Monday, June 5, 2017

Best Shows of 2016-17 - Part One

The top-five curse . . . it is real, and it is terrible. My beloved Sense8 (No. 4 last year) not only suffered the misfortune of a tumble all the way off this year's list—territory well traveled by so many others in past seasons—but an infuriating cancellation that denies it the chance to earn its way back into my good graces. I should note that I don't think the show's sophomore campaign was as dismal as that of most of its previously cursed brethren (it's got nothing on The Good Wife or what I saw of last season of The 100, that's for sure), but it was an uneven and dramatically awkward enough year that you won't see it anywhere below. Still, rest in peace, beautiful Sense8. And watch part two of this list on Thursday for a couple of early contenders to underwhelm in 2017-18, if tradition holds.

As for this year's group of shows, suffice to say it's the most wide-open field I can recall seeing in some time. The top spot (a foregone conclusion by mid-March almost every year I've done this exercise) remained up in the air to the bitter end thanks to several late contenders, as did where the final few shows on either side of the cut line would end up. (Some were victims of timing: I suspect iZombie would make it if it had started a few weeks earlier, considering how strongly it tends to end its seasons. Likewise, Steven Universe possibly misses the cut for the first time in its history if it doesn't air that superb quartet of episodes at the very end of May.) It's by far the most fun I've ever had arguing internally about where to place each show, so I hope you enjoy, and comments are always welcome. (Praise is good, but I also feed off indignant "where's [insert title of show]??!!" comments, so whatever floats your boat.)

Speaking of which, here's a partial list of omissions that may answer that very question. As usual, I'm behind on every premium cable series (with the exception of The Leftovers), including possible heavy-hitters like the new Twin Peaks and Insecure. I also haven't watched Queen Sugar, Feud, Baskets, Riverdale, Underground, and the new Archer season, though in many cases this is because I doubt those shows would even come close to making the cut. (Of that group, the only one I genuinely regret missing out on is Queen Sugar.) I've also only seen half of The Good Fight, which I'm enjoying but wouldn't make it anywhere near this list. Lastly, I'm significantly behind on Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, but both of them are no longer doing as much for me, so they too would likely not have factored into this. That doesn't come close to covering everything, but it should address many of the most obvious queries.

Now, on to the list-making proceedings, shall we?

Honorable Mentions

Adventure Time (The show's late-era resurgence continues, including a pair of excellent miniseries and quite a few other great episodes. It's never quite reached the consistent peaks it did back in its fourth and fifth seasons, but still . . . happy news indeed.)

Atlanta (Suspect the second season of this will end up being an all-time classic. First season is very strong but not quite top-10 material for me. Some terrific individual episodes, though, and Darius is an instant legend.)

Better Call Saul (With the addition of Gus, the gulf between the Breaking Bad-lite side of this show and the far superior Jimmy/Kim/Chuck drama has never been wider. Still a really good show overall, and it has gotten its groove back in recent weeks. But man, some of those early-season episodes were a slog in spots. Last year struck a better balance.)

Bob's Burgers (Still one of TV's most consistent joys six years in. I'm way behind as of writing this, but for my money, this season may end up as its best since season three.)

Black Mirror (Mainly because "San Junipero" is one of the seven wonders of the television world. "Hated in the Nation" is pretty swell, too.)

Catastrophe (Far defter in combining its caustic banter with moments of genuine drama than season two was, though nothing about it really screams "serious top-10 contender" to me anymore.)

iZombie (No third-season slump here. Still probably the wittiest dialogue on TV, as well as the most enjoyable, well utilized rogues' gallery of villains of any show since Justified. Would likely be my No. 11 pick if I didn't respect the sanctity of the top 10.)

Master of None (Another year, another pretty stellar season of Master of None that had just enough flaws in its long-term storytelling—and another iffy enough ending—to barely miss the cut.)

Sports (This season of Sports was as reliably wonderful as ever. I mean, who can deny such stellar scenes as The Pass? Or the shot that ended The Streak? Or the amazing softball regional comeback made by my alma mater, giving them a chance to defend their title starting tonight?  Riveting. Just riveting.)

You're the Worst (A scattered and uneven effort compared to season two—and season one, for that matter—but FX's twisted yet sincere rom-com delivered its fair share of marvelous episodes once it shook off some early-season cobwebs.)

Moderate (mostly vague) spoilers below. 

10. Sweet/Vicious 

Jeez, what a magnificent tonal hybrid of a show. Sweet/Vicious, MTV's college vigilante drama, came out of the gate stronger and more confident than any hour-long in ages, masterfully blending scenes of high-wire tension, crackling good dialogue, righteous beatdowns delivered to rapists, and powerful character drama—much of this last aspect anchored by Eliza Bennett, who gave one of the best TV performances of the year. Save for some slight pacing issues toward the end of the season, it's a superb study in how to craft a show for both short-term dramatic success and an eye toward long-term potential, offering riveting payoffs to several of its ongoing narrative threads while smartly leaving others dangling for the future. Alas, this future will likely never arrive, unless the attempts to find the series a new home prove to be successful (which I doubt). This cancellation stings more than anything in recent memory—even Manhattan last year didn't hurt quite as much, because that season at least felt on some level like a logical place for the show to end. Sweet/Vicious' finale isn't entirely inadequate as a series ender, but at the same time, it's incredibly frustrating how a number of its simmering storylines won't ever get the chance to boil over. Between the show's dark wit, sharply drawn characters, and the adept way it handled its serious themes, it had all the makings of something that probably could have grown into a cult hit with a little more time. Ah well.

9. Please Like Me 

Despite the statement from creator Josh Thomas to the contrary, Please Like Me's final season doesn't really work as an ending when all is said and done. While this is the type of show that was likely always going to leave its characters in some state of flux, its series finale feels rushed, awkward, and unfinished in a way that still doesn't quite sit right with me many months later. The good news is that this reservation—and the fact that Please Like Me is the kind of hangout comedy that benefits from the greater degree of breathing room afforded by its previous two seasons' 10-episode runs, rather than this year's mere six installments—is far from enough to mar this otherwise great stretch run. There's just no denying the reliable excellence of this show, and each of those six episodes (even that finale, whatever its other issues) is terrific as an individual testament to that fact. So while this is a series that really deserves some sort of special down the road to allow us to say a more proper goodbye, the imperfectly realized farewell we've been offered here—filled with plenty of Please Like Me's typical warmth, belly laughs, and lived-in characters and dialogue, as well as several moments that emotionally wound with an honesty that few other TV sitcoms can equal—is still more than worthy of a place here. This show was a gift and a gem, and I'll miss it terribly.

8. Steven Universe 

Well, here's to leaving a terrific final impression with your last couple episodes of the year. To my eyes, this season of Steven Universe has gone through more dramatic fluctuations in quality than previous ones, and the general flatness of the post-"Last One Out of Beach City" run had been causing it to spiral precariously toward the cut line as of late. But suffice to say the most recent arc—the one-two punch of "Off Colors" and "Lars' Head" in particular—reverses that trend in a huge way, offering the first genuinely massive shifts to the show's universe in some time while also finally giving one of its iffier creations (Lars) his best character development ever. It's exhilarating TV that in turn got me thinking about just how much other great material there was in the previous 12 months: Pearl's song in "Mr. Greg," the events of "Beta" and "Earthlings," Peridot doing her best Wile E. Coyote impression, and so much more. True, when Steven Universe was off its game this season, it tended to be off for several episodes at a time, which is something I'm not used to seeing from a series that's typically been a model of consistency. But as the recent struggles of quite a few other densely-packed genre shows illustrate, even in a slightly down season, this one remains light-years ahead of almost all of them when it comes to crafting lovable characters and a well thought-out, patiently built mythology. It remains, in short, pretty much the best.

7. The Good Place 

And speaking of the power of great final impressions, here's another example. Prior to its concluding episode, The Good Place seemed like it was firmly setting up camp in the also-rans for 2016-17—a promising, very funny show that brought plenty of laughs but didn't always quite know what to do philosophically with its high-concept premise, seeming almost destined to deliver Parks and Rec-style diminishing returns sooner rather than later. And who knows? It may still do exactly that. But in the meantime, the show's first-season finale is a remarkable piece of television, brilliantly executing an ingenious, obvious-only-in-retrospect twist—a moment I might go so far as to call the single most well-crafted "holy crap" scene in recent TV history outside of a few key sections of The Americans—that completely upends everything I thought this show could be, while seemingly paving the way for a second season that could prove fascinating and even more ambitious. With that season-elevating ending in mind, and buoyed by the overall strength of its jokes and characters (plus bravura turns from Ted Danson and Kristen Bell), The Good Place ended up as one of the best comedy series debuts I've seen in a long while, as well as my favorite new show of the year by a fair margin.

6. The Americans 

Consider this your (slight) shocker of the year. It's not that The Americans really did anything wrong this year—well, aside from that godawful grain montage, which I won't go over again here—but rather that season five felt significantly more muted and reserved than I've come to expect from this series. I'm not objecting to the pace here; The Americans has long been one of the most elegant slow-burn dramas in TV history, and its patience is part of why I love it. But the slow burn has always had an accompanying emotional urgency that wasn't always sustained quite as well as I'd have liked this time around. While the season does build beautifully to a pair of profound emotional crises for Philip and Elizabeth (one at the end of season high point "Dyatkovo" and the other in the finale), it's still hard to escape the feeling it stretched itself thinner than it needed to in order to get there. Just to be crystal clear here: I respect the creative decision-making that led to such a season, and on the whole I still loved most of what The Americans did this year, especially the choice to end on that moment of uneasy mutual contemplation rather than a more obvious cliffhanger for the final season. (Really, the entire ending stretch from "Darkroom" onward was brilliant and brought most of the many, many threads into sharper thematic focus.) This is an extraordinary series that had a season that was still plenty excellent. No shame in that. But for the first time in ages, its ironclad grip on that No. 1 spot relaxed, leaving its competitors with a rare opportunity to be seized.

Which of them did so? Check back Thursday for part two. 

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