Tim Goodman: The Best TV of 2017

6:00 AM 12/14/2017

by Tim Goodman

The final season of an HBO masterwork, the latest opus from one of America’s top documentarians and a surprise treat from Epix are among The Hollywood Reporter chief TV critic's 46 favorites of the year.

'The Leftovers,' 'Halt and Catch Fire' and 'The A Word'
'The Leftovers,' 'Halt and Catch Fire' and 'The A Word'
From left to right: Courtesy of HBO, AMC, BBC

Peak TV is way more than a cliché. In 2016, there were 455 scripted series. In 2017? When the tally is official, it could exceed 500. So if you needed even more proof that the Top 10 list for TV is outdated and unfair to the efforts of creators, there you go.

For my annual Best of 2017 TV Series list, my goal was to reward deserving shows no matter the total (as usual). How to not just include everything, or truly separate the great from the very good? Simple, really. Of the series I've seen, these 46 had to be on the list. They demanded, by their outstanding seasons, originality and combination of writing, acting and directing, to be more memorable and more essential than all the others.

Despite the number (which is actually less than 10 percent of the scripted total), it was hard to cull the list. Yes, there's that many deserving dramas and comedies out there. Factor in the ones that I didn't review or haven't had the time yet to see — the lament of every critic these days — and the number theoretically could have been higher.

I take these lists seriously because television is a brutal business. There's no better time to be making content and no tougher time to get that content noticed, for myriad reasons. There's excellent work in the industry and, at the end of the year, it shouldn't be contained by an arbitrary number.

  1. 1
    46

    The Leftovers

    HBO

    HBO

    A meditation on loss, spirituality and survival, this was such a weirdly enjoyable creative trip over three disparately ingenious seasons that it never occurred to me to put another series in this slot. That's pretty rare. If you didn't watch it (not many did) there's not much to say other than this is No. 1 for a reason. Find out for yourself.

  2. 2
    46

    The A Word

    SundanceTV

    Courtesy of Sundance TV

    This gem about autism ranked No. 6 (out of 38) on my 2016 list, and it returned this year to achieve something even grander — full resonance for Peter Bowker's ambitious vision, which stuffed so much into the first season that the stories weren't always given enough room. In the second season, with the world building already done, the emotional reverberations of a young family and a small village dealing with autism became one of the great storytelling achievements of 2017, with fantastic performances abounding but none lovelier than Christopher Eccleston's.

  3. 3
    46

    The Vietnam War

    PBS

    Courtesy of Telluride Film Festival

    Ken Burns, this country's best documentary filmmaker, has now tackled two subjects in short order — World War II and Vietnam — that had been done to death. The result? Revitalized, resonant, eye-opening documents that are now the gold standard for each war.

  4. 4
    46

    Back

    Sundance Now

    Courtesy of Sundance TV

    This is the third (of five, arguably six) series in this top 10 list that few people outside professional TV critics have seen. That is, of course, irrelevant, quality-wise. Back, from the incredibly talented Simon Blackwell (Veep, In the Loop, The Thick of It, Peep Show), is probably the most fully realized combination of story concept, comic acting talent (especially David Mitchell and Robert Webb) and payoff, which is why I ranked it ahead of the likes of Better Things, Master of None, etc. Exceptionally original and unflaggingly funny.

  5. 5
    46

    Halt and Catch Fire

    AMC

    Courtesy of AMC

    Look, there's not much to tell you here other than: Start at the beginning, watch all four seasons, and when you get to the fourth and final one you can luxuriate in the acting (Lee Pace, Kerry Bishe, Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy) and writing and story evolution, as each are remarkable.

  6. 6
    46

    Patriot

    Amazon

    Courtesy of Amazon Studios

    I went back to check on many of the series I reviewed early in the year and nothing got a qualitative readjustment based on the year's curve quite like this mostly ignored series from creator Steve Conrad, starring Michael Dorman. Peak TV washes away both opportunity and memory, and no series on my list deserves a full season's worth of critical re-evaluation as much as this one. Even now, I think it should probably be higher on my own list. Each episode improved on the last, the writing and directing are superb, and the sorrowful tone sitting below the humor and dark storylines is note-perfect.

  7. 7
    46

    Better Things

    FX

    Courtesy of FX

    The Louis C.K. connection can be as problematic as you allow it to be, but Pamela Adlon's confident and emotionally evocative look at mothers and daughters, parenting and dating, love and survival was a tour de force. In the realm of the half-hour dramedy format so popular now — with its challenging tonal shifts and exploration of life's smaller moments — Better Things truly stood out and was a real showcase for Adlon's prodigious talents.

  8. 8
    46

    Game of Thrones

    HBO

    Courtesy of HBO

    I could do a whole essay on how we tend to take for granted the series that entertain us the most, that work hard to tell complicated stories with well-earned payoffs that, upon quick end-of-the-year reflection, we for some reason downgrade (I'm feeling guilty enough about this with Veep). But I don't see how it's possible to have a top 10 series list without Game of Thrones somewhere on it. I just don't. No series made me look forward to the next episode like Game of Thrones.

  9. 9
    46

    Get Shorty

    Epix

    Courtesy of EPIX

    It might be shiny and new (or slightly grimy and new), but I would argue this was the least expected bit of greatness since the first season of Fargo on FX. A seemingly bad idea on paper, airing on a premium subscription service with mixed results in the past, instead turns out to be a completely inspired, immensely creative endeavor. Congrats to series creator and writer Davey Holmes for this Peak TV stunner.

  10. 10
    46

    Planet Earth II

    BBC America

    Elizabeth White

    Absolutely magnificent and even breathtaking at numerous points, this documentary (which follows up the acclaimed and groundbreaking original a decade earlier) is an outstanding, accomplished visual treat and, along with The Vietnam War, is arguably the most must-watch among all of these selections. Television at its finest.

  11. 11
    46

    The Deuce

    HBO

    Courtesy of HBO

    George Pelecanos, David Simon and Richard Price craft a bleak but intriguing look at the birth of the porn industry in New York in the grimy '70s, getting excellent performances from Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Franco and a talented ensemble cast in the process. Most impressive of this show’s accomplishments is its ability to extract truth from the titillation.

  12. 12
    46

    Veep

    HBO

    Courtesy of HBO

    Still the funniest, most searing comedy on TV.

  13. 13
    46

    Better Call Saul

    AMC

    Courtesy of AMC

    This was an exceptional season for an already excellent series. All the stakes raised, so many lives lowered or lessened. Taut storytelling and fine performances abounded.

  14. 14
    46

    Legion

    FX

    Chris Large/FX

    It was the weirdest, most visually tweaked series before Twin Peaks arrived, but it comes out far ahead creatively not only because it didn't rely solely on the lensing of freaktastic events but had an actual story, characters, forward momentum, charm, whimsy and drama.

  15. 15
    46

    The Americans

    FX

    Courtesy of FX

    Bridge seasons — important stepping stones to series finales — are inherently less interesting because they set up what's to come and allow a little breathing room for stories that need nuance before the dramatic conclusion. The Americans did that very well and yet it was perceived as a flaw. It wasn't. This series is still in rarified air among dramas.

  16. 16
    46

    Black Mirror

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    True, you'll be reading this before you even have a chance to see the series, which doesn't drop until Dec. 29. But have no fear: Creator Charlie Brooker delivers another intriguing mixture of stories in Season 4, emphasizing the human element despite the ever-present "techno-phobia" themes of the past.

  17. 17
    46

    Mr. Robot

    USA

    Michael Parmelee/USA Network

    A triumphant return to form in Season 3, as audacious and creative as ever. Clever in its darkness, stark in its portrait of what power does to people.

  18. 18
    46

    Master of None

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Not many series traffic in joy. But this one does. There were new creative heights here, deserved Emmys and recognition for Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang continuing to follow a different path from other shows.

  19. 19
    46

    Fargo

    FX

    Chris Large/FX

    You could make the argument that it's weaker than the previous two seasons but you'd also have to admit that the previous two were among the best series in their respective years, so that's hardly damning. Beyond that, the writing remains top-notch, the variety of performances a real joy and no other series can match Fargo's ability to manage the tonal clash of violence and comedy.

  20. 20
    46

    Guerilla

    Showtime

    Courtesy of Showtime

    Arguably one of the best surprises of 2017, this limited series from John Ridley tackled racism and radical politics in 1971 London, with standout performances from Babou Ceesay and Freida Pinto and a fresh, compelling story.

  21. 21
    46

    Humans

    AMC

    Colin Hutton/Kudos/CH4/AMC

    Massively overlooked. There are few genre series as ambitious and intriguing as this one, which — like Black Mirror — finds the humanity in future-tech. Humans has excelled in both its seasons so if you haven't found it, now is the time.

  22. 22
    46

    Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

    The CW

    Eddy Chen/The CW

    I am absolutely guilty of spending two seasons pleading for everyone to watch this gem and then all of a sudden taking it for granted in the third (not just its very existence, which seems a miracle, but its creative vitality). Look, there's not a lot of musical dramedies on TV, right? So, cherish.

  23. 23
    46

    Silicon Valley

    HBO

    John P. Johnson/HBO

    I noted in Season 4 that one of the most easily overlooked elements of this series was the fact that each seasonal story arc is composed of "little puzzles of magnificence.” Silicon Valley isn't just a joke machine, and its forward momentum and character building are what fuel its success.

  24. 24
    46

    People of Earth

    TBS

    TBS

    This series is delightful. It's hilarious. It's basically unknown (though that's an increasing phenomenon in the Peak TV era) and I will not let a chance go by to remind anyone that its eccentric brilliance must be sought out. There's a special place for tiny, joyfully entertaining antidotes to real life, and for People of Earth that place is pretty damn high on this list of great shows.

  25. 25
    46

    Mindhunter

    Mindhunter

    Courtesy of Netflix

    It's not the show people were expecting, which ended up being one of the best things about it. Clever, straightforward, well-written, wonderfully acted. FBI profilers are a thing, but before they were a thing, this is what they were.

  26. 26
    46

    American Vandal

    Netflix

    Tyler Golden/Netflix

    Gloriously ridiculous. Meticulously spot-on as it sends up the docudrama genre. One of the unexpected, hilarious surprises of 2017, with an award-worthy performance from Jimmy Tatro.

  27. 27
    46

    The Handmaid's Tale

    Hulu

    George Kraychyk/Hulu

    Bleak (possibly to a fault), but essential and filled with subterfuge and dread that seemed all-too-timely, this was probably the It series of 2017. Whether it can sustain this level of interest and storytelling will be its biggest challenge for the second season, but this one was a triumph.

  28. 28
    46

    Stranger Things

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    The odds of the second season being a disappointment were, let's not kid ourselves, astronomical. But avoiding that is only partly why Stranger Things made the list. There's something about a series being the sum of its parts that is particularly true about this one. Casting and character development really built this show.

  29. 29
    46

    It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia

    FX

    Courtesy of FX

    Do not disrespect the king. Twelve seasons and still kicking everybody's ass.

  30. 30
    46

    GLOW

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Your mileage may vary, particularly on whether Alison Brie's character was a hindrance to the enjoyment (not here it wasn't), but there was a whole lot more to this comedy than the premise suggested, with both Marc Maron and Betty Gilpin absolutely killing it and the writing (and vibe) remaining consistently excellent throughout.

  31. 31
    46

    Insecure

    HBO

    Courtesy of HBO

    Season 2 built on Issa Rae's breakout the season prior, with a continued insightfulness into a worldview basically unseen on TV.

  32. 32
    46

    Casual

    Hulu

    Courtesy of Hulu

    Television is (increasingly) full of series that others will discover later and say, "How come nobody told me about this!" Well, yeah, I told you about Casual for a while now. It's also admirable how this series has grown from the pilot through each successive episode. If it went under your radar, look down and find it.

  33. 33
    46

    Orphan Black

    BBC America

    Courtesy of Ken Woroner/BBC AMERICA

    What a wild, ambitious and relentlessly fun thrill ride. This genre series gave us an immensely talented new actress (Tatiana Maslany) and it proved, back in 2013, that little shows could. And this one did.

  34. 34
    46

    The Good Place

    NBC

    Colleen Hayes/NBC

    Emblematic of broadcast television's qualitative peak — the situation comedy — The Good Place continues to be impressively inventive week to week. Shorter, cable-like seasons help. Although with this show, it's easy to want more.

  35. 35
    46

    You're the Worst

    FX

    Courtesy of FX

    Unafraid of challenges (from the start, really), YTW took fans into all kinds of uncomfortable places to tell its stories and to mine hard-earned laughs. While some might have wanted to stay safer, it's not really how creator Stephen Falk is wired, thankfully.

  36. 36
    46

    Manhunt: Unabomber

    Discovery

    Discovery Channel

    Just when everyone thought there might actually be a peak to this Peak TV thing, three series (Get Shorty at No. 9, this surprising entry from Discovery and No. 43 on this list) all came out of (relative) nowhere to make noise and demand to be seen. Getting noticed in this environment is not easy but there was enough solid writing and acting and tension in Manhunt: Unabomber to validate Discovery's limited scripted push.

  37. 37
    46

    Catastrophe

    Amazon

    Ed Miller/Amazon Studios

    After three seasons it's probably too late to keep asking for more than six episodes each (falling on the deaf ears of talented creators, writers and stars Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney). But it couldn't be clearer, from the darker storylines in Season 3, that Catastrophe would best be served with eight or 10 per season — if for nothing else than to not make us feel like it’s ending mid-sentence, which drops it down the list this year, despite its accomplished meshing of laughs and emotion.

  38. 38
    46

    Dear White People

    Netflix

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Series about and by people of color are on the rise but are hardly prevalent, and Dear White People, like all Netflix series, suffers from getting lost in the steamers all-everything slush pile. But this first season (spun from the movie) showed real promise and broke out Logan Browning while highlighting a strong cast.

  39. 39
    46

    The Tick

    Amazon

    Courtesy of Jessica Miglio/Amazon

    As I said when I reviewed it, The Tick was the hero we need right now. If for nothing else than to add some silliness to the relentlessly depressing headlines about the state of the country. Sometimes a TV show fulfills that simple requirement — to take us away from our woes and entertain us. But not all are as clever and likeable as The Tick.

  40. 40
    46

    Bob's Burgers

    Fox

    Courtesy of FOX

    How many shows, even from this list, are ones that you can revisit again and again, in any order from any season, and love again? Bob's Burgers gives joy consistently. It's the new American classic.

  41. 41
    46

    Brooklyn Nine-Nine

    Fox

    John P. Fleenor/FOX

    Coming back to the theme again — soooooo many shows to discover and choose from — highlights why long-running series are often ignored (and not just by me) for the shiny and the new. But a solid sitcom that never fails to surprise or be creative is always worth the time.

  42. 42
    46

    Sneaky Pete

    Amazon

    Courtesy of Eric Liebowitz/Amazon Prime Video

    It didn't hit the heights of Patriot and lots of what it does goes over familiar ground, but this series is fueled by a string of strong performances (Giovanni Ribisi, Margo Martindale, Marin Ireland, Shane McRae, Bryan Cranston, etc.), crafty and wise writing and, upon re-inspection (it premiered in January), made lots of competitors look lacking.

  43. 43
    46

    Mr. Mercedes

    AT&T Audience Network

    Courtesy of DirecTV

    The trifecta of where-did-that-come from shows is now complete (see: Epix's Get Shorty at No. 9 and Discovery's Manhunt: Unabomber at No. 36). This Stephen King adaptation was riveting, brought freshness to the creepy-killer genre and got outstanding performances from Brendan Gleeson, Harry Treadway, Holland Taylor and Kelly Lynch.

  44. 44
    46

    SMILF

    Showtime

    Courtesy of Mark Schafer/Showtime

    Personal, auteur-styled storytelling in the 30-minute space continues to be the formula that is bringing the best out of new talent (Atlanta, Master of None, Better Things, Insecure, etc.) and now Showtime has one of its own with Frankie Shaw, creator, writer, star and director, wowing each week (and the show broadening its lens). A welcome and often surprising newcomer.

  45. 45
    46

    Jane the Virgin

    The CW

    Courtesy of The CW

    And now, to complete the theme with a lament: With so many series to choose from, it's hard to commit to some of the best — even ones I've loved from the start like Jane the Virgin — when they operate on a 22-episode season. Unfair? Maybe. But it's the new reality. That said, I do store these episodes up and find myself coming back to them and always being impressed — one of the last great broadcast dramas.

  46. 46
    46

    Godless

    Netflix

    Ursula Coyote/Netflix

    It's not easy to rejuvenate a tired genre like the Western, which, unlike so many others, comes with baked-in clichés or tropes that can undercut creative intent. But this limited series from Scott Frank took a number of surprising turns and let out enough rope to tell a full story in seven thoughtful and compelling episodes. I devoured all of them.