VULTURE - The Best TV Shows of 2017 (So Far)

Mon, 06/26/2017 - 12:48
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VULTURE - The Best TV Shows of 2017 (So Far)

The Best TV Shows of 2017 (So Far)

By Jen Chaney and Matt Zoller Seitz

This week, Vulture is looking back at the best releases so far in 2017.

In the Peak TV era, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of television available. Even when you winnow the options down to the best of the best, as we did below, the shows don’t fit into any one category. They span genre, tone, and style in remarkable ways, from the romantic ennui of Master of None to the family comforts of One Day at a Time to the bizarre horror of Twin Peaks: The Return. With that in mind, here are the ten best shows of 2017 so far, as chosen by Jen Chaney and Matt Zoller Seitz.

(A quick note about our selection methodology: Nonfiction and scripted series were both eligible, whether ongoing or self-contained. Because the focus is on this calendar year, shows that debuted in 2016 and ran into this year were ruled out if more than half of the season’s episodes debuted prior to January 1. This is a consensus list by both Chaney and Seitz, whose individual lists at the end of this year may differ considerably.)

Better Call Saul (AMC)
To use an adjective befitting its protagonist, Jimmy McGill, Better Call Saul may be the slickest drama on TV right now. I say slick because it can wind its way through what initially appear to be familiar television scenarios — like the courtroom showdown earlier this season between Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy and his brother Chuck (the exceptional Michael McKean) — and turn them into moments that surprise us once, then again, and then yet another time. It is also consistently directed with a smooth, purposeful, yet casual elegance that befits a show about a con artist. In a year that has featured its share of shows centered around rivalries — Feud, the twin Ewan McGregor conflict on FargoBig Little Lies — the bitter and now fully soured relationship between Jimmy and Chuck stands as the most heartbreaking of them all. —JC

Big Little Lies (HBO)
Some critics, even ones who genuinely liked this addictive immersion into the world of Monterey elementary-school politics, regarded Big Little Lies as a trashy pleasure with a prestige sheen on it. I never saw it that way. True, this is the series that so far this year, I took the deepest pleasure in watching. And yes, some of that pleasure derived from the sight of all those oceanfront dream homes and Reese Witherspoon wielding a trip to see Frozen on Ice as a weapon. But thanks to the depth of the performances from the knockout cast and one of the more unflinchingly honest depictions of domestic abuse on recent television, that pleasure deepened into awe and admiration. Big Little Lies wasn’t some trashy soap. It was a beautifully directed, female-dominated work of exceptional television. —JC

Girls (HBO)
The sixth and final season of Girls found Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa realizing their bond wasn’t built to last. As Matt Zoller Seitz wrote after the series finale, “Girls ended not in the city but in the suburbs, not among friends but in near isolation, with Hannah Horvath (series creator Lena Dunham) resentfully raising her baby with forced assists from her mother Loreen (Becky Ann Baker) and her friend Marnie (Allison Williams), who broke into Hannah’s house and snuck into her bed like a stalker but proved genuinely helpful in the end. It ended true to its maddening heroine, who could never leave well enough alone, choosing instead to illuminate herself, often inadvertently, in self-serving and obliviously hurtful statements she blurted out right after making an otherwise decent and intelligent point. […] This was the saddest Girls season overall and easily the best — an object lesson in how to shape a serial narrative so that it only makes the points it needs to make and absolves itself of the need to distribute its attentions democratically and never neglect anybody.”

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
This adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s must-read for all English majors was not entirely devoid of flaws. It sagged a bit in the middle of its season, and sometimes it conveyed its messages with all the subtlety of a public stoning. Nevertheless, it still emerged as one of the highlights of 2017 so far, for its deeply committed performances (Elisabeth Moss is the obvious standout, but Samira Wiley, Ann Dowd, Yvonne Strahovski, and Alexis Bledel back her up beautifully); its stunning imagery, particularly in the initial episodes directed by Reed Morano; and its ability to keep audiences on a heightened state of alert at almost all times. The fact that it started streaming on Hulu at one of the more anxious moments in recent American politics was a coincidence that gave it added relevance. Years from now, when we talk about the major events on television in 2017, it’s very likely that The Handmaid’s Tale will be part of that discussion. —JC

The Leftovers (HBO)
Some people dismissed The Leftovers during its first season because they found it too grim. With its focus on the disorientation and grief that sets in after 2 percent of the world’s population disappears, it didn’t feel wrong, sometimes, to describe Damon Lindelof’s adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel as a series about coping with death. But in its third and final season, while it didn’t shy away from the brutality and anguish associated with losing one’s equilibrium, The Leftovers ultimately turned into something life-affirming. There was humor in those last eight episodes, as well as Perfect Strangers references, surreal journeys to war rooms in parallel realms, and the occasional goat wearing Mardi Gras beads. More importantly, there were reminders that love and grace can be found here on Earth even after much has been lost. This was unforgettable, soul-enriching TV. I already miss it. —JC

Master of None (Netflix)
The first season of this simultaneously light but deep comedy contained some notably ambitious episodes. So when it came time to do a second season, co-creators Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari decided to “make every episode that crazy,” as Ansari puts it. The result is a gorgeously photographed romantic comedy in which Dev (Ansari) grapples with his love for a woman he cannot have. It’s also, depending on the episode, a flashback-driven portrait of a lesbian’s slow process of coming out, a snapshot of what it’s like to swipe right on date after date while living in New York in the time of Tinder, and a Richard Linklater–esque indie movie that follows everyday Manhattanites and discovers that — surprise! — everyone of them has a fascinating inner life. In short, Master of None is a season of television that, in its love story and aesthetic approach, celebrates taking chances. —JC

One Day at a Time (Netflix)
A throwback to the classic sitcoms of yore, One Day at a Time is the best kind of TV comfort food. When it debuted in January, Seitz wrote, “Even though it airs on a streaming service, Netflix’s reimagining of Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time is close to a perfect example of old-school, all-things-to-all-people broadcasting: smart but not hifalutin, blunt but not crass, politically and culturally aware (often self-aware) but never academic or theoretical, and proudly old-fashioned in its methods. […] Suffice to say that this is the sort of series that makes difficult things seem easy, so easy that you often don’t realize how artful it is until you think back on it.”

Samurai Jack (Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim)
Nearly 13 years after Samurai Jack aired its last episode, the animated series about a samurai sent into a dystopian future returned for a final hurrah. As Seitz explains, the revival was an absolute triumph: “Genndy Tartakovsky is the world’s greatest living action filmmaker, and Samurai Jack is the most aesthetically daring series on TV. If you’re new to this show about a samurai stranded in a post-apocalyptic future while battling a demon, you may find my proclamations excessive and weird, for three reasons: (1) Samurai Jack is a cartoon, and cartoons aren’t often mentioned when Quality TV is discussed — especially cartoons about swordsmen stranded in a post-apocalyptic future while battling a demon, because anything so described must be trite; (2) Samurai Jack looks at first glance like a parade of action sequences with little plot or dialogue, and after even a few minutes of watching it, you realize that yes, in fact, that’s unapologetically what it is; and, most importantly, (3) you can follow Samurai Jack without having seen one second of any previous season, because the show is a rare example of storytelling that’s not about what happens, but how it happens.”

Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime)
Perhaps the most anticipated show of the year, Twin Peaks: The Return resists any attempt to “explain” itself. It is experimental art, through and through, as Seitz described it: “This is the Lynch who made his debut 40 years ago with Eraserhead, a black-and-white nightmare set in a hellish industrial landscape about a man caring for an infant who looks like a reptilian spermatozoa. This is also the David Lynch who directed Lost Highway, in which a man convicted of murdering his wife is transformed without explanation into an auto mechanic who has a torrid affair with a gangster’s mistress; the identity swap is never explained, nor is the fact that the murdered wife and the gangster’s mistress are played by the same actress. This is the same Lynch who has never not been an experimental filmmaker, even when making the gentle drama The Straight Story, about an old man driving a tractor to visit his dying brother — a film that only feels “accessible” in relation to the rest of Lynch, and that would have been considered radically austere had almost anyone else directed it. This is Lynch the experimental filmmaker — the filmmaker Lynch has always been.”

The Young Pope (HBO)
A limited series created by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, The Young Pope tells the story of the first American pope, an orphan named Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), who was raised by a nun named Sister Mary (Diane Keaton). After its debut, Seitz wrote, “The sheer novelty of The Young Pope makes for compelling viewing even when the show seems to be throwing ideas and images against the Vatican walls to see if anything sticks. Law’s slightly sour charisma and Sorrentino’s prankish sense of humor are such a potent combination that the more high-stakes moments — such as Pius facing off against his mentor, played by the formidable James Cromwell — make less of an impression than the many rambling scenes in which the pope holds forth on whatever subject the episode finds interesting at that moment, from the history of Catholics in Greenland to the inverse relationship between the visibility of celebrities and their mystique. This is, in many ways, one of the weirdest, most counterintuitive programs ever to get a green-light from HBO.”

Honorable Mentions

There are tons of shows that we love and admire that didn’t make it into the top ten. We each chose one in particular — both, coincidentally, happened to be NBC comedies.

The Carmichael Show (NBC)
A hot-button sitcom modeled on the works of Norman Lear, The Carmichael Show doesn’t shy away from big issues like racism, sexism, gun control, the accusations against Bill Cosby, and the N-word. “What’s most remarkable about this series is that it never feels like a fetishized nostalgia act. It faithfully replicates old-fashioned sitcom conventions and nudges them one step further,” Seitz wrote. “It’s closer to community theater, not in the sense that it’s amateurish (it isn’t; the ensemble cast is superb) but in the sense that it deals with and speaks to issues of community, asking how certain terms should be defined, where boundaries are, and whether common ground between verbal combatants is possible.”

Great News (NBC)
Great News may not be as socially relevant as several other current great comedies on television (VeepSilicon ValleyBlack-ish, the aforementioned Carmichael Show), but its first season overflows with so much silly, infectious, madcap joy that you can hardly dock it points for that. Created by 30 Rock veteran Tracey Wigfield, this sitcom gives Andrea Martin the lead role she’s deserved for decades; thanks to her work in episode three, I will never hear the Mission: Impossible theme the same way again. And come to think of it, its potshots at the personalities responsible for making cable news do resonate more sharply than they might have at another point in time. Still, the main thing I love about Great News is how consistently it made me laugh. If there’s anything these times call for, it’s the chance to take a break from actual cable news and laugh heartily at the pretend kind. —J