This critic has a confession to make as to why this list must be incomplete.
Peak TV just keeps rolling along, and this year was no exception.
One begins to wonder how long this run of amazing television can last. For now, we’re golden. I’ll admit upfront that I don’t have the time to keep up with everything, as you’d have to sit in front of a screen 24/7 to watch everything that’s produced now. I’ve still kept up with most of it, and out of the dozens of shows watched these were my favorites.
One thing I’ve learned in Peak TV is that if a show isn’t working for me I’ll drop it fast. There’s just too much good stuff out there to waste your time with bad shows.
“Good Behavior,” with “Downton Abby” alum, Michelle Dockery started out hot last year but cooled off to the point of becoming a boring one hour drama about getting a kid into private school. I also dropped “The Walking Dead” last year, and did the same to its spin off show, “Fear: The Walking Dead” this year.
I haven’t given any of those shows a second thought.
Of course if you love television you’ll notice glaring absences from this list. I’m sure they’re wonderful shows given the intense buzz, avid fan base and Emmy love, but I just haven’t seen “Mindhunter,” “Star Trek: Discovery” and the esteemed “The Handmaid’s Tale” so far.
The latter is at the top of my must watch list.
So what were the best TV shows I saw in 2017, in descending order?
‘Rick and Morty’ (Cartoon Network)
I don’t think I’m over-praising this show when I say it’s possibly the best television show ever produced. Clayton Purdom wrote an article for AV Club titled, “Rick And Morty’s worst fans don’t deserve Rick And Morty” and hopefully I’m one of the good fans. But a fan I am, and I tend to be evangelical about the show. As Purdom noted, it’s the best sci-fi show out there. You could cut out the deeper family drama that’s unfolding and still have an amazing show but that family drama is exactly what sci-fi is built for.
Ursula K. Le Guin would be proud of this show, and I hope she’s watching at 88 years old. “Rick and Morty” thrives on themes she championed: what life would be like free of social restraint. There’s an episode arc with Beth, the mom, aptly titled, “The ABCs of Beth” that is so devastatingly heart breaking and fascinating that it’s hard to imagine television could go so deep into the human psyche.
Also consider the much talked episode,“Pickle Rick” which also touched on Beth and her relationship to her father Rick. So much has been written and said about this show that I’d just add a huge thank you to the entire creative team.
“Billions” is a 180 degree turn from “Rick and Morty” and I find it odd that this show hasn’t caught fire yet. Everything you’ve ever loved about Paul Giamatti is packed into each episode. He’s simply amazing as an ambitious and driven U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Maggie Siff of “Sons of Anarchy” fame is equally brilliant as his wife and therapist.
Damian Lewis “Homeland” is excellent as the “boot strapped” billionaire and David Constabile “Breaking Bad” as Mike “Wags” Wagner is maybe the best and original character created for television in the past decade.
This show is fun like old evening soap operas “Dallas” and “Beverly Hills 90210” were fun but it’s also good like “The Sopranos.” This might sound like too high a praise, and maybe it is, but when it’s on I look forward to every Sunday night.
‘Big Mouth’ (Netflix)
“Big Mouth” is a funky little show created by Jennifer Flackett, Andrew Goldberg and Nick Kroll and it’s just wrong. It goes where no show has ever dared to go — a realistic portrayal of puberty. No, not in some bulls*** way like “The Wonder Years.” This show is raw, rude, and blazingly funny. What makes it tick is that you’re reminded of just how bad the teenage years can be. You feel that transition as painfully as the main characters.
I don’t want to spoil a second of this show and will only say that if you’re easily offended, this is probably not for you. If you have pre-teens or teens WATCH THIS SHOW! I have always loved Maya Rudolph, and she’s so good here that I don’t have enough words of praise. She should win an Emmy. This was by far the most quoted show of the year between my friends and I and if you watch you’ll be using lines like, “I don’t use deodorant and I only take bubble baths” on a regular basis.
‘American Gods’ (STARZ)
The highly anticipated adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name did not disappoint. Ian McShane has a slightly less noble take on Odin, father of Thor, than Marvel’s version, and Ricky Whittle is perfectly cast at Shadow Moon. It was Emily Browning (“Sucker Punch”) as Laura Moon and Pablo Schreiber (“Orange is the New Black”) as Mad Sweeney who stole the show. These two have real chemistry and the gallows humor (which is maybe the most difficult humor to get right) made for a riveting first season.
There’s much more to admire, including Gillian Anderson (“The X-Files”) as Media and Yetide Badaki (“Masters of Sex”) as Bilquis. If you don’t know of Gaiman’s work, or of this book in particular, have no fear as this adaptation needs no help from the source material. If you’re looking for a perfect mix of action with mythology, with an ample dose of humor, you won’t be disappointed.
‘Bojack Horseman’ (Netflix)
How is that three of the top 10 television shows of 2017 are animated? All three go where few dramas are willing to go — the darkest depths of human relationships. This season of “Bojack” was a tearjerker and all about “mommy and daddy issues” and what it means to be a friend and a good person. It really was touching and if you can imagine “Citizen Kane” as animation then you get a sense of what these shows are doing. They’re sneaking a metric ton of feels in between the comedy.
The opening credit sequence is one of my all time favorites and at the end there’s a nice homage to “The Simpsons” which really all animation (including “South Park”) owe a debt of gratitude. I don’t know if “Bojack” will run for 30+ seasons like “The Simpsons” but it certainly has legs to run for many more years.
‘Stranger Things’ (Netflix)
“Stranger Things” had a monumental challenge this season. How could it avoid cannibalizing itself while delivering the goods we fell in love with the first season? Done and done. The ‘80s references packed into each episode are like “easter eggs” and more chocolate bunny. My personal favorite? The nod to “Indiana Jones” with the hat grab. Each show is a loving tribute to the best of ‘80s culture.
I’ve often wondered if “Stranger Things” hits as deep to younger and older audiences, but if you’re GenX and see an old arcade lovingly reproduced it’s just pure gold Ponyboy. “Stranger Things” is more than nostalgia. It’s a damn fine television show that seems to be slowly inching towards Cthulhu territory and if somehow Stephen King’s “It” and “Stranger Things” connect in the same universe this show will do something that nobody has ever managed to do before and that’s bring H.P. Lovecraft to the screen in both a meaningful and magical way.
‘Game of Thrones’ (HBO)
Hard to believe that “Game of Thrones” is seventh on this list when it was a jaw-dropping season… I mean a frickin’ ice dragon? That shoots blue fire? But this season was also weirdly paced with characters flying yonder and back across great distances in the span of a few episodes. The new “Star Wars” has this same problem. I know the desire is to have the main cast interact, but these worlds should never, ever feel small like neighborhoods. That’s become a bit of a problem for both GoT and “Star Wars.” I’ve loved this show and glad it’s ending next season, I hope that they have an amazing finale worthy of the series, a resolution that makes us hungry for any forthcoming spin off.
‘The Deuce’ (HBO)
Apparently HBO has made a deal with the city of New York that at least one of HBO’s major drama’s must be set in the city (“Sex in the City,” The Sopranos,” “Boardwalk Empire,” and the ill-fated “Vinyl” but I’ve really come to like this show. That’s despite the fact that I’m not a fan of James Franco. There’s just something about the texture of New York in the ‘70s that the show just nails.
The ‘70s and ‘80s were awful decades, desperate and dark times, and yet both “Stranger Things” and “The Deuce” manage to pull what’s good from the wreckage and appreciate what was changing culturally, especially at the individual level. The Vietnam War, AIDS, Divorce, Porn were national movements but experienced on an individual level. So it makes sense to tell stories about people navigating these decades and “The Deuce” does it well.
‘The Leftovers’ (HBO)
“The Leftovers” was brilliant and yet I’m glad it is over and thrilled it stuck the landing. That includes maybe the best last episode of a series since “M*A*S*H*’s” final. This show was too dark and deep for most viewers and yet thankfully we live in times where someone can make such a daring drama. Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) stole ‘The Leftovers” and became the most interesting thing about it. Her best line, “If we can’t have a sense of humor about you being the messiah, we’re going to have a problem” was as devastating as it was funny… the internal dance between the skeptic and the believer.
We need more shows about faith, religion, God and the flawed people trying to navigate life using those tools. The show was always about 9/11, grieving sudden loss, while trying to understand a faith we didn’t understand we began to examine our own faith or lack there of.
‘The Good Place’ (NBC)
Ted Danson and Kristen Bell are dynamite together. Who knew this quirky little show could be so engaging? If you haven’t seen it yet you should. Just give it at least five episodes. If you’re not hooked by then you won’t be, but I doubt it. There’s been a few times this year where I’ve thought to myself, “Maybe I’m in the bad place?” and maybe I am, but if I am the television is amazing.
Bonus Pick — ‘Ozark’ (Netflix)
If you asked me, “Matt do we need another show about a normal family that turns to crime?” I would have said, “No” and then added “Hell no!” Yet if you cast Laura Linney, then I’d say, “Yes, yes we do.”
She could make a stupid sitcom about high school teachers watchable. Talent does that for a show, and Jason Bateman is more like a modern-day Jimmy Stewart than we realize. He can do both comedy and drama with just a slight shift of gears. I’ll be transparent and share that I wanted to not like this show. I feel after, “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” “Weeds,” “Better Caul Saul,” “Sons of Anarchy” and a half dozen more that we’ve had our fill of crime shows but this is good. It doesn’t add anything new to the genre it’s just that Linney, Bateman, and Julia Garner as a wicked smart villain are that good.
Please take the time and catch these show and comment below about what you’ve liked and didn’t like this year.