2017 was a stressful year for anyone paying attention to the three-dimensional world we inhabit. So the TV screen could offer an escape. Fantasy, once the stuff of syndicated New Zealand beefcakery, is now blockbuster TV product: See the ice dragon on Game of Thrones, wait patiently for Amazon’s Lord of the Rings Appendix C: The Series. But in 2017, television was also a mirror, a vision board, a way of understanding a confusing world. It was where the stuff was happening, and there was too damn much: Reality and television and reality on television, a new disaster a minute, a new show per day.
How much TV is too much? In the industry, you hear talk of a bubble, and you wonder if downfalls like Yahoo Screen or WGN’s scripted division were coal mine canaries. But the human mind badly wants a bubble to pop. And so much of the modern TV industry is rooted in California, the Hollywood fief lords with their traditions and the Silicon Valley philosopher-kings with their algorithms. If you want to shift polite conversation away from both industries’ harassment epidemics, why not just talk about California real estate, these prices that can’t maintain, this reality that must be an economic illusion?
Better, I think, to adjust yourself for a new normal. Television will always be too much television, and maybe the next great TV series will speed by like the perfect soulmate you swiped left away from. I put together my rundown of the Best Shows of 2017 last week, but with 2017 almost over, I wanted to cheatcode the system by focusing in on my favorite single shots of the TV year. These are frames that captivated my attention, the moving pictures seared in the mind. There is some crossover between the lists, but some of my favorite shows didn’t have shots this memorable, and some series were never better than these few stolen seconds. There are spoilers. I promised myself I’d narrow the list down to 10, so…
15. Mr. Robot: “eps3.0_power-saver-mode.h,” directed by Sam Esmail, cinematography by Tod Campbell
There should be a German word for the special moment when a TV series rejuvenates itself, self-defibrillating out of a death spiral. Mr. Robot‘s season premiere did just that. Elliot (Rami Malek) wandered through a blacked-out Manhattan, ravaged by the aftermath of his great hack. He launched into yet another rant about society’s problems — with the added narcissistic epiphany that he is the current cause of all those problems.
At the end of the sequence, he found a wall full of pictures of dead people — marked “In Memoriam,” like the montages at awards shows. Pictures of dead characters from the cast appeared, kneecapping the already-flimsy reality of this scene. Director Sam Esmail loves eerie close-ups and swooning long takes, and if you take the definition of the word “shot” loosely, you could put all of episode 5 on this list. But for me, his standout creation as an image-maker this year is this final far away angle. Elliot stands in front of the wall. The city is dark all around him; the man himself looks noir as a black hole. “I did this,” Elliot has just said.
And then, good god, there is the lightning, as subtle as the electric bolts coursing through Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. Like many of the sequences Esmail has directed this season, it’s a moment operating on multiple levels, garbage-bag street grime merging with horror-movie surrealism. “This was my fault,” Elliot has told himself. Look upon your works, ye mighty, and despair.
14. Feud: Bette and Joan: “Pilot,” directed by Ryan Murphy, cinematography by Nelson Cragg
Contemporary grande dame Susan Sarandon plays bygone grande dame Bette Davis. Costarring with careerlong frenemesis Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange), Bette works out her “look” for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? As she walks onto the set, a spotlight carries her out of the shadow. Fresh off Broadway, twice an Oscar winner, younger than Tom Cruise is now, Sarandon’s Bette has transmogrified herself into a pastiche of the Hollywood aging process. White makeup, blood red lipstick, glam baby-doll curls: Put a mustache on her and she’s Cesar Romero on the Batman TV show. It’s horrifying, hilarious, transcendent, like the part when whoever’s Spider-Man now puts on his costume for the first time.
It’s a personal triumph and an act of effacement, self-parody used as body armor. This first season of Feud wanted to twist all these ideas up together, to print the legend of the Bette-Joan catfighting melodrama as an act of female-forward revisionism. It mostly didn’t work for me and looked more to my eyes like the dull bitchy-comment cosplay of Scream Queens than Murphy’s more volcanic American [Insert Genre] Stories. But look at Sarandon’s imperial strut, the proudly raised chin. This is high camp reclaimed as transgressive empowerment: Murphy’s whole career mission, accomplished.
13. Better Call Saul: “Chicanery,” directed by Daniel Sackheim, cinematography by Marshall Adams
I never liked Chuck McGill, never ever ever. No disrespect to actor Michael McKean. Full respect to the Better Call Saul team for sticking steadfastly to their deep-held notion that the ailing lawyer’s rivalry with brother Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) was the stuff of great drama. But Chuck felt like a device to me, fulltime-employed as a Sick Sad Relative and then a Necessary Antagonist. The low point came when he pretended to be sick so Jimmy would confess all his sins, and would you believe Chuck was recording the whole thing?! Such twists!
The setup took two and a half seasons. You say “slow burn,” I say “meandering long way around to a showdown inevitable from minute one.” But I’ve grown to like Better Call Saul‘s shaggy-dog inclinations — let’s track every minor incident in the Albuquerque underworld! — and Chuck’s spotlight episode was almost worth the wait. In “Chicanery,” the two lawyer brothers meet in a courtroom. It’s a TV-sacred story set-up – the legal drama, the former friends meeting at the witness stand, the surprise return of a long-lost love. A lot of Saul‘s story flows like this, depending too much on Jimmy’s capabilities as a fourth-dimensional hacker of human interaction.
But the visuals are beautiful, filmed rapturously in dull corporatist offices. There’s a symphonic feeling to this episode, the courtroom genre gone Shakespearean. And by the end of “Chicanery,” Chuck has ruined himself in public. He knows it. The camera slowly rises, and we hear the buzzing of the neon EXIT sign. There’s a bleak joke in this shot, a plot that slow-burned into the season finale. I prefer my own meta interpretation: Here’s a proud man realizing he’s a very minor character in a much larger story, hearing his own curtain call like a death rattle.
12. The Real Housewives of New York City: “Make Out, Make Up,” directed by tequila, cinematography by Matt Shelly
The New York Housewives went to Mexico for three tequila-soaked episodes. It was “The Hangover meets Golden Girls,” said Bethenny, though pinpoint accuracy would call it a boozily brilliant remix of that horrible Mexico segment from 2008’s Sex and the City movie. All season long, social horror had simmered between Bethenny and Ramona. I forget the particulars – Ramona said something about Bethenny’s daughter, the media, divorce, school? – but that tension exploded when a daydrink tequila-tasting odyssey dead-ended into skinny-dipping, cryface-bonding, and frayed friendships hugged out in a swimming pool. Bethenny cried, Ramona cried, they hugged, all was forgiven, and so the stage was set for the next betrayal.
The details are precise enough that they’d be unbelievable in fiction. (Like, why is one person naked?) The drunk talk would sound unconvincing even from the best Australian actor doing their best Upper West Side accent. I can’t imagine any fictional drama pinpointing this tone of soap operatic trainwreckitude. And I no longer quite know what to think about scenes like this; I’m here for anyone who thinks reality TV has spoiled the world. But I know what I feel watching a scene like this: thrilled and amused at the raw absurd emotions, this tearful reconnection occurring while Bethenny’s body was demurely digi-blotched out. I’m fairly certain my fiancée and I laughed through this whole sequence — and through the whole Tequila Trilogy, really, this decadent villa invaded by a Squadron of a Certain Age acting the way I remember us all acting in college, falling drunk laughing crying.
The emotions seem sincere, question mark? At least, as sincere as too much tequila can make anybody? I can no longer decide whether Bravo’s best docusoaps are something like art or just a much funnier version of Instagram, but I’m in on them now, and there’s no escape.
11. She’s Gotta Have It: “#NolasChoice (3 DA HARD WAY)”, directed by Spike Lee, cinematography by Daniel Patterson
Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) dates three guys and lives in Brooklyn. Spike Lee exported that basic logline from his own debut feature, gave himself the eternal runtime of a Netflix 10-episode order, and followed the muse wherever. She’s Gotta Have It is a riot, imperfect by nature, and overflowing with energy and wandering attention. I could’ve used less “Previously on the Brooklyn Art World,” but I love how Lee’s willing to stage any plot point like a fourth-wall-bursting event.
Chief example: In the finale, Nola invites her three men (Anthony Ramos, Lyriq Bent, and Cleo Anthony) over for Thanksgiving dinner. Prince’s song comes on, “Raspberry Beret,” (R.I.P.) and they start dancing together, the lady and the rivals for her affection. By this point, it’s clear that Lee’s going for something better than realism but sharper than fantasy. The four of them dance toward the camera looking right at the audience. There’s a cut, and we’re staring at them from the far corner of the room. They keep going, and feel how the camera gracefully chastises our own self-importance: They were never dancing for us.
10. DuckTales: “DayTrip of Doom!” directed by Dana Terrace, art direction by Sean Jimenez
DuckTales has histories within histories. The original series is 30 years old, and the Disney Duck genus dates back to the origin-days of popular animation. The new rebooted series has located an animation style between the serene illustrations of all-time Uncle Scrooge artist Carl Barks and the kinetic comedy of contemporary TV animation.
You can spot both traditions in this moment from the second episode. Beakley (Toks Olagundoye) is complaining about new mansion resident Donald (Tony Anselmo), who has set up his houseboat in Scrooge’s pool. As she watches from the shadows, Donald tries to attach some electrical generators. Things go downhill, like a snowball rolling down a mountain of gasoline toward an ocean of fire. The shot above is maybe half of the full scene as all of Donald’s efforts to stop the problem only making it worse, his silent-movie reactions all playing out under Beakley’s nothing-but-blinking deadpan. So much of the new show is like this, smart silliness taken to a wild extreme, served with a droll cleverness that’s self-aware without being snarky.
9. Big Little Lies: “Once Bitten,” directed by Jean-Marc Valée, cinematography by Yves Bélanger
There was a point this year when it felt like every female character on television was going to therapy. Charlie on Queen Sugar, Nola on She’s Gotta Have It, Molly on Insecure, I think Naomi Watts was a psychologist on whatever Gypsy was, and maybe it wasn’t a legitimate therapy session but Sam’s mock-funeral on Better Things felt like the kind of psycholi-spiritual event that accidentally becomes a Los Angeles cult. Can’t imagine why women needed therapy this year! is the easy joke to make, but even setting aside the various macro-aggressions of the world (and the industry), it felt like a collective investigation: of these women, and of their perspective on themselves.
The trend launched with Nicole Kidman’s near-highjacking of Big Little Lies, her scenes with Robin Wiegart’s therapist raising the already-great show’s game by diving deep into Celeste’s soul. There’s a scene in episode 5 when Celeste goes to see Dr. Reisman without her abusive husband, and the cracks really begin to form: Not in Celeste, but in her own perspective on her marriage. The doctor tries to press her, and Celeste initially refuses, noting that she came to therapy together with her husband because they need help.
She gestures to the empty vacuum where her husband isn’t — his presence suggested with her casually thrown-aside jacket, its white emptiness a pale shock against the floral-patterned NorCal tableau, standing out from Celeste’s summer dress and that autumn-y pillow and the green-burgundy aesthetic the doctor’s clearly going for, like red wine on a green hillside untouched by wildfires. Her husband isn’t there, but he’s everywhere, his very presence infecting Big Little Lies‘ coastal Never-Neverland with fear and tension.
(Next: The remaining 8 best shots)