6:30am PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: Daniel Fienberg's "Second" 10 Best TV Shows of 2017
When I constructed my TV Top 10 list for 2017, there were six shows I knew were going to be on the list and another four slots that, at various points, were occupied by at least a dozen shows. As you may have heard, there's just too much good TV these days to stick to only 10.
So let's continue with my Second 10 of 2017, as we move into what could be called the Netflix portion of my tiers. I only had one Netflix show in my Top 10, but my Second 10 has three and if I'd continued into a Third 10, I probably would have had at least four or five Netflix shows in that group.
Remember that we're still talking about shows here that I think are great. I'd have been totally satisfied by a year in which my Second 10 was my Top 10.
1. Better Things
2. Halt and Catch Fire
3. The Leftovers
4. Better Call Saul
6. The Vietnam War
7. Lady Dynamite
9. The Good Place
10. The Rundown with Robin Thede
11. The Handmaid's Tale
Hulu's breakthrough Margaret Atwood adaptation was 2017's most disturbing warning cry, a piece of wildly speculative science fiction that found itself in the zeitgeist by feeling not nearly so wild or speculative. It was also the hardest exclusion from my Top 10, dropping out only after I considered how many of my favorite moments came from only three of the series' 10 episodes — Reed Morano's brilliantly directed pilot, the rise-of-Gilead horrors of "Late," and the nightmarish "Jezebels." It's not that the other episodes were bad, but those were the ones that stuck with me disproportionately. Elisabeth Moss' lead performance delivered the Peak TV favorite a long-overdue first acting Emmy and she was surrounded by an impressive cast including Samira Wiley, Ann Dowd, Yvonne Strahovski and, bouncing back from the anti-Rory backlash of the Netflix Gilmore Girls episodes, Alexis Bledel. Few shows will face more pressure when they return next year, but Handmaid's Tale might have seemed even more vital if it had premiered a few months later in 2017's #MeToo moment, so it's a triumph of creative richness more than mere timing. [Note that Margaret Atwood had a heck of a 2017 moment, with Netflix and CBS' Alias Grace adaptation also drawing deserving plaudits.]
12. Bojack Horseman
After two straight years high in my Top 10, Netflix's animated chronicle of equine depression and Hollywood malaise "plummeted" to these depths after a "disappointing" season that for me mostly suffered from a lack of episodes on quite the level of "Fish Out of Water" or "That's Too Much, Man!" Perish the thought. Instead, the fourth Bojack Horseman season only featured the fragmented time-jumping brilliance of "Time's Arrow," the crazed Zach Braff-burning anarchy of "Underground" and the always-relevant commentary of "Thoughts and Prayers," plus the side-splitting reveal of Felicity Huffman's new TV project, the compassion of Todd's asexual journey of self-discovery, the silliness of the Peanutbutter/Coodchuck-Berkowitz gubernatorial campaign and all manner of tongue-twisters involving Courtney Portnoy's movie career. Credit Bojack Horseman for finding new emotional variations and for not just building to another Bojack personal nadir. And also for continuing to pack in more rewatchable jokes than just about any show on TV.
13. The Deuce
Probably the only reason David Simon and George Pelecanos' grimy, grungy look at pre-gentrification Manhattan didn't make my Top 10 was that at only eight episodes, the first season felt a little more rushed and condensed than might have been ideal. Certainly pilot director Michelle MacLaren and subsequent helmers, including two episodes from double leading man James Franco, did remarkable work in building a dirty, textured world, which the writers did an amazing job of populating with instantly memorable pimps and hos and coppers and crooks and pornographers and journalists and mobsters. Franco's dual casting was never distracting and he and Maggie Gyllenhaal anchored a deep ensemble dominated by favorites from past David Simon shows including Gbenga Akinnagbe, Chris Bauer, Chris Coy, Dominique Fishback, Lawrence Gilliard Jr. and Method Man, along with welcome new additions including Gary Carr and Margarita Levieva. The characters were quippy and colorful and profane (all hail, Pernell Walker's Ruby), but every word they said was supported within a typically Simon-ian thesis about the commodification of the human body within an increasingly commodified urban space in which ordinary people too often get devoured by failing institutions. It's a show about exploitation that demanded constant vigilance to monitor if it was being exploitative itself. Mostly, it was not.
14. Big Mouth
Were Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett's animated Netflix comedy just a puerile depiction of hormone-infused male adolescence, it would probably be amusing and childish and ultimately forgettable. What sets the series apart is the perspective and understanding it has for a wide range of youthful experience — male and female, straight or gay or unsure — and its desire to take the most embarrassing and humiliating and uncomfortable of moments and push them to hilarious-yet-relatable extremes. One of the things I've enjoyed seeing on Twitter is how Jessi and Missy and their Hormone Monster have been every bit as embraced by viewers as Nick and Andrew and their Hormone Monster. The show didn't need to have such an open mind. It could have just been gross and silly. But it's better than that. It also features an astounding cast that starts with Kroll and John Mulaney and Jessi Klein and Jenny Slate and Maya Rudolph (and Jordan Peele as The Ghost of Duke Ellington). Each episode is packed with superb vocal turns from just about every comic who has ever been on a show that you love, sometimes recognizable and sometimes just doing funny character work. Oh and the original songs are catchy and clever, too!
Girls had a great final season and, when year-end listing took place, pretty much the only way that final season was acknowledged was a few mentions of "American Bitch," which feels like a way-too-easy and way-too-reductive way of honoring what was a real and varied accomplishment. Yes, "American Bitch" was great and presaged a fall spent discussing horrible behavior by men in power, but it was only one of several episodes worth acknowledging. "All I Ever Wanted" was an ideal "self-absorbed Hannah" episode that set up a season in which, to some degree, Hannah really did mature and learn to see a world outside of herself. "The Bounce" featured Elijah trying out for a White Men Can't Jump musical and that was just great. "What Will We Do This Time About Adam?" was a perfect and perfectly sad ending to the Adam/Hannah relationship that stretched across the series. And "Goodbye Tour" was an ideal series finale, followed by what was effectively an epilogue episode as the actual finale, the lovely post-script "Latching." Each of the show's stars had showcase moments. Two of my top three shows for the year were series that executed carefully planned and smoothly landed final seasons and Girls did the same, only with a lot less acclaim and, oddly for such a buzz-y show, a lot less buzz.
In a perfect world, I'd want to cheat and combine Sundance Now's super Back and Amazon's Catastrophe as a single entry, since it seems a bit unfair that British shows get to do only six half-hour episodes and an American sitcom might have to do 10 or 13 or 22. I prefer not to cheat, though. The third season of Catastrophe continued the comedy's descent into murkier and murkier terrain and took on added comic-pathos with Carrie Fisher's marvelous last appearance. It's still a show of ever-increasing awkwardness and amusing discomfort, but just enough sweetness to make the whole thing bearable. It's still got the pleasure of characters saying "Fergal" over and over again. It's still anchored by two great performances from stars Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, performances that don't get nearly enough credit from award-giving groups. But you know who else doesn't get enough credit? Ben Taylor has directed every episode of the show. So let's talk some more about Ben Taylor and about how Amazon somehow allows a show this great to seem almost like an afterthought.
By the halfway point in its second season, ABC's Speechless has already become the rare comedy ensemble in which a different co-star can be the cast MVP every week. Minnie Driver is still the centerpiece and an Ultimate Tiger Mom Showdown between Maya DiMeo, Beverly Goldberg and Jessica Huang would be one worth watching. John Ross Bowie's ability to shift back and forth between sincerity and lunacy is often what keeps the show from sliding into Very Special Episode territory. Cedric Yarbrough got to sing with Keith David at Thanksgiving! And the kids continue ABC's recent momentum in landing fine juvenile actors, including the unexpectedly versatile Micah Fowler who has, especially in this fall's episodes, been able to expand JJ's character WELL beyond default "Inspiring Son in Wheelchair" tropes. The fall episodes "B-i-Bikini U-n-University" and "S-t-Star W-Wars" in particular showed how well the series has done with building JJ into a multi-dimensional character who sometimes gets to be petty and sometimes gets to be silly and is capable of carrying episodes, rather than just being the subject of episodes.
18. One Day at a Time
You didn't know you needed a remake of Norman Lear's long-running sitcom hit until you watched the new Netflix version and realized how cleverly Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce took the bones of the original and turned it into a vital and contemporary piece of multi-cam dramedy. Making the central family Cuban-American opened the conversational doors to issues of immigration, assimilation and religion, which was a good start. But the writers pushed further and gave Justina Machado's Penelope a carefully considered military background and PTSD arc, while also giving Isabella Gomez's Elena one of the most sensitively rendered coming-out arcs imaginable. It's only because Machado and Gomez are so assured that the legendary Rita Moreno doesn't just dance off with the entire show with a performance that's broad and scenery-chewing when it needs to be and subtle and heartfelt when required. Maybe critics responded to the first season with too much "surprise" and the second season will let us concentrate on just how good this show is.
19. The Americans
In retrospect, maybe The Americans shouldn't have begun its penultimate season with four straight episodes dedicated to the real-time digging of a hole. Did it only feel that way? Actually, I adore when shows like The Americans and Better Call Saul acknowledge and honor "process" and "duration" and I had no issue with however long that hole-digging really felt. It just happened that The Americans was airing at a point in the spring when The Leftovers, The Handmaid's Tale, Better Call Saul and Fargo were all airing simultaneously and the gradations of "great" and "very good" were quite visible. This season of The Americans just happened to be merely "very good" for maybe two-thirds of the season. The last third was great. It just wasn't exciting in a conventional spy-thriller way. Because sometimes a character's arc leads someplace meaningful, but not "exciting." Philip's growing sadness and resignation brought out the best in Matthew Rhys, and Elizabeth's determination to keep her family together gave Keri Russell an array of frayed edges to play. Spending more time in Russia with Oleg and, in brief and special moments, Martha, added cultural contrast and different shadings of melancholy. Just as a "disappointing" season of Bojack Horseman came in at No.12 on my list, this is how far a "disappointing" season of The Americans falls.
20. Twin Peaks: The Return
I'd have included David Lynch and Mark Frost's surreal Showtime odyssey in my Top 10 except that I really consider it more of a movie, even though it was made for a TV network with TV network money, aired in a weekly episodic fashion with an episodic structure and was the sequel to a TV show. I kid! I kid! Honestly, I admired and utterly endorsed how uncompromising Lynch and Frost's vision was, but I also found myself enjoying the new Twin Peaks much more once I stopped trying to figure out what was happening and why it was happening and once I started watching just for the in-the-moment enjoyment of oddities like Wally Brando or the roadhouse musical appearances or seemingly endless scenes of Dougie drinking coffee or Candie trying to kill a fly with a remote control or the phantasmagoric entirety of the third and eighth episodes. I was left with no desire to do the math to make Twin Peaks come together as a cumulative entity, but the week-to-week experience was often stunning. Because it's a TV show. And that's how TV shows work. Even when they're made by "movie" people. In conclusion, Twin Peaks: The Return was a TV show and my No. 20 TV show of 2017.
JUST MISSING OUT: Master of None, The Keepers, American Vandal, Brockmire, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, One Mississippi, Insecure, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. And more!