ollowing the 2016 election, television saw a spur in new and political films in 2016 and 2017. From the female-led “Big Little Lies” shining light on domestic abuse and rape to the made by Black artists for Black communities “Atlanta” to the heart-breaking female slavery in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” television was beaming with narratives that empowered women and POC communities when the newly elected President did not.
But there are shows still holding their own, and series still doing what they can to effectuate change on an artistic level.
After those two years, things are a bit different, and the slowed momentum of evocative shows on television reflects this. When we were once up in arms, marching against the inequity normalized by political leaders and entertainment leaders alike, we are now somewhat numb to the shocks of our modern political climate. In turn, some of the shows that were once groundbreaking parallels to the crises at hand seem less impactful.
But there are shows still holding their own, and series still doing what they can to effectuate change on an artistic level. Whether it be normalizing diversity in casts, as seen on “The Good Place,” or exploring diverse cultures, as the final season of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” does, the new seasons of many established shows — and the pilot seasons of a few new series — are still making waves and reminding audiences to stay vigilant and aware. So, without further ado, here’s the best of the best on television right now.
— Maisy Menzies
Best Drama Series
Winner: “The Crown”
Season two of “The Crown” covers about a decade of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, from 1956 to 1964. A lot of ground is covered: Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship plays out shakily; Princess Margaret reels from a failed relationship before meeting and marrying the man that will become her husband, and the Kennedys visit, among other things.
Many of these events are well-documented historical moments; this show’s foundation is based on a good amount of information already known to the public. Despite this, “The Crown” manages to zoom into the details that make up those large events and turn the everyday lives of those in the Queen’s world into an utterly captivating drama. Their daily lives are both heightened in stakes by the mere context of being the royals and less dramatic than may be expected. The show walks that line between mundane and dramatic effortlessly. And the discussion-turned-argument-turned-reconciliation between Elizabeth and Philip — a drawn-out 10-minute scene — perfectly highlights just that. “The Crown” is not afraid to slow down the pace or stretch out the details; it finds its strength in that and proves compelling in its intricacy all the same.
— Nikki Munoz
Runner-up: “The Handmaid’s Tale”
After wrapping its searing second season, the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s landmark 1985 dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” shows hardly any signs of slowing down. Driven by dynamic performances by Elisabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Ann Dowd and Samira Wiley, season 2 delivered the intensity and biting social critique promised by the show’s excellent first season.
As a series that terrifyingly tackles reproductive rights, government regulations and social hierarchies through a multitude of narratives centered on women’s struggles, “The Handmaid’s Tale” manages to thread its dystopian fantasies with contemporary political concerns. In an era that is increasingly defined by the prevalence of the #MeToo movement, the series is creative, fascinating and an essential presence in modern television.
— Anagha Komaragiri
Best Comedy Series
Winner: “The Good Place”
We’ve written about the punny, wholesome geniusness of this show over the course of at least five different articles. But singing its praises might earn this writer some positive points to get into the actual Good Place, so what’s 200 more words?
“The Good Place” follows the (mis)adventures of four recently deceased humans as they navigate the afterlife — or more often than not, the hellish dangers of the Bad Place — and try to become better people than they were in life. There’s Eleanor (Kristen Bell), a selfish “trash bag from Arizona” and Chidi (William Jackson Harper), an indecisive professor. Then there’s the pompous socialite, Tahani (Jameela Jamil), and the molotov cocktail throwing, Blake Bortles superfan, Jason (Manny Jacinto). Along for the interdimensional, universe-hopping ride is their eternal torturer-turned-pal, Michael (Ted Danson) and the all-knowing, all-powerful entity, Janet (D’Arcy Carden).
With talent like the Emmy-nominated Megan Amram and “Parks and Recreation” co-creator Michael Schur behind the scenes, “The Good Place” is as hilarious as it is inspiring — who knew puns and moral philosophy would go so well together? But above all, the show is endlessly creative, rebooting its own premise with every season while never losing sight of its deep-seated optimism. And that is why “The Good Place” is so forking great.
— Harrison Tunggal
The second season of “Atlanta” continues to push its own boundaries and set a high bar for what quality television is. While undeniably funny, “Atlanta” is much more than just a comedy, with each episode driven by complex layers and tones. At times devastating (“FUBU”), poignant (“Helen”), disturbing (“Teddy Perkins”) and always authentic, “Atlanta” pushes its comedic boundaries more than anything. The use of drama — arguably just as present as its humor — is what makes the comedy show so effective. The characters will find themselves in ridiculous situations or Darius will say something aimless, but each line is carefully thought out and woven together. Each joke or punchline is not just tossed out, but rather there with a purpose.
— Nikki Munoz
Best Limited Series
Winner: “The Assassination of Gianni Versace”
After the success of its first season, “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” “American Crime Story” returned to the small screen in early 2018 to once again satisfy our true crime cravings, this time stepping out of the courtroom and into the psyche of spree-killer Andrew Cunanan.
The nine-episode season begins with the murder of Gianni Versace in 1997, working its way backward as it mimics the police investigation. Darren Criss is captivating as the series’s charming and unhinged Cunanan, rounded out by two subtler yet equally emotional performances from Edgar Ramírez and Cody Fern as two of Cunanan’s victims.
What makes “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” so intriguing is the show’s range. The series is unapologetically extravagant in its displays of both extreme violence and extreme beauty, and yet, it’s also rooted in moments of reality that can be more frightening than the crimes themselves. Without all the bloody murders, the series becomes a fraught, emotional drama about failed friendships and the downward spiral of a man who can’t ask for help.
Ultimately, carried by its outstanding performances and bold visual choices, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” is a thrill from start to finish and a must-see for all true crime fans.
— Lauren Sheehan-Clark
Runner-up: “Patrick Melrose”
With the recent trend in high-quality television adaptations of bestselling novels, it is harder and harder for each new adaptation to stand out. But even without the cult following of George RR Martin or the combined star wattage of Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley, Showtime’s adaptation of Edward St. Aubyn’s “Patrick Melrose” novels garnered six Emmy nominations and significant critical acclaim. Following the life of its complicated titular character, facing his troubled past after he learns of his father’s death, the Benedict Cumberbatch-led miniseries is complex and poignant, largely due to the excellent performances from its stellar cast. Despite the dark themes explored during its five episodes, “Patrick Melrose” manages to combine comedy with tragedy, hitting every emotional beat along the way.
— Julie Lim
Best Actor in a Drama
Winner: Peter Dinklage, “Game of Thrones”
Say what you will of the penultimate season of “Game of Thrones.” With narrative inevitabilities finally coming to a head, the season has been called predictable, pandering and contrived by critics and fans alike. But few can deny the acting prowess of its cast, particularly Peter Dinklage, a three-time Emmy Award winner and seven-time Emmy Award nominee, in his role as Tyrion Lannister. The writers of “Game of Thrones” have consistently given Dinklage some of the most complex and intriguing lines, and he has carried it with exceptional truthfulness. One can point to the season finale for an example of one of Dinklage’s finest performances, opposite Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister. In the scene, Tyrion apologizes for the role he played in the death of Cersei’s two children and Cersei reveals her pregnancy. We can hear the agony in Dinklage’s voice, brilliantly juxtaposed against Cersei’s crumbling resolve, which builds up in her decision to have her brother executed for the torment he has brought to her family. It’s moments such as these — where political negotiations are transformed into something deeply personal — where Dinklage shines his brightest. As the HBO juggernaut of a show reaches its dramatic conclusion, we can appreciate more than ever the journey of Tyrion Lannister thanks to Dinklage’s performance.
— Shannon O’Hara
Runner-up: Joseph Fiennes, “The Handmaid’s Tale”
In a show filled with some of the most terrifying villains television has seen in a while, Joseph Fiennes’ whispering patriarchal portrayal of Fred Waterford stands out in the crowd. He is a constant shadow weighing down the empowering light of Elisabeth Moss’s Offred, condescending and creeping through each scene. And what’s almost more terrifying than his violent, government-sanctioned rape scenes and the perpetual subjugation of his wife and handmaid is the fact that Fiennes makes it very clear that his character sees nothing wrong with his actions. After all, everything he is doing is the law in this dystopia.
— Maisy Menzies
Best Actress in a Drama Series
Winner: Claire Foy, “The Crown”
The role of Queen Elizabeth II is not easy to fill — she’s a very well-known figure and the world’s longest-reigning living monarch. But Claire Foy makes stepping into the role of queen look effortless. The emotions and situations she must convey are not easy; this is a woman who has to contain her frustrations and bear the weight of a country on her shoulders, all while dealing with her own personal life. Foy embodies all of these complexities all-consumingly
She manages to portray her character’s feelings with mere facial expressions or body language. Whether she is drained by the toll of her role as queen or insecure in her marriage, Foy is utterly compelling in her grasp on the intricacy of any situation the queen is in. At the center of most scenes, Foy maintains that centrality with precision and stability, and the other actors work their characters around Foy’s Elizabeth. Like her role, Foy also bears much of the weight of the plot. But, also like Elizabeth, she does so with a grace and strength that grounds so much of what makes the show so compelling.
— Nikki Munoz
Runner-up: Elisabeth Moss, “The Handmaid’s Tale”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is one of the most well-timed and engaging insights into the fight for women’s reproductive rights, and Elisabeth Moss stands at its helm. Her career has traversed television streaming platforms, numerous film directors and even Broadway stages. But her role as Offred, or June, in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is perhaps her best role to date.
The Golden Globe-winning drama manages to strike a balance that is, for lack of a better word, striking. Moss’s character is often powerless but never completely so — her personal rights and freedoms stripped from her, Offred’s condition sheds light on modern issues while still providing an empowering vision of what it means to be a woman.
— Olivia Jerram
Best Actor in a Comedy Series
Winner: Donald Glover, “Atlanta”
Better known by his stage name Childish Gambino, musician, comedian and writer Donald Glover’s television series “Atlanta” aired for the first time in 2015, based off of the rap scene in his own hometown of Stone Mountain, Georgia. The show has received two Golden Globes and two Emmys, include Glover’s milestone accomplishment of being the first Black director to win an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series.
The protagonist of “Atlanta,” Earn, draws a lot of parallels to Glover’s own past as well as his musical persona; Glover’s sophomore album, Because The Internet depicts a cynical bachelor who often makes spur-of-the-moment decisions, not too different from the reckless nature of Earn. And as Glover stated, “I am not making a TV show, I am making an experience.” This sentiment is clear, with every scene unflinchingly nuanced, full of laughter and unafraid to touch on the painful topics related to Black identity today.
Glover’s fans have remained die hard fans from his debut album, Camp, to his show, “Atlanta,” for a reason. The content that Glover produces supersedes the constraints of any one form of media, and consistently challenges conventionality. The show’s honest narratives and comfortability as a piece of artwork that isn’t for everyone sets “Atlanta” apart from the crowd of comedy series out there.
— Christopher Chang
Runner-up: Bill Hader, “Barry”
From Stefon to Herb Welch, Bill Hader had already established himself as one of the best comedic actors on television during his time on “Saturday Night Live.” But as co-creator, writer and star of HBO’s new dark comedy “Barry,” he has proven his acting chops span far beyond ensemble casts and supporting roles. The grounded absurdity of his work in “Barry” stands out above the more melancholic dramedies that are seemingly today’s television trend. The critics agree that Hader’s eponymous hitman-turned-actor is one of his best roles yet — and after four Emmy nominations for “Saturday Night Live,” he finally nagged a Leading Actor Emmy this year for the first season of “Barry.”
— Julie Lim
Best Actress in a Comedy Series
Winner: Kate McKinnon, “Saturday Night Live”
In more than four decades of “Saturday Night Live,” Kate McKinnon has attained a level of stardom that few female castmates have reached. She joins the ranks of Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph as “SNL” heavyweights, often carrying her sketches to success even through their weakest comedic beats.
This season of “SNL” seems to be teetering more toward a miss than a hit, but many comedic moments that do land have McKinnon to thank for it. In 2018, McKinnon received nominations for both an MTV Movie & TV Award as well as a Primetime Emmy Award for her work on “SNL.” In addition to continuing her much-beloved White House impressions — including ones of former attorney general Jeff Sessions and Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway — and nuanced, creative character development on the show, she’s made time to appear on the big screen alongside Mila Kunis in “The Spy Who Dumped Me.” Although the film didn’t stand out on its own, McKinnon’s comedic talent and her chemistry with Kunis are, without doubt, the film’s saving graces. Fortunately for fans of the comedian, 2019 is shaping up to be another great year — she’ll be appearing in a new film from Danny Boyle in the summer alongside Ana de Armas, Ed Sheeran and Lily James.
— Shannon O’Hara
Runner-up: Zazie Beetz, “Atlanta”
You won’t see Zazie Beetz’s Vanessa, or “Van,” in many advertising posters for “Atlanta,” but it becomes strikingly clear rather quickly how integral she is to the show. As “Atlanta” captures Black life in the city, Beetz efficiently embodies the role of a complex, modern Black woman. She is much more than the protagonist Earn’s (Donald Glover) on-and-off girlfriend, making a compelling character in her own right. With two episodes of the second season focused on her — “Helen” and “Champagne Papi” — viewers gain a deeper look into the character who elicits the most curiosity. The glimpses viewers get as she acts in a supporting role only make them want to learn more about Van — this comes down to Beetz’s firm stance in her scenes and her tight grasp on Van’s complexity.
— Nikki Munoz
Best Actor in a Limited Series
Winner: Darren Criss, “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace”
Andrew Cunanan was a man of many faces. On the surface, he was a gruesome spree-killer who took five lives, including those of his close friends. Taking a deeper look into his persona, Cunanan was a charismatic speaker and a pathological liar with a knack for manipulating those around him.
It is no surprise then, that watching Darren Criss’s portrayal of Cunanan in “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace” feels like watching the same actor in a hundred different roles. Criss goes from a remorseless killer to a sweet-talking lover in the blink of an eye, and it’s that sense of emotional whiplash that keeps the audience on their toes — and fearing for their lives. Criss’s Cunanan is like a bomb that could go off at any second, except in this case, the bomb is deftly trying to convince you that everything will be okay.
Even in his calmest moments, Criss can be delightfully eerie, his well spun words sounding too smooth and his voice too light. The show never lets its audience get comfortable enough to fully sympathize with him, keeping with the undercurrent of violence and rage that drives Cunanan to murder.
All in all, Criss represents the many-sided complexities of Andrew Cunanan with an electrifying confidence, and there is no doubt that his role in “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” will be a turning point in his career.
— Lauren Sheehan-Clark
Runner-up: Benedict Cumberbatch, “Patrick Melrose”
With “Sherlock” under his belt, Benedict Cumberbatch is not a stranger to being a television critical darling. His role as the titular, psychologically tortured Patrick Melrose in Showtime’s limited series marks Cumberbatch’s sixth Emmy nomination in the past seven years. This honor is rightfully due — Cumberbatch deftly brings darkness and levity to his portrayal of a drug-addled family man haunted by traumas from his childhood. Just when you think you’ve seen the depths of his talent, the British heartthrob continues to raise the bar. From “Hamlet” to “Imitation Game,” Cumberbatch already has a portfolio of acclaimed performances but “Patrick Melrose” may be his most career defining role yet.
— Julie Lim
Best Actress in a Limited Series
Winner: Sarah Paulson, “American Horror Story Cult”
Sarah Paulson has served as the reigning scream queen behind Ryan Murphy’s anthology series “American Horror Story” since its inception, and with “Cult,” she once again proves why she’s the only one worthy of the crown.
With her portrayal of Ally Mayfair-Richards, a restaurant owner in Michigan who is riddled with phobias and eminently fragile in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, Paulson showcases an impressive ability to believably inhabit a number of emotional extremes. Ally’s fear and sense of helplessness dominates her arc for the early half of the season, and Paulson’s performance makes that terror feel more palpable with her every scene.
But later this terror morphs into strength, as Ally recovers from her phobias and regains all of her power. Watching Paulson tackle this transformation is the highlight of the season. She slowly builds up Ally’s resolute strength, earning her character’s final triumph. Paulson never misses a beat, and the audience never stops rooting for her — she is a spot of hope in a season based on sobering political realities.
— Grace Orriss
Runner-up: Penelope Cruz, “American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace”
It’s no easy feat, playing the fashion icon Donatella Versace, but Penelope Cruz takes on the role with confidence in the limited series, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” Cruz’s Donatella is the perfect antithesis to Edgar Ramírez’s Gianni, the two constantly playing off of each other’s acting styles. Where Donatella is blunt and pragmatic, Gianni is there to counter her with his heartwarming idealism; where Cruz acts restless, snappish and deeply insecure, Ramirez grounds the show with his even-tempered mannerisms.
Beyond the sibling dynamic however, Cruz proves formidable in her own right. In the show’s first episode, Cruz shows her range through her emotional performance as the grieving young sister, forced to push aside her pain and face the world.
— Lauren Sheehan-Clark
Best Variety Talk Show
Winner: “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”
Oh, John Oliver. Somehow this man has a way of capturing everyone’s neuroses and anxiety and either spinning it into 30 informative minutes about anything the general public doesn’t know enough about or examining more closely the things we already do know. From buying wax presidents to film ridiculous action movies to explaining the key aspects of authoritarianism, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” delivers humor, honesty and an unflinching opinion on the ways of the world. It doesn’t pull any punches when topics become heartbreaking or horrifying, but it rewards its viewers afterward by donating Russell Crowe’s jock-strap to a dying Blockbuster in Alaska.
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” is so effective because it does variety so well. The show has found its balance, and it knows when to throw in a joke to lighten the mood and when to stay somber when the situation is dire. It doesn’t look down upon its viewers, who may not know much about felony disenfranchisement or Brazilian elections, but it explains situations with sympathy and humor. The show is accessible, the knowledge is valuable, and John Oliver is so lovingly ridiculous that it must be the best show on television.
— Sydney Rodosevich
Runner-up: “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee”
Samantha Bee doesn’t sit behind a desk. She plants her feet, looks straight into the camera and confronts her audience with a directness and an urgency that separates her from her peers in late-night television. This tone serves the show well: From righteously angry coverage of Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation to the discussion of prescient issues Such asvoter suppression and anti-Semitism, the writers of “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” never fail to craft sharp commentary for Bee to impeccably deliver. Every episode feels unapologetic, authentic and necessary in today’s political climate.
— Grace Orriss
Best Animated Series:
Winner: “BoJack Horseman”
In its fifth season, “BoJack Horseman,” one of television’s smartest shows, draws a very deep line in the sand. For years, audiences have followed the washed-up actor grappling with his own irrelevancy as he balanced unsteadily on the tightrope between deplorably unforgivable and deserving of our sympathy. This is no longer the reality; for the first time, Bojack has fallen to one side — and it isn’t the good one.
Episodes such as “Free Churro,” in which Bojack gives a bone-chillingly personal eulogy at his mother’s funeral that teeters from awkwardly comedic to desolately disappointing, are akin to the writer’s opening up of Bojack’s skull and reading through the folds of his brain like a diary. In these moments and the myriad episodes where we see our frontman lose his grip on reality as he becomes dependent on the use of opiates to function, our sympathy for Bojack is high.
But the moment Bojack becomes violent against his fellow co-star in a disillusioned trip he can’t break free from, our tried and true devotion to his redemption is put to the ultimate test. It becomes harder and harder to see a world in which we can forgive him, and it’s even more disturbing that we still want to.
With the creators of the show risking it all in this depressing turn for Bojack’s already controversial character, the fifth season of “BoJack Horseman” defies expectation and asks audiences a frighteningly important question: When is enough enough?
— Maisy Menzies
Runner-up: “Big Mouth”
“Big Mouth” tells the tale of one of the most horrifying and universal human experiences: puberty. The show is as deeply empathetic as it is gross, fully encompassing the two-tracked rollercoaster that is puberty: physical changes and their emotional sidekicks all being mixed up inside. The show makes the most of its animated form, saving moments to dive into the fantastical, mirroring the inner psyches of its main characters and building itself into a cozy little world of in-jokes and references. It also allows for a number of standout vocal performances, among them the wide-ranging stylings of show creator Nick Kroll and Maya Rudolph, whose performance as the hormone monster is the stuff of legend. “Big Mouth” is a surprisingly tender take on pubescent life and the awkward years many of us try and forget, resulting in a hilarious, relatable show.
— Camryn Bell
Best Documentary Series
Winner: “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown”
At a time of government-enforced xenophobia, Anthony Bourdain didn’t listen. His documentary travel and food show “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” utilized a culinary lens to bring world politics and culture to mass media. In its latest iteration, the series faced the challenge of continuing a successful show without its greatest success: Bourdain himself.
Only one of the twelfth season’s seven episodes, which took place in Kenya, was finalized before Bourdain died this past June. As a result, four of the remaining episodes relied primarily on narration and interviews from the guests featured in each planned episode, with the final two episodes acting as retrospectives on the show’s production and Bourdain’s life.
An end to “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” was not expected; neither was its removal from Netflix. But as it stands, the show, much like the man who created it, will continue to leave its impact on the world of television and beyond.
— Olivia Jerram
Runner-up: “Making a Murderer”
After “Making a Murderer” became a sleeper hit in the winter of 2015, viewers have been anxiously anticipating its sophomore season. Three years in the making, the second season had a high standard to meet in the continuation of Steven Avery’s story, a man wrongfully convicted for separate crimes in 2005 and 2007. The continuation of the Netflix series opened to rave reviews, although not as critically acclaimed as its debut. Following the aftermath of Brendan Dassey’s coerced confession as accessory to Avery’s alleged second murder, “Making a Murderer” continues to chip away at the flaws of the American justice system and shines a light on those who get caught in the middle.
— Julie Lim
Contact the Daily Cal Arts Staff at [email protected].