It’s been a rough year, but there’s always television. So much television! It’s really a wonder that even a small group of SportsAlcohol.com editors and contributors — your usual pals Nathaniel, Marisa, Jesse, and Sara, plus novelist Maggie Lehrman and playwright/actual TV professional Jon Kern — was able to reach any kind of consensus over what we liked best. And in some ways, we didn’t; I’m not sure if there’s a single show mentioned on this list that all six of us have seen in full. (Maybe number three.) But it’s an eclectic and often electrifying group of shows we really love. In other words, a twelve-part miracle. Let’s get to miracle-in’ then!
The 12 Best TV Shows of 2017
12. Halt and Catch Fire
AMC, Season 4
Halt and Catch Fire is the only show so far that has inspired a SportsAlcohol.com contributor (ahem, me) to write (almost) weekly recaps, and that’s because it was the only show that gave me enough to say. Each episode was rich in character detail, swimming in ’90s-kid nostalgia, filled with commentary about how people connect to each other and to things, and laced with just enough tech/biz history to stir up thoughts about the recent past and how we got here today. I am legit sad that it is over, but, like the completion of Pilgrim, isn’t it more gratifying because the creator trusted the players too much to let them off easy? You had to work with the show in the beginning to get on its level. Its first two seasons developed a set of characters and established their tender weak spots, and this season they just turned them all loose to push and pull at each other and went with it. Halt and Catch Fire has been one of my more satisfying TV-series experiences, watching as it hit its stride and ended on its own terms. On to the next big idea! – Marisa
11. The Good Place
NBC, Seasons 1 and 2
The first season finale of The Good Place gifted us with the twist that 2017 deserved. Instantly iconic, it birthed thousands of “We’re already in the bad place” memes before Ted Danson’s maniacal little laugh even finished playing out on the soundtrack. Viewers were left wondering how the second season would reckon with this world-resetting shake-up, particularly when it came to the characters that we’d become so invested in. With their memories seemingly wiped, who would they be now? And who would they be to us? But so far the second season has proven that there’s still a lot of mileage The Good Place can get just from exploring the increasingly specific quirks and mindsets of its colorful cast of misfits and fuck-ups. The actors are so uniformly strong that each viewer might have his or her own favorite and would probably be right at any given moment in an episode. Mine is Chidi, a well-meaning philosophy professor who tortured the people in his life on earth with his inability to make even the simplest decision. This comes back to haunt him big time in “The Trolley Problem” which has the distinction of giving me my most sustained laugh of 2017 (non-political division) as Chidi is forced over and over by head-demon Michael to enact the titular thought experiment, complete with buckets of arterial spray that I’m kind of surprised made it past network standards. It’s difficult to be brought face to face with your own moral shortcomings; while the workers Chidi is supposedly slaughtering are an illusion, the pain it unearths is not, and William Harper Jackson plays every note perfectly. There’s a lot of talk these days about enjoying something because it makes us feel good, and with good reason. The Good Place fills that need, but it also keeps us on our toes, not just as viewers but as people, constantly asking us to question how good we are, could be, and if we even want to be. – Sara
10. Great News
NBC, Seasons 1 and 2
NBC really doesn’t want to be in the business of Must See TV comedies, but it really can’t help itself. While The Good Place and Great News air on different nights, on our list they flow right into each other, as it should be. Great News combines the best elements of an ensemble comedy (with terrific performances coming from a deep bench that includes John Michael Higgins, Horatio Sanz, and, of all people, Nicole Ritchie) and a family sitcom that centers on a mother/daughter relationship that’s warm and loving first, and then antagonistic second. But it’s the joke density that really distances it from other sitcoms—full of that Tina Fey-style sharpness, but with referenced aged down for people raised on Disney movies and Ghostbusters. Target audience = me. – Marisa
FX, Season 1
Laudatory capsule descriptions of tv shows often feature an abundance of commas. When trying to sum up a story told with multiple episodes that feature a panoply of characters, themes, images (see, here come the commas), we lazily fall into lists. Let’s cram as many takes as possible into this capsule! We watched these shows without falling asleep, we swear!
My love of Legion can in fact be summed up simply. No show I missed more at the end of each episode. No show made me as restless to wait for. No show kept me further from idle thoughts on its formula.
That’s become the biggest danger in the time of Peak TV. Not bad shows. Who has time for those? No, acceptable quality is the biggest bummer. So much we can watch is solid, Euclidean storytelling. Viewers understand the mathematics of half-hours, hour-longs, comedy, drama, prestige and pulp better than ever before. Even when we like a show, it’s hard not to drift to that place where genius janitor breaks it all down into an elegant proof on the blackboard.
And then came Legion a show built off an obscure villain I barely remember from my X-Men– reading days. And it gave me Jemaine Clement dancing to horrendous jazz in a giant ice cube. And it implanted a nightmarish yellow golem poofing people out of existence with a grin I can’t scrub away. And it seemed to showcase more Viewpoints t.echnique than an Anne Bogart rehearsal room (shoutout to the Columbia MFA Directing program!)
This was TV that warned of the dangers our minds pose to ourselves while celebrating the very power of our imaginations to put us in danger. Whatever it may mean to you, “Legion” was a thrill to every sense and nonsense. This was TV so good I could smell it (sense) and tuba Charlemagne squally po pally (nonsense). However long this run lasts, Hawley, I will squally po pally it. – Jon
8. Stranger Things 2
Netflix, Season 2
I think you can get rid of all the demagorgon stuff and I’d still put Stranger Things on my list of favorite shows. This season took the time to separate the kids from each other and deepen the human relationships. The Hopper/Eleven protective dad/rebellious pre-teen (with new ‘80s makeover!) dynamic really gets me in the heart area. The unlikely friendship between Dustin and Steve is a bond stickier than Farrah Fawcett hairspray. Joyce and Bob: You can see why she needs him, and also why she can never have him, way before she does. Will’s grief over the loss of his two best friends—and the way Max picks at that scab—reminds me of how frustrating it is to be a kid. Even Nancy and Jonathan’s relationship to Murray (Brad Gelman) kept me off-balance. Yeah, you need the monsters to keep stirring the pot, but really just give me friends on bikes and skateboards, and take their concerns and problems seriously, and I’m good to go. – Marisa
7. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
The CW, Seasons 2 and 3
In 2017, we saw the second half of season two and the first half of season one of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. These two half-seasons expanded the show’s premise well beyond its vaguely stalker-ish beginning. As Rebecca seemed to be getting everything she’d always wanted, her own issues kept popping up — she needed to believe in this forced, strange fairytale or nothing else made sense. And when she was left at the altar, the show didn’t gloss over the moment. Instead it forced Rebecca to reckon with the things she spent two seasons plastering over with songs and schemes. Of course, there were still songs and schemes aplenty — personal favorite songs include “Let’s Have Intercourse,” “Let’s Generalize About Men,” “I Go to the Zoo,” and Josh Groban’s glorious “The End of the Movie” — but there was a real effort on the part of the show’s creators and writers to explore different emotional territory, and to seek out stories and challenges for Rebecca that feel true. It’s what makes the show such a strange and wonderful confection, a shiny singing wonderland that tells us something new. – Maggie
Disney XD, Season 1
Maybe the most surprising and enjoyable thing, among the many surprising and enjoyable things in the new revival of DuckTales (and really, it’s almost entirely surprising and enjoyable) is the way it gives Donald Duck’s iconic nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie, distinct personalities. Sure, it helps that they’ve given them slightly more varied designs than their traditional nearly identical appearance, and they are still very recognizable as those characters, but for the first time I am able to differentiate them by voice AND by personality (forgive me, I never really watched Quack Pack, so I’m not deliberately slighting any work done in this regard on that show) (I saw a few episodes and can’t remember anything distinguishing them, but maybe I missed some nuances. – Ed.). And that somewhat more complex character writing is indeed just one part of the fun and fascinating job the creators of the new show are doing in making a show that is very recognizably DuckTales that also fully works as a modern animated show. The visual design of it splits a very appealing difference between the classic Carl Barks designs of the characters (even more than the original animated show) and the angular & flatly graphic look of so many post-Tartakovsky shows. So, too, does the writing find the line between the imaginative, episodic, Barks-influenced storytelling of the original with the grounded-in-emotion, semi-serialized, mythology-building (not to mention modern, and genuinely funny, comedic) writing of a show like Gravity Falls. Really, seek out the hour-long pilot episode and treat yourself. – Nathaniel
5. Twin Peaks
Showtime, Season 3
For my money there was no more exciting (or fun) week-to-week television experience to be had in 2017 than the revival of Twin Peaks. Part of the thrill was surely the same nostalgic thrill of all the other television revivals that have appeared in recent years, with fans getting to revel in the renewed interest and rose-tinted retrospectives leading up to the new show. And some of it was the mystery of it all. Fans knew that original series-creators David Lynch & Mark Frost had written all 18 episodes of the revival and that Lynch had directed them, and they may have seen the enormous cast list that had been released, stuffed with names both recognizable and unknown, along with most of the cast of the original show, but no information about who the new folks were playing. Critics weren’t given episode in advance, and even the episode descriptions for DVR listings were limited to things like, “The stars turn and a time presents itself,” or “There’s a body all right.” But that really just supported the main thrill each week, which was that the new show was so dazzlingly good.
If the original Twin Peaks was a combination of somewhat familiar elements (nighttime soap, quirky small-town comedy, cop show, 50s-nostalgia-turned-90s-chic) that was suffused with Lynchian horror and ended up different than anything else on television, the new show somehow pulled off the trick again, seeming unlike anything else on television despite over two decades of shows influenced by the original. Much has been said about its much ballyhooed eighth episode, a kind of David Lynch’s Tree of Life fantasia about the origins of evil that featured gorgeous black and white photography, an atom bomb test, murderous hobos, and a repulsive bug creature, but nothing I’ve seen has come close the experience of watching it. I’ve started what amounted to entire separate blurbs about the incredible sound design of the show, or the wonderful acting by the entire cast (and especially Kyle MacLachlan, who gave something like three or four distinct and fantastic performances), or the moving way the show truly grappled with the passage of time in a way that made it one of the first (most? only?) revival series that had something vital to say about the world now. Really, it’s just kind of a miracle this thing turned out well at all, let alone one of the best shows of the year. – Nathaniel
HBO, Season 6
Though the title remains a simple noun that can quickly turn pejorative in certain hands, Girls has become the grizzled veteran of our annual list – a show celebrated, at least by a few of us, for its sixth and final season, on a list where nothing else gets past season 3. I love the show so much that I made its final run an occasion for a top ten list of its greatest episodes, wherein I cover two highlights of this season: “American Bitch” and “What Will We Do This Time About Adam?” (I regret, on our upcoming year-end podcast, not bringing up Dunham’s brilliant silent performance in the closing moments of that episode as a counterpoint to the inexplicably praised silent-overacting by the likable but in-over-his-head Aziz Ansari in one of this year’s weaker Master of None moments.)
So to spotlight a series that does particularly well with single-episode storytelling, I’ll mention the one-two punch that didn’t make the list: “Goodbye Tour” and “Latching,” the show’s final two episodes. “Goodbye Tour” was the more traditional finale, reuniting the show’s quartet of young women as they realize they’ve grown apart (encouraged by Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna flat-out telling them that this has happened) and reflecting with bittersweet affection on their twenties. Then there’s the more polarizing “Latching,” which picks up with Dunham’s Hannah after the birth of her child, as she patches together a support system made up of herself, her mother (Becky Ann Baker, killing it all season), and Marnie (Allison Williams). Dunham’s insistence on casting such a dark-skinned baby as the offspring of herself and Riz Ahmed felt like protesting too much, but I’m less concerned with Dunham’s weird personal hang-ups and tone-deafness and more interested in what a piercing, uncompromising portrait of early motherhood this was, how close to bleakness it skated after a comparably sweeter pseudo-finale, how complicated she was willing to make her characters even as her show was supposed to be providing closure. A lot of Girls is about the transition from those fresh post-college years to whatever adulthood is supposed to be like, and the show’s final episodes were better than ever at illustrating how that transition can be a trip across an invisible line, and how it’s not necessarily much easier on the other side. Goddamn, I’m going to miss this show. – Jesse
3. Big Little Lies
HBO, Season 1
I resisted Big Little Lies for quite a long time. Despite the A-list talent it attracted (including my queen Laura Dern), the flashy promos of California surf and rich white ladies did little to persuade me it was more than real estate porn masquerading as prestige TV. When I finally did sit down to watch it after seeing all the raves, the opening moments of the credits still gave me pause, as a chorus of heavenly female vocals swelled beneath shots of the tony Monterey seaside. But the song (“Cold Little Heart” by Michael Kiwanuka), with its lyrics of tangled yearning backed by sinewy percussion, turns out to be the perfect introduction to the themes of the series. The soundtrack is not merely an emotional embellishment to the action onscreen; many of the repetitive, often diegetic, cues become a means for the characters to communicate with one another and understand what’s going on in themselves. Take Jane, who loves music so much she named her son Ziggy (after Stardust). She uses both Martha Wainwright’s “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole” (apparently about Wainwright’s father, yikes) and The B-52’s “Dance This Mess Around” to pump herself up during runs. But it’s the desperation with which she sings along that first clues us into the trauma lingering under the surface. Or Madeline, who struggles to connect with “perfect” hubby Ed as their daughter pipes Charles Bradley’s slinky but vulnerable “Victim of Love” into the scenery. And I can never forgive Perry for forever tainting Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” (which I’ve long said would be the first dance song at my wedding) by using it as a ploy to get back in Celeste’s good graces. There’s a lot this once-miniseries has to live up to as it moves into its second season. While I personally would have liked this story to remain self-contained, if new director Andrea Arnold’s work in American Honey is anything to go by, at least the needle drops will stay excellent. – Sara
2. The Leftovers
HBO, Season 3
May all tepid beginnings follow the same trajectory as The Leftovers What started for me as an artier take on the rival-armies dynamic of Lost (note to self: do not detour on this thesis), ended as a joyful stumble through the sorrow of still existing. Much of the show’s growth came not from figuring itself out, but getting loser with what it had. It’s some of the audacious stupidity of the final season that resonated the most: the Mark Lynn Baker reveal, the extended trip with a lion-obsessed sex cult, the intentionally inappropriate cultural appropriation of aboriginal customs, the being mean to someone you love.
The Leftovers was never about whiz kids or wise detectives or anyone with a semblance of a clue. It’s about people who don’t know and will likely never know. For some, this makes it a show about faith. For me (since I’m pretty faithless), this makes it a show about folly. So being stupid at times didn’t just make this season fun, it made it the point. The inane, ridiculous, sometimes sociopathic ways we push ourselves to continue, much of it so evidently misguided – so very, very wrong – once we see the rains haven’t come.
The height of this brilliant stupidity was that chanting lion sex-cult, a Matt episode that fully focuses not on the cruelty of Job’s punishment but the absurdity of it. Yet the force of the final moment of the final episode makes The Leftovers the rare show to go out on top. Nora’s tale and Carrie Coon’s performance of it are an account of a do-over of a do-over. We hear of failure. We hear of loss. And then Nora and Kevin, at least in this moment, grant us acceptance.
Its end was a triumph. It’s far better it was here and now gone than never here at all. May we all be The Leftovers. – Jon
This summer I had a love affair. It was very one-sided, conducted from afar; in fact, the object of my desire had no idea how I felt. Because she’s a television character. That character was Nora Durst, the grief-stricken survivor of an inexplicable apocalyptic event that took her entire family from her, played with fierce commitment by Carrie Coon. The series, whose final third season aired in mid-2017, ostensibly had Justin Theroux in the lead as Kevin Garvey, a tortured, and often literally haunted, cop, but its focus was generous, particularly once the setting shifted in the second season to open up the show’s world to Texas, and later Australia, and explore the impact of the disappearances worldwide. But its beating, ravaged heart was always Nora, and Lindelof and co. gave her, and the series, a transcendent send-off with the finale “The Book of Nora.” Jumping roughly a decade after the events of the penultimate episodes, it keeps its spotlight tight on Nora and Kevin who shared a complicated, intense romance throughout the series, bringing them together for an almost impossibly-touching reunion that speaks to one of the show’s biggest themes: that no matter how much time has passed, no matter what we’ve been through and what we’ve done to one another, hope and forgiveness is always possible. The final scene consists entirely of a monologue delivered by Nora that offers a potential answer to the show’s central mystery (it’s an elegant solution, actually, that hadn’t occurred to me while watching the show but makes perfect sense in hindsight) and which Kevin accepts without having any way of knowing it’s the truth beyond her word. But that’s the beauty of having faith, not just in religion, but in the people we love. It’s a leap, always. But in the end, for a show whose premise could have settled for wallowing in nihilism, The Leftovers left us with a reason to take it. – Sara
1. American Vandal
Netflix, Season 1
Does “Season 1” even apply here? It seems unlikely that anyone will make a second season of American Vandal, even given that supposedly limited series like Big Little Lies get a second life as soon as the eyeballs and/or Emmys roll in. But the foolhardiness of trying to make a second batch of American Vandal episodes, or the fact that all of the episodes put together “only” add up to about four hours, doesn’t make it a glorified movie cut up into segments (or stretched and distended beyond a viable running time). Rather, it’s a story particularly well-suited to the television format, taking on a familiar movie genre (teen antics!), splicing it with a familiar-of-late TV genre (deep-dive criminal-sociological exploration!) and coming up with something both riotously funny and oddly, beautifully free of the type of embellishments that often accompany both faux-documentaries and media about teenagers. I’ll leave Maggie to talk more about the genius of the show itself, but as a sometime skeptic about the new golden age of television, American Vandal damn near made me a believer. – Jesse
The joy and surprise of American Vandal springs from the fact that it takes its characters extremely seriously. The events of the plot – a party, some graffiti, a hated teacher, a disciplinary hearing, a disputed hand job – seem to be low-stakes, but they are deeply important to the characters involved, and so they become important to the audience. It’s the simplest lesson of storytelling, brilliantly exploded into a handful of extraordinary episodes. The show plays its premise (Serial or Making a Murderer, but set in high school, and about a bunch of graffiti’d dicks) extremely straight. There’s no indication from the title or the graphics on the Netflix search page that it’s even a comedy, leading to fans of the show (like myself) to many impassioned conversations with coworkers and family and random people on the street trying to convince them that it’s much more than it seems. Here are the facts: I love every stupid thing about it. I love the complexity and detail of Peter Maldonado’s obsession, I love Dylan Maxwell farting in babies’ faces, I love the computer rendering of the camp dock, I love Alex Tromboli’s sweaty grin, I love Mr. Kraz’s big mouth, I love everything about this show and I want all shows to be this show, somehow, so I’m watching it every second of every day until the end of time. – Maggie