Allison Keene’s 25 Best TV Shows of 2017, Ranked
End of the year lists for the best of TV are becoming increasingly futile yet increasingly necessary. With over 450 scripted shows airing this past year on broadcast, cable, and streaming, it’s impossible to watch everything. Doing a Top 10 list feels too meager, so like last year, I’ll be expanding to a Top 25. But the reality is that I’m limiting myself to 25. I watched some or all of well over 120 series this year, which is only a fraction of what was available. Even among all of that noise (and there was a lot of mediocrity out there), there were some series that truly managed to stand out for me — alongside a host of honorable mentions, which ignores still the huge list of shows that maybe aren’t great but I still really enjoyed.
There are also a large number of heralded series I just didn’t get to — Godless, Halt and Catch Fire, She’s Gotta Have It, The Leftovers, among many others — which is why Chris Cabin (who reviewed a lot of those for us) will have his own Top 25 coming up as well.
We’re both blessed and cursed to live in this era of Peak TV, because there are only so many hours in a day. But below are my favorite comedies, dramas, and miniseries from 2017 (as well as one regrettably cancelled series). This list includes the shows that surprised me, astonished me, made themselves memorable, and offered something unique. Consider it a guide to some you might have missed out on, or even forgotten from earlier this year. It’s never too late to catch up!
For more of the Best of 2017, check out Chris Cabin’s top 25 TV shows of the year, 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.
(A note on spoilers: I’ve tried to keep things pretty general, especially regarding the series most people haven’t heard of, but if you have any doubts then skip on to the next!)
Related: The Best TV Shows of 2017
25) Alias Grace
Creator: Sarah Polley
A perfect binge-watch, Alias Grace (based on the Margaret Atwood novel) tells the true story of a young Irish immigrant to Canada in the late 1800s, who is also allegedly a murderess in a brutal double killing. Alias Grace sticks mostly to a linear narrative, charting Grace’s arrival to Canada and the circumstances that, over the years, led up to the murders. Grace narrates her own story to a curious alienist, and the plucky Irish lilt that Sarah Gadon affects here is mesmerizing. Lusciously directed by Mary Harron, there’s also a sly humor to it thanks to Sarah Polley’s deft handling of the script. But more than anything, Alias Grace is a striking portrait of a young victim repeated abuse, a witness to abuses around her, and a tale of a deep friendship that serves as an oasis among the hurt. It also offers up a potential answer to the mystery that is both satisfying and still only one of many options, making it an engrossing tale that brought something new to the genre.
Creator: Noah Hawley
Though I mention later on in this list (spoiler!) that Noah Hawley’s aesthetic obsession reached its apex with Legion, his third season of Fargo is the most visually controlled yet. Though the overall story of a feud between two brothers (both played by Ewan McGregor) wasn’t as emotionally wrought as the downfall of the central couple in Season 2, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s brilliant hustler Nikki Swango stole the show with her fantastic schemes. David Thewlis was also great as this season’s philosophizing villain, and his henchmen (played by Goran Bogdan and Andy Yu) were particularly memorable. Season 3 ended the possibility of a story focusing just on Swango and the deaf assassin Mr. Wrench (Russell Harvard, who has appeared in every season), but it’s a shame — those two made the season something special.
23) Stranger Things
Creator: The Duffer Brothers
Stranger Things Season 2 might not have packed the same cultural wallop that its initial outing did, but it was a really enjoyable thing to watch. Sometimes that’s all you require from a TV show: good characters, a crazy story, and a little happiness. The family relationship between Eleven and Hopper, the silly moment between Billy and Mrs. Wheeler, and the fantastic new friendship between Steve and Dustin are just a few reasons why Season 2 was such a fun ride. Though that controversial seventh episode stunted some of the momentum, overall the Duffers again created a lovable throwback story created out of a pastiche of beloved films.
22) Man Seeking Woman
Creator: Simon Rich
In the third season of FXX’s surreal but hilariously truthful Man Seeking Woman, the man (Josh Baruchel) finally found his woman (Katie Findlay). The series handled the realities of a new and ultimately serious relationship with as much humor and heart as it did the perils of dating, hitting some emotional highs amid some of its most fantastical storylines yet. Findlay was a wonderful addition to the show, and while every season is definitely worth watching, there is something even deeper and more exceptional about the show’s third and final run. Maybe it’s hope.
21) Manhunt: Unabomber
Creator: Andrew Sodroski
Discovery took a chance on a rare scripted series for their network this summer, but one that paid off. Manhunt: Unabomber, chronicles the case of Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, who was active for almost two decades before the FBI caught him (mainly because, as the show notes, his brother turned him in). But Manhunt focuses on the inner workings of the FBI through the lens of Jim Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington), who created “forensic linguistics” as way to help catch criminals. Like in Netflix’s Mindhunter, Fitz’s path is filled with red tape, and he has to fight the institution to better it (and satisfy his own obsession with the case). Paul Bettany is exceptional as Kaczynski, especially in the series’ penultimate episode which focuses just on his character. And while Manhunt: Unabomber takes place in the 90s and includes some well-placed cultural touchstones, its retro setting is never satirical or over-the-top. The series is an earnest portrayal of a notorious case and the fascinating but deranged (at least one of them) men at the center of it.
20) Neo Yokio
Creator: Ezra Koenig
Fans of Vampire Weekend are surely not surprised to see frontman Ezra Koenig using the same sharp wit and catchy lyrical instincts to pen his animated Netflix series Neo Yokio. The manic show, in anime style, follows the daily exploits of a young magician named Kaz (Jaden Smith), a one-percenter clotheshorse who has a deep love of Toblerones and is obsessed with his ranking on the city’s Bachelor Board. Neo Yokio is a slick satire of both modern life and the rich playboys who think they own it, and as such Kaz is by far the least interesting character (although his robot butler, Charles, may be the most). But the show’s surreal style, insanely quotable script, and great soundtrack (naturally) make it one of the year’s most unique and ultimately outstanding niche offerings.
Creators: Zach Galifianakis, Jonathan Krisel, Louis C.K.
In its second season, Baskets elevated its game. Jonathan Krisel’s direction, especially in those first few episodes where Chip (Zach Galifianakis) is living the life of a hobo, is gorgeously styled. It becomes a surprisingly beautiful tale, but one still marked with the show’s trademark physical humor that befits Chip’s clown training. Once back in Bakersfield, the story gives more time to Louie Anderson’s exceptional Christine Baskets, Chip’s mother, including a few stand-out episodes like “Ronald Regan Library” that really highlight why that character — and Anderson’s portrayal of her — is so wonderful. But Baskets also backed away a little bit from as much caustic humor as Season 1 held, and instead became a little sweeter. It was the right change.
18) Hap and Leonard: Mucho Mojo
Creators: Jim Mickle, Nick Damici
The second adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s book series, Mucho Mojo, catapulted Hap and Leonard out of the realm of quirky drama into that of an essential watch. The chemistry between the leads of the hopeless romantic and hippie Hap (James Purefoy) and the gay, conservative war veteran Leonard (Michael K. Williams) continued to show a unique male friendship — especially in East Texas in the 80s. Mucho Mojo also leaned into a much darker story than its predecessor, as the two men accidentally uncover the serial killing of black children in a poor, forgotten neighborhood. But the journey to finding that killer, in a swift six episodes, was also full of the wonderfully southern, eccentric humor that makes the series such a joy to watch. The balance between light and dark can be a difficult one, but the show continued to handle it with aplomb. An important story told well — what more could you want?
17) Better Things
Creator: Pamela Adlon
Though tainted somewhat by the show’s close association with Louis C.K. (who co-created the series and has a writing credit on most of its episodes), Better Things’ second season is a thing of beauty. Directed in full by Pamela Adlon, who also stars, it is once again styled — but even more successfully — as a series of New Wave-y vignettes about a hardworking mom and her three difficult children (well to be fair, only two are difficult — the youngest is essentially an angel). Several intense episodes, including “Phil,” which focuses on the decisions surrounding aging parents, and “White Rock,” where the family absconds to have some time to themselves, are visually stunning and emotionally perceptive. Adlon’s direction is exceptional, and it plays a major role in the success of the storytelling. While most of the episodes include fantastical moments, or ones that seem that way, it all complements the series’ desire to explore true both within and without.
16) Feud: Bette and Joan
Creator: Ryan Murphy
Ryan Murphy’s style as a show creator may be a divisive one, but I think we can all admit that he assembles his best teams and best ideas when dealing with Hollywood drama. On the heels of last year’s excellent The People vs O.J. Simpson, Feud: Bette and Joan was another example of a highly stylized and finely wrought tale exploring California lore. In this case, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’s high-profile hatred was examined through exceptional portrayals by Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, not to mention a cast that also included star turns by Jackie Hoffman, Alfred Molina, Stanley Tucci, and Alison Wright (among many others). Feud was full of studio glitz and glamour, but it also dove deep into the darkness that plagued both women’s lives, and the odd connection they shared over several decades of competition and admiration. But hell hath no fury …
15) Queen Sugar
Creator: Ava DuVernay
One of the most beautiful dramas on television, Queen Sugar focuses on a fractious Louisiana family who is forced to come together after the death of their patriarch, and to take over his sugar cane farm. Though the seasons suffer a little bit from length (a lot of the show’s honest and truthful portrayals gets stretched beyond some belief in 16+ episodes), there is no other show that so closely examines a southern family’s roots, beliefs, hardships, and triumphs. The way the show portrays the complication of family while still holding on to the coziness (and difficulties) of country life is laudable, as is its exploration of what it means to be black today, and in that place, and as both a rich person and a poor one.
14) Game of Thrones
Creator: Dan Weiss and David Benioff
No matter what you thought of Game of Thrones’ latest season in hindsight, it was — as an experience — a thrilling ride. Yes there was fan service out the wazoo, and yes a lot of it didn’t make sense, but dammit it was fun, especially as characters and plots started coming together after seasons apart (and it created some fantastic and unexpected pairings). Sometimes all you want in a series are ice dragons, zombies with the power of resurrection, and the long-awaited consummation of a relationship between an aunt and her nephew (er…), and sometimes a show gives it to you. Maybe it shouldn’t, but Weiss and Benioff did it anyway. The series is far away from the books now since George R. R. Martin has been slow to release the next in the set, and narratively that can be a problem. But in terms of pure spectacle and the fun of barreling through it, the show continues to deliver.
13) The A Word
Creators: Keren Margalit, Peter Bowker
Few family dramas are both as intensely truthful and full of quirky humor as The A Word, which enters its second season with the Hughes family figuring out the next steps for themselves and their son Joe (Max Ventro), who was diagnosed as having autism in Season 1. Now that the crusade for acceptance both in the family and in the community was more or less successful, Alison (Morven Christie) and Paul (Lee Ingleby) are looking into their own relationship in a new and difficult way. Relationships are at the heart of The A Word, which contrasts with the emotionally removed world Joe occupies, and the series continues to be a heartfelt exploration of family life in the Lake District of England, and that of a child with autism. It’s mixture of wit and humor is nearly unparalleled, but what really sets it apart is the blunt honesty of its storytelling.
12) The White Princess
Creator: Emma Frost
One of the best overlooked series of the year (I say that a lot, but in every case it’s true!) The White Princess was more than just another lavish costume drama. A sequel to The White Queen (though it’s not essential to have watched that beforehand), writer Emma Frost adapted Philippa Gregory’s novel into one not of a passive queen where history happens around her, but one where “Lizzie” of York has agency in her own life. With extremely strong performances from Jodie Comer as the princess in question, Essie Davis as her ethereal but conniving mother, Michelle Fairley as a deeply complicated mother to the King, and newcomer Jacob Collins-Levy as King Henry VII himself, The White Princess was a gorgeously rendered and emotional character study. Its short 8-episode run had no choice but to race through history, but it did so with style. Though the King gets all of the glory, The White Princess explores the story of the women who secretly ran the show.
Creator: Ronald D. Moore
Since reading the Song of Ice and Fire books before watching Game of Thrones turned out to be a confusing and mostly negative experience for me, I enjoy watching Outlander purely from a TV perspective. And from that viewpoint, Season 3 has been one of the strongest yet. The show’s decision to keep Claire and Jamie apart for most of the season was difficult for fans, but it made their reunion that much stronger. Further, while Jamie’s solo story was a compelling adventure compared to Claire’s staid life in Boston, her tale was deeply emotional and ultimately represented the coziness in which Outlander excels (not to mention the lush costuming and gorgeous score). The couple’s trip out of Scotland and to Jamaica also gave us some peril on the high seas, as well as an outstanding standalone episode where Claire fought to survive after a shipwreck. Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan continue to be at their best in scenes together, with smoldering on-screen chemistry. Still, one begins to yearn again for Scottish shores …
10) The Americans
Creator: Joe Weisberg
For its first four seasons, The Americans — one of TV’s best dramas, always — got better every year. Somehow the tension, anxiety, and exceptional character drama continued to escalate as Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) keep their Soviet identities a secret while continuing their spycraft against the United States. But with the series ending in its sixth season, Season 5 felt a little bit like it was treading water narratively, holding back major plot turns or reveals until that final stretch. As far as the emotional drama went, though, The Americans remained at the top of its game, delivering some incredibly intense and heart-wrenching moments for not only the Jennings but their marks. Things go wrong, often very wrong, and the toll it is taking on the Jennings (and their daughter Paige, played by Holly Taylor, who has been indoctrinated into their way of thinking) is palpable. Despite that darkness, there were still many joyful moments, including a final farewell (most likely) to a beloved character from the past, as well as the unexpected joy of Elizabeth and Philip in their many costumes. And though there was a keen sense of chess pieces being moved into place for an explosive final season, there were still plenty of riches here to tide us over.
9) The Deuce
Creator: David Simon and George Pelecanos
Though it took a little while to get going, those who stuck with The Deuce saw it pay off in spades. The HBO series managed to make me interested in a time period and subject I’m not particularly drawn to (the rise of the porn industry in 1970s New York City), but another set of deeply considered characters like those Simon populated The Wire with ultimately won me over. And while I would have been fine with the story of The Deuce just focusing primarily on Maggie Gyllenhaal’s empowered prostitute Candy, the layered tale explored a number of intriguing stories revolving around this volatile but mostly forgotten setting. James Franco also surprised in his duel roles by bringing an unexpected warmth to the series as Vincent, and a clear portrait of a hustler in Frankie. Though it could be rough to watch (it is the literal definition of NSFW), it examined a cross-section of city dwellers with its sprawling cast — including Dominique Fishback, Chris Bauer, and Method Man — who all gave inspired performances that made me care deeply about each of their character’s fates.
Network: Comedy Central
Creator: Sam Richardson, Tim Robinson, Zach Kanin, Joe Kelly
If you missed Atlanta in 2017, don’t sleep on Detroiters. The surreal series is both specific to its city and universal in comedy as Atlanta was, but features the bonus of the strange yet aspirational friendship of its leads (Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson, real-life buddies). Like a kind of demented Mad Men, Detroiters takes place at an ad agency, which allows for the creation of many a bizarre local commercials. There are lots of easter eggs for real Detroiters, but the show’s greatest truth lies in its portrayal of modern life in a city of a certain size that is trying to pull itself up as much as the protagonists are in their own lives. Its smart, quirky, and sometimes downright bizarre style is hilarious, but not hollow, thanks to the loveably incompetent duo at its center. Husky boys forever!
Creator: Noah Hawley
With Legion, Noah Hawley took his obsession with aesthetic into a new and incredibly bold direction. Getting your bearings with Legion was nearly impossible, but that was part of the beauty of it. There was a puzzle aspect to it, sure — but the experience of it mattered more. One of the most visually stunning works of the year, Legion sought to upend every convention we have about TV and storytelling, and ultimately answered only to itself (to the frustration of some viewers — there was no trick here, it was always just purely mind-boggling). It brought about some incredible performances from Aubrey Plaza and Dan Stevens, and managed to incorporate almost every filmic genre into its first season. It was unlike any superhero show we have seen, and somehow managed to visually represent not just a trouble mind, but a troubled mind with reality-bending powers. It was audacious, and a thrilling ride.
Creator: Joe Penhall
Despite a bit of a rocky start, Mindhunter is an engrossing tale about the origins of the FBI using psychological profiling to catch killers. It mirrored what was explored in Manhunt: Unabomber, which focused specifically on the creation of “forensic linguistics” as a tactic employed by the FBI. But as fascinatingly horrid as the cases of the serial killers were on Mindhunter (particularly Ed Kemper, played by Cameron Britton, and the ghostly cold opens with the BTK killer), the show was moreso about the relationship between Holden (Jonathan Groff) and Bill (Holt McCallany) — and soon, that of Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) — as they found truth by going against the grain. The changes we see Holden go through from the first episodes throughout the season is extraordinary character work by Groff, as Holden becomes increasingly arrogant and eventually receives a comeuppance. But Mindhunter’s greatest coup was playing up our cultural interest in serial killers while showing us how, perhaps, we got that way.
5) Downward Dog
Creator: Samm Hodges, Michael Killen
As I say every time I write about this glorious, emotional, smart, and woefully cancelled comedy: you don’t expect a show about a talking dog to work, but by golly this one does. Focusing on the daily life of an incredibly narcissistic and neurotic dog named Martin, and his wonderful owner Nan (Alison Tolman), Downward Dog examines life in Pittsburgh for a young professional whose only constant is the love of her dog. The series, directed in a way that looks like an indie film, is full of warmth, humor, and surprisingly emotional moments. It was a quirky gem, thanks especially to the rescue dog at its center (whose real name is Ned). He is a dog, yes, but somehow he managed to be more human than most. Seek this one out.
4) Big Little Lies
Creator: David E. Kelly
For those who had not read Liane Moriarty’s novel (like myself), Big Little Lies looked like a typical “murder in a small town” miniseries. But after establishing the fact of the murder, without any details about the victim or the perpetrator, Big Little Lies quickly morphed into a heartbreaking story of domestic abuse. Nicole Kidman was luminous here, paired up with a frightening Alexander Skarsgard. And while there were some things that didn’t work so well (the Greek chorus aspect), all three of the leads — including Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley — put in such emotionally weighty performances that it tipped the balance firmly in favor of the series’ success. A show that has felt increasingly timely as 2017 has worn on, Jean-Marc Vallée’s gorgeous, lush direction paired with Kelly’s sharp scripts made for a powerful story with an ending so triumphant we clamored for more (and it looks like we’ll get it).
3) The Crown
Creator: Peter Morgan
The Crown returns for its second season as lush and emotionally taught as its initial outing, but with more confidence and a new set of regal dilemmas. Claire Foy is again exceptional as Elizabeth, an unknowable queen to whom we are given some fictional (and deeply satisfying) access thanks to Peter Morgan’s scripts. Matt Smith, Vanessa Kirby, Matthew Goode, and so many others make up the outstanding cast whose stories nearly (but don’t quite) up to Elizabeth’s. The series — which is overflowing with gorgeous staging, costuming, and style — once again celebrates an truly episodic structure, where each hour is made memorable thanks to its focus on a unique storyline that ties in to the overall tale of The Crown. It (the crown that is) is bigger than any one person, as the show makes clear, though Elizabeth is the most burdened by it. How it shapes her life, and by extension, that of the monarchy in general and its place in English and world culture, is a fascinating exploration.
2) Twin Peaks: The Return
Season: 3 (technically)
Creators: David Lynch and Mark Frost
There is a part of me that is unsure if Twin Peaks: The Return actually happened, or if it was just a collective hallucination we experienced this past summer. Dave Lynch’s mind-boggling 18-part opus was like a dream: surreal, frustrating, uncanny, full of horror, and sometimes beautiful. “Part 8” was a revelation. Other episodes put me to sleep. Dougie was one of the most elaborate trollings I’ve ever witnessed. I often yelled at the TV. There is no show that made me react more viscerally every single week than Twin Peaks did. It was nothing like what we expected, and that was both refreshing and irritating. The ending was whatever you wanted it to be. Not everything was answered, and so many more questions were asked. It was a singular, unforgettable experience, one rarely shared week to week among TV viewers these days. We lived inside David Lynch’s mind for 18 hours — it was really something. (“And now, The Nine Inch Nails!”)
1) The Handmaid’s Tale
Creator: Bruce Miller
No show felt more uncomfortably timely than The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel. While I don’t normally love Hulu’s weekly distribution of its new shows, in this case, it was helpful to give us some distance from the horrors portrayed in each episode. Elisabeth Moss was exceptional in her lead role as Offred/June, who is captured and raped repeatedly to try and conceive a baby in a dystopian future where fertility rates have dropped dramatically. The Handmaid’s Tale expands from the book in several ways, allowing a larger view not only of the world this tale inhabits, but the resistance movement outside of it (and includes a particularly scene-stealing performance by Alexis Bledel). The series also has a distinct visual style to not only reinforce the strict rules of the repressive Gilead regime, but to establish the unique look of a uncanny world that feels, especially in those flashbacks, a little too real.
More Noteworthy Shows of the Year:
Animal Kingdom (TNT)
Better Call Saul (AMC)
Legends of Tomorrow (The CW)
Bates Motel (A&E)
The Tick (Amazon)
The Shannara Chronicles (MTV)
The Long Road Home (NatGeo)
The Durrells in Corfu (PBS)
… and so many more. What were your favorites?