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Yes, you can attend a Gatsby-like party on the East or West Coast with caviar and television critics who admittedly never actually put on a live television program anymore and just stream a few shows they get from Netflix and Hulu and HBO on demand and just assume those are the best TV shows out there. And there is truly fantastic television out there that almost no one is watching. But the genre of television is for the public--to bring people together in a shared moment in time. For the millions of people who watch ordinary television live every night of the year and feel left out in the process of the end of the year critical "best" lists that look more like those film lists from movie critics that cite foreign language films only in sepia-toned color than anything people actually watch, here’s what actually deserves credit for being 2018’s best. It’s “TV For the Common Folks,” or a guide to the best on Network TV in 2018...
This is Us continued to be a therapist’s delight with interesting storytelling and emotional acting. Empire continued to be a gripping Shakespearean soap opera for our time. But sometimes television should just be fun. And when you find the right combination of writing, acting, and angsty relationship drama--there was no other show I looked forward to more than this year’s show of the year:
Ron Batzdorff / NBC
The second season of the show was a tribute to history--and good story-telling. The show was brought back by fans mounting a save-the-show campaign but then ignored by NBC until it aired midseason without publicity. However, Timeless continued to be a refreshing take on history, weaving a complex path between its battle to prevent history from being changed (encountering agents from evil time-changing society, Rittenhouse, trying to do just that) and staying human in the process by focusing on individual characters caring for others and being haunted when they could not change predestined outcomes.
With episodes that took us back to the Salem Witch era, helped us meet the young Kennedy family, or guided us through the trenches of World War I to find Marie Curie working as a nurse, the show’s second season was riveting. But what made the show so wonderfully addictive was a cast that sold the adventures and had fun in the process. The delightfully soapy relationship between Lucy (Abigail Spencer) and Wyatt (Matt Lanter) (but no--his wife came back! Is she pregnant or is that a ruse? And is she really a spy for Rittenhouse? Noooooo!) was done in a way to provide maximum angst and almost dare viewers to (successfully) badger the network to bring the show back. It partially worked, and after Times Square billboards and Comic Con blitzes, the show was brought back for a two-hour movie that neatly wrapped up the adventures of “The Lifeboat” time machine-travelling team. The two-hour finale featured Rufus getting saved, Flynn martyred, and Wyatt and Lucy married off, as well as our heroes trapped in a Church. On Christmas Eve. With a woman giving birth--how’s that for symbolism? Good things happen to good shows and good shows reward their devoted fans. But Timeless as a series was daring, took creative risks, gave its audience what it wanted, and wasn’t too serious about itself. Though it seems this show is finally done and headed to its way-too-early grave, we can only hope that somewhere down the line, show somehow returns to us at least one more time…
While it’s true that NBC's The Good Place has seemingly become the critical darling among network comedies (and indeed has the acting and writing that is well-deserving of such kudos), and ABC's Fresh Off the Boat and Blackish continue to be funny and poignant as they explore and lead to conversations about race and identity, my comedy of the year is a genuine surprise. There’s some debate in the TV world whether this freshman show on CBS is a comedy, drama, or dramedy, but for the sake of this column I’ll stick with comedy. Besides, with more than 10 million viewers per episode (twice that of this year’s viewer total for The Walking Dead and 9 times as many viewers per episode as The Americans), it’s clear that Americans still watch comedy in huge numbers and have also found this show:
GOD FRIENDED ME (CBS)
It was a concept that sounded so cheesy, most of us thought it would be dead-on-arrival. Voices from God? Helping people before something terrible happens? Is this Touched by an Angel or Early Edition? But when an atheist podcaster starts getting social media friend requests from a mysterious and anonymous “God” account, his world is upended, and the show somehow works wonders. The immensely likeable Brandon Michael Hall (who plays character Miles Finer) sells his character to perfection, and Emmy-Award winning Joe Morton (last seen as “Papa Pope” on ABC’s Scandal) is fantastic as Miles’ father and a local minister. Miles befriends journalist Cara Bloom (Violet Beane), a struggling millennial who has cured her writer’s block partially by writing about the stories she uncovers traveling the city with Miles and investigating the relationship between fate, faith, and simply helping others. The adventures that ensue each episode are both comical and heart-warming. The episodes are delightfully written so that almost always they come full circle in a way that is a bit unexpected but usually gratifying. They can be a bit slow-paced, and you may need a Kleenex now and then, but the comedic performances are always there to balance it out. And in a year where it seemed everything was falling apart and where everyone we talked to was cynical--it’s nice to see some positivity on television.
From BattleBots making a surprise return (on Discovery instead of ABC) to Queer Eye being retooled in Atlanta (from Bravo to Netflix) to the return of Charmed (with a new cast on CW instead of the defunct WB) and a new version of Sabrina (on Netflix instead of ABC), we saw a lot of familiar characters (and tropes). But most of them were flawed. Newer isn’t always the better. However, two comeback kids bucked the trend:
AMERICAN IDOL (Fox)
Eric Liebowitz / ABC
"Do we really need American Idol back so soon?" cynics asked when Idol returned to the airwaves after only being gone one season. Yes. Yes, we did. And ABC’s shortened version of the Fox show that aired for fifteen seasons reminded us of the reasons we fell in love with the show years ago: likable prospective stars and popular, but caring, judges (Luke Bryan, Katy Perry, Lionel Richie). When 20-year old Maddie Poppe from Clarksville, Iowa was crowned American Idol over her competition-turned-boyfriend Caleb Lee Hutchinson, it was clear the show was once again about music and not as much popularity. After all, the winner had sung an earthy version of the Muppet hit, Rainbow Connection. She didn’t look like a pop star--but she sure did sound like a music star. And it’s refreshing to see that audiences and the show respected that. Let’s hope American Idol continues to find this talent.
MURPHY BROWN (CBS)
Of the six “comebacks” mentioned in this section--it’s the only one that didn’t change networks. It did age. Quite a lot. Several decades, to be exact. Is there still a place in television for an embittered journalist who rails against the current president? (Oh wait, I may be implicating everyone at MSNBC and CNN…) But it’s much more fun to watch the fictional Murphy Brown take on her colleagues, her world, and anything that crosses her path. Savvy writing and nuanced acting continue to make this Murphy Brown relevant and interesting, and with stars like Candice Bergen, Faith Ford, Jake McDorman, and Tyne Daly, there is never a dull moment. The show took on topics ranging from immigration to the #MeToo movement with biting humor, realism, and simple effectiveness. While it's initial 13-episode return has comes to an end, it deserves to return in 2019.
In a world where there are dozens of dating shows and a new trend of talent shows (most involving singing), The Voice continues to impress and Dancing with the Stars is still entertaining. Amazing Race still chugs along (albeit the production seems hampered by a budget cut and less destinations) and RuPaul’s Drag Race is the runway show now that Project Runway seems destined to be off the air because of a contractual nightmare. Cooking shows are still fresh (the return of MasterChef was pleasant, and Hell’s Kitchen continues to be smoking hot). Big Brother and the first U.S. edition of Celebrity Big Brother both had wildly entertaining seasons thanks to interesting casting. And the return this December of ABC’s The Great American Baking Show: Holiday Edition brought a fantastic addition of (Baby) Spice Girl Emma Bunton as co-host with Anthony “Spice” Adams, and the delightful crew of supportive but oh-so-technical judges of Paul Hollywood and Sherry Yard. But quite surprisingly it was an old reality stalwart that came out of nowhere to earn top honors:
SURVIVOR 37: DAVID VS GOLIATH (CBS)
What a difference a season can make. What made this season absolutely must-see was how it was both cast and established. The “David vs Goliath” concept was a credible and unique twist on the game so well-known for staying fresh and making changes. Put a group of underdogs up against supposed heroes and you’ve already got a story. It certainly helped when the underdogs were outnumbered and seemingly had little chance to win and made enough right moves to make the game interesting. Christian was like most fans of the show: nerdy. Nick was interesting. Mike was a film producer but funny and relatable. Angelina was… well, Angelina. Likable characters who were willing to constantly change alliances and not hold grudges also helped.
It’s refreshing when contestants reward other contestants for being allies one week, enemies the next, and allies a week after that. It makes for exciting, riveting television. They admired how each competitor played the game and they weren’t afraid to look aggressive or be aggressive -- and actually thought it might help, not hurt, their game. The new twist of the “idol nullifier” (and Carl’s precise use of it to get Dan out) was also fantastic and played at the exact right moment to help balance the tribes in a sensational way and give the David’s momentum when it looked like they had no chance to win the game. It was fantastic reality television that made the show the closest thing we still have in America to a water-cooler show because if you didn’t see it live the night before, you didn’t want to hear what you missed. That’s TV at its finest.
Most of the prime-time game shows air during the summer, when Celebrity Family Feud took an interesting “team” approach (as opposed to the family format) and no one can deny the likability of Steve Harvey, while the host that actually seems to truly root for contestants the most may be Michael Strahan of ABC’s $100,000 Pyramid, a delightfully similar version of the same show that has aired since 1973. But the second summer of one game show was surprisingly addictive and has already been renewed for 2019:
BEAT SHAZAM (Fox)
In his second season, Jamie Foxx working alongside his daughter, Corinne Foxx (the DJ spinning the tunes), were enjoyable hosts for the show featuring three teams of two playing to beat each other and then defeat a computer entity (Shazam!) in a modernized version of the 1950s Name That Tune. But Foxx brings energy and know-how to typical music categories (pop, R&B, movie hits) and hummable-melodies of artists such as Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, or Boy Bands, and he often sings and dances with the contestants. Additionally, celebrities regularly appear on the show and make surprise appearances when their music is played, and seeing Joey McIntryre, Snoop Dogg, Mariah Carey, and Lance Bass (among many non-musical celebrities) appear to the frenzied delight of the crowds is always part of the fun. Unlike some game shows, the winning duo walks away with at least some money and everyone at home has heard some good music. Win-win.
While there were countless stand-alone moments from comedies, reality series, and dramas this year, it seems most fitting to select the moment of the year from a series finale. CW’s The Originals (a Vampire Diaries spinoff) exited after a particularly strong fifth season and a total of 92 episodes, and ABC’s Scandal said goodbye after 7 seasons and 124 episodes. Both had tremendous performances from the acting leads and sentimental moments to reward viewers, but nothing quite as nostalgic and heartwarming as the TV moment of the year:
ONCE UPON A TIME (LEAVING STORYBROOK) (ABC)
After 155 episodes and 7 years, ABC’s Once Upon a Time returned to Storybook for a series finale years in the making. It hit the right notes for what a good series finale should do: create an emotional connection (Rumple and Belle reunite in the afterlife in a moment reminiscent of the Lost finale, which, coincidentally, also featured one half of the couple), feature the return of all the critical series regular characters who left the show (Zelena, Charming, Snow, Hook, and Emma reunite) and surprise viewers with a twist 7 years in the making: the “evil” queen Regina (Lana Parrilla) that all of us knew had redemptive qualities all along becomes officially crowned as the good queen and ruler of the (fairy tale) realm. The show faded out on the “Leaving Storybrook (Maine)” sign after Regina’s coronation as Queen, while Snow and Charming and Regina’s adopted son, Henry, all watched and the kingdom cheered. It was an ending that was befitting of any fairy tale, let alone one of television’s most cleverly-conceived shows, created by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz (Lost). It was a critical moment for the show and depicted one of the great moments of TV in 2018, and it was a perfect ending for fans who stuck with these characters through 155 episodes. All along we had been trained to think it was a show about happy endings, but in reality, it was a show about second chances. The finale showed that at times they are one in the same.