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Opinion | The finest TV of 2018

A couple of Indian shows were finally watchable this year, but ask yourself where Sacred Games ranks alongside Better Call Saul

Sacred Games. Photo: Reuters
Sacred Games. Photo: Reuters

There is too much television. You know this. There are masterpieces we haven’t heard of, not to mention the many we’re afraid to start. Then there are shows we like, solid shows that have won our attention through pedigree and premise, who squander it by spreading themselves gratuitously over too many episodes and seasons. Too many shows, too many minutes, too much that is unworthy of our time.

My answer? Mercilessness. In a world of sensational television, we must unwaveringly strive for the best. By best, I do not mean a shadowy period drama about internal conflict, but instead whatever we individually rank highest. The challenge now, for viewers but also for streaming networks, is that they do not settle for something merely “okay" or even “pretty good". A couple of Indian shows were finally watchable this year, but ask yourself where Sacred Games ranks alongside Better Call Saul. The standard has to be golden. Here are my big winners of 2018.

Best start

Jesse Armstrong’s Succession is a mousetrap. A show about moneyed monsters, it starts out looking like King Lear with a cast of Murdochs, but this slow-burn series skirts expectations thoroughly. It evolves into a fascinating study on the nature of sycophancy, and the desire for power, and the public perception of this. The characters are all so wretched they should kill themselves, and Armstrong’s writing is appropriately sharp and jagged, like a rusty razor-blade. Without a doubt, the best new series of the year. (Hotstar)

Best direction

Truth doesn’t need to be dry. Trust, written by Simon Beaufoy, takes on the real-life kidnapping case of John Paul Getty III but shoves it through the storytelling machine at full tilt, creating something wicked and intelligent and gobsmackingly stylish. The first two episodes are irresistibly directed by Danny Boyle—while Brendan Fraser wears a white Stetson and talks directly to us—and this momentum stays consistent. I was particularly taken by the final two episodes directed by Susanna White, wondrously spare episodes that—in contrast to the show’s brio and belligerence—say it all without being loud. (Hotstar)

Best writing

Where does one begin to applaud BoJack Horseman? There is nothing like it. Nothing. Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s fearlessly depressing, relentlessly clever animated series about a formerly popular sitcom-star has grown into something unflinchingly brutal and brilliant. The new fifth season features BoJack working on a new television series, and ends up borrowing several ideas from Lisa Kudrow’s perfect second season of The Comeback (Hotstar). Even if this is not the show at its best—that would be the devastating season 4, about BoJack confronting his mother’s dementia—it is still a masterwork. Watching BoJack devise a primitive system to drink “only a little" everyday is a reminder of how impossible moderation is. At least when it comes to praising this show, where a woodpecker plays Jenga at a party. (Netflix)

Best concept

Created by Michael Schur, The Good Place is a marvel. It began as a romp about “heaven" and “hell", but this inventive comedy has upended its premise and context with alarming frequency, staying invigoratingly unpredictable. This is a series about good and evil, one that impressively and sincerely engages with contradicting ideas of moral philosophy—even as it lets a great cast make fart jokes. This year’s third season became not about the person who is naughty or nice but about those making the list: this beautiful show is set to explore the idea of judgement itself. (Netflix)

Best best friends

It may be physically impossible to grin more widely —and, for that matter, more frequently—as I do while watching the new and revamped Queer Eye series, two seasons of which dropped in 2018, introducing us to the Fab Five. A show about five gay men giving those in need a makeover, I was intrigued when I saw it wasn’t just about tucking shirts in right (though the French Tuck is, I agree, very handy) but also involved Design and Culture upgrades. These lovely men visibly love each other—and the folks they bond with—and the warmth and camaraderie is infectious enough to make me want a Pakistani Englishman to throw out most of my wardrobe. (Netflix)

Best outgoing series (aka Best cancelled show)

Amazon cancelled Mozart In The Jungle after its fourth season this year, just when the comedy about classical music was really starting to extend itself, but the show was so weird and whimsical we should be glad we got those mad, Mahler-loving maniacs in the first place. The truly egregious executioner was Netflix, killing off its phenomenally smart pseudo-true-crime documentary series American Vandal, despite a superlative second season. I stand by the declaration that this is the best live-action series the streaming service created, and this is a truly godawful decision. Shame, Netflix, shame.

Best finish

It’s about sticking the landing. Many television dramas start well, with compelling possibilities and fine actors taking on flawed characters, but the end frequently arrives either too belatedly or too obviously. Joe Weisberg’s The Americans completed a terrific six-season run this year with one of the most flawless conclusions I have ever seen. This is a show about Russian spies in deep cover, living in the US as locals for decades, and all their lies and manipulations came to roost this year as the truth came out—while some, crucially, was buried—with inevitability and heart. Like the end of a great novel that makes up for the fact that there will be no more pages, The Americans ended with a truly satisfying coup de grâce. Thinker, tailor, soldier, sigh. (Hotstar)

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

He tweets@rajasen

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