My list of the top 20 shows of 2017 included eight new series: Brockmire, The Deuce, One Day at a Time, The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, Mindhunter, Legion, and American Vandal.
It was an awfully good year for new TV shows, particularly from the streaming networks, whose shotgun approach to development can lead to some big misses (Iron Fist, Friends From College) but also a lot of creative hits. And that’s on top of more traditional outlets in cable continuing to churn out interesting new product.
Since I already sang the praises of those eight rookies in yesterday’s list — and since, as I said in the intro to that piece, I was frustrated with how many really good shows I had to leave out— I wanted to continue a tradition I’ve kept for the last few years of picking out the best new shows that, for one reason or another, didn’t make my overall list. Some of these came very close to said list (after my top 6, I had about 30 shows that I had interchangeable feelings about), while others were more flawed but still memorable enough to warrant mention before the year’s out.
The five shows that almost made it to the main list, in alphabetical order:
Big Mouth (Netflix)
The most remarkable thing about this animated comedy starring John Mulaney, Nick Kroll, Jessi Klein, and Jason Mantzoukas as a group of friends crossing the threshold into puberty isn’t how filthy it is. I mean, yes, Big Mouth gets jaw-droppingly creative with how it portrays the characters’ dawning sexual appetites, from a pair of hormone monsters (Kroll and Maya Rudolph) encouraging the kids to give into their most disgusting impulses, to the relationship Mantzoukas’s Jay has with his pillow (Kristen Bell), to Klein’s Jessi enduring her first menstrual period while a giant tampon shaped like Michael Stipe sings a song called “Everybody Bleeds,” to the bad advice Kroll’s Nick gets from the ghost of Duke Ellington (Jordan Peele). No, the most remarkable thing is how fundamentally sweet and empathetic Big Mouth turns out to be. It feels for all the kids — even for the hormone monsters — as they deal with the confusion and horror of so many physical and emotional changes happening at once. That makes all the graphic humor even funnier, because the audience is being primed not to laugh at these kids in the most awkward time of their lives, but to laugh with them as they try to figure out how to cope with it all.
Like the world of ’80s professional wrestling it fictionalizes, GLOW is a lot of things at once: an underdog sports story, a sincere “Let’s put on a show!” tale, and a very specific series of character sketches about a group of women (led by Alison Brie’s Ruth and Betty Gilpin’s Debby) who feel like misfits for one reason or another before finding a home in the ring and on the TV show put together by Marc Maron’s Sam. As a struggling actress whose talent blossoms in this unexpected setting, Brie is such a dynamo that she’s able to pull off both sides of a wrestling match when Sam seems skeptical of her, and the first season was packed with moments both ridiculous and inspiring. It’s a winner.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)
An utterly confident and charming debut season from Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, this time jumping back to 1958 for the story of a Jewish housewife (Rachel Brosnahan, enormously winning) who discovers she has an untapped gift for stand-up comedy after her marriage falls apart. Where many streaming seasons wind up running much longer than the plot can sustain itself, my only major complaint about Mrs. Maisel is that I immediately wanted more of it than just these eight episodes, even knowing that Amazon had ordered two seasons at once.
She’s Gotta Have It (Netflix)
Spike Lee revisits his first movie 30 years later, expanding the story of Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) juggling three different lovers to offer more generosity to every character, and giving Nola’s struggling art career as much focus as her complicated sex life. Like many Spike Lee productions, it’s two parts great to one part “What was he thinking?” (in particular, the cosmetic-surgery-gone-awry subplot), but the great parts — the romance, the social commentary, and the gorgeous compositions — more than justify both the bad parts and the decision to revive it at all.
Sneaky Pete (Amazon)
There is nothing you haven’t seen many times before in this drama about a con man (Giovanni Ribisi) who assumes the identity of his former cellmate to hide out with the guy’s family (Margo Martindale, Marin Ireland, and more) while evading the gangster (Bryan Cranston, who co-created it) looking to have him killed. But with most of the Justified creative team running the show, and an ensemble filled with actors who all seem overqualified for the roles they’re playing, the sheer energy and cleverness of Sneaky Pete overcomes the Anti-Hero 101 of it all, leading to one surprising or compelling moment after another.
The five that weren’t serious top 20 contenders, but helped make the year interesting, nonetheless:
American Gods (Starz)
This lush adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel about ancient gods living anonymous lives in the USA is in creative limbo right now, since showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green left over a reported budgetary dispute. And Fuller and Green’s brief tenure wasn’t without its flaws, either, as the first season moved a bit aimlessly through the early plot of the book, coming more fully to life in the standalone segments about how various deities came to our shores, or the pair of episodes spotlighting Emily Browning. But most of the performances (particularly by Browning, Ian McShane as a con man version of chief Norse god Odin, Gillian Anderson as an avatar of pop culture icons, and Orlando Jones as a storytelling Egyptian spider god) and the visuals were dazzling, and it felt like it could build into something truly special. Fuller and Green’s replacements will have a lot to live up to, even if there are obvious areas for improvement.
Detroiters (Comedy Central)
Buddy comedies don’t have to star and/or be written by actual buddies, but it doesn’t hurt, as demonstrated by this shambling, silly collaboration of real-life pals Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson, playing a pair of lifelong pals running a bottom-rung ad agency in the Motor City. Between Richardson’s contagious joy, Robinson’s awkward energy, and the abundant chemistry between them, Detroiters was a treat.
This Western miniseries began life as an unsold movie script that writer/director Scott Frank elongated for television, and it plays that way, leaning a bit too much on the revenge drama between a mass-murdering outlaw gang leader (Jeff Daniels) and the surrogate son (Jack O’Connell) who had a change of heart and tried to reform, when the most exciting part was what probably would have been a background detail in the film: that the bulk of the action takes place in a frontier town run by women whose husbands all died in a mining accident. By expanding the story to seven-plus hours, Godless manages to spotlight enough of the material about the town — including terrific performances by Michelle Dockery, Merritt Wever, and others as women who’ve long since learned to fend for themselves — to thrill, and the whole thing looks incredible. And where the last show on this list is getting a wholly unnecessary sequel season, Godless had plenty of untapped story potential.
The Good Fight (CBS All Access)
Less a Good Wife spinoff than a Good Wife continuation without Julianna Margulies, The Good Fight demonstrated how deep the original’s bench had become by successfully making Christine Baranski and Cush Jumbo into new leads, and set up a compelling new dynamic by making a disgraced Diane have to start over at a predominantly black firm. Doing a 10-episode cable-style season had some drawbacks, particularly in not leaving enough room to establish Rose Leslie’s Maia into an interesting figure in her own right, but on the whole the franchise has proved remarkably durable in its move from broadcast to streaming.
13 Reasons Why (Netflix)
This drama, about a teenage boy (Dylan Minnette) grappling with the suicide of his crush (Katherine Langford) as he listens to audiotape she recorded to explain why she killed herself, was as thrilling as it was frustrating. At its best, thanks to knockout performances by Minnette, Langford, and others, plus sensitive writing and lovely direction, 13 Reasons Why elbowed its way into the field of great dramas set in high school, rather than great high school dramas. But (like most Netflix dramas) there were more episodes than there was story to fill them, which resulted not only in a number of slack hours, but narrative contortions that made both the characters and the show seem much dumber. And Netflix is insisting on a second season, even though the story couldn’t have been more self-contained. But when it was good…