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.
Does the body rule the mind, or does the mind rule the body? That’s the question behind Jill Soloway’s small-screen satire dedicated to stripping down the masculine mystique, based on the 1997 cult novel by Chris Kraus. Kathryn Hahn is the struggling film-maker who gets stuck in a small-town Texas art colony and finds herself sexually obsessed with Kevin Bacon. (As you do). The lanky actor is great as the local philosopher king, a famous sculptor fond of making pompous statements like “I’m post-idea.” Does that make him irresistibly mysterious … or just a moron? And does it matter, as far as her libido is concerned? Hahn is all conflicted lust, but Bacon brings a real pathos to his role as the inscrutable stud – he could be the high-school kid from Footloose a few decades down the line, embittered from too many years of scamming beautiful strangers.
“I’m not good at building shit. I’m excellent at tearing it down.” Truer words, Jimmy McGill. Better Call Saul just keeps defying expectations – a Breaking Bad prequel that has built up into a gripping drama in its own right, with Bob Odenkirk as the sleazebag lawyer who we already know will turn into Saul Goodman. It’s painful to see him break his own kind of bad – especially this season, as his battle with sickly elder brother Michael McKean reaches a heartbreaking climax.
The year’s wildest superhero trip, with Dan Stevens as the X-Men’s David Haller, a mutant loner who can’t quite tell if he’s blessed with uncanny powers or just cursed with a mind he can’t steer into reality. Creator Noah Hawley takes off from the original Marvel character the way he took off from the Coen Brothers in Fargo; Aubrey Plaza brings the supervillain swagger; Rachel Heller is the show’s conscience. playing David’s well-named girlfriend Syd Barrett. But as another Barrett might have put it, the real action on Legion takes place in the hero’s dark globe of a brain.
You know what wasn’t such a hot idea? “Archie Comics, but with an edge.” So let’s hear it for dingbat ideas that turn into great TV shows – because Riverdale turned out to be a gloriously absurdist high-school bitchfest, flipping the squeaky-clean malt-shop mythos on its head. Seriously, Miss Grundy boning Archie amid a flurry of Clueless-meets-The Big Sleep banter? As Veronica says, “Can’t we just liberate ourselves from the tired dichotomy of jock/artist? Can’t we, in this post-James Franco world, be all things at once?” Even the casting of the parents is a savvy twist on teen iconography – Skeet Ulrich is Jughead’s biker dad, while Madchen Amick (the Duchess from Gossip Girl!) is Betty’s mom. And the real coup, as Archie’s parents: Ladies and gentlemen, Luke Perry and Molly Ringwald.
The social assassin strikes again. Larry David resumes his toxic stroke job of a life, as if rejuvenated from all his Bernie Sanders impersonations. But it’s weirdly therapeutic to watch this asshole run amok again – a timely reminder that there’s a fine line between rich old creeps and funny rich old creeps. When he sets up the Funkhouser nephew with a nice girl (big deal, so she’s a hooker!) and the young man gets killed running with the bulls at Pamplona, Larry’s there to offer the consoling epitaph: “That’s not so shocking. You’re running with the bulls; i would be shocking if he didn’t die.” Bryan Cranston joins as a shrink (bringing a shtickel of Seinfeld), Salman Rushdie sings the praises of “fatwah sex,” Leon and Susie and Jeff and Marty all shine – but it’s Larry who strikes the sourest notes, as he always will and always should.
Ken Burns’ 10-episode, 18-hour history of the Vietnam War could be his most powerful documentary yet. (A welcome surprise after the smarm of The Roosevelts, which suggested that the auteur might have gotten too soft to handle history’s sharp edges.) The filmmaker and longtime collaborator Lynn Novick go into the U.S.’s disastrous adventure in Southeast Asia, mixing raw combat footage with the testimony of soldiers (American and Vietnamese), nurses and war resisters. Some of the saddest – and most chilling – moments come from listening to LBJ hector journalists on the phone, as he scrounges for some hint that he might be doing the right thing. The Vietnam War has a sorry sense of waste about the whole catastrophe … and how little America learned from it.
“The worst part about divorce is being asked about it all the time,” Pamela Adlon says in the revelatory second season of her scathing comedy. “I mean, it’s amazing how nobody minds bringing it up – like I wanna talk about it? I’m fighting moment to moment just to feel normal.” Better Things is a fight where you want to be on her side, even if normal is nowhere in sight. Adlon stars as a single mom and actress grappling with her daughters, her mom, her absent ex and the usual glut of useless men. The episode where she drops dozens of rapid-fire “no” attack on the same guy (“This is a very no“) felt like an epitaph for the whole year. The comedian directed every episode herself; she also wrote most of them with her longtime friend and collaborator, Louis C.K. – whose behind-the-scenes creative presence just adds sad resonance to all her encounters with soul-crushingly disappointing men.
This underdog AMC drama about the early days of the personal-computer racket got stronger as it went on, beginning as a tale of the early Eighties, on the “Silicon Prairie” of Texas before migrating west to the Bay Area and crashing into the Nineties. But even those of us who enjoyed the first season had no idea how great Halt would get. Especially in this fourth and final season, as the Comet crew entered the browser wars at the dawn of the Internet, circa 1994. This season was full of superb acting – especially Mackenzie Davis as Cameron and Kerry Bishe as Donna – and clever use of music, from Bikini Kill to Veruca Salt. (That scene with Pavement’s “Range Life” nailed me even harder than the Crippled Pilgrims song last season.) The show ended up doing for the computer industry what Mad Men did for advertising – a story about damaged people joining together to go to work, because it’s all they know how to do.
One of the year’s funniest viral clips: the master-cut of all the times that Difficult People made jokes about Kevin Spacey, before his whole house of cards came crashing down. In this most garbage of years, as our society continued to hit new lows, Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner’s cringe-comedy aimed lower and hit harder than ever. Thanks and praise to the misanthropic brilliance of its dynamic duo, who went out on top with their nastiest, funniest season. Like Eichner says, “Ever since Trump replaced the Department of Health with Jenny McCarthy’s blog, nothing makes sense.”
Aziz Ansari has a deceptively light touch in this modern romance – yet Master of None is full of moments that stick in your mind and keep bringing you back. As Dev, he searches NYC for the right woman and the perfect tapas bar, while trying to salvage his acting career by hosting Clash of the Cupcakes. Sometimes the comedy gets candid, like when he brings in his real-life Muslim Indian parents for an episode on why he still lies to them about eating pork. And sometimes it delivers a kick to the hear – see the “Thanksgiving” episode, where Ansari sees his lesbian best friend (Lena Waithe) and her mom (Angela Bassett) come to terms with each other, one awkward holiday dinner at a time.
All us Game of Thrones fans might be in denial about the fact that Westeros is heading for the long goodbye. But this season packed an entire epic into seven crazed weeks: battles, betrayals, ice dragons, blue fire, White Walkers and Arya Stark finally avenging the Red Wedding. (How’s that pie baked full of his own flesh and blood taste, Walder Frey?) Not to mention sexual fireworks between the Mother of Dragons and the King in the North, even if the Mother happens to be his Aunt. Nobody has any idea how long we have to wait for the final six episodes. This winter could take a while.
Against all odds, as a certain Eighties rock star might put it, Stranger Things held strong in its second season, thanks largely to a cast of kids who somehow turned out to be real actors – especially the marvelous Millie Bobby Brown. As for the ridiculous (and extremely divisive) seventh episode, where Eleven goes off on her own solo mall-punk adventure, it was worthy of a New Radicals video, which is high praise around here. Always bet on Winona. Always.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.