- BoJack Horseman (Netflix)-What was once a quirkily-structured universe of Hollywood has-beens and visual animal puns has now attained rare levels of multi-layered humor that will be collectively remembered, celebrated and memed for years to come mixed in with the kind of rare psychological insight from generational depression, to self-fulfilling prophecies of failure, to asexuality. When I wrote a piece on the critical community needing to break itself out of its limited view of diversity, this is the kind of show I was referring to. The fourth season saw BoJack coming back from his worst to achieve a cathartic level of self-moderations with hints that this sitcom has-been taking steps to becoming a better person. Carolyn, Todd, and especially Mr. Peanut Butter and Dianne have had introspective arcs with the Mr. Peanut Butter/Woodchuck Coodchuck Berkowitz (that name alone should put this at least in any sane person's top twenty) race providing a hilarious government satire that is desperately needed in crazy times like these.
- Good Place (NBC)-Few comedies have ever aimed this high conceptually and managed to avoid melting their metaphorical wings after a few episodes. By the first season finale, this show had us all collectively by the by the balls (or whatever the female equivalent is) and the show has continued to give us only the most tenuous view of what’s in store for its four denizens of its rapidly fluctuating version of the afterlife. The comic tics for each character have become finely tuned in the second season: In addition to unpredictable Stepford smiler Janet, fussy Chidi, and self-congratulatory Tahani; Jason Mendoza can carry the episode's laugh content single handedly with his boundless stupidity; Michael has proven just as fan on the dark side as he was as a bumbling klutz and then there’s Eleanor Shellstrop. Credit Kristen Bell’s fine performance and the crafty writing, but Shellstrop is an anti-hero for the ages with a backstory that’s filled with endless stories of being a hilariously terrible person and the slowly creeping potential inside of her to redeem herself from all of it.
- Trial and Error (NBC)-This small-town courtroom drama burst out of the gate with a strong sense of place and hilarious characters to populate it with. Seasoned sitcom pro John Lithgow plays to his strengths as the epitome of eccentricity with Jayma Mays doing her darnmdest to make you forget she ever played as prissy of a character as Emma Pillsbury in Glee. Nicholas D’Agosto, Sherri Shepherd, Steven Boyer, and even Krysta Rodriguez all are given a lot to work with and they all deliver characters that are memorable, comically sound, and endearing.
- Bates Motel (A&E)- The idea of Norman Bates’s character spread out over five seasons must have been a tough sell but the show worked beautifully as an idyllic small-town concealing a cesspool of voice and a sweet young man with a psychopath brewing inside. Over five seasons, Bates Motel accelerated ever so smoothly from a simmer to full-on terror while remaining tonally consistent and keeping an eye out for the long game. The fifth season brought us up to speed with overlap from the events of the landmark 1960 with Rihanna unexpectedly connecting as Marion Crane and Dylan picking up the slack of the noirish detective. Would good or evil triumph and would either character make it out alive? With all deviation from the source material fair game, it was a nail-biting ride to find out. Hitchcock would have been proud.
- Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)-Raise your hands if you even knew stand-up comedy existed in 1958? Me neither and that’s why this show makes all the other comedians-playing-themselves entries look vain by comparison.This show is all that and a bag of matzah brie. Yes, it’s a little heavy on the Ashkenazi Jewish stereotypes (and mazels to Tony Shalhoub on your recent conversion to Hollywood Judaism, was Alfred Molina taken?) but it also has an endearing cultural specificity and a strong sense of momentum. While the show is about comedians, it’s very comfortable with its dramatic beats. The stakes are high – the protagonist goes from being excited about landing the rabbi for Yom Kippur to losing her husband, her home, and getting arrested in the span of a few days—and that’s just the first episode alone. As a period piece, this show allows for relevant feminist overtones without being preachy and also creates a superhero worth rooting for.
- Glow (Netflix)-This show might be the greatest send-up to the joy of wrestling TV has ever produced but I’d have no idea either way as a complete noob to the sport. Instead, I see a show about raw pluck, girl power, and a docudrama about a ragtag group of underdogs (complete with the economics of constantly being screwed) all wrapped in a delightful 80’s time capsule. Like Jenji Kohan’s other main work of the Netflix era, “Orange is the New Black,” this show is a hodgepodge of diversity in the best sense with Indian and Cambodian characters and even a spoiled rich white guy worth rooting for. Make no mistake, though: Marc Maron (this guy was an actor??) and Allison Brie steal the show
- Black Mirror (Netflix)-Creator Charlie Brooker’s series works best when tapping into our luddite fears about the future’s advances in technology wielding as much potential to hurt us as it does to help us. This year Brooker really found his groove in terms of delivering consistency (for my money, there was a humongous dip in quality after Nose Dive and San Junipero last season) and infusing his twist endings with the kind of bittersweet poignancy that allows the themes to resonate. The show also mixes emotional tones and genres whether it’s a sci-fi send-up that will make Trekkies drool (USS Calister), a psychological thriller (Crocodile), a cautionary tale framed as family melodrama (Arkangel), a futuristic love story played straight (Arkangel), a meta-commentary on the horror genre (Black Museum), or a Coen Brothers/Soderberghesque look at dystopia (Metalhead).
- Crashing (HBO)-Pete Holmes is the kind of break from the mold to show us that not all comedians are degenerate, self-obsessed, foul-mouthed slobs. Well ok, some of Pete’s friends are, but that's what makes Pete Holmes (the character, although I'm assuming the person) such a breath of fresh air with his adorable naivety. It's a show about comedy but it is also a show about redefining your relation with your faith, parents, friends, and the concept of adulthood itself.
- Orphan Black (BBC America)-Full disclosure: As someone who’s not a hard-core binge watcher, I drove myself to exhaustion by the time I set out on my project to go from the pilot to Season 5 within the span of less than a month. By the time I got to the end, my head was spinning whenever I was asked to discern the difference between neolution, DYAD and CASTOR and Gemini or Kabbalah or whatever, so I’m not necessarily the most reliable judge of the 2017 portion of this series, but this show is a smart thriller that is both tightly-paced and capable of juggling multiple storylines. It’s mostly known for the superhuman acting feat of Tatiana Maslany playing multiple parts at once but it’s been one of the best stories on TV for the past five years.
- The Mick (Fox)-From the creators of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, this show engages in the same kind of duality of lovable yet deeply offensive characters as its sister show (which is still going strong, even if it didn’t make my list). The show started out as an unremarkable vehicle for Kaitlin Olson to reprise her role as a Dee-like character (maybe the producers will release her from Charlie Work if she logs in enough hours?) and it’s now one of the most dependable sources of humor on TV. Carla Jimenez is a bona-fide scene stealer as Alba and Jimmy is equally funny as a guy who has no practical use to the Moing-Pemberton household but has managed to stick around thus far. It's the ultimate mix of privilege and clueless and the best found family on TV.
- The Real O’Neals (ABC)-A modern renegotiation of the classic sitcom mold that was really beginning to find its groove before the axe came tumbling down. Curse you, trigger-happy ABC overlords! The show’s handling of its gay teenage protagonist (Noah Galvin) went under-acknowledged during its three-season run but the show also deserves credit for allowing its progressiveness to coexist with more right-wing elements. Like the new breed of smart sitcoms that’s been reinvented on network TV in the past couple years, this show has the edge to power through gooey sentimental plots with a healthy dose of irony, but it’s ultimately a show about togetherness that this country sorely needs.
- Schitt’s Creek (Pop TV)-With each season, this Canadian import becomes more assured in its characters and richer in its sense of place. As a result, the ( primarily character driven) humor is richer in Season three with Catherine O'Hara leading the way in the laughs department as the ex-soap opera star still coming to terms with her fall from grace. Season three is an unapologetically happy one with the Rose family finding themselves by embracing their adopted backwater town and at this point it's earned this cheesy feel good vibe.
Ten Honorable Mentions:
Adam Ruins Everything (TruTV)-A friend who get better grades than I did in high school often told me that "it's all about appearance and presentation." This reminds me of how Adam Conover (AKA the guy with the funny haircut and pocket squares on TruTV commercials) and his cronies from College Humor manage to make this mythbusters-type show so engrossing: With visual ingenuity and a narrative arc (know-it-all educates a rube that they're initial assumptions about topic X are wrong) that's been perfected to a T.
I Love Dick (Amazon)-Set in a artist's collective in Texas that really puts the avante in avante-garde, this show is pretty out there but has a lot of wayward insight into everything in art from the male gaze to productivity and shines a window on the world of weird art.
Sorry folks, maybe next year (everything else I watched this year):
2 Broke Girls* (CBS), American Dad^ (TBS), Archer*^ (FX), Big Mouth (Netflix), Blind Spot* (NBC), Difficult People (Hulu), Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (BBC America), Emerald City** (NBC), Family Guy (Fox), Feud (FX), Friends from College (Netflix), Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS), Future Man (Hulu), Girl Boss (Netflix), Grace and Frankie (Netflix), Great Indoors (CBS), Hack My Life (Pop TV)* I Love You America (Hulu), It's Always Sunny^ (FX), James Corden (CBS), Jimmy Kimmel Live^ (NBC), Lady Dynamite (Netflix), Last Tycoon* (Amazon), Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO), Late Night with Seth Meyers (NBC), Legion* (Fox), Lost and Found (Netflix), Man Seeking Woman (Comedy Central), Making History (Fox), The Mayor (Fox), Me Myself and I (CBS), Modern Family^ (ABC), Mom (CBS), One Mississippi (Amazon), Orville (Fox), Ozark (Netflix), The Path (Hulu), Rick and Morty (Comedy Central), Scandal (ABC), Sense8 (Netflix), Star Trek Discovery (CBS All Access), Stephen Colbert (CBS), Superstore (NBC), Tarantula** (TBS),Timeless (NBC), Time After Time (ABC), Tarantula** (TBS), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt^ (Netflix), White Famous** (Showtime)
^ Made my top 12 in a previous year
* Viewed in limited capacity (two or three episodes)
** Only saw the pilot