5. “Master of None” (Netflix)
Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s first outing felt energetic and fresh with unique social observations that hadn’t been voiced before on TV. In its second season, “Master of None” has been elevated to a surefooted, artistic endeavor that somehow pushed its risk-taking even further, without compromising its delicious bear hug approach to all that life offers. The season premiere’s love letter to Italian cinema unfolds with such unabashed excitement that its hopeful attitude is infectious. When the story transitions back to New York and becomes a bittersweet journey of career and relationship disappointment, it is no less beautiful or romantic. And Ansari’s development as a leading man has paralleled Dev’s journey of self-discovery. It’s a season of purity and earnestness that we didn’t know we were looking for.
4. “Better Call Saul” (AMC)
Michele K. Short / Courtesy of Sony Pictures Television
We don’t know how to explain how it happens, to be honest, but it. Just. Keeps. Getting. Better. The “Breaking Bad” prequel series has become a drama powerhouse in its own right, proving itself to be one of TV’s most impressive series not with epic action, but with the subtle tragedies it inflicts. Season 3 ended with perhaps one of the most dire cliffhangers imaginable, but it was still executed with the show’s trademark quiet touch. Sublime acting, writing that’s so good you don’t even think about it being written, and direction that brings it all together in a way we can only marvel at. Many people are wondering just how long it’s going to take for Jimmy McGill to officially become Saul Goodman. But we’ll be more than happy if the show chooses to take its time — we trust that the journey will be worth it.
3. “Big Little Lies” (HBO)
Credit writer David E. Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallée for being able to mine all the twisted pleasures of a whodunit out of this high-strung seaside community, without losing sight of the traumas lying just beneath the surface. Much like the Liane Moriarty novel from which it was adapted, there’s a mortifying, sinister terror behind the gossipy, chardonnay smoke screen that envelops this entire Monterey public school PTA. It’s the story of how the poison of a predator can seep through generations and a tribute to the power of a strong, united effort to help combat it. Marked by some of the best music cues of the year (the Michael Kiwanuka theme song is incredible, but good luck ever hearing something as instantly blood-pumping as “Silver Trembling Hands“) and shot with Vallée’s distinctive, dreamlike sheen, it’s a perfect blend of substance and style.
2. “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu)
Margaret Atwood’s novel may have been adapted before, but never with such ambition, creativity and purpose. The restricted world in which June (Elisabeth Moss) finds herself is horrifying enough, but its parallels to our current political climate makes the story downright terrifying. Yet, the story is not without humor, sympathy for the oppressors, nuance or hope. Instead, the gutting, cynical side is balanced with a considered look at the inherent heroism in the human impulse to survive. Cinematic in scope as well as composition, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is also a treat for the senses. With unhurried pacing and a cast that understands the value of the unspoken word and the stolen glance, this dystopian tale’s meticulous storytelling makes it feel as fresh as it is relevant.
1. “The Leftovers” (HBO)
“The Leftovers” is a romance. Has it always been a romance? Would we call it that after the pilot? After the first season? After Mark Linn Baker explained particle physics or after the lion-worshipping sex cult set out to sea? It doesn’t matter when the ultimate theme revealed itself; even if it only hit you in those beautiful final seconds, when Kevin (Justin Theroux) said he believed Nora (Carrie Coon) and the rest of us had to decide for ourselves, that’s OK.
The final season had multiple endings for audiences to choose from, but each one highlighted love, in its many confounding forms. Matt (Christopher Eccleston) learned to love God and his family more than himself. Laurie (Amy Brenneman) learned to love herself despite facing the unknowable mysteries of life. Kevin dropped the allure of the unknown for a life with his family, and Nora faced her fears to love who she lost without wanting to go with them. “The Leftovers,” in the end, let the mystery be, but it also cleverly contradicted itself by completing an arc that’s existed from the start: There is a family, and love keeps it alive.