Daniel Fienberg: The 10 Best TV Shows of 2017

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6:15 AM 12/15/2017

by Daniel Fienberg

A late-night delight, a Netflix comedy about mental illness, two masterfully concluded dramas and an FX gem about strong women making their way without weak men are among the THR TV critic’s favorites of the year.

 Courtesy of HBO (Theroux), AMC (Davis, Odenkirk)
'The Leftovers,' 'Halt and Catch Fire' and 'The A Word'
  1. The Rundown with Robin Thede

    BET

    Courtesy of BET

    On the one hand, this is probably premature. Robin Thede, formerly head writer on Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, only launched her weekly 11 p.m. BET series in October. That’s very little time to make an impression in what is a crowded market for outraged voices in late-night. However, in a sphere that’s packed with standouts — Jimmy Kimmel deserves Man of the Year votes, Trevor Noah has become astonishingly underrated, Samantha Bee and John Oliver remain treasures, Seth Meyers is a font of detailed erudition, Jim Jefferies carved out a niche in near-record time — it took less than three months for The Rundown to become my most anticipated late-night show on a weekly basis. It’s partially that Thede is the only woman of color in a space that has a glut of similar perspectives, but part of her distinctiveness is that she isn’t just making the exact same jokes you read on Twitter all day. Her punchlines and headline subjects stand alone. Throw in sharp skits and innovative musical performances and this is a show not to miss.

    The Good Place

    NBC

    Vivian Zink/NBC

    Like American Crime and Hannibal before it, The Good Place is proudly carrying the “I don’t understand how the heck this show is airing on broadcast TV” banner. It closed its first season in January with the rare cliffhanger ending that lived up to the overused word “gamechanger.” It was a twist that was actually surprising, actually defended by what came before and actually improved the already terrific episodes that preceded it. Then in its second season, The Good Place built on that twist, becoming the sort of show that can dedicate a full episode to endlessly rebooting its entire premise over and over in a half-hour one week and then can give thoughtful consideration to Philippa Foot’s Trolley Problem the next week. The Good Place is philosophically ambitious and aggressively silly and there has been constant pleasure in watching ensemble players like William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto and D’Arcy Carden rise to become peers with fantastic initial leads Kristen Bell and Ted Danson.

  2. 8
    10

    Fargo

    FX

    Chris Large/FX

    The third season of Noah Hawley’s anthology series got off to a slow start. I’m not going to deny that those first couple episodes fell into that damning Peak TV category of good-not-great. Once the latest Fargo installment took off, though, it was every bit as murky, twisted and hilarious as the first two, peaking with the midseason shocking casualty of “The Lord of No Mercy,” the bowling alley mysticism of “Who Rules the Land of Denial” and the bathroom emotions of “Aporia.” The most contemporary Fargo season tapped into a very 2017 crisis about the deterioration of facts and truth in the modern age and also made a stealthy critique of the evils of the deregulated marketplace. As always, the show was impeccably cast, with Ewan McGregor doing convincing double-duty, David Thewlis finding new and disgusting ways to embody ancient darkness, Carrie Coon offering another soulful portrait of technological alienation and Mary Elizabeth Winstead strutting around like a perfectly costumed badass. Even a “down” Fargo season is still one of the best shows on TV.

  3. 7
    10

    Lady Dynamite

    Netflix

    Beth Dubber/Netflix

    In its first season, Maria Bamford’s semi-autobiographical look at her battles with bipolar disorder, both in her Los Angeles comedy present and in her Minnesota childhood, was already a tricky meta deconstruction of the sitcom format and the visual language of mental illness. In its second season, Bamford and company shrugged at those challenges and added a futuristic storyline about Bamford starring in a Lady Dynamite-esque comedy for a Netflix-esque streaming network, allowing the show to comment not only on the idea of sitcoms, but the specifics of the first season. The resulting eight episodes are a dazzlingly creative whirl of ideas, a weirdly touching love story well-played by Bamford and Olafur Darri Olafsson, a sensitive look at internalized childhood traumas and the sort of show designed to feature a pair of talking pugs. It isn’t just one show that won’t be for everybody. It’s 15 shows all at once that won’t be for everybody, but those shows all come together in unexpected and satisfying ways.

  4. 6
    10

    The Vietnam War

    PBS

    Courtesy of Telluride Film Festival

    Who needs an 18-hour TV documentary about the Vietnam War? Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s latest PBS opus makes the convincing case that the answer is “Everybody.” It isn’t just the harrowing and intense footage of jungles exploding in decimating blossoms of napalm, the taut scenes of American soldiers under fire, the still-outrageous audio recordings of multiple U.S. presidents expressing concern about the purpose of the war before sending more troops to die, the stunning depictions of moments like Kent State or the Tet Offensive or My Lai. Burns and Novick sat down with dozens of American veterans and just as many South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese veterans to give as rounded a picture of the conflict as you’ll ever see. Most of the events of the series are 50 years in the past, but The Vietnam War shows how those pivotal decades gave way to a (further) fragmented country, a distrust in the media and authority figures and wounds we may never be able to heal. It’s an exhausting viewership experience. It’s also essential.

  5. 5
    10

    Baskets

    FX

    Colleen Hayes/FX

    Zach Galifianakis’ comedy started out as an existential portrait of a French-trained clown working rodeo gigs in the wasteland of Bakersfield, California. It was smart and frequently deadpan brilliant and often intentionally off-putting, with an ensemble of characters who didn’t care if you found them likeable. The second season took those characters and, without sacrificing the show’s unique tone, made it possible to sympathize with Galifianakis’ risible Dale, to empathize with Galifiankis’ oft-deluded Chip and turned Louie Anderson’s Christine from a marvelously played oddity into perhaps TV’s most sensitive depiction of middle-aged femininity.  Christine’s arc, which included a beautiful love story, the sad passing of a loved one and a resurgence of confidence heading into next season was lovely to watch and I’m still peeved that Alec Baldwin took what should have been Anderson’s second straight Emmy. I’ve always thought Baskets was only a partially accessible show but the second season made it more accessible and open to wide embrace.

  6. 4
    10

    Better Call Saul

    AMC

    Courtesy of AMC

    The Breaking Bad spinoff actually started out as a dark comedy, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the rich tragedy it’s become. We were supposed to be rooting for Bob Odenkirk to transform from Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman, but instead we’ve discovered that leaving Jimmy behind will require alienating and separating him from loved ones, particularly Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and brother Chuck (Michael McKean). The escalating tensions between Jimmy and Chuck were the spine of the third season, with the fraying edges of Jimmy and Kim’s romance alternating between hope and looming sadness. How McKean and Seehorn keep missing out on awards attention is beyond me. Some people have quibbled about how Jonathan Banks’ Mike was utilized this season, but if 15 minutes of Mike trying to throw a pair of shoes over a power wire is wrong, I don’t want TV to be right. Creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, plus a strong team of writers and directors, get more and more right each season.

  7. 3
    10

    The Leftovers

    HBO

    HBO

    I don’t think Nora was telling Kevin the truth in the series finale of The Leftovers. You can feel free to protest loudly that of course she was telling the truth. And we can still be friends. Therein lies what was so amazing about how Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta steered a series full of unanswerable and unfathomable questions to an ending that was spiritually satisfying and yet open-ended in a way that felt appropriate. Fortuitously, the show had shed its many casual fans early-on, leaving an audience that was able and willing to own part of its “Let the mystery be” ethos. Even if the third Leftovers season didn’t break down the pure mechanics of the Sudden Departure, it showcased still-shattering work from the majestic Carrie Coon, delved into aboriginal mythology as part of a jaunt to the Australian outback, dealt with the zoological realities of messenger doves and lion sex cults, returned us to the world of “International Assassin” and gave us one last untoppable joke about Justin Theroux’s genitals, brought back Regina King for a scene of trampolining exhilaration and paid perfect tribute to Perfect Strangers. It’s really hard to end a great show well, but 2017 gave us several of the best endings imaginable. That brings me to…

  8. 2
    10

    Halt and Catch Fire

    AMC

    Erika Doss/AMC
    In a good piece of drama, the consequences of the final act all feel connected to every action that came before. Nothing feels extraneous and every character interaction is infused with and informed by every previous interaction. The past loves, betrayals, triumphs and disappointments are all alive in the present. Few shows achieved this storytelling unity more efficiently than Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers’ look at the boom in personal computing and the internet in the ’80s and ’90s. Ostensibly about the birth of online search engines and hubs, the final season was about relationships and the fates of Joe (Lee Pace), Gordon (Scoot McNairy), Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), Donna (Kerry Bishé) and Bosworth (Toby Huss), so intermingled that the last four episodes produced almost nonstop tears from me. Some were tears of sadness, and the show handled grief over a character’s death as well as it has ever been handled on TV, but much of the catharsis and relief came just from watching Donna and Cameron talk; the ups and downs of female partnership and friendship have rarely been depicted better. Never a hit and never an awards darling, it’s a blessing that Halt and Catch Fire got these 40 episodes to come full-circle.
  9. 1
    10

    Better Things

    FX

    Colleen Hayes/FX

    Although he wrote or co-wrote every episode of the most recent season, I refuse to throw out the Better Things baby with the Louis C.K. bathwater. To do so is to minimize the titanic effort by star/writer/co-creator Pamela Adlon, who also directed every episode in a second season. Whether it was always intentional or eerily predictive or it was subtext that was thrust to the surface by current events, these 10 Better Things episodes were, over and over and over again, about increasingly puerile and disappointing men in the lives of the central Fox family — and how, at the end of the day, if men are going to let you down, you have to be able to turn to the women in your life, be they daughters or mothers or friends. It’s a point that’s highlighted in the stunning “Eulogy,” in which Adlon’s Sam laments that her daughters don’t appreciate her and learns a tearful lesson. It’s a point that’s highlighted in the revelatory “Graduation,” in which Max’s (Mikey Madison) high school graduation present leads to the year’s best three-minute scene. Adlon’s directorial assuredness grew throughout the season, as she mastered vignettes ranging from poetic (the vacation reverie of “Rising”) to romantic (the first half of the vineyard jaunt in “Robin”) to savagely funny (like either the breakup in “Rising” or the prank war in “Arnold Hall”).

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