Friday, December 29, 2017

My Top 10 TV Shows of 2017

The end of the year brings Top 10 Lists! I'm still catching up on my 2017 feature releases, so expect that around the middle of January, but I've watched more than enough TV to put out a list of my Top 10 TV Shows for 2017. No one reads these intros anyway, so let's get right to it:

1) American Vandal - The first time I saw a trailer for American Vandal, I was convinced it was a fake trailer. Even when I realized it was posted by Netflix, I remained open to the possibility that they had decided to have a little fun making a fake trailer applying the MAKING A MURDERER formula to the story of a high school documentary determined to find out who spray-painted dicks on the cars in the faculty lounge. In other words, my expectations that this joke could sustain a single installment, much less 8 episodes, were very low. I could not have been more wrong. American Vandal blew past those expectations and even beyond any best-case-scenario I could have conceived.

There are few savvier moves in television this year than the story turn in Episode 5 where we learn that the mockumentary has gone public and the rest of the show becomes not just about the investigation, but the impact of the documentary on the people it examines. The creators pulled off an incredible high-wire act here that elevated this beyond almost any mockumentary I've ever seen. Far more than a goof, this is a series about voyeurism, the media, and the regular trials of just getting through life in a typical high school. My biggest regret is that I watched this at a time when I wasn't available to give this a 5 or 10 part examination on my blog.

2) The Good Place - The best thing network TV did last year. Last year's finale (which aired in January) completely upended the entire series with a reveal that worked all the better because we barely knew a mystery existed. Learning that Eleanor and her friends ALL were in The Bad Place not only let Ted Danson do some fabulous scenery chewing, but it positioned the series for a total reset in Season 2. It seemed like the creators could only disappoint from there, but amazingly, the second season quickly moved past the expected repeated beats and blew up the show again. I have NO idea the state we'll leave the show in with this year's finale and I love watching a show where it feels like anything can happen.

3) 13 Reasons Why - I wrote 13 (actually 14, really) posts about why I was hit so hard by this series about the events that led a teenage girl to take her own life, and many months later, I stand by all of it. Katherine Langford gave the breakout performance of the year as the gradually unraveling Hannah Baker, who leaves behind cassette tapes addressed to each person she says put her on the road to her death. The episode focusing on Clay's tape is still one of the most heartbreaking episodes of TV I saw this year, and Dylan Minnette deserves just as much praise as Langford for anchoring this series.

Beyond all that, it was nice to have a Netflix show where each episode felt like a distinct chapter as opposed to being part of a "13-hour movie." I don't dispute a couple middle chapters lagged, more for their lack of present-day momentum than for the Hannah-focused material. (Episode 7 being the worst offender in that regard). But the show finished strong and despite the near impossibility of continuing this arc in a satisfying way, I'm as eager for Season 2 as I am for the next Star Wars. Like American Vandal, this series really seems to capture the authenticity of teenage life today, and manages to do so with a fairly diverse cast.

4) Master of None - I've seen a lot of lists single out the series for the short-film quality of standalone eps like "New York, I Love You," but that overlooks how cohesive the show feels despite these "art project" forays. The standout episode of the season is "Thanksgiving," which doesn't center on Aziz Ansari's Dev, but rather co-writer and supporting player Lena Waithe's Denise, as we follow her journey of coming out across several years. Waithe and Ansari deservedly won an Emmy for this episode, and I want you to imagine any other similar comedy series pulling off the trick of building an entire episode around a character who was absent from more eps than she appeared in and have it STILL feel like a true half-hour of the series. Could Curb Your Enthusiasm get away with a Jeff-focused or a Funkhauser-focused installment?

Not everything about this season was a home run for me, but the running thread of Dev's Cupcake Wars series and the finale's left turn into a sexual harassment story brought to mind how the best seasons of Seinfeld kept a standalone feel even with season-long storylines.

5) The Handmaid's Tale -This series had the timing of the century coming on the heels of Trump's arrival in the White House. The openly oppressive and misogynistic society it depicts feels like something out of a Mike Pence wet dream. That timing adds a fresh sense of horror to the story of Elizabeth Moss's June/Offred, a handmaid assigned to the home of one of the new society's leaders. No show or movie this year made me HATE its villains as much as this series dead. Yvonne Strahovski's Serena Joy had brief moments of empathy through the season which made her truly despicable actions in the finale even more potent and infuriating.

I also REALLY hope that Ann Dowd's Aunt Lydia, the woman whose job it is to basically break and brainwash the handmaids, comes to a really nasty end before the season is over. Dowd has created one of the great villains of television, and all of this gives Moss some really great material to play against. And in the "we didn't know you had it in you" category, former Rory Gilmore actress Alexis Bledel showed of some incredible chops in her Emmy-winning showcase episode. The universally powerful acting smoothed over a couple of the slower episodes that felt like they were there to build out the world for future seasons. I'm curious to see how season two expands the world and the story of the Resistance, or if retreats to the more intimate drama and tension that was more often the show's strength this year.

6) Better Call Saul - Even as the show added Breaking Bad antagonist Gus Fring to the mix, it seemed to stake out more of its identity as being its own show completely independent of its "parent." It's interesting that - like 13 Reasons Why, in a way - this series mines a lot of tension out of the drive to a sad conclusion the audience likely keeps trying to will out of existence. We've had a lot of time to fall for Jimmy McGill, enough that it's gonna be hard to have him taken away from us when he completes his transformation into the much more amoral Saul Goodman. This is essentially a series about the battle for Jimmy's soul and we've known from the start that he loses. What we didn't know was that he had this much of a good heart to begin with.

This season gave us plenty of charming moments with our favorite shyster, but the real power came from the final conflict between Jimmy and his brother Chuck (Michael McKean.) The episode where Jimmy fully outwits Chuck and destroys his reputation in the process was a heartbreaker. We root for Jimmy because the series is empathetic to his point of view and because Chuck is a dick - but Chuck isn't all wrong in his criticisms of Jimmy and it feels like next season, we'll see more of that validated, even as Chuck has been taken off the board.

7) Bates Motel - When this series was announced, I didn't think they could pull it off. Then after watching season one, I still doubted a series based on PSYCHO could work, but Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore were doing such great work that it outshone the often weak plotting with regard to the local town mythology. The big moment of season two for me was when we saw the birth of the Mother persona and it still felt like a genuine shock, as the lead actors had managed to separate their work so completely from the Hitchcock production. The final two or three seasons were the strongest, with this season finally sending Norman into total madness and becoming the deranged young man we met in the film. Ingeniously, the creators threw a curve ball when they introduced Marion Crane and upended all expectations. It could have sunk the series, but by then, we'd accepted this Norman Bates as a different animal from Anthony Perkins's iconic performance. Sometimes, bad ideas can be executed really well and I never thought I'd be eager to see a weekly Norman Bates hour.

8) Better Things - Pamela Adlon is an actress usually called upon to play straight-talking, no-bullshit voices of reason. One of the savvy things Better Things does is take that persona and put her in situations where it's often impotent, like trying to be single mother to her three daughters. Technically the show is a comedy, but for me it often plays more as a drama with funny parts. This season tried the "short film each week" approach possibly to an even more aggressive degree than Master of None. It makes for occasionally frustrating viewing if you're expecting immediate follow-up to dangling plotlines, but somehow it's effective to feel like we're sometimes getting incomplete pieces of Adlon's Sam and her life, with us having to figure out the offscreen journey from A to B via context. Perhaps more than any of the other shows on this list, I've found this is one that you can't explain to people - you just have to get them to watch it.

Also, this is possibly one of my favorite scenes from the year, with Adlon cycling through every possible line reading of "No!"

9) Big Little Lies - Some writers have such potent voices that you can pick them out instantly, despite any attempts to vary the tone or the subject matter. No matter the TV or movie script, Sorkin always sounds like Sorkin, Amy Sherman-Palladino will ALWAYS sound like Amy Sherman-Palladino, and David E. Kelley will always be identifiable by his quirkiness and monologues. Or so I thought. This is the most un-David E. Kelley show that David E. Kelley could have done.

Though it's framed by a murder investigation, the series really is the story of several affluent women in Monterey, who spend most of their time teaming up to work with and against each other in all manner of school-related drama that involves each of their first-graders. With actors like Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern, the series is a compelling exploration of the difficult lives they lead beneath their privilege. (I realize that makes this sound like American Beauty, but I assure you the series is much, much better.) One has an abusive husband and needs to understand that before she has any hope of leaving him, one finds herself tempted to stray in her marriage, another initially presents as a Queen Bee monster before revealing a softer side, and another is finally ready to confront the sexual assault that conceived her child.

I'll be honest, I wasn't too compelled by the framing mystery. It was the characters and their storylines that brought me back for each episode, not the desire to find out who had been killed and who was the murderer. The eventual reveal that Kidman's husband was the same character who raped Shailene Woodley's character also seemed a bit pat and unnecessary. Maybe on a second viewing I'll notice things that set that up more clearly, but on a first pass, it came out of nowhere. As a showcase for some of the best working actresses, though, BLL is hard to beat.

10) One Day at a Time - I'll admit, this one took a few episodes to fully grow on me. I don't really watch any three-camera shows any more and part of that is that the tone and style feel too artificial for me. (I think this has more to do with the quality of the new series I've seen, as I don't have this issue with reruns of Seinfeld, Cheers and just about any other classic sitcom.) I've never seen the original version so I can't speak to comparisons between the two. Like several other shows on this list, it became more relevant this year than it might have, focusing on a family of Cuban immigrants raised by a single mother who's also a military vet. The show's dealt with PTSD, illegal immigrants, gender bias, religion, homosexuality, and more... all with the same deft touch that co-creator Norman Lear used almost 40 years ago when he created All in the Family and The Jeffersons. It feels authentic instead of preachy and manages to be consistently funny. It's a great era for sitcoms that actually have something to say.

Honorable Mentions:

Veep - a solid season that's only a disappointment when stacked against a couple really strong prior seasons. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss had one of favorite line readings this season when she threatened, "I will destroy you in ways that are so creative they will honor me for it at the Kennedy Center."

Curb Your Enthusiasm - Yes, it didn't produce the number of instant classics that season 7 or 8 did, but this was a very entertaining season nonetheless. "Accidental Text on Purpose" belongs in the Curb Hall-of-Fame and the resolution of Larry's fatwa was actually pretty clever.

GLOW - I love the way that season can be read as Alison Brie's character discovering and embracing that she's the villain of the story. It's a great way of addressing the issue that I and many others had with her likability in the first episode. And how great was Marc Maron?

Great News - Another strong, if underseen, network sitcom. Briga Heelan stars as a young local news producer who has to deal with her smother of a mother becoming the station's new intern, played by comic legend Andrea Martin. The show's got the comic sensibility of 30 Rock (it's from some of the same producers, including Tina Fey) which allows it to do things like deal with sexual harassment in the workplace in oddball ways while still making a legitimate point about gender issues. Nicole Richie has also become a force of comic insanity that rivals Jane Krakowski's Jenna on 30 Rock.

The Goldbergs - Five seasons in and this show is still consistently funny and getting solid work out of its ensemble every week.

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