As per tradition in this humble digital outpost, the day before the annual announcement of the Emmy nominations brings one of my compulsive attempts to condense my time wallowing in pop culture into a ranked list. And so I present my thoughts on the finest achievements in the exceedingly broad range of distribution methods that get corralled together and referred to, somewhat quaintly, as “television.”
Also following established patterns, I must note that there exists an insurmountable mountain of programs that remain outside my personal viewing experiences. I can’t claim my television consumption is comprehensive, but I’ve done my level best to make a respectable list. And there are just enough excellent shows missing the cut (if I could carve off the portion of Better Call Saul focused on Jimmy, Kim, and the characters in their direct orbit, the series might be in the upper half of this list) that I feel satisfied that the batch I’ve settled on are worth celebrating, even if some eventual catch-up viewing may leave me regretting an omission or two.
I’ve adhered to the calendar of Emmy eligibility. For ongoing series, the relevant season is noted for clarity.
#1 — Fleabag, season 2 (Amazon). Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s creation glows with genius in its second season, lit up by the emotional exactitude of the writing and the delightfully playful deconstruction of the breaking-the-fourth-wall conceit employed regularly by the lead character. Sian Clifford, Olivia Colman, and Andrew Scott give sharp supporting performances (and Kristin Scott Thomas and Fiona Shaw are grand in quick, pointed guest star turns), but it’s Waller-Bridge who carries the whole show, making miracles with the fiendishly tricky lead role she’s written for herself. The second season of Fleabag is a wondrous achievement.
#2 — Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (Netflix). In basic presentation, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is a simple stand-up act, but her edgy exploitation of the conventions of the form to deliver emotional haymakers and scathing, little-spoken truths of societal malfeasance puts her in the company of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and very few others. With expert craft and devastating vulnerability, she upends her own comedic mastery.
#3 — Russian Doll, season 1 (Netflix). A delirious puzzle, a caustic comedy, and an existential treatise all at once, the co-creation of Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler dealt surprises freely from the bottom of the deck. Stylish in look and wry in outlook, Russian Doll was another instance of a television series drawing boundaries mostly for the joy that comes in excitedly smearing them away.
#4 — Sharp Objects (HBO). This miniseries (and let’s hope lessons have been learned and there’s no attempt to wrench a needless continuation out of it) is an ideal realization of Gillian Flynn‘s novel: heavy with portent, swirling with anguished confusion, and often bleakly funny. Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, and newcomer Eliza Scanlen are all downright heroic in their bruised and bruising portrayals.
#5 — Better Things, season 3 (FX). Better Things is all Pamela Adlon’s now, and it is the better for it. Slump shouldered and dogged in its pinpoint precise storytelling — about Hollywood, about motherhood, about existing as a woman in middle age — the series finds unexpected complexity everywhere it looks. Adlon directed every episode, and her endlessly inventive visual sense has becomes the show’s most formidable attribute.
#6 — Glow, season 2 (Netflix). The second season of Glow wisely compensated for the diminished novelty is building drama out the nineteen-eighties upstart entertainment of all-women professional wrestling by deepening the characters and the relationships. Alison Brie continues to shine as Ruth Wilder (and maybe even more as Zoya the Destroya), but it was the potent acting of Betty Gilpin that gave the season its heft.
#7 — Broad City, season 5 (Comedy Central). Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson brought Broad City to a close with enviable timing, whether prefaced by the term comic or narrative. Their namesake characters fitfully begin to grow up and move on just as the shenanigans of youth are wearing thin. Jacobson was especially strong in a season that found Abbi belatedly developing a stronger sense of self.
#8 — Barry, season 2 (HBO). The co-creation of Bill Hader and Alec Berg grew darker and more experimental in its sophomore season. The animating gimmick of the overarching plot started to feel — intentionally, I believe — like a joke turned grim, the high concept drifting lower and lower as the vessel took on more bloodshed.
#9 — Homecoming, season 1 (Amazon). Based on a podcast, Homecoming has a slender premise and few real surprises in its plot. It is, however, awash in visual creativity, thanks to the restless, relentless showmanship of director Sam Esmail. Sterling performances by Julia Roberts, Stephan James, and Shea Whigham add substance to the style.
#10 — The Little Drummer Girl (AMC). Immediately earning a place among the best John le Carré adaptations, The Little Drummer Girl features acting by Florence Pugh, in the lead role, that is honed to the sharpness of a brand new diamond needle. That would be enough, but her accomplishment is surrounded by exemplary work by every last collaborator, especially director Park Chan-wook.