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20 Best TV Shows of 2017

From mind-blowing sitcoms to fire-breathing dragons, the return of ‘Twin Peaks’ to ‘Rick & Morty’ – Rob Sheffield on the hightlights of our TV year

What a great year for TV – as opposed to pretty much any other aspect of life in America during 2017. Peak TV kept peaking all year, pushing to new creative heights. There was the heroic return of David Lynch, and the not-so-heroic return of Larry David. The screen was full of ground-breaking dramas – as well as stoner comedies, high-school bitchfests, zombie dragons, porn hustlers, thugs, con artists, hackers, psychedelic superheroes, cartoon time travelers and life-during-wartime documentaries. In a rotten year to be an American, the creative audacity of these shows (and one stand-up special) was a sign of hope. Here’s to next year.

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‘Insecure’ (HBO)

Issa Rae’s HBO show blew up big and managed to turn into the year’s most groundbreaking and provocative rom-com – a guided tour of modern sexual disasters, according to Issa Rae. She emerges from her long-running (and long-collapsing) relationship with Lawrence, the guy who spent most of the first season on her couch. Now Issa goes to her BFF Molly for dating lessons (“Can you teach me to ho?”), trying out the single life, waking up in strange places, occasionally landing back in her ex’s arms. Mostly, we watch her venture into new emotional territory as she develops a stable of willing bedmates to go into her regular “notation.” and argues with her girlfriends about which one is the Michelle Williams in their Destiny’s Child threesome. Through all her stumbles, Insecure keeps coasting on its creator’s vulnerable yet ineffable charm.

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‘Rick and Morty’ (Adult Swim)

The final frontier of the all-American dysfunctional family: a mad professor and his dimwit grandson explore the outer limits of the universe and travel through space and time, just because anything beats going home. Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s mind-warp sci-fi cartoon took a huge leap this year, to the point where a crucial part of being a Rick and Morty fan is complaining about Rick and Morty fans. Our heroes visit dystopian places like the Citadel, as well as conspiracy hot spots like the Kennedy Sex Tunnels, the Truman Cocaine Lounge, the McKinley Hooker Dump and the Lincoln Slave Colosseum (“He didn’t free them all”). But no matter how out there the Adult Swim series gets, there’s always that bleak emotional core – for these two misfits, any world they’re welcome to is better than another minute with the family.

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6

‘Patton Oswalt: Annihilation’ (Netflix)

Patton Oswalt goes back to work in this brutally funny instant-classic stand-up special, 18 months after the sudden death of his wife, true-crime writer Michelle McNamara. He does for grief what Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip did for freebase addiction, getting confessional about the dark side: “If one more person wishes me ‘strength’ on my ‘healing journey,’ I’m going to throw a balloon full of piss into the window of every candle store on the planet.” He even structures it like the classic Pryor film – the first half is a relaxed comedy routine, luring you into a false sense of security, making you wonder if he’s even going to mention Recent Tragic Events at all. And then he gets agonizingly real. I watched it at least a dozen times the first week it was out, along with every other widow or widower on the planet. The moral of the story, from his late wife: “It’s chaos. Be kind.”

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‘The Deuce’ (HBO)

David Simon and George Pelecanos build a whole world out of the criminal underground around Times Square circa 1971, with the epic ambition they brought to The Wire. James Franco excels in his dual role as a pair of low-life twins. The Deuce is packed with stellar performances, right down to the guy cooking breakfast at the diner – Anwon Glover, eternally beloved as The Wire‘s Slim Charles. But Maggie Gyllenhaal is the heart of the story, as a hooker getting into the new future of porn movies; as she explains, “The camera’s the john.” And if the hustlers secretly dream of being auteurs, that’s all in the game – as one girl shrugs after a skin-flick screening, “I thought it was kinda artistic, but with a lot of dick.”

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‘The Good Place’ (NBC)

When Kristen Bell’s Eleanor dies, she ascends to the Good Place, where her host Ted Danson shows her around a shiny, happy afterworld full of frozen yogurt. Since she was a horrible person on Earth, she suspects there might be some kind of bureaucratic mix-up. This meta-sitcom from Parks and Recreation’s Michael Schur was a startlingly weird comedy from the start. But after a brain-crushing cosmic twist or two, the second season is now surging boldly into uncharted territory. The Good Place tweaks all kinds of existential riddles – but the strangest one might be the question of how a show this daring turned into a network sitcom for the ages. It only adds to the hallucinatory ambience that we go through all these otherworldly antics with Ted Danson, whose long-running but still-peaking career has jumped from “inexplicable” to “unthinkable.”

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‘The Leftovers’ (HBO)

When it began in 2014, The Leftovers was a somber death trip – what happens to an American town after the Sudden Departure, when two per cent of the world’s population disappears without a trace? But in its third and final season, this HBO drama took off into the stars, jumping across multiple timelines with interlocking stories, including a bizarre role for Mark Linn-Baker, playing himself as the hero of the long-forgotten Eighties sitcom Perfect Strangers. With Lost‘s Damon Lindelof taking off from Tom Perrota’s novel, the story comes down to the bond between two people: Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon, as a couple of survivors struggling to let go of their past lives. (Coon pulled double duty this year with her head-turning performance as a cop on Fargo.) The finale was an unforgettable goodbye, right down to the last few seconds.

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‘The Young Pope’ (HBO)

There isn’t a single moment in The Young Pope that’s not flamboyantly demented – but that might be exactly why it’s perfect for 2017. Jude Law chews up the role of a lifetime as Pope Pius the Thirteenth, in a Vatican political thriller that doubles as a tour of kinky Catholic nightmares. This Pontiff is a Brooklyn guy who struts like a rock star – he’s got psycho eyes, white robes and a nasty habit of yelling at Vatican underlings for not knowing who Daft Punk are. “I don’t want any more part-time believers!” he rants to his Cardinals. “I want great love stories! I want fanatics for God!” He’s a complicated man, and nobody understands him but his pet kangaroo. (Except maybe also Diane Keaton, wonderful as a mobbed-up nun.) Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino makes this the most stylish and playful thing to hit TV all year – and Jude Law has the right edge of bitterness to play this beautifully fucked-up villain of a pope. Let us pray.

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‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ (Showtime)

Agent Dale Cooper lives. So does Audrey Horne. And so, for that matter, does David Lynch, who revisits his legendary TV cult favorite and goes back to the haunted Pacific Northwest town he left behind in 1991. Twin Peaks: The Return could have been just a sentimental rehash – getting the old band back together one more time. But Lynch doesn’t merely live up to the original – he completes it. Nobody saw this coming. Our ghost town is full of familiar faces – Kyle McLachlan, Laura Dern, Sherilyn Fenn, Trent Reznor – and new ones. We see actors who died after filming their scenes (R.I.P., Log Lady) and some who passed to that red velvet room in the sky later, like the late, great Harry Dean Stanton. (Not to mention a poignant cameo from David Bowie, beyond the grave.) Cheers to Showtime for trusting Lynch, along with co-creator Mark Frost, to pull off all 18 hours. Nothing like Twin Peaks: The Return has ever happened before or will again. This is the water and this is the well.

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