Lorraine Ali’s 10 best new TV shows of 2018: Why ‘Escape at Dannemora’ was the year’s strongest debut

The 2018 year in review in television.
(Michael Waraksa / For the Times)
Television Critic

There were plenty of strong second- and third-season series this year — “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Atlanta,” “Better Call Saul,” “Versailles” — but picking 2018’s top new series is a bit trickier. Nothing stood out the way those shows did in their first seasons, but there were some notable stand outs in an otherwise crowded field.

1. “Escape at Dannemora” (Showtime)

Prison life, a dangerous love-triangle, the daring escape. Those elements alone likely sold this 7-part series, but it’s the stellar character development, storytelling and performances that make this the best new series of the year. Lifers Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano) share the same cell block and woman — prison employee Tilly Mitchell (Patricia Arquette). They all want out of their circumstances: the men from the penitentiary and Tilly from her dull marriage. Based on the true story of a 2015 prison break in upstate New York, del Toro is terrifying as the scheming ringleader and wins the prize for creating 2018’s most memorable TV sociopath. Arquette’s transformation into the frumpy, misguided and selfish Tilly is award-worthy and Dano is wonderfully tragic as the lost soul who’s caught between the two. Ben Stiller executive produces and directs here, delivering a suspenseful and dramatic tale with understated grace. Feature | Full review


2. “A Very English Scandal” (Amazon)

A scandal at the highest levels of government involving an illicit affair and hush money. What could be more entertaining!? And it’s even better in hindsight via this British series about the downfall of 1960s-era parliament member Jeremy Thorpe. Hugh Grant plays the dapper, middle-aged politician and closeted gay man who hides his affairs with a string of men behind the facade of a perfect marriage. But his carefully constructed house of cards begins to fall when ex-lover Norman Josiffe (Ben Whishaw) begins to threaten Thorpe. The plight of homosexuals in mid-century London is at the core of so many moving, hypocritical and humorous moments here, while the series recreation of the era — traditional tweed meets mod Beatle boots — is a joy to watch. Feature | Full review

3. “The Terror” (AMC)

Baby it’s cold out there … and terrifying. Even if horror isn’t your thing, the first installment of this AMC anthology drama is worth trudging out into the chilly unknown, if not for the haunting performance of Jared Harris alone (he plays Francis Crozier, captain of the HMS Terror). Based on the true story of a disastrous British Royal Navy expedition that left England 150 years ago to find the Northwest Passage and never returned, the series imagines the men’s fight for survival when their ships become stuck in miles of Arctic ice. Co-produced by Ridley Scott, “The Terror” also throws in a supernatural twist because apparently frostbite and cannibalism weren’t nightmarish enough. High-minded horror. Feature | Full review

4. “End of the F**king World” (Netflix)

She’s a nihilist. He’s a potential serial killer. Both need to flee the constraints of their disapproving families and conventional town. Alienation and angst are embodied in this quirky and sardonic British series that was just renewed for a second season. James (Alex Lawther) wants to graduate from killing small animals to larger prey when he meets Alyssa (Jessica Barden). She sees him as a malleable accomplice in a quest to find her estranged father. Together they learn they need each other to make it through a world that’s more messed up than them. Based on the comic book series by Charles Forsman, this coming-of-age, misfit tale is the true outsider’s answer to the soppy teen drama dilemma. Feature


5. “Barry” (HBO)

So many new series this year started out strong only to fizzle by episode four or disappoint with a finale that was more of a shrug than bang. Bill Hader’s dark comedy “Barry,” however, starts out slow and builds toward one of the year’s strongest comedic finales. Barry Berkman (Hader) is a Midwestern hit man who travels to L.A. for work but ends up staying to pursue his newfound passion: acting. In between whacking Chechen mobsters and drug cartel members, he attends drama workshops lead by coach Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler). But the harder Barry tries to leave his deadly profession behind, the more complicated his double life becomes. The premise sounds wacky, I know, but when imbued with Hader’s awkward humor and the absurd commitment of Winkler’s character to “the craft,” it hits more marks than a killer for hire. Feature | Full review

6. “Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story” (Paramount)

The six-part documentary series chronicles how the 2012 killing of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin by vigilante George Zimmerman kicked off a reckoning in this country around issues of race and justice that’s still ongoing. It’s heartbreaking to relive this tragedy, and hear the young man’s screams in the last second of his life via a 911 call made by a concerned neighbor. But the series, co-executive produced by Martin’s parents, Jay-Z and others, recalls the events of that horrible night and the travesty of justice that followed through several different lenses: the family’s emotional loss, the role of law enforcement, the awakening of the media. It also explores how the senseless death of one more young black man was finally answered with outrage — and changed who were are as a nation. Feature | Full review

7. “Trust” (FX)

There’s no surer way to feel better about your own extended family’s messy history than immersing one’s self in the dysfunction of the Gettys. And there’s more ways to do that then re-renting “All the Money in the World.” In the first installment of a new FX series about America’s richest clan, the 1973 kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III (played here by Harris Dickinson) is portrayed in the frenetic style of executive producer Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting”). Boyle directed several episodes here, so fast pacing and pop culture references abound as the story unfolds. The Italian mafia, who abducted the teen, demand a hefty ransom, but the miserly and cold oil tycoon grandfather, John Paul Getty (Donald Sutherland), refuses to pay. Hilary Swank and Brendan Fraser also star in this series that was largely overlooked when it arrived, but it’s a fast-paced blast into one of the biggest news stories of the 1970s. Feature | Full review

8. “You” (Lifetime)

The usual “girl stalked by creepy guy” narrative is turned upside-down in this #MeToo-era, psychological thriller. Based on the 2014 novel by Caroline Kepnes, the series follows unassuming bookstore clerk Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) after he becomes obsessed with customer Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail). But who is stalking whom? The show also offers fresh commentary on the confusion around changing gender roles, old sexist standards, entitled millennials and privacy in the age of social media. “You” was renewed for a second season, but it won’t return to Lifetime. Netflix scooped it up. Full review

9. “Black Lightning” (The CW)

Go ahead, roll your eyes and say it — not another superhero series aimed at teens! “Black Lightning” is different, I swear. Imagine an amazing soundtrack each week that’s a mix of obscure old funk, hip-hop, rock and R&B, paired with comic-book action meets real social justice themes — and women are the fiercest avengers of all. This DC Comics adaptation starring Cress Williams as the electrified protagonist has it all, including a sense of humor, original fight choreography and more historical references to black American culture than you’d ever expect from a dude in a glow-in-the-dark unitard. Feature | Full review

10. “Dietland” (AMC)

Impossible beauty standards, fad diets, the crime of aging and the cruelty of the fashion industry were all tackled in this dark comedy about America’s cultural war against women — and imagines an underground revolution in which the architects of the siege are targeted and in some cases killed. Based on Sarai Walker’s novel of the same name, the Marti Noxon series followed Plum Kettle (Joy Nash), a ghostwriter for the haughty editor of a New York Fashion magazine (Julianna Marguiles). But the show only lasted ten episodes before it was canceled. Blame the patriarchy. Feature | Full review

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For the Record: Jared Harris plays Francis Crozier in “The Terror,” not Sir John Franklin as was originally stated in the story.