It’s harder than ever to watch television. There’s too much out there, and to be frank, not all of it’s great. As more and more talent heads to the small screen, where original storytelling remains sacred and the closest thing to a franchise is something like Game of Thrones, we’re being bombarded with one Must Watch show after the next.
Small potatoes? Absolutely. Nobody should ever complain about having to sit down and watch something, but it does mean that some series are bound to get lost along the way. Are you surprised? With HBO, Showtime, FX, AMC, Netflix, Hulu, and every network channel providing endless amounts of content, it’s a wonder we ever leave our house.
This year has been hit or miss. It seems that for every intriguing debut (American Gods, Feud), we’ve been handed a number of misfires (Taboo, The Santa Clarita Diet), and most of them have cluttered our DVR. That’s why we’re kind of relieved that the streaming services are also cutting back, even if they might have chosen the wrong shows.
What’s somewhat troubling is how past diamonds are losing their luster (Fargo, Veep), perhaps suggesting we’re in need of another wave. Fortunately, the stronger stuff of 2017 has so far been outstanding — ahem, that little revival from the early ’90s currently taking over our Sunday nights — and while the following list can’t include everything…
Well, let’s just say we tried to be reasonable. Act accordingly.
10. Silicon Valley
Showrunner (s): Mike Judge, John Altschuler, and Dave Krinsky
Best Character: Despite this being reportedly the final season with T.J. Miller’s Erlich Bachman, the real MVP of the Pied Piper team this year is CEO Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch). Whether he’s trying to con a VC as a faux Lyft driver or clumsily kicking a hole through a closet door, Middleditch has brought his A-game as he slowly shifts from the rattled protagonist we know to the spiteful antagonist we’re starting to meet. Judge and his writers have wired Richard’s arc with some indelible wins (e.g. calling out Gavin’s blood bag; one-upping a bottom-feeding lawyer) and yet some questionable decisions (e.g. sleeping with a client’s wife; basically everything that happens at Hooli-Con). Middleditch has stormed through it all with a badge of pride that deceptively registers as both charming and earned.
Must-See Episode: “The Patent Troll” is all kinds of glorious, if only for Gilfoyle’s (Martin Starr) pathetic obsession with hacking Jian-Yang’s (Jimmy O. Yang) $14,000 intelligent refrigerator. The fridge’s exasperated vocal tics are straight out of Judge’s Office Space, and it’s those minor additions that have long kept his brand of comedy a shade or three above the competition. Plus, seeing Richard take down that sleazy lawyer at the end of the episode is priceless, even if it technically cost him about $20,000 in legal fees. Tsk tsk. He should have gone to Matt McCoy’s Pete Monahan.
Why Should We Binge? Silicon Valley has thrown some major curve balls throughout its fourth season. At first, Richard’s initiative to build a new Internet seemed like another exhausting sandbox for the series to carve out more predictable peaks and valleys within, but it’s actually lead to some intriguing developments. You know, like having Richard work alongside Matt Ross’ insufferable Gavin Belson, whose venomous past may have always been a harbinger of Richard’s fate. Sure, their collaboration was a little like watching Wade and Rondo play together this past season with the Bulls — intriguing albeit short-lived — but it adrenalized the story and added a hefty weight to the series. Because if Richard really is going all Walter White on his Pied Piper cohorts, Silicon Valley takes on a whole new dimension, becoming a commentary on the malice that infects the titular terrain, and that’s something nobody could have ever expected from the HBO comedy.
(On a side note, it’s been an absolute blast peeling back the layers to Zach Woods’ ever-elusive Jared Dunn, whose weird history gets more and more disturbing. Also this.)
09. This Is Us
Showrunner (s): Dan Fogelman and Don Todd
Best Character: There isn’t a shortage of memorable characters in the Pearson family, with father Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) quickly becoming an archetype of fatherhood and daughter Kate (Chrissy Metz) tackling issues of obesity that are rarely approached in television. But in terms of the journey, from his abandonment as a baby to growing up as a black child in a white home to coping with the impending death of his birth father and balancing the stresses of family and career, no Pearson owns the hearts of its audience quite like Randall (Sterling K. Brown). For the actor, it continues a banner couple years which began with acclaim for playing Christopher Darden on The People v. O.J. Simpson and now has landed a pristine role on the most talked about television on network television. For the character, though, audiences get to live with a man admirable as a father, husband, brother, son, and employee, seemingly juggling more than anyone else could even attempt. And when he fails, it’s some of the most empathetic television there is.
Must-See Episode: We all knew it was coming. From as soon as we met Randall’s birth father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), the audience began preparing for his eventual death. But even when it did arrive, on the heartbreaking episode “Memphis”, no one could have expected such a pitch-perfect sendoff for the beloved character. When William and Randall take a roadtrip to the Tennessee city for William to tie up some loose-ends, Randall has no clue just how close to the end William is. The trip doubles as a final bonding experience for the pair that we denied a lifetime’s worth of memories, and the episode juxtaposes this with flashbacks from William’s life. In a matter of minutes, the fragility of life and the weight of human decisions are honored, without getting heavy-handed or cheap in a play for emotions. This Is Us spent the better part of its first season setting up the episode, and boy did it deliver.
Why Should We Binge? First with cable, and then with streaming platforms, the previously dominant network television stations have been rendered virtually obsolete in recent years, with the days of The X-Files, Seinfeld, and The West Wing long behind us. And though we can still point to programs like Modern Family and its Emmy domination or The Big Bang Theory and its ratings, it has long felt like the Big Four have been devoid of legitimate reasons to tune in. That’s what makes This Is Us feel like a revelation. Sure, it has a clever premise that takes the pilot to make itself known, and its managed to loop together a strong cast to tell stories that don’t feel instantly familiar. But maybe the best thing about it is the lack of pretense, that old-fashioned TV programming still has something to offer without needing to enter alternate realities, the subconscious, or idiosyncratic professions. This Is Us knows that there is no substitute for drama when it comes to the human condition. Family and relationships will always be the most interesting topic available. It might seem obvious, but in the hands of this series, the old felt new again.
08. The Handmaid’s Tale
Showrunner: Bruce Miller
Best Character: This category is often an opportunity to highlight a supporting performance or a memorable villain, but when it comes to The Handmaid’s Tale, the answer couldn’t be more cut and dry. June, known in Gilead as Offred (Of Fred, naturally and grossly), anchors almost every moment of this blistering Margaret Atwood adaptation, and she’s brought to thrilling life by the inimitable Elisabeth Moss. She’s there in closeup, almost constantly. Her wry, withering narration opens new windows into this unsettling world. She’s angry, funny, frightened and fierce. It’s not just that she show wouldn’t work without her. It simply wouldn’t exist.
Must-See Episode: Moss is the heart, brain, guts and bile of the show, but all that said, the standout installment so far sits on the shoulders of Alexis Bledel’s Ofglen. In Atwood’s novel, Ofglen disappears and no more is heard of her, but Miller and director Reed Morano follow her anyway, and the result is an hour of television that’s, simply, put, remarkable. Technically dazzling — watch for that crane shot — and incredibly hard to watch, it’s made possible by Bledel’s nearly wordless performance. It’s unforgettable.
Why Should We Binge? You shouldn’t. Whatever you do, do not binge The Handmaid’s Tale. Read the book first, or after, or not all all, but those watching Miller’s occasionally uneven but largely superb series should make sure to give themselves time to breathe. Moss’s performance may be the headline, but this is a complex and difficult story, made real by assured direction, wrenching performances, and undeniable relevance. It doesn’t get everything right — Miller made a controversial choice in opting to remove racism as an issue — but it’s important, and upsetting, and it should not be binged. Take it at your own pace, but take it.
07. The Leftovers
Showrunner: Damon Lindelof
Best Character: Throughout the series, the audience operates under the basic assumption that Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) is the central character to The Leftovers. And for good reason, as much of the action does center around him and his family. But a funny thing happens on the way to a resolution of this bizarre story. By the end of The Leftovers, the audience is left wondering if this wasn’t really Nora Durst’s (Carrie Coon) story all of this time. She does have the most compelling drama, not tortured by psychological issues as much as by emotional ones. As she copes with the loss of her entire family, and finds that coping come undone, it is Nora that resonates after the credits roll.
Must-See Episode: It’s all in how you stick the landing, right? Over three seasons, The Leftovers have enjoyed both ends of the spectrum, drifting from a bleak meditation that viewers wondered if they actually enjoyed to delving head-first into a more focused rabbit hole of faith, religion, family, and reality. For its grand finale “The Book of Nora”, The Leftovers grappled with something less abstract, with something that every television show should be considering as it approaches its end: does this have a point? And The Leftovers does have a satisfying ending, where the audience can legitimately feel like Nora, Kevin, and many of the supporting players have found a peace that they’ve been looking for.
Why Should We Binge? After Lost left many feeling like they’d wasted time delving into mysteries with no answers, The Leftovers was wise to never make the show about its central mystery. Still, anyone that had reservations about trusting Lindelof were justified. Now that the series has wrapped, however, Lindelof has not only proven he can handle a series from start to finish, but also that big ideas and ambitious storytelling can still be accomplished in a controlled environment. The Leftovers is in a reality where a single event challenges everything that people hold true. When a portion of the world suddenly vanishes, everything that human’s assume is true becomes up for debate. Ultimately, the unknowable is shown for what it is: completely irrelevant to our lives. What’s important is what we can know, the people that we are intertwined with, and the present moment. The Leftovers is a lesson in moving on, one that fans of Lost might have needed in order to trust television shows again.
06. Dear White People
Showrunner: Justin Simien
Best Character: This is a tough call, particularly as Troy, Coco, and especially Logan Browning’s Sam are indispensable. Still, the clear MVP of Dear White People’s stellar first season is Lionel (DeRon Horton), a socially awkward, undeniably charming student journalist whose struggle to belong and “find his truth” makes for one of the season’s most affecting storylines. “It means a fucking lot to put a gay black male character out there in the world that doesn’t look like the other ones because there’s a lot of us,” Simien told Buzzfeed. “We come in many different flavors — because, you know, human beings — but black human beings on TV don’t always.”
Must-See Episode: “Chapter V”, in which the show tackles the horrifyingly ever-relevant topic of police brutality, isn’t just the best episode of Dear White People’s season. As directed by Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), it’s one of the finest episodes of 2017.
Why Should We Binge? Netflix’s Dear White People has its bumps — Defamation, the in-world Scandal parody, is pretty rough — but who the hell gives a shit. In adapting his 2014 film into an equally vital series, Simien uses the film’s climactic blackface party as a jumping-off point for a wickedly funny, often upsetting 10 episodes. While the series doesn’t linger on the party forever, reverberations of it are felt throughout the rest of the season. As narrator Giancarlo Esposito tells us, “Like most parties, the hangover from this one, is a motherfucker.” Great performances. Razor-sharp direction. Undeniable relevance. As a white person, dear or otherwise, there’s only so much I want to say about this excellent piece of television. It’s really good, and it speaks for itself.
Showrunner: Noah Hawley
Best Character: Apologies to Cary, Kerry, and Dan “Everywhere-in-2017” Stevens, but Legion belongs to Aubrey Plaza. As a category, best character matters not. Whether she was Lenny, Devil with the Yellow Eyes, or some other unholy Shadow King cocktail, Plaza owned every second of Legion in which she appeared. Pick whichever in-between iteration of evil entity, highly-colored memory, and actual human being you like. If there’s any justice in the world, one of those characters will win Plaza an Emmy nomination.
Must-See Episode: “Chapter 6,” the Hiro Murai-directed installment in which Lenny/Farouk digs into the personal issues of each person trapped in her shared hallucination, is a delicious, delirious hour. It might not be the tidiest episode — for something as taut as a drum, check out “Chapter 4” — but watching Plaza’s many faces do battle with Syd (Rachel Keller) is surprisingly funny, unsurprisingly thrilling, and as audacious as anything else on the small screen this year (so far).
Why Should We Binge? We’ve said it before, but FX is unstoppable, and Legion is one of the latest titles to prove that. TV Golden boy Noah Hawley created one of the best comic book adaptations we’ve seen yet, complete with some of the year’s most visually audacious storytelling (and for a year in which Twin Peaks also exists, that’s saying something.) But all the visual flair, incredible costume design, and wild musical moments wouldn’t matter in the least if it weren’t for the virtuoso performances that anchor this nutso world in a vibrant and familiar emotional reality. Come because it’s crazy. Stay because it’s, well, crazy, and also real damn good.
04. Big Little Lies
Showrunner: David E. Kelley
Best Character: It’s tough to single out any of the central women of Big Little Lies as the most important (though we can say that Shailene Woodley’s Jane Chapman is the least interesting), so why not go completely left field with this choice. Chloe Mackenzie (Darby Camp) is the younger of two daughters for Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), and the one character that seemed to capture the imagination of the general public. Sure, she spoke with the humor and wisdom that is essentially impossible to find in a seven-year-old, and her music taste glistened with the maturity of an NPR listener, but the truth is that Chloe often stole each scene that she was in, suspending the audience’s disbelief willingly all in the name of levity. It’s 2017 and we’re still suckers for the cute kid, what can we say?
Must-See Episode: Months after watching this series, there’s not a single episode that has stuck, but rather a scene. It’s in the third episode, when Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) and Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) go to their first marital counseling session. Having already witnessed the abuse of Perry to Celeste, the audience is in a unique position to see exactly where the pair is honest with their therapist and where the truth is stretched and bended to avoid guilt or embarrassment. With every bit of truth comes tremendous vulnerability, with both letting an outsider into their world for the first time. Both actors wear the moment in their eyes, on their lips, and say as much with their body as they do with their words. In an episode called “Living the Dream”, it’s a stark reminder that nothing is ever as good as it seems.
Why Should We Binge? Though there has been recent speculation of a second season, Big Little Lies‘ seven episodes function perfectly because it’s a complete story that no intentions of an extension. Viewers start the series wondering who is going to die and who is going to kill by the end of the series, and when the hammer drops, it’s even more satisfying than expected. But even beyond the soapy, juiciness of the plot, the series winds up having a unique perspective on womanhood and the bonds that women share that give the series a significant depth. Motherhood, abuse, aging, and maintaining an identity through it are all complicating factors for the series’ set of protagonists, and the viewers are left to know that there is always more than meets the eye. In the end, Big Little Lies respects the complexities of its characters, and the series soars because of it.
03. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Showrunner: Rob McElhenney
Best Character: In a season filled with so much surprising growth — Mac came out of the closet! — Season 12 pretty much belonged to Dennis Reynolds (Glenn Howerton). Maybe it’s because we’re still reeling from his potential exit, but Howerton shed a new light on the Gang’s touchy sociopath. He teased his murderous indulgences in “Making Dennis Reynolds a Murderer”, played the mentor to a young narcissist in “The Gang Goes to a Water Park”, called out his insufferable friends in “The Gang Tends Bar”, and became a family man in “Dennis’ Double Life”. Even when the episode didn’t revolve around Dennis, we were all waiting to see what he might do. Here’s hoping they manage to bring him back in Season 13, even if only for an episode or three.
Must-See Episode: Look, the situations and gags were incredible all throughout Season 12 — for Christ’s sake, “The Gang Goes to a Water Park” wraps up with one of the series’ craziest visuals — but the show truly peaked this year with its premiere, “The Gang Turns Black”. It was a risky move on the series’ part, arriving at a time when any dialogue on race often boils down to vitriolic exchanges and blind accusations. But, Always Sunny navigated those waters with aplomb, touching on several hot-button issues under the guise of a ludicrous parody of The Wiz. True, the series has done the musical schtick on multiple occasions, but this time, they actually had a purpose, and let’s give credit where credit is due, those songs are quite outstanding, too. What are the rules?
Why Should We Binge? Doing any show for 12 years is hard without it becoming overkill, and that goes tenfold for any comedy as subversive and outrageous as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Admittedly, the show has certainly had its peaks and valleys, but McElhenney, Howerton, and Charlie Day always find new ways to make it feel fresh again. This year was no exception, as they not only tackled real-life issues but also dipped into some unexpectedly dark areas — even for this show. “A Cricket’s Tale”, for instance, was one such chapter, a disturbing and depressing half-hour of comedy that felt more in line with something you’d see from, say, Todd Solondz. And once again, they switched up their format considerably, as evidenced in gems like the reality television parody “Old Lady House: A Situation Comedy” and the Rashomon-esque “Hero or Hate Crime?”. Perhaps it’s a little unfair to say this, especially given that we’re only halfway through 2017, but it’s doubtful any comedy series this year comes close to Always Sunny. Hell, it’s even more doubtful that any comedy lasts this long on television ever again. What a gang!
02. Master of None
Showrunner (s): Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang
Best Character: While the series centers almost exclusively on Dev (Ansari), Master of None does a great job making his friends almost as enjoyable as he is on screen. Brian Chang (Kevin Yu) is unfortunately mostly absent in this season, but in his stead, we have wonderful recurring appearances from Arnold Baumheiser (Eric Wareheim) and Denise (Lena Waithe). The former relishes his chance to play a physical foil to Dev, the big bud to his little bud. But even better than the physical humor is the tender look at the friendship shared between two men. In an era where toxic masculinity is everywhere, Ansari has the wherewithal to show that men can actually have relationships built on trust and intimacy. For Denise’s part, she gets the chance to play a key role in one of the season’s best episodes, “Thanksgiving”, telling a singular coming out story with nuance that is rare for a television series.
Must-See Episode: Rather than repeat ourselves with praise of “Thanksgiving”, let’s talk about a different standout from the season (because, without hyperbole, you could single out any of the 10 episodes from this year and not be wrong). “First Date” is the other side of Master of None, the insightful romantic side of the series rather than the one that packs its punch from telling the stories of the traditionally marginalized. At its best, “First Date” even does both of these, particularly when Dev discusses the hardships and idiosyncrasies of being a person of color on a dating app. The episode tracks Dev on a series of dates, capturing the redundancy that occurs when someone attempts to online date, and the many hits and misses that can occur in this environment. They’re all there: the one you sleep with right away, the one that would rather be with someone else, the one that’s already involved with someone, the one that would be better as friends, the one that might be on drugs. It all plays out hilariously and with keen insight, telling a story about the contemporary world that hasn’t been told before with such a sharp eye.
Why Should We Binge? After a first season in which Ansari painted himself as the heir apparent to Louie and Broad City, in terms of both being an original voice in television comedy and developing an artful way of presenting it, few would have expected him and Yang to exceed their previous accomplishments. But that’s exactly what happened. The series is often more ambitious in its storytelling and direction, and takes its best elements from its first season to more refined levels. At the center of each of the 10 episodes, there’s an idea. It’s transparent enough that the viewer can imagine the writers’ room and see their intentions as they watch the final product happen before their eyes. Ambition certainly isn’t in high demand these days as TV shows go further than ever before, but Master of None might be the best example of seeing ideas realized.