This is it: the big leagues for TV! Let’s count down the best of that the medium has to offer by way of returning series.
As always, a few quick caveats:
- The following list only applies to scripted series (I don’t watch enough reality to consider it)
- Eligible series had to air at least 5 new episodes in 2017
- If a series debuted this year (even if second season episodes have also aired), it will appear on tomorrow’s Best New TV of 2017 list
- Returning series on all networks and streaming services were eligible
- In the era of ~450 scripted series per year, obviously I haven’t seen everything. Some concessions about shows I don’t watch or fell behind on are included at the bottom of the post
- If you missed them, be sure to check out earlier posts on Best Scenes, Best Episodes and Worst TV of 2017
- You’ll also note that some shows fell off the list entirely: Killjoys and Transparent had off years, BoJack was solid but not as memorable and American Crime S3 and Kingdom S3 both wound up on the Worst list. You can revisit last year’s list here.
Alright, enough preamble! Let’s do this:
10) Better Things S2 (FX)
Pamela Adlon’s series is like a secret glimpse into her world, filled with all of the joy and heartbreak that makes everyday life worth living. In S2 Better Things becomes more experimental, adopting even less narrative structure as Adlon dives deeper into Sam’s life. All topics are on the table, including her struggles raising three daughters, dating a man (Henry Thomas) who may be perfect or terrible and skirting around her mother Phyllis’ increasing health problems. Better Things is easily one of the most relatable and human of all series on TV. It is completely unique.
9) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend S3 (The CW)
In season three, Rachel Bloom and series co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna put the “crazy” back in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as jilted bride Rebecca Bunch goes straight-up Fatal Attraction on the ex who left her at the altar. Then something unique happens: the show pivots, focusing on the damaging effects of mental illness on Rebecca and her friends in a run of candid and barrier-breaking episodes.
This is a show that balances original songs about seeing your first penis with a frank depiction of a suicide attempt and its aftermath. The fact that Crazy Ex-Girlfriend works – and continues to work several seasons after its initial premise has run its course – is a testament to Bloom and Brosh McKenna’s ingenuity and talent.
8) Chewing Gum S2 (E4 / Netflix)
Lewd, crude and witty are all perfect adjectives to describe Michaela Coel’s hilariously inappropriate Chewing Gum. The second series (tragically the show’s last) continues to tackle teen sexuality, dating and religion in unexpected and uproarious fashion. Focusing once again on socially awkward and painfully earnest Tracey (Coel), a lot of the second season explores Tracey’s life following her break-up with gentle moron Connor (Robert Lonsdale). There is also loads of good stuff about her mom’s church, a rift with bestie Candice (Danielle Isaie) and the increasingly awkward antics of her sexually repressed sister Cynthia (Susan Wokoma). While it’s disappointing that Chewing Gum is no more, at least we can savour this brief second series.
7) The Good Place S2
Audacious is the term that comes to mind when I think of The Good Place‘s 2017 run. The first season finale contains 2017’s ballsiest TV twist and the show returned better than ever in the fall, deftly navigating pitfalls while completely rewriting its entire premise. Any other show would have crumbled under the pressure, but Mike Schur and his incredibly talented cast, anchored by a go-for-broke Ted Danson and the delightful Kristen Bell, continue to make The Good Place a magical combination of wit, wordplay and unexpected (visual) delights. A fountain of clam chowder for all!
6) Twin Peaks: The Return S3 (Showtime)
I’m completely disinterested in the debate around whether Mark Frost and David Lynch’s return to Twin Peaks 26 years after its debut is a film or a TV series. All I’m interested in is how the 18 hour whatever produced some of the most beautiful, intriguing, and frustrating entertainment made in 2017 (and possibly since the series went off the air back in 91).
I completely understand why so many people were thrown by The Return, which is so uniquely its own thing (and therefore completely disinterested in fan service) that it’s almost off-putting. The sustained focus on Dougie Jones (Kyle McLachlan), the stubborn refusal to focus on beloved returning characters and the bizarre tangents (oh hi Wally Brando!) means you never quite know what you are tuning in for.
And you know what? That’s amazing.
I have never watched a series so willing to chart its own course or so willing to break beyond the boundaries of what is familiar and acceptable. Twin Peaks isn’t a film or a TV series; it is an experience – the likes of which we will probably never see again (unless Lynch and Frost reunite for a potential fourth season). The Return allows us to live inside Lynch’s headspace for eighteen hours. It is weird and it is wonderful. Cherish this experience, folks.
5) Halt and Catch Fire S4 (AMC)
This tiny AMC series about the dawn of modern computing was never going to be a big hit. Not unlike Rectify (last year’s #2 Returning TV Series), Halt and Catch Fire is a beloved series that few viewers watched, but hopefully many will discover down the road.
To be clear, this isn’t really a series about computers; it’s about flawed creators who are constantly on the cusp of changing the world. Consider this my pitch: the first season, which mistakenly focused on its male characters, is the outlier. Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy are good (great even) particularly once their familiar character types are fleshed out and evolve, but it’s not until the second season when Halt course-corrects to focus on its much more dynamic female characters, that the series vaults into the upper echelons of quality TV.
Credit Kerry Bishé and Mackenzie Davis for providing the series with its heart and soul. As Donna and Cameron, these women are role models and pioneers; they’re complicated and interesting and so achingly real that their struggles (both as partners and antagonists) provides the backbone of the series. The moment in the finale when they discuss the rise and decline of Phoenix, their fictitious second company, and it is visually represented by a simple neon logo that lights up and dims, is beautifully simple and evocative.
In the era of Peak TV, it is nearly impossible to ask anyone to wade through several seasons or wait multiple episodes for a show to get good. In this instance, however, I encourage you to do so. Halt and Catch Fire is worth the effort.
4) Queen Sugar S2 (OWN)
There are several perfect descriptors for Queen Sugar: adult soap, melodrama, and contemporary POC drama. It’s unfortunate that these identifiers carry a negative stigma for people. I’ve encountered so much resistance when I describe the show, as though a soap or a melodrama or a series that features a mostly black cast is somehow less worthy of someone’s time. F*ck that.
If you doubt the quality of Queen Sugar, look at how highly ranked it is on this list. It is that good.
Ava DuVernay’s drama about the Bordelons, three adult siblings who inherit their father’s sugar cane farm in New Orleans, blossoms in S2. The first season clearly established the characters, their tumultuous relationships (with each other and with love) and the influence of land and race on politics and history. Season two of the series goes deeper, tackling both substantive cultural issues (police violence, racism and sexism in industry, the intersection of at-risk groups and public health) and deeply personal stories (Charley’s struggle with black identity, Nova’s inability to commit to a relationship, Ralph Angel’s engagement to Darla, and Aunt Viv’s health issues). And when those stories combine, it results in one of the best hours of TV of the year.
Each Bordelon had a hell of a year; so did Queen Sugar. Beautifully shot by female directors, featuring a gorgeous, talented cast and deeply affecting writing, Queen Sugar is an adult soap/melodrama/POC drama. Yes, it is all of those things.
It is also one of the best shows on TV.
3) Insecure S2 (HBO)
Watching season two of Insecure is like watching someone raise their game. Series creator and star Issa Rae pushes past the primary relationship that dominated most of S1 to expand the world and scope of the series while also bringing new depth to several characters.
Rae herself is, first and foremost, the reason to tune in. As a writer, she is clever and smart (yes, these are different qualities) about setting up character arcs and motivations over the season. She’s also really f*cking funny, often in profane, NSFW ways. As a performer, Rae also isn’t afraid to take risks – her fictitious alter-ego is one of the most flawed narcissists on TV. Issa makes a lot of bad decisions, which frequently makes for good and/or relatable TV.
These qualities extend to the rest of the cast, all of whom perfectly inhabit their characters and sell their motivations, which is why Insecure is Must-See-TV. It is daring, entertaining and obscenely funny. I can’t wait for S3.
2) Please Like Me S4 (ABC2 / Netflix)
Every season of Please Like Me feels lived-in and authentic. Not unlike Better Things, series creator and star Josh Thomas has crafted a world and a cast that resonates with viewers because it is relatable, yet hilarious.
S4 breaks from tradition: Josh is older, more petulant and unwilling to compromise in his romantic life (it’s immediately clear that S2/3 beau Arnold has to go) but the early part of the season feels unmoored and unfocused. It’s not until the exceptional bottle episode when Josh takes his parents out for dinner that everything comes into focus: Josh needs to grow up.
Just when things seem to be coming together, the narrative comes full circle from the pilot and Josh’s Mum successfully commits suicide. ‘Burrito Bowl’ is one of the best episodes of the year, and arguably the most devastating depiction of grief since Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s ‘The Body’.
While it is disappointing that Thomas ultimately decided to end the series, it makes sense to leave Josh and Tom on the cusp of adulthood without any answers – it’s true to life and true to the show. And yet as satisfyingly open-ended as the ending is, my heart aches with the knowledge that this is the last that we’ve seen of these characters. Please Like Me is rich, vibrant, and full of life and laughs.
Read more in Best TV Episodes of 2017
1. The Leftovers S3 (HBO)
I love this show. Considering its slight ratings, high cost and (originally) off-putting narrative, the fact that The Leftovers lasted three seasons is a minor miracle. That HBO was even willing to grant Damon Lindelof and author Tom Perrotta the opportunity to wrap up their bizarre little oddity makes each of these final eight episodes a precious gift.
I’m not overselling The Leftovers when I say that it transcends the medium. Outside of Twin Peaks: The Return, Lindelof and Perotta’s series is the most memorable, challenging, innovative and fascinating television series of the last two decades.
The Leftovers has more wit, more vitality, and more sheer emotion than any other series. Small scenes left me visibly shaken, feeling like my insides had been scooped out (see the Best Scenes of 2017 for two examples). Fully three of these season three episodes are among the best television that I have ever seen, including the finale, which takes 27 episodes of world-changing ideas and distills them into their purest form: a love story for the ages about two damaged people who lose each other across decades (and possibly worlds) and have to find their way back to each other.
The Leftovers has always shown a willingness to take risks and experiment, and that boldness pays off more than ever in its final season. Credit the writers for continuing to push the narrative boundaries: from Texas to Australia, from historical standalone opening sequences to walkabouts, from lion sex orgies to Presidential penis scans, The Leftovers takes the most unusual paths, but somehow always makes them work in meaningful, emotionally compelling ways.
Credit the exceptional acting talent the show cultivated, from the creative renaissance of Amy Brenneman, the pathos of Christopher Eccleston, the luminous Regina King, the powerful Ann Dowd (having one hell of a year) and, of course, anchoring the ship, the incomparable duo of Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux (I’ll avoid a rant about how ridiculous it is that both of them were overlooked by awards bodies for their work on the series, but suffice it to say that it is confounding).
I have no doubt that in the years to come, this (and Halt & Catch Fire) will be discovered by countless television fans as a lost classic. The Leftovers refuses to play by the familiar standards of the medium – it cannot be defined by a single genre, or a single narrative, or even a single performance – and as a result it cultivated a small, but incredibly passionate following. If you are looking for boundary-challenging, button-pushing, innovative, fascinating, confronting television, this is your show. Everything else this year simply pales in comparison.
Also, as a bonus, The Leftovers also includes this – the most incredible shot of the year:
- BoJack Horseman S4 (Netflix): Not quite as memorable as last year’s remarkable season, but the storyline about BoJack’s mother dealing with Alzheimers is a doozy.
- Broadchurch S3 (BBC America): After an exceedingly disappointing second series that earned it a place on the Worst TV list last year, Broadchurch‘s final series brought back the magic. Between the focus on Hardy and Miller’s friendship, closure on the Latimer murder and a well-executed serial rapist yarn that (mostly) focuses on the victims, Chris Chibnall finally does right by his iconic British crime series.
- Catastrophe S3 (Amazon): Carrie Fisher’s swan song is wrapped into the complicated dramedy’s third season, which finds Sharon and Rob struggling to keep their marriage – and Rob’s sobriety – together. The season finale is like a slow-motion tragedy that still makes you laugh. Superb.
- Channel Zero: No-End House (Syfy): The second adaptation of a creepy pasta features some of the freakiest, surreal imagery of any television series this year. I will never be able to get some of those images out of my brain, which I say as a compliment.
- Colony S2 (USA): One of TV’s best political allegories, this timely series about an alien occupation continues to mine its premise and expand its world in new, interesting ways. See Best TV Scenes for more
- The Expanse S2 (Syfy): With the exposition out of the way and the characters finally occupying the same space, The Expanse was able to…well…expand its storytelling potential and really dig into the burgeoning war. Joe’s send-off is beautifully executed and Frankie Adams’ Bobbie is one of 2017’s best new characters.
- The Exorcist S2 (FOX): The second season should have suffered from the absence of Geena Davis, but the focus on a new family, headed by the incomparable John Cho, and great character work by Ben Daniels, makes S2 every bit as engaging and scary as S1. Let’s hope FOX renews this little gem.
- Good Behavior S2 (TNT): The lives of Letty, the thief, and Javier, her hitman boyfriend, remain filled with ups and downs in the second season of this dark comedy/drama, and their misadventures are just as entertaining as ever. See Best TV Episodes for more
- Master of None S2 (Netflix): Dev goes to Italy, dips his toe back in the New York dating scene and falls in love with a woman he can’t be with in Netflix’s exceptional comedy drama. Points deducted because I hate Francesca. See Best TV Scenes for more
- Mr Robot S3 (USA): Sam Esmail’s hacker drama rebounds from its disastrous second season by focusing on its core players and keeping its episode runtimes in check. See Best TV Episodes for more
- Review S3 (Comedy Central): The funniest/saddest series on TV ends its three season run on a high. Perennially misguided reality TV host Forrest MacNeil loses everything to “review” real life experiences in amazingly uncomfortable ways. Even if no one watches the fictional or real life show, Review remains a dazzling comedic achievement.
- Search Party S2 (TBS): Search Party morphs from a mystery satire featuring millennial idiots to a paranoia satire (still featuring millennial idiots) without losing an ounce of its ridiculous wit.
- Sense8 S2 (Netflix): The existential sci-fi drama is still maddeningly uneven and prone to random tangents, but Lana Wachowski’s fascinating, emotional, pro-LGBTQ, pro-love science-fiction series is unlike anything else on TV.
- Stranger Things S2 (Netflix): Come for the expanded Upside Down universe and the sweet charm of the Winter Ball, but skip over Billy’s unnecessary subplot and Eleven’s protracted absence from the group, especially the misguided 7th episode.
- Underground S2 (WGN America): Expanding the scope from S1’s core runaways opens up the storytelling, but also divides (and ultimately pulls the focus away from) Rosalee, Noah, Elizabeth and Ernestine. Still solid and undeserving of cancellation. See Best TV Episodes for more
- Younger S4 (TVLand): The fall-out from Liza’s secret drives her separation from Kelsey for the better part of a strong season, though the wheels fall off the train when it comes to Josh’s romance with Clare, especially that atrocious wedding-themed finale.
Didn’t Watch/Still Behind:
- Better Call Saul S3, One Mississippi S2, Superstore S2/3
Want more Best (Returning) TV from previous years?
Check back tomorrow for the final Bitch Award post of 2017: Best New TV!