Look. We missed some. We know. There’s a reason this list is called “The Fifteen Best TV Shows We Saw in 2017″ and not “The Fifteen Best TV Shows of 2017.”
We are waist deep in the golden age of television, with instant streaming services elevating the serialized storytelling form not just to unprecedented heights, but unmanageable breadth and depth. In a moment in which the longform TV binge experience is preferable to the cost-ineffective cinematic experience is preferable to many, it is impossible to see everything that’s being discussed at the work water cooler, even with a multi-person team doing the work.
So our 2017 best TV list is just a celebration of what we managed, rather than a proclamation of our own authoritative distinction, and an expression of gratitude for the shows by which we were lucky enough to be entertained, challenged, and informed this year.
Neil Gaiman remains one of my most treasured storytellers because he has never stopped being fascinated by stories themselves. Why did this itinerant species of ape, here only by the grace of chance and accident, cling with such ferocity to narrative? In some of our oldest dwellings, we can still see the early evidence of this: ordered assemblages of lines and shades represent Paleolithic creatures, the characters in our first stories. Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of Gaiman’s American Gods is set in contemporary America, but it never loses sight of the author’s underlying preoccupation with storytelling as an essential part of human life. Almost every episode begins with a brief vignette that details the arrival of an old god to a new shore, and our protagonist, the ex-convict Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), leaves prison to find that his life has been shattered (his wife not only cheated on him, but died in the act) and thrown amongst the wreckage of forgotten tales and characters. Guided by Mr. Wednesday (a version of the all-father played with perfect, lethal frivolity by Ian McShane), Shadow is forced to navigate the world of myth and folktale that lies just under our own – the new gods of media, technology and World are drunk off of their subjects’ worship and threaten the beings we first brought with us to North America’s shores. And like the cave paintings made as we first emerged into our own consciousness, the show revels in using the raw material provided by the circumstances of conflict (‘fate’ to those naive – or brave – enough to use the term) to fashion a narrative for its audience and a meaning for Shadow’s life. Shadow’s dreams (his private myths about marriage, companionship and love) thus bleed into the myths (the public dreams of meaning, wealth, justice and power) of America’s diverse peoples. As we saw in Fuller’s Hannibal series, American Gods lavishly focuses on its details: the camera lingers on spinning coins, dripping blood, and the million minute moments of chance that reverberate with immense consequence into the lives of the show’s characters. In this way, American Gods is about the conflict that inspires the storytelling urge, the conflict that all stories return to – namely, the threat that our world’s cold, indifferent entropy poses to the words and rituals we throw up against it.
Best Episode: “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” – In the series’ penultimate episode, “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney,” we follow Essie MacGowan, an Irish woman whose belief in leprechauns conjures Mad Sweeney into existence. It is no coincidence that actress Emily Browning portrays both Essie and Shadow’s wife, Laura – these are both characters who struggle to wrest control of their lives away from the forces that have shaped them. (Laura at one point even tells death himself, facing her in the form of Anubis, to fuck off.) A chance loss of Mad Sweeney’s coin earlier in the season allows Laura to deny Anubis his victory, and she returns as a sentient zombie with a leprechaun’s coin for a heart. This chance, perfectly symbolized by the lost coin, similarly dominates Essie’s life as she travels to America from England and back again. Essie is always at the whim of the world she was born into, a world represented by the men of its institutions: the judiciary, the penal system, the “sanctity” of marriage and the slave trade are all responsible for setting the course of Essie’s life. Stealing becomes her way of taking some control back – it is a way to have consequence in the world around her, to matter in some tangible way. More constructively, her belief in leprechauns functions in the same way, as her culinary offerings to these folk creatures are Essie’s attempts to harness some control of the randomness that has buffeted her about so indifferently. In the end, this belief, along with the tales and rituals that grew from it, is all Essie is left with, just as Laura is left only with her lucky, life-giving coin and her love for Shadow. By uniting the show’s two timelines, “A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” reminds us of how universal American Gods’ central theme remains. The struggles of Essie and Laura are at the same time our own: the ceremonies that we breathe life into are all we have to warm ourselves when facing the cold dark of death and obsolescence, and we have no choice but to cling to them and one another with the desperate ferocity of the doomed. – Zac Fanni
Big Little Lies (2017)
The hook of Big Little Lies, for me, came in the first few minutes of the show, wherein the endpoint of the season is revealed to be the murder of an apparent key character, before any of the key characters had been introduced. Director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer David E. Kelley then lets the relatively small-scale narrative of five women going about neighborhood life unfold naturally, but with every small beat of aggression (no matter how minor or passive) raising flags in the viewer’s head. The beautiful, but fragmented seven episode season exposes people’s lust for intrigue and gossip, and the violence and trauma intrinsic to the lives of these women. Also, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman are fantastic in it. You’ll be hooked too.
Best Episode: “You Get What You Need” – It’s the risk of any show built on mystery to fail at delivering an interesting answer or response to the mystery. Luckily, Big Little Lies doesn’t fall into that trap. The season’s finale You Get What You Need not only answers the season’s central mystery but also ties up all the loose ends of the season such that the answer of the season’s central mystery isn’t even the biggest nor most interesting revelation of the finale. It’s a tension-filled build-up to a breathtaking finale, and the Elvis & Audrey Hepburn theme is a nice cherry on top too. – Anton Reyes
Who would have thought that a comedy show about puberty featuring the ghost of Duke Ellington and a hormone monster with a dick for a nose would be one of the sweetest and most educational tv shows this year. Created by Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin, and Jennifer Flackett and loosely based on their own travails growing up, Big Mouth is the story of two high school boys, Nick and Andrew, and their group of friends. As the show progresses they deal with romance, rejection, ejaculation, periods, horniness, sexual insecurities, getting lost in the big city, experimenting with hats, and getting a pillow pregnant.
Best Episode: “Everybody Bleeds” – Jessi Klein is wonderful as the boys’ friend Jessi, a cool and collected girl who is also just as insecure and panicky as the boys. In the second episode of the season she gets her first period during a trip to the statue of liberty and has to face the onset of puberty. The best part of this episode is how mature and well-done the story is handled and also the introduction of the Hormone Monstress, played with utter relish by Maya Rudolph. –Sean Fallon
Abbi and Ilana are growing up. They don’t want to, and I don’t think any of us Broad City fans want them to either, but such is life. Throughout this 4th season of Broad City, our heroines continuously came to terms with aging and growing into adulthood in new—and, of course hilarious—ways. In particular, when the girls visit Florida to clean out a relative’s apartment only to find themselves loving the warm-weather, open-space, new kitchen amenity retirement community lifestyle more than the millennial bustle of New York, we got a glimpse of not only how Abbi and Ilana continue to grow, but how they see themselves in the future. I’m not the biggest fan of reboots, but who wouldn’t want to watch a show decades from now that follows Abbi and Ilana in their middle age years?
Best Episode – “Witches” – “Witches” is not just the strongest Broad City episode of the year, but one of the series’ all-time best. For a show that has always been about women unashamedly exploring and growing into themselves, “Witches” the show’s most overt celebration of female empowerment and sexuality yet. Abbi finds her first gray hair, prompting Ilana to wonder if she’s turning into a witch. Abbi’s stress over her physical appearance is exacerbated throughout the day; when she goes to the Met to sell her art, she not only finds a hag-like doppelganger, but meets a 50-plus dermatologist who looks younger than Abbi and swears by her own anti-aging treatments. While Abbi flirts with taking up the offer, Ilana goes to a sex therapist to find out why she’s lost her mojo—it turns out that orgasms are down heavily since the US election. The ending of the episode evokes a happy version of the coda to last year’s breakout horror film “The Witch.” One ending may keep you up at night, and the may result in a plastered-on smile. But both stay with you. – Chris Celletti
After the whirlwind conclusion of season two that saw protagonist Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) come within inches of achieving her dream only to be left at the altar, the path forward for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend seemed disappointingly straightforward. Casting Rebecca into a revenge plot was the logical move, but it felt narratively regressive. In season three, thankfully, it proved that it is not a show to underestimate. The vengeance plot becomes an avenue to deepen fractures in Rebecca’s relationships and bring her mental health issues to the forefront. The show’s tonal mastery was on display this year, as it fearlessly found humor in its darkest developments while still treating its characters as complex and flawed people. Few shows this year had such biting and insightful writing. No other show this year had an ABBA parody song called “The First Penis I Saw.”
Best Episode: “Josh Is Irrelevant”- This episode comes at the tail end of a heartbreaking downward spiral. The previous episode ended with Rebecca, thinking that she’s burned all her bridges, attempting suicide on an airplane. “Josh Is Irrelevant” elides the typical panicked rush to the hospital. No exploitative “will she make it?” tension here. The episode is focused on her first steps towards recovery, and it makes no illusions about what that entails. Her boisterous ballad “A Diagnosis” encapsulates a familiar feeling for anyone who’s ever been in a similar situation. The joy and excitement of getting a new diagnosis, like opening presents on Christmas morning, isn’t something I’ve ever seen explored in media before. The episode’s best moment comes at the end. Rebecca’s three best friends (Paula, Heather, and Valencia) welcome her home and try to take care of her with an affected gentleness. But finally, the mask falls off, and Valencia bursts into tears. She admits that she’s terrified of losing Rebecca, and because of that she can’t give Rebecca the support she really needs. It’s a painfully honest moment, and a deeply moving one. – J Rosenfield
The first season of The Exorcist was one of 2016’s biggest surprises, and while the second season didn’t have the connective tissue to William Friedkin’s film, it created an equally horrific and emotional struggle for our two exorcists, Marcus and Tomas as they struggled with their faith and God-given abilities. On an island off the coast of Washington, the exorcists found themselves caught in a battle for the souls of foster siblings and their father, played by John Cho. The series also elaborated on the mythology that saw the war between the church and demons ramping up as demonic forces took over the highest offices of the Vatican. With character driven storyline that refuses to fall into the demon of the week trap, and cast that boasts both diversity and inclusion, The Exorcist is a unique horror television experience.
Best Episode: There but for the Grace of God, Go I – The midseason finale finally puts a face to this season’s demon, and a camping trip in the woods proves to be the perfect atmosphere for the season’s most tension-ridden episode. It’s also the first episode we see John Cho’s Andy at his most vulnerable as he begins to doubt his sanity and start to question his selfless goodness. Cho gives a stellar performance throughout the season, but it’s in this episode we get to see some of veneer stripped away and a broader showcase of his range. The episode’s ending is bone-chilling and it expertly uses a half season’s worth of expectation against its audience for a scare that’s almost as good as that famous one from The Exorcist III. – Richard Newby
The other side of the X-Men’s journey into television isn’t as narratively challenging as Legion, but it does mutants as a social allegory better than any of the films have done. Centered on a couple with teenaged mutant children, The Gifted takes family drama and situates it right in the midst of the Mutant Liberation Front, a group of mutant rebels fighting against a government that seeks to take away their rights. Taking cues from the storied X-Men canon and modernizing it with angles that feel topical but never preachy, The Gifted makes significant use of familiar characters and creates new ones that add a new dynamic and sense that anything can happen. While three more episodes remain before the show wraps up its first season, we’re hoping that Disney is invested in the series for the long-haul because mutants, despite lacking costumes, and the franchise’s biggest players, have rarely been so interesting.
Best Episode: Exploited – The season break not made good on showcasing teenage mutants, Andy and Lauren’s omega-level powerset, creating a dangerous new plot device that will have major repercussions on the series going forward. Episode 10 also proved that anything can still happen on this show and not even series regulars are safe from death. With connective tissue to Wolverine and the use of several of Grant Morrison’s characters and concepts, The Gifted proved that blockbuster storytelling can still happen on network television. -Richard Newby
Feud: Bette & Joan
Centered on the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford during their filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Feud: Bette & Joan is a meditation on misogyny, ageism, and feminine power—as well as pain. Ryan Murphy’s historical drama miniseries was an ironically necessary portrayal of the sexism in the film industry, with many of its characters’ behaviors unintentionally paralleling those of predatory modern-day film executives exposed nearly half a year later. Jessica Lange’s performance as Joan Crawford is unforgettable, as Lange allows us to peer into the well of heartache the tremendously hard-working Crawford endured up until her death. The last scene of the series is a beautifully sad testament to just how strong these two women were, and how the men around them actively manipulated that strength in their attempts to control them. It’s heartbreaking, but an important show to watch.
Best Episode: “And The Winner Is….” – Lange and Sarandon flaunt their talents while we get all the behind-the-scenes gossip in this near-perfect recreation of the 1963 Oscars. – Staley Sharples
Another retro show about female friendships, the entertainment industry, and the raw spirit of feminism, GLOW is an insight into revealing that ALL women are actresses, whether it’s their profession or not. Expectations to be a certain type of wife, mother, daughter, sister, or friend intermingle with the auditions we see the ladies of GLOW go through, and the wrestling personas they develop cheekily subvert the pressures put upon them in their personal lives. GLOW isn’t afraid to make their lead characters messy, a change that I welcomed—we have so many shows with a male antihero lead that we all grow to love and understand, but women are too often placed into black and white personality dynamics. In GLOW, we get to flip the script a bit, and watch this cast of determined, multicultural, multilayered women come to see their own strength and power in this world.
Best Episode: “Maybe It’s All In The Disco” – Touching and real, GLOW peels back its sometimes-sarcastic approach to further expose each of its perfectly imperfect characters.
The Good Place
When The Good Place made last year’s list, it hadn’t yet revealed its hand. It was a clever comedy up until that point, no question, but the season one finale completely turned the show on its head. It rewrote the premise and started the story from scratch. It was such a sea change from a rock-solid foundation that some skepticism was due over whether or not the show could follow it up. The good news is, it did. The better news is that it did with aplomb. The first few episodes of season two run through so many possible new directions that it leaves your head spinning. When it finally settles down it feels both surprising and natural at the same time. The Good Place crackles with manic energy. It delights in throwing you off the scent of its next move. This only works because it’s anchored by its core case. We know these characters well enough by now that the show can bombard them with hilarious moral quandaries. I don’t know where this show is going, but I’m excited to find out.
Best Episode: “Dance Dance Resolution” (SPOILERS)-This is one of the craziest sitcom half-hours I’ve ever seen. It follows the beleaguered demon Michael (Ted Danson) as he tries and fails again and again to create the perfectly imperfect simulation of heaven for his four charges. The show blows past dozens of scenarios which could each sustain an entire season, each one failing as Eleanor (Kristen Bell) realizes the truth. The episode is essentially a long montage of failure. As Michael’s attempts get more ludicrous, he get more disillusioned with the process. At one point, he drunkenly allows Eleanor to hear the truth before the new cycle can even begin. It’s a blistering episode, with the brilliant payoff of the show’s entire premise rebooting yet again. I’ve rewatched it several times, and I’m still bowled over by it. – J Rosenfield
2017 was the year the X-Men came to television and the end results were better than anyone could have imagined. After rising to prominence with Fargo, Noah Hawley took on mutants and embraced the weird and fantastic notion of superpowers unlike anyone has done before. Legion is a show that requires patience, acceptance of that fact that for a good many episodes you’ll be left clueless. I wasn’t even sure if I was onboard until after the first couple of episodes, until I embraced the uncontainable nature of Hawley’s genre storytelling. Thankfully waiting works because of Dan Stevens electric performance as the schizophrenic telepath David Haller, and the supporting cast including Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza, Jean Smart, and Jemaine Clement. Legion is X-Men by way of Spike Jonze, a juggling act that moves from tone to tone in its efforts to bring an element of the unknown back to superpowers.
Best Episode: Chapter 7 – The penultimate episode finds David caught in the astral plane as he learns about the secret of his adoption and yellow-eyed demon that’s been following him through the season. While that’s happening, David’s fellow mutants are left unable to interact with the physical world as bullets barrel down on them in real-time that’s presented in slow motion across the episode’s runtime. The episode is one of the shows visual highlights, and me writing about it can’t do it justice, but it challenges the notions of time, space, and exposition, all within the structure of an episode. I’m eagerly awaiting season 2 and hoping the Disney buyout what cut this bold, imaginative series short. -Richard Newby
Whenever David Fincher goes to the serial killer well, he always finds gold. Se7en and Zodiac are masterclasses in serial killer narratives that show his skill with fictional killers and factual ones. Mindhunter is a fictionalised version of factual events following Holden Ford and Bill Tench, two FBI agents, as they essentially create the definition of a serial killer through their interviews with real killers: Richard Speck, Ed Kemper, and Jerry Brudos, among others. Based on the real work of criminal profilers John Douglas and Robert K. Ressler, Mindhunter is a procedural after the fact as Ford and Tench try to see if the caught killers can help them catch others.
Best Episode: “Episode 5” – An amazing feat of Mindhunter is the way it manages to drop little case of the week type stories throughout its run to keep the energy up while also showing how Ford and Tench’s methods are improving and the level of their comfort with the horrors they’re seeing. Episode 5 devotes a majority of its runtime to a single small town murder. A local girl has been brutalised and the Feds find themselves stuck within small-town politeness and cold-blooded murder. A fantastic episode that doesn’t necessarily advance the plot, but it does give us more insight into how Ford and Tench tick and how their work is progressing. –Sean Fallon
Nathan For You
Some people, members of my own household included, find it difficult to watch Nathan for You. Nathan, who frames himself as a deliberately mediocre college graduate, weaponizes his awkwardness to coerce business owners into adopting the most boundary-breaking marketing schemes possible, which can lead to anything from a funeral home offering a cast of extras that act as friends of the deceased to a winter clothing line that uses the motto “Deny Nothing” to increase Holocaust awareness. And while many who watch the show, including a key member of season four’s final episode, deride it as being “mean,” focusing on our immediate reaction to Nathan’s antics ignores two important revelations offered by the show: first, that this manipulative social discomfort is intensely entertaining and may thus be cause for us to examine our own proclivity for schadenfreude, and second, that the social writhing Nathan inspires reveals the fragility of our complex web of assumptions about how we should interact with and treat one another. The show basically functions as a series of Milgram experiments that expose the wiring of our current socioeconomic order. As such, any given episode of Nathan for You can warm you with the easy friendship developed amongst strangers (who are camping for days in order to gain fifteen dollars from a rebate), terrify you with the effortlessness of a mass delusion (where media outlets are used to give credibility to a fraudulent workout routine known as “The Movement”), and dishearten you with the general aching loneliness that has metastasized around our lives. Like Nathan’s schemes, our modern structure for survival is shown to be absurd: we are forced to view each other as competitors and customers, interacting in a transactional way so that we can trade enough plastic or make enough stops or sell enough chili to pay for the privilege of living. What word other than “absurd” could, for example, possibly describe a scenario where hardworking, beleaguered taxi drivers are corralled by a Comedy Central host to become a sleeper cell within Uber in order to get the company to discontinue their baby onesie promotion for babies born in Uber vehicles? These are the meager goals and boundaries that capitalism imposes on us, and it is a myopia that Nathan for You gleefully throws in our face.
Best Episode: “Finding Frances” – Of course, the best episode of the show thus far has to be the full-length documentary finale, “Finding Frances.” The film grows around William Heath, a (terrible) Bill Gates impersonator used in previous episodes, who lingers around the studio and constantly refers to his deepest regret: a lost love, a woman (Frances) he had betrayed almost sixty years ago. Nathan, whose intentions are suspect at the best of times, decides to take William on a search for Frances, breaking the form of the show in the process. We still have our wacky schemes and deliberate awkwardness, but something else emerges: a genuine attempt to grapple with the collisions of chance and circumstance that shape the meaning of our lives. And in the film’s most notable turn, the show’s traditional structure is completely inverted and Nathan himself becomes the hapless subject of his own scheme. Maci, an escort who Nathan hires to help William practice socializing with women, slowly starts to spend more time with Nathan as it becomes clear that he craves companionship amidst his own lonely career grind. The episode exacerbates instead of answers our most pressing questions about the show: how “real” are these people and scenarios? Is Nathan ‘genuine’ at all in his behaviour? Can we still be good people and enjoy a show predicated on manipulating other people? Are we just as trapped as the people we are watching? With a few leading, furtive looks towards the camera, Nathan himself seems unable to answer the question; when told by Maci that turning off the cameras would “defeat the purpose” of their date, Nathan asks her, “what is the purpose?” The question echoes throughout this final episode and the show as a whole – how can we make something of the fact that, to use the words of John Cassavetes, we are here but don’t know why? – Zac Fanni
The CW’S dark reimagining of the Archie Comics Characters equal parts endearing and absurd, and completely addicting. Cleverly blending elements of murder mystery, horror, noir, and teen drama within a small town built on sex, secrets, and an inexhaustible supply of neon lights, Riverdale is trashy and earnest must-watch TV, that keeps me returning week of week with unexpected twists, engaging characters, and a level of moody filmmaking that goes beyond many of The CW’s previous dramas. While its nods to Archie’s comic history and its interpretations of the characters are fun inside jokes, Riverdale’s greatest success is how accessible it is for viewers who don’t know about Archie, Veronica, Betty, and Jughead, or even cared to.
Best Episode: Chapter 13 – The Sweet Hereafter – The biggest question going into Riverdale was how the series would be able to sustain itself after the central mystery of the first season was solved. Was there more story left to tell, or would Riverdale pull a Twin Peaks and reveal its hand too soon? Those fears were put to a rest in the season 1 finale which the major threads of the season come to a close, while the possibilities for season 2 were opened up. But the season finale accomplished more than tied ends and cliffhangers, it made good on the emotional promises that had been building the whole season, and found our titular characters in a moment of genuine contentment and secure in their identities, despite how fleeting it was. -Richard Newby
More ink has been spilled on Twin Peaks this year than almost any other show, and for good reason. Week after week, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s return to their seminal 90s achievement challenged and inspired us in equal measure. With its abstract narrative rhythm, brilliantly realized characters, deeply moving meditations on aging, and horrors both human and supernatural, Twin Peaks revolutionized the medium of television (or is it a film?) all over again. There has never been anything like it before, and it’s unlikely we’ll see its like again. People will be writing and thinking about these 18 hours for decades to come.
Best Episode: “Part 8: Gotta Light?”- I’d love to go against the grain and make a less obvious pick. There are plenty of good candidates: “Part 3” with its surreal opening and hilariously repetitive casino sequence; the surprising twists and longstanding payoffs in “Part 7”; the one-two punch finale of “Part 17″‘s fan-pleasing climax and “Part 18″‘s beguiling universe-bending detour. But how could it not be “Part 8”? The episode opens with a literal bang that sees Cooper’s doppelganger betrayed and then saved by a group of nightmarish spectres, followed by a typically dark and pulsating performance by “The” Nine Inch Nails. When the show moves into a lengthy experimental sequence depicting the detonation of the atomic bomb as man’s original sin and the origin of the show’s incarnate evil, my jaw was on the floor. “Part 8” is at once bewildering, terrifying, and awe-inspiring. Watching it for the first time is an experience I’ll never forget. –J Rosenfield