Best TV of 2017 (10-6)
Feature by Louis Rabinowitz.
10. Stranger Things
Entertainment Weekly original series Stranger Things, loosely adapted from GIFs people like to use on Twitter, has become detached somewhat from the idea of a regular TV show. The incessant conversation, examination and commodification of every aspect of the series has made it more into a kind of cultural IKEA flatpack than a series in its own right. It’s really easy to forget how simple a show this is.
Simple is good, though, and it’s the reason that Stranger Things has made it two for two. Boiled down to its core, this is a show about a sleepy, confused town of misfits being invaded by horrors it cannot hope to understand. It’s full of adventures, arguments, and jokes, and very light on ponderous metaphors or attempts at symbolism. Stranger Things 2, in particular, just wants to be a rollercoaster that winds up slowly with increasing tension for a mid-season plummet into chaos and fear and creatures called Demo-dogs, and it’s delightfully effective at achieving that. Few people go to this show for depth, which means it’s always going to be limited creatively – I’m not confident they can keep up the same formula for season three after the ‘go bigger’ maxim of season two strained the original premise – but for uncomplicated and briskly nostalgic fun with the best cast of kids you’ll ever see on TV, Stranger Things remains a show good enough to justify up to 40% of the hype. And that’s actually pretty good!
Just don’t mention the standalone episode.
9. American Gods
It took a while for me to ‘get’ American Gods. Conditioned by the marketing to expect a lavish and expansive fantasy epic with the scope and drive of Game of Thrones, I was taken aback by its weird, meandering feel, its fondness for long digressions only related to the main story by theme and lack of interest in the main premise it sets up in the pilot. Honestly, it took me seven of the first season’s eight episodes and finally reading the book on which the show is based to even properly click with it. If that all sounds like a lot of work to basically start enjoying a television show on its own terms, then that’s American Gods in a nutshell: it’s a lot of work.
I think the work is worth it, though, because American Gods is doing something that virtually no other shows are – it’s driving a story forward based on theme as opposed to plot, intensely focused on certain ideas even if those ideas lead the show into cul-de-sacs set in the 1800s with characters only related to the ones we know by some vague and uncertain family tree. That those ideas, of identity and place, of struggling to figure out who you are in an unwelcoming new world and deciding how you’ll be defined into the future, have never been so pertinent, is the reason why American Gods works in spite of its rambling feel.
Back in 2015, Fargo was my show of the year. Season two was watch-it-and-weep good television, so good, it made anyone with any creative instincts feel bad because they could never create something that good. It was virtually impossible, then, to top that with the third (or fourth) trip to snowy Minnesota. But Fargo season three sure gave it a shot. What began as a very fun but familiar greatest hits remix of old Fargo tropes soon took a series of detours into mad, occasionally brilliant territory. Season two gave us a UFO cameo. Season three gives you an animated subplot about a robot from the future, a metaphysical bowling alley that exists out of time, fake Moon landings and two Ewan McGregors. It was a kaleidoscopic tour through the insane world we’ve created for ourselves in 2017.
As ever, Fargo assembled a ludicrously good cast to anchor it all. Ewan McGregor x2 slotted perfectly into the clueless idiot role required by the franchise, David Thewlis made a compellingly disgusting bad guy, Carrie Coon remains a TV acting legend to which we all must fall before. This season was probably the weakest of the three Fargos, but the show has set pretty ludicrously high standards for itself. Fargo at its weakest is still better than most television.
Superhero shows in 2017 have gone from valuable respites from the missteps of big-screen spandex to a less ambitious and more formulaic antidote in many respects.
Enter Legion, a show whose relationship with the genre is tenuous enough that it barely qualifies as a ‘superhero’ show at all. The first season kicked viewers into the deep end with an unapologetically impenetrable premiere episode that plunged viewers into a world of mental turmoil and unchecked power, and it never really slowed down from there. Along the ride, we had evil obese yellow blobs, character actor Jemaine Clement pouring martinis inside a giant floating ice cube, Dan Stevens, in a fake accent, talking to himself, in his real accent, multiple dance sequences and kidnapping by a little orb. The fact that all of this psychedelic imagery nestled into a cohesive and (eventually) accessible tale of mental illness and the fragility of human identity made Legion all the more impressive. And, okay, it has its limitations – if you really strip it down, it’s not as rebellious as it might seem, as the disappointingly normal season finale showed. But in a year where the standard template for small-screen superheroes seemed to have peaked, Legion was a beautifully weird treat.
6. Mr Robot
Mr. Robot’s second season was, if you can reach back that far, deeply frustrating. In 2017, however, it’s undergone a creative resurgence that’s made it one of TV’s most vital shows once more. Season three has felt like a reward for sitting through the eons of set-up served last year. Gone are the thematically interesting but maddeningly repetitive individual character studies, and the endless fudging of what’s real and what’s not. The show hasn’t dropped these interests, but it’s channelled them into a much more profitable objective, which is to become TV’s number one generator of extreme anxiety. The world of season three is one of mindless, howling chaos, where the societal rulebook has been burnt to cinders and nothing put in its place. If that sounds familiar, it’s because… well, it’s 2017.
And that’s why season three has succeeded at recapturing lightning in a bottle – the show may exist in a world where Barack Obama is still president, but for all intents and purposes, it feels as if it’s taking place right now, in the universe next door. It’s captured this juddering existential fear and bottled it up into a conspiracy thriller that stays on just the right side of silly, and makes it, at its best, truly artful. Episode five, which swirls around a riot sequence at a pivot point in the season’s arc through one unbroken take, is a masterful example of that, but even the ancillary, piece-moving episodes have a crackling tension to them, a sense of a world teetering perpetually on the edge, kept up only by inertia. It’s a terrifying show. But it’s also the world we live in, in a way far more entertaining than scrolling through a library of push notifications.