Sonia Saraiya’s 25 Best TV Shows of 2017

It’s been a year.

In so many ways, the world feels changed. Like the ground is reforming itself beneath us, and we are discovering the rules of the world we live in are much more unjust than we realized. The real world is always intruding on pop culture, but more so than ever in 2017. It has felt, at times, as if the scales have finally fallen off my eyes, and I am beginning to see the world for what it truly is.

But on the flip side of being horrified is the vast landscape of being inspired. My list expanded to 25 this year, partly because of how many shows swung for the fences in 2017. Peak TV being what it is, few of those fully landed. It surprised me to learn that my top five shows are hourlong dramas, three of which were in their final seasons; after years of feeling that the dramatic hour was behind us, as a form, I found myself embracing it this year. Perhaps it has something to do with endings; I am drawn to those shows, old and new, that didn’t get rebooted to death or bloated with self-satisfaction, but found a way to go out on a high note. Peak TV might have eroded the audience for shows like “The Leftovers” and “Halt and Catch Fire,” but it also created a market for the indescribable “Twin Peaks: The Return,” which itself could serve as the series finale for television. Meanwhile, for all of my frustrations with elements of our new streaming world order, Netflix alone accounts for nine of my top 25 shows, suggesting that occasionally spending billions of dollars on original content does yield some fantastic programming.

It’s a good year for trying new things — for expanding the roster of voices we listen to, and changing our expectations of what’s worth watching. The best shows of 2017, in my mind, brought with them a challenge, implicit or explicit, to imagine the world a bit differently. For some, that is about exploring gender dynamics; for others, that is examining racial dynamics. “Planet Earth II” looked at the natural around us with new eyes, both figuratively and literally; “Halt and Catch Fire” tried to predict the future of tech in the ‘80s, playing with the bits and bytes that they knew were about to shape the world.

And some shows imagine new dimensions and portals to other universes, and those might be my favorite of all. In a world that can feel hopeless, it is crucial to imagine endlessly; to look beyond the plane of existence that is given, to imagine the answers to bigger questions — or to even come up with those questions in the first place.

The message of art, almost always, is that we are all different and yet we are all the same.

Here are my top 25 shows for 2017, ranked: Different, and yet the same.

Note: I’ve called out exceptional episodes for selected shows below; I have not for others.

25. “Marvel’s The Punisher” (Netflix)

I didn’t expect to think highly of “The Punisher” at all — the recipe of shadowy violence and tortured, rippling muscles didn’t entice — but I was proven quite wrong: The Frank Castle-centric drama became my favorite Marvel drama yet, with a clear sense of vision that didn’t seem bogged down either by Marvel’s ever-expanding universe or the constraints of trying to create superheroics on the small screen. But most of all, the show might be one of the best mainstream depictions of the contemporary doublespeak around American violence — including the oft-ignored perspectives of traumatized veterans. Exceptional episodes: “Kandahar,” with its combination of PTSD and surveillance, and the narratively adventurous “Virtue of the Vicious.”

24. “One Day at a Time” (Netflix)

Norman Lear’s update of his own series from 1975 was one of the most surprising joys of 2017 — a multi-camera sitcom that felt fresh and vital, at the dawn of a year where immigrants, and their value to America, became a subject of regular debate. “One Day at a Time’s” Cuban-American family contains many different perspectives and has to take on many different struggles, from dating to deportation. But the love radiates from their family in every episode. And not for nothing, but Rita Moreno is one of the funniest women on television. Exceptional episodes: “Hold, Please,” “Sex Talk,” “No Mass”

23. “Insecure” (HBO)

Issa Rae and Prentice Penny’s “Insecure” is such a sturdy half-hour that it glows: Even with just eight episodes this season, it lodged into my brain. The second season didn’t have quite as much narrative cohesion as the first, but it’s still a reliably engaging and beautifully composed half-hour. Exceptional episodes: “Hella LA,” in which the leads all have separate, very Los Angeles adventures.

22. “Better Call Saul” (AMC)

It’s no surprise that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are still doing moving character work in the “Breaking Bad” universe with “Better Call Saul,” and although this season didn’t quite pack the wallop that the second season did, the show still casts a spell — thanks largely to top-notch performances from the leads. Exceptional episodes: The highight of the season is the tense courtroom episode “Chicanery,” in which Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and Chuck (Michael McKean) finally face off in the eyes of the law.

Variety’s Best of 2017
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21. “The Good Place” (NBC)

“The Good Place” is the only broadcast comedy in my top tier of shows, largely due to how showrunner Michael Schur has found a way to crack the predictable format of the sitcom with a world that consciously presents itself as an unchanging hellscape, and then reboots itself constantly when all the pieces don’t fit. There is nothing quite like “The Good Place” — a charming, witty discourse about ethics, values, and the afterlife for a half-hour every week. And of course there’s Janet (D’Arcy Camden) — a repository for all the information in the universe who falls in love with an idiot. Exceptional episodes: “Michael’s Gambit,” “The Trolley Problem”

20. “GLOW” (Netflix)

Jenji Kohan’s look at a squad of female pro-wrestlers in the ’80s is such a lovely little set of half-hour episodes that the main problem with Season 1 is how short it is — a mere introduction to a cast of fascinating women and an alien world that ends too soon. Alison Brie’s Ruth makes for a wonderfully irritating protagonist, who slowly learns that the world likes her better when she’s the bad guy, and Marc Maron shines in a rare dramatic turn as the crew’s pessimistic manager-coach-surrogate dad. The tone of the half-hour is remarkably fresh for a period piece; I expect great things from Season 2.

19. “The Deuce” (HBO)

David Simon and George Pelecanos’ “The Deuce” isn’t quite the masterpiece that “The Wire” was, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad, either: A sprawling portrait of New York City in the ’70s, it takes Simon’s signature massive cast of characters and uses them to examine the multifaceted network of the sex trade that called Times Square its epicenter. It’s hard to not be swept up in the masterful storytelling, even when it’s more expanding than narrating. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance anchors the production.

18. “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu)

The Emmy winner was stronger in spirit than execution, but it still made for one of the best series of the year — thanks largely to the power of Elisabeth Moss’ central performance and the overall look of the show, which combined gorgeous color palettes and creamy light with close-range and often quite bloody individual suffering. The series wouldn’t work, either, without the supporting talents of Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd, Samira Wiley, and Madeline Brewer — who along with Moss offer the audience multiple perspectives of empowered or enslaved women in Margaret Atwood’s all-too-relevant dystopia. Exceptional episodes: “A Woman’s Place,” “Night”

17. “Dear White People” (Netflix)

Showrunner Justin Simien adapted and expanded his film of the same name into a sharply imagined Netflix series following a group of largely black characters trying to navigate their niche at an Ivy League institution. “Dear White People” is seemingly the confluence of Spike Lee and Wes Anderson’s effect on Simien, combined with the largesse of a Netflix format. Simien’s vision is a stylized one, but it works particularly well with this subject matter, which makes a comedy of manners out of modern-day identity politics.

16. “Broad City” (Comedy Central)

The fourth season of “Broad City” depicts the biggest departure for the sketch comedy show since it debuted. Co-creators, co-writers, and co-stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer have matured, and the struggle to reconcile their anger and frustration at the state of the world with the freewheeling shenanigans of their youth combine in a fourth season that feels fresh, sharp, and aware. Exceptional episodes: “Mushrooms,” which animates the ups and downs of a drug trip with frightening accuracy; “Florida,” “Witches.”

15. “The Keepers” (Netflix)

This docuseries, from director Ryan White, starts as an exploration of a unsolved murder and turns into an investigation into a long-buried scandal of terrible abuse, covered up and then ignored by the Baltimore diocese as dozens of young girls were raped by a priest. As stories of sexual violence and harassment have been making more headlines, “The Keepers'” steadfast dedication to the most marginalized voices and its championing of communal justice makes it stand out.

14. “Star Trek: Discovery” (CBS All Access)

Hang the films; “Star Trek” belongs to TV. And the franchise desperately needed this diverse, passionate, inventive new title, which marries the space opera optimism of the series that preceded it with a surprisingly nuanced examination of individuality and identity politics in an ever-changing world. Much of the credit belongs to lead Sonequa Martin-Green, who displays an almost preternatural ease leading a varied ensemble. It’s a pity that Michelle Yeoh’s character didn’t survive past the first few episodes, but with Anthony Rapp, Doug Jones, and Wilson Cruz in consistently satisfying supporting roles, “Discovery” has shaped itself up to be a long-running vehicle with a lot of room to grow. Exceptional episodes: “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”

13. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (The CW)

It’s been an even darker journey than usual for Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) in 2017, after being jilted on her wedding day led to a suicide attempt. But “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has been more confident than ever in telling Rebecca’s story. The opening episodes of the third season might be the strongest the show has ever done, and overall the show is so bright and enticing, even when dealing with painful storytelling, that it’s a delight to tune into every week.

12. “American Vandal” (Netflix)

“Who did the dicks?” is a catchphrase designed to set up laughs, but “American Vandal” turned out to be more than just a brilliantly pointed parody of docuseries like “Making a Murderer” — it went past satire to an unsettling examination of the types of people considered to be the criminal element in the eyes of the world, and looks for the characters underneath its stereotypes. The performances from the teenagers are especially rewarding — combining both the artless awkwardness of amateur high school “investigators” with the innocent vulnerability of youth.

11. “Planet Earth II” (BBC America)

Technologically masterful, lovingly rendered, and more vital than ever, the BBC docuseries narrated by David Attenborough is a gorgeous and heart-wrenching work. It’s hard to compare a docuseries to scripted television, but it’s also difficult to discount how refined and resonant “Planet Earth II” is. The series won two Emmys in 2017, including for Outstanding Documentary Series; and if the shots of peregrine falcons diving down the skyscrapers of Manhattan in “Cities” don’t get you a little teary, I don’t know what will.

10. “BoJack Horseman” (Netflix)

The animated Netflix series found a groove in Season 4 that took the series to an unexpected conclusion — one where BoJack (Will Arnett) finds a modicum of hope through an unexpected new family member, even as he tries to put his tortured relationship with his own mother to rest. More than seasons past, the fourth season emphasized memory and perspective: In various episodes, the show explored how isolated BoJack, Hollyhock (Aparna Nacherla), and his mother (Wendie Malick) were from each other, despite how much their struggles had in common with each other. Add to that a bizarre gubernatorial race where Jessica Biel runs against Mr. Peanutbutter, and an underground hive managed by a queen voiced by RuPaul Charles, and it’s not hard to see why “BoJack Horseman” is back on my top 10 list for another year in a row. Exceptional episodes: There are several, but “Ruthie” stands out.

9. “Better Things” (FX)

Pamela Adlon returned to the material established in Season 1 of “Better Things” with even more passion and clarity of vision than she displayed at first. The result is breathtaking; With Adlon directing each episode and the details of her protagonist Sam’s life getting increasingly complicated, “Better Things” reveled in the particularly acrid flavor of this family’s intimacy and the many layers of the female experience, from little Duke’s visions of ghosts to grandmother Phil’s decline into senility. Exceptional episodes: “Eulogy,” “Graduation”

8. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon)

This late debut, from acclaimed showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino, marries her signature brash humor with a lavish period piece and real stakes: The changing landscape for women in the late ’50s, as embodied by a woman who thought her privileged life was what she wanted and then discovers the horizon of a new way of being. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is a delightful and heartfelt portrait of upper-middle-class Jewish life in Manhattan, and in between the seamy basement venues of the Village and the busy floor of the era’s department stores, it’s a love letter to New York City as it once was. The entire production is anchored by a fantastic lead performance in Rachel Brosnahan, who is every inch the charming, hilarious, impossible-to-ignore society wife.

7. “Alias Grace” (Netflix)

Most of the attention on Margaret Atwood adaptations has focused, justifiably, on Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” But this Sarah Polley/Mary Harron collaboration, a six-part miniseries, captivated me — a layered, contradictory attempt to tell the story of one woman in the midst of a matrix of systems designed to put her at a disadvantage. Much of the production is carried by Polley’s fantastic adaptation of Atwood’s novel; the rest is carried by Sarah Gadon, who plays Grace with a bodily conviction that is absolutely transformative — and utterly haunting.

6. “Rick and Morty” (Adult Swim)

It’s hard to think of a comedy more fiendishly inventive than “Rick and Morty,” the cartoon from Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon that ascended from jokes about death and quantum physics to a crystalline, brilliant third season about the limitations of intellect and the inexorable grip of intimacy. Exceptional episodes: “The Ricklantis Mixup,” set on a world populated only by Ricks and Mortys from parallel universes, and “Pickle Rick,” one of the finest episodes of the year, in which Rick turns himself into a deli side in order to escape family therapy.

5. “Big Little Lies” (HBO)

Lush, crisp, and achingly familiar, Jean-Marc Vallée and David E. Kelley’s “Big Little Lies” transformed a beach read into a dramatic refenderum on the upper-middle-class cult of motherhood. Led by titanic performances from Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Alexander Skarsgard, the seven-part series mixed together elementary school rivalries, effortlessly cool music direction, and a long-buried tragedy for a heady, sparkling cocktail of a show.

4. “Twin Peaks: The Return” (Showtime)

David Lynch’s 18-part event series returning to the events surrounding the mysterious death of Laura Palmer was a gorgeous, surreal, sublime journey quite unlike anything else on television. And it was a journey — through time and space, across dimensions and realities. “Twin Peaks: The Return” wasn’t exactly accessible, and at times it was hard to come to grips with the fact that Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) was talking to a giant kettle containing the spirit of David Bowie. But with truly Lynchian brilliance, the event series found a way to lyrical, vibrating horror that surpassed even the first two seasons in the ’90s. And that final scene — gut-wrenching, stomach-dropping, and heartbreaking. Exceptional episodes: Part 8, Part 18.

3. “Halt and Catch Fire” (AMC)

The almost unbearably beautiful “Halt and Catch Fire” closed out its run with a final season that struggled to articulate a legacy for all of its characters, while indelibly forming one of lasting resonance for the show. The AMC drama was never admired enough, and yet improved with every year. No other show on television was more honest about the conflict between ambition and affection, or more thoroughly examined the increasingly technological fabric of our lives. Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishé spun the straw of business history into dramatic gold. Exceptional episodes: “Signal to Noise,” “Goodwill”

2. “The Crown” (Netflix)

The Crown’s” portrait of the British royal family in the early days of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign is so richly imagined that it stuns, and in the second season, the story’s emphasis on the marriage between Elizabeth (Claire Foy) and Philip (Matt Smith) carries the season to unexpected corners of emotional resonance. Their marriage is punctuated by tortuously long silences, in very British fashion; but thanks to Foy in particular, the season is even more affecting than the first. Exceptional episodes: “Beryl,” “Paterfamilias,” “Dear Mrs. Kennedy.”

1. “The Leftovers” (HBO)

Shattering, raw, innovative, and hilarious, “The Leftovers” went from a dour, meandering story of gloom in its first season to a third season that produced eight hall-of-fame episodes in a row. It’s hard to overstate just how fearless this show is in describing the contours of loss and grief, and with its leads Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon in particular, the season found characters that could be made and remade in the furnace of our cruel world until one day, eventually, they found each other again. It’s not just well-plotted, though: It’s a beautiful show, from the music to the direction to the cinematography of where it ends, in Australia. Daniel Sackheim’s shot of Carrie Coon in “G’Day, Melbourne,” looking down with water dripping down her face as “Take on Me” plays in the background, is the shot of the year. Exceptional episodes: All, but “It’s a Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt World,” “Don’t Be Ridiculous,” and “The Most Powerful Man in the World (And his Identical Twin Brother)” are up there.

See my colleague Maureen Ryan’s top 20 list here and all of Variety’s Best/Worst of 2017 lists here.

Variety’s Best of 2017
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