Best of 2017: Shows

This was easily the hardest list to make and the one that changed the most as I was making the list and writing. There was so much I loved that I once again couldn’t narrow it down to just ten, and the honorable mentions are as solid as my actual list. It was a year where I wanted comedies and stories about women finding understanding and joy with each other. They made me laugh, they made me cry, and they warmed my heart.

If you are looking for some more end of the year reading, head over to MGCircles to check out their Best Of lists and Nerdy Girl Notes for her thoughts on hope and new ways to be a hero in The Last Jedi.

1. One Day at a Time Since watching this show in January, it has been my pick for the best show of the year. This is how you reboot a show and make it feel fresh and relevant. Norman Lear’s style of socially conscious comedies is one that already appealed to me (though I will admit I’ve never seen any of his original shows, just those who have been inspired by his work) and I loved Mike Royce’s previous comedy Enlisted so I went into the show ready to love it. It exceeded my already high expectations. I mind multi-cam comedies far less than most people but this is an example of the form at its best. The writing is clever and hilarious and took full advantage of this cast’s considerable talents. Justina Machado and Rita Moreno were terrific casting choices and they play so well off of each other. They are both so well-rounded as actors and this show understands how to use that. They both made me laugh a lot but they were also responsible for many of the moments that made me cry and tugged at my heartstrings. I love this family full of strong women who support each other through anything life throws at them. I love that they gave both Elena and Penelope female friends who were there for each other when they needed it most. I love that they made me love Schneider and Leslie so much because it felt like they tried. They wanted to do better when they messed up and owned their lack of knowledge and unintentional blind spots. Everyone on this show cares so much and that warmth comes through in every moment. Each episode had something smart to say about a current issue, whether it was mansplaining and sexism, immigration, a lack of support for returning veterans, or coming out and telling the world who you are. This show was everything I love about television and what I can be all wrapped up in an entertaining package and I need everyone to watch it before it returns at the end of January.

2. Playing House Sometimes the simplest concept can lead to the greatest results. Playing House has never tried to be anything other than what it is, which is a beautiful tribute to two lifelong best friends and the unbreakable bond they share. It’s not high concept or serialized and it’s a relatively small cast with simple sets but it is intimate and honest and genuine. This season was the most ambitious with the overarching plot about Emma’s cancer diagnosis, surgery, and recovery. It was telling a real story and I loved that we got so many episodes to explore the healing process and how that looked for both Emma and Maggie. As good as all of that was, it’s always been the relationships and the small moments that make this show so special. It’s Maggie leaving Emma a “congrats on the sex” cheese plate and then attacking her as she eats it. It’s Emma being Tina’s biggest cheerleader and helping her find something she’s passionate about. It’s Mark’s coworkers showing amicable exes and co-parents who love and support each other and the new relationships they’ve found themselves in. They’re one big, weird family kept together by actual affection for each other and I couldn’t get enough of it. I wish that we were getting more seasons with this show but it went out on a high note.

3. Big Little Lies Until recently, “prestige” dramas have been all about the antihero. They were very masculinely focused and often involved isolation from those around them. We’re slowly moving away from that concept but there was still a bit of a battle for Big Little Lies to be taken seriously because it focused on the lives of women. It could be fun and frothy and Madeline had some endlessly quotable lines while also addressing domestic violence, the way we shield our truths from our loved ones and ourselves, and our expectations of women and the roles they inhabit. Celeste is kept at home out of Perry’s need for control, Renata is happy to be CEO but feels judged by the stay at home moms, Madeline is desperate for something to give her the fulfillment she’s not getting at home even though she feels like it should, Jane is a financially struggling single mother in a town full of wealthy two-parent households, and Bonnie is one of the few women of color in this very white town. No one feels like they are meeting all the expectations placed upon them. But other the course of the season, they find each other. It’s easy for Celeste, Madeline, and Jane. This is in large part to Madeline’s forceful personality and need to take Jane under her wing but these ladies develop a true friendship. With Perry’s death, Renata and Bonnie are drawn into the fold as now it is up to each one of them to stay silent and protect the group. They find their strength when they stand together and it made for a refreshing change. We were encouraged to take these women and their struggles seriously. We were supposed to find the power in their combined forces. And it was rewarded with critical acclaim and a lot of award nominations. I hope it is the start of more “prestige” dramas about different types of women finding their strength in each other and joining together in different ways to overcome different struggles. I’m never confident that networks take away the right reasonings for a show’s success and I’m not sure we needed a second season of this show, but at the end of the day, I know I will always be ready for a show about women supporting and encouraging other women.

4. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend In the two and a half seasons it’s been on the air, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend just keeps getting better. This year has taken Rebecca to a darker place than ever before. We’ve seen her downward spiral and the unhealthy ways she used her obsession with Josh to avoid working on her own struggles. We saw her push her friends away and hit rock bottom. And most importantly, we’ve seen her start to move forward. Rebecca’s diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder may have been initially shocking to her but in retrospect, it makes so much sense. I started suspecting it in “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend is Crazy” but to see the diagnostic criteria overlaid with show clips really demonstrated how well these writers had been unintentionally crafting this show the whole time. Their treatment of mental illness as a whole and particularly the often-stigmatized BPD has been compassionate and considerate. This team has brought research and their own experiences with suicidal tendencies and depression to the screen in a delicate and honest way and this fanbase has responded in kind with each other. Everything I’ve just said could stand alone and make a compelling television show on its own. Rebecca is in the middle of an extraordinary character arc and the deconstruction of the word “crazy” in its many connotations has been fantastically done. Then they take those strengths and add musical numbers to them. I am in awe of what this show accomplishes each week. Whatever your preferences in music, this show has a song for you. The wordplay within the songs is so clever (“I’m Turin off my shroud” kills me every time as does the fact that “let me choke on your cocksuredness” got through the censors) and they’re so confident in the way they play with genre conventions to make a point. The songs are never a gimmick that is unnecessarily relied on but an integral part of the show and Rebecca’s coping mechanism. It should never have worked, certainly not for two and a half seasons, but it has thanks to the talent, work, and love that Aline Brosh McKenna, Rachel Bloom and the rest of this incredible cast and crew put in.

5. The Good Place The answer is friends. I have never been concerned about where this show is headed because the weird family that these human (and demon and Janet) disasters have formed is my first love. I could watch them interact and not move the plot forward at all, so long as we keep the strong character development. The finale reveal opened up so many new possibilities and so far, season two is delivering for me. I’m not that interested in theorizing the ultimate endgame for the show and so have been perfectly happy to enjoy the ride. I am much more interested in watching Michael learn what it means to be human and Janet figure out her impossible feelings for Jason and Eleanor and Chidi find a way back to the place where they can both say “I love you” without hesitation or doubt. I want Tahani to learn and grow and be content with her value as a person that isn’t defined by what she does. I want to see Vicky be her delightfully evil self. This show consistently makes me happy. You can tell the writers have been having a blast with all of the food puns and the essay names they’ve made up for these characters and their behind the scenes look only enhances my enjoyment. So much effort and love has gone into making this a show like no other while still having that Mike Schur core I love so much.

6. Sweet/Vicious This show may have only aired five episodes this year but they were so well done. They were memorable and important and I wish we could have had more of this show. The back half of the season is a lot heavier than the first, as Jules tells her best friend about her rape and reopens a school investigation into Nate. We get a flashback episode to the night of the rape and its immediate aftermath and see Jules at her lowest. We also get to see her with Ophelia and Kennedy by her side through the investigation process and the takedown that becomes necessary when the school decides Nate’s too valuable to expel. This show continues to be more relevant as we get into discussions about harassment and assault and what consent really looks like. It mattered that Jules’s didn’t get attacked by a stranger who jumped out of the bushes but instead looked like the majority of rapes that are committed by people known to the victim. She was at a party and drunk and asleep in Nate’s bed. And none of that makes her rape any less valid or her pain any less real. I am so glad the show opted to go that route. I’m glad there was a show that existed to give survivors a voice and make them feel less alone. It’s an incisive look at rape culture on college campuses, from the dumb comments people make about wanting to be raped by someone hot and popular to the administration’s failure to respond in any meaningful way to the accusations. It is also a celebration of female friendships and the strength they provide. Ophelia was a vital piece of Jules’s journey toward justice and would have been as she continued to heal and deal with her trauma. She was her emotional support when no one else knew and gave her a safe space to live when Kennedy rejected her. She was the girl who volunteered to take on the world with her and made Jules’s crusade her own. She made her laugh and held her when she cried and would have done anything to see Jules’s get a happy and safe future. If you’re lucky, life brings the right people to you as you need them and that is who Ophelia was for Jules. Their friendship was so special and wonderful and I continue to miss them. I will always wish we had gotten more of this show but I’m grateful it was made at all and that I got 10 episodes with this story and these characters.  

7. GLOW No show surprised me more this year than GLOW. It wasn’t a premise that initially appealed to me but after people whose opinions I trust raved about it, I knew I had to give it a shot. More than anything, it reiterated to me that if a show has strong characters who undergo solid emotional journeys and an overall theme that resonates with me, the exact mechanism by which that happens is irrelevant. You don’t have to care about wrestling to enjoy this show, you just have to care about these characters. Watching Ruth shed her need to be liked, Debbie regaining ownership of her body and life, Sheila finding her pack, and Carmen discovering her confidence and independence were among some of the most satisfying character arcs I watched this year and they all learned it through GLOW. Wrestling personas may rely heavily on stereotypes but these women are never treated as such. They are allowed the space to exist with all their flaws and strengths, failures and successes. The show also doesn’t shy away from the fact that Sam is terrible. His genius doesn’t excuse his treatment of the people around him and we’re supposed to recognize him for the miserable person he is. He’s not a one dimensional caricature of a tortured genius, however, he’s also allowed rare moments of seeing that he could be more than he is. His growing friendship with Ruth is one of the highlights of the season, particularly in the scenes leading up to her abortion. But he’s not the focus and that makes all the difference. This story will always be about the group of women who make up the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, not the man who cast them all for their roles. It’s about the way they support each other and work together to make something that is all theirs. It’s about the way we use tropes and stereotypes to tell stories and uphold cultural ideals and damage those can do to real people. It’s about the construction of stories and who is allowed to control those narratives. It’s about the love and pain between two best friends who want to find their way back to each other but can’t easily forgive and let go of the hurt in their past. And it does all this while making you laugh and providing you with delightful training montages set to 80s music.

8. Brooklyn Nine-Nine I think this might be the best year this show has ever had. In its fifth season, this show clearly knows where its strengths lie in the writing and the cast and each year, they continue to push themselves a little further and it’s paid off. It’s a Dan Goor and Michael Schur show, so of course it’s going to be warm and funny and that would honestly be enough to keep me watching, but it’s also actively resisted becoming stagnant. Characters are allowed to grow and progress. We got to see them in new, often vulnerable, situations that give us new perspectives on these characters that we’ve grown to love. We got to see Jake and Amy’s love continue to grow as they decided to move in together and get engaged and start the process of wedding planning. The show addressed the reality of police profiling in “Moo Moo” and the way it affects people of color, particularly black men. It looked at some of the issues with the prison industrial complex and the cruelty of solitary confinement in the season five opener. We got to see Rosa come out as bisexual (and explicitly defining herself as such, which almost never happens) to her friends and family with varying levels of success. We saw Gina become a mother and start to address the difficulties of returning to work with a young baby. So many of these actors were given strong material, not just on the comedy side of things but that highlighted their dramatic skills as well, and did amazing things with it. It is one of the most consistently entertaining comedies on TV right now and one that should not be missed.

9. Jane the Virgin Even with tragedy in the lives of these characters this year, it continued to be a bright spot in my life. Michael’s death had been foreshadowed in the pilot so while it may not have been a surprise, it didn’t lessen the emotional impact. Gina Rodriguez has been phenomenal, as she always is, and I appreciate that it wasn’t a cheap stunt. Michael’s death meant something and his presence and his life with Jane has never been forgotten. It’s also been a year of victory for Jane as she achieved her dream of becoming a published author. There are few things I love as deeply as characters I love making their dreams come true. We get to go on the journey with them and it’s always an emotional experience watching it all happen. It hasn’t been a smooth process but it’s hers and so long as she remembers to be brave and keep putting herself out there, it can only get better from here and I can’t wait. It was also extremely satisfying to see Rogelio and Xo finally get married. They’re not a fairy tale couple. It’s taken several tries and it’s still not easy. There is a lot of history between them, for better for worse. But they’re learning together and I love the juxtaposition of that with Jane’s romantic ups and downs. But, regardless of what’s happening with the romances or professional successes on this show, the heart will always be the three Villanueva women. So long as they are around to offer comfort and support and drunkenly dance with each other, this show will be one worth watching. Their love for each other shines through everything they do. This show struck gold with their casting and they know it and take full advantage of it.

10. sense8 There were some pacing issues with this season but I’ve never been watching this show for the plot (although I’m glad it’s getting a movie to wrap it up). This season was more cinematically ambitious in the way they used the sensates visiting and taking over for each other. Wolfgang and Lila’s fights with their respective clusters must have been extremely challenging to time and get in sync, but it looked fantastic. But as beautiful as this show looks, that’s not what makes it special. It’s never been about anything other than connection and an earnestness that underscores everything it does. Yes, it can make the dialogue clunky and it’s so far from subtle in its messaging but none of that matters when something makes you feel as much as sense8 makes me feel. This show has nestled its way into my heart. It’s given me so many characters to love and cheer for, relationships that demonstrate the best of what love can be, and hope when I’m struggling to find it elsewhere. The empathy and compassion that runs through the whole of the show and the sense of family it promotes help rejuvenate me when I feel myself giving into unproductive anger and hopelessness. It is a beautiful, special show that was exactly what I needed this year and always.

Honorable Mentions: Black-ish, Feud, Halt and Catch Fire, Queen Sugar, The Bold Type, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Americans, The 100, Superstore, Speechless

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