Top 10 TV Shows of 2017

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Peak TV showed no signs of slowing down in 2017. HBO had one of its best years ever while the likes of Netflix and FX continued to churn out great shows throughout the year. The best and brightest came from all corners of television, however, from a drama very much in the same vein as The Wire to a cheerful NBC comedy from the writers of Parks and Recreation. Without further ado, here are our picks for the ten best shows of the year from our two TV critics.

Matt’s Take:

10. The Deuce

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If anyone other than David Simon was behind a series chronicling the rise of legal pornography and the changing sex industry in the early ’70s, we’d be skeptical of its treatment. But The Deuce very much follows the formula of The Wire, and to great effect. The first few episodes, almost completely devoid of plot, establish the scene in the period’s Times Square as a grimy, urban wild, wild west. But the characters reflect New York’s eclectic population at the time while making real-feeling characters out of pimps, prostitutes, bartenders, and corrupt cops (with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Eileen as the clear standout). When the end of the season starts to do something with the groundwork the previous episodes so carefully and intricately laid, the results are as fascinating as they are emotional.

 

9. The Handmaid’s Tale

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Having become a cultural phenomenon far beyond its reaches—and one of 2017’s most popular Halloween costumes—Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel is one of the few shows that actually, gulp, benefitted from Trump’s presidency. What could have been a more high-concept cautionary tale was elevated to a social and societal horror story facing women who would refuse to submit to the demands of the rich and powerful patriarchy. Bursting with great performances, most notably from the likes of Elisabeth Moss and Ann Dowd, The Handmaid‘s Tale proved most effective at building tension around the worst case scenario for a specific group of people, much like Get Out did on the big screen earlier in the year, only without the humor to take the edge off of how royally f*cked up everything is.

 

8. Feud: Bette and Joan

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I’m not a fan of Ryan Murphy. He’s the ultimate idea man, but so rarely follows through on those ideas to create something rewarding for the viewer (I of course did love The People vs. O.J. Simpson, but he was just one name of several behind that masterpiece). Knowing everything I knew about Feud going in, with Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, respectively, it sounded like a great premise, but Murphy’s name has so rarely yielded results before. Not only did Feud break this streak, it became the creator’s most mature work to date, further lifted by the oustanding performances from its two leads. At a tight eight episodes, the season dove deep into Hollywood’s sexism problem through the decades while providing an ending that resonates and shows a possible different path, one big enough for two titans.

 

7. Master of None

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The second season of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series improved on the first by being both more ambitious and more human. The season’s general arc is more smartly plotted than its predecessor, and on an episode-to-episode basis, the series proved capable of changing its tone and intent on a whim while still staying entirely true to its overall mission. Whether a cinematic trip to Italy, a discussion of evolving religious practices, New York stories typically untold, or following the show’s queer vessel through all the significant Thanksgivings of her life, Master of None showed no bounds in its reach in its sophomore year, making us yearn for more even if the writers are currently unsure what a third season will look like.

 

6. Legion

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Yes, Fargo may have been something of a casualty of Noah Hawley’s newest venture with FX, but what a venture it was! Adapting the story of one of the X-Men’s more obscure side characters—despite being Xavier’s son—Legion‘s strength came from a celebration of classic superhero tropes that pushed them to new, unbroken ground. The story of David Haller was the best looking show on TV this year, bursting with a style that actually fit the narrative of its lead’s fractured mind. Pairing a legitimately rewarding overall arc with Hawley’s boundless playground of visuals and thematically rewarding filmmaking techniques, Legion quickly gained ground as one of the best live-action comic book shows of all time.

 

5. BoJack Horseman

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Easily Netflix’s most consistently rewarding series, considering its barely lost an ounce of its creative momentum since peaking in season three, BoJack Horseman season four featured much more of a throughline story than seasons past, which had delivered brilliant episodic trinkets. But the long-form story of BoJack having to come to terms with his family history, and find his role in their future along the way, proved just as strong as everything that came before. Season four successfully brought the titular character to a place where he might actually start to change and become a better person.

 

4. Better Things

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Where season one felt like it leaned harder on its Modern Family influences than those from Louie, season two found the best of both worlds, enriching the series’ focus into something truly unique. Better Things now feels personally delivered to us from Pamela Adlon. The star and creator took over directing duties for each episode of the season this time, only sharing a writing credit with Louis CK (yes, what he did is absolutely despicable, but it doesn’t change the fact that these episodes are beautifully written to push Adlon’s expression into something more personal) throughout the season. Boasting both a genuine sweetness and a profane vulgarity, Better Things‘ chronicling of single motherhood doesn’t just trade off between uplifting and hilarious, it marries them like few other shows have before.

 

3. Big Little Lies

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Another show that resonated more the worse 2017 got, Big Little Lies‘ seven episodes start as a dark comedy, subtly sending up rich, liberal suburbia (with the show using the gorgeous vistas of Monterey, California to its advantage); but it evolves into a powerful drama about a fight women have to come together for, rather than picking each other apart between battles as the enemy would have them do. With bravura performances from Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Adam Scott, Laura Dern, and, most unforgettably, Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies boasted joyfully ridiculous yet small comedy, and a story that made our hearts swell at the unity of these women to put a stop to the unspeakable.

 

2. Dear White People

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Netflix’s best series this year, new or old, took the jumping off point from the 2014 film (which Justin Simien also directed before creating the series) and evolved it into something emotionally resonant for long-form storytelling. Using the same premise and themes to put a hyper-focus on the various characters at Winchester University on an episodic basis, while also quietly advancing the season’s overall arc in the background, the series’ delivery format is wholly unique. Dear White People is, first and foremost, about the humans suffering from racism both obvious and discrete. It attaches us to its strong ensemble and then shows us the ways this racism affects them on a micro-level. That is, except for a showstopping moment, found in the Barry Jenkins-directed fifth episode that would seemingly make everyone understand, were they all listening.

 

1. The Leftovers

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As a critic, it’s important to remain as objective as possible, letting yourself try to experience a work as the masses might rather than tying the events of a narrative to your own personal experiences. Of course, the delight of great art is that it makes such a task impossible. After the series finale aired back in June, I remember reading a slew of pieces from other critics and industry professionals detailing how The Leftovers spoke to them personally. These writers were feeling a variation of the same thing I was, as though Damon Lindelof tapped into an aspect of human existence we were aware of, but all too scared to confront. In the show’s best season, there was something for everyone: supernatural mysteries, black-as-hell humor, questions of religion and purpose, family drama, the best acting television has ever seen, and a sweeping romance. But all that stemmed from The Leftovers exploration of the complex human emotions surrounding our mortality, ranging from the constant, blinding search for satisfaction to the temptation to let all you have slip away with your own power. Through that, Lindelof triumphantly finished the most human show to ever grace the small screen. From jumping on a trampoline with an old friend listening to the Wu-Tang Clan, to crawling inside a machine that, if it doesn’t incinerate you, might maybe give you a glimpse of your family again, this was a journey that taught us to open ourselves to our own truths, to believe in others and their truths, and, most of all, to be present and open to love.

 

The Best (and Worst) of the Rest:

Some other shows that were serious contenders for my top 10 include Game of ThronesThe Get DownThe Good PlaceBetter Call SaulBroad City, and Girls. All were great in their own unique way, but just missed the cut for one reason or another. There was also a slew of new shows that had promising first seasons that could easily end up in my top 10 next year if they improve. I’ll definitely be keeping my eye on Big MouthGlowA Series of Unfortunate Events, and Mindhunter next year.

Now onto some of the worst: superhero television practically nosedived this year (with Legion as the brilliant exception). Powerless and Iron Fist were unbelievably awful (I didn’t even bother with Inhumans), while neither The Gifted or any of the Arrowverse shows sparked any real interest. Even The Defenders was a disappointment. Outside of the superhero realm, some big disappointments from previously great series this year included South ParkAmerican Horror StorySilicon ValleyThe Crown, and House of Cards.

 

 

Mike’s Take: 

10. American Vandal

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Who could have guessed that one of the funniest, and most astute, comedies of the year would revolve around discovering who spray painted a bunch of dicks on some cars. This parody of true crime documentaries mines its rather juvenile concept for all the laughs it can get, but the real magic is how easily you get invested in solving the case. Perhaps its because the show’s attention to detail and execution of true crime doc tropes is so pitch perfect. Or perhaps it’s because the cast of characters end up becoming layered and relatable people we can love (or love to hate). All in all, the show is an unexpected delight. If you can look past the silly basic premise, you’ll find a surprisingly poignant, wholly authentic portrayal of what it means to be a teenager today. Oh, and lots of dick jokes. Don’t worry, most of them land pretty well.

 

9. Feud: Bette and Joan

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Ryan Murphy is hit or miss with his vast arsenal of TV series, so it’s a good thing his latest anthology is a surefire hit. Exploring one of the most notorious feuds in Hollywood history is already an intriguing concept, but using this story to examine the deep layers of misogyny in the industry makes for some truly powerful storytelling. Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon shine as screen queens Joan Crawford and Bette Davis respectively, each inhabiting iconic roles with a fierce sense of humanity. Come for the quippy one-liners and on-set drama, but stay for the heartbreaking and beautiful depictions aging, loneliness, and the pursuit of success. Davis and Crawford were pitted against each other from the start, so Bette and Joan serves as a bit of a cautionary tale. Unfortunately, it resonates just as deeply today, despite taking place several decades ago.

 

8. Difficult People

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Though I’m sad that the third season of Difficult People will also be its last, it’s a bit of a bittersweet goodbye, because this season was also the show’s best. Julie Klausner’s acerbic showbiz comedy reached new heights this year, fully embracing its unique brand of biting humor and letting its characters really run wild. The season took on an impressive number of topical storylines—and took bold shots at the likes of Woody Allen, Bryan Singer, Kevin Spacey, and male-dominated writers rooms—but remained true to the relationship between Julie and Billy at its core. Yes, their friendship is built on their mutual hatred of just about everything, but from a mix of sharp writing and Klausner and Billy Eichner’s winning chemistry, it’s one of the most genuine love stories on TV. I’ll miss this show dearly, but I’m so glad that it got to run it’s loud, angry mouth one last time.

 

7. The Sinner

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In the era of peak TV, most people turn to premium cable or streaming services for their prestige shows. That’s why it’s always so exciting when a great new show premieres on an unexpected network and mesmerizes everyone. Such is the case with The Sinner, which premiered on USA against its usual roster of glossy legal dramas and crime procedurals. A stunning psychological thriller, the show follows a young mother named Cora who one day snaps while on the beach with her family and stabs a seemingly random man seven times with a knife. What follows is gripping, unpredictable, and a fascinating meditation on family, religion, and the importance of independence. At the very least, the show is worth watching for the fantastic Jessica Biel, who’s never been better than she is in this now Golden Globe-nominated role. The Sinner answers the question of who committed the crime right off the bat. Finding out why over the course of eight episodes will leave you breathless.

 

6. Master of None

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The autuerist TV market is a bit over-saturated at the moment, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. More diverse and dynamic storytelling just means there are more great shows to watch. Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series is certainly one of them, with a second season that effortlessly avoids a sophomore slump thanks to some truly creative narrative arcs. Ansari is really allowed to flex his filmmaking muscles here, experimenting with an episode that’s an homage to Bicycle Thieves, a heartwarming episode of recurring Thanksgivings that deals with Denise’s (Lena Waithe) burgeoning sexuality, and an episode that focuses on the working class people of New York and skips out on Dev and his friends entirely. Ansari has a wonderful perspective on love, life in the city, and, of course, which restaurants to eat at. Counting his voice amongst the many TV auteurs out there is important. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

 

5. The Good Place

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Michael Schur’s afterlife sitcom ended its first season by proving it had more in common with Lost than with Schur’s previous show Parks and Recreation. The question on everyone’s minds following the finale’s jaw-dropping twist was just where exactly the show was going to go next. Luckily, Schur was ready with an answer, or several. Season 2 messes with time and narrative structures in an increasingly exciting way as Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason navigate a world they thought they were getting used to. Inventive high-concept plots aside, the reason this show really succeeds is because of its indelible cast of characters and their constant pursuit to do the right thing. In these confusing and rather dark times, it’s refreshing to watch a series take on discerning right from wrong with such a joyous and sunny disposition. With strong lead performances all around—especially from the magnetic Ted Danson—The Good Place is the most fun ethics lesson you’ll ever get.

 

4. The Handmaid’s Tale

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It seems strange to say this, but The Handmaid’s Tale benefitted greatly from our divisive political climate. What ordinarily would just be a run-of-the-mill dystopian thriller, this adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s best-selling novel was transformed into a horrifying glimpse into a future that hardly seems that far off. The parallels to America post-Trump election are easy to spot, and they make for edge-of-your-seat viewing. This is not an easy show to watch, but it’s certainly an impactful one. Elizabeth Moss delivers a gut-wrenching performance as a woman who has all of her autonomy taken from her and who yearns for small glimpses of hope that, somehow, things are going to get better. Equally as engrossing are Ann Dowd as a spine-chilling religious authority figure and Alexis Bledel as a rebel freedom fighter. It’s hard not to watch this show with a feeling of dread in your stomach, but that’s what makes it so powerful. Hopefully, it remains a work of fiction forever.

 

3. Bojack Horseman

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The show about a talking horse working in Hollywood Hollywoo continues to be one of TV’s best examinations of existential crises, loneliness, mental illness, and the dangers of fame. It’s also still one of the only shows out there that can mix zany cartoon comedy with profound heartbreak. Season 4 might have lacked the show’s usual brilliant one-off episodes, but it more than made up for it with its deep dive into Bojack’s family history. Other characters got meaningful narratives as well, such as Princess Carolyn’s struggle to conceive a child and the crumbling of Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter’s marriage. Oh, and there’s an episode where a bunch of celebrities get trapped underground and Jessica Biel lights Zach Braff on fire. Both actors voiced themselves and it’s amazing. Best of all, season 4 of Bojack features something that the show has never done before: a ray of hope.

 

2. Big Little Lies

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I’m not sure there’s much more about Big Little Lies that I can say, other than that its deserving of every ounce of praise and awards recognition its received. Liane Moriarty’s novel was brought to life in such a thoughtful, spellbinding, and multifaceted way that it became the can’t-miss show of the season. Everything about this show was top-notch, from the sublime lead performances of Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, and Nicole Kidman (who is otherworldly), to Jean-Marc Vallée’s cinematic direction, to David E. Kelley’s whipsmart and emotionally resonant script. Big Little Lies is about women, but it’s that it’s about so many different types of women—from power suit executives to yoga moms—that makes it so spectacular. HBO has recently announced that a second season will be occurring. Though I’m a little nervous that a sophomore effort would mar the perfect conclusion to what originally was supposed to be a mini-series, I can’t wait to spend time with these characters again.

 

1. The Leftovers

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An elevator pitch for The Leftovers would be hard to come up with, mainly because “a show about our fears and questions surrounding our own mortality” is hardly an easy sell. Yet, the fact that this show can’t quickly be summed up in one sentence is part of its majesty. There’s no category that Damon Lindelof’s magnum opus fits into. At times it can be sweepingly, achingly emotional, at times it can burst with heart-pounding intensity, and at times it can be absolutely hilarious. The show spent its third and final season doing an exquisite exploration of its characters and their search for affirmation on the 7-year anniversary of The Sudden Departure. Full of impeccable performances, searingly beautiful cinematography, and a gut-punch of a storyline, this is television at its finest. I guess if I had to come up with an elevator pitch, it would be that this is a show about the complexities of life. I know that’s not an easy sell either, but it’s true. The Leftovers proved to be the most human viewing experience of the year.

 

The Best (and Worst) of the Rest:

Narrowing down my list of favorite TV shows to just 10 always proves to be a challenge, especially in an era where so many amazing shows keep popping up (seemingly) out of nowhere. Netflix continued to deliver quality original content this year, with exciting new shows like OzarkMindhunter, Dear White People, Big Mouth, and GLOW, and great seasons of existing shows like Orange is the New Black.

Auteurist TV—especially by female creators—continued to have some very high highs with a wonderful second season of Issa Rae’s Insecure, an excellent fourth season of Broad City, and the debut of Frankie Shaw’s highly engrossing, but poorly titled SMILF.

Other great shows include the always-delightful Younger, the addicting and zeitgeist-y Bold Type, the thrilling and satirical Search Party, and the latest season of Rick and Morty, which I’ll just describe by saying, “Pickle Rick!”

Now for the not-so-great stuff. This latest season of You’re The Worst was surprisingly repetitive and uninspired, despite a few great one-off episodes. American Horror Story: Cult started off with a strong premise, but became one of the Ryan Murphy shows to avoid. Netflix’s Girlboss was meant to be an empowering success story, but ended up being a tonal misfire. And don’t even get me started on Iron Fist….

 

By Matt Dougherty and Mike Papirmeister

2 Responses to Top 10 TV Shows of 2017

  1. […] I said in our best (and worst) TV shows roundup, You’re the Worst unfortunately debuted its weakest season yet in 2017. What gives me hope […]

  2. […] the Hulu Original was featured on just about every critic’s Best of 2017 list (including our own), and features a plot that’s crucially relevant in a year when Hollywood’s dark […]

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