The Best TV of 2017
Ten shows that kept us watching, through binge and cringe.
If TV is a window into the world, that window was left half-open this year, blurring the border between “real” and “fiction,” the persona and the person, your truth and someone else’s truth, the upstanding and the Upside Down.
For years now, much of the “golden age” of TV has been characterized by antihero narratives, based around people who we love to hate, and who love to hate. Jerks, monsters, and masterminds provided challenging viewing and gray areas that trained us as audiences to distrust our onscreen guides and leave our comfort zones within the contours of our own homes. As the last year has proven, that training can come in handy.
The era of the antihero seems to be at a close, paving the way for the era of anti…what? Anti-establishment? Anti-narrative? Anti-TV? Anti-everything? The best shows of 2017 reflect the “new normal” transition period we find ourselves in, mirroring the spirit of how conventions are failing us or tossed out entirely before they get the chance to. These stories tell us not to believe our eyes, even as they’re glued helplessly to our screen of choice, only able to guess what comes next—just like in life. These shows are about transformations to become our true selves, questioning reality as presented, and pulling back curtains to reveal twisted machinery. We’re characters here; they know we’re watching, and our observation compels them. These are narratives we have to meet more than halfway, challenges we have to acquiesce to, emergency dispatches from bygone times and beyond the grave we owe it to the past to digest. But, if it makes approaching their demands any easier, you can divide them comfortably into two categories: “Binge” and “Cringe.” — Eric Stolze
10. RuPaul’s Drag Race
“We thought that we finally built a safe place for our community,” says Puerto Rico native Cynthia Lee Fontaine, one of the queens who competed for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar on the most recent season of RuPaul’s Drag Race. During a workroom conversation with the other contestants, she reveals that she was supposed to be working Latin Night at Pulse—the Orlando club where so many Drag Race alum cut their teeth and performed on a regular basis—on June 12, 2016.
Season nine of Drag Race was the most watched yet, by a healthy margin. Some of that success can be attributed to Lady Gaga, the heavily hyped season-premiere guest judge. Some can be credited to the series’ move from Logo to VH1. But it might be as simple as this: In the face of social injustice, the celebration of life is of the utmost importance, and no show on television does it better than RuPaul’s Drag Race. — Lydia Pudzianowski
9. The Good Place
Sitcoms have always leaned heavily on regularity—on the comfort in knowing that the ol’ gang will be hanging out at the same bar or coffee shop each week, and that whatever problems they face will be resolved in the span of half an hour, the status quo reset.
Early in its second season, The Good Place presented an episode that was, for all intents and purposes, Groundhog Day—as if to take that reliance on familiar to its logical extreme. Actually, it was a head fake from a TV comedy that takes wicked delight in nuking its own premise week after week, only to rebuild itself into something even more profoundly silly, sublimely provocative.
But formally audacious and metaphysically daring though it may be—this is a show about the afterlife, after all—it never loses sight of simple pleasures: Kristen Bell’s censored profanity, Ted Danson’s encyclopedia of facial expressions, D’Arcy Carden’s perfect deadpan, or any of the other sitcom delights that this show exalts to a heavenly place. — Josh Hurst
In 2017, the world of professional wrestling served as a funhouse codex, offering a decoding system for interpreting President Donald Trump’s heel tactics on the world stage. Likewise, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch’s GLOW—short for the “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling”—showcased the way the theatrical world of the ring could mirror real life. Led by fantastic performances by Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Sydelle Noel, and Marc Maron, the supremely binge-able comedy presents its wide-ranging roster of outcasts as they learn the ropes, montage-ing their way from ragtag misfits into an entertainment powerhouse. Despite its neon-dappled ’80s setting, there’s a prescience to its Cold War undertones and pervasive feminism. Though the show’s strength lies in no small part in its depiction of staged wrestling action, its heart is in the characters, whose ambitions and fears drive it forward. — Jason P. Woodbury
7. American Vandal
“Who drew the dicks?” A better question: With that premise, how did this show remain consistently hilarious—and end up surprisingly smart and poignant—over the course of eight episodes? In the spirit of the immensely popular WBEZ podcast Serial and the Netflix docuseries Making a Murderer, pitch-perfect mockumentary American Vandal (also from Netflix) follows the detective work of teenage documentarian Peter Maldonado as he attempts to find out who’s responsible for the twenty-seven cartoon penises spray-painted on faculty cars at Hanover High. The prime suspect: Dylan Maxwell, a Hanover senior with a series of YouTube prank videos and a history of dick-drawing. An impeccable intro sequence sets the tone; the show is presented “In Association with the Hanover High School TV Department,” with Mr. Baxter as executive producer.
Thanks to spot-on casting (Dylan is played by Jimmy Tatro, who rose to fame with his own YouTube channel), whip-smart writing, and more twists and turns than this year’s podcast sensation S-Town, what starts as a one-note joke becomes many real things. It’s a study of the American teenager. It’s an examination of what we owe the people whose real-life problems become entertainment. And it’s a truly addictive fake-true-crime show that will have you seriously pondering the following potential clue, from Peter’s whodunit flowchart: “Ball Hairs?” — Lydia Pudzianowski
6. Jimmy Kimmel Live!
Was there a clearer, sharper, more potent shorthand for the impossibility of remaining apolitical in 2017 than Jimmy Kimmel’s ascension from a guy’s-guy late-night option to an outspoken activist who turned his stage into a soapbox? Part of the frustration over media in recent years has been toward impermeable, preaching-to-the-choir programming; yes, John Oliver is gratifying, but “Make Donald Drumpf Again” didn’t reach far beyond liberal in-jokes. Kimmel, alternately, has a moderate viewer base due to years of non-threatening neutrality, leaving him susceptible to searing backlash—but also capable of unexpected influence.
After his infant son, William, was born in April with a rare heart disease, his triumphant return to the air was spearheaded by an instantly-legendary monologue, an impassioned plea for the GOP to reconsider their disastrous health care retooling. His tears of startling vulnerability fueled righteous indignation for the rest of the year over hot-button issues like lack of gun reform, Trump’s pathological lying, and the infuriating ongoing fumbling of health care. This resembles a more heartwarming real-time remake of Sidney Lumet’s prophetic movie, Network; Kimmel is mad as hell, and he’s not going to stay out of it anymore. Turns out, we’re all better for it. — Eric Stolze
5. Curb Your Enthusiasm
A fair critique of this long-awaited season of Curb Your Enthusiasm was that, for some, it’s been hard to enjoy watching an aging rich person complain about the thermostat in the year 2017. Not that there’s anything wrong with that opinion…but for those who skipped out, you missed out. Perhaps in anticipation of an audience response that would be less sympathetic to his character than in the past, Larry David preempted that by writing himself to be more of an asshole than ever before. The Old Larry would try (badly) to explain himself to those he disgusted. The New Larry simply laughs in their face.
Centered around the development of Fatwa! The Musical—and Larry’s attempts to escape from a real fatwa put on his head for developing said musical—season nine of Curb explores a Los Angeles where even Ted Danson and Lin-Manuel Miranda are kind of dirtbag-y—where Salman Rushdie is giving tips for picking up women. It’s not a celebration of the entertainment industry that’s given Larry so much—it’s an indictment of it, keen on reminding us of the pettiness and stupidity that surrounds even the celebrities that we’re so sure we adore. It’s the accidental satire on purpose. — Nate Rogers
4. Stranger Things 2
It’s only natural for Stranger Things to double down on familiar pleasures for its second season; familiarity—nostalgia’s pull—is a big part of what made it a breakout success in the first place. We recognize its setting, its vibe, its cultural touchstones, and as such we appreciate how they’re nurtured, tweaked, gently subverted or expanded. And likewise, the fan service that’s on display in the show’s second season—how it’s all variations on a theme—helps underscore its precision of craft; how so much of its heart and soul comes from the smallest of details, the most seemingly off-handed moments between characters.
Yet this show has never just been weaponized nostalgia—not exactly. Lurking at the edges of its period detail, the show gives us the discomforting notion that there is much mystery lurking just around the periphery; that our cozy and familiar world is never exactly what we think it is. In this second season—a mostly conventional sequel in the best possible sense—there’s still much that we don’t know. — Josh Hurst
3. Big Little Lies
Audiences looked to late-night talk shows to try making sense of 2017’s insanity, but by dramatizing the far-reaching traumas of sexual abuse and cycles of domestic violence, Big Little Lies unexpectedly became the most prescient and cathartic show about 2017’s most pressing issues. Lies seems at first glance like a Desperate Housewives–style soap-satire that once again tries to compare the childish lives of self-centered adults to the behavior of their kids, and the quippy dialogue from a Greek chorus of staff and parents around a prestigious Monterey grade school implies that tone early on. But episode by episode, the petty feuds among parents, including vivid turns from Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley, slowly recede into the background as the unspoken monster in the community—violence against women—demands more and more attention.
One is a rape survivor, one of them is getting brutalized by her husband, and only the friendship and support these women give each other can provide at first sanctuary, and then solutions, against escalating threats of abuse or worse. Creator David E. Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallée weave this narrative, based on Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, using flash-forwards to a mysterious murder as a framing device, but its heart lies not in mystery but in bravery, from the actions of its characters to the fearless performances from its incredible ensemble of actors (including Alexander Skarsgård, tasked with embodying the seductive and frightening entitlement that drives abusive men) to the bold, unconventional decisions around shooting and editing. The Pacific Ocean is photographed to be both a beautiful backdrop and a foreboding wall; this is where the country drops off, and there’s nowhere left for these women to run except along the shore or into the fight for their lives. — Eric Stolze
2. Nathan for You
Who is Nathan Fielder? It’s a question that many disturbed/amused people have been asking for quite a while now—but the brilliance of the Nathan for You shtick is that, even though he calmly presents the answer during the intro to every episode (“My name is Nathan Fielder, and I graduated from one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades” *report card with average grades are shown*), you are never really close to getting to know who this awkward, monotone man in New Balances is and figuring out why he’s talking about his fav posish on your television set. But more than that: The longer the show goes on, the harder it becomes to understand him. Nathan Fielder is all of us, right? Wrong. Nathan Fielder is no one.
The first two seasons of the show are now classic for their fourth-wall breaking viral elements—Dumb Starbucks and the “goat in the water” video served as valuable lessons in the intoxicating power of just straight making shit up—but in season three, the character was taken to new, strange places. Suddenly we started to see a vision of success for himself, rather than just the businesses that he was helping. The “I Love You” scene from “Smokers Allowed” alone invited us into a brutal seminar of his crushing need for some kind of real emotional attachment, and that Nathan—the one desperately wanting to be normal and appreciated and loved—was revealed in season three to be at odds with the more oblivious, borderline sociopathic Nathan more commonly portrayed. In season four, we got some resolution. Maybe.
The first six episodes of the new season are relatively standard Nathan for You fare—celebrity impersonators, manipulation of local news, and hot chili are all involved—but as many fans noticed, his relationships were somewhat detached. The episodes were hilarious, but it felt like we’d started to lose Nathan again. He was starting to close back up. And then the finale happened.
Arguably the best episode of television this year (not involving water and wells, anyway), it’s really more of a movie than anything else—a feature-length documentary under the Nathan for You banner that takes all the backwards movement of the season’s initial episodes and uses it as a runway to lift the show to a new altitude of orphaned skies. “Finding Frances,” the two-hour television event, follows fan favorite Bill Heath (who, despite his appearance, you will find is not actually Bill Gates) in search of his long-lost love, who may or may not be alive—let alone real. But the search becomes a search for Nathan as well, as he grapples with the resurging side of himself that needs to be loved, even if that love is coming from someone who was paid to provide it to him. Nathan Fielder is no one, right? Wrong. Nathan Fielder is all of us. — Nate Rogers
1. Twin Peaks: The Return
Where to start with a show as perplexing, terrifying, and disorienting as Twin Peaks: The Return? Where do you begin outlining how the show rendered the suffering and trauma of one young woman a cosmic, all-encompassing concern, or how it explored and deconstructed the myth of American innocence in the Atomic Age? Where do you even begin to pin down a show about shadow demons set in hellscapes like Las Vegas and other liminal netherworlds, the story of a tunnel-visioned knight so confident in his own righteousness that he accidentally undoes reality? Clearly, there’s only one place to start: with Wally Brando.
By the time Michael Cera’s Wally, the son of Peaks favorites Andy and Lucy Brennan, appeared in part four of The Return, viewers had spent time in New York, South Dakota, Nevada, and extra-dimensional outer space, but not all that much in the titular Washington locale itself. Though his scene outside the familiar Twin Peaks police station was brief, Wally provided some much needed relief in a show that, while often hilarious and touching, was determined to kick against the nostalgic hopes viewers might’ve had for David Lynch and Mark Frost’s highly publicized continuation of the Twin Peaks saga. Here was young Wally, looking like he just stepped out of The Wild One, utterly out of place in the 2016 of The Return (provided 2016 is indeed the answer to that haunting question posed in the season finale).
Lynch and Frost weren’t in this for throwback kicks. They were interested in more haunting truths about time and the way it works. Remarkably, the creators were unafraid to deny impulses almost any other program would’ve certainly indulged—Kyle MacLachlan, doing the highest level acting of his career, doesn’t even show up as Agent Dale Cooper proper until the final stretch of episodes. He’s not alone in his astounding performance. Everyone—from Lynch himself to Laura Dern, Sheryl Lee, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Matthew Lillard, Michael Horse, Sherilyn Fenn, to Jim Belushi (yes!) and the late Miguel Ferrer, Catherine Coulson, and Harry Dean Stanton, as well as dozens more —brings an elegiac quality to their performance, accentuated by Angelo Badalamenti’s score and innovative sound design by Lynch and his collaborators Dean Hurley and Ron Eng.
One suspects the influence of part eight (“Gotta Light?”), perhaps the most stunning single episode of television ever aired, will make itself abundantly clear over the next decade of TV, but here’s hoping its theme resonates in an era of reboots and revisiting. The Return offered a harsh but necessary truth: The joy of the past can’t be recaptured, nor can its pains be undone. Only our present moment offers anything pertaining to tomorrow. — Jason P. Woodbury