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.
14. Girls (HBO)
Hannah Horvath finally grew up, at least a little, by the end of the divisive but often moving dramedy from Lena Dunham and friends. Though the series’ moment as a pop culture lightning rod more or less ended a few years ago, the final season was among Girls‘ best, as Hannah, Jessa, Marnie, and Shosh slowly drifted apart, Hannah and Adam briefly contemplated one last attempt at a relationship together, and Hannah ultimately found herself very far — geographically, emotionally, and biologically — from where she expected to be at this point in her life. It was messy, because Girls always is, but it was also a fitting farewell, and the already-excellent “American Bitch” episode takes on so much added resonance after the post-Weinstein avalanche of harassment stories.
13. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
BoJack season four didn’t have a single episode quite as astounding as last year’s silent underwater trip or BoJack and Sarah Lynne’s substance abuse binge, but what we got was the series’ usual improbable mix of the ridiculous (Andre Braugher as a dignified woodchuck governor with lobster claw hands, or Todd trying to teach dentists how to be clowns, and vice versa) and the profoundly sad (a closer look at what BoJack’s crippling depression feels like to him every day, several trips into the mind of BoJack’s senile mother) that somehow keeps producing magic year after year.
12. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
The opening installments of the Emmy-winning drama were almost too good. In adapting Margaret Atwood’s religious dystopian novel, about a society where fertile women are enslaved by the powerful, puritanical men running what used to be America, writer Bruce Miller, director Reed Morano, and company so effectively captured the horror of the situation for Offred (Elisabeth Moss, astonishing), Ofglen (Alexis Bledel, ditto), and the other women who were stripped of their names, personalities, and freedoms in service of institutionalized serial rape, it became difficult to get through episodes in one sitting, let alone try to binge several at once. Later hours weren’t quite as intense, nor as great, and the finale raised questions about the longevity of the concept, but few shows in 2017 made me feel emotions — usually blinding rage in this case — as intensely, as much from the execution of Atwood’s ideas as from the story itself.
11. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW)
The tonal chasms that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend leaps from episode to episode — really, from scene to scene — are so vast that it’s a wonder any show would try it, let alone that this show succeeds so consistently. The same hour can feature Rachel Bloom’s Rebecca Bunch, depressed over the utter wreckage of her life, attempting suicide on a cross-country flight, and also a comic relief subplot about her co-workers becoming obsessed with her replacement at the law firm, and both somehow feel like part of the same show. Ditto a later outing where Rebecca grappled with getting a new mental health diagnosis, while her friend Valencia sang a song that sounded very much like it was about her need to go to the bathroom. The current season started off in the mode of, as Bloom and her co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna described it, “Funny Fatal Attraction,” which fit what most people assumed the show would be based on its title. Now, though, it’s deconstructing the “Crazy” of it in surprising, moving ways, with each story accompanied by a note-perfect musical pastiche (say, the “It’s Raining Men” riff “Let’s Generalize About Men”) courtesy of Bloom, Jack Dolgen, and Adam Schlesinger. It’s a treasure.
10. One Day at a Time (Netflix)
It didn’t take long for 2017 to offer its first serious best-of contender for the year, thanks to this remake of the ’70s sitcom — with TV legend Norman Lear still involved as a producer, even in his mid-90s — about a divorced mom (Justina Machado) raising two kids (Isabella Gomez, Marcel Ruiz) with the help of her mother (fellow legend Rita Moreno, selling every silly damn joke) and the building superintendent Schneider (Todd Grinnell). Presented as a traditional multi-camera comedy with a cackling studio audience, it was a throwback, but to the kind of smart, socially-conscious sitcoms Lear made in the ’70s like All in the Family and Good Times, deftly alternating old-school punchlines and warm humor with thoughtful dramatic material about military veterans, sexuality, immigration, religion, and a lot more. They didn’t make ’em like this anymore for a while, and thank goodness they do again.
9. The Deuce (HBO)
A dream team of writers (The Wire alums David Simon and George Pelecanos), directors (headed by Breaking Bad‘s Michelle MacLaren), and stars (James Franco as identical twins, Maggie Gyllenhaal as a pimp-less prostitute) unsurprisingly resulted in a polished and often powerful debut season about the evolution of the sex industry in early ’70s New York. Every bit of grime on 42nd Street, both literal and emotional, was apparent throughout, but perhaps the most impressive thing, given the dark subject matter, was how much fun it often was, while never losing sight of the cost, in every sense, of the prostitution and porn industries.
8. Master of None (Netflix)
Aziz Ansari has been reluctant to commit to when, or even if, there might be a third Master of None season, and it’s hard to blame him. Season two was even more ambitious than the already-great season one, changing identities wildly from episode to episode, whether a black-and-white ode to Italian cinema, a triptych of short stories not involving any of the show’s regular characters, or a time-spanning Thanksgiving story about how Dev’s friend Denise (Lena Waithe, whose script with Ansari won the Emmy) gradually came out to her family. And intertwined with those many successful experiments was a slow-simmering romance between Dev and his Italian pal Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi) that nimbly maneuvered around all the complications involved. If we never get another season, this was a heck of a farewell.
7. Brockmire (IFC)
The year’s best new series was as delightful as it was debauched: a profane love letter to baseball and cautionary tale about fame, both told through the eyes of Jim Brockmire (Hank Azaria in the part he was born to play), a play-by-play lifer whose career ended in very public humiliation, and is now trying to start over as the PA announcer for the fringiest of fringe minor league teams. Whether Brockmire was dropping colorful turns of phrase (“Knowledge and assumptions, those are like Loggins and Messina: they seem similar, but time proves one of them to be completely worthless”), ingesting horrifying quantities of drugs and alcohol (including one accidentally-snorted abortion pill), or having a dysfunctional but utterly sincere romance with the team’s equally self-destructive owner Jules (Amanda Peet), Brockmire was a joy from first inning to last.
6. Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime)
TV revivals are generally a bad idea that lead to diminished returns, but Twin Peaks was the exception to every TV rule back in the day, and was here, too, with The Return‘s best moments — the atomic bomb explosion, Cooper’s escape from the White Lodge, Ed and Norma finally getting together for good, anything involving Sarah Palmer — being so transcendent in their beauty and emotional power (or, in cases like the Wally Brando scene, sheer oddity) that the only series to match it is my top pick for the year. To get to those moments, which looked and (especially) sounded like nothing else on TV, you unfortunately had to sit through a lot of exasperating ones — the “Green Onions” floor sweeping scene, the sheer amount of time spent on Dougie Jones and/or random conversations between roadhouse patrons we never saw before or after — that felt like David Lynch and Mark Frost were trolling everyone who had ever asked them to follow up on their early ’90s TV masterpiece. Average it out, and you wind up around here.
5. Better Call Saul (AMC)
The third and best Saul season so far incorporated more Breaking Bad elements than ever before, with Giancarlo Esposito finally turning up as chicken man Gus Fring, who tried to avoid war with Hector Salamanca. All of that was a blast to watch, yet the strongest half of the season by far involved the McGill brothers, as Jimmy and Chuck played increasingly dirty in their war with each other, building up to the riveting courtroom battle in “Chicanery,” then the tragic events of the season finale. We’ve reached a point where some fans are wondering if Saul has become better than its parent series. I wouldn’t go that far — the stakes of Saul are by design always going to be smaller, and thus leave a lower ceiling than the story of Walter White — but the fact that it’s not an utterly ridiculous comparison to one of the greatest dramas ever made is a testament to what the prequel has become.
4. The Good Place (NBC)
We’re using the calendar year for these rankings, not seasons, which means Good Place gets to benefit both from the jaw-dropping season one finale from January that revealed the series’ entire premise as an elaborate and cruel cosmic prank, and from the episodes that aired this fall and kept discarding status quos like yesterday’s jeans. The rapid progression of the plot might be alarming if the storytelling wasn’t so assured and bright and wickedly funny, whether cheerful idiot Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto) discussing what it was like to attend Lynyrd Skynyrd High School in Jacksonville (“It was really just a bunch of tugboats tied together… in a junkyard. It wasn’t a very good school”), omniscient Janet (D’Arcy Carden) creating a rebound boyfriend who has windchimes for genitals, or evil Bad Place architect Michael (Ted Danson) going full mid-life crisis with a sports car and an earring. Yet even amid the absurdity, The Good Place still has plenty of room for Chidi (William Jackson Harper) to teach philosophy to Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and the audience — the series did an entire episode about the Trolley Problem, for heaven’s sake — and even outsized, non-human characters like Michael and Janet are allowed genuine emotion and the capacity for growth. No individual piece of The Good Place should work, yet together, they all do.
3. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
In the age of Peak TV, where there’s literally more good-to-great television produced each year than any human being could find time to see, the phrase “it gets good six episodes in” (or two seasons in, or…) feels more threat than enticement. Who’s got time to suffer through the uneven stuff to get to what works? Sometimes, though, hope-watching is worth it, as proven by this underwatched AMC drama following four characters from the dawn of the personal computer era through the early days of the internet. What was, in its early days, easily (and, to a degree, fairly) dismissed as a pale and confused imitation of the era’s great dramas in time became a great drama in its own right. This fourth and final season, featuring fortunes rising and falling, love, heartbreak, death, and inspiration, stacks comfortably against the many shows to which this one was once so unfavorably compared, and the finale — particularly the eight words at the climax of it — is a wonder.
2. Better Things (FX)
If you’re a person who can easily separate the art from the artist, then Better Things season two is a triumph on almost every level, a collection of poetic, deeply personal vignettes about being a mother, a daughter, a friend, a girlfriend, and/or an ex-wife — roles that Sam Fox (played by the series’ co-creator, Pamela Adlon) fills constantly, often several of them at once — that could generate laughs, tears, or simply hushed awe, depending on what mood Adlon (who directed all 10 episodes) was going for. If you see the show and the people making it as a package deal, there is the unfortunate fact that the now-disgraced Louis CK co-created the show and wrote or co-wrote every episode of this season. Do we toss the series itself aside like showbiz has CK (who won’t be involved with Better Things, Baskets, et al going forward)? Do we put it into a centrifuge and spin it until the elements that are Adlon’s (who’s on camera and behind the camera, and who is heavily adapting her own life) and those that are CK’s have been pulled apart so that we can only celebrate Adlon’s part of things?
Or do we accept that this was great television involving one co-creator who’s been shunned for his sins, while the show itself — which is about the messiness of life, and features one good parent and one terrible one — shouldn’t be taken down with him?
Yeah, let’s do that.
1. The Leftovers (HBO)
This has been my show of the year — of the decade, maybe, depending on how we count things like Mad Men and Breaking Bad that debuted in the ’00s — from the moment the series finale ended with me reduced to a puddle of happy tears, or maybe even from the moment when the show paired its opening credits with the Perfect Strangers theme as an unexpected payoff to a minor running gag, then turned the whole thing tragic with a deadly serious guest appearance by Mark Linn-Baker as himself. The eight-episode final season was a miracle from its beginning, featuring a musical dramatization of the Great Disappointment of the Millerite movement that required no knowledge of the Seventh-day Adventist church to hit home, to its end, with Carrie Coon’s Nora Durst delivering a monologue that explained either everything about the series or nothing, depending on your skepticism level, but somehow mended the heartbreak that spanned decades and universes between her and Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey. And the middle — which included a Tasmanian lion sex boat party (not an exaggeration), a dark meditation on suicide, a near-fatal walk across the Australian Outback, and a presidential penis scanner — was remarkable, too, in every respect. It was a knockout, week after week, minute after minute — comedy and tragedy and science fiction and horror and religious allegory all rolled into a beautifully written, directed, and acted collection of television — and will hopefully be discovered and spoken of with awe for years to come.
But as I put together this list, and thought back on the year that’s about to end, I couldn’t help noticing how unwittingly The Leftovers turned out to be the show of 2017 not only for its staggering quality, but because so many of its ideas wound up thematically mirroring the history we’re all living through: a fundamentally broken world that has ceased to make sense for too many people in it, where violence pops up with shocking regularity, trust in institutions has vanished like it went away in the Sudden Departure, and optimism seems a luxury few can afford, featuring an irrational old man insisting he alone can fix everything, and a president some people fear could literally blow up the planet for irrational, selfish reasons. Years from now, if someone were to ask me not what happened in 2017, but what it felt like — not just in the moments of utter confusion and despair, but the ones of unexpected mirth, joy, and sheer disbelief (good or bad) at what we’re seeing — I might just hand them this season.
The Leftovers chooses hope in the end, not only with Kevin and Nora, but with its entire world, which manages to hang together and move on after nobody expects it to. May the same thing happen for us starting in 2018, preferably without a naked French sailor setting off a nuclear explosion to destroy a sea monster, or a lion eating God — two things that actually happened, and made perfect emotional sense, on this amazing, amazing show.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.