The 10 Best TV Shows of 2017

Groundbreaking shows like The Handmaid's Tale and Better Things topped the year's offerings

Better Call Saul, The Handmaid’s Tale and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee were among the year’s best.
Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: AMC, Hulu, TBS

With more TV than ever produced in 2017—north of 500 scripted series and another 750-plus unscripted shows have aired since January —winnowing down the year’s best shows to just 10 was almost impossible. The competition for these 10 slots was so fierce that this year’s list features only two returning shows from 2016’s lineup. Last year’s No. 1 pick, The Americans, didn’t even make the cut this time around. The stunning programs that did crack the top 10 include two groundbreaking new series, the latest project from the world’s greatest documentarian, the long-awaited return of an iconic show, several programs that took gargantuan leaps forward in their sophomore seasons and one of the greatest series finales ever. In the Peak TV era, watching TV often feels more dutiful than pleasurable—we have to power through all these episodes before the next Netflix series drops tomorrow!—but that was never the case with these 10 programs, which propelled the medium in exhilarating new directions. Before the next wave of premieres starts in January, make sure you binge these exquisite shows over the holidays.

10. Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime)

As the 26-year wait for new Twin Peaks episodes concluded, the big question was would these 18 new episodes be more like the Agent-Cooper’s-dream heights of Season 1 or the Josie-Packard-stuck-inside-a-drawer-knob lows of Season 2? The answer, in true David Lynch fashion, was both. And neither. From week to week, we were never sure what we were going to get—or which version of Kyle MacLachlan’s Cooper we’d encounter—but Lynch’s astonishing direction (and Mark Frost’s scripts) always kept us wanting more, even when we didn't understand exactly what we were seeing. (Two words: Wally Brando.) The eighth episode, which traced the origins of evil spirit Bob back to the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945, might be Lynch’s finest, and oddest, achievement.

9. The Deuce (HBO)

David Simon’s so-gritty-you-could-smell-it look at the porn industry’s infancy in 1971 New York could have been another ’70s entertainment industry misfire like Vinyl. Instead, it was the polar opposite of its quickly canceled, utterly forgettable HBO sibling. Just as he did in The Wire, Simon deposited audiences into a vibrant-yet-repellent, fully formed world, in which even the smallest characters have fascinating tales. And while James Franco's turn as twin brothers got the early attention, Maggie Gyllenhaal ending up stealing the show as Candy, a Times Square prostitute who becomes a porn pioneer.

8. The Vietnam War (PBS)

After all these decades, it’s easy to take Ken Burns' work for granted—of course his latest documentary is going to be great—but he and co-director Lynn Novick raised the bar yet again with their searing 18-hour series that immersed viewers into the two-decade quagmire that was the Vietnam War. More than any other of Burns' documentary subjects, Hollywood has put its own stamp on the war over the years. Burns erases all of that with this definitive account, packed with astounding revelations and surprising parallels to the modern day.

7. The Crown (Netflix)

Netflix spends obscene amounts of money on some of its series, but The Crown is the only one that more than justifies (and makes a visual meal out of) its lavish budget. Every frame is scrumptious, but the story and performances are just as engaging, even for non-royals fans like myself. Despite the absence of John Lithgow’s Winston Churchill, the series upped its game in Season 2, which follows Claire Foy’s Queen Elizabeth II from 1956 to 1964. God save the Queen.

6. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS)

In a year where seemingly everything in the world has become unmoored, late-night comedians have become our life preservers. While Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and Seth Meyers provide necessary nightly comic relief, none has risen to the task more than Bee, who tackles a fresh batch of outrage every week on her show and diffuses them with a sharp concoction of humor, advocacy and smarts. From her Not The White House Correspondents Dinner in April to her "Racist Music Man" sketch in August slamming Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Bee was at the top of her game.

5. Better Call Saul (AMC)

This shouldn’t be possible, but Breaking Bad producers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have created a prequel to one of TV’s all-time best shows that, if this impressive trend of season-to-season creative leaps continues, will ultimately end up close in stature to the show that inspired it. Bob Odenkirk continued to be a revelation in Season 3 as he accelerated the moral slide that will transform him from Saul's Jimmy McGill to Breaking Bad's Saul Goodman. Adding Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring (Breaking Bad's most memorable baddie) to the mix this season made things even more riveting, and I still don’t understand how Michael McKean’s devastating turn as Odenkirk’s brother Chuck didn’t get an Emmy nomination.

4. Master of None (Netflix)

Creators Aziz Ansari (who stars as Dev) and Alan Yang kicked off their sophomore season with a spectacular surprise—the first episode was filmed entirely in black and white and set in Modena, Italy—and never let up. Whether it was delving into Dev's struggles with his family over his refusal to be a devout Muslim, (how's this for timely) sexual harassment by a TV personality or—in one of the year's best episodes, "Thanksgiving"—the efforts of Dev's lesbian friend Denise (Lena Waithe) to reconnect with her homophobic mother (Angela Bassett) after coming out—Master of None proved time and again that the most emotionally resonate TV comes from the most personal of stories.

3. Better Things (FX)

Yet another freshman sensation that somehow got even better in Season 2, Pamela Adlon’s extraordinary look at life as a single mom in L.A. was the year’s best comedy. Adlon was a tour de force this year, not only exploring new depths to Sam Fox but also soaring as the director of all 10 episodes. Yes, the season is tainted by the fact that Adlon co-wrote the season with Louis C.K., whom FX has cut ties with since he admitted to sexually harassing multiple women. But this is Adlon's vision, and I have no doubt she won’t miss a step as she moves forward without him. The unfortunate C.K. connection aside, Better Things is the best example of the kind of experimental shows made possible by Peak TV, a series that manages to feel wholly original and distinctive, with the type of singular vision that more networks need to take a chance on.

2. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

This unflinching adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel about a dystopian future in which most women are enslaved is a triumph on every level, anchored by Elisabeth Moss’ sensational, largely nonverbal performance as Offred. (The supporting cast, including Ann Dowd, Alexis Bledel and Samira Wiley, is equally amazing.) But the fact that it aired at a time when several horrific events alluded to in the series were actually happening in real life added unexpected levels of urgency and horror. Handmaid's also proves that some streaming shows aren’t made to be binge watched. This show is best savored—and yes, somewhat feared—on a weekly basis.

1. The Leftovers (HBO)

Creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta (on whose novel the series was based) left it all on the field for their series' third and final season. And by “all,” I mean exactly that—this year included a lion sex cult on a cruise to Tasmania, Carrie Coon and Regina King gleefully jumping on a trampoline while Wu Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump Off)” played on the soundtrack, a pivotal appearance by Perfect Strangers’ star Mark Linn-Baker, a penis scanner and a spectacular series finale that fans will debate for decades. Each turn was more audacious than the last, yet it was executed with a confidence that was astounding. I was lukewarm on the first season about the aftermath of an unexplained event in which 2 percent of the world’s population simultaneously vanished. Then, after it remarkably recalibrated in Season 2, I doubted that Lindelof and Perrotta could ever top themselves. I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong.

Honorable Mentions

These 10 shows narrowly missed the list, but this group is so strong it would more than hold its own with my top 10 choices from previous years. If you aren’t watching any of these shows already, it’s time to start: The Americans (FX), Baskets (FX), Big Little Lies (HBO), Catastrophe (Amazon), The Good Fight (CBS All Access), The Good Place (NBC), Insecure (HBO), The Keepers (Netflix), One Mississippi (Amazon) and This Is Us (NBC).

Check back on Tuesday for the 10 Best New TV Shows of 2017.

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