The best television of the year had everything: fighting, torture, revenge, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles, and a helping of political subversion.
Can I get through this summary of the year in television entertainment without mentioning the orange elephant in the room? I guess that answers itself. It’s impossible to watch most of the series on this list — and many that aren’t — without seeing them through the prism of our current politics; even stories that long-predate 2017, like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or Lenny’s debut homily on The Young Pope, feel like they were written for such a time as this. How can you watch The Americans without thinking of Russian meddling? Are Mr. Robot’s modern-day references clever, or too clever? Is the reveal of a minor character’s sexual harassment on Master of None prescient, or not prescient enough? Is there even oxygen in the room for an abstract discussion of ethics, like on The Good Place?
It really comes down to one question: do you watch TV to remember, or to forget? As I was putting my list together, I kept coming back to this idea. Television has long been comfort food, something you have on in the background while you fold laundry or do homework (it’s why NCIS is still so popular, after all), but as I curated and re-read old recaps, the hours and half-hours that stuck in my mind were those that set high bars for themselves, whether in technical execution, hard-earned catharsis, or relevance in our current climate. It wasn’t as hard to write as in previous years — not because there were fewer great shows to choose from (Lord, no!), but because it was obvious which had left a deep mark on me. Nothing here got rubber-stamped. Not even Game of Thrones.
Finally, while a lot of good (even great!) series just missed the cut for me this year — check out my mid-year piece for even more — I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few of the titles that probably would have made my list if I had actually watched them, notably: The Leftovers, Twin Peaks: The Return, The Deuce, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Better Things, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Many critics have given love to these shows, but, as you can understand, there’s just too darn much to keep up with. Adding insult to injury, Netflix isn’t dropping the new season of Black Mirror until the 28th. Their loss.
Now, onto the Honorable Mentions:
- American Vandal (Netflix): Far more clever than its crude subject matter would have you believe, this freshman series is both a pitch-perfect send up of Serial/Making a Murderer-style True Crime, and a surprisingly emotional story about a high school investigation beginning to eat its own tail.
- The Americans (FX): Is there such a thing as a “bad” season of The Americans? I say no, but letdowns do happen. The series’s penultimate season finds the plotting stretched a little too thin, a little too dull, a little too much Sad Philip. But it’s still The Americans, which makes it better than most things.
- Broadchurch (BBC America): The final season was an excellent rebound, as Broadchurch went back to what it did best: the peerless David Tennant and Olivia Colman methodically investigating a case. And as usual, the Cornish coastline assisted in some of TV’s best cinematography.
- Dear White People (Netflix): Ignore the title: this isn’t an inflammatory “us vs. them” polemic, but a smart, challenging, frequently hilarious character study about the degrees of “wokeness” on a balkanized Ivy League campus. The fifth episode, directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, is a stunner.
- DuckTales (Disney XD): Yes, DuckTales! Seriously! Blame my children, if you must. The track record for cartoon remakes is abysmal (mostly because the originals were never all that good to begin with), but this Disney series is the exception that proves the rule: energetic, colorful, and funny without trying too hard. David Tennant makes an outstanding Scrooge McDuck, but the entire cast is stacked.
- Fargo (FX): Put it on the pile with The Americans and the other “letdown” series; nevertheless, I genuinely enjoyed it. As idiosyncratic as ever, with great turns from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Stuhlbarg, and others, Fargo’s formula is one I’ll return to again and again.
- Legion (FX): I thought Legion was locked into my year-end list when it aired, but that feels like a century ago, and I don’t remember much from it now other than some gonzo visual sequences, Jemaine Clement dancing inside an ice cube, and a breakthrough tour de force from Aubrey Plaza in the role she was born to play. But those are pretty good things!
- Mr. Robot (USA): The season finale airs this week, but regardless of how that goes, Mr. Robot has been outstanding this season — perhaps because for the first time, it focused on its characters instead of another rug-pulling mystery. The “single-shot” fifth episode, “runtime_err0r,” found creator Sam Esmail stretching his wings as a visual storyteller.
- Nathan For You (Comedy Central): One of the best episodes of anything all year was NFY’s season (series?) finale, “Finding Frances,” a two-hour(!) road trip that opened an endlessly fascinating, endlessly uncomfortable window into the human condition. It’s impossible to describe it in a single paragraph; why not let documentary legend Errol Morris do it for me?
- Stranger Things (Netflix): Remove the misguided “Eleven Sidequest” episode right before the season’s climax, and Stranger Things would have had a shot at remaining in the top ten. But even with it, the series once again weaponized nostalgia in service of genuine thrills, chills, and its still-adorable cast of moppets.
10. Game of Thrones (HBO)
Best Episode: “The Spoils of War“
This was not the best season of Game of Thrones. Whether the series is beginning to crumple under the weight of expectation, or Benioff and Weiss are simply having trouble landing the plane without George R. R. Martin’s map, Season 7 lacked the artful construction of years past. But despite the headlong rush into nigh-incomprehensible nonsense, Thrones’s biggest moments are still grander and more exciting than anything else — one of the few true television events we can all rally around. Here’s why it still makes the list: The unfortunately-named “Loot Train Attack,” where we finally saw Drogon unfurled in all his glory, roasting Lannister soldiers where they stood. The climactic battle north of the Wall, where Jon played action hero to execute an incredibly stupid plan. The long-awaited table-turning on Littlefinger, left gasping for mercy in the halls of Winterfell. And, of course, the squeamish union of the Dragon and the Wolf. It’s untrue to say I don’t care about this season’s flaws, but when Thrones is working, really working, they don’t matter quite so much.
9. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Best Episode: “Goodwill”
Every new season of Halt and Catch Fire was a gift. The series got better and better each year, more confident in its storytelling, deeper in its characters’ relationships, and more satisfying as a purely emotional experience. The heroes of Halt were never going to be more than footnotes in the history of computing, but watching them try — and fail, and try again with a new idea — became its own reward. All of the industry plotting was ancillary, anyway, to what really mattered: the inner lives of Joe, Cameron, Donna, and Gordon, and the partnerships being torn apart and reformed anew. Donna and Cameron pursuing feminist goals from opposite ends. Joe’s perpetual reinvention. Even the Clarks’ daughters, particularly Haley, coming into their own. I came to really, truly care about these people in a way few series have managed, and as much for their shortcomings as for their strengths. This was exemplified in the series’ finest hour, “Goodwill,” where the shocking (but perhaps not all that surprising) death of a primary character gave way to an episode that was entirely about processing that grief. In a word, it was perfect.
8. The Vietnam War (PBS)
Best Episode: “The Weight of Memory”
The Vietnam War, as an educational experience and exercise in empathy, is mind-blowing. Over the course of 17 hours, it carves a path through the quagmire, detailing the decades of internecine conflict, government secrets, and societal upheaval that changed both countries forever. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick ambitiously comb through miles of newsreel footage and photographs taken on both sides of the war, supporting the narrative with thoughtful and gut-wrenching interviews from American troops, Viet Cong, civilians, officials, activists, journalists, and their families — nearly 80 in all. Peter Coyote’s urgent (and outstanding) voiceover provides the context, but it’s these veterans, US and Vietnamese alike, with haunted faces and voices that catch no matter the language, that the series successfully makes it its mission to honor.
7. The Good Place (NBC)
Best Episode: “Dance Dance Resolution”
The Good Place has been on fire, and I don’t mean that hellishly. The end of its first season (much) earlier this year produced one of 2017’s most jaw-dropping twists, and rather than simply be satisfied with that, Mike Schur and company have kept the gas pedal down in Season 2. And not only is the show screamingly funny, with a talented ensemble — shouts especially to Comedy God Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, D’Arcy Carden, and Manny Jacinto, whose shooting percentage on his line deliveries is something close to 100% — it somehow finds room every week to have abstract conversations about ethics (“My name is Kierkegaard, and my writing is impeccable / Check out my teleological suspension of the ethical!”). The new season’s second episode, “Dance Dance Resolution,” was a miraculous screwball installment with more food-based puns than the eye could catch; equally effective was “Janet and Michael,” a thoughtful look at just what it means to be human.
6. Bojack Horseman (Netflix)
Best Episode: “Time’s Arrow”
Where to begin with Bojack Horseman, perhaps the most emotionally rich series on television? The vibrant characters? The side-splitting wordplay (this year’s MVP: Amy Sedaris)? Its consistent, equal-opportunity skewering of Hollywoo culture? The fourth season of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s animated masterpiece was sublime from start to finish, subtly shifting its focus from the titular Horseman’s floundering career to his floundering personal relationships — specifically with his family. It excelled in the surprise gut shots that Bojack has already mastered, especially in the season’s penultimate episode, an extended flashback inside the memories of Bojack’s addled mother; and yet, where previous seasons have lived in that darkness, reveling in Bojack’s self-loathing, this year began our turn back towards the light. The season’s final image is the simplest of facial expressions, but rarely has a smile been so significant, or so dramatically earned.
5. Better Call Saul (AMC)
Best Episode: “Chicanery”
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.
4. The Young Pope (HBO)
Best Episode: “Episode 10”
As I wrote in January (so long ago!), 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.
3. GLOW (Netflix)
Best Episode: “Money’s In the Chase”
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…
2. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Best Episode: “Offred”
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.
1. Master of None (Netflix)
Best Episode: “Amarsi Un Po”
This has been my #1 show ever since it debuted back in May, and nothing has come close to it. 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,” the Emmy winner, 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.