The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale is the breakout hit that could shape the future of Hulu. Based on Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel, about a dystopian American future where women are officially downgraded to second-class citizens, this ten episode series is perhaps, the most relevant, and important show of the year.
Of course as with any adaptation of a work this beloved, the series could never ever fully please fans of the original source material – but that aside, The Handmaid’s Tale is still a smart, worthy endeavor, blessed with deeply committed performances by Samira Wiley, Ann Dowd, Yvonne Strahovski, Alexis Bledel and yes, Elisabeth Moss, who turned in a performance so good, she finally won her a best-actress Emmy. (Ricky D)
It’s fitting that Insecure came into its own with an incredibly strong second season shortly after Girls reached the end of its lifespan. Lena Dunham’s comedy had been vital and created new opportunities for women auteurs, but it was time for one of those new voices to take over. Issa Rae’s series (which she co-created with former Daily Show correspondent Larry Wilmore) offered refreshing takes on everything from relationships to race relations to petty office squabbles.
Insecure’s second season finds Issa (played by Rae) navigating a newly single life and the foreignness of dating. Her job still feels like a stepping stone to something bigger yet mysterious. As Issa grapples with letting new men into her life, her best friend Molly (scene-stealer Yvonne Orji) contemplates leaving the single life behind, all while straddling the impossible expectations of being a black lawyer at a high-powered law firm.
Rae and her collaborators have created everything one could want in a second season. The show is even funnier than before, but it also reaches emotional depths only hinted at previously. The supporting characters also undergo beneficial metamorphoses. Daniel (Y’lan Noel), Issa’s old fling, is transformed from a useful trope into a heartier character. Frieda (Lisa Joyce), just comedic relief in the first season, becomes a surprising voice of moral clarity and an aspiration for those desperately seeking wokeness.
Though Insecure is primarily about Issa’s personal and professional struggles as a black woman, it also doubles as a love letter to Los Angeles. It’s a city that rarely gets its due, with some of its ugliest locations also being its most photographed. Rae and showrunner Prentice Penny explore rarely filmed parts of the city like Inglewood and Leimert Park, presenting them as the vital cultural centers that they are. Rae’s approach to the show is so refreshing that we shouldn’t be surprised when she finds beauty where so many others have been blind. (Brian Marks)
Following on the heels of their previous true crime hit, Making a Murderer, Netflix took a different tack with The Keepers: making it more about the victim than the suspected killers.
Indeed The Keepers concerned itself roundly with the reasons why someone as good and just as Sister Cathy Cesnik, a woman who worked and volunteered many hours to her Baltimore community, would find herself so viciously murdered. Furthermore, The Keepers is interested in thoroughly exploring why the case has yet to be solved nearly 50 years later, despite the mounting pile of evidence.
As the series makes clear over time, Cesnik was involved in a plot to blow the whistle on the rampant pedophilia and rotating child sex ring of Baltimore’s Catholic community, a fate that truly demonstrates the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished. Though the series is heart-breaking and infuriating in equal measure, those who can power through the emotional tumult will find themselves watching the best true crime mini-series since The Jinx. (Mike Worby)
Damon Lindelof made his return to television five years after the end of LOST; that turned out to be not nearly enough time for many of the viewers who felt burned by its final season (and its finale in particular) to give him another chance. Bully for them: The Leftovers proves that Lindelof has learned from his past mistakes, and knows how to reliably lean on his strengths and those of his collaborators.
Working again with co-producer Tom Perrotta and director/series fixer Mimi Leder, Lindelof crafted an excellent final act for one of the most consistently compelling series of the last decade. Holy lions, God himself (?) in human form, a Dr. Strangelove-esque nuclear showdown, and many more eccentricities get stuffed into the criminally short 8-episode run, and though it would have been nice for a few more series regulars to get a spotlight episode, The Leftovers’ final season proves that it’s possible to let viewers fill in the particulars for themselves as long as the groundwork is solid. (Simon Howell)
Who would have ever guessed that FX would strengthen its position as one of television’s best networks with the addition of a Marvel-inspired drama from Fargo creator Noah Hawley? The innovative cable newcomer Legion (about a less famous character from Marvel’s X-Men universe) is a bold, clever, psychedelic subversion of the superhero genre that puts viewers inside the troubled head of David Haller, a mental patient who discovers he’s a mutant with extraordinary superpowers.
Yes, we already have plenty of small screen superhero shows, but Legion is seriously a different breed. In fact, it bears very little resemblance to past Marvel adventures; visually, it goes big and aims for the surreal, packing in flashbacks, flash-forwards, visions, hallucinations, psychedelic trips, alternate realities, dream states, suppressed memories, experimental sound design, lush photography and disorienting camera shots as it depicts reality through the rickety mind of its protagonist. Vanity Fair called the show, “The TV version of dropping acid, all colorful and explosive and loose-limbed. Scenes do backflips on a nonlinear timeline, showing no concern for the shell-shocked viewer.”
Admittedly, it’s so scattershot that it is impossible to get much of a handle on it at first, but that’s also what makes Legion so great. And it’s clear throughout the first season that Legion is deliberately weaving its themes into its visual style. For a superhero series, there’s also something to be said about the pace; there’s enough time to slow down and explore the characters, but from scene to scene, it remains brisk and flashy. The first episode is inspiring. The third episode is simply dazzling. The seventh chapter is a small screen masterpiece as Legion pushes boundaries and becomes a full-blown, black and white, silent movie set to Ravel’s Bolero with dialogue printed as intertitles. And credit to Noah Hawley, who is confident and daring enough to employ such a weird stylistic curve in the season’s most pivotal scene. Legion is a tour de force: the writing, producing, directing, visual effects, music and sound are the highest quality of filmmaking. Legion as it all – along with the best soundtrack of any television show this year which includes the likes of Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Syd Barrett, Radiohead, Talking Heads and so much more. (Ricky D)
Master of None
Master of None is a charming, breezy investigation of yuppie romance that doubles as a harsh rebuke to cultural commentators wondering which generational vestige millennials are killing now. Surely, Dev, the series’ protagonist, has enjoyed his share of avocado toast and drunken uber rides; but beneath the privileged urban façade ofMaster of None, there lies a melancholy suggestion that the trappings of modern life are making newly-minted adults miserable.
Dev’s search for love in an overstimulated, app-based, romantic landscape is the narrative thread of Master of None, but Dev is overwhelmed by every aspect of the character’s life; from the mundane (what to eat) to the existential (what to be). In its second season, the series provides a contrast to Dev’s privilege, with formally innovative episodes that explore the world Dev inhabits. “I love New York” is an episode that abandons Dev, instead gleefully investigating the lives of New York City doormen, Cab Drivers, and one deaf couple. “Thanksgiving” shifts the focus of the series from Dev to his friend Denise, using a series of holiday dinners to tell the poignant story of Denise grappling with her sexuality, and eventually admitting to her mother that she’s gay.
These diversions don’t obscure Dev’s story though, and he finally finds his romantic match. That she is engaged and lives in Italy, only supports the series’ overarching thesis: past generations weren’t blessed with the unfathomable conveniences, and opportunities, of the modern world; but with so many choices, it’s become harder than ever to make the right one. (Michael Haigis)
Not since Hannibal has a TV crime thriller been this good. Only unlike Hannibal, Mindhunter toys with our fascination of the macabre without ever showing the gruesome acts of violence, outside of the occasional crime-scene photo. Its big set pieces aren’t horrific murders, but scenes where killers describe their heinous acts, and the talk is ghastly enough to make your skin crawl. In the title sequence, images of death flicker briefly on screen over the meticulous loading of an audio recorder. As a pair of hands carefully sets up the ‘70s era reel-to-reel tape machine, the photos that were taken from a murder scene flash in and out. And that’s what Mindhunter is all about — the audio tapes and the conversations they record along the way hold the secret to understanding how to think like a killer in hopes of stopping the killer. The most chilling scenes revolve around the encounters with Edmund Kemper (Cameron Britton), who was named “the co-ed killer” after he abducted and murdered a series of female college students in California, dismembering his victims before having sex with their severed heads. Britton gives one of the year’s standout performances, and the scenes between Kemper and Ford are some of the most disturbing you’ll see all year.
TV in the past several years has been obsessed with serial killers. Shows like Hannibal and Dexter have given us killers who are complicated antiheroes, and whose crimes are the focal point of every episode. Mindhunter is far more academic than lurid, and it’s terrifying at times to find unexpected parallels to modern society. It also helps that the show looks and sounds great because as always, Fincher is in a league of his own. (Ricky D)
After a struggling and divisive second season that saw many fans jumping ship, Mr. Robot came back stronger than ever with a daring, impressive follow-up.
Several plots were taken to their final destinations as key characters were unceremoniously snuffed out and many of the biggest questions of the series were answered at last, clearing up a whole mess of plot holes in the process.
This clearing of the plains made plenty of room for new plots to be introduced, new characters to make their mark, and for Mr. Robot to really face up to the reality of the chaos it’s created in its increasingly dystopian view of our modern society.
In an era where there have never been more shows competing for your time, Mr. Robot has reasserted itself as one that is well worth your time and attention with its triumphant third season. (Mike Worby)
Rick & Morty
Despite what some toxic fans would have you believe, enjoyment of Rick and Morty is not contingent upon the viewer having a high IQ and a solid grasp of theoretical physics but rather a sick sense of humor and the capacity to laugh at copious amounts of violence and vulgarity. Sure, there are a few deep cuts that are funnier if you are more science minded but at the same time, there is enough scatological humor (there is a character literally named Mr. Poopybutthole) to satisfy even the lowest of brows.
Of all the things Rick and Morty accomplished in its third season – single-handedly bringing a twenty-year-old fast food condiment back from the dead, becoming the #1 comedy on television, bringing “Pickle Rick” into the pop-culture lexicon – its most impressive feat was maintaining the quality of writing on display in the first two seasons. Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland would have been forgiven if season three didn’t quite hold up to the ridiculously high standard set by the second season of Rick and Morty but against all odds, they somehow pulled off a string of episodes that are just as good as their season two counterparts if not better in some places. As far as single episodes go, season two’s “Total Rickall” is still the one to beat but season three’s “The Ricklantis Mixup” sure comes close, in fact, the overall vibe of season three manages to somehow be more over-the-top and more grounded than the previous seasons, a paradox perfectly in line with the show’s ethos.
Rick and Morty have always been able to mix absurdist shenanigans with sincere emotion in a way that no other show can. Even Rick’s darkest misadventures have an underlying heart that keeps the show from plunging into complete nihilism ala Family Guy or South Park.
In the end, nobody is here on purpose, we’re all gonna die so you might as well watch one of the best shows on TV. Wubalubadubdub! (Zachary Zagranis)
For the unfamiliar, Search Party is a TBS series created by Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers (the duo behind the 2014 indie comedy Fort Tilden) and comedian/director Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer). It’s best described as an existentialist noir, a fascinating character study and a dark thriller that’s guaranteed to provoke lots of laughs. It’s the diamond in the rough of Peak TV, and without a doubt, one of the best shows out there right now, and quite possibly the best comedy you aren’t watching.
Search Party’s first season is essentially a mystery about the disappearance of a young New York woman named Chantal and a group of four friends who take it upon themselves to figure out what exactly happened to her. The season finale answered that question and resolved the mystery, but it also ended in a completely unexpected turn by introducing a new wrinkle in the form of a dead body. Season two begins with the four friends dealing with that body, and instead of trying to solve a mystery, they’re now trying to prevent a mystery from being solved. Unlike season one, the story in season two is one that we’ve seen many times before, but Search Party’s investigation into the mental states of each of its leads helps the show stand head over heels above many of the others shows that have tackled this same narrative. It also helps that the cast is uniformly strong and that the show is outrageously funny. Search Party is a hidden gem, begging to be discovered and a show that manages to be exceedingly clever and emotionally authentic all at once. (Ricky D)
At the start of its fourth season, Silicon Valley was in full-on crisis mode. The show had reached a fork in the road. One path would require completely changing the show, the company at its center, and the roles and power structure of its main characters; the other would use a deus ex machina to do a hard reset and restore the status quo. Silicon Valley opted for the latter move.
It left the early episodes feeling repetitive — they were going through the same motions, and it was almost as if the events of the third season were nothing but a dream. But the show’s two great strengths were still intact: cutting dialogue and a cannily perceptive understanding of the real Silicon Valley’s excesses. Sure, the actual technology Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) and company are working on is pretty inscrutable, but their ethos of “fake it till you make it” rings true. By the midway point, the show was firing on all cylinders and pushing toward something new.
For a show that has had a terrible time finding compelling female characters who don’t turn out to be crazy girlfriends, the show had a number of episodes written and directed by women this season. It also managed to calibrate the character personalities for the best mix the show has ever had. The writers took note of Kumail Nanjiani’s movie star status and gave Dinesh a more compelling role, while also blessedly toning down the racist jokes from Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and significantly cutting down on the obnoxiousness of Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller). Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang) also emerged as one of the funniest characters in the series after mostly working in the background in past seasons.
Silicon Valley hasn’t completely solved it’s reset problems. Creator Mike Judge and crew will need to decide how willing they are to commit to change, especially with the loss of a major character. But season four proved the show hadn’t lost any of its power, and can still be as interesting and hilarious as it used to be. (Brian Marks)
Star Trek Discovery
Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman always had a difficult task on their hands when they created Star Trek: Discovery, ever more so that it was set ten years before the original series. While Discovery has yet to be concluded, the first half took a much obliquitous approach from the traditional Star Trek formula, focussing on a war between the Federation and the Klingons rather than the discovery of new worlds – irony never amiss.
Star Trek: Discovery might take more influence from Deep Space Nine than the original series, with the focus on the development of characters and their interactions rather than the science fiction that series was created from. With a fantastic cast and some engaging writing, the subtle alteration from the originals has been a success, with politic divides and the rigidness of the Federation conflicting with the captain of the USS Discovery, Gabriel Lorca.
Strangely, it isn’t the captain that is the focal point of the series, but a mutineer played by Sonequa Martin-Green. Her adventure from First Officer, to mutineer, to science specialist has been a wild journey, and the complexity of the war with the Klingons that she helped start has both destroyed and rekindled her career. But it is perhaps Paul Stamets – played by Anthony Rapp – where the second half of the series will follow more closely. The second half will be strikingly more different to the first half we saw this year, likely to return to the original Star Trek philosophy and the series’ namesake. Star Trek: Discovery has been full of surprises, with many different stories combining to create a unique novel of a time before Kirk and Spock, continually pushing the boundaries in TV shows that it has consistently done throughout history. Star Trek: Discovery is boldly going where only Star Trek has been before. (James Baker)
It’s been more than a year since Stranger Things became a cultural phenomenon and the coming of age, sci-fi drama shows no signs of slowing down. By the time Halloween rolled around, the expectations for season two were so high, it was damn near impossible for the Duffer Brothers to make everyone happy. Thankfully the sophomore season is just as strong as its phenomenal first season and despite a few missteps, left most fans wanting more. The Duffer brothers may have played it safe (except for maybe the extremely divisive episode seven) but the second season is just as slick, fun, and character driven as you’d come to expect. We got to see the kids mature and evolve, while the show expanded its own mythology and even introduced a few new characters along the way. The father/daughter relationship of Eleven and Hopper (Millie Bobby Brown and David Harbour) and the friendship between Steve and Dustin (Joe Keery and Gaten Matarazzo) gave us some of the biggest highlights of any television show this year, nearly overshadowing the sc-fi/horror element. All that coupled with the fabulous soundtrack, stunning cinematography, ’80s horror aestathic, teen romance, and Spielbergian sense of wonder and Stranger Things remains one of Netflix best original programs. (Ricky D)
NBC is the eternal home of the “Little Comedy that Could”, a legacy that began with Cheers, and has continued through the years with shows like Seinfeld, Parks and Recreation, Community, and now, Superstore. In an era where the workplace comedy has mostly been replaced with fish out of water/diverse family sitcoms, Superstore stands out like a beautiful unicorn in the single-camera comedy landscape. Featuring a cast of characters who may not be at the low point of their lives, but are certainly not at the high, Superstore draws its comedy and pathos from the exact same well of self-discovery and growth by committee, carrying the mantle of Community in a number of unexpected ways, beyond its masterful use of a single setting, and a cast of wonderfully three-dimensional characters.
Perhaps the strongest element of Superstore – and what, in my mind, cements its place in NBC’s legacy of great comedies – is how the show’s slowly started to inject subtle societal commentary into its small world of discount soaps and mandatory lunch breaks; from guns to the Olympics, Superstore‘s strong, confident voice really came to life in its sophomore season, never losing its quirky, goofy sense of humor while it explored everything from the harsh realities of benefit-free full-time jobs, to the strike-busting practices big-box stores like Wal-Mart and the like excercise on their employees to keep them in line. Never pretentious (or more importantly in 2017, artificially #Woke), consistently funny, and always heartfelt, Superstore is the guilt-free, feel-good comedy with more mind and soul than any of us could want – or honestly, deserve. (Randy Dankievitch)
It’s been several months since the last episode of The Return aired and yet it still feels unreal that Twin Peaks actually returned to television after twenty-five long years! Continuing from season two’s infamous finale, we follow FBI Speical Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) in his bizarre odyssey to get back to the small Washington town, after he gets trapped in the metaphysical prison known as the Black Lodge and is replaced in the real world by two doppelgängers (also played by Maclachlan). Instead of our iconic Dale Cooper, the majority of the season follows the near-catatonic Dougie and from there, things get increasingly weird. The Return smacks of pure Lynchian madness from start to finish and includes everything from a talking tree; to Michael Cera’s Marlon Brando impression; to a reincarnation of David Bowie as a tea-pot, and let’s not forget to mention the one hour experimental black and white episode that may just be the most astonishing 60 minutes of television that ever aired. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s return to Twin Peaks is not an easy watch for the uninitiated, but no matter how you feel about the season as a whole, there’s no denying that Lynch directed one of the most complex, original and ambitious seasons of television ever made. It’s safe to say that all 17-episodes took even the biggest fans by surprise and while we may not have gotten everything that we wanted, the revival is utterly fascinating, delirious and something people will be discussing, debating and admiring, decades to come. (Ricky D)
The Young Pope
Though it’s already been largely forgotten by the American public, Paolo Sorrentino’s auteurist The Young Pope will be remembered as a definitive piece of 2017’s small-screen art. A show that rose to prominence on a wave of memes and a ham-filled Jude Law performance I don’t think anyone thought he had in him, The Young Pope is a perfect encapsulation of TV in 2017: too enamored with forgetful plots to offer a memorable narrative, so visually audacious it burns GIF’s of Pius’s dreams onto the retina of one’s third eye, and so brazenly performed and produced it would make Baz Luhrmann blush. But goddamn, if The Young Pope isn’t the most intoxicating show of the year, a gloriously grandiose melodrama about sex and power set in the most holy, shadow-y and corrupt place on the planet Earth. The only way this could’ve been more memorable (or meme-able, wink wink) would’ve been if Nicolas Cage was playing the Pope – which we can only hope is the premise for The New Pope, the confirmed next chapter in Sorrentino’s brazen, surrealist HBO experiment. (Randy Dankievitch)
You’re the Worst
The fourth season of FX’s acclaimed comedy no doubt saw its share of ups and downs after two exceptional seasons of cutting soul searching for its gang of adrift thirty-somethings. Four found Jimmy (Chris Geere) attempting to make amends to Gretchen (Aya Cash), whom he abandoned in panic after a heartfelt marriage proposal, and coming to terms with the type of man he wants to become in the next stage of his life (we get a good indication of his potential future in ornery guest star, Raymond J. Barry). Meanwhile, Gretchen attempts to move on, losing herself in her best version of a structured, stable relationship with Boone (Colin Ferguson), a no bullshit divorcee with a daughter. What used to be a yin and yang relationship of fucked up co-dependency turns into a tit for tat rivalry of jealousy and pettiness before blossoming into something resembling maturity. You’re The Worst continually explores the depths of modern city life for identity crisis-prone millennials, no better shown in its wacky side characters, Edgar and Lindsay, who find themselves having to become the adults in their friends’ breakup. It’s a season that sags in the middle but is bookended by astute riffs on growing up, growing old, and every pitfall in between the trashcan fire that is life. Plus The Barenaked Ladies and Ben Folds have never been used to greater effect in pop culture. No small feat. (Shane Ramirez)