Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The 14 Best Shows Airing on Pay 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 pay cable channels contributed 45 of them - marking yet another year of consistent growth. Sure, that may only be up 3 from the total for 2017. However, it continues to show that this remains a trend for these specific networks. There may only be a few of them in this business. However, they all continue to operate with strong brand strength. HBO, Showtime and Starz delivered some knockout programming this year. That's a trend that is only bound to continue in 2019 with many of them choosing to invest even more in their original offerings. That's not even mentioning the big plans that networks like Cinemax and Epix have for their future growth. So, this is a corner of the industry that is still booming and may mean that 2018 was not the peak for Peak TV quite yet.

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 14 shows as the best of the pay 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.

HBO's Barry

Bill Hader became known for his masterful impressions and characters on Saturday Night Live. But this comedy about a hitman who becomes obsessed with acting actually showed that he was a truly magnificent actor, writer and director. He shined in all of those respective fields. The show was so biting with showbiz commentary while also being so brutal and heartbreaking as well. Plus, it gave us some absolutely delightful supporting performances from Henry Winkler, Anthony Carrigan, Sarah Goldberg and Paula Newsome.

Showtime's The Chi

Lena Waithe made waves on front of the camera in Netflix's Master of None - rightfully winning an Emmy as well. However, it was truly surprising to see her delve into a full-on drama. It offered a stronger glimpse into her creative style while telling a truly innovative story. The first season examined what it was like living in a specific neighborhood of Chicago and how the many different stories of a singular location can actually have a huge impact on one person's actual live.

Starz's Counterpart

J.K. Simmons delivered not only one of the greatest performances of the past year in television but two. This spy thriller meets character drama asked him to play two versions of the same guy who only differed because of the life choices they've made over the past 30 years. It's a truly mind-bending premise that also truly appreciates a convoluted conspiracy tale. But again, that central performance is so absolutely strong and mesmerizing that it carries the entire show.

HBO's The Deuce

David Simon shows always run the risk of featuring too many characters and subplots that it could all completely fall apart by the season finale. And yet, the second season of the period drama about life in 1970s Time Square only continued to get better and more tragic. Maggie Gyllenhaal continues her tremendous performance as Candy built on her career in the porn world. But this year also saw stunning work from an entire ensemble of actors like Gbenga Akinnagbe, Gary Carr, Emily Meade and Jamie Neumann.

Showtime's Escape at Dannemora

This prison break thriller starring Benicio Del Toro, Paul Dano and an unrecognizable Patricia Arquette doesn't entirely justify its seven-episode length. The early episodes especially call on the audience to be patient in the hopes that it all pays off. And yet, it absolutely does in spectacular fashion by the end of its run with a series of episodes that truly pay off everything that has been built while delivering some knockout performances not just in front of the screen but behind the camera too with Ben Stiller's direction.

Starz's Howards End

The novel by E.M. Forster has already been adapted once into a popular film. As such, audiences may question if another version was truly necessary. And yet, the four-episode limited series starring Hayley Atwell was a beautiful and solid translation of the words on the page. Every single character had resonance while also being able to have some delightful observations of the world. Plus, it truly understood the idea of family expectations and the importance of finding purpose in one's life - even if it's simply home ownership.

HBO's Insecure

The third season of the comedy created by and starring Issa Rae was the show firing on all cylinders. It started with some of its strongest episodes to date that showed Issa flailing around because she hoped that she would have more of her life figured out at this point. But it also remained one of the most hilarious comedies on television thanks to supporting performances from Yvonne Orji and Natasha Rothwell. Plus, things were just as sexual and tantalizing as ever before.

Showtime's Kidding

The comedic drama was fundamentally a powerful mediation on life and death examining how one family has to move on following tragedy while still in the public spotlight. It was at times very sad and complex with Jim Carrey delivering one of the more intriguing and nuanced performances of his career. It may not be the laugh-out-loud starring vehicle that many people had hoped with the notion of Carrey doing television. But it truly is a fascinating show that absolutely will not be for everyone.

HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

This was such a crazy and chaotic year for news. And yet, John Oliver once again navigated it with such nuance and precision. Every week he is capable of discussing the issues that people should care about even if they aren't the most noteworthy of headlines. Plus, he can still offer a ton of silliness like writing a children's book that trolls the Vice President, sending Russell Crowe's jockstrap to the remaining Blockbusters in America and producing a movie trailer featuring five wax presidents.

HBO's My Brilliant Friend

The Italian drama was one of the most beautiful and mesmerizing dramas of the year. It is an extremely faithful adaptation of the novels by Elena Ferrante. But it's still a powerful examination of a specific era and time. It highlighted the power and opportunity for women to learn and the struggles for them to survive. The lead characters - Elena and Lila - are the best of friends but remain completely envious of what the other has. It's so overwhelmingly full but remarkably focused in the drive that propels everyone forward in the hopes of success.

Showtime's Patrick Melrose

Benedict Cumberbatch has delivered a number of terrific performances. He's won Emmys, been nominated for Oscars and played a Marvel superhero. And yet, this limited series may have feature his best work to date as a man spiraling out of control thanks to addictions and the trauma inflicted on him as a child. It shows the seduction of addiction and just how difficult it is to break out of patterns that have been apparent for so much of one's life. It's such a personal journey that resonates because of just how appealing the lead performer is.

HBO's Sharp Objects

Television really doesn't need yet another dark mystery drama in which a young girl has been killed and the season follows the troubled investigators trying to solve the crime. And yet, this show completely rewrote that narrative by making it a character drama in which everyone is only interacting with each other because of the tragedy that has happened in town. Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson led a stunning cast that shows just how much inherited trauma from past generations can lead to more damage being inflicted on an innocent and ever-changing world.

HBO's Succession

This hourlong series defies any rational classification. There are moments that play as serious and pretentious drama. But there are other moments that play as twisted and bitting comedy. It all works together in a way that offers such an amusing and intriguing look into the wealthiest of the world as they all struggle to maintain their own sense of power and importance. It was the show that truly surprised everyone this year in being able to say something powerful from characters who couldn't be further from relatable.

Starz's Vida

This was a huge year for the half-hour drama. It all started thanks to this show as well that provided an in-depth and complex look at the impact of gentrification in a neighborhood that takes pride in its culture. It was all examined through a family that believed they knew exactly who they were and where they came from. But it only took a closer examination to realize that the issues at play for the overall culture are still a chief focus for the members of this family too with everyone trying to figure out how they feel about the neighborhood and families changing.