With a near-endless deliverance of brand new and returning properties to mammoth streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon Prime, there’s never been a better time to be a fan of serialised television. In this culture of binge-watching, there’s no lack of series to watch (both to its benefit and its detriment): there’s barely a week going by before something else is released, so it’s hard to make the correct choice in what new thing to obsess over. Usually, I would have tried my absolute best to catch up with the those that ignited the cultural zeitgeist – shows like Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Halt and Catch Fire have passed me by – but at the overwhelming rate at which things are delivered, it’s getting harder and harder to balance multiple shows and films simultaneously. For those in a similar position, my aim for this list is to steer you into a show that you’ve not yet found the time to start.
10. American Gods – Season 1
A show completely at ease with its outlandish premise – large- and small-scale conflicts brew between the Old Gods and the New – American Gods is replete with audacious, awe-inspiring storytelling and increasingly berserk set-pieces, not to mention some of the best casting in current television (from Gillian Anderson’s Goddess Media taking the form of David Bowie and Marilyn Monroe, Cripsin Glover’s Mr World’s glitch-motions, and Kristen Chenoweth’s vibrant Easter), it’s a darkly funny, constantly violent masterwork from the mind behind that fantastic Hannibal series. Not being familiar with Neil Gaiman’s tome on which it’s based, it’s still a brilliantly rewarding adaptation of what many people have called “unfilmable”. Unfortunately, Season 2 has hit the skids with the departure of Fuller co-creator Michael Green, as well as Anderson’s Media, but if what follows can’t match this first season, then at least we’ll have this wildly inventive, near-faultless (Episode 1 is… bad) introduction to the bizarre world of the warring Gods.
9. Review – Season 3
It seems almost a cheat to include a show whose third and final season adds up to a swift hour of television (separated into 3 episodes and 10 segments), but it’s a testament to Andy Daly’s comic creation that it can wrap itself up with an impressive delicacy and skill all the while delivering huge laughs at both Forest McNeill (Daly) and, introspectively, ourselves. McNeil is a ‘life critic’, host of a truly insignificant reality show that constantly puts him in mortal peril and terminal anguish via increasingly risky, life-threatening attempts to review ‘life, and everything in it’. Review is sometimes an excruciating watch, but McNeil’s steadfast commitment to his so-called “extraordinarily important work”, sunny disposition, and uncompromising responsibility to the ever-increasing ludicrousness of his inquiries (and his curious interpretations of the most simplistic requests) make its merciless gallows humour a supremely entertaining watch. Season 3 took things to its logical conclusion: Forest’s analyses of ‘Making Your Dream Come True’, ‘Forgiveness’ and ‘Never Reviewing Anything Ever Again’ bridge the arcs to their predetermined ends, but if Review were to return and continue forever, I’d keep watching for just as long. Watching Review: 5 Stars.
8. You’re The Worst – Season 4
Season 3 of You’re the Worst ended on a literal cliff, but where Season 4 smartly picked up wasn’t in the immediate aftermath but in the ensuing months where both Jimmy and Gretchen are reeling back a shred of individualism from one another. That Chris Geere and Aya Cash are commonly overlooked as masters of their craft is puzzling as all the proof of their outstanding acting prowess can be seen from episode-to-episode: with Cash’s Gretchen misleading Jimmy with a faux-apology in the early half of the season, or Geere’s expert ability to alter his facial muscles to display a wild variation of emotions in the course of seconds. But it’s not just the main cast that get their dues; PTSD survivor Edgar (Desmin Borges) still struggles with making it in his career as a comedian, Lindsay (Kether Donohue) balances her hedonistic lifestyle with a job she’s fully underqualified for, and even Janet and Vernon’s developmentally stunted relationship evolves through dissolving. It takes some weird detours – weirder than You’re the Worst has in the past – but it’s still a comedy-drama like nothing else on TV. This penultimate season ends with a hopefulness that’s sometimes lost among its pessimism, but looking forward to its resolution, there simply are no better arseholes I’d rather watch. Though not as immediately memorable nor as heart-rending as previous seasons – Gretchen’s self-destruction often veers into uncomfortable farce, and the introduction of Boone (Colin Ferguson) to their condemnable orbit is too broad for the show’s usual nuance – it’s still a tightly plotted, quick-witted and incredibly satisfying comedy with some of the most authentic relationship meltdowns and reconciliations than anything else on TV.
7. Fargo – Season 3
It’s been said countless times that the third season of Noah Hawley’s Fargo is a meandering, weakly-plotted follow up to its predecessors – and to some extent I’d agree (Season 2’s story and narrative thrills were always going to be hard to beat), but Season 3 more than earns its place here as it remains a sumptuous, unpredictable slow-burner with excellent, fully-formed personalities, a consistently impressive attention to detail, and a ceaseless feeling of encroaching dread. Mixing things up for Season 3 is the introduction of two Ewan McGregor’s – one as the hapless, glabrous Ray Stussy, and another as the elder, affluent Emmit Stussy – as well as the insidious, grotesquely idiosyncratic V.M. Varga (played with sheer relish by David Thewlis), and Carrie Coon who (along with my #1 on this list) furthers her stake as the MVP of 2017 with a fascinatingly rich turn as dedicated, loyal, police chief Gloria Burgle. Cosmic coincidences and dryly delivered soliloquies have become a familiar Fargo staple, yet in its third season, it avoids shopworn expectations by throwing characters under the bus, flipping assumptions on its head and delivering some of the finest shot scenes of the year. It may not be its best season, they say, but it’s still a damned fine piece of television unlike any other.
6. Search Party – Season 2
Where Season 1 of TBS’s crafty whodunit, Search Party, focused primarily on the multiple, insufferable characters as they tracked down a supposed missing person, Season 2 focuses on the fallout of its shocking finale. Picking up immediately, we follow the party of insular millennials as they attempt to cover-up their monstrous problems. What’s clear is that these characters – led by Alia Shawkat in a role that was absolutely made for – are the kinds you’d loathe to meet, so when the mean-spirited punchlines hit, it’s lessened by the knowledge that these people really deserved it. Upping the ante and the unbelievably stressful tension by the bucketload, Sarah-Violet Bliss and co. crafted a worthy ‘sequel’ story that results in a few genuinely unexpected moments that eschew tropes in favour of satisfying, agitated conflicts. While I was apprehensive that Search Party even needed a second season at all, its creators gave more than enough reasons to justify its existence. It’s a darkly comic, often unbearably nerve-shredding drama that has come into its own, leaving behind its simple, cryptic roots.
5. Better Call Saul – Season 3
Though inching ever closer toward its progenitor, the rise of Jimmy McGill has become a fascinating study of a damaged character whose future we already know, yet is no less worthy of fleshing out. Episode after episode we’re reminded just how breathtakingly fantastic it can be, and with Season 3 taking a much more laboured approach than before – even while introducing established characters from Breaking Bad’s universe – it’s even more electrifying and rewarding to see exactly what will send him on a collision course to his other life. McGill/Saul (the never better Bob Odenkirk) is still at loggerheads with his brother Chuck (Michael McKeen), but this time the drama is wrung out in courtrooms and hearings rather than spiteful exchanges in the privacy of Chuck’s electricity-free home. These scenes are far more exciting and nerve-wracking than those depicting the battle for power between drug lords and pushers, yet we also get time with Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) as the methodical man of honour and Rhea Seehorn’s sophisticated moral anchor Kim. Knowing where Odenkirk’s story takes us, it’ll be sad to see Kim leave. The closer we get to McGill’s story becoming part of Walter White’s, the more thrilling it becomes and, judging by the final shot of the season, it won’t be too long before McGill truly breaks bad himself.
4. The Deuce – Season 1
The Deuce – created by The Wire and Show Me A Hero’s David Simon – isn’t just a fascinating work of historical drama, it’s also a meticulous look into the oft-ignored or frequently misunderstood lives of sex workers. From the very beginning, this factual drama during the rise of pornography and prostitution in the early 1970s feels fully formed, entirely lived-in and thoroughly assured. Less than an episode in and The Deuce spoke with its own, exclusive voice. Ostensibly a show about pornography, there’s zero titillation and the burgeoning sexuality in all its forms is only a small part of the focus. The by-products of a grimy, sepia-toned New York are both ugly and unforgiving – meaning that it can be an endurance test at times – but it’s a fascinatingly credible study into this era of self-discovery and sexual awakening that’s at once intimate, intriguing, and considerate. The Deuce’s introductory season is an impressive one, and I can’t wait to see how much better Simon and company can make it going into its second year.
3. Nathan For You – Season 4
The world of Nathan Fielder is a world where lines don’t exist, and if they do, they’re blurred to the point of obscurity. Nathan for You is a show of long-cons, resourcefulness, and the circumnavigation of laws, and, in its fourth season finale, a monumental feature-length achievement wherein Fielder uses his sway (and Comedy Central’s budget) to track down a previous clients’ long-lost love. The consistency Fielder (the creator) maintains in wringing some of the most awkward laughs from his preposterous business-minded assistance is astounding, whether Fielder (the character) is waging a war on global taxi-company Uber; avoiding customs tariffs on smoke detectors by altering their classification to musical instruments; or establishing a computer repair shop staffed solely by asexuals. there’s simply not an episode that goes by without outstanding levels of detail and preparation to hit the punchline. It’s hard to believe that even in its fourth season – where many analogous shows fall into their groove a little too comfortably – Fielder still manages to shock and surprise with his outlandish, eccentric plans. This season finale – following on from the ‘big’ episodes of each season – takes an inward look at both Nathan the character and Nathan the creator, and asks whether the creation of art is worth the degeneration of the self. It’s hilarious, often poignant, and acutely awkward, and after four seasons, it’s still one of the most brilliant comedy creations of the decade.
2. Mindhunter – Season 1
In the ten episodes that comprise Manhunter’s first season, there’s only a smattering of visceral, on-screen violence. That David Fincher’s latest foray into serial killers (or rather, the origins of the term) can do this, yet still be a routinely graphic series, speaks volumes on how well directed, scripted, shot, and acted such a show can be. It’s been 10 years since Fincher released the greatest serial killer film ever made – Zodiac – and with Mindhunter we have a worthy, equally fascinating successor. Starring mostly unknowns in the lead roles, Mindhunter introduces us to the dawn of serial killer profiling in the late 1970s through the lens of Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), a hostage-negotiator-cum-travelling-lecturer as he teams up with gruff, fatherly Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) to covertly interrogate, interview, and study the incarcerated in the early days of criminal profiling. Not only is it historically fascinating, it’s also regularly chilling. In lieu of explicit violence, Mindhunter’s true horrors lie in the loquacious manner in which killers Ed Kemper (the terrifyingly ursine Cameron Britton), Jerry Brudos (Happy Anderson), and Richard Speck (Jack Erdie, in perhaps the most unsettling scene of the year) explain their predilection for repulsive violence. Season 1 never veers towards crass shock value for the sake of it – there are undoubtedly moments intended to shock – but Fincher is more interested in expertly researching the biographies to avoid apotheosising, where lesser directors may have painted them as tortued, flawed souls.
1. The Leftovers – Season 3
“Nothing is answered. Everything is answered. And then it ends.”
There’s little I can say about Damon Lindelof and Tom Perotta’s The Leftovers that hasn’t already been said countless times in numerous think pieces, nor can I truly express how absolutely breathtaking it has been since Episode 1 – but I’ll try. Simply put, The Leftovers is one of the finest televised dramas of all time. Dealing with insurmountable loss, the decline of faith, rationalisation of futility, and the afterlife, all wrapped in a bizarre, you’ve never seen anything quite like this before science-fiction tilt, this 28-episodes-and-done series largely failed to make a dent in viewer figures, but has made lasting impressions on practically all those that gave it the chance. The fact that it was able to finish on its creators’ own terms is a small miracle in itself: it has never been an easy sell to anyone and – before this year’s staggering 8-episode climax – it was hard to know if Lindelof and Perotta could stick the landing. Thankfully, ecstatically, they did. In ways that were more satisfying than any other TV show or film of 2017, The Leftovers completed its cycle in a way befitting of the uniqueness of the show: most of the questions were left unanswered, with new ones arising over the course of the season that threw the whole show into a new light. These sometimes meandering strands took viewers down curious tangents (Did he really meet God? Is Tony the Magical Chicken real? Why is Perfect Strangers’ Mark Linn-Baker playing himself? etc.) but none of these really matter. Through its life-cycle, we’re given reliable information from unreliable forces – each episode dropping entire narratives just to focus on one character, main or otherwise – and begs us to question these paths, when all that really matters is the unity, the love, and the understanding that these characters share with one another. There is no weak link: from Carrie Coon’s peerless role as the despondent, grief-stricken Nora; Justin Theroux’s psychologically damaged Kevin; to the entire supporting cast (literally not a bum decision in the casting department); to the excellent, evocative Max Richter soundtrack – each and every component of The Leftovers stands up to scrutiny. Transcendentally moving, deeply profound, and unspeakably beautiful, The Leftovers is life-changing television that defies superlatives. Please watch it.
Not everything this year could have been as good as The Leftovers, but these are the shows that vied for my attention one way or another. BoJack Horseman – Season 4 (fascinatingly fearless takedowns of the Hollywood elite, Season 4 is sardonic, bleak, and, most surprisingly of all, hopeful), The Americans – Season 5 (a subversive spy-thriller that deftly balanced home-drama with global threats), Better Things – Season 2 (this Pamela Adlon-led comedy is scathing, heartfelt, and moving in perfect equity), Silicon Valley – Season 4 (this intricately plotted and hilariously sharp satire hasn’t lost its touch), Legion – Season 1 (the other Noah Hawley show of 2017 was experimental to a fault but unconventional to its benefit), Rick and Morty – Season 3 (an increasingly self-aware season of cosmic mess-ups, ultra-violence, and exceptional narratives make this stand out from the crowd), Mr. Mercedes – Season 1 (an uncomfortably graphic, unfortunately timely serial killer drama with a winning duet of Brendan Gleeson and Harry Treadaway), Preacher – Season 2 (a stylishly violent continuation, with a fantastically callous addition in Pip Torrens’ Herr Starr), Master of None – Season 2 (attentive and cognizant, Aziz Ansari’s creation gets stronger and more thoughtful as it continues), and Mr. Robot – Season 3 (this techno-suspense thriller maintains its compelling, unique approach to social commentary and big business).
BFSR Award illustration header by cal.con.
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