Amazon Prime’s Studios division made big bets this year. The Studios funded ambitious and expensive Original shows more so than Amazon had ever done in the past.
Despite a few major misses like the blank check the company wrote for Matthew Weiner’s dud, “The Romanoffs,” this strategy tended to pay off for Amazon. The Julia Roberts-starring “Homecoming” and the explosions-starring “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” became huge hits. Mrs. Maisel got to go to Paris and do stand-up in French. As Weiner once wrote in his actually good show “Mad Men” ― “That’s what the money is for!”
Unlike Netflix, which has released over a dozen Originals pretty much every week for quite some time now, Amazon only debuted a couple of big projects each month. With fewer attempts, Amazon didn’t add as many great shows as its main competitor this year. As such, I’ve only focused on five shows from this streaming service.
To be forthright, I’d only consider the shows ranked first and second on this list to be true “must watches,” but I consider everything else to at least be “very good.” If those other shows fit a genre you’re into, definitely give them a shot.
You also might notice that every show comes from the second half of 2018. A few months ago, I ranked the best shows on Amazon Prime midway through the year. It was a pretty underwhelming bunch and so I was happy to see Amazon release a few true highlights before the year’s end. Nevertheless, I have included an “honorable mentions” section at the bottom of this article that lists a few of those other shows.
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5. “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”
Premise: A former Marine named Jack Ryan works as an analyst in a government desk job. Through diligent reporting work, he discovers a new and mysterious terrorist leader ― one that might already be more powerful than Osama bin Laden in his time. As United States forces follow through on Ryan’s information, his boss whisks him away to Yemen, throwing the analyst right back into the heart of conflict and combat.
Heads Up: Two elements of this might make you cringe. On the more banal side: the script uses far too many cliches. For example, to establish Jack Ryan is “smart,” the show features Ryan casually watching “Jeopardy!” and answering the questions out loud to himself. The site TV Tropes has a whole page devoted to this prevalent cliche. On the more gruesome side: this show features mutilated, gory bodies on multiple occasions. Someone wears another man’s face. The choice makes sense to illustrate the horrors of war, but some people might not be able to handle such images.
Value: It makes sense this became the most popular show Amazon Prime released this year. The show has a high budget, focuses on the action of war and uses a competent writing style that doesn’t try anything weird. “Jack Ryan” is a blockbuster of a show, in both the good and bad connotations of the word. Perhaps the only truly great parts are the action sequences when dialogue is sparse and explosions are plentiful, but that’s still a winning formula.
Premise: A high-level intelligence officer has become depressed to a point of no return, but still reluctantly does his job. As he tries to thwart various problems for the United States government, new and unexpected problems continue to arise. Humans do dumb things and act in strange ways, which means nothing ever goes according to plan.
Heads Up: The plot makes little sense and unfolds in unconventional ways. In a way, this show almost has no plot because every moment of plot progress gets thwarted by another plot event. Rather than sticking around to figure out what happens, you’ll either be into the show’s unique narrative direction or be out entirely. Also, the plot could move faster in general.
Value: Like “Barry” and “Killing Eve” this year, “Patriot” tells yet another strange story about a strange killer. The best parts of this show shine in the margins. Many scenes linger on bizarre conversations you wouldn’t expect to be happening in such a fraught situation. “Patriot” makes relentless attempts to convince you that the world is too insane to understand and all anybody can do to attempt sanity is make jokes.
Premise: A longtime couple loves each other, but have grown a bit tired of the relationship. Their connection starts to unravel. Then a couple of life events happen that mean they have no choice but to stay together … forever.
Heads Up: The show searches hard for something profound to say about life and love, but doesn’t ultimately land on anything special. “Forever” also has a couple of twists, so you’ll need to give the show three episodes before deciding if you like it or not. That might be too much of an initial commitment if you just want to check it out.
Value: That said, the twists do work and make the first few episodes exhilarating. For a little while, this show feels like it could go anywhere and pull it off. By the end, Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen’s collective charisma makes this work over any writing choice though. Watching the two on-screen together is simple fun and that’s enough.
2. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”
Premise: A brilliant comic named Miriam Maisel fights her way into the entertainment business. Despite her growing success, she fears that her parents will find out about what she does for a living, since this chosen profession already pushed her husband away. In 1950s New York, people like her just aren’t supposed to say the things she says onstage.
Heads Up: The second season of this show does not live up to the first season. This appears to be by design ― with the knowledge that Amazon will want many seasons of this show, the writers pumped the breaks on true plot and focused on various B-stories in Season 2. This sucked out the narrative verve that was so present in the first season. The writers also exaggerated a few of the characteristics for the Miriam Maisel character beyond believability, a TV cliche called “Flanderization.” In Season 2, Miriam acts in even more zany, unbelievable ways and the people around her often don’t have reactions that make any sense either. The show also has this ongoing problem where almost every female character besides Miriam or her manager is a complete loon or idiot. Presumably, this is to show how strikingly independent Miriam is compared to other women in the 1950s, but that’s still a bad choice.
Value: The first season of this show stood out as a frontrunner in all of television last year and the show dominated at the Emmys. While the second season might be more narratively inessential, these new episodes remain a joy to watch. Shows have an inherent fun when they focus on great, brilliant characters doing great, brilliant things with good humor. The rat-a-tat dialogue remains strong and hilarious too, which makes each episode zip along despite the 50ish-minute runtimes, which have traditionally been unsustainable for comedies. This show establishes a wonderful, fast-paced world to get lost in and the flaws become easy to ignore when a new, great moment happens just seconds later.
Premise: A corporation experiments with a new method of treating PTSD on recent veterans. As these young men realize something is amiss, the former soldiers can’t tell if they’re right that something is wrong, or if the PTSD has made them too paranoid. After forming a relationship with one of the veterans, an inexperienced employee of the corporation wrestles with shutting the whole thing down.
Heads Up: Unlike the other “heads up” sections in this article, the heads up here is actually a good thing ― but it’s likely a divisive thing too. The directing choices in this are unique and revolutionary for the medium, but you might not be ready for frame changes or long shots focused on peculiar details.
Value: One of the best shows of the year, on Amazon Prime or otherwise. This show just fires on all cylinders with great performances, writing, cinematography, set design and direction. The idea to make a horror show about the spooks of capitalism is a brilliant one. You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced a jump-scare based on an act of corporate malfeasance. So many shots in this could be turned into a wall poster, as “Homecoming” drips with such peculiar beauty. And somehow despite all the unique choices, this show somehow pulls off fun too. The jokes land and the central mystery demands a binge-watch. “Homecoming” is an awe-inspiring achievement from all involved.
- “A Very English Scandal”
- “Mozart in the Jungle”
- “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams”
- “The Romanoffs”
- “The Tick”