Film & Television / Reviews

Top 10 TV Series of 2017

Top 10 TV Series of 2017

10. I Love Dick

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Jill Soloway’s brilliant micro-series about art, desire, and aging simply scorches: from the dusty desert setting to the searing sexual chemistry, you can practically feel heat emanate from your screen. Failed filmmaker Chris (Kathryn Hahn, indispensable) follows her older academic husband from Brooklyn to Texas as he embarks on a fellowship under an alluring but elusive artist cowboy (Kevin Bacon), igniting a yearning in her that eventually incinerates her entire life. No other television auteur dissects gender and lust as deftly as Soloway.

9. The Handmaid’s Tale

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There’s no way your heart won’t furiously pound every moment of this speculative thriller, based on the classic Margaret Atwood novel. In a post-United States theocratic nation called Gilead, “handmaid” Offred (Elizabeth Moss) is a state-sanctioned sex slave whose womb has been earmarked to bear the children of a high-status couple. Women no longer have agency (or even permission to read), and can only perform in two capacities: domestic work as handmaids, servants, and wives or sex workers to important men. Atwood’s horrifying vision of religious hegemony is no invention: every evil done to the women of Gilead is based in historical fact.

8. Baskets

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Baskets is the rare show that cares to explore the humanity of rural folks. When failed clown Chip slinks back from Paris to his crumbly hometown of Bakersfield, CA, he slowly figures out how to find and make art in the quotidian expanse he had once escaped. Zach Galifianakis is a genius physical comedian, but the real soul of the series is Chip’s sympathetic mother, Christine (Louie Anderson), a 50-something widow just learning to walk in her power.

7. Insecure

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The very best shows make us laugh and cry at the same time. Wildly funny, effortlessly sexy, and always just a little bit heart-wrenching, Issa Rae’s comedy about black female relationships (and black female nerd-dom) simply crackles. Rae deepens the pathos and punches up the one-liners in Season 2, allowing us to fully  succumb to the loving best friendship between goofy Issa and grounded Molly (Yvonne Orji).

6. Girls

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Following a couple lackluster seasons, Lena Dunham’s hilarious but frustrating vision of almost-adulthood ended up with a bang: immature Hannah gets pregnant from a one-night stand and decides to become a mom. After years of running-in-place, the original foursome finally gets to grow (if not entirely up), and we’re treated to some of the best episodes of the series: “American Bitch,” Dunham’s masterpiece evisceration of male auteurs, and “What Will We Do This Time About Adam?” a beautiful goodbye to the central romance of the series.

5. Claws

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There’s nothing like Claws out there: a candy-coated, Florida-steamy feminist gangster thriller centered on a diverse group of nail technicians. Wait, what? Niecy Nash is Desna, an ambitious mama hen salon owner who becomes entangled with the Dixie Mafia in an effort to lift herself of the slum. Unlike recent female gangster TV series, such as Animal Kingdom, Queen of the South, and Good Behavior, flashy Claws is far from self-serious: its tense, bonkers energy will remind viewers of Orange is the New Black – if it happened to be set in the wealthy but seamy Gulf Coast. A perfect summer series.

4. Harlots

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Harlots straddles the line between frothy, erotic bodice-ripper and dark, dynamic human trafficking drama. Boasting a rare all-female creative team, the series is a saucy depiction of 18th century brothel life that also happens to showcase the horrors of forced sex work. Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) is a madam on the rise, working to re-brand her business to appeal to aristocracy. She’s ruthless, but has never forgotten her roots – her mother sold her into child prostitution for a pair of shoes. In turn, she’s auctioned off her own daughters to the wealthiest men of London, believing she has empowered them instead of enslaved them. The show is richly-drawn and endlessly fascinating.

3. 13 Reasons Why

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A whodunit where you already know whodunit. Much has been made of the return of the “mystery box” show (This Is Us, The Good Place, Big Little Lies), but what makes 13 Reasons Why so addictive is that the who is not as important as they why: why did high school junior Hannah Baker commit suicide? (And who did she deem culpable for this decision?) The story is told via flashbacks in a non-linear time structure, tricking you into hoping for a happier ending that never comes. What could have easily just been another contrived teen drama (warning: hokey dialogue) turns into something jaw-dropping: a show that actually feels like it’s about real teenagers, despite the high-concept premise . (A feat similar to Jane the Virgin.

2. Big Little Lies

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If The Good Wife was an opt-out fantasy about the possibilities of late-in-life success for women who chose family over career, then Big Little Lies is an opt-out nightmare: a cautionary tale depicting the explosive dangers of over-educated, under-stimulated mothers who invest too heavily in the lives of their children. The story follows a group of moms in an affluent seaside wonderland who use their kids’ interpersonal conflicts as a proxy war among themselves. Their domestic minutiae becomes our fodder, as we’re immediately sucked into the pulp of this seedy paradise and the mysterious murder that frames the story. Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s elevates what could been just another silly nighttime soap into a cinematic treatise on misogyny, domestic brutality, and how parents weaponize their children. Televisions shows about the hazards of suburban intrigue – Desperate HousewivesWeedsPretty Little Liars – tend to utilize camp to make a statement about the dirty little secrets secrets of seemingly perfect communities. Big Little Lies instead feels like an extended film that revives a 1970s exploitation spirit. It’s Peyton Place as told by Nicholas Refn Winding.

1. Superstore

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One of the laugh-out-loud funniest comedies I’ve seen in years, the pitch seems fairly obvious in hindsight: what if we set The Office in a Walmart-like big box store? All the dry humor about the mundanity of the workplace, but in a setting that feels at once completely familiar and entirely alien. This is, in fact, what makes Superstore great: the weird and rich possibilities of storytelling in a world defined by customer service and, well, stuff. More importantly, however, themes of money, class, and social stratification reign. (Season 2 alone confronts unionization, undocumented immigration, and sexual harassment.) It’s also the rare (and diverse) show where EVERY character is my favorite: queer, narcissistic Mateo, sad-sack desperado Sandra, aggressive Assistant Manager Dina, happy-go-lucky business school drop-out Ben, naive goofboss Glenn, sarcastic troublemaker Garrett…. the list could go on. The series is a gem.

Honorable Mentions

Versailles

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The Deuce

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SMILF

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One Mississippi 

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The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

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The Good Place

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One Day at a Time

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Best Older Series I saw in 2017:

The Crown, Season 1 [2016]

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Search Party, Season 1 [2016]

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The Great British Bake-Off, Series 4 [2013]

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Lady Chatterley miniseries [1993]

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Lark Rise to Candleford, Series 1-2 [2008-2009]

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Murphy Brown, Seasons 1-2 [1988-1990]

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The Pillars of the Earth miniseries [2010]

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Square Pegs, Season 1 [1982]

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Horrible Histories, Series 2 [2010]

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