Earlier this week, I started my list of the Best TV Shows of 2017. I had to do a list of 25 because I watch way too much TV. Having covered 11-25 last time, I’m ready to get to my Top 10 TV Shows of the year. And believe me, I agonized over the order.
10. Legion (FX) – Fargo creator Noah Hawley seemed like an odd choice for an X-Men show, especially one starring a largely neglected D-lister like David Haller. But Hawley turned this into a weird and wonderful headtrip that never got around to mentioning the X-Men. Other than the term “mutant”, there’s nothing to connect this to the main franchise. But if you know that Professor X is David’s father in the comics, you get some nice bonus jokes. A show that’s ostensibly about super powers is really about mental health. David’s vast mental powers are affected by his schizophrenia, which is at least partly the result of a malevolent entity living in his brain.
Legion is a twisty maze with the action shifting from the real world to the psychic plane to a different psychic plane and back again. Aubrey Plaza’s character was killed by psychic backlash in the first episode and then remained on the series even as we discovered that the person she was before she died didn’t exist. There’s just so much to take in – so many supporting characters with their own backstories that felt fully realized, so many layers to David’s psyche to unravel. It boasted one of the year’s sweetest love stories between David and Syd and also some of the most horrifying imagery. Hawley brought back some Fargo favorites like Rachel Keller and Jean Smart and left field casting like Jemaine Clement as a scientist who, in one of the year’s most impressive scenes, manipulates reality to the tune of Bolero. It was one of the craziest and most intense experiences of the year.
Best Episode – “Chapter 7”
9. My Brother, My Brother & Me (Seeso/VRV) – This is easily the silliest show on my list and probably the one with the lowest production values. The McElroy Brothers (known in the podcast world for MBMBaM and a host of other shows) brought their unique brand of terrible advice to TV, and it was an absolute delight. Each episode had them attempting to help one viewer and then things would spiral out of control. A man who wanted their help convincing his wife to let him get a tarantula led them on a path of tarantula rebranding (Ranchos!), an arachnid sitcom, and a tarantula parade that was not in any way authorized by the city government. And that was one where they stayed on task! A question about padding resumes led to the brothers trying to help Griffin get an old job back and a turf war in Safetytown.
Whether they were hassling the actual Mayor of Huntington, checking in with their father (on one occasion to tattle on brother Travis), or trying to learn what teens are into (water bottle flips and dabbing, it turns out), the brothers were consistently funny and loveable. The chaotic nature of the whole thing really made it feel like a labor of love – where else are you going to see somebody declare “This bit was a mistake” and have it make the final cut? And at the end, when they put on a live show and we see all the locals they met along the way in the audience, well, it turns into something bigger. It starts to feel like a live action Muppet Show in the way it builds a community from disparate parts. The final scene of the season, where Justin tears up after the live show, is one of the most honestly moving moments on TV this year. “I was worried the whole time that maybe I wasn’t appreciating this enough. And I feel like for once we really, I don’t know, did the best we could with something.”
Best Episode – “Resumes & Jamiroquai’s Dad”
8. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC) – Halt was never the phenomenon it deserved to be. Seemingly every other show on AMC ends up as some kind of cultural force, while this story about the computer industry in the Eighties remained a niche product. Now that the series is over, I guess I’ll just have to wait for people to discover it on streaming services and then they’ll wonder how they missed it the first time through and I’ve been through this with Deadwood before and I’m still bitter. But this is not the time for that. This is the time to celebrate Halt, one of TV’s best dramas.
In terms of plotting, it was a smart move to jump the series forward to the birth of the Internet and watch as our characters scrambled to redefine themselves and find a place in the new tech landscape. But more importantly, they were also redefining their relationships. Over the years, Joe, Cam, Gordon, and Donna have gone their separate ways, come back together, split, and teamed up in just about every possible professional grouping with varying degrees of dysfunction. It’s a group that’s guaranteed to self-destruct but it’s also the only way to bring out the best in the individuals. The episode where Joe and Cam spent the entire time on the phone coming up with reasons not to hang up was achingly beautiful. The season opened on one of the most clever ways I’ve ever seen to depict a time jump. And (SPOILEE WARNING) the episode following Gordon’s death was this gorgeous, honest depiction of grief and the ways we deal with it, both the dumb and the profound. It was a stunning final season and exactly the sendoff Halt and Catch Fire earned. In the first season, Joe talked about their new computer design and said “It isn’t the thing. It’s the thing that gets us to the thing.” In the end, Halt was the thing.
Best Episode – “Goodwill”
7. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX) – Shortly after B99 premiered, Jesse Thorn talked about it on Bullseye and talked about how it got so good so fast, and he said something about how it had hit such a high bar after nine episodes and he couldn’t wait to see another ninety. Well, we’re at one hundred one episodes as of this writing, and B99 is still making brilliance look easy.
The thing is, I genuinely don’t have much to say at this point, because I’ve talked about it almost every week for four-plus seasons. It’s one of the main reasons we’re giving out week in review feature a break – I have run out of way to say that Brooklyn Nine-Nine was very good this week. It boasts one of the best casts in TV, it’s not afraid to shake things up, and it can do so many kinds of humor so well. This is a show that had Tim Meadows as a convicted cannibal who ate children and let him be really funny. It’s on a Parks and Recreation-style hot streak and if you’re not watching it by now, I don’t even know what to do with you.
Best Episode – “HalloVeen”
6. The Good Place – Remember last year when this was one of my favorite shows and it was only an inventive, perfectly cast, and hilarious comedy about people who got to the good afterlife by mistake? Well, the first season finale revealed the twist – they’ve actually been in The Bad Place the whole time, in a special, bespoke Hell created for the purpose of torturing these four people. That was a brilliant move that took an already great show to another level. (And yes, if you rewatch Season One with the knowledge of the reveal, it totally works.)
And now it’s reached that Breaking Bad level of high-wire excellence where every single week it seems like it can’t possibly go for more than one episode because it is heading inexorably toward something. After the group discovered Michael’s deception hundreds of times, he finally stopped rebooting them and now they’re working together to possibly earn redemption. Meanwhile, Vicky (formerly the Good Eleanor) is making a power play, Michael has to hide his failures from his boss, and the constant cycle of reboots has advanced Janet the AI to the point where she has human emotions. We’ve had great sequences like Janet creating her rebound boyfriend (Jason Mantzoukas), Michael’s midlife crisis, and so many failed reboots. It’s the high water mark of what network TV can be and a creative triumph.
Best Episode – “Michael’s Gambit”
5. Better Call Saul (AMC) – I hate to compare two shows in a row to Breaking Bad, but this is the actual spinoff/prequel, so it’s inevitable. Here’s the thing. Breaking Bad is one of the best TV shows of the 21st Century. Better Call Saul is just as good. This season added Bad favorite Gus Fring to the mix and even featured an appearance by Huell (a future Saul Goodman associate), but it’s Michael McKean’s Chuck McGill and Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler, neither of whom appeared on Bad, driving the action just as much as the established favorites.
This year focused on Chuck’s attempt to disbar his brother, a move that suspended Jimmy’s license for a year but pushed Chuck over the edge. Jimmy had to make some desperate moves to pay the rent on his office, including a side career in commercial production. This is notable because the ad he makes for his services is incredible. It’s a straight up comedy segment in the middle of the show. The ad for Saul Goodman Productions could have been on Mr. Show and Bob Odenkirk could have played it the exact same way. And it still makes complete sense as a commercial that Jimmy would actually make. Odenkirk’s comedy career made him an expert in portraying sweaty desperation and incompetent hucksterism, and he brings it all to bear on Saul. There weren’t many moments more upsetting than Chuck’s breakdown on the witness stand or Kim waking up after a car accident, her carefully assembled presentation lost to the wind. I’m comfortable calling it TV’s best ongoing drama.
Best Episode – “Chicanery”
4. Nathan For You (Comedy Central) – I’m a huge fan of Nathan Fielder’s show and after a long break, he returned to help some more small businesses with unconventional solutions. This season felt more elaborate than in the past with some genuinely crazy ideas. The lengths Nathan went to in order to sell unapproved chili at a hockey game were…. astonishing. It not only involved a fat suit full of chili, but also required him to convince a doctor that he had a pacemaker. An attempt to help taxi drivers compete with Uber ended with Nathan tricking a cabbie into marrying him to save him from deportation in the event that his methods weren’t strictly legal. He created a band and then set them against an oil company all so he could get smoke detectors classified as musical instruments and have them subject to lower import taxes. It’s all amazing stuff and Fielder is so good at letting the humor come to him – this season especially shows him letting people gradually reveal their weird quirks and then overcompensating.
And this would have been enough to put in on my list of favorites, but the two-hour season finale, “Finding Frances” was one of the single greatest episodes of anything all year. A seemingly simple plan to help one of Nathan’s frequent conspirators find a lost love spiraled into something entirely different. The lengths to which he had to go to track down Frances were great comedy, but along the way, we learned more about the lonely Bill. Previously, he’d been little more than a visual joke; a Bill Gates impersonator with no resemblance to Bill Gates. But we learned about his life and who he is as a person, and it wasn’t all good. Along the way, Nathan got involved with an escort in a way that forced us to question just how much was documentary and how much was a bit (and it is still not at all clear), and we watched Bill learn empathy. I’m not even kidding. We saw that happen on camera. I’ve never seen anything like “Finding Frances” before. It’s weird and brilliant and warm and offputting and somehow both universal and incredibly specific. It’s a masterpiece.
Best Episode – “Finding Frances” (duh)
3. GLOW (Netflix) – As ways to pander directly to me go, “Alison Brie stars in a show about wrestling in the ’80s” is up there with “Deadwood revival” or “Professor Pyg on a network TV show”. So even if GLOW hadn’t been good, it would have been a must watch. But it is good. It’s great, in fact. It’s smart and funny and perfectly nails a very weird era for America in general and professional wrestling in particular.
To be fair, let’s hit some of the non-Alison Brie highlights first. Marc Maron can be an acquired taste, and I’ve never seen him as good as he is here, playing producer/promoter Sam Sylvia. It’s the role Maron was born to play and given that his most notable previous acting role was playing himself on Maron, that’s saying something. A former schlock director just trying to get back in the game, Sam’s irascible and frustrated with the world in the same way that the real Marc Maron is and he’s a joy to watch. Betty Gilpin as Debbie, Ruth’s former best friend and now rival in both real life and in wrestling, is an absolute standout. She has to play a character who is right (Ruth did sleep with her husband) but also not especially sympathetic and nails it. All of the wrestlers are compelling in their own ways and most of them got a decent spotlight before the end of the season. And what’s maybe most amazing is they had to be good at acting and at wrestling. Most of them started with no wrestling background at all (with a few exceptions) and their early incompetence is real. By the end of the season, they know the moves and they’re throwing themselves around the ring, executing throws and doing rope work. It’s really impressive. And the fact is, I’m a sucker for a story about putting on a show. It’s my second Muppet Show comparison today, but part of why I love the Muppets is that they’re a big collection of goofs who still work really hard to make a show. And for most of the season, Sam and the women are under the gun. They don’t have time to train or a venue or funding or disastrous personality clashes are going to derail the whole thing. When they reach the season finale and actually shoot their pilot, it feels amazing.
As for Alison Brie, well, holy smokes. She is always worth watching in any project and I’m still astonishes at what she did with so little screen time over the course of Mad Men. But she finally takes the lead here and it’s incredible. The show leads off with establishing that Ruth is sleeping with her best friend’s husband and she still manages to win us back. Her determination despite initial incompetence really sells the first few episodes, and one of my favorite subtle moments comes early on when she returns to practice after watching the WWF and cuts her own promo. There’s a bit where she picks up a stool because she saw Hulk Hogan do it, but then she can’t figure out the next step because there’s no cool looking way to put a stool back down. It’s just this quick look on her face where it’s clear that she has no idea what to do next and it’s very funny. And when she gets good at wrestling, well, the scene where she demonstrates her moves on herself is excellent. It’s Bruce Campbell-style physical comedy and it’s perfect. The way she tries to redeem herself as a person is compelling, and the abortion episode is a stunner. (Also? Second time Alison Brie has been the focus of an abortion episode on a Netflix original.) GLOW requires her to do so many different things and she excels. It’s a defining role and the fact that it comes from a show that does everything else so well is just gravy.
Best Episode – “Money’s in the Chase”
2. BoJack Horseman (Netflix) – I’ve been in the tank for the Will Arnett-led animated comedy since Day One, and it keeps getting deeper and sadder. Last season ended with the reveal that BoJack might have an illegitimate daughter, new that came on the heels of him contributing to the death of his TV daughter. The new season started off on much sillier ground with Mr. Peanutbutter running for Governor and, when he lost, challenging the actual Governor to a ski race. But BoJack was gone and nobody had seen him. The second episode had BoJack hiding out at a dilapidated family home while we watched family history play out in the background. By the end, we see two separate confrontation in two different eras play out in the same time at the same place, an effect that would be impossible in live action. From there, BoJack tried to adjust to being a maybe father and reassessed his relationships with the people in his life. For the first time, that included his mother after daughter Hollyhock convinced him to let her move in.
BoJack is a show that’s either doing something hilarious or punching you in the heart until you cry forever. In terms of the latter, we had the episode “Stupid Piece of Shit” which presented a brutal look at depression. BoJack’s abusive internal monologue followed him for the whole episode, pushing him in the wrong direction and then berating him for listening and it cast a whole new light on his character. “Ruthie” dealt with Princess Carolyn’s infertility and hit us with one of the saddest endings in the history of the series. And the amazing “Time’s Arrow” dealt with Beatrice Sugarman, BoJack’s mother. Previously we’ve only seen her in flashback as a malignant force in BoJack’s life. And seeing her story didn’t excuse the way she treated her son but it gave us a new perspective on a character we hardly knew. Her tragic past still lingers, and the way her Alzheimer’s rendered some of her memories foggy (some characters have scribbles covering their face, others have no face at all) was surprisingly powerful. It’s an episode I’ve thought about maybe every day since it streamed, possibly because both of my grandparents (who were wonderful people, unlike Beatrice) both suffered from different forms of dementia when they each passed away and the way this episode visualized how memory works was so moving.
There was more tragedy along the way, but for the first time the arc of the season wasn’t “BoJack keeps getting lower”. It ends on a note of hope, even as BoJack learns that he’s not Hollyhock’s father but actually her older brother. It’s not that he’s getting better, but for the first time he seems to understand that he can get better. Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane may not be able to fix their marriage, and their attempts to do so keep getting sadder and also funnier. Todd really had some great material this year as the most positive character on TV started to burn out on pleasing everybody all the time. But the most central and interesting idea for him this year was his newly acknowledged asexuality. I don’t know that I’ve really seen asexuality acknowledged on TV before, and reports from people who understand more than I do are that BoJack is handling it well.
And at the end of the day, this is still a show that can do an episode that traps most of the cast underground in a sunken mansion. And I didn’t even get to the story about how mass shootings affect Hollywood. There’s nothing else like BoJack Horseman and the release of a new season remains my most anticipated pop culture day of the year.
Best Episode – “Time’s Arrow”
1. The Leftovers (HBO) – I may not have as much to say as I did in the last couple of entries because I recapped The Leftovers and so I’ve had tens of thousands of words to talk about it already. But here goes. The Leftovers ended this year, and as much as I wanted to see ten more seasons about these characters, the final season was just about perfect. The knock on The Leftovers has long been that it’s too depressing, and it is a bleak show. It’s a series about a world where 2% of the world’s population vanished at the same time and just how you go on when something like that happens. There’s a lot of grief and lost faith and sorrow and nihilism. And while the Garveys and Nora and Matt have gone on to find some small joys over the years, this final season could still be tough. I mean, Kevin tried suffocating himself every day just to see if he could die. Kevin and Nora’s big fight was devastating. People like Kevin Sr. and Matt worked very hard just to see everything they fought for casually tossed aside. But ultimately, The Leftovers found joy.
And part of that joy was for us, in the sheer inventiveness on display. The payoff to a three-season running gag about Perfect Strangers. An episode set on an orgy boat where Matt meets a decathlete who claims to be God. A naked man running the length of a nuclear submarine with the goal to destroy an imaginary monster. The black humor of Kevin Sr.’s vision quest. The reveal that what looked like a suicide turned out not to be. The crazy-ass storytelling of “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and his Identical Twin Brother)”. Or the series finale, “The Book of Nora”, where we not only learned something sad and beautiful about the nature of the departures, but where we found out that we’d been watching a love story all along.
An incredible cast made this show sing for three years and even with heavy hitters like Ann Dowd largely absent this year (her character died in Season One, so the fact that she still spent one additional season as a regular and managed one more appearance this year is pretty impressive). Justin Theroux hits the right balance of broken and oblivious that makes Kevin Garvey so appealing. Carrie Coon’s Nora remained a master class in acting. And then there’s Christopher Eccleston, who has always been so great as Matt, never shying away from making him look bad. There’s a scene in the finale between siblings Nora and Matt that really feels like these people actually grew up together and you forget that Eccleston and Coon have shared only a handful of scenes over the course of the series. When all is said and done, The Leftovers is going to be remembered as an overlooked treasure of the Peak TV landscape. It’s one of the most emotionally affecting series I’ve ever seen and I remain fascinated by every little detail.
Best Episode – “The Book of Nora”