Top 20 TV Shows of 2017: A Best-of List in a Year of Ickiness
Dissecting the distinctly political, distinctly female, and distinctly ambitious year in TV against the backdrop of an upsetting, though galvanizing, year.
For years now, we’ve griped and cheered—often in the same breath—about the sheer number of television series being produced these days, which is as exciting as it is exhausting. How many of them are great? Our original shortlist for this ranking tallied 67 shows we considered exemplary enough for consideration as best of the year. But that’s not the only reason this Top 20 list was hard to write.
It’s been a unique year in the industry. As always when you put together these lists, you consider merits, timeliness, resonance, and ways in which projects challenge or progress the medium and culture-at-large. But this year we were also forced to grapple with creators and stars’ despicable personal behavior. At a time when we need to be condemning predators and calling for a long overdue reckoning and systemic change in the industry, can we still champion their works? Or, hell, even stomach them?
We didn’t disqualify any season of a show because of these allegations, but we’re certain these controversies colored how we thought about the content during our annual review. How? We’re not entirely sure. Like the industry that is figuring out in real time how to address projects marred by these awful allegations, so too are we grappling with how it affects our perception of them.
All that said, it was a galvanizing, invigorating, game-changing year in television that seemed, at least from this critic’s well-worn couch, distinctly political, distinctly female, and distinctly ambitious—all good enough rationalizations for our distinct lack of sun exposure this past year.
So here’s our imperfect list. We cut things we think have worn out their need for recognition, despite fantastic seasons, to make room for newer blood (The Americans, Transparent, Master of None, Better Call Saul, Bojack Horseman).
Some of our favorite viewing experiences of the season—RuPaul’s Drag Race, Playing House, Speechless, Feud, Mindhunter—fell victim to limited slots, and there are some series that are staples of other critics’ lists that we, quite frankly, never got around to viewing. Sorry, Twin Peaks, but we don’t regret one minute we spent binging the final Mary Berry season of The Great British Bake-Off instead. We couldn’t watch everything, but we were never going to miss that.
Without further ado, our 20 Best TV Shows of 2017.
1. Big Little Lies
That a series that climaxes in five complicated women uniting to take down an abuser became one of the year’s most popular and celebrated TV shows certainly speaks to the cultural moment. But even beyond that, there was a sumptuous pleasure in basking in the indulgence—in terms of both lifestyles and behavior—of the varied women brought to alternately envy- and cringe-inducing life by Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, and Zoe Kravitz. Director Jean Marc-Valee’s vision was lyrical and lavish. (Bury us in the shots of Laura Dern sipping white wine while gazing at the beach from the balcony of her Monterey mansion.) David E. Kelley’s script was tartly funny and emotionally alive, perfectly tailoring the twists of Liane Moriarty’s book for the binge-watching era. All that plus, especially in Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, the finest and most surprising acting on television this season.
2. The Handmaid’s Tale
While on the subject of shows speaking to a cultural moment, it doesn’t get more on-the-nose than The Handmaid’s Tale—had the series not been based on a decades-old book and filmed before Trump was elected. Suddenly, a cautionary tale became an unsettling near-reality: a patriarchal, tyrannical government begins stripping citizens of their civil rights, particularly women and those who identify as LGBT. Gilead is a puritanical hellscape, and Elisabeth Moss’ Offred is our eyes into it. As one of the handmaids separated from her family and forced to birth children for commanders and their barren wives, she’s a complex tornado of resignation, resilience, ferocity, femininity, and fear. The show’s directors, led by Reed Morano, paint a gorgeous nightmare in this dystopian society. It’s a challenging show to watch; that’s a good thing. The warning bell has been rung. Praise be.
3. The Leftovers
“Nothing is answered. Everything is answered. And then it ends.” With exactly that vast open-endedness and exactly that bluntness, perhaps the greatest and most underappreciated drama of the last three years concluded. Talking about The Leftovers makes it sound like the kind of baffling pretension you thought you left behind with your last homework assignment in philosophy class: the confluence of grief, faith, redemption, spirituality, the afterlife, the transience of reality, and love. Woof. But what The Leftovers produced was psychologically demanding, sure, but also emotionally thrilling: cathartic, hopeful, often funny, and even sexy. (Hello, nude Justin Theroux.) Stitching this heady tapestry together are the performances from Theroux, Carrie Coon, Ann Dowd, Amy Brenneman, and Christopher Eccleston, offering up the certainty of humanity even as they, as the unshakable theme song says, “let the mystery be.”
4. Better Things
Pamela Adlon has this beautiful talent in which, in any given episode of her wondrous Better Things, she lets a few drops of paint drip off her paint brush, emotional water colors that eventual bleed into each other as you watch her semi-autobiographical character, the endearingly gruff and warm single mom Sam, navigate life. Adlon directed each episode of the second season, lending every frame of the series a personal touch. There’s also a marked influence from her mentor, Louis C.K., who executive produced and has a writing credit on every episode of the season, particularly when you admire the frankness with which she tackles the burden of parenthood. Should something that feels so distinctly Adlon’s be tarnished by the involvement of Louis C.K.? Like we said, we’re still discovering our feelings about it all—apropos, given Adlon’s own designation of Better Things as “The Big Feelings Show.”
Groan every time someone wonders how Veep can manage to still be funny when the bumbling buffoonery in Washington right now is truth stranger than fiction. But applaud HBO’s exemplary political comedy for finding fresh ways to mine Beltway incompetence for wincing laughs. The razor wit and operatic flair for expletives returned this season with fervor, in many ways serving as a pop culture breath of relief: “Make America Laugh Again.” But the mark of Veep has always been the size of its creative cojones, taking recent seasons out of the White House and, by unfortunate coincidence, more closely mirroring the political trajectory of Hillary Clinton than Trump: lampooning what it might be like for a career politician adapting to life, and perhaps irrelevance, out of office. Of course, Selina Meyer is no Hillary Clinton, though Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ unrivaled comedic performance does continue to win the actress every award show’s popular vote.
Coming-of-age stories have naturally evolved to an interesting place in recent years: the thirties. In many respects, it’s a richer time in a person’s life to mine, something that’s certainly evident by Issa Rae’s Insecure, in which the character of Issa and her friends, on the verge of the big three-oh, struggle to figure out who they are at work, in relationships, to society, and in their own truths. Season two of Insecure imbued more grit—not to mention a game-changing money shot—into Rae’s raucous storytelling, producing a string of episodes that felt more intimate, relatable, and (this is important) blacker than before. In other words, Insecure got more confident.
7. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
It would be a disservice to say that we were shocked by the depths Rachel Bloom’s musical romantic comedy explored over the course of the current third season—the enchanting lead’s struggles with her mental health reach the point of suicide attempt—had the series not so carefully laid the groundwork for the character to believably get there. That we’re even talking about such subject matter in the same breath as a series that remains wildly funny, compassionate, romantic, and tongue-in-cheek is a feat nearly as impressive as the endless musical numbers—can you believe this is a musical?!—it continues to pull off week after week.
8. This Is Us
We understand what is off-putting about This Is Us to people who say they can’t stand the show. But that thing is really hard to pull off, and the series does it masterfully. Take its most recent three-episode string, each spotlighting one of the Pearson kids. It’s a feat of puzzle-piece plotting that the folks over in Westeros should be jealous of, building up to a gratification—read: so many tears—that would feel manipulative or hollow were the show not so nimble in wiring the nest of disparate narrative threads into the perfect emotional explosion. Season two has proven unafraid to broach darker themes (and we’re not talking about the grim reaper following Milo Ventimiglia’s character), and feels all the more human because of it.
To the bitter end, we all debated Girls. And, too, we debated its creator Lena Dunham. (Still, in fact, considering her remarks in defense of a Girls writer accused of sexual misconduct.) That debate, we’d argue, has been vital in shaping the television landscape as we know it, if not pop culture criticism, millennial culture, and aspects of feminism as well. The conclusion to Girls was polarizing, but also mesmerizing, packed with the witticisms and insights that have always made the series one of TV’s best written, but also imbued with the emotional terror that surfaces when these characters, as we all, are forced to grow up. “American Bitch,” which seemed to portend the spate of male predator controversies that have since unfolded (and which seems to have warned us about Louis C.K., specifically), might be one of the year’s most important episodes. Fitting, from the conclusion of one of the decade’s most important shows.
10. Jimmy Kimmel Live!
Late-night TV has never seemed as vital as it has this last year. While everyone has their own favorite flavor of host when it comes to the skewering of and even journalistic ambition in fact-checking the current administration, there’s no denying the unprecedented impact Jimmy Kimmel has had this last year. The wily host’s tearful monologues connecting the health care debate to his infant son’s own medical journey both galvanized the country and made him a lightning rod in the storm of Washington politicians. Anger, righteousness, exhaustion, belittling, and sniggering have long been bastions of late-night comedy, all the more forceful in the Trump era. But Kimmel laid bare the value of raw emotion and personal candor, too. (All this, plus his show remained, minute-by-minute, among the funniest in the genre.)
11. The Good Place
The first season of The Good Place was amusingly high-concept: Kristen Bell’s Eleanor, an objectively trash human being if there ever was one, dies and mistakenly ends up in the Good Place instead the Bad Place, an upset in the order that wreaks havoc in afterlife utopia. One of the greatest twists in season finale history rocketed this series to must-see status even before season two continued to upend expectations, heightening the humor, pathos, and Ted Danson-ness of the series—all very much good things.
12. Search Party
Search Party is a dark comedy and millennial satire that manages to transcend the insufferable omnipresence of both genres, silencing scoffs through its sheer shrewdness and inventiveness. Like Broad City meets Scooby-Doo meets Scream, the series embraces all the humor of the brunch-and-Snapchat entitlement of twentysomethings, but throws a wrench in it by portraying it all through the lens of a murder thriller. Season one examined the perils of millennials’ wanderlust search for purpose. Season two explores something even more terrifying: millennial guilt.
13. American Vandal
American Vandal might be the most remarkable series to ever center entirely around penises. Twenty-seven penises, to precise. The satire of true-crime docuseries like Making a Murderer and The Keepers so fastidiously adheres to the cinematic and storytelling hallmarks of the genre that it took some viewers several episodes to realize it was a fictional comedy series and not based on an actual crime—which is wild when you consider that the central mystery is over who painted graffiti phalluses on cars in the staff parking lot of a high school. The ensuing investigation into #WhoDrewTheDicks surfaced some of the year’s best young acting performances and surprising narrative twists, and even illuminated ways in which actual true crime shows might use new technology and social media to tell stories in the future.
14. Game of Thrones
It’s been a banner year for nuance and observation in TV storytelling. So let’s take a break to celebrate unbridled bombast and scale. Game of Thrones can, as always, be infuriating to watch, but damn if this year it didn’t up the ante in its attempt to dazzle. And dazzle it did, be it with zombie dragons, scorched-earth battles, CGI walls crashing down, and even the titillation of a little aunt-and-nephew incest. Sure, few shows drum up hyperbolic enthusiasm with as much exasperating volume as Thrones. But in a year this bleak, we’d rather amplify the joy than attempt to turn it down.
15. One Day at a Time
Remaking Norman Lear’s ’70s sitcom with a Latino family turned out to be one of the most inspired decisions of the year. The joy, heart, and sabor that emanated off the screen was profoundly moving, whether your heart was exploding at the sight of Rita Moreno owning her deserved spotlight, or breaking at one of the topical storylines, from immigration to homosexuality to veterans’ health care. It’s a family sitcom like they don’t make them anymore, right when we need it the most.
16. The Deuce
From the second Maggie Gyllenhaal appears on screen in The Deuce, with the loose curls of her platinum blonde wig bouncing off her cheap fur coat as she asserts her independence against the advances of a pimp, you’re sold. But Gyllenhaal’s performance is just the highlight of The Wire co-creators David Simon and George Pelecanos’ spelunking into the seedy underbelly of the ’70s-era Manhattan that gave birth to the adult film industry. Both goofy and gritty, and refreshingly upfront about sex, it was the rare prestige drama from the past year that was fun to watch, even if the imperfect finale left us grasping for meaning.
In some respects, it’s the messiness of Claws that makes it so appealing. The only thing louder than its characters is their wardrobes, and both are rivaled by the unabashed extremes of its Breaking Bad meets Steel Magnolias storytelling. The idea of manicurists at a West Florida nail salon finding themselves cuticle-deep in a local mafia ring is deliciously clever. But the wild ride of the first season of Claws, bumpy as it might have been at times, is as thrilling as it is because of the soul, humor, and heart of its diverse cast, led by the inimitable Niecy Nash.
18. The Good Fight
2017 needed some class, so let’s all thank god—as always—for Christine Baranski. The Good Wife’s spinoff, centering on Baranski’s regal attorney Diane Lockhart, was the first case this year for how a series would incorporate, if at all, Trump and the cultural conversations surrounding his administration. It largely succeeded in doing so, thanks to creators Robert and Michelle King’s seasoned balance of nuance and provocation, proving how tastefully one can give a middle finger to power.
19. Will & Grace
Reuniting with old friends is a risky endeavor. In theory, it’s exciting to revisit old times. In practice, it can be highly disappointing when things don’t measure up. The feat pulled off by Will & Grace is how familiar the revival of the show feels, adhering to the comedic fabric of the original run without coming off as a relic, while still modernizing enough to make revisiting these characters feel worthwhile beyond just nostalgia—in fact, even necessary. Plus, it’s just nice to have a revival that isn’t disappointing, isn’t it?
20. The Real Housewives of New York City
We’re admittedly being cheeky, but deliberately so, ranking the crowning jewel of Bravo’s guilty pleasure suite, The Real Housewives of New York City, as a bookend to Big Little Lies at No. 1. There’s something masterful about how the last season played with the genre’s dueling themes of commentary vs. exploitation, sideshow nonsense vs. vital resonance, and compassion vs. judgement. The series both breeds and shames our worst tendencies. It makes for a fascinating juxtaposition as we watched these women battle the delusion and self-awareness that sit on either of their couture-draped shoulders in a season set against the backdrop of the election and the Women’s March. There’s all that, plus I dare you not to be entertained by the tequila-soaked bacchanal when the women ditch New York for an epic group trip to Mexico.