I gave up on a whole lot of shows in 2017: Preacher, NCIS: Los Angeles, The Magicians, This Is Us, Ray Donovan, Riverdale. There were bad creative moves that seemed to drag on endlessly, or a string of sub-par episodes that wore me down. Typically, when I do these year-end posts, I start with a quick round-up of the series I watched: the trends I noted, risks I respected and mistakes I lamented. And then I devote the rest of the essay to "the year's best," arranged by genre. But doing that sort of overview of 2017 stumped me. Shows seemed either toweringly good or thumpingly disappointing -- there was so little middle ground -- and I really didn't want to devote multiple paragraphs to series that gave me little pleasure. So I'm revising my format: eliminating the negative, as Johnny Mercer put it, and accentuating the positive.
And so, here are thirteen shows that represent the very best of my TV viewing in 2017. (As always, I do not purport to have watched every series that aired this past year; these are merely the ones I was drawn to, that didn't disappoint.) Some are just getting underway, and show enormous promise; others are nearing the end of their run, and going out in style. All were extraordinarily entertaining.
The A Word (BBC, Sundance): Last year, I called it TV's "Best Family Drama," but in truth, Series 1 was more about a boy on the autism spectrum, and the effect his disorder had on those around him -- at least that was the story-line that most sparked our interest. The scenes between Joe and his parents Alison and Paul (Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby, ideally matched) were riveting, but when we left the Hughes household and drifted elsewhere in the Lake District -- next door, to where his uncle's marriage was failing, or across town, to where his grandfather was courting the local music teacher -- the story-lines felt strangely disconnected. How did those relate to the "premise"? In Series 2, creator Peter Bowker managed to weave Joe's story into a broader tapestry. He wasn't content to merely examine the hurdles of raising an autistic child; he reminded us that -- even under the best circumstances -- family dynamics are tough, relationships are tough. (Hell, in case we didn't know it already, cancer is tough. Caregiving is tough.) Series 2 was about the challenge of staying focused and holding on to hope, in the face of life's distractions and difficulties. In its boldest story-line -- the unraveling of Alison and Paul's marriage -- The A Word recognized how decades of intimacy take their toll. They come with the burden of responsibilities and expectations that wear you down -- and after a while, it's hard to tell the difference between a marriage that requires work and a marriage that's no longer working. "It's taken me two years to get to where you were with Joe," Alison cried out to Paul, after he admitted that he hates his son's autism, and the fact that he'll be struggling his whole life: "Two years not to see it as a problem that I had to take on and solve. You were the accepting one. When I finally get to where I think you are, you've moved." But of course, we at home understand that -- in her haste to get on top of the situation -- Alison has misread it: it's Paul who's taken two years to catch up with Alison. The couple have fallen out of sync -- yet they remain so close that they can't regain perspective. Season 2 of The A Word got at big themes: our need to feel useful and appreciated, even at the expense of those we're trying to comfort; how strangers can make us feel better about ourselves than the ones who love us most; the way we try to relive our pasts and repair our mistakes, through our children and through our relationships. And how hard it is to rebuild trust. It was the rare series to admit that, as selfless as we'd like to imagine ourselves, we all want something out of every situation -- we're only human, we're impossibly fragile, and sometimes, we just need a "win." In its sophomore year, The A Word spoke to our shared humanity: that mixture of fragility and fortitude that cuts across age, gender, race and orientation. It truly became a "family drama": the best of 2017.
Cardinal (CTV): Effortlessly blending personal and procedural story-lines, in a snowbound setting at once serene and unsettling, Cardinal was a detective series that basically got everything right. Based on Giles Blunt's award-winning mystery Forty Words for Sorrow, the first in his series of novels to feature protagonists John Cardinal and Lise Delorme, it found the detectives investigating the murder of a young girl in the fictional town of Algonquin Bay, in Northeastern Canada. In tone and pacing, it felt more like an HBO drama than a CBS procedural, serving up a story-line that prized character over carnage, and trusting the viewer to study and savor the details. The set-up: Cardinal, a police officer whose obsession with solving a local disappearance has gotten him removed from the homicide squad, is reassigned to the case when the body surfaces. He's teamed with a new partner (Delorme), unaware that she's actually been sent to investigate him, for possible connections to a local drug dealer. Cardinal didn't go the common route of making its lead character an upstanding cop undermined by a crooked Internal Affairs unit; on the contrary, from the first episode, it was clear that Cardinal had something to hide. And Delorme's role wasn't merely adversarial; despite the instructions from her highers-up, she soon came to realize that Cardinal's heart was in the right place -- but that didn't deter her from trying to get at the truth. What emerged was an uneasy but effective alliance, as the two detectives strove to maintain their distance, even as they discovered how well their investigative skills meshed. Cardinal himself was not the larger-than-life creation common to TV detective dramas; he kept his emotions in check, and that allowed for a rare level of ambiguity. As played by Billy Campbell, in an astonishingly subtle yet persuasive performance, Cardinal was a character whose steeliness could easily be mistaken for secrecy, whose guardedness could be taken for guilt. But guilty of what? The hollows of his face betrayed a man with something to hide and everything to lose. He was clearly an admirable officer, unwavering in his quest to bring a killer to justice -- but still we kept thinking: is he telling us everything he knows? (Wonder of wonders, when his secret was revealed, it was not only surprising but satisfying; it seemed to flow logically from everything we'd seen and been told about his character through the course of the season.) A rock-solid success: moody and atmospheric, but equally aware of the pleasures to be found in old-fashioned detective work, and in old-fashioned star power.
Grantchester (ITV, PBS): This heady original (part murder mystery, part character drama -- in proportions equally and exquisitely balanced) has made my "best of" list every season it's aired, and Series 3 was the strongest of the lot. It's a season that played us for fools: the saga of Sidney and Amanda seemed like a dead-end story-line -- certainly, backed into a corner, our crime-solving vicar would never give up the priesthood. But of course, at the end of Episode 4, he did just that -- or so we thought. And although his reasons for abandoning his parish turned out to be less clear-cut than we'd imagined, the moment still resonated. In the first season, Sidney had fought to make peace with his wartime experiences; the second season had forced its two protagonists -- the vicar and the copper -- to reconcile their differing views on justice and vengeance. But this latest season gave Sidney his greatest challenge, as he found himself doing battle with a church whose ideologies he'd come to question. Series 3 asked: in times of crisis, do we listen to the church, trust our instincts, or follow our hearts? As Sidney looked around, he saw his congregation clinging to doctrine-driven morality, and miserable, and so -- in the most powerful episode of television I saw in 2017 -- he lashed out at the archdeacon: "We're hypocrites! We stand up there and we preach in certainties. 'If you behave like this, you'll be rewarded. If you don't, you'll be punished.' We tell people to lead a perfect life, and when they don't, we are the cause of their suffering." For Sidney -- whose curate was so shamed by his sexuality that he attempted suicide; whose housekeeper was so certain of the sanctity of marriage that she let her errant husband fleece her of her savings; and who himself had been made to feel remorse for seeking happiness with a divorced woman -- how could he continue preaching God's word? As in previous seasons, the characters were beautifully served, the structure expertly fashioned, and the traps lovingly set. The saddest thing about Granchester now? The fact that, as it's likely not returning for another series, it becomes a show of somewhat narrower scope: the story of Sidney and Amanda, and their ill-fated romance. I had always anticipated that would be a chapter of a much larger story; what we're left with instead is an exquisite miniature -- but no less exquisite for being more tightly defined. Grantchester Series 3 accorded all its principal characters equal dignity, while careful not to over-romanticize them: the Geordie-Cathy-Margaret triangle was surprisingly even-handed; Phil's betrayal of Geordie was tempered by his devotion to his job; and even Mrs. Maguire's rotter of a husband Ronnie had a sympathetic reason for returning. As in Series 2, story-lines came to a head in the penultimate weeks, then creator Daisy Coulam restored order in an understated yet supremely satisfying finale. Even long-suffering Leonard (Al Weaver, a standout this season, and the character who's grown most since we met him) was rewarded a moment of happiness. Ave atque vale, Grantchester. I thought we'd have more time together, but I remain awed by your artistry.
The Great British Bake Off (Channel 4): I went back-and-forth about including this one on my "best of 2017" list. Is a slice of reality TV -- even one as tasty as the Bake-Off -- really in the same league as the best in scripted programming? But then, Series 8 of Bake-Off wasn't just a continuation of a long-running franchise; it was a shake-up -- and a smart one. I'd begun to despair for the Bake-Off; it had started to succumb to the sort of ratings-grabbing gimmicks that had marred other reality shows: picking contestants for personality rather than skill set, and choosing themes that made for good ad copy (e.g., "Alternative Ingredients"), but too often yielded uninteresting results. The banter was feeling too scripted, the innuendo too insistent. All that changed in the new season. By the time we got to Episode 1's showstopper – which, fittingly, was "illusion cakes" -- the magic was back; the challenge of producing cakes that "appear to be some other object" yielded such marvels as Sophie's champagne in a bucket, Steven's BLT sandwich, and Liam's pancakes with syrup. After that, there was hardly a week when you didn't gasp at the inventiveness of at least a few of the bakers, and there were surprises both in performance (Kate's Sticky Toffee Apple Caramel Cake, which snagged her an unexpected Star Baker) and presentation (the technical challenge of molten chocolate puddings, for which the bakers' start times were staggered so their goods could be sampled upon completion). It was a splendid cast that, as the season played out, provided all the elements of good drama: the bright-eyed fan-favorite (Liam, the 19-year-old with a flair for flavors) whose elimination was met with cries of anger and despair; and conversely, the stalwart straggler (Stacey, the former schoolteacher) who lasted longer than anyone expected or wanted. (There was even the requisite gay heartthrob Tom, who -- following his ouster -- tweeted a beefcake pic that left a good chunk of his fan-base swooning.) And ultimately, the series came down to a showdown between Steven, the marketer who came out of the gate strong, but sometimes stumbled (who can forget the painful melting of his "hot-air balloon" meringue centerpiece in the penultimate episode?), and Sophie, the stuntwoman who played it slow and steady, and rarely faltered. The new presenters, Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig, proved the most congenial of hosts -- ad-libbing gracefully and effectively. (And there was still the requisite innuendo, often from the least expected quarters, as in Julia's phallic snail sculpture during bread week, or Steven's proclamation during Forgotten Bakes that "No one wants a hot nut in their face." Hell, there was wordplay that professional screenwriters couldn't have scripted better, as when Kate literally dropped a clanger.) Channel 4 knew it wasn't going to secure ratings as high as the show enjoyed on the BBC. But given that they'd budgeted to break even around 3.5 million viewers per episode, and wound up with 8.9 million in Live Plus 7 (making it the network's most-watched series in six years), it can only be considered an artistic and a commercial triumph -- and one well worth celebrating.
Howards End (BBC): "I don’t intend to correct him, or to reform him. Only connect." And with those words, Margaret Schlegel justified her decision to marry widower Henry Wilcox in the latest adaptation of E.M. Forster's classic. It wasn't entirely faithful to the use of -- or underlying meaning behind -- Forster's famous epigraph (as it appears in the novel), but it served its purpose quite nicely. It reeked of a clarity and freshness of approach that marked Kenneth Lonergan's adaptation, in a production directed with intelligence and restraint by Hettie MacDonald that was, for my money (and with apologies to The Crown), the best costume drama of 2017. I have trouble imagining a better adaptation of Howards End. Oh, of course, it lacked the panache of the 1992 film, which wore its craftsmanship on its sleeve. But putting people and ideas ahead of pomp reaped enormous dividends. It restored the focus to the relationship between the bohemian Margaret Schlegel (Hayley Atwell) and the buttoned-down Henry Wilcox (Matthew Macfadyen), and let Forster's themes shine through vividly. It was all there: its country in overdrive, where technological and urban overgrowth dilute all sense of commonality and community; the backdrop of women struggling to establish their independence, both personally and politically; the widening wealth divide that justifies its inequities by making the poor to blame for their own misery and misfortune. (And tossing in the issue of race, as this adaptation did, made the themes seem more relevant than ever.) And against it all, the Wilcox and Schlegel clans: the former pragmatic, patriotic and materialistic; the latter idealistic, intellectual, curious and almost aggressively kind. And poor Leonard Bast, the insurance clerk on the very bottom rung of the middle class, facing social and economic desolation. Most of the coincidences and contrivances of the plot were Forster's, not Lonergan's, and in fact, one of the weaker aspects of the novel -- the never-quite-convincing attraction that Margaret develops for Henry -- was in good part ameliorated by the atypical casting of Macfayden, one of the small screen's most likable actors, who -- while retaining his character's stiff, staid and chauvinistic demeanor -- managed a twinkle in his eye that was undeniably appealing. The absence of soapy contrivances -- the will they/won't theys and heaving bosoms and comforting platitudes -- meant it was unlikely to be popular with the Downton Abbey set; the subtlety of the scene-setting (the occasional motor car speeding past a horse-drawn carriage told us pretty much everything we needed to know, and eloquently) might not have satiated viewers expecting Merchant Ivory excesses. But there has to be an audience still awed by the power of honest emotion, superbly acted, and Howards End delivered in spades. The climax, in which Margaret forces Henry to confront his sexual hypocrisy, was as well-played as anything I saw in 2017 -- as indeed, if Howards End is done right, it should have been. A magnificent adaptation of Forster's novel, and a meticulously observed drama of class and sexual warfare.
iZombie (CW): In an age where social media seems, at times, to have forged a generation with the attention span of infants, so many shows seem to wrestle with the question of pacing -- i.e., how fast do we need to go to hold our audience's interest? Right from the start, iZombie has moved at a frothy fury you couldn't imagine it sustaining -- but not only do its creators sustain it, season after season, they top it. They treat each season like it's the end of the world -- and by the end of Season 3, you felt, maybe it is. Given that most of the episodes have a procedural element, it's astounding how many ongoing story-lines Season 3 managed to juggle -- and not merely gracefully, but buoyantly. With the regrettable demise of Agent Carter in 2016, iZombie remains the only comic-book adaptation still at the top of its game. Super-showrunner Greg Berlanti should take a look at this series -- hell, he should take twenty looks, and then he should take notes. Whereas his quartet of superhero shows have ultimately blanded themselves out, cannibalizing each other for ideas and leaving audiences to pick at the bones, iZombie creators Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero keep raising the stakes to riotous extremes that never overwhelm the story-line. The decision to turn the entire city of Seattle into a zombie enclave at the end of Season 3 was a bold and exciting one; it's so wonderful to see a genre show like this surprise its audience and shake up the status quo -- and make it all deeply character-driven, not a reboot that occurs because someone "rewrote history" or "broke time." A couple of casting bits further elevated this season above previous ones: first, the promotion of Aly Michalka to series regular, and second, the departure of Steven Weber, a fine actor whose hamminess (and story-line) had grown tiresome, replaced in turn by Andrea Savage, all stylish restraint, then by Jason Dohring, all devilish swagger. And by loosening the story-telling constraints, and freeing themselves from the "case of the week" format, Thomas and Ruggiero could get crazier and more daring. As white nationalists began hunting down zombies -- even as the principals engaged in more bed-hopping than in the previous two seasons combined -- we were treated to both the weightiest season and the headiest. Offhand, I can't think of another series derived from a comic book or graphic novel that better stands up to repeat viewings: most are slaves to the sort of hoary contrivances that don't bear scrutiny. But iZombie Season 3 was a whirlwind of a ride that became even more wonderful the second time around, when you could fully appreciate how well the storylines were woven, how successfully the bluffs were sustained, and -- in the case of the seasonal mystery -- how deftly the clues were dropped. It was the year's giddiest pleasure.
Life in Pieces (CBS): I was a child of the '70s; I was raised on sitcoms filmed in front of a live studio audience. But if I have a preference for multi-camera over single-camera comedies, it's not just nostalgia. My main objection to the newer crop of sitcoms that became dominant a decade ago -- filmed single-camera with no laugh track -- is that I don't find them particularly funny; I find them clever. And as Stephen Sondheim once said, it's always better to be funny than clever. Life in Pieces is the rare single-camera comedy that manages to be both: funny and clever -- oh, and also inventive, insightful and dizzyingly original. It's a multi-generational family comedy, but with a twist: each episode consists of four short stories, each centered around a different branch of the family. On paper, it sounds like a gimmick, but it's genius. Let's start with what it means in practical terms: if a story isn't working, it'll be over in five minutes, and then you'll be onto something new; conversely, if a story is working, you're going to get the very best five minutes of it. But creator Justin Adler's gambit isn't just successful on a practical level; it's a creative goldmine. The sketch-com format doesn't make it less substantial than the traditional family sitcom -- on the contrary, it broadens its scope and deepens its insights. It allows Adler and his (splendid) staff of writers to embrace details of family life that might not easily stretch to 22 minutes -- but that can certainly keep us amused and engaged for four or five. It zeroes in on rich, previously unmined material that other sitcoms would reject because there's "not enough there." The Thanksgiving episode -- which included matriarch Joan's determination to escape her kitchen duties, teenage Samantha accidentally eating a pot-laced brownie just before family dinner, and an electric carving knife gone rogue -- was a series high point, and easily the funniest half hour of television I saw in 2017. The cast -- headed by Dianne Wiest and James Brolin -- is indelible and irreproachable; they've long since honed the aspects of their personalities most likely to generate laughs, and mastered the shorthand so common to extended families, where each member fills a familiar and essential role, allowing even the most oddball scenarios -- as they ripple through the cast and rattle the dynamics -- to yield universal truths. Sometimes the four stories are unconnected, sometimes they collide unexpectedly, and on occasion, they merge at a family gathering in the final segment; the format of Life in Pieces suggests so many possible variations, the series shows no signs of exhausting them. (How many shows can tell a story from the point of view of a household appliance -- a household appliance, it should be noted, in a recurring role -- and make it at once hilarious and moving?) In 2017, Life in Pieces was a series bursting with confidence, secure in the strengths of its ensemble, the talents of its writing staff, and their shared ability to generate and maximize laughs.
Madam Secretary (CBS): Did any show face greater hurdles in 2017 than Madam Secretary? When the series debuted in 2014 (and in particular, when it found its stride at the top of Season 2), it served up fictionalized accounts of actual global conflicts -- and because we were, at that time, in a period of relative peace and renewed prosperity, the onscreen political tensions felt invigorating but unthreatening. But the events of November 8, 2016, threw Madam Secretary into chaos: its ongoing story-line about its own presidential election had to be curtailed, because no scenario could have been as outrageous or unnerving as the one that played out in real life. And once, in January of 2017, creator Barbara Hall and company suddenly had to substitute a half-season's worth of new story-lines, they had to adjust for a world on edge, in which no one had the energy to focus on both real-life and scripted politics, and in which seeing a fictional President still committed to humanitarian issues felt genuinely painful, a reminder of what had been lost. It left Hall -- a showrunner known for mapping out long-term story-lines meticulously -- running on instinct and adrenaline, and substituting "quick fixes": standalones and shorter story arcs. (Such were the talents of her writing team that there was no noticeable dip in quality.) By the summer hiatus, they'd absorbed the new political climate and come to better understand the needs of their viewing audience, and as Madam Secretary headed into Season 4, it managed a subtle but effective reinvention. It's retained its topicality; in fact, its targets have been clearer than ever. (The Season 4 premiere, which took on both the myth of "fake news" and the rise of politically-driven propaganda, was a particularly biting effort by Hall, and the continued interference by Russia throughout the season -- aided by a congressman who had turned traitor -- was clearly ripped from the headlines.) But at the same time, the series has become a comforting look at how responsible people deal with issues of consequence. In Season 4, Elizabeth's successes -- even, as in 2017's moving winter finale, her successes that come with a price -- remind us that there's still the potential for progress, provided we elect leaders who prize people over politics. Madam Secretary doesn't understate the challenges of diplomacy in a world where cyber warfare has become the weapon of choice, nor does it minimize the very real threats we face in preserving our democracy against enemies outside and within -- but it's also been careful to offer up hope when we need it most. (A high-ranking politician crossing party lines to call out treason is the sort of thing we seem increasingly unlikely to see in real life, but Madam Secretary served it up as a promise that sanity will someday be restored.) A shout-out to Sebastian Arcelus (as Jay Whitman, Elizabeth's senior policy advisor), who in 2017 was gifted both personal and professional story-lines that increased his airtime and showcased his range; when it came time for chief of staff Nadine Tolliver to depart, the choice of a replacement (which, as this series does exquisitely, didn't happen overnight, but required the kind of thought you dream politicians give to all decisions, large and small) felt inevitable yet supremely satisfying. Madam Secretary, in Season 4, remains the gold standard in network television.
Man in an Orange Shirt (BBC): Novelist Patrick Gale's contribution to BBC's Gay Brittania series of special programming (commemorating the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1957) contrasted two love stories, two generations apart. The one, a romance between former soldiers in the years following World War II: Michael, the bowler-hatted banker who chooses to live a lie, and Thomas, the open-faced artist, who lives without pretense and is pilloried for it. The other, a turbulent courtship set in the present, between Michael's grandson Adam, addicted to sex and terrified of commitment, and Steve, the architect eager to forge a life with him. The two dramas -- the one comprising the first episode, the other the second -- were linked by the figure of Flora, who in the past (as played by Joanna Vanderham) married Michael, and who in the present (as played by Vanessa Redgrave) had assumed the responsibility of raising her grandson Adam. In one of the miniseries' most striking scenes -- drawn from an incident in the lives of Gale's own parents -- Flora learns the truth about her husband when she discovers love letters between him and Thomas. And as wives did in those days, she decides she's willing to look the other way, for the social acceptability and security that marriage affords her. But if you're Adam, who grew up with a grandmother who buried decades of resentment behind a facade of respectability, you fear -- despite whatever rights society accords you -- that you'll never feel right about yourself, or be comfortable in your own skin, or be able to sit still after an intimate encounter long enough to appreciate it. The strength of Man in an Orange Shirt lay in its understanding that legislative victories don't wipe away centuries of shame and repression: that even for LGBT millennials able to walk down the street holding hands, or marry, or adopt children, many are carrying generations of baggage -- not just the judgment of disapproving relatives, but a self-loathing that's inbred, that some of us can shed more easily than others. In the miniseries' final moments, it falls to Adam's grandfather Michael, through a letter we'd seen him pen to Thomas seventy years earlier, to free his grandson from his deep-rooted unhappiness. It falls to the man reared at a time when his feelings had to be hidden to teach his grandson about freedom and integrity: qualities that can't be legislated or rewarded, but only experienced and earned. It was a vivid reminder that we're often bravest – truest to ourselves – when we have the most to lose.
Mindhunter (Netflix): "It's been five years since [J. Edgar] Hoover died," we're told early on, "and [the FBI is] still recruiting accountants and lawyers." It's 1977; the very nature of crime has changed, and the FBI needs to change as well. The old methodology of "means, motive and opportunity" is no longer sufficient in an age when motive has become elusive, and so FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) -- working alongside psychologist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) -- begin to interview imprisoned serial killers, in order to understand how they think, and to see if that knowledge can be applied to ongoing cases. In screenwriter Joe Penhall's adaptation of the true crime book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, the trio of Ford, Tench and Carr have their work cut out for them: challenging the FBI's resistance to the very notion of psychological profiling; making the practice accessible and appealing to local law enforcement; and, in the case of all three characters, extrapolating data while dealing with their own personal dramas. It wasn't just the serial murderers who had demons that needed exorcising; all three leads faced issues too private or painful to disclose -- from Carr keeping her sexuality cloaked from her colleagues to Tench and his wife wrestling with the challenges of raising a traumatized adopted child. But above all, there was Holden Ford, so very much a product of his time. Mindhunter didn't just capture an era when motive had become elusive, but when definitions of masculinity had as well. It zeroed in on the years when the media had begun to blame traditional masculinity for everything from heart disease to the Vietnam War, ushering in what came to be known as "the sensitive male" -- the character etched in the public consciousness in Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People, the back-to-back Oscar winners from 1979 and 1980. Ford returned from Vietnam to face a new sort of battle: one in which old images of masculinity were being tested -- and Ford was the ideal test subject. For all his military background and FBI training, there was something supplicant and pliable about him -- and something guarded too, as if he were anxious to explore the new freedoms, but reluctant to reveal too much of himself. He was caught between ideologies: fiercely intelligent yet impressionable, eager to engage but equally eager to please. And monomaniacal: unable to maintain an unimpassioned distance from the subjects he studied, including himself. Ford was forever scrutinizing himself and self-correcting, and Groff perfectly captured an era when men were second-guessing their bearing and their behavior -- at a time when the FBI was questioning the success rate and sustainability of its methods. Groff's performance was aggressively thoughtful, effortlessly unassuming and compulsively watchable: one of the year's very best.
Ozark (Netflix): An awful lot of critics carped about Ozark -- they were looking for something with the psychological underpinnings of Bloodline, or the moral ambiguities of Breaking Bad, or even the bleak evocation of setting that informs crowd-pleasers like Longmire or Justified. Ozark, critics complained, was a lot of plot but not much else. But when did we start to dismiss and devalue the virtues of plot? Ozark is a hodge-podge of characters and carnage, a crime thriller with a touch of hillbilly gothic, but it's never less than inviting and frequently invigorating. And it's bolstered by a plot that's not only ideally suited to Jason Bateman's strengths, but that plays to our perception of who Bateman is. The teen idol of the '80s was never cut from the same comforting cloth as his contemporaries: the Michael J. Fox clones that littered the airwaves for a decade or so. There was always something disturbingly rebellious about Bateman -- he was a little too smark-aleck, a touch too smooth-talking. Beneath his bright-toothed grin was something mercurial and almost menacing. Stardom came in the series that was designed as Valerie Harper's comeback vehicle, the 1986 sitcom Valerie. By the third episode, the writers already had the onscreen Bateman persona down pat. His teenage character Willie has been using profanity around the house; when his mother (Harper) threatens to wash his mouth out with soap, he decides to challenge her and see just how serious she is. (She ends up doing exactly what she promised.) But that image of Batemen stuck: the risk-taker who'll take things as far as he can, undaunted by propriety. (Accurately or not, Valerie has come to be remembered as the show where, after one season, the seasoned Emmy-winning Best Actress was forced out to make way for the rising kid star. Even in 1987, you didn't cross Jason Bateman.) Here he's Marty Byrde, a financial analyst living in the suburbs of Chicago, whose side hustle is laundering cash for a Mexican drug cartel; in need of laundering an incredible amount of money in a short time, he uproots his family to the Ozarks, where small businesses are ripe for the picking and the Feds are less likely to look for shadily acquired revenue. Through ten episodes, Marty talks himself out of every predicament -- whatever the threat, he has an answer and an angle. And because it's Jason Bateman, you don't necessarily believe he'll prevail, but you believe he'll keep scheming till the very end, and that -- however messy the plotting becomes, as he exploits friends and strangers to further his latest short-term objective -- his quick wits will always be worth watching. So you go along with Ozark, delighting in how Marty keeps stemming the rising tides. Whether he can manage it for another season remains to be seen.
The Punisher (Netflix): My husband and I quickly tired of Netflix's adaptations of Marvel superhero books. After a while, they felt hobbled by an unfortunate sense of déjà vu: crime-fighters battling the bleakness and corruption of New York City, with the ever-present underworld organization The Hand on hand -- plus the equally ubiquitous Rosario Dawson. The Punisher dared to be different. Oh, there was plenty of action -- this was, after all, the story of a Marine veteran who, following the murder of his family, had become an avenging vigilante -- but ultimately, the series became a surprisingly emotional exploration of profound pain and grief -- and Jon Bernthal proved more than up to the challenge. And although the series had a clear narrative thrust -- a military conspiracy that most of the participants were either looking to expose or cover up -- creator and showrunner Steve Lightfoot (who had Hannibal to his credits, but no superhero shows, and perhaps that made all the difference) understood how to keep his approach fresh and varied. There was a flexibility to the story-telling that these sort of shows rarely achieve; at times, the series seemed to defy categorization. In its early episodes, as Frank fell in with a former NSA analyst, it developed elements of an antagonistic buddy comedy: Bernthal and Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Oscar and Felix. Then there were a series of capers -- bloody and brutal ones, but capers nonetheless -- following which Lightfoot sidelined Frank in order to better serve the supporting cast. (Ben Barnes, Amber Rose Revah, Daniel Webber and Jason R. Moore: they were a uniformly strong group, and their characters got richer and their performances livelier as the series went along.) And as we neared the climax of the season -- at that point where secrets were exposed and alliances shifted -- Lightfoot chose to isolate us in one setting and frame it in a Rashomon-like format that juggled time and perspective. But the series' story-telling sleights of hand were just part of its appeal; it was also free of the annoying tropes that tend to litter these kinds of shows: the sort of plotting that depends on people being dense -- or refusing to listen to the advice of others, or being too proud to see what's right in front of them -- to sustain itself. In The Punisher, no one stayed in the dark for long; if we were given information ahead of the characters, we knew to cherish it, because it wouldn't be long before they discovered it too. (The series was grounded by a trio of appearances by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Deputy Director of the CIA. The actress has long excelled at playing characters who always seem to be on their guard and on their game. Those were qualities that distinguished all the characters in The Punisher.) For a series that began with a construction crew dismissing Frank as "not all there," and that at times made his obsession border on the psychotic, The Punisher proved to be one of the sanest of superhero stories: where motivations were vivid and clear, where characters were shrewd, and where the actors -- knowing they were doing a genre show that often inspired over-the-top theatrics -- dared to keep it real.
Unforgotten (ITV): Newfangled procedurals -- that combine old-fashioned detective work and up-to-date forensic science -- aren't as ubiquitous in the UK as they are here. There was a time, from roughly 2002 to 2010, when the network airwaves were cluttered with CSI spin-offs and clones. A series would have to have a damn good hook to re-engage this procedural-weary TV viewer. And indeed, Unforgotten makes a stale genre feel fresh again. Writer Chris Lang retained the format of Series 1 and expanded on it for Series 2. Right from the start of the season, even as the cold case was warming up, we met clusters of friends and family members, and became engaged in their personal stories -- without knowing, as yet, who among them might be connected to the crime. And by the time the police came calling, we'd become so engrossed in their lives that seeing them disrupted -- and potentially destroyed -- became deeply distressing. The case was a powerful and timely one, dating back some thirty years: the murder of a Conservative Party consultant who disappeared in 1990, whose remains were found in a suitcase buried in the River Lea. But it was the four actors whose characters were ultimately deemed suspects who commanded our attention, and they were a stunning set: Mark Bonnar as Brighton-based barrister Colin Osbourne, in the final stages of adopting a daughter with his husband Simon; Rosie Cavaliero as pediatric nurse Marion Kelsey, who's grown overly protective of a young patient with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma; Badria Timimi as teacher Sara Mahmoud, passionate about giving a second chance to students failed by the system; and Lorraine Ashbourne as Cotswolds DI Tessa Nixon, trying to go gently into retirement. A special nod to Bonnar, who had a banner year, with recurring roles not just in Unforgotten, but in Apple Tree Yard, Catastrophe and Porridge. His work on Unforgotten (for which he won the Scottish BAFTA) was probably the single best guest appearance I saw in 2017. He had two big set pieces: the first, in which he learned that a 30-year-old accusation -- one that had so broken him that he had been institutionalized -- had been a set-up and a lie, and burst into sobs of relief and regret; and the other, in which he came clean about his past, so persuasively describing a childhood cut short by abuse -- the rage and powerlessness that it inspired, and a lifetime spent struggling to heal -- that he altered the outcome of the case. More than anyone, Bonnar embodied the themes that consume Lang in Unforgotten: the ways we spend our lives trying to reinvent ourselves, and the sad futility of running from our pasts. The plotting was full of twists, including a stunning one midseason that turned the case on its ear, and although the elegant jigsaw-puzzle of a solution that Lang devised -- equal parts Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock -- isn't the sort of thing he'll be able to manage every season, it's exactly what you want from a show in its sophomore year. Darkly dramatic, wildly entertaining, and at the end of the day, unforgettable.
Honorable mention: NBC's The Menendez Murders; ABC's American Housewife; BBC's Against the Law, Broken and Three Girls; ITV's Little Boy Blue; Starz' American Gods; and CBC's Schitt's Creek. Not on the very top tier of my TV viewing in 2017, but highly worth watching.
Enjoy reading about TV's best? Check out two similarly-styled posts: The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching and Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss. Or if you enjoy detailed looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Judging Amy Season 6, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries -- not (necessarily) my top episodes, but the best whodunnits. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I delve into Rhoda Season 3 and WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4, pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.