with me long beyond their closing credits. Every one of these sucked me into its world and made me see mine in a different way.
So without further ado, here are my top 10 shows of the year. (This list is unranked and arranged alphabetically, because again, this is my list and I’ll do what I like with it!)
“The Americans” (FX)
As hard as it is to launch a TV show, it must be even trickier to end it. Having built a world of mysteries and characters as nuanced as they were complex, and with the increasingly analogous real world nipping at its narrative heels, “The Americans” had a hell of a task ahead of it. But its sixth and final season proved to be an unequivocal triumph, pushing Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) to their absolute limits with patient precision. Everyone in the cast — most especially Rhys, Russell, Noah Emmerich, and Margo Martindale — brought their A game to make their final moments unforgettable, and the writers did the same to keep them unpredictable. “The Americans” had been one of the best shows on television from its debut season, but its last cemented its place in the TV hall of fame for good.
“American Vandal” (Netflix)
And here we have about as opposite a series from the grim politics of “The Americans” as we can maybe get. But just as “The Americans” revealed truths about the present day with incisive commentary, so too did “American Vandal.” The Netflix comedy’s second season doubled down with a (literally) explosive mystery about a “Turd Burglar” terrorizing a private school with — there’s no other way to say it — surprise poop attacks. But even as the show indulged the more ridiculous aspects of its premise and reveled in specific true crime parody, it also slyly skewered social media, the ever-shifting realities of what it means to be a teenager, and the adults who self-righteously mock both. Netflix has since canceled the series, and it’s a shame, because it was truly one of the most insightful shows of the year.
“High Maintenance” (HBO)
HBO has plenty of splashier shows on its roster, but the one that consistently surprised me was “High Maintenance.” In its second season, the show dug deeper into its smart premise — a weed delivery man known as “The Guy” (co-creator Ben Sinclair) makes stops around New York City, offering brief windows into his clients’ lives before he and the show moves along to the next — to become even more ambitious and thoughtful. No matter if it’s depicting a wild night out or a lonely night in, “High Maintenance” treats all its subjects with equal parts respect and curiosity — a winning combination that brought the show to impressive new heights.
“Killing Eve” (BBC America)
This immediately addictive drama portrays the mind games of a restless assassin (Jodie Comer) and the equally restless agent (Sandra Oh) pursuing her with sly, wicked wit. And with “Fleabag” creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge at the helm, “Killing Eve” is both wonderfully funny and so pointed that it could draw blood. It’s also a crystal clear example of how crucial great casting is; Comer and Oh are both so rock solid as Villanelle and Eve (respectively) that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else bothering to try. I’m as obsessed with “Killing Eve” as Villanelle and Eve are with each other, and for that, I salute it.
“One Day at a Time” (Netflix)
When the second season of “One Day at a Time” dropped in January, I made a note to myself in bold that it needed to be included on my end of year lists, that’s how sure I was that the show would remain one of the best. This update of a 1970’s Norman Lear sitcom has proven itself time and time again to be one of the most relevant and compassionate shows on television, with a rock solid cast to boot. (Award shows continuing to ignore Justina Machado and Rita “The Legend” Moreno continues to be a farce.) The series’ love for its characters and subjects radiates from every scene, making it easy to trust that it will find ways to talk about issues like depression, racism, and gender identity without making people the butt of the joke. “One Day at a Time” is a balm in hard times, and therefore a real joy to watch.
“Pose” was always going to be a significant achievement regardless of its quality for the simple (and inexcusably rare) fact of it employing and respecting trans and queer talent to tell its stories about trans and queer people. But this portrait of 1980’s New York City drag culture centered stories about queens, dancers, and sex workers with incredible insight and heart, plus stellar turns from actors like Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, and Billy Porter. “Pose” was a singular joy to watch unfold and quickly proved itself to be a contender that’s here to stay.
“Salt Fat Acid Heat” (Netflix)
One of the best surprises of the year, “Salt Fat Acid Heat” took Samin Nosrat’s seminal cookbook to new heights as a series. At once informative, gorgeous, and joyful, the show set off around the world to not just find good food, but understand what makes it so good in the first place. It helps immensely that Nosrat is a fantastic and knowledgeable host who never condescends to her audience, and also works to include people (read: women) who rarely get the spotlight on similar food travel shows. I always have an endless list of shows I need to be catching up on, but I’ve still managed to watch this entire series several times since its October release, and I don’t see that pattern stopping any time soon.
“Schitt’s Creek” (Pop)
“Schitt’s Creek” started off as a promising comedy about the rich Rose family — played by co-creators Eugene and Dan Levy, Annie Murphy, and Catherine O’Hara — falling from grace and having to start over in a tiny rural town they forgot they owned. It was funny and weird, and of course it’s hard to go wrong when the power duo of Levy and O’Hara are involved. But over four seasons, this show has evolved from a fun distraction into one of the most purely delightful comedies on TV by shifting the story to be about the Roses learning to become better, more empathetic people. In the fourth season, smitten commitment-phobe David (Dan Levy) navigated his first real relationship with Patrick (Noah Reid), Alexis (Murphy) nursed her first real heartbreak, and the show became its best self right along with them.
“Sharp Objects” (HBO)
As is probably apparent by some of my more exasperated reviews, I typically don’t care for deliberately slow dramas that stretch plot and luxuriate in atmosphere. So in theory, “Sharp Objects” should have infuriated me. In reality, I couldn’t look away. From Amy Adams’ and Patricia Clarkson’s powerhouse performances to Jean Marc Vallée’s alternately dreamy and jarring directing/editing, “Sharp Objects” was a stunner that earned every languid minute and haunted me long beyond its final (horrifying) moments. (Further contradicting my usual preferences, I recommend watching this show as a marathon, with headphones on to lose yourself in the ambient noise of Wind Gap’s cicada chorus.)
The third episode of “Vida” opens with a scene unlike any I’ve ever seen on TV. It shows a woman and nonbinary person having ravenous sex, throwing themselves and each other around a room with a hungry intensity and startling accuracy that few scenes between queer women characters ever have. That fidelity to reality and showing the truth about people that TV rarely makes room for (i.e. queer and/or Latinx people) is emblematic of “Vida’s” approach to just about everything. Tanya Saracho’s half-hour drama (!) follows two sisters’ struggle to reconcile their lives with the ones they left behind in Boyle Heights, California, handling issues like gentrification and homophobia (both internal and external) with organic ease. There’s just no other show quite like it, and for that, I am always grateful.
Honorable mentions: “Barry” (HBO), “The Good Fight” (CBS All Access), “BoJack Horseman” (Netflix), “Jane the Virgin,” (The CW), “The Great British Bake Off” (Netflix), “Brooklyn Nine Nine” (née Fox, now NBC)