It’s time once again for CGMagazine to recount the top 10 TV shows that aired this year. In a year where TV was an all-too-necessary escape, these shows stood out because they were the ones I actually had time to watch in 2017.
EDITOR’S NOTE: If you haven’t had a chance to check out the first part of Mike’s list, you can find it here.
#5: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Season 12)
After the abysmal Season 8, I was positive It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was going the way of so many other long-running shows that fall off the longer they run a laThe West Wing or The Office. I was wrong. One stumble can be completely forgiven if the rest of the show is going to be this good. Season 12 of Sunny proves the show doesn’t need a major reinvention or reboot. The core–five terrible people bouncing off each other – is still unimpeachable. Exploring Mac’s sexuality in Hero or Hate Crime? and the sitcom format with Old Lady House lets the show move its reliable Five Moves of Doom into new territory, but classic episodes like PTSDee retain the same bite that first attracted the show’s devoted fanbase.
If there’s any justice, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia will be the Friends for my generation: a formative sitcom that both shaped and reflected the comedic sensibilities of a group of young people. Sunny is the most sensitive offensive comedy on television, and I’m happy to say that even as more acerbic sitcoms rise to the forefront, nobody still does it quite like Paddy’s Pub.
#4: The Good Place (Seasons 1 and 2)
#3: American Vandal (Season 1)
I’ve seen American Vandal from start to finish about six or seven times, not counting the times where I’ve watched individual episodes with friends and family on their own #WhoDrewTheDicks journey. It’s that good.
At first, the show is a commentary on the fact that we’ve taken true crime stories with legitimate facts and pulped them into a recognizable story format with clichés and tropes, peerlessly imitating its contemporaries by stapling true-crime genre trappings to the hormone-addled world of a California high school. The crime in question is an incredibly low-brow act of vandalism, where a mystery high school student spray paints 27 penises onto faculty cars. When the documentary crew needs to examine an eyewitness’ reliability, they break down whether a rumoured sleepaway camp handjob ever really happened. This stuff is all reliably funny, and could easily power a full season of Documentary Now-style parody.
But then something wonderful happens. For me it was around the time of Nana’s party, but everyone has a moment where they get legitimately invested. The mystery suddenly becomes as real for you as it has been for the rest of the characters. You really want to know who drew those dicks, so the show expertly teases new revelations that still never lose their comedic power because, well, everything sounds asinine when taken out of context.
And then once you’re getting into a groove alongside the characters, the show begins to subvert itself. It makes everything you found so enthralling seem weird and petty. Hanover High is a surprisingly mean place at its core, it really didn’t need a muckraker to rip everyone’s skeletons out of their closets. You realize that you’ve become one with the protagonists, you’ve been as invested as they are, and now you’re realizing that your excitement has come at the expense of societal standards.
American Vandal goes from brilliant comedy to enthralling crime story to genre deconstruction all within eight episodes. The show goes through three seasons’ worth of thematic material before finally coming to a close. I have no idea what the second season will be about, but I am so on board for whatever this creative team does next.
#2: The Americans (Season 5)
I’ve never seen a TV show with a track record this spotless. Even Breaking Bad’s first season had a couple weak spots, but The Americans produces almost perfect television week after week, month after month, year after year, and now I’m absolutely hooked. The Americans is a horror show, a sort of realistic Body Snatchers where a secret society of sociopathic Russian sleeper agents operate all across the country during the Cold War, murdering innocent people and destroying the lives of those unfortunate enough to cross their path. Rather than focusing exclusively on the American counterintelligence agents working against the Russians, the show portrays the perspective of the eponymous pod people as years of deceit and murder finally catch up with their psyche.
There’s something admirable about the way The Americans never makes any parallels to the current tensions between American and Russia, instead choosing to luxuriate in its period setting. 1980’s Russia looks like a rough place to live, but the people in the USSR have found meaning in their lives. America is a country of excess, but that glitz belies a hollow core. Both sides of the conflict have something the other needs, but at this point in the Cold War a mutually beneficial cultural exchange would be impossible.
For a show with little apparent incident, The Americans flawlessly stages each scene with some of the best direction I’ve ever seen on a TV show. Each shot is a masterful use of space and blocking, anchored by performances from the show’s impeccable cast, especially protagonists Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (real-life couple Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys). Whether their loyalty towards their homeland comes from brainwashing or legitimate patriotism is somewhat beside the point—when the show starts, the reality of their jobs as covert Russian agents is finally starting to catch up with them.
The Americans has the best acting, the best scripting, the best set design, the best direction… it’s unquestionably the best scripted TV show running today. I’m very disappointed it took me until this year to finally sit down and give it a chance. Don’t be like me.
#1: Nathan for You (Season 4)
Is it fair to give Nathan for You the top spot for just one episode? Yes, this most recent season had some all-time classics—the Uber episode is particularly inspired in its depravity. But the show’s feature-length season finale, Finding Frances, is one of the best episodes of TV I’ve ever seen, period. A meditation on life, love, artifice, performance, and the show itself, Finding Frances is Nathan Fielder’s magnum opus.
If I didn’t know from first-hand reports that Nathan for You did actually rely on genuine human interaction to some extent, I would swear Finding Frances was a mockumentary. Fielder has been using an exaggerated version of himself to find comedy in relatable human pain for years now, and Finding Frances is the purest distillation of his manifesto to date. You could not pick a better subject in Bill Heath, a debatably professional Bill Gates impersonator who spends his days alone in a small apartment fretting over a long-lost love. The comparisons between Heath and Fielder’s affected character are all implied, not just in the way the story unfolds, but in the way the camera lingers on the space between the two men.
Finding Frances is all commentary with no explicit resolution, and for some that may give the special a disquieting undercurrent. Yes, the story wraps up in a way that I won’t quite spoil for you here, but thematically Finding Frances is, at its core, about how finding the missing piece you’ve been searching for won’t really fill that hole in your life. The narrative we paint for ourselves doesn’t fit the reality of our lives, and the best we can hope for is to string failures together until we reach some modicum of self-actualization.
But what is self-actualization if multiple versions of the “self” exist in parallel? We have different versions of ourselves that we present to different people in different situations, which combination of personality traits composites the “real” us? What’s the difference between an escort and a TV show host? When I watched the special with my family, and Maci tells Nathan that she likes him, their first reaction was “Yeah, for $350 an hour!” But what about Nathan? This is his show, he’s credited as the director of the special, and long-time fans know from prior experience that Nathan will say or do practically anything to further the story. But his meetup with Maci in the hotel room isn’t noticeable in service of a gag or an ultimate goal, so is Nathan really letting his guard down to show us the real Nathan Fielder, or is it something he’s doing to further his artistic vision for the episode?
I could write for hours about what makes Finding Frances special, but the episode’s best moments are left unspoiled. Just know it’s one of the best episodes of television ever, let alone 2017, and its mere existence makes Nathan for You my favorite TV show of the year.