Top 10 TV Shows of 2017
1. Twin Peaks (Showtime) showrunners David Lynch & Mark Frost, season 3
What It’s About: The long-awaited follow-up to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s groundbreaking mystery series, detailing FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper’s (Kyle MacLachlan) escape from the Black Lodge and long journey back to the quirky Washington town of Twin Peaks.
Why It’s Good: There has never been anything like the third season of Twin Peaks before and I doubt there’ll ever be anything like it again. What a bizarre show that channels all of David Lynch’s singular interests into an unrelenting 18 hours of comedy, horror, and profound disorientation. At first, I was struck by how this third season of Twin Peaks refuses to conform to the expectations or desires of diehard fans of the original series (of which I count myself one). It spends hours on seemingly-tangential plotlines following new characters in South Dakota and Las Vegas, with only rare glimpses of fan favourites in the town of Twin Peaks, Washington. When it does follow Dale Cooper, it primarily has him inhabiting the life and body of Dougie Jones, a simple-minded insurance adjustor in Las Vegas. It even has Dale play him as a mentally-inhibited manchild after over two decades of imprisonment in the Black Lodge. But therein I found the series’s joys.
David Lynch and Mark Frost do not give us what we expected. They give us so much more. Lynch has always straddled the line between narrative and avant-garde. His works live in the moment, in the play of sound and image and the profound emotions his compositions are able to arouse. However, he doesn’t jettison story, as he still has interest in detective stories and twists-and-turns and upending expectations before bringing things to a head. It takes 17 episodes, but season three does return Dale Cooper to Twin Peaks and resolve the story of BOB. And then it does even more.
In the stunning, genre-altering “Part 8,” the series explores the birth of BOB through an avant-garde, black and white assault on the senses more akin to the Stargate scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey than anything else in television history. In “Part 17,” it returns Dale Cooper to the moments before Laura Palmer’s death where he interacts with past scenes like he is in a melancholy, haunting version of Back to the Future Part II. And in the final moments, it takes us into a whole new world for the characters and the way we watch this show, refusing to spell things out, but instead leaving us hanging with a moment of indescribable, bone-chilling confusion and horror.
Along the way, we get the gleeful comedy of Dougie Jones, now television’s preeminent fool-savant, exquisite performances at the Bang Bang Roadhouse by bands like Nine Inch Nails and The Chromatics, and perplexing moments between the show’s disparate cast. This show gives me so much more than I asked for and I’m thankful for every second of it.
2. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC) showrunners Christopher Cantwell & Christopher C. Rogers, season 4
What It’s About: A look at the personal and professional struggles of five technology professionals during the dawn of the Internet in the early 1990s.
Why It’s Good: In all our talk of innovation in the television landscape, primarily embodied by Twin Peaks, but also groundbreaking shows like The Leftovers and Mr. Robot, we often overlook how exceptional a story can be when it’s told about interesting characters in an engaging manner. Halt and Catch Fire is one such show. In its final season, Halt and Catch Fire transforms into the most joyful show on television, one that loves its characters deeply and focuses almost exclusively on their relationships with each other and the changing world around them.
As I discussed last year when writing up my Top 10 (Halt and Catch Fire was listed at Number Four), Halt and Catch Fire began as a Mad Men rip-off set in the 1980s and transformed into a show that operated as well as Mad Men at its height. Like Mad Men, it explores how the world we inhabit came to be. Or, as Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) would say, it explores “the thing that gets us to the thing.” In one aspect, that thing is the technology that has changed the modern world: computers. In exploring the ways that computers and the internet have connected us and reframed our relationships with other, Halt and Catch Fire is insightful.
But even more than that, “the thing that gets us to the thing” can be the people around us, those individuals who help us become who we’re meant to be, or the relationships we forge with each other when creating something together. In its final season, Halt and Catch Fire is wise enough to acknowledge that the personal matters as much as the professional, that changing the world around you can be as profound as changing the world outside you. It’s a great show that lives up to its promise.
3. Better Call Saul (AMC) showrunners Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould, season 3
What It’s About: Con-artist turned criminal lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) furthers his career in elder law while struggling against his domineering elder brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), who is intent on having Jimmy disbarred and possibly incarcerated.
Why It’s Good: Speaking of good stories well told, Better Call Saul continues to be quietly exceptional in almost every respect. While season three furthers the connections to Breaking Bad with the addition of Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and his struggle against Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), it doesn’t become Breaking Bad 2.0. Instead, it becomes an even richer portrait of quiet corruption and moral desperation as it depicts the legal battle between Jimmy and Chuck, building to an all-time great courtroom showdown in “Chicanery,” where Jimmy dismantles Chuck’s mental illness in a bid to excuse his own felony. It’s a moment that summarizes what makes Better Call Saul so remarkable: it borrows the genre conventions of the courtroom drama, but it makes the stakes and emotional revelations absolutely specific to Jimmy and Chuck. In so doing, it manages to be both an exceptional entertainment and an insightful work of empathy. At this point, there is no doubt that Better Call Saul is every bit the equal of its predecessor.
4. BoJack Horseman (Netflix) showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg, season 4
What It’s About: Washed-up sitcom star BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) escapes Los Angeles and comes to terms with his family trauma while a young horse, Hollyhock (Aparna Nancherla), arrives at BoJack’s Los Angeles home claiming to be his daughter.
Why It’s Good: It may not live up to the heights of its third season (in my mind, few seasons of television do), but the fourth season of BoJack Horseman is funny, heart-breaking, and sympathetic in the ways we’ve come to expect. In particular, it delves into family trauma and mental illness in ways that are shockingly innovative and refreshingly raw, even in our modern television landscape that prides itself on inclusion and emotional awareness.
Furthermore, season four is some of the most formally-inventive animated programing ever shown on television. For a show that has been stylistically-audacious at points—in particular, the near-silent “Fish Out of Water” episode in season three and both BoJack/Sarah-Lynn blackout episodes, “Downer Ending” and “That’s Too Much, Man!”—season four takes the show’s style even further in “The Old Sugarman Place” and “Time’s Arrow.”
In “The Old Sugarman Place,” the show daringly has BoJack in the present day and his mother, Beatrice, as a child in the 1940s inhabit the same frame, showing how people not only repeat the patterns of their parents, but also about how the past can haunt certain locations. In “Time’s Arrow,” we deep-dive into Beatrice’s memories to understand how her marriage to Butterscotch Horseman and bitter relationship with BoJack were largely motivated by her own fraught relationship with her parents. We also get a visceral look at dementia and its effects on the past and present. In both these episodes, BoJack Horseman goes to new formal heights. If the rest of the season is merely delightful and not-so-groundbreaking, it’s a small letdown, as once again Raphael Bob-Waksberg and company are doing things that no other animated show is capable of.
5. The Leftovers (HBO) showrunner Damon Lindelof, season 3
What It’s About: Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and his extended family head to Australia and still struggle with the ramifications of the Sudden Departure, in which two percent of the world’s population inexplicably vanished seven years earlier.
Why It’s Good: The final season of The Leftovers may not surprise me as much as the second did, but it is still another exceptional season dealing with faith and trauma in our cold, modern world. By taking the Garveys to Australia, the show jettisons the familiar American framework for its spiritual explorations and broadens its scope. It also foregrounds the film’s dark streak of humour, especially in “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World,” where Matt Jameson (Christopher Eccleston) rides the ferry from Tasmania to Melbourne alongside a cult having an orgy, and “The Most Powerful Man in the World (And His Identical Twin Brother),” which returns to the parallel dimension of season two standout, “International Assassin.”
The Leftovers is about the trauma of the unknown and the detachment of the modern world, but it is also about learning to recognize the absurdity of existence and be a good person anyway. In its final episode, which follows Nora Durst (the remarkable Carrie Coon) in the Australian Outback years after the rest of the series, we get closure not only for the show’s central mystery, but a healing of the wounded hearts of its two central characters. This is a lovely show that is often difficult to watch and frustrating to engage with on a logical level, but nevertheless profound and beautiful in its capacity to explore the mysteries of life.
6. Mindhunter (Netflix) showrunner Joe Penhall, season 1
What It’s About: FBI Special Agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) develop the field of criminal profiling in the mid-1970s by interviewing serial killers like Ed Kemper and Richard Speck and categorizing the psychological insights gleamed from these encounters.
Why it’s Good: David Fincher has worked in television before but no other show bears as distinct an imprint of his authorship as Mindhunter, which essentially distills what Fincher was doing in Zodiac, Seven, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo into an ongoing television series. While part of Mindhunter’s premise sounds hoary—another show about serial killers is hardly innovative—the show excels by exploring the roots of this persistent narrative and real life phenomenon. Furthermore, few shows have so excelled at exploring the psychology of its characters and the mad world we inhabit. Mindhunter is crisply directed and always entertaining, but it also uncovers profound insights into the psychological impulses that dictate how we act and that have helped defined the past half-century.
7. Game of Thrones (HBO) showrunners David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, season 7
What It’s About: Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) invades the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and comes into conflict with Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), the rulers of the North and South, all the while the Army of the Dead invades from Beyond the Wall.
Why It’s Good: It might speed up the timeline past believability and become more enamoured with blockbuster moments than character moments, but season seven of Game of Thrones continues to dazzle like no other TV show (or movie, for that matter) is capable of doing. Whether it is showing an ice dragon melting the Wall or less than a dozen men fighting off an army of thousands of zombies, Game of Thrones swings for the fences with its spectacle, and largely delivers. Perhaps there’s some inevitable disappointment in the show condensing its sprawling plotlines and softening its worldview, but after the punishment of the first five and a half seasons and the emotional journeys of its characters, the relatively-sunny conclusions are more than earned—and all the more satisfying.
8. Mr. Robot (USA) showrunner Sam Esmail, season 3
What It’s About: A mentally-ill, genius hacker (Rami Malek) attempts to undo an earlier hack that plunged the world economy into recession and unravel the machinations of the Dark Army, a techno-anarchist organization supported by the Chinese government.
Why It’s Good: So many people have focused their discussion of season three of Mr. Robot to how it course-corrects after the supposed-mishap of season two. I disagree, as season two is one of the boldest seasons of television I’ve ever seen, but I understand the argument. Season three is more conventionally appealing and accessible, with a clear narrative throughline as Elliott tries to regain control of his revolution after it has been co-opted and weaponized by the Dark Army. This season is about dealing with how revolution so often merely replaces the entities in power, instead of upending the power itself. It cunningly roots one man’s moral and psychological struggle in the churning of revolution and the struggle for justice in our unjust modern world.
9. American Gods (Starz) showrunners Bryan Fuller & Michael Green, season 1
What It’s About: Recently-released felon, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), comes into the service of mysterious stranger, Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), and becomes an unwitting pawn in the battle between the old gods and new.
Why It’s Good: Seeing as we’re likely to get a season two that is vastly different than its first (or not get the season at all) after the departure of Bryan Fuller and Michael Green over disputes with the production company regarding budget, it’s more necessary than ever to celebrate this short season that brings Neil Gaiman’s modern fantasy world to life. Ian McShane is pitch-perfect as Wednesday and the show’s dreamy visuals and ironic tone manage to translate Gaiman’s particular worldbuilding to the screen. Sure, it is slow moving and occasionally overstuffed, but it is also thrilling and visually bold in ways that so many prestige shows are not.
10. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FXX) showrunner Rob McElhenney, season 12
What It’s About: Five narcissistic assholes run a bar in Philadelphia and habitually ruin the lives of each other and everyone they encounter.
Why It’s Good: It’s a popular refrain of mine, but I continue to assert that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the funniest show on television. Going into its 13th season, this fact has not changed. What has (possibly) changed are the show’s characters, as the 12th season sees Dennis (Glenn Howerton) and Mac (Rob McElhenney) come to terms with their dissatisfactions with life and attempt to turn a corner moving forward. With Mac, this means embracing life as a gay man, while Dennis tries to detach from the toxic environment of the bar. While it remains to be seen whether any of this improvement will stick, it’s clever for the show to explore the potential growth of its characters while remaining true to its pitch-black comedic core. As well, the show’s ability to skewer political correctness at the same time it comments on social injustice has never been more deft, especially in “The Gang Turns Black” and “Hero or Hate Crime?,” which explore racism and homophobia respectively. Here’s hoping for many more seasons of such brilliant awfulness.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox) showrunners Dan Goor & Michael Schur, season 5
New Girl (Fox) showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether, season 6
Riverdale (CW) showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, season 1
Silicon Valley (HBO) showrunner Mike Judge & Alec Berg, season 4
Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later (Netflix) showrunners Michael Showalter & David Wain, season 1