If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
The year in television was too good to only have one voice report on it. Our two TV critics, Brian Tallerico and Allison Shoemaker, joined forces this season to write about the best of 2017. Taken as a whole, the two lists display the range of quality in the medium this year. Find your favorites and take note of a few shows you should definitely binge as soon as possible. And let’s hope 2018 is just as bountiful.
Runner-ups (21-30): “Alias Grace,” “Big Mouth,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Insecure,” “The Keepers,” “Silicon Valley,” “The Sinner,” “Stranger Things,” “Superstore” and “Veep”
20. “The Americans”
19. “Bob’s Burgers”
18. “The Deuce”
15. “Better Call Saul”
13. “American Gods”
12. “The Handmaid’s Tale”
11. “American Vandal”
10. “Dear White People” (NETFLIX)
Justin Simien adapted his Sundance hit into one of the most daring and smartest new shows of 2017. Playing with form and structure allowed Simien and his team to tackle life on a college campus from a dozen different angles, and the result was the most insightful commentary on being young in the ‘10s that television has yet produced. There was so much going on in every episode of “Dear White People” that it made you want to watch it all again as soon as it ended, especially the episode directed by Barry Jenkins, one of the best half-hours of television on any network this year. It’s a show that’s simultaneously about “big” issues like race relations and the art of protest and the individual experience in this chaotic world at that time of your life when everything seems to be moving 100 MPH. Every element of “DWP” worked, including the direction and top-notch young ensemble, but it’s the writing that sung and stung.
9. “Better Things” (FX)
The first season of Pamela Adlon’s FX sitcom felt a little clunky and unsure of itself, but she really honed her tone and style in the remarkable second year. More of a 10-episode movie than a traditional sitcom season, “Better Things” reminded me of the genre-busting structure of co-creator Louis C.K.’s influential hit. What was so startling about “Louie” was its willingness to be a comedy that wasn’t necessarily funny. The same can be said about some of the best moments of “Better Things,” a show that built to surprisingly strong emotional power for this viewer. I can’t remember the last time I gasped at a sitcom, but I did when Sam revealed her graduation present for her daughter in the season finale. By that time in the season, I felt like I knew this family as well as any on television, and I’ll miss them until they return. That sense of realism came from a season that seemed continuous—unlike the common sitcom in which all problems are solved at the end of each episode and reset for wacky hijinks the next. And the young cast of this show continues to improve and impress.
8. “Mindhunter” (NETFLIX)
The David Fincher name may have brought people in for the first couple episodes of this stunning procedural, but this was a program that actually got better and better as it progressed. Intertwining the history of the development of profiling serial killers with the structure of an old-fashioned procedural, “Mindhunter” challenged the expectations of viewers who may have tuned in for another “Law & Order” or “Criminal Minds” riff. On one level, it was about the three brilliant people who learned that the only way to stop criminal pathology is to try and understand it, but it also worked with the deeper concept that the abyss looks into you as well. And there was an exhilarating sense that the first season of “Mindhunter” was just the set-up and that this program could go even darker and more fascinating places in year two and beyond. While a lot of my favorite shows of 2017 were programs that aired their final seasons or may never air again (the top three actually),”Mindhunter” would be near the top of the list in terms of programs I can’t wait to see develop further.
7. “The Good Place” (NBC)
If there’s a theme to what I love in television, it’s genre-busting—shows that don’t fulfill traditional expectations. Michael Schur’s hilarious NBC program deconstructed the very art of writing for television, first by blowing up its entire concept at the end of the first season back in January, and then by playing even more with the freedom that allowed. The writing on this show has been praised to the high “good places” but I don’t think enough credit has been given the ensemble, which may be the best comedy one on television. Kristen Bell and Ted Danson are the multi-talented anchors, but the newcomers are given just as much space to show their skills, especially the phenomenal William Jackson Harper as Chidi, the insecure conscience of this crazy world. This is a comedy that employs laugh-out-loud physical humor to great effect, alongside deeper subtext about what it means to be “good” or “bad” in an increasingly complex world. It's proof that those who have written off network TV for cable and streaming services may have done so too soon.
6. “The Vietnam War” (PBS)
Have we started to take Ken Burns for granted? I’ve been surprised to not see this television event on more lists of the best of 2017 as it may have been before we just got used to the greatness of Burns and his team. One of the most daunting projects of his undeniably impressive career, “The Vietnam War” wasn’t just the kind of thing you’d watch in a college history class—it brought the chaos of this unwinnable conflict to life through its very structure, intercutting interviews and memories from deep into the war with the informative stuff about how it was managed from afar by our government. The result is a dizzying mix of the political and the personal, intertwining decisions made in boardrooms with lives lost on the ground in ways we haven’t really seen before.
5. “Big Little Lies” (HBO)
For sheer power of ensemble, nothing matched HBO’s limited series adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s hit novel. Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern have already won well-deserved Emmys for their phenomenal performances—two that rank high on the list of the best of their remarkable careers—but this is one of those rare projects in which every actor and actress seems to be on the same page. Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley have been the prominent faces of praise for the show, along with the aforementioned pair, but even Zoe Kravitz and Adam Scott, for example, were just great. It was a pleasure to spend time with such an accomplished group of performers every week, and when one considers the themes of abuse and control that surface in “Big Little Lies” in light of what has made headlines at the end of the year, it feels like an even more essential program in terms of we are in 2017 and where we’re going next.
4. “Master of None” (NETFLIX)
We may be approaching broken-record status here, but again I’m drawn to shows and creators that are willing to break form and try new things with stale structures. Aziz Ansari took the praise and creative freedom given him by the success of the first season of this show and ran wild, delivering episodes that defied expectations. From the black-and-white ode to Italian cinema that opened the season to the clever editing of a series of first dates to the award-winning emotion of Lena Waithe’s very personal “Thanksgiving,” this Netflix hit never failed to surprise and impress. Given the final-season status of the next two entries and a number one choice that seems likely to never return, Ansari—along with similarly daring voices like Donald Glover, Issa Rae, and Pamela Adlon—represents the future of television, one that’s personal and fearless.
3. “Halt and Catch Fire” (AMC)
I don’t feel like I got to know anyone fictional better over the last five years than Gordon Clark, Joe MacMillan, Cameron Howe, and Donna Clark, and I did so through a show that never relied on a high-concept or gimmick to convey its themes. The background of “Halt and Catch Fire” over its now-complete run has been the tech boom of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but that was just the foundation on which one of the best modern character dramas was built. The final season reached the development of the search engine, a perfect metaphor for a group of people always trying to find meaning and happiness in their lives. It was a show about so many practical things, including business vs. innovation and creation vs. financing, but it’s one that I’ll remember for characters who I came to truly feel like I knew and loved. As cheesy as it sounds, it was a show that reminded us to enjoy the journey and not the destination. As Joe says in episode five, “It was never about where it ended up, it was about how it felt.” We don’t know where we’re going or how many of our loved ones are going to be there when we get there, but we focus so heavily on where we’re going to end up that we miss the feelings that get us there.
2. “The Leftovers” (HBO)
A similar subtext about humanity’s search for meaning and purpose bubbled through Damon Lindelof’s HBO masterpiece, one of the best shows of the last two decades of peak TV. The first season of “The Leftovers” was a little too loyal to its source material, but the writers expanded that vision to their own interests in seasons two and three and the results were literally breathtaking. Much like what I wrote about “Halt and Catch Fire” above, “The Leftovers” is about that feeling that your life is missing something and that you just need to figure out what that is to find happiness, but what you’re searching for always remains out of reach. Now, Lindelof and his team explored this idea through a very high-concept—a Rapture in which thousands of people literally disappeared—but they grounded the impossible in the relatable at every turn, giving us unforgettable characters, anchored by one of drama’s best ensembles. In the emotional final scene, every theme of “The Leftovers” comes together, including the realization that being present in a singular moment is all we can ever really do or hope for, and it’s possibly all that really matters.
1. “Twin Peaks: The Return” (SHOWTIME)
What can I possibly say about David Lynch’s show that hasn’t been said before? As someone who lived through the earth-shaking first season of the show back in 1990, it never dawned on me that Lynch and Mark Frost could approach that level of originality and form-busting. 27 years ago, it was relatively easy to buck against the more traditional form of what we expected from TV, but modern audiences are more cynical and savvier in 2017. And yet here we were, watching a major program that completely defied traditional narrative, working more as visual poetry than standard prose. Even in the era of Peak TV, people come to shows with structural expectations that Lynch and Frost simply didn’t care to satisfy. With their show, they not only pushed against the form of television but seemed to ask viewers why they want such familiarity in the first place. “Twin Peaks” returned to the house of Prestige TV it helped build, only to demolish it and dare creators to build something new in its place.
Honorable mentions: “American Vandal,” “Better Things,” “Insecure,” “The Deuce,” “Feud: Bette and Joan,” “GLOW,” “The Americans,” “Better Call Saul,” “The Crown,” “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “Dear White People”
10. “Five Came Back” (NETFLIX)
It’s been a great year for documentaries, both in theaters and at home, but even in that crowded field, “Five Came Back” stands out. An adaptation of Mark Harris’ book of the same name, the three-part series adds new vitality to the material by bring in contemporary filmmakers to discuss the five directors who most shaped the American propaganda effort in the Second World War. It’s beautifully made and highly informative, but it’s most affecting as a testament to the power of art and the importance of truth. And hell, listening to Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, and Guillermo Del Toro jaw about film is worth a watch all by itself.
9. “Legion” (FX)
Listen, Noah Hawley’s superhero story isn’t perfect. There’s a little drag here and there, and moments when the story felt more like a beautiful experiment than an emotional experience. But then something like “Bolero” would happen, and all bets are off. “Legion” benefits from Hawley’s narrative daring, to be sure, and it’s one of the most visually satisfying shows of the year, to boot. But where it really excels is in the rock-solid commitment of its cast, who made even the strangest leaps seem reasonable, who anchored each trip into an ice cube or dance through an asylum seem perfectly plausible and incredibly exciting. In a cast of standouts, it’s Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny who really knocked it out of the park, growing more and more terrifying as a vessel for the nightmarish shadow king who also has a wicked sense of humor. That silent movie sequence is just the cherry on top.
8. “Big Little Lies” (HBO)
Society’s need to cast women in molds—bad mothers and good ones, saintly victim and devious trollops, maidens and crones—gets blown to bits in HBO’s excellent Liane Moriarty adaptation. It’s not that “Big Little Lies” has no use for such things. To the contrary, the show uses those tropes to its advantage, poking holes in every alpha-bitch and good-girl stereotype in sight. Even more importantly, it shows in devastating detail how much pain and violence can be hidden beneath the surface of a seemingly perfect marriage. Nicole Kidman’s Emmy-winning turn gave viewers the chance to glimpse what lurks beneath, and to watch how expertly victims can deflect, disguise, and otherwise hide their wounds, both mental and physical. Kidman has the hardware, but there’s not a bad performance in the bunch, and nor is there a single female character that’s anything less than vibrant and complex.
7. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (AMAZON)
Like any social savant, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” showed up to 2017 fashionably late and yet right on time—just as its central character might. As concocted by “Gilmore Girls” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, the series has a number of things in common with Palladino’s best-known work—expect lots of fast-talking, whip-smart one-liners, oddball family dynamics, and emotional pathos that comes seemingly out of nowhere but leaves you pleasantly wrecked—but the rich sense of time and place (that being 1950s New York) couldn’t feel less like Stars Hollow. It’s a star-making turn for Rachel Brosnahan, whose work in the titular role places her in pretty much immediately in the pantheon of TV’s great female leading ladies. If nothing else, “Mrs. Maisel” deserves praise for being one of the only television shows in history to make stand-up comedy work as both a plot point and as something that’s funny all on its own. Hell, if this show released a comedy album, I’d buy it in a flash.
6. “The Handmaid’s Tale” (HULU)
In the third episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” director Reed Morano—get used to her name, I’d bet quite a lot of money you’ll be hearing it often from now on—takes us on a nightmarish ride in a van. Those first three episodes are deeply disturbing at nearly every turn, each atrocity made plain in big ways and small by Elisabeth Moss’ emotive face, but the van sequence rises above the rest. One long take follows Alexis Bledel’s Ofglen, restrained and muzzled, as she’s forced in the back, and then the camera climbs right in after her, ready to unflinchingly observe the horrors visited on her, and the other women of this world. That’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” in microcosm: not always subtle, sometimes punishing, but vital, powerful, and uncomfortably close to home. It’s as good as you’ve heard, and while there may have been a few missteps, it’s hard to argue with the sour, frightened, but righteous feeling it instills. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, indeed.
5. “The Leftovers” (HBO)
Writing about the final season of “The Leftovers” hurts a little bit. It hurts because there’s no more coming, and even a near-perfect finale can’t ease that sting. It hurts because yeah, we’ll still see Carrie Coon, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston, Ann Dowd, Justin Theroux, Regina King, and the rest of the cast, but it won’t ever be quite like this again (that is, until the next time Coon decides to blow the doors off the place.) It hurts because “The Leftovers” is one of a kind, and in a world where everyone’s either looking for the next “Game of Thrones” or trying to figure out the best way to reboot “The Office,” I can already feel its lack. But mostly, it hurts because it’s supposed to. Saying goodbye to a show you love can be difficult, but if “The Leftovers” taught its audience one thing, it’s the power of a painful goodbye.
4. “Twin Peaks: The Return” (SHOWTIME)
Far better critics than I have written about “Part 8,” David Lynch’s journey into the heart of a mushroom cloud. They’ve said a great deal about its brilliance, and a great deal more about what it all means. The most exciting thing about that hour—the single most audacious thing I’ve seen on television in many years—is that months later, I still can’t tell you what I think it means. What I can tell you is how it felt, or rather, how it feels. It feels like a demon space bug crawled inside my mouth and took up residence somewhere in my gut. It feels lodged, like a new permanent resident in my being. It’s like a scab I can’t stop picking at. It’s sour and strange and ugly and utterly unforgettable. For that episode alone, a person could call “Twin Peaks: The Return” the show of the decade and I wouldn’t feel compelled to argue. But there’s so much more to this series than “Gotta light?” Lynch and Mark Frost picked up the pieces of the original “Twin Peaks” and turned them into a meditation on death, not just by the violence of evil, but by the violence of time. A profound look at aging, failing, losing, and being lost, “The Return” shook me, and many, manny others, to the core. Add in a tremendous performance by Kyle Maclachlan, some of the darkest humor of this or any year, and all that daring experimentation in form, and you’ve got an accomplishment on par with … well, on par with the work of David Lynch.
3. “The Good Place” (NBC)
In “The Leftovers” and “Twin Peaks,” we got two of the greatest series finales in history, but neither of them gave us the best finale of the year. In “Michael’s Gambit,” one smile from Ted Danson turned Michael Schur’s delightful series completely on its head; one wolfish laugh, and everything we thought we knew was suddenly transformed. Much has been made of Schur’s conversations with Damon Lindelof about taking a “Lost”-style, twist-heavy approach to a sitcom, but “Holy Motherforking Shirt Balls” beats “Kate, we have to go back!” any day. Not one of the first season’s many twists could have prepared the world for the big one, and it’s so good that even now, almost a year later, I’m loathe to even hint at what happens, lest I spoil it for the one big TV fan who hasn’t yet climbed aboard Schur’s deranged, delightful trolley.
The best thing about that unnamed twist, however, is that if you take it away, “The Good Place” would still be one of the most exceptional network comedies in years. Some of that’s due to the terrific ensemble, in which heavyweights Danson and Kristen Bell are ably matched in William Jackson Harper, D’Arcy Carden, Jameela Jamil, and Manny Jacinto. Some of it is the seemingly unending supply of terrific restaurant puns. But the lion’s share of the credit must go to the writing staff, who splash around in questions of morality and ethics like kids in a giant mud puddle, turning complex ideas about human nature into fodder for jokes. It’s ambitious, intelligent, and wholly original. Janet? Get me 10 more shows just as brilliant, please.
2. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (The CW)
By the time Josh Groban showed up to sing his own name in the ballad “The End of the Movie,” I thought I was prepared for just about anything “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” had to offer. In three seasons on The CW, co-creators Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom have brought us on party buses and into Marilyn Monroe-esque production numbers, to aborted weddings and through one refreshingly apolitical abortion, to summer camp, sewer systems, and into the world of Dream Ghosts. But Groban’s appearance came at what felt like a major turning point in the show’s arc, capping off what’s without a doubt the show’s most stylistically daring hour (the horror-movie pastiche “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend is Crazy”) before sending it into a stark, compassionate, unsettling place. I expected this series to surprise me. I just didn’t expect it to do so by stripping all the over-the-top stuff away.
Never fear, it comes back—the most recent episode saw the criminally underrated Donna Lynne Champlin twirl her way through an ABBA-adjacent pop number about the first penis she ever saw, appropriately titled “The First Penis I Saw.” But the one-two punch of Groban serenading us about how life doesn’t follow a script, followed by an hour in which Rebecca Bunch (Bloom) dives into the ugliest and most frightened corners of her psyche set a new standard for the show, and for any show that addresses mental illness. It’s honest and funny, savage and strange, and, somehow, they still make room for tap-dancing.
1. “Alias Grace” (NETFLIX)
There’s a giddy kind of satisfaction that comes from watching a good mystery, because there’s always a big fat answer waiting for you at the end. That’s the grim genius of Sarah Polley’s “Alias Grace,” the other big Margaret Atwood adaptation of the year. There’s no answer waiting for you. There’s no tidy solution, no detective dénouement. There’s just Grace, and the people who surround her, and all the things they’ve decided she should be. Everything else is fuzzy, the truth most of all.
“Alias Grace” only feels like a mystery because so much information is withheld, contradicted, or easily manipulated, a state of affairs made possible by the actor who is the show’s bleeding, beating heart. Sarah Gadon gives one of the best performances of the year on any size screen, turning the smallest crooked smile into a major event. Does she smile when Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) turns away from her because she’s amused by his weakness? Is she charmed, or smug? Does she smile when he turns because he won’t see it, or because she knows he will but would assume she thought herself unobserved? Or is she just smiling?
That’s one moment in one scene. It’s not even a particularly noteworthy scene. In the hands of Polley, Gadon, and director Mary Harron, that kind of moment happens all the time. Six perfect episodes, countless unanswered questions, and a performance for the ages. “Alias Grace” is the best series in a very, very good year for TV.
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