I’m going to do two “best” lists this year: Today is the 10 best scripted TV shows, and tomorrow I’ll post a list of the 10 best new shows in 2017. Looking over the list that follows here, I’m really happy with the vast range of genre, subject matter, and performance that was on display on television and streaming this past year.
Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime) I came into this dubious: Why should a revival of an old TV show, one with shaky avant-garde tendencies, work? But David Lynch — who directed every minute of it, and wrote it all with Mark Frost — reconceived Twin Peaks and elicited an amazing performance from Kyle MacLachlan as three variations on FBI agent Dale Cooper. I’m still as baffled as you are as to what the whole thing added up to, but I was completely, constantly entranced by the dramatic, comedic, poetic power of it all.
Better Call Saul (AMC) Is this the most underrated drama on television? Probably; it certainly is one of the best-directed, best-written, and best-acted. This season was a tremendous showcase for the sibling relationship between Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and Chuck (Michael McKean), as the show inched closer, in its artful way, to nearing the timeline to Breaking Bad.
Better Things (FX) Pamela Adlon’s beautiful series about a single mother raising three children yielded many touching, true moments in its second season, every episode of which was directed by Adlon. A sitcom with a lot of drama, Better Things is a unique contribution to the current era of quality TV.
The Leftovers (HBO) It went out as moving and as mysterious as it entered. The final season of this drama explored love and loss, the power of faith, and how people shape their lives. The cast was terrific, but I’d single out Carrie Coon for particular praise in what was a very challenging role. To readers who missed it, I’d highly recommend this as your next binge.
Big Little Lies (HBO) The year’s biggest-name TV cast — Reese Witherspoon! Nicole Kidman! Shailene Woodley! — in an adaptation by David E. Kelley of Liane Moriarty’s chick-lit novel. It turned out to be wholly engrossing, fun, and moving, with Alexander Skarsgard turning in a performance that qualifies him as Villain of the Year.
Insecure (HBO) The second season of Issa Rae’s sitcom snapped into place as a supersmart show about working women, African-American women, women with ambitions that are being fulfilled, and women with ambitions that are being suppressed. Does that sound heavy? It’s not: Rae’s humor is lighter than air — exhilarating.
Legion (FX) Superhero television is all over the place, from the CW’s DC Comics lineup to Netflix’s Marvel Comics franchises. This FX show, overseen by Fargo’s Noah Hawley and based on X-Men universe characters, is by far my favorite comic-book-based show of the year. Starring Dan Stevens as a schizophrenic mutant, Legion is a mini-mindblower of twists and turns, full of good performances, especially from Stevens, Aubrey Plaza, Jean Smart, and Bill Irwin.
Mike Judge Presents Tales from the Tour Bus (Cinemax) If there’s one show on my list you may not be familiar with, I’d bet it’s this one. Get on it: Mike Judge — the man who brought you Office Space and King of the Hill — offers animated profiles of country legends like Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Judge went out and interviewed relatives, friends, band members, and hangers-on, and got the often hilarious scoop, turning it all into cartoon fun and education.
Catastrophe (Amazon Prime) Second-for-second, Catastrophe packs more laughs into its six-episode season than any sitcom I can think of. Creators Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, playing married-couple Ron and Sharon, are exquisitely attuned to the rhythms of how twosomes argue, taunt, and make up with each other. The third season was also striking for containing one of the last performances by Carrie Fisher, who played Rob’s mother; she was superb.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime) What if this new show, and not Gilmore Girls, turns into Amy Sherman-Palladino’s biggest success? This already-Golden-Globe-nominated dramedy about a fledgling standup comic in the late 1950s features a powerhouse performance by Rachel Brosnahan in the title role. It’s got the trademark Sherman-Palladino dialogue running at full speed and captures the spirit of its time with care and cleverness.
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