Clarence closes out 2017 by ranking his favorite television shows of the year.
I run into this problem nearly every year. For all of the shows on my top ten list, there exists another in the Honorary Mention category that could easily take its place. The quality of television over 2017 affords us many more than 10 (or even 20) shows to rank at the end of the year. It all effectively boils down to personal preference. Do you rank female wrestlers over fire-breathing dragons? How does the low budget comedy of Schitt’s Creek stack up against the big budget mysteries of Twin Peaks: The Return? At the end of the day, we make these lists given our moods at the time. Maybe in a year, I’ll look back and 2017 and completely recast the list. At any rate, this is where I stand with my favorite television of 2017 at this particular moment in my life.
Before we get started, these shows merit mentions as among the best television of the year, even if they didn’t make it into my final top ten. Manhunt: Unabomber. The Handmaid’s Tale. Veep. Insecure. American Gods. Vice Principals (which boasts my favorite performance of 2017 in Walton Goggins). King Charles III. Dear White People. Stranger Things 2. Will & Grace. American Horror Story: Cult (which gets the Most Improved Show of 2017 award).
Top 10 Best TV of 2017
10.5. Schitt’s Creek (Pop)
Over time, Schitt’s Creek emerged as one of the smartest comedies on television. It should be vastly more popular than it appears to be. One day, people will obsess over the show in that way you do with cult discoveries you didn’t appreciate enough while it was originally on the air. Netflix already helps that along by giving it a streaming birth for those unfamiliar with Pop. Series MVPs Dan Levy and Catherine O’Hara should hold at least two Emmys already for their brilliant, manic performances. And with all the hubbub of inclusiveness spouted by other shows, Schitt’s Creek quietly gets the job done by showing us relationships we’ve never seen before on television.
10. The Crown (Netflix)
The Crown Season 2 delivers the expected level of period excellence and detail. Some curious plotting at the beginning of the season, however, seemed to indicate the show had lost its way. Starting with Episode 4, the great “Beryl,” the series quickly regained its footing, and the sky’s the limit after that. Star Claire Foy has never been better as she employs delicate subtleties to convey Queen Elizabeth II’s most guarded inner feelings. The conflicts felt when she’s forced into the public eye (the televised Christmas message, the highly publicized comparisons to Jackie Kennedy) give us a real sense of the character while providing intensely dramatic moments. And let me go back to “Beryl” which, for my money, stands as the best episode of the entire series and one of my favorite hours of television of all time. Vanessa Kirby deserves an Emmy next year. Make that happen Television Academy, OK?
9. Mindhunter (Netflix)
David Fincher’s brilliant and carefully structured series was a pure joy on multiple levels. As with his film Zodiac, he explores the details behind serial murder, focusing on the hows and whys and less on graphic details. Star Jonathan Groff leads with an unexpectedly great performance as the John Douglas stand-in, and he’s matched by great supporting players Holt McCallany and Anna Torv. Mindhunter emerges as a brutally intelligent series that refuses to cater to the more basic interests inherent in the material. Fincher and team understand that the heart of the material beats in the relationships between Groff and McCallany (and arguably Groff and a thug’s gallery of serial killers, including the brilliant Cameron Britton). Brilliant, brilliant television.
8. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)
I didn’t want to like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I’ll fully admit that. Writer Amy Sherman-Palladino’s previous efforts and precious dialogue kind of drive me insane. However, here, she’s finally found a perfect setting to employ those gifts in her study of a 1950s-era housewife who finds stand-up comedy as the perfect outlet for her crumbling life. The writing here works wonderfully, and the period details are as good as you’ll see on television. However, I suspect none of this would work quite as well if Rachel Brosnahan weren’t so marvelous as Mrs. Maisel. She’s been Emmy-nominated before for her guest turn on House of Cards, but this performance feels like the work of a brilliant ingenue bursting onto the scene. Brosnahan understands the rhythms of the dialogue as deeply as she understands the character itself. It’s a star-making performance if I’ve ever seen one.
7. Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
Ryan Murphy’s best 2017 offering is admittedly an uneven affair. A framing device retelling the story of Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) doesn’t work at all, and the story lacks proper balance between Crawford and Davis, giving Crawford’s character arc far more weight. However, when the show sings, it’s operatic in its intensity. Jessica Lange delivers career-best work here as the deeply troubled Joan Crawford, culminating in a season finale that hits you squarely in the gut. The ultimate sadness of the material is that, some 50 years later, things haven’t changed all that much for older actresses in Hollywood. That is, unless you’re working in a Ryan Murphy production.
6. Big Little Lies (HBO)
Director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer David E. Kelley perform something akin to alchemy in their adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s beach read novel. Filled with fantastic performances, Big Little Lies is often ridiculed as the most egregious example of White People’s Problems, and maybe there’s truth to that. Still, there’s no denying the power of Nicole Kidman’s Emmy-winning performance, particularly in the martial counseling scenes where she does some of the best work of her career. The same could be said of Reese Witherspoon who gives an accomplished performance without the benefit of specific Emmy-bait scenes. And then of course there’s the great Laura Dern, humanizing the role of the “bitch you love to hate” into an Emmy-winning feat.
5. Game of Thrones (HBO)
This needs no explanation, really. You either get it or you don’t at this point. For me, this season excelled because the series finally reached the point where all of the chess pieces are finally in play. After years of build-up, we’re finally getting massive amounts of pay-off. Plus, no television show affected me quite as much as this did. I was equal parts thrilled and enraged by the end of the season as one of my favorite characters on the show reached their end/rebirth. I’m talking about the dragon, folks. It’s all about the dragons.
4. Twin Peaks: The Revival (Showtime)
I know. I know. You hated this new season of one of the most talked about shows in television history. It didn’t give you everything you wanted. It didn’t tell you more about the characters you’ve grown to love. It did weird things with your favorites and introduced new characters you didn’t care about. (No, I’m not talking about Star Wars: The Last Jedi.) However, for me, the reason to love this new season lives in the brilliant performances of stars Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern and in the filmmaking bravura of director David Lynch. No, I didn’t understand all of it, and I’m OK with that. Lynch’s visuals and storytelling risks gave me 18 hours of maddening, beautiful, thrilling, frustrating, hateful joy over the summer. That’s more than I can say of any television event in 2017.
3. GLOW (Netflix)
GLOW was the only show I watched twice over 2017. I did not expect to fall so hard for a series about ladies wrestling, but I did. I forgot, of course, that great television can take any subject matter and make you care about it as long as it’s populated with people you care about. GLOW did exactly that. Stars Alison Bree, Betty Gilpin, and Marc Maron lead a wonderful ensemble as they give their spin on the 1980s. Better than Stranger Things, this show understands that you don’t have to replay the 1980s to celebrate them. You just need to live in them. GLOW is both emotionally engaging and very funny despite its questionable central subject matter. That is something of a minor miracle at the end of the day.
2. Master of None (Netflix)
Writer/director Aziz Ansari’s second season of Master of None far exceeds its first season in nearly every way. Ansari quietly accomplishes more on this show than in similarly-themed films. It’s an elegant and thoughtful look at romance and religion and family and embracing what makes you unique. The show reaches far beyond what you imagine it could handle, and it delivers every time. It’s gorgeous, thoughtful, and very funny television. I was late to Season 2 because I knew it would be good, so it didn’t have a sense of urgency around it. It still surprised me because I just didn’t know it would be this great.
1. The Leftovers (HBO)
My favorite show of the year. HBO’s The Leftovers is that brilliant, beautiful little soul that no one (at least in the Television Academy) seems to fully appreciate. And I don’t exactly know why that is. It’s sad, yes, but it’s not overly so. Perhaps it requires too much of the audience as it explores so much of what makes us human. Our faults. Our fears. The beauty in life and in death. Even if you didn’t watch Seasons 1 or 2, Season 3 stands on its own because it evolves the story beyond the Sudden Departure. And it completes the series on such an incredibly beautiful and poignant note that it instantly becomes the standard by which show runners must end their shows. Go back and discover it again for yourself. This one is timeless, folks. One for the ages.