Thursday, January 18, 2018

Best Shows of 2017

A few shows I've been watching for a while had down or least unexciting seasons in 2017, but for the most part it was a great year for TV, with several new series that really impressed me.

Best of 2017

10. Review (Comedy Central)

Review's third and final season was very brief, but it was a perfect send-off for a series that was much more fascinating than I really expected when I gave it a shot. Right up to the end they kept coming up with new ways for Andy Daly's Forrest MacNeill to torture himself, putting his obsession with doing his job over every other concern he should have. You really just have to see it for yourself.

9. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC)

This was maybe the biggest surprise of the year. From the beginning, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been the dutiful television branch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that cleans up the scraps of story left by the movies and does competent but bland espionage action every week. Things were different in season four, when they finally abandoned the pretense that they were really "connected" to the movies and focused on three tighter story arcs instead of a single meandering thread. It resulted in what was quite easily the show's best season, recalling what works about the Whedon TV formula with smart plots, strong character drama, and twists that really stick the knife in. I don't know if I would tell anyone they really need to watch this show, but that season alone made the years of investment worth it.

8. Samurai Jack (Adult Swim)

Samurai Jack returned after many years to finally conclude the tale of his defeat of Aku and return to his own time. The show matured along with most of its audience, becoming more violent and bittersweet as it introduced a couple of new concepts but focused mostly on creating a proper ending for the series and its characters. I thought the climax could have used a bit more time to breathe, but it was a really good show with some of the best animated sequences you'll ever see on TV.

7. Rick and Morty (Adult Swim)

Rick and Morty's fandom really seemed to boil over into full on insufferable, ashamed-to-be-associated-with-some-of-these-people mode in the last couple years, but the show itself is about as good as ever, mixing razor sharp humor with wild sci-fi ideas and bitterly human moments at a crazy pace. It continues to be formally experimental in eye-opening ways, and a few of these episodes are easily among the most memorable half hours of entertainment to come along in a while.

6. Legion (FX)

FOX has been having a nice of run of success with its X-Men related output lately, and Legion might be my favorite thing they've done. It's a superhero story as a psychological drama. In the comics, David Haller is the son of Professor X. In the show, there are no real references to any well-known mutants to be found, but the character is intact as a mentally unstable, powerful mutant who isn't sure where his abilities end and his hallucinations begin. The show is really more of a horror series than anything else, with some truly unsettling moments as the characters fight to survive some truly bizarre situations. It stands apart from other X-Men adaptations as something truly unique.

5. The Good Place (NBC)

The new comedy from the Parks and Recreation brain trust takes place in "The Good Place", the place good people go when they die, based on a complicated point system. The problem in the first episode is the new arrival and protagonist, played by Kristen Bell, knows there's no way she shouldn't have been sent to "The Bad Place", and from there begins a whole series of complications and screw-ups that drive one of my favorite new comedies in a long time. The Good Place is ambitious, smart, and hilarious, and is story focused in a way that makes compulsive watching easy if not unavoidable. And the cast is diverse and brilliant, particularly Ted Danson as Michael, the architect of the neighborhood the show takes place in. He might be the lifetime sitcom MVP.

4. The Deuce (HBO)

David Simon's new show is a return to what he does best - rich, complicated examinations of systems of crime and neglect that inevitably end up hurting the vulnerable the most. It's about the intertwined industries of prostitution and pornography in 1970s New York, as the former is pushed behind closed doors and the latter starts gaining mainstream acceptance. The ensemble cast is reliably excellent, as is the writing, which takes time to explain how things work and why they're terrible and won't be fixed without being preachy or unnatural. There's a lot of sex in this show, but it feels illustrative rather than titillating. When you know how the sausage is made, you don't want to eat it as much.

3. Better Call Saul (AMC)

In some ways, I think Better Call Saul might be better than Breaking Bad. I don't want that to be taken the wrong way, because there are things that Breaking Bad did that no other show can do as well, and that Saul doesn't really try. But it can do subtler, smaller storytelling in ways that show this team doesn't need Breaking Bad's excesses to make one of the most consistently riveting dramas on TV. The rivalry between Jimmy and Chuck is one of the most heartbreaking family conflicts I can remember, and Mike getting himself intertwined with Gus and the cartel, knowing where that eventually goes, is always great stuff. And what the heck is going to happen to Kim? God this show is fun.

2. The Leftovers (HBO)

The Leftovers' third and final season (déjà vu) brings the story to a close in a way that satisfied, bringing more comparisons to Lost, Damon Lindelof's other show about mysterious, unexplained events. It's all a matter of perspective. While people expected certain things from Lost that the creators never intended to give them, it seemed clear from the outset that the focus of The Leftovers was how the strange disappearance of 2% of the population affected the people who remained, and not the disappearance itself. That was driven home here, as the characters struggle to find some catharsis or really anything to latch onto, as they reel from further events that spun out from the results of the "rapture". The final season was raw, emotional, devastating, and hopeful from beginning to end.

1. Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime)

There was some trepidation about what to expect from David Lynch's return to the world of Twin Peaks for the first time in 26 years, and his first major work behind a camera in 11. Does he still have it? Will it be too familiar? Too different? The answers to those questions are yes, no, and no. Twin Peaks still resembles the old Twin Peaks, but it feels appropriately twisted. Evil has been running free for decades, and the advanced aging of the many returning cast members illustrate the toll it has taken on this world. It's like Lynch got to make an eighteen hour long movie and could do whatever the hell he wanted with it as long as it tied into a story that didn't get a proper ending the first time. There are a few moments of comfort and familiarity, but the show is frequently challenging, even frustrating, and often very experimental. It won't work for everyone, but as a fan of most of Lynch's filmography, I loved the hell out of it. I'm not sure I've ever seen anything as ballsy as that ending. Also, Kyle MacLachlan kills it. I'd love to see another season, or really anything else David Lynch wants to make.

Delayed Entry

This is the best show that didn't air in 2017 but I didn't watch until then.

The Last Man on Earth (FOX)

I'm now caught up on this show, and while it didn't quite land on the top 10, it's also another one of my favorite new-ish comedy series. Will Forte stars as Phil Miller, an oddball of a man and one of only a few who seem to be immune to a virus that wiped out almost all life on the planet (spoiler, the title of the show is quickly shown to be inaccurate). The whole cast is good, but it's really Forte who drives the thing. The show actually takes its premise quite seriously, and it has its share of effective dramatic developments and careful consideration of what would follow the near-extinction of humanity. But taking that story, and putting this character at the center, is so weird and brilliant and funny. Will Forte should have gotten his own show a long time ago.

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