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NPR's Favorite TV Shows Of 2017

Jan 25, 2018
Originally published on December 19, 2017 10:27 am

Before we begin, a note: See how the adjective up there in that headline is "favorite," not "best?" That's intentional.

There's just too much television out there for a comprehensive ranking; the TV landscape has never been more expansive than it is today. Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are adding so many shows so quickly they don't so much stream as cascade. Cable gems like Game of Thrones and Insecure continue to glimmer, but don't count out basic cable and broadcast networks — NBC's The Good Place, for example, is the only show that all three of us agreed deserved an end-of-year shoutout.

Our list of 2017 favorites is personal and idiosyncratic, which is as it should be. TV now boasts more voices, telling more stories, than ever before, and those stories are finding discrete audiences hungry for them. TV is starting to look less monolithic, and more like the people watching it — all of the people watching it. — Glen

American Gods, Starz (Glen)

The Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman's 2001 novel was easily the most visually striking television show of 2017. Bryan Fuller and Michael Green infused Gaiman's tale of gods and monsters with a decidedly irreverent revisionist history of the American experiment. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but this road movie/"Myth and Folklore" graduate seminar mashup is a hugely imaginative (and flat-out gorgeous) adventure. -- Glen

American Vandal, Netflix (Linda and Glen)

You don't need to have internalized the tone, tropes and techniques used by true-crime documentary series like The Jinx and Making a Murderer to love American Vandal — but it helps. Precise, knowing and lovingly made, this faux-documentary series purports to investigate an act of high school vandalism, but its true subjects include class divisions, sex, friendship and — of course — the making of true-crime documentaries. The show never once winks at the audience, which makes it all the more hilarious and ultimately, in its way, devastating. -- Glen

At Home With Amy Sedaris, TruTV (Glen)

Like hordes of happy-homemaking TV hosts before her, Sedaris offers tips on home decorating, crafts, entertaining guests and cooking. It's just that hers ... are deranged. Part Barefoot Contessa, part Pee-wee's Playhouse and part SCTV, At Home teems with characters, alt-comedy cameos and deep, abiding weirdness. If you've ever watched a holiday special and thought to yourself, "Needs a scosh more Trilogy of Terror," this is the show for you. -- Glen

Better Things, FX (Eric)

Pamela Adlon's quirky, emotional look at a single mom trying to hold her family together got even better in its second season. I most enjoyed the moments when Adlon's Sam Fox excelled at motherhood, helping her teen daughter, Max, get over her father blowing off her high school graduation, or stepping back when Max decided to date an older man, but staying close for the inevitable break up. Yes, the disgraced Louis C.K. co-created and contributed a lot. But Adlon co-created, directs and co-wrote much of this, building a wonderful story that deserves to survive his fall. -- Eric

Big Little Lies, HBO (Eric and Linda)

This HBO limited series — now returning for a second season, which makes it just a series, presumably — focuses on the unfolding of a central mystery. But what it does particularly well is portray the complicated thinking and the constant social deal-making of a group of wealthy Monterey, Calif., mothers. That they're played by Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern — with a supporting performance from Zoë Kravitz that will hopefully expand in season two — doesn't hurt. It's a gorgeously stylish, gratifyingly dark drama that deserves its awards haul. -- Linda

Black Mirror, Netflix (Linda)

The new episodes of this Netflix anthology don't drop until the end of December, but they are, you might say, doozies. A loving TV parody becomes an unfolding psychological nightmare, a couple explores the intersection of love and uncertainty, and the sins of the past infect the present — and that's only three of the six episodes. Yes, it's tech bogeyman stuff, but it's also often moving and funny. -- Linda

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, The CW (Linda and Glen)

Since its inception, this CW comedy-musical-drama has struggled to shake off concerns that it was stigmatizing mental illness or failing to take seriously the implications of its title. On the contrary, protagonist Rebecca's battles with what she now understands is a personality disorder have been among the most patiently written and compassionately but honestly presented on television. All that plus an entire musical number called "The First Penis I Saw"? Who can argue? -- Linda

The Deuce, HBO (Eric)

There are so many ways a TV show about the genesis of the porn industry could have gone wrong. But David Simon, creator of The Wire, brought his eye for authenticity to a surprisingly compelling story: how X-rated films moved from under-the-counter illegality to a multi-million-dollar business. James Franco got loads of attention playing twin brothers at the center of the prostitution and bar scene in 1970s-era Manhattan, but it's Maggie Gyllenhaal's work as a pimp-less streetwalker determined to become a porn director that gives the show its beating heart. -- Eric

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, BBC America (Glen)

The U.S. adaptation of late U.K. author Douglas Adams' veddy, veddy British books is a hugely American enterprise indeed: big, bold, riotous and blithely goofy. Featuring a secret government agency, humans with strange abilities and a cast of colorful albeit fundamentally broken characters, Dirk Gently's second season doubles down on weirdness, but deepens its characterizations. It seems odd that a show so devoted to the random interconnectivity of events should feature such rigorous steel-trap plotting, but then, that's this show for you: Odd. -- Glen

Game Of Thrones, HBO (Eric)

This is the downside of Game of Throne's long-running success: Every year, it gets easier to take for granted the level of epic filmmaking required to make it a reality. This season, we saw the bar raised again with massive set pieces: a dragon killed and turned into an undead monster, legions of undead soldiers marching to war and every major ruler in the fictional continent of Westeros assembled in one place, contemplating a truce. Few series matched its ambition and scale this year. -- Eric

The Good Place, NBC (Eric, Linda and Glen)

This NBC comedy about a woman who wakes up and is informed that she's died and gone to heaven — where she knows she doesn't belong — went from clever and fun in its first season to gloriously, mind-bendingly wackadoo in its second. Leads Kristen Bell and Ted Danson have proved endlessly pliable, the dynamite supporting cast never misses a beat, and it is a show that proves, over and over, that it is ultimately about not only its laughs, but its very real ideas about things like humanity and ethics. -- Linda

The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu (Eric)

This show is an amazing realization of a classic novel that feels like producers peered into a crystal ball to see exactly which social issues we'd be tangled in when the show airs. Star Elisabeth Moss emerged as the "Queen of Quality TV" for her earnest performance as Offred, one of several women forced to serve as breeders by a theocratic government that treats all women as second-class citizens or worse. Ultimately, it suggests society's worst horror is a world where toxic masculinity controls all; a nightmare uniquely suited to our current times. -- Eric

Insecure, HBO (Linda)

Issa Rae's HBO comedy took its best-friend protagonists, Molly and Issa, into new romantic territory in its second season. They explore everything from dating a lot of people as a way of life to accepting "unconventional" arrangements that don't quite make you happy. While not everything works, the show continues to excel at making its characters indelibly specific and its emotional beats unexpected. And Rae remains one of television's most magnetic and watchable leads. -- Linda

Jimmy Kimmel Live!, ABC (Eric)

His bro-centric style and disdain for political correctness made Jimmy Kimmel look like the last late night comic interested in a political fight. Still, when his son's health care issues exposed him to the hypocrisy of Congress and the president, Kimmel spoke up with the earnest emotion of a citizen who expected more from his government. He did the same when talking about gun control after a mass shooting in his Las Vegas hometown, offering an informed, self-deprecating but insistent message that could be summed up in two words: Do better. -- Eric

Late Night With Seth Meyers, NBC (Linda)

Comedy, and late night in particular, has responded in a variety of ways to the current political climate. Seth Meyers has chosen to spotlight a regular news segment called "A Closer Look," which amounts to a much more biting, much more thorough form of the "Weekend Update" segments he did for years on Saturday Night Live. Rather than strive for a point-of-view-less, offend-no-one affability, Meyers has chosen to put his foot on the gas, speaking his mind in the plainest terms, night after night. It may not matter politically, but it's more watchable than the alternative. -- Linda

Legion, FX (Glen)

Noah Hawley, the showrunner of TV's Fargo, took an out-of-the-way Marvel Comics character — a mutant who's been raised to believe his very real and very dangerous psychic abilities are mere delusions — and told his tale at a slant. Sure, there's a secret government conspiracy, because this is a superhero show, and that's the law. But there's also a groovy production number that saw Aubrey Plaza's monstrous telepathic vampire dancing to Nina Simone, and plenty of Jemaine Clement in sideburns and a Nehru jacket. Stylish, sad and always unpredictable, Legion looks and feels like nothing else on TV. -- Glen

Master Of None, Netflix (Eric and Linda)

The second season of Aziz Ansari's Netflix comedy-drama is delightfully uneven. At times, its romanticism seems almost smothering, but a great experiment in which all the main characters give up the spotlight for an episode, as well as the instantly TV-canon-worthy episode "Thanksgiving," are among highlights that easily outweighed any tonal missteps. -- Linda

One Day At A Time, Netflix (Linda)

In the dark and cold days of January, what a delight it was to see Norman Lear's 1970s single-mom comedy rebooted with a fabulous cast led by Justina Machado as a Cuban-American single mother and veteran raising kids with the help of her own mother, played by an impeccable Rita Moreno. The show feels like a traditional sitcom, but it became one of the year's best family stories of any kind at all. -- Linda

Ozark, Netflix (Eric)

Only one of TV's most sympathetic actors could have pulled off what Jason Bateman does here. Bateman makes viewers care about an unassuming financial expert who secretly launders money for a Mexican drug cartel and is forced to move to the Ozarks after his partner is killed. As Bateman's Marty Byrde tries to prove his loyalty by laundering millions more in rural Missouri — forcing his philandering wife and spoiled kids to suffer with him in the sticks — the show asks heady questions about family, redemption and forgiveness. -- Eric

RuPaul's Drag Race, VH1 (Glen)

This year, Mama Ru packed up her lace fronts, her makeup, her charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent and schlepped from TV's comparatively low-rent Logo to the bright lights (and high-def) of VH1. Nothing about Drag Race settled during shipping, however, and it remains the funniest, fiercest and most profoundly satisfying reality competition around. -- Glen

Search Party, TBS (Glen)

So these four young, self-involved, truly repellent New Yorkers — hey wait don't leave! It's funny, I promise! In the second season of this TBS series about a group of friends who take it upon themselves to investigate a young woman's disappearance, the genre shifts from mystery to suspense. Suddenly, even these selfish characters can't fail to notice that their thoughtless actions have dire consequences; watching that knowledge slowly descend on them leads to many of the series' most incisive and savagely funny moments. If you recognize your friends — or worse, yourself — in any of these characters, do the work necessary to put your house in order. -- Glen

Speechless, ABC (Linda)

The DiMeo family was introduced in 2016 in part through the story of JJ, their son with special needs — played beautifully by Micah Fowler, who himself has cerebral palsy. But Speechless has moved well beyond any one-note portrayal of a hardscrabble family led by a tough mom (Minnie Driver) and loving dad (John Ross Bowie). Every character, from all three siblings to JJ's aide, Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough), is weird and special, which is exactly how family sitcoms should be. -- Linda

Stand-Up Specials, Netflix (Eric)

It may seem like Netflix features every two-bit comic with five minutes and an Instagram page, but they also had the year's three best stand-up performances. Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King was an emotional look at the struggle of a California-born son of Indian immigrants; Patton Oswalt: Annihilation neatly divided between searing political jokes and a brave story of life as a single dad after his wife's unexpected death; and while Dave Chappelle's The Age of Spin stumbled when talking about gay and transgender people, his incisive looks at race, pop culture and society came at a time when we needed him most. -- Eric

Star Trek: Discovery, CBS All Access (Eric)

There is no heavier lift in television than reviving a 51-year-old sci-fi franchise. So I didn't despair when it took about three episodes for Discovery, set 10 years before the days of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, to get going. Star Sonequa Martin-Green soars as Michael Burnham, Starfleet's first mutineer and a human orphan raised as Spock's adopted sister by his dad, Sarek. But the real wild card is Jason Isaacs's Gabriel Lorca, Starfleet's most ruthless captain, whose actions constantly raise the question: If you give up your values to win a war, is the victory worth it? -- Eric

The Vietnam War, PBS (Eric)

With this exhaustive look at the genesis and life of a war that redefined so much of America, documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick deliver history that feels as relevant as a breaking news report. Like all Burns projects, it's seriously long at more than 17 hours. But the series weaves together voices of experts, rank-and-file American fighters, journalists, Vietnamese soldiers, politicians and many more into a potent tale with loads of lessons on why U.S. foreign policy works the way it does, even now. -- Eric

Twin Peaks: The Return, Showtime (Glen)

Is this 18-hour David Lynch/Mark Frost tone poem a TV show, or a movie? Is it brilliant or baffling? Self-assured or self-indulgent? Fascinating or frustrating? Victory lap or retread? The answer, of course, is all of the above, and none of them. More than two decades after the trippy soap opera/mystery/some-other-thing hybrid Twin Peaks flamed out on network TV, Frost and Lynch issued tourist visas for a return trip — and what we found there was ... not what anyone expected. Wildly uneven as the series is, episode eight offers a concentrated dose of beautiful, haunting and unabashedly bonkers surrealism unlike anything the medium has seen ... or will. -- Glen

Nicole Cohen produced this story.

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