2017 may have at last been the year in which quantity overtook quality.
With over 500 shows airing this year, across more networks and streaming platforms than ever before, the world of television is bursting at the seams. And the effects were clear: This year saw multiple networks (WGN, A&E, Cinemax) get pushed out of the scripted-TV business by sheer force of competition. There was a narrowly-averted writers’ strike, attributed largely to the evolving nature of the business. And some of the best shows on television slipped between the cracks unnoticed, with viewership numbers that scored in the mere six-digits.
And perhaps due to the sheer tonnage of content, the peaks of Peak TV felt less pointed. Once-great shows often settled for being pretty good, while many less-remarkable shows appeared to step up in quality. The net result was a year that was above-average, but which unfortunately fell short of “great.”
Admittedly, part of the problem may rest on my shoulders – I haven’t kept up with as many shows as I’d like. This year, I lost track with sitcoms like You’re the Worst, Broad City, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And I’ve even fallen behind on the perennially pleasing Jane the Virgin, to the point that I didn’t think it fair to include it on the list. But of the shows I did keep up with – both old and new – there was an overall sense of disappointment, as though the new Golden Age of TV has begun to erode.
Still, I remain optimistic. There was enough good (and, yes, great) TV to convince me that the medium still has blood in its veins. I was, after much thought and deliberation, able to pick 15 shows that represented the cream of this year’s television crop:
Hopefully, 2018 will provide us with more entertainment and inspiration. But in the meantime, here’s my list for 2017:
15. Rick and Morty
The third season of Adult Swim’s offbeat animated comedy was its darkest and craziest yet. Beginning with the insane premiere (which the network unexpectedly debuted online, in their best April Fool’s Day prank ever), this season featured evil clones, a giant man-killing arm, a faux-clip show, too many otherworldly adventures to name, and of course, Pickle Rick. The show’s never-say-never vibe can still make for tonal inconsistencies and allow violence and mayhem to supersede character, but there were enough highlights this season to give it a place at the edge of the list.
14. American Crime
The first half of the show’s unfortunately final season boasted some of the most captivating drama on TV this year, with its themes of hard labor and illegal immigration beautifully conveyed through stars like Benito Martinez and Connor Jessup. It was almost a shame when the second half of the season changed course, turning the story over to less compelling characters and more subdued arcs. Still, there was plenty to appreciate in the show’s visuals, its tone, and its use of atmosphere – made even more resonant by the fact that it conveyed them all on the restrictive plain of broadcast TV.
13. The Handmaid’s Tale
Like the latest American Crime installment, Season One of The Handmaid’s Tale began more strongly than it ended. But its weaknesses were still considerably outweighed by its strengths, which included good scripts and capable direction, not to mention Elisabeth Moss’ spectacular central performance. The Handmaid’s Tale could be riveting, and disturbing, and at times even unexpectedly funny, and the balance it maintained through its first 10 episodes was something to behold. Praise be, indeed.
12. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
There are factors which hold CXGF back from being one of the very best shows on television – the series can be too self-referential for its own good, and at times tries to fill its song quota with tunes that just feel like conversations set to music. But in its third season, the series has gone darker and more unsettling than ever, putting Rebecca beneath a medical spotlight and dealing with all-too-real themes of depression and dementia. And all the while, it makes time for such great and upbeat songs as “So Maternal,” “I Go to the Zoo,” and “Let’s Generalize About Men.” Craziness was never this much fun.
11. One Day at a Time
Despite the many Nielsen hits airing on CBS, multi-camera sitcoms often feel like a thing of the past. But occasionally, one will still break out as a present-day triumph. Netflix’s One Day at a Time (a remake of Norman Lear’s semi-forgotten 1970s series) is a prime example. Focusing on a Cuban-American family led by former Army vet and single mother Penelope (Justina Machado), the series feels like a throwback to many classic sitcoms of yesteryear, but with fresh and earnest performances to enhance the comedy, and themes of ethnicity, sexuality, and PTSD to add a surprising level of drama. A charming gem all around.
10. Bojack Horseman
The fourth season of Bojack was a step down from the previous two, its larger scope providing more of an ensemble feel, but less of a sharply-tuned focus. But the show remains one of TV’s funniest and most poignant, particularly in the fantastic “Time’s Arrow,” which tells the story behind Bojack’s neglectful mother in truly inventive fashion. And the comedy remains as good as ever, whether it’s through Mr. Peanutbutter’s gubernatorial race against Woodchuck Coodchuck-Berkowitz, or simply through anything and everything related to Jessica Biel.
I missed out on the much-ballyhooed Twin Peaks revival, so I can’t decisively call Legion the weirdest show of the year. But the sheer level of strangeness on this show – as well as the craft that Noah Hawley and co. put into it all – was genuinely something to behold. The story often took a backseat to visual trippiness, such as the sight of Jermaine Clement inside an interdimensional ice cube, or an entire silent-movie action sequence scored to “Bolero.” The weekly head trip provided by Legion made the slower spots worth it as, much like David Haller, we were left wondering how to separate insanity from reality.
8. Search Party
The first season of this noir-style comedy ended with a resolution to its overarching mystery, and I was concerned that Season Two would flounder in search of follow-up. But the fears were quickly allayed as, across the second season, we watched our lead characters grapple with the aftermath of their actions, fragmenting their relationships even as they needed friends more than ever. The show’s message to young millennial viewers is as biting as anything else on television: Yes, the world is filled with crazy people – and you’re probably on your way to joining them.
7. Better Things
In the age of the semiautobiographical comedy, few shows convey the personal material as well as Better Things. Inspired by her own relationship with her daughters, Pamela Adlon (along with that pervy guy who shall not be named) has crafted a series that plays like a string of little vignettes, all threaded together by the interactions of its vividly-crafted leads. The best moments of Better Things often seem to come out of nowhere (Sam’s “No!” tirade in “Blackout”; the dance sequence in the season finale), but they feel honest and genuine, and usually land a deserved emotional punch.
6. Better Call Saul
The first two seasons of Better Call Saul were stronger than I thought they would be, elevating Jimmy McGill from a mere comic figure to a complex and sympathetic one. But Season Three shook away any last restraints and finally elevated Saul to “great” status. The Mike/Gus material thrills us from a pre-Breaking Bad perspective, setting up stories we know to have a riveting payoff. But it’s the clashes between Jimmy and Chuck (which bears no direct connection to the show’s parent series) that feature the truly golden material. Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean do spectacular work as the warring McGill brothers – and television at large has not had even ten courtroom scenes as riveting as the one at the climax of “Chicanery.”
5. The Good Place
It feels like ages since the Season One finale of The Good Place upended everything we thought we knew about the show. That can partly be traced to the fact that the finale aired back in January, but it also underscores just how much ground The Good Place has covered thus far in its second season. Between compressing multiple reality-resets into one episode and providing a string of possible answers to the famous Trolley Problem in another, the series never takes a moment to stand still. The result is perhaps the best network sitcom since the end of Parks and Rec (and created, not too surprisingly, by the same production team), and one of TV’s most inventive shows, period.
4. Halt and Catch Fire
Given how obnoxious the Internet can often be, it seems almost impossible to remember the time when it was envisioned as a wondrous and world-changing development. But that’s exactly the time period that the final season of Halt and Catch Fire recalls, closing out its story about people and technology with a winsome look at the race our characters make to the top of the World Wide Web. Halt had its heartbreaking moments – particularly in this season’s final four episodes – but at its core, it was an optimistic show, focusing on a small but determined group of people attempting, at all costs, to be the thing that gets us to the thing.
3. Master of None
The description of TV episodes as “a series of miniature movies” has fallen by the wayside in recent years, supplanted by the less compelling definition of the TV series as “one long movie.” But if any show keeps the spirit of the first definition alive, it’s Master of None. Each episode of Aziz Ansari’s beautifully filmed series has its own distinct look and atmosphere – a black-and-white tour through Italy, a look at the intersecting lives of random and diverse New Yorkers – and each is a joy all on its own. All put together, they form a tidy 10-episode package, a marvelous second season that tops the show’s already-impressive first.
2. The Leftovers
It took me a while to get into The Leftovers. I found the first season boring and pretentious, its intriguing themes muted by the show’s seeming need to be as perennially depressing as possible. And while the second season was undoubtedly an improvement, I couldn’t quite shake the series’ manufactured and self-conscious feel. It was a well-made show, but not one geared to my tastes.
But at long last, the third and final season did the trick. In just eight brief episodes, The Leftovers delivered some of the most complex, most poignant, and most laugh-out-loud television I’ve seen all year. It trimmed its cast down to the essentials (one episode essentially spends an hour with Scott Glenn wandering around the Outback) and delivered one compelling character spotlight after another. Its command of tone was virtually unmatched – the show featured affecting questions about the power of God in an episode that took place largely on a lion-themed sex party boat. And the finale, while not without flaws, provided closure for its viewers, whether or not they prefer to let the mystery be.
1. American Vandal
No TV series this year impressed me on as many different levels as American Vandal. It sounds ridiculous, given that the show’s central premise is built around genital graffiti. But Netflix’s under-the-radar faux-documentary had much more than gross-out humor on its mind.
American Vandal works as a humorous sendup of the “true-crime” genre that television has squeezed dry in recent years. It works as a page-turning mystery, with multiple clues glittered tantalizingly throughout the eight-episode run. And it works as one of the best high school dramas to debut on television in years, granting even the most peripheral of teenage characters their own vivid personality traits and foibles, and disseminating themes of identity and personality branding without ever feeling on-the-nose. If there’s any doubt that high school leaves adolescents unprepared for adulthood, American Vandal dispels it.
But perhaps most impressively, American Vandal works as a critique of our current world. At a time when uncovering the truth has become more difficult than ever – when our leaders pathologically lie, when the media infuses its reports with myopic bias, when facts are thrown out the window if they risk hurting people’s feelings – the amateur sleuthing of Peter Maldonado comes off as especially relevant. The documentary’s attempts to be as objective as possible – at the risk of severed friendships and ruined GPAs – demonstrates the sheer difficulty involved in getting the facts straight, and of the constant threat of unconscious bias. It’s an issue only touched upon in the early going, but which indelibly colors our opinions by the time the show reaches its climactic resolution.
It’s a powerful statement, one which continues to stick with me months after the finale’s credits rolled. And it’s just one of the many things that makes American Vandal the best show of 2017.
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