If you hadn’t been convinced before 2018 that television, as an art form, was going the way of literature, music, and film before it—that is, so much of it from so many corners that you’d have better luck catching a falling star than managing to keep up with it all—maybe you’ll believe it after I tell you that I (a professional television critic!) managed to find at least one show on every “Best of 2018” television list I looked at that I not only hadn’t seen (not a shock), but that I had never even heard of. And I know I’m not alone.
Your list will absolutely vary, but here, for the purposes of illustration, are just a handful of the shows that I didn’t know existed until some list somewhere told me they were among the best (or at least, most watched) that TV had to offer in 2018:
The Little Drummer Girl
The Kominsky Method
The Loud House
Bobby Kennedy for President
Yes, Fastest Car: Though notoriously tight-lipped about real numbers that mean real things, Netflix whipped up an infographic of the year’s top Netflix original movies, series, and talent (based on U.S. viewership only), and the TV list included something called Fastest Car at #6. FASTEST CAR. What is Fastest Car? How is it possible for more than one episode of such a show to exist? Wouldn’t the very existence of follow-up episodes render each “fastest car” designation awarded previously a total lie? Well, I don’t know, but apparently enough (though who knows how many) Americans are watching it (though who knows how thoroughly) that if I were to walk up to a random stranger on the street this holiday season, the odds would apparently be not bad that I could get them to tell me.
As a critic who has made a point this year of covering the goings on of newer digital platforms like YouTube Premium, Facebook Watch, go90 (RIP) and VRV, I am likely ahead of the average viewer in not having to include things like Sacred Lies, Impulse, Queen America, Origin, Betch and Bravest Warriors on my list of never-rans, but all that means personally is that I have had to give up on remembering half of the shows my colleagues love that can be found in more mainstream places. The Terror? A Very English Scandal? High Maintenance? I’m taking it on complete faith that they exist. I’d add Lodge 49 to that list, but my editor has been from the start what seems like the Internet’s most passionate evangelist for that one, so I’m afraid I’d lose out on future assignments if I even hinted I had doubts over its reality.
All of this is to say: It’s a tall order to try and identify trends in 2018 television, aside from the fact that, well, there was just a whole lot of it.
Still, between all the lists I looked at in preparation for this piece and all the industry trend pieces that made splashes throughout the year, I do think there are a handful of things about television in 2018 that can be accurately called out not just as trends, but as signals for what tricks television holds for us in the near future.
1. The (Complicated) Reign of Social Television
Social TV is not a 2018 invention. Nielsen has had a whole channel dedicated to social content ratings measurement since 2016; three years before that, Tumblr started its Fandometrics rankings project. Twitter has been the watercooler for hot TV talk for nearly a decade.
Still, 2018 saw some wild developments on the social television front—namely, in how powerful even tiny cabals of fans can be when they use their social engagement powers with focused intent. Case in point: Wynonna Earp’s Earpers were so passionately obsessed with figuring out who licked the potato? that Syfy renewed the scrappy series for Season Four in advance of Season Three’s official premiere. Also see: Timeless’ Clockblockers, who hired a helicopter to fly a banner with the social media campaign slogan #SaveTimeless over San Diego Comic-Con, which got the twice-dead show brought back from the dead for a Christmas-themed showstopper of a series finale. And: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Expanse and Lucifer, all of which got pickups on new networks after their original networks canceled them, all thanks to fervent fan campaigns putting the social media discourse to strategic use.
Social content ratings are also the only real point of crossover between critic-based and viewership-based lists, and least when it comes to linear television: Compared to the mostly critically unsung shows that cracked Nielsen’s traditional, ratings-based Top 10 lists (Bull, for one), the three scripted series to hit Nielsen’s top 10 for social engagement this year, American Horror Story: Apocalypse, This Is Us and Riverdale, also appeared on Rotten Tomatoes’ “Certified Fresh 2018; list. These aren’t Top 10 shows, critically—at competing ratings site Metacritic, not all of them garnered enough reviews this year to get official ratings, let alone break into that site’s 20 Best of 2018—but by joining the rest of the 110 titles “Certified Fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes, they are better regarded, if not more watched, than the remaining four-fifths of the nearly 500 scripted series to air this past year.
I wrote about the disparity between critical and popular ratings at length earlier this year, and suggested Tumblr’s Fandometrics (whose own list of “2018’s Top Live-Action TV; included both AHS: Apocalypse and Riverdale) as a resource that might help split the difference in various quarters—including the fact that Nielsen’s social tools don’t account for social chatter around streaming series, new or old. With all these “Best of 2018” rankings finally in hand, though, the point I want to make now is this: Trying to find a single metric that might comprehensively capture how we watch what we watch is a Sisyphean task, one that neither Rotten Tomatoes, nor Metacritic, nor Nielsen, nor Tumblr—nor, alas, the Critical Discourse™—has, as they say, the range to undertake alone. This has really always been the case, but as so many of us critics spent 2018 funneling our professional energies into discussing the ever-expanding fractal of niche scripted series, the mainstream conversation stayed firmly planted in the realm of unscripted television. Of the seven remaining spots on Nielsen’s Social TV list, the Bachelor and WWE franchises took four of them; RuPaul’s Drag Race, America’s Got Talent and American Idol made up the rest. (Not for nothing, USA Network came out as Nielsen’s #1 cable network in 2018, thanks in great part to the wild popularity of that channel’s various WWE and other unscripted programming blocks. Happily, Paste’s own LaToya Ferguson has had that beat covered for years.)
I am not trying to imply that critics are doing “the discourse” wrong (though, we might be), or that American audiences are watching television wrong (though, they might be!), but rather that trying to make sense of how to shake the realities of both conversational trends together is… complicated. If we as critics (or even just as dedicated viewers) want to read meaning into television as a form when things like the Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Timeless resurrections happen, then we need to at the very least remember that scripted television is not all or even most of what is driving the social conversation, or what the social conversation is driving in turn.
2. The (Possibly Great) Potential of Digital Platforms
Paste has written several times this year about what unique user experiences digital platforms like Facebook Watch and YouTube Premium can give their audience. (SKAM: Austin could exist nowhere else than Facebook, which owns Instagram.) While time will tell whether or not the models those platforms are using are sustainable (early reports suggest… no), the content they put out in 2018 was mostly good, verging on great. YouTube’s Cobra Kai was an immediate critical hit, with Impulse following quietly (but excellently) in its wake. Despite the actual nightmare of the platform’s UX, Elizabeth Olsen’s turn in Sorry For Your Loss put Facebook Watch on just about every “Best of 2018” list out there, while that same nightmare UX kneecapped the likelihood that as many people would watch the tightly-executed YA cult-horror Sacred Lies. (Both platforms made it through the year alive, at least, which is more than can be said for go90, and my own darling Betch sketch series that lived on it.)
What 2018 also showed us is that audiences’ understanding of the Internet as a place where television can just be is robust enough that some creators will be able to successfully go the fully independent route. In 2018, some of the creators who took that route used existing platforms, like Alex Dobrenko did with his interactively sequenced relationship series, Distance, released on a standalone website but with YouTube videos. Others, like comedian Cameron Esposito (above), saw the specific value in being able to develop one’s own video platform through which to distribute challenging but important content for free. Her stand-up special, “Rape Jokes,” is available only on her website streaming for free, or for download (and recently, on limited edition vinyl) for the cost of a donation to RAINN. As of December 16, Esposito’s gambit that people would want to pay good money to a good cause for good television, no matter the fact that it is free on its face, had raised upwards of $90,000 for the organization. For a stand-up special that can be watched free. In high definition. From the comfort of your nearest wifi-enabled screen. Anytime you want. $90,000.
If this is the digital television revolution, I’m in.
3. The (Slow) Rise of Inclusive Storytelling, Casual and Radical Alike
Queer representation across every type of genre and network was so robust in 2018 that Autostraddle was able to put together a list of their 25 favorite series featuring LGBT women characters, which in the end actually included 28 titles. And those were only titles that appeared somewhere on the 18 “Best of 2018” lists they looked at from other outlets! Scandalously, such queer fan favorites as Wynonna Earp, Supergirl and every single iteration of SKAM aren’t represented in those final 28 anywhere. (As Paste was one of the outlets whose lists were used, and as I am the resident Wynonna Earp fanatic who forgot to include that show on my ballot for those lists: Uh, my bad. I totally apologize.)
Compared to the almost 500 scripted series that aired on television in 2018, 28 isn’t a huge number, but as Riese points out in her discussion of the trend at the top of her column, 2018 built on a shift she first started documenting in 2017, “wherein regular and recurring queer women characters were just as likely to show up at the forefront of prestige television as they were in our previous homes of “soapy teen dramas,” sci-fi/supernatural epics and very small parts in aforementioned prestige television.”
And it wasn’t just with queer women characters that television in 2018 stepped up its inclusivity. Pose brought more series regular trans representation to the small screen than any scripted series before it, Andi Mack brought Disney its first out gay character, with Cyrus Goodman (Joshua Rush), and The Loud House (I looked it up) brought Nickelodeon its first (animated) bisexual teen girl. Chilling Adventure of Sabrina’s Ambrose Spellman (Chance Perdomo). Dear White People’s Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton). The Assassination of Gianni Versace. In fact, across almost every metric, cutting across almost every sector, inclusivity was up in 2018 over 2017. Only bi+ women saw significant drops in representation this year—which chastens this critic, in light of the confused frustration I felt thinking The Bisexual was behind the times. Mea culpa.
As the GLAAD report these findings come from points out, there is still ground to be gained, and with all the characters currently in their count that are planned to be absent next year, every inch of that ground will be hard-fought. Still, what a year for inclusive storytelling.
4. The (Inconsistently Effective) Willingness of Networks to Be Progressive
The rise of Time’s Up and the mainstreaming of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement in the past year-plus has made the prospect of using television to throw a middle finger to regressive ghouls especially attractive—and, in that attractiveness, commercially viable. Plenty of individual series from 2018 rose to the progressively-charged challenge of our particular cultural moment—Dietland, Pose, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina—but it is on the network level that real change in both culture and the industry will happen, and on the network level, things are… strained.
How strained? Well, look at the fact that The CW (above) was objectively—and proudly!—the most inclusive broadcast network on average in 2018, with 16% LGBTQ character inclusion (#1), 46% women series regulars (#1), 46% POC series regulars (#2, after NBC), and notable representation of characters with disabilities or mobility issues (five characters in all through the end of the 2018-2019 season). “I feel less afraid every day,” The Flash star Candice Patton said this fall at a Variety panel on inclusivity and representation featuring women EPs and stars from The CW. “I think the way the tide is turned, I’m less afraid to get on set and have conversations about whatever—about the things that I need as a woman, or equal pay or whatever it is. I feel less afraid because I know there are other women and other men who get the shift that’s happening and will have my back.”
This is terrific! In the meantime, though, one of The CW’s parent companies, CBS, has turned out to be a cesspool of Weinstein-esque assaultive male entitlement whose rot is so pervasive new veins of it are being uncovered daily… including at The CW itself, where Black Lightning EPs, Salim Akil and Mara Brock-Akil, have been caught up in accusations of domestic abuse (Akil) and copyright infringement (both), and have just had the second season of their series Love Is_ canceled by OWN. (This is not the first time The CW has been embroiled in controversy of late, either: The news follows harassment allegations in 2017 involving a producer at Supergirl and Arrow, who was subsequently fired.)
Another post rounding up the major reporting on the harassment, assault and abuse at CBS. For some random reason, the word “pervasive” comes to mind https://t.co/hhOSCO4ad9
— Mo Ryan (@moryan) December 21, 2018
If living in the world since 2016 has taught us (white and/or straight and/or able-bodied and/or cis-gendered) people anything, it is that two painfully dissimilar realities can be true at once: CBS can be a patron of the unapologetically progressive work being done by Jennie Snyder Urman, Julie Plec, Allie Brosh McKenna and Nkechi Okoro Carroll over on The CW, while simultaneously profiting off the toxic marrow festering in the Eye Network’s very bones. One can hope that 2019 will see not just CBS, but all networks trend in the The CW’s more aggressively be-the-change-you-want-to-see direction, but we can’t let our hope that things will get better stand in the way of doing the work to make them so, which as critics and viewers, means demanding accountability even from those we trust and love.
5. The (Already Here) Niche-ification of Television, Full Stop
I originally had “eventual” as the parenthetical qualifier for this trend, but then I remembered that in my eulogy last year to the end of the first truly social era of teen TV, I uncovered the fact that 2017’s #1 series among Tumblr-savvy teens was the never-imported, never-subtitled Norwegian public television series, SKAM, obsession over which spread like wildfire across the digital globe, teens passing ripped video files and crowdsourced script translations one to another using, I am not kidding, Google Drive. SKAM exploded into “mainstream” success with multiple official international versions in 2018 (SKAM: Italia overtaking SKAM on Tumblr’s year-end list, with Facebook Watch’s SKAM: Austin not even cracking the top 30), but if you didn’t know about SKAM’s big coup last year, you are unlikely to have noticed its move to the television big leagues this year.
All this to say: Nichification has happened. It’s here. The sea of television available to us all now, while the world burns, is so vast that the only way to keep from drowning is by hopping across a few variously interconnected archipelagos. We may meet on Atlanta Island, or the Isle de Killing Eve, or even The Good Place Keys, but it will only be for a brief hello before we each set back out, you to Random Acts of Flyness, me to Andi Mack, and that stranger in between us, apparently, to Fastest Car.
I don’t think “there is too much TV for any one person to be held responsible for” is a revolutionary observation, necessarily—in fact, considering that this is the very note that Slate’s 2018 TV Club ended up on around the same time I was filing this column, it’s an observation that is critically de rigeur—but I think that too many of us are still physically unable to let go of the guilt we feel over knowing it to be true.
To you, then, I say: Friends! Hear the good news! YOU CAN’T WATCH EVERY GOOD THING ON TV. You can’t even watch every great thing. You are hereby absolved of participating in any television discourse you would rather ignore, and encouraged to seek out the tiny, fervent discourses you do. Find the things you love, and love them no matter how weird or small or undiscussed they are. Rejoice and be free! Because 2019? It’s almost here. And it has so much new TV to offer.
Be sure to read Paste’s other Best of 2018 coverage here.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.