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The 18 best TV shows of 2017

It was the best year ever for good TV — but a mediocre year for truly great TV.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

There was more good television than ever before in 2017, but less great television. The medium most responsive to tiny shifts in the American body politic nevertheless spent a lot of the year trying desperately to catch up to a world that had rapidly changed underneath it, or just trying to run as far away as possible from what was happening in Washington.

The irony of this is that the TV show we all followed with the most intensity in 2017 wasn’t This Is Us or Stranger Things or even Game of Thrones. It was the news. Whichever side of the political spectrum you fell on, tracing the ins and outs of the Trump administration and its many supporting players turned into a weird national pastime. Remember when Anthony Scaramucci was a thing for about a week? It felt like he was a one-episode guest star, played by a memorable actor, who would surely go on to do interesting things on other TV shows.

And to be sure, there’s at least one alternate universe where this is true, where the follies of our 2017 are wild entertainment — a twisted soap opera or a too-crazy-to-be-true satire. But I couldn’t help but feel that the way so many of us talked about the news as if it were a TV show shortchanged both the news and TV shows.

President Trump, the New York Times reports, asks his staffers to think of every day as a new episode of a TV show, in which he does battle with his rivals. The man has, if nothing else, always had an acute understanding of just how addicted Americans are to their TV shows (as he himself reportedly is). And he’s used that understanding to force the rest of us into a drama of his own devising, via his Twitter feed, mostly, but also via random policy proclamations that destroy lives or cause whole groups of people to live in shuddering fear their lives will be destroyed if the right court doesn’t hear their case.

The problem with this is how easy Trump makes it to make everything about him, even when he has very little to do with, say, a Republican tax bill that would have been very similar under almost any other Republican president. He’s constantly inserting himself into the center of the story, and it creates a strange vacuum: We don’t really think about what’s happening because of him; we just think about him, love or hate. Our culture’s collective impulse to psychoanalyze and debate and recontextualize what he says and does reminds me of the arguments we used to have about Walter White back when Breaking Bad was on, only with stakes that could legitimately end the world.

But if Trump is Walter White, then I guess that makes the rest of us Hank Schrader or Gus Fring or Skyler White, trying to find a way to navigate a space that leaves us with little room to breathe. And if the rise of Trump seemed eerily predicted by TV’s antihero era — a long decade of series about dark-hearted men who believed they were owed everything they ever wanted — then the TV of 2017 was pointing toward some other future, just over the horizon. It was filled with series about the inhabitants of broken worlds who hoped to work together to build something better, with those living lives just off the American pop culture radar, with an endless parade of characters who just wanted to find a way to be kinder to each other.

The best shows on TV in 2017 were about finding love and connection in the ruins. And the more I thought about that, the more I realized that great art transcends its circumstances. Talking about Trump like he’s a TV show has horrible real-world consequences, but it also, I think, means that once he’s become an artifact of history, we’ll realize all the more quickly that the show wasn’t very good.

The TV shows I loved in 2017 rose above that toxic conversation to be about something more central to what it means to be alive and human. And though there were fewer shows able to do that than ever before (where I typically have preliminary “best TV” lists of 40 or 50 before whittling them down, I struggled to get to 30 this year), I found it churlish to rank them against each other.

So here, then, is an 18-way tie for the best TV show of 2017, along with some supplemental lists of other shows I liked or just missed out on. May 2018 be a better year for television, and for all of us.

Better Call Saul season 3 (AMC)

Better Call Saul AMC

Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s inversion of Breaking Bad, the series from which this prequel spun off, had its best season in 2017, laying the groundwork for Jimmy McGill’s eventual downward spiral into Saul Goodman, the man he will become on Breaking Bad. Jimmy’s connection to his brother, Chuck, was irreparably severed, and his continual moral compromises, where he’d try to do the right thing but in a slippery, wrong way, seemed to increasingly spell his doom. No drama found greater moral challenge in seemingly small-stakes, personal stories.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

Better Things season 2 (FX)

Better Things FX

Better Things had already been good in its first season, as creator, star, writer, and director Pamela Adlon examined motherhood through the eyes of Sam Fox, mother of three daughters and daughter of one overbearing mother. But the series leaped forward in 2017, becoming TV’s best semi-autobiographical jaunt through the life of a comedic auteur. (Atlanta, its main competition in this respect, sat out the year.) Yes, the series was co-created and often co-written by Louis C.K., whose longtime sexual misconduct came to light as part of Hollywood’s ongoing reckoning with its horrible past. But it was one of the few shows on the air to feel so bracingly tuned in to what it means to be a woman, alive, in 2010s America. (There was even a side plot about a man who won’t listen when Sam tells him “no,” so she just keeps shouting it at him.) Every character, every moment, every line on Better Things — they’re all deeply felt, and tied in to our world in a way few other series were.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

BoJack Horseman season 4 (Netflix)

BoJack Horseman Netflix

Depending on where you sat, BoJack Horseman’s fourth season was either a mild step back from its second and third seasons or the show’s best yet. It deemphasized the titular character in favor of becoming more of an ensemble piece, and its slow expansion to encompass 70-some years of the history of BoJack’s family, right alongside the more mundane concerns of many of the supporting characters, was downright breathtaking. The series also remains one of the funniest on TV, brazenly willing to nestle so-bad-they’re-great puns alongside show business satire and dark jokes about the cost of depression. (In case you couldn’t tell, I’m in the “best yet” camp.)

It was the best TV show of 2017.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend seasons 2 and 3 (The CW)

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend The CW

Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s musical comedy dissection of a woman and her mental illness started out in its first season winking at its title, but very quickly left that behind as Rebecca Bunch (Bloom) dove headfirst into blinding narcissism, self-loathing, and despair. In 2017, the series grew ever darker and ever more poignant, as Rebecca’s journey toward self-discovery led her to find new ways to hit rock bottom and, finally, as the year wrapped, with a beacon of hope in the form of a psychological diagnosis and treatment plan. It’s one of the few shows in TV history to turn something as seemingly mundane as a diagnosis into a moment of gorgeous catharsis.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

The Deuce season 1 (HBO)

The Deuce HBO

The Deuce required more good-faith investment than any other show on TV this year. Watch only an episode or two and you might come away convinced it was a dark, exploitative drama that returned to a grimy era and cast most of its women as prostitutes for the sheer, sick debauchery of it all. But the longer the series went on, and the more that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Eileen — a prostitute with an interest in filmmaking who ends up a player in the early world of porn — moved toward its center, the better the series became. In the hands of co-creators David Simon and George Pelecanos (of The Wire fame), the show became about gender and race, yes, but also about class and how our systems fuse together in ways that break both those systems and those who live within them.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

The Good Place seasons 1 and 2 (NBC)

The Good Place NBC

I was already a Good Place fan before the season one finale unleashed a story turn that rocketed my love for the show into some new stratosphere I didn’t even know existed. It was funny. It could deploy a plot twist perfectly. And it was even deeply meaningful and thoughtful about the chaos of our modern world. As the afterlife-dwelling Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and her friends slowly came to realize the reality of the world surrounding them, and Michael (the delightful, devilish Ted Danson) found new ways to be nattily annoying, The Good Place became that rare thing: a TV show that I have to recommend to people by saying, “Oh, just watch it. If I say too much, you’ll hate me.” Just watch The Good Place. If I say too much more, you’ll hate me.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

Halt and Catch Fire season 4 (AMC)

Halt and Catch Fire AMC

It could feel, at times, like the internet had broken the world in 2017. All the more remarkable, then, that AMC’s sadly underwatched drama about the early days of the tech revolution made it easy to remember a time when the internet seemed less like a battleground and more like uncharted country, where something magic might be hidden. The series wrapped by transporting its central characters to the dawn of the search engine, and it made the fact that they were all searching for something themselves feel vital and earned, instead of cheap. The final four episodes of the show were as emotionally overwhelming as anything I’ve ever seen on television.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

The Handmaid’s Tale season 1 (Hulu)

The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu

Look past the huge number of awards. Look past the (kinda icky) way the series became a touchstone for Halloween costumes and fashion statements. Look past the alleged timeliness, the way the series seemed like a thumb in the eye of Donald Trump, entirely by accident. (It was almost completely finished before he was inaugurated.) Instead, look at the things about this series that made it one of TV’s most important dramas from its very first frame. From the visual style, unlike anything else on TV (all close-ups and washed-out backgrounds, the better to underline the myopia forced on the main character by her theocratic society), to the snarlingly perfect performance by Elisabeth Moss to the intelligent and nuanced scripts, The Handmaid’s Tale was so thoroughly itself when it debuted that it demanded we pay attention.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

Insecure season 2 (HBO)

Insecure HBO

Insecure captures that point in your life where you know all of your flaws intimately, but you also don’t quite understand how to change them. It’s about people trapped between their 20s and 30s, sometimes seeming as if they’ve become stuck in the aimlessness of youth forever. That could make Issa Rae’s series (which also stars the creator as a woman named Issa) sound like a horror show, and it occasionally has elements of dark frustration, to be sure. But in its triumphant second season, the show explored breaking points, in relationships, in people, and in communities, as Issa’s beloved Inglewood continued to gentrify.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

The Leftovers season 3 (HBO)

The Leftovers HBO

Lots of shows have asked what happens when the world ends. The Leftovers, which ended its run in 2017, might be the first to ask what happens when it doesn’t. With the Great Departure (in which 2 percent of the world’s population disappeared into thin air) that gave the series its premise seven years in the show’s past, The Leftovers went all the way to Australia in pursuit of elusive truth. The final season’s near-perfect eight episodes explored a broken world in need of healing, a makeshift family in need of connection, and the deepest mysteries of the universe itself. Its series finale found a way to let its mysteries be, while still giving viewers all the answers they could ever want. It was a little miraculous, truth be told.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

The Magicians season 2 (Syfy)

The Magicians Syfy

Watching The Magicians’ second season could feel a little like watching a group of people realizing they could do anything they wanted. It killed off major characters, then found ways to keep those actors on the payroll. It launched massive musical numbers. It paused its entire season for an episode all about an elaborate magical heist, because why not? Normally, shows with this level of gleeful abandon leave me wishing I could have spent some time hanging out in the writers’ room, instead of watching what resulted, but The Magicians kept viewers emotionally invested even as it was throwing everything it could think of against the wall. It remembered, above all, the old lesson of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Viewers will agree to anything if it’s a metaphor for the horrors of growing up.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

Master of None season 2 (Netflix)

Aziz Ansari, in a still from Master of None Netflix

I agree with pretty much every complaint I heard about Master of None’s second season. Its love story had an undercooked female lead? Sure. It sometimes played like wealth porn? Definitely. It broadcast its influences across the sky in 7 million-point type? You bet. But I ultimately didn’t care. Even if Master of None has elements that can grate, its willingness to do just about anything to make a great episode of television — from leaving its protagonists behind entirely for a series of vignettes about service industry workers to crafting an episode that spans more than two decades of Thanksgivings as one character comes to terms with her sexuality — marks it as a big, generous, open-hearted show. Those qualities forgive its flaws.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

Mr. Robot season 3 (USA)

Mr. Robot USA

Mr. Robot’s narrative remains stuck in 2015, due to the slow progress of its timeline, which split off from our own on May 9 of that year. (Look, just don’t ask.) But its mid-apocalyptic vision of a New York City living through an utter economic collapse, of a world where China annexes the Congo, of a world where hopes of a time machine that might allow things to be put right start to feel like a totally normal way to process the immensity of events, felt utterly 2017 in almost every way. The series’ characters, deepened by the divisive second season, longed to come together and find connection, even as the world was ever more intent on keeping them separate. It concluded not with bombast but with poignancy, and was all the better for it.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

Nathan for You season 4 (Comedy Central)

Nathan for You Comedy Central

Nathan for You feels like it’s showing you the secret systems that run the world. Whether it’s host Nathan Fielder trying to get one over on Uber, attempting to construct the world’s perfect talk show anecdote, or helping an old man find a lost love in a way that becomes more and more discomfiting, the series incisively critiques everything from capitalism to reality television, but always flits away from you the second you think you have it pinned down. Fielder’s stunts (purportedly designed to help struggling businesses) make him the closest thing we have to a modern-day Andy Kaufman, where half the fun in watching him is in being a little terrified at the way his brain works.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

One Day at a Time season 1 (Netflix)

One Day at a Time Netflix

Trying to bring the spirit of Norman Lear’s 1970s sitcom masterpieces like All in the Family to the modern era has a long history of failure in the TV industry. So a literal remake of one of the less creatively successful hits he was associated with had so much potential to go wrong, especially in the “live studio audience laughter and multiple cameras” format that modern audiences seem to have turned on (unless it’s part of The Big Bang Theory). Count it even more in One Day at a Time’s favor, then, that it works at all, much less works so well at steadily drawing viewers into the lives of the Cuban-American Alvarez family and their friends. A crackerjack cast and writing that knows when to drop the jokes in favor of pathos all added up to a remake that somehow felt completely new.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

Search Party season 2 (TBS)

The Brooklyn Five TBS

As premises go, “the cast of Girls becomes the center of a Hitchcock thriller” is a pretty great one, but in its second season, Search Party so effectively nailed every aspect of it that it transcended an already pretty great first season. After Dory (Alia Shawkat) and her friends commit a very big crime at the end of the show’s first season, they spend most of the second season trying to keep it covered up, with limited success. And all the while, they’re doing their level best to keep their own little narcissistic wheels spinning. It’s a bit like Breaking Bad restructured to be the darkest of sitcoms, and it’s wonderful.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

Twin Peaks (Showtime)

Twin Peaks Showtime

If the common denominator among so many shows on this list is “Wow, this shouldn’t have worked,” then this one really takes the cake. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s belated revival of their beloved ’90s series very quickly shunted aside almost all blissful, nostalgic pleasures in favor of a consideration of the roots of evil, the dangers of getting lost in memory, and the death of the American small town. The 18-hour miniseries still feels a little like a collective dream TV viewers had. And for as much as I loved every second of it — and think there were few other TV shows that made as much sense of our shattered, scattered world — I also can’t wait to see what it inspires other TV artists to create.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

The Vietnam War (PBS)

The Vietnam War Bettmann/Getty Images for PBS

The Vietnam War, documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour magnum opus, attracted criticism in some circles for its unwillingness to tackle the darkness of one of America’s darkest periods. To which I can only ask: What miniseries were those critics watching? The Vietnam War never lets anybody off easily, but it saves its harshest critiques for American leaders who knew they couldn’t win the war but kept investing in it over and over again, out of a refusal to accept loss, or a belief that their studies were wrong, or a simple certainty of American goodness and superiority. Vietnam painted a picture of a country haughty enough to believe it was infallible, and a country blind enough to refuse to learn the right lessons from a debacle.

It was the best TV show of 2017.

The second tier: 27 more shows I loved, in alphabetical order

I Love Dick Amazon

While I don’t feel these 27 shows reached the heights of the 18 above, I did greatly enjoy them all, and I suspect you will too, if you give them a chance. They are listed alphabetically as well, and include both old favorites of mine and promising newcomers that will hopefully get room to spread their wings.

  • 12 Monkeys (Syfy)
  • American Vandal (Netflix)
  • The Americans (FX)
  • Bates Motel (A&E)
  • Big Mouth (Netflix)
  • Binging With Babish (YouTube)
  • Black-ish (ABC)
  • The Bold Type (Freeform)
  • The Carmichael Show (NBC)
  • Channel Zero: No End House (Syfy)
  • The Chris Gethard Show (TruTV)
  • The Crown (Netflix)
  • Dear White People (Netflix)
  • The Exorcist (Fox)
  • The Expanse (Syfy)
  • Fargo (FX)
  • Girls (HBO)
  • GLOW (Netflix)
  • I Love Dick (Amazon)
  • Samurai Jack (adult swim)
  • Sense8 (Netflix)
  • She’s Gotta Have It (Netflix)
  • Speechless (ABC)
  • Superstore (NBC)
  • Sweet/Vicious (MTV)
  • Vice Principals (HBO)
  • The Young Pope (HBO)

And if that’s not enough, check out all the shows that have entered and left my rotating list of the top 18 TV shows airing right now in the year 2017.

See you in 2018, with hopes of ever better TV to come.

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