Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The 16 Best Shows that Aired on Basic Cable Channels in 2018

With 2018 coming to a close, now is the time to reflect on the year that was before we venture into the future of 2019. This entire week I will be mentioning the various shows that delivered strong and compelling seasons this year. These picks are my recommendations for what shows viewers should be watching on the various television platforms now available.

According to FX network research released this past week, there were 495 original scripted shows that aired in 2018. That set a new record in the era of Peak TV - though the growth is slowing down with only an increase of eight shows from 2017. Moreover, the basic cable channels contributed 144 of them. However, that marks a steep decline from 2017 - when basic cable produced 175 shows. This year was actually the lowest since 2012 for these channels. That shows that these networks may be the ones suffering the most in Peak TV. It also shows the importance of brand strength. It's hard to stand out in the current environment. There are some channels here that continue to thrive because of their history of excellence - like FX or AMC. However, there are numerous outlets here that are exiting the scripted space because it's just too expensive with too few rewards. That's a precarious balance that may only worsen in the years to come. And yet, that doesn't reflect in the quality of the shows. It's still clear that a great show can come from anywhere. Sometimes, all it takes is the right show to come along at the right time to completely build up a network in this industry.

This year also marks a significant change to year-end coverage on this site as well. For the first time, the lists will not be ranked. That system was always so arbitrary and varies according to taste. Moreover, there are so many shows out there that are made for a specific audience. Shows aren't built for everyone anymore. Only a few even have broad audiences in their live debuts. Most of the data is collected by the networks after the fact with the audience not always knowing just how successful any show is actually performing. As such, I've highlighted these 16 shows as the best of the basic cable channels. They are each worthy of checking out. Many of them have appeared on the Best of the Year lists before. Some won't be surprising at all. And yet, all of them were compelling television that was rewarding to myself as a viewer. That makes it so special for me to be spotlighting them as the best of this slice of the medium. Plus, the other areas of the industry will be featured in their own posts this week. Again, there is just so much television to enjoy that it's best to just spread the love around to as many as possible.

Syfy's 12 Monkeys

The time-traveling drama based on the feature film concluded its four season run this past year. The show starring Aaron Stanford and Amanda Schull did so with extreme style as well. The apocalyptic stakes were always present. And yet, the show just had fun with its premise which allowed it to send its characters on numerous journeys that could confuse the mind but only enriched the story further because of all of the twists and turns. Plus, it delivered one of the best villains of the entire year who was so complicated but extremely compelling.

FX's The Americans

The period drama starring Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell also concluded its run this year. Throughout six years of constantly looking over their shoulders, the tension only increased during the final chapter of their story. The agony and cost of the spy profession took its toll as it became clear that all of this was building to some epic tragedy. But again, it was the personal moments that revealed this to be much more of a show about marriage and friendship with the devastating secrets that are kept throughout every single exchange.

FX's The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story

Ryan Murphy's anthology series came out of the gate so strongly with the O.J. Simpson story in 2016. That tale took the world by storm and made the audience view the case completely differently. The followup season which centered on the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace by serial killer Andrew Cunanan was never quite as good. However, it still told its story in a unique way that offered more and more insight as it went along. Plus, it boasted strong performances from Darren Criss, Penelope Cruz, Edgar Ramirez, Ricky Martin and many more.

FX's Atlanta

Donald Glover completely surprised everyone with the first season of this comedy which he stars in, writes and directs. This show tackles some huge experiments that play with tone, style and huge issues. And yet, it pulls every single twist off as well. It features one of the best ensembles on television - with Brian Tyree Henry, Lakeith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz equally capable of stardom. Plus, this year introduced Teddy Perkins into pop culture canon which was delightful despite how absolutely unsettling he is as well.

AMC's Better Call Saul

The Breaking Bad prequel revolving around Bob Odenkirk's lawyer, Jimmy McGill, only continues to get better with age. This year slowly kept the tragedy going with the inevitable turn of Jimmy into Saul Goodman. There were more references than ever before of what's to come in this world. But it also featured some of the best montages and most heartbreaking personal moments of the year too. Jimmy is doing whatever it takes to survive because he has already lost so much.

IFC's Brockmire

The second season of the comedy starring Hank Azaria completely changed its setting. It highlighted how Jim Brockmire was moving up in his career. Success always had the lurking suspicion that it could ruin things for Brockmire and the show. And yet, the season was even more hysterical and more tragic. It went to some pretty dark places as Brockmire continued to push everyone close to him away. But his career still managed to be revived despite his dependence on drugs and alcohol in order to perform.

TNT's Claws

This colorful dramedy was able to completely balance some wild tonal shifts and fantastic sequences to deliver a second season that was much more focused than the first. It had a clear message to say on a number of issues and told them in ways that were so extreme but so absolutely clever and delightful as well. Sure, there is always the risk of too much going on at a single moment. But this is the type of show that makes you smile even though it features a number of gangs also trying to kill each other all the time.

Syfy's The Expanse

The futuristic drama spent its first two seasons teasing the audience that a war was coming to the overall system and it could completely destroy everything. In Season 3, the war finally came. It was just as lethal and heartbreaking as promised. But it also made way for a new future with the system needing to come together to explore new alien technology that could drastically change their lives. It's one of the best science fiction shows out there - with Amazon picking up the rights for the fourth season.

BBC America's Killing Eve

It's so difficult for any show to do something different in a very familiar genre. And yet, Phoebe Waller-Bridge's creation managed to completely subvert the expectations of a cat-and-mouse story. It presented two women who were so capable and smart. They were hunting each other for moral reasons but also had such a palpable physical attraction as well. Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer delivered some breakout performances while the entire ensemble had some of the most memorable one-liners of the year.

AMC's Lodge 49

Not every small show worked this year on AMC. However, this drama starring Wyatt Russell was completely unexpected and absolutely pleasing. It dealt with existential dread in a very amusing and off-kilter way that invited the audience into the world of this eclectic ensemble. The entire cast was surprisingly great and fit perfectly into this unique environment. And yet, Sonya Cassidy stood out the most as the sister of the main character dealing with her own struggles.

Syfy's The Magicians

The fantasy drama is yet another series that continues to get better with age. The third season was beaming with confidence as it rid its magical world of magic and made the ensemble stumble around trying to find a way to turn the power back on. It was an adventure that saw devastating consequences as one rose to the status of a God but also the strength to produce a musical episode. It continues to subvert the viewers' expectations for this world while creating twists that continue to surprise even if it means the characters can't enjoy happiness for too long.

Lifetime's Mary Kills People

The drama starring Caroline Dhavernas may sound super serious and grim because it deals with a doctor killing people with terminal illnesses. However, it's absolutely a celebration of life and the belief that people should have a choice when it comes to how they want to die. It explores so many interesting facets of the human identity while still being a thriller that deals with the central character running afoul of local police enforcement and criminal enterprises who have their own interest in the business.

FX's Pose

This Ryan Murphy drama made history before its debut by featuring the largest cast of transgender actors playing transgender characters. That was a groundbreaking achievement. It then became a story of profound glory and acceptance. Sure, it dealt with the realities of life in the 1980s for the gay community. But it was ultimately a celebration of life that was actually a statement about the power and beauty of everyone with a LGBTQ identity. Plus, it showed that Billy Porter and MJ Rodriguez are stars.

USA's The Sinner

Jessica Biel led the cast for the first season but chose not to return as the star for the second. She remained on board as an executive producer of the drama which followed a new investigation. It delved further into the minds of a new ensemble led by Bill Pullman and Carrie Coon. It showed the perils of inherited trauma and how complicated life is for everyone during their developing years. It was yet another solid investigative mystery that came to a shocking conclusion after eight episodes.

AMC's The Terror

The drama led by Jared Harris was the latest thriller that took a "the true monster is humanity" approach to its story. However, it was executed so well that it was absolutely chilling to watch in so many ways. The sound design was extraordinary while the performances elevated the material significantly as the danger from a harsh environment kept creeping in. It too featured one of the best villains of the year thanks to Adam Nagaitis. Plus, the special effects were equal parts gorgeous, cinematic and terrifying.

Lifetime's You

This drama melded the tones of a romantic comedy with a stalker thriller. It dealt with the typical conventions of people aspiring to find love and acceptance. But it also dealt with the reality of a super-connected world that actually encourages people to be awful while blasting every single aspect of their lives online. It made the case both for and against its central couple - played by Penn Badgley and Elizabeth Lail - before coming to a definitive and shocking conclusion at the end of the year.