Christina Radish’s Best TV of 2017: From ‘The Punisher’ to ‘American Gods’
Compelling storytelling, superb performances and exciting new worlds to watch and explore are all things that make an audience want to stick with characters and watch them through their ups and downs. And while some shows prove that they get better with age, there are some great new ones to take the place of those that are bidding farewell. Here are my selections for the biggest stand-outs of 2017 (and be aware that there may be some spoilers).
For more of the Best of 2017, check out Allison Keene’s top 25 TV shows of the year, Chris Cabin’s top 25, Dave Trumbore’s list of the best new animated series, Emma Fraser’s look at the best songs on TV, and Evan Valentine’s ranking of the year’s superhero TV.
Best Male Performance: Kyle MacLachlan, ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’
When looking back on the 18 hours of storytelling that makes up Twin Peaks: The Return, one of the truly defining aspects is the tour de force performance from Kyle MacLachlan. Whether it was Agent Dale Cooper, who is now 25 years older and a little wiser, Coop’s Black Lodge evil doppelgänger, a man lacking any remorse whatsoever, or black canvas Dougie Jones, something akin to a newborn in the body of a grown-up, it was a masterful display of acting. In MacLachlan’s skillful hands, each character was a distinct individual with their own physicality and personality traits, and even though I would have gladly taken 18 hours of the Agent Cooper that we grew to love on the original series, Dougie’s innocence was fascinating to witness.
Best Female Performance (three-way tie): Elisabeth Moss, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Carrie Coon
It’s easy to understand why The Handmaid’s Tale, about life in the totalitarian society of Gilead, resonated so strongly this year. It is a stark and frightening world that strips you of your individuality and where you must fight for your own survival on a daily basis, and it is a world that we see through the eyes of Offred (played to haunting perfection by Elisabeth Moss), a woman torn from her life as a mother and forced to work as the potential host for a child of an elite man. Moss also returned to the role of Robin Griffin, for the intense and engrossing Top of the Lake: China Girl. Now back home in Sydney, Australia and back to work on the police force, a new murder comes a little too close to her personal life, yet again, and she’s forced to look inside and reflect on her own life, in order to keep pushing ahead.
Who would have thought that one of the most interesting female characters this season would have come from HBO’s The Deuce, a series that chronicles the time when the sex industry went from New York back alleys to a billion dollar business, but Maggie Gyllenhaal brought the independent streetwalker Candy to life with the perfect blend of heart and ambition. Despite its inherently misogynistic subject matter, the story gave a voice to women that was empowering and inspiring, especially when it came to watching Candy use her intellect, as she evolved from detached prostitute to porn star to feminist pioneer.
Carrie Coon is awesomely talented and 2017 highlighted that awesomeness, in both the third installment of the FX series Fargo, where she played Midwestern police chief Gloria Burgle, and as emotionally complicated and complex Nora in The Leftovers, which wrapped up with its final season. To contrast the pain and grief that was always at the ready with Nora, Gloria was a practical woman struggling to understand a world where people are more interested in their phones than those who are directly in front of them. Where Nora seemed, at times, to want to disappear, Gloria felt invisible, but both women were searching for purpose and for a way to make everything make sense, in a way that was always emotionally impactful on the viewer.
Best New Drama: ‘American Gods’
From Starz, the first season of American Gods was impressive thing to behold, on every level. The way the story unraveled, the performances from the terrific cast, the gorgeous production design and the sound, all blended together in a way that made you feel like you were watching living art.
From showrunners/genius masterminds Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, and adapted from the best-selling book by Neil Gaiman, the story weaves a provocative tale of faith and belief, or our lack thereof, unlike anything that’s ever been on TV before. And as a war between the Old Gods and the New Gods started to bubble over in ways that were both horrific and mind-blowing, it opened up possibilities that were simultaneously exciting and terrifying.
I have to admit that American Gods is the show that I was most excited about seeing more of, but with the recent announcement that Fuller and Green have left over creative differences, I’m definitely concerned about how it will live up to the roadmap it’s set up, thus far.
Best New Comedy: ‘Loudermilk’
The hilarious new Audience Network comedy series Loudermilk centered on Sam Loudermilk (Ron Livingston), a recovering alcoholic and substance abuse counselor with a bad attitude about everything, including helping people. He pisses off everyone, from his group to his neighbor to just about anyone and everyone that he comes into contact with, except for his best friend/not quite so sober sponsor (Will Sasso). Loudermilk is an unfiltered asshole that doesn’t seem to realize just how much of an asshole he is, but somehow, through it all, he actually gets through to people that others have given up on. And while alcoholism isn’t a laughing matter, there is something about watching someone fail spectacularly but never actually give up that lends itself to humor and hope, in a way that makes you want to keep watching.
Best Comedy Duo: Ryan Hansen and Samira Wiley, ‘Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television’
When you read the description of the eight-episode, half-hour comedy Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television, it seems absurd and that there’s no way that it should work. But it not only works, it’s downright hilarious and so much fun.
When the LAPD decides to form a task force partnering actors with homicide detectives, so that they can use their “actor skills” to help solve murders, Ryan Hansen (of course, played by Ryan Hansen) is partnered with the no-nonsense Detective Jessica Mathers (Samira Wiley), who is justifiably pissed off to be paired with someone who just can’t seem to take anything as seriously as she does. The surprising delight of watching Hansen and Wiley play off of each other makes the crazy, super-meta idea from creator/writer/director/executive producer Rawson Marshall Thurber work better than it really ever should have, but they are the buddy cop pairing that I never knew I needed and just can’t get enough of.
Best New Sci-Fi Show: ‘Midnight, Texas’
Based on the best-selling book series by Charlaine Harris (author of the novels that inspired True Blood), the NBC series Midnight, Texas is a supernatural tale that’s set in a remote town where nothing is what it seems. When Manfred (François Arnaud), a psychic who can communicate with spirits, finds himself in the mysterious Midnight, he quickly realizes that it’s a safe haven for those who are different, and that while they are all dealing with their own secrets, they must also band together if they are going to fight off the evil that is threatening to take over. While this series did have some goofy moments (many of which came from a talking cat named Mr. Snuggles), it also had plenty of romance, heartbreak, bloodshed and heroics to make it a fun sci-fi story that deserves a second season.
Best Horror Series: ‘Mr. Mercedes’
Based on the best-selling novel by Stephen King and executive produced by David E. Kelley and Jack Bender, the Audience Network drama series Mr. Mercedes follows a retired police detective (Brendan Gleeson) who is being taunted by a demented serial killer (Harry Treadaway). After a series of letters and emails, Detective Hodges decides to undertake a crusade to bring the killer to justice before he can strike again, which leads to a cat-and-mouse game that’s equal parts thrilling and terrifying, and that culminated in a stunning conclusion that should make Season 2 very interesting. With one of the more horrific opening scenes I’ve ever seen – a graphic depiction of a car crashing into a crowd that would be tough to watch, even if it didn’t eerily mirror recent terror attacks – it was the skillful performances of the cast (which also included Kelly Lynch, Mary-Louise Parker, Holland Taylor and Breeda Wool) that made you want to keep coming back, each week.
Best Villain: Alexander Skarsgard, ‘Big Little Lies’
Based on the bestseller of the same name, written for television and created by David E. Kelley, and with the season directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, the HBO seven-episode series Big Little Lies is as highly addicting and entertaining, as it is well done and expertly acted. Set in the tranquil seaside town of Monterey, Calif., where nothing is quite as it seems, the story follows Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Jane (Shailene Woodley), and their lives and friendships, as rumors, conflicts, secrets and betrayals threaten to compromise everything between husbands and wives, parents and children, and friends and neighbors.
While all of the women on the series were terrific, it was the frightening performance by Alexander Skarsgard, as abusive adulterer Perry Wright, that’s been hard to shake. No matter how much he likely truly did love his wife, the demons inside of him were just too dark to overcome, and Skarsgard was just so good that it will be difficult to ever fully forget.
Best Returning Drama: ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’
Nothing brings out my inner fangirl like Twin Peaks. As an avid watcher of the original series, who’s also seen Fire Walk with Me more than I’d care to admit, there was no show that I was more excited for in 2017 than Twin Peaks: The Return. While I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t always know or understand what I was watching, and I didn’t necessarily get the answers that I was hoping for, I loved every second of the opportunity to revisit a world that no one other than David Lynch and Mark Frost could have brought to life.
Although Showtime initially hesitated, they eventually essentially gave free rein to turn in 18 hours of a vision that was both brilliant and mad. The series was an interesting mix of nostalgia that was wonderfully weird, sometimes frustrating and always challenging, in the best possible way. We got to catch up with so many familiar faces (some of whom are sadly no longer with us now) and meet memorable new ones (including an insane performance from Michael Cera as “Wally Brando”), and best of all was the many shades of Cooper that Kyle MacLachlan was able to color throughout. And while I’m not sure that I fully understanding the meaning of the final scene of the 18 hours, I was left with a sense of satisfaction that made me wish for more.
Best Returning Comedy: ‘The Good Place’
From executive producer Michael Schur, the NBC comedy series The Good Place is one of those rare unicorns that just keeps getting funnier and more brilliant, while still remaining fresh, original and totally weird. After a world-upending Season 1 finale that threw everything up in the air for Season 2 and seemed impossible to live up to, it’s become quite an unexpected and surprising ride, yet again. I have no idea where everything is headed or where it will all end up, by the end of the season, but the chemistry between Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, Manny Jacinto and show MVP D’Arcy Carden is so spectacular that I’ll be watching them until the very end.
Most Socially Relevant Series: ‘Dear White People’
The Netflix series Dear White People, which picks up where the film of the same name leaves off, is a satirical look at America that weaves together the universal story of finding one’s own identity while forging your own unique path, set against the backdrop of a predominantly white Ivy League university where racial tensions are always just below the surface. It is a hilarious and heartfelt look at social injustice, cultural bias, political correctness and activism, and what that means in the millennial age, and it explores it all with such brutal honesty that you’ll sometimes want to look away while you’re laughing. Creator Justin Simien has assembled an exciting cast of actors (some of which are carried over from the feature film and some are new to the series) to play a compelling group of characters, and I can’t wait to see more from them all in Season 2.
Best Supporting Performance (tie): Dominique Fishback and Gwendoline Christie
As the young, sweet-natured prostitute who’s trying to survive on the street while under the thumb of her violent pimp, Dominique Fishback turned in a performance worth taking note of on HBO’s The Deuce. Darlene is flawed and does things that might upset viewers rooting for her, but she’s making the best of the hand she’s been dealt, and it’s the heart and soul that Fishback has injected into the character that made her one of the most compelling characters on TV in 2017.
Although Gwendoline Christie is most identified with her performance as Brienne of Tarth on HBO’s Game of Thrones (which is definitely outstanding), her work as Miranda on Top of the Lake: China Girl was a true stand-out in 2017. Partnered with her role model, Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), who is so screwed up in her own life that she can’t offer much in the way of friendship, Miranda is both emotionally vulnerable and hard to figure out. It’s a performance filled with such depth and complexity that it made me even more excited to see what’s to come from Christie.
Best Supporting Cast: The Gods of ‘American Gods’
American Gods made my list of 2017 as the Best New Drama because its storytelling, production design and visual look were like watching living art. But another stand-out aspect of the series was the cast of Gods, who each got their moment to shine. Whether it was the Old Gods, like Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), the God of War, Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), the Goddess of love, Czernobog (Peter Stormare), the God of darkness, Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones), the trickster God, or Easter (Kristin Chenoweth), the Goddess of the dawn, or New Gods, like Mr. World (Crispin Glover), the God of globalization, Technical Boy (Bruce Langley), the God of technology, or Media (Gillian Anderson), who appears in the form of famous personalities, each of the actors making up the ensemble of Gods fully lived in and realized their characters in a way that not only made me want to see more, but made me want each to have their own spin-off.
Most Kick-Ass Ensemble: The Women of ‘GLOW’
One of the biggest and most delightful surprises of 2017 was the half-hour, 10-episode Netflix comedy series GLOW, from co-creators by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch and executive producer Jenji Kohan. Inspired by the real-life story of a 1980s all-female professional wrestling league, called the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, the story followed a group of very unique women who came together and learned to trust each other while also learning how to body slam, all in the name of creating a low-budget cable TV show.
While all of the women in the cast – Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Sydelle Noel, Jackie Tohn, Britney Young and Kia Stevens, among others – gave terrific and memorable performances, it is their camaraderie as an ensemble that made them a joy to watch. Even through their lowest of lows, they had each other’s backs, and you wanted to see them each find their own voice and succeed against all odds.
Most Bad-Ass Mother: Alice Cooper (Mädchen Amick), ‘Riverdale’
While it was great to see Mädchen Amick return to the role that first put her on the map, as Twin Peaks: The Return allowed us to glimpse what Shelly has been up to since we last saw her, it’s been the two seasons we’ve been blessed with her deliciously devilish performance as former bad girl turned perfect suburban parent Alice Cooper on The CW’s Riverdale that’s been a weekly thrill to watch. From her razor-sharp wit to her bad-ass attitude, she’s the woman that you’d be terrified to be friends with, but that’s endlessly fun to watch.
Best Superhero Series: ‘Legion’
Showrunner Noah Hawley brought a unique vision to the superhero genre, with the FX series Legion, based on the Marvel Comics by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz. In the trippy series, David Haller (Dan Stevens) is a troubled young man who was diagnosed as schizophrenic as a child, leading to him being in and out of psychiatric hospitals for years, but he may not actually be sick, at all. When David met the troubled Syd Barrett (Rachel Keller), the two were inexplicably drawn to one another and David was forced to confront the shocking possibility that what is happening to and around him was the result of being more than human.
As Legion progressed, we learned that all was not as it seemed. While the characters that make up this surreal world might not be crazy, and their perceived weaknesses can actually become their strengths, that doesn’t mean that things will be easy for any of them. And I, for one, am excited to see where that all leads them in Season 2.
Best Episode of Television: “Minty,” ‘Underground’ Season 2
The episode of the WGN America drama series Underground entitled “Minty” featured a solo performance by actress Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman that was truly a mic drop acting moment. It was a groundbreaking bit of television that broke conventions, as it allowed a single character to take center stage and talk for a full hour, with almost no interruptions.
The success of something like that depends on both the strength of the words and the power of their delivery, and it was impossible not to be profoundly moved by the heart and soul of a woman who made such huge contributions to this country, at the same time that it was a chilling reminder of how easy it is to see the dark side of history repeat itself. Hinds was pushed to the edge, with 45 pages of dialogue and the singing of a spiritual hymn, but it paid off, in one of the most passionate, human and memorable performances that I’ve ever seen on television.
Best Anti-Hero: Frank Castle, ‘The Punisher’
From showrunner Steve Lightfoot (Hannibal), the Marvel/Netflix series The Punisher follows Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal), who mistakenly thought he’d be able to disappear into a quiet life, now that he was finished exacting revenge on those responsible for the death of his wife and children. But when he uncovers a conspiracy that runs far deeper than New York’s criminal underworld, The Punisher must discover just how far and deep the injustices run.
While The Punisher was a bad-ass TV series, the anti-hero at its center was a fascinating one, with a set of morals and ethics that allows him to justify the brutal violence that he inflicts. He is also a former Marine, an aspect of the character that allows for exploration of the often difficult struggle with the transition back into civilian life and the PTSD that haunts so many veterans.
Best Friends: Jane Sloan, Kat Edison and Sutton Brady, ‘The Bold Type’
I wish I had best friends like Jane (Katie Stevens), Kat (Aisha Dee) and Sutton (Meghann Fahy), three confidant, self-possessed young women who support each other and celebrate each other’s triumphs, but who are also not afraid to question each other’s decisions when they may not be for the best. They’re fun, they’re funny and they make mistakes, but they are professional women who are trying to figure out what and who they want, under the guidance of their boss (Melora Hardin), a woman who chooses to empower her employees, as they strive for greatness. Thankfully, The Bold Type will be returning to Freeform for two more seasons.