UPDATE: Best 11 TV Shows of 2017 to Watch
This year's television was a reflection of our times from 'The Handmaid's Tale' to 'Black Mirror.'
Update: When I first wrote this piece on Monday, I had yet to watch the highly-recommended German Netflix series, Dark. Maybe because the description of it being “Like Stranger Things, but in German” didn’t really appeal to me. But since this article went up, I have torn through Dark, and though I haven’t finished it, I know now that billing it as Stranger Things (though I can see where people get that idea) doesn’t do it justice. This small-town mystery is more The Leftovers meets Twin Peaks meets Donnie Darko meets the only good parts of The OA meets Nacho Vigalondo’s incredible 2008 film, Timecrimes. I cannot recommend Dark highly enough, and its omission on this list is a reflection not of the show’s brilliance, but of my inability to watch TV twenty-four hours a day. I apologize for the inconvenience.
Instead of offering us a respite from the anxiety-provoking news cycle, television in 2017 leaned into it, reflecting our sense of fear and dread back at us in programming that was distressingly relevant.
Yet it’s undeniable that scripted television continued its new Golden Age trend of pushing us past our comfort zone to bring us shows that were as complex and nuanced as they were disquieting.
The following 10 shows exemplified the best television had to offer this year. (And fair warning: Some of these embedded videos contain spoilers. Watch at your own discretion.)
10. The Handmaid’s Tale
See above description of 2017 TV. Hulu’s adaptation of the iconic Margaret Atwood novel about a dystopian future where women are enslaved as breeding mares struck incredibly close to home. After the election of President Donald “Grab them by the p-ssy” Trump and the not-so-surprising revelation that men in positions of power across all industries feel entitled to abuse and harass female subordinates, how can we not view this as programming beamed at us from the future?
But with stunning performances from an ensemble including Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Alexis Bledel, Samantha Wiley and Ann Dowd, The Handmaid’s Tale managed to pull off a near-impossible feat: showing us that hope and resilience in the face of inhumane treatment is its own form of agency. Or as Moss’ Winifred would put it, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, b-tches.”
Did I put this little-known Australian paranormal drama on my ‘Best of’ list for sheer critic contrariness? Despite Netflix producing the second season, currently out on the streaming service, it feels like no one is talking about the show, which makes feel like a heroic champion of the underdog for including director Emma Freeman’s supernatural small-batch seasons on this list at all.I get why Glitch isn’t making much of a splash to American audiences, seeing that giving the show’s elevator pitch inevitably leads to some form of “It’s like Lost meets The Returned meet The Leftovers.” Those are three shows that literally cannot be improved upon by setting it in a different location with new characters.
But without spoiling it, I can say that what makes Glitch different from the other examples of people coming back from apparent death and seeming….fine(ish?) is that it’s less focused on the why and more on the who. The emotional gravitas of the few former-corpses who managed to crawl out of their graves is heart-wrenching as you began to see their backstories develop. Whatever is happening in Yoorana, Victoria, it’s as much as a tear-jerker as This is Us. Glitch also remains a meditation of small-town secrets, big and small, creepy and funny and never not relatable. If you don’t find humor in the founding Mayor of Yoorana, “Patty” Fitzgerald (Ned Dennehy)—a dead ringer of Crocodile Dundee and perhaps the only true “innocent” racist left on Earth—being forced to slog his way through reams of bureaucratic red tape to prove his claim to his rightful family estate, maybe this won’t be a show for you. If you can somehow find a moral high ground that allows you to judge the actions of Yoorana’s police sergeant/ resident Sad Ryan Reynolds impersonator, James Hayes (Patrick Brammall), then you’ve obviously never been forced to choose between your recently non-deceased wife and her best friend, who you’ve since married and impregnated. And that’s what makes Glitch so great: not because of the supernatural events in the town, but how these all-too-human characters choose to cope with the mind-boggling implications of what has happened and who they are.
Glitch is currently streaming on Netflix.
8. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
After 13 Reasons Why, there was a consensus—which made its way to the top of a slow news week in the MSN cycle—about the show’s glorification of suicide. Like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer attending their own funerals, the Netflix show played into that toxic concept that once you kill yourself, everyone is going to be SO SORRY.
So it may seem strange that a musical comedy on the CW would be the perfect salvo to 13 Reasons, especially since Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has never transcended its title or marketing to convey to a mass audience the darker themes consistently and adroitly addresses on the show. (I still find it hard to press this shows on guys…but when I do, they’re all singing “West Covina” by the following week.) I don’t need to get into why the third season of Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s subversion of the traditional “rom-com” set-up has become a critical darling. (SPOILERS AHEAD!)
BUT if you can give a suicide attempt and a Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis both the gravity these subjects deserve AND some catchy songs (“Heinous Bitch” remains a personal favorite), you deserve your place on every critics’ list this year.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is in its 3rd season on CW.
7. Search Party
Most of us millennials walk around every day with a sense of impending doom. Hell, most of us HUMAN BEINGS have spent 2017 like this. What Search Party, the brilliant brainchild of Sarah Violet-Bliss and Charles Roger, have created a narrative of vindication for that nagging anxiety and panic that looms large over our every decision these days. If you haven’t watched the first season, it’s a must: it’s more than coincidence that TBS’ sleeper hit last Thanksgiving was created by a woman who went through elementary to college with Lena Dunham, as Search Party can feel like the self-absorbed, hyper-precious narcissists in GIRLS were ever forced to deal with some real shit. In the first season, aimless grad Dory (Alia Shawkat) decides to throw herself into investigating the disappearance of a college acquaintance’s to escape her tedium and ennui.
Unfortunately, there are worse things than a quarter-life crisis, as Dory enlists her nagging boyfriend and a crew of uninterested brunch buddies into a caper that ended the first season with something truly irrecoverable. Season 2 is unrelenting in the tightening of its screws; leading each character into various forms of complete nervous breakdowns. John Early’s Elliott being the most flamboyant example of how fast the hipster facade can crack under pressure:
Along with Bojack Horseman, Lady Dynamite and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Search Party is the rare kind of show where the amount of Xanax necessary to start a new episode is totally worth the price of laughing so hard you can’t breathe.
Search Party can be streamed on-demand at TBS.
6. American Vandal
What to say about this true crime mockumentary set in a high school, where an aspiring A.V. Club nerd/ Andrew Jarecki-wannabe takes up the cause of exonerating the school neanderthal after faculty cars are found spray-painted with genitalia. If you’ve only caught the first episode of the Netflix series, you’d be forgiven for thinking American Vandal is Christopher Guest-Lite, a funny concept, sure, but not one that can necessarily sustain itself over its 8-episode run.
But like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Search Party, American Vandal transcends its formula and influences (though here, instead of musical theater and GIRLS, the show is a spoof on the popular true-crime shows The Jinx and Making a Murderer) to become something new entirely. In the case of American Vandal, that something is a deft exploration of what it means to be a high school burnout; the nasty assumptions and misinformation your classmates whisper about behind your back, and of the profound loneliness of having to maintain a “bad boy” reputation.
I was initially skeptic about American Vandal being able to sustain itself for an entire season, and I’m happy to say I couldn’t have been more wrong.
American Vandal is streaming now on Netflix.
5. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return
Seriously? How did Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return not make ANY other end of year TV lists? (The closest thing was a Variety round-up that named new host Jonah Ray as one of the “breakout stars” of 2017.)
My theory is that critics are hesitant about adding any comedies to their list without a socially-relevant angle: it’s not surprising, giving the politically-charged climate this year. So Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gets a slot because it’s the strongest portrayal of mental illness on television. Lady Dynamite, Chewing Gum, The Good Place, Jane the Virgin, Better Things and The Marvelous Mrs. Mabel: these comedies are all short-listed for showing us ineffable—though far from flawless— female heroes. (Or antiheroes, as the case may be.)
Even the comedies without women leads are getting cred this year for being “realistically” dark and conflicted; the irony being that most of these shows are cartoons. Bojack, Rick & Morty and Archer all have main characters who are, among other things, full-blown alcoholics.
These end of the year “Best of” lists tend to focus on the shows that make the critic look good for picking them. Meaning that sometimes, brilliant-lowbrow comedy gets lost in the mix for its lack of statement.
Such is the issue with Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, funded on Kickstarter to the tune of $6.3 million. The Return bring back one of the funniest and most original concepts in TV history: A man and two robots in silhouette in the bottom corner of the screen, giving hilarious commentary on some truly terrible movies. Is it deep and profound? Nope. Is it extremely funny escapism? Absolutely. If you’re ever in a bad mood, say, or ate too many “Christmas brownies” from your weed-dealing neighbor, Mystery Science Theater 3000 will be there for you, waiting in a not-too-distant future.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return is currently streaming on Netflix.
4. Twin Peaks: The Return
The second show with “The Return” in the title, and yet we’re not going to talk about audiences’ desperate need for something familiar, from a time when things were either more or less weird (depending on your point of view) and certainly less horrifying than our current state of affairs? I call bullshit. In truth, it was hard for me to put Twin Peaks on this list, considering my long history with the show (taught a class on the program in college, 10 years after its premiere; have four David Lynch tattoos; consider myself a foremost expert on Fire Walk With Me). Like those disappointed Last Jedi and Gilmore Girls fans, I was hoping this show would reignite that same visceral thrill that it did when I first discovered the strange town of Twin Peaks and all the characters—human and otherwise— that populated it. I wanted what the show’s title promised: a return to Twin Peaks.
Instead, the new series showed us what TV would look like if David Lynch had full creative control, and it was….something else. Directing every episode himself, Twin Peaks: The Return was an aimless, frequently incoherent and often…dare I say it?….boring saga that sprawled across America and beyond, with a cast of hundreds. This is what made it such a hard nut to crack: for the first, say, eight episodes, you had no idea where to look, what to follow, and what was totally irrelevant save for the beautiful, disturbing whimsy and silliness that Lynch injects into everything he does. The original cast that did have storylines in this show were more depressing than weird; 25 years apparently long enough to turn characters like Ben and Jerry Horne from threatening menaces to doddering old men. As Dougie Jones, Kyle Maclachlan made me sadder than anything; he reminded me of my grandfather in his last years of dementia. The new class (if you can call them that) of the show were either ignored or dispatched in B-storylines that never went anywhere, while Lynch himself promoted his character Gordon Cole to lead player.
The show deserves to be on this list because while the whole was not greater than the sum of its parts, those parts that worked were unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced on television. Episode 8 in particular, an ambient yet visceral interpretation of the first atomic bomb, scared me so bad I actually turned off the TV halfway through the episode and literally bolted from my home, for fear that some Videodrome-esque machination would suck me through the screen.
Whether or not the show continues past this season (and honestly, I’m torn on whether it should), Twin Peaks: The Return was Lynch at his full Lynchiest, and it was unlike anything you’ve ever witnessed on the small screen.
Twin Peaks: The Return is available for streaming on Showtime.
3. The Young Pope
So, technically Paolo Sorrentino‘s baroque Italian drama came out in 2016 on the European network Sky Atlantic, but since it didn’t reach the United States until January of 2017, it still makes the cut…at least, according to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which nominated Jude Law for his portrayal of the fictional Pope Pius XIII, a petty and mercurial American orphan who came off more like a Marvel villain than a religious figure. Between his penchant for Cherry Coke Zero, Banksy, kangaroos and having his prayers answered ASAP by a God who “lives above an auto repair shop,” I like to think of The Young Pope as the spiritual sequel to The Devil’s Advocate. Xenophobic, homophobic and prone to praying nuns into having heart attacks and planes to fall out of the sky, Jude Law managed to turn a seemingly one-note baddie into a complex and conflicted antihero that would give Frank Underwood a run for his machinations.
I still like to think of Law’s character as the spiritual brethren to Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate; at least that would explain the “crawling out from a mountain of babies” thing.
The Young Pope can be found on-demand at HBO or on their streaming service.
2. Better Call Saul
Shortly after moving to Los Angeles, my new roommates rushed from their bedrooms one night, fearing that I was confronting someone who had broken into my apartment. Not so: I was just screaming at Chuck (Michael McKean), the afflicted antagonist of Better Call Saul, Vince Gilligan’s sorta-prequel to Breaking Bad. Has there ever been a Bigger Bad that Chuck McGill, a smug, petty narcissist and Grade A manipulator whose only desire is to get his younger brother Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) disbarred? The damage Chuck causes in the name of “justice” (though really, ego) is enough to have you screaming “Get the fuck out of here!” and scaring anyone in the nearby vicinity.
This season saw the culmination of a Rube Goldbergian legal battle involving an illegal wire-tap, literal gaslighting and a vindictive rivalry that makes Cain and Abel look like Greg and Peter Brady. The Chekhov’s gun of the show has always been Chuck’s self-maintained “electricity allergy,” and watching the show’s most beautifully crafted and almost intolerably scene—set at a bar hearing, of all things—was an experience in watching closeup magic: even on repeat viewings, it’s still as an impressive of a feat of showmanship as anything you’ll see on television.
Better Call Saul’s 3rd season is available on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play.
1. Black Mirror
I know, I know, it seems unfair to put a show on this list that hasn’t come out yet. (Ah, the joys and pains of being a professional TV watcher.) But trust me when I say that come the 25th, and Charlie Brooker’s Dystopia 4.0 will exceed any stocking stuffer. (Sorry, grandma.) Easily the most consistent season in terms of quality and general cohesiveness, Black Mirror’s new episodes never feels stale, even when reusing literal deus ex machinas. In fact, we’re starting to see how all these disparate stories may all fit together through the advancement of “better living.” These stories aren’t finger-wagging cautionary tales about how our phones are making us more disconnected from society, but about the dangers of giving into any easily digested “narrative”…even one that comes in the form of a dating app.
Black Mirror will be available to stream on Netflix December 25th.