Television viewers, in 2018, were confronted, almost everywhere they might look, with scars.
Some of them were literal: Amy Adams’s etched skin on “Sharp Objects,” or the mark on Jeffrey Wright’s temple on “Westworld.” But many more were figurative coping mechanisms covering wounds inflicted seasons earlier, or even before the start of the series. Two of my favorite shows this year — “Barry,” a comedy with almost no jokes, and “Homecoming,” a drama with a few mordant ones — placed post-traumatic stress syndrome at their center. The others just felt as though they did.
The slow-moving aftermath of trauma is nothing new on TV. The medium allows us to witness characters’ tragedies, and how characters do or don’t come to terms with them, as they unspool over seasons or years. The “golden age” of TV, a stretch of cable dramas that applied psychological realism to grandiose protagonists and that ended with this year’s finale of “The Americans,” thrived on it: Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Elizabeth Jennings all carried the pain of brutal upbringings. Recently, television made room for an entire show about grief, HBO’s “The Leftovers,” which seems in retrospect one of this decade’s defining shows both for its imagination and its central question, obsessively picked over, of whether life can go on after enormous loss.
But what was once a carefully made story choice has become, in an otherwise scattered and diffuse period for the art form, TV’s dominant mode. Past anguishes now chase characters all over the dial. To wit: The pacesetter for broadcast television, NBC’s “This Is Us,” exists in perpetual mourning, jumping around in time in order to revel in the fact that pain never goes away. In 2018, the show staged the much-awaited death of its star as a bombastic spectacular, literally transpiring (in our world and the show’s) on Super Bowl Sunday. It was grief as morbid jubilee, a catharsis whose magic trick was that it resolved absolutely nothing. The characters’ pain is so baroque and so particular that we marvel at it without joining it.
“This Is Us” has inspired imitators, like ABC’s suicide mystery “A Million Little Things.” It also follows in a recent tradition that includes shows as intelligently made as “The Leftovers,” Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman” and “The Haunting of Hill House,” Amazon’s “Forever” (in which the traumas being worked through are the deaths of the protagonists), and Facebook Watch’s “Sorry for Your Loss” (featuring Elizabeth Olsen’s tenacious performance as a young widow), and as thoughtless as “13 Reasons Why.” These are shows built for dark times even as they address their moment only in general terms, shows that position the response to personal tragedy as, if not the central problem of our time, a problem that tends to subsume all others when it’s happening to you. When viewers come to feel close to the characters, these series become almost painfully intimate; when we’re removed, they’re entirely alienating.
And in 2018, whether or not we’re able to connect with characters’ experiences feels like a question that’s more than solely artistic in nature, just as individual trauma has come to be entangled with crises far larger in scope. Movements like #MeToo have turned the process of coming to terms with one’s own painful past into collective action around social issues, a process demonstrated by two catalytic and unmissable live televised events this year. One, the Golden Globes ceremony shortly after the revelation of Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds, was suffused with the power and healing catharsis of speaking truth about trauma. The other, the Senate testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, showed that even speaking one’s truth won’t necessarily guarantee a fair hearing. Both were about gender and the kind of world we want to live in, but both most compellingly revealed how we do, and do not, recover from harm.
Those events showed us where we were — in a painfully unresolved moment for our society between what once was and whatever comes next, one that carries a high human cost. Television this year had the power to show us where we might end up. The most watchable characters of 2018 moved us precisely because they couldn’t see their way towards a comprehensive understanding of how their pain fits into society’s. The shows on which they appeared, though, braided together personal angst and a vision of the global.
It’s in “The Americans,” which expanded its aperture in its final minutes to consider what two parents’ deeds had really done to their child, and what it meant to really reckon with sins together instead of running away from them and from each other. It’s in “Maniac” and “Homecoming’s” depictions of human connection as the only mechanism that can break through our age of isolation, in “Westworld’s” robots charging forward to demand redress for years of abuse, and in “Queer Eye’s” radical volubility allowing both fashion tips and admissions of childhood isolation. All of these shows had something to say about the legacy of trauma besides the fact that it happens. All of them used pain as a gateway, not a closed-ended moral.
And nearly all of them allowed us to join in by showing at least the beginnings of the process of breaking through. It can come with intimacy (as in “Maniac” and “The Americans”) or rigorous self-knowledge (as in “Sharp Objects” and “Patrick Melrose”) or fighting back (as in “Westworld”). On the show of the year, FX’s “Pose,” all three were combined in a single scene, when two characters, played by Billy Porter and Mj Rodriguez, joined forces at an AIDS clinic to belt a rendition of the Diana Ross showtune “Home.” Both had suffered grievously and were suffering still; both were singing against the forces that threatened them and their community. But the stars of “Pose” refuse to indulge something so boring and untelegenic as unmodulated grief, private pain that doesn’t let an audience in. As Porter’s and Rodriguez’s voices intertwined and their trauma was acknowledged and momentarily vanquished, something entirely new seemed to be happening: A way forward, a vision of growth and change through expression, a manner of grieving that flickers with wonder at what might come after grief. Without that possibility, there’s little reason to make art at all. With it, souls can suddenly, and in the darkest of cultural moments, take flight.
These are my ten favorite shows of the year.
1. “Pose,” FX
The queens of “Pose” are not born into royalty. They choose it, first when they enter New York’s ballroom scene of competitive posing and then, continually, with each well-turned bon mot and each graceful step out into a world that doesn’t want them. The three central performances of “Pose,” by Mj Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, and Indya Moore, are remarkable over and above the too-rare demographic fact that they even happened. (The trio are all trans women of color, making “Pose” a pathbreaker.) Together, the three stars push and pull each other, ginning up support, opposition, envy, enmity, and, ultimately, redemption. It’s overseen by an emcee character whose all-seeing eye and whose frailties are ripped from Joel Grey’s performance in “Cabaret” but whose soul (embodied by the magnificent Billy Porter) is all his own. And it transpires in the corners of a Trumped-up 1980s New York City, one whose onscreen contours have not often included quite such a granular understanding of the vibrant nightlife generated by those to whom every other door is locked.
“Pose’s” understanding of the ways in which wounds are carried, the way isolated youngsters build up carapaces of strength but still yearn to be seen and understood well into adulthood, is as sharp an organizing idea as any other in the TV drama landscape of 2018. And the show’s vivid willingness to blend street-level reality with bold fantasy makes this a fitting parting gift to cable TV for producer Ryan Murphy (who co-created the show with Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals) and the show that felt most welcome, most warming, and most purely wonderful in a dark year on and off the airwaves.
2. “The Americans,” FX
The Jennings family’s hardest mission may have been something so many others have biffed — bringing their story to an end that could satisfy devoted fans. And yet they managed it, with a final season that built in tension to its climactic moment, in the finale, when daughter Paige (Holly Taylor), trained to be a Soviet spy, abandoned her parents to live the American life she thought she knew was a lie. The choice, made offscreen, plays out on the faces of her parents (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) long after they could have stopped it, and it’s shattering. This was the culmination of a series, and a season, whose understanding of the wars that wage within families and within individuals was poisonously acute.
3. “Westworld,” HBO
Television’s clearest-eyed show about what it feels like to live through times of radical change has not yet arrived at explaining what it all means. But that’s rather the point: Rubble doesn’t settle until the seismic shifts slow down, something any news observer in our own world has come to understand. “Westworld” gets attention for its narrative shifts — the reveals that given characters are androids, or intelligences subsumed within one another’s physical bodies. But those shifts work in symphony with the best pure visual and aural craft on television in 2018 towards a comprehensive understanding of reality as perpetually susceptible to the next big alteration. That “Westworld” doesn’t push towards explicit relevance makes its resonance hum all the more richly. Best in a crowded cast include Evan Rachel Wood, righteous and drunk on her new capabilities, as a self-styled Liberty leading the androids, and Thandie Newton, proving that the hero’s journey is not only the one undertaken by the body on the front lines. It can happen, too, within the mind.
4. “Sharp Objects,” HBO
Amy Adams, given the luxury of time and space to unfurl her gifts, does her career-best work in this pitch-dark Gillian Flynn adaptation. Her Camille Preaker, a newspaper reporter, is summoned back home against her will to report on crimes against young girls; her will is exponentially stronger than her sense of rural Wind Gap, Mo., as home, but duty calls. There, she falls apart at about the same pace her story comes together. Carrying scar tissue on her body and in her failure to meet others’ gazes, Camille is on the run even as she’s stranded. Often playing the harmony to a melody driven by ipecac-syrup-sweet Patricia Clarkson as her monster mother, Adams crafts a character of unusual nuance within this crime story.
5. “Patrick Melrose,” Showtime
This look at the lifelong legacy of sexual assault borrowed sophistication from its source material — a series of five recent British novels — and from Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance, genteel until giving way to bottomless gulches of sadness and unquenchable thirsts. But it’s in the giving-way that it came most vibrantly alive. Cumberbatch’s Patrick, the adult victim of childhood rape, is a polymorphous addict, seeking hard drugs, hard drink, and the softest and most unquestioning sort of companionship. (That last is hardest to find.) Like “Sharp Objects” and HBO’s superlative 2018 film “The Tale,” “Patrick Melrose” used a richly complex character quaveringly interested in suffering no longer to drive an investigation into trauma that skittered through time and place, alternately returning to the root of pain suffered and examining the branches it’s sprouted.
6. “Atlanta,” FX
TV’s sharpest comedy didn’t lose a step in its second season, with episodes proving, and probing, the brokenness at the heart of Earn (Donald Glover). Subtitled “Robbin’ Season” after the period before Christmas when shoplifting spikes, “Atlanta’s” second season continued to develop its incredibly strong sense of place. It also raised the stakes on Earn’s isolation, putting that trait (or flaw, or choice) into conversation with Van’s (Zazie Beetz) growing dissatisfaction with their relationship and Alfred’s (Brian Tyree Henry) no-longer-quite-nascent commercial success. Elsewhere, special-format episodes looked deeply at a moment of deep guilt from Earn’s past and what it costs a person to give some of themselves to the public.
7. “Homecoming,” Amazon
Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts) is a caseworker told she’s helping acclimate military veterans to life back stateside; one particularly charismatic young man (Stephan James) catches her attention even as the rest of her surroundings tend to blur. We alternately see her in her high-flying job and in flash-forward scenes, forcing herself to forget whatever it was in which she was complicit, even as it comes chasing after her. In two timelines, Roberts plays out a story of a woman who’s largely in the dark about her own past, but who suspects more than she’s willing to let on. Her confusion is conveyed virtuosically — leveraging our identification with a star with whom we automatically empathize — as is her stern refusal to turn on the charm we know she’s keeping hidden. The show is shot through with rewarding character moments and intriguing peculiarities and, in half-hour installments, it has guardrails against the narrative excess that has at times plagued director Sam Esmail’s “Mr. Robot.” Here, his hand is sure, guiding viewers through a story that rivets and provokes.
8. “Maniac,” Netflix
While viewership numbers are unknowable to the public, this collaboration between a “Leftovers” writer (Patrick Somerville), an ace director (Cary Fukunaga), and two bona fide movie stars (Jonah Hill and Emma Stone) seemed, as far as zeitgeist chatter goes, not to catch fire with the public. Their loss: “Maniac” added up to a powerful story about the search for connection that underpins every life, not just ones marked by the sort of anomie Hill’s character suffers, or the loss Stone’s does. The show is memorable for its flights of fancy, as the two leads are pushed to the far corners of their psyches in a pharmaceutical experiment. But something harder, and truer, lies underneath every new costume setup. The creative legacy of “The Leftovers,” the best recent artwork about grief in any medium, lives on in scenes in which Stone is questing to the outer limits of her mind in Long Island housewife drag. There, she communicates things she’d be unable to say while awake and governed by the silences with which she’s learned to live.
9. “Barry,” HBO
While I’m dubious of the Emmys’ decision to slot this show as a sitcom, “Barry” can at least be said to have a compelling situation. Its titular hitman (Bill Hader) chooses to go straight, into the life of an aspiring actor in Los Angeles. Performing monologues provides an escape from PTSD that performing contract murders does not. As a reformed criminal, Barry is still governed by the same impulses that ruled his life in the shadows. A heartbreaking final scene makes clear the impossibility of Barry’s self-conception as a person who’ll be able to start over; his baseless optimism is painful, and painfully resonant.
10. “Queer Eye,” Netflix
This reality reboot’s quality stemmed from its confidence as it waded into murky waters; even when the show erred in moments, nearly every step it took was the product of a crystalline understanding of its five protagonists. There was plenty of uplift, of course, but these were gay lifestyle experts whose patience with their subjects, whom they were tasked with giving new wardrobes and outlooks, could at times wear thin. They were fully-rounded people with points-of-view about more than the preferred side on which to part one’s hair, aesthetes who at times lay somewhere on a spectrum between grumbly and outright angry. It was in moments like those that the long-dormant reality-TV standby “Queer Eye” felt like a provocative document of its moment. It depicts an era in which gay men have come farther than they might ever have imagined from the vantage point of 2003, when the first “Queer Eye” launched, but know well enough how far away full acceptance lies and refuse to be simple guardian angels. The show’s five stars have learned from history — their own and society’s. And they are moving forward with generosity of spirit but refusal to play old roles; at a time of change on television and in the world it depicts, they’re fittingly using a familiar brand to do something radically new.