The 26 Best Shows of 2017
I covered a WHOLE LOT of television (and some films) in Inside Streaming this year, but now it’s time to run down the very best of the best — the 26 essential seasons of TV that aired this year, available to stream around the internet right now, that should not be missed under any circumstances.
I’ve tried to include a diverse group of shows from different platforms, perspectives and genres, but above all, focused on entertainment value, technical acumen and artistry, thoughtful or penetrating insight and bingeability.
Did I leave off some of your 2017 favorites? Does the inclusion of some of these programs really rub you the wrong way? Leave a comment or send us a tweet @Inside and let us know what you think!
26. OZARK (Netflix)
If the entertainment world weren’t so dominated by grim, funny/sad, intricately plotted crime dramas right now, it’s likely this idiosyncratic revisit to the land of “Breaking Bad” would rank higher. It’s stylish and smart, full of clever twists and turns, and features one of the clearest explanations of how money laundering actually works that I’ve ever heard. (Watching this show was helpful in following the allegations against Paul Manafort as they unfolded.)
And yet, there’s an inescapable sameness to the proceedings here as in dozens of other shows, with Jason Bateman’s Marty Byrde playing out yet another cat-and-mouse game with yet-another crop of shady characters he probably should’ve known better than getting in bed with in the first place. Bateman and co-star Laura Linney elevate the material as best they can, and that’s good enough for the #26 spot.
WATCH “OZARK” ON NETFLIX
25. THE EXORCIST (Fox)
Though the idea of casting out demons who have possessed a human body feels inherently cinematic, after 40 years of exorcism films, the ritual itself has started to feel kind of played out. How many different ways are there to visualize a priest (or a few priests) splashing someone tied to a bed with holy water and reciting incantations as they thrash about, scream expletives and hurl up green goop?
Well, as it turns out, many more new and interesting ways. Fox’s “Exorcist” series made a number of bold choices right off the bat, all of which paid off. Rather than a reboot or a reimagining, it’s a genuine follow-up to the iconic original film “The Exorcist.” Rather than attempting to construct a multi-season arc around a single possession, the show reinvents itself with each new season, carrying over its old and young priest but introducing a new cast of demonic victims. Each season unfolds over 10 episodes, so there’s limited filler. The use of fantasy sequences, bringing the priests inside the mind of the possessed, allows for a vast array of stark, unsettling visuals. And there’s just enough of a larger storyline — about an infiltration of possessed church leaders within the Vatican — to tie it all together, and deliver big payoffs at the ends of the seasons.
In probably the best time for the horror genre in TV history, “The Exorcist” nonetheless stands out.
WATCH “THE EXORCIST” ON HULU
24. THE YOUNG POPE (HBO)
It was hard to know what to make of HBO’s “The Young Pope” before it debuted, and also after the first season wrapped up months later. Paolo Sorrentino’s visually dazzling, occasionally absurd religious comedy-drama is easy enough to summarize. Through a variety of circumstances that unfold over the course of the first season, a relatively young American named Lenny Bartolo (Jude Law) has become the youngest pope in history, and he has very unconventional ideas about the role of the pontiff, and the future direction of the Catholic Church.
But while other shows might set up a clear goal for Lenny, some reliable friends and allies, along with some foils and obstacles in his path, “The Young Pope” keeps its audience at a distance. We don’t really know any more about what Lenny truly wants and believes than anyone else. Is he a True Believer, or an anarchist? Does he truly want to enact revolutionary change, or is he toying with his adversaries and those who would oppose him? Does he even really want to be pope?
In the end, the show isn’t about answering any of these questions, but allowing us to wander around inside this gorgeously (and, it seems, extraordinarily realistically) recreated Vatican City, to ponder them with the rest of the cardinals.
WATCH “THE YOUNG POPE” ON HBO
23. SNEAKY PETE (Amazon)
Remember what I was saying about all the crime shows? This is another funny-sad twisty well-acted crime show. They’re just gonna keep coming.
This time around, we follow a con man named Marius (Giovanni Ribisi) who assumes the identity of a former cell mate so he can go live with that guy’s family and avoid the crime boss to whom he owes a sizable debt. (That boss is played by Bryan Cranston, who also produces.)
More than a grim morality tale like “Ozark” or a bloody procedural like “Narcos,” “Sneaky Pete” works best when it infuses a lot of humor and humanity into its own cat-and-mouse theatrics. Peter Gerety and Margo Martindale do fantastic work as the dupes who genuinely become like a real family for Marius/Pete. Season 1 ended on a wild cliffhanger, and I’m looking forward to rejoining these folks for Season 2.
WATCH “SNEAKY PETE” ON AMAZON PRIME VIDEO
22. MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE RETURN (Netflix)
The idea of reviving “Mystery Science Theater” with NONE of the original on-screen talent or writers was a pretty big gambit. The show had rotated players throughout its run, but it has such a distinctive voice, and seemed in its way so firmly of its time and place… Would filling it with well-known 2017 alt-comedians and streaming it on Netflix instead of basic cable (or public access) rob a homemade production operating on a very simple premise of its charm?
Thankfully, not at all, and the new writers and stars of “Mystery Science Theater” genuinely picked up where the classic episodes left off without missing a step. And best of all, because we’ve updated by one generation, all the obscure old references are to ’90s pop culture instead of ’70s and ’80s pop culture, so I basically get everything they’re throwing out there.
Jonah Ray, Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn as the shows new human star, plus the voices of Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, have done the seemingly impossible. They’re clearly not replacing the old stars and robot voices — they don’t sound anything alike. Instead, they’ve recreated these characters from the ground up, and made the show their own. The show makes it all seem laid back, goofy and effortless, but it’s too consistently funny to be the product of anything but hard work.
WATCH “MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE RETURN” ON NETFLIX
21. VEEP (HBO)
HBO’s long-running political satire was faced with twin difficulties this year: For the first time, protagonist Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) doesn’t hold office, and isn’t running a campaign. As well, with President Trump taking office, all eyes were on the show to see how it would try to top that real-world spectacle.
And in Season 6, “Veep” responded by essentially turning away from politics, and giving the still fast-talking, sharp-tongued characters other things to do. (Many of the jokes focused on the absurdity of Washington-speak the moment characters leave Washington.)
Selina focuses on her legacy — especially the compromises involved in getting his presidential library built — while her (mostly former) staffers get on with their lives, taking media jobs, gigs with other campaigns or, in the case of Mike (Matt Walsh), becoming a frazzled stay-at-home dad.
It was a breath of fresh air for the show, which is good considering that 6 years is a long time for such a specific setting and style of comedy. But I’m also thankful that Season 7 promises a return to Washington, and the kind of material that “Veep” does best.
WATCH “VEEP” ON HBO
20. DEAR WHITE PEOPLE (Netflix)
Justin Simien’s 2014 college satire worked well as a movie, but I think it makes more sense as a television show. The film was packed with characters and insights and ideas and jokes, and it all came tumbling out at a rapid clip; the show gives Simien and his writers more time to explore this world, and make subtle connections between all of these different points of view. Though it tells the complete story on its own, in a lot of ways, the film serves as a pilot for the show, introducing observations about racial identity, assimilation, representation and cultural appropriation that the show then unpacks.
Both the movie and the show take on a lot of cultural and political hot potatoes, which can make it sound a bit like a chore when you’re reading reviews like this. But “Dear White People” is one of the year’s more arch, clever, and just funny series, full of smart characters who say smart things and real-time send-ups of modern campus culture.
Plus, Giancarlo Esposito provides the year’s greatest voice-over narration.
WATCH “DEAR WHITE PEOPLE” ON NETFLIX
19. NARCOS (Netflix)
Seasons 1 and 2 of “Narcos” were so completely defined by Wagner Moura’s unforgettable turn as Pablo Escobar, it seemed logical that the show would simply come to an end after the infamous drug kingpin’s death. And yet, Season 3 found a way forward, switching focus to exclusively to DEA agent Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) as it wrapped up the saga of Colombian narco-trafficking. The season’s tail end previews yet another reboot in Season 4, with the action moving to the US-Mexico border.
The secret was clinging tightly to the show’s well-established formula, essentially unfolding as a fake documentary. At their best, “Narcos” episodes feel like a history lesson, related in straight-forward language in voice-over with a lot of the details filled in cinematically. (The VO does such a good job of keeping things clear and fast-moving, it’s possible to even skip individual episodes within a season without losing your place.)
Season 3 also benefits from the addition of Matias Varela to the supporting cast, as Cali Cartel head of security Jorge Salcedo. His twisting journey to eventually aiding the DEA in their pursuit of the cartel is the season’s most fascinating and sympathetic storyline.
It turns out that many of the actual details are fudged by the show’s creators to make it a more compelling, stream-lined experience. But fortunately, there are approximately 100,000 documentaries on Netflix covering the actual ins and outs of the international drug trade, so you should be all set.
WATCH “NARCOS” ON NETFLIX
18. LADY DYNAMITE (Netflix)
Comedians have been getting their own TV shows, and tailoring their stand-up routines to the sitcom format, for about as long as television has existed. Yet it’s hard to think of any performer who has so successfully blended and remixed their on-stage persona into a workable TV format as Maria Bamford. Bamford didn’t even create “Lady Dynamite” herself — it’s produced by Mitch Hurwitz of “Arrested Development” and Pam Brady of “South Park” — and yet the show seems to spring directly from her unchecked id. If Maria Bamford WERE a Netflix show, this would be that show.
The format is loosely autobiographical, and heavily meta-textual, but in the silliest way possible. Much of Season 2 focuses, as did “Seinfeld” a generation before, on Bamford creating her own show-within-a-show, in this case for a streaming platform called “Muskovision.” At times, Bamford uses her easy charm and goofy surrealism to explore very serious, even dark, personal issues, but other times, it’s purely in the service of gags. As a viewer, it keeps you guessing, never certain about what’s coming at you next, even within the same scene.
The show also features, in addition to regulars Bamford, Ana Gasteyer, Fred Melamed and Mary Kay Place, one of the most impressive rosters of comedy guest stars in TV. Season 2 alone features Andy Samberg, Judy Greer, Jenny Slate, June Diane Raphael, David Spade, Jason Mantzoukas, Mira Sorvino, Judd Apatow, Weird Al Yankovic and more.
WATCH “LADY DYNAMITE” ON NETFLIX
17. INSECURE (HBO)
Issa Rae has succeeded where so many other talented YouTube stars have failed — genuinely translating the appeal of her online videos into a broader, mainstream venue. She didn’t really even CHANGE all that much. “Insecure” is basically Issa Rae’s old “Awkward Black Girl” routine, but with an expanded ensemble of interesting personalities, more time to worldbuild and add depth to Issa’s surroundings, and a lot more establishing shots of Inglewood. (Rae created the series herself, along with Larry Wilmore.)
“Insecure” deals with a vast array of social and political topics, but never FEELS like commentary. At its best, like HBO predecessors “Sex and the City,” “Girls” and even, yes, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” it’s about a small group of friends and their sharp, incisive observations about life and love. If you pick up some meaning or a message now and again, that’s just gravy.
And it’s FUNNY, a rare comedy that’s less about set-ups and punchlines (although there are well-crafted set-ups and punchlines) and more about expert timing. Scenes end precisely when they need to, typically after Rae or one of her co-stars has landed on exactly the right facial expression (or, sometimes, the right pratfall). It’s refreshing to watch a show about funny people who aren’t performing for one another, but just trying to get through the day.
WATCH “INSECURE” ON HBO
16. STRANGER THINGS (Netflix)
Word has it, the original plan was to do “Stranger Things” as an anthology, telling a different ‘80s-style horror/thriller tale each season. After Season 1 wrapped up the story of Hawkins, Indiana, and its mysterious portal to the alternate dimension known as the Upside Down, part of me wondered if this wasn’t the right call. Did we NEED to explore more stories with these same kids, confronting these same monsters? Wouldn’t a change of venue be kind of nice?
Well, I’m pleased to report that I was wrong, and series creators The Duffer Brothers managed to expand the scope of the series, and give us a deeper understanding of their young heroes. As with Season 1, the bulk of the credit here has to go to the cast, young and old, who ground the series in realism and humanity even when it’s really piling on the nostalgia and pseudo-science.
Millie Bobby Brown has deservedly become the show’s breakout star as the steely, haunted Eleven, and has grown as an actress considerably even between the first and second seasons. For much of the season, the other characters’ are waiting around for Eleven to save them, and Brown really EARNS this anticipation. We FEEL the impact when she finally shows up in Hawkins.
But Noah Schnapp also deserves attention for his deeply felt, harrowing work here as Will Byers, the haunted boy who was forever changed by his experiences in The Upside Down.
WATCH “STRANGER THINGS” ON NETFLIX
15. THE GOOD PLACE (NBC)
One of only TWO network shows on this entire damn list, creator Michael Schur’s fantasy-comedy reinvented itself in Season 2 (in ways I wouldn’t dream of spoiling) and somehow got EVEN BETTER. It shouldn’t even be possible, especially for an already high-concept comedy series about what happens after you die.
“The Good Place” features a number of the outright funniest, most ridiculous characters on television right now — Ted Danson’s doing the best work he’s maybe ever done as Michael, the afterlife organizer — but D’Arcy Carden as Janet, the artificially intelligent hostess and greeter is truly outdoing herself. I think this is the funniest and most original performance on TV right now.
It’s also just generally bursting with comic invention, one of those shows where there are jokes happening within the jokes, and constant little funny things to notice in the background. I’ve watched Season 1 twice and there’s always new stuff to pick up on during that second go-round.
WATCH “THE GOOD PLACE” ON HULU
14. CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (HBO)
“Curb” returned after a six-year hiatus in 2017, and admittedly, it took Larry David a few episodes to get back into his groove. (Although even an off episode of “Curb” still has at least 3 or 4 huge laughs. I may never recover from “My name is Chappie Johnson and I can’t open this pickle jar.”) Once he starts navigating around the fatwa imposed following discussion of his planned musical, “Fatwa,” the season kicked into high gear.
It’s a delight to return to the world of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and though this season felt a bit like a victory lap, David has already promised to return for at least one more. Prettay prettay prettay good.
WATCH “CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM” ON HBO
13. PATRIOT (Amazon)
Whenever I say “Patriot is the best streaming show that no one knows about,” and am asked to describe it to someone, I say “it’s like the Coen Brothers made a spy show.” Which is basically accurate, but not the whole story… I like that this description captures what makes “Patriot” stand out to me the MOST — it’s extremely dry, deadpan comic sensibility. As with Coen films like “Fargo” and “Miller’s Crossing,” “Patriot” is a funny show about dour, desperate people on the edge. It doesn’t seem to know that it’s funny.
The show concerns a US intelligence operative who must, for a complex tangle of reasons, go undercover as a junior engineer at a Midwestern industrial piping firm. Michael Dornan plays John Tavner as the kind of guy we’d normally see in a show like “Homeland” or “24,” being driven slowly mad by office politics and the monotony of a regular, souless white collar corporate gig. Until occasionally he really is called on to bust some heads.
The show doesn’t shy away from the espionage thriller side of things, or play John’s work for laughs. Creator Steven Conrad, who also directs the bulk of the episodes, shows a really deft ability to balance these tones. You never feel jerked from something funny into something shocking or sad or troubling. All these emotions seep into the same scenes, popping up in unique combinations, like when you eat a whole handful of jelly beans at once. It’s a disarming, invigorating effect, and something that’s rare to experience even in these days of Peak TV.
WATCH “PATRIOT” ON AMAZON PRIME VIDEO
12. LEGION (FX)
Finally, finally, superhero shows have started to get weird and personal and idiosyncratic. Now that CW has proved we can bring standard costumed hero adventures to the screen, other creators are being empowered to take these stories in new, creative directions, just as comic books have been doing for decades. Noah Hawley’s take on “Legion,” Marvel’s powerful mutant who’s the comic book son of Professor X, doesn’t just explode the definition of what a superhero show can be. It’s something of a new take on the TV drama more generally, a wildly imaginative, deeply strange and at times impenetrable episodic descent into madness.
Dan Stevens plays David Haller, and for several episodes, he’s the only thing we, as an audience, can be entirely sure is real. Even once we get SOME additional bearings — David has some kind of psychic powers, he’s been kept in some kind of government facility, his friend Lenny (Aubrey Plaza) may exist only in his head, he’s been liberated (or kidnapped?) by some kind of radical fringe group — much of the first season is spent wondering which of David’s various experiences are authentic.
In many ways, it’s the first television show in history where the villain is “the notion of uncertainty.” And what could be more fitting for a 2017 season of television?
WATCH “LEGION” ON HULU
11. THE AMERICANS (FX)
Just as “Patriot” is a winning combo of the spy show and the offbeat dark comedy, “The Americans” beautifully fuses Cold War espionage thrills with family drama. Somehow, through 5 seasons, the show continues to find new ways to ratchet up the drama, and put undercover Russian agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings under even more strain.
Season 6 will be the show’s last, and the best moments in Season 5 set up what will be at stake in the remaining episodes. It also featured truly wonderful work from leads Matthew Rhys and and Keri Russell; these are larger-than-life characters, capable of superhuman feats of strength and a remarkable sense of duty and dedication to their cause that, for most viewers, is unimaginable. The fact that Philip and Elizabeth still feel relatable and real, like the sort of people you COULD imagine living next door, is nothing short of remarkable. Frank Langella also did really wonderful, subtle, humane work as the couple’s handler, Gabriel.
If you haven’t been watching “The Americans,” you’ve got some catching up to do, but it’s going to be worth it. They’re setting up a “Breaking Bad”-level payoff for next year, I sense.
WATCH “THE AMERICANS” ON AMAZON PRIME VIDEO
10. GLOW (Netflix)
“GLOW” looks back at the formation of a real, very ridiculous, televised wrestling league in the 1980s, and it would’ve been much easier to make a show that exclusively focused on the over-the-top ridiculousness of the enterprise itself. Thankfully, creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch took the harder route, finding the essential humanity of all the participants, and turning the show into an inspirational story about underdogs. It features a number of my favorite TV performances from 2017, but in particular, Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin and Marc Maron are the standouts.
I kind of took issue with “I, Tonya” — the recent, acclaimed and very satirical recent movie about Tonya Harding — for trying to have things both ways. It wants to hold up particular rednecks for scorn and ridicule, but also make a larger point about how Americans judge people unfairly. It came off hypocritical, like the movie wants to have its monkey bread and eat it too.
“GLOW” is the counter-argument. It knows and recognizes the inherent flaws of its characters, and sees clearly when they are being self-centered or ignorant or shallow, but it always treats them as real people, never cartoon characters or stand-ins for some larger point about the media or American values. It’s not saying to viewers “Hey, it would be mean to make fun of these idiots, you jerks!” “GLOW” recognizes that its characters are occasionally stupid and often funny, but it still loves them.
WATCH “GLOW” ON NETFLIX
9. BETTER CALL SAUL (AMC)
A spin-off focused on the comic relief supporting character from “Breaking Bad” shouldn’t work this well. The best choice that creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould made, I think, was to ditch most of what clicked on “Breaking Bad” and to focus in on the specific details of Jimmy McGill’s world. This isn’t an attempt to prequelize their other story, or to play within the same sandbox as before from a slightly different perspective. The “Breaking Bad”-verse was just a lead-in to this completely individual, unique take on life in the moral and ethical fringes of the legal profession.
2017’s Season 3 also delved beautifully, heart-breakingly into the fractured fraternal relationship between Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and his brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), building to a stark, dramatic conclusion that will likely serve as a turning point for the remainder of the series. Both actors did career-best work in these episodes.
[NOTE: “Better Call Saul” Season 3 aired on AMC in 2017, but so far, only the first two seasons are available to stream on Netflix. Season 3 will likely arrive in the Spring, prior to the debut of Season 4 on TV.]
WATCH “BETTER CALL SAUL” ON NETFLIX
8. BIG LITTLE LIES (HBO)
HBO couldn’t have known how well “Big Little Lies” would tap into the zeitgeist of 2017 when they agreed to produce it, but clearly, something was already in the air. This story about domestic violence, parenthood, friendship and female solidarity couldn’t be more relevant, but the show doesn’t work because it feels “ripped from the headlines.”
Much of the success is in its evocation of a very specific setting, likely unfamiliar to most audiences— namely, the tony seaside communtiy of Monterey, California. The characters don’t feel like archetypes either, but singular creations. Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline Martha Mackenzie has her familiar Type A characteristics we recognize from “Election” and “Legally Blonde,” but with a world-weariness that’s new. Nicole Kidman’s Celeste Wright has the glamour we recall from her past movie star turns, but a desperation and vulerability that can be almost frightening and raw.
The show also builds to one of the year’s best, most satisfying conclusions. HBO has announced that it will return for a second batch of episodes, and I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes… but it’s hard to see how they could top this finale.
WATCH “BIG LITTLE LIES” ON HBO
7. AMERICAN VANDAL (Netflix)
Most parodies, even most very well done parodies, succeed at recreating the style, tone and feel of the original work — we laugh because we recognize and appreciate the details within the observations. This is what makes, say, a Lonely Island music video funny. They’re picking up on things we’ve noticed in hip hop videos as well, and pointing them out in humorous ways.
But “American Vandal” goes way beyond this level. It doesn’t just point out things that are inherently ridiculous about the “true crime” documentary genre and score comic points off of them. It actually (1) makes a larger point about what these films do, and why it might be kind of irresponsible AND (2) tells its own compelling, dramatic and emotional story about charismatic, original characters.
This is BONKERS, for a single show to work on all of these levels simultaneously. And yet “American Vandal” makes it seem effortless, even casual, like a tossed-off student project. In its own way, it’s probably the best written TV series of 2017. As well, not enough good things can be said about the performance of Jimmy Tatro, whose turn as Dylan Maxwell is so insightful and soulful, it will make you genuinely rethink your whole take on teenage dudebros.
This series was the best surprise of 2017.
WATCH “AMERICAN VANDAL” ON NETFLIX
6. MASTER OF NONE (Netflix)
So much has been said about “Master of None” and on-screen representation (some of it by my friend Raj). And this IS an important point — we’ve had a lot of shows about love and relationships from the perspectives of single white dudes, and it’s damn refreshing to see one from a different POV.
But what I think really sets “Master of None” and Aziz Ansari’s take on the sitcom apart is the way it balances this specificity and the universal nature of human experience. The show is about a fictional character named Dev, but really, it’s an exploration of Aziz Ansari himself and his personal interests: food, dating and relationships, pop culture and so forth. Real life friends and family members play variations on themselves. The show’s full of specific references to things and places Aziz likes. Usually, we describe sitcoms in generic terms: “It’s about a bunch of guys living in the big city.” But “Master of None” is about AZIZ ANSARI, specifically.
So when the show does stumble upon universal experiences, situations that we’ve all been in, it feels BIG and significant. “Master of None” is specific enough, and so “of itself,” that it’s possible to really invest in its world, giving its twists and turns an emotional payoff other TV comedies rarely even attempt.
WATCH “MASTER OF NONE” ON NETFLIX
5. BOJACK HORSEMAN (Netflix)
“BoJack Horseman,” for the uninitiated, is a cartoon set in a world where talking animals co-exist with humans, that combines goofy, snarky Adult Swim-esque gags with a deep, probing, existential sensibility. It’s a silly, satirical animated series that dares to repeatedly ask questions about whether or not life has any meaning, and if humans (and talking animals) are genuinely capable of actual adaptation and change.
As each new year of the show does, Season 4 introduced some new characters and tackled a different fundamental, crippling human fear: in this case, aging and wasting away. BoJack, a former TV mainstay who’s constantly battling depression and substance abuse, finds himself caring for the daughter he never knew he had, and the mother he’s always hated, who’s now battling advanced dementia. Yes, somehow the show is still funny. No, I’m not sure how they’re doing that either.
Also notable this year: “BoJack” became the first TV show that I’m aware of to seriously and maturely deal with a subplot about asexuality, featured the best response yet to the media’s handling of mass shooters AND pulled off a brilliantly complex new take on the “flashback” episode.
WATCH “BOJACK HORSEMAN” ON NETFLIX
4. THE HANDMAID’S TALE (Hulu)
Many TV series in the past have done good jobs of adapting, and even updating, classic novels. But it’s something else entirely to make the adaptation feel not just fresh and relevant but VITAL to the political moment. The success and acclaim for “Handmaid’s Tale,” I think, comes from these dual achievements: it’s extremely well made and beautifully acted, and it arrives just when conversations about women’s rights and human rights and political speech and the patriarchy and sexual violence and public organizing and bureaucratic oppression were becoming so important in everyday American life.
Much of the credit for the effectiveness of “Handmaid’s Tale” comes down to a handful of actresses, and I’ll single out four: Elisabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Alexis Bledel and Ann Dowd. Moss’s June is our way into the world of Gilead, and watching her slowly shift from victim to firebrand is one of the series’ great pleasures. Strahovski’s complicated, layered performance wordlessly sums up one of the book’s major themes, and gives us a strong sense for how a society like Gilead’s compromises and abuses all the women within it, both those who have been empowered and those with no power. Bledel is the face of shattered innocence, and her look of abject terror in the hospital sequence is absolutely chilling.
And what more can be said about the brilliant Ann Dowd, who actually pops up in not one but TWO series in our Top 5? Her Aunt Lydia is arguably TV’s Top 2017 Villain, and yet the final note of the season was almost sympathetic toward her. She really does love her victims, and feels that she is doing her best for them, and this tragedy comes through in every moment that Dowd’s on screen. It’s a truly brilliant performance.
WATCH “THE HANDMAID’S TALE” ON HULU
3. THE LEFTOVERS (HBO)
Here’s that OTHER Ann Dowd show, though she was really the centerpiece of Season 2, not Season 3. “The Leftovers” goes out on SUCH a classically perfect, abstract, unexpected note, it’s wonderful that it doesn’t have to come back for a Season 4, even though I’m disappointed it has to end. But of course, that’s a fitting way for a series that’s about the fleeting, ultimately unknowable nature of life to go out. “The Leftovers” always was about making peace with the inevitability of death, and the randomness of where stories begin and end.
[Real quick catchup: “The Leftovers” is set in a world where, one day, 2% of the world’s population simply vanished into thin air. The show follows an ensemble of characters, nearly all of whom lost people close to them that day, as they try to make peace with what happened and rebuild their lives. It also looks at how this event impacted the world at large, and started a general dissolving of social norms.]
I should also say: A lot of people argue that you only need to watch “The Leftovers” Season 2 and 3, and can skip Season 1, but I disagree with this whole-heartedly. Yes, Season 1 is a lot more low-key and unfolds on a smaller scale. (Each season kind of ups the ante and takes a broader view of the fictional world of the show.) But Season 1 also introduces nearly all of the major themes that play out over the three seasons; the power of the finale is diminished if you don’t see where everyone started out.
WATCH “THE LEFTOVERS” ON HBO
2. GAME OF THRONES (HBO)
A lot of people had logical or storytelling issues with “Game of Thrones” Season 7. Certain journeys on foot or horseback should’ve taken less or more time. Certain alliances were inevitable, or unlikely, or crudely drawn. Certain special effects seemed rushed. In some cases, I agree. But I think the most important point was occasionally overlooked: No other show in history has even attempted anything remotely close to the scale or ambition of “Game of Thrones,” and a lot more of it is working beautifully than not working. I think a minor misstep or logic gap here or there is easily forgivable.
Quite simply, the world of Westeros — as of Season 7 — is more densely detailed and colorful than any other fictional realm in television history, filled with more three-dimensional human characters than any other show I can name. There’s SO MUCH going on in “Game of Thrones,” so much drama playing out in all the interactions, even after watching each episode 2 or 3 times, I still make new connections and discover background elements I didn’t realize were there.
As an experiment, think of any supporting character and look them up on Wikipedia: you’ll find they were popping up in the background on scenes long before you realized who they were and how they fit in to the larger story. George RR Martin, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have, at this point, created a vast and intricate world in which these dramas can play out. Even if all the details of the narrative itself aren’t ultimately satisfying, the scale of that project remains remarkable and commendable.
And in Season 7, many of the storytelling threads audiences have been piecing together and following for years were finally reaching their climaxes, resulting in a series of thrilling set pieces. “Game of Thrones” has always been more about set-up than payoff, until now, and Season 7 beautifully set the stage for Season 8’s end game, which we likely won’t see until 2019.
WATCH “GAME OF THRONES” ON HBO
- TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN (Showtime)
The original “Twin Peaks” straddled the line between a number of popular TV genres from its day — it was part soap opera, part murder mystery, part crime drama, part workplace comedy and on and on and on, all mixed in with David Lynch’s trademark dream-like surrealism.
“Twin Peaks: The Return” doesn’t recreate this tone at all, but in many ways seems to comment on the genres that dominate 2017 TV. It’s a horror anthology, and a supernatural puzzle box. It’s an ensemble drama about people losing their minds, and the end of the world, but also a quirky dark comedy about bad Vegas gangsters and fast-food loving assassins. It’s probably the funniest show of 2017, and undoubtedly the most terrifying. And most confusingly and exciting of all, it’s both a genuine, direct sequel to the previous “Twin Peaks” series as well as a rejection of the whole idea of a revival.
What creators David Lynch and Mark Frost have done with “Twin Peaks: The Return” that’s so shocking, keeping long-time fans perplexed for legitimately 18 weeks in a row, was to make the whole idea of a “return” literal. This wasn’t a show reuniting all your old “Twin Peaks” favorites, back together again, so much as a show about the slow, grinding, largely impossible process of BRINGING THEM all back together. It’s like the first half of a Muppet movie, where all the Muppets are doing their own thing and decide to reunite for a big show, without the second half, where they actually meet up and do a song together.
This isn’t “the point,” because Lynch and Frost shows don’t ever have just one “point.” I could write 5,000 words about various points made throughout the 18 hours of “Twin Peaks: The Return” and not get to everything, or even come close. But it’s definitely A point. Getting older is a constant process of trying to revisit moments in time, or recreate feelings and emotions from our past, but finding that everything’s changed and different, and there’s always part of you that feels like something’s off, and wrong, and out of place. And humans, more generally, are small and powerless in the face of universal forces like memory and time, only able to react but never to influence their movements.
Also Jim Belushi has NEVER been this good in anything ever, and it’s lovely to see.
WATCH “TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN” ON SHOWTIME