Creating a top 10 list in a year that will see over 500 scripted series premiere across broadcast, cable, and streaming platforms is a fool’s errand. Not only is it impossible to watch enough content to give your list any type of weight and scope, television in 2017 was such that there were very few in the way of truly standout shows. This doesn’t mean that 2017 was a bad year for television; quite the opposite, actually, as 2017 was arguably the deepest television year yet thanks to the staggering number of platforms producing quality content and the sheer ambition that Peak TV continues to arouse. It’s that instead of being a top-heavy crop with enough universally agreed upon A+s to fill out a year-end retrospective, 2017 television was filled with a smattering of A+s and a litany of As, A-s, and B+s that don’t have any truly meaningful separation. Once you recognize the shows that were always going to be a part of your top 10, the onus turns to differentiating a dozen shows of equal value that could conceivably fill out the remainder of your list and figuring out how to balance improvement, enjoyment, timeliness, and stickiness when it comes to evaluating the best of the best.
So any top 10 list you see this year, including my own, will be a microcosm of the year in television. They’re going to be inherently flawed considering that nobody can watch everything and after a while, they’re just nitpicking when it comes to ordering. However, the year has been so deep that anybody who watches even a fair amount of television can put together a quality list. And the volume of shows on this year means that each top 10 list can still be idiosyncratic and that even those who watch the same shows can come out with different lists depending on what they value most out of the medium. Though I could make innumerable variations of my top 10 and be okay with it every single time, the 10 shows that I singled out were those that most entertained and informed my year this year; they’re what I turned to when the world was a bit too much to handle and what I used to recharge my will to fight against a disturbing political climate. They were ambitious, extravagant, comforting, and intimate – they made me laugh, cry, and critically think, sometimes within the same scene. Simply put, this was television the way I saw it and experienced it in 2017.
But before you dive into what I consider to be the cream of the 2017 crop, have a look at #s 25-11.
10. Humans (AMC)
AMC sci-fi drama Humans only grew more expansive and complex in its second season, which was a haunting, more nuanced take on questions of humanity, personhood, and the influence of technology than HBO behemoth Westworld. Humans dug even deeper into its consciousness storyline during season two, asking whether something animatronic truly has the capability of experiencing human emotion and what the impact on society would be if sentient machines were introduced. In a world where Sophia the Robot is offering Christmas greetings, Humans felt less like speculative fiction and more like warning shot in 2017, providing a weightier take on a popular science fiction topic structured like a season of Boardwalk Empire. Initially feeling a bit overstuffed and disconnected, season two of Humans snaps into place after a few episodes and becomes something more meaningful with each passing installment. Watching beings experience these first baby steps of humanity, learning how to grapple with betrayal, experience attraction, or conceal vulnerability, is unexpectedly powerful, while the season’s conclusion sets up the upcoming third season to be the furthest reaching and most intense yet.
09. Future Man (Hulu)
Hulu time travel comedy Future Man is a show all about the subversion of expectations. While the series takes the emotional weight of time travel very seriously, and traffics in narrative decisions and characters beats seeped in regret and learning to let go, it piles on hilariously vulgar dick jokes and self-aware pop culture references in order to keep things from being too maudlin. Narratively rambunctious, impressively inventive, and always surprising, Future Man only grows as its first season goes on, showcasing its ability to find emotion in the most unusual of locations and culminating in a covert coming out story that exemplifies the heart that lies beneath the gross-out gags and loud action scenes that it embraces. This is a show that lovingly satirizes its form while never betraying the seriousness of its content and rewards you for the time you invest with subtle character development, a strong female lead, and a story about learning to be the hero that you always were.
08. Bob’s Burgers (FOX)
In order to survive the terrible world in which we live, everybody needs a show they turn to for comfort. For me this year, that was FOX’s delightfully weird Bob’s Burgers, a show whose boundless optimism and unquestioning acceptance of the strange never failed to make me smile. One of the sturdiest shows on television and showing no signs of slowing down, Bob’s Burgers is a perfect show for the times we live in, as it portrays a family filled to the brim with unconditional love who keeps trying no matter how many times (or how hard) they get knocked down. The resiliency of the Belchers makes the show a sometimes moving, always inspirational watch, while its increasingly beautiful and continually evolving animation that got to really show off during the recent Christmas special, its ability to inject a freshness into the family comedy form unlike anything on television, and its willingness to go to unusual places even eight seasons deep demonstrate a lack of creative complacency that should serve the show well as it barrels toward double digits.
07. Mr. Robot (USA)
Coming into 2017, USA hacker thriller Mr. Robot was a show I would’ve bet wouldn’t have made my year-end top 25. After a promising first season that saw the show generate significant buzz and acclaim, season two was much messier and found itself buried by its own quirks and the pressure to replicate what made the first season so distinct. Freed from the bonds of being a cultural touchstone, Mr. Robot produced its best season in 2017 by scaling back on the twists, streamlining its narrative, and figuring out how to keep the show focused on the internal processes of its main character while expanding its worldview to incorporate an increasingly deep supporting cast. Season three managed to build quite a bit of narrative momentum through chronicling Elliot Alderson’s guilt over the hack that destabilized society, producing easily its most humane collection of episodes while indulging in the visuals (e.g. the fifth episode of the season, show in one thrilling take) that make it such a distinct part of the television universe. As tense, self-assured, and uneasy as ever, this season of Mr. Robot was a timely reminder of the power of social connection and that any show that undergoes a creative slump can come back from the brink.
06. The Magicians (Syfy)
Syfy fantasy drama The Magicians got a little more mature during its sophomore campaign in 2017. Of course, the show maintained its snarky, lively sense of humor throughout and added even more fantastical imagery with the increased focus on Fillory, but there was a newfound weight to its narrative that came from leaning into its allegory of the time post-college when young adults feel overwhelmed at their newfound responsibility. For as giddy and joyful as season one was, this season of The Magicians found the show grappling with what happens when you’re forced to grow up before you’re ready and the state of discontent that comes when the life you always wanted wasn’t what you thought it would be. The series successfully expanded its world through placing Elliott and Margo on the Fillory throne, a move especially clever given their position within the show’s hierarchy, while producing a poignant, deeply sad portrayal of the aftermath of Julia’s sexual assault that was unflinching as it was beautifully acted. Season two of The Magicians might not have been as fizzy and unencumbered as season one, but the world weariness was a good look for a show still in the middle of a growth spell and showed the type of depth of a show that still has a lot to say.
05. Imposters (Bravo)
Bravo found a brand-defining hit this year in dark comedy Imposters, a savvy, sleek tale of a con woman whose past catches up with her when three of her marks team up to take her down. Aided by a nuanced, immensely charismatic breakthrough performance from Inbar Lavi, the show managed to walk quite the tight rope during its freshman campaign, finding the humanity and emotional truth behind someone whose existence thrives on working over other people while never losing sight of the damage that conning can do to those who drop their guard. All the while masterfully juggling several distinct tones, Imposters played with the malleability of truth and identity, that parts of Maddie can be found within these identities she created while being separate enough from her personal truth so as to prevent vulnerability and protect the job. The further the series got into its first season, the more emotionally sophisticated and self-assured its storytelling became, the show’s intriguing sadness and full-hearted romanticism providing an often thrilling examination of the masks we wear to protect ourselves and how you can never really know somebody.
04. Playing House (USA)
For its first two seasons, dearly departed USA comedy Playing House was a warm, lived-in comedy that used the real life friendship of series creators/stars Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham to great effect. The series was the equivalent of a cozy sweater on a chilly fall day, a comfortable, familiar watch whose improv-inspired looseness and idiosyncratic vernacular made it like catching up with your own loved ones after some time away. However, it was the third season that premiered this summer that took the show to the next level; by adding weight to its narrative through a cancer diagnosis inspired by St. Clair’s experiences, the show not only became emotionally richer while (essentially) inverting its premise, it got to lean into the connection between Maggie and Emma while telling a story about personal strength and the power of community. Anyone who’s ever had a best friend stay in their life for an extended period of time can see themselves in the love Emma and Maggie have for each other, knowing what it’s like to have someone see you for who you really are and accepting it without reservation. It’s seeing the manifestation of that love, the fear of losing your platonic life partner and the great care it takes to keep their spirits up, that made season three of Playing House an understated, moving coda to a series that should’ve went on for much longer.
03. Queers (BBC America)
BBC America drama Queers is a stage-y time hop through the past 50 years of the gay rights movement, as eight writers respond to the 50th anniversary of The Sexual Offences Act which partially decriminalized homosexual acts between men in the UK. Told through a series of monologues from characters ranging from a woman married to a closeted man, a small town teenager experiencing life in the big city for the first time, and a soldier recounting an unexpected connection after returning home from war, Queers is as affecting a testament to the gay rights movement as has ever been produced on television. Deeply personal and filled to the brim with gorgeous performances, the series astutely hits on the intricacies of being a member of the gay community while showcasing the breadth of what the gay community has, does, and will look like. Though it might not be visually interesting considering much of the episodes are closeups of the performer, it’s a distinct watch that says a lot about the progress we’ve made and just how much farther we have to go.
02. Channel Zero: No-End House (Syfy)
With its trippy, claustrophobic premise, unnerving sense of dread, and evocative visuals, the second season of Syfy anthology Channel Zero, subtitled No-End House, was a structurally daring, unsuspectingly powerful take on grief and the power one can derive from moving on. The story of two best friends who enter into a fabled house with a series of disturbing rooms, only to find themselves stuck in the alternate reality of the last room, No-End House was as close to art as television got in 2017, using breathtaking water imagery, a clever take on the concept of memory, and active, thoughtful direction to create six episodes of horror with purpose. While Channel Zero retained its visceral scariness in season two, the horror not only came more from psychological terror than empty gore or jump scares, it backed up (and grounded) by the emotion the show trafficked in. With No-End House, Channel Zero showcased once and for all that it’s the scariest, most ambitious horror show on television and that it’s the horror show that actually has something to say.
01. Man Seeking Woman (FXX)
Visually inventive and delightfully absurdist, chronically underappreciated FXX comedy Man Seeking Woman is a show that grew every year it was on the air, culminating in a good-hearted third season that was as narratively rewarding as it was wholly entertaining. After spending its first two years chronicling underachieving 20-something Josh Greenberg’s (Jay Baruchel) search for love after breaking up with his long-term girlfriend, Man Seeking Woman made a tweak to its storytelling by telling the story of a committed relationship during its third season. Not only did this freshen up a show that could’ve felt redundant without any traction made in Josh’s love life, it opened the Man Seeking Woman world up, particularly when it comes to showcasing different character perspectives, in ways that felt earned and allowed the show to embrace warmer, fuzzier takes on love in season three. Still as uproariously funny as ever thanks to its surreal penchant for turning figurative issues literal, with a full-hearted embrace of serialization that does its narrative good, Man Seeking Woman was able to tread new ground in its introspective third season and prove that shows about love don’t have to be navel gaze-y bores or havens for nasty people to behave badly. Sometimes it’s enough to watch two good people deal with (and overcome) their insecurities and conquer the demons that held them back from finding true happiness.
Shilo Adams is a contributor to KSiteTV who has written for the likes of TVOvermind, ScreenFad, and TVHackr. You can e-mail him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter @sda0918, or contact him on Curious Cat @sda0918.