We’re only halfway through 2017 – and in so many ways, these past six months that have felt like years. But what a strange and wondrous time for TV it’s been, with so many different kinds of shows breaking new ground, inventing new genres, spinning new stories. Week after week, the sheer abundance of crucial TV can be dizzying. But these 12 shows are the best of the best – a lean, mean and dirty dozen. From the Young Pope to the Black Lodge, from surreal science-fiction theology to foulmouthed comedy, these are the year’s most rewarding TV creations so far.
Like so many of 2017’s finest TV successes, American Gods is a psychedelic spree that looks like it was designed to beat down any attempt to describe it coherently. Michael Green and Bryan Fuller (the latter with Hannibal‘s blood still fresh on his hands) turns Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel into an outlandish theological fantasy – this is a show where Gillian “Scully” Anderson appearing in glam drag as David Bowie in the “Life on Mars” video might be the most straight-down-the-middle moment. It has a host of deities – Jesus as a Mexican immigrant walking across the Rio Grande, Bilquis as an Iranian disco queen, Odin as Deadwood‘s Ian MacShane – who turn the trick of inspiring (or scamming) human beings into believing in them. They’re often angry gods, but as Orlando Jones’ Anansi says, “Angry gets shit done.”
An ordinary suburban family in the Eighties, with the usual sinister secrets – in this case, Mom and Dad live a double life killing people and spying in the name of Mother Russia. The Americans has always been tense and emotional, with Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys breaking your heart as the Soviet spies who depend on Cold War espionage to keep their marriage together. But it got even darker this season, with a new nemesis in their adopted Vietnamese son (and fellow spy) Tuan. The show’s 1980s period detail is top-notch, especially the music – R.E.M.’s “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” appears in the finale, summing up everything Mr. and Mrs. Jennings can’t say to their godforsaken kids. (Though “I’m saaaw-rryyyyyy!” would be a nice place to start.) And in a year when Russia conquered America without having to fire a shot, the story feels more resonant than ever.
At first, Better Call Saul might have seemed like a mere prequel spin-off designed to bask in the glory of the much-missed Breaking Bad. But in its masterful third season, it really broke free from the shadow of its predecessor, as Bob Odenkirk added new dimensions of slime and shame to his portrayal of hustling lawyer Slippin’ Jimmy McGill, years before he changes his name and meets Walter White. This season Gus Fring entered the timeline – but the real stunner was Michael McKean as elder brother Chuck McGill, both treacherous and vulnerable. As his health fails and his mind fizzles out, Chuck still manages to teach Jimmy valuable lessons in what it means to steal, to cheat, to lie.
Noah Hawley‘s anthology thriller spins another sprawling tale of small-time American crime, starring Minnesota as the place where our most cherished national delusions go to die in the snow. Ewan McGregor shines in the double role of two fatally mismatched brothers: one the Parking Lot King of Minnesota, the other a cheap hood with a magnificently evil muse in Mary Elizabeth Winstead. But that’s just the tip of Fargo‘s astonishing cast: David Thewlis reigns as the British mob kingpin Varga, plotting his nefarious international conspiracies while pontificating about Beethoven and Franz Ferdinand and Lenin. (“Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – not the bloody Walrus.”)
Bette Davis vs. Joan Crawford: the ultimate Old Hollywood beef, brought to life by Ryan Murphy. And he cast the only legends who could have played these roles: Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon. Bette and Joan always clashed – when Davis became the first woman to win the American Film Institute’s lifetime achievement award in 1977, Crawford had to upstage her by dying a few weeks later. (That’s the old-school equivalent of releasing your music on streaming platforms the day your enemy drops her new album.) Since I’m a ride-or-die bitch for Bette Davis, I could quibble that Feud makes this rivalry look a lot more equal than it was – Baby Jane or no Baby Jane, Joan was never in Bette’s league, never even close. (That scene in Old Acquaintance where Bette strangles Miriam Hopkins? Sheer magic!) But Lange is so tragically regal as Crawford – a cracked actress who knows the glory days are over but steels herself to fight dirty for every scrap of fame she has left.
A cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Jill Soloway follows up Transparent with a totally different kind of love story, one that isn’t about family ties at all – it’s set in the Lone Star state’s fictional Marfa Institute, a small-town Texas artists’ retreat full of sex and gossip. Kathryn Hahn is the indie filmmaker who was just passing through town, until she finds herself falling madly in lust with Kevin Bacon, the cowboy/sculptor who’s the Colonel Kurtz of this place. The actor struts around saying ludicrously pompous things like “I haven’t read a book in 10 years – I’m post-idea,” making all the lovesick ladies wonder if he’s deep and mysterious or just a bit thick. (Jordan Catalano Syndrome takes so many forms.) If you’ve ever lived in one of these towns, it’s a kick to see I Love Dick get the details so painfully right, especially in its landmark fifth episode “A Short History of Weird Girls,” where a host of female characters reveal their sexual histories. Based on Chris Krauss’s cherished 1997 novel, it’s an acerbic satire of brilliant people with dumb hearts.
How did this happen? The Leftovers started out as a perfectly respectable little Prestige TV weeper with a shamelessly cynical approach to punching the audience’s grief buttons. (Both dogs and babies, abused in the first episode!) Then, for no clear reason, in Season Two, it blew up into something great and bold and powerful. The third and final season is one for the ages, capping off an utterly unique time-tripping story about the end of the world, jumping from upstate New York to Texas to Australia, with Justin Theroux as the grief-stricken cop reeling in the long aftermath of the Sudden Departure. Carrie Coon became this year’s TV secret weapon, in tandem with her superb turn on Fargo as a single-mom cop. Mark Linn-Baker plays himself as the last survivor from the Eighties sitcom Perfect Strangers. Ten years after Lost, Damon Lindelof finally hit the finale jackpot.
In the ever-escalating stakes of superhero TV, where the goal these days is to get trippier and trippier, nothing could out-trip Legion. In its excellent debut season, Noah Hawley turns the minor Marvel X-Men character into a lunatic fable, taking off from the original the way he took off from the Coen Brothers in Fargo. Dan Stevens is the mutant superhero who can’t completely tell if he’s got special powers or he’s just touched in the head. (In the words of Pink Floyd, the band that looms over Legion as one its biggest influences, he’s got a bad case of “There’s someone in my head but it’s not me.”) Rachel Keller is great as his spooky girlfriend, the none-too-subtly named Syd Barrett. But the MVP has to be Aubrey Plaza, who gets to strut her villainness stuff as the fearsome Shadow King.
Aziz Ansari goes deep on food, family, romance and trying to jumpstart your acting career by hosting a TV baking competition called Clash of the Cupcakes. He’s Dev, a neurotic gourmet searching for tapas and true love in the big city. He’s consumed by romantic cravings he hasn’t begun to sort out rationally, so the long-running subplot about his crush on an Italian pasta-phile never clicks. (Dev barely knows this woman, and neither do we.) But he’ll always have tapas. He really hits home with his amazing episode about religion, as our hero tries to break it to his Muslim Indian parents that he eats pork. Even better, the Thanksgiving episode tells the poignant tale of his lesbian BFF Denise, unfolding over years of holiday dinners. Lena Waithe as his friend and Angela Bassett as her mom are just perfect, with Ansari excelling as a support player.
The weirdest Twin Peaks twist ever – after all these years, David Lynch puts the old band back together for a reunion that does a lot more than live up to the original. He populates this hallucinatory small town with faces both fresh and familiar – Kyle McLachlan and Laura Dern, Sherilyn Fenn and Naomi Watts, Harry Dean Stanton and Amanda Seyfried (even a few actors who’ve died since filming their scenes: R.I.P, Log Lady), along with some of the moral heft of Mulholland Drive. When Audrey Horne’s sleazebag uncle Jerry gets asked the question at the heart of the whole series – “Who is Laura Palmer?” – he sighs, “Oh, that, my dear, is a very long story.” But it’s a story that kept growing long after Lynch thought he was finished telling it. So a TV experiment that got wrapped in plastic in 1991 after just two seasons – unwatched, unnoticed, unmourned – lives again, just because it touched an audience passionate enough to goad the auteur into responding. Nothing like Twin Peaks: The Return has ever happened before.
“This election is going down like Eleanor Roosevelt at Dinah Shore Weekend.” Preach on, Selina Meyer. Veep is set in an alternate-timeline version of the American political scene that by now has started to look infinitely less fucked up than the real one. Julia Louis Dreyfus brings the bile as an ex-President scrounging around for some new gig, whether that’s literature – “I’ve got a White House book that’s hotter than Nancy Reagan’s Guide to Cocksucking” – or the Supreme Court. (Richard: “The Judiciary Committee would like to see everything you’ve ever written about abortion.” Selina: “I could give them my actual abortion if I could find it lying around here somewhere.”) But she can’t shake off all the horrible cronies she’s collected in Washington, from Timothy Simons’ Congressman Jonah Ryan to Dan Bakkedahl’s Roger Furlong. As always, Kevin Dunn’s Ben is the most bitter and hilarious asshole here, grousing about his corporate-consultant gig at Uber: “a bunch of dumb-ass millennials too lazy to learn how to drive drunk.”
Let us proclaim the mystery of faith. Jude Law is bizarrely brilliant as Pope Pius XIII, the young thug of Pontiffs, ranting at his Vatican underlings for not knowing who Daft Punk are or supplying him with Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast. He was raised in a New York City orphanage by Diane Keaton – she finally gets to play a bad-ass nun, all these years after asking Al Pacino “Would you like me better if I were a nun?” in The Godfather. Now he’s dazzling the faithful in St. Peter’s Square – his theology might be a little “reads Summa Contra Gentiles once,” but he’s sure got style. In the hands of Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino, The Young Pope is a lavishly ridiculous pageant that plays as both a goth Catholic kinkfest and a mobbed-up game of thrones. Even when this pontiff goes to confession, he plays psychological war games until the priest runs out of the room in tears. (Hey, who doesn’t made that kind of confession?) Long live the Pope!