Friday, February 2, 2018

The 10 Best TV Shows of 2017

Elisabeth Moss in "The Handmaid's Tale"
We’ve been counting down every TV show we watched in 2017, and we’ve finally arrived at the top 10. If you’ve missed our prior posts, you can access them at the following links:
#s 108-81
#s 80-51
#s 50-31
#s 30-11

10. The Leftovers (HBO, Season 3; 2015 rank: 6 of 62). You can pick nits with The Leftovers’ third and final season. Reduced to an eight-episode order, it largely shunted aside the Murphy family whose dynamic was so richly complex in Season 2; it arguably returned to the (literal?) well one too many times with its “international assassin” gambit; and some of its metaphysical journeys this season—in particular Scott Glenn’s helpless wanderings through the Australian outback—never quite acquired the fearsome power they desired. But these imperfections seem trivial when compared with the show’s staggering greatness, the way it meditates on questions of love, family, and faith in such strange and stimulating ways. Perhaps recognizing that she was the standout of the first two years, the show pivots ever-so-slightly to focus on Carrie Coon’s Nora, and some of this season’s most memorable sequences—the Wu-Tang trampoline; the “Take on Me” smoke detector; the pigeons carrying words of hope—explore her explosive grief. But this has always been a humane and democratic show, and it still makes room for its uniformly devastated (and devastating) ensemble. It says something that I’d never especially warmed to Amy Brenneman’s Laurie, and yet Season 3’s most wrenching episode for me was “Certified”, a heartbreaking hour that examined her newfound place in the world with clarity and empathy. I might not have thought that was possible, but over three remarkable seasons, The Leftovers continuously redefined our collective notion of belief.

9. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix, Season 5; last year: 6 of 88). Orange Is the New Black didn’t need to change to stay good. Through four seasons, the show had carved out its own particularized territory within the crammed #PeakTV landscape, telling moving individual stories of women while simultaneously excoriating the institutions so indifferent to their suffering. But the show changes things up drastically in Season 5, abandoning its relaxed, out-of-time pacing to instead focus on three hellish, hilarious days of a chaotic riot. It’s a bold structural departure that pays immediate dividends, infusing some pulse-pounding suspense into a series that’s almost alarmingly comfortable in its storytelling. Even within this compressed time frame, the show still demonstrates the tonal range that’s become its trademark; some sequences, such as a forced talent show or a hectic photo shoot, are indecently funny, even as the pressure constantly builds. (The ninth episode is basically a full-on horror movie, and it’s glorious.) What’s most impressive about Orange Is the New Black is that it can level scathing societal criticism—about racial injustice, about the penal system, about police brutality—while still remaining a highly enjoyable show. With thoughtfulness and savvy, it turns the dichotomy between enlightenment and entertainment into a false choice.

8. Better Call Saul (AMC, Season 3; last year: 1). As Better Call Saul continues to encroach toward that seminal moment in TV history of a chemistry teacher standing in the desert in his underwear, it risks relinquishing part of the identity that has made it so surprisingly special. And some elements of Season 3, which returns Giancarlo Esposito’s merciless crime lord to the fold, carry with them a slight flicker of imitation. But those elements are still thrillingly suspenseful and spectacularly choreographed—hell, there’s basically an entire episode devoted to Michael Mando trying to surreptitiously drop a vial of pills into a coat pocket—and besides, this series’ inevitable maturation into Breaking Bad is not its main draw. That would instead be the title character, who remains perfectly played by Bob Odenkirk, and whose knotty relationships grow increasingly thorny and complex this season. His romance with Rhea Seehorn’s Kim teems with affection, indecision, and yearning, and Season 3 continues to elevate Kim’s status as a tragic figure with her own dreams and doubts. And his strained rivalry with his disapproving brother, Chuck, becomes almost unbearably tense, leading to a finale that feels almost cruel in its precision. Someday, Saul Goodman will again dispense legal advice to an enterprising chemist, but as Better Call Saul proves year after year, there’s no need for him to be in any rush.

7. Billions (Showtime, Season 2; last year: 17). The first season of Billions was shamelessly fun—campy, sleazy, and laden with great scene-chewing moments from Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis. I’d hoped the show might improve for round two, but I never expected it to make a leap like this, because the plotting of these 12 episodes is absolutely exceptional. “Wolfish attorney stalks serpentine hedge fund manager” isn’t exactly an exciting premise, but Billions turns its high-stakes games of corporate intrigue and legal maneuvering into the stuff of epic drama, culminating in a penultimate episode that ends in an utterly smashing reveal. But the show isn’t just about two foxes nipping at one another’s heels; it also recognizes the distinctly human costs of their swaggering bravado. Maggie Siff remains outstanding as a psychologist desperate to assert some agency, and Billions’ illustration of two headstrong adults trying to make their marriage work proves surprisingly delicate and moving. Meanwhile, Asia Kate Dillon’s Taylor is a fascinating new character, a left-brained savant who struggles to apply ruthlessly analytical reasoning in a ruthlessly random and unforgiving world. Billions somehow manages to contribute to both sides of that equation at once, delivering a crisply calculated, ingeniously structured drama that is also a total fucking blast.

6. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC, Season 4; last year: 3). The more removed it got from its original premise—a bunch of gung-ho tech upstarts revolutionize the computer industry, yeah!—the more exhilarating Halt and Catch Fire became. And it’s awfully far removed by Season 4, using its technological window-dressing as a Trojan horse to tell a stinging, aching story about a small group of people struggling with life, work, themselves, and each other. There’s an elegiac feel to this season, and not just because one of the main characters dies midway through. We’re saying goodbye to a loved one, and the show taps into that sense of overwhelming sadness with astonishing lucidity. Not that this show was ever funereal; it hums with vibrant visual flair, and it evokes its era (the ’90s!) with a playfulness that never slips into shrill nostalgia. But Halt and Catch Fire’s CPU was always its characters, and its final season demonstrated that it knew them—what they desired, what they feared, what made them tick—with breathtaking intimacy. This was a series about computers and the internet that proved to be profoundly humane, and it established that television isn’t always the thing that gets us to the thing. Sometimes, a TV show is just the thing.

5. The Americans (FX, Season 5; last year: 2). Writing about this show last year, I suggested that it could strip out spycraft entirely for a full season and still be impossibly gripping. Well, challenge accepted! OK, not really. But the misperception surrounding Season 5 of The Americans—that it neglected to deliver the showstopping spy sequences it served up so regularly earlier in its run—speaks to how invisibly the series has by now melded action with character. This season hardly skimped on the genre goods; there was a horrific late-night murder, a pair of queasy seductions, a nail-biting surveillance session, an agonizing home invasion, and much more beyond. But while all of those scenes were flawlessly executed, they were memorable not because of what was done but because of who did it. Everything that happens on The Americans is filtered through the consciousness of its characters, which is why every action reverberates with such paralyzing force. Sure, it’s a spy show, but it’s really about cost—how the characters’ tireless devotion to their motherland results in the perpetual erosion of their souls. Beyond that, and with exquisite fluidity and grace, the series continues to thread its invigorating pulp material into a searing study of marriage and family, and of how adults will instinctively shield their children, for ill as well as good. There’s a riveting sequence near the end of this season—scored to a killer ’80s pop tune, naturally—in which father, mother, and daughter develop a series of photographs and then take in their contents with stunned silence. It’s a masterfully choreographed scene, but what lingers is its moral gravity, the sense that the characters are struggling to reconcile who they are with who they want to be. The Americans, however, suffers from no such crisis. It knows exactly what it is, and its confidence—in its storytelling, in its style, above all in its characters—is beautiful to behold.

4. Fargo (FX, Season 3; 2015 rank: 3). This show is just bruisingly good. The cast is ridiculous; Ewan McGregor kills it as two brothers, each hapless in his own way, while David Thewlis savors every morsel of chilly scenery he nibbles on. As she show’s moral compass, Carrie Coon is incredibly soulful, our last vestige of decency in a bleak and unforgiving world. But the most memorable and affecting performance from this great new season of Fargo comes from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose slippery femme fatale reveals new shades of vulnerability and fortitude with each passing episode. And Fargo, as it marches inexorably toward its thrilling conclusion, exhibits flickers of real-world commentary, showing us a lawless society where facts are alternative, truth is subjective, and the wealthy wield all the power. If you think that sounds overly didactic, remember that this is still Fargo; it’s a gripping noir that’s artfully plotted, morbidly funny, and executed with incomparable panache. There’s an extended set piece at the beginning of the eighth episode that is, quite frankly, more electric than anything the Coen Brothers did in No Country for Old Men. Many TV shows try to imitate the movies, but in bringing cinematic elegance to the small screen, Fargo never feels cheap or secondhand. And while Coen enthusiasts may be inclined to play spot-the-reference, the series has evolved into its own distinct entity. It isn’t imitating anything.

3. 13 Reasons Why (Netflix, Season 1). I’ve already written about this show at considerable length, so I’ll be brief here. Insightful, suspenseful, and deeply sad, 13 Reasons Why is an unflinching look at teenage suicide. But it is neither a glum exercise in miserabilism nor a phony procession of sentimentality. It is instead a heroically empathetic and poignant character study, made with startling brio and visual wit. Terrific twin performances from Katherine Langford and Dylan Minnette headline a strong all-around cast, while the pacing is chilling in its inexorability. This show makes no attempt to hide its naked emotionalism, nor should it; some stories require heedlessness rather than restraint. 13 Reasons Why will get your heart pounding, right up until the point it breaks.

2. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu, Season 1). The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a dystopian society where women are commodified, where police kill with abandon, and where a vicious autocracy snuffs out all vestiges of civil liberty. In related news, it is not a documentary. But seriously, while it may be tempting to conflate the horrors of this series with our present political turmoil, doing so does the show a disservice. Strip away any depressing contemporary relevance, and this is still a furiously compelling show, brimming with ideas and talent and craft. In the performance of her career, Elisabeth Moss is shattering as an involuntary surrogate who’s subjected to all manner of humiliation—physical, verbal, psychological—but who still clings to her autonomy and dignity. Even better, in adapting Margaret Atwood’s scarily prescient novel, the show evades the trap of rugged linearism, instead ensuring that individual episodes crackle with their own energy and purpose. And the execution is a knockout, with bravura flourishes, eye-catching costume design, and shimmering cinematography. This merciless technique is in service of a powerful undercurrent of resiliency, so that every terrible event we witness—and good lord, do all sorts of horrible things happen on this show—merely reinforces the protagonist’s fiery resolve. The Handmaid’s Tale is an uncompromisingly brutal show, but with that brutality comes a bracing sense of liberation. Praise be.

1. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon, Season 1). Holy hell. Where did this show even come from? The answer, I suppose, is either the brilliant mind of Amy Sherman-Palladino, or heaven. To describe just how delightful The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is risks somehow diminishing it, suggesting that it’s a charmingly frothy confection rather than a creative tour de force. But there can be no minimizing the show’s splendorous visual palette, a candy-colored tapestry that pops with bright pinks, deep blues, and lush greens and reds. With gorgeous period production values, the series is transportive, whisking you back to 1950s New York, yet it never feels stuffy or staid. Thematically, it is powerful but not pushy, smuggling its conceits about gender, religion, and family inside a deliriously entertaining package. And speaking of entertainment, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is deceptively dexterous in its writing, spinning a meticulously constructed tale of professional growth and personal empowerment without ever calling attention to its artistry. Did I mention that it’s very, very funny? Laughter is its byproduct as well as its subject; even as the show recognizes comedy as a form of scrupulous craft, it effortlessly delivers one zinger after the next, powered by its perfectly harmonized cast. As perpetually worried parents, Marin Hinkle and Tony Shalhoub are wonderfully fretful, while Alex Borstein’s deadpan is ideally contrapuntal to the series’ high-wire zest; Kevin Pollak, Luke Kirby, and David Paymer shine in smaller roles. And powering everything with rocket-fueled charm is Rachel Brosnahan, delivering an incandescent lead performance as an innately gifted comedienne who uses her natural bluster and pluck to shield herself from her own fears and insecurities. It’s a thrillingly alive piece of acting, and Brosnahan’s vivacity and intelligence transform her hard-working funnywoman into the stuff of legend. Marvelous? More like miraculous.

For the Manifesto’s complete ranking of all 108 TV shows we watched in 2017, click here.

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