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Popes, killers, mysteries and histories: my favorite TV shows of 2017

“Let’s rock.”

The year 2017 may have been a terrible year for the credibility of the United States of America, but it was an awesome year for dramatic television. To get away from the rapid-fire barrage of political scandal and natural disaster, I ended up spending many hours watching serial dramas.

If your favorite show isn’t on the list, it’s probably my fault (I never got around to Big Little Lies, and Black Mirror Season 4 arrived a little too late to review) but here is a list of my five favorite shows released in 2017.

Trailer for “The Young Pope.”
“They chose a pope they didn’t know. And today, they began to understand….” — Jude Law as “Lenny Belardo.”

5. The Young Pope. HBO/Sky Atlantic/Canal+, January 2017 (USA).

The Young Pope is simultaneously confounding and haunting. What happens when the first-ever American pope is elected? And when this pope, who — as the title describes — is relatively young?

The show resulting from this premise is uneven — at times, the dialogue is ham-fisted, expositional, and — get this — painfully bad. Meanwhile, the musical choices are off-the-wall bonkers — the pope’s theme song is a buzzy electronic beat called “Levo”; LMFAO’s “I’m Sexy and I Know It” plays while the pope dons his ceremonial robes—even a Flume dance number acts as the coda to an episode about confronting a New York priest’s child molestation allegations. And then there are cases when the show indulges in awkward typologies, like when the pope travels to “Africa,” without specifying exactly which country he’s visiting.

Despite these flaws, the show is completely mesmerizing. Jude Law’s maniacal monologues as Lenny Belardo, the young American pope, are fascinating to watch, and rewatch, again and again. He’s supported by a strong cast — Diane Keaton, Silvio Orlando, James Cromwell, Scott Shepherd — though they aren’t always given the strong dialogue that Jude Law gets to recite as Lenny. But the show’s central conflict — that of an enigmatic outsider attempting institutional revolution from within — could not have been explored at a more relevant time in modern history. In fact, one almost thinks that the current American administration might have been better off if it had half the brains that Jude Law’s calculating antihero possesses. It asks us, what scenario is scarier — a political revolution that is incompetent or cunning? That’s a question that we’re going to have for a while — a lot longer than it takes to watch all ten episodes of The Young Pope.

Trailer for “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”
“In all honesty I prefer long-form television to the movies. It’s so much more convenient — ” Neil Patrick Harris as “Count Olaf” turns to the camera. “ — to consume entertainment from the convenience of your home.”

4. A Series of Unfortunate Events. Netflix, January 2017.

Twelve years after the film adaptation of the first three books of A Series of Unfortunate Events hit theaters, Netflix debuted a television show to reboot the franchise, and potentially get around to adapting the entire book series. The result? A promising adaptation that embraces a totally different tone.

Context: in the wake of Harry Potter fever that dominated the early 2000s, all the studios were trying to find their own young adult cash cow to adapt and turn into mega-franchises. Lemony Snicket’s postmodern children’s books, set in a Dickensian–steampunk universe, were a staple of the Scholastic book fair catalogues—thus a natural choice for a film successor to Harry Potter. The ensuing 2004 film adaptation was a heck of a lot better than most of these aborted franchises, which included such disasters as The Golden Compass and Eragon. In what was then called Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Jim Carrey excelled as Count Olaf, the dastardly villain of the storyline, who perpetually seeks to steal the orphaned Baudelaire childrens’ inheritance—in the comical manner of Elmer Fudd and Wile E. Coyote. Carrey was especially memorable in his Olaf–as–dinosaur and Olaf–as–the–imposter–herpetologist–‘Stefano.’ But still, you could kind of understand Carrey’s Count Olaf as merely another Carrey creation, a variant of his madcap portrayal of the Grinch. More stars, such as Jude Law, Timothy Spall, and surprisingly—Meryl Streep—lent their gravitas to the original film. It even featured an inspired parody of stop-motion Christmas specials. But it wasn’t enough to kick-start a film series.

Fast-forward to the Netflix iteration, and the show-runners have completely — and refreshingly — leaned into the postmodern tone of the books, improving on the mixed tone of the film, which always seemed divided between Edgar Allen Poe–darkness and Carrey–craziness. With its designs that evoke toy model houses and colorful costumes, it feels distinctly like a gothic Wes Anderson. Neil Patrick Harris gives Olaf a sense of menace that Carrey didn’t quite possess, and Harris almost blends into the role, except when self-aware dialogue (see above pull–quote) demands it.

The TV show splits each book into two episodes, a process that reminds us that, though the movie version raced through each plot, there wasn’t that much plot to go around, anyway. Still, the writers have added new material that contextualizes the Baudelaire orphans’ journey and gives us more insight into the bigger story than ever before. And at last, we get to see the fourth volume, The Miserable Mill, put to screen.

What’s more, the cast helps make this Series of Unfortunate Events hysterical. Charming lines abound: the double entendre of “He’s my partner!” Mr. Poe’s ridiculous cries for the missing “Baudelaires! Baudelaires!! (coughing fit) “Baudelaires!!!” Underground agent Gustav’s comment: “A consultant? Dear God. Why would anyone listen to a consultant?”

Despite the show’s insistence to “look away, look away”—I can’t wait for the next eight episodes, due out sometime in 2018.

Trailer for “Mindhunter.”
Ed Kemper: “Why are you here, Holden?”
Holden Ford: “I don’t know.” ­
Ed Kemper: “Well now, that is the truth.”

3. Mindhunter. Netflix, October 2017.

Mindhunter, David Fincher’s smart serial killer–thriller show is combination of coming-of-age story and procedural. Inspired by the memoirs of FBI agent and behavioral scientist John E. Douglas, who launched the first efforts at profiling serial killers in the 1970s, Mindhunter involves interviewing incarcerated serial killers to help catch serial killers. If that sounds familiar, that’s because author Thomas Harris based the concept of The Silence of the Lambs (and Scott Glenn’s character Jack Crawford) on John Douglas’ experiences.

Fincher’s iconic slick and cold style works well here, in a series that is as much the first 7.5–hour installment in a much longer movie. The cast is phenomenally good at bringing the well-written roles to the screen: Jonathan Groff turns in a complex performance as Holden Ford, the lead and stand-in for John Douglas (Groff’s most famous role before this was Kristoff in Frozen). Meanwhile, Holt McCallany (whom you might recognize as a member of Project Mayhem in Fight Club #hisnamewasRobertPaulson) is excellent as Ford’s burned-out partner — and makes you wish he had gotten more prominent work over the years. Hannah Gross plays Debbie Mitford, Holden’s romantic interest, as a no-nonsense foil to Holden’s straitlaced egomania. Anna Torv, as Dr. Wendy Carr, an academic recruited into the FBI’s behavioral science program, provides the perfect counterweight to the FBI’s guns-blazing culture. That goes without mentioning Cameron Britton, who is deeply unsettling as real-life serial killer Ed Kemper.

As multiple compelling cases fly by to entertain us while the larger arcs unfold, you might notice some interesting structural decisions. One episode clocks in at just 34 minutes — far under the rest of the episodes, which are mostly hour-length. Cold–opens featuring a mysterious serial killer go unexplained — at least, for now. And Holden’s personal transformation is pretty startling — but by the end, you understand why it might have been dramatically necessary.

Needless to say, when Mindhunter returns—as it likely will—expect more mesmerizing, terrifying cases that explore the collective fascination with the macabre.

Trailer for “Twin Peaks: The Return.”
“Last night, I had another Monica Bellucci dream.” — FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole (played by David Lynch)

2. Twin Peaks: The Return. Showtime, May–September 2017.

Full disclosure: I watched the original two seasons of Twin Peaks on Netflix for the first time in 2014, and I suddenly became one of those obsessed-Twin Peaks people. That was when I told my friends to watch Twin Peaks — but hardly anyone did. At least, not until May 2017 approached, when David Lynch’s long-awaited revival series arrived.

Like all David Lynch productions, Twin Peaks: The Return is weird. It doesn’t play by conventions. Some scenes — many of them, actually — go on for several beats too long. In one frequently commented-on instance, a man sweeps the floor of a bar for what seems like ages. Then a phone rings behind the bar, which may be important — or not. The net effect is that the viewer has to pay attention. Not every detail is important, but then again, many of them are.

As brilliantly explored in a Nerdwriter video on Mulholland Drive, Lynch is a master at playing with expectations. We might have expected a conventional TV reunion series — or at least one with more Special Agent Dale Cooper, and less of the simpleton Dougie Jones. (In the latter aspect, Lynch may have inadvertently created the best adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions ever, in the sense of creating a character who repeats whatever is said to him, and subsequently experiences a passive, zany adventure.) Characters appear once and never appear again — and this happens pretty often. While some plot threads converge, others are left prominently dangling. Many episodes terminate — or revolve around — entire rock songs performed at the seedy Roadhouse bar.

By making us wait for every anticipated plot development — and then later declining to answer all of our questions, Lynch adeptly and unpredictably strings viewers along. But it’s the journey that matters, one with dazzling visuals — every frame is an artwork unto itself — and fascinating performances featuring the likes of Lynch’s frequent collaborators Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern. It’s also among the final performances for the late Miguel Ferrer, Harry Dean Stanton, and David Bowie (kind of). Meanwhile, Twin Peaks manages to work in a crazy 2001–esque creation story set during the Trinity atomic bomb test.

A cinematic puzzle box that doesn’t quite line up, the offbeat and challenging trajectory of Twin Peaks is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.

Trailer for “Wormwood.”
Eric Olson: “Hamlet can’t unpack this crime — ”
Errol Morris: “ — without destroying everything around him.”

1. Wormwood. Netflix, December 2017.

In 1953, a military biologist named Frank Olson fell to his death from a New York hotel room. Did he fall? Jump? Or was he pushed?

Wormwood charts — and reenacts — the quest of Frank Olson’s son, Eric, to discover what happened that fateful night. When the CIA’s secret MK-Ultra program — involving administering LSD to civilians for testing as a mind control drug — was made public in 1975, it opened the door to more disturbing conclusions, and Frank Olson’s mysterious death suddenly came into a new, harsh light.

But it’s an impossible quest, one with unattainable scope. This makes it not only the tragedy of the dead scientist, but of his son, whose life, like Hamlet’s, is overwhelmed with coming to a reckoning with the crimes of the past.

Though it’s technically a documentary, master documentarian Errol Morris incorporates reenactments from top-notch actors — including Peter Sarsgaard, Scott Shepherd, Jimmi Simpson, and Tim Blake Nelson — to make history come to life — or at least, one speculated version of events. At the same time, through Morris’ sharp interviews, his trademark incorporation of news clippings, and archival video of Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, we are not just seeing a retelling of history, but an interrogation of it.

Of course, when spycraft is involved, it is tremendously difficult to determine history for certain. But in a way, it’s a metaphor for every investigation of history. We only know what we are able to determine from documents, interviews — the rest must be interpreted between the lines. For that, and the way the past rules the present — the way that the dark past rules Eric Olson’s life — Wormwood is a tremendously powerful work of art. A must-watch.

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