The Best of the Year in Television 2017

Doing things a little differently this year. As anyone who’s spent time on a couch […]

Mockingbird / 12.20.17

Doing things a little differently this year. As anyone who’s spent time on a couch this year knows, there’s simply too much quality television being produced these days to attempt a definitive list, even if rankings are generally more fun. So we’ve decided to farm out the assignment a bit more, ask various contributors to submit blurbs on what they’ve most enjoyed watching, with an eye, as always, to theological/anthropological relevance and overall grace notes. Which isn’t to say we haven’t scattered a few definitive accolades below, or listed our top picks toward the bottom, just that this is as much a round-up as a countdown.

Only other word of qualification would be that last year’s favorite (Atlanta) took an extended break this year, and I’m fairly certain the new season of Black Mirror would’ve warranted inclusion, had it already dropped (instead of next week). Oh and if the other lists out there are to be trusted, it would appear we bailed on Halt and Catch Fire before it, you know, caught fire. Click here to read last year’s list.

Cream of the Crop

Line of Duty. If you hear Irish brogues around the Mockingbird office, pulling one-liners like: “There’s only one thing I’m interested in, and that’s nicking bent coppers,” or “You’re way outta line, fella,” or “My officers conduct themselves to the letter of the law, sir. The letter!” it’s a hat tip to SI Ted Hastings, leader of AC-12, an anti-corruption police force. Beyond the amazing cast of characters under Hastings’ wing—Fleming, Arnott—and in his crosshairs—this season it’s Thandie Newton as Roz Huntley—the main reason to watch is the incredibly smart, misdirection in the plot. No one is safe from the law in the show, despite the fact that those in positions of power are quick to draw lines between “facts” and “the truth.” Time will tell if the “H” we are looking for, the “H” orchestrating all the corruption within the force, is Hastings himself. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until 2019. [Ethan Richardson]

Better Things. The ultimate “girl power” show when we need it most, Better Things, is “reverse Disney”. It’s the absent father show, but the mama is very present. Belle and Ariel (like many Disney femme-heroines) had absent mothers, and Pam Adlon won’t stand for it. Adlon plays a single mom named “Sam” with three daughters – “Max”, “Frankie”, and “Duke”. If you notice a theme there, it is intentional. Better Things strives to be “gender neutral”. Heck, Sam even calls her mom (Phyllis) Phil. All of this can arguably be off-putting at first, but Better Things wins with Adlon’s charm as the lead, and with her deft writing and leadership as the creator/director. Season one introduced us to the family and friends (it’s great too by the way) but season two goes next level with a master class in character development and moments of grace and beauty. These are five very imperfect females working very hard to try to figure it out, and they let us see the dark, the fun, the “WTF?”, and the sweet. If you watch only one episode, make it “Eulogy” from this season two. [Howie Espenshied]

Catastrophe. A relationship in free fall or the darkness before the dawn? All I know is that after a so-so second season, Sharon Hogan and Rob Delaney hit it out of the park with their third go-round. Frequently hilarious and full of heart, Catastrophe is home to the best marriage on TV right now. The gambles with more serious topics (grief, addiction, financial reversal, forgiveness) paid off without sacrificing the laughs, Carrie Fisher got to make us laugh one last time, and geez what an ending! It’s a lot of bang for a show you can binge in a single night. [DZ]

Blackish is the kind of show that you start watching for the jokes and continue watching for the discomfort. Dre and Bo (short for Rainbow) Johnson lead a family in the throes of all the usual suburban issues mixed with all of the pain that is being black in America. Post partum depression, police brutality, and having really nerdy kids are handled with candor and, amazingly, a lot of humor. [Sarah Condon]

Big Little Lies. Most people still call this show “Pretty Little Lies,” but that doesn’t mean it didn’t make a legitimate lasting impression when it aired this past spring—quite the opposite in fact, given its timely subject matter regarding sexual abuse. Captivatingly framed as a murder mystery, and promising the ultimate undoing of [the myth of] the perfect mom, this adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s bestselling novel (recommended by Stephen King as “one hell of a good book”) poses some provocative questions about human nature. Every character has something to hide, an inner-self to preserve, and an outer-self to polish. The distinct privilege of each character is no remedy for their unhappiness (and unmistakable spiritual longing) which secretly rages beneath every pair of designer sunglasses and every sip of California wine. If I recall correctly, at some point someone utters, “Welcome to the club, we’re all f***ed up.”  A masterful denouement rounds up all the “suspects” for one fateful school fundraiser—in an ending that is both satisfying but distinctly non-judgmental. Nicole Kidman earned well-deserved props for her subtle, heart-wrenching acting, and Reese Witherspoon channelled a bit of Elle Woods with her welcome but nuanced comic relief. To me, however, the standouts scenes belonged to Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravtiz, both of whom bring an artful restraint but a unique vitality. Production of a second season was confirmed several weeks ago. [CJ Green]

Bojack Horseman. “Bojack’s happy ending, four seasons in the waiting, may have come. And it came in the form of one-way love and deliverance from a crushing law.” That’s the conclusion of the write-up we did back in October, and the sentiment still holds up. [Bryan Jarrell]

Stranger Things 2. The success of season one cast a massive shadow by which all potential follow-ups seemed destined to be eclipsed—but this sequel, at times, deftly outshines it. True: the first few episodes are on the slower end, but if you make it to Episode 4, it’s pretty much a guaranteed binge from there.* The show’s lively plot (demodogs! telekinesis! long-lost sisters!) is rivaled only by the characters’ internal battles, which cause a compelling series of clique switcheroos and strike up some much-needed interpersonal friction: we see Police Chief Hopper acting as a father figure, Joyce Byers as a tentative object of affection, and Steve Harrington as actually a really good babysitter. This season stands up on its own legs mainly because the characters, having become more complex, go down into their personal wounds, drawing out the contours of a theology of the cross. A stunning finale at the school dance confirms that this show’s most searing conflicts are ultimately emotional—the question of “Who will defeat the Mind Flayer, seal the door to the Upside Down, and save all of Hawkins from imminent doom?” is, for a middle school boy, just as frightening as “Who will dance with me tonight?” Colorful, quirky, and at times genuinely unsettling, this sequel is at once familiar and new—just as I hoped it would be. [CJ Green]

*despite a controversial detour at Episode Seven.

Fargo. One of the more memorable (and revolting) villains came this season in V.M. Varga, the wily, toothy loan shark who lives everywhere and nowhere. He enters a Cain and Abel scene set by Ewan McGregor, and the story of Fargo (retold once more by Noah Hawley) continues to be a powerfully prescient one about the nature of life and evil. It is also a story, every time, about stories—about which ones are worth believing, and asks you which story you, the viewer believe. There is always the down-on-his/her-luck cop (this time Carrie Coon), who must believe against all odds that what they’re being asked to do is right, even if impossible. But the question is really for the viewer: Do you believe that good triumphs over evil? Do you believe the stories of the Bible? Do the V.M. Vargas get the final say? In other words, who opens the door at the last scene of the last episode? [Ethan Richardson]

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has all my favorite things: Conservative Judaism, gender politics of the 1950s, and a woman whose sole desire is to stand on a stage and be hilarious. But more than that, we see just what happens when dreams are dashed and a marriage falls apart. Maisel portrays the wholeness of characters in a way that few shows manage to capture. [Sarah Condon]

Twin Peaks: The Return. Kind of a cheat, as any series that airs an “episode” as off-the-charts bonkers as “Part 8” only loosely qualifies as television. Has there ever been a show so uncomfortably and brazenly transfixing, a collision of so many jarring elements that shouldn’t work but do? The Return is the first time I’ve ever been tempted to use the word “diabolical” (for real) in relation to television, but you cannot deny that Lynch accomplished something monumental here, maybe even genius-level, trolling and awing viewers in equal measure, sometimes simultaneously. Turns out we were putty in the master’s hands the whole time, our every response being a judgment on us rather than him. And that closing scream… Soul-chilling. [DZ]

Rick and Morty. Not sure there’s anything as equally depressing and delightful on TV as Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s Rick and Morty. Putting its notoriously obnoxious fanbase aside, the third season was as psychologically adept as the first two, firmly asserting that love is the only thing that can (occasionally) provide meaning in the universe. As we noted in our longer write-up from October, “Pickle Rick” is the fan favorite, and the episode’s family therapy scene has to be seen to be believed. “Rest and Ricklaxation” is the show at its Mocking-best, as Rick and Morty have every toxic aspect of their personality removed at an intergalactic spa. [Bryan Jarrell]

The Leftovers. Even if you’re not much for questions-left-unanswered shows, you can’t deny that The Leftovers finished the series with a sense of completion. And while it may not have been out to prove the authenticity of religious belief (hardly anyone in the show has watertight convictions), Perrotta, Lindelof and company certainly seemed out to prove the inadequacy of nihilism. With a failed and unwilling Messiah, an obstinate and unlikely love story, and a cancer-ridden Episcopal minister beat up by God, whose human name happens to be David Burton, nothing seems explainable, but nothing seems all that improbable, either. Perhaps the show is saying that this “Well, could be” is the posture of faith, or perhaps they lost their nerve, who knows. Best episode of the third season is the seventh, when Kevin Garvey dies (again) to kill the part of himself that won’t die (I know), and wakes up on the floor of a church. [Ethan Richardson]

The Crown. Royal watchers who find it too hard to wait for Prince Harry’s wedding next spring can sate their appetites with the superb and sumptuous second season of The Crown, playing now on Netflix. Prince Philip does not disappoint in the category of Flawed Human, but Princess Margaret, true to form, holds her own in that department as well. Mockingbird readers will be particularly interested in Episode Six, “Vergangenheit” which features a glimpse into the real-life friendship of the Queen with Billy Graham (yes, that Billy Graham, the television evangelist and as the Queen Mother reminds us, “former brush salesman from North Carolina). In this episode, the Queen seeks spiritual guidance from Graham as someone outside the Church of England, where she is, as she describes it, really only “under God” in terms of ecclesiastical authority. Her friendship with Graham allows her to ask questions about forgiveness and reconciliation, and how her Christian belief in forgiveness should inform her decisions as a ruler. [Carrie Willard]

Better Call Saul. Who is the more egregious sinner: the prodigal son or his elder brother? Better Call Saul dares you to consider the question, without providing ANY answers. That’s the heartbeat of this Breaking Bad prequel. If The Sopranos is the anti-hero prototype, Better Call Saul is its “pick your anti-hero” offspring. Our prot/ant/agonist (Jimmy McGill) is clearly on the verge of “breaking bad” but it’s a slow burn. Season 3 opens with Jimmy (Saul) loving on and taking care of his massively OCD older brother Chuck (the brilliant Michael McKean) whilst also failing miserably at trying to rise above the “sleazy lawyer” punchline. Breaking Bad was sheer anti-hero brilliance, and Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy/Saul, with all of his very wait-for-it-keep-waiting-stop-wait-for-it-more-waiting strikes the perfect chord. We love Jimmy (a lot), and we also find ourselves sliding down his slippery slope into “Saul”… In the end it’s readily apparent that pride will get the best of Jimmy/Saul, much like it got the best of another Saul we know. [Howie Espenshied]

Patriot. Might seem like a contrarian choice but nothing this year charmed me more than Steven Conrad’s criminally ignored Andersonian screwball series for Amazon. In fact, the only mark against the series was its title, which couldn’t have done less to entice potential viewers. Then again, I’m not sure how you’d sell a highly stylized espionage dramedy about a suicidal folk-singing CIA agent, especially one that straddles the (heretofore) unexplored Milwaukee-Luxembourg nexus so deftly, and boasts so many top-drawer piping jokes. There’s also real sweetness to the family dynamics. Plus, Dennis! What a character. And surely I’m not the only one who thinks “Afternoon Spray” is actually a good song? I imagine a second season would have to be an act of God, but don’t worry, I’ve been praying. [DZ]

The Good Place. The first season (currently on Netflix) was one of this year’s most pleasant TV-related surprises, and the second season (airing now) is equally enjoyable—a rambunctious cannonball into the typically placid waters of ethics and, occasionally, theology. It has all the features of a sitcom—short episodes, quick jokes, jingly background music—but the substance of something else, which is mainly owed to the fact that the plot, setting, and characters actually develop, often drastically, episode to episode. Thematically, it’s far and away the most Mockingbird-friendly show of the year, since the first season, and parts of the second, is basically a collection of illustrations to which sermons and Bible studies could pretty reliably turn. The Good Place addresses so many of our favorite themes: scorekeeping, performancism, morality and ethics, what it means to be a good (and bad) person, not to mention the afterlife. Along with a wonderful cast of six comedic leads and visual humor aplenty, this show earns its biggest laughs by tackling overwhelming existential questions with a lightheartedness that also captures the innate absurdity of life (and, well, death!). All I can say is, do not google spoilers—and you know where I’ll be when this show returns on January 4th. [CJ Green]

Honorable Mentions

Master of None. The second season of Aziz Ansari’s increasingly auteurish project would’ve made it into the ‘cream’ if not for its ankle-deep “Religion” episode. Not that every installment has to be as incisive as “First Date”, as risky (and touching) as “Thanksgiving”, as experimental as “New York, I Love You”, or as prophetic as “Buona Notte” (!), but when you self-consciously structure each episode as a thinly veiled think-piece, you better make sure the thinking isn’t lackadaisical or predictable. Still, major bonus points for ingenuity, and Aziz is so darn likeable. Can’t wait to see what left-turns they take next time. [DZ]

Mindhunter. It would be wrong to characterize this show as sympathy for the devil. Set in the 1970’s at the height of the serial killer scare, Mindhunter follows the development of the FBI’s Behavioral Science division, as agents Holden Ford and Bill Tench interview the nation’s most disturbed killers in an attempt to understand how their psychosis was formed. What makes the show so compelling is its insistence that leaning into darkness, though unsafe, is the only way to effectively combat it. Not sure there’s a better TV analogy of Capon’s famous left hand power/right hand power distinction. [Bryan Jarrell]

The Mindy Project. Despite the unrealistic stream of boyfriends and husbands (I mean, the woman is an OBGYN and a single mom!), The Mindy Project is a show that I am sad to see go. Mindy Kaling created a character that my inner 7th grader could only dream of being. She was smart, uber confident, and incredibly funny. Also, this show has been another ground breaker, ethnicity wise. Now every white girl I know wants to be Mindy. I legit plan my outfits based on what she wears to the office. She will be missed! [Sarah Condon]

Favorite Episode of a Show Not Mentioned Above

  • “Never Wait for Seconds” Curb Your Enthusiasm. The highlight of a good if not great return from our favorite misanthrope (when we needed him most!), the montage of “testimonies” was a true master stroke. The show remains a log in the eye of age-ist Hollywood.
  • “Party Crashers” The Tick. I was skeptical, but the first half of the The Tick reboot’s first season on Amazon was enough to make this longtime fan say “Warburton who?” and the “Party Crashers” episode may be the best of the batch.
  • “Back to School” American Housewife. The premiere of season two of Katy Mixon’s underrated sitcom continues to hit hilariously close to home.
  • “A Day” Love. Funny, awkward, romantic, believably profane, and overflowing with great supporting players — everything you want from an Apatow-related project. Rest of the season was good, but this episode swept me off my feet.
  • “The Dragon and the Wolf” Game of Thrones. Yes, the new season may have moved at a careful-what-you-wish-for rate, but the many, many payoff’s of the finale made for the 80 most thrilling minutes of television this year.

Favorite Characters in Shows Not Mentioned Above: Dylan in American Vandal, Chantal in Search Party and Cooler in Flaked

Most Overrated: Legion and Mr Robot