We’re living in a historical transitional period for TV, as streaming services compete with traditional networks and cable/satellite channels for our entertainment dollar. As such, television has never been better, regardless of how it gets to us. Appropriately, my list of the year’s best shows consists of half network shows and half others, and kicks off with a streaming series.
1. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Season 1, Amazon Prime) – Miles better than last year’s “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life,” this third major series from Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino is a pitch-perfect portrayal of an up-and-coming comedienne in 1958 New York City. Rachel Brosnahan is the latest actress to master the Palladinos’ rapid-fire dialog, while Alex Borstein, Tony Shalhoub and Kevin Pollock deliver snappy material on beautiful sets ranging from posh apartments to the Gaslight comedy club.
2. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (Season 9, HBO) – Larry David makes a triumphant return to his series after a six-year absence, and it’s obvious he is featuring the best bits from his notebook of observations over that period, polished into gems. The overall plot is an improved version of the weak Season 3, as Larry awkwardly (natch) teams with “Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda to produce the musical “Fatwa!” – even as Larry worries that he’s the target of an actual fatwa.
3. “Big Little Lies” (Season 1, HBO) – Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman show that relationship troubles are universal, whether you’re in your 20s, 30s or 40s. Boosted by a longingly atmospheric theme song by Michael Kiwanuka and direction by Jean-Marc Vallee that takes advantage of the beautiful mid-California coast, David E. Kelley’s best series rises above its multiple-mystery plot (which is good in its own right) to become a meditation on sociopathy and self-delusion.
4. “This Is Us” (Seasons 1-2, NBC) – Now that the early buzz and twists are behind it, “This Is Us” has settled into being network TV’s best show. Partly it’s because it’s a great traditional family drama, partly it’s because producer Dan Fogelman and his team have invented and mastered an innovative trick. We care about all the Pearsons, and they seem fully formed, yet their pasts still hold plenty of surprises.
5. “Bates Motel” (Season 5, A&E) – The final season of this pre-make had the most palpable “must watch” feel of any 2017 series. It cleverly plays with viewer expectations, paying homage to moments from 1960’s “Psycho” as the narrative flirts with linking up to Hitchcock’s classic. But then it reverses course in clever ways before coming back to its heart: a troubled man (shadowed by his conflicted brother) who wonders if he is too messed up to live.
6. “Fargo” (Season 3, FX) – Ewan McGregor gives one of TV’s best two-character turns as a pair of brothers who bicker about their different lots in life after one chooses a sports car and the other a corporation in the inheritance from their father. Billy Bob Thornton’s Season 1 villain was a horrifying one-man force of nature. But David Hewlett’s crime boss is more chilling for the way he orchestrates a parking-lot company’s financial schemes and its employees down to the tiniest details, entirely to his advantage – unless the latest hero cop (Carrie Coon) can find an angle of her own.
7. “Gotham” (Seasons 3-4, Fox) – More serialized than in the past, “Gotham” found a groove in 2017. Before he becomes Batman (which could happen at the end of this season), young Bruce – who had been moral beyond his years before this – transforms into the playboy Bruce Wayne, as he has an endless lost weekend in the wake of his first kill. Meanwhile, the machinations between Penguin and Sofia Falcone, plus the sideshow of Barbara and her girls, are a challenge for newly minted police chief Gordon and delicious for the audience.
8. “iZombie” (Season 3, The CW) – As the storyline ups the stakes by moving toward an all-out zombie-human conflict while tapping into politicized immigration fears, “iZombie” hasn’t lost its grip on the characters. “Veronica Mars” veteran Jason Dohring finally gets another meaty role as the leader of Seattle’s zombie military who is preparing for what he sees as an inevitable clash. Meanwhile, our heroes – Liv, Ravi, Peyton, etc. – work the middle ground to try to stave off the war.
9. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (Seasons 2-3, The CW) – Rachel Bloom’s brainchild gets crazy serious for the first time as Rebecca overdoses on pills, attempting to stop her pain. Yet the show is at its narrative best when it embraces its unique brand of silliness, where everyone acts absurd without getting much of a reaction from their equally self-absorbed colleagues. And, most importantly, the songs still hit more often than they miss.
10. “The Exorcist” (Season 2, Fox) – This continuation of the movie franchise moves away from the MacNeil family to focus on a group of Seattle-area foster kids as their dad (John Cho) deals with his wife’s suicide, leaving him vulnerable to a demon. The 10 episodes play like a triple-length horror movie – in a good way. We soak up the mood and get to know every character in TV’s most diverse cast, led by Cho, who leaves his “MILF” Guy typecasting in the dust.
What were your 10 favorite shows of 2017? Share your lists in the comment thread.