While television offered more than enough escape from the anxieties and outrages of life in 2017, it also found plenty of contextual and thematic relevance to kick around – sometimes intentional, sometimes just coincidental.
All I know is I’ve never had a better time doing my job, or a harder time picking my yearly favourites. Here they are:
1. “Twin Peaks: The Return”
I couldn’t have been more sceptical about letting David Lynch (and his co-creator Mark Frost) run wild for an 18-hour sequel to their groundbreaking yet befuddlingly complex 1990 series. Now I’m a believer. Some say this crazy and exquisitely realized work counts as Lynch’s best film, but I claim it as a triumph for TV – surprisingly linear in its serialized plot, yet mind-blowingly spot-on in its rumination on such subjects as evil, atomic weaponry and the very nature of existence. Years from now, museums will show it on a continuous loop.
2. “The Handmaid’s Tale”
This unforgettably chilling adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel arrived with disturbing resonance in an American culture contending with baby-faced nationalists, presidential propaganda and threats to women’s rights. In any other headspace, it would simply be a terrific TV show – with a career-defining lead performance from Elisabeth Moss. In 2017, however, it was something more vital, as it seeded the story with added hints of a resistance afoot in Gilead, the theocratically fascist country once known as the USA.
3. “The Vietnam War”
Years in the making, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-part documentary series took viewers back through the many decades of diplomatic blunders that led to America’s misguided war in Vietnam. Aided by innovative approaches to music and tone, the filmmakers displayed their masterful melding of history and humanity, presenting the story in a calmly factual and thoroughly absorbing manner that is increasingly rare. Some quibbled with it, but, in the era of “fake news,” it was reassuring to see a project so thoroughly devoted to sticking to the facts.
4. “Big Little Lies”
With a touch of feminist resilience for viewers who can’t quite stomach “The Handmaid’s Tale,” this seven-episode miniseries features an unlikely assembly of heroines (played by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and Zoe Kravitz) who are swept up in a backward-spun murder mystery (based on Liane Moriarty’s novel) that takes place in a well-off coastal community. It’s a moody and addictive deep-dive on relationships, class and envy.
5. “Feud: Bette and Joan”
An extravagant exercise in camp and cultural excavation, “Feud” is a plate of Fancy Feast for the cattiest among us, aided by knockout performances from Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, enduring one another during the filming of their 1962 sleeper hit “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” It wasn’t only about spats and hisses – “Feud” skillfully elicited viewers’ sympathy and a bit of outrage at how the Industry mistreats its most talented women.
Issa Rae and company took what was already a pretty-good dramedy and deepened it. “Insecure” both embraces and subverts the young-woman/big-city story template, and it’s not afraid of pessimistic, downbeat outcomes.
At its centre is a failed relationship between fictional Issa and Lawrence (Jay Ellis) that has provided some of the year’s most honest scenes about heartbreak. Meanwhile, Yvonne Orji’s performance as Molly, Issa’s overachieving best friend, illuminated the ways we thwart our own happiness. For all its glumness, “Insecure” retains an ebulliently hilarious and provocative tone – always great fun to watch.
7. “Better Things”
The ignominy of co-creator Louis C.K.’s sexual-misconduct revelations shouldn’t mar Pamela Adlon’s brilliantly self-assured and refreshingly surly dramedy about a single mom, based loosely on her own experiences. (FX feels likewise; C.K. is no longer associated with any of the network’s shows.)
Like “Insecure,” “Better Things” went from being a fine show to a truly excellent (and fearless) one, achieving that rare quality of making a viewer feel like part of the family. This season also gave us one of the year’s funniest scenes, as Adlon’s Sam fends off advances from a good friend’s ex-husband (Greg Cromer) with the ultimate no-means-no reproach.
Another show about women discovering their own strength? Absolutely. Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch (and executive produced by “Orange Is the New Black’s” Jenji Kohan), this semi-fictional take on the mid-1980s dawn of the “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” circuit could be viewed as a direct blow to the misogynistic tendencies of then and now.
But mostly it’s just a hoot to watch, thanks to a superb ensemble cast headed by Alison Brie as Ruth, an out-of-work actress trying too hard to please Sam (Marc Maron), a sleazoid movie director. “GLOW” has a nice fighting spirit about it and an ample supply of characters to root for – even the heels.
9. “The Young Pope”
Eleven months after it aired, I remain awestruck by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino’s beautiful (if confounding) 10-part series about a dilettante American cardinal, Lenny Belardo (Jude Law, in a wickedly disciplined performance), who becomes a surprise pick for pope. With his radical reordering of protocol, Lenny, now Pope Pius XIII, alienates some and galvanizes others.
Silvio Orlando is especially good as Cardinal Voiello, the Vatican’s secretary of state, who belatedly sees divinity in Lenny’s capricious rule. As the series builds, a sense of spiritual calm takes over, unlike anything else I watched this year (except maybe that “Leftovers” finale).
Yee-haw, it’s a real Western (at last), featuring a broad vista of the genre’s essential narrative conflicts and a particularly strong focus on the iffy morals of the 19th-century frontier. Michelle Dockery is outstanding as a determined horse-rancher who lives on the edge of a small town populated by women who all lost their husbands in a mining disaster.
A showdown between a notorious bandit (Jeff Daniels) and his conflicted protege (Jack O’Connell) threatens to take the town down with it, but not if these women have anything to say about it. It’s a wild and instantly compelling ride.
Here are another 10 shows, listed alphabetically, that came close to making my list:
”Big Mouth” (Netflix); “The Crown” (Netflix); “The Deuce” (HBO); “Game of Thrones” (HBO); “The Good Fight” (CBS All Access); “Loudermilk” (AT&T Audience Network); “One Day at a Time” (Netflix); “Patriot” (Amazon); “Stranger Things 2” (Netflix); and “This Is Us” (NBC).