The current state of TV is fascinating. Peak TV reigns. Thrones hangs on as our last “monoculture” show – unless Amazon has anything to say about it. The Golden Age of shows about Bad Men Doing Bad Things has come and gone, with no real Pantheon successor looming. Netflix, losing 30 Rock and Disney, is shifting away from its core “binge all the shows you love, whenever” value proposition, focusing instead on original programming. Apple wants in the mix, too.
This massive influx of content has had several ramifications on our viewing habits and standards. I, for instance, feel like I never have time to watch TV anymore. In reality, I’ve made it through at least one season of 23 different shows this year alone. And despite my lengthy wish list to watch or catch up on, decision paralysis is real.
I know many face this dilemma – myriad options, limited time – so to provide these lost souls with some insight into the possibilities, I’ve here put together a spoiler-free ranking of all the shows I’ve consumed in the past ~12 months.
23. Crashing (HBO)
I liked Pete Holmes when he was a guest on the Adam Carolla podcast; he’s one of the few who’s fast and witty enough to keep up with the Ace man. But this show just fell a bit flat. I liked Artie Lang’s brutal honesty, but it’s premise of “struggling comic in NYC” was incredibly straightforward. It’s also tough to make a comedy about a comedian who’s not funny.
22. UnReal – Season 1 (Lifetime/Hulu)
Lots of cool character stuff you can do in a show about producing reality TV, and I thought UnReal did a decent job of that. Similar to how The Americans plays with the concept of identity – who are you really, when you’re being manipulative and playing different roles/personas?
That said, the lead female character just wasn’t particularly likable, and would often behave in ways that didn’t feel justified.
21. 13 Reasons Why (Netflix)
Aside from the suicide subject matter and the real-world conversations around the show, this one was sort of fun. I’m usually down for a decent high-school soap, and felt the show hit its stride once the middle of the season rolled around.
On the other hand, it was fairly heavy… handed. Plus the lead character, Clay, was a freaking idiot with no charisma whatsoever. Like, DUDE, listen to the fucking tapes faster! How do you not want to hear the one about you??
20. New Girl – Season 1 (FOX/Netflix)
It’s tough to find new comedies, and so given New Girl‘s positive reputation, I figured to give this one a try (despite my reticence towards network sitcoms). It certainly does have some clever bits, and you do gain affection for the cast.
As tough as it is to find comedies, though, its even tougher for them to find the right dose of “ridiculous” for its characters. Schmidt is one of those over-the-top roles, but that behavior for some reason just feels forced. It’s an act. Compare that to the masters (think Arrested Development with Tobias; 30 Rock, Kenneth), shows which are able to create completely unrealistic personae that still resonate.
19. Westworld (HBO)
On paper, Westworld should be a monster. The production of HBO. The pedigree of its cast. The premise, even, could be fascinating. And it definitely led to some awesome moments (e.g., “What door?”), and fostered great speculation about what exactly was happening.
The execution, though, was just not up to par. While jokes about the theme park’s logistics were fun, the lack of answers became frustrating – not because we didn’t have them, but also because it seemed the creators didn’t either. The philosophical question it was running after (can robots be people too?) was not handled especially delicately.
It also seemed like that fundamental question was the not the actual point; instead, it was to have the audience dive down rabbit holes. If that’s your game plan, though, you’re sort of screwed when the audience knows what happens before you reveal it. Which is exactly what happened.
18. Chef’s Table – Season 1 (Netflix)
With Chef’s Table, Netflix threw money at the idea of Food Porn and created visually exquisitve documentary about the world’s foremost cooks. That concept gets you far, and this was definitely an enjoyable watch – particularly the pilot about Massimo and Osteria Francescana.
That said, I think the series focused, as it were, slightly too much on the Chef and not enough on the Table. I would have liked to know more about the actual craft that goes into creating a dish, how flavors work together, the history of the cuisine, etc.. I was less interested in a biopic about individual chefs. Plus, I found that, while aesthetically impressive, high-concept nosh can sometimes struggle to translate from the screen into something that makes my belly rumble.
17. Game of Thrones – Season 7 (HBO)
Despite the series itself being on the short list of my all-time favorites, this last batch Benioff & Weiss released was hugely disappointing. Logistical improbabilities aside, out-of-character decisions and preposterously dumb ideas easily gaining consensus left much to be desired in the show’s penultimate season.
That said, it’s still Thrones! Gotta watch.
16. Top of the Lake: China Girl (Sundance/BBC/Hulu)
I’m an enormous fan of the detective/murder investigation genre (extra points if it’s non-American!), and despite that being an incredibly crowded field (e.g., Broadchurch, Luther, The Killing) the first season of Top of the Lake is my all-time, non-Twin-Peaks-edition favorite. Needless to say, I was hyped on the second, and China Girl’s opening few episodes picked up right where Season 1 left off.
It didn’t sustain, however, suffering most from Elizabeth Moss’ incredibly annoying daughter. Furthermore, Season 2’s villain (while still an enjoyably-filthy dirtbag) lacked the charisma of Season 1’s, meaning you end up spending a lot of time with characters you don’t like – particularly since Elizabeth Moss’ character isn’t that fun of a hang, either.
15. Big Little Lies (HBO)
Many shows fall into a specific trap: establishing the question of “who killed person X?” and then focusing almost exclusively on answering it. BLL not only put a different spin on the question (not only who did the killing, but also who was killed?), but also avoided that trap by concentrating on so many other things that it became unimportant who was going to die in the finale.
While we saw Nicole Kidman’s trials with her husband a few more times than I thought was necessary, I guess that inescapability was sort of the point, and it lead to some expertly-acted therapy scenes for sure. In terms of acting, chops, though, my god, Reese. Incredible. A freaking force of nature.
WITH HER KNIFE!
14. The Deuce – Partial Season 1 (HBO)
As is everyone at this point (considering Season 1 is still airing), I’m only a few episodes into this show, but have definitely enjoyed it thus far. As skeptical as I was of the “James Franco plays identical twins!” pitch, that casting is probably my favorite part of a good-everywhere-else-too show. He just captures the sleeze of those two brothers to perfection. Such great smug.
The show as a whole is very reminiscent of The Wire. Duh. It’s co-created by David “The God” Simon and George Pelecanos, focuses on a sprawling, ensemble cast, and is really more about Capitalism, Institutions and Urban Decay than it is about any particular individual. These are all good things. That said, it’s fucking distracting how many actors they’ve brought from Bodymore to Times Square – Chris Partlow, Slim Charles, Cheese “Method Man” Wagstaff, Frank Sabotka, D’Angelo Barksdale, etc. all show up, dressed oh-so-obviously in wigs and 70’s costumes, to cash in on that Simon connection.
The pacing, too, is very Wire-esque, often compared to chapters in a novel rather than individual, cliff-hangery episodes. That makes me think: does such a slow-burning show like this lend itself better for binge-watching than week-to-week consumption?
13. The Defiant Ones (HBO)
This documentary was pretty incredible for a number of reasons. First, it’s insane how much footage they have of household-name artists (e.g., Dr. Dre, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, Bono, Bruce Springsteen etc.) well before they became famous. What’s even more insane? That Jimmy Iovine worked with all those musicians, helping them to become household names. Before this, I only recognized the name due to Eminem skits. Clearly, I was not in the know.
My only real criticism is that the whole thing only seems to exist to serve as a plug for Beats headphones. That’s not why the creators made the documentary, of course, but you can read between the lines that the only reason Dre and Iovine agreed to it in the first place was as a giant plug.
12. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
This show continues to plug away as one of the best comedies on TV, one level below transcendent. Ellie Kemper radiates positivity and naivety with such good-natured enthusiasm it’d be tough to not love this show. And the GIF’d high-five sequence GIF’d below is one of the moments on TV, bar none, I’ve seen all year.
Here’s a suggestion for improvement, though: increase the amount of wacky, recurring side characters! Feels like we could use a few more of those.
11. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix)
I never read these books, parts of the show were incredibly childish, and every episode followed the exact same formula. All that out of the way, this show was really fun! Although not what I would call innovative, it conversely celebrated classic tropes with joy and style. And it just had this ability to convey a child-like wonder and awe for how magnificent and special life can be. Light, easy binge watch.
10. Orphan Black – Seasons 1-4 (BBC/Amazon)
This show never seems to get talked about, but had a fantastic run in its first few seasons by getting aggressive with its premise: Tatiana Maslany as a cadre of clones, each with her own personality and mannerisms. The discovery of each other and their situation – and all the conspiracy, collusion and corruption behind it – was a dramatic, tense and on-the-edge-of-your seat ride. Especially when this guy to the left shows up!
Maslany’s ability to truly become different people, instantly recognizable against each other, is astonishing and leads to some great, buddy-cop-esque interactions between clones with contrasting personalities. And there’s one scene in particular, where the sisters throw a dance party and each has her own unique moves, that’s downright mindblowing.
However, while foster-brother Felix provides stellar comic relief, the show lacks personality in most non-clone characters. And later seasons became a bit convoluted, with the show struggling to come up with a compelling explanation of the past.
9. The Night Of (HBO)
What series can claim the best Pilot of all time? Lost? Twin Peaks? Breaking Bad?
I’m not really sure, but The Night Of would be a great candidate. The NYC setting is established to perfection. Naz’s eerie encounter with the the girl and future homicide victim is more dream than reality. And the end is as tense and squirmy a scene as you’ll ever witness.
While the rest of the series was pretty good, it couldn’t quite live up to the same standards; the initial episode, though, makes the whole 8-episode mini-series worth it.
8. Ozark (Netflix)
Much of the critical response to this show can be summed up as: “Again?”
Admittedly, Ozark doesn’t do anything revolutionary, with Michael Bluth pulling off some impressive multi-tasking of uprooting his family to Missouri while blatantly ripping off Breaking Bad at the same time. Beyond that, the show is guilty of one of TV’s biggest pitfalls: foregoing a sense of humor entirely.
Yet there’s so much they did right here, from the no-filter roommate with an oxygen tank to the bleak panoramas of the titular Ozarks. I loved the little pictures that would change in the “O” in the intro, foreshadowing major events to come in each episode. Even the obvious Breaking Bad parallels were well-done; Ruth was a fiesty-yet-vulnerable Jesse Pinkman, while Laura Linney played a more-likeable Skyler.
There’s a reason we loved those Golden Age shows! Can’t a show be awesome without being disruptive? Ozark makes the case.
7. Big Mouth (Netflix)
Considering this show prominently features a character called The Hormone Monster – a pubescent boy’s deviant, foul-mouthed, anthropomorphic libido with a penis as a nose – I’d say this show probably isn’t for everybody, but it certainly was for me. Its animated reality enabled creativity and flexibility better than any show this side of South Park, allowing both the leads and the cameos – Kristen Wiig as a talking vagina, Kristen Bell as a talking… pillow vagina – to shine. And Jason Mantzoukas as a perverted kid who loves magic is dopamine straight to my veins.
Big Mouth just overflowed with rapid, inane humor from start to finish – easily one of Netflix’s best originals.
6. Broad City (Comedy Central/Hulu)
Broad City strikes me as the sister of It’s Always Sunny, with estrogen replacing testosterone and New York subbing in for Philly as the setting so pervasive and rich it becomes its own character. Both are shows about the shenanigans of a handful of self-consumed, maniacal friends – many of which make you laugh harder than anything else you’ll see on TV. These moments happen all the time, too, from the Tree Man popping out to the faux-pole on the subway. The bathroom montage to open Season 3.
My wife and my favorite scene, though:
While most of the time, Abbi and Ilana are clueless, obnoxious and grating, the show is at its best in those rare moments when it becomes just a slightly more accurate, charming representation of real life – as it did when the two discuss next year’s goals while eating pizza to wrap up season 2.
5. Stranger Things (Netflix)
Given that these tight 8 episodes came out a year ago, the actual viewing experience came and went, so its a bit hard to remember now how fun Stranger Things actually was. It came out of nowhere, too. But it did so by catching lightning in a bottle, combining a number of things we all love: mystery, suspense, nostalgia, the possibility of paranormal activity, and group of childhood friends taking matters into their own hands.
It’s use of nostalgia, in particular, is an interesting and delicate tool – one to keep in mind as we approach the second season. At the very least, it can easily become overused to the point of gimmicky fan-service. I could also see, regardless of any objective change in quality, the second season failing to hold up to people’s recollection of the first. “It’s just not as good,” they’ll say, even if it might be. Nostalgia, in this case, might actually work against the series this time around.
4. The Good Place (NBC/Hulu/Netflix)
As I write this, I keep feeling like this show is ranked too high; as funny as Janet’s quirks or the digs on the state of Florida are, this show never splits your side like Broad City or Big Mouth. Yet what I can’t help coming back to is there’s something so likeable about this show. Mike Schur, creator of Parks and Rec, just knows how to create worlds and characters you fall in love with.
I imagine some of you haven’t watched it yet, so I don’t want to go too much into detail here. I’ll say this, though: what this show did from a genre standpoint was revolutionary, innovation which certainly contributed to its high ranking.
3. Master of None (Netflix)
This show serves as a poster child for the auteur theory of cinema – both its validity, and its merits – as Aziz Ansari’s influence is stamped thoroughly and compellingly on this show. And while that certainly creates issues – Aziz, for all his talents, is not Daniel Day Lewis when it comes to acting – it overall manifests an amazing two season (so far) of television.
This show is dope. First, you assume it’s a comedy, coming from a stand-up titan and Parks and Rec alum, but it really is a much more complicated program; it’s too encompassing to fit in any one categorization. Second, it tackles some really thoughtful and conflicting questions: the lack of Indian representation on TV, social interaction in a technology-driven world, the pros and cons of becoming an adult, etc.
Probably my favorite thing about the series is how unafraid it is to take risks, formally. In the second season alone, you have a black-and-white ode to an Italian cinema classic, a bottle episode about a lesbian’s Thanksgiving dinners, and a lengthy close-caption-only argument between a deaf couple. It’s amazing to see a show so daring, and one that clearly is trying to not just make TV, but actual art.
2. Atlanta (FX)
Twin Peaks for Rappers? Perhaps not literally, considering how closely TP borders on horror, but I can see it in spirit: so much much eerie (guy on the bus) and goofy stuff happens. All told, this was an ambitious, remarkable and delightfully different debut from Donald Glover nonetheless. I think I’ve already watched the first half of this season… 4 times?
This scene, in particular, was my favorite on any show all year:
Something mysterious happened to Vern to cause him to drop out of Princeton – but the show isn’t about that. Van isn’t defined by her relationship to Vern, but is her own person with her own life. Paper Boi is a dope name for a rapper; Darius is a potential all-timer. The two of them together are gold: there’s a joke where “they’re late,” but it turns out they’re just trying to get high on a couch outside by 4:20.
At the most basic level, the characters on this show just talk so differently than anybody else on TV. That alone, is amazing. There’s so much to love about this show.
1. Veronica Mars (UPN/CW/nee Amazon)
What, you didn’t expect a 10-year-old series from the CW to top my list from this year? Well, you fucked up!
I don’t know that this show will resonate quite this much with everybody, but I will argue to end that – despite its subsequent downfall and cancellation – Veronica Mars put up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers in its first two seasons. Ingeniously blending the genres of high-school drama and film noir, this series launched Kristen Bell’s career and created a world that remains beloved long after Lily Kane’s murderer was identified.
Many shows mimicking the Twin Peaks “dead girl” model struggle to realize anything beyond that central mystery, and crater once it’s solved. They can’t find the right pacing, or other interesting subject matter to keep their audience hooked. This series was rare in its ability to balance that pace appropriately, entertaining the audience with a new one-off crime to solve every episode while slowly feeding us morsels about the larger, season-long mystery.
The short term and the long term plotting was executed to perfection; so, too, were the characters. Wallace was brash and loyal; Mac was clever and adorable; Logan was fun to hate. But really, the show takes it to another level because its two headline characters: Keith Mars, and his daughter.
Veronica transcends other characters of her ilk not just because she’s a cute, kind and witty smart-ass with a talent for sleuthing, but because Kristen Bell makes her so charmingly vulnerable. She’s got a ton of moxie, but she also has weak spots. She gets hurt, and you sympathize with her. You care for her.
You also care about her dad, Keith, who was wrongfully (maybe?) ousted as the local sheriff, but who’s a loveable dork and a good dude. He makes bad jokes. He’s honorable. And he loves his daughter.
And that’s what I loved most about this show, above everything else. It’s not just that we, as viewers, care about Veronica and her dad. It’s also clear how much they care about each other. How much they genuinely like each other.
It may sound corny, but it’s not. It’s legitimately touching. On TV – where chemistry can be rare, and hilarious one-liners go unnoticed by the characters they’re supposed to land on – heartfelt affection is a beautiful and special thing.