Another Year of Peak TV

Ludovica Nasti and Elisa Del Genio in My Brilliant Friend (2018)

Last year found critics arguing over whether Twin Peaks: The Return belonged on a list of the best movies or the best television shows of 2017. Since we’ve had that debate (anyone remember how it turned out?), let’s just leave it alone this year and note that most of the lists of the best TV that 2018 has had to offer are out now and then turn to some of the most interesting recent writing on a few of those shows. First, the lists. The ones to scan come from contributors to the A.V. Club,IndieWire, the New York Times, and Paste, from Judy Berman (Time), Sophie Gilbert (Atlantic), Troy Patterson (New Yorker), Sonia Saraiya (Vanity Fair), Alan Sepinwall (Rolling Stone), and if you’ve decided to pay the new toll at Vulture, Jen Chaney and Matt Zoller Seitz.

You’ll find several mentions of the final season of Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’s The Americans, the triumphant second season of Donald Glover and Hiro Murai’s Atlanta, Michael Schur’s The Good Place, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s BoJack Horseman, and dozens of dozens more. Nearly every list-writer opens with a disclaimer: this era of peak TV is both a blessing and a curse. In short, there are simply too many good shows to keep up with. Some producers and programmers aim to cut through the glut with a hook, offering, for example, the first starring role on television for a heavyweight movie star such as Julia Roberts (Homecoming) or the television debut of a cult director like Park Chan-wook (The Little Drummer Girl). Both shows, by the way, are cited by Noel Murray in a piece for the A.V. Club on how a good number of this year’s prestige dramas seem overtly influenced by the cinema of the 1970s. “Maybe it’s a coincidence,” writes Murray, “or maybe it’s just that writers, directors, and producers who grew up watching those movies see within them a visual grammar and storytelling approach that describes life in our own anxious, angry era.”

Park’s six-episode series based on John le Carré’s novel stars Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth) as Charlie Ross, a British actor recruited as a double agent by Israeli intelligence to help find a Palestinian terrorist. The New Yorker’s Troy Patterson finds the series “subtly nutty: a geopolitical thriller distilled to an exercise in psychological suspense. Its tension relies on Charlie’s swerves between fragility and bravado as she operates in a climate of mistrust and interfaces with people for whom paranoia is a job skill.” For Lawrence Garcia in the Notebook, the dialogue “at times leans too far into theatrical emphasis, with self-consciously florid lines about ‘building a fiction’ and entering the ‘theater of the real,’ but there remains something potent about Park’s vision, which makes no pretense to naturalism and frequently lays bare to its table-setting artifice.”

One series appearing on a good number of the lists, and one of the most written-about shows in the past couple of weeks, features no international stars (though it’s narrated by Alba Rohrwacher and Max Richter has composed the soundtrack), and its creator and director, Saverio Costanzo, has a solid reputation in Italy but isn’t exactly a household name elsewhere. Instead, the draw of My Brilliant Friend is, of course, Elena Ferrante.

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