It’s always difficult to tell ahead of time which of our year-end lists will prove the most divisive among the usually harmonious Playlist team. But perhaps reflecting the inarguable explosion of quality TV over the past decade, and therefore the fact that not any one of us has seen everything, and every one of us has their favorites among stuff that no one else saw, this year that dubious title may just fall to the feature you are about to read. This year, our Best TV Shows of 2017 comes to you from behind a slammed bedroom door where we’ve gone for a good sulk.
But the silver lining to the cloud of antagonism that currently hovers over the Playlist mansion is that we truly are spoiled for small-screen choice these days. Quite aside from classification issues, last year highlighted by “OJ: Made In America” and this year spotlit by “Twin Peaks: The Return,” (and which we will be fueling with at least one of our inclusions below) a more diverse and variegated landscape means we’ve collectively consumed thousands of hours of nourishing, vital, exciting, provocative TV storytelling this year, and honestly, what’s a couple of ended friendships in comparison with that?
Some of the shows below have made us laugh, a good portion have made us cry, and a surprising number have given us new tools to decipher the complicated, turbulent world we live in, and new characters through whom we can live vicariously and work out our real-life problems. Whether it’s red-robed fertility slaves, mustard-jacketed Kyle MacLachlans, sharp-suited FBI profilers, tattooed, Messianic police chiefs, black lesbians having Thanksgiving dinner with their Indian-American best friends or constantly burping interdimensional genius grandfathers, here are the shows that gave us the characters that helped us make sense of 2017.
Click here for our full coverage of the best of 2017, including The Worst Films Of The Year, Best TV, Best Scores & Soundtracks, Best Cinematography, Posters, Trailers, Horror, Action Sequences, Sex Scenes, our Best Films Of The Year, Underrated and Overrated Films of the Year, Breakout Talents, Best Animation, Best Documentaries and the 100 Most Anticipated Films Of 2018.
Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s Wall Street drama “Billions” was a very good show in its first season, but it transformed into a great one in its second. Not because it’s pushing the medium forward, though its stable of directors, which included Reed Morano, Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden, Alex Gibney, John Singleton and Karyn Kusama, did absolutely sterling work all year. Not because it’s upper-case-I important, though honest to god, the best way to understand how a federal prosecution like Robert Mueller’s works is to watch “Billions,” and it felt more in groove with the Trump era than you’d think for a show that began just a month into his presidency. But because in a sea of worthy prestige dramas that often feel like an utter slog to sit through, few shows are as purely pleasurable to watch as this. The second season, which saw Paul Giamatti’s attorney-general licking his wounds, bouncing back and taking another, much more successful, run at billionaire hedge-funder Damian Lewis, was thrillingly plotted in a way that few shows can rival (culminating in Kusama’s mini-heist-movie of a penultimate episode). And the new characters, including Christopher Denham’s eminently hissable fed, and one of the year’s most interesting characters in Asia Kate Dillon’s non-binary analyst Taylor, were the cherries on the top. Snooty cinephiles aren’t likely to put it on a Cahiers du Cinema list anytime soon, but they’re missing out on one of the smartest and most entertaining watches of the year.
24. “Rick & Morty”
If you’ve been put off watching “Rick and Morty” by the excesses of some of the more rabid elements of its fanbase, it’s understandable — frankly, it took some of us a while to get past the image of the archetypal fan bemoaning the involvement of women writers on Reddit threads while crying fat tears of Szechuan sauce from their bloodshot eyeballs. But don’t let the basement-dwelling trolls deny you all the dizzy, mindbending pleasures of one of TV’s most constantly inventive, endlessly entertaining shows. With a season 3 that made and remade its own mythology about twenty times over, but always according to its own bizarrely inarguable logic, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon‘s Cartoon Network hit careens from one ludicrous high concept to the next. And just when you’re convinced there’s no way out of the narrative moebius strip they’ve worked themselves into, they pull it around again, turning space and time inside out and upside down, to land kind of back where they started, and kind of an infinite distance away, only this time, no one knows who’s a clone. If theoretical physics, string theory and parallel universe paradigms are beyond the ken of most of us, “Rick and Morty” makes the concepts more understandable, weirdly relatable, usually disgusting and never less than hilarious.
23. “Game of Thrones” Season 7
While never being anything less than appointment-to-view TV (an increasing rarity in this age of all-episodes-at-once bingeing) it’s perhaps inevitable that the penultimate season of David Benioff and DB Weiss‘ massively expensive and intricate fantasy gamechanger was going to feel not quite so vital as previous years. There is a slight sense that we can see the schematics now, as people are shuffled around its opening-model-world like chess pieces in order to set them up for the final, climactic showdown. Before, when the show’s ending had not been announced, there was a feeling that the ever shifting tumult of alliances and betrayals could stretch on forever, which paradoxically increased the stakes, or at least made sure we could never be certain if a character was going to survive the episode. But now with wide-arc destinies coming to fruition and long-buried secrets coming out, the show feels like it’s building toward that endpoint, and no key personnel can be randomly dispatched until their function has been fulfilled. This is not necessarily a criticism, and on a moment-to-moment basis there is still nothing that beats ‘Thrones’ for sheer scope and world-building scale, but it does mean that edition 7 has overall been one of the less surprising seasons of one of TV’s most consistently surprising shows.
Television isn’t a film, obviously. That would be heresy to the Gods Of Cinema™, but the development of longform narrative, its cinematic expansion and the advancing idea of a movie being told over the arc of many episodes (perhaps a counterpart to the way Marvel is telling episodic stories via movies) is exciting, evolutionary stuff even if its blurring demarcations are deeply uncomfortable to the more OCD of us out there (yes, this is shade). So leave it to boundary-pushing director Steven Soderbergh, already encouraging his students to break narrative ground with “The Girlfriend Experience,” to move television further outside the comfort zone. Technically not a series yet — “Mosaic” is only available as an app right now — Soderbergh’s latest experiment is at the very least fascinatingly told. Conveyed through the perspectives of several characters, but much more than a “Rashomon”-effect story about point of view, “Mosaic,” with its web of characters, centers on the disappearance of Olivia, a famous children’s author in Utah (a very game Sharon Stone) and Eric, the deceitful lover and con artist pinned for her murder (Frederick Weller). Four years later, the hustler’s sister, a kind of amateur snoop, Petra (Jennifer Ferrin), tries to clear his name via the help of Joel (Garett Hedlund), a catch-all handyman helper and aspiring artist who worked on Olivia’s expansive, snowy property. There’s also the detective on the case (Devin Ratray) quickly realizing that stones were left unturned during the original investigation. As a mystery that unfolds the way you choose it to in the app, calling “Mosaic” a “choose your own adventure” story is selling it short, but there is an exhilarating feeling to the way the story reveals itself and the pop-up interludes that deliver more intriguing context and clues. Due for traditional release in January on HBO as a linear experience, most audiences will likely consume “Mosaic” when it rolls on to cable, but trust us when we say the app experience is where it’s at. Additional fun: Like an enticing sext out of nowhere, when completed “Mosaic” messaged me back with an alluring message that essentially read: “Are you sure you saw the story? Maybe you should look again.”
21. “Halt And Catch Fire” Season 4
“Halt And Catch Fire” originally seemed like a conceptual version of the “Steve Jobs” story in a longform series centering on a trio of renegade techies in 1980s Texas who launched a risky project amidst the personal computer boom. One of them (Lee Pace), was even shaped like a Jobs-esque character in what would appear to be a variation on the madman/genius trope. But thankfully, “Halt & Catch Fire” quickly evolved and gave life to many, distinct, lived-in human beings. By the time season one ended, it had blown itself up; everyone hated each other and they were scattered to the winds, a bold move, written like they weren’t getting further season. And then it rebooted and what started as an excellent trio — Pace, Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis — grew into a quartet when Kerry Bishé’s token wife started to take life. It morphed into a dysfunctional family, with terrific character actors Toby Huss and Annabeth Gish coming into their own. Spanning nearly two decades, reinventing itself like code with human survival instincts and charting the competitive landscape of Apple vs Microsoft, the show did track the familiar beats of the tech industry— dial up, AOL, the rise of Silicon Valley tech culture, the Internet and search engines — but always as backdrop to the destinies, ambitions, hopes and crushed dreams of its characters. Directed with polish, but also thoughtful empathy by a female-heavy roster including Karyn Kusama, Kimberly Peirce, Daisy von Scherler Mayer, Reed Morano and more, as “Halt And Catch Fire” developed it refocused on Davis and Bishé as the leads of a layered, humanist show about people we learned to care for deeply. In its rich, melancholy final season, full of grace and intimacy, “Halt And Catch Fire” touched a relatable nerve about regrets, failures, disappointments and loss. And in its beautiful conclusion, it gently reminded us that life always turns, twists and goes on despite it all: The bittersweet taste of endings also come with the tentative hopefulness of exciting and scary new beginnings.