Andi MackAt Home with Amy SedarisBlood DriveEpisodesGreenleafHarlotsIncorporatedOdd Mom OutQueen SugarShannaraThe ArrangementThe Bold TypeThe Girlfriend ExperienceThe RoyalsThe White Princess Dec 18, 2017 Shilo Adams
Television has two primary functions – escapism and empowerment. Escapist television is meant to spirit you away from your crappy job, lonely love life, or otherwise lack of fulfillment and give you a 30- or 60-minute respite from the darkness. Empowerment television, meanwhile, is meant to engage with the viewer regarding social/political issues, reflecting what society was, is, and could be, while stimulating critical thinking and stirring social change. Occasionally they’ll cross-pollinate or you’ll find something that subsists in a category all its own, but for the most part, television is concerned with shielding you from the bad stuff and forcing you to face it head-on. This was a quality that served those of us who managed to survive 2017 quite well, as each type of television was a necessary tool upon which to draw; there were days where you don’t want to think about the world (sometimes literally) being on fire around you and there were days where the motivation to resist burned brightly enough to inspire action.
So while there might be (almost literally) a million shows on a million different platforms, each one that you dedicated your time to in 2017 had to serve some type of positive purpose, provide the type of emotional or intellectual support necessary to make it through the day. A bloated television industry makes each series you choose to invest your time in all the more important, which contextualizes each end-year TV list in a way unlike past years. The 25 shows that I culled my hours and hours (and hours) of TV viewing are those that 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. These 25 shows are the 25 shows that defined my year and while I would’ve loved to have watched more shows before making this list, or have a list that includes everything I watched that contributed something positive to my life, this crop is just a bit above everything else.
25. The Girlfriend Experience (Starz)
The second season of Starz anthology The Girlfriend Experience experimented with form by going from a show with a singular narrative to one with two distinct narratives that never touch. Season two has been like two mini-seasons tied together vaguely thematically, which is an impressive bit of ambition genetically designed to turn you off of exactly half of the show’s 14 episodes. Whereas the show’s “Erica & Anna” storyline, centering on the twisted power dynamics between an escort and a woman working at a prominent Republican Super PAC, has at times verged on shallow self-parody and stereotypical pay cable softcore, the “Bria” storyline is what keeps it on my personal top 25 for a second year. Fronted by a fearless performance from Carmen Ejogo (Selma), “Bria” eschews the cold gray tones of season one for vivid, saturated coloring and a slow-burning Hitchcock-inspired tale of control, female agency, and obsession. Watching Bria attempt to hold on to the life she had before going into witness protection, rejecting the simpler existence provided for her while doing psychological battle with U.S. Marshal Ian, has been some of the most enthralling TV of the year and thus deserving of a spot in my top 25.
24. Incorporated (Syfy)
Syfy dystopian drama Incorporated told the story of a world where powerful multinational corporations have become de facto governments and control access to food, medicine, and information. Though the show was cancelled early in 2017, it’s only looked more prescient as this year has gone on, mostly recently with the vote to repeal net neutrality and the GOP’s proposed tax bill that prioritized corporations over American citizens. But the intelligence and thoughtfulness with which Incorporated examined a hellscape that isn’t exactly that far-fetched (a’la The Handmaid’s Tale) wasn’t the only positive of dearly departed Incorporated, which featured (arguably) the best special effects in the history of Syfy and an intriguing wrinkle in the “damsel-in-distress” narrative archetype that did right by its female characters. It might not have told its story in the quickest or flashiest way, but the deft manner in which Incorporated infused science fiction with elements of an espionage thriller and just how much smarter it was than it needed to be made it one of the largest losses the TV industry took in 2017.
23. The Shannara Chronicles (Spike)
After a nearly two-year hiatus and a jump to another network, the second season of fantasy drama The Shannara Chronicles finally made its debut in fall 2017 and what was immediately noticeable was its stronger sense of purpose. The first season of the show, which aired on MTV in early 2016, did a fine job of establishing relationships and laying out the sprawling world the show got to play around in, but occasionally it felt as if that world was almost too big for the type of story it wanted to tell. Season two, though, found The Shannara Chronicles picking the pace up just a bit while being unafraid to dive into the inner workings of their unlikely group of heroes. Humanizing a show that could’ve easily been swallowed whole by its plot amped up the stakes later in the season and made the themes for the season, of accepting one’s true self and in being unafraid of letting go of past hurt, resonate that much more. Still as beautiful to look at as ever, Shannara was able to match its heart to its budget and produced an impressive season to boot.
22. The Royals (E!)
I struggled with whether I should put E! soap The Royals on my year-end list. On the one hand, it’s one of the most genuinely enjoyable shows that I watch, as adept at reveling in its catty silliness as it is in examining the relationships of a family in an unusual situation; on the other, series creator Mark Schwahn, the man responsible for writing 2/3 of the episodes through the show’s first three seasons, has been embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal that has thus far resulted in his suspension from The Royals. Am I glorifying this man who, by all accounts, is a monster by drawing positive attention to something that bears his significant creative footprint? Is it possible that rewatching season three would make me like it less considering what I know about him now? After wrestling with it until (almost literally) the last minute, I decided to include the show as a way to acknowledge the enjoyment that I drew from it and the fact that the cast and behind the scenes creatives are just as, if not more, responsible for the quality of The Royals as Mark Schwahn. For as much as Mark Schwahn has written and directed on The Royals, the show would not be what it is without the likes of Elizabeth Hurley, William Moseley, Alexandra Park, Tom Austen, and Jake Maskall, as well as those responsible for its sterling soundtrack, lavish costuming, or ornate set design, among many other positives the show possesses.
21. The White Princess (Starz)
Coming almost four years after predecessor The White Queen, lush, expensive Starz miniseries The White Princess used the conclusion of England’s War of the Roses as a jumping off point for a devastating commentary on how despite how aware we are of the impact our parents have had on us, it can be tough to break toxic patterns which they’ve ingrained in our psyches. Initially set to chronicle the rift between Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York and how their marriage was solely meant to bring peace to England, The White Princess quickly (and cleverly) morphed into something that chronicled the King and Queen finding more common ground than they expected and attempting to protect their direct line by any means necessary. With storylines centered on a case of mistaken identity and murders meant to keep secrets from getting out, The White Princess is very much a soap, but it’s a soap that tackles the topics of duty and the cyclical nature of power utilizing a primarily female ensemble, making it rewarding in unexpected ways.
20. Queen Sugar (OWN)
The second season of OWN pastoral family drama Queen Sugar was similarly elegant, melancholy, and dripping in emotion as its predecessor, anchored by a gorgeous sense of place, a thoughtful look into an industry that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in scripted television, and a career performance from Dawn-Lyen Gardner. It’s a show all about redemption and trying to balance honoring your roots with personal and professional evolution, about how the bonds of family become frayed when business is added into the equation. However, Queen Sugar season two had some stumbles that booted it down my top 25 this year; not only did the show become surprisingly judgmental about recovering addict Darla (Bianca Lawson), seemingly reveling in putting her through the wringer and having characters take turns talking down to her, it gave Nova an out-of-character romance that took up quite a bit of narrative space and foregrounded Ralph Angel’s unpleasant (and often combative) inferiority complex. But any season with 2A’s blistering conflict over the rightful owner of the family sugarcane farm, Micah’s racially-charge arrest, and Charley’s continually impressive arc as a revolutionary in the cane industry is more than welcome on my top 25.
19. Greenleaf (OWN)
Fellow OWN drama Greenleaf, meanwhile, leaned into its soapiness to great effect during its recently completed second season, making the type of bold storytelling decisions and unspooling the brand of gasp-worthy twists that made season one such a delight. Of course, everything with Greenleaf has always been grounded in some type of narrative authenticity (e.g. Charity’s loneliness and desire to fulfill her dreams, Jacob’s attempts at proving himself to the Bishop and Lady Mae, etc.), and I’m still unsure as to whether killing off walking embodiment of Greenleaf family pain Mac was the best idea so early in the series run, but this is a show whose bravery, particularly its surprisingly adept exploration of homosexuality in the black church, and conviction are to be appreciated. Yet there was no arc that better exemplified Greenleaf‘s bread-and-butter of buried family secrets coming back to haunt the living than the infidelity revelation against the Bishop, a slow burn of a storyline that metastasized the tension with Lady Mae and allowed Lynn Whitfield and Keith David the space to do their series best work. Greenleaf might be a more theatrical show than Queen Sugar, existing in a slightly more heightened reality and willing to let things get a little nuts, but it was the more fun show to watch this year and thus gains the advantage on my top 25.
18. Episodes (Showtime)
Cheeky Showtime showbiz satire Episodes went out on its own terms in 2017 with a seven-episode final season that highlighted that, try as they might, Sean and Beverly will never not have Matt in their orbit. Touching on the idea of channeling one’s pain through creativity and producing more authentic art in the process, season five featured more of the same screwball plotting and rat-a-tat dialogue that the series only became more comfortable with during its underrated run. Episodes is a show with a very distinct rhythm and manages to use its unique voice for sly commentary on the Hollywood nonsense necessary for creatives to deal with if they want to make a career. Most interestingly, season five of Episodes was arguably the season most willing to embrace emotion, whether it be through Matt losing his father, Carol coming at a crossroads in her personal and professional lives, or the moving (and clever) creative breakthrough that defined the finale; granted, they always know how to undercut it just enough to keep from being maudlin, but this season of Episodes knew of its mortality and lovingly embraced its fate.
17. The Arrangement (E!)
E! solidified itself as a place for quality scripted content with The Arrangement, which chronicles aspiring actress Megan auditioning for a big-budget blockbuster and walking away with both the role and leading man Kyle. When Kyle asks her to enter into a contracted relationship with him, Megan weighs what she wants out of both her life and career and whether entering into the public sphere as someone’s significant other and the subsequent avalanche of attention would be worth the chance to get to know Kyle more. Playing like a thinly-veiled commentary/expose on Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’s ill-fated marriage with its Scientology-like self-help organization exerting influence on the A-lister, The Arrangement pulls back the curtain on the Hollywood machine and provides an intelligent examination of not only the cost of celebrity but the influence that nefarious parties can have on vulnerable public figures. The show’s darker, voyeuristic feel and the unease it taps into by exploring the control of the Institute of the Higher Mind give it a resigned cynicism that feels especially fresh on a network that fetishizes celebrity partnerships. Along with the agency that The Arrangement gives Christine, particularly in the back half of the season with IHM attempting to wear down her defenses, it’s this perspective that makes the show’s upcoming second season something to look out for.
16. Odd Mom Out (Bravo)
Bravo comedy Odd Mom Out produced arguably its best season of smart ass satire directed at the 1% in 2017. As energetic and sarcastic as ever, with the catharsis turned up just a notch considering today’s political environment, the series gleefully smirked its way through the horrors of the art world, suburban Thanksgiving, and jury duty, juxtaposing surreal sight gigs and musical numbers against a Brooke Von Weber grappling with becoming the breadwinner in her home, a Candace Von Weber trying to get close to her pre-teen granddaughter, and a Lex Von Weber searching for purpose following the financial scandal. With two excursions out of the bounds of the Upper East Side and side characters with more to do, season three of Odd Mom Out stretched the show’s legs to an admirable degree and played around with the conventions of the parenting comedy, which made its untimely cancellation all the more disappointing. This was a show that was coming into its own and deserved more time to bask in its creative peak, but at the very least Odd Mom Out went out on top of its game.
15. Andi Mack (Disney Channel)
Disney family comedy Andi Mack built on the foundation of social consciousness and mature themes laid by Girl Meets World and used a potentially unwieldy premise, of a middle school girl who finds out that the woman who raised her is actually her grandmother and the person she knows as her rebellious older sister is actually her mother, to create a sweet, sensitive little series. More grounded than you’d think, Andi Mack is a show full of likable people going through significant transition, cleverly using the awkwardness and uncertainty embedded in one’s transformative pre-teen years as means to explore the malleability of identity and ending destructive familial patterns. It never condescends or talks down to its target audience and takes its title character’s complicated emotional journey seriously while maintaining a goofy, immensely charming sense of humor. Though Andi Mack primarily centers on the inseparable friendship between Andi, Buffy, and Cyrus, which is reminiscent of creator Terri Minsky’s former series Lizzie McGuire, the show’s ability to remain palatable to an adult audience made it one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.
14. The Bold Type (Freeform)
Freeform magazine dramedy The Bold Type can best be described as a woke Sex and the City. The story of three young women working at a magazine in New York City, the series trafficked in the same beautiful fashion, romantic entanglements, and (somewhat) unrealistic finances as its HBO predecessor, all the while tackling topics like immigration, race, sexual assault, and feminism. Of course, The Bold Type did remain a fun, frothy little number that played like the second cousin of TV Land’s Younger, but that added narrative depth, as well as a touching (and important) romantic storyline between two queer women of color, made it stand out that much more this summer. With the witty banter and solid emotional support found within the relationship between the three leads, whose dynamic quickly became the series cornerstone, and a female boss who shunned Miranda Priestly-style nastiness for genuine care and concern, The Bold Type managed to keep its atmosphere and rhythms light while deliberately subverting the expectations of its genre and of female figures in power. All this culminated in arguably one of the most moving finales of the year and easily one of ABC Family/Freeform’s best series of all time.
13. Blood Drive (Syfy)
Blood Drive is a TV series about a cross-country race across a post-apocalyptic United States using cars fueled by human blood. Honestly, that could be entire entry for Syfy’s dearly departed grindhouse thriller and it’d more than explain why it was not only in my top 25 but knocking on the door of top 10. But to expand, Blood Drive was an in-your-face, blood-soaked sensory overload that had more self-awareness than it was given credit for and more fun than any other show on television this year. In between dumping buckets of blood on you and dipping its toe into spaghetti westerns, kung fu movies, and David Cronenberg mindfucks, Blood Drive served as an outsized political commentary and propulsive revenge tale wrapped up in a wry sense of humor that made it that much more watchable. Featuring a truly genius performance from Colin Cunningham (Falling Skies) as reptilian puppet master Julian Slink, the verbose dandy of a race manager who was equal parts Dr. Frank-n-Furter and Willy Wonka, Blood Drive managed to pull the ultimate okey doke after 12 episodes of controlled chaos by using its series finale to show just how capable it was of producing emotion and how adept it was at getting you to invest in the characters involved in this madness. It was unlike any show on television and television is a decidedly worse off without a show like Blood Drive on the air.
12. Harlots (Hulu)
Hulu co-production Harlots is what happens if the sensibilities of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette were applied to a story about the sex industry in Victorian London. Rather than adhering to the inherent stuffiness and syrupy slow plotting of period dramas, Harlots immediately emerges from its cocoon as a vibrant, mischievous document of the survival instinct and how the commodification of sex has only superficially changed over these past couple centuries. With distinct, expensive visuals that make it look like no other period drama out there and an almost entirely female ensemble that is impressively deep, this is a show that turns conventions of storytelling about the sex industry on its head, focusing more on the rivalry between blue-collar madam Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and high society brothel owner Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) than on the subjugation of female sex workers to male proprietors. An often electric watch, the series does a fine enough job of examining the role that sexuality and sex workers played in a sexually repressed society, particularly when it comes to how expendable they were deemed and the hypocrisy of those who prosecuted against them, that its timeliness only grew as the year went on.
11. At Home with Amy Sedaris (truTV)
One of the advantages of the Peak TV era is that it can foster an environment that makes strange little experiments like truTV’s At Home with Amy Sedaris possible. Playing like an Adult Swim-ized riff on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, or Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman for the Martha Stewart set, At Home finds Sedaris playing a fictionalized version of herself hosting a show that lovingly satirizes local hospitality shows. Often asked to act against herself in scenes and having to play both the series anchor and ornamental insanity, Sedaris is as game and delightfully unhinged as ever, while the show’s episodic nature and clearly defined themes keeps its loopiness structured and coherent and allows it to grow even bolder the longer the season goes. With that unpredictability in how the show interprets each theme and the vast array of guest stars that’ve come into the At Home orbit, this has been an exciting personification of the good that can come from this era of television. Additionally, there were few shows that brought me as much pure joy as At Home with Amy Sedaris did in 2017 and in a year like this where it could be hard to find the light, that made it an indispensable part of my television diet.