The Best TV Shows of 2017 (According to Britt Hayes)
Maybe it’s a good thing that 2017 felt like the longest year in my lifetime. With Peak TV in overdrive, binge-watching almost became a necessity just to keep up with all of the fantastic shows we had to choose from. As always, distilling a list of favorites down to just 10 is a difficult task, but even more so this year with all the boundary and envelope-pushing artistry on small-screen display. Any one of these 10 shows could easily vie for the top spot on this ranking, which feels more arbitrary than ever.
There will inevitably be a few shows that didn’t make the cut, perhaps unjustly so in the eyes of some readers. Just know that each of the honorable mentions at the bottom were worthy of inclusion, but this is a top 10 — not a top 20. I didn’t make the rules! I just follow them…most of the time. (I literally just finished Stranger Things Season 2 last night. Hey Netflix: Look at me. Look at me. I am the captain now.)
So without further adieu, here are the top 10 TV shows of 2017, according to me:
Jenji Kohan did it again. Although not quite as diverse as Orange Is the New Black (though I suspect that may change somewhat moving forward), GLOW — like its titular ladies’ wrestling team — perfectly marries soapy drama with the engaging and entertaining dynamics of pro wrestling, marinating the whole thing in biting, unrepentant poignancy. Alison Brie gives a heck of a performance as a deeply flawed aspiring actress, but it’s Betty Gilpin who ultimately steals the show, both literally and figuratively speaking. Even Marc Maron is wonderful here, but this show — and its heart — belong to the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.
GLOW is streaming on Netflix.
Carrie Coon was the queen of television in 2017, and her work in the third season of Fargo (which may very well be its last) is every bit as compelling as her bow in The Leftovers (which also concluded with three seasons). In fact, this season of Noah Hawley’s existential crime drama would pair quite nicely with The Leftovers; both ruminate on themes of tragedy and time and grief and regret, before ultimately reaching a conclusion — delivered via Gloria Burgle and Nora Durst, respectively — that turns our own need for closure and definitive answers against us. While Ewan McGregor certainly gives a pair of fine performances, and Coon is inarguably the show’s MVP, special attention must also be paid to the great work from Michael Stuhlbarg and Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Fargo is available on FXNOW.
8. Better Things
It’s not an easy thing to define “most overlooked” or “underrated” show, but I feel confident saying that Pamela Adlon’s beautiful FX series fits the bill. A semi-fictional portrait of her life as a single mother and character actor raising three daughters, Better Things is a moving love letter to the relationship between single parents and their children, a searing collection of diary entries, and a humorously unapologetic comedy about a fiercely independent, romantically-averse woman. There is such brutal honesty in each and every episode, whether it’s Adlon’s Sam struggling to deal with her own mother or the seemingly senseless battles she fights with her kids. Her reluctant dating life is rife with realness and provides some of the season’s most hilarious moments, though nothing comes close to besting her protracted, sublime shut down of Jeff.
Better Things is available on FXNOW.
7. The Deuce
As I’ve already written about at length, the first episode of The Deuce has more full-frontal male nudity than every season of Game of Thrones combined. The pilot of David Simon’s latest effort, directed by Michelle MacLaren, is a mission statement that is carried out throughout the nine remaining episodes of the season. Like Fargo, it features a pair of solid performances from a leading man (in this case, James Franco) portraying twin brothers in a series that is entirely owned by women. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Emily Meade, Dominique Fishback, Kayla Foster and Pernell Walker give stellar, gutsy performances as sex workers trying to survive the streets and take agency for themselves in a violent, male-dominated world. They are the soul of this show, which, on a very basic level, explores the nascent days of the porn industry in ’70s New York. On a more sophisticated level, The Deuce investigates corrupt cops (in a David Simon show?! NO WAY!) and the ways women fight to reclaim themselves from misogynistic institutions.
The Deuce is available on HBO GO and HBO NOW.
Mindhunter combines a handful of my favorite things into one wryly dark package, but not even I could anticipate just how much I would love this show. Executive produced and directed (in part) by David Fincher, and loosely based on the creation of the FBI’s revolutionary serial killer profiling, Mindhunter is far more — and more complex — than a crime procedural. Subverting the audience’s expectations of a “case of the week” formula, Fincher’s series, all handsome and morosely-hued, sets about exploring the slippery nature of empathy. Over the course of its expertly-crafted first season, Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) is our unreliable narrative anchor and viewer proxy — a man who romanticizes the mind of killers and romanticizes the crude ways in which he is able to identify and communicate with them. Ultimately, like Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, Fincher’s series examines the tenuous psychological line between the serial killer and the man who feels compelled to get inside his head.
Mindhunter is streaming on Netflix.
5. Nathan for You
In his recent essay for the New Yorker, documentarian Errol Morris wrote of Nathan for You’s two-hour season finale: “Maybe Nathan for You is ultimately about our unfettered capacity for credulity — not just the suspension of disbelief but the acceptance of the preposterous.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a more eloquent and succinct summation of Nathan Fielder’s weirdly hopeful series, in which the Canadian business school graduate travels the country to help failing businesses with convoluted schemes that could only be described as Ocean’s 11 for the socially inept. In “Finding Frances,” easily one of the best documentaries of 2017, Fielder accompanies a Bill Gates impersonator (who appeared on a previous episode) on an endearing odyssey to find the one that got away. Fielder simultaneously employs the help of a professional escort, with whom he develops a tentative courtship. That escort is the key to unlocking the finale, which posits a familiar notion about life as performance art; whether the cameras are on or off, whether we are alone or surrounded by friends and loved ones, we are always performing a version of ourselves.
Nathan for You is available to watch on ComedyCentral.com.
About halfway through the first season of Noah Hawley’s X-Men series, I was all but certain that this was my favorite show of 2017 — and I hadn’t even seen Twin Peaks yet. There is a similar nightmare logic quality to Legion, which also evokes other iconic Davids, combining the surrealism and unnerving existentialism of Lynch and Cronenberg with a bit of Wes Anderson’s aesthetic idiosyncrasies. If that sounds jarring, that’s because it is: Much of the show’s rhythm and design reflects the fractured psyche of its lead, played by Dan Stevens. Though Stevens is definitely at the top of his game here, Aubrey Plaza is the one to watch. Like a woman possessed by the competing spirits of Bob Dylan and Jack Nicholson in the body of a forgotten Bob Fosse muse, Plaza is absolutely deranged.
Legion is available to watch on FXNOW.
3. The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood’s dystopian drama is every bit as harrowing and relevant in 2017 as it was when she first published her novel in 1985. It was never meant to be a prescient tome; Atwood borrowed from real-life systems of misogynistic oppression in every corner of the world to craft a story that feels uncomfortably imminent. Elisabeth Moss carries the series (Hulu’s best to date) through Scorsese-esque voiceover, much of which is directly lifted from Atwood’s novel. The Handmaid’s Tale presents a fictional, near-future dystopia in which the few fertile women left are enslaved to wealthy couples and raped by their husbands in the pursuit of procreation. The series speaks to our society now, as it’s only just begun to reckon with centuries of misogyny, but it also explores distinctly feminine issues and fears: Slut-shaming, persecution, sexual assault, and the place where a desire for children meets desperate need.
The Handmaid’s Tale is available to stream on Hulu.
2. The Leftovers
Damon Lindelof’s series continued its stunning and intense journey through loss and grief in its third and final season. Though The Leftovers was cut short by HBO, Lindelof crafted a perfect trilogy of television, capped off with a predictably thought-provoking farewell. In its compassionate third season, the series challenges its audience to consider the journey over the destination, to luxuriate in its somber themes through the mournful, and at times resentful, eyes of Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) and Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux). Lindelof refuses to offer his audience conclusive answers and closure, as illustrated by Nora’s explanation of what happened to her after she entered that mysterious chamber in the hopes of reuniting with her raptured family. Whether or not Nora is telling the truth is immaterial; her literal journey is meaningless compared to the emotional one she’s taken. In every way, Nora’s story in the finale is a deeply poignant metaphor for The Leftovers as a whole: It doesn’t matter if Kevin is a neo-Jesus, it doesn’t matter if Matt is a prophet or if God healed his wife, and it doesn’t matter what happened the day the Guilty Remnant orchestrated its terrorist attack. What matters is what we do after the tragedy, and what we do with the pieces we have left.
The Leftovers is available on HBO GO and HBO NOW.
1. Twin Peaks: The Return
Like The Leftovers, David Lynch’s revival of his classic mystery series is not a puzzle to be solved; it’s an experience to be had. Over the course of 18 glorious hours, Twin Peaks: The Return sends viewers on a tour through the very best of Lynch. The tragic undercurrent of the original series prevails in The Return, where its Pacific Northwest town reflects many issues plaguing our society now: A lack of compassion, startling and senseless violence, poverty that extends beyond the wallet and infects morality. But for all the horrors, there are those who radiate a light in the darkness; people like Dougie Jones, a pure soul if there ever was one.
Kyle MacLachlan gives a tour-de-force performance in three (literal) dimensions, representing the best and worst of humanity before ultimately inhabiting a space (and time) somewhere in between. In this horrible year, Twin Peaks was a miracle of a show: A rebellious reaction to Peak TV that refused to cater to nostalgia or indulge its audience. Episode 8 was easily the best hour of television in 2017, a work of existential art and pure, unfiltered creation in which David Lynch gave us his version of an origin story — the closest thing to an explanation he’s ever offered.
Honorable Mentions, in alphabetical order: Alias Grace, Better Call Saul, Big Little Lies, Girls, The Good Place, I Love Dick, Insecure, Love, Master of None, Mr. Robot, The Sinner.