Folks, I haven’t seen everything. There were 455 scripted series in 2017. We’re limited by what we’ve consumed, and some gems may have been overlooked. With that said, I did see a lot. As has become Outkick’s annual tradition, here are the top ten dramas and comedies from another insane year in television. Peak TV. The struggle is real. And it’s spectacular. If you disagree, come yell at me @JMartOutkick. I won’t take offense.
I wrote on many of these shows in detail, so if you’re looking for more, the best way to find it is to search the show title and it will bring up every review or article I have written on that topic. As well, it was a huge year for Outkick, and for me… as we started the Outkick the Culture podcast this summer. The first episode featured a roundtable interview with Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, and Liz Flahive. Your support of the shows, the podcast, the articles, it’s all huge. It means the world to us and to me personally. 2018 is going to be big. We’ve got so many cool things to unveil, but let’s get down to brass tacks and rank these shows. Let the debate commence!
TOP TEN IN DRAMA
While the top ten as a whole here is not in order, the first two are as they should be. The third season of The Leftovers was by far the best piece of television of the year. It was exquisite from start to finish, featured a satisfying and perfect conclusion, and took even more risks than either of its predecessors. Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta put forth one of the best shows of the century, and Season 3 stacks up with any campaign of any series you can find. Carrie Coon’s work was the strongest of its type to be found anywhere, and Theroux and Eccleston were spectacular…and still outdone by Scott Glenn.
HALT AND CATCH FIRE
Perhaps the most overlooked show of the decade, AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire started slowly, but the final three seasons were superb. Season 4 was dramatically powerful, emotionally gut wrenching, and placed the best five person ensemble cast imaginable in situations where the writing matched the talent. The new additions this year, including Anna Chlumsky, Kathryn Newton, and most especially Susanna Skaggs all contributed mightily to a perfect, tear inducing finish. THIS is the Netflix binge you should all seek out post haste if you haven’t watched the show.
GAME OF THRONES
It’s easy to poke holes in shows as popular as Game of Thrones, and sometimes it’s trendy to underrate those series to try and be different. But, it was a great season, filled with many high points, unlocked secrets, epic photography and scope. It’s also tough to satisfy a fan base that’s grown this large and fervent, but Thrones pulled it off. The final season will be the most anticipated of its kind perhaps ever in television, and rightfully so. As it’s grown, it’s gotten better. The obnoxious slowdowns of the early seasons have been replaced or refined, and it’s undeniably high quality both from a technical and entertainment standpoint.
After an uneven and sometimes disappointing second season, Sam Esmail brought the ruckus in 2017. Elliot Alderson and his merry (okay, not so merry) gang of hacktivists and anarchists were never more compelling than in Season 3, and those chasing them down were just as determined. Mr. Robot featured some amazing camera tricks and optical illusions, but the writing was flat out fun again. Season 2 felt worried. Season 3 felt confident. It showed. The acting has always been terrific, but this time around, the scripts didn’t just match viewer expectations, they exceeded them.
BETTER CALL SAUL
It’s gotten better every year, and sometimes it’s penalized in lists because it aired so early in comparison to other dramas, but you can’t forget about a show so well-executed, so precise, and so beautifully written. Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks remained the stars, but again were buttressed by Michael McKean, Rhea Seahorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, among others. One of those others? Giancarlo Esposito, as the iconic Gus Fring re-entered our lives this year. Season 3 was truly special, and questions are now popping up as to whether Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul will end up regarded as the better show when the latter concludes. The fact one can ask that with a straight face means Saul is one of TV’s finest offerings.
Probably the anthology show’s weakest season, but it was still EXCELLENT. Carrie Coon was the best performer on TV in 2017, both for The Leftovers and for Fargo. David Thewlis’ work as V.M. Varga gave the show a villain with no redeeming qualities, and Ewan McGregor played dual roles as Ray and Emmit Stussy. Not to be outdone was Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose Nikki Swango may well have been the top non-Nora Durst character of the entire year on the flat screen. The finale was perhaps the best of the three seasons, and even though the year started a little slowly, once it connected it never let go. The parallels to the Trump administration were also handled carefully, and struck a chord in the era of “fake news.”
It wasn’t particularly strange and it wasn’t difficult to digest. It didn’t make you feel like you were watching a Stanley Kubrick or Darren Aronofsky film, as it laid its story out in a much more straightforward manner than many may have anticipated from producer David Fincher and creator Joe Penhall. It wasn’t the easiest watch, but that’s only due to the subject matter. Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany were awesome in the “almost but not quite” buddy comedy that was almost never funny. Anna Torv back on TV doesn’t stink, and made me miss Fringe. Cameron Britton may have been the breakout performance though, as his take on Edmund Kemper was bone chilling, yet somehow approachable, all at the same time.
While I didn’t enjoy watching The Deuce for entertainment purposes, it nonetheless was easily a top ten drama this season. James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal both dropped award level performances, and the supporting cast was strong from top to bottom. David Simon and George Pelecanos took the most salacious of content, ensured it wasn’t arousing, and made the life as dreary as possible. The writing was exquisitely brutal, and the tragic events of the season finale set the stage for an even better second season. The only question is the audience size, at least in terms of the series’ long term future.
I had so much fun watching the sophomore effort from the Duffer Brothers, and even if you want to argue some of my honorable mention selections should be in this spot, I included Stranger Things because it did improve upon the first season, brought a story of perseverance and redemption, and presented an engaging, fast-paced, thrillingly suspenseful adventure. Even though all the originals survived, we still met and said goodbye to Bob Newby, a character we thought we were supposed to hate…right up until we realized he wasn’t. Eleven was actually one of the least effective portions of the season, although her reunions with Mike and the fellas, plus her subsequent actions in the finale, were tremendous. Her standalone episode was terrible, almost bad enough that it knocked the show out of this ranking. But the REST overcame that misstep.
Although the first Netflix season contained the best EPISODE to date (the unbelievably great “San Junipero”), Series Four of Charlie Brooker’s vision of a world overly reliant on technology that could go wrong in a heartbeat is the better of the two. Another anthology show that works so well in that format, because each story is one of its own, with only the larger theme in play, and also because it enables the writers, showrunners, and Brooker to do basically anything to tell the shorter stories. The confines of a “novel” don’t exist, and sometimes we just love Flannery O’Connor and yawn at Leo Tolstoy. It’s never not been good, but Series Four is especially effective and emotionally affecting.
– The Americans (Penultimate season woes, still brilliant, but the key moments were few and far between, being saved for the final stretch.)
– The Handmaid’s Tale (No question of its quality, but harmed by the insinuations it’s “just around the corner from being reality,” which is comical and ridiculous. Moss’ performance was utterly incredible.)
– Sneaky Pete (Very good series that came in January, and whose only sin was being a little familiar and not breaking much new ground.)
– Legion (Hawley’s other series was obtuse and at times terrifying, but was nonetheless incredibly fun and felt like a sandbox)
– Godless (A little too by the numbers, but visually gorgeous, well-acted, and a rock solid one-off western limited series for Netflix.)
– Dark (Shaky at times, probably could have benefitted from a few less episodes, but enjoyable and dreary in an effective and necessary way. If you haven’t watched it in German with English subtitles, you haven’t watched it. It has been left off many critical lists because of its release date, but make no mistake, it packs a major punch and is visually arresting unlike anything else short of Legion.)
– BoJack Horseman (Weakest season since the first still puts it in the top 15, but there were too may times I wanted more BoJack and Diane, or less Todd, or just more OTHER stuff. Serious lulls. Still an excellent show.)
– Rick and Morty (Three or four of the best eps in series history, but an underwhelming finale and a few episodes I felt were more of a chore than a joy. Still an outstanding show that I love.)
– Narcos (Season 3 was the high point, even though we lost Wagner Moura. Pedro Pascal replacing Boyd Holbrook certainly helped, but this was a storyline we didn’t know quite as well and thus, the conclusions were less obvious before the fact.)
TOP TEN IN COMEDY
THE GOOD PLACE
My favorite show not called The Leftovers on television in 2017, and with that show now done, my favorite ACTIVE series on TV. Ted Danson or Bryan Cranston are your 1-2, in some order, for best actors in the history of the medium. Danson adds this to his already impressive list of Cheers, Becker, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and he’s joined by Kristen Bell, D’Arcy Carden, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, and Manny Jacinto. The interactions between Danson and Carden were flawless, and the Season 1 finale had the best twist I’ve seen in TV in many years. Season 2 has twisted yet again, and the show has become even better as a result. The story, the concepts, the chemistry, everything clicks. Just phenomenal.
The two top comedies of the decade are Veep and Parks and Recreation, and I’m not sure anything else is even arguable. What’s left to say about Veep? Well, there’s this. The fact that this show was better than ever AFTER Selina Meyer’s political career careened into a mountainside is a major feather in the cap of the cast, but also of David Mandel, who took over the show two years ago from Armando Iannucci. As great as Armando was, Mandel’s seasons have been the strongest. The most jokes per capita in the history of comedy, and unlike many other shows, it hasn’t lost a step. The final season in 2018 will likely be similarly terrific, meaning when it exits, it will be regarded as one of the top comedy series EVER conceived.
The biggest surprise of 2017 and one of my favorite viewing experiences of the last few years. None of us had any idea what to expect from the satirical take on true crime shows, podcasts, and documentaries, but it’s impossible to believe any of us even considered it could be this good. If there were a top ten, regardless of category, American Vandal makes my list. Jimmy Tatro’s performance alone is worthy of its inclusion, but to take a satire, keep it funny, but also make it one of the deepest, most dramatically thought provoking human examinations of 2017 is a gigantic accomplishment. Anyone who hasn’t seen it owes it to himself or herself to fix that problem immediately. American Vandal was a no doubt A.
Far less surprising for Netflix than American Vandal was GLOW, which came with the strength of Jenji Kohan’s name, the talent of co-creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, and an eclectic but loaded cast. Led by Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin, GLOW took a niche foundational idea and turned it into a powerful comedy-drama that borrowed from Orange is the New Black and made its audience care about the past, present, and future of a large group of women. Marc Maron’s Sam Sylvia was the most unexpectedly stellar performance of the year, and his interactions with Brie provided GLOW‘s heaviest and sometimes its most humorous moments. Ten episodes that flew by, a quick renewal, and so much more that can be done in this world means I wasn’t the only one that noticed.
Yes, Louis C.K. I know that’s a problem. I screened the latest Woody Allen film early last month and couldn’t even come close to enjoying it, and that wouldn’t have changed even if it hadn’t been pretty terrible. That said, Better Things isn’t on my list because of Louis’ input, but because Pamela Adlon is unreal. Julia Louis Dreyfus may well win another Emmy for her swan song, and no one will argue it, but Adlon SHOULD win it. Season 2 of Better Things was stronger in every way than its first, which was very good in its own right. Although Baskets was solid and You’re the Worst still had its moments, neither were anywhere near as consistent for FX as Adlon’s series.
MASTER OF NONE
Taken as a whole, I enjoyed Season 1 more, but it’s splitting hairs, because both are A+ efforts. Aziz Ansari, in contrast to some of the other shows on this list, didn’t spend time in misery, but in joy. It wasn’t the sad comedy and usually wasn’t the black comedy, even though the characters experienced ups and downs. The show is flat out fun, but thoughtful in how it presents its sometimes heavy material. We spent a bit more time in Modena, Italy than I would have preferred, but it always had a purpose. Eric Wareheim, Lena Waithe, and Alessandra Mastronardi all shined, especially when paired with Ansari or each other.
I look forward to no half hour more each week, perhaps with the exception of The Good Place, than I do Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Andre Braugher’s Ray Holt is the new Ron Swanson, but the entire cast is worthy of immense praise. I had a friend tell me recently after I told him to watch the show that he didn’t like Terry Crews. “Well, you’ll like Terry Crews in this.” That’s the case for everybody, and just as Parks and Rec didn’t screw with Andy and April once they were a couple, we’re getting the same from Jake Peralta and Amy Santiago. We’re not seeing manufactured drama for its sake, and instead the stories are written around the strengths, not the weaknesses of the characters. Ray Holt is the best character on TV. That is all.
Sure, some may ask where Silicon Valley is on this list, but honestly, I’m tired of seeing the same show week after week. The formula has not evolved, and though I still dig that show, Issa Rae’s has a freshness Silicon now lacks, and was flat out better than Mike Judge’s this time around. Insecure was good in Season 1, but was great in Season 2, and Rae is someone that’s compelling to watch, despite the situations she finds herself in with her friends and within her relationships.
ABC still has a lot of likable comedies, but some are longer in the tooth. Blackish isn’t what it used to be, Fresh Off the Boat is showing some age, The Goldbergs is still somewhat inconsistent, and Modern Family hasn’t been good in around three years, at least. But, Speechless is on fire. After a promising first season, we’ve seen the best yet from this cast and from the writing team. Treating cerebral palsy in the manner this show does is so much more rewarding, because it isn’t done with kid gloves. Sometimes, JJ is an adolescent jerk, sometimes he’s awkward on his own, and occasionally his family doesn’t support him properly. It’s not an advocacy show. JJ exists on Speechless like everyone else, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. Minnie Driver, John Ross Bowie, Cedric Yarbrough, Mason Cook, Micah Fowler, and Kyla Kennedy may be the most entertaining family in comedy right now.
PEOPLE OF EARTH
I enjoyed Season 1, but it took larger steps in Season 2. No one talks about it and many of you reading this probably haven’t even heard of it, but it’s TBS’ alien abduction support group series. It’s incredibly funny, but filled with heart, and yet again there’s a cast worthy of the material. Wyatt Cenac, Ana Gasteyer, Alice Wetterlund, among others are all great together, and the fact that aliens DO exist within the show makes it far more interesting. Ken Hall is never not hilarious as Jeff. You should be watching this show. Find it.
There are many more things I’d like to have included, but this cuts to the heart of what really moved me in 2017. If you’re wondering where Larry David was, so am I. Curb was fine, but not top ten. This wasn’t it’s best, and the competition is far stronger now. I certainly will mention Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, which doesn’t fit in either category but was among the best things of any type to find its way onto television this year. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score was also outstanding.
Other stuff? Well, the album of the year was A Deeper Understanding from The War on Drugs, with Lotta Sea Lice from Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile coming in right underneath it. I’ll tweet out a list of music picks. As for films, you read many of my reviews. The best movie I saw in 2017 was Lady Bird, though there are some I still need to see, including The Florida Project. I’ll do a larger movie piece at some point prior to the Oscars.
I thank you again for supporting us, for all the kind things you may have said to me via email at email@example.com or via Twitter @JMartOutkick, and for your opinions, even when they didn’t match mine. Ozark was the one where a lot of folks diverged from me, and I love that it went down that way. My opinion is simply that. Yours is just as worthy, and I learn from you as you hopefully learn from me. There will be more pieces than ever before in 2018 with more variety, more coverage, more special events, plenty of guests, bells, whistles, and everything else on the podcast.
Happy New Year! God bless you and yours. He continues to bless my life in innumerable, surprising, and inspiring ways. Here’s to a special 2018!