From auspicious origins to an anthology beast all its own, “Fargo” has been the birthplace of some of the most audacious TV storytelling swings of the last decade. Some seasons have been more successful than others (the most recent installment had the best cast but the biggest trouble finding a cohesive center), but this interwoven story has become a jumping off point for some of the more indelible characters on TV: Mike Milligan, Lester Nygaard, Lorne Malvo, Gloria Burgle, and the entire Solverson family have all flourished in the frigid climes of Minnesota and its surrounding states. A crime series with a dusting of the metaphysical and a penchant for wicked black comedy, we’re still 100 percent ready for whatever wild adventures Season 4 manages to scrounge up.
Evaluating the place of “Louie” from a current perspective has become a complicated task. But even though some of the storylines from the series have taken on an irrevocably different context after the revelations of the latter half of 2017, it’s still difficult to diminish how much this show changed the TV landscape. For better or for worse, the show represented what could happen when a creator was given complete control over a small-budgeted production of their own sitcom; a show that focused on a semi-autobiographical narrative that didn’t feel manufactured in a way that a lot of other personal comedies had been, with each season independent from the next in form and structure. It might be harder to watch now, but the idea that “Louie” helped give networks license to Pamela Adlon, Tig Notaro, Andrea Savage, and more to tell their own stories is worth putting it high on this list all its own.
6. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”
The gang from Paddy’s Pub in “It’s Always Sunny” may seem like just that: a bunch of like-minded friends. And it would be easy to explain away their shenanigans as drunken mistakes, but the ways in which these individuals compliment each other, encourage each other, and differ from one another have spawned a comedy that’s not only lasted 12 seasons, but thrived for more than 100 episodes.
Dennis Reynolds is one of television’s greatest gifts to the world. Glenn Howerton’s sociopathic bartender has such an inflated self-image it’s bled into how he acts in the real-world: Just look at the D.E.N.N.I.S. System. Meanwhile, Mac’s deluded himself into thinking he’s a martial arts specialist (sans training), that his parents love him (despite them explicitly saying the opposite), and that he’s straight (which he finally confronted last season). He’s a perfect compliment to Charlie, who’s just trying to piece together the appearance of logic without needing to actually understand it himself.
And then there’s Dee. One could argue she’s corrupted innocence: a rather sane, if often misguided, waitress who’s regularly led astray by the boys, but then she’ll get addicted to crack and mooch off welfare — she’s bad, too. Finally, with Frank, his money allows for a lot of grand misadventures, but it also provides an enticing power dynamic. Together, they’re one of comedy’s all-time great ensembles. Apart, they’re still complex, hilarious individuals. What more could you want?
Let’s talk about “phrasing.” Early in “Archer’s” run (eight seasons and counting), the world’s least-secret secret agent started calling out any casually tossed about innuendos. It didn’t matter if he was among his co-workers at ISIS, The Figgis Agency, or negotiating at gunpoint, there was never an inappropriate time to drop a double entendre. Someone might be trying to calm down, instructing themselves to breathe “in and out, in and out,” to which Archer would say, “Phrasing!” (perhaps followed by an emphatic “boom!”) It’s the kind of rudimentary sex joke that can get old if overdone (like, say, if Michael Scott does it). So after a few seasons of carefully tossing around the catchphrase, creator Adam Reed stopped using it.
But rather than give it up, Archer started asking if they were really done using the term “phrasing” — which actually served the same purpose as using “phrasing,” but made the gag feel fresh again. Not only that, but it emphasized the character’s uniquely clever immaturity, his charm and his smarm. But most of all, “phrasing” shows the comedic versatility of an animated sitcom that consistently (and cleverly) reinvents itself, is never short on melodic wordplay, and can always, always, always to land a great dick joke. Sex jokes don’t have to be dumbed down, and “Archer” turns it into an advanced art form.
As the world’s politics inexorably went mad in 2016, one of the strongest voices that cut through was Donald Glover’s, with his series debut as creator. It’s not so much that “Atlanta” is an oasis of peace, preaches a liberal agenda, or even tries to make sense of the world. In fact, it highlights just how bizarre, dangerous, and unfair life can be, especially when you’re black.
While the series is ostensibly about cousins Earn (Glover) and Alfred, aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), trying to make it in Atlanta’s hip-hop scene, the series embraces a surreal narrative that is both unsettling and exciting all at once. Fantastical moments — presenting a black Justin Bieber or having an invisible car mow over citizens — are only the most obvious examples of how the show subverts expectations to create uncertainty on the screen and in the viewer. But make no mistake: despite its commentary, this series is still undeniably a comedy. It’s just that the laughter is tinged with the acknowledgement of the cringe-worthy nature of life, in all its glory. “Atlanta” puzzles and frightens as much as it entertains, and viewers are the better for it.
3. “Better Things”
Bless Pamela Adlon for this beautiful series. With the glut of 500-plus shows vying for our attention, it’s a testament to Adlon’s warmth and vision that this quiet and grounded story of a single mom and her three girls made such an impression that its endlessly generous second season was among IndieWire’s Top 3 TV Shows of 2017. In Sam, Adlon creates a character of such unwavering self-sacrifice — she’s tough, but never plays the martyr — that it’s hard not to be moved from week to week. And Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, and Olivia Edward, who play Sam’s trio of daughters, deliver the naturalistic performances that gives the show’s emotion its authenticity.
At this point, it’s difficult to separate Adlon the producer from Adlon the mother; they are one and the same. Just as Sam gives and gives and gives, always with a laser focus to her daughters, Adlon has nurtured this series with so much care and attention that her love suffuses the entire show and flows out as tears from our eyes. “Better Things” is Adlon’s baby, and goddamn if she didn’t make us invested in how it grows.
2. “The Shield”
“The Shield” was “Breaking Bad” before “Breaking Bad.” It helped establish FX as a stalwart for original programming, joining HBO’s “The Sopranos” in pioneering, crafting, and exploring television antiheroes. Violent and uncompromising, the series followed the illegal activities carried out by the Strike Team, a group of cops in Los Angeles based on the real life Rampart Division (and its ensuing scandal). As Vic Mackey, Michael Chiklis led a cast that eventually included film veterans like Glenn Close and Forest Whitaker, but the main star of the show was Walton Goggins. As the embittered cop Shane Vendrell, Goggins painted a tragic and psychologically complex portrait of a man who dug himself in too deep. Over the course of seven seasons, creator Shawn Ryan took us and the Strike Team on a Shakespearean downward spiral, shocking us with a multitude of daring narrative choices as it hurdled toward its masterful conclusion. In fact, the series arguably featured its best material in the last few seasons of its run, and very few series finales are as fitting as “Family Meeting.”
1. “The Americans”
An intricate thriller and a compassionate family drama, a romance for the ages and a cautionary tale from our past, a show about wigs and a show about wigs: With “The Americans,” you don’t have to choose. It’s all here. While there’s nothing left to say about one of the most critically heralded series of all time, Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ profound portrait of two Russian spies thrust together to form a makeshift American family is consistently its own self from week-to-week, while embodying so many genres, ideas, and emotions from scene to scene. There are the very basic pleasures inherent to its production (the cars!) and performances (Matthew Rhys!), but anyone entranced by initial viewings will only discover more upon second and third glances. That “The Americans” isn’t one of television’s most-watched shows is the series’ greatest mystery, so if you have yet to listen to your local critic and watch, get to it. There’s something for everyone.