On the terror of creating year-end TV lists

The anxiety has a clear origin: There's too much TV for one indecisive person to process. I'm going to try anyway

Published December 12, 2017 6:59PM (EST)

"The Leftovers, "Glow," "Dear White People" (Netflix/HBO)
"The Leftovers, "Glow," "Dear White People" (Netflix/HBO)

According to estimates that FX provided to TV critics in August, more than 500 series will have premiered in 2017. (FX Networks chief John Landgraf made a more precise calculation: 534, not including any unexpected releases from Apple or other new services.) There’s a lot of TV on right now -- far more than a single person can meaningfully digest, or even sample, while still having a life.

With that in mind, here’s a confession that won’t surprise anyone in the least: I’m not a fan of creating year-end “best of TV” lists. Reading them is another matter, especially the lists created by people who spend lots of time deeply thinking about which shows deserve a place in their top 10 — or, as is increasingly common these days, their top 20 or 25. A profoundly-considered list can be validating, illuminating and instructive all at once, allowing insight into the tastes of the list’s curator as well as providing them with viewing suggestions.

When the writer is introverted, slightly misanthropic and has no ready reply to the evergreen question of, “what are the best things on TV right now” — well, friends, welcome to me. Throw in an imperfect memory, an aversion to argument and a general sense of feeling like 2017 has kicked me in the triangle, and perhaps you’ll understand why this task has given me hives.

First, I’ll tell you what’s not on my list that likely holds a prominent place on many others: Showtime’s “Twin Peaks: The Return.” I gave it a try. Really, I did – for about five episodes. At that point, its artsy inscrutability began deflating my soul, and I chose to reclaim my time. For some of you that counts as a recommendation, and if that’s the case: “Twin Peaks: The Return” is the best show of 2017.

HBO’s “Big Little Lies” isn’t on my list either. To me, it came across as a glorified Lifetime movie. The Emmys and the Golden Globes disagree with me. Enjoy “Big Little Lies.” It is streaming on HBO Go and is the cream of the 2017 crop.

Since we’re on the topic of HBO, you may be expecting “Game of Thrones” to be on my “best of” list — and while it was exciting to have it back, the newest season was its weakest yet.

But “Game of Thrones” will do just fine regardless of how much “best of” love it gets. The same is true for two of FX’s consistently outstanding veterans, “Fargo” and a drama I included on another “best of” list, “The Americans.”  

Besides, there are many other series that I would recommend without question even if they didn’t make into my top 10 or 20. ABC’s “Speechless” is an incredible network TV comedy, for example. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Jane the Virgin” also remain woefully under-appreciated, while their CW comic book cohorts earn the lion’s share of attention from viewers who aren’t professional TV gawkers. Maybe you’ll be a part of changing that trend in 2018.

As for streaming…well. Despite bad press over its top executive, Amazon Studios kicked out some worthwhile content this year such as new seasons of “One Mississippi” and “Catastrophe” and the debut of “Sneaky Pete.” Netflix drowned viewers in bingeworthy selections including but not limited to “American Vandal,” “Mindhunter,” “Lady Dynamite” and “BoJack Horseman,” all shows you’re likely to see on the year-end best lists penned by others who excel at creating ranked order out of entertainment chaos.

However, this is a story about what would be on my year-end “best of TV” list. It's not a "runners-up of TV" list.

Truthfully, my opinion of which series are the best shifts throughout the year and is dependent on mood. Granted, there are a few series I’ve re-watched recently, purely for pleasure, and can confirm my enthusiasm for them has not waned.

IFC’s “Brockmire” feels as ticklish, crass and emotionally raw as it did when it premiered in April, a time when I was feeling as low as Hank Azaria’s creatively foul-mouthed sportscaster. In 2017, a solidly-written redemption story feels just right. So, if I were to construct a year-end “Best of TV” list right now, in December 2017, “Brockmire” would be on it.

Ditto for NBC’s “The Good Place,” a sweet, smart comedy rooted in a sense of ethics that makes it a necessary coping mechanism for anyone disheartened by the era’s overwhelming dismissal of ethics and morality. The world in 2017 grew colder and darker indeed, and shows that make people feel better without switching off their intellect took on a keener vitality. Likewise, “This Is Us” became such a show in the back half of its first season and has maintained its honest, heartbreaking tone in season 2, further cementing Sterling K. Brown’s reputation as one of television’s most talented performers in the process. Both of those NBC series evoke what’s best about television right now.

In a contrasting view of family, AMC’s “Better Call Saul” shook its dysfunction with such force this season that it left no doubts as to why and how Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill transformed into the legal world’s heel. Creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan give Odenkirk ample opportunity to shine, but as Jimmy’s traitorous brother Chuck, Michael McKean consistently outdoes himself from one episode to the next.

As someone mourning the loss of a parent this year I probably won’t engage in a repeat viewing of HBO’s “The Leftovers” anytime soon, although it’s one of the highest artistic accomplishments to grace television this year.

Another site asked me to rank my top TV selections for 2017, causing much indigestion, and in doing so I placed Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” as the top slot among new series and among all TV series. If push came to shove I’d probably stand by that given how frightfully accurate it feels right now.

In terms of series that celebrate the complexity and joy of being a woman, 2017 gave us quite a few. While that aforementioned HBO miniseries about rich women stole the thunder away from FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan, Ryan Murphy’s series makes my list despite the energetic slack in a couple of later episodes. I can think of no more beautiful or detailed examination of how Hollywood, and male-dominated Western culture in general, pits women against one another only to toss them aside once their perceived sex appeal has waned.

The 1980s setting for Netflix’s “GLOW” inspires a substantially rowdier take on female friendship and camaraderie seen through the ruptured relationship between former besties played by Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin. But its entire cast plays a role in imparting the series with a swagger that holds up from start to finish.

Simultaneously on HBO, “Insecure” enabled Issa Rae to further inspire discussions about the maze of obstacles black women face in the working and dating worlds. The second season also thoughtfully navigated the realities of the modern black male sexuality and the expectations placed upon men by the culture at large by tagging along with Issa’s ex-lover Lawrence (Jay Ellis) in a second season that built on the spark of its first.

The sophomore run of FX’s “Better Things” is another example of an excellent series that already established itself as one of the best things on TV in its first season. Pamela Adlon plunges into the murky depths of the personal; in the doing so, the series became a loving regard of the fraught but unshakable bond her character Sam Fox has with her daughters and her friends while turning the spotlight on the cold truths about our imperfections as parents and siblings.

And Netflix’s revival of “One Day at a Time” envisions a modern take on Norman Lear’s late-1970s sitcom as the story of a single, Cuban-American mother sharing a cramped Los Angeles apartment with her mother and two children. The first season tackled issues of cultural appropriation, immigration, post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans and poverty while setting up a coming-out story that culminated in a finale that was warm, gutting and uplifting at once.

All of these shows hold prominent positions on any “Best TV of 2017” list I would make, albeit under significant self-imposed psychological duress, which is why I refuse to do such a thing.

Then there are the shows that maintained my attention for every episode, particularly extraordinary works of genre powered by intoxicating visuals and crackling dialogue. The freshman run of  Starz’s “American Gods” is entirely atmospheric, demonstrating the best of what fans of Bryan Fuller and Michael Green love about their work. It also gave Orlando Jones one of the best monologues of the entire year as Mr. Nancy. (“Angry gets shit done” should be cross-stitched on a throw pillow and gifted to every pissed-off person in America.)

People either hate CBS All Access’ “Star Trek: Discovery” or love it; I’m in that second camp, largely won over by Sonequa Martin-Green's fiery Michael Burnham. Her performance of a disgraced former Starfleet officer holds her ground — and our attention — in conflicts with the story’s ambitious, morally-flexible starship captain (Jason Isaacs, part of an impressive ensemble ) in a story of clashing cultures that poses questions about the value of guiding philosophy in matters of war and survival.

In the realm of franchises, 2017 included several additions to Marvel’s “X-Men” universe, but none matched the imaginative scope of FX’s “Legion,” a trippy slide between reality and dreamscape, between solid truth and hallucination. Creator Noah Hawley is usually praised around this time of year for his work on “Fargo,” but the stylistic intricacy of this series, blended with engaging performances (Aubrey Plaza foremost among them) turned this series into a escapist treat each week.

On the flipside, “The Deuce” may be the most realistic series on HBO and all of television this year. As such, it's also one of the hardest shows to watch. But that speaks to the care and mindfulness with which David Simon and George Pelecanos present this tale about pornography’s grimy birth in 1970s New York, a story that allows James Franco to further exercise his versatility in a dual role while giving Maggie Gyllenhaal ample opportunity to take command of every scene she is in.

Then there are the series that served as timely responses to the choking resurgence of bigotry and ignorance hanging over 2017. OWN’s “Queen Sugar” is a relatively unsung beauty that portrays black life in all of its variations with gorgeousness and pensiveness, allowing its men and women to embrace their flaws and celebrate their humanity its fullest.

Netflix’s “Dear White People” and “She’s Gotta Have It” speak with lightness and spirit to the modern black experience — with one confronting the existential comedy of identity politics and pain of prejudice with humor and (when appropriate) distress. Spike Lee’s remake of his groundbreaking cinematic classic as a series enables him to expansively flaunt his signature style as a director while celebrating art, music and the Brooklyn that he loves through the prism of a feminist comedy.

But if there’s one series that I wish received more attention than it did this year — and likely will in 2018 — it’s SundanceTV’s criminally overlooked “Hap & Leonard,” a Southern-fried crime drama based on Joe Lansdale’s books that changed its tone from a loopy caper in season one to the second season’s “Mucho Mojo” chapter. The second installment is a dark contemplation on race, police brutality, and the systemic denial of justice to people of color in a small Texas town where everybody knows everyone else. The fragile beauty of the loving friendship between Hap Collins (James Purefoy) and Leonard Pine (Michael Kenneth Williams) hovers above all that. As relevant and honest as the plot feels, the central relationship is one not often explored on television. It is just as much of a draw as the mystery, making it one of the best series to air on TV in 2017.

That is, if one were to engage in such distinctions. But I am not that person.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland