My best-of list for 2017 doesn’t include comedies like Brooklyn Nine-Nine or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which were two of my most reliable laughs on TV this year. It doesn’t include Baskets, Rick and Morty, Catastrophe, One Mississippi, or the final season of Review, which mixed explosive humor with utter melancholy. It doesn’t include the resurgent current season of Mr. Robot, nor entertaining newbies like Sneaky Pete, Big Mouth, GLOW, Godless, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, or She’s Gotta Have It.
Even at 20 shows, and even with recent best-of staples like The Americans, Fargo, or Veep left off because their most recent seasons weren’t up to the level of previous ones, there’s just a lot of great TV out there at the moment, and tough calls have to be made, especially when there was no real gap in quality between my sixth-place show and about 10 or 15 series that didn’t even make this list. If there’s a commonality to the TV shows I ultimately chose, it’s the way in which most of them blur the boundaries between genre to the point where those boundaries no longer seem to exist. If the question is, say, “Is this show a silly comedy or a tragic drama?,” the answer will usually be, “Yes.”
But even writing this intro and looking at the shows mentioned above, I began getting antsy about leaving them off, so before I experience decision paralysis and start pulling the list apart and trying to fit it back together, let’s dive in with what I enjoyed the most in 2017, starting with:
20. Lady Dynamite (Netflix)
In its first season, Maria Bamford’s series about her life, her career, and her ongoing struggles with bipolar disorder was already the most surreal of the current wave of autobiographical comedy-drama hybrids. Season two went even stranger and more meta, spending large chunks in a future timeline where the fictionalized Maria was starring in a version of Lady Dynamite itself for a streaming network owned by Elon Musk (which is somehow not called TeslaVision), co-starring her childhood frenemy Susan (Mo Collins), who gradually turns cyborg. And that’s maybe not even the weirdest part of the eight-episode season, which also featured Maria in the present auditioning for a “period drama improv procedural” called Apache Justice that features a coyote named Peter Coyote playing a hawk, just because, or teenage Maria discovering that her boyfriend is actually her cousin only moments before he suffers a cartoonishly horrific accident during their roller skating competition routine. But Lady Dynamite somehow manages to make Maria’s quest for happiness and mental health in all three timelines peacefully co-exist with the increasingly bizarre and self-referential humor. Time and again, scenes go to places that initially have me wondering who thought this was a good idea, only for the answer to be, “Maria Bamford. And she was right.”
19. Speechless (ABC)
More inclusive storytelling gives more people chances to see something resembling their lives on screen. But it’s also a creative good, allowing stories that should seem like utter cliches to feel brand new again, simply because the people going through them now aren’t the same ones who’ve gone through them hundreds of times before. Many of ABC’s family comedies like black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat take advantage of different POVs to tell old stories in novel ways, and the best of the bunch at the moment is Speechless. You’ve seen variations on the DiMeo clan — messy, loud, always fighting with each other even as they band together to take on the world around them — countless times before, but by centering the family’s world around oldest son JJ (Micah Fowler), who has cerebral palsy and uses an aide (Cedric Yarborough’s Kenneth) to communicate, suddenly ideas as trite as a trip to the grocery store or a childhood crush feel as if this is the first time someone’s thought of them. It can be big and broad — especially in the form of Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver), who will bulldoze the world if it helps her kid have a more typical life — but also precise and sweet and sharply-observed. It’s a goofy family comedy, but it’s about a very specific goofy family, and that makes all the difference.
18. American Vandal (Netflix)
If American Vandal (which Brian Grubb reviewed for us) had simply contented itself with parodying true crime series like Serial and The Jinx, it would have been enough for its note-perfect command of the genre and its many histrionic tropes, here lovingly applied to the juvenile mystery of who spray-painted 27 penises on 27 cars in a high school faculty parking lot. But what made Vandal truly special was how it managed to take the characters investigating this puerile mystery completely seriously, so that the audience not only cared about #WhoDrewTheDicks (which the season answered, more or less), but about the fates of the characters themselves, and particularly the idiot manchild (Jimmy Tatro) at the center of all the accusations. It was somehow a great satire and a great teen drama all in one.
17. Legion (FX)
For a month or two there in the spring, this drama about an obscure character from the X-Men universe, adapted by Fargo creator Noah Hawley, seemed like it was setting new records for televised dramatic weirdness, particularly during an episode largely set inside a giant ice cube on the astral plane where Jemaine Clement recited beat poetry and danced in an off-white leisure suit. Then Twin Peaks came back with an attitude of, “That was real cute, junior, but this is what real weirdness looks like,” and memories of Legion seemed to melt away like the show itself was the ice cube. And that’s not fair to a series as stylistically audacious as this, a twisted superhero origin story that had room for musical numbers, silent movie horror homages (sold by a riveting chameleon-like supporting performance by Aubrey Plaza), tender romance (between Dan Stevens’ powerful but mentally ill David and Rachel Keller’s gregarious body-swapper Syd), and general psychedelia. The “Bolero” sequence alone probably gets it on the list:
16. Mindhunter (Netflix)
The idea of the serial killer investigator who slowly loses his mind from learning to think like the men he hunts has become so picked over that I actively dreaded the thought of watching another variation on it. But Mindhunter, after a bumpy first episode, is so effective because it’s the origin story of that cliche, going back to the ’70s to watch a pair of FBI agents (Jonathan Groff’s twitchy Holden Ford and Holt McCallanny’s stolid Bill Tench) and an academic (Anna Torv’s cagey Wendy Carr) invent the science of criminal profiling. Their horror and surprise at discovering various serial killer tropes that the genre has long since taken for granted made the whole affair feel fresh and vital, particularly in the long and shockingly matter-of-fact conversations between the FBI agents and soft-spoken giant Ed Kemper (Cameron Britton).
15. Big Little Lies (HBO)
Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley led an all-star cast in this thoroughly engrossing tale of helicopter parenting gone awry, abusive marriages, and more inside a wealthy and secretive California seaside community. Director Jean-Marc Vallee’s beautiful, subjective camerawork and the performances by Witherspoon and company elevated what could have been a trashy soap into something more thoughtful emotionally complicated, and the series built beautifully to the moment in the finale when the women realized how they were truly connected. HBO is working on a sequel, but they’d be better off leaving these seven episodes alone. Some stories don’t need to continue to be great.