So this is the bit where I talk about how difficult it is to write a top 20 list because of peak TV, yada, yada, yada. If you are into TV criticism you have read it all before several over the last few years, the thing is while it might feel like a cliche it is totally true and with every year it become more true. Trying to watch everything out there is impossible and trying to then narrow down what you have watched to a list of 20 is almost as difficult. Every show on this list had an outstanding year as shown by some of the shows I left off of the list. In any other year the likes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Americans would be givens even if they just had middling seasons but not this year. It was truly a great year for TV and here are my top 20 shows of 2017.
Shows I Did Not Get Around to Watching/Completing That May Have Made My List: The Deuce The Handmaid’s Tail (to watch) Legion (to watch) Better Things Search Party Difficult People
Honorable Mention: Rick and Morty (season 3): Shout out to Review as well, which was excellent but just had to few episodes for me to really count it. In terms of Rick and Morty it was often in the news (or at least the twitter news) for the wrong reasons this year as a group of its fans decided to act like complete dickheads for a period of time. All of which deflected from the fact it had its best season ever. I’ve always had issues with the show and basically how pro-Rick and his asshole behavior Harmon and co seem to be and this year didn’t necessarily dissuade me of that but on a week to week basis it was crafting, ambitious and well thought out stories, at a rate the show had never before.
No 20: Fargo (season 3): As many observed this was not Fargo’s finest year and it maybe took a while to get going. It is also the case that 3 seasons in it is tougher for a show as idiosyncratic as this one to surprise us. When a seemingly major character dies in episode 1 it is less of a shock than it should be because that is what happened in season 1. Yet at the same time I so enjoyed this season and the performances by the likes of Carrie Coon (more on her later), Ewan MacGregor and David Thewlis and you still had episodes as excellent as The Law of Non-Contradiction.
No 19) Veep (season 6): Similar to Fargo this was a just slightly below average year for Veep, but even then the quality of the ensemble is so far above any other comedy out there and the quality of the writing/jokes/insults is again just of the highest order. There are few shows I enjoy more than Veep.
No 18) Master of None (Season 2): In my review I did write about how aspects of MON did frustrate me. For it’s social awareness, it is a show that wants me to desperately feel sorry for the man with seemingly the nicest/most privileged life in the world. The extent to which the show is essentially lifestyle porn at times can be a problem and the extent to which the show never questions Dev’s actions can also be a little off-putting. Yet having said that the good outweighs the bad and then some. The show crafts so many beautiful fully realized episodes and months after watching it is episodes like Thanksgiving that stick with me, more than the show’s flaws.
No 17) The Young Pope (Season 1): I’m not sure I get The Young Pope. I love it but I’m not sure I get it. Even in this age of weird TV there is something truly odd about this show. So difficult to write about because it does not conform to any conventions or labels and that’s why it makes this list. Having said all of this I’m not quite sure the show ever hit the heights of its pilot (even if it remained excellent throughout) and that’s why it is not a little bit higher.
No 16) Brockmire (Season 1): Brockmire is exactly the sort of gem that can get lost in this golden age, but for those few of us who did see it we know that it was one of the most raucous, hilarious and endearing comedies out there. I don’t know or care about baseball at all but I do love Brockmire and can’t wait til it comes back.
No 15) Brooklyn Nine Nine (season 4/5): Just as Brockmire can get lost in a sea of amazing shows, B99 is the sort of show that you can take for granted so easily but 5 seasons in and it is still full of heart and brilliant gags. More than that though this year on a couple of occasions we saw the show break-out of its comfort zone with episodes about Terry being racially profiled and more recently Rosa coming out to her less than progressive parents. Those episodes showcased a different side of the show and demonstrated how B99 is not just a great sitcom but an important one. Nine Nine!
No 14) Preacher (Season 2): Parts of season 2 of Preacher were as good as anything on TV. The opening scenes of the first two episodes, as well as standout episode Sokosha plus a whole host of other moments, showed how Preacher could execute some of the most ambitious TV out there to near perfection. It was not all perfect and the season might have benefited from being 10 episode long rather than 12 but nonetheless I love this show and it seems to only go in one direction. Bring on season 3.
No 13) GLOW (Season 1): GLOW was sort of the perfect summer show. It was funny and likable and so binge-able. Netflix makes a lot of deeply serialized shows, designed to be consumed in one sitting so as you find out what happens next. Glow was not that. What GLOW was, was a show that quickly established an ensemble of distinct and interesting characters who you wanted to spend time with and for that it was a standout show.
No 12) Better Call Saul (Season 3): It pains me to put BCS at number 12, in any other year this could be a contender for my number 1 spot but here it does quite make the top ten. Part of the reason why it is a little lower than you might have excepted is that at this stage I don’t have to tell anyone how good this show is. Into it’s third season and BCS was possibly better than ever. Certainly episodes like the chilling Lantern and in particular Chicanery mark series high points and some of the finest TV I’ve seen all year.
No 11) American Vandal (Season 1): American Vandal is a curious show. It is ostensibly a parody, yet by the time you finish it you look back and think that was funny but not funny enough to be making this list necessarily. What it was though was the most engrossing show of the year. And it all centred on the question “who drew the dicks?” Yet for the silliness of the premise I could not have been more intrigued. AV found new ground for the most tired of sub-genres, the mockumentary and in the process delivered an absurd but in many ways tragic story of a stupid but well meaning kid in high school whose life goes array for reasons that have little to do with him. Defining the pleasures of the show may not be straight, but boy was it insanely watchable-the Netflix model at its best.
No 10 )Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season 3): Similar to B99, UKS is the sort of consistent joke machine that you can take for granted, and that many have, but for me this year there were few shows enjoyed nearly as much as it. I thought the show delivered its best season. The work of Ellie Kemper and in particular Titus Burgess can match any comedic performers on TV. Again though amidst all the laughs is a very human character study piece of an abuse victim and maybe where the show’s genius thoroughly lies is in the way the show balances these two sides of itself.
No 9) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Seasons 2/3): Rachel Bloom’s musical comedy/drama goes from strength to strength. Like many shows of this list it perfectly balances cartoonish sensibilities with discussions on mental health and never more so than in the first half of season 3. In addition to that though are the musical numbers. At times I’m just in awe of how spot on and clever their parodies, my favorite this year being “Let’s Generalize About Men” and for that it had to make my top ten.
No 8) Bojack Horseman (Season 4): In its 2nd and particularly 3rd seasons Bojack became a show that delivered some of the most outstanding individual episodes of television, possibly ever. Escape From LA, Fish Under Water and That’s Too Much Man are just incomparable half hours of TV. Season 4 did not deliver a single episode of quite that standard. What season 4 did do though is deliver quite possibly the show’s most consistent, revealing and hopefully season. Something we all needed at the end of the show’s previous season.
No 7) Catastrophe (Season 3): Okay it was only 6 episodes along, but I ask this question every year, is there a better written show on TV? There might be snappier dialogue out there, there might be more profound existential musings on some other show, but there is no show with more wonderfully naturalistic dialogue on now or possibly ever. Also there is not really a couple of TV I root for quite as much as Sharon and Rob and I really just want to watch the two of them on screen together as much as possible.Plus the final episode of season 3 was just the perfect send-off for Carrie Fisher and for that alone it deserves it place on my list.
No 6) Jane The Virgin (Season ¾): Now four seasons in Jane the Virgin still has the power to surprise and hit me emotionally as much as just about any show on this list. I would go as far as to stay no episode of television this year hit me as hard as (spoilers) Michael’s death which was absolutely devestating. But when it comes to Jane the Virgin it is not just the big gut-punches that count, it is the smaller moments as well. The other scene that sticks with me most from its episodes this year is when Rogelio (often the show’s most comic presence) opens up to Xo about how he hasn’t been able to grieve properly for Michael, who was his best friend, because he knew he had to be strong for Jane while she was grieving. It is a comparatively small moment but every bit as resonant. I can take or leave all the intrigue concerning the Marbella but week after week the show delivers moments that really effect me, which even in this golden age can’t be said of too many show.
No 5) Twin Peaks (Season 3): It seems to me that Twin Peaks has either been number 1 or completely absent from every critics list. And I can understand both positions. Twin Peaks was fascinating in a way that television and art more generally rarely is. It was also incredibly and deliberately frustrating at times. I’m almost reluctant to point out how obviously frustrating parts of the revival were because I feel like I might be missing something. On the other hand because its Lynch and because he is a widely and rightly acknowledge genius I think some critics have been too forgiving of some pretty blatant narrative issues, that on another show they would have lambasted. Ultimately though it was the TV event of the year and nothing quite engaged me on a week to week basis like it did. More than anything though there were certain moments, particularly toward the end of the season, that were greater than anything else on TV this year. Moments I completely lost myself in, in ways that are quite difficult to explain and for that I won’t be forgetting the revival for a very long time.
No 4) Mr Robot (Season 3): If season 1 was clinically perfect, in a way no show since Breaking Bad has been, season 2 was an over-ambitious, definitely fascinating, mess. I was a bit of an apologist for the largely disliked second season-but even I was somewhat disappointed after the heights of season 1. Season 3 not only got the show back on track but it found a balance in the ensemble that neither season 1 (which was almost all Elliot) or season 2 (which felt like very little Elliot) had. It also starting making sense again and the show successfully battled the urge to be overly opaque or to have unnecessary twists. All of which meant that we got some of the show’s finest hours yet specifically the thrilling fifth and sixth episodes as well as the surprising and heart-warming eight hour, not to mention the finale which had a bit of everything. And for all its pessimism few shows made me happier this year, because I was so delighted to see this great show prove all the doubters wrong.
No 3) The Good Place (season ½): Michael Schur has secured himself a place in TV history with The Office, B99 and in particular Parks and Rec, already but with The Good Place he has gone one further. We all knew he could craft wonderfully funny and likable sitcoms, but here he has delivered a show as twisty and as engaged in huge philosophical issues as any prestige serialized drama. The Good Place is not necessarily a sad-com like many of the show’s on this list but it is possibly the most plot driven network sitcom ever. The thing is the plot has real stakes and is completely unpredictable as well. The huge twist at the end of season 1 showed that even in the age of Reddit you could pull out the rug from underneath your audience and I did not think that was possible. I don’t know how much longer they can continue it but as of now The Good Place is just about a perfect piece of television.
No 2) Halt and Catch Fire (Season 4): Without spoiling what is number 1 on my list, when it aired I thought nothing would come near it but Halt and Catch Fire came very very close. Back in its much derided first season Halt was a jukebox spitting one antihero cliche after another. In some ways it never strayed too far from the conventions of the antihero drama but what made it different was that at a certain point it just wasn’t about antiheroes. Sure all the characters were deeply flawed, none more so than Joe, but their constant strive for something more, for some kind of connection felt so human you could not help but love them. The final four episodes were TV drama at its best and when it ended I really struggled with the notion that I would not be spending more time with these characters, but if anything made it okay it was how well they stuck the landing. Speaking of which..
No 1) The Leftovers (Season 3): No show has ever made quite the impact in such a short space of time. The Leftovers conclude its mere 28 episode run this year, just 28 episodes yet about half of them are nothing short of masterpieces. That includes just about every episode in this final run. It’s tough in just a paragraph to breakdown what made The Leftovers such a transcendent piece of television-so to be glib I’ll say it took the ambition and phantasmagoria of Twin Peaks and combined it with the heart and focus on character of Halt and Catch Fire. LOST-one of my absolute favorite shows of all time-will define Lindelof’s career but The Leftovers is ultimately a more complete and mature piece of work. The writing, performances and direction coalesced to give us something often hilarious and surprising and always deeply powerful. There may never be a show like The Leftovers again and for those reasons it was always going to be my number 1.
People, not commercial organizations or chains of command, are what make great civilizations work. Every civilization depends upon the quality of the individuals it produces. If you over-organize humans, over-legalize them, suppress their urge to greatness — they cannot work and their civilization collapses.