By Darren Franich
December 15, 2017 at 11:52 AM EST
FX (2)

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

USA Network

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

FX

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

Bravo

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)

8. Jimmy Kimmel Live!: “Jennifer Lawrence/Kim Kardashian/Linkin’ Bridge”

ABC

So Jennifer Lawrence was guest-hosting for Jimmy Kimmel. She interviewed Kim Kardashian West, asking some vaguely “tough” questions (Reggie Bush’s name came up) but never quite getting toward the actual tough answers that make, say, Andy Cohen’s reunions so gladiatorial. Kardashian remained Kardashian, chatty and smiling and unknowable. The only two logical responses to this encounter were “That was pleasant” or “I don’t care.” Oh, there was an initial round of “Jennifer Lawrence should be a full-time host” celebration, the same thing everyone always says when a celebrity guest-hosts a late night show; in the internet echo chamber, this hyperbole should be taken euphemistically as a “That was pleasant” with exclamation points and all-caps.

For some reason, I felt profoundly unsettled by the whole thing, like there was a great disturbance in the force. Lawrence is either the biggest new movie star of the decade or the biggest movie star of the decade, full stop. Kardashian is less but more than that, something like new American royalty, not quite the British royals but certainly up there next to the sovereign prince of Monaco. Lawrence had hung out with the Kardashian clan recently – alcohol was involved — and has watched every iteration of the Kardashian Cinematic Universe, so the conversation proceeded a little like a fan-star interaction. It was weird. It was stilted. This isn’t their fault, maybe, it’s not what they do — Lawrence is a fine actress and the consummate talk show guest, Kardashian is some incarnation of whatever American Gods was about plus click here for beauty products. And this whole filmed incident reflected, like, multiple favors between multiple people — Lawrence filling in for Kimmel, Kardashian descending from Calabasas, Kris Jenner making Lawrence’s Kardashian interactive experience dreams come true. So, like, churlish to complain, and hell, I’m still thinking about it, so something went right.

But this conversation felt like the end of some version of stardom: Some final handoff between movie stardom and reality meta-stardom, maybe, or maybe the last exemplar of an old Hollywood star system (J.Law don’t tweet!) paying homage to the internet-breaking social media Empress. I couldn’t stop watching. Was haunted, most of all, by that floating sign on the backdrop. This was Hollywood, we’ll tell the kids, and it never quite was again.

7. Fargo: “Somebody to Love,” directed by Keith Gordon, cinematography by Dana Gonzales

See Carrie Coon’s face in this penultimate shot of Fargo. Watch how the emotions cycle through her eyes, anxious, fearful, resolved. Then that smile, that’s almost not a smile. I tried making a GIF from this sequence, but you want to focus on these frozen moments. It’s a magnum opus per millisecond.

Noah Hawley spent early 2017 exploding all sorts of visual concepts through Legion and the third Fargo. Neither was a complete success, but Fargo had the better follow-through, tracking how the criminal skullduggery of the mysterious V.M. Varga (David Thewlis) snaked globally outwards from the anthology’s snowy-noir milieu, encapsulating smalltown parking-lot fraud and backwoods hellmouth bowling alleys and (maybe?) the highest reaches of the government.

The season ended on an ambiguous note that felt a little too cute. Varga was imprisoned by this season’s lawperson, Gloria Burgle (Coon). She said he was going to prison for his crimes; he assured her the door to the interrogation room would soon open and he’d go free, his brand of evil officially too big to fail. The third-to-last shot is Varga, giving one final raspy speech, the light over his head turning dark. The final shot is of the door, will it open? But what I remember is the long-held take in between: A close-up on Burgle’s face as she looks at the door.

What a discovery Coon has been, in The Leftovers and on Fargo simultaneously, and still she feels like an untapped commodity. And both shows ended at basically the same place: A Carrie Coon close-up, a sudden impossible smile like the break of day after a long night. There’s no happy ending here, but look close for something more powerful: Endurance.

6. Queen Sugar: “To Usward,” directed by Cheryl Dunye, cinematography by Kira Kelly

Own

Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley) spends a lot of Queen Sugar talking about politics. She’s a journalist and an activist, so that’s her job; she’s also a human being in 2017, so what else do you expect? In the second episode of the season, she’s hosting a Bail Fund rally, decrying “men and women locked up for no other reason than because they’re poor and black.” The rally is peaceful, and it is surrounded on all apparent sides by policemen. “These police officers, they’re trying to intimidate us,” says Nova. “They want us to fear them. But we’re not afraid.”

Queen Sugar is most recognizably a multi-generational soap opera, every member of the Bordelon family sprawling through their own subplots, a new factory and a new farm and one ex-husband is a basketball star. The drama runs hot. So of course Nova’s nephew Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe) wanders into the rally. He’s skipping school for the day; he just experienced police brutality firsthand, a plot point that reveals itself only later in the season. But I’m not sure you need that story context to understand what he’s feeling. Nova runs over to her nephew, knowing he’s in a bad place, and hugs him close. “It’s gonna be okay,” she says, the lights from the police cars blinking red and blue on her face.

You could interpret a few different things about this moment, could say that Queen Sugar is tackling “the issues.” The series has a lot on its mind — Katrina and Trump, the struggles of the family farmer — and it finds a lot of time for sex, dramatic twists, romances sparking and flaring out. In this shot, it caught something gigantic about America right now: The cosmic fear and the feeling of real community, aunt and nephew staring Janus-faced to the bleak past and the possibility of a not-much-different future.

5. The 89th Academy Awards Mix-Up, directed by Glenn Weiss

How to pick just one shot, one angle? You could spend a decade Zaprudering any static screenshot of the Best Picture mishap from this year’s Oscar telecast. From the moment the La La Land crew came up to mistakenly accept their prize, the footage becomes a beautiful mess of anti-choreography, famous faces moving on and off the screen, people who so clearly shouldn’t be on stage racing onto the scene to fix the damage, the sudden cut-to-close-up on a card reading Moonlight as dramatic as the twist-ending reveal of the murder weapon, Warren Beatty becoming terribly human before our eyes as he tries to explain himself, the wave-crashing gradual shift from one cast and crew to another, the final exuberant arrival of Barry Jenkins. I’m a sucker for the Oscars — I wish they were longer! — but this was something special. This was our own freaking Guernica.

4. The Leftovers: “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother),” directed by Craig Zobel, cinematography by John Grillo

The second season of The Leftovers was a masterpiece. The long-awaited third season was brazenly even weirder, more suicidally downbeat — and felt a bit slower to start, cycling out some characters who were maybe never too essential (farewell, Garvey children!) and testing patience with a whole episode about Following A Dead Person Who Isn’t Actually Dead (Or Are They?) But the HBO series wrapped with four emotion-bursting episodes, any one of which could’ve served as a suitably happy-sad-strange finale for this most existential of dramas.

In the penultimate episode, Kevin (Justin Theroux) returns to his own private spy-movie purgatory, where — to his surprise — he’s the President of the United States on the eve of global nuclear war. Current events gave this madcap hour a topicality it could’ve never expected; the climactic image of nuclear missiles filling up the sky felt like a postcard from the The Year of Rocket Man Diplomacy. Like everything in the series’ final hours, it worked multi-tonal magic, sad and meditative and quietly accepting, and really much funnier than any vision of the apocalypse has a right to be.

3. The Good Place: “Michael’s Gambit,” directed by Michael Shur, cinematography by David Miller

NBC

Ted Danson! Carve a skyscraper-sized statue, send it the moon! On NBC’s afterlife sitcom, Danson played one of the most endearing characters on his epochal IMDb page: Sensitive angelic being Michael, desperate to create a better kind of heaven for his dearly departed citizens. So we thought. In the season 1 finale, Eleanor (Kristen Bell) has an epiphany. All the funny sitcom tension that she’s been living through with her friends? It’s literal torture, because they’re not friends hanging out having problems like on other NBC shows, they’re characters trapped in the Hell Sartre warned us about.

Creator Michael Schur directed this episode, and so credit him for the year’s most stunning single camera movement. We begin over Eleanor’s shoulder, a typical shot-reverse-shot framing. Then suddenly we’re moving closer into Michael’s face — wonderful Michael, so concerned about his failures, so dedicated to his humans’ happiness! And then oh dear god that smile, that laugh, that puppetmaster-y amusement. This happened in week 3 of month 1, but the year bore out the subtext of this revelation: Here is a man we thought we could trust, revealed as something very close to the Devil Himself. Three cheers for Danson! Put him on Mount Rushmore!

2. GLOW: “Money’s in the Chase,” directed by Tristram Shapeero, cinematography by Christian Sprenger

Netflix

My favorite show of the year built throughout its first season to a finale-capping Big Show. It was like how every Friday Night Lights year built to a championship, or the eons of Glee spent in anticipation of Regionals. And GLOW did not disappoint in its final act, sending its woman-wrestler ensemble onstage for a knock-down-drag-out fight that was hilarious and tense with raw emotion.

There’s a moment in the final fight when Debbie (Betty Gilpin) climbs to the top rope onstage — a move we’ve seen her rehearse, a genuinely whoa-ish feat of strength given that none of these women knew how to wrestle (and that all show’s real-life actresses did their own stunts). Debbie and her former friend Ruth (Alison Brie) are both actresses who’ve struggled through Hollywood. Debbie was a soap star, but that came to an end around the time her kid was born. Ruth is an artist who wants better roles than Hollywood is giving her. The decision to wrestle onstage could be a last-chance desperation move, but — like Bette Davis and her B-movie grand Guignol makeup — GLOW casts the cartoonishness of wrestling as liberating, a throwing-aside of society’s most basic expectations.

In the show, it’s 1985, and Out of Africa is about to win Best Picture: As old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy a notion of “quality” as the wrestling of GLOW is campily glorious and alive. The camera lingers on Debbie as she sloooooooowly stands up on the corner, all eyes on her. Stand tall, lady, you’ve earned it.

1. Twin Peaks: “Part 16,” directed by David Lynch, cinematography by Peter Deming

Showtime

So much great TV in 2017 felt influenced by the original Twin Peaks, and by the most recognizable elements of co-creator David Lynch’s style. That includes four or five shows on this list, and the CW’s Riverdale, a knowingly Kidz Bop-ian redo of old-school Peaks. You had to wonder what the Showtime sequel series would add to the equation. Lynch himself was last spotted in late middle age performing scuzzblur experiments with digital video (Inland Empire) that felt 180 degrees away from the sumptuous lipstick-noir he peddled when the millennium turned (Mulholland Drive).

Here’s what I didn’t expect: Now in his ’70s, Lynch returned to longform narrative as a steady old master, constructing scenes with delicate comedy and carefully constructed tableau-ish long takes. There were big weird moments of pure Lynchiana—pick out any shot from Episode 8, part-Dead Sea Scroll from the birth of the Atomic Age, part-Vision of Heaven as an Infinite Movie Screen. But what I remember more is Lynch’s luxuriating patience. Twin Peaks was 18 parts long and it was in no hurry.

So when the payoffs came, they were big. And no single payoff in Twin Peaks‘ back half felt more movingly profound than the return of the show’s protagonist. Kyle MacLachlan spent much of the summer enacting unusual states of being: The cosmic confusion of a prisoner beyond space/time, the monstrous craving evil of a man without scruples, the ambient curiosity of a happily brainless soul. In Part 16, by electrical magic, Agent Cooper was himself again. MacLachlan didn’t miss a beat: The long years disappeared, and he was barking out orders, roadmapping his journey back to that strange and wonderful town. He told his ally Bushnell Mullins (Don Murray) that federal agents were on their way and said some more things that could only confuse the savvy old man. Cooper walked out the door, and Bushnell asked, what about the FBI?

The man turned to the camera, a myth reborn. “I am the FBI,” he said, like he never left. (We should be so lucky.) There were more marvels yet to come, some sad and some dark and some that made you wonder who Agent Cooper ever really was. But this is the instant I keep coming back to: The return of the hero to a world that badly needs one.

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