Every year the number of shows vying for hearts, minds and attention increases exponentially. In the middle of the year, FX Networks chief John Landgraf observed there were already almost 350 scripted series across broadcast, cable, and streaming services, on-track to deliver 500 by year’s end — a new record, up from 455 scripted series the previous year.
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With the list ever-growing, and with many audiences committed to completionism with series they previously started years earlier (or just got into, thanks to a binge), there is often very little time in one’s day to give new shows a shot. But 2017 wasn’t just a time of the most television, it has also been a time of some truly strong television — bold stories that tackle tough topics, come from unique new voices, and/or simply provide some joy and escapism during a tumultuous time.
Here, Variety selects the best new scripted series of 2017.
“Alias Grace” — Netflix
The adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, which was based on a true story of a 19th century accused murderer, may have been a period piece in look, but its themes of women’s repression and gender politics remains timely, especially given the current entertainment and political landscape. Sarah Polley crafted a six-episode story that always allowed the titular protagonist — the accused — to tell her own story, but followed her as she played different versions of herself and revealed different amounts of information depending on who she was with. The period piece elements and the sensationalism of the crime might draw some in, but the ambiguity of the woman is what truly captivated.
“American Gods” — Starz
Bryan Fuller has a distinct voice and visual style that lends itself to artistic television, but teaming up with Michael Green for this Neil Gaiman-inspired fantastical series is a whole other level. Spanning times, places, and multiple Gods and pop culture icons, the show welcomes viewers through a road trip formula but then expands their minds with imagery and themes. And given that the creators and showrunners have stepped down, and Season 2 will have a different voice, this freshman year is even more special and unique.
“Big Little Lies” — HBO
Visually the premium cabler adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name was real estate porn — an aspirational look at the wealthy elite. But the layered nuance of the story from David E. Kelley, the direction of Jean-Marc Valee, and the acting from stars Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and Alexander Skarsgard humanized what could have easily been written off at first glance as “first world problems.” Instead, a deep dive into the women’s lives behind closed doors revealed secret insecurities, dark domestic abuse and what ultimately turned out to be a very justified murder.
“Big Mouth” — Netflix
Created by Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin, Jennifer Flackett, this animated series dives deeper into the experience of puberty than one might have thought one wanted. But although it is an awkward topic, it is handled with great care and surprise sweetness. Rather than going for gross-out humor, it works to normalize the experience making it almost a teaching tool for those in the midst of the change themselves. The characters are not merely obsessed with sex itself but yearn for understanding, empathy and a more widespread intimacy, which makes it relatable at any age.
“Dark” — Netflix
Baran bo Odar’s genre-bending drama starts with a young boy going missing in a small town 33 years after a previous young boy went missing. But more than a mystery of where this boy is, the question is when this boy is, as a mysterious door to other time periods exists in the woods. The mind-bending aspect of the show doesn’t stop with time travel, though, as at its heart it is a multi-generational family drama that asks big questions about fate and free will and provides even bolder answers. Pro tip: turn off the English dubbing that Netflix defaults to and watch it in its native German, with the subtitles turned on, for the truest experience.
|Variety’s Best of 2017|
“Dear White People” — Netflix
Three years ago Justin Simien released an independent film that explored racial tensions at prestigious college, but this year, with that an ever-more-relevant topic, the story was translated into a series. Aside from the important storytelling (one episodic examines how a somewhat privileged young man changes after an unjustified brush with the law), the structure of the show makes it stand out. Each episode is told from a different character’s point of view, so while sometimes events repeat, the emotions are always evolving.
“The Deuce” — HBO
“The Wire” is one of the greatest television shows of all time, and while that is a big bar to clear, David Simon (along with George Pelecanos) is following that gritty path with this drama about seedy underbelly of 1970s New York, including its dark nightlife, organized crime and sex work (both on the street and on-screen through the emerging porn industry). However, Simon’s sensibility is not to exploit the players but rather shine a light on who they are behind the assumptions made from the positions in which they find themselves, and there is no better example of that here than Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Candy, a woman who works as a prostitute but has a true entrepreneurial heart and mind.
“Feud: Bette and Joan” — FX
The first installment of Ryan Murphy’s new anthology drama was a masterclass in acting from everyone from leads Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon to supporting players such as Alfred Molina, Stanley Tucci, and Judy Davis. Although the behind-the-scenes drama depicted was of a Hollywood era gone by, the insecurities of and power dynamics between the players proved timeless. Also, the opening credits sequence alone was artistry at its finest.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” — Hulu
When Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel first hit shelves in 1985 there was no way to know just how relevant its themes of misogyny and oppression would be decades later. The show is often heart-wrenching to watch — both scenes of Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and her fellow handmaids’ new lives, as well as glimpses into their past lives that were stripped from them — but there is something both powerful and inspiring in the quiet determination of those who refuse to give up or fully give in to the new regime. More than any other series this year, it is haunting in the best possible way.
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — Amazon
Amy Sherman-Palladino may just have a monopoly on creating fresh, vibrant, fast-talking women who make their audience wish they were their friend. In her new streaming comedy, though, this woman is more than just an affable individual but a woman who represents a whole wave of women out to start over but struggling to do so. Set in the 1950s, the show captures the spirit of the time from its polished wardrobe to its side-eye at women trying to work outside of the home. But the titular heroine doesn’t let anything phase her and doesn’t mind getting a little sloppy — from just literally letting her hair down to getting arrested for the things she says on-stage. Sherman-Palladino found her voice a long time ago, but watching her new character follow in her footsteps is an inspiring romp for us all.
“Mary Kills People” — Lifetime
Writing about death is never an easy thing, but writing about suicide — let alone assisted suicide — has often been too taboo for television to touch. But with this drama centering on an ER doctor who moonlights as an “angel of death” for terminally ill patients, Tara Armstrong tackles the topic fearlessly — and the heart, care and dignity that such a serious thing warrants. But the show also manages not to be maudlin, and it moves through story quickly to show the ever-evolving complications that come from trying to keep this kind of double life secret from family, as well as the law.
“Mindhunter” — Netflix
The period drama based on the real life early days of criminal profiling starts with a bang — literally — to prove to the audience that write Joe Penhall and director David Fincher are not messing around with the seriousness of the story that is about to unfold. But after that opening moment, the drama slows down to linger with its characters — both the cops and criminals alike — to allow the audience to inside their minds and understand their psychologies in the way the FBI guys are attempting within the show itself. The show sets up more tension than most other dramas, not only in the politics of the time that slowed advancements in careers and protocols, but also in that it offers just a glimpse at a very dark killer to come.
“One Day At A Time” — Netflix
Sometimes what is old is not only new again, it is timeless. Created by Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce, this updated version of Norman Lear’s classic 1970s sitcom depicts the universal themes of multi-generation family (this time around the family is Cuban) while also touching on poignant topics like veterans’ rights.
“SMILF” — Showtime
Frankie Shaw is the latest new voice in auteur comedy, and she packed quite a lot of topical commentary into each half-hour episode of her freshman premium cable semi-autobiographical tale. Shaw created a show that explores the complexity of women dealing with various levels of traumas (from past sexual abuse to on-going mental disorders) while also taking a stand for single moms everywhere who are trying to better their lives and their kids’ lives while still following their dreams.