The 10 Best New TV Shows of 2017

HBO and Netflix had strong freshman entries, along with a surprise network

Freshman shows like The Good Fight, Mindhunter, and Big Little Lies immediately stood out this year.
Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: CBS, Netflix, HBO

On Monday, I revealed my picks for the 10 best TV shows of 2017. Now it’s time to look at which shows from this year’s freshman class immediately set themselves apart from their peers in the most competitive TV environment ever.

In this era of Peak TV, new shows have to grab audiences from the get-go and keep them hooked; if a freshman series spends its entire first season finding itself, it likely won’t be back for a second. Thankfully, each of the shows on this list debuted more or less fully-formed and are already more than holding their own with the best that broadcast, cable and streaming have to offer.

One important distinction: I define “new shows” as ongoing series, and not documentaries, other limited series or revivals in which the original cast returns for new episodes, even if years (or decades) have passed. That’s why a couple of 2017 debuts from Monday’s top 10 list, including The Vietnam War and Twin Peaks: The Return, are absent from the lineup below.

Be sure to set aside some holiday binge time this month for these superb freshman series:

10. Sneaky Pete (Amazon)

The beleaguered Amazon Studios’ slate of new shows this year was a disaster, with one of the only exceptions being this engrossing drama about a paroled con man (Giovanni Ribisi) on the run from a gangster (Bryan Cranston, also the show’s co-creator). Ribisi's character assumes the identity of his cellmate and convinces the man’s estranged family (which includes Margo Martindale) that he’s the long-lost relative they haven’t seen in more than a decade. Showrunner Graham Yost (Justified) turned a discarded CBS procedural pilot from 2015 into an exhilarating, twisty treat, and it was a thrill to see Cranston in his first regular TV role since Breaking Bad.

9. Mr. Mercedes (Audience Network)

If you’re not a U-Verse, DirecTV or DirecTV Now subscriber, you probably don’t know what AT&T’s Audience Network is, and there’s admittedly been few reasons to track down the network. But that changed this summer with David E. Kelley’s gripping adaptation of the 2014 Stephen King novel about a mass murderer (Harry Treadaway) playing a cat-and-mouse game with the retired detective (Brendan Gleeson) who failed to lock him up. It was one of summer’s only must-see series, thanks to a magnificent cast and chilling direction from Lost veteran Jack Bender. Assuming the AT&T-Time Warner deal goes through next year, the first thing TNT chief Kevin Reilly should do is snap Mr. Mercedes up for his own network, where I think it will get the attention it deserves.

8. Legion (FX)

As opposed to Marvel’s dazzling 2017 movies, its TV output this year largely came up short, aside from this wildly inventive series from Fargo creator Noah Hawley, set in the X-Men universe and focusing on a man (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens) who has been told all his life that he is mentally ill, but finally realizes that he actually has mutant, psychic powers. Finding new dimensions in a played-out corner of the superhero genre, Hawley kept topping himself all season long, particularly with a multi-world action sequence set to “Bolero” in the seventh episode. Not even Fargo’s entertaining third season could hold a candle to what Hawley concocted here.

7. American Vandal (Netflix)

The true crime documentary is ripe for satire, but instead of merely skimming the surface with obvious jokes a la the Scary Movie films, creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda delved far deeper with their shockingly absorbing look at a high school escapade in which 27 cars in the faculty parking lot were vandalized with pictures of penises, and the dim prankster (Jimmy Tatro) who is accused of the crime but maintains his innocence. Yes, there’s plenty of humor, but there’s even more drama, making the show every bit as engrossing as the documentaries it sends up. And seriously, who drew the dicks?

6. One Day at a Time (Netflix)

At the breakneck pace of our news cycle, events that happen days earlier feel like they unfolded a lifetime ago, which is why it’s easy to forget that this reboot of Norman Lear’s sitcom about a single mom and Army vet (Justina Machado) raising two kids (Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz) indeed came out this year, on Jan. 6, two weeks before President Donald Trump even took office. Despite being a reboot, it was a breath of fresh air, and proved that multi-camera comedies can tackle serious issues—among them, Machado’s PTSD—just as emotionally, honestly and, yes, hilariously, as single-camera comedies and dramas. As Machado’s overbearing mom Lydia, national treasure Rita Moreno delivered one of the year’s most indelible performances.

5. Mindhunter (Netflix)

What could Seven and Zodiac director David Fincher possibly have left to say about serial killers? Plenty, it turns out, judging by his late-’70s series about two agents in FBI’s fledgling behavioral science unit (Jonathan Groff and Holt McCallany) who become the agency’s first profilers as they travel the country interviewing incarcerated serial killers to determine how they think, and how those learnings could help solve current cases. Like the agents, viewers were drawn in and forever shaken by their encounters with these men, particularly Cameron Britton’s chilling Edmund Kemper. Netflix declined to share advance screeners with critics, which is usually a sure sign that an outlet knows its program is a dud; instead it ended up as the streaming service’s finest new show of 2017.

4. The Good Fight (CBS All Access)

Spinoffs are always risky, but Robert and Michelle King threaded the needle with their Good Wife offshoot, which was one of the first series tackling the fallout of life under President Trump. The series switched focus from Good Wife star Julianna Marguiles to Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart, who loses her life savings after a financial Ponzi scam engineered by the father of her goddaughter Maia (Rose Leslie), as well as Cush Jumbo’s Lucca Quinn, who is joined by both Diane and Maia at her new law firm. CBS All Access couldn’t have asked for a better first original scripted series, as the Kings continued to delve into hot-button, of-the-moment topics (one episode focused on a Milo Yiannopoulos-like rabble-rouser), and proved there were still many compelling stories in the world of The Good Wife that had nothing to do with Marguiles.

3. Big Little Lies (HBO)

I don’t include limited series on my “new” list, but HBO just announced a Season 2, a week after its CEO said David E. Kelley has already written a followup involving the main characters, so this onetime limited series has now become an ongoing one. My concerns about that aside, I loved this adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel about a group of friends and frenemies in posh Monterey, Calif. raising their first graders, eventually revealing a murder in the closing moments. The series is overflowing with powerhouse performances, including Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman (whose character’s journey as she eventually stood up to her abused husband was sensational), Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and Alexander Skarsgard. Bravo, HBO, but please don’t ruin this in Season 2.

2. The Deuce (HBO)

David Simon’s drama also made it onto my list of TV’s best shows, as HBO showed the likes of Netflix and others that it won’t yield its stranglehold on TV’s top dramas (like The Leftovers, my pick for 2017’s top show). After praising Simon and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s contributions in Monday’s column, I’ll focus today’s accolades on director Michele MacLaren, who recreated ’70s Times Square with strikingly filthy specificity. In lesser hands, this would be a titillation-centric look at the early days of the porn industry, but Simon, MacLaren, Gyllenhall and the rest had far greater ambitions than that.

 

1. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

Whether you see it as a documentary about our current world, a cautionary tale of what might be just around the corner or simply a faithful adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, no other new show made as immense of an impact than—or haunted us as effectively as—Hulu’s first truly great series. But all of the unexpected real-life parallels would have meant nothing without an Offred who couldn't shoulder the entire series on her red-robe-clad shoulders, and Elisabeth Moss was more than up to the task: Handmaid’s Tale firmly establishes Moss as one of the finest actors in any medium. Blessed be the fruit.

Honorable Mentions

It was a tremendous year for new series, as these 10 shows came very close to cracking 2017’s freshman list and are also worth your time: Feud (FX), Glow (Netflix), Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix), Liar (SundanceTV), The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon), The Mayor (ABC), She’s Gotta Have It (Netflix), Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access), 13 Reasons Why (Netflix) and Young Sheldon (CBS).

After two days of celebrating TV’s best, we’ll shift gears on Wednesday and look at the most disappointing shows of 2017.

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