I know what you’re thinking: we’re only a quarter of the way into the year, so how much new television worth watching could there really be? The answer, surprisingly, is quite a lot. This isn’t to say that TV is better than ever (it’s not), just that there’s more of it than ever before. In the US, Netflix alone has already released nearly two dozen new seasons of television this year, with no sign of slowing pace anytime soon. And though 2018 might become known as the year that we finally reach the point of content saturation, that’s not the only trend worth noticing.
For the first time since well before Walter White donned a porkpie hat and called himself Heisenberg, a majority of the best series the small screen has to offer are leaning toward the realm of “feel-good” storytelling. And while they may have optimism at their core, it’s often a complicated optimism living side-by-side with death and darkness. With a news cycle that moves a mile a minute, these shows are all the more impressive for their ability to feel present and even prescient.
Not all of these 10 shows fit the mold of tentative optimism, but all of them capture the zeitgeist in one way or another, reflecting the truths of 2018 back at us with a little extra cinematic shine. They’re also each excellent and worth seeking out, so read on and tune in.
10. Counterpart (Starz)
Whether you eat, sleep, and breathe spy movies or don’t know Get Smart from The Americans, Starz’s latest slow-burn drama will manage to sink its hooks into you. A very game JK Simmons stars as two versions of the same man (Howard Prime and Howard Alpha) in a plot that’s equal parts Alias and Fringe. After the Cold War, the known universe somehow doubled itself, but the alternate version was kept top secret for years until a mild-mannered UN agent (Simmons) discovered it, and along the way met his harsher, lonelier doppelganger. The first season has foregone explorations of the series’ mythology, instead grounding itself with storylines about espionage and double-crossing that make great use of a dreary Berlin setting. Simmons’ magnetic performances are easily the show’s greatest strength, as he pulls Orphan Black-style double duty without the latter’s added benefit of having characters who look or are even addressed differently. By the grace of his performances alone, we’re able to tell the two Howards apart; while one is flinty and confident, the other is tender and a bit of a pushover and both share a tragic love (which, more than anything else, holds the series together) for versions of the same woman. –Valerie Ettenhofer
9. Flint Town (Netflix)
Just as documentarian Errol Morris cracked open a previously unseen part of America with little more than a camera in The Thin Blue Line 30 years ago, so a trio of filmmakers (Zackary Canepari, Drea Cooper, and Jessica Dimmock) do with Flint Town now. The town in question is actually a large city, Flint, Michigan, known for the still-in-resolution water crisis that made national headlines in 2015. The Flint we see is in crisis alright, but water is only a fraction of the problem. Viewers are dropped into a police force that’s crippled by budget and leadership changes and paralyzed by national discussions about brutality, racism, and reform. At the time of filming, we learn, Flint has the most understaffed police force in the nation for a city of its size. As crime goes largely unchecked, 911 calls go unanswered for hours, mothers weep for their slain children, fires rage on, and a potentially life-changing election season looms. The chaos is caught on film with an almost unbelievable artistic eye: cameras are present in harrowing situations to capture literal blood, sweat, and tears and spin them into visual poetry. Despite the technical acrobatics on display in Flint Town, the show is clearly nonfiction through and through. Police and community members speak frankly about identity, community, and government throughout the course of the year. Their comments can be shocking, heartening, or even cruel, but they’re always unshakably, unnervingly real. –Valerie Ettenhofer
8. Queer Eye (Netflix)
Sorry Roseanne, but there’s already another show about “real America” making an epic comeback this year. The original Queer Eye ran on Bravo from 2003 to 2007 and followed the fab five (five gay men, each with an area of expertise including cooking and design) as they helped give usually straight men lifestyle makeovers. If this sounds like a genre of show you don’t care about, I see where you’re coming from, but it also may be scientifically impossible to watch the new Queer Eye without a huge smile on your face. The revival follows five new guys as they help make everyone from a self-professed redneck to a devout Christian family more fabulous, all while reminding them that there’s no one right way to be a man — a powerful and clearly emotional notion that some of these men have never accepted until now. There’s a certain amount of wish fulfillment here since we know a kitchen makeover and haircut can’t fix everything, but the fab five still manage to work miracles. Makeover montages and punchy one-liners are balanced out with honest, tear-jerking moments addressing race relations, grief, religion, coming out, and so much more. –Valerie Ettenhofer
7. American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace (FX)
FX’s American Crime Story (not to be confused with American Horror Story by the same creators and on the same network) has established its MO: pick a real, high-profile murder, dramatize it, and nail it. After 2016’s hugely well-received “The People v. O. J. Simpson,” the show followed up this year with “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” which just finished on March 21st. The physical likenesses alone are worth mentioning, as is the out of left field but welcome appearance of Ricky Martin (yes, that one) as Antonio D’Amico, Gianni Versace’s partner. But the most notable asset is Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan, pathological liar, creepshow extraordinaire, and murderer. While Versace’s life and the impact of his death are great in their own right, it’s Cunanan’s story that’s truly fascinating. Told in a series of nonlinear scenes, it offers a strange and specific dual view into the world of gay men in the mid-90s, and into the mind of a serial killer. If you haven’t seen ACS yet, go watch it on FX’s website immediately, before it disappears. –Liz Baessler
6. Barry (HBO)
Bill Hader’s new HBO comedy is a lovely look at a man who’s lost in the middle of his life and trying to claim happiness by force. That man is a professional killer, and the happiness he’s chosen is a third-rate acting class in LA, but that’s almost beside the point. Barry’s situation makes it a comedy, as does the near-stand-up-act dialogue of some of its secondary characters. But the real heart of the show is its protagonist’s naive and steadfast insistence that he can shape his life into what he wants it to be. Barry’s blind optimism is funny, yes, but it’s also inspiring. You can read my review of the first four episodes here. –Liz Baessler