Friday, December 22, 2017

The Best TV Shows of 2017 - Top 20

2017 is coming to a close. So now, it's time to look back on the year that was and honor all of the greatness that happened in television. I've already covered the best performances and episodes. Now, I'm counting down the best overall shows. The list now continues with the shows I've ranked 20-11. Enjoy!

As I've been saying with all of my year-end coverage so far for 2017, lists are completely subjective. I could like something that you absolutely hated. It's possible your favorite show just wasn't my thing. Or maybe I just didn't watch a show that you think deserved a placement somewhere on this list. The list this year of the best shows once again includes 100 series. I'm ranking that many because the industry is producing more and more content. It means that there are more shows worth recognizing. Some of them are big, tentpole shows that everyone knows about. Some are smaller shows that no one outside of critics is even aware of. Ranking things this way allows a great plethora of content to be recognized simply for being produced in 2017. Of course, it's impossible to watch everything. With over 500 scripted shows produced this year, I've only done my best to watch as much as possible of the shows on my radar. There are plenty of shows that just completely passed me by even though I'm a critic who needs to cover this industry professionally.

My metrics for ranking a show on this list are quite simple. I need to have watched the entirety of the show's episodes that aired this year. A complete opinion can only be held with such. And so, that's quite a time commitment. There are plenty of shows that I started in 2017 that I just haven't or couldn't be able to finish - like AMC's Preacher, Hulu's The Path or Syfy's 12 Monkeys. As such, you shouldn't expect to see them anywhere on this list. Similarly, there's a handful of shows that I just haven't seen at all despite the critical buzz being high on them. Netflix's The Crown and ABC's Speechless are prime examples of that. I've heard great things but used my time to catch up on other shows before making this list. So again, this entire list is tied to my personal taste. I watch a lot of television. It's all judged through my individual gaze of the world. So, it's all just my personal opinion. It will surely link up with yours on a number of occasions. But I'm certain I'll also rank a show too high or too low for you. That's perfectly fine as well. Disagreements are healthy. This really should just be a conversation starter. I'm listing the shows that I personally enjoyed the most from 2017.

So with all that being said, here's the shows I've ranked 20-11 for 2017!

20. FX's Legion

This drama was the best show based on a comic book property in 2017. When looking at the overall list, it wasn't even that close. The show is based on an obscure character in the Marvel canon as well: David Haller. The show was very self-contained and not mentioning any of the other events happening in Marvel's extended universe. That made it feel like its own distinct thing. Also helping in that endeavor was the fact that it was just weird. It was one of the craziest seasons to air this year. A whole bunch of it seemingly didn't make sense for a long time. And yet, it was so beautiful to look at from a directing and production design perspective that it was all very effective. Plus, the show featured career-defining performances from Dan Stevens and Rachel Keller. Moreover, it was truly shocking to see Aubrey Plaza in a role like this. It was such a blast to watch. But it also dealt with the serious subject of mental illness. All of the superheroic craziness was channeled through a conversation about personality disorder. David could never really be sure if something was truly happening. He couldn't tell if he was in control of his body or the parasite that has been lingering around for a long time was. It was a compelling thriller because so much of it was told from David's perspective. The conclusion was a little anti-climatic. But it was such a thrill ride getting to that point as well.

19. HBO's Big Little Lies

This drama was bound to be one of the most talked about shows to air in 2017 the moment it was announced. It featured a cast of A-list talent that included Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz and Alexander Skarsgård. It was written by Emmy winner David E. Kelley and directed entirely by Jean-Marc Vallée. Those are some high caliber talents involved with this show. Plus, it was all based on a popular book of the same name. So, the bar was set high with this show. And then, the actual episodes delivered. Yes, there are some structural things that critics could nitpick that lessened some of the tension overall. But the three distinct stories at the heart of the show were really compelling. They were all treated as mysteries. But it was also key to see the characters as parents just trying to do what's best for their children. There is so much variety on the different parenting styles here. That's just not something that is seen a whole lot in our culture. Plus, the most important storyline of the season was the domestic abuse. Those scenes were difficult to get through but very important in the end. They made the audience feel something. Those feelings were important in order to understand the headspace all of the main characters are in by the conclusion of the season.

18. Netflix's One Day at a Time

We were only one week into 2017 when Netflix gave us one of the contenders for best shows of the year. That was absolutely crazy and proved that a great show can come from anywhere at any time of the year. This comedy is a remake of the 1970s sitcom of the same name. That show had mild success in that it started the careers of its young stars and won a couple of Emmys. It was a credit that executive producer Norman Lear could be proud of. Not his best achievement but far from his worst. But now, this updated version of a single mom trying to raise her two kids is relevant, bold and exciting in the current landscape of TV. Lear once again has his pulse on what's been missing in this industry. It turns out to be a callback to the multi-camera format that used to define so much of the entertainment world. It's filmed in front of a live studio audience. The actors play for the big laughs with physical comedy. But the most important aspect of this show was its willingness to explore the depths of the characters and their struggles. It wasn't afraid to become dramatic for a few minutes. In fact, that's what let the comedy hit harder. It made this family real and genuine. The situations may be familiar but there is specificity to the way this Cuban-American family sees the world and deals with their challenges. It was truly quite remarkable.

17. FX's The Americans

My number one show of 2016 slide quite a way down the overall list for 2017. It wasn't because the fifth season was bad. It was just the latest example of a planned penultimate season being less exciting than the season that came before it and the season that will likely follow it. This season did feature a lot of set up. Paige was welcomed into more and more of Philip and Elizabeth's world as spies. Henry was given an actual storyline where he was revealed to be secretly smart. The family is growing up and evolving. But the wear and tear of the job is destroying Philip and Elizabeth much more so as well. This was an especially brutal season for them because of their work. It pushed them to their breaking points because they were constantly traveling all across the country for a mission that may not even be worth it. Plus, the show made it abundantly clear that the country they've believed in for all of their lives has radically changed and may no longer be the ideal they should strive to protect. It was such a fascinating season that made it clear that something needed to change otherwise Philip and Elizabeth would break. Gabriel got his exit. Claudia made her return. Philip and Elizabeth managed to evade capture. But the work just keeps pulling them deeper and deeper inside to the point that it could destroy everything they've tried to build with this family unit.

16. HBO's The Deuce

David Simon shows have frequently been the prime example for how to do the novelization of TV correctly. They are highly serialized stories where the hours blend together but effectively build to some pretty major conclusions by the end But this drama was probably the most empathetic piece of entertainment that Simon and his partner, George Pelecanos, have created. It's a show about the seedy Times Square of the 1970s that eventually led to the rise of the porn industry. This show could very easily just be the sensational, pornographic version designed for HBO. Instead, the show approached each of the sex scenes as these disgusting and impersonal acts. It was merely a job for the people caught up in this industry. Some could play the game well and others could not. It wasn't glamorous at all. In fact, it turned quite tragic in a number of instances - like with Darlene and Thunder Thighs. But it was also hopeful as well. Hopeful that this life wouldn't ultimately define the people trapped in it. Hopeful that new opportunities were just around the corner. It was basically a show about the entrepreneurial spirit. That was surprising and really quite effective. And James Franco playing twin brothers wasn't just a gimmick to get viewers in. Maggie Gyllenhaal wasn't just the movie star doing TV. They had fascinating roles that gave both some really strong material to play.

15. Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale

This turned out to be a year of Margaret Atwood adaptations on streaming services. The first of which was this drama on Hulu. It was the one that had distinct highs and lows. When the emotion was on, it was one of the most brutal and distinctive shows on all of television. When the narrative was meandering in world building to extend the scope of the original novel, then it felt like it was bidding its time a little bit. The first season definitely had a strong beginning and strong ending. The middle was necessary to keep it an ongoing series. But those emotional highs sure were something. This show envisions such a dystopia version of the future that still has connections to the present day. It proved to be one of the most timely shows of the entire year. It was a narrative about society trying to control women's bodies. It turned reproductive rights into a slave trade. June and her fellow handmaids were just seen as incubators and nothing more. It was so traumatic and dark. The performances were absolutely brutal across the board. Elisabeth Moss and Alexis Bledel had two of the most stunning and destructive performances on TV this year. They were just so raw and tapped into emotions that defy any kind of sensible explanation. They were transcendent to watch - and rightfully earned both Emmys later on in the year. Moreover, the way director Reed Morano chose to shoot the show in tight close-ups and in eery corners of houses was nerve-wrecking and so uncomfortable for the viewing senses in the best way possible.

14. Netflix's Alias Grace

The second Margaret Atwood adaptation of the year didn't get nearly as much buzz as The Handmaid's Tale did. They are remarkably different shows. This one wasn't trying to be an ongoing drama. It just set out to tell a close-ended story that rocked the audience in a really powerful and emotional way. Of course, there are similarities as well. They are fundamentally about women who have no control over their destiny and are trying to make peace with that while being angry at the same time. This show also followed a handmaid with life-or-death stakes in the narrative. But overall, the tone and effectiveness of these six episodes were much more consistent and strong. It was poignant and inspiring to watch from the first minute until the last. It was a gripping story largely told in such a simple way. It's a story told through two characters sitting down and talking. They were examining each other to determine whether or not they can be telling the truth and if they should be trusted. It was such a twisted narrative that never made it clear whether or not Grace Marks was innocent of killing her employer and his housekeeper. It was a narrative that never made things easy. It gave off the perception that it was all building to some fantastic conclusion that brought a sensible resolution to the piece. But in the end, it was just as complicated, mysterious and ambivalent about what ultimately happened. That was a powerful ending. One of the best resolutions on any show this year actually.

13. Comedy Central's Review

The first two seasons of this comedy created by and starring Andy Daly ranked quite highly on my year-end lists. It was a brilliant series in its final season as well. One that is just as worthy for such high recognition. It just barely misses the Top 10 cutoff this year for two reasons. The first is simply the immense quality of shows out there at the moment. So many series had great seasons this year. The second is that the final season was only three episodes long. It was just enough story for the show to come back and wrap up its narrative in a way that would be fitting for the show and the audience. That was lame and lackluster. But the stories that the show put Forrest MacNeil through in this season were absolutely crazy and wonderful to behold. He went on trial for murder but got off because the lawyers said it's just really hard to convict someone who looks like Forrest. He was forced to be a co-host which allowed AJ Gibbs a chance to shine on the show and prove that it didn't need to be a series that destroyed the personal life of the person tasked with reviewing activities. The fault was solely Forrest's alone. He was the one ultimately responsible for ruining his life. The show couldn't be blamed even though it was a significant motivation. And then, the ending was just perfect. It was twisted in just the right ways with Forrest being just as clueless as he always was.

12. Netflix's BoJack Horseman

The first three seasons of this animated comedy followed a similar destructive pattern. BoJack tried to move on with his life in pursuing a genuine career only for his self-destructive tendencies to ultimately send him spiraling back down to a pit of despair and depression. The fourth season was remarkably different because it broke that pattern. The creative team understood that it simply couldn't keep telling stories like that over and over again. They would lose their power over time. So instead, that destruction quality was replaced with a more hopeful tone. It created an ending that was unlike anything the show has done before. That was surprising and meaningful. It represented actual growth. BoJack hit his rock bottom. He still had the potential to be destructive in his friends' life. He had the chance to ruin the life of a young girl claiming to be his daughter. He ultimately did do that but he found a way to mend things quickly thereafter as well. Plus, the show became more ensemble driven this year. It was completely ridiculous and silly to watch subplots that had Mr. Peanutbutter and then Jessica Biel running for governor of California simply because of a ski race. But then, it became so emotional and poignant when Princess Carolyn was trying to get pregnant but just couldn't while BoJack was also dealing with his mother having dementia and no longer being the cruel parent she always was. It was a different season. But a really effective one as well.

11. FX's Fargo

The first two seasons of this anthology show were my number one show of 2014 and 2015. As such, it could feel like a disappointment to have it ranked just outside of the Top 10 for 2017. The third season did have a few more problematic elements - especially in the early going. There was a growing sense of familiarity to the proceedings after spending three years in the Minnesota nice setting of unexpected chaos and destruction. The choice of having Ewan McGregor play two brothers ultimately played more as a stunt than something of genuine interest. The narrative really only became engaging once one of the brothers was killed. But it was also a fascinating story that delved deep into the power of a story. It was a season that debated the truth of any particular moment. Is history telling the truth? Or is it just people selling whatever they want with enough conviction? Those were the questions of the season. It was a surprising story that ended in an unexpected way like the show always does. But it also did a solid job in not allowing things to be neatly wrapped up in the end like the previous two seasons. In fact, it was more powerful of an ending to leave things in an ambiguous way. It made sure that the show never offered much of an answer to the big questions it asked this year. It may be easier to lean one way over the other or be hopeful about one outcome. But that's ultimately a reflection on the audience and what they saw from this season which gave the overall story much more power as a result.