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.