Everything I wrote last year about not having enough time to watch everything – the rapid expansion of “Peak TV” – got even worse in 2017. I have a tie on this list AND I’m capping my honorable mentions at 10, and that doesn’t even cover everything I did manage to watch. Literally dozens of shows started this year that I wish I could have watched, but could only have done if I spent every waking hour watching that and nothing else. So here are my 10 best series that I actually saw through to the end and blew me away. While my tie for first place, as well as my second-place show are secure, any show in 3-10 could have moved its way up or down.
10. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
Still the best “traditional” network comedy, with an impeccable ensemble that can be split apart as necessary. And as half-hour programs continue to shift to a more melancholy and challenging place (to quote a classic, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that”), no show on TV provides more laughs and bigger laughs than the squad of the 99th Precinct.
Standout episodes: “Hostage Situation,” “Bureau,” “Coral Palms, Part 2”
9. Fleabag (Amazon)
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s astonishing adaptation of her one-woman show could have been vulgar for vulgarity’s sake, but Fleabag is far too warm and conflicted to let the darkness and crudeness overshadow the big-hearted, guilt-stricken mess at its core.
Standout episodes: “Episode 1,” “Episode 4,” “Episode 5”
8. The Good Place (NBC)
An extremely high-concept comedy from MVP Michael Schur (Parks and Rec, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) that tackles the afterlife, but in a way no one in pop culture has pictured it yet. Side-stepping most religious issues, The Good Place is much more about philosophy and whether we are fated to be good or bad people, or if we can actually change. And does being one or the other limit how interesting a person can be? These are heady questions for a network show, but The Good Place keeps you thinking while you’re doubled over in laughter.
Standout episodes: “Everything Is Fine/Flying,” “Jason Mendoza,” “Most Improved Player”
7. Atlanta (FX)
Having Atlanta this low should not be taken as a knock on one of the most inventive shows of 2016. It’s just that its fluidity – its greatest asset – also meant it wasn’t as consistent week-to-week as some of the shows higher on this list. In fact, only a handful of Atlanta‘s 10 episodes move the narrative forward in a way most of us would come to expect. But when the show was on its A-game (especially when it decided to just go for it), it hit the highest highs.
Standout episodes: “Value,” “B.A.N.,” “Juneteenth”
6. The Night Of (HBO)
I know the show mistreated some of its characters, including having them make some supremely stupid decisions. But I don’t often think about those errors. I think about those dead-on moments: Bill Camp’s stoic repartee with suspects and colleagues, John Turturro’s endless quest for a proper eczema treatment, Fisher Stevens’ sarcastic pharmacist, Jeannie Berlin putting her tennis shoes on the table after losing her case, any time Riz Ahmed and Michael K. Williams shared the screen, the runner of a suspect named Duane Reade, and the devastating image of Peyman Moaadi turning up as a delivery guy. The mystery was the least important part of a story that touched on prejudice, religion, prosecutorial misconduct and the hellscape of Rikers Island. And we got all of that in only eight episodes.
Standout episodes: “The Beach,” “Season of the Witch,” “The Call of the Wild”
5. Stranger Things (Netflix)
I promise you, my high opinion of Stranger Things is not tainted by nostalgia. The show seemed to come out of nowhere, with creators who hadn’t done much yet and had been passed on by dozens of networks and stars. But every cast member rose to the occasion, with Winona Ryder and newcomer Millie Bobbie Brown as standouts. It’s at once a science experiment gone wrong mystery, a kid-level adventure and a touching exploration of grief. And, in a pleasant surprise, it did not take advantage of Netflix’s lack of limits on language, violence and sex. It could have aired on any network, but Netflix let us binge on this exquisitely crafted snack.
Standout episodes: “The Vanishing of Will Byers,” “Holly, Jolly,” “The Upside Down”
4. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
Though opinions are sharply divided, I couldn’t help but be moved – to tears, to anger, to action – during this season of Orange Is the New Black. What started with the most groan-inducing needle drop in TV history segued into a full-fledged evisceration of the private prison industry, exposing how consistent neglect and profit-driven decision making can lead to outright tragedy.
Standout episodes: “It Sounded Nicer in My Head,” “Friends in Low Places,” “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again”
3. Veep (HBO)
After losing its showrunner and creator, Veep could have slidden into something that was acceptable but not special. Instead, David Mandel took over and delivered the show’s best season yet. Keeping the agonizing results of the recount unofficial until the end of the season, every blunder carried added weight, with Selina and members of her staff having to take back nearly every decision they make and occasionally switch back again. It’s high-wire comedy, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus topping her own greatest performances with her turn in “Mother,” where her mom passes away AND she finds out she won’t be president again.
Standout episodes: “Nev-AD-a,” “Mother,” “Kissing Your Sister”
2. The Americans (FX)
Though the big season arc revolved around Dylan Baker’s rogue scientist, this season belonged to Martha. Clark finally revealed himself as a double agent and Martha, still blinded by love, agrees to flee to Russia rather than give Clark up to the FBI. It’s the series’ most devastating moment in a season filled with them.
Standout episodes: “Travel Agents,” “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears,” “Persona Non Grata”
1. American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson (FX) | O.J.: Made in America (ESPN)
Who would have guessed that the celebrity we’d be talking about the most in 2016 (besides Donald Trump, and let’s not mention him again) would be O.J. Simpson. In January, he was the subject of an astonishing miniseries that brilliantly explored racism, sexism and the media’s obsession with scandal, which wasn’t afraid to go over-the-top in its performances or style. Then, this summer, Ezra Edelman’s scorching eight-hour documentary aired on ESPN (and screened in some movie theaters, but I think this is absolutely a show), going even wider, giving time to explore the LAPD’s horrible relationship with its black citizens; OJ’s acceptance into white society (and subsequent rejection of black society); his abusive relationship with the wife he would eventually be accused of murdering (and let’s face it, we all know he did); the circus of the trial; and the aftermath, which found him rejected by white society and not necessarily accepted back into the black society he shunned, which led him further and further down the path to his eventual incarceration. In short, these two shows delivered everything we needed as entertainment and as fodder for thought-provoking discussion.
Standout episodes: “The Race Card,” “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” “Manna from Heaven”
Shows I Didn’t Get Around to Watching, But Probably Would Have Loved:
Angie Tribeca (TBS)
Better Things (FX)
Chewing Gum (Netflix)
The Get Down (Netflix)
Hap and Leonard (Sundance)
Horace and Pete (louisck.net)
Lady Dynamite (Netflix)
Luke Cage (Netflix)
The Night Manager (AMC)
The Path (Hulu)
Search Party (TBS)
Vice Principals (HBO)