10. The Runaways
With the rest of Marvel’s TV series faltering this year (Inhumans and Iron Fist tanked, Agents of Shield is tired, Defenders and Punisher were okay but pale in comparison to the heights achieved by Jessica Jones and Daredevil), leave it to this mashup of the OC and the Avengers to bring a new twist on super heroic teen angst. While the comic was one of my favorites, the TV series has done a great job of broadening the scope beyond the basic premise of group of teens discover their parents are evil. Honestly, while the TV show has pretty awesome and faithful adaptations of the kids, it has done an amazing job of making the parents infinitely more interesting and adding a dose of mystery to keep things interesting.
09. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Fast-talking fifties housewife Midge (star-in-the-making Rachel Brosnahan) embarks on a career as a standup comedienne after her husband leaves her. With the powerhouse partnership of Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino (creative forces behind Gilmore Girls and some of the best episodes of Roseanne), Midge is a dazzling joy to watch, but the series is elevated by a strong supporting cast – Alex Borstein as Midge’s confidant/manager, Michael Zegen her ex, and the always wonderful Marin Hinkle and Tony Shaloub as her overbearing parents. The signature style of Gilmore Girls is present: zippy dialogue, endearing characters, and a winning soundtrack, but with a different feel being set in late-50s New York City. Fun, funny, poignant, sweet, ballsy and crass, and (sorry) completely marvelous.
08. 13 Reasons Why
Adapted from the novel if the same name, 13 Reasons Why followed withdrawn teen Clay (Dylan Minnette) haunted by the suicide of his friend Hannah (Katherine Langford). Hannah left pre-recorded tapes laying out her reasons for her actions, and labeling a group of targets of her blame. Each episode unfolded against a new character as we learned more about Hannah and her struggles trying to maneuver a high school fraught with all the issues that make high school awful. Featuring a cast of teens as real and well-rounded as any that have ever appeared on TV, as well as a handful of parents struggling to make sense of everything, 13 Reasons Why is bold, honest storytelling shining a spotlight on an issue too often left silent and unexplored.
07. American Vandal
“Who drew the dicks?” An honest question with actual consequences at the core of this surprisingly hilarious series. After a vandal strikes the teacher’s parking lot at a public high school, two young students take it upon themselves to figure out the culprit after the dumb jock that is expelled for the crime maintains his innocence. The complete earnestness of the dogged characters heightens all of the humor and if anyone has listened to Serial, this is the perfect companion piece, taking the same approach to a mystery with much smaller stakes. The hybrid documentary/comedy is a unique breed and the cast of relative unknowns make the entire thing feel so real, so raw, and so friggin’ funny.
06. Game of Thrones
Even with a season that felt rushed and brief (three episodes less than previous) Game of Thrones still delivers excitement better than most shows. After six years of characters in isolation, they were now getting mashed up in new partnerships as the threat of the white walkers loomed larger than ever. The Starks were reunited. Jon Snow and Daenerys formed an alliance. Cersei and Jaime’s relationship soured. All culminated in a finale that provided deaths welcome (Littlefinger had it coming) and objectionable (not Viserion!). The weakest aspect of the season – Arya and Sansa’s non-fight that was designed solely to be a trick on the audience- still managed to payoff nicely. And the highlights, the final moments of the wall coming down, paving the way for an epic last season, still showed what a thrilling series it remains.
05. Rick and Morty
After three years of animated adventures from the warped mind of Dan Harmon, the surprisingly endearing series about a boy and his grandpa traveling through alternate universes took on new drama dealing with the divorce of Morty’s parents, the deeper involvement of his sister, and darker turns of the characters, while still managing to deliver plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. The occasional shifting of the spotlight to the supporting cast, the dark psychology of Beth, most notably, elevated an already extraordinary show requiring rapt attention to catch every joke, reference and easter egg throughout.
04. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
HBO’s signature comedy news hybrid show took on a more focused year with an easy target of dumpster-fire-in-chief, while also covering deeper news stories on everything from the Affordable Care Act to the deceitful dialysis industry. Oliver’s affable charm carries the show as he slings his caustic barbs and uses his platform to highlight exposes that manage to be both informative and entertaining.
03. The Keepers
Netflix’s documentary series begins with the mystery of a murdered nun but as new clues expose old secrets and the focus expands to a broader indictment of a small-town coverup and the hidden abuses uncovered. The Keepers is ambitious and daring in scope, and has a confident style that continues to engage even as the central mystery commands less attention.
02. Bojack Horseman
Another animated winner, this series follows a depressed, drug-addicted actor Bojack (Will Ferrell) as he struggles to make a comeback. Oh yeah, and he’s a horse and his agent is a cat. Just go with it. After getting past the initial premise, the show took a brilliantly dark turn as Bojack recovered from a friend’s death, dealt with his hateful mom, and a possible daughter he never knew about. While the show is funny, it’s also one of the more realistic of depression, something you may not expect from a cartoon about a horse.
01. The Handmaid’s Tale
Harrowing and shocking, and the perfect companion piece to the current administration, this dystopian story follows Offred (deserved Emmy-winner Elisabeth Moss, also a producer), a woman forced into being a concubine under a theocratic administration where women are second-class citizens. The show jumps between Offred’s dire and depressing present and the events the lead to the new regime. But still, Offred persists. And she finds hope in a resistance movement, and an underground network looking to topple the patriarchy. The supporting cast is full of interesting and dynamic characters on both sides of the fence (fellow Emmy-winners Ann Dowd and Alexis Bledel, Samira Wiley, Yvonne Strahovski, Amanda Brugel – and that’s just the women). The first season ended where the original book did leaving room for a season 2 that is wide-open, but regardless the first season stands by itself as a disturbing look at what our would could become if religious fundamentalism is left unchecked, and privilege is exploited.
And for individual episodes:
10. Stranger Things – “Chapter Nine: The Gate”
While the second season of Stranger Things lacked the urgency of the first one and took a giant misstep somewhere around episode 7, this final chapter not only highlighted what makes the series so special-it’s amalgamation of 80s references and honest approach to teenage nostalgia-but would probably even make the list for its scene at the dance alone. While the kiss between Mike and El was the culmination of two seasons of buildup, the relationship drama between all the characters proved to be more affecting than any of its monster fights. The budding friendship between Dustin and Steve was the emotional center of the entire season.
09. Mr. Robot – “eps3.4_runtime-err0r.00”
This mindfuck of a series continued its strange, devastating acid trip of a third season about the global downfall brought about by a mysterious hacking group. This episode, shot as if it was all in one take, took one chaotic ticking timebomb countdown in an E-corp building and immersed the viewer in the paranoia and anarchy. The faux one-take visual was more than a gimmick, it was a tool that was used to bridge the two main stories – Elliot (Rami Malek) fighting Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) to stop Stage 2 while Angela (Portia Doubleday) maneuvers to carry out the plan, their paths only briefly intersecting. Mr. Robot has always been a show willing to go deeper and darker than expected and the final moment’s gut punch was an awesome button on an already solid hour.
08. Master of None – “New York, I Love You”
The latest season of Aziz Ansari’s opus was not as engaging as the first, but two of the episodes soared well beyond the heights of season one, including this one. Ansari, who co-wrote with director Alan Yang (also co-creator of the show), took his central character to the sideline to spend half an hour highlighting New York City as a character. Told through small vignettes of characters we’ve not seen before, the episode explores the diversity and uniqueness of America’s greatest city.
07. Rick and Morty – “The Ricklantis Mixup”
Rick and Morty has always been a showing willing to take chances in its storytelling. A show about a parallel-universe traveling scientist adventuring with his dim grandson allows for that. But this bait and switch episode quickly dispenses with the main Rick and Morty to follow a world made up of nothing but a variety of Rick and Morty pairs. Telling multiple stories with characters that all look the same and still managing to make points on police brutality, political corruption, and general inequality all while referencing everything from Harry Potter to Stand By Me. An excellent episode of an excellent series.
06. The Good Place – “Michael’s Gambit”
Conceptually, the Good Place was a show that was better than it deserved to be. A TV series about a heavenly afterlife where one of the new inhabitants (Kristen Bell) discovers she’s there by mistake-where can this series possibly go? That questioned was answered in the first-season finale where the benevolent orchestrator (Ted Danson) was revealed to be slightly more fundamentally evil than initially thought. It was a gamble that paid off as it opened the show up to endless possibilities and permutations and created new character dynamics that can outlast the show’s inititial premise. It was a motherforking genius move from a series that has been audacious from the outset.
05. Black Mirror – “USS Callister”
The anthology series returned with a premier that skewered toxic nerd culture, rampant nostalgia in our entertainment in general and the fetishizing of Star Trek in specific in one twisted story. Jesse Plemmons is CTO at a video game company specializing in an online role playing game but at home he’s created a closed version of the game where he fancies himself the captain of the USS Callister (you know, the Enterprise) and he has surrounded himself with a faithful crew, based on his coworkers. Turns out, there’s more to his crew than expected, and their faithfulness isn’t earned. It’s one of the more hopeful episodes for a show specializing in the dark side of technology, despite some truly harrowing moments.
04. Dear White People – “Chapter V/Chapter VI”
This surprising Netflix series takes a look at race relations in a predominantly white university through the black students that attend. The characters are initially presented in stereotype before the show dives deeper, and gives those students full dimensionality. In these episodes, militant Reggie (Marque Richardson) finds himself on the receiving end of a policeman’s gun after a party gets out of hand. The drama was real and raw, and the follow-up episode dealing with the aftermath proved even more poignant as Reggie and his crush Sam (the show’s central character, played by the pitch-perfect Logan Browning) get in an argument over her trying to exploit the situation. “My pain is not your platform,” he says, while the show grounded the racial drama into an awkward love story that was messy and complicated. A solid one-two punch for a freshman series discovering its voice. That Chapter V was directed by Barry Jenkins, fresh off his Oscar-winning Moonlight, only adds to the pedigree of talent involved in the series.
03. The Handmaid’s Tale – “Late”
The juxtaposition between past in present in the Handmaid’s Tale was never more disturbing and traumatic than in this installment detailing the early days of the revolution and the torment suffered by Ofglen (deserved Emmy-winner Alexis Bledel who had to act mostly with her eyes as she was muzzled part of the time). By expanding the story with and beyond central figure Offred (Elisabeth Moss), Handmaid’s Tale opened up the story potential beyond the book on which it was based and grounded the series in dark timeframe that upped the stakes across the board.
02. Master of None – “Thanksgiving”
The other highlight of Master of None’s second season put the focus on Denise (Lena Waithe), the best friend of Dev (Aziz Ansari, who co-wrote the episode with Waithe), and the Thanksgivings they have spent together since they were young. Guest star Angela Bassett was great as Denise’s mom, coming to terms with Denise’s homosexuality. It was a new take on a story that has been the focus of television episodes before, but not nearly with as much messiness and grace as this one.
01. Bojack Horseman – “Time’s Arrow”
No other episode of TV messed with me as much as this one. It came out of nowhere and I had to immediately rewatch. While yes, this is a comedy, it goes bleaker and sadder than anything else on the small screen. Bojack is sidelined while the focus shifts to his mom, Beatrice, and memories bounce in out of her mind as she suffers from dementia. The animation gloriously illustrates the shitty nature of dementia, and Beatrice (voiced wonderfully by Wendie Malick) takes her generally caustic Grinch of a mother and gives every barb a tragic detail that gives every moment of this episode extra weight. Throw in the surprising revelations of the season-long arc and this episode is not only my favorite this year, but one of the best episodes I’ve seen in years.