Was this a banner year for television? It’s tough to tell, given that there was more available to watch than anyone could possibly sit through in a lifetime. With Netflix cranking out a new original series nearly every week, and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter jumping on the original content game, it was harder than ever to sort through the stories at our fingertips. Luckily, you don’t have to worry about reaching the content saturation point, because here at FSR we’ve hunched over our laptops and in front of our TV screens for you, binge-watching and discussing the best and worst the small screen has to offer. What follows is our definitive ranking of the 18 best TV scenes of 2018, plus a few excellent runners-up. As you might expect, some heavy spoilers are included.
Side note: since this was a year full of memorable soundtrack moments, there’s a playlist that goes with this ranking. Listen and follow along, but beware: much like the best TV of the year, it gets weird.
18. Atlanta, “North of the Border”
Donald and Stephen Glover’s masterpiece series does almost everything well, and by the end of season two has created an unforgettably surreal, often nightmarish vision of its Georgia setting. Two of the show’s signature moves are pushing the audience into a space of dread and discomfort, and exposing all the weird and off-putting things white people do (especially when in the presence of Black rappers). Case in point: when Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), Earn (Donald Glover), and company need a place to crash after playing an out-of-town gig, they end up at the world’s freakiest frat party. The two actors–whose characters are in the middle of a falling-out–sit far apart on a couch, in silky pajamas, in a hazy room whose wall is emblazoned with a gun rack and a huge Confederate flag. A sloshed white frat boy, oblivious to these layers of tension, talks to them about his favorite rapper (Post Malone, naturally) and then waxes not-so-poetic on the song “Laffy Taffy” by D4L. Then, suddenly, there’s a whole lineup of naked pledges with sacks over their heads dancing on command to the aforementioned candy-themed song. This is a perfect WTF moment in a show that constantly strives for them. It’s also classic Atlanta: darkly funny, bizarrely disturbing, rife with subtext, and stubbornly lacking any moment of catharsis.
17. Maniac, “Option C”
Much of this Cary Joji Fukunaga-directed limited series focuses on the persistent fears of the mentally ill: being watched, manipulated, ignored, powerless, alone, or rejected. These concerns reinvent themselves again and again through increasingly elaborate mental exercises, within which BPD-diagnosed Annie (Emma Stone) and schizophrenic Owen (Jonah Hill) inexplicably find and help one another through some version of the worst days of their respective lives. The series’ final scene, though, is free from all the paranoia and anxiety. Released from the drug trial simulation and at peace with her sister’s death, Annie finds Owen in a mental institution and organizes a low-key jailbreak. Owen has avoided looking for Annie in the interim, afraid she’ll either reject him or was never real in the first place, but when she talks him into joining her on the road to Salt Lake City, the two are all smiles for what feels like the first time in the series. The happy ending–which features Dan Romer’s score at its pluckiest and most playful–is unexpected, and the camera lingers on the joyful pair of travelers as they make their getaway in a shot that’s reminiscent of (but much giddier than) the closing credits of The Graduate.
16. Bojack Horseman, “The Showstopper”
Way back in the second season of Bojack Horseman, our protagonist Bojack (Will Arnett) did a very bad thing. The washed-up celebrity nearly committed statutory rape, coming onto his former friend’s daughter in a moment of darkness that–in terms of narrative impact and moral turning point–should’ve paralleled the time Walter White let Jane die in Breaking Bad. I was wary of continuing the show after, because, for all his self-loathing and apology, Bojack didn’t seem to have a proper reckoning for this moment. Then season five happened. Impressively plotted by Raphael Bob-Waksberg before the #MeToo movement, the season sees Bojack spiral into addiction following his mother’s death, culminating in this scene, the last in the intensely line-blurring penultimate episode, which shows him choking his ex-girlfriend and co-star on the set of his TV show. Everything about this gut-check moment rings painfully true, from the auteur filmmaker’s demand that the cameraperson keeps filming, to the horrible pause during which ostensibly good people look on without intervening, to the drug-fueled violence itself, a culmination of a life of cyclical self-destruction and inherited trauma. With the exception of Louie (excuse me for not wanting to give it credit), this may be the first TV series to successfully take a deep dive into the psychological processes of a toxic male celebrity and present the unfiltered results without judgment. The result is can’t-miss television.
15. The Handmaid’s Tale, “Unwomen”
The sophomore installment of The Handmaid’s Tale had a lot on its shoulders, going off book from the classic Margaret Atwood novel that inspired the first season. The show started off strong by making its previously vague setting brutally specific, and no Boston location was more jarring to see on screen than the Boston Globe newspaper–the publication which broke the global Catholic abuse scandal. As June (Elizabeth Moss) explores her makeshift safehouse, she realizes that the staff of the Globe was executed, leaving behind a pockmarked and bloodied wall, empty nooses, and a series of unnerving items–like a pair of heels, separated as if someone ran their way out of them. The setting looms large and haunting, both a specter of Gilead’s past and, to audiences, a cautionary future for any country that sees a free press as the enemy. At episode’s end, June finally takes a moment to mourn the murdered journalists, creating a candlelit shrine that includes personal items from each person’s cubicle. Her prayer is specific, but it’s clear and sure like the show wrote it for everyone who has ever died in the name of preserving democracy. Still, director Mike Barker frames Moss between two foreground-set nooses, never letting us forget how suddenly a freedom fight can turn into a losing battle.
14. The End of the F***ing World, “Episode 3”
From the opening moments of The End of the F***ing World (which aired in Europe in 2017 but premiered on Netflix in America in January), teenager James (Alex Lawther) presents himself as a psychopath. If that’s not for you, it’s okay, because his murderous tendencies soon reveal themselves as little more than self-styled youthful edginess. Don’t get me wrong, there is murder in the series, but when James finally kills someone at the end of episode three, it’s not his object of obsession Alyssa (Jessica Barden), but the woman-brutalizing stranger whose house the two are squatting in, who has just come home and discovered the girl in his bed. The scene is brief but contains about a half-dozen tension shifts, and when James finally plunges the knife in the man’s neck, he’s instantly shaken and appalled. Blood-soaked Alyssa, however, keeps her composure. The moment is a game-changer for the series, catapulting the duo into their True Romance-flavored cross-country escape, but it still manages to contain a moment of the show’s blisteringly dark humor. “Are you a virgin?” James asks while the two stand over the body and its pool of heart-shaped blood, set to the sound of an old-timey Brenda Lee ballad. “Yes.” “Me too.” “Yeah, no shit!” Alyssa spits.
13. Dear White People, “Chapter IV”
When Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson) found out she was pregnant early in the second season of Justin Simien’s college-set drama-satire, audiences likely weren’t sure what to expect. For starters, she hadn’t always been the most sympathetic character, often at odds with protagonist Sam (Logan Browning) and the rest of Winchester University’s fan favorites. Frequent TV watchers have also, to be frank, sat through a lot of mishandled abortion plotlines that see female characters either making their choice based on unrealistic circumstances or being unrealistically hurt or killed by the procedure. Coco’s story, though, is different by design. She and roommate Kelsey (Nia Jervier) head to a clinic, but after a while, Coco gets up to leave. At this point, the show subtly diverges, showing scenes during which Coco breaks the news to the baby’s father and time-jumping ahead eighteen years to the day she drops her now-grown daughter off for her first day at Winchester. This is all presented as a canonical timeline, and in these scenes Coco’s unconditional love and support for her daughter are apparent, but when we hear a voice offscreen call Coco’s name, we’re snapped back to the reality of the harshly lit waiting room. Coco’s frozen, caught in her image of an idyllic but hard-earned future. “What do you want to do?” Kelsey asks. Wordlessly, Coco follows the staff member into a seemingly endless hallway, with episode director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) closing in and lingering on her assured expression. It’s an emotional moment, to be sure, but it also resoundingly and thoroughly puts to bed the idea that women make these decisions lightly.
12. American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, “Manhunt”
The second installation of FX’s Ryan Murphy-produced crime anthology was showered with award season praise for a reason, and no one deserved the accolades more than Darren Criss as the hypnotic, image-obsessed liar and spree murderer Andrew Cunanan. Criss pulls off plenty of nuanced character study moments in the series, especially its stunning first half, but few reveal the sadistic party-boy creepiness (and somehow, charm) of his character more than an apparently fictionalized scene in “Manhunt.” In it, the gay escort has just met a potential submissive at the beach, a wealthy older man who’s likely expecting a bit of bondage in exchange for cash. Instead, a wild-eyed Cunanan ties the man to a hotel bed, duct tapes his entire face and dances around the room in peach-colored swim briefs while brandishing a pair of scissors. For several unbearable moments, the man flails breathlessly, his screams muffled beneath the thick tape, while Andrew gets his move on to Phil Collins and Philip Bailey’s “Easy Lover.” “Accept it!” he whispers, then yells at the man, relishing the pleasure of the life in his hands, before he finally–and jarringly–stabs a small breathing hole in duct tape mask. If that’s not traumatizing enough, he then orders a lobster dinner on the man’s room service, tells him a true story that sounds like a lie, and then drops a champagne flute like a piece of trash on his way out the door. The scene may not be part of Cunanan’s real-life story, but it still manages to exemplify the erratic and power-driven tendencies that drove the sensational killer.
11. The Americans, “START”
Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) isn’t exactly quick on the uptake. Across six seasons of The Americans, FX’s criminally underseen Cold War-set spy drama, the FBI agent lives next door to and befriends two undercover Russian operatives, yet he can never quite put the pieces together. Whenever he comes close, as in the episodes leading up to the series finale, his coworkers don’t believe him, which makes his tense parking garage encounter with Philip (Matthew Rhys), Elizabeth (Keri Russell), and Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor) in the Emmy-winning finale “START” all the more upsetting. The scene clocks in at over ten minutes long, over the course of which Stan confronts the Jennings’, confirms his theory, airs his sense of betrayal, and eventually–incrementally, with plenty of coaxing and convincing from Phillip–holsters his weapon and lets the family leave in peace. Stan is a complex and deeply American character who is often marked by failures and blind spots, so it feels like salt in the wound when Phillip confirms a long-held fan theory and tells him that his second wife may be a spy. We’d imagined the confrontation between these two opposing forces since the series premiere, yet when it happens, it ends with a quietly heartbreaking whimper, not a bang. The scene’s final image–of a somber Stan viewed through the windshield of the Jennings’ hotwired car, standing down in reluctant defeat–is built to last.
10. Pose, “Pilot”
At least a half-dozen scenes from Steven Canals’ gloriously celebratory series could hold a spot on this list, but none sell the show as well as Damon’s (Ryan Jamaal Swain) climactic dance audition. Since Pose is co-created and executive produced by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, plenty of viewers (myself included) who had fallen unceremoniously out of love with Glee had reason to be wary. Another queer-centric semi-musical, from these guys? Ballroom gods, please forgive my lack of faith; this show serves 100% ‘80s New York drag scene realness. M.J. Rodriguez is its heart as first-time house mother Blanca, who quickly takes in homeless Damon–who we earlier saw kicked out of his small town home when outed to his abusive father–when she finds him dancing for spare change in the park. Blanca secures Damon a late audition to a prestigious dance program through sheer force of maternal will, and when we finally see his performance, it’s a joy to behold. He bops along to the full version of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” with contagious enthusiasm, and as the camera follows his graceful body (Murphy’s kinetic directorial eye works perfectly for this) it feels like a culmination of everything the pilot has worked to establish. Damon shakes off the past and leaps eagerly into the future, setting the tone for a show that finds its power in perseverance.