Previewing my end-of-year list, here are a dozen shows worth binging on this summer.
The Peak TV bubble may finally be bursting, so narrowing down shows to write about this time around was merely “very difficult” instead of “impossible.” And though I reserve the right to change my mind come December, the primary purpose of this exercise is for me to throw bones to good series that may not make that final Top 10, when memories and emotions have faded.
Also, I apologize for not officially including HBO’s The Leftovers, a show I never started but will get to eventually. Many critics will put it at the top of their lists. I’m told that this final season was something extraordinary.
So without further ado, and in alphabetical order, let’s begin:
The Americans (FX)
In comparison only to other seasons of The Americans, this wasn’t the best season of The Americans. The critical darling, in a wide-open Emmy field, frustrated many (including our own Chase Branch) by decelerating to a crawl for its penultimate run of episodes, trading its already slow-burning storylines of double agents and familial tensions for… something about wheat? And lots of Philip Jennings being sad? Maybe showrunners Weisberg & Fields got a little cocky, or (more likely) they were pacing out their story a little too broadly in advance of next year’s final season. But I’m inclined to be more forgiving, because the performances are still impeccable, the craft is unimpeachable, and the season’s centerpiece moments — the Nazi mission, the darkroom, and the fifteen minutes of hole digging (more exciting than it sounds) — still stick in the mind weeks and months later. Why is it on this list? Because it’s still The Americans, dammit, and attention must be paid.
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (CNN)
I’m overdue in acknowledging Anthony Bourdain’s contributions to the television landscape, and the move from the Travel Channel to CNN (where it immediately became, and still is, the best thing on the network) in 2013 opened up a new world (sorry) of possibilities for the grouchy author, chef, and humanist. We still get the requisite sequences of food porn, as mouth-watering as ever — overall, the cinematography is among the most gorgeous on television, full stop — but with more time devoted to the history and culture of the locations Bourdain visits, it has lept from “infotainment” into something genuinely edifying.
Last season’s Houston episode, a remarkable hour about multiculturalism in the heart of Texas, aired right when we needed it most; this year, trips to San Sebastian (gob-smackingly beautiful), Oman, and more told the stories of nations, individuals, and their cuisine with an open heart and editing that paid homage to everything from classic cinema to K-Pop music videos. “Antarctica,” which aired last month, was a fascinating hour about civilization and science at the bottom of the world.
Better Call Saul (AMC)
The third season of the Breaking Bad prequel was its best yet, and the first to signal that Better Call Saul won’t be content to just live in the shadow of its predecessor, but challenge it on a dramatic level. This season the feud between Jimmy and his Lawful Evil brother Chuck came to a head, and then a shocking end — as his relationship with the rock-steady Kim only deepened. “Chicanery,” the climactic courtroom episode where Chuck’s hypocrisy was finally laid bare, was one of the 2017’s most disturbingly thrilling hours; by season’s end, Jimmy has sunk deeper into the morass in increasingly unforgivable ways. And that was only half the show! The rest was the Mike Ehrmantraut, Silent But Deadly hour, re-introducing one of television’s great villains, Gus Fring, on the eve of his regional takeover. It’s impossible, knowing what’s coming, not to agonize over the path Gilligan & Gould will take to get there, and what further tragedies remain in store. If it were up to me, I’d skip straight to Cinnabon Gene. But if the future can’t be changed, you’d be a coward not to stare it down anyway.
Dear White People (Netflix)
The title had certain people ready to burn it down before it even aired, but the great surprise of Dear White People, Justin Simien’s series based on his 2013 film, is that the series isn’t very interested in “white people” at all. At least, it’s not some inflammatory polemic that reduces thorny issues to “us” and “them;” the truth is, Simien notes, there’s enough diversity within the black community itself to fuel hours of conflict. Logan Browning shines as Sam, an activist and host of the titular radio program at a fictional Ivy League school; after a local club hosts a blackface party in the name of “satire,” the fuse is lit on this balkanized campus, and issues of pride, loyalty, degrees of skin tone, and sexuality get dragged into the light for dissection.
Each episode focuses on a different fully-drawn character: the closeted reporter, the strapping student body president under his father’s thumb, Sam’s “white bae” who wants so badly to be “woke” he walks into trap after trap. The season hinges on an incident between another activist, Reggie (played like a clenched fist by Marque Richardson) and a cop, spinning tensions further out of control to the point where Giancarlo Esposito’s dry narrator can only say: “Yeah, I got nothin’.” You’ll laugh uncomfortably, but you’ll also be challenged.
The Expanse (SyFy)
The Expanse may still “not be a great show, per se,” as I wrote last year, but in Season 2 it got pretty darn close. Some of that was plot-driven, in ways that are hard to summarize but I’ll do my best: after last season ended with the deadly, shape-shifting “protomolecule” wreaking havoc on a station in the asteroid belt, the intrepid crew of the Rocinante, now gelling as characters and as actors, go up against powerful contingents from Earth, Mars, and the space (heh) between to contain it. The fifth episode, “Home,” was a thrilling hour that balanced military science fiction with metaphysical loopiness, anchored by an emotional central performance from Thomas Jane. We also got introduced to Sgt. Bobbie Draper (no relation to the oft-recast kid on Mad Men), played by the towering Kiwi Frankie Adams; after a frightening discovery on an allegedly uninhabited moon, she’s torn between her Martian superiors and Shohreh Aghdashloo’s imperious Earth politician — but really, she just wants to see the ocean, a sequence that draws unlikely comparison to The 400 Blows. Hopefully, a sign of emotional depth still to come.
Like The Americans, it’s generally accepted that the latest season of Fargo was not its best. Like The Americans, it’s here anyway — but not as a rubber stamp, but because I genuinely enjoyed it, and it was going to have an impossible task no matter what following the masterpiece of its second season — if the saga of Stussy, Swango, and Varga (there’s a law firm I would not hire) came first, would it still be viewed as a critical disappointment? No, of course not. It’s still a triumph of idiosyncrasy, with memorably fun performances (Mary Elizabeth Winstead! Michael Stuhlbarg!), flashes of Coen-inspired mysticism, and Noah Hawley’s trademark storytelling precision. If this snowbound series has sunk into formula, it’s a formula I want to return to again and again. For more from Chase and I on Fargo, go here.
I finished my binge of GLOW on Tuesday night, but it had earned a slot on this list almost from the jump. Created by Orange Is the New Black writers Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, the half-hour, ten-episode (so concise! Thank you, Netflix!) dramedy is an utter delight whether you’re big into wrestling or have never watched a match. There are too many great characters to name in this talented ensemble: Alison Brie plays Ruth, a hungry young actress who also wrecked the marriage of her best friend, Debbie (Betty Gilpin). When Debbie, a former soap opera star, gets recruited by GLOW director Sam (Marc Maron, SO, SO GREAT), the pair have to work out their issues while learning how to wrestle and crafting an indelible, Cold War-inspired Face and Heel routine.
I also loved Britney Young as the kindhearted Carmen, a female Andre the Giant; Sydelle Noel, Gayle Rankin, Ellen Wong (Knives Chau!), and other fresh faces immediately make their mark. The original Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a real series that ran in the late 80s, looks kitschy and exploitive today, but GLOW gets at the heart of why these women would put on spandex and the cultural stereotypes: it’s about taking control of your own body, and writing your own narrative. I guess you could call it the fun side of feminism, compared to the next entry…
The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Oh, man. Okay. The debut season of Hulu’s Margaret Atwood adaptation sputtered slightly towards the end, with a couple less-than-compelling male characters and at least two too many slow-motion walks, but the horror and rage that powers The Handmaid’s Tale is undeniable. In a dystopic near-future, a plague of infertility has led to the hostile rise of Gilead, a totalitarian theocracy where any woman who can have a child is made a “Handmaid” and subjected to one shocking violation after another.
It’s sometimes an excruciating watch (this is not a series to binge), and the prophetic timing of its premiere, with flashbacks that show the recognizable erosion of womens’ dignity, provide fresh discomforts in every episode. But it’s beautiful, too, with evocative cinematography from Colin Watkinson; this is a color-coordinated world, and the blood-red robes of the handmaids form some of 2017’s starkest images. The biggest hosannas (praise be) go to star Elisabeth Moss as Offred. It seems like half of the show is simply holding on Moss in closeup, feeling her pain and her fury; her narration is half in a whisper, like she doesn’t even have the freedom to think inside her own mind. Other standouts on the spectrum of resignation and defiance include Alexis Bledel, Samira Wiley, and Madeline Brewer.
The year’s other Noah Hawley offering was as loose as Fargo was tightly wound. Legion may star a character from the X-Men series, but this is no common superhero show. This first season was a psychedelic trip into David Haller’s (Dan Stevens, enormous fun) broken mind as we discovered along with him his frightening powers, as well as the embodiment of evil feeding off of him like a neurological parasite. Lest that sound too dark, there were also song-and-dance numbers, a chaste romance with Rachel Keller’s Syd (who can’t be touched, or she’ll body-snatch you), the strange Loudermilk twins, Jemaine Clement living inside an ice cube, and a truly triumphant performance from Aubrey Plaza, stretching her wings as the gender-flipped Beetlejuice she was born to play. And Hawley does it all with style to spare, in the most freaky-experimental series this side of Twin Peaks. Each week, you had no idea where the show was going to take you. And that is a rare and laudable thing.
Master of None (Netflix)
Right now, this is my #1 show of the year. I was a big fan of Master of None’s first season — I enjoyed Aziz Ansari’s winning performance, but I loved the heart in his writing even more. Season 2 raises the game on every level: storytelling, production value, emotion, and risk-taking. The premiere, “The Thief,” is a black-and-white homage to Italian Neo-Realist cinema; “New York, I Love You” is a triptych of short stories about never-before-seen characters living less-glamorous lives; “Thanksgiving,” a critical favorite, presents 30 years of Denise’s (Lena Waithe) annual dinner with her mother and her aunt before and after she finally comes out.
Where in 2015 we saw Ansari’s Dev trying to break out in the industry, now he returns from his Italian sabbatical to find potentially lucrative (if unsatisfying) success as the host of a cupcake show. And the show-biz plotlines are amusing, but Ansari’s focus is still on modern dating; his cautious affection for the spoken-for Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi, a delight) is aching enough to leave a bruise. The season’s hour-long penultimate episode “Amarsi Un Po” culminates with a conversation inside a helicopter that had my heart pounding along with the blades. I hadn’t felt that way about a TV relationship in a long, long time.
My Brother, My Brother, and Me (Seeso)
Let me tell you about the McElroy Brothers, who are not experts, and whose advice should never be followed. Creators of a podcast empire that has steadily extended its tendrils across the internet, the McElroy brand of comedy is goofy and anarchic, but also inclusive and warm-hearted. (Their greatest work is undeniably The Adventure Zone, their long-running Dungeons & Dragons meta-saga that features, no joke, some of the best storytelling anywhere, in any medium.) MBMBAM, or “Muh-Bim-Bam,” began and continues as a weekly podcast where the brothers respond to user-submitted life questions as well as gems buried deep in the junkyard of Yahoo! Answers. (A cursory YouTube search for their best goofs was overwhelming, so here’s a playlist.)
Somehow, they got fledging NBC streaming service Seeso — which, as of this writing, is already defunct — to adapt the format for something resembling television, with interstitial sketches and frequent cameos from the good-sport real Mayor of the McElroys’ native Huntington, West Virginia. These six episodes see the brothers shopping for haunted antiques, attempting to “mentor” Real Teenz, and leading an illegal pro-tarantula parade. And while it’s not devoid of the usual “our first TV show” flaws, it’s unfailingly charming, and consistently had me crying with laughter.
The Young Pope (HBO)
Where to begin with The Young Pope? As I wrote in January, Paolo Sorrentino’s boundary-pushing series was perceived before its debut as a decadent romp about a “bad boy Pontiff;” the actual series, it turned out, was thematically weighty, emotionally stirring, and fearlessly strange. Jude Law is at the absolute top of his game as Pope Pius XIII, formerly Lenny Belardo, and whose mission to return the Church to its most conservative roots — along with his invective-filled public homilies, delivered in shadow — rankles the corrupt and the devout all across the Vatican. But Pope wasn’t a show about the dark wielding of absolute power, but about the mysteries lingering in the undertow: the nature of doubt, the silence of God, and living out one’s purpose no matter the cost. Sorrentino grafts a rock and roll soundtrack onto the solemn extravagance of the Holy See (those sets!), but there’s no confusion in the series’s tone. It’s simply The Young Pope, and it’s unlike anything else.
Now for a new section I’m adding this year, called “One-Episode Wonders” — single installments worthy of praise, regardless of whether the full season hit the same bar:
Brooklyn Nine-Nine: “Moo Moo” (FOX)
A number of sitcoms just missed the mark for me: Veep struggled to retain its edge in a world gone mad; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt came and went with a shrug. I couldn’t justify including The Good Place on two exceptional episodes alone, so I instead want to give a shout-out to Mike Schur’s other network series, the somewhat underrated Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Specifically, “Moo Moo,” a surprisingly dramatic entry about Sgt. Jeffords’ (Terry Crews) alarming off-duty encounter with a white cop; writer Maggie Carey’s episode doesn’t shy away from real-world controversy, but also doesn’t pretend to have any answers. It’s just two men, Jeffords and Andre Braugher’s Captain Holt, talking like human beings, and hoping we see them that way, too. Nine-Nine is always funny, but the great shows have this kind of range.
Sherlock: “The Lying Detective” (PBS)
My British series let me down a little bit, too. Doctor Who has had a few hits this season (I loved “Extremis,” until the follow-up episodes ruined the fun), but is largely dragging itself towards the finish line of the Steven Moffat era. And this was arguably Sherlock’s worst season, with one caveat: the middle episode, “The Lying Detective,” which functioned extraordinarily well both as a self-contained mystery and as a showcase for stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, and skin-crawlingly good guest villain Toby Jones. Director Nick Hurran provides visual flair, with Yan Miles’s stream-of-consciousness editing keeping us just off balance. In many ways, it’s peak Sherlock: tense, cinematic, and a little bit mad.
Underground: “Minty” (WGN)
Finally, 2700 words later, I come at last to the best hour of television I’ve seen all year. Underground — now cancelled, hopefully not for good — got a little fractured in its second season, but its moment of transcendence required supernatural focus: “Minty,” an hour dedicated to a solo, uninterrupted monologue from Aisha Hinds’ Harriet Tubman. The “Tub Talk” is a tour de force, a story of hope, survival and the unending pursuit of justice, brilliantly directed by Anthony Hemingway and powerfully performed by Hinds. The account of this episode’s production is a stirring read on its own, but if you choose to take my advice on anything from this too-long piece, seek out “Minty.” It closes with a single shot, several minutes long; the camera descends from the rafters just as Tubman’s call to arms reaches its stirring apex, ending on Hinds in closeup, voice breaking, shifting her gaze from her rapt audience into the lens itself — to you, and to me: “Ain’t nobody get to sit this one out, you hear me?”