20. “Better Things”
There’s no doubt that “Better Things” season 2 is even more Pamela Adlon‘s show than season 1 was: in addition to co-creating it and starring in it, this time out she directs every episode and gets a writing credit on 7 of the 10. However, there’s also no denying that co-creator and writer Louis CK is also a fundamental part of it, which makes for uncomfortable viewing in the wake of his scandal-plagued downfall. But it’s a provocative sort of discomfort, especially in those segments that deal directly with consent: in one CK co-scripted episode there’s a long scene in which Adlon literally puts her hand over a man’s mouth (it’s Greg Comer, playing Jeff) and shouts “No! No! No!” at him repeatedly while trying to work out her own levels of attraction, repulsion and complicity in their near-miss moment. But far beyond the #metoo ramifications of scenes like that, season 2 of “Better Things” deserves not to be thrown out with the bathwater because on the new ground it breaks. Suddenly, yet organically straying into slightly surreal territory in the season’s terrific second half “Better Things” builds on its witty, characterful relationship dramedy basis into an offbeat but life-affirming tribute to modern motherhood, and the pains and occasional soul-satisfying rewards of domesticity.
19. “The Crown” Season 2
“This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,” royal photographer Cecil Beaton intones as the second season of “The Crown” draws to a close. It’s a sincere statement that dramatically drips with heartbreaking irony. As we quickly learned with the first season of the Netflix hit, the series was no simple fawning over the majesty of the British monarchy, nor a celebration of the myth of blessed bloodlines. Rather, “The Crown” is about the curse of power, and burden of Queen Elizabeth II shouldering the legacy of Buckingham Palace by herself, which comes more fully into view across these ten episodes. As the Queen becomes increasingly drawn into world events — concisely covered and including the Suez Crisis, the courting of Ghana by Russia, the general sweeping change of traditional values in England — Elizabeth finds herself increasingly alone. Philip (the worst!) whinges about his privileged boredom, taking any opportunity he can pursue extracurricular activities, while Margaret (Vanessa Kirby, terrific) leaps from one bad decision to the next, all the while resenting her sister. Stiff upper lip as the saying goes, but it’s largely the men around her who fail Elizabeth, either underestimating her intelligence, or choosing to leave their station when the pressure becomes too much, an option she simply doesn’t have. Surrounded by “a confederacy of elected quitters,” as she icily observes, the Queen endures, because she has to. Claire Foy leaves the series after this outstanding season, with a role and performance — assured, breathtaking, often playing a world of emotion across an impassive face — that is already career-defining, in a show that has set a magnificently high bar for the next, entirely new cast, to clear.
18. “Chewing Gum”
We’re just going to keep on shouting out Michaela Coel‘s bright, brash, foul and fucking funny UK import, both seasons of which are available to watch on Netflix, until everyone’s sick of us. “Chewing Gum” deserves to gain a new audience stateside, if only because it feels like Coel’s unapologetic, brazen talent is too big to be contained by Britain’s Brexit-era borders. Season 1 was a painfully frank, fourth-wall-breaking account of sexual awakening and messy first love, between Coel’s Tracy and her appealingly dim-bulb aspiring poet crush (a lovely turn from Robert Lonsdale) on a London council estate. And season 2 pushes it much further — unlike most comedies about similar subjects, “Chewing Gum” is invested with a very real sense of danger: you feel genuinely unsafe and unsure as to just how far Coel will go. It could be almost cruel if it weren’t for the fact that Coel is visiting all these humiliations and come-uppances on her own irrepressible character, with such a blazingly contradictory mix of self-regard and utter self-abasement that it seems semi-combustible. It’s a manic world that Tracy inhabits and enlivens, and often actual poverty, bigotry and tragedy are played for the kind of comedy that makes you wonder if you should be laughing. Too late; you already are.
17. “The Deuce”
An immersively seamy portrait of 1970s New York City streetlife, all hustlers, hookers and hoodlums, David Simon and George Pelecanos‘ “The Deuce” differs significantly from their previous collaborations, “Treme” and “The Wire.” Feeling looser, and lighter in tone despite the seediness of its setting and the squalid lives lived on its streetcorners and dive bars, it nonetheless proves their sense of place and facility for rich characterisation is as authentic as ever. James Franco toplines, in a dual role as twin brothers running a bar who end up in a Faustian pact with the mafia, but Maggie Gyllenhaal steals it as Candy, an entrepreneurial prostitute who becomes interested in the nascent video porn industry. Other standouts include Dominique Fishback as a young hooker gradually losing her naivete, Emily Meade as a new arrival quickly learning the tricks of the tricking trade, Gary Carr as an apparently good-humored but ruthlessly ambitious pimp, Pernell Walker as kindhearted, plus-size pro who gives the show its most shocking and emotive moment, and David Krumholtz as the shabby porn director whom Candy first works for. It’s not perfect — it still slightly feels like there’s no real reason for Franco to be playing twins except that he’s James Franco and likes doing things like that — and the various storylines are not all equally engaging, but it’s still a fleshy, florid, funny and ferocious walk on the wild side of ’70s Times Square.
16. “The Girlfriend Experience” Season 2
An anthology series by writer/directors Amy Seimetz (“Sun Don’t Shine”), Lodge Kerrigan “(Clean, Shaven”) and executive producer Steven Soderbergh, in season two, “The Girlfriend Experience” reinvented its narrative about personal escorts working in the sex industry. But it kept its focus on abstractly told notions of identity, control and power dynamics with the same kind of emotionally alienated, voyeuristic and experimental aesthetics that push at the boundaries of traditional television storytelling. In its overhaul, practically a different show altogether, season two concentrated on two different, parallel stories tied by similar themes. Seimetz’s story revolves around a high-end escort (Carmen Ejogo) who goes into a Witness Protection Program after narcing on her criminal lover; Kerrigan’s centers on sex, lies and capitalism in the corrupt world of political electioneering by way of a commanding super PAC finance director (Anna Friel), and an A-grade GFE provider (Louisa Krause). Written in total vacuums and disconnected from each other, the stories — Seimetz’s “Bria” and Kerrigan’s “Erica And Anna” — while filtered through ideas of sex, desire, power and identity are ultimately about our desperate need for control and the bruising trauma we experience when we lose it. Featuring some of the best direction on television since “The Knick,” and this year’s “Mindhunter,” on a visual level, the show is dispassionate and yet fully absorbing. And while as distant as it is engrossing, with command and self-assurance, it continues to examine the emotional consequences of letting people in and the harrowing cost of intimacy.