Editor’s Note: Find all of The Atlantic’s “Best of 2017” coverage here.
How to summarize television in 2017? While no descriptor captures the year’s diverse offerings, one word crops up more than any other: Netflix. The streaming service’s throw-content-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks strategy generated more than 1,000 hours of original TV and movies this year, and though plenty were duds, Netflix also seemed to spawn more critical hits than any other provider.
What this year might have lacked in offbeat ingenuity (Atlanta and Fleabag are scheduled to return next year), it made up for in star power, including an array of heavyweights from the film world. Jean-Marc Vallée. Reese Witherspoon. Nicole Kidman. Spike Lee. Sarah Polley. David Fincher. James Franco. Steven Soderbergh. Justin Simien. With seemingly endless resources on offer alongside almost total artistic freedom, it’s hard not to see still more creative talent being drawn toward TV in 2018 and beyond.
In the interests of discovery (and because so many of the year’s most intriguing shows were debuts), the list below pays most attention to 10 exceptional new shows of 2017, a staggering eight of which premiered in the U.S. on streaming services. It also applauds 10 stellar returning shows. After all, 2018 (and Netflix’s record-breaking $8 billion budget) is just around the corner.
Sarah Polley’s six-part CBC/Netflix adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel came in the midst of a historic reckoning with the abuse and harassment of women. Among the questions this moment provoked: How can stories force people to hear them? The Canadian actress Sarah Gadon gives an incandescent performance as Grace Marks, a convicted 19th-century murderess whose delicate bearing and absorbing narrative convince many of her innocence. More interesting than the reliability of Grace’s stories, though, is the way she transforms them into a kind of agency she otherwise lacks.
In its first few episodes, the appeal of this Netflix satire of true-crime documentaries was largely built on excessive repetition of the phrase 27 dicks. Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda’s show is structured around an attempt to uncover who tagged teachers’ cars with offensive graffiti in a high-school parking lot, and to exonerate the genial meathead (Jimmy Tatro) who’s been implicated. But as the show progressed, it became a surprisingly sweet and compelling analysis of modern teenage life (with, yes, an abundance of dick drawings).
If this seven-episode HBO miniseries was effectively chick lit polished to a high sheen, it also affirmed why the genre is so compelling. Big Little Lies offered sweeping escapism with its Monterey sunsets and architecture-porn interiors, but it also had an absorbing murder-mystery, and bravura performances from its fleet of stars. Reese Witherspoon gave unexpected depth to Madeline Martha Mackenzie, a disaffected general in the mommy wars, but the series MVP was Nicole Kidman as Celeste Wright, a woman entangled in a complex, passionate, and dangerous marriage.
Dear White People
Justin Simien’s 2014 dramedy about the experiences of black students at a fictional Ivy League college was spun off into this 10-episode Netflix series of the same name, and the extended running time allows Simien to probe the knotty politics and myriad microaggressions of campus life in even more incisive and entertaining detail. Logan Browning and DeRon Horton excel as a popular radio host and a shy freshman respectively, but the cast is uniformly strong, and the episode directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins is a painful, necessary gut punch.
David Simon and his Treme/The Wire collaborator George Pelecanos reunited for this eight-episode HBO drama about the sex and porn industries in 1970s Manhattan. It’s a vivid, richly drawn portrayal of the sex workers of Times Square and the men who manipulate them, anchored by Maggie Gyllenhaal’s extraordinary performance as Candy, a prostitute with ambitions to break into pornography, but as a director, not a star. Simon excels at evincing not just the creative criminality of the game but also the humanity of its players.
Netflix’s seven-part series, set in a town in New Mexico where most of the men had died in a mining accident, wasn’t quite the women-centric Western the marketing had suggested it would be. But the show, created by Scott Frank (Minority Report) and executive-produced by Steven Soderbergh, was inarguably gorgeous, with incandescent shots of the American desert shot in widescreen, and a slow-burn story that challenged the outlaw mythology of the Old West.
Executive-produced by Orange Is the New Black’s Jenji Kohan, this zany 10-part Netflix series is premised around a (real) 1980s TV show, Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Beneath the retro kitsch of hairspray, lycra, and Jane Fonda workouts is a winning examination of friendship and ambition, built around a cast of misfit performers and their brash wastrel of a director (Marc Maron). Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin shine as frenemies whose complicated dynamic finds a fitting outlet when they’re pitted against each other in the ring.
After the 2016 U.S. election, expectations for the Hulu/MGM Television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s canonical novel were stratospheric, so it’s to the credit of the cast and creative team that the 10-part series didn’t disappoint. Elisabeth Moss is magnetic as Offred/June, a woman forced into sexual and reproductive servitude by the repressive Christian theocracy of Gilead. But it’s the visual reality of Gilead, conjured by the cinematographer-turned-director Reed Morano with the showrunner Bruce Miller, that makes the show so striking, and so jarring.
At the heart of this gripping Netflix true-crime series is a simple whodunnit: Who killed Sister Cathy Cesnik, a kind and popular Baltimore nun who was brutally murdered in 1969? But the seven-episode show is so much more than that, delving into the partnership of two unlikely amateur detectives, Abbie and Gemma, as well as the involvement of the Catholic church in covering up a sprawling network of abuse and corruption. The defining element of the show ends up being the remarkable bravery of the women who demand justice.
This four-part Hulu miniseries, imported from the U.K., preceded the Harvey Weinstein scandal and its aftershocks by seven months. But its portrait of a beloved British entertainer who’s accused of a decades-old rape resonates even more now, as the question of how to separate art from artists seems more urgent than ever. Robbie Coltrane (Harry Potter) gives a nuanced performance as Paul Finchley, a man in the twilight of his career who insists he’s innocent, but the series’s most powerful moments focus on how the accusations affect his family.
Pamela Adlon’s brilliant FX series about a Hollywood actor and mother-of-three returned for a second season that was somehow even zanier and more audacious than its first.
Netflix’s cult hit about an anthropomorphic horse who’s also a washed-up ’90s sitcom star tackled knotty topics, from fracking to gun violence, in its fourth season.
The absorbing second season of Peter Morgan’s sumptuous Netflix drama about Queen Elizabeth II delves into the Suez Crisis, the Profumo affair, and the fault lines in the royal marriage.
HBO’s cash cow delivered a sped-up seventh season of the fantasy drama in which a surprising number of plot pieces fell satisfyingly into place.
The wacky NBC comedy about an afterlife that isn’t entirely as it seems showed its hand at the end of Season 1, but its newest episodes have been a joy to watch—both pun-abundant and deeply philosophical.
The fourth and final season of the AMC show about the earliest days of the digital age was a compendium of ’90s nostalgia and a tribute to the constancy of personal bonds during a time of dizzying change.
The second season of Issa Rae’s HBO dramedy returned to the romantic and professional escapades of Issa and Molly with narrative ingenuity and a deft grasp of the countless humiliations of modern womanhood.
Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s mind-bending HBO series about the aftermath of a Rapture-like event that disappears 2 percent of the world’s population came to a characteristically surreal, funny, and heartbreaking end.
The Netflix cultural juggernaut returned with a darker second season, exploring the impact of post-traumatic stress on Will, Eleven, and their families, while a new monster loomed over Hawkins.
The long-anticipated Showtime revival of David Lynch’s surreal melodrama was as strange and layered as fans had hoped, with a staggering array of guest stars and an ominous turn for Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan).
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