We will now conclude the Best of Television with biggest award this week, the Best Television Shows of 2017. That’s right; it’s time to reflect upon the greatest artistic achievements on the silver screen, finding intelligence and heart through great filmmaking and entertaining visuals, whether it be a heart-pounding thriller or a laugh-out-loud master work. This year, art was at a pinnacle across all mediums, and that began with television. And I hope to shed a light on some of those master works in the following article.
This year’s list is truly a testament to how great the competition was. Last year’s champion, You’re the Worst, doesn’t even make a repeat performance, for crying out loud. However, I want to give some shout outs to the great shows I couldn’t fit onto this list. There’s the originality of television specials Psych: The Movie and Chris Gethard: Career Suicide. There’s the animated genius of puberty comedy Big Mouth or the satirical bliss of South Park. Trial and Error had a rough first few episodes, but once it found its groove, it was one of the funnier shows of the year (even if my #4 show does the same concept better). Sherlock may have finished its final season ever, and it truly went out with a bang (somewhat literaly, I might add). And then there are the two films I came the closest to selecting: the groundbreaking comedic skills of Master of None, and the innovative adaptive skills of The Handmaid’s Tale. Oh, and as always, I tip my hat to ABC’s Must See TV, two nights of family-based sitcoms that have updated and evolved the most basic genre around by shining a light on the universality of different families’ experiences (although this Mention is a bit unfair, as three shows will be making the list later).
And now it’s time for the Law and Order: SVU Award, the Sacred Wall’s annual award for the Most Hate-Watchable Show. There are many contenders for this year’s prize, but while it was very tempting to go with any of these options (hi, 13 Reasons Why), it is impossible to pick anything but Riverdale. I’m not sure where somebody got the idea “What if Archie was really hot and f*cked, and Jughead was an emo, and also everything was a really bad Twin Peaks knockoff?” but whoever they are, they created one of the oddest television experiences ever. Incredibly popular for all the wrong reasons, I am quite confident in awarding the first two seasons of “Whoa…Archie got hot!” this year’s recipient of the SVU Award, joining the ranks of Fuller House.
And finally, I have a few Special Mentions. The Vietnam War provided a unique, enthralling look at one of American history’s most controversial periods, and altered the way we view documentaries. As I mentioned last week, The Leftovers is widely considered the best show of the year, and yet I still haven’t seen a single episode. And finally, I haven’t seen anything on TV this year that comes close to Twin Peaks: The Return, even if the results excite, baffle, and infuriate me. And with all this established, let’s look at the list of the Ten Best Television Shows of 2017.
10. Man Seeking Woman
It’s always a tragedy when one of the best shows on TV gets cancelled before its time. That is the case with Simon Rich’s wonderful surrealist romantic comedy Man Seeking Woman, a wonderfully odd little show that no one watched. Following a young man as he navigates the world of love and dating, the show’s trademark was how it would always ramp things up to their insane extreme to prove a point, famously having a blind date with a literal troll back in season one. However, it seems that Rich knew his show was on the way out, as he wisely made his show about growing up and finding love, well, grow up and find love. By introducing new main character Lucy (played perfectly by Katie Findlay) as a foil to Jay Baruchel’s lovably inept Josh, we got to see love come into its own, evolving and learning as these two bumble from one scenario to the next. We watch as their days instantly improve while meeting each other, even though Lucy was literally mauled by a tiger on her way to the date. We see the struggle of passive-aggressive parents by filming the entire episode like a horror film. And we see an angry, abandoned best friend literally become a supervillain (meaning Eric Andre gets to play the Joker) in order to ruin their relationship. This is a warm show, a smart show, and a funny show, all rolled into one. The final shot of the season, and therefore the series, is a mirror to the Pilot’s opening scene, where a recently dumped Josh walks home with a personal raincloud over his head. Only here, the newlyweds Josh and Lucy walk down the street in perfect sunshine while everyone around them is caught up in a thunderstorm. It’s the perfect sentiment to send the series out on: surreal, cute, and heartwarming while reminding us of the joys of love. And in remembering that joy, the entire journey it takes to get there seems worth it.
Best Episode: “Dolphin” – While Man Seeking Woman’s focus has always been on Baruchel’s Josh, the show’s secret weapon was Britt Lower as sister Liz. The strongest episodes they’ve had involved the switch from Man Seeking Woman to Woman Seeking Man. However, instead of looking for a “man” here in the traditional sense (something the career-focused Liz has never fully cared about, even if it is in the back of her mind), here we see her searching for a different kind of man: a parental figure that she can look up to. Watching her try to reconnect with Peter Gallagher as her equally-snooty father (here portrayed as a Matrix spoof as Gallagher channels Laurence Fishburne guiding her into enlightened snobbiness). However, the episode builds to an emotional climax, for both Liz and her stepfather Tom (played lovingly and simply by all-time great Mark McKinney). Realizing that Tom and mother Patti (Robin Duke) were the ones who were there for her, and supported her as she became the youngest partner at her law firm, Liz goes out to dinner with them, shelving her snobbiness by going to the mediocre chain restaurant Pasta Buongiornio. The portrayal of the terrible meal and how people with so-called “good” taste look down on others’ tastes by showing Tom order a wine called “Yak Piss” – and then watching as the staff brings over a yak, placing the wine glasses under the table, and bringing them up filled. It is a hilarious, disturbing sequence, but it builds to Liz, who has never referred to Tom as anything other than “my stepfather” or “Tom,” telling the staff that he is, in fact, her dad. It is a sweet, emotionally cathartic moment that sums up what the show does best.
9. The Middle/Speechless/black-ish
I normally give a special mention to the ABC lineup for the special work they do and then leave them off the list. Rarely do multiple shows from the lineup make the list. However, when shows have as remarkable a run as these three have, attention must be paid. And that’s the case with the unbelievable trifecta of The Middle, Speechless, and black-ish, which I will tackle one by one. With The Middle, ABC has truly managed to find an incredible balance – finding the humor in the painfully real, just like Roseanne once did (not surprising, considering they come from the same person), and yet never feeling like a centerpiece for any one actor, the way its predecessor did for Barr or Metcalf. Instead the show simply focuses on finding the humor in a lower-middle class family trying to get by. We get the hilarious highs of Sue (played to perfection by Eden Sher) trying to figure out who she is as she nears graduation, or the heartbreaking lows of Frankie (technical star Patricia Heaton) trying to figure out what to do with her life now that her children are leaving the nest and she tries to enter post-motherhood. The show embraces a realistic, slice-of-life look at Midwestern family life in a truly honest way, like the eldest son’s quest to find a job in a declining market, or the fears over the grandparents’ health and well-being. That sense of realism can be found in the wonderful sophomore show Speechless, albeit in a very different way. Sure, mother Maya, as wonderful as Minnie Driver portrays her (and it is truly a masterful performance), is ridiculously over-the-top in her controlling insanity, and the family dynamics veer closer to archetype than to reality (the sarcastic older brother, the nerdy one who is shunned by the family, the super athletic-but-dumb jock, etc.), but at its heart it understands – and wants us to understand – the ins and outs of raising a child with cerebral palsy. Micah Fowler is perfect as JJ, a young man going through life with cerebral palsy, as he never portrays him as a “woe-is-me” sideshow. JJ is smart, and funny, and a very normal teenager – the fact that he has this disease that keeps him from speaking or walking is addressed, but never a crutch. And yet while the show’s focus is on the interactions between Driver, Fowler, and Cedric Yarbrough as JJ’s aide Kenneth, the entire family is a work of art, earning the audience’s sympathies with their well-worn role in the family, from straight-laced middle child Ray to the laid-back soothing father Jimmy. It’s a family you can laugh with, root for, and earn a little understanding from, as Maya’s relationship with JJ is one of the most unexpectedly honest on television right now. However, if honesty’s what you’re after, look no further than black-ish. Taking the traditional setup of a Norman Lear comedy (a family with edge that talked about our times) and adding the perspective of African-American writers and actors, the show manages to find a pulse inside a normally mundane genre. Watching the antics of Anthony Anderson’s over-the-top Dre and Tracee Ellis Ross’ equally crazy-but-different wife Bo is a joy week-in-week-out, and the writing is top notch, be it something serious like the economic divide for the African American-community or the painful history they carry with them, or something silly, like the one-liners delivered by Dre’s coworkers, and especially friend Charlie (the great Deon Cole) and sociopathic daughter Diane (the even greater Marsai Martin). Like All In The Family before it, the show knows how to be silly, snarky, topical, and heartwarming, all at the same time, finding the humor in a ridiculous feud between a child and an adult or the catharsis in watching a normally-aggressive mother-in-law refer to the target of her abuse as her “daughter” as she nearly dies during a troubled early birth. The thing that these shows all share is their embrace of the importance of family. They come from different backgrounds, and they have different issues, but they all love each other dearly, and the fact that you can feel their love fills you with hope and happiness on a weekly basis. And really, that’s all we ask from our television shows.
Best Episodes: “The Confirmation”/”T-r-Training D-a-Day”/”Mother Nature” – Of these three episodes, two almost made me cry, while the third chose to make me smile. The one I smiled during was The Middle’s “The Confirmation,” and not just because it made for a reuniting of Heaton and Monica Horan. No, the episode stands out because it officially closed the hilarious subplot involving youngest child Brick having been raised by another family for a month in a way that showed the way his family truly cares about him. Meanwhile, we get to see the episode pay homage to Friends, both by lip service and in plot, as brother Axl starts dating his sister’s best friend Lexie without her knowledge. It allowed for funny visuals, hilarious dialogue, and a cute final scene. Throw in Reverend Tim-Tom, the show’s secret weapon and arguably the greatest character this decade, and you have a Heck of an episode (I’m sorry). Meanwhile, “T-r-Training” features one of the greatest misdirections of the year, setting up for the comedy of the laid-back, non-confrontational Jimmy trying to give the talk to both JJ and Ray. And sure, the sequences are funny, as Jimmy drives all the way to Mexico in an attempt to delay the conversation. However, the turn comes when JJ’s questions turn from the “how” (which he’d learned from the Internet, because of course) to the “can” – as in, “Can I ever be a father considering everything?” The turn from comedy to heartfelt is handled deftly and intelligently, and the conclusion is a combination of tear-inducing, laugh-inspiring, and cheer-worthy. And in the first appearance from last week’s Ten Best Episodes here today, black-ish gave us “Mother Nature,” a heartfelt, hilarious, open look at Bo’s struggles with postpartum depression. The episode is easily one of the best acted of the year, and everything is on point, from the emotional journey Ross takes us on to the laughs we get from Anderson and secret weapon Martin. It is excellent television, and the perfect embodiment of one of the year’s best shows.
Last year, I inexplicably left Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt off my Top Ten list. It’s a mistake I don’t intend to make again, especially as season 3 is the one where Tina Fey’s vision fully comes into fruition. The dialogue is finally realized in its self-referential glory, the non-sequiturs finally feel fully-developed, and the characters finally feel like they have purpose. People who have been wasted in past years, like Carole Kane and Dylan Gelula, finally have arcs that lead somewhere. Throwaway jokes introduced in the past finally come to fruition, like the presence of the robots we saw in Season One that now appear everywhere. And the throwaway jokes finally seem memorable, like Jane Krakwoski getting Ghost-ed by an elderly grandmother, or the FBI trying to handle a female cult leader by sending in a gay best friend. I feel like this is the insane, wonderful show that Fey has always intended, and I’m so excited to see it in its true glory. This is a show about good people figuring out their worst flaws and trying to overcome them, all played for laughs. Kimmy is trying to overcome her traumatic past while also learning how to handle her emotions (without living in the real world, she must learn how to handle selfishness, foolishness, and naiveté far later in life than others). Similarly, Titus must learn to grow as a person, to care about those who care about him, and to put aside his selfishness if he ever wants to be a good friend and good boyfriend. Luckily for us, we are guided on these journeys by the talents of Ellie Kemper and Tituss Burgess. Kemper is remarkable as Kimmy, showing us a woman who is genuinely good-hearted, helpful, caring, and optimistic while simultaneously struggling with a difficult past. We finally hear what happened to her in the bunker addressed by name, and it isn’t pretty. However, we also understand how far Kimmy is willing to go in order to help others – she solves the Trolley Problem by literally throwing herself in front of the bus. I haven’t seen a character like Kimmy on television before, and I’m so happy we have someone of Kemper’s talents to bring her to life. However, while Kemper was the MVP of seasons One and Two, she has finally been outdone by Burgess. Burgess is a one-man tour-du-force, combining the selfish-but-lovable friendship of Jack Donaghy with the over-the-top outlandishness and quick-witted one-liners of Tracy Jordan. Burgess perfectly executes everything thrown his way, whether it’s the ridiculousness of sabotaging and maybe eating Dionne Warwick or the half-energetic, half-traumatic (for the lazy gay that he is) musical extravaganza “Boobs in California.” Hell, he’s so great this season that he out-Beyoncé’s Beyoncé. I said in my review at the end of the third season that Burgess’ performance stands up with the great sitcom moments of all time, and I stand by that statement now. He is a force of nature, and he needs to be taken seriously. And I haven’t even mentioned the guest performances by actors like Laura Dern (fully committing herself to stupidity in a delightful turn) and Josh Charles (who should always be the villain, forever). Kimmy Schmidt is one of my favorite shows on TV right now, and if this is the direction that Fey wants to take it, then I am completely onboard.
Best Episode: “Kimmy’s Roommate Lemonades!” – I wrote about this one last week, and a lot of my points still stand. This is a solid episode of television. From the get-go, we have jokes about Kimmy trying to attend Hudson University from the Law and Order series, Carole Kane going full Trump, and, of course, Tituss Burgess Lemonading. We get not one, not two, but three full-on Beyoncé spoofs, starting with the incredible “Hell No,” which is truly a miracle to behold. From the music being composed of “Rosie O’Donnell’s version of Grease, ‘Spooky Sounds of The Haunted Mansion,’ and a compilation of TV jingles,” we are greeted to a wonderfully sung, wonderfully performed spoof of “Hold Up,” from Burgess’ catchy lyrics, wonderful voice, and his ability to pull off that iconic yellow dress while holding a bat. And try not to laugh every time the ad sings “By Menin!” The other two performances – the more joke based “I Don’t Care” (“Sorry”) done in black and white and the more seriously performed spoof of “All Night” – are both wonderful in their own right, but the former feels like a true statement. The music serves as a good narration for the episode’s B-plot, which features a warm, yet still melancholic look at the end of s same-sex relationship. Sure, Kimmy’s quest to become a crossing-guard and Lillian becoming a City Council member are both important arcs for the series, and both are handled wonderfully, but you’re here to watch Tituss. And that’s ok.
It took me a while to get around to watching GLOW. While I had heard good things, and I love Alison Brie, it wasn’t at the top of my to-do list. I should have tuned in earlier, as it turned out it was a combination of all of my favorite things: a great cast, killer one-liners, Hollywood satire, and 80s nostalgia. You wouldn’t think a show about wrestling would be this good, let alone something called “Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling” (the full title of the show), and yet that’s exactly why the whole project feels brilliant. It uses wrestling as a metaphor for the artistic medium as a whole, and by extension for society as a whole. It explores the ins and outs of the casual misogyny of the era (and of today), of a team of misfits who have no choice but to come together in the hopes of pursuing their passion, and of those who had to fight just a little bit harder to enjoy the popularity of “the age of excess.” When we meet lead Ruth, she’s auditioning for roles where she assumes she’ll be the scheming CEO when in actuality she’s the secretary. She wants more, and yet roles for women fail to go beyond the Secretary, the Shrew, or the Slut (look at any 80s movie and tell me where they shied away from this breakdown). Left with few other options, she joins a team of other female outcasts, including a party girl, an African-American actress, the daughter of wrestling royalty, and a literal she-wolf (who would normally be played for laughs and yet here gets an empathetic arc) and an over-it former artistic director, played to perfection by Marc Maron. Brie plays Ruth as an empathetic-enough figure, and also a critique of the classic Diane Chambers archetype. She’s smart, but it makes her snotty. She knows what she wants, but she’s also selfish about it. And while she tries her best to value her friends, she can’t help but put her own happiness first, sleeping with her best friend’s husband while she’s home taking care of the baby. Friend Betty Gilpin is also a wonder, smart enough to know the entire scenario is absurd while also desperate to get back onstage and avoid being a housewife. The entire cast is perfect, including Britney Young as Carmen Wade (aka Machu Picchu), Gayle Rankin as Sheila (aka The She Wolf), and especially Sydelle Noel as Cherry Bang (aka Junkchain), who rounds out the leads as the show’s African-American perspective, trying to balance her portrayal of a stereotype with her desire to be onstage, while also keeping her personal life and relationship with director Sam in check. This is a funny, funny show, with a killer look and feel (the soundtrack alone is out of this world) and a cast that is game for the high ridiculousness and low seriousness. It is one of the best new shows of the year, and one of the best, period.
Best Episode: “Pilot” – It’s a little unfair to pick a show’s pilot as the best episode of the new season, as its goal is to serve as a thesis statement for what’s to come. And yet, few thesis statements turn out as good as this one. From the opening seconds, depicting a neon 8-bit wrestling sequence set to “The Warrior,” we realize we are in for a fun, wild ride. When the next scene shows us Ruth in the audition process, we begin to understand the evenhanded take the show is using on its characters – one minute making us side with Ruth against the patriarchy, the next making us understand how frustrating she is. And thus, a journey is born. We feel ourselves cheering for the women while being frustrated by their choices. Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin have incredible chemistry, and Marc Maron shows us what a man who’s given up looks like – he can make anything funny, from a cruelly biting line of dialogue to the simple act of trying to climb in and out of the ring. There are several memorable moments in the episode, especially watching Ruth’s over-the-top “character building” for the fight scene (watching her run around the ring delivering a soliloquy is one of my favorite TV moments of the year), but by far the best moment comes in the episode’s end. As Gilpin assaults Brie for the affair, Maron stares on in wonder, the television show coming together in his head. As Journey’s “Separate Ways” plays (their most underrated song), we cut between the bitter ending of a friendship in real life and the hilariously staged choreography that GLOW would eventually bring us. It’s a moment full of promise, humor, and emotion, and it demonstrated exactly the kind of program that GLOW wants to be.
I’m a man of simple tastes. I like history being used as allegory. I like great lines of killer dialogue. And I like old-timey Hollywood history. For me, Feud was a dream come true. It used the story of two famous women forced to work together to save their careers to tell a story about sexism, talent, class, and ageism. Spanning ten plus years in Hollywood, we were allowed to witness every over-the-top, biting, cagey remark exchanged between Hollywood starlet Joan Crawford (played to perfection by Jessica Lange) and true actress Bette Davis (channeled beautifully by Susan Sarandon) as they worked together but once (all that they could handle) as they filmed the Gothic kitsch classic What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? From the get-go, the tone is set with a Saul Bass-esque Hitchock send-up, showing the two women battling it out on the set while being controlled as puppets by the corrupt men at the top. And from that moment on, it doesn’t let up. It shows how their animosity was fueled by an abusive, sexist assh*le, Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci, embracing the camp of the production), and how even the men they were supposed to trust, like director Robert Aldritch (played straight and “nice” by Alfred Molina) were guilty of feeding on their emotions. The famous line from the movie rings true about these two: “You mean, all this time we could have been friends?” These two really could have been friends, considering everything they’d gone through to get where they were – they both had troubling childhoods, they both battled sexism in the industry for decades, and both understood how difficult it was for women over fifty to find work in the industry, despite the fact they were living legends. Sadly, it was not to be, and all to help an already-great film make a few extra bucks. However, while we are brought to care about both Bette and Joan throughout the series, we are never tricked into thinking they are flawless. They are both beautifully flawed women, each dealing with a lot of behind the scenes trauma. Bette is a snob, struggling to understand her teenage daughter and feeling woefully unfit for motherhood. Meanwhile, while the show never cashes in on the whole “Mommie Dearest” aspect of it all (I’m fairly certain that the show discredits the novel/film), the show does demonstrate Crawford’s controlling nature as it pertains to the set, to her assistants, and to her children. She is a raging drunk, understandable by her past but disastrous for her future, and capable of several incredibly underhanded tricks to get back at her opponents (more on that in a second). These are smartly written, complicated characters, and the fact that two actual women over the age of fifty have the chance to play them is a testament in and of itself. The cast is solid, the scripts are smart, and the entire production has an air of camp that appeals to the cheesiness in all of us. The show is an apologia to two incredibly talented women abused by a corrupt system that still pervades today. It appealed to all of my sensitivities, and it is easily one of the best shows of 2017.
Best Episode: “And The Winner Is (The Oscars of 1963)” – What is it that made this episode a slam dunk? Is it the behind-the-scenes look at the Oscars it portrays? The way it shows the underhanded tactics involved with voting and accepting the awards? The grand, swooping nature of the cinematography, including an iconic tracking shot following Crawford and a David Lean stand-in as they walked the halls to the press room? Who knows, but it all came together so beautifully in the end. Shocked and angered when she isn’t nominated for an Oscar, Crawford is talked into a smear campaign by the one and only Hedda Hopper (played with a proper amount of evil, vicious glee by Judy Davis). While Hopper bad mouths Davis, Crawford (embarrassingly) calls each of the other nominees to convince them to let her accept on her behalf. This allows us to see impressions of some of the most famous starlets of the era while also creating characterization for Crawford as she sinks to new lows to screw over her rival. However, it’s the Oscar ceremony itself that has me grinning with glee. From throwbacks to Gergory Peck and Maximillian Schell to Crawford interacting with a young Patty Duke, to the infamous moment where Davis is shocked to lose to Anne Bancroft, only to watch as Crawford herself crosses the stage, pushing past her stunned co-star to accept the Oscar on the winner’s behalf. It is a comedy of double crosses and pettiness, all set to the backdrop of my favorite event of the year. You’re damn right this is the show’s best episode.
5. Rick and Morty
Yes, yes, I’ve seen the memes too. I know the whole “Me, an intellectual” angle surrounding this show. But just because the internet likes piling on to the group of idiots who feel smarter than the rest of the world for liking it, Rick and Morty is still one of the smarter, darker, and funnier shows on TV right now. What started as a childish spoof of Back to the Future has morphed into something else entirely – a dark, nihilistic look at the universe, our relationship to it, and who we choose to attach ourselves to. There’s something inherently joyful about watching the irreverence with which Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon treat their show and their creation – they released the first episode of the season on April Fools’ Day with no advertising whatsoever, just because they could. And yet it is what comes after Rick Sanchez, the multiverse’s smartest self-loathing alcoholic, destroys everything that stands in their way is what makes this show so brilliant. Watching Rick and Morty push themselves to their limit to avoid having to address their own flaws, fears and insecurities is a joy to watch. We see them live for weeks in a Mad Max-esque universe. We see Rick become so annoyed with the Avengers that he gets blackout drunk and puts them through a Saw-like torture sequence, killing most of them and turning the survivor into a supervillain (the power of Rick). We see Rick and Morty try to avoid themselves so much, they remove both their worst traits (their humanity, as it turns out) and their bad memories (in a hilariously dark and twisted episode). Hell, there’s an entire episode where Rick is so desperate to avoid dealing with his emotional baggage, he turns himself into a pickle and has to go on an extended adventure using only his pickle knowledge. It sounds dumb, and that’s because it is. But it is in that dumbness that it finds its intelligence and humor. It can use even the dumbest of jokes to find emotional catharsis, and that is in and of itself brilliant writing. And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that the backdrop to all of this is a subplot about the effects of divorce on a small family, because that’s what this show is about. It’s about what matters in the grand scheme of things, when we are but one person in one house on one planet in one galaxy of one universe of one multiverse. Life’s meaning comes from that which we bestow upon it, and how much effort we put into love, sacrifice, kindness, and empathy. We can try to hide from it in nihilism all we want, but even if that nihilism makes us the smartest being to ever live, it’s all for naught if we can’t balance ourselves emotionally. We need to allow ourselves to enjoy the little things, like Rick and Morty as they continuously turn President Obama (or an Obama stand-in) into the Elmer Fudd to their Bugs Bunny. Because otherwise, we find ourselves in “The Whirly Dirly Conspiracy,” forgetting the consequences to our actions and accidentally killing our sisters. This is a great show, with great animation and great writing, and I’m incredibly ecstatic that we have a new season to enjoy.
Best Episode: “The Ricklantis Mixup” – I am well aware I selected “The Rickshank Rickdemption” on my list of the Best Episodes of the Year, but if you really want a grasp of what this show is like and about, you should probably watch “The Ricklantis Mixup.” While the episode sets itself up to be about an adventure between our Rick and Morty travelling to Atlantis (an adventure they call one of their best), the actual crux of the episode focuses on the rebuilding of the Council of Ricks, a Citadel built of only Ricks and Mortys from alternate universes, and how they all interact. And while each story we learn here is a different spoof, barely fitting together as a whole other than to satirically take down the best and worst of our society. There’s a Stand By Me/Harry Potter plot where a group of young Mortys travel to a portal to have their wishes granted (one sacrifices himself to provide a better life for his friends, and we learn that the portal is, in fact, meaningless). There’s a spoof of Falling Down featuring a Rick who has been mistreated in his factory life who tries to hold the factory hostage, satirizing the way that corporations selling happiness to customers mistreat their employees and suck the life out of them. There’s a spoof of Training Day, in which a rookie Rick trains with a hardened Morty to become Citadel police, which ends up exploring race relations in poverty-stricken areas (the Morty cop has become racist against his own kind as he finds himself hardened by the job). And then there’s the political satire featuring a joke of a Morty candidate (known as the “Morty Party,” the Citadel-equivalent of the Green Party) who becomes popular after a series of great speeches centers him as the frontrunner of the race. When a disgruntled campaign manager ends up attempting to assassinate him, he wins, only to reveal the entire operation was a false flag to give power to the Evil Morty from Season One. You may be reading all of this and thinking “This sounds incredibly dumb.” And it is. However, it is through that idiocy that the entire show manages to transcend normal animation and dig towards something deeper. It is the perfect microcosm of everything that makes this show great.
4. American Vandal
Look, from the first trailer, I was hooked on American Vandal. A spoof of the true crime genre centered around high schoolers drawing dicks on everything? Of course I’m in, that sounds great. However, what I wasn’t expecting after watching those first few trailers was how truly astounding this show would become. All at once, it is a brilliant piece of satire, a takedown of a very strange genre, a critique of our current judicial system, and a high school comedy. I guess I shouldn’t have doubted Dan Lagana, the man who brought us the decade’s most underrated program, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, because the eventual result was a timely, history-making masterpiece. Because while the show centers around a silly high school prank, it later becomes a smart, sophisticated (well, somewhat sophisticated) takedown of teen culture, societal pressures, and the actual amount of good that these types of shows actually do. The premise is simple: like Adnand Syed and Steven Avery before him, Jimmy Tatro’s Dylan Maxwell is the perfect suspect for the crime. He’s a pothead, he’s kind of dumb, and he loves drawing dicks. However, as student news anchors Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund (Tyler Alvarez and Griffin Gluck, each a breakout star in their own right) learn, there’s more to the case than meets the eye. As you see them figuring out the case and learning new facts – the teacher in question has a secret dark side (like certain special prosecutors), the lead witness is untrustworthy (here because he claims he fooled around with the prettiest girl in school, despite being a nerd), and of course, the infamous “ball hair” argument (that Dylan was famous for adding hairs to his dick drawings, something lacking in the parking lot) – we suddenly realize that we aren’t just watching a mystery unfurl, we’re invested. We actually want to know the answers to these questions, and are coming up with theories ourselves. And even if you are the sole person who doesn’t find themselves invested in the case, you can find yourselves caught up in the satire of it all. Not only does the show both take itself seriously and not at all (when Peter tells Dylan’s lawyer that he’s the documentarian, the lawyer takes a pause before saying “Why? Don’t.”), but it delivers a pitch perfect look at the way a high school operates. We are past the days of jocks and nerds and the hierarchy in high schools – the reality now is that while cliques still form and have issues, they interact on a normal basis. And that’s what we see here – we see the jocks sitting with and cracking jokes with the overachieving activist (who, by the way, is played by a Disney-star shattering G. Hannelius). We see the world’s most accurate foreign exchange student in Ming Zhang. We see the way that mostly everyone puts up with, but kind of hates the blatant potheads. And in the greatest spoof of all, we see Mr. Kraz, who satirizes the teacher who thinks he’s cool so perfectly, it’s almost uncomfortable to watch. However, the heart of the show arrives at the end, when the students rise up and confront Peter, and true crime documentaries as a whole. While the filmmakers set out with good intentions, by painting with a broad brush and revealing the personal information of even-tangentially connected subjects, it actually does more harm than good. In the end, Dylan seems doomed to falling into the lot in life that his teachers, his family, and the documentary have set in place for him, and the show is all the stronger for it. I love this show; I love its message, I love its execution, and I love its humor. You should really just take my word for it, but in case my judgment isn’t enough, let me put it this way: if a show about drawing dicks on cars is good enough to make the Top Ten list of publications as lowly as The AV Club and as artsy as NPR, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, then we are dealing with something special here. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.
Best Episode: “Nailed” – “Nailed” is the episode where you found yourself sucked into the mystery of it all. The episode follows Sam and Peter’s quest to prove that Ms. Shapiro isn’t all she’s cracked up to be. In a spoof of investigative reporting pieces that take down beloved pillars of the community, the duo investigates beloved Spanish teacher Ms. Shapiro, who had a very agitative relationship with Dylan. As the episode unfurls, we watch as Shapiro’s web of lies, deceit, and emotional abuse of students are unveiled. The episode has a lot to say about the power dynamic between teachers and students, and how one teacher’s biases, preconceptions, and lies can change the life of students for the rest of eternity, but let’s not forget: this is a comedy first. That means our whistleblower is the previously mentioned Mr. Kraz. Ryan O’Flanagan is wonderful as the teacher who thinks the students love him because he’s “one of them,” and watching him say increasingly creepy things about students, teachers, and life in general is as hilarious as it is painful. It’s hard to pick a best episode of this show, as the entire tapestry plays out in such an intertwined manner they all blend together into one several-part movie. However, I think “Nailed” demonstrates the tying together of the satire the show does well and the idiotic humor that it hides behind, and it’s my pick for the show’s best episode.
3. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia
Last year, when writing about it, I referenced the fact that it was impressive how good a show It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia could be eleven years into its run, even if it wasn’t truly great. It seems they set out to prove me wrong in 2017, because what they accomplished was otherworldly in its remarkability, and they accomplished it in their twelfth season. I’m honestly in shock that they managed to one up themselves like this. It’s a testament to how good their writing and their acting is. I think the reason that this season is so successful is because it balances itself between classic episodes of the show, episodes involving form experimentation, and episodes that completely changed what audiences knew about the show’s setup. In the first camp, we had episodes that did exactly what audiences wanted: they showed a group of people behaving badly, with our favorite characters doing exactly what we want them (or don’t want them) to do. This can be seen in “The Gang Goes to a Water Park,” which involved all of our favorite things: Dennis being a manipulative sociopath, Mac being trapped in a slide and worrying (or being excited about?) getting his guts sucked out by a pool tube in the ass, and Frank going down a dry slide and shredding his back to ribbons; or “PTSDee,” which features Dennis becoming obsessed with proving he’s a desirable stripper and winning “The War On Women,” and Dee proving that she can be as sociopathic as the boys (what she does to a male stripper who calls her his “rock bottom” is the most heinous thing I’ve ever seen and also the hardest I’ve ever laughed at this show). The second type of episodes are the ones where the show challenges its usual format by experimenting with form and genre, like “Old Lady House,” which serves as a satirical takedown of the phoniness of laugh-track sticoms, or “Making Dennis Reynolds a Murderer,” a funny (albeit not as intelligent as American Vandal) send-up of the true crime genre. However, what makes this season memorable are the episodes that change everything, the ones that take the show’s smartest recurring jokes and end them once and for all, removing any semblance of a crutch out from under the writers and actors and forcing them to prove that they can adapt. This was the season that saw the perennially closeted homophobe Mac finally come to terms with his sexuality and come out of the closet, the season where technical “lead” Dennis (well, as much of a lead as Ted Danson was on Cheers, anyway) left the show, presumably forever, and the season where Charlie Kelly finally managed to woo his love interest, The Waitress, and get her into bed. These are jokes that have been around since the pilot, and seeing them end feels incredibly wrong. And yet, for a show where the main characters will never grow up, watching the show itself do so feels so right. Glenn Howerton, Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, Kaitlin Olson, and Danny DeVito will never allow this show to grow stale, whether they choose to return to the formula or shake things up. And it allows It’s Always Sunny, twelve years into its historic run as “Seinfeld on crack,” to be one of the best shows on television.
Best Episode: “The Gang Turns Black” – When “The Gang Turns Black” aired on January 4th, 2017, I declared it an early contender for best episode of the year. As you saw last week, that didn’t quite happen (although it went Top Five). However, it still stood out as a remarkable episode of television, and one that proved that proved that the writers and actors still have it in them this many years later. I don’t know which one of the show’s twisted writers thought it would be a funny idea to have the show’s white privileged, liberal guilted, All Lives Mattering sociopaths at the heart of this show turn into African-Americans, and I don’t know who thought it would be an equally great idea to perform that concept as a musical, but it somehow all works. The Quantum Leap references, the quest to figure out the “rules” of turning into an African-American (is this a metaphor for the “rules of life” that African-Americans must live with, or is this just a dumb joke that the writers threw in? It really could go either way with this bunch), the patter-song by innocent waif Charlie, and Danny DeVito’s energetic dancing as he bellows out his desire to say the N-word, the entire episode feels like a series of dark and twisted jokes that can bring us all together. In the end, when poor Charlie is gunned down in the street, it feels shocking, horrifying, hilarious, realistic, and kind of cathartic – and it is in that moment that the episode has done its job. It’s used offense as the best defense, and that is the sign of an ingenious show, and one of the best on TV.
Season four was the year of BoJack Horseman where I officially declared it my favorite show of all time (tied with Frasier, of course). I think that’s mainly because of what this season represents: while season one was about admission (admitting that you’ve made mistakes and you have depression), season two was about atonement (beginning the process of making amends for your actions), and season three is about acceptance (understanding that there’s only so much you can do to fix the past, and you have to focus on bettering yourself for the future), season four left all of that behind to focus on moving forward, the act of actually progressing as a human being. Yes, BoJack is “still broken,” and he understands he can’t fix his mistakes with the people he’s wronged beyond repair, but by knowing all this, he can actually move forward with his life. He can work to forgive (to some degree) the pain that his equally-broken mother put him through, and he can try to build a healthy relationship with his newly-discovered relative Hollyhock Manheim-Mannheim-Guerrero-Robinson-Zilberschlag-Hsung-Fonzerelli-McQuack (still the greatest TV name of all time), as voiced by brilliant newcomer Aparna Nancherla. Season four of BoJack’s journey feels different than the rest, because unlike seasons one and two, which often made you watch the trauma through your fingers, or season three, which was supposed to make you watch through your fingers but never felt as brutal as the previous, this one actually left you feeling ok inside. Oh, there’s still some sh*t to deal with: it’s painful to watch Princess Carolyn’s journey as she realizes she will never be a mother, an episode showing the broken life of a woman through her dementia-ridden memories is groundbreakingly traumatic, and an episode narrated by BoJack’s depression-ridden psyche is perhaps the most horrifically accurate portrayals of depression ever shown in media. However, as a whole, the season feels…kind of warm. With all of their grievances out in the open, the characters are beginning to make healthier choices. Friendships are mended, and bonds are reforged. Todd is finally happy now that he’s set some guidelines for BoJack and embraced his own asexuality, Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter finally begin to understand their own frustrations with their rapidly sinking marriage, and BoJack finally has a shot at a healthy familial relationship. Add to this journey a remarkable voice cast, including the usual leads Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, and Paul F. Tompkins, a next-level Wendie Malick, a hilarious Zach Braff, a wonderfully put-upon Andre Braugher, a heartbreaking Jane Krakowski, a shockingly evil Matthew Broderick, and an entirely, hilariously game Jessica Biel, playing an insane B-list version of herself (watching her transform into a cannibal who devours Zach Braff is all I want in life), and a vast array of pop culture jokes so in-the-loop that I’m not sure how many the average viewer understands, and you have one of the greatest shows of the year, and of all time, even if season four is a few shades lower than its predecessors.
Best Episode: “Time’s Arrow” – While season three’s turned out to be less impressive than “Fish Out of Water” (which, to be fair, was hard to beat), the eleventh episode of BoJack is always the one to watch out for. Like Game of Thrones, it tends to change the course of the entire show with a genre-bending, depression-inducing twist that leaves the characters and the viewers irrevocably haunted. Season four is no different, as “Time’s Arrow” changes the game for what animation can and should be. Set inside the mind of BoJack’s abusive mother, we follow her journey from childhood to the present day. The catch is that Beatrice is suffering from dementia, meaning the memories are muddled, distorted, and out of order. However, we are given just enough to see the kind of life she had. We see her living in constant fear of a stern disciplinarian father who has no qualms with lobotomizing family members (as he did to Beatrice’s mother, in order to “help women get control of their pesky emotions”). We see how she is easily wooed by Butterscotch, a handsome writer whom we watch slowly get broken down by the system until he becomes the racist square we meet in season one. We watch as the corrosion of both their lives ends up setting in motion the events that would lead not only to season four, but the entire show itself. It’s a shocking, sobering episode, and one that lends empathy to an embittered character with whom we previously had none. In the end, BoJack sits with his mother and comforts her for what may be the very last time, and it feels like a triumphant moment for both of them. Neither of them wanted to be where they are now, but deep down they do have a little love left for each other, no matter what they’ve said and done. And in his decision to comfort the woman who had wronged him for so many years, we learn that BoJack himself has grown to be a (somewhat) better person. To quote the show’s closing theme song, it is in this moment where he becomes “more man than a horse” (or vice-versa, depending on which one the good one is). This is classic television at its finest.
1. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is no longer the show I fell in love with way back in season one. I truly mean that as a good thing. While it may be true that this show started out as a musical satire of romantic comedies, demonstrated by do-it-yourself musical numbers about love, depression, and societal norms, what creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna have transformed this show into is something else entirely. It is no longer a one-track show focused on one relationship. It is now a full-blown exploration into the relationships between people, the way people treat others, societal, emotional, and personal expectations, and the effects that all of these things can have on a person’s psyche. It’s really shocking how quickly they’ve paced this show’s character growth – while most shows would still be exploring Rebecca’s attempts to have a relationship with Josh during the third season (think about how long it took audiences to get Jim and Pam or Ross and Rachel together), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has already moved past that. These two have gotten together, broken up, and gotten back together before we were halfway through season two, at the beginning of 2017. However, this constant flux of their relationship, and especially the rapid pace with which everything was executed, begged the question, “What are they building towards if not the romantic relationship?” Well, seasons two and three answered that question, and it wasn’t pretty. As season two establishes a relationship to properly transform Rebecca into the so-called “crazy ex-girlfriend,” season three really allows the train to derail. Each decision throughout the season’s first six episodes is a carefully mapped journey laying all of the cards on the table: the reveal of everything the audience knows (and some we don’t) to the characters; the true depths to which Rebecca can sink when left unchecked, including stalking, kidnapping, and, to quote imaginary Josh Groban, “banging your ex-boyfriend’s dad;” and moving back home with your mother. However, even that’s not rock-bottom, as Rebecca’s mother discovers when snooping on her daughter and discovering that she’s preparing to end it all. The title “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is all fun and games until you remember that we are playing with a woman’s life here. The ending of “I Never Want To See Josh Again.” is the type of trainwreck that only BoJack and You’re the Worst have nailed before, the kind where you watch through your fingers as characters you truly love make choices that truly concern you. Luckily, Rebecca survives, and is re-diagnosed with BPD, which both serves as a definitive answer for a character who has been an enigma to us and a new angle for the show to explore. Reaching this point in the series feels like reaching the X on a treasure map, but I want to focus more on the journey. While the descriptions I’ve given about the show up to this point makes it sound like some serious, depressing drama, I want to assure you that it’s not. In fact, it’s the most wonderfully warm show on television. I think the reason for this is because no matter how selfish, childish, or flawed our heroes get, each and every member of this ensemble is good-hearted. Look at the way Rebecca and Paula will do anything for their friends, or how Darryl started out with an antagonistic relationship towards coworker Maya only to become best friends with her. Hell, the show has set up two “villains” that have become the most popular, lovable characters in the cast: Valencia and Nathaniel. The scene where season one’s “bitchy current girlfriend” Valencia breaks down in tears at the thought of her best friend’s death – something she has avoided throughout the episode – is heartbreaking stuff, and watching Nathaniel’s journey into the show’s personal Snape has been a joy to watch. Oh, and have I mentioned that the musical numbers on this show (because you bet your ASS that this is a musical!) are all shockingly wonderful. There’s a reason I buy each and every album that this show puts out, and it’s because a bunch of highly talented people are writing hilarious genre, style, and thematic spoofs to break down a variety of ideas about love, sex, gender, and life. There’s spoofs of Bruno Mars, Soul Train, Frankie Valli, The Pointer Sisters, Gene Kelly, Les Misérables, and ABBA, and include such wonderful subjects as “Let’s Generalize About Men,” “Let’s Have Intercourse,” “Tell Me I’m Ok (Patrick),” Maybe She’s Not Such a Heinous Bitch After All,” “Remember That We Suffered,” and the now-iconic “First Penis I Saw.” Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a lot of things: it’s the funniest show of the year, it’s the saddest show of the year, and it’s the warmest show of the year. All in all, as we’ve seen Bloom and McKenna’s vision become clear to us, I think it’s safe to say that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the best show of 2017.
Best Episode: “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Is Crazy.” – I wrote about this episode already, for the Best TV Episodes list last week. And truth be told, I don’t want to have to pick a “best episode” for this show – they are all my children. However, if I had to pick one, it would have to be “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Is Crazy.” Not because it brought me the most joy – that would probably be “When Do I Get To Spend Time With Josh?” “Josh Is the Man of My Dreams, Right? or “To Josh, With Love.” Nor does it have the best music – there are really only one and a half songs, and the one song is a bit too depressing for me to listen to endlessly like “The Sexy Getting Ready Song.” However, it is the episode that changed the course of the show. It’s the episode where Rebecca finally lost control of her depression and took it out on her friends in a painful, powerhouse scene. Watching Rebecca take advantage of her friends’ weakness to emotionally break them as a tactic to push them away was almost unbearable to watch, and yet Bloom’s acting is so good it’s hard to look away. And while it seems funny in theory to imagine Rebecca as Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (and her running around in a shrub costume is a great visual), the fact that we know the fate of every Alex Forrest in the history of film has us holding our breath the entire time. And just when you think there’s hope – Greg’s calling! A cameo from Santino Fontana? – we have the rug pulled out from us, as it turns out to be a butt dial but the very happy and very taken only person to ever truly understand her. And then that rug is thrown in the fire, as Rebecca hides her guilt, grief and shame in a one-night stand with Greg’s father. It is a painful episode to watch, one that’s much more sad than it is funny, but it’s the episode that proves how much this show wants to reset the bar, and demonstrates exactly why I have picked it as the best show of 2017.
And this wraps up my in-depth look at the best television shows of the year. I hope you’ll enjoy, and after two great years of TV, I hope 2018 continues the streak! Next week we move onto movies, which means…oh g*ddammit. No no no. Don’t make me do this again. WHY?!? Anyway, happy watching, you guys.