3. “Twin Peaks”
Mark Frost and David Lynch’s follow-up to their groundbreaking series from the ‘90s doesn’t disappoint. For sheer scope, audaciousness, and execution, the revival — or if you prefer, the new season — is a masterclass in storytelling and filmmaking. Every image, every beat, every texture is deliberate and pulls the viewer inexorably in. “The Return” doesn’t use anything so crass as soft-focus lenses or abrupt wake-up sequences to indicate that what’s happening is in the mind. Instead, the very narrative bends reality; it doesn’t mimic the dream, it is the dream.
While its heart beats within the frame of one Kyle MacLachlan, who delivers surprisingly restrained and nuanced performances as three different characters, he is but one vehicle through which the viewer travels in this dreamscape. Those characters with less screen time, even those making brief cameos, still feel essential to the fabric of this reality. This is their story to tell in their own way, and do they ever tell it.
That “Twin Peaks” is a divisive show isn’t a surprise. Anything with such a bold and uncompromising voice would be. But not being able to be categorized in any fashion is precisely its genius. One can enjoy it for the wild ride it is; that it provides a surreal commentary on the nature of evil; that it invites theories wrapped in theories, or even that this is the narcissistic playground for the abstruse. Whether one seeks meaning, finds meaning, or is denied meaning, we’ve never had so many synapses firing while watching, and that is an achievement in a world filled with too much TV.
2. “Better Things”
Yes, Louis C.K. wrote quite a bit of “Better Things” Season 2, but Pamela Adlon lived every second of it. There’s a reason stories like this never existed in “Louie”; that the two FX comedies mirror each other in tone and structure but leave you on different ends of the emotional spectrum. “Better Things” is about encouragement, understanding, and the beauty of what’s around us; how Sam, Adlon’s working actress and single mother of three, finds encouragement and determination in the challenges thrown her way because she’s passing on every bit of herself to her daughters.
Adlon was the co-creator, writer, producer, director, showrunner, and star of every episode in her perfect second season. It is every bit her own, and she’s not about to leave her burdens, neuroses, or failures at the feet of those who are supposed to follow. The audience feels that, too. “Better Things” offers a shift in perspective without drifting away from the earth; a grounded approach to life where people are held accountable, all told with the intelligence and poise of a master filmmaker. It’s empowering. Really, what more needs to be said?
1. “The Leftovers”
Every single episode of “The Leftovers” Season 3 isn’t just great; it’s iconic. That might sound a tad hyperbolic, given the meager ratings, but it’s still true. From the “I’m not Jesus” bravado of the premiere to the time-jumping brilliance of the finale, there are so many moments packed into the eight-episode final season one would be forgiven for thinking it’s much, much longer. How else could so much meaning exist in such a tight timeframe?
There are women named Sarah and four-story Gary Busey balloons; Wu-Tang tattoos and trampolines; kids shoes and cops named Kevin; ghosts and giant koala bears; lion orgies and a man who might be God; cigarette lighters and scuba-diving; the most powerful man in the world (and his identical twin brother); and, of course, there’s the greatest shot on television this year — and that’s saying something during the year of “Twin Peaks.”
Every word above is an emotional trigger for everyone who watched Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta, and Mimi Leder’s exquisite creation. They evoke a rush of feelings unprecedented for scripted narratives, and that’s because of how precisely scenes were written, episodes were shot, and arcs were constructed. “The Leftovers” is an emotional powerhouse. It is the best show of 2017, and it’s one of the best series to air on television. It is iconic. Time is just letting everyone else catch up to what the rest of us already know.
David Simon and George Pellecanos’ return to HBO was nothing if not ambitious, and yet Season 1 proves itself even more successful the more you consider its accomplishments. But what gets lost in a lot of talk about pertinent thematic content and expansive story structures are the very human characters that give “The Deuce” an indelible imprint on television. The ensemble, decked out in fabulous ’70s threads and walking streets ripped straight from cinema’s favorite era, is filled with so many favorite faces it’s impossible to single out just one stand-out from the eight-hour first season.
There’s Gary Carr’s C.C., a pimp who’s not messing around but whose seductive demeanor might give you pause; Margarita Levieva’s Abby Parker, a student gone rogue for the right reasons; Dominique Fishback’s Darlene, a prostitute whose simple wants and hard lessons bitterly contrast one another. And then there’s twin James Francos, a never-better Maggie Gyllenhaal, and about seven other stars who could carry their own shows if Simon and Pellecanos wanted to hone in on just one New Yorker. They don’t, and we’re all better for it, but the macro and the micro somehow go hand-in-hand with this one. Fittingly, “The Deuce” has it both ways. – TV Critic Ben Travers
Satire at its best is often biting, but rarely is it as earnest as “Veep” Season 6. David Mandel’s penultimate season of the Emmy-winning HBO comedy reached new levels of power as Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) exposed aspects of her psyche we’d yet to see. Angry and still in recovery to start the season, Selina drew back the curtain for a heartbreaking moment in the finale that helped illustrate the price she’s paid over the course of a lifetime in politics.
And yet “Veep” never lost its edge. Even when it dipped into more intimate arenas, the quick wit and lacerating attacks never weakened; if anything, they grew more precise, damning, and lethal. Entering the final year, the balance of power is perfectly honed. We can only imagine what’s coming, and year after year even our wildest dreams prove lesser than the final product. Bring it on. – TV Critic Ben Travers
More inventive and daring than 99 percent of the other shows on television, “Mr. Robot” is so individual and idiosyncratic that lately, it’s been hard for it to get its full due. Whether or not you think it’s one of the best shows on TV, there’s no denying it’s one of the most fascinating; a beautiful example of what’s possible when a brilliant creator gets full reign with their vision. However long USA Network chooses to support Sam Esmail’s oddball hacker drama, we’ll always be watching. – TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller
“Man Seeking Woman”
It took “Man Seeking Woman” three years to release its best season ever, which makes its cancellation all the more brutal. But thanks to creator Simon Rich not adhering to a literal interpretation of the show’s title, we finally saw a female perspective included on balance with the male lead, and the result was Josh and Lucy’s beautiful love story, depicted as only “Man Seeking Woman” would — with insane metaphorical stunts and genre parodies. It’s heartbreaking that we won’t get to see Josh and Lucy advance their story further, but the fact that we got a happy ending for them at the end of the season is something of a balm. – TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller
“The Young Pope”
People who prefer to stay out of the public eye, drink Cherry Coke Zero, and spend time with fuzzy animals could be seen as introverts, cat ladies, or in the case of Paolo Sorrentino’s HBO series, the Pope. Pontiff Lenny Belardo (Jude Law in his most exciting role in recent memory) wants to be as “unreachable as a rock star” but just as tantalizing. Creating a mystique around being pope is just one of his many unique quirks in a position that holds the ultimate power in conducting the behavior in a nation of souls.
Whether it’s hypnotizing a kangaroo or juggling fresh fruit, the pope is always doing the unexpected in a position that has always followed tradition. On first glance, “The Young Pope” is an attractive and truly DGAF pope, but what Sorrentino has created is so much more. Lenny is surprisingly hidebound and strict, and what he begins with arrogant idealism (and as a PR stunt) instead becomes a way to test the fragility of faith — and perform a few miracles along the way. While not entirely respectful, “The Young Pope” appears to be made out of love. And in the end, that’s as human and as aspirational as we can all expect. – Senior Editor Hanh Nguyen
While the show began as a way to challenge the rom-com formula and the careless way the “crazy ex-girlfriend” trope has been portrayed, this is no mere exposure of human shortcomings. Instead, the musical comedy continues to constantly reinvent the way that its hapless protagonist Rebecca Bunch (the brilliant Rachel Bloom) navigates what it means to be a woman who has never known stability. Are her obsessive actions a product of low self-esteem? Addiction? Or perhaps just a byproduct of the boredom of too much freedom and choice?
Nay. In its third season, the show at long last hands its heroine and the audience a diagnosis, and it becomes clear that all of the road leading up to this has been essential to establishing a pattern. Endearing yet erratic, Rebecca is a charismatic planet who draws lesser mortals into her orbit, and now that she has a label for her dysfunction, it remains to be seen if those around her will be freed from her gravitational pull. Changing the game so organically takes skill and cajones. To do so with musicality, heart, and puns galore is art. – Senior Editor Hanh Nguyen
“The Carmichael Show”
It’s hard not to see the untimely demise of “The Carmichael Show” as the end of an era on broadcast TV. While “One Day at a Time” is flourishing on Netflix, “Carmichael” was the show that network needed: not afraid to address the overarching cultural touchpoints of the moment, but doing it in an honest and deeply funny way. It was a sitcom that treated its characters like real people with flaws and joys and concerns and love for their family, however they chose to show it. “The Carmichael Show” never sacrificed truth for laughs — in doing so, it combined the two in a way that few other shows today manage to do. – Special Projects Editor Steve Greene
Watching Forrest MacNeil, life reviewer, slowly suffer in a logical and philosophical cage of his own making somehow became one of the great comedies of this generation. Its farewell season made up for a tragically short three-episode run by delivering everything that made this show-within-a-show mandatory viewing for lovers of precise character work, masterful plotting, and the slow realization of one man continuing to sign up for more than he can handle. (The saga of Beyoncé the bearded dragon alone is a cycle of friendship, love, companionship, grief, and revenge, all wrapped up in an impossibly small eight-minute package.) The series’ final moments delivered an ending was as true to the show as it was surprising, which made perfect sense for a series that always found devastating laughs in the unexpected. – Special Projects Editor Steve Greene