2017 was a weird year. It’s been hard to ignore all the chaos that has been going on back home, but we’ve been doing our best not to think about it too much. In general, our only connection to the US has been through podcasts and television. I wasn’t about to let traveling keep me from staying caught up on the golden age of television, or what’s left of it anyway. While music saw horrendous new records like Taylor Swift’s “Reputation” and film saw more sequels and superheroes (but I love you Blade Runner 2049), television feels as fresh as ever.
We’ve had the downtime to watch quite a bit, but there have been many that I’ve yet to see. I’d love to check out Taboo starring Tom Hardy. If it is anything like his work on Peaky Blinders, it’ll be must-watch television. I’ve got the whole season of Dark ready to go on the laptop - I’m a sucker for time travel and small towns in Germany so consider me already sold. American Vandal seems like exactly the kind of humorous escape I would want if we were still back home right now. Ozark isn’t really my cup of tea, but once I run out of things to watch I promise to at least give it a chance. The Good Place and GLOW both seem like comedies that are worth giving a shot, too. And someday we might actually watch season 2 of The Crown, although it feels more and more unlikely by the day.
There were also some disappointments that I want to highlight, mainly because before this year started I would have expected these to be on the list. Game of Thrones was dreadful post-loot train battle… I know my expectations are high and the show still delivered in a lot of ways, but you can really feel the loss of George’s writing as they hurtle towards an inevitable “good versus evil” conclusion. Fargo felt like more Fargo in a bad way. I might just be getting sick of starting over what is essentially the same story each season. And finally The Americans, which we haven’t even been able to finish, had an excruciating season 5, where absolutely nothing happens and the camera hangs in on every pointless scene 5 seconds too long. Anyway, enough ranting, let’s get on with the list.
Catastrophe is probably the least known show on this list, but it is such a gem and anyone with Amazon Prime has access to it. Without a doubt it is my favorite half hour comedy series and has been remarkably consistent throughout its three season run. The initial premise of the show is that an American has a one night stand with an Irish woman in London while on a work trip. Months later she realizes she's pregnant, reaches out to him, and he drops everything to move to London to begin a new life with his baby mama. There are hysterical moments as well as poignant ones, but the true strength of the show is just how real it feels. The dialog is very well crafted and the characters are unique, yet relatable. Season 3, released last spring, proved to me that this show hasn't run out of ideas and will look to have continued success going forward.
9. Big Little Lies
I was initially drawn into this show because of the all-star cast and the fact that pretty much nothing else was on during the typical Sunday night prestige drama slot. Who wouldn’t want to watch Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman kick it on television for once? I was really surprised at how hooked I got, not so much to the overarching mystery of the show, but to the elitist world of Monterey, California. David E. Kelley does such a fantastic job of allowing you to hate and love these characters and this place at the same time. Laura Dern’s performance might have been the highlight of the show for me, can’t think of a more perfect role for her than Silicon Valley CEO/overbearing parent. Beautiful people with insignificant problems has been successful on television for a long time - just look at the early 2000’s that boasted shows like The O.C. I just think this show took that style, enhanced it by ticking all the prestige drama boxes, and presented it beautifully, largely thanks to Yves Bélanger’s (Brooklyn, Dallas Buyer’s Club) incredibly cinematography.
8. Master of None
Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang have once again hit it out of the park with this season of Master of None, which I find myself preferring to the first. The two opening episodes in Italy were so entertaining and beautifully shot. As this show goes on I find that I am a little less enthralled with Aziz’s acting, but more and more impressed by his directing ability. The standalone episodes like “New York, I Love You” and “Thanksgiving” really hit it out of the park with their themes and authenticity, while episodes focusing on Dev’s love life pull at your heartstrings in all the right ways. While I admire many of the issues the show tackles, I do sometimes wish they would push the envelope a bit more - I think Aziz and Alan are still playing it a bit safe and I expect season 3 to be another step forward.
7. Mr. Robot
Mr. Robot is one of the many shows that had a phenomenal season 1 followed by a lackluster season 2, plagued by poor pacing and a mostly uninteresting plot. I had low expectations going into season 3, but Sam Esmail has absolutely recaptured my attention in 2017. Bobby Cannavale was the ingredient the show was missing, and his performance along with the rest of the cast kept me on my toes week after week. Season 3 episode 5 may have been the best episode of television I watched last year, I can't think of much else that even competes. I was slightly disappointed with the direction they took Tyrell in - sometimes less information is better and they took away much of the mystery surrounding the character. This show is overall headed in the right direction though, and I am very optimistic for future seasons.
I am a huge fan of David Fincher and nearly everything he does. I certainly never would have given House of Cards a shot without his involvement, but I was disappointed that he didn't stay involved beyond season 1 - you really start to feel the loss of the tone and vision he originally set. Thankfully, his new series called Mindhunter once again scratches that Fincher itch, complete with serial killers and flawed protagonists. I don't want to give away too much of the show if you haven't seen it, but if you are at all fascinated by criminal profiling or just want to watch something grim that will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck (sign me up!), then this is the show for you.
5. Peaky Blinders
Peaky Blinders is somewhat of a guilty pleasure show, a showcase of great acting blended with an over-the-top story and gratuitous violence. I felt like 2016's season 3 was a step backwards, but season 4 gets back to the show's gritty, gypsy roots. Centered around a vendetta between the Shelby family and the New York mafia, the series was not afraid to take some risks and largely delivered. Adrien Brody has received some criticism for his performance, but I was enthralled - there are shades of De Niro and Brando's Godfather performances to be found there. I think Peaky Blinders had the potential to be ranked even higher, but in this season you really felt the limitation of having just a six episode season. New characters such as Aidan Gillen's Aberama Gold felt underdeveloped and the ending, while satisfying, felt rushed.
4. The Young Pope
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me personally, I never dreamed I would be so captivated by a show about a young Pope. It went in so many directions I didn’t expect and consequently made me feel things I never thought I’d feel. I wish more dramas would inject humor in their episodes like The Young Pope does. I enjoy serious shows, but doses of silliness here and there allows you to take a breath and stay engaged. Most shows probably won’t take on this sheer level of ridiculousness, however, and here embracing the ridiculous is the show’s primary strength. Paired alongside gorgeous cinematography and incredible set design, you feel like you are really in Vatican City cheering along Pope Jude Law marching around town in a track suit. I don’t think this show is for everyone, but it really hit the spot for me and was exactly what I needed back in January of 2017.
3. The Deuce
As a huge fan of The Wire, I have been itching for a David Simon drama for years. He and author George Pelecanos are the undisputed masters of ensemble storytelling, weaving plot and character development seamlessly through each episode. I was initially a bit turned off by the subject matter of the show, which focuses mainly on the rampant prostitution in New York in the early 70’s, but as the story begins to broaden its scope and you get to know the characters and their plight a bit more, you begin to see it as more of an asset than a burden. I think a show like this is incredibly difficult to pull off - not just a period piece, but a period piece showcasing incredibly sensitive topics at every turn. James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal both deliver outstanding, nuanced performances, but my personal favorite is from David Krumholtz, who you may remember as Bernard the elf in The Santa Clause. Now he’s a porn director, go figure! I do wish we could have gotten a little more than 8 episodes, that is just enough time to be in this world, so hopefully next season HBO gives them more to work with.
2. The Leftovers
In any other year, The Leftovers would be number one on this list. This show underwent such a transformation in just three short seasons. It began by showing (and importantly not telling) how society would react to a mass departure, potentially the Rapture. Many hated season 1 and I’ll admit it was difficult to watch, but in some ways that was kind of the point. Season 2 brought us to a new locale and breathed some life and excitement into the story and its characters. Some would say skip season 1 and just dive into the good stuff, but trust me when I say that the second season would not have had near the impact if I hadn’t struggled through the first. And that brings us to 2017’s season 3, proof that Damon Lindelof has learned his lessons from Lost. Like Lost, The Leftovers forces the viewers to ask a lot of questions, some about show-specific details and others more existential. But unlike Lost, The Leftovers does not make you beg for answers. It teaches you that sometimes things are better off left ambiguous or unexplained. That’s how life works, you aren’t always going to get answers and sometimes the world just isn’t fair. I really appreciate what this show set out to do and highly recommend it, just a short three season watch.
1. Twin Peaks: The Return
There is an extremely short list of television shows I have watched where I feel like literally anything can happen at any given time. Atlanta (the best show of 2016) is one of them, but unfortunately will follow an overarching plot in 2018's season 2. Twin Peaks is the other, and boy does it go places. And the beauty of going on this ride with David Lynch isn't just that you don't know what's coming next. It's that when you arrive in these scenes and lose yourself in this world, you can totally forget everything you know about film, television, music or art and just experience it all unfiltered in its purest form. The fact that this show even got made at all is a testament to how networks like Showtime, FX, HBO and others value auteur-driven content in this age of online content libraries. As a huge fan of the original series, I sat through this 18 hour David Lynch film feeling nothing but pure joy, often with the biggest smile on my face. To be in this world again, 25 years later, to feel much needed closure, to confront the very real aspects of mortality it presents - it was everything I had hoped it would be, but in a completely different way than I expected. I highly recommend watching the first two seasons and Fire Walk With Me before attempting to crack this nut, but if you do embark on this ride you will not regret it.