If you’ll allow me the use of an outdated colloquial expression (and I think you will), 2017 needed to slow its roll, television-wise. Attempting to keep up with the glut of shows airing, streaming, or plummeting from the heavens like so much mana proved a Herculean task. Despite my best efforts, I never had a chance to put eyeballs on some noteworthy series like The Handmaid’s Tale or the fourth season of Black Mirror (recently dropped on December 29th) or Queen Sugar’s second season or The Runaways or… You get the point. But even so, even with these gaps, paring this list down to a top 20 was almost as difficult as finding the time to watch all of it in the first place.
I’ll tell you what, though. If nothing else, 2017 turned me into a savage viewer: I’ve never broken up with so many shows in a single year, but the fact is I no longer have the luxury of patience to see if a show will figure itself out. Like, I appreciate your journey of self-discovery and all, but I don’t have the time to match you step for step. That meant cancelled series recordings for shows like Nashville, Empire, and Chicago Med; cast shake-ups for Hawaii Five O disrupted its entire dynamic, so that one’s gone, too; Homeland needed to be put out to pasture for a while now, and this year I happily obliged. Necessary triage in this day and age.
I mean, you know it’s a cutthroat year of television when all of my adolescent dreams came true in Netflix’s revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and its pitch-perfect execution (coupled with heaping bucketfuls of warm and fuzzy nostalgia) won’t land it in my top twenty shows of 2017. Heck, even top 10 staple series like Game of Thrones, The Americans, Veep, and Fargo — while each of them still very good — had seasons that dipped in quality, booting them not just lower on my list but off it entirely. That’s right, folks, “very good” doesn’t cut it any more.
And then there were shows that consistently entertained me this year — a rejuvenated Doctor Who, for instance, and the haunting third and final series of Broadchurch — that narrowly missed inclusion here because the competition’s just too tight. The DC Universe crossover event Crisis On Earth-X (which turned installments of Supergirl, Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow essentially into a — mercifully Zach Snyder-less — 4-hour movie) was the most gleefully fun experience I had with TV in 2017; you won’t see it represented on my list.
That begs the question, then: what did make the cut? Well, look no further, for here they are, my top 20 series of 2017.
20. Dear White People (Netflix)
Timely, funny, and inventive, Netflix’s show explores issues like race and identity with sensitivity and insight as it follows the lives of students of color at a predominantly white Ivy League college. Plus, Giancarlo Esposito voices the disembodied narrator, so that’s top 20 fodder right there.
19. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
Laugh for laugh, this might be the funniest show on television. The cast is, of course, wonderful, but it’s Andre Braugher’s Captain Holt who remains the series’ most hilarious character. Is it reinventing the comedy wheel? No. But, week in and week out, it accomplishes its goal of making us laugh until it hurts. The fact that this show is the on the verge of cancellation is mind-boggling, as its quality has only increased the longer it’s been on.
18. Shameless (Showtime)
We’re only halfway through this latest season, but I can’t get enough of the Gallagher clan. Frank’s transformation into a pull-yourself-up-by-the-boot-straps blue collar worker and PTA-volunteer father has been a comedic joy, while Lip’s devotion to recovery and Fiona’s determination to achieve a better life ground the otherwise wacky situations with deeply felt humanity. Never change, Shameless. Never change.
17. The Crown (Netflix)
This show doesn’t just fill the Downton Abbey-sized hole in my heart but also explores, with impeccable craftsmanship, the price and weight of power. Claire Foy and Matt Smith are wonderful as Elizabeth and Philip, but it’s Vanessa Kirby, bringing a devastating pathos in her role as Princess Margaret, who imbues this entire season with a sense of resounding tragedy that feels, in its way, positively Shakespearean.
16. Catastrophe (Amazon)
Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s seriocomic half-hour series went to some dark places as it explored Sharon and Rob’s marriage, and the secrets that can tear it apart. The ending sequence is an absolute gut-punch that leaves viewers contemplating what the future holds for these perfectly matched but deeply flawed characters.
15. Stranger Things (Netflix)
I’ll freely admit that the unadulterated joy that fills me as I watch this show does, in many ways, cloud my critical judgment of it. Sure, episode 7 was a completely failed opportunity to expand the show’s mythology, but in the end, who cares? This second season was funny, tense, and memorable throughout, with a fantastic cast and more shots of rotted pumpkins than you can shake a stick at. For pure entertainment value, few shows rivaled this one in 2017.
14. Mindhunter (Netflix)
This one snuck up on me. I was left unimpressed by the pilot, which seemed more like a David Fincher Greatest Hits album than anything else. But as the show progressed, Ford, Tench, and Carr became a trio of characters I couldn’t get enough of as they toiled to redefine criminal science in the late 1970s. But it’s the manner of characterization — often learning about our protagonists indirectly through their personal response to criminal interviews — that makes this show something dark, twisted, and special.
13. American Gods (Starz)
Bryan Fuller’s ambitious adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s beloved novel is a complete visual marvel. Building off the aesthetic he honed for Hannibal, Fuller created an inaugural season that looked like nothing else on television while also honoring the tone of Gaiman’s book. Most impressively, he had the creative audacity to expand upon the source material and its characters, enriching these stories even further. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Ian McShane is fantastic as Mr. Wednesday because the man is a treasure.
12. Review (Comedy Central)
Andy Daly said goodbye to critic Forrest MacNeil the only way he knew how: with gut-busting humor and devastating pathos. Watching Forrest stumble through his day with the belief that he has awoken from a cryogenics chamber sometime in the far future (despite immediate evidence to the contrary) is a perfect encapsulation of his willful gullibility and devotion to this project. This is a character for the ages, one we should be using in the same sentence as Walter White, Tony Soprano, and Alicia Florick when we talk about the modern age of complex TV protagonists. I give the final season five stars.
11. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)
Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino (the husband-wife team behind Gilmore Girls) have crafted a beautiful ode to female empowerment and feminism with their story of Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a 1950s housewife living in New York City whose picture-perfect life is upended after her husband leaves her and then reimagined after she finds her voice as a standup comedienne. This funny, moving, and insightful show also features two of the best performances this year in Rachel Brosnahan as Midge and Alex Bornstein as her curmudgeonly manager Susie Meyerson. Marvelous, indeed.
10. The League of Gentlemen (BBC2)
One of the darkest, most unclassifiable British sketch shows of all time returned this December for three glorious episodes that returned us to the town of Royston Vasey. Three male performers — Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, and Steve Pemberton — play most of the denizens of the fictional town and are game to portray them in varying degrees of grostequerie because, more than anything, this is a show about insularity, insecurity, and the ugliness of both. Of course, it’s also absolutely hysterical, even now two decades after it first appeared on our screens. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, I don’t blame you. But for me, this was just about perfect, no matter which side of the Pond you’re from.
9. Insecure (HBO)
Issa Rae has crafted a show that is universal precisely because her vision and perspective is so specific to her sensibility. I challenge any millennial — regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation — not to find something about this show with which to identify. It’s blisteringly funny and at times uncomfortably real in its depiction of adult coming-of-age, of finding one’s place and voice in a world that too often does everything it can to prevent that from happening.
8. Better Call Saul (AMC)
The final sequence of this season has haunted me since it aired, the culmination of events that bristled with tension, manipulation, and simmering rage. Jimmy McGill is hurtling toward Saul Goodman as we know him, and Bob Odenkirk’s depiction of that metamorphosis has been transcendent. Now that Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) is in the picture, the pieces of the puzzle that create Saul’s character continue to fall into place. The most significant moment occurred in one of the best episodes in all of 2017, “Chicanery,” a game-changing hour with an impact that will resonate for the remainder of the series.
7. Master of None (Netflix)
Aziz Ansari obliterated all expectations with a magnificent second season that broke free of the form he established so well the first time around. Sure, we’re still getting to know Dev, but Ansari wisely suggests that getting to know our protagonist means getting to know the world around him. This allows Master of None to dispense with convention and, for instance, follow a trio of New Yorkers we’ve never met before (and will never meet again) for an entire episode, or detail with beautiful affection Denise’s coming out story in the touching episode “Thanksgiving.” Few half-hour shows had the ability to surprise me as often as this one did, or to keep the quality so high with these much-needed artistic diversions.
6. American Vandal (Netflix)
If American Vandal had just been content to be a spot-on parody of podcasts like Serial and shows like Making of a Murderer, then this would have still been a top 20 entry for sure due to its eye for detail and hilarious central mystery. But that the story also becomes an exploration of the ways in which outside perception shapes your sense of self (and no place is more rife with those pressures than high school), this series becomes something brilliant. Crude, funny, captivating, and ultimately melancholy, American Vandal does just about everything right.
5. The Good Place (NBC)
Singlehandedly saving the reputation of network television, Michael Shur’s The Good Place triumphs thanks to its brilliantly executed premise and lovable cast of doofuses. To that end, I would be remiss if I didn’t shout out Manny Jacinto as Jason Mendoza, who is a hilarious breed of moron so dense Michael frustratedly laments early in the season, “Jason figured it out?” But what makes The Good Place so remarkable is that we root for these characters; we don’t disdain them because Shur isn’t interested in satiric ridicule. His aims are much more ambitious for a sitcom, both in format (it’s the most serialized comedy on TV) and content, almost philosophical in nature: what does it mean to be human, and are our flaws the most important aspects of who we are? Throw in counterpoint characters like the demonic deity Michael (a phenomenal Ted Danson) and so-good-it hurts AI Janet (an Emmy-worthy D’Arcy Carden), and you have a show that is reinventing the network comedy while also forcing us to address those big questions we have about life, death, and everything in between.
4. Big Little Lies (HBO)
Based on Liane Moriarity’s bestseller of the same name, David E. Kelley’s adaptation is a masterclass in storytelling. This is a story about women: about the secrets they shelter, the hurt they hide, the facade they put out to the world for fear of being dubbed imperfect. Sure, there’s also an overarching murder mystery stitching it all together, but that’s just the hook, the window dressing. It comes down to the amazing performances, chiefly from Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern (though there’s not a slouch in the bunch), and the way these actresses infuse real humanity into their characters. Framing this all within the confines of an upper class California beach community — a setting best described as idyllic — only reinforces the show’s thesis about the ways we trap ourselves in the lives we imagine others perceive us living. From opening frame to closing shot, I watched in enrapt fascination, and it’s a show I won’t soon forget.
3. Better Things (FX)
Much like the aforementioned Catastrophe, I would call Pamela Adlon’s brilliant series a half-hour seriocomic. There are definitely laughs to be had throughout this show, as we follow single mom Sam Fox raising three daughters and working as an actress in Los Angeles, but what I treasure most are the moments of emotional truth: from Sam’s daughters staging a fake funeral for their mom to tell her how much they love her in the excellent “Eulogy” to the dance Sam choreographs as a gift to her eldest daughter in “Graduation.” There’s not a detail, not a line, not a moment that doesn’t ring one hundred percent true; this is authentic, character-driven storytelling at its absolute finest. I savored every second of this excellent sophomore season because, despite the title, there’s not much else better on television right now.
2. The Leftovers (HBO)
After a rocky start to our relationship with the hit-or-miss first season, The Leftovers left a lasting impression on me with its all-time-great second season and carried through on that promise here in its third and final run. There are no easy answers to be found here; this is a show about grief, about loss, about the nihilism of everyday life, after all. The impending threat of another Departure casts a pall over these eight episodes as characters careen off one another in a desperate attempt to make meaning of their lives, now so fraught with loss. The final scene is the perfect distillation of the show’s underlying conceit: do we chose to believe in the otherworldly, or do we dismiss it out of hand? What is insanity if not blind faith? Despite these heavy questions and often somber tone, The Leftovers also imbues these last episodes with bonkers weirdness that never once feels, somehow, anything but organic. Guiding us through it all are two magnificent performances: Justin Theroux mesmerizes as Kevin Garvey, but it’s Carrie Coon as Nora Durst, whose series-long struggle to accept her family’s Departure comes to a heart-rending and surprising conclusion, who delivers a performance that will go down as one of the all-time greats, in a show that stands as one of the finest televisual achievements of the decade.
1. Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime)
Come on, as if there were any other choice? David Lynch and Mark Frost quite simply redefined the TV landscape with this third season of the seminal series. I can’t ever remember being so challenged, gripped, frustrated, amused, disturbed, or haunted by a show in the entirety of my television-watching life. Suffice it to say that familiar faces return, an entirely new (but still related) mystery unfolds, and Lynch dials the Lynch-factor up to 11. If you’ve been reading about television at all in 2017, then you’ve likely heard about the surrealist experimentation of “Episode 8,” which emerges as the best episode of television this year for its pure audacity and singularity of vision. The same can be said of the entire season: an unexpected, often harrowing, journey with few clear answers by the story’s end. Through the tale of Laura Palmer, Lynch means to paint in broader strokes about the unavoidable nature of trauma, the cruel cyclical trap of time, and the suppression and expression of our truest selves. Also, there is a talking teapot. For 18 mind-boggling episodes, I simply sat back, drank full, and descended. In the end, I emerged from Twin Peaks: The Return with a newfound understanding of what television storytelling can accomplish, which in and of itself is revelatory in this age when it seems we’ve seen it all. Lynch and Frost begged to differ, creating a singular experience that is easily the best series of 2017.
Thanks so much for reading! What do you think? Am I off-base here, or right on the money? I’d love to hear your thoughts!