Our picks for the top series of the year, as well as the best in auteur-driven, Canadian and cult offerings
Allora… how to sum up the best show of 2017, one that breaks new TV ground, develops its characters in fascinating ways and is, simply, as fun, absorbing and addictive as spending time with your closest friends?
Yes, Dev’s stint in Italy learning to make pasta and get over Rachel seemed at first like a reason for co-creator/star Aziz Ansari to expense a gourmet trip to Europe. But it set up the season’s overarching narrative about Dev’s growing attachment to Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi), including scenes that brought out Ansari’s dramatic acting chops.
The season also covered religion with laughs and respect, showcased Manhattan’s true diversity and class differences and depicted the dating scene in a fresh way. Thanks to the Thanksgiving episode, family holidays will never feel the same. Oh, and let’s not forget Dev’s new stint as a food TV host under Bobby Cannavale’s charismatic but abusive celebrity chef in a plot line that eerily preceded the seismic shift in the real entertainment industry.
Top episode: New York, I Love You
The idea of a Twin Peaks revival at first seemed wrong. Such a singular and immeasurably influential show should be immune to the 90s nostalgia that gave us Fuller House. Fortunately, David Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost are not subject to such market forces.
Schematically speaking, the 18-episode series finds Kyle MacLachlan’s Special Agent Dale Cooper attempting to make his way to the town of Twin Peaks after being trapped in the Black Lodge for 25 years. Somehow, getting there involves doppelgangers, dream pop and the birth of evil itself. Fragmented plot lines start and stop – sometimes terrifying, sometimes strangely funny, sometimes offering answers but more often raising enough questions to fill a thousand sub-reddits.
Guided more by dream logic than linear narrative, The Return is packed with unforgettable sounds and images. At times you wonder if it’s in dialogue with prestige TV itself, purposely confounding expectations about coherence and resolution. But more likely Lynch is being Lynch, working to the beat of his own transcendental mantra.
Top episode: The Return, Part 8
Courtesy of HBO
In a media climate that relishes pitting women against one another, the TV adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel was an especially tantalizing prospect. Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern star as a group of adversarial wives in a well-to-do Northern California enclave that’s scandalized (and loving it) when a murder takes place.
We’re not shown who bit the dust – everyone is a suspect – and as we flash back to the events leading to the big reveal, writer David E. Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallée toy with audience bias. They insert quips from gossipy town folk that seem rote at first, but gradually make the drama more about subverting expectation than whodunit.
Scenes of domestic violence are unflinchingly handled – especially by Kidman, in one of her best performances – to show its complicated ripple effect on relationships among women and children. Regardless of which character dies, it all feeds back into a toxic cycle.
Top episode: Once Bitten
Courtesy of Netflix
Hollywoo(d) satire, portraits of addiction, animal puns – BoJack Horseman brings it all back for its fourth season.
The Netflix comedy’s latest run sees BoJack, voiced with perpetual crustiness and barely veiled fragility by Will Arnett, grappling in a new way with his long-shirked responsibilities as a sassy teen horse (comedian Aparna Nancherla) shows up on his doorstep claiming to be his daughter.
As he reckons with young Hollyhock’s sudden arrival, the show delves, in a series of exquisite and gutting flashback episodes, into BoJack’s family history, offering a needle-sharp meditation on the way family trauma gets passed down through generations.
Believe it: a show about a talking horse will make you weep. But there’s plenty of tension-breaking comedy, largely stemming from the cast of friends (Alison Brie, Aaron Paul, Paul F. Tompkins and Amy Sedaris) trapped in the vortex of BoJack’s drama.
Top episode: Time’s Arrow
Courtesy of CBC
When the Baroness Von Sketch Show premiered on the CBC in 2016, it was a breath of fresh air. Men dominate the sketch comedy scene, but this series is created by women (Meredith MacNeill, Carolyn Taylor, Jennifer Whalen and Aurora Browne) and features mostly women writers and directors.
The result is an uproariously funny show. The Baronesses take on everyday minutia – the appropriate amount of exclamation points to use in work emails, the awkwardness of dance circles – and twist them into hilarious, exaggerated fables. While season one focused on light-hearted gags, the second tackled more serious subjects like the housing crisis, identity politics and harassment – with amusing irreverence.
This season also saw guest appearances by Reggie Watts (as a musician who writes uncomfortably personal birthday odes) and Orange Is The New Black’s Lea DeLaria. Read our interview with the Baronesses about their breakout year here.
Top episode: Taco And A Hair Flip
HBO’s sprawling, exhilarating series is purportedly about porn’s rise. But it’s also about all the other factors that swept sex workers and their pimps off 42nd Street in the early 70s. There was new legislation, police crackdowns and mob-organized massage parlours.
The Deuce covers it all like a textbook on sex trade labour and economics. As you might expect from David Simon and George Pelecanos – the team behind premium television’s crown jewel The Wire – the show shines thanks to its intricate, intimate and considerate look at sex workers and their lives. The subject matter means there’s a lot of sex on display – more than we’ve seen on the network that gave us The Sopranos, Westworld and Game Of Thrones.
But you’ll have a hard time finding any of it objectifying, lurid or pleasurable – perhaps a welcome result of a series half directed by women.
Top episode: Pilot
This comedy-drama started out with humble YouTube origins but over two seasons has grown to habour grand ambitions. Insecure may be about a particular slice of Black American life – it follows two best friends, Issa and Molly (Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji), as they navigate careers and relationships in South Los Angeles – but it also traverses large swaths of modern Blackness.
The series has delved into issues of fragility and Black masculinity, gentrification, the pay gap for Black women, the daily micro-aggressions faced by people of colour and the fetishization of Black bodies.
Such a weighty list doesn’t exactly sound bingeable – more like required university reading – but Insecure is also a breezy show. It’s anchored by the awkward, messy and relatable Issa, who often delves into flights of fantasy, hilarious fourth-wall-breaking rap scenes and one-liners ready-made for pop culture dominance. (She calls her roster of casual hook-ups a “hoetation.”)
Top episode: Hella L.A.
The premise of Michael Schur’s afterlife comedy is almost diabolically simple: cynical, scheming Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is welcomed into heaven even though she knows she doesn’t belong there and will do anything she can to keep her spot.
Schur and his very resourceful writers – many of whom worked with him on Parks And Recreation and The Office – spin up a farce of magnificent complexity, with Ted Danson’s beaming “architect” Michael introducing Eleanor to three other newly departed souls (William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto) and letting them bounce off one another – as well as the definitely not human afterlife assistant Janet (D’Arcy Carden).
As Eleanor’s impostor syndrome gives way to genuine philosophical enquiry – does any of us deserve to be in the Bad Place? – a second-season pivot turns the show into a meta-commentary about keeping an audience watching once all the cards are on the table. (Or are they?) You can devour the first season on Netflix in a day, but I’d suggest you parcel it out a little. A pleasure like this is meant to be savoured.
Top episode: The Trolley Problem
When news broke that the latest season of Game Of Thrones would be seven episodes rather than the usual 10, fans were devastated. Yet the shortened run allowed co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to trim the fat and distill the best aspects of George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire.
Early into season seven, the lacklustre, drawn-out subplots were neatly tied up, making room for the characters and storylines fans have always cared about the most: Jon Snow and the Starks, Cersei and Jaime Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen and the White Walkers.
Many of the plot lines that orbited separately for six seasons finally crossed paths, and the payoffs were huge. Yes, there were epic battle scenes, supernatural threats and long-awaited romances fans have been dreaming of for seasons. But the seventh season cut to the crux of series: the struggle for power, and the lengths we’ll go to hold onto it.
Top episode: The Dragon And The Wolf
The drama series based on the young adult novel of the same name centres around Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a high school student who died by suicide and left a box of 13 cassette tapes explaining why she ended her life.
Over 13 nail-biting episodes, we get to see Hannah’s various relationships with classmates told through flashbacks. Most of the issues the show presents is typical teen stuff – drinking at house parties, tense relationships with parents and school bullying. But 13 Reasons Why also handles difficult topics, like sexual violence and mental health, in ways that haven’t previously been explored in teen dramas.
In fact, it opens a pretty frank discussion even for adults. Even though the episodes can feel formulaic, truth-seekers will be hooked on this show until the end.
Top episode: Tape 6, Side A
Michelle da Silva
No wonder people aren’t going to the theatre with cinematic offerings like these.
Courtesy of Netflix
The second season of Joe Swanberg’s anthology series is even better than the first. More like short films than episodic television, Easy’s stories about a diverse group of Chicagoans touch on the ways sex and relationships intersect with and complicate professional pursuits. Though there are style and pacing switch-ups, Swanberg’s scripts are cleverly and simply constructed but filled with complex emotion and nuanced observations. You can tell the excellent cast – including Judy Greer, Dave Franco, Marc Maron, Danielle Macdonald and Kiersey Clemons – are relishing their roles, which often require imparting key themes and ideas in quiet glance-at-your-phone-and-miss-it moments. KR
“Raunchy sex comedy” and “autobiographical” are descriptors that don’t usually get mashed up, but Michaela Coel has pulled it off. For two seasons, the British actor/writer has starred as Tracey Gordon, a London council estate resident intent on losing her virginity while under the watchful eyes of her Pentecostal sister and mom. A bright and zany aesthetic gives a refreshingly different view into a setting oft-portrayed as dour. Coel is hilariously expressive as an actor and a pointed writer, tackling everything from sexual racism and religion to incest and S&M. Somehow season two upped the raunch factor. KR
Jane Campion’s mystery series – starring Elisabeth Moss as Kiwi homicide investigator Robin Griffin, who pushes down her own personal trauma to catch killers – took four years between seasons, but it was worth the wait: the second story moved to Australia for a compelling look at misogyny, exploitation and the ways in which parents and children can never fully understand each other. Campion offered Nicole Kidman a terrific part as a parent drawn into Robin’s orbit, and added some much-needed comic relief by casting Gwendoline Christie as Robin’s sidekick. NW
A rare continuing series with a strong cinematic point of view and style, Girls’ sixth and final season was a stellar send-off to the self-obsessed foursome played by creator Lena Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke and Zosia Mamet. This satire of fumbling 20-something transience was never going to reach an easy or optimistic conclusion. Instead, Girls gave us flaws and failure. Dunham has been called a lot of things, but she’s underrated as a physical comedian, and season six blends sharp writing with her best performances yet. KR
The horror unleashed on Hawkins, Indiana, last year is still tormenting the town in season two. Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) has returned home, but a mysterious substance is ruining local pumpkin fields. The show’s creators, The Duffer Brothers, continue to pay homage to Spielberg and other 80s genre flicks with even more throwbacks to E.T. packed in. New additions to the cast include tomboy Max (Sadie Sink), Joyce Byers’s adorkable boyfriend (Sean Astin) and mysterious Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), aka the Eight to Millie Bobby Brown’s Eleven. The show’s youngest performers, however, are still the most compelling and, along with the synth-heavy musical score, make the show worth bingeing. MDS
These are the best shows of the year with Canuck connections.
Few would have guessed Margaret Atwood’s 1985 tent pole of CanLit syllabi would become a prestige TV show in 2017, but this year was especially apt for offering a suffocating vision of a fascist America that facilitates the systemic abuse of women by powerful men. From the Halloween-costume-inspiring wardrobe to Elisabeth Moss’s brilliant performance, Handmaid’s Tale is claustrophobic and disturbing. Plus: Toronto’s architecture suits the dystopian Republic of Gilead well… for better or for worse. RT
Writer/producer Emily Andras (Lost Girl) took Beau Smith’s comic book about the demon-fighting great-great-granddaughter of Wyatt Earp and turned it into the rightful heir to Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Melanie Scrofano kicks ever so much supernatural ass as the troubled hero – and did so while pregnant for most of the second season, which spurred an arc about vulnerability and self-reliance that no one saw coming. Meanwhile, Tim Rozon and Shamier Anderson find a fun rivalry as Wynonna’s secretive sidekicks, and Dominique Provost-Chalkley supplies buckets of heart (sometimes literally) as her younger sister, whose romance with Katherine Barrell’s doe-eyed deputy is the soul of the show. NW
This pseudo-reality comedy show’s fourth season is a mixed bag but delivers its highest highs. This year saw Nathan Fielder both push his format – how much trust will California businesses put into his hair-brained schemes based on etiquette and his University of Victoria business degree? – and break out of it. Gags like a plan to convince customs that a fire alarm is a musical instrument become biting late-capitalism satire. It all leads to a surprisingly poignant two-hour meditation on loneliness and regret that sticks with you long after it’s over. RT
Sure, you can watch Letterkenny to hang out with Wayne (Jared Keeso) and Daryl (Nathan Dales), a couple of small-town hicks who sit around crabbing about pretty much everything that irks them while Wayne’s sister Katy (Michelle Mylett) does her best to ignore them. Or you can watch it to appreciate the amazing facility with which Keeso and Dales snap off their deadpan machine-gun dialogue. Or to appreciate the ever-expanding cast of characters and recurring appearances by Jacob Tierney (who co-created the show with Keeso), Kaniehtiio Horn, Sarah Gadon, Mark Forward and Melanie Scrofano. (Jay Baruchel is joining the cast next season, apparently as a men’s rights activist.) NW
Alias Grace is about all the ways men look at women, but there’s something Hitchcockian in the way that Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) looks back. Grace is the 19th-century teenaged housemaid who spent decades in prison for murdering her employers (played by Paul Gross and Anna Paquin). As with the Margaret Atwood novel, the Sarah Polley-created series picks up with the prisoner while she’s being interviewed by a doctor (Edward Holcroft) trying to find out where she fits between cunning femme fatale and innocent pawn. Gadon gives a memorable performance as a character whose lingering unknowability is her greatest strength. RS
From camp to crude, these shows aren’t for everyone.
Courtesy of FX
Yes, Ryan Murphy’s backstage drama about the making of 1962 film Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? could have delved deeper into the considerable talents of its stars Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina). It’s full of self-aware camp appeal, but also interesting insight into its era. Moreover, its portrait of women fighting to maintain careers in unrelentingly sexist Hollywood, and all the power struggles, indignities and compromises that are part of that, make it an extra timely and absorbing watch. KR
After season one’s (literal) highs and lows, Maria Bamford’s hilarious bipolar alter ego is back, navigating showbiz and interpersonal relationships (Maria’s now living with boyfriend Scott, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) while trying not to repeat past mistakes. This season has a more solid structural spine, flashing backward to Duluth and then forward (into an Elon Musk-produced sitcom-within-a-sitcom) with clarity. Season one’s talking German pugs are joined by a menagerie of other animals, and once again Ana Gasteyer, as Maria’s obnoxious agent, steals every scene she’s in. A refreshing, subversive antidote to Trump’s America. Now if only Maria could somehow meet Valerie Cherish and Jerri Blank in season three. GS
The drag queen competition had a breakout moment in 2017 thanks to its move to VH1 in the U.S. (It aired on OutTV in Canada.) That led to bigger ratings, a send-up on SNL and a larger platform for some seriously dramatic Lip-Sync For Your Life eliminations and wig reveals that helped make distant memories of the early complaints that season 9 seemed a bit dry. Producers also raised the stakes in the finale. Still one of the best-cast and -produced reality shows on TV. KR
Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s animated sci-fi comedy started out as a pornographic goof on the inexplicable friendship between Back To The Future’s demanding Doc Brown and trusting sidekick Marty McFly. The characters have been reconfigured into a more TV-friendly, less legally actionable duo of a dimension-hopping super-genius and his hesitant, insecure grandson (both voiced by Roiland). But the point of view is as scabrous and cynical as it ever was, offering high-concept shenanigans laced with deeply felt emotional beats about Rick’s abandonment of Morty’s mother, Beth (Sarah Chalke), her marriage to the doofus Jerry (Chris Parnell) and their daughter, Summer (Spencer Grammer), who’s grown into a remarkable character over three seasons. NW
This animated series is a coming-of-age story of best friends Andrew (John Mulaney) and Nick (co-creator Nick Kroll) as they battle adolescence in all its awkward, hilarious detail. There’s plenty of raunchy gags about wet dreams, masturbating, first periods (which involves a tampon that sounds like Michael Stipe belting out “Everybody Bleeds”), yet the show has a surprisingly sensitive soul. By the end of the 10 episodes, you really feel for the seventh-graders – and will be so relieved you don’t have to go through that again. SE
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