This article previously appeared on Crossfader
2017 was a year for the books to be sure. It does this editor’s heart good to know that in a year where most found themselves more burned out by media than ever, we still looked for solace in narrative television. This year’s favorites are as eclectic as the last: from questions of human nature in MINDHUNTER and BIG LITTLE LIES, to the pure cheesy enjoyment of A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS and RIVERDALE . . . Peak TV is as alive as ever and shows no sign of slowing down. Please enjoy our favorite new premieres, in no particular order.
MINDHUNTER, David Fincher’s 1970s true crime-based Netflix drama, follows a new FBI team endeavoring to update the criminal profiling manual with psychology many aren’t ready to accept. The show leans on similar themes as NBC’s HANNIBAL and BBC’s LUTHER, delving into the “who needs who” predicament that arises between investigator and criminal, as well as the cost of solving the most twisted of crimes. MINDHUNTER can be slow, but it’s sharp, and every subplot feels necessary. It’s almost upsetting to see Broadway’s golden boy Jonathan Groff start a quasi-friendship with serial killer Ed Kemper, but it makes Groff’s character, FBI Agent Holden, all the more layered for it. MINDHUNTER revolves around the paradox of needing healthy personal relationships to keep yourself grounded, but also risking ruining those relationships due to the nature of the work. It’s not a new paradox in crime and thrillers, but it’s done much more thoughtfully here, and is at the center of each episode. Between the team of Holden, Agent Tench (Holt McCallany), and Dr. Carr (Anna Torv), no one character holds the answer to that paradox, and that’s what I found compelling throughout the series. I have faith that season two will keep digging up uncomfortable crimes and relationships for them to tackle. [Teresa Zarmer]
What a pleasant surprise this was after years of super hero burnout on TV and in the box office! Noah Hawley (of Fargo fame) brings a psychedelic and unconventional twist to the troubled origins of David Haller: a (suspected) paranoid schizophrenic who possesses the ultimate superpower. If you think GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY broke the superhero formula, boy do I have a series for you. The structure of LEGION’s first season is almost more song than cinema, repeating seemingly unrelated images and sequences until the climactic final episodes where they all come together and everything makes sense. It knows when to play by the rules (this is, after all, a superhero origin story) and knows when to throw them completely out the window (one episode opens with a long take of a groovy Jemaine Clement telling a bedtime story). LEGION also boasts one of the strongest (and underappreciated) TV performances of the year: Aubrey Plaza’s Lenny, which absolutely has the potential beat out April for her most famous role. It’s funky, it’s freaky, it’s disturbing—and as someone completely worn out by superhero reboots, it’s one I’m proud to put among my favorites of 2017. [Kate Brogden]
RIVERDALE (The CW)
RIVERDALE is by far the most fun show that aired on television, network or otherwise, this past winter, and should be sought out by any and everyone. It’s unabashed and unapologetic in its soapiness, yes, but the season proves to have a ruthless grasp on storytelling hooks and techniques, unironically roping you into hurriedly pressing the play button on the next episode time and time again. It exists in a surrealist space that ultimately plays into the original IP’s existence as a comic book thanks to its outlandish dialogue and character beats, and more often than not, this show will have you wide-eyed and open-mouthed in disbelief: as amazed that this made it onto the CW as you are endlessly entertained. In this era of fuddy-duddy prestige television, it is often far too easy to forget the basal pleasures offered by the campiness of the series of yesteryear; RIVERDALE feels like a perfect replication of a time not-so-far-gone by, a triumphant return to the breakneck speed, catty quips, and constant barrage of twists, turns, backstabbings, and betrayals seemingly left behind in the 2000s. But what’s most impressive of all is that it got me to genuinely care about all of its characters and the various sticky situations the actions of themselves and their families place them in, with several legitimately surprising revelations and realizations scattered throughout. Trust me, friends, this is a show worth your time, especially with a few cold ones and the boys. [Thomas Seraydarian]
THE HANDMAID’S TALE (Hulu)
It’s almost funny to comment on how relevant shows like HANDMAID’S TALE are. Because firstly, of course, anyone who pays attention knows that issues addressed in the dystopia of HANDMAID’S TALE (misogyny, religious extremism, racism, and homophobia) have long been a problem in real life. But secondly, saying a show is “relevant” has become the phrase we use when we don’t want to admit how bad things in real life have gotten. We cut to the chase, because actually considering true one-to-one similarities hurts.
So HANDMAID’S TALE is firmly nested in that spreading hurt. And its plot reflects that too, as much a story of protagonist Ofred/June (Elisabteh Moss) waking up to the harsh realities of the world as it is a trudge through the misery of being a surrogate to the theological upper-class (HANDMAID’S TALE never met a hypothetical torture situation it didn’t love). But realizations work both ways, and the story Bruce Miller and the writers set up for themselves heading into future seasons (handily covering the novel and then some in its first) is about the accumulation of collective power. Keeping a stable of women and minorities as a slave class surrounds oppressors with a much larger crowd of oppressed, and all it takes is acting as group to flip that power dynamic.
Visually, the style established by cinematographer/director Reed Morano is about finding that same focus. The show spends most of its time in extreme close-up with Moss, everything surrounding her blurred and bokeh’d to oblivion as she monologues and emotes through the trials of her new life. It’s only when the Handmaids act together that things snap into literal focus, allowing wide and aerial shots to communicate their outrage and power. Here the values of the show are reaffirmed: the importance of self-identity (what Ofred/June wrestles with in her internal monologue) and the power of working together. While it is often troubling to watch, HANDMAID’S TALE stands out as some of the best new TV of 2017 because it adapts its compelling speculative fiction source material into the righteous indignation of the right now. For as much as it scares us with its similarities to the present, the power its protagonists wield might be just as “relevant.” [Ian Campbell]
By my eighth consecutive hour watching PATRIOT, my legs were numb, my throat was parched, and I really needed to use the bathroom, yet I could not find it in me to avert my eyes from the television even for a second. Like TRANSPARENT before it, Steven Conrad’s jet-black comedy is proof that Amazon’s “quality over quantity” approach not only allows them to compete in a market birthed by Netflix, but to consistently generate far more memorable content as well. There have been plenty of comparisons made between the byzantine thread spun by PATRIOT and the works of the Coen brothers, and they’re all accurate, but that’s not what drew me into this show. The real star is leading man and relative newcomer Michael Dorman, whose engrossing performance is the macabre engine that drives the myriad plotlines forward. “Depressing” doesn’t even scratch the surface of Dorman’s portrayal of CIA agent John Tavner. Enemy agents, blackmail attempts, stolen nuclear codes, and murder are the least of Tavner’s worries; they barely even rate as such. The agent’s undercover position as a low-level executive at a Midwest piping firm places him in charge of duties that he is entirely unqualified for and subjects him to endless exploitation on every rung of the corporate ladder. Perpetually jet-lagged, narcoleptic, and under threat from at least three different parties at any one time, Tavner’s dilemma is Sisyphean to the point that a war with Iran feels like a welcome alternative to suffering another interaction with HR. While the lengths Tavner must go to prevent a potentially devastating conflict are grimly slapstick in their absurdity, it’s the sheer depths he subjects himself to that are so absorbing. Where other series would play with how much one man can do, this one has the sadistic nerve to focus instead on how much one man can take, and it’s this morbid character study that makes PATRIOT so hard to put down. [Ed Dutcher]
BIG LITTLE LIES (HBO)
There is so much to be said about BIG LITTLE LIES—the performances, the cinematography, the story, the direction, the editing, the music—everything is incredible. But what you’re ultimately left with is a reminder that women are . . . amazing. BIG LITTLE LIES offers you characters who aren’t perfect: their lives are messy, mysterious, scandalous, and their motives are mostly self-serving. But, despite their exorbitant wealth and perfectly groomed hair, they’re real. The relationships between Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, and Laura Dern are tumultuous but rewarding as the mini-series follows these women as they grow from their own and each others’ mistakes. BIG LITTLE LIES is like a symphony with everything—the past, the present, and future—building together in the end and reaching pure catharsis. A second season seemed like overkill but with the addition of Meryl Streep to an already STACKED cast the opportunities are endless. [Aya Lehman]
TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN (Showtime)
For the existentially mortifying period it was, 2017 was the perfect year to host an 18-hour long David Lynch experience. Though bringing back this cult classic had obvious risk, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost had strong reason and confidence to return to TWIN PEAKS, and take their sweet time, no less. What other show would spend nearly five minutes watching someone sweep a bar floor? With the right amount of patience, it’s a captivating experience with beautiful, horrifying pay-out. David Lynch came back strong in a state of experimental, cinematic eccentricity. This series is scary, hilarious, sad, and sincere, often all at once, in that confounding voice fans have come to love. TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN is a David Lynch jam session, with vignettes of townspeoples’ eerie lives, musical performances at the town’s bar (with an evidently great booking promoter), and a cavalcade of new ways to cinematically terrify viewers; it’s all effective, and infectious. Anchored by an incredible ensemble of new and old faces, and incredible performance(s) by Kyle Maclachlan (long live Dougie Jones), TWIN PEAKS: THE RETURN is one of the most rewarding and special rides audiences had the pleasure of knowing last year. [Rocky Pajarito]
A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (Netflix)
What could have easily been another lazy book adaptation that coasted off of Neil Patrick Harris’s star potential ended up as a delightfully smart series with a number of strong elements. The source material stood out for taking starkly bleak events, forcing them onto precocious prodigal children, and then making that funny. A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS translates that oxymoronic clean black humor with finesse, constantly maintaining an air of whimsy as the Baudelaires encounter increasingly ludicrous tragedies. NPH delivered exactly what everyone wanted with his Count Olaf: a jaunty, haughty, greedy snob with a penchant for unnecessary dramatic flourishes. Patrick Warburton’s Lemony Snicket went a long way towards maintaining the essence of the books in addition to being hysterical. Orphans have never been this much fun. [Dan Blomquist]
BIG MOUTH (Netflix)
This year, I put my faith into the most-hyped new releases like THE DEUCE and OZARK based mostly on the astronomical amount of money and acting talent involved. I wasn’t let down by either of those series, but the shows that impressed and surprised me this year were mostly the sweet little nothings, the spurts of joy that deliver more emotional punch in four hours than most shows do in 10. For me, BIG MOUTH ruled this year’s Kingdom of Brief Levity. Lessons on emotional maturity and how to deal with the terrors of existing as a sexual organism flow boundlessly from every episode. More impressively, BIG MOUTH is the only show to maintain a consistent 5-to-1 ratio of dick jokes to NPR jokes. [Dan Blomquist]
THE ORVILLE (FOX)
THE ORVILLE is single-handedly bringing us back from the ledge of gritty darkness that has entirely saturated the last two decades of science fiction. With its bright, primary colors and cheerily lighted bridge, one glance at the screen tells you that this is an optimistic vision of the future. Sitting down to watch a show filled with wonder for the universe around us, a show that emphasizes wonderful values like exploration, science, rationality, logic, inclusion, and diversity, amongst many other vital pursuits, is the highlight of every week. Though only 12 episodes aired in this first season, each one was thoughtfully crafted with equal emphasis on journeys of self-discovery in individuals and much broader questions of societal morality. And besides exploring all these high-minded ideals, THE ORVILLE is just plain fun. Somehow it is the only show currently airing that has realized that it doesn’t require a serious show to explore serious themes. Sometimes, it’s just way more fun to do it with a few dick jokes. Furthermore, it is the only show that my parents and I all absolutely love, which is an extremely rare occurrence. Any show that can appeal to my mother’s extreme squeamishness for violence, counter my father’s tendency to fall asleep while watching television, and excite me weekly without fail is a masterfully made show. THE ORVILLE is one of the few diamonds made in the crucible of 2017 and it warms the cockles of my heart to extol its virtues in this end of year roundup. [Nicole Barraza Keim]
Although there has been an improvement of showcasing more authentic families and genuine women in television, SMILF feels like the most genuine portrayal of the two that we’ve seen in a while. Like a mix of PARENTHOOD and GIRLS, Frankie Shaw’s semi-autobiographical world is so personal and authentic that it makes a character as messy as the titular Bridgette seem so recognizable to ourselves. Because Bridgette’s frustration and yearning to know how desirable she is after pregnancy is so palpable, it’s so easy to understand her. Even her worst moves in parenting can be easily substantiated, even when she leaves her infant alone at night to buy herself junk food to stress eat. She is also one of the most multi-faceted, and thus realistic, women on screen, one who can be seen making awkward conversation with her ex’s new girlfriend one moment and then masturbating to her Facebook profile picture the next. Shaw also prepares us for unique relationships between separated young parents we haven’t seen quite yet. In SMILF, we see a baby daddy that is not completely involved or absent. He is one that is able to make it to put their son to bed most every night, despite only being a fraction as present as Bridgette is. Yet they share an amicable love for one another that is not clouded by any sign that they could potentially get back together; it’s astounding to finally see a relationship so nuanced and flawed. While the title of the show gives off the possibility of just being a fun, raunchy sex comedy from the perspective of a young mother, the show’s comedic timing is much more subtle, and framed by Bridgette’s yearning to be both a good mother and woman who’s still got it. For a show so personal, Frankie Shaw succeeds in making us all feel like SMILFs. [Michelle Vera]