Our ludicrously bloated television industry can’t help but yield an embarrassment of riches. I won’t waste your time attempting to sum up the totality of this year’s output, because I can’t, and any critic who claims to have seen enough of the more than 500 scripted series that aired in 2017 is lying. So here: my top ten TV shows of the year.
10. The Vietnam War (PBS)
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s eighteen-hour, ten-part documentary presents a kaleidoscopic account of America’s longest-ever “police action” from both the U.S. and Vietnamese perspectives — a visually stunning and morally complex look at a bafflingly stupid war, and a reminder that none of us are, in the words of journalist Neal Sheehan, “exceptions to history.”
9. One Day at a Time (Netflix)
This remake of the beloved Seventies CBS sitcom landed on Netflix way back in January, but despite the roughly 23,000 shows that have premiered since, One Day at a Time is still fresh in my mind. Centered on a single mother raising two kids with her own mother in Echo Park, Los Angeles, One Day gives Norman Lear’s original series a Cuban-flavored, contemporary update. It’s warm, funny, and perfectly plotted, a family show that feels specific and universal at the same time.
8. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW)
A musical comedy about a mentally unstable woman in a strip-mall California town? And one that’s still pumping out quality scripts (and songs) three seasons in, while undermining and redefining the concept of the “crazy bitch” that runs rampant in so much of our pop culture? God, I love this show.
7. Search Party (TBS)
The first season of this millennial satire/mystery culminated in (spoiler!) the murder of an innocent man. In the second, Search Party’s cast of vapid young New Yorkers muddle through the aftermath of their crime. The performances are pitch-perfect, the writing is darkly hilarious (I don’t laugh at this show; I cackle), and the complex, intricate plot is so beautifully orchestrated it’s like watching a figure skater land a triple Salchow.
6. The Good Place (NBC)
The Good Place pulled off a tricky feat when its first season ended with a big reveal (more spoilers — catch up on your shows, people!): The characters who thought they’d died and gone to heaven were actually in hell. Created by the inimitable Mike Schur, the sitcom manages to be consistently line-by-line funny while walking the tightrope of its concept, which doubles as a handy CliffsNotes of the arguments of the great philosophers.
5. Broad City (Comedy Central)
Broad City’s fourth season is a safe space — one where it’s totally normal to see a sex therapist because you haven’t been able to come since the election; where the world transforms into a psychedelic cartoon when you take magic mushrooms; where you find relief in the sunny climes and cheap rents of Florida until you’re shaken out of that sense of security when you remember that every sweet old white lady packs a semiautomatic and hates black people. Never change, Broad City.
4. Alias Grace (Netflix)
Adapted by Canadian national treasure Sarah Polley from the 1996 novel by Canadian national treasure Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace stars Sarah Gadon as Grace, a young Irish immigrant accused of murder in 1840s Canada. The show has an unfussy visual language, a fitting approach for a series that asks us to look, unflinchingly, at what women had to endure just to live another day. Alias Grace holds you tight in its grip; often, director Mary Harron’s camera will close in on Grace’s hands as she sews, the needle poking in and out of the thin cotton. You wait for it to pierce her skin, but it never does.
3. Better Things (FX)
The first season of Better Things — the FX comedy created by Pamela Adlon and, inconveniently, Louis C.K. — felt like a revelation: This is what it means to be a single working mother with three daughters. (Mostly a lot of toilet-plunging.) The second, which Adlon directed in its entirety, is more sad, funny, and surreal. Better Things is a rich brew that captures the joys and frustrations of family life while paying supreme tribute to a figure who’s so often the butt of a juvenile joke: mom.
2. The Leftovers (HBO)
When The Leftovers premiered in 2014, I compared watching the HBO drama — based on the 2011 Tom Perrotta novel about the sudden disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population — to walking around in wet clothes. It didn’t exactly lighten up over the next two seasons, but it did get weirder, and by its third and final season, the series had burrowed so far into the absurd that it came out the other side a sparkling vision of clarity — think Andy Dufresne crawling to paradise through a river of shit. The show’s depiction of a world driven mad by uncertainty and bottomless grief is both hilarious and gut-wrenching, a sensation I suspect many of us understand all too well.
1. Big Little Lies (HBO)
When Big Little Lies premiered in February, the limited series looked like it might just be a high-end soap opera about wealthy white people acting out in fabulous beachfront mansions. By the second episode, it was clear the show was after something more complex. At once an unflinching portrait of domestic abuse and a stinging farce of upper-middle-class helicopter parenting, Big Little Lies is, above all, an illustration of the importance of having — and being — a witness.
Over seven episodes, written by David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (and adapted from the 2014 novel by Liane Moriarty), Big Little Lies demonstrates how so many stereotypes about women — that they’re forever nosing into each other’s business; that they’ll hold a grudge till the day they die — work to safeguard the men who abuse them.
That’s the prosaic appeal of Big Little Lies. Before I could think through all of that, though, the main draw of this show was its poetry: the way scenes crash into each other abruptly and almost violently, like waves walloping rocks, or the soundtrack of classic rock and soul earworms that acts as an emotional undercurrent, surfacing the subtext of the characters’ lives. I probably watched every episode four or five times. There’s one sequence at the end of the sixth, set to the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” that I returned to again and again, like a song I couldn’t get out of my head. I still can’t.