Top 20 Television Shows of 2017
The TV landscape was vast in 2017, spanning the depths of the ice holes in Fargo, the height of the wall in Westeros and the twin peaks of Twin Peaks, Production companies offered up better things, stranger things and leftovers. The continued feud between network and cable was further muddled by the upstart streaming hits of Netflix and Hulu, leaving traditional outlets insecure masters of none. Crowning moments broke rules like American vandals spray painting big little lies. But as we sit in the glow of our favorite broadcast images of the past year. It’s all good, man, we wound up in a good place. Here are our top 20 TV series of 2017.
1. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” is intense, disturbing, and skirts a little too close to reality for comfort. It is set in the very near future in the Republic of Gilead, an alternate America ruled by fundamentalist Christians after a terrorist attack on Washington. The theocratic dystopia sorts women into different categories: Wives, Marthas, who are house servants, Aunts, who are elderly overseers, and Handmaids, whose only role in life is to bear children for the ruling class, which has been rendered infertile. Women are possessions. The main character OfFred, who belongs to Fred, is played by Elisabeth Moss, who carries the series in an exquisitely muted performance. The more vocal OfGlen, played by Alexis Bledel of “Gilmore girls” fame, fans fires of rebellion with a simple act of grand theft auto. Season 1 ended on a hopeful cliffhanger even as Offred is loaded on a van with a terminal destination.
2. Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime)
Just in time for the most surreal year in decades, David Lynch returned to us with “Twin Peaks: The Return,” a haunting revival of the TV world he first conjured to powerful effect in the 1990s. Cryptic and flowing like a fever dream, Lynch’s opus used the characters from the original series, now older and scarred, to explore themes of evil, mystery and even the dark forces of history itself. The mind-bending Episode 8 took a detour from the main plot (if we can call it such a thing), to give us an apocalyptic vision of the first atomic bomb and strange happenings in black and white, rural New Mexico in the 1950s. Lynch’s work is about tone and mood, like music. This show was a melody crafted for our times.
3. The Leftovers (HBO)
HBO’s series adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel “The Leftovers” began its three-season run with the sudden disappearance of 140 million people and ended without properly explaining why. That is not to say the series didn’t offer closure, because sometimes answers are at their most satisfying when cloaked in mystery. For the blackest of TV comedies, quantum mechanics is a mere punchline to a cosmic joke. The series ends down under, in Australia, seven years after the Final Departure where Kevin (Justin Theroux) threatens to fulfill the promise of being the savior of mankind. In a universe filled with infinite possible alternate realities, an open-ended finale is pure rapture.
4. Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Powerhouse producer Ryan Murphy stuck gold yet again with another engaging anthology series. FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan” sets out to look at some of the most infamous fights in history. The inaugural season brought the action to 1960’s Hollywood, where heavy-weight stars Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) faced-off behind the camera during the production of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”. Both Lange and Sarandon gave it their all in this juicy, exciting, and colorful profile of 1960’s glamour-wood.
5. Big Little Lies (HBO)
The juiciest offering of 2017 came in the form of HBO’s “Big Little Lies.” A-listers, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, along with an impressive supporting cast, inhabit the picturesque Pacific-coastal town of Monterey, California. But within the boujie beach houses, their apparently perfect lives begin to unravel. Boundaries are tested as friendships are torn, infidelity strikes a marriage, and bottled rage leads to murder. With Jean-Marc Vallee’s striking presentation and European flare, the exciting series, originally intended to be a one-off, is set to return for a season two.
6. Fargo (FX)
In the bleak, cold, and offbeat town of “Fargo,” strange things happen. FX’s anthology series, which intertwine together mysterious tales of murder, crime, and everything in between, returned for a third outing in 2017. This time, Mary Elizabeth Winstead shines as Nikki Swango, an enraged fiancé, and Ewan McGregor pulled off an impressive double performance as the Stussy twins. In the small town of Fargo, the world of crime is beginning to weave together as characters from previous seasons began making appearances. Should the show continue further, intrigue strikes as to just how much these mysteries tie together.
7. Better Call Saul (AMC)
The “Breaking Bad” spin-off entered its third season this year, and saw many long gestating plot threads reach their conclusion. Con artist lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) faces off against his hateful brother, Chuck, in court. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s partner Kim (Rhea Seehorn) faces psychological conflicts at work, while fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) finds new employment with Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), “Breaking Bad’s” Meth kingpin. The threads from both series pay off in a big dramatic way this season, sending Jimmy further on his journey while bringing the arc of Chuck McGilll to a haunting and satisfying close. Featuring top notch performances from Odenkirk, McKean and Seehorn, Season 3 amps the stakes and takes each character into dramatically rich territory, making it the greatest “Saul” season yet.
8. The Crown (Netflix)
God save the Queen. I mean it, man. Claire Foy put a human face on Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s second season of “The Crown.” England’s reigning monarch showed the strengths of the traditions of rule, but telegraphed every subliminal vulnerability behind the rule-breaking. The season opens in February, 1957, and proceeds through the revolutionary 1960s, a time when civil rights played on an international stage, cold wars dictated diplomacy and America’s young and charismatic President John F. Kennedy was taken off the stage by an assassin’s bullets. The series begins with the Queen’s problematic marriage to Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, played with restrained petulance by Matt Smith, and ended with the scandals that took down Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Through it all, Queen Elizabeth II set her own individual course.
9. Insecure (HBO)
HBO’s “Insecure” was co-created by “The Daily Show” and “The Nightly Show” alumni Larry Wilmore, along with its writer and star Issa Rae. Based on Rae’s web series “The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl,” the show gets its strength from uncompromising inadequacy and worlds of frustration. Workplace tensions, social gaffes and pent-up sex drives build up to minor boiling points, with little room to let off steam. It’s a good thing Rae knows how to vent. Her mirror rants drive the drama as much as the comedy. Newly freed from the shackles of her long-term boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis), Issa is horny but unskilled in hook-ups, pick-ups and bootie calls. Set in Los Angeles, Rae’s infinitely relatable character finds her best relationships with the small-part players, like Langston Kerman and Y’lan Noel who play all-too-brief dates, and Neil Brown Jr. who plays Lawrence’s best friend. “Insecure” takes risks but no prisoners and has one of the best soundtracks on TV.
10. GLOW (Netflix)
Netflix’s empowering series “GLOW,” from the team behind “Orange Is the New Black,” is a loving look at how the double-team maneuvers of ’80s women’s wrestling was one of the most flamboyant inspirations for reality TV. Created by Liz Flahive, one of the original Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, the comedy centers on Ruth (Alison Brie), a struggling actress typecast in prop roles who is tossed into the ring by a has-been horror movie director, played by Marc Maron. Recognizable San Fernando Valley landmarks bring a piledriver realism while making the series an accessible and fun look at the city of dreams broken by one too many leapfrog body guillotines.
11. Better Things (FX)
Overshadowed by writer/co-creator Louis C.K.’s bids for public attention of his self-love, the FX comedy series “Better Things,” glowed because of its realism. Emmy-nominee Pamela Adlon, who directed all 10 episodes of the season and had a hand in writing seven, plays Samantha Fox, a working actress raising three realistically played daughters. Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward) don’t act like they belong on mainstream TV. There is no cornball cuteness in the series, no easy catchphrases and very few easy answers, certainly none coming from Sam’s own fiercely independent mother. “Better Things” avoids all the clichés and finds its best punchlines in anger and exhaustion.
12. Master of None (Netflix)
With dark comedies growing in popularity, a show like Aziz Ansari’s own “Master of None” feels light and refreshing in comparison. Its second season feels even more confident than before, reveling in seemingly disparate episodes that make the show a surprisingly easy watch. Much like a bowl of fresh pasta, it’s over long before you want it to be. Couple that with Ansari’s character’s search for fulfillment on the highest level, and “Master of None” feels just a little too close to home for the creative types of the world. This holiday season, fight off your food coma while you take in this easy-to-digest 10-episode jaunt.
13. Godless (Netflix)
Scott Frank’s 7-episode Netflix series pumps new life into the Western genre. Its use of classic archetypes mesh with its intriguingly fresh content. The town of La Belle, comprised entirely of women, is where much of the action takes place. Led by the surly and self-confident Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever), the town gives a new spin to a genre usually defined by its male roles. But if you still want an old fashioned Western standoff, the antagonistic relationship between heroic outlaw Roy Goode (Jack O’ Connell) and villainous former mentor Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) keep the stakes high. Boasting breathtaking landscapes, compelling characters, and a haunting central performance from Daniels, “Godless” succeeds as a Western that pushes the boundaries of its genre.
14. The Deuce (HBO)
The eclectic setting of New York City in the 1970s and ‘80s set during the stage of America’s porn revolution is enough to excite. But duel performances played by James Franco and a stunning turn by Maggie Gyllenhaal capture the viewer into this world of sex, drugs, and power. In HBO’s “The Deuce,” the character arcs are as enticing as the world they are set within. The undertones portrayed in the period piece are seemingly relevant, even several decades later. The final motions set in place during the emotional season finale attract the forthcoming season two.
15. Game of Thrones (HBO)
White Walker fans can rejoice as winter finally drops on “Game of Thrones” like a ton of bricks. President Trump got into office on the promise of an impenetrable wall, but not even the dragon MILF’s hoards can slow immigration or global cooling. The Imp and the Eunuch throw their support behind an alliance with the king of the north, but Jon Snow knows nothing about the expert duplicity of the incestuous Queen Cersei that his sister Sansa couldn’t tell him. The series is now veering beyond the constraints of George R. R. Martin’s book series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” and it occurs to HBO it might not have been a reliable source of information. Sooner or later, someone is going to get the honor of sitting on the iron throne, but only Little Finger expected a cushion.
16. Stranger Things 2 (Netflix)
Continuing from where the first season left off, “Stranger Things” returned with more intrigue, suspense and the sorrows of youth. It’s still great, nostalgic fun. The stakes were raised in Season 2 by bringing the terrors of the Upside Down into Hawkins, Indiana. But the special touch in this show is how it isn’t really about the ghouls and government conspiracies, it’s about the four pre-teen heroes and the grown-ups. It’s science fiction that’s really about the trials of growing up. Unlike other, shallow offerings on TV these days, the kids in “Stranger Things” feel real. The season’s seventh episode was a particularly great homage to 80s Punk culture and how it is the freaks who will save us.
17. The Good Place (NBC)
The iconic TV bar owner of “Cheers,” Ted Danson serves up a subversively satanic performance that deserves a special place in hell. NBC’s comedy series “The Good Place” stars Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop, an ethically compromised and morally bankrupt office worker who preyed on the elderly in her former life among the living. Among the dead, where she finds herself, she doesn’t change a forking thing. Boundless happiness cannot be found in the dregs of a bottomless cup of Keurig Coffee and soul mates are just chronic nuisances in the netherworld. Oh, did I make it sound like she’s taken up residence in a Bad Place? That doesn’t make me a bad person. Maybe it’s time to reboot.
18. Mindhunter (Netflix)
“Mindhunter,” David Fincher’s second Netflix outing, behind his highly tantalizing and recently controversial “House of Cards,” is equally as enthralling. The mystery-drama stars Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany as two FBI agents in the 1970s delving into the then novice field of criminal science. What draws an immediate freshness to the series is its chilling thesis that sets to unravel the psychology of murder. This isn’t a typical murder-mystery in the sense of who-did-it, but rather, why-do-it. Fincher’s elegant and Kubrick-esque aesthetic elevates “Mindhunter” as one of Netflix’s top 2017 launches.
19. Alias Grace (Netflix)
“Alias Grace” was one of the year’s great binge highlights. Made with intelligence and dramatic power, this adaptation of a work by Margaret Atwood was Netflix’s answer to Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But instead of dystopia, this show’s power resides in its exploration of 19th century discrimination against immigrants and women. In a year where strong women roles have been rightfully celebrated, “Alias Grace” offered a main character in Sarah Gadon’s Garce Marks, who could be any of today’s migrants seeking work and a better life. Her unjust arrest is a powerful metaphor for the injustices spewed today against those from other lands.
20. American Vandal (Netflix)
Loosely parodying Netflix’s acclaimed documentary series “Making of a Murderer,” “American Vandal” came close to redefining televised irreverence. They made fun of the network’s own prestige project with a series of high school dick jokes, and packaged it like it was made by the AV squad itself. An intellectually challenged stoner kid loser, Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), is accused of spray-painting 27 dicks on 27 high school faculty cars and erasing the security tape, which he had access to. His only real defense? He was too stupid to do it. The geeks with cameras at the Hanover High School TV Department, led by Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez), comb through the missing nutsack hairs in a search for clues to save the clueless.