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Critics roundtable: how we navigated 2017's good, bad, and most comforting TV

Four Vox Media TV critics gather to talk about everything from Big Mouth to Big Little Lies.

Netflix’s Big Mouth, Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return, and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Netflix/Showtime/Hulu

Throughout the final week of 2017, culture writers from across Vox Media will be chatting about the best works of the year. In this installment, Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff and Caroline Framke, the Verge’s Laura Hudson, and Polygon’s Julia Alexander talk about TV in 2017.

Todd VanDerWerff: In 2017, everything about TV felt condensed and supercharged. Game of Thrones aired only seven episodes, but those seven episodes were all crammed full of stuff (arguably too much stuff, given the season’s weird, disjointed quality).

Instead of unspooling over the course of several weeks as people discovered it, Stranger Things mania was over in about 10 days — and that’s me being generous. The TV shows critics went nuts for, from Twin Peaks to The Leftovers, boasted truly minuscule audiences.

But TV was also possibly more important than ever before in 2017 — just not the kind of TV we frequently talk about as “TV,” which is to say scripted comedies and dramas, which mostly air in primetime and are aimed at adults. This was the year the president became obsessed with a morning show and when a whole bunch of people couldn’t stop watching a cable news network that seemed to exist to run interference for said president. The news mattered more than ever before in 2017, and specifically TV news did, but I know almost nobody, including myself, who really engaged with the news as TV presents it, outside of occasional spurts of watching CNN struggle to cover complex policy issues.

It’s left me wondering what we’re to take from the television of 2017, which, at the end of the day, left me feeling more exhausted than I usually do at the end of a jam-packed year. I think it was probably a better year for the medium than 2016, but a lot of it rests on a first half of the year that was filled with interesting new shows and projects, from Big Little Lies to The Handmaid’s Tale, and not so much on one of the worst fall TV seasons I’ve ever seen.

This is not to say there weren’t earth-shattering, great works of television in 2017. It’s to say that a lot of them seemed as if they engaged with our world at weird, oblique angles, and too many of them felt like they were chasing blockbuster status. (I liked FX’s would-be smash X-Men series Legion a lot, for instance, but I kept feeling like it was overstuffed, and then Twin Peaks came along and showed Legion how weird TV is done.) I’m finishing the year feeling overwhelmed and numbed by TV. There was so much of it, and a lot of it was good. But more of it felt like distraction than something vital.

Then again, maybe distraction is what we needed. So, my fellow TV fans, what stood out to you in 2017? What shows did you most love and hate? And what were the shows you just didn’t get that, nevertheless, other people in your life wouldn’t shut up about? (This is, yes, a cue for Caroline to gently rib me about Twin Peaks.)

Laura Dern in Twin Peaks: The Return
Laura Dern in Twin Peaks: The Return.
Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME

Laura Hudson: For me, 2017 was the year where the increasingly fragmented TV distribution landscape forced me to pay for more platforms than ever to watch my favorite shows — and while I didn't like it, I did it anyway.

I couldn't watch the new Twin Peaks without subscribing to Showtime; I couldn't watch Game of Thrones without subscribing to HBO; I couldn't watch The Handmaid's Tale without subscribing to Hulu; I couldn't watch Orange Is the New Black without subscribing to Netflix; I couldn't watch the new Star Trek: Discovery without subscribing to CBS's abysmal All Access service. I haven't paid for cable since 2003, and for the first time my online TV viewership has started to seem just as costly, if not more so — and more complicated and annoying to boot.

Still, I can't say it wasn't worth it. Although Game of Thrones disappointed on HBO, Big Little Lies certainly didn't, and while I was a little iffy on Orange Is the New Black, I would have paid the monthly Netflix subscription fee for BoJack Horseman alone.

And while $5.99 a month isn't enough to spare you from commercials on All Access, I'm a big enough Star Trek nerd that I'm willing to put up with it. It'd be nice if these platforms could make it a little easier to consume their products, but kudos to them — I guess? — for making TV good enough that I'm willing to jump through their hoops.

Todd VanDerWerff: Every time people ask me what to watch on CBS All Access after they’ve caught up on Star Trek, I recommend The Good Fight. And after that, well, I just have to talk about how All Access is how I’m keeping up with a deeply weird and unsettling season of Kevin Can Wait. Pay that subscription fee now!

Julia Alexander: I saw 2017 as the year of adult cartoons.

That may sound like an ostensibly ridiculous notion to cartoon aficionados (after all, South Park and Family Guy are still on the air), but the stories told through both popular and smaller cartoons this year were some of the most empowering. Rick and Morty saw a family confront years of abuse and neglect as the patriarchal figure, Rick Sanchez, was forced to internally digest how rotten of a person he’s been.

BoJack Horseman delivered one of the most realistic portrayals of depression without apology in its fourth season, and finally gave the narcissistic anti-hero his redeeming moment.

Big Mouth, a series from comedian and actor Nick Kroll, along with co-creators Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin, and Jennifer Flackett, boasted some of TV’s best writing about puberty and what it’s like to be a pre-teen. It tackled topics like first-time relationships and raging hormones with genuine compassion for its characters, but managed to never sacrifice the comedy for the sake of getting a message across.

With all of these remarkable cartoons, aimed at a more adult audience, I can't help but feel like we’re in an era of animated series that challenge us and our beliefs about the stories cartoons can tell. It’s reminiscent of a former cartoon golden age, one that existed roughly between 1997 and 2004, when MTV, the WB, and other networks were willing to take a risk on cartoon series that questioned the status quo; they weren’t The Simpsons and they weren’t Looney Tunes, but they had important stories to tell about teenagers or adults living with complex problems. BoJack Horseman, Big Mouth, and Rick and Morty inspire memories of Daria, Mission Hill, and Clone High.

Like you said, Todd, there was an enormous amount of television this year. I tried to gobble up as much as my exhausted, strained eyes would allow. The series I found myself returning to time and time again, however, were these interesting, strange cartoons, which left me enthralled with the characters, the stories, and genuine moments of self-reflection that caught me off guard.

Cartoons weren’t the only thing I was obsessing over, however. 2017 was also the year of American Vandal, which just proved that dick jokes are comedy that will never get old when executed well.

Netflix’s Big Mouth.
Netflix

Caroline Framke: God, I loved Big Mouth. I can't stop thinking about how much I loved Big Mouth, when I was all but sure I would hate it. What looked like it was going to be a rehash of old dick jokes was instead one of the most compassionate comedies I watched all year, as much about friendship and honesty as anything else. (And not for nothing, it’s one of the only shows I can think of that has portrayed the specific puberty hell girls go through with anything approaching realism!)

Anyway, yes, okay Todd, I'll admit that my patience for “Twin Peaks just blew up television talk was limited, probably because I never got into the original series to begin with (and am not, as a general rule, a huge David Lynch fan). I don't begrudge people's excitement about it, but so much of the enthusiasm I saw hinged on the show's total disregard for what makes good TV good TV, and at a certain point, I'm not super impressed by that.

As far as my biggest surprises go … well, for one, I never expected to become a Leftovers evangelist like so many of my fellow TV critics, but here we are! The final season was just so perfectly savage and wrenching and weird, and I loved it. To me, it's the perfect example of a series that understands what makes good TV good TV, but still finds a way to throw out the playbook in a way that nonetheless respects it.

My other big surprise is one I just wrote about, namely: Did you notice how many queer women there were on TV this year? Because whoa, there were so many. And not only that, but they were good. From One Day at a Time and Fresh Off The Boat giving their teenage girls room to figure out their sexualities, to The Bold Type doing the same for a 20-something who never thought she was into women, to Master of None devoting an episode to Denise's lifelong coming out process, to Brooklyn Nine-Nine revealing that Rosa is bisexual, TV kinda crushed it on this front, and I am thrilled.

Todd VanDerWerff: If I might interject, I do think what made Twin Peaks exceptional was how TV-like it truly was, the way its episodes really were episodes, even if they seemed like weird avant garde noodling. Sorry. Sorry. Disengaging "white man who rants about Twin Peaks" mode now.

Caroline Framke: To be fair, if I had heard more about Twin Peaks along those lines, I doubt I would've had any problems with hearing more about Twin Peaks.

Julia Alexander: I completely agree, Caroline. Twin Peaks was daunting. I wanted to be caught up in the phenomenon, but coming into a series so beloved completely cold was intimidating. I tried to just jump right into the third season, and although I appreciated the series, I couldn't quite enjoy it.

Todd: I do think the thought that both of you bounced off Twin Peaks raises an interesting point when it comes to TV, where it can sometimes feel like you have to be in it to truly appreciate something. I’ve heard from quite a few people who struggled to get through the first seasons of The Leftovers and my beloved Halt and Catch Fire, and they finally just give up, even when I suggest maybe bouncing ahead to season two and going from there.

I hadn't rewatched most of Twin Peaks in probably 15 years (I got to the Laura Palmer resolution in my rewatch this year, then just skipped ahead to the original series finale). Certainly there were Easter eggs and such in the third season that were exciting to true fans, but ultimately didn't have a ton of bearing on the overall story and character arcs (insofar as Twin Peaks can be said to have either). And I think I almost loved season three more for its insistence on being its own thing, for playing almost the same for diehard fans as it did for newbies — but of course, if you weren’t super into Twin Peaks before, you maybe wouldn’t get that.

I do wonder and worry sometimes whether, by putting everything up on giant servers, we're creating a sense that completism is the only way to watch TV. For as much as I struggle with Black Mirror sometimes, I admire that you can just bail on an episode if you don't like it.

Halt and Catch Fire
AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire.
AMC

Julia Alexander: Halt and Catch Fire is a perfect example of TV series that you sometimes have to convince people to sit through before they can hit gold. The final season, which aired in 2017, was one of television's best. To go further back, Parks and Recreation is another example of this phenomenon.

The concept of a delayed reward for making it through a sluggish first season or being a little out of the loop is something I heard about often from friends who aren't TV critics. One friend finally began watching Game of Thrones this year, after putting it off out of the aforementioned fear of not being in it, and it's been remarkable to see how he processes the series differently than those who watched it week to week. He's not caught up in the cult-like mentality, scouring the internet for clues week after week. Instead, he's just happy to be able to enjoy the series and join in on the conversation.

To your point, Todd, I'm also interested to see how the anthology trend from the past few years continues into 2018. We're finally getting a new edition of American Crime Story in 2018, and I know plenty of people who sat out 2016’s The People vs. O.J. Simpson but are excited for The Assassination of Gianni Versace. With so much television available to us, on so many different platforms, anthology series — whether they take place across singular seasons or separate episodes — seem more appealing all the time.

Laura Hudson: Something that comes up a lot when you're reviewing video games is how onerous it is to slog through a 40-hour game (often over a very short period of time) to write a 1,200-word review. I often feel that asking people to "just stick with" a TV show through a lackluster season is a similarly steep request. Who has dozens of hours to spend watching something they aren't enjoying (assuming that it isn't their job)?

That said, everyone should absolutely stick it out and watch Halt and Catch Fire despite its rocky first season, or at least skip season one and jump right to season two, where the show’s two female leads take center stage and assume the helm of a proto-Sierra/LucasArts company. I'm honestly not sure that a show could have targeted my interests with any more laser precision; it's almost creepy.

But for everyone else who doesn't have '80s/'90s nostalgia or a weird obsession with historic game designer Roberta Williams, the show is a still a tour de force, and one where the characters evolve so realistically and organically that by the end, it's shocking to see how far they've come in ways you never expected — but upon arrival find it's hard to imagine them anywhere else.

Todd VanDerWerff: I definitely feel this hard snap back to standalone episodes coming. It's most obvious in comedies — look at how beautifully Dear White People structured all of its episodes to focus on different point-of-view characters — but even more serialized dramas like Better Call Saul and Mr. Robot had this firm sense of every episode having an episodic reason to exist. (On the flip side: I liked The Americans’ fifth season more than most, but its structure was perhaps too serialized, leading to long stretches where it felt like nothing was happening.)

Which brings me to my next question: Are you as tired of the Netflix drama model as I am? The streaming service's comedies continue to get better and better, but try though I might, I just couldn't get into Ozark, whose entire first season struck me as about one hour of story surrounded by flab, and even some of my old favorites like Orange Is the New Black fell off a serialization cliff this season. For as flawed as The Crown can be, I like that its storytelling is very crisp, and much of that is thanks to its "royal crisis of the week" structure.

Caroline Framke: I'm certainly tired of writing reviews of Netflix shows that boil down to, "It was too long!!"

Todd VanDerWerff: [Plays the One Day at a Time theme song]

Caroline Framke: I was going to say "Netflix dramas," but then I remembered what happened to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt this year...

Todd VanDerWerff: More seriously, though, Netflix really has become a behemoth in the way we think about covering TV at Vox, at least. I'm interested in what all of you think they're doing well and poorly.

Julia Alexander: With the exception of a few series, I actually got pretty tired of Netflix overall this year.

The comedies fared better. Big Mouth, as mentioned, was phenomenal, and is easily on my list of top 10 shows, along with American Vandal. I also liked fellow comedies Dear White People, Atypical, and She’s Gotta Have It. But most everything else was kinda lackluster. I either skipped a number of the dramas, including Ozark, or made it partially through others before becoming bored (I'm sorry, Mindhunter fans). Even Netflix's push into anime with Neo Yokio proved less than appealing.

As a critic, I came to loathe the longer Netflix dramas, edgier teen series like 13 Reasons Why, or even more formless comedies like Friends from College. As a subscriber I found myself turning to Hulu more often than not for comfort shows to stream. It's not that I hate Netflix's content, but I feel inundated with mediocre original series, making it that much harder to find the gems.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Hulu

Todd VanDerWerff: Hulu definitely had a good year, beyond even The Handmaid's Tale. Casual’s third season was its best yet, assuming you can stand that frequently divisive show, and Marvel's Runaways was probably my favorite new superhero show of the fall (and would be my favorite of the year, but for FX's stylish, slightly empty Legion). They canceled Difficult People, sure, but who among us hasn't canceled a little-watched critically acclaimed comedy centered on snarky people in New York?

I am interested, however, in what shows served as comfort food for you in a tumultuous year. Which shows were the ones you tuned in to week after week, usually watching them when available, and probably for non-work reasons?

For me, that was NBC's Superstore, a comedy with solid jokes but even better characters. I watch it for a lot of the reasons I kept watching The Office back in the day: I like the various actors, and the interplay between the characters is strong, even when the jokes don't always work. I also loved the show's boldly cataclysmic season two finale, which ripped the roof off the titular store and left the characters gaping in wonder at the sky up above. It felt like a metaphor for something, just imprecise enough to stand in for any number of things, but solid enough to get your brain around it.

Laura Hudson: Six words: Terrace House, Terrace House, Terrace House. The new season of this adorable Japanese reality show about nothing will hit Netflix in the US (where previous seasons are already available) in March, and I'm waiting with bated breath.

If you're a fan of the collegial and supportive atmosphere of The Great British Bake Off, it's time for you to dust off your subtitles and tune in to Terrace House, a reality show about three men and three women living together, maybe dating, and treating each other with the utmost respect.

From the house meetings that turn into roundtables about empathy to their constant and unwavering support of each other's dreams, this show is a balm to the soul for anyone who doesn't like the viciousness of most reality TV and wants a tiny piece of their faith in the world restored. From its professional surfers and aspiring actors to its ballerinas and hip-hop dances, you'll fall in love with all of them — or least appreciate how hard they tried. (Except for Cheri. Cheri is the worst.)

Todd: One final question for the year: As folks look for stuff to watch in the cold, wintry weeks ahead, what are some under-the-radar shows that people can stream right now that are worth watching?

I'll start by saying that even though it received kind reviews and has passionate fans — and I’ve already shoehorned it into this chat once before — Netflix's One Day at a Time seems like it constantly gets the "Really? That?" treatment when I recommend it. But it made my top TV list for a reason! It's warm and funny and filled with great performances, and I can confidently tell you the second season, dropping in January, is even better. It's worth getting on board with this show now.

One Day at a Time
Netflix’s One Day at a Time.
Netflix

Julia Alexander: One Day at a Time is a perfect series for the bitter, cold months ahead. It’s corny and sweet, but in a way that makes me nostalgic for a bygone era of television, when Norman Lear ran the world and family sitcoms like Growing Pains or Family Ties were some of the most popular series.

I’ll also mention Big Mouth again, which seems to still be under the radar. I wrote on Polygon that Big Mouth’s approach to the coming-of-age subgenre managed to reinvigorate the subject "by shaping puberty as an unrelenting gargoyle.” It’s hilarious, but also one of the most genuine depictions of how scary and worrisome going through puberty and becoming a teenager is. I didn’t think I would like Big Mouth, thanks to its art style, but it’s quickly become one of my most revisited series this year.

My other recommendation is Hulu’s Future Man. The series is the unlikely child of ’80s nostalgia and Seth Rogen’s comedic partnership with Evan Goldberg. Future Man, which stars The Hunger Games’ Josh Hutcherson in the leading role, could have been one of the stupidest series of 2017, but managed to hit all the right points for a sci-fi series built on paying homage to movies of decades past. It has the crass humor associated with most of Rogen’s work, but there’s a sincere respect for the television and film of the ‘80s, too. It’s an easy show to settle in and marathon come New Year’s Eve or Day.

Laura Hudson: For a brief, heart-stopping moment, I thought you were about to say Big Bang Theory, Julia. Phew. Big Mouth initially turned me off with its art style, too, but I was glad I that I eventually persisted. I also avoided Future Man based on, well, pretty much everything Seth Rogen does, but I'll push forward and give that a shot as well.

As for another recommendation, I think this show technically ended in 2016, but nobody knows about it, and it's great, so I don't care! Hulu has a British police procedural called Scott and Bailey, focusing on two female detectives in a major crimes unit in Manchester. It's so well done, and manages to both spotlight female leadership and competence while acknowledging individual (and often serious) flaws in the women it examines, while still critiquing the toxic impulses of the patriarchy with great regularity. It’s truly a crime drama for the post-Weinstein age.

Todd VanDerWerff: I’m thrilled to have so much more great TV to check out — and just as thrilled that we’re entering a 2018 where we’ll get everything from the aforementioned Assassination of Gianni Versace to the end of The Americans, from the conclusion of a terrific second season of The Good Place to more Westworld to argue over. In this fragmented TV world, there’s so much out there — and almost certainly something perfectly tailored to you, if you know where to look.

Thanks for reading; find more TV coverage at Vox, The Verge, and Polygon.