Welcome to Unwinnable’s Best Television of 2017 list, the very beginning of what is sure to be a long and beloved tradition! As a voracious consumer of TV and someone who’s been told repeatedly (twice is repeatedly, technically) that my television habits have influenced another’s, I campaigned hard to add this category to Unwinnable’s Best of the Year round-ups.
I think we’ve come up with a solid list of ten essential shows, though gathering and compiling my fellow Unwinnable critics’ votes revealed a field of nominees with massive breadth. We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to the current TV landscape. Our final list represents archaic period pieces, true-crime parodies, odes to the eighties and nineties, ruminations on modern religion, off-beat superheroes, mental illness in its many forms and functions and the dazzling, mesmerizing return of an auteur filmmaker to the medium that was irrevocably altered with his last outing.
It’s worth noting that the scope of good TV being so wide means we’re inevitably missing some things here, whether it’s The Exorcist’s continued exploration of the corruption of wholesome desires, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s brilliant subversion of musical theater tropes or The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation’s perhaps-prescient interpretation of a world gone politically mad.
That’s to say nothing of the performances we don’t get a full picture of with our list: Louie Anderson’s refusal to play Christine Baskets as a joke deserves its own mention – he takes a role that could have been a source of the cheapest of laughs and turns it into something transcendent. Claire Foy gives a masterclass of subtextual delivery on The Crown, mining her interpretation of Queen Elizabeth II to find a depth that’s quite frankly not supported by the writing, while The President Show’s Anthony Atamanuik brings a darkly funny version of our President’s id directly to the surface.
As the way we watch television changes and grows, so does the meaning of what TV is and can be, freeing us to engage with it on new and exciting critical levels. Here’s hoping 2018 brings such versatile and genre-bending programming.
Halt and Catch Fire
Wrapping up its fourth and final season this fall, AMC’s series exploring the rise of computers and computer networking proved itself worthy of comparison to many other high-status character-driven prestige offerings, even if the average tv viewer never quite fully got on board.
It started its first season on shaky ground, aiming to be a spiritual sibling to Mad Men with Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan coming off as a poor man’s Don Draper. What emerged over the course of seasons 2-4, however, was a richly colorful portrait of four ambitious thinkers and doers bound by a common interest in building up the budding computer field. It was a real-life manifestation of the kind of improvised family that so often forms via the very technologies they worked to develop.
For a show that was so much about the complicated history of computing, Halt and Catch Fire kept an affectionate focus on the human frailties of its protagonists and the intricacies of their ever-evolving relationships. They came together and split apart in various combinations, both professionally and personally, but none was more satisfyingly complex than the partner- and friendship between Mackenzie Davis’ Cameron and Kelly Bishé’s Donna. It was so fully realized that their eventual season-long falling out over a business deal felt painfully real instead of the cat-fight it might have been on another show. Their reconciliation was more jubilant, too. Fittingly, they came back together over the sharing of a new idea. That was Halt and Catch Fire at its best: a soaring tribute to new technology, new ideas and the people who generate both.
One of the best voice casts in television gets even better with the addition of Aparna Nancharla as Hollyhock Manheim-Mannheim-Guerrero-Robinson-Zilberschlag-Hsung-Fonzerelli-McQuack, the possible product of a one night stand between BoJack and the head of his fan club. In fact, this season seems to give a lot more room to non-title characters. Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins) running for governor takes up nearly half the season, sending up the cult of celebrity in politics. Diane (Alison Brie) unintentionally solves the gun control debate in “Thoughts and Prayers.” Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) struggles with late-in-life pregnancy and mixed coupling with her mouse boyfriend Ralph (Raul Esparza) in “The Judge.” But several episodes also deal with BoJack’s anxiety and low self-esteem. And while the jokes tend to soften the emotional impact of BoJack calling himself a “stupid piece of shit,” the next time someone tells you that animated shows are light and not to be taken seriously, sit that person down with Episode 11, “Time’s Arrow.” It doesn’t feature BoJack, but goes far deeper into his psyche and does a better job of explaining what makes this character tick, all while ripping your heart out and stomping on it.
My favorite non-comic book interpretation of the Punisher is the 1989 Dolph Lundgren direct-to-video action flick. Lundgren may not wear Frank Castle’s trademark skull shirt, but he does fight a whole lot of mob thugs and ninjas! The next two Punisher flicks were more polished, but they bent over backwards trying to make Frank a hero. Frank is not a hero. The 1989 flick solved that problem by surrounding Frank with people who are worse than him. This year’s Netflix series takes a different approach.
Netflix’s The Punisher does one thing no other adaptation has – it adds a depth to Frank Castle. The Punisher’s comic book heyday was a time when cheap action movies graced the local video store aisles, but his backstory as a veteran always informed Frank’s methodology, if not his moral compass. The Punisher showrunner, Steve Lightfoot, unleashes Frank as a killing machine on some mean bastards, but the show, at its best, explores camaraderie, friendship and post traumatic stress disorder. Yes, it’s in the context of a guy who wears a skull shirt and murders criminals, but it’s still an affecting show. Frank’s experiences as a veteran directly inform his character and the world he inhabits. When the show focuses on Frank’s relationship with his family, Billy, Curtis and Micro, it’s aces, and that’s why it’s one of my favorite shows this year.
Three years after Serial and two years after Making a Murderer, we’ve finally reached peak True Crime. We’ve reached big budget parody.
American Vandal isn’t just a really good SNL sketch based on Serial or Making a Murderer though. American Vandal is a thoughtful, intelligent exclamation point that explores the nature of truth in ways that true True Crime cannot. Unshackled from reality, American Vandal explores a world of rumor and innuendo that is more than parody: it’s hyper-reality. While the world of American Vandal is uniquely “affluent American suburbia,” the struggles and issues are more generally reflective of a culture where truth is prized without regard to the incredibly harmful and demeaning nature of that truth.
One level behind the jokes exists a series that interrogates the value of knowledge, truth and storytelling. It is a tale of innocence, inexperience and failure. While the show ends up essentially solving the case, we as the audience are left questioning if it was all worth it and what is our level of complicity in a culture increasingly obsessed with True Crime.
When I initially saw the ads for the FX show about New Mutants villain and son of Professor X Legion, I had my doubts. For starters, many of his comic book stories gave me a headache back in the day and I only really enjoyed the early Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz stories, mainly because the Sienkiewicz art conveyed the insanity and multiple personalities of the character so well. The first season of this show not only changed my mind about how to approach the character, but it also managed to convey that swirling psychedelic Sienkiewicz artwork. Show creator Noah Hawley (also in charge of the excellent Fargo) managed to craft a unique story that manages to exist in the X-Universe without all the baggage weighing it down, except for one great animated exposition scene in one episode. Fantastic performances all around from a spectacular cast also added to the story and visuals of this wild, unpredictable ride. It was not only a unique adaptation from the comics, but a unique take on what television is capable of. I hope we get a Season 2.
At just eight episodes in length, the final season of The Leftovers might have felt slight. Yet, despite the smaller episode order, it refused to reduce its scope; relocating much of the series to Australia and spending entire episodes following only one or two members of the cast. So much might have gone wrong, but it didn’t. Instead, the ambitious plan created a remarkable conclusion for the series. Delving deeply into the series’ depiction of grief using a possible world ending flood, wild lion sex cults and penis verification security systems to somehow make poignant statements about love, loss and life.
Few television shows in 2017 managed to be more exciting and unique than The Leftovers. Its wild vision for a world shattered by shared grief and anguish over an inexplicable event culminating in a story about two broken people attempting to find their way forward with one another. The mystery about just what caused the sudden departure remains, but any questions that truly needed answering were resolved. The third season marked the end for The Leftovers, and it was beautiful and confounding in the way that only Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s creation could manage.
Confession: I will watch Tom Hardy in just about anything. I watched him talk on a cell phone for two hours, once, for Pete’s sake. Taboo is peak Hardy. He is a Presence, intensity given two legs and a sharp-looking top hat. He is conniving, violent, haunted (literally), covered in mud, possibly insane, vaguely cannibalistic and, above all, unnervingly quiet. He elevates the grunt to a form of poetry.
The rest of the show, a period piece set in London during the War of 1812, follow’s Hardy’s lead. The plot revolves around Hardy’s inheritance – a spit of land in Canada – and gradually becomes a labyrinthine heist with international stakes. Jonathan Pryce is an unctuous East India Company chairman; Oona Chaplin is a haunted wife and the object of Hardy’s incestuous affections; Tom Hollander is a randy chemist Mark Gatiss is the bloated Harkonnen-esque king. There are many more. Everyone is filthy, dour and full of secrets. They all chomp scenery – quietly, menacingly – and dance to Hardy’s mad tune. It isn’t pretty, it isn’t easy and it certainly isn’t well mannered, but for my money, it was the strangest and most exhilarating show on TV this year.
Stranger Things 2
What can be said about Netflix’s darling that hasn’t been said before? From the creative teams’ meticulous attention to detail, to the truly lovable cast of kids and their downright riveting performances, Stranger Things 2 delivered as a worthy follow-up to the hit first season.
Like a Japanese bullet train at rush hour, the Duffer Brothers packed a remarkable amount of 80’s nostalgia into every inch of every episode; this continued to serve as the perfect backdrop for the brand of sci-fi adventure and teenage drama within.
Stranger Things has proven itself to be a little something for everyone.
Better Call Saul
When I reached the third season of Better Call Saul, I didn’t know what to expect. For the last two seasons, “Slippin’”Jimmy McGill has been painted as a lovable, goofy conman, but in Season Three, he makes a turn towards villainhood. Saul was easy to love in Breaking Bad because, next to Mike, Jesse and Walt, his crimes paled in comparison. Jimmy, however, on his own, is diabolical. He proved in Season Two that he is smart enough to outwit his upper-echelon lawyer brother, but in the end, he fails that mission because he has heart. By the time I reached the end of Season Three, I will tell you: that the annoying goof I grew to love? I now despise. By the end, we see Jimmy finally transform into Saul.
While the show is primarily about Saul’s entry into the criminal underworld, you can’t help but be intrigued by the rest of the characters. We see the early organization of Gus Fring’s drug empire and the union with cop turned hitman, Mike Ehrmantraut. Jimmy’s law partner/love interest Kim Wexler is absolutely the moral compass of the show. And I can’t overlook Chuck McGill, Jimmy’s electrically-sensitive brother, who is obsessed with ending Jimmy’s career and a character I disliked from the beginning, but grew to pity.
Better Call Saul grabbed my attention from day one. If you’ve never seen this show, then crack open Netflix and fire it up. Jimmy won’t be disappointed in you. In fact, he’ll probably tell you “It’s all good, man.”
The Best TV Show of 2017: Twin Peaks: The Return
There’s a reason David Lynch doesn’t talk much about the meaning of his work. Since his 1977 debut, the inky nightmare of flesh Eraserhead, Lynch has remained determinedly tight-lipped about any personal interpretations of his films. That reticence – what critic Dennis Lim, in his David Lynch: The Man From Another Place calls “a protectiveness that verges on superstition” – leaves an eternal possibility space open for the viewer. It is a gift. Lynch obviates the need for the death of the author because he refuses to wedge himself between his audience and his art.
Lim, again, says of Lynch’s creative “aphasia” that “[w]ords for him are not just reductive; they are anathema to his view of art as fundamentally enigmatic.” There are few filmmakers working today whose love of cinema is as genuine and spiritual and unnameable as David Lynch, and Twin Peaks: The Return is his masterpiece. It is a terrifying, beautiful opus that showcases a dizzying breadth of style from its creator. It recapitulates Lynch’s strengths – uncanny black humor, inexplicably unnerving silences – and flexes a newfound capacity for nuts-and-bolts Hitchcockian suspense as well as sequences that mark Lynch’s return to purely experimental film. The series is a rebuke of the cottage industry of dead-girl cop shows that came in the wake of the original Twin Peaks and a spectacle of withering cosmic horror; a doomed noir romance and an affirmation of the power of Lynch’s unforgiving 1992 Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. It captures swooning beauty, blunt-force horror and beguiling symbolism, all while off-handedly inventing a clutch of new formal techniques.
But nothing I can say can adequately capture the inimitable achievement of these 18 hours, which simply cannot be diminished by any number of memes, film-vs-TV arguments or Film Crit Hulk recaps. That is, after all, how the man himself would want it.