The 15 Best TV Shows of 2017
15. Legion — Legion may be the perfect show for the particular demographic that frequents this site. It’s in the center of a VENN diagram of everything our people love: It’s a superhero series from the creator of the Fargo TV series, Noah Hawley, starring Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey), Katie Aselton (The League) and a wackadoo perfect Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) that feels like a cross between Girl, Interrupted and Mr. Robot and a fever dream. It also analogizes superhero powers with mental illness and works as a brilliant metaphor for any marginalized community. Noah Hawley has figured out how to use the superhero genre in a way that zombie genre has been used for years: To make a cultural or political statement. The first season of Legion was unlike anything that had ever been on TV. Incorporating heavy doses of non-linear storytelling, some dream theory, more than a few alternative realities that were both inside and outside the head of our main character, and body-switching, it could be very hard to grasp what was “real” and what was not at different points in the series. And that’s part of what made it so exceptional.
14. Twin Peaks: The Return — As a piece of television, Twin Peaks works because it forces the audience to engage with it as television, breathing between episodes and viewing them simultaneously as their own stories and part of a wider arc. It’s a show that has always evoked or alluded to the conventions of film, but equally, it is a TV show about other TV shows. Indeed, in 2017, Twin Peaks set a new benchmark for the art form in an age where splashy, big-budget dramas with major stars are a dime a dozen. Every creator who spent the previous two decades eagerly trying to replicate the initial success of Twin Peaks will now scramble to do it all over again, although living up to the master will prove a lofty task.
13. I’m Sorry — The under-appreciated and under-seen TruTV comedy finally put the talents of its creator and star, Andrea Savage, to perfect use. In this, uh, savage comedy, Savage plays a foul-mouthed comedian slash mom, who hilariously struggles to fit into real-world suburbia (wealthy, Los Angeles edition). Savage basically plays herself alongside her straight-man husband (Tom Everett Scott) and best friend, Jason Mantzoukas (essentially playing Jason Mantzoukas). It’s raunchy, vulgar, and abrasively honest, and the closest thing on television to what is basically the parenting version of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
12. American Gods — American Gods is a fascinating piece of small-screen storytelling that is often opaque but never dull. At times profound, at some times profane, at some times seemingly the porn version of that Comparative Religion class your college crush undoubtedly took, it’s a mishmash of disparate elements that probably wouldn’t work without the sure hands of Bryan Fuller and Michael Green at the helm. The show can be playful with its depiction of its religious characters, but it’s never unserious about faith itself. It doesn’t suggest that people who believe in a higher power are naïve or misguided. It’s ultimately bullish on a pantheistic approach to existence, where pockets of belief are natured alongside one another rather than in conflict with one another. The various asides that the show indulges provide the context for the journey Wednesday and Moon take. They are riding on the highways of America, winding through its history as much as its roads. There’s a continuity at play here, and it’s not just one person’s story: It belongs to everyone who came here to make a better life for themselves.
11. The Handmaid’s Tale — Because the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel was such a harrowing, bleak affair, part of us feels like we’re including it here out of obligation. But the other part of us knows how important The Handmaid’s Tale is, how applicable its themes are to modern times, how brilliant the writing and direction were, and how searing the performances of Elizabeth Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Samira Wiley, and Alexis Bledel were. There weren’t very many moments in the first season of this show that we “enjoyed,” but its impact is lasting, and the way in which many of us see the world has been transformed. It’s a great show, and its placement should not be diminished because it didn’t give us the happy feels.
10. Brockmire — No show this year was more consistently funny than IFC’s Brockmire, a dark black comedy about alcoholism and self-destruction. Hank Azaria plays a baseball announcer who is drummed out of the major leagues after he melts down in the midst of his divorce. After spending time in Southeast Asia with a lot of prostitutes and cocaine, Amanda Peet — who plays the owner of a failing minor league team — attempts to resurrect his career stateside. The results are mixed, at best, and include an attempt by Brockmire to goose attendance by turning fans on one another and a few appearances by Joe Buck, who it turns out is a filthy animal (people who hate Joe Buck will hate him 30 percent less after Brockmire). It’s fantastically hilarious, and maybe what’s most refreshing about it is that Brockmire is not really redemptive. It’s mostly about a guy who doubles down on his moral depravity, and it works to surprising effect.
9. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — In the second season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rebecca Bunch got nearly everything she wanted before realizing that 1) it wasn’t really what she wanted, and 2) it all fell apart anyway. Season three begins with what seems to be a bunny-in-the-pot arc straight out of Fatal Attraction and for a few weeks, it appeared as though the series had jumped the shark. But there was method to its madness, and in that method, Crazy Ex Girlfriend blossomed into one of the most knowing, insightful, and relatable shows on television about mental illness and about the power it has over its hosts. That feat was all the more remarkable considering how well the show managed to toe the line between dark comedy and character drama while weaving in potent, infectious, and profound musical numbers week after week.
8. Insecure — Yes, Insecure is a comedy, but the stakes are real, even if they don’t involve a world-ending plague or an alien invasion. The primary players in Insecure all want happiness, but aren’t entirely sure they deserve it. That fear drives a lot of unfortunate but understandable choices, and while the show doesn’t necessarily have a clear, overarching “plot” in the traditional sense, it’s extremely curious about how the ripple effects of one decision affect the overlapping spheres that it depicts. Rather than inevitably arcing towards a pre-determined endpoint, Insecure simply follows these people and observes how their accumulated choices define their present status. Indeed, we should love Insecure because it’s a well-written, well-acted, well-directed series that takes a significant degree of care to develop characters we don’t always get to see on most shows. And also, they dedicate the care needed to make sure those characters actually look good, because racism is a pervasive son of a bitch. But those things aren’t why you love a show. Those are the reasons on paper you’d love a show. What makes you love a show is when you find yourself shouting, “GODDAMMIT, MOLLY WHAT ARE YOU DOING,” and really mean it. And guys, we really, really mean it.
7. Patriot — We cannot emphasize enough how staggeringly great Patriot is. It’s a funny, suspenseful, incredibly tense spy thriller about all the things that can go wrong between Point A and B, no matter how straight a line there is between the two points. Michael Dorman, who is perfection here, plays an undercover, off-the-books CIA agent whose only task is to get a suitcase full of money from the United States to a guy overseas, and it’s remarkable how many ways that a single task can be upended, how many lives can be affected, and how many people are brought into its orbit. There have been a lot of shows that have attempted to be the “next Breaking Bad,” but no show since has combined tension and great character work as well as Patriot. Shout-out to the supporting cast here, too, in particular Kurtwood Smith (That 70’s Show, and Chris Conrad.
6. Dear White People — Dear White People is frequently funny, it is well acted, it is insightful, and it is entertaining. But it’s also incredibly illuminating for the way it explores the social dynamics between Black People and White People, Woke People And People Who Aren’t, Light-Skinned Black people and Dark Skinned Black people, and Black people who want to confront institutional racism from the outside and Black people who want to work within the system as best they can. It’s complicated as hell, and Dear White People challenges our prejudices at every turn, and illustrates, maybe better than any show I have ever seen, the complexities of race. It occasionally dabbles too heavily in romantic drama, but it almost always does so to illustrate a point. It’s a powerful show, but it’s also an immensely entertaining one. We genuinely loved this show, and we probably got more out of it than any other series this year.
5. Halt and Catch Fire — It was almost impossible that Halt and Catch Fire was picked up by AMC four years ago. It was an almost impossible sell to viewers. It could have been canceled early for creative or financial reasons, and nobody (from the outside, at least) would have been surprised. The odds of a show with these kinds of roadblocks getting to four seasons are astronomically low. The fact that it also became such a beautiful, emotional, heart-wrenching forty-hour journey is simply incredible, a feat of artistic vision and collaboration and love that deserves to be celebrated.
4. Rick & Morty — Rick & Morty is the sharpest sci-fi subversion on TV. It is a proud sad cartoon that feels right at home on Adult Swim, the Cartoon Network’s adult-focused programming block that has been carving out a fascinating niche for itself for over a decade. Its style is its own mixture of sharp turns, subverting expectations, emotional turmoil and straight-up bonkers twists. So many of the episodes start out with simple enough premises — often something that seems engineered to directly appeal to their target audience of millennials up at 2am with the munchies — that slowly reveal themselves to hide great ambitions and even greater challenges. If you can make those challenges a teensy bit horrifying, then all the better.
3. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel — A favorite movie of ours from the ’90s was Pump Up the Volume, a 1990 Christian Slater film about a quiet high-school student who led a double-life as a rebellious talk radio host. We adored that movie, and we adored Hard-On Harry’s affinity for Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, a book we periodically browsed but didn’t really understand at the time. We get it now, and it possesses the same rebellious spirit of that movie and of Lenny Bruce (who shows up periodically) that pervades The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which is strange considering that it’s about a wealthy, upper Eastside 1950’s housewife, who embarks on a career in stand-up comedy after her husband leaves her. Miriam Maisel (played with absolute perfection by Rachel Brosnahan) leads her own double life, as well. During the day, she’s a heartbroken housewife and mother navigating her life without a husband, but at night, she’s a fast-talking, foul-mouthed aspiring comedienne with a strong disdain for authority. It’s a period feminist comedy that also offers a peek into the stand-up scene in the 1950s. It’s also a delightful, supremely entertaining, near-flawless series that combines Amy Sherman Palladino’s wit and banter with magnificent period details and an outstanding cast.
2. The Good Place — How long can The Good Place last before it outgrows its premise? That’s a question we have been asking of the high-concept The Good Place since the pilot episode. How can Mike Schur possibly sustain this show? Mike Schur followed up a flawlessly executed twist at the end of season one, that surprised everyone in the era of no surprises, with a second season that continued to twist and turn in unexpected ways. Meanwhile, it also racked up some of the best lines of the year, developed and fleshed out some of the most beloved and complicated characters on television, and blended surprisingly profound philosophical questions within inspired comic gags and Emmy-worthy turns from Ted Danson and Kristen Bell. You’d think, by now, that we’d learn to never to underestimate Mike Schur again.
1. Leftovers — The Leftovers is a Rorschach test disguised as a television show. It doesn’t lead you down a particular path, doesn’t tell you what to think, and makes every scenario equally plausible. This is either the most wondrous or mundane reality ever presented on television. More accurately: It’s simultaneously both the most wondrous and the most mundane. The show asks you to gaze upon it and dare to describe what you see. In doing so, it’s asking you to describe what’s meaningful for you. What matters? What makes it worth getting up in the morning. What makes it worth being heartbroken. What makes it worth dealing with the entropy baked into existence. What makes any of it meaningful. The show doesn’t offer up any answers save one. It asks us to start from a simple, but profound place. A place from which we can try to decide the rest. A place that needs another to verify, but from that small unit of acceptance, grace and love is possible.