In putting together this top 10 list, I was reminded that The Young Pope—not on this list!—somehow aired this calendar year: the year that would never end, the year in which politics big-footed everything except Game of Thrones. 2017 has been long for reasons that have nothing to do with the gargantuan number of shows that premiered during it. Nonetheless, 400-something scripted shows did premiere this year, and they vied for attention with one another and the terrifying circus that is our politics. I thought this was a good-not-great year for television, but I also missed more TV than I loved, an occupational hazard these days. Next week we’ll be running our annual TV Club, a critics’ round table, and getting into the nitty-gritty of the TV year that was: Come back and read it! Until then please enjoy and/or yell at this totally subjective list of the shows that I liked best.
1. The Leftovers
Every episode of the third and final season of Damon Lindelof’s wild meditation on the fragility and unknowability of life felt like an adventure. The show, set in a world where 2 percent of the population has disappeared, grappled with the heaviest themes—suicide, depression, abandonment, grief—but with verve, abandon, and imagination, transforming itself from a tough watch into an energizing one. The Leftovers could go anywhere—Texas, Tasmania, the Outback, the dreamy maybe-afterlife—and do anything, including bursting the bounds of television.
2. I Love Dick
Jill Soloway’s other show, an adaptation of Chris Kraus’ nearly unadaptable cult novel about a struggling filmmaker who becomes infatuated with a Dick, was not universally admired when it arrived on Amazon in May. The show stars the stellar Kathryn Hahn as Chris, a brash narcissist who becomes obsessed with Kevin Bacon’s artist-cowboy Dick, and its most widely praised episode was one in which the camera turned away from Chris to the other women in the series talking about their own sexual awakenings. It’s true that everyone on the show, especially Chris and her husband, Sylvère (Griffin Dunne), is borderline unbearable, but they are also vital, profane, provocative, and sexy. Soloway has an incredible knack for both being pretentious and sending up pretentiousness, for making art about art. I Love Dick is not for everyone, but it is the kind of show that, if it is for you, will really be for you.
3. The Deuce
When I first heard that David Simon was making a TV show about the sex industry in the 1970s, I wondered if it might not be a smidge didactic. The creator of The Wire is fascinated by the mechanisms that create corrupt social structures—and also community board meetings. But Simon and George Pelecanos’ The Deuce is intelligent, sensitive, and fun, a show about exploitation that is not exploitative, a blast that’s also a tragedy. It’s the first show on this list that isn’t set in our current moment but speaks loudly and directly to it by exploring the misogyny inherent in a tawdry, grimy, booming scene, full of women with their own ambitions and desires, that shaped the porn-inflected world we’re still living in.
4. Better Things
Pamela Adlon’s comedy about Sam Fox, a working actress raising three girls in Los Angeles, is a domestic series that refreshes family sitcom tropes with its bad attitude and big heart. Kids, like life, are hard, challenging and worth it, a cheesy sentiment that Adlon strips of most of its corn while leaving just enough to move you. “Eulogy,” in which Sam stages her own funeral, is a structurally perfect, hilarious, tear-inducing remake of a standard sitcom trope; the scene in which Adlon fends off a would-be suitor with a litany of nos is a very funny, eerily prescient bit about consent.
5. Halt and Catch Fire
AMC’s underappreciated drama about a quartet of adults navigating one another, maturity, and the ’80s and ’90s tech scene finished this year. Its fourth season, like the ones before it, was a pleasure to watch, wise and gentle about the importance and difficulty of finding the right work and the right people with whom to make a life. If you haven’t watched it yet, lucky you—and yes, you can start at Season 2.
6. The Handmaid’s Tale
The adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, set in the dystopic, misogynist theocracy built around the bodily control of fertile women, was famously ordered before Trump’s election. It arrived after it, nauseatingly timely, the handmaid’s uniform made into a symbol of #resistance, and nolite te bastardes carborundorum into a sweatshirt slogan. If, after the first episode, the show moved away from Atwood’s source material and toward the more comforting possibility that Offred might be able to escape, that girl power might prevail, I didn’t mind. This show was still searing and gorgeous, a tough and provocative watch.
The second season of Issa Rae’s comedy about a young black woman trying to figure out love and life in Los Angeles—especially love—took on giant issues of race, class, sex, and gender, with intelligence, wit, and a sense of play. A treat to watch every week, it deftly and hilariously tracked the troubles of adulthood, which are coming for all of us eventually. It’s part of a trio of effervescent comedies about the lives of young black artists—alongside She’s Gotta Have It and Dear White People—made by black creators and starring black actors that took heavy, heady themes and made them into buoyant television.
8. Big Little Lies
Based on Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, this splashy, captivating miniseries about the unexpectedly challenging lives of impossibly rich mothers in a gossipy California enclave featured a string of movie-star performances from its movie stars: Reese Witherspoon in complicated Type A mode, Laura Dern in her prickly hummingbird register, and Nicole Kidman, as an abused wife, acting naturalistic circles around everyone. The show was about all the human complications that lie beneath the surface, both of seemingly picture-perfect lives and a deceptively frothy soap opera. Would watch again this very second.
Impossibly, the third season of this show aired this year, though it feels like it was much longer ago. The latest, six-episode checkup on the life of Rob and Sharon, who met for a one-night stand and became a family, was still laugh-out-loud hilarious, sour and astute about the ups and downs of marriage, child-rearing, and love. Its ending was in spiritual keeping with the times: brutally, honestly sad.
I am a sucker for love stories, which is why I liked G.L.O.W., Netflix’s charming, low-key series about a motley crew of women who start a would-be WWE-style women’s wrestling league in the 1980s: It didn’t have one, and I didn’t miss it. Instead, I got hooked on the fractured friendship between try-hard Ruth (Alison Brie) and overloaded new mom Debbie (Betty Gilpin) and the diverse, oddball crew of working women—plus Marc Maron—who find camaraderie and succor in spandex and careers of last resort.