Thursday, February 1, 2018

Ranking Every TV Show of 2017: #s 30-11

Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Reese Witherspoon in "Big Little Lies"
We’re ranking every show we watched in 2017. You can find the prior installments in our rankings at the following links:
#s 108-81
#s 80-51
#s 50-31

Note that, because #PeakTV is so insanely glutted with good shows, every series listed from here on out is excellent, and you should watch them all.

30. The Magicians (Syfy, Season 2). Good lord is this show fun. Season 1 of The Magicians was enjoyable, but it had to do so much heavy lifting in terms of world-building that it could sometimes feel laborious. Now, with the rules and characters firmly established, the series can relax and ease into its Buffy-inspired brand of storytelling, a blend of irreverent humor, big feelings, and intricate mythology. Despite being a show about a bunch of college students who cast spells, The Magicians isn’t childish, but it isn’t overly glum either, instead delving into its calamitous storylines—everyone always seem to be on the verge of death or disaster—with a delightfully impish sense of mischief. (It helps that two of the show’s formerly buttoned-up female characters literally lose their souls this year, allowing Stella Maeve and Olivia Taylor Dudley to really let loose.) Certain sequences—a bank heist, a negotiation with a dragon, an impromptu performance of a Les Miserables song—are downright delirious, a reminder that unbridled joy can be its own form of magic.

29. Legion (FX, Season 1). If you heard the hype about Legion before its release, you gleaned something to the effect of, “This is not your ordinary superhero show.” Sometimes, the hype doesn’t lie. I’ve gathered that some of the characters in Legion are technically connected to the X-Men comics, but Noah Hawley evinces little interest in connecting his warped, astonishing vision to any sort of broader universe. In terms of storytelling, this series can be exhilaratingly strange, probing the demented mind of its hero with meticulously twisted illogic. In terms of craft, it’s just exhilarating, Hawley serving up one eye-popping set piece after another: a single-take escape with death strewn everywhere; a bruising melee that reverberates in a parallel dimension; a devious black-and-white memory scored to “Bolero”. As the addled not-quite-hero, Dan Stevens is rock-steady, but the real star is Aubrey Plaza as… well, I’m honestly not quite sure what she is, except that she’s mesmerizing, much like the show.

28. Mindhunter (Netflix, Season 1). Mindhunter begins as a thoroughly enjoyable show, chronicling the work of behavioral scientists in the ’70s as they attempt to develop a taxonomy of serial killers. It’s interesting stuff, and the rapport between leads Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany—a fluid dynamic that shifts between respect, annoyance, friendship, and trepidation—is an intriguing variation on the typical buddy-cop formula. But as it progresses, Mindhunter grows creepier and more unsettling, considering the deleterious consequences of obsession. (Given David Fincher’s involvement, this development is not exactly a surprise.) The more Groff’s special agent learns about the minds of serial killers, the more fanatical and erratic he becomes. But Mindhunter is not so clumsy as to draw a linear relationship from the murderers to their investigators; the show always remains grounded in science, and in the thrill of discovery. But those thrills acquire an awfully dark tint.

27. The Deuce (HBO, Season 1). Intellectually, The Deuce is one of the very best shows on TV, assembling a teeming mural of vice, corruption, and immorality, then sprinkling it with crumbs of affection, playfulness, and decency. Like all David Simon productions, it’s impeccably researched and produced, and it rings with absolute authenticity. That said, The Deuce isn’t exactly the most enjoyable show around, and not just because it regularly traffics in ugliness and despair. There are so many characters, it can be challenging to grow invested in each of their respective struggles, and some of Simon’s muckraking excavations—in particular a subplot involving mob skimming at a construction site—are too esoteric to really care about. All the same, this is a thoroughly impressive show, and its persistent focus on humanity in the midst of the awfulness it depicts prevents it from veering into miserabilism. The entire sprawling cast is quite good—in addition to James Franco’s unfussily relaxed portrayal of different but not-that-different twins, I particularly enjoyed Gary Carr as a philosophizing pimp and Margarita Levieva as an inquisitive student—but the unquestioned star is Maggie Gyllenhaal as a self-employed prostitute. Gyllenhaal has been a great actress for some time—she headlined the fantastic, little-seen series The Honourable Woman in 2014—but she’s in peak form here, essaying her character with breathtaking emotional intelligence and haunted sadness. She works the streets and our hearts.

26. Veep (HBO, Season 6; last year: 5 of 88). This show isn’t really a political satire; Veep has never been about exaggerating the real world, so the exaggerated wreckage that is now the real world doesn’t neuter Veep. The series is instead a lacerating study of stupidity, which proves funnier because most of the characters are actually quite smart. If this season of Veep wasn’t gut-bustingly funny as the last, that’s less due to Washingtonian insanity than to natural fatigue; it’s hard to keep a comedy consistently great, year after year. Yet even given that, this is still a tremendously funny show, nimbly balancing sharp, quick-hitting jokes with more elaborate gags. (A scene at the end of the second episode involving text-message dictation had me in stitches.) With the news that Season 7 will be the show’s last, it’ll be interesting to see if the showrunners attempt to ramp up the story or just stick with the same ping-ponging medley of insults, misunderstandings, and embarrassments. It’s certain to be hilarious either way.

25. Sense8 (Netflix, Season 2; 2015 rank: 19 of 62). Last year, I wrote a piece highlighting six different shows that are presently stretching television’s boundaries. But really, that piece is about five other shows, and then Sense8, which basically exists in its own separate universe. It’s pretty much impossible to overstate the monumental ambition of Sense8, but I’ll try: This is the most formally daring TV show ever made. The sheer effort involved in its execution—which sometimes involves filming the same scene eight different times with eight different actors in eight globe-spanning locations—is just astounding. Most of the problems from the series’ first season—the nonsensical mythology, the occasionally shaky acting, the heart-on-sleeve sentimentality—remain in Season 2, and they remain irrelevant. (This season does make strides in solving the show’s villain problem, bringing in Valeria Bilello as a trampy vixen with her own cluster of sinister sensates.) You don’t watch Sense8 for its plot, even if it’s highly plot-driven; you watch it for its audacity, for its magnificent action, and, yes, for its heartfelt, wincingly optimistic statements on human solidarity. Is it often on-the-nose? Absolutely, and that’s the point; with a show like this, subtlety would feel like a betrayal. This isn’t a TV show. This is a miracle.

24. You’re the Worst (FXX, Season 4; last year: 15). It’s always been easier for television to depict couples who fall apart rather than stay together; excepting the occasional Coach-and-Tami Taylor marriage, it’s rare to see a show stick with a happy romance for long. That may be why Season 3 of You’re the Worst ended with such a gut-punch, a marriage proposal that suddenly turned into a panicked flight from happiness. But this series thrives on antagonism, even if its central couple is so obviously meant for each other, and Season 4 pits them against one another in fun and explosive ways. (Aya Cash’s out-loud reading of a banal text message, complete with ellipsis, was one of my favorite moments of the year.) Some of the supporting characters, in particular Desmin Borges’ Edgar, struggled to find their footing this season, but the leads are still incredibly strong, and You’re the Worst remains gratifyingly willing to experiment with form; a haunting midseason episode in which Cash’s sullen, acerbic idler returns to her hometown—featuring a brilliant guest turn from Zosia Mamet—is devastating in the way it upends expectations and lands emotional body blows. Few shows can feature that level of insight as well as a laugh-out-loud reference to Oscar the Grouch.

23. Big Little Lies (HBO, Season 1). Big Little Lies starts off silly, almost frivolous—a cheesy murder mystery about obnoxious soccer moms living in a seaside paradise. By the time it ends, it’s morphed into a powerful and disturbing study of violence and abuse. But even if the show’s message can be unexpectedly heavy, it’s always a pleasure to watch, with well-drawn characters, gorgeous scenery, and a consistent current of spiky humor. The absurdly talented cast—Reese! Nicole! Shailene!—is excellent, while director Jean-Marc Vallée invests the proceedings with considerable flair and whimsy. There’s a sequence in the fifth episode, in which the three heroines sprint along the beach, that’s bracing in its style and kineticism. Moments like that will get your heart pumping, and ensure that despite the thematic ugliness, you’ll never look away.

22. Alias Grace (Netflix, Season 1). In the age of the ratings-obsessed renewal, where fully complete stories nevertheless receive perpetual continuations (did I mention that Big Little Lies is coming back?), there is something especially satisfying about Alias Grace, a six-episode series with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. As a Gothic mystery, the show is tantalizingly elusive, putting you in the headspace of Edward Holcroft’s increasingly obsessed doctor as he desperately tries to uncover secrets that may not exist. Rather than resulting in frustration, the show’s central ambiguity is in perfect keeping with its whispered questions about identity, justice, and truth. Anchoring everything with a sublimely confident performance is Sarah Gadon, the persistently underappreciated actress who imbues her apparent murderess with shivers of intelligence, earnestness, and hidden desire. There is a hypnotic scene in the final episode in which Gadon’s character addresses a crowd while covered by a sheet, like a quietly vengeful ghost come to pass judgment. It’s a riveting sequence that raises yet more unanswered questions, but it definitively resolves the show’s must-watch status.

21. Jane the Virgin (The CW, Seasons 3.5 and 4.0; last year: 24). Network dramas, especially those that offer 22 episodes per season, shouldn’t be this good for this long; by all rights, Jane the Virgin should have stalled out by now. But this marvelous show keeps chugging along, powered by winning performances, wondrous style, and an impossibly difficult balancing of tone. The series’ telenovela tropes are always going to be less compelling than its heartfelt story of motherhood, but despite its extraordinary breadth—a single episode can feature a fake suicide, a gaslighting conspiracy, and an impassioned debate about kindergarten registration—Jane the Virgin never feels at war with itself. That may stem from the show’s restless visual imagination; no matter what story it’s telling, it consistently serves up fresh stylistic conceits and formal gambits. But it’s also courtesy of the show’s fundamental humanity. Whether the characters are defrauding their spouses or masquerading as their twin siblings, they’re really all just decent people trying to make a better life for their family. That gives the show a core of warmth, a sunlit glow that keeps shining, even as the (often hilarious) telenovela structure keeps turning the page to the next exciting chapter.

20. Narcos (Netflix, Season 3; last year: 49). Well, I didn’t see this coming. After Season 2 of Narcos ended with Pablo Escobar’s death (sorry, was that a spoiler?), it was fair to question if the series would feel rudderless upon its return, given that Wagner Moura’s charismatic performance had provided the show with much of its lifeblood. Those concerns proved wildly unfounded, because this season of Narcos is its best yet, an expertly plotted and sharply crafted churn of tense, slippery episodes. The show fills the power vacuum created by Escobar’s absence not with an equally captivating heavy, but with a cadre of would-be kingpins, and their dangerous squabbling adds shading to a series that’s tended to run black-and-white. And on the law enforcement side, the departure of Boyd Holbrook’s Steve Murphy proves to be addition by subtraction, as Pedro Pascal’s Javier Peña is a more compelling and emotive hunter. But mostly, Narcos is just quality suspense filmmaking, delivering one pulse-pounding sequence after another. Matias Varela’s Jorge steals the show as an enforcer-cum-informant, trying desperately to escape detection as the noose grows ever tighter around his neck.

19. Black Mirror (Netflix, Season 4; last year: 12). The newest season of Black Mirror offers up more of the same, which is to say more of what’s radically different and thought-provoking. The genius of this show is its versatility, the way its relatively banal premise—be wary of increasingly sentient and impressive forms of technology—can be stretched and bent in myriad ways. Of course, every new season is really just an excuse to compare individual episodes (naturally, I’ve updated my own rankings in this thread), and this year’s sextet is predictably scattered across the quality spectrum. What’s nice is that the stylistic variety ensures that there’s pretty much something for everyone. I wasn’t especially enamored with “Metalhead”’s bare-bones plotting, but I can still appreciate its impeccable pacing and choreography, in particular the sudden appearance of a can of paint. And while “Crocodile” was oppressively grim, it still offered a typically terrific performance from Andrea Riseborough, as well as a killer last reveal. Still, my favorite hours of this season were less violent and more stimulating. “USS Callister,” for example, inverts the usual nice-guys-finish-last dynamic with candy-colored gusto, while “Arkangel” explores how well-intentioned parental surveillance can have cataclysmic consequences. And then there’s “Hang the DJ”, one of the best episodes the show has ever produced, a thrilling look at internet dating that twins industrial innovation with old-fashioned romantic chemistry. Black Mirror may cast a dubious eye toward scientific advancement, but when the credits for that episode roll (and The Smiths start to play), you’ll be forever grateful for the technology that brought it to your living room.

18. Stranger Things (Netflix, Season 2; last year: 16). I’ve heard vague rumblings that the second season of Stranger Things was too repetitive, too safe, too satisfied with itself. Get lost. Season 2 of Stranger Things didn’t revolutionize television any more than Season 1 did, and in case you’ve forgotten, Season 1 was a shameless genre pastiche that nevertheless rose above its influences through sturdy craftsmanship, smart casting, and a genuine sense of wonder. So when I say that Season 2 offers more of the same, that’s a compliment, not a criticism. If anything, this season is more self-assured in its storytelling—less anxious to develop a quick hook and more confident in its characters. The central conflict isn’t all that invigorating, but it’s really just window-dressing for some really fun character pairings: the thrown-together friendship-by-default of nerd-charmer Dustin and hair-gel-guru Steve; the sweet, awkward courtship of arcade aficionados Lucas and Max; and (especially) the warm, fraught surrogate-father-daughter bond of Chief Hopper and Eleven. Stranger Things is a crazy and thoroughly imaginative show about powered people and killer lizards, but it’s most meaningful when watching two wary souls in a cabin sharing a plate full of waffles.

17. Man Seeking Woman (FXX, Season 3; last year: 18). In its third and (sadly) final season, Man Seeking Woman’s already-huge heart swelled to enormous size, with the series making the bold and brilliant choice of bringing in Katie Findlay to play Jay Baruchel’s steady girlfriend. As ever, the show takes routine situations—the excruciating discomfort of making small-talk with a friend’s partner; the crippling stasis of a relationship that’s deadened into routine—and blows them up to hilariously exaggerated proportions. But where previous seasons centered on the numbing futility of singlehood, Season 3 ventures into the perilous arena of long-term dating, with characteristically ingenious results. Baruchel’s hangdog shtick is so worn by now, it’s hard to imagine him clicking with everyone, but Findlay matches him perfectly, resulting in a unique chemistry that’s one-part awkwardness, three-parts sweetness. This show is all about emotional truths; it just happens to convey those truths in spectacularly memorable and outrageous ways. In one great bit that parodies The Sixth Sense, a young boy whispers to Baruchel, “I see unsuccessful people.” Man Seeking Woman may have been commercially unsuccessful, but its anarchic spirit will never die.

16. BoJack Horseman (Netflix, Season 4; last year: 7). The third season of BoJack Horseman descended to a level of darkness so utterly black, you wondered if it could ever climb out. But it’s foolish to underestimate this show, which remains scarily skilled at balancing its grave study of depression with its inspired, zany humor. Refusing to settle into routine, the series upends its typical sadder-than-thou dynamic by importing the title character’s teenage daughter, and it explores their tentative bond with honesty, sensitivity, and sadness. Better yet, the show continues to deliver knockout standalone episodes, including a haunting return trip home, a provocative satire on gun control and women’s rights, and a classic bottle half-hour set entirely underground (complete with a meme-ready return from Jessica Biel). As usual, the penultimate entry is the most devastating, here traveling through time to suss out the origins of the title character’s crippling fears and unhappiness. Again, that sounds pretty damn dark, but BoJack Horseman isn’t a dirge; it’s too clever and inventive to be disheartening. And there’s something rewarding about a show that knows its characters this well, and that’s able to make us laugh so effortlessly, even as it brings us once more to the brink.

15. Sneaky Pete (Amazon, Season 1). For quite a few shows on this list, I’ve commented that even where the characters and craft are strong, the central plotting is somewhat lackluster. Not this one. Sneaky Pete is a deviously well-plotted show, with perfectly timed reveals and hair-raising cliff-hangers. Not that the other elements are any less impressive. The flavorful dialogue serves as a feast for eager actors, including a suitably restrained Giovanni Ribisi, the peerless Margo Martindale, and the ever-unappreciated Jacob Pitts, who portrays a deliciously slimy huckster named Lance Lord. And of course, there is showrunner Bryan Cranston, playing the heel with indecent relish; in the fourth episode, he delivers a mesmerizing seven-minute monologue of such brazen theatricality, it’s difficult not to leap to your feet and applaud. Because Sneaky Pete is a wonderfully twisty series about nefarious con artists, you can’t believe anyone you hear, but trust me: This show is legit.

14. Casual (Hulu, Season 3; last year: 21). Well, damn. I already really liked Casual; it’s a beautifully observed show, with three-dimensional characters and a supremely confident command of tempo and tone. But I never expected it to punch me in the stomach. Yet late in Season 3, when Tara Lynne Barr quietly sings a cover of “Landslide”, I found myself paralyzed with heartache and grief. This is such a deeply humane show, achingly empathetic toward its characters even as they constantly behave badly and submarine their chances for happiness. Its lacerating humor shouldn’t be discounted—when someone asks Tommy Dewey if he likes alpacas, he responds with characteristically magnificent deadpan, “I have a sweater”—but it’s the internal pain that lingers most, the principals desperately craving human connection and then instinctively swatting it away when it threatens to emerge. It seems strange that a show so sad can make me so happy, but as Casual understands, people don’t always make sense, no matter how hard they’re trying.

13. Game of Thrones (HBO, Season 7; last year: 10). Right, so remember what I just wrote two paragraphs ago about how some shows can get cluttered in terms of plotting? As it reaches its end game, Game of Thrones is going into plot overdrive, and it can occasionally be a little much. Each episode sprawls across every corner of the seven kingdoms, and it burns through story so quickly, it can be exhausting just to keep up, to track every secret alliance and sudden betrayal and significant death. That said, this show remains—what’s the correct critical term?—fucking awesome. The dragon attack at the end of this season’s fourth episode is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen on TV, while even less explosive sequences (such as the courtyard sword fight between Arya and Brienne) course with energy and rigor. As Game of Thrones enters its final stretch (but not until 2019, boo), it’ll be fascinating to see how the showrunners pull all of its many threads together. But in the meantime, we still have a show of rich humor and gob-smacking beauty, where even standard expository scenes play out with supple, shadowy craft. What is dead may never die, and this series feels as alive as ever.

12. Supergirl (The CW, Seasons 2.5 and 3.0; last year: 13). You know what’s crazy? This show can still get better. It can still tighten its long-form storytelling and sharpen some of its villains and refine its dialogue to make its pointed political references more graceful. It isn’t perfect. Which doesn’t matter to me in the slightest, because Supergirl is joy. When I watch this show, I’m not a curmudgeonly critic; I’m just a dumbstruck fan, overpowered by its extraordinary emotional palette and its spirited action and its wonderful character dynamics and its gigantic fucking heart. Watching the show is almost an interactive experience for me, given how often it makes me laugh and cry, how it makes me angry (those Trump references!) and fills me with delight. As it continues to troubleshoot—Odette Annable is making for a fascinating antagonist this season (and thus chipping away at the aforementioned villain problem), while turning Katie McGrath into a series regular was a home run—it will only keep improving. Or maybe it’ll get worse. I’m not sure I’ll notice, or care. I’ve been watching Supergirl for three seasons, and I’m a better person for it. How many shows can make people, even utter saps like me, say something like that?

11. GLOW (Netflix, Season 1). I’m not a wrestling fan, and though I’m a child of the ’80s, I didn’t spend many hours watching daytime television, so this show isn’t exactly targeted at my demographic. But that doesn’t matter one bit, because GLOW is an absolute powerhouse, an invigorating blend of smart storytelling, strong characters, and chic style. As the frantic and guilt-ridden lead, Alison Brie is firing on all cylinders, while Betty Gilpin and Marc Maron are perfectly pitched as her infuriated rival and weary coach, respectively. The show feels properly small in scope, but it repeatedly delivers big moments—a eureka moment of comprehension, a discovery of an alter ego, a trip to a clinic—that pack surprising punch. The actual wrestling scenes are thrilling in their unpredictability, while the nuanced relationships pulsate with clarity and insight. I confess I wasn’t expecting much from this show. It rocked me like a hurricane.

Coming tomorrow: the top 10.

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