2017's Best and Worst TV
EW’s TV critic Darren Franich picks the year’s highs (GLOW!) and lows (Marvel’s Inhumans).
BEST — 1. GLOW
Women dress like spandex cartoon characters and pretend to fight each other. They barely know how to wrestle. They live in a runty motel up in the Valley. Their director is a fading B-cult never-was. Their producer is some Malibu millionaire, his robot carries cocaine. The star was on some soap opera awhile ago. “This is just kind of silly,” says the star’s husband (Rich Sommer), the kind of blandsome ’80s guy every ’80s blockbuster was made by, about, and for. He’s almost right: It’s the silliest, smartest, greatest TV event of the year. Creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensche went to TV history for inspiration, returning to the golden age of syndication to conjure up the pop epic for our streaming age. It begins with Alison Brie as Ruth Wilder, a desperate artiste trapped in a time when Hollywood was as bad to women as Hollywood still was thirty-two years later. Seeking a job – seeking inspiration – she joins up with last-chance auteur Sam Sylvia, played by Marc Maron with rueful whimsy that’s positively Bogart-ish. He’s assembling the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and the wonder of GLOW is how generously it builds its ensemble. We get to know them as people, and we see them each build a persona, confronting stereotypes (there’s a KKK joke!) by pushing them to the hyperbolic extreme.
With the best cast on television, it’s a hilarious misfit-gang romp, half sports movie and half behind-the-scenes showbiz dramedy, The Bad News She-Bears meets Waiting for Guffman. But GLOW‘s genius is how the goofy, candy-crazy grandeur of the whole endeavor becomes an empowering triumph. These women are building a community – and declaring ownership over their own selves. Brie’s a wonder – after Mad Men, Community, and Bojack Horseman, this is her fourth TV masterwork and counting. She’s matched by walking revelation Betty Gilpin, who plays Ruth’s best friend/nemesis/costar Debbie. It’s Debbie – accurately described as “Grace Kelly on Steroids” – who gives voice to GLOW‘s most sincere and empowering triumph. “It’s like I’m back in my body,” she says. “I’m using it for me, and I feel like a goddamn superhero.”
Like any true work of art, GLOW seemed uncannily tapped into deep ley lines of 2017 culture. The women’s struggle on the outskirts of Hollywood caught the #MeToo drumbeat early. (Here’s a whole superteam of Wonder Women!) And the season-climactic wrestling match builds to a symbolic showdown between the US and Russia, a Cold War fantasy gone furiously topical. But like any true work of art, GLOW creates its own specific context. That final US-Russia duel is a performance by Ruth and Debbie, in character as Soviet empress “Zoya the Destroya” and Reaganite heroine Liberty Belle. It climaxes with Debbie climbing to the top rope of the wrestling ring, preparing a final flying move. The climax is the jump, thrilling as any moment from any sports movie. But I’ll never forget Debbie’s climb, her journey to the top rope as invigorating as the sound of a shattering glass ceiling. Rise, Liberty! Rise!
BEST — 2. Twin Peaks
The world spins, the stars turn, the young grow old, the logs turn gold. Co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost didn’t recreate Twin Peaks. They sent their ’90s cult phenomenon global — like a pandemic, or a religion. Kyle MacLachlan played three or four versions of the same man, a hard bad man on a mission, a good sad man lost in space, a cheerfully absorbent lobotomized little fellow named Dougie, sundry strange variations therein. He drifted through dimensions, across state lines, and we tagged along all summer on his trippy road trip. It wasn’t just his story. We saw murderers and insurance agents, true men and tough dames, coots and psychopaths, a cast of hundreds, someone defeated eternal evil with a green garden glove, someone else ordered a red chair, true love was declared, a floor was swept.
Nothing seemed important but everything felt important. Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) and James Hurley (James Marshall) danced and sang, as they did long ago. A new generation rose, talking strangely as young people always do, speaking of penguins and house arrest. There were sequences unlike anything television has ever seen, mysteries to ponder for a lifetime. The dead spoke to us from beyond, Catherine E. Coulson and Miguel Ferrer, Warren Frost and now Harry Dean Stanton. Even David Bowie was alive again – but as the Log Lady told us, death is just change, not an end. Twin Peaks changed, never quite ended. Everything came together in Vegas, in the mushroom cloud, in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, at a house as haunted as any world ever has been, see the face of Sheryl Lee, hear a final scream of remembrance. It defied logic and made perfect sense. The best dreams always do.
BEST — 3. Big Little Lies
I’m a native to Northern California with roots in Monterey County, so I had a special appreciation for the sumptuous Instagram fantasy at the core of HBO’s hit miniseries. In the vision of director Jean-Marc Valee and writer David E. Kelley, Monterey was reimagined as Silicon Valley’s Malibu, every mom an Oscar diva, every window overlooking the beach, every first-grade feud spiraling into the kind of social warfare that usually only occurs in reality TV or Southern Gothic melodrama. Big Little Lies set a new benchmark in domestic thrills, enacting rich-do-play escapism that was also a careful drama of modern marriage while making the affairs of a yuppie-boho grade school feel like the stuff of scuzzbucket noir. It’s awful to pick a favorite performance, but Nicole Kidman taught an acting class (and a living class) during Celeste’s fragile-tough therapy sessions. The final act was a little clean in its symbolism, but who can argue against an Audrey Hepburn attack squad staging a righteous assault on Toxic Masculinity Elvis?
BEST — 4. The Good Place
Spoiler alert: Heaven is Hell. The first season finale of Michael Schur’s afterlife sitcom revealed that The Good Place was secretly the opposite — an impressive act of narrative table-flipping in an age when everyone’s already figured out the twist in Westworld season 4. But the real fun started in the second season, as the show continued flipping its central hell-is-other-people premise with skipping time and shifting alliances. I challenge you to find a series so adept at juggling throwaway gags, zippy banter, moral philosophy, the possibility of infinity, and a fire demon named Todd. All the imprisoned souls are played by stellar actors who make their characters seem all-too-human and archetypal. William Jackson Harper’s flop-sweating Chidi is a tormented superego. Jameela Jamil and Manny Jacinto are two flavors of Id, her Tahani a vain do-gooder, his Jason a vagrant innocent. Kristen Bell’s Eleanor is both a careless nihilist and the voice of reason. Extra credit goes to D’Arcy Carden, brilliantly deadpan as chipper godbot Janet. And then there’s Tad Danson, lighter than air and dark as the void, playing TV’s most endearing monster.
BEST —5. Rick and Morty
Every episode of this cosmic cartoon is its own golden age of science fiction, devouring eons of genre tropes and philosophical conceits into a tight sitcom runtime. The long-awaited third season was funny, grotesque, and emotionally brutal. What started as a playful Back to the Future riff has become a bleak character study, with demi-god Rick (voiced by co-creator Justin Roiland) torturing callow grandson Morty (Roiland again) and his whole splintered family, one horrible-incredible adventure at a time. The cynicism was stunning, almost anti-human. One episode this season featured a whole metropolis of Rick and Morty doppelgangers living out a downbeat Dickens novel of dystopian social horror. But the series sparkles with imagination, can become a scathing parody of superhero movies and phantasmagoric space epic blending, a memory-twisting potboiler funnier than any Black Mirror but twice as smart. You can’t lose hope in humanity! Humanity invented Pickle Rick!
BEST — 6. Insecure
There are sitcoms about twentysomethings and sitcoms about thirtysomethings, the former all great ambitions and casual hook-ups, the latter circling harsh realities but also the possibility of new beginnings. Insecure has found a lovely midpoint, somewhere between “adulting” and actual adulthood, where every casual decision starts to feel life-defining, and every open door starts to shut. Former couple Issa (creator Issa Rae) and Lawrence (Jay Ellis) rejoined a dating world gone high-tech and surreal. In the process, they seemed to rediscover themselves, older and no wiser. Issa’s best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) hit a couple professional glass ceilings, and experienced strange epiphanies about her friends and family. The emotional stakes were high, and the exuberant energy was intoxicating. There was an episode about a daytime party, “Hella LA,” which is one of the great friends-hanging-out TV episodes of the decade, fun and awkward and hilarious and sad. This was a party you wanted to be invited to. Evocatively shot in Rae’s native Inglewood, Insecure is TV’s most stylish relationship show, aspirational especially when it’s painful.
BEST — 7. The Handmaid's Tale
When I think of 2017, I’ll think of Elizabeth Moss’ face. In any single scene of Hulu’s Emmy-winning fertility-slave dystopia, she could cycle through four emotions and invent two more. Moss’ June — don’t dare call her “Offred”! — was a remarkably endearing regular person held captive by a demonic America that suddenly felt as familiar as a news feed on any one of the last 365 bad days. The hysterical topicality produced a phenomenon in cosplay activism, but the eerie power of this Margaret Atwood adaption was how it situated June within a deeply fractured family melodrama. Inside the Waterford house, leering Joseph Fiennes and icily imperial Yvonne Strahovski played a parody of Father Knows Best values decaying into totalitarian tragedy. The first season had a kinetic power, finding time to develop the parallel horror-arcs of June’s husband Luke (O. T. Fagbenle) and friend Moira (Samira Wiley). Tell the truth, there’s no entry on this list whose next season worries me more: We left off on a cliffhanger promising an expansive narrative shift, and I worry there was some special dramatic structure in that awful house, the miserable couple, their dirty little secret upstairs, their state-sponsored himbo (played by Max Minghella and Max Minghella’s arms) in the driveway. But I’ll follow Moss wherever she goes.
BEST — 8. DuckTales
Generations have risen and fallen since Disney’s ducks started talking. You anticipated that this Disney XD reboot would be another rehash of nostalgic IP. What you got was a complete floor-to-ceiling refurbishment. Episodes of the new DuckTales have been old-school pulp adventures, fast-paced sitcom farces, and midnight-city freakouts, all brought to life with digital animation that has the texture of Carl Barks’ long-ago hand-drawn Uncle Scrooge comics. Like few reboots ever do, DuckTales has cleverly reconsidered the source material. The three nephews are actual separate characters. Their mom Della is a missing ongoing mystery. This is the best family comedy of the year in every sense of the word, safe for kids but surprising for adults, with the best voice cast on television bringing every member of the tumultuous Duck clan to idiosyncratic life. All hail Kate Micucci’s Webby Vanderquack, the kid I want to be when I grow up.
BEST — 9. American Crime
Baseball’s bygone, football’s a controversy-launching bummer, but wasn’t the real national pastime always human exploitation? In the third and final season of John Ridley’s anthology series, there is no one single crime, just a litany of original sins. Undocumented workers slave away in agrarian hellscapes, teen moms turn tricks on the streets or online, immigrants have no power, and yet somehow the powerful men still feel impotent with rage. Look elsewhere for cheap platitudes, but look closer for real hope. My favorite TV superhero of the year is Regina King’s Kimara Walters, a social worker working hard on our society. Somebody’s gotta.
BEST — 10. Mr. Robot
Sam Esmail’s techno-noir returned from a wandering second season to bring stunning sanity to our world gone made. Poor rifted Elliot (Rami Malek) tried to turn away from his dark half (Christian Slater), rebooting himself as the solution to all the problems he caused. Then came episode 5, the year’s most thrill-drunk act of smallscreen showmanship, a faux-single-take action-thriller set in cubicles and conference rooms. Esmail directs every episode with a dark playfulness that recalls the heights of ’90s indie-fabulous cinema — the clever pop music cues, the invigorating camerawork, the way errant bits of long-ago kid cool (Home Alone, Back To the Future 2) become mythic totems for a generation. But the current run of Mr. Robot is a thoroughly modern masterpiece, a fairy tale about the secret internet identity that destroyed the world.
WORST — 1. APB
This was the year for a show about a swaggering cult-of-personality billionaire taking over the government. And this was the year for a show about Silicon Valley patriarch-technocracy affecting our civic institutions in freaky futuristic ways. But either of those shows should have been, like, darkly comic horror satires. So Fox’s straightfaced procedural was two flops in one, about a rich entrepeneur who fixes crime by ripping off RoboCop. A true point-missing drama, and failed propaganda for everything ruining the country this week.
WORST — 2. Taboo
More money is flowing into television than ever before, and few decadent heights cratered deeper artistic lows than FX’s muddybro-history. It began with great actors, big sets, a broad canvas, delicious dialogue — and all that deadended into a season-long revenge slog. After peacocking through intriguing ideas about colonialism, here was an expensive vanity project about making Tom Hardy look cool.
WORST — 3. Snatch
And now for the year’s worst reboot, a synthetic rehash of Guy Ritchie’s already synthetic underworld opera. Hell, compared to the new Snatch, the original Snatch was freaking Goodfellas. In place of Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones, the Crackle series starred a crew of cute criminals collectively as threatening as your local junior high’s spring performance of Guys & Dolls. Did I mention Ed Westwick’s performance as a Cuban (suuuuure) gangster?
WORST — 4. Megyn Kelly Today
Summer’s Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly merely produced the year’s second-worst Vladimir Putin interview. (Top honors to you, Oliver Stone!) But that was mere prelude to the cringey pointlessness of the former Fox News host’s morning hour, a futile rebranding of the conservative sniper as a light-chat softy. “I am kinda done with politics for now,” is how Kelly introduced her new series. Nuts to that, Kelly! Free the beast within! Love her or hate her, you didn’t expect to be bored by her.
WORST — 5. Marvel's Inhumans
You kept waiting for this expensive flop to get bad enough to be funny, like APB or any superhero movie with Ben Affleck. But across a whole sad season of grimgray production design and hammy bargain-Thrones dialogue, this adaptation of a High Nerd Marvel property never came close to co-creator Stan Lee’s good humor, to say nothing of co-creator Jack Kirby’s riotous imagination. Few strange shows have ever been so boring. Few series ever felt so limited.