The Best TV Shows of 2017 (So Far)

By Jen Chaney and Matt Zoller Seitz



This list has been updated to include September releases.

In the Peak TV era, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of television available. Even when you winnow the options down to the best of the best, as we did below, the shows don’t fit into any one category. They span genre, tone, and style in remarkable ways, from the romantic ennui of Master of None to the family comforts of One Day at a Time to the bizarre horror of Twin Peaks: The Return. With that in mind, here are the best shows of 2017 so far, as chosen by Jen Chaney and Matt Zoller Seitz.

(A quick note about our selection methodology: Nonfiction and scripted series were both eligible, whether ongoing or self-contained. Because the focus is on this calendar year, shows that debuted in 2016 and ran into this year were ruled out if more than half of the season’s episodes debuted prior to January 1. This is a consensus list by both Chaney and Seitz, whose individual lists at the end of this year may differ considerably.)

Better Call Saul (AMC)
To use an adjective befitting its protagonist, Jimmy McGill, Better Call Saul may be the slickest drama on TV right now. I say slick because it can wind its way through what initially appear to be familiar television scenarios — like the courtroom showdown earlier this season between Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy and his brother Chuck (the exceptional Michael McKean) — and turn them into moments that surprise us once, then again, and then yet another time. It is also consistently directed with a smooth, purposeful, yet casual elegance that befits a show about a con artist. In a year that has featured its share of shows centered around rivalries — Feud, the twin Ewan McGregor conflict on Fargo, Big Little Lies — the bitter and now fully soured relationship between Jimmy and Chuck stands as the most heartbreaking of them all. —JC

Better Things (FX)
Pamela Adlon has taken even greater command in the second season of Better Things, not only starring in the episodes and co-writing many of them, but directing every single one. The result is an even more well-observed and lovely look at the life of a single mom as she navigates romance, the whims of her three strong-willed daughters, and the struggle to be a mother to her own aging mother. —JC

Big Little Lies (HBO)
Some critics, even ones who genuinely liked this addictive immersion into the world of Monterey elementary-school politics, regarded Big Little Lies as a trashy pleasure with a prestige sheen on it. I never saw it that way. True, this is the series that so far this year, I took the deepest pleasure in watching. And yes, some of that pleasure derived from the sight of all those oceanfront dream homes and Reese Witherspoon wielding a trip to see Frozen on Ice as a weapon. But thanks to the depth of the performances from the knockout cast and one of the more unflinchingly honest depictions of domestic abuse on recent television, that pleasure deepened into awe and admiration. Big Little Lies wasn’t some trashy soap. It was a beautifully directed, female-dominated work of exceptional television. —JC

Big Mouth (Netflix)
Reliving the agony of preteen-hood is a pleasure in this animated Netflix series, co-created by Nick Kroll and based on his own adolescent experiences. Big Mouth is unabashedly crude, incredibly funny, surprisingly poignant, and one of the more accurate depictions of puberty that’s ever appeared onscreen. —JC

BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
In season four, the show’s interest in psychology merges with its other concerns in an organic, fully realized way, restating its belief that even people who think of themselves as broken or worthless deserve a shot at happiness. Its message comes through loud and clear: You can achieve happiness if you’re willing to commit selfless acts and realize that other people’s lives matter as much as your own. —MZS

The Carmichael Show (NBC)
A hot-button sitcom modeled on the works of Norman Lear, The Carmichael Show never shied away from big issues like racism, sexism, gun control, the accusations against Bill Cosby, and the N-word. “What’s most remarkable about this series is that it never feels like a fetishized nostalgia act. It faithfully replicates old-fashioned sitcom conventions and nudges them one step further,” Seitz wrote. “It’s closer to community theater, not in the sense that it’s amateurish (it isn’t; the ensemble cast is superb) but in the sense that it deals with and speaks to issues of community, asking how certain terms should be defined, where boundaries are, and whether common ground between verbal combatants is possible.”

Dear White People (Netflix)
This satirical comedy from Justin Simien belongs on a short list, alongside M*A*S*H and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of TV shows that were ultimately superior to their motion-picture source material. Set on the campus of a predominantly African-American college, the show deals with race, class, gender, and related hot-button political issues in a visually assured and narratively sophisticated way, adopting the points of view of different characters to fill out a story whose larger meaning becomes harder to reduce to platitudes the more voices you hear examining it. —MZS

The Deuce (HBO)
George Pelecanos and David Simon’s depiction of sex workers and pornographers around Times Square in the 1970s is less a warm nostalgia bath than a cold shower. The Deuce sets an unenviable task for itself: depicting the mundane reality of these characters with understated, at times shocking frankness, never shying away from the particulars of exploitation yet also making the transactions as non-­titillating as possible. At its best, it gets much closer than anyone could have anticipated. —MZS

Girls (HBO)
The sixth and final season of Girls found Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa realizing their bond wasn’t built to last. As Matt Zoller Seitz wrote after the series finale, “Girls ended not in the city but in the suburbs, not among friends but in near isolation, with Hannah Horvath (series creator Lena Dunham) resentfully raising her baby with forced assists from her mother Loreen (Becky Ann Baker) and her friend Marnie (Allison Williams), who broke into Hannah’s house and snuck into her bed like a stalker but proved genuinely helpful in the end. It ended true to its maddening heroine, who could never leave well enough alone, choosing instead to illuminate herself, often inadvertently, in self-serving and obliviously hurtful statements she blurted out right after making an otherwise decent and intelligent point. […] This was the saddest Girls season overall and easily the best — an object lesson in how to shape a serial narrative so that it only makes the points it needs to make and absolves itself of the need to distribute its attentions democratically and never neglect anybody.”

The Good Place (NBC)
The forking great twist at the end of season one was a tough act to follow. But in season two, The Good Place has risen to the occasion with bright and clever writing, winning performances from its consistently agile ensemble, and an afterlife that continues to surprise. —JC

Great News (NBC)
Great News may not be as socially relevant as several other current great comedies on television (Veep, Silicon Valley, Black-ish, the aforementioned Carmichael Show), but its first season overflows with so much silly, infectious, madcap joy that you can hardly dock it points for that. Created by 30 Rock veteran Tracey Wigfield, this sitcom gives Andrea Martin the lead role she’s deserved for decades; thanks to her work in episode three, I will never hear the Mission: Impossible theme the same way again. And come to think of it, its potshots at the personalities responsible for making cable news do resonate more sharply than they might have at another point in time. Still, the main thing I love about Great News is how consistently it made me laugh. If there’s anything these times call for, it’s the chance to take a break from actual cable news and laugh heartily at the pretend kind. —JC

Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
This drama about the PC and internet revolutions of the 1980s and early ’90s is criminally under-watched. Nothing reinforces that more than the show’s fourth and final season, which is currently unfolding on AMC with a confidence that comes across in every element of its storytelling — writing, directing, editing, acting, music supervision, you name it — and in the show’s deep respect for and understanding of its characters, including the female leads Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) who were given short shrift in the initial episodes. Why aren’t you watching this show? You should be watching this show before it’s over. —JC

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
This adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s must-read for all English majors was not entirely devoid of flaws. It sagged a bit in the middle of its season, and sometimes it conveyed its messages with all the subtlety of a public stoning. Nevertheless, it still emerged as one of the highlights of 2017 so far, for its deeply committed performances (Elisabeth Moss is the obvious standout, but Samira Wiley, Ann Dowd, Yvonne Strahovski, and Alexis Bledel back her up beautifully); its stunning imagery, particularly in the initial episodes directed by Reed Morano; and its ability to keep audiences on a heightened state of alert at almost all times. The fact that it started streaming on Hulu at one of the more anxious moments in recent American politics was a coincidence that gave it added relevance. Years from now, when we talk about the major events on television in 2017, it’s very likely that The Handmaid’s Tale will be part of that discussion. —JC

Insecure (HBO)
The second season of star-writer-producer Issa Rae’s comedy is a striking refinement of season one, moving thorough the professional and love lives of its characters with greater precision and boldness. The performances are more focused as well; every episode that has aired to date could be different, but not better. The show also deserves credit for rooting its comedy of friendship, sex, and workplace anxiety entirely in the real world and never envisioning any situation that couldn’t actually happen. When it comes to TV, that’s a lot harder than it sounds. —MZS

The Leftovers (HBO)
Some people dismissed The Leftovers during its first season because they found it too grim. With its focus on the disorientation and grief that sets in after 2 percent of the world’s population disappears, it didn’t feel wrong, sometimes, to describe Damon Lindelof’s adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel as a series about coping with death. But in its third and final season, while it didn’t shy away from the brutality and anguish associated with losing one’s equilibrium, The Leftovers ultimately turned into something life-affirming. There was humor in those last eight episodes, as well as Perfect Strangers references, surreal journeys to war rooms in parallel realms, and the occasional goat wearing Mardi Gras beads. More importantly, there were reminders that love and grace can be found here on Earth even after much has been lost. This was unforgettable, soul-enriching TV. I already miss it. —JC

Master of None (Netflix)
The first season of this simultaneously light but deep comedy contained some notably ambitious episodes. So when it came time to do a second season, co-creators Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari decided to “make every episode that crazy,” as Ansari puts it. The result is a gorgeously photographed romantic comedy in which Dev (Ansari) grapples with his love for a woman he cannot have. It’s also, depending on the episode, a flashback-driven portrait of a lesbian’s slow process of coming out, a snapshot of what it’s like to swipe right on date after date while living in New York in the time of Tinder, and a Richard Linklater–esque indie movie that follows everyday Manhattanites and discovers that — surprise! — everyone of them has a fascinating inner life. In short, Master of None is a season of television that, in its love story and aesthetic approach, celebrates taking chances. —JC

One Day at a Time (Netflix)
A throwback to the classic sitcoms of yore, One Day at a Time is the best kind of TV comfort food. When it debuted in January, Seitz wrote, “Even though it airs on a streaming service, Netflix’s reimagining of Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time is close to a perfect example of old-school, all-things-to-all-people broadcasting: smart but not hifalutin, blunt but not crass, politically and culturally aware (often self-aware) but never academic or theoretical, and proudly old-fashioned in its methods. […] Suffice to say that this is the sort of series that makes difficult things seem easy, so easy that you often don’t realize how artful it is until you think back on it.”

The Patriot (Amazon)
Created and mostly directed and written by Steve Conrad (who also wrote the Ben Stiller version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), this Amazon spy series is less an action drama than a droll, gleefully random comedy about deception, family, and the complexity of the human personality. It sets a distinct narrative path for itself, but then departs from it early and often. It’s hard to say what audience it is trying to appeal to, and that’s high praise: As it meanders through its complex and cofounding story, it seems to follow a secret North Star that only its makers can see. —MZS

Rick and Morty (Adult Swim)
Like Futurama, another spoofy, animated, science-fiction comedy that staged episodes as sad as they were funny, Rick and Morty raids countless prior classics for visual and narrative inspiration. But it is most impressive as a bawdy comedy of character. Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s series understands the damage that family members do to each other even as it’s sending them on increasingly absurd, often mind-bending adventures. Along the way, the series makes smart observations about the way money drives politics, the circumstances under which violence is justified as patriotism, and the tendency of humans to substitute gadgets for love and self-medicate instead of dealing with the roots of their troubles. —MZS

Samurai Jack (Adult Swim)
Nearly 13 years after Samurai Jack aired its last episode, the animated series about a samurai sent into a dystopian future returned for a final hurrah. As Seitz explains, the revival was an absolute triumph: “Genndy Tartakovsky is the world’s greatest living action filmmaker, and Samurai Jack is the most aesthetically daring series on TV. If you’re new to this show about a samurai stranded in a post-apocalyptic future while battling a demon, you may find my proclamations excessive and weird, for three reasons: (1) Samurai Jack is a cartoon, and cartoons aren’t often mentioned when Quality TV is discussed — especially cartoons about swordsmen stranded in a post-apocalyptic future while battling a demon, because anything so described must be trite; (2) Samurai Jack looks at first glance like a parade of action sequences with little plot or dialogue, and after even a few minutes of watching it, you realize that yes, in fact, that’s unapologetically what it is; and, most importantly, (3) you can follow Samurai Jack without having seen one second of any previous season, because the show is a rare example of storytelling that’s not about what happens, but how it happens.”

Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access)
Wonderstruck, overstuffed, corny, and stirring, Star Trek: Discovery stands tall alongside the best-regarded incarnations of the Trek franchise even as it raids elements from each of them. Though a tad unsteady in its first two hours — though vastly superior to the pilot for The Next Generation, which debuted exactly 30 years ago — this heavily serialized series offers PG-13 violence, audience-pandering exposition dumps, cliff-hanger endings, Game of Thrones–style pomp, and a touch of Lost’s mystery-box plotting, but also poker-faced musings on quantum science, moral relativism, logic versus instinct, race, culture, and the military’s tendency to corrupt science in service of war. Even when the plotting is a hunk of Swiss cheese, the characters’ psychologies are rock-solid. —MZS

Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime)
Perhaps the most anticipated show of the year, Twin Peaks: The Return resists any attempt to “explain” itself. It is experimental art, through and through, as Seitz described it: “This is the Lynch who made his debut 40 years ago with Eraserhead, a black-and-white nightmare set in a hellish industrial landscape about a man caring for an infant who looks like a reptilian spermatozoa. This is also the David Lynch who directed Lost Highway, in which a man convicted of murdering his wife is transformed without explanation into an auto mechanic who has a torrid affair with a gangster’s mistress; the identity swap is never explained, nor is the fact that the murdered wife and the gangster’s mistress are played by the same actress. This is the same Lynch who has never not been an experimental filmmaker, even when making the gentle drama The Straight Story, about an old man driving a tractor to visit his dying brother — a film that only feels “accessible” in relation to the rest of Lynch, and that would have been considered radically austere had almost anyone else directed it. This is Lynch the experimental filmmaker — the filmmaker Lynch has always been.”

Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later (Netflix)
The third piece in what improbably became an ongoing series, this trip back to Camp Firewood takes place in 1991; brings back nearly all of the previous cast members (among them Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, and myriad alumni of MTV’s The State, including the creators of Wet Hot American Summer, David Wain and Michael Showalter) and adds a few new ones; throws in a story line involving nukes and presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; and manages to be even more deliriously preposterous than the 2001 movie that started this whole thing, as well as its prequel, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. At any point, you may react to what you’re watching as follows: “God, this is so dumb. Really dumb. So, so du — bwahahaha.” 10 Years Later is absurd, and it revels in that absurdity, so much that you can’t help but join the exceedingly weird party. Given the year we’ve all been having, don’t we all need a heavy dose of unapologetic random lunacy? —JC

Will & Grace (NBC)
The year has proven that TV reboots aren’t always a terrible idea, first with Twin Peaks: The Return and again with the reemergence of Will & Grace after an 11-year absence. The four leads are as game as ever, the dialogue is still infused with the same zippy venom, and the show is just woke enough to make it fit relatively seamlessly into the 2017 landscape, where we desperately need this brand of classic comic silliness. —JC

Younger (TV Land)
As I said in my review of the fourth season of this infectiously fizzy series, I continue to be impressed with the way Younger keeps squeezing new juice out of its central premise: that its protagonist, book publishing up-and-comer Liza (Sutton Foster), is actually in her 40s, but poses as a millennial for professional reasons. The truth continues to slowly leak out to some influential characters without Liza’s cover totally getting blown, an approach that maintains the necessary suspense while keeping some semblance of reality intact. Note how I say some semblance of reality: What makes this one of the most purely fun shows on TV is the fact that it offers such a smart, distilled form of escapism. If Younger existed in liquid form, it would definitely cause inebriation, but the happy, hangover-proof kind that makes you see New York City as a place filled with warmly lit bars, beautiful faces, glitzy book parties, and people who almost never have to take the subway. —JC

The Young Pope (HBO)
A limited series created by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, The Young Pope tells the story of the first American pope, an orphan named Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), who was raised by a nun named Sister Mary (Diane Keaton). After its debut, Seitz wrote, “The sheer novelty of The Young Pope makes for compelling viewing even when the show seems to be throwing ideas and images against the Vatican walls to see if anything sticks. Law’s slightly sour charisma and Sorrentino’s prankish sense of humor are such a potent combination that the more high-stakes moments — such as Pius facing off against his mentor, played by the formidable James Cromwell — make less of an impression than the many rambling scenes in which the pope holds forth on whatever subject the episode finds interesting at that moment, from the history of Catholics in Greenland to the inverse relationship between the visibility of celebrities and their mystique. This is, in many ways, one of the weirdest, most counterintuitive programs ever to get a green-light from HBO.”




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