Favorite 20 TV Shows of 2017 From shaggy dog stories & sociopolitical awakenings to blockbuster surrealism & soul-baring absurdism

Welcome to Screen Week! Join us as we explore the films, TV shows, and video games that kept us staring at screens. More from this series


It’s boring as fuck to say that a certain year is bad, and every time someone threw their hands to the sky in the past 12 months and offered up a hearty “2017 sucks,” the world lost a hair of its capacity for reason and dialectical thinking. It’s the oldest dismissal in the book, something that’s probably been going on since year zero, and, frankly, it’s just not productive. We should all hope to aim a little clearer, a little deeper, a little further. As far as TV goes, it was a great year, because TV isn’t anchored to years — it isn’t simply a frame disconnected from the reel. Great TV is a synthesis of past, present, and future. Great TV doesn’t care if 2017 sucks; or, rather, great TV wants to understand 2017, not dismiss it.

Great shows maintain a liquid dialectic that flows from season to season, kaleidoscopic, expansive, brilliant. Great TV can show us ways of thinking and being that we don’t or can’t pursue in our everyday lives, like Legion’s insane grasp and manipulation of time and the unconscious, or Nathan For You’s willingness to follow every absurd thought to its extreme. Great TV can change the past, and great TV can create new futures. In new seasons of Twin Peaks, Mr. Robot, and Game of Thrones, we came to understand the past differently and, therefore, came to understand the tasks of the present in new ways. By the end of Twin Peaks, all the knowledge and expertise we’d supposedly amassed in the past two-plus decades had been thrown into crisis, the show’s final moments a slap in the face to those who had been so certain of its priorities.

We approached 2017’s greatest TV shows as detectives, critics, and skeptics, even when we were looking to cut loose and laugh. Highlights there were BoJack Horseman and Curb Your Enthusiasm, two great, searing shows about animals in despair. Many of this year’s shows got us to think about and to participate in the world — or at least culture — in a deeper way than we usually do, and many of us bonded with colleagues, editors, friends, and significant others over these shows, eager to share our theories and criticisms. Why don’t we apply this vigor, attention, and drive toward our own lives? Why don’t we study our own world as obsessively as we combed through Fire Walk With Me, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, and the show’s first two seasons looking for clues to unlock the mysteries of The Return? Why do we care more about the people in The Leftovers finding catharsis than we do about overcoming our own situations?

Twin Peaks may not have given you the closure you wanted, but in real life, we have the opportunity not only to understand the things that happen, but to change them. Yes, 2017 was a rough ride for most of us in one way or another, but if you didn’t learn anything about politics, art, or yourself from it other than that “it was bad,” then maybe you need to change the channel.


20

Lady Dynamite

Created by: Pam Brady & Mitch Hurwitz

[Netflix]


With the personal tragedy and ensuing nervous breakdown that occupied season one of comedian Maria Bamford’s semi-autobiographical sitcom in the rearview, we wondered how Lady Dynamite would maintain the same level of soul-baring intensity that gave its absurdism poignancy. Showrunners Pam Brady and Mitch Hurwitz pulled it off by delving deeper into Bamford’s relationships: with her partner Scott, with her increasingly estranged friends, with her controlling mother and emotionally repressed father, and even with her network (represented by the dystopian Muskvision). Season two was about familial dysfunction, how it replicates itself generation after generation and the heroic day-to-day efforts it takes to challenge it. It was about the content mines of streaming media and their place in capitalism’s blood-soaked arena. It was about a secret cabal of Hollywood feminists’ quest to awaken Ranlith the Hive Queen from her centuries of slumber. It was about so much that it distended the limits of its “bingeable fucking installments” and chipped away at the foundation of its own credibility one jarring smash-cut at a time. Like its star, Lady Dynamite was brave and life-affirming and a bit of an incoherent jumble, and for all of that, we loved it. (Oh, and were there pugs? You bet your ass there were pugs.)


19

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Created by: Larry David

[HBO]


It’s become normalized for a show to “come back” and for longtime fans to become very stoked about it, wondering what the show will have to say about “now.” There’s even been social media accounts that fantasized about this, like Seinfeld 2000. Yet, unlike other shows that tepidly capitulated to the political moment of 2017 with lame caricatures or weird subplots (if you watch TV, you don’t need me to tell you which ones they are), Curb Your Enthusiasm continued to deal with the neurotic individual as particular to “now” in general, not a result of “2017” or “Trump” or whatever other bad ideologies we give ourselves for the way things are. In the new season, Larry David took aim at Hamilton, a bad employee that you don’t know how to fire, soap bottles that won’t open, accidentally taking too many painkillers, cheating on your wife, and plenty more. My favorite joke of the season was Leon’s “I’m Chappie Johnson, and I can’t open this damn pickle jar!” This season was funny, relevant, and mostly good. I’d go as far as to say it often was pretty… pretty… pretty good.


18

Master Of None

Created by: Aziz Ansari & Alan Yang

[Netflix]


Season two of Master of None has a discernible narrative arc: something about running away from a break-up to be a pasta maker, and then learning that while the heart wants what the heart wants, sometimes your heart can really make a mess of things. At its core, though, the show remained about how the relationships we have — with family, with friends, with love interests, with whomever — impact and influence our lives. With that in mind, Master of None was able to easily thread the needle between telling affecting, relatable stories and being genuinely hilarious. This season followed Dev (series co-creator and star Aziz Ansari) through an out-and-out homage to Italian cinema (“The Thief”) and journeyed with him into the weird/harrowing/humbling world of meeting and dating people via a phone app (“First Date”). It also positioned him as a side character in a compelling, decade-spanning coming-out story (“Thanksgiving”) and set him aside entirely to explore the rich cast of characters living interesting lives in the background (“New York, I Love You”). In 2017, Master of None’s ambition saw significant increase, resulting in some of the year’s best episodes of television.


17

Stranger Things

Created by: The Duffer Brothers

[Netflix]


Hype is a mind flayer; it amasses its power by drawing more minds into its hive, and it thrives on a singularity of thought that, in turn, helps it seduce those of us who crave being part of something bigger. Stranger Things and its sometimes overwhelmingly nostalgic allure has always risked a swift and scathing downfall by defectors that could never see beyond Hype’s ostensibly empty promises. Between season one and two, I almost let Hype scare me away from showing up for these ordinary people with unexpectedly extraordinary stories, but against my cynical judgment, I immersed myself once again in a universe that could have been riddled with traps and instead discovered a monster even more powerful than Hype: Catharsis. Much like how Will’s own memories deteriorated as the Shadow Monster took over, Hype had made me forget why I thought Stranger Things was so totally tubular: its candor in depicting post-traumatic stress, grief, guilt, and domestic violence through children’s eyes was unmatched this year. Its final moments still fresh in my mind, I am haunted by how its campy cultural referents contextualized cyclical violence without making it more palatable for viewers whose worst memory of its temporal setting was bad hair. Stranger Things triumphed once again not because it simply continued a narrative with aesthetic fidelity, but because it faced its own Demogorgons without losing integrity, and in doing so burned Hype out of a body poised to slow dance into a firestorm for us all. Next time, for Will’s sake, I won’t let Hype drive me away.


16

Game of Thrones

Created by: David Benioff & D. B. Weiss

[HBO]


So bad it’s good is a phrase we hear all the time. Game of Thrones, out of books to use as the backbone for its storytelling, went off the rails in 2017. Sure, we fantasy lovers got more dragons and shit, fire and ice, etc., but at the cost of insanely dumb plot devices like Daenerys bringing her dragons beyond the wall on a rescue mission to see one of them turned by the Night King into what can only be described as some kind of zombie frost wyvern. Good thing for us, the Queen of Thorns had given us an incredible ending to an episode by brazenly admitting to Jaime Lannister that she was the one responsible for Joffrey’s death and that she wanted everyone to know. Also, fuck Jaime Lannister for surviving a dragon attack on his caravan in another “dumbest shit ever” moment by the use of Bronn as a deus ex machina to deliver him from death at the very last second. “I used to like this show” is a phrase I found myself revisiting during much of the season, but then I let go and realized it can be just as much fun when something you love has obvious flaws and the debate around them opens up other avenues of enjoyment. So hang on until 2019, and we’ll see if they really botch the ending. Good or bad, let’s hope for a spectacle.


15

Big Little Lies

Created by: David E. Kelley

[HBO]


“Oh, calamity!” There’s a fear that the boundaries holding everything together could be flooded at any moment. Offscreen, 2017 had two big-little formal controversies when Twin Peaks crossed the threshold of prestige TV into film and Big Little Lies broke from the resolution of the miniseries into the instability of the serial drama. In its first incarnation, an adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel, the intimately funny and distressing miniseries lived for the drama (punctuated by its bougie chorus of concerned parents) and lived past the drama (survived by its righteously petty and necessarily determined heroines). The shadow of inherited trauma and cycles of violence that fell across the show’s insulated California community — padded, fuzzy, detached — turned a trivia night into a sticky drama, the night that push came to shove, when truth came out of her well. As trauma endures unfinished like the rain on the window they drown out, the promise of serialization undoes and doesn’t undo the show’s mini ending, wherein the memory of violence was wrapped neatly and profoundly in the companionship of these women (in the powerhouse performances), for themselves (the viewer, like the dreamer), in the safety of sandcastles (your scars). Nothing was washed away by the waves, and their refuge beneath darkening skies was strong enough; essential viewing.


14

Terrace House: Aloha State

Created by: John C. Ching, Julian Lai-Hung, Deborah Y. Lau, Jason K. Lau, Nicole M. Lau, Ayaka Matsumoto, Kaata Sakamoto, Yasunori Suzuki

[Fuji/Netflix]


2017: a year of transcendence. In which people fled horrific social landscapes into detachment and dreams. In which mysticism soared in popularity, and in which I was moved to tears by a simple structure of driftwood on a white beach, assembled by a lovesick, jejune surfer who chewed with his mouth open. Terrace House: Aloha State was something like surreality television. Flooded with washed-out, ambient imagery and modelesque, soft-spoken young people, the show overflowed with ASMR tingles. Sharply steering away from the cliches of American reality TV — egregious editing and fabricated drama — Terrace House felt like it focused on real-life turmoil inside a dreamlike setting. Social anxiety, language barriers, service jobs, social media paranoia: these were just some of the phenomena that floated in the gentle tides between residents and their relationships. Every time the drama scenes finished and the show moved out of time, into a room of comedians guiding you through affections and criticisms of each character, it mirrored the pleasure of listening to a podcast about a show you’re simultaneously watching. It felt like having a board of friends eager to share feelings and to make you laugh over, over, and over again. Each tear shed from sad samurai Taishi Tamaki over an underwhelming goodbye, each giggle from nervous model Lauren Tsai as she struggled over language and social stress — it all composed a gorgeous, juvenile, and tender tapestry of fantastic stories. If only life could be more like Terrace House. For now, we can only dream.


13

The Vietnam War

Created by: Ken Burns & Lynn Novick

[PBS]


What we found most telling about Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s latest signature gargantuan undertaking was the exceedingly vocal online disagreements among the audience about whether it was too fair to the US or not fair enough. The Americentrism at the heart of that clash was exactly what The Vietnam War would have to fight throughout its run, balancing a desire to understand how US leadership could so thoroughly falter at such intensity for such a long period of time with the larger worldwide implications of the sustained conflict it set to document. Regardless of our own internal disagreements with how well they may have handled the daunting task of such an analysis, we all nevertheless had to admit that the sheer volume and quality of archival footage and its subsequent arrangement were alone enough to merit its status as one of the most essential series of 2017. Burns and Novick have established themselves as keen observers of history, and it was absolutely fascinating to watch them give such an expansive and exhaustive treatment to events still fresh in the memories of PBS’s key demographic.


12

The Good Place

Created by: Michael Schur

[NBC]


The Good Place pulled off the incredible feat of being an incredibly sweet and hopeful show without losing any bite in its social commentary. A brilliant treatise on the philosophy of human nature, the sitcom provided a delightful look at various social and cultural mores, told in a propulsive manner that constantly revealed twists about its true story. It was like if Lost were scrambled with C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letter and written by Douglas Adams. Examining life on earth through the prism of the afterlife, Schur’s delightful Good Place unfurled the power of relationships, the dynamic between good and evil, the concepts we hold dear, and those we neglect, and it did it all with excellent jokes and pitch-perfect comic timing. With top-notch performances, including Kristin Bell and a never-better Ted Danson, the show was equal parts intriguing and endearing. The Good Place offered an amazingly unique premise that enriched the soul, maintaining enough laughs to keep audiences clamoring for more.


11

Better Things

Created by: Pamela Adlon

[FX]


Whether it’s simple schadenfreude or reveling in the fleeting joys of counterintuitive disassociativism-as-virtue, the “dysfunctional family” tag has become as much a harbinger of roteness as the whitewashed template it was once a rebellious answer to. In this light, Better Things, and the beset matriarch at its center, felt essential as ever. Yes, Sam’s life as a single mother of three read as a messy struggle. But we saw a family that, in its own way, functioned. There was love, patience, forgiveness, and their opposites flowing in both directions. In Pamela Adlon’s Sam Fox, we again saw an adult retaining the best of childlike innocence (and, by the skin of her teeth, wonder) without giving way to idealization. As with last season, episodes blithely drifted or veered from obvious beats and denied pat resolution. Instead of a unique persona being squeezed into a proven sitcom formula, Better Things conveyed a dizzyingly sentimental, hard, vulnerable, furious, and exhausted personality of its own. And these warring traits have been so intrinsic to Adlon’s characters that, whether she finds a new writing partner or goes it alone, it seems a safe bet she’ll keep the show vital in seasons to come.

Welcome to Screen Week! Join us as we explore the films, TV shows, and video games that kept us staring at screens. More from this series


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