As we move into the final half of 2017 (somehow we managed to survive) now is the perfect time to take a look back on some of the best television shows of the new year. Some are brand new (The Handmaids Tale), some are continuing shows (Master of None), and some were riding off into the sunset (The Leftovers, Girls) but all of them shining examples of Television’s Golden Age. Note: These are in no particular order.
The Leftovers is simply one of the greatest television drama’s of all time, period. It’s a crowning achievement of art, something to be analyzed and discussed for many years to come. The show provides us with so much to unpack from its plot to underlying themes. Its final season was an absolute masterpiece. If the only episode aired was its breathtaking finale “The Book of Nora” it would have still easily earned a spot on this list. But lucky for us, the third season had seven other episodes that were just as profound and thought-provoking. I won’t divulge anything further, The Leftovers is best watched without any kind of spoiler, but let’s just say that its final season features everything from lion sex cults, run-in’s with God, and cathartic trampoline sessions set to Wu-Tang Clan. But for all of that, at its heart, it is a meditation on grief and loss, unrequited love both romantic and familial, the afterlife and the present. These themes drove the show home in all its glory and culminated in an unforgettable final season and a tour-de-force performance from Carrie Coon, who bridged the gap between Earth and whatever-the-hell-comes-after with amazing grit and grace.
The Handmaids Tale
1985’s vision of the future is 2017’s battle cry of the present in The Handmaids Tale. Adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same title, it take’s place in a dystopian near-future where all the rights for women are taken away and are subjected to a life as handmaids, forced to bear children for their Commanders. At the center of the story is Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss. Desperate to be reunited with her daughter and husband and escape the oppressive and violent society of Gilead, she begins to find ways to join the rebellion (#resist!). The show is eerie and disturbing, even more so because the possibility of this kind of society seems more and more plausible given the current political climate in America. But it also has an extremely dark sense of humor and a biting wit, as evident in its use of pop music to score some of the more intense scenes and in Offred’s sarcastic voiceovers. The Handmaids Tale was a watershed moment for television and 2017 and if it keeps up the brilliance of its first season, it can truly become the “Next Big Thing” on television. Luckily for the show, it has Elisabeth Moss as its star. Emotions play out on Moss’s face like an instrument, sometimes two completely different notes at once, playing variations on the pain and resilience of a woman who is fighting for her life.
Big Little Lies
Anyone who dismissed Jean-Marc Vallée’s adaptation of Liane Moriarity’s novel about the secret lives of five Monterey women as “soapy” or “a scripted Real Housewives” completely missed out. Big Little Lies was not only of the starriest shows of recent memory (a cast of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, Alexander Skaarsgard, and Adam Scott), but it was also one of the best, diving deep into the pathos and pain of five women who find themselves bound together by an unspeakable (though completely well deserved) act of violence. So much of what makes this adaptation work is performances of its cast. All of the actors deliver career-best work, especially Witherspoon, who finds new dimensions in the Type-A caricature she’s played over the years, and Kidman, who is devastating as an abused wife trying desperately to save her marriage and her life.
Master of None
The second season of Aziz Ansari’s autobiographical comedy about his experiences with careers, family, and love in New York City improved upon its terrific first season in many ways. Its scope became wider and more intimate, focusing its attention on the nuances of Dev’s personal life in one episode, and then abandoning him entirely in another. The standout episodes are “New York, I Love You,” which follows a bunch of strangers around the city for a day in various vignettes before they wind up at the same movie and the “Thanksgiving” episode, which chronicles Dev’s best friend, Denise, and her coming out to her mother over a series of Thanksgivings played by an incredible Angela Bassett (a note to all TV show directors: more Angela Bassett, please).
Twin Peaks: The Return
Twin Peaks: The Return is still airing, so there’s technically still time for them to mess it all up. But with the eight episodes we’ve seen so far, and with David Lynch at the helm, it seems highly unlikely. In all seriousness, it’s almost absurd that this version of Twin Peaks ever made it onto the air, even in 2017. This isn’t the coffee and cherry pie version of Twin Peaks, but the nightmarish horror-absurdity art film that Lynch is giving us each week. The amount of this sheer mind-bending and genre-pushing content Lynch manages to contain in an hour episode is an achievement in and of itself. This is a true artist given free-rein, and the results are astonishing.
I Love Dick
After Twin Peaks: The Return, the next show that seems impossible to have even been put on air would be I Love Dick. An adaptation of the 1997 feminist cult-classic manifesto written by Chris Kraus, it tells the story of Chris and her scholar husband Sylvere and how their lives change when they meet sculptor named Dick, played by Kevin Bacon. The three begin to form a passionate and erotic sort of love triangle, but the main focus is how Chris’s obsession with Dick reignites her passion for filmmaking and sex. The show doesn’t feel like a television show but more like a free-verse poem, especially in the groundbreaking fifth episode “A Short History of Weird Girls” where the women of Marfa explain the origins of their desire.
God bless Catastrophe. Each of its three seasons has only a total of six episodes (you can binge the whole thing before noon) and each of those three seasons only gets better and better. Catastrophe is the story of Sharon and Rob (played by show creators and writers Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney) and how their one night stand turned into full on domestic life, with two children, office troubles, and familial and friendship nightmares. Season 3 finds Sharon and Rob trying to balance all of that, along with a painful death for Sharon and a fall off the wagon for Rob. The final season also features Carrie Fisher in one of her final roles, as biting and vulnerable as she ever was.
A recent debut from producer Jenji Kohan of Orange is the New Black, GLOW is a new Netflix comedy about a group of women in the 80’s who perform in an all-female wrestling league (GLOW stands for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.) The story begins with Ruth Wilder (played by the ever brilliant and underrated Alison Brie), a down on her luck actress who stumbles into a GLOW audition and finds her passion of acting reignited by its demands of creating a character. Also at the helm is Debbie, Ruth’s best friend who becomes her enemy after a marital transgression. Together the two, along with Marc Maron’s sleazy director Sam Sylvia (and some killer 80’s wigs and costumes), create a scrappy, comedic trio that is hilarious and surprisingly moving.
After six seasons of endless controversy and criticism, Lena Dunham’s landmark HBO comedy series about four young women trying to navigate life in NYC finally came to a close. For its detractors, it was a relief, but for its many fans, it was a bittersweet ending that felt both inevitable and yet shocking. If you told anyone that the Girls final scene would be Hannah (played by Dunham) soothing her baby in her spacious upstate New York home to Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” you would have been told you were delirious, but by the time the final episode rolled around, it felt surprisingly right for our heroine to wind up exactly where she didn’t expect to be: friendless (with the exception of an overbearing Marnie), with an important job, and as a mother. The final season ranks amongst one of the show’s best, most likely due to it being one of its darkest. Its best moments, whether it be Hannah’s showdown with acclaimed sexually deviant author, her painful breakup with Adam in a Brooklyn diner, or Jessa’s anonymous, tear-filled hookup with a stranger in a bar, brought the dysfunctional and bruised heart of this show to its forefront.
Dear White People
Justin Simien’s Netflix series adaptation of his 2014 debut movie told the story of racial tensions on the predominately white campus of Winchester. At the center of the show is Samantha White, the determined activist who uses her radio show to make calls of justice to the various racist incidents that take place. As the show goes on, she finds herself and her friends at the center of the fight for equality, spearheaded by a heartbreaking episode involving police brutality. Dear White People captures the very real struggle of so many people of color on college campuses as they navigate the intersections of their gender, sexualities, class, and activist ambitions. In its first season, Dear White People has proved itself as one of the most vital shows on television.
Of course, those just some of the best shows of the first half of the year. Other great shows include Season 3 of Fargo and Season 3 of Better Caul Saul, along with the debut of American Gods. Perhaps by the end of the year, they may emerge as my favorites along with countless other shows waiting to be released.