Best TV of 2017 (5-1)
Feature by Louis Rabinowitz.
5. BoJack Horseman
Another familiar face, and one that might as well book a spot on this list for as long as it lasts. It’s hard to imagine BoJack Horseman ever having an off-year, really.
Season three was an absolute masterwork, and so it wasn’t that surprising or disappointing to see that season four was just a little below that quality, not quite able to deliver the same levels of artistry and emotion. But comparing season four to three is unfair because it puts down a season of TV that is still terrific and heart-wrenching and hilarious. It went smaller, and more intimate, zooming out from the usual big overarching Hollywood story to put its protagonist through the emotional ringer as he dived into his tortured family past, revealed to us in a pair of flashback episodes that deliver the existentially terrifying gut-punches you’d expect on the way in and out of the season. The sheer thematic darkness of this season, in how it explores the way trauma and cruelty cascades through generations and how subversive potential gives way to resentment and lost hope within families, is pretty amazing for a show that still markets itself as a comedy. And that’s just one strand of the season’s character arcs, with other episodes that take us inside the head of the clinically depressed BoJack or spend a horrendous day with Princess Carolyn as she struggles to maintain her optimism for the future in the face of overwhelming adversity also providing the stomach drops you pretty much require from this show at this point. It’s the kind of quietly revelatory TV that sticks in your head for weeks after, and doesn’t leave. Yet it still finds time for spectacular sequences of calculated dumbness like a politically pivotal ski race or rabid zombie clown dentists or pages of wordplay about the name ‘Cortnoy Portnoy’, and manages to make those bouts of silliness feel just as vital to the show’s success as the bleak stuff. This show is a gift that keeps on giving, and I hope it ends before it has a chance to let its incredible creative hot streak die out.
4. Rick & Morty
How can a show this smart be this stupid?
Adult Swim picked a fitting slogan for the third season of Rick & Morty. It’s a show that appeals unashamedly to the lizard brain, tempting it with visions of pickle-related ultraviolence and lots of jokes about butts, but also, when it gets down to it, one that’s as emotionally intelligent as you’re going to get on any of television. At its best, it’s doing both at the same time.
It’s easy to pick apart all the different bits and pieces of Rick & Morty, because there are so many aspects of it that appeal to so many people – some latch onto the family drama, some onto the sci-fi hijinks, some onto the anti-hero drama revolving around Rick, and some for the dick jokes, but, in all honesty, it’s just worth acknowledging that this is a show that has no right to be as good as it is. The way in which it can do in 22 minutes what cable dramas fail to do in 60, while maintaining a solid sixty-jokes-per-minute rhythm, or how it’s able to tell a riveting and funny story while deconstructing that story in front of your eyes and informing you why that story is inadequate, feels like a better summation of Rick & Morty. It’s at once a joyful and unrestrained flight into the weirdest recesses of the human imagination, and a painfully human exploration of the toxicity of family, and the struggle to articulate human connection. And it’s also a show that can spend 10% of an episode’s run-time on a bit about dipping sauce.
How can a show this stupid be this smart?
3. Better Call Saul
This is my third end of year list, and I’ve churned through a lot of shows in that time. Some that I enthused about in 2015 or 2016 have gone off the boil. Some have just skipped years. Some have ended. Through them all, though, Better Call Saul has stuck around. It’s the only show I’ve put on all three lists, and it basically has a slot reserved for 2018 by this point.
Season three of Saul was pretty much exceptional television – a stunning improvement upon two seasons that already saw the creatives at the top of their game. It’s a finely-tuned machine with all the parts working perfectly in tandem at this point, with just enough of a formula to be consistent. The show’s ability at making the deeply mundane into the operatically tragic is, at this point, incredible. It’s easy to be gripped enough to forget that season three stakes its most emotional story on the main character having forged a document that his brother made in the last season, because, in the hands of this show, that petty dispute feels like the world is ending. The fact that Saul can make stuff like throwing pills into a jacket pocket, or a 10-minute montage of a man taking a car apart seem earth shaking and at the same time tell a violent crime thriller subplot with life and death stakes every other week is… well, you’ve heard most of the superlatives already.
It’s easy for viewers to sleep on a show that’s so effortlessly good, but the ease with which Saul hits those dramatic heights doesn’t make its achievements any less impressive.
2. Twin Peaks: The Return
It’s impossible to capture Twin Peaks: The Return with nice words. It’s too expansive, too weird, too inscrutable to bottle up. How can you really tie together a show that hops from a 5-minute trip into the heart of an exploding nuclear bomb to slapstick comedy to gangster drama to surrealist soap opera to rock concert within the same episode? Is it possible to say just what exactly the precise dramatic effect of recasting classic characters as an interdimensional talking kettle or as a tree with a stick of gum on its head is?
It’s worth saying, though, that for all its sheer, uncompromising strangeness, and disregard for any need for the audience to keep up with it, that The Return actually operates by a lot of the laws of good, normal TV. Up to a point, most plotlines are pretty cohesive and straightforward to follow, and even the show’s weirdest moments contain a point that allows the viewer to peek into the true meaning behind it all. That’s arguably the best thing about The Return. It wants to challenge you, to baffle you with imagery you don’t understand, but it still wants you to actually enjoy it and have fun. It’s conceptual, experimental TV at its purest, but David Lynch and Mark Frost’s ability to tell a rollicking story to supplement that really made The Return sing.
1. The Leftovers
Picking a favourite television show from the year is always either an instant gut reaction or a considered, angsty process of deliberation. In the case of The Leftovers, it was very much the former.
The Leftovers was my favourite of a stunning year of television because it took everything else from the other shows on this list and crafted it into something that’s far greater from the sum of its parts. It’s a show of paradoxes and contradictions, conventions and subversions – TV that shouldn’t really exist in its current form because how did it get made? A simpler way of putting it might be that it’s the perfect, unlikely blend of thoughtful, thematically rich slow-burn drama that meditates with genuine insight on the nature of grief and the stories we construct to explain the horrors of death, and of ridiculous, madcap comedies of deeply silly imagination. It’s the kind of show where profound religious transformations occur at the precise moment where a sensuous lion eats the supposed human embodiment of God. And for final seasons, it was hard to beat the conclusion Leftovers cooked up – a series of perfectly interconnected yet singular farewells that hopped over to Australia and encompassed nuclear blasts and the song ‘Take on Me’ within the same montage before corkscrewing into a sad, melancholic and perfect ending that somehow provided exact closure on the show’s mystery box conceit while keeping everything entirely ambiguous. Really, I could go on for a long time, and talk about President Justin Theroux fighting his assassination doppelganger, or the trampoline scene, or everything about Carrie Coon’s outstanding performance. But, at this point, you get the idea. The Leftovers was something better watched than described, after all.