I'll be listing my favorite TV shows, movies, and books of 2017 over the next few weeks. Having caught up on as much as I could, while still being behind on others (I know, I know, sorry, Twin Peaks and Halt and Catch Fire fans), I've decided to start with the best of the small screen. Below is my top 10 shows of the year, with some words on why, followed by 10 very worthy runner-ups.
For reference, my top 10 of 2016:
- The Americans
- American Crime
- The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
- Better Call Saul
- Better Things
And onto the best of 2017...
10 | Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Rachel Bloom’s ingenuity has long deserved more accolades than it’s gotten, but this year she pulled off the seemingly impossible. Her predominantly comic take on obsession drifted, slowly but surely, into the realm of heavy realism, tackling mental illness with a level of depth and specificity that pop culture rarely if ever provides. This brought several of the show’s plots home, particularly the explosive season 2 finale where bride-to-be Rebecca was left at the altar, but it also clarified its sensitivity about what it so unusually depicts. And yet: The songs and numbers have been better than ever in season 3, with cast-members like Vella Lovell and Donna Lynne Champlin getting particularly memorable showcases. I don’t expect this show to be around much longer, but it continues to surprise in the best way.
9 | Queen Sugar
Ava DuVernay’s gorgeous melodrama really hit its stride in its second season. It continues to amaze me the amount of hot-button issues this show tackles — it went in-depth this year on police brutality, addiction, and assault, among countless others — while still creating such an authentic, lived-in atmosphere. No show on television has an ensemble of characters more fully fleshed-out, built with the intricacies and contradictions we expect only of people we actually know. No show on television is more artfully and purposefully photographed. Plotting isn’t its strong suit, yet Queen Sugar still finds ways to tell essential stories. I reviewed season 2 for Slate, and went behind the scenes of the police brutality arc for EW with Dawn-Lyen Gardner.
8 | The Handmaid's Tale
This searing Margaret Atwood adaptation was the show of the year — not necessarily the best, but the phenomenon that best captured the country with its intensity and urgency. Elisabeth Moss, already vital in Mad Men and Top of the Lake, gave yet another tremendous performance, and Reed Morano’s directorial work on the first three episodes — which, taken together, outrank pretty much anything else I saw in 2017 — was jaw-droppingly brilliant. There’s one actively bad episode and a few others that don’t reach the heights of the season’s beginning or climax, but otherwise, this is TV you can’t — and shouldn’t — look away from.
7 | The Good Place
I didn’t know a network sitcom could morph into a multi-faceted, meta-surrealist meditation on ethics and philosophy, but here we are. The Good Place found its momentum in 2017, beginning with the back-half of its first season which culminated in a spectacular twist, and ending with a stretch of episodes that made good on said twist’s potential. This is high-concept comedy, no doubt, but it resonates most deeply as a study of relationships. Look no further than season 2’s installment, “Janet and Michael,” wonderfully acted by D’Arcy Caden and Ted Danson. I reviewed season 2 for EW.
6 | The Deuce
The strongest season of TV that David Simon and his team have produced since the conclusion of The Wire. A sweeping ensemble piece that casts a critical but encompassing eye on capitalist and exploitative systems — Simon hates the word, but “Dickensian” fits — this ‘70s-set drama packed plenty into eight installments. (Indeed, an hour or two extra would have given it a little more room to breathe.) Michelle MacLaren brought a grimy aesthetic in her direction of the pilot, and the writers effectively mined human themes of dignity and respect out of their brutal account of the sex and porn industries. Maggie Gyllenhaal, always great, was a revelation as Candy “Eileen” Merrell: sexy, tragic, funny, exhausted, bracingly intelligent, and finally empowered — the performance of the year. I went in deep on the finale for EW.
5 | Broad City
Broad City has always been a great sitcom, but this was just a thoroughly stellar year — its best yet. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer took a little more time with this batch of episodes, and the effort paid off; whether in a galvanizing trip to humid Florida or a poignantly absurdist take on post-election trauma, the series found exciting, hilarious new angles for commentary on New York, identity, and the most rewarding friendship on TV. They make it look so easy, but this show strikes a very specific, difficult balance between the screwball and the polemical.
4 | Better Call Saul
The quiet nature of Better Call Saul can make it an easy series to take for granted. But Vince Gilligan’s breakout spinoff just keeps getting better, and as of now with The Leftovers gone (more on that in a minute), it’s looking like the best continuing drama on TV. The Shakespearean story of the McGill brothers came to a tragic end this season, with Bob Odenkirk and especially Michael McKean turning in career-best work, and the production itself remains an absolute marvel. As with Breaking Bad, this crew makes TV that looks, sounds, and feels like nothing else.
3 | Big Little Lies
HBO’s star-studded drama, initially, was written off by some (male) critics as well-mounted but thematically light soap. Yet by the end of the seven-hour production’s run, directed with dizzying force by Jean-Marc Vallée and smartly adapted by David E. Kelley, its shattering power was hard to deny. This was Nicole Kidman’s most astonishing performance in a year full of greats, and the cast around her was terrific. The arc of the season, intended as a limited run, was pretty seamless, so I’m not exactly thrilled by the prospect of a follow-up. But I still won’t be able to resist. I reviewed the show for Slate.
2 | Better Things
This is a tricky one, of course, due to the involvement of Louis C.K. His stamp on the show cannot simply be erased: He’s a co-creator and credited writer on every episode this season, and has been a creative partner of Pamela Adlon’s for more than a decade. Yet I can’t push aside how meaningful, how fulfilling, and at times how completely transfixing this season was for me as a critic and a viewer. Nor am I willing to ignore Adlon’s brilliant direction and acting. I’m confident that this was ultimately her vision, and was left grateful after experiencing such a raw, jagged, loving portrait of a mom and her daughters. I fully expect the greatness to continue with C.K. out of the way. I went behind the scenes of the remarkable episode “Eulogy” for EW with the Fox girls.
1 | The Leftovers
This was such an extraordinary show. I wasn’t quite a convert in the first season, but these last two years have been, by a fair margin, the best that TV has had to offer. By the end, this was a majestic expression that ran in thousands of directions, unpredictable and often surreal, and yet every element was simply perfect: the performances, particularly those of Carrie Coon and Amy Brenneman in season 3; the direction, led by the inimitable Mimi Leder; the music choices, with as good a use of “Take on Me” (and others) as I’ve ever heard; and, of course, Lindelof’s writing, a sweeping investigation of finding beauty within tragedy. I reviewed the finale for Slate and went behind the scenes of the episode “G’Day Melbourne” for EW with director Daniel Sackheim.
11 | Insecure: Issa Rae’s half-hour exceeded the potential of its debut season with a confident, funny, sharp follow-up. I didn’t like every argument the series made this year — oh, that controversial cum shot — and it could have used a few more episodes to better flesh out some of its stories. But this is great, distinctive TV.
12 | American Crime: Over the past three years, no broadcast series has been more boundary-breaking, more aesthetically ambitious, or more narratively prescient than American Crime. Its third season was more splintered than its brilliant second, but still featured the phenomenal acting and exquisite direction that set it apart from the beginning. I’ll miss this one.
13 | Dear White People & SMILF: Two singular auteur efforts based on films of the same name. Justin Simien’s Dear White People felt too much like a thesis statement as a movie, and so I hardly expected his TV adaptation to emerge so rich and potent. The show is aggressively plotted but with an apt POV-episode structure, more persuasively and intimately communicating entwined ideas about race, privilege, class, and education. SMILF, meanwhile, is based on a short, and introduces Frankie Shaw — creator, writer, director, actress — as one of the most exciting new voices in the medium. Her show veers wildly in tone and story, but is grounded by her conception of a gritty, dreamy, sometimes ugly, more often beautiful world.
14 | The Americans & Transparent: These two have consistently ranked at the top of my lists over the last few years, but their most recent seasons — while still better than what most of TV has to offer — were clear steps down. Nonetheless, their second halves were better than their first, and the strongest episodes of each were no less awe-inspiring than what came before. (This may be the end of the road for Transparent, given the sexual misconduct allegations against its star Jeffrey Tambor. Willa Paskin puts the shift into better perspective than I could articulate here.)
15 | American Vandal: I can’t think of a show I judged so harshly only to be proven so wrong. This true-crime mockumentary ended up providing the careful, empathetic high school portrait that the irresponsible 13 Reasons Why claimed to, and that so many others have simply failed at. Also: Who drew the dicks? (We know who drew the dicks.)
16 | Mindhunter: David Fincher’s exemplary Netflix effort is a cold, mysterious deconstruction of the serial killer genre that features every element in the director’s wheelhouse. The show is immersive and fascinating, and Jonathan Groff does seriously vital work in the main role — doing away with the brooding leading man that these types of shows still breed by the dozen.
17 | BoJack Horseman: BoJack’s a certified veteran now, four seasons in and with the expectations to match. This was probably the show’s weakest year since its first, which means it was still damn good. The flashback episodes were luminous.
18 | The Crown: I can’t help but love Peter Morgan’s alternately gossipy, impressionistic, and wonky account of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Claire Foy evokes life through subtlety; episodes centered on Vanessa Kirby’s Princess Margaret are works of intoxicating, pained glamor.
19 | One Day at a Time: The writing combination of Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce proved to be an auspicious one with this joyous Netflix remake. Multicamera family sitcoms aren’t even really attempted anymore, but this one nailed the form, bringing it back to its theatrical roots.
20 | Please Like Me: Josh Thomas’ semi-autobiographical comedy was, at its height, one of the very best and most underrated shows on TV. Its final season couldn’t do everything it needed to at a truncated six episodes, but it was still frequently exceptional. Overall, this may have been the very best queer show of its time — observant, cutting, warm, and deeply, deeply true.