Dianne Reeves: TV Is The Thing This Year
[Edited on 2/2/18, to add a show that I forgot]
As I’ve mentioned, I watch a great deal of TV, and as many people have discussed, we are currently in a period where TV is filled with great shows. The model of creating bingeable high quality shows (which Netflix didn’t create, but is probably the largest beneficiary of) has raised the bar across streaming and more traditional networks.
I was, however, shocked, when I put together this list of shows that I liked in 2017, because it is so long. And it doesn’t even include every show that I watched in 2017–I have some guilty pleasures that are fun (like, say Supergirl or Hawaii Five-0), but don’t rise to the level of even this bloated list, there are some shows that I watch because I’ve stayed with them for a number of seasons, even if they aren’t all that great anymore (like Homeland), there are some shows that were good, but just didn’t have the same spark this year (like Veep or Transparent), or shows that were intriguing, but somehow didn’t grab me at the level of those on the list (like Legion or Runaways), and there are some that are perfectly fine shows that my wife really likes, and we watch together (like Grace and Frankie).
And, I know that there are shows that made many year-end best of lists that I didn’t watch, because you can’t watch everything, or because their premise didn’t seem interesting, or because I’m already too many seasons behind. Some of them I may watch down the line, and some I won’t.
Which is why, as with my music list, I call this a list of “my favorites” not a list of “the best.” Note that there may be some minor spoilers below, although I’ve tried hard to avoid anything major:
It may not have been the “best” show of 2017, but the one that I have thought the most about has been Bojack Horseman (Netflix), which I wrote about in greater detail here. It may be atop my list because we binged all four seasons over a short period of time, allowing its brilliance to really sink in.
The rest of my favorites, in alphabetical order:
Alias Grace (Netflix)–Who would have thought that there’d be a year in which there would be a debate over which was the best adaptation of a Margaret Atwood book? Alias Grace is based on an actual murder in the 1840s, and in some ways was more chilling than The Handmaid’s Tale because of its grounding in the real mistreatment of its female characters. Plus incredible acting by Sarah Polley and direction by Mary Harron.
The Americans (FX)–Maybe not the best season of this show, one of the best of the last few years, but still head and shoulders above most everything else. The pressure continues to build as the stage is set for the final season.
Big Little Lies (HBO)–I resisted this show, based on early lukewarm reviews, but later more enthusiastic coverage and the Golden Globes, led to a quick binge. Turns out, it was a very good show, well-acted, well-directed, and well-written, with a twist that I should have, but didn’t, see coming.
The Bold Type (Freeform, now on Hulu)–How did a show about twenty-something women working at a fashion magazine, broadcast on Freeform, of all places, get on the list of a fifty-something man who thinks fashion is silly? Not for creepy reasons, but because it was a good show, about friendship, love, work, life and the role of media and social media. Another recommendation from my daughter, it is glossy and sometimes silly, but rarely frivolous.
Broadchurch (Netflix)–Season 3 was, I think, better than season 2, but didn’t live up to the first, but not much does. Brilliant acting, writing, and directing, gorgeous scenery, and a knotty mystery that continues to rip the veneer off of what initially seemed like a pleasant, small town. It turns out that pretty much every man in Broadchurch is a jerk, or worse, and some of the women are pretty bad, too.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)–On paper, this shouldn’t work, a sitcom set in a police station, starring goofy Andy Sandberg and Andre Braugher, best known as an extremely serious actor, surrounded by a diverse group of actors and comedians, not to mention the imposing Terry Crews. And yet, over its four seasons, it has created great characters, who play incredibly well off of each other. I laugh out loud from this show, which also doesn’t shy away from dealing with race, LGBT, parenting and other serious issues.
Casual (Hulu)–One of many shows I’ve watched over the last few years that focus on the problems of rich, neurotic residents of Los Angeles who often can be annoying. Casual isn’t as “important” as Transparent, or as narrowly focused on a single relationship, like Love, or as navel-gazing as Togetherness, but its focus on the relationship of a brother, a sister, and her precocious teenage daughter, all of whom have both positive and negative characteristics, has made for interesting, sometimes funny, and sometimes infuriating, viewing.
Catastrophe (Amazon)–In season 1, Rob, an American visiting London, has a brief affair with Sharon, and when she gets pregnant, Rob relocates to London to marry Sharon. Over the next two seasons, this tenuous relationship has its ups and downs, as do the lives of the main characters (and their friends). Great writing and chemistry from Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, who seem like they could be married, even though they aren’t.
The Crown (Netflix)–As a confirmed anti-monarchist, I still found this show to be fascinating, even though I do find myself yelling at the screen, “Boo-hoo, it must be terrible to have to live in a big house (or houses), have tons of servants, all the money, and people bowing to you, in exchange for having some limits on your ability to do whatever you want, and occasionally making a public appearance and wave (in a strange way).” The acting is great, and it looks posh.
The Detour (TBS)–This is one strange show, from the twisted minds of married couple Jason Jones (who stars in the show) and Samantha Bee (who doesn’t, because she has another gig). It starts off looking like a story about an ordinary family going on vacation, but spins wildly out of control. Every character is an unreliable narrator, and at no time is anything as it seems.
Downward Dog (ABC)–Another show that shouldn’t work–a gentle comedy about the life of a young woman, played by Allison Tolman, who was the rock of the first season of Fargo, featuring voiceover narration from her dog. And yet, it works, due to Tolman’s genuine performance, a strong supporting cast, and the dog, voiced by show co-creator Samm Hodges, who somehow sounds exactly like you think a dog would sound.
The Deuce (HBO)–Not the best David Simon-related show, but still excellent. The Deuce, in its first season, was able to (1) recreate the gritty NYC of the early ’70s, (2) introduce a boatload of characters, (3) explore the world of prostitution, pornography, and organized crime without being particularly exploitative, and (4) have twin brothers both played by James Franco without being too gimmicky, while creating a riveting narrative. Great writing, directing and acting, particularly by Maggie Gyllenhall as a hooker with both a heart and brain of gold, Franco, and a bunch of actors who have been in other Simon projects.
The Expanse (Syfy)–A great political/crime/science fiction saga that is set in the future, when man has settlements on the Moon, Mars and in the asteroid belt. Great characters, realistic politics, good special effects and a big mystery. I hear that the books that the series is based on are great, but I’ve also heard that the show is, in some ways, better, so I’m sticking with the TV version for now.
Fargo (FX)–No, season 3 wasn’t as good as season’s 1 or 2, but it was still better than most shows. Great performances by Ewan McGregor (in yet another show which cast an actor as brothers), Carrie Coon, David Thewlis, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, in what may be a career-making role.
Fauda (Netflix)–An Israeli series about commandos who work undercover in Palestinian areas. It is incredibly suspenseful and exciting–the title means “chaos” in Arabic, the language of most of the program’s dialogue. It portrays both sides of the conflict as morally ambiguous–there are elements of good and bad in each character, and I understand that is unusual for an Israeli show to display any sympathy for Palestinian fighters or to show Israeli agents to be less than honorable.
Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (TBS)–One of two political/comedy shows on this list from former Daily Show correspondents, both of whom are not originally from the United States, Bee’s show is often angrier than Last Week Tonight, and appropriately focuses more on women’s issues.
Girls (HBO)–The final season of Girls contained all of the things that made people love and hate the show, but had so many high moments, that the lowlights were easily forgotten. Watching the “girls” gradually turn into “women,” maturing, taking on adult responsibilities, and learning that college friendships don’t actually last forever, was both heartbreaking, and reassuring. Sure, there were parts that were unrealistic and annoying, but the show was never meant to be a documentary or painless.
The Good Place (NBC)–There is no more inventive comedy on any platform than The Good Place. Season 1 set up the premise, that after death, humans get assigned to the Good Place or Bad Place (or possibly, the Medium Place), based on an elaborate point system, and that one human, played by Kristen Bell, got into the Good Place by mistake, leading to all sorts of complications. And then, there was a big twist. Season 2 has explored the implications of the twist, in ways that always keep you guessing. Bell, and the other three lead humans are great, and Ted Danson gives a masterful performance.
GLOW (Netflix)–A fictionalized retelling of the creation of a 1980s syndicated women’s wrestling show. It focuses on the empowerment of the mostly marginalized women who come together to create something unique and strangely compelling. Great work by Alison Brie, as the failed “serious” actress who embraces her role as the “heel”; Betty Gilpin, her blonde bombshell former best friend, who becomes the “face”; and Marc Maron, as the dirtball director who stumbles upon a working formula, mostly by luck and by finally listening to Brie’s character.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)–The more publicized and lauded of the Atwood adaptations, it was often painful to watch, and its allegory is more potent today than when it was written. The constant sense of dread was almost overwhelming. Elisabeth Moss made her case for being one of the best actresses working today, and Alexis Bledel, who always seemed to be the worst actor on screen in Gilmore Girls (although I loved Rory, if not as much as her fellow Stars Hollow residents, despite her being a Yalie), gave a brilliant performance.
Hostages (Netflix)–Another high concept Israeli suspense show. Here, an entire family is taken hostage to blackmail the mother, a doctor, into killing the Prime Minister during a scheduled operation. Although season 1 was released on Netflix late in 2016, I watched both season 1 and 2 in 2017. Season 1 ended with some twists, and the escape of the hostage takers; season 2 was also pretty twisty, and dealt with the attempt by the hostage takers to avoid capture after holing up in an abandoned yeshiva. I have zero recollection of an American version of the show, which starred Dylan McDermott and Toni Collette, got terrible reviews, and was canceled after one season.
Insecure (HBO)–After a good first season, Insecure, written by and starring Issa Rae, as a twenty-something black woman in Los Angeles trying to navigate life, love, friendship, and work, really hit its stride in season 2. Sex, racism, income inequality, fidelity, and music all play a part in this funny/sad/provocative show.
Last Chance U (Netflix)–Another situation in which I caught up with season 1 before watching a new season 2. This reality show, shot mostly through interviews and practice and game footage, is about a junior college in Mississippi that has remarkable success in football by recruiting players who either leave or get tossed from major colleges for having bad grades or legal or other issues, or players who don’t initially qualify for the major colleges and need to improve their grades. The coach is an overbearing blowhard who gets results on the field, but is borderline abusive. The players receive academic counseling from a woman with more than a little Tami Taylor in her, and whose job is to keep on the players to make sure they remain eligible, and, hopefully, are able to transfer out after the season is over. That most of the players are black, and most of the coaches (and the advisor) are white, heightens the tension. Season 1 ended with a brawl, which damaged the teams chance for a championship, and season 2 dealt with the effect that the brawl had on the next season, as the coach tries, unsuccessfully, to clean up his act, and the advisor moves on.
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)–Oliver’s political commentary is incredible, but what makes his show so great is its willingness to spend long stretches focusing on topics that don’t get much detailed coverage in the US, like the French election, Turkish politics, the growing power of the Sinclair Broadcast Group over local news, and flood insurance. Also, he does silly things, like discuss Bolivian traffic zebras, cast dogs to represent Supreme Court justices, and create folksy commercials to educate our stupid president about basic issues, to run on Faux News and other channels.
Man Seeking Woman (FXX)–This sadly cancelled show was incredibly inventive because it was willing to embrace excess. So, in the first seasons, when the main character, Josh (Jay Baruchel) and his best friend complain about being invited to a destination wedding, it is because it is literally in Hell. Or when Josh’s ex-girlfriend begins dating a terrible person, he is literally Hitler. And yet, it was also about friendship, family, sex and love. Season 3 was really Man finds Woman, and is about Josh falling in love and marrying Lucy. And again, they go for it–when Lucy thinks that Josh is siding against her with her critical parents, she hauls him in front of the House Anti-Lucy Activities Committee, before ultimately regressing to visit her childhood imaginary friends, who are Sendak-like characters. But rather than be sympathetic, the now older friends complain about money, indigestion and push her to grow up. And when the parents interfere with the wedding plans, they don’t just interfere, they create a secret cabal, complete with a lair and creepy robes.
Manhunt: Unabomber (Discovery, now on Netflix)–A dramatization about the hunt for the Unabomber which was surprisingly good. It focused on the use of forensic linguistics, which was initially ignored and derided by the FBI, to catch the bomber. Even though the facts are readily Googleable for those of us who didn’t remember everything about the case, the show did a great job of showing the tension between the old fashioned senior agents and the team using the novel linguistic approach. It was also an excellent procedural, as we watch the FBI track down, capture and convict the domestic terrorist with help from his brother.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)–A literal delight, this series about a young, affluent Jewish woman living on the Upper West Side of New York in the 1950s becoming a standup comedian performing dirty material in small bars would have been a favorite even if my young half-Jewish daughter wasn’t a standup comedian performing dirty material in small bars (in Barcelona). All of the characters are just shy of being total stereotypes, the writing is sharp and funny, and the dialogue, by the Sherman-Palladinos (of Gilmore Girls and Bunheads fame) is even faster than the usual New York Jew’s.
Master Of None (Netflix)–If you had told me that two of the most interesting, groundbreaking comedies on TV would have come from Community‘s Troy, and Parks & Recreation‘s Tom Haverford, I’d never have believed you. But Donald Glover’s Atlanta (which ran in 2016, and would have been on my favorite TV list had I done one), and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None qualify. And no, I’m not getting into the controversy over Ansari here. Season 1 of the show established Ansari’s fictional alter-ego, Dev, and we learned about his life, his friends and his loves. Season 2 began, surprisingly, in Italy, where Dev fled after a breakup to learn pasta making. The series mostly follows him there, and in New York, as he faces his love for Francesca, who he met in Italy, but is in a long-term committed relationship (but appears to have feelings for Dev). Also, Dev becomes a TV star on a food channel, but has to deal with his mentor’s sexual harassment issues. It is funny, sweet, sad and features excellent performances from, among others, Ansari’s parents as Dev’s parents, and Lena Waithe, as his friend, particularly in an episode about the history of their friendship entwined with her coming out to her parents.
One Day at a Time (Netflix)–The original was a sort of cheesy 70s sitcom that was notable because it dealt with divorce, single parenting and other issues facing working class people, mostly women, at the time. And it had Valerie Bertinelli, maybe my first TV crush. The remake, which I was surprised to have enjoyed so much, was recast to make the main family Cuban, with separated parents, both of whom are veterans. Instead of having Schneider be a slightly dim, but well-meaning building superintendent, here, he is a slightly dim, well-meaning wealthy Yuppie who owns the building. The show deals with racism, sexuality, veterans’ issues, women’s rights, tradition and, ultimately, family. Rita Moreno, as the grandmother, gleefully chews the scenery and steals every scene she is in.
One Mississippi (Amazon)–A fictionalized version of the life of Tig Notaro, a lesbian comedian who has openly discussed her cancer and double mastectomy without reconstruction in both her standup act and in the show. Her humor is low-key and sly, and it works in this show where she is generally surrounded by quirky, if mostly pleasant, people. A scene in season 2, which appeared to be a direct reference to Louis C.K.’s (an executive producer of the show) masturbation in front of women, was pretty shocking, and predated the #metoo movement. Sadly cancelled by Amazon in its recent purge of some of its offbeat comedies as part of a new strategy seeking blockbusters, it will be missed.
Orange Is The New Black (Netflix)–The decision to have the entire season take place during a three-day prison riot was a risk, but one worth taking after four seasons of more leisurely narrative. While it didn’t always work, the season was more focused, forced different characters to interact, explored the inmates ability, or lack of ability, to work together, the role that leadership plays when times get complicated, and set up more change for season 6. And Danielle Brooks was amazing as an inmate who learns about the joys and risks of taking a prominent role in trying to negotiate a settlement of the riot.
Peaky Blinders (Netflix)–A visually and dramatically over the top show about a family of gangsters in Birmingham, England after World War I. Sort of like the dark side of Downton Abbey‘s England, or a more focused Boardwalk Empire, the fourth season pits the partially legitimized Blinders against the American Mafia in a blood feud, while addressing labor relations, Communism, Gypsies, the role of women, boxing, class differences, and the appropriate sweetness of gin. Filled with the usual twist, turns, and surprises, and great acting from, among others, regular cast members Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory, and Paul Anderson, and guest stars Tom Hardy, Adrien Brody, and Aidan Gillen. And a great soundtrack.
People of Earth (TBS)–The second season of a quirky comedy about a group of people in Beacon, New York, who believe that they were abducted by aliens. Yes, they are strange, yes they are obsessed, and yes, they are mocked, but they are right. Turns out, Earth has been invaded by aliens of various types, who have successfully integrated into humanity for apparently nefarious purposes. Although the humans are amusing enough, the aliens, many of whom are not the most competent at their jobs, are hilarious. And for some reason, the fact that they are named Kurt and Jonathan (“Reptilians”), Jeff (a “Grey,”), Don (a “White”), and Eric (a cube) makes me laugh.
The Punisher (Netflix)–I’ve watched all of the Marvel shows on Netflix, but not all of them have been great. I found The Punisher to be one of the better efforts, in part due to its relatively narrow focus and the performances of Jon Bernthal as the title character and Ebon Moss-Bachrach as the sidekick/partner that The Punisher didn’t want, but turned out to need. Yes, there’s too much violence, but it is a comic book, and it was well done and suspenseful, while raising difficult issues about the relationship between vigilantes and law enforcement.
Stranger Things (Netflix)–This was another show that I resisted, because I heard that it was an homage to 80s horror movies that I’m mostly not a fan of, and because it starred a bunch of kids. Big mistake. Very well done horror/sci-fi, with incredible performances from all of the kids, and the grownups, too, who learn about friendship, trust and love (of both the romantic and non-romantic kind).
This Is Us (NBC)–There’s really not much more that can be said about this show. It is incredibly well done, emotionally manipulative in mostly good ways, and makes you want to keep watching. And once they finally get past explaining how Jack died, it will be interesting to see what propels the narrative.
Trial & Error (NBC)–An extremely silly show that mocks true crime, lawyers, small town and reality shows, featuring an excellent cast, and many twists and turns before reaching a verdict. In the Airplane style of throwing tons of jokes out there because not all of them will hit, there were times that I laughed out loud, and times that it was just too dopey (and not just because of its tenuous relationship to actual legal procedure).
Victoria (PBS)–Another show about a British Queen that is very well done, and less melodramatic than The Crown (partially because Victoria didn’t have a Princess Margaret to deal with. Or 20th century media.). They both show how steep a young queen’s learning curve was, and the difficulty that a figurehead monarch has finding a role in a constitutional monarchy. Victoria gets more elaborate clothing, and a much better husband, than her great-great-granddaughter Elizabeth (although whiny Phillip is also Victoria’s great-great-grandson).
The Vietnam War (PBS)–Presumably, this exhaustive and exhausting series will become the recognized narrative of the war, much as Burns’ The Civil War has defined that war in the public consciousness. It does an excellent job describing the conflict, and does not flinch from showing that the U.S. leadership knew early on that it was not winnable, but kept going for political and personal reasons. It also doesn’t shy away from showing the deficiencies of both the South and North Vietnamese governments. I do have a bit of a quibble with its portrayal of the antiwar movement as being motivated in large part by students afraid to serve, and brushing aside their legitimate reasons for opposing the war, making it seem like the only protesters worth appreciating were veterans who worked against the war after leaving their service.
You’re the Worst (FXX)–A show about two horrible people who fall in love, precisely because they appreciate each others horribleness. Not surprisingly, people like that are surrounded by mostly awful people. Sounds great, right? Actually, the writing and acting made this one of my favorite shows of the past few years. In fits and starts, the two lead characters began to “improve” and open themselves up to something other than total narcissism. They ended season 3 with horrible Jimmy proposing to horrible Gretchen, and then running away. Season 4, which was admittedly uneven, explored how they survived apart, and ultimately came back together, while also providing interesting development for some of the supporting characters.
The Defenders and Iron Fist (Netflix)–Iron Fist was, without a doubt, the dullest of the Marvel shows on Netflix. Not a particularly interesting character, not a particularly interesting actor, and not a particularly interesting or coherent story. And then, it seemed like The Defenders, which brought together Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil, often took the worst parts of all of their individual shows, waited too long to bring them all together, and ended up being less than the sum of their parts. I am looking forward to the March release of season 2 of Jessica Jones.
House of Cards (Netflix)–Even before Kevin Spacey’s awfulness was revealed, House of Cards was on a downward trend, as the politics and the secret maneuvering became more and more implausible and ridiculous. As the A.V. Club review of the season 5 finale notes: “The final two hours of this House Of Cards season are full of surprises, almost all of them laughable and completely devoid of logic. . . . which culminate in a moment that’s been at least two seasons in the making, finally arrived at via some of the clunkiest plot mechanics in series history.” I am admittedly interested to see how they end the thing without Spacey, although a show with the riveting Robin Wright as the centerpiece might be great. Or, it might turn out that Claire was better as Frank’s foil than as a lead.
The Mets (SNY, WPIX)–I’m a degenerate and obsessed Mets fan, so I probably watched more hours of Mets games than any other single program, and this year, they were disappointing, dull and terrible. On the other hand, listening to Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez, and Ron Darling broadcast the games is always entertaining, even when it got so bad that they spent time talking about the contents of a box of old baseball cards instead of the game. On the few occasions that the team was on a national broadcast, it became clear how necessary Gary, Keith, and Ron were to enjoying the broadcasts by their absence.
Saturday Night Live lazy political sketches (NBC)–Yes, it was funny the first few times that Alec Baldwin portrayed Trump, but after a while, I found that the writing of SNL’s political sketches went for low hanging fruit, and, for the most part, lacked any sort of originality. Although Kate McKinnon’s portrayal of Jeff Sessions as part possum, part elf, was pretty good, and Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer was amusing (and he left before the joke got tired). The best of the lot is probably Mikey Day’s and Alex Moffat’s Don, Jr. and Eric Trump. While they mock Don, Jr.’s daddy-wannabe douchiness and Eric’s dimness, their portrayal of the brothers love for each other, gives depth and humanity to the parody.
Any time Trump/Sarah Sanders/Sean Spicer appeared on TV–No, not every President that I liked, or their spokespersons, were completely truthful every time, but when this crowd talks to the cameras, it is more than likely that they are lying. And when they aren’t lying, they are berating the press, or their opponents, or doing something else that makes me want to throw stuff at the TV. But I’m too cheap to have to keep buying new ones, so I just change the channel. Because, there’s lots of good stuff to watch, right?
Twin Peaks (Showtime)–I loved the first Twin Peaks, but the revival was not to my liking. Maybe because I’m older, or maybe because David Lynch crossed the line from strange to too strange, but I fought my way through most of the season before simply stopping. Because I didn’t care enough to watch to the end.
Vikings (History)–The first few seasons of Vikings were a pleasant surprise. A recounting of the story of Ragnar Lothbrok, a quasi-historical Viking, who, according to the show, pressed his people to sail west, leading to the discovery and pillaging of the British Isles, and later the sacking of Paris. The story of the rise of Ragnar, his adventures and those of his wives, first the awesome warrior Lagertha, and then the mystical Aslaug, their children and other characters, including Floki the boat builder, and Ragnar’s brother Rollo (who is an historical figure, but was not actually Ragnar’s brother), were well-written. But the show was really anchored by Travis Fimmel’s portrayal of Ragnar, Kathryn Winnick’s Lagertha, Clive Standen’s Rollo and Gustaf Skarsgård’s Floki, as well as many of the other supporting characters. Watching the clash of cultures and religions was fascinating, and the various intrigues were, well, intriguing. 2017 included the end of season 4, where Ragnar dies, and the beginning of season 5, where the sons of Ragnar fight for his legacy. And the fall off in quality has been stark.
Our featured song, “TV Is The Thing This Year,” was originally sung by Dinah Washington in 1953, back when it was important to point out that “Radio was great, now it’s out of date,” and is probably a double entendre. The version above is by Dianne Reeves, and was recorded for the soundtrack of the 2005 movie Good Night, and Good Luck, which is where I first heard it. The film, co-written and directed by George Clooney, was a recounting of how CBS News worked to bring down Senator Joseph McCarthy, and stands as an appropriate reminder of the role that a courageous free and active press has in fighting tyranny.
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