A woman’s place is on TV.
The year’s best shows gave the spotlight to ladies in Hollywood to bring us extraordinary female-centric stories.
They were also huge Emmy winners: The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Veep all took home top honors. We’re hungry for stories starring, created and produced by women.
And as we lose predatory men in Hollywood (and elsewhere), we can only hope they are replaced with new voices from women, as well as LGBTQ people and people of color. 2017 was a promising start, but we’re far from equality.
What seemed like a year from Hades, we needed TV to escape more than ever. A reinvented sitcom provided a loving family from a new culture; and a satirical mockumentary exposed our teenage strife.
But we also wanted to empathize with characters who felt our rage at the world. And rage we did.
Netflix continues its impressive barrage of offerings — by my count, at least 50 new shows this year alone — despite a few misses (Disjointed, Iron Fist, Girlboss). Four made this list. Credit 2017 as the year Netflix cemented itself as the best service for scripted TV. Period.
And poor little networks still can’t find much critical mass next to cable channels and streaming services. While the shows don’t garner much acclaim, their success lies with the audience. ABC scored the biggest win this year. The Good Doctor, starring Freddie Highmore as an autistic surgical resident, was the fall season’s huge new hit, averaging a stunning 17.4 million viewers. Compare that to network TV’s juggernaut, CBS’s The Big Bang Theory, which still averages 13.2 million viewers after 11 seasons.
Peak TV continues, and that’s both good and bad. According to FX CEO John Landgraf, we had more than 450 choices in 2016, and this year’s numbers are predicted to top 500. Obviously, too much choice means not having the time to watch everything. But it also means having more voices out there. So, needless to say, it was hard to limit this list to 10.
To help limit the huge pool of contestants, I set out some barriers.
• It had to be a new show from 2017. Pamela Adlon’s family comedy Better Things had a phenomenal sophomore season; and HBO’s quiet drama The Leftovers closed out with a transcendent finale. But, they couldn’t make the cut.
• Revivals only count if its a new story, with new actors and characters. So sorry, Twin Peaks.
• Finally, it had to be a show I watched. Even when it’s part of my job, I don’t have time to watch everything. (See above.) Don’t worry, though. I watched a lot.
10. Downward Dog (ABC)
You’re really going to start your best-of list with a talking dog? I sure am. Because during this trying time, we are all Martin, a neurotic pooch yearning for love and attention from his owner, Nan (Allison Tolman, Fargo). Nan, a heartbroken 30-something, is given a big break at work. Martin feels her stress, and isn’t happy when she becomes distant. As he puts it, "The gradual lowering of expectations is possibly the highest form of love." It’s a playful yet affecting take on the rom-com, showcasing the unconditional love from (wo)man’s best friend. The show was tragically canceled. The eight episodes were streaming on Hulu, but now only available for purchase on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon.
9. One Day at a Time (Netflix)
I’m much too young to have grown up with Norman Lear’s original sitcom about a single mother. The nostalgia may be lost on me, but that doesn’t mean I loved it any less. Filmed in front of live audience, the delightful reboot stars Justina Machado as Penelope, a Cuban-American veteran raising a son and daughter with her mother, the energetic National Treasure Rita Moreno. Opening with Gloria Estefan’s glorious rendition of the theme song, One Day at a Time is comfort-food TV to the fullest. But the old-fashioned family show finds its relevance in representing today’s culture and politics through its Cuban-American characters, specifically with teen daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez). The show could easily fall into stereotypes, but it never makes the characters’ identity feel incidental. It’s a welcome tribute to a time when we adored teachable moments and family hugs.
8. Godless (Netflix)
This was another unexpected show to make my list. One of my TV resolutions this year was to watch more things I wouldn’t normally. Since I’m not one for gratuitous gun play as entertainment, I was hesitant. But given its quality behind and in front of the camera, I had to give it a shot. Godless was written and directed by Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Minority Report) for Netflix, and executive produced by Steven Soderbergh. Marketed as a feminist Western, it stars Merrit Wever (Nurse Jackie) and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) as the baddest gun-wielding cowboys of New Mexico. However, Godless shifts most its focus on a cat-and-mouse chase between Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) and Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), a terrifying man who dresses like a priest, spewing biblical fury and bloody horror everywhere he trots. The sprawling scenery is the backdrop to the tension between freedom and order that leads to a horrendously breathtaking boiling point.
7. American Vandal (Netflix)
I checked, and I’m not a 14-year-old boy. But I was sure chuckling along with them as this satirical faux-documentary threw out every dick joke ever. What started as an juvenile riff off true crime documentaries (Making a Murderer, The Jinx), American Vandal ended as an hilariously intellectual take on teenage life. From debating what an extra "y" in a "Heyy" text meant to scrutinizing the geometry of a phallus, the kids making the documentary are on a mission to exonerate the delightfully dumb Dylan Maxwell (Youtube star Jimmy Tatro). Who really drew those 27 titillating illustrations on those teachers’ cars? Before you know it, you really care about each character. And who drew those dicks? Luckily, the show more-or-less tells you who did it. For the record, Alex Trimboli is a liar.
6. Mindhunter (Netflix)
Did we need another true crime/inside-the-mind-of-serial-killers series? Nope. Was I going to watch it? A million times yep. Starring Jonathan Groff, Holt McCallany and Anna Torv (Fringe), the Netflix show arrived just as the tidal wave of sexual assault allegations began. The series, based on a book by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, and executive-produced by David Fincher (Zodiac), dove deep into the relationship between misogyny and abuse, using real-life serial killer stories from the 1970s, as the FBI was building its criminal behavior unit. We loved the show for its nostalgia to a time when we thought we could actually comprehend why these disgusting monsters do what they do. It’s not as simple as a bad upbringing or threatened masculinity, but the drama showed us that understanding is the first step to stopping this kind of horror.
5. Feud: Bette and Joan (FX)
In this post-Weinstein era, Feud: Bette and Joan now seems more relevant than ever. Debuting in March, Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series showed us just how far women haven’t come in Hollywood. In 1960, legendary movie stars Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon), both in their early 50s, were told they were at the end of their careers. When the script for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? landed in Crawford’s hands, the longtime rivals knew this might be their last chance at Oscar gold. Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina), a pathetically ambitious man, signed on to direct the B-movie, which became a surprise hit thanks to the well-publicized on-set rivalry. Crawford, a manipulative and ambitious alcoholic, and Davis, known to be extremely difficult to work with, both shared crippling loneliness and fear. If only they had found strength together, their stories may have ended differently.
4. Big Little Lies (HBO)
A peek at the internal struggles of women turned into an exquisite exposition on feminine strength. The show, which was based of Liane Moriarty’s bestseller and written for TV by David E. Kelley, gave us powerhouse performances from Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon (whose production company nabbed the rights and got the project off the ground), Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz. The men were okay, too, I guess. Lies exposed vulnerability in its female characters, who together ultimately battle some very real demons. And who didn’t listen to the show’s stellar soundtrack? Collecting almost every Limited Series Emmy, Lies will actually be back for a second season. But I’m here to remind us that it’s okay to let things go. It doesn’t make what we have any less great.
3. Brockmire (IFC)
Hank Azaria finally got the role he was born to play, as Jim Brockmire, a washed-up legendary baseball announcer. See, he said some things on air that aren’t family-friendly (the show certainly isn’t). The disgraced "Voice of Kansas City" returns to the booth after a 10-year bender. And that goes just as you’d expect. Not great. Jules (Amanda Peet) hires him to pump some nostalgia into this town wrecked by fracking. The Frackers are probably America’s worst team, but America’s favorite pastime can bring us all together. Brockmire is as much an anti-hero redemption story as it is a raunchy comedy. And I’m still laughing at his announcer voice in the bedroom.
2. Claws (TNT)
Every Sunday night this summer, I’d take out a new shade of polish and give myself a manicure as I escaped into this never-subtle spectacle, set in, of all places, Palmetto. I had a blast watching the boldly embellished Niecy Nash. She’s ballsy and heartwarming as Desna, a determined nail salon owner, and caring sister to her autistic brother (Harold Perrineau). With limited resources, and a misfit team of nail technicians, Desna can’t stay out of trouble, though. The crime life keeps choosing her, but perhaps it wouldn’t if she wasn’t so hung up on her boyfriend, Roller (Jack Kesy), the shady son of the crime lord of Manatee County, Uncle Daddy (Dean Norris). Of course a show set in Florida would be garish and skeazy, but the Claws relishes in that stereotype, polishing it to new heights and empowering its female characters. Place your skepticism aside, because this wild ride isn’t at all believable. But that’s not why we made this nail appointment.
1. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
A true masterpiece. A claustrophobic show you couldn’t binge. The combined forces of director Reed Morano, TV’s best actor Elisabeth Moss and bestselling author Margaret Atwood brought us The Handmaid’s Tale, which hit a nerve. Emmy winner Moss plays Offred, and through her eyes, we witness a near-future dystopia ruled by a horrendous and religious patriarchy. The parallels to today’s political climate are hard to miss. It was psychologically traumatizing to watch a woman lose all control of her life and body. And yet, after 10 brutal episodes, the show seems somehow hopeful. With no more source material, The Handmaid’s Tale, can now veer off into any direction when Season 2 premieres in April 2018.
Contact Brittany Volk at [email protected] Follow @bevolk.