It’s the most wonderful time of the year…
As 2018 draws to a close, it’s time once again to highlight the best of pop culture from this year. In previous years, I’ve stuck to television, but one of my goals for 2018 was to expose myself to more of a variety of media, so I watched more movies and read more books than I have in the past. That, coupled with a slight dip in the amount (and, frankly, the quality) of TV I watched this year inspired me to expand my year in review post to include movies, books, and sports in addition to television. I also hope this inspires you to share all of you favorite media from 2018, because one of the best things about these posts over the years has been all the wonderful recommendations I’ve been given in the comments. (I never would have fallen in love with The Americans without my NGN Family championing it in these posts years ago.)
Looking back on this year in media, it’s no surprise that so many of my favorite things revolved around female characters. The books, movies, and TV I loved this year almost unanimously dealt with women learning to define themselves on their own terms as brave, strong, and—most importantly—kind people. The media I gravitated toward this year often celebrated a kind of radical goodness—a message of light pushing back against the darkness, of love surviving even the most painful things life can throw at us, and of hope existing in that quiet corner of our souls that allows us to keep getting up when everything around us seems determined to keep us pinned down. This year in media taught me that we all have choices to make and those choices determine who we are. And when we choose to believe in ourselves and our capacity to love—that’s when we become our best selves. That’s the message I’m taking into 2019, and what an empowering message it is.
Without further ado, let’s take a closer look at my favorite television, movies, and more in 2018!
Best Show (Drama): The Americans
The Americans changed me in ways I never could have expected when I first started watching it. It changed me as a writer; it changed me as a TV viewer. It forced me to look more closely and think more deeply about the media I consumed, and it challenged me every week to find the words to talk about its brilliance with others. Although I was sad to see it end this year, I couldn’t have asked for a better final season for what I consider the best show I’ve ever watched. The Americans was always a show about marriage and family above everything else, and this final season reinforced that in the most surprising and impressive ways imaginable as it built to a finale that was all about letting your children leave you behind as they grow. From “Don’t Dream It’s Over” to “With or Without You,” this season took us on a journey of self-definition for nearly every character that ended in a way I don’t think anyone expected. Along the way, it gave us heart-stopping chase scenes, romantic axe mutilations, line dancing, and a moment that will go down in TV history simply as “the parking garage scene.” With everyone in the cast turning in top-notch performances and masterful moments of silence balanced by lines that cut like a dagger (“You’re a whore!”), The Americans turned in one of television’s most complex and unique final seasons by staying true to itself until the very end.
Best Show (Comedy): The Good Place
The Good Place has become my TV Happy Place. It’s given us not just one of the most creative concepts in TV history, but it’s also given us one of the most hopeful messages on television at a time when hope is desperately needed. This year, The Good Place became a show about what it means to be “good,” and what it’s taught us all is that good people don’t always do everything right but they keep trying anyway. Goodness isn’t about scoring points; it’s about helping others without the promise of anything in return. It’s about creating a family of people who help you become the best version of yourself—even when that family consists of an Arizona dirtbag, an anxiety-riddled ethics professor, a beautiful narcissist, the dumbest person alive, a Janet, and an actual demon. The laughs come fast and furious on this show, and it’s forever changed the way we all think of the Jacksonville Jaguars, but that’s not what makes it so special. It’s brilliance lies in its heart—in its belief in telling a story about what we owe to each other and how trying to answer that question helps us create our own Good Place wherever we are.
Best Moment (Drama): “Home” (Pose)
Pose was the best new show of 2018, and no scene better exemplifies why it’s so special than this moment of Blanca and Pray Tell singing the classic song “Home” from The Wiz in a New York City AIDS ward in the 1980s. Blanca’s bravery in facing what she knows will be her future as an HIV-positive woman at this time is reason enough to celebrate this scene, but it becomes even more beautiful when she falters upon seeing a patient who hits too close to home. It’s at that moment when Pray Tell sees his friend struggling and does what so many of the characters on this show do for each other: He stands with her and lets his voice sing out when she can’t find hers. Watching these two HIV-positive characters (one a gay man and one a trans woman) find joy, love, and light amid the darkness of the time is unlike anything that’s ever been seen on TV before, but it would have been the best moment of the year even without its groundbreaking nature. It was a moment about the power of art to spread joy in dark times and the power of friendship to lift us up when we can’t continue on our own. And the fact that it features the stunning voices of Mj Rodriguez and Billy Porter certainly doesn’t hurt.
Best Moment (Comedy): “Don’t Kidnap” (GLOW)
This is another musical moment from a show set in the 1980s, but it couldn’t be more different from the one on Pose. I loved this scene because of the sheer absurdity of it; it’s a piece of comedic genius, and I don’t think a week has gone by that I haven’t watched it at least once when I needed a laugh. GLOW is a true ensemble show, and this moment highlights that ensemble in the most ridiculous way possible. The entire show-within-a-show episode was a creative risk that paid off, but this was the highlight of that gamble. The parody of “We Are the World” is satire at its best (and the closing shot of how people can order their own copy was very nostalgic for this 90s kid), but what made this moment work was the performances. Every single member of the cast fully committed to every hilarious line (“Get a cat if you’re lonely!”), Betty Gilpin’s facial expressions showed why she should win every award for her work as Debbie/Liberty Belle, and watching all of the cast clearly have so much fun created a contagious sense of joy unlike anything else I experienced as a TV viewer this year.
Best Performance (Drama): Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings (The Americans)
I’ve written so many words on the brilliance of Russell’s work on The Americans this season, and I think I said it best in my (sadly unsuccessful) push for her to get an Emmy: “Russell never asked you to like Elizabeth with her performance, but in this last season, she made it impossible for you not to feel for her.” Russell had one of the most thankless jobs on television—playing the ultimate “unlikeable” female lead—and I will continue to argue that ingrained sexist attitudes against those kinds of characters kept her from getting the recognition she deserved. Because how else can you explain her lack of major awards for the kind of performance that is so physical, so uncompromising, and so brutally honest that you feel every beat of it—every shaking hand and hunched shoulder and ragged gasp and hand against a train window—in your gut? Russell’s lack of vanity and her determination to make Elizabeth feel real rather than relatable was on full display in the show’s final season as she was pushed to her breaking point—and beyond it. Elizabeth Jennings should go down in TV history as one of the most complex and compelling female characters ever, and so much of the credit for that should go to the woman who brought her strength, her vulnerability, her brutality, and her beauty to life every week.
Best Performance (Comedy): D’Arcy Carden as Janet (The Good Place)
If Carden doesn’t win an Emmy for “Janets,” there is no justice in the world. But even before that phenomenal showcase of her talents, she was still turning in the most consistently funny and endearing work on television. Her line delivery is a masterclass in committing to a character, and that was used to its fullest effect in “Janets.” Her take on each of the vocal patterns and mannerisms of the humans was the single most impressive acting work I’ve seen on television this year. For that episode to work—and it worked like little else I saw in 2018—Carden needed to allow us to see each “Janet” as the human hiding behind her face, and she did that through performances that could have been sheer mimicry but instead captured the essence of each character and each actor to allow us to emotionally connect with each version of her as an individual. It was the single best acting showcase of the year, and it gets better with every viewing.
Best Episode: “START” (The Americans)
“The Americans never lost sight of the fact that it was a show about human beings. It was a show about marriage, family, and friendships—and that’s what mattered in the end. It stayed true to its deeply personal sense of tragedy and tentative hope and, in doing so, created one of the most unique and deeply moving series finales of all time.” I can’t say it any better today than I said it months ago in my deep dive into this episode. “START” was unexpected from beginning to end, but its surprises came from staying true to the ethos of this show rather than straying from that ethos to go out with a bang. This was an episode filled with moments I’ll never forget—from the horrible gasp Keri Russell gave to start it off to the garage scene and the perfectly painful moment we learn Paige’s fate the second Bono starts to wail in “With or Without You.” And each of those moments contributed to a story that was less of a spy thriller and more of a story about parents coming to discover that their children are no longer children, which felt right for a show that always prioritized character development over action. The quiet tragedy of this episode lingers long after you’ve finished watching it; I know it will stay with me into 2019 and beyond.
Best Relationship: Eleanor and Chidi (The Good Place)
Who would have guessed that a show about people living in hell would give us one of the greatest love stories on television? I never could have imagined in the early days of The Good Place that it was actually going to become what we in the fanfiction world call a “soulmate AU.” But that’s exactly what it is. Watching Chidi and Eleanor find each other in every version of their story—no matter how people have tried to separate them—is nothing short of stunningly romantic. If even demons can’t keep you from falling in love, you know what you’ve got is pretty special. But even more than their ability to rebuild their relationship in every reboot, what makes Chidi and Eleanor’s story so inspiring is that it’s a story of two people who help each other grow into better versions of themselves. This season, they helped each other remember who they are when they felt lost, and that’s all anyone can ask of their soulmate. (Well, that and the kind of kiss that makes you say “Hot dog!”)
Most Anticipated Show of 2019: Fosse/Verdon
I feel like Fosse/Verdon was made just for me. A show based on the life of my favorite choreographer, inspired by my favorite nonfiction book ever (Sam Wasson’s Fosse), and created by people I admire more than pretty much anyone else (the Cabinet behind Hamilton)—what’s not to love? When I read Fosse, the thing that stuck with me the most was how tragic the love story between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon was, as well as what a genuinely loving and good person Gwen Verdon seemed to be. With that in mind, I cannot wait to see how their story is adapted for the small screen. I already know the dancing is going to be perfect, but it’s the relationship I’m most excited to see—and to write about. That’s right: I’ll be covering every episode of this show here at NGN in Spring 2019!
Best Film: A Star Is Born
If you’ve been around NGN for any length of time, you know there’s one truth I’ve always subscribed to: Sincerity will get you everywhere with me. And A Star Is Born appealed to that part of my heart in a way no film has done in a very long time. My love for Bradley Cooper is long-lasting and well-documented, but even I was surprised by the vulnerability of both his performance and his directorial style. His choice to focus so much of the film on his characters’ eyes—from the first meeting of Ally and Jack to that devastating shot of Bobby reversing the car and that stunning final look at Ally—lent an intimacy to this story that grabbed my heart never let it go. This movie worked as well as it did because it never lost sight of the fact that it was a love story, and what a beautiful love story it was. Cooper’s chemistry with Lady Gaga was like lightning in a bottle—filled with an affection and awe that can’t be faked. With moments of pure movie magic (“La Vie En Rose,” “Shallow,” “I’ll Never Love Again”) coupled with moments of devastation (the Grammys, Charlie the dog!), this is the kind of moviegoing experience that somehow manages to be both cinematic in scope and personal in emotional connection, and it left me inspired, moved, and in desperate need of better waterproof mascara.
Best Performance: Lady Gaga as Ally (A Star Is Born)
It’s not easy to play a good person. There’s a tendency to make “goodness” one-dimensional, to shrink into the background and to let darker characters sear themselves into the audience’s memory. But somehow Lady Gaga makes Ally memorable, powerful, and above all else, genuinely good. There’s a warmth to Ally that seems to seep out of Gaga’s pores, and every bit of her performance seems to come from an honest place. Her eyes are the heart of the movie, and when you get one look at them, it’s easy to see why Cooper chose to film the movie with that focus. You can’t fake a performance when the camera is that intimate with your eyes. Gaga is rightly getting praised for the way she portrayed Ally’s initial nerves blossoming into fierce firepower during “Shallow,” but I also think she’s just as brilliant in the later moments in the film when she’s asked to show how hard it is to love an addict who hates himself. (Her work in the Grammys scene is so understated but so realistically filled with panic that it makes me physically uncomfortable thinking about it.) I’ve always admired Lady Gaga as a musician and an activist, but now I think she’s also one of the most natural actors I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in a film debut.
Biggest Surprise: Black Panther
When I went to the theater to see Black Panther, I expected it to be like any other Marvel movie. So imagine my surprise when it was revealed to be so much more. It’s a story about what it takes to be a leader, what it means to celebrate your identity, and what it is to discover your place in the world. The depth of this film took my breath away, and the attention to detail created a world-building experience unlike any other in a superhero film. I wanted to stay in Wakanda long after the movie ended, partly because of the atmosphere and partly because I wanted to spend more time with the people who inhabited it. Shuri, Okoye, M’Baku, and Nakia all joined T’Challa as memorable members of the MCU, and Michael B. Jordan’s work as Erik Killmonger might top even the great Tom Hiddleston’s performance as Loki as the best villainous turn in this universe. Jordan’s ability to add nuance and layers to this character made him a truly tragic figure, and it was one of my favorite performances of the year in my favorite superhero film.
Most Entertaining Moment: “Super Trouper” (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again)
Sometimes you go to the movies just because you want to feel good, and nothing in film made me feel better than the finale of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. The cross-generational interaction, the Meryl appearance, the Cher…It all combined to create a joyful celebration of music, dancing, friendship, and family. The cast looked like they’d never had more fun in their lives, and I carried that joy with me for a long time after leaving the theater, which is all you can ask for from a film like this one.
Most Heartbreaking Moment: “I don’t want to go…” (Avengers: Infinity War)
I cried a lot during A Star Is Born, but I cried the hardest during the moment in Infinity War when Peter Parker fades away. Tom Holland’s delivery of “I don’t feel so good…” took a moment we all knew was going to be sad and made it devastating by making it feel so real. And then when he started falling into Tony Stark’s arms, repeating that he didn’t want to go, I was an absolute wreck. (The kind of wreck where my sister had to tell me to get it together because people were staring at me.) Tony and Peter’s relationship is one of the most believable and warm ones in the MCU, and that familial chemistry between Holland and Robert Downey Jr. was used to heartbreaking effect in that moment. I cried for Peter, the kid who just wanted to help but suddenly had to face the reality of his own death, and I cried for Tony, losing the closest thing he has to a son and being left alone on an alien planet. And if you’re crying now, welcome to my world every time I think about this moment.
Most Anticipated Film of 2019: Star Wars: Episode IX
In case you’re new here, I love Star Wars. A LOT. And I loved The Last Jedi. A LOT. I’m so excited to see how this story wraps up and what’s in store for Finn, Rey, Poe, Rose, and yes, even Ben Solo. I’m waiting with bated breath to see how they handle Leia’s fate and what J.J. Abrams does with Rian Johnson’s twists. And I’m anticipating a movie that will take all of my theories and expectations and gleefully smash them, giving me a story I never could have expected but will almost certainly love. From the moment the trailer drops to the moment the film is released—and beyond—I will be insufferably nerdy about it, and I can’t wait.
Best Fiction Book: Leia, Princess of Alderaan (Claudia Gray)
Technically, this book came out in 2017, but I read it in 2018, and it was the best piece of fiction I read this year. If you love Star Wars, read this book. If you love YA novels, read this book. If you love stories of women learning to discover who they’re meant to be, read this book. It’s a powerful story of young womanhood, first love, friendship, and self-definition all told in a universe we know and love. It will show you new depth to characters like Amilyn Holdo and the Organas, and it will make you love Leia even more, which I didn’t think was possible. This is an essential piece of Star Wars mythology, and it’s the kind of backstory tale that does what Solo tried to do, but a million times more successfully.
Best Nonfiction Book: Becoming (Michelle Obama)
Just when you think you can’t miss the Obamas more, Michelle Obama comes out with a memoir that’s so honest, so relatable, and so beautiful that you find yourself crying at your desk while reading it. Becoming is so much more than a political memoir; it’s a story of a woman coming into her own and figuring out how all the events of her life have helped her become the woman she is today. And in telling that universal story of self-discovery, she connects her story to all our stories, which is something she and her husband have always done so well. Becoming is funny, heartbreaking, romantic, and deeply hopeful. It was the perfect book for me to read at the end of this year because it made me feel optimistic about the future in a way that I haven’t felt in a long time—and in a way that only Michelle Obama can.
Best Album: A Star Is Born Soundtrack
As someone who often gravitates toward pop music but has a soft spot for singer-songwriters, the soundtrack for A Star Is Born is the best of both worlds for me. From the memorable melody of “Shallow” to the power of “I’ll Never Love Again” and all the big ballads (“Always Remember Us This Way”—my favorite) and country twang (“Maybe It’s Time”) in between, this soundtrack is a musical journey that doesn’t really have a low point. I even like the music from Ally’s pop phase. (“Why Did You Do That?” is a genuinely entertaining pop song. Fight me.) The inclusion of dialogue from the film on the soundtrack makes this an immersive listening experience, and when you can’t go the movies every day to cry over Ally and Jack, being able to do it in your car while listening to the soundtrack is the next best thing.
Best Sports Moment: Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir Win Ice Dance Gold at the Olympics
Sometimes the best moments on TV aren’t scripted, and that’s certainly the case with Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir’s gold medal free dance at the Winter Olympics. No matter what you think about their “are they/aren’t they?” relationship, there’s something magical about watching two people who genuinely care about each other tell a story that means something to them and achieve a dream along the way. This was the most romantic, most exciting, and most satisfying thing I watched this year, and it was the perfect reminder that happy endings really do exist.
Now it’s your turn, fellow nerds! I want to hear all about your favorite television, movies, and more from 2018! (And of course, check out all the wonderful 2018 wrap-up posts over at TVexamined and Marvelous Geek Circles. As always, Heather and Giss were on fire with their year-end content!)