Where to Watch: HBO
MVP of the Show: It’s hard to pick a winner between the show’s holy trinity of Issa, Molly, and Lawrence; however, we’re going to have to go with Molly’s deadly combo of fierce ambition and tremendous vulnerability. Yvonne Orji’s presence is magnetic in every scene, and we just want to root for her to shake off her needy boyfriends and racist workplace and spread her wings.
Must-See Episode: The second season finale, “Hella Perspective”, is a teeth-clenching masterwork of comedic tension and incredible formal daring. Melina Matsoukas’ direction smoothly takes us through 30 days in Issa, Molly, and Lawrence’s lives, from each of their perspectives.
Why We Binge: Issa Rae’s breakout hit show unabashedly digs deep into the matter-of-fact complications of black life and relationships, while keeping these conflicts grounded to young men and women still figuring themselves out. Season Two saw Issa, Molly, and Lawrence develop in new and dynamic ways, never losing its razor-sharp sense of humor and Rae’s distinct, inimitable personality.
19. Master of None
Where to Watch: Netflix
MVP of the Show: Master of None isn’t an ensemble show, at least not in the traditional sense, but Ansari does a fantastic job turning the spotlight on his family and friends. From Brian Chang (Kevin Yu) to Arnold Baumheiser (Eric Wareheim) to Denise (Lena Waithe), they’re never not delightful, making his BFFs the true MVPs of the series.
Must-See Episode: There’s no denying the power of “Thanksgiving”. Hell, both Ansari and Waithe just picked up an Emmy for their script for the episode. Still, we would be remiss not to mention the other fantastic chapters, particularly “Amarsi Un Po'”, which may be the coziest romantic comedy of the year not named The Big Sick.
Why We Binge: It’s unclear how long Ansari can keep this going — our guess is three rounds and buh-bye — but Master of None has been a fantastic outlet for the comedian to wrestle with the pitfalls of modern romance. From first dates to lonely car rides home, Ansari has always been “with it,” and it’s been very enlightening.
Where to Watch: Netflix
MVP of the Show: As smart, hunky FBI agent Holden Ford, Jonathan Groff reserves his fireworks for the series finale, when the emotional toll of digging into the minds of the world’s most depraved killers manifests in breathtaking fashion. But Cameron Britton emerged as the show’s breakout star, bringing serial killer Edmund Kemper to life as an articulate, agreeable, and unceasingly polite interview subject. By the time you hear the words “spirit wives” drip from his lips, however, you’ll feel as duped as Ford.
Must-See Episode: Mindhunter, like much of David Fincher’s work, can feel like an insular show, one that doesn’t indulge in the sensational until it’s truly earned. As such, the finale is what brings everything that came before it into true focus. When Ford cracks, the series’ raison d’etre pours in like sunlight; this is more than fodder for fans of true crime, but rather an investigation into the corners of the human mind that should never be illuminated. The “why” at the center of this series goes beyond mere motive; the “why” here is existential.
Why We Binge: Because you can only watch so many episodes of Law & Order, and all these true-crime documentaries are their own kind of bloodlust. Mindhunter approaches it all from a different perspective, one that’s underrepresented in pop culture. Yet despite its cold, formal qualities, there’s still a compulsive quality to the series, with just enough cases peppered throughout to keep us jonesing for the next episode.
17. Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Showrunner(s): Dan Goor
Where to Watch: Fox
MVP of the Show: With an ensemble this strong, it’s surprising that the answer is unquestionably Andre Braugher. His performance as Captain Raymond Holt consists of a consistent, stoic, unreadable demeanor that is punctuated by fleeting, hilarious moments of outrage (see this season’s pie-theft interrogation montage). This is Braugher’s finest hour and one of the most underrated characters on TV.
Must-See Episode: “Halloween V” is a return to the annual holiday heist game the officers play at the precinct. After winning, Amy (Melissa Fumero) reads the inscription on her trophy to discover her boyfriend, Jake (Andy Samberg), has proposed to her. Brooklyn Nine-Nine has thousands of jokes that land, but this moment represents how much heart it has atop all the slapstick.
Why We Binge: How could you not? These are only 22-minute episodes. There are nearly 10 jokes per minute. The ensemble is the best network comedy has to offer. It manages to tackle serious events (racial profiling, coming out) that don’t cry out VERY SPECIAL EPISODE, all while maintaining the hyper-reality surrounding them. Watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and that’s an order, Peralta!
16. BoJack Horseman
Showrunner(s): Raphael Bob-Waksberg
Where to Watch: Netflix
MVP of the Show: One of the most refreshing additions to the cast was Hollyhock Manheim-Mannheim-Guerrero-Robinson-Zilberschlag-Hsung-Fonzerelli-McQuack (Aparna Nancherla), Bojack’s alleged daughter and a constant reminder of the responsibilities he has avoided his entire life. Nancherla’s snappy, lively delivery is a fantastic foil for Arnett’s moroseness, which makes the show’s bittersweet notes hit that much harder.
Must-See Episode: Bojack has never been shy to experiment with its structure, but the ninth episode, “Ruthie”, is a beautiful mixture of sour and sweet that sees the characters from the lens of Princess Carolyn’s descendent — a young, ambitious kitten named Ruthie — in a far-flung future. The end reveal of the truth about Ruthie is one of the show’s most authentic emotional anvil drops.
Why We Binge: No one could have expected Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s animated sitcom about talking animals in Hollywoo(d) to not only hit four seasons, but be one of the most emotionally intelligent, incisive, and deeply human shows on the airwaves. Season Four turned the screws loose even further with daring issue episodes like “Thoughts and Prayers” and the formal experimentation of “Time’s Arrow” and “lovin that cali lifestyle!!”
15. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Showrunner(s): Amy Sherman-Palladino
Where to Watch: Amazon
MVP of the Show: Did you watch House of Cards? If so, you’ve got roughly one-tenth of an idea of what Rachel Brosnahan is capable of. Like two of the other female-led shows on this list, Brosnahan’s protagonist is righteously backed by another terrific female performer in Alex Borstein. Borstein is capital-T Terrific, but Brosnahan is the real story, landing every moment of pathos and heartbreak with some legitimately excellent stand-up comedy work. How is that even possible? Even stand-up comics manage to blow some of their sets. Not so with this gem.
Must-See Episode: This is one of those delightful circumstances where your best investment is the pilot. Yes, it sets up everything that comes after, but it also directly ties humor and communication to the emotional health of its protagonist, and beyond that, it’s just really fucking good. Watch it, and don’t immediately start in on the next. I dare you.
Why We Binge: In terms of sheer words per minute, Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband, Daniel Palladino, have long been unbeatable. That remains true, but this is something different. Even a die-hard defender of Gilmore Girls, and I count myself among their number, would acknowledge that in Maisel, Sherman-Palladino has drilled down to something special. The supporting cast kills, but this is the Brosnahan-Borstein show, with the two reaching deep to tell a very funny story about some very broken people. It’s a late-arriving contender for the best of the year, but a contender nonetheless. Don’t sleep on it, and whatever you do, remember to put your curlers in.
Showrunner(s): Noah Hawley
Where to Watch: FX
MVP of the Show: Fuckin’ Aubrey Plaza, man. How many versions of Lenny does she play in this thing? It’s almost impossible to say, but all of them are compelling, no more so than the jubilant version we see in “Chapter Six”. Want to see what happens when a showrunner lets a great performer go nuts? Watch Plaza strut through the mind of a victim to the tune of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”.
Must-See Episode: Like a number of shows on this list, you can’t tune in to just one and walk away satisfied. All the same, if you want to see Hawley’s creation at its peak, check out the “Bolero” sequence in “Chapter Seven”. It’s a nearly silent, chaotic masterpiece.
Why Should We Binge? We’re living in a superhero era, but Noah Hawley has no interest in that Joseph Campbell bullshit. He has even less invested in the idea of the hero’s journey, and instead, he gets his kicks from playing with the cost of having unasked-for gifts. In Plaza and Dan Stevens, he finds the perfect co-conspirators, each totally game to underline the messiness and each more than ready to get totally weird. The result: a wholly original superhero story, one that will only get more textured and weirder with every season. Let’s hope this nightmare runs forever.
13. Big Little Lies
Showrunner(s): David E. Kelley
Where to Watch: HBO
MVP of the Show: How do you pick just one? As the year’s award shows have already demonstrated, Big Little Lies was a smash for virtually every one of its stars. That said, our hats have to go off to Nicole Kidman, who delivered a harrowing portrayal of an all-too-common iteration of domestic violence and abuse. Watching her slowly confront the reality of her victimhood in a therapist’s office is as wrenching a sequence as any series has managed all year.
Must-See Episode: Speaking of that, “Once Bitten” sees each of the show’s mothers hitting separate nadirs. For Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), it’s getting into a car accident with her theatre co-producer and secret lover. For Jane (Shailene Woodley), it’s her desperation to hide the circumstances of her son’s birth from the rest of the town’s judgmental elite. And for Celeste (Kidman), the simple refusal to clean up after her sons, as commanded by her husband, leads to the horrific realization that maybe his apologies are not only inadequate, but another form of abuse.
Why We Binge: For a show that speaks with authority to the ways in which abuse colors a victim’s past, present, and future, Big Little Lies pulls off the high-wire act of also being a searingly funny show in the process. It definitely gains a little bit of heft if you’ve ever spent any time around the sort of person profiled/satirized by the show, but it’s a bleakly realistic drama that frequently contorts itself into deliciously dark comedy. In this way, it’s one of the more realistic shows about relationships of recent vintage, as perceptive about the flaws in its parents as it is about the reasons for so many of those flaws.
12. The Good Place
Showrunner(s): Michael Schur
Where to Watch: NBC, as a part of their rejuvenated Must-See TV Thursday
MVP of the Show: This is a Sophie’s Choice situation if ever there was one, but for this season at least, the honors have to go to Janet. The continued evolution of D’Arcy Carden’s not-a-girl, not-a-robot wonder has been one of the most profound delights of The Good Place’s second season. For a crash course in how damn good she is, check out “Janet and Michael”, in which she more than holds her own against TV neophyte Ted Danson.
Must-See Episode: That would be “Michael’s Gambit”, which, quite frankly, might be the single best episode of the year and certainly the best on a major network. If you’ve seen it, you know why. If you haven’t, what the hell are you waiting for?
Why We Binge: So, there’s an episode in the current season of this bizarre, blissful comedy called “The Trolley Problem”, in which Danson’s all-powerful, otherworldly being creates a literal version of the Trolley Problem — flip a switch in a runaway trolley and kill one person, or leave things as they are and kill several — as a means of unpacking questions about morality and ethics. That’s pretty much the series in a nutshell: a bizarre, occasionally dark, and often earnest comedy that treats philosophy as its playground. It’s the most ambitious thing to pop up on a major network in quite some time. In fact, it’s downright heavenly. Get it?
11. Late Night Heroes: Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers, and John Oliver
Where to Watch: TBS, NBC, and HBO, respectively
MVP of the Show: Each of these late-night hosts take a vitally different approach to comedic news reporting – Seth Meyers is the laidback daily recapper, Oliver digs in deep on trenchant issues, and Bee channels our bitter liberal rage at the garbage fire of 2017.
Must-See Episode: It’s hard to do this for three shows at once, much less shows this tied to current events. That being said, I’d go back and take a look at all three hosts’ coverage of the Charlottesville riots. Meyers challenges Trump’s flip-flopping and equivocation beat for beat, while Oliver does a deep dive into the Confederate legacy’s allure in the South and Sam Bee projects our rage into the ether and advocates for the org Life After Hate.
Why We Binge: Yes, we cheated a bit. But still, the proliferation of YouTube as a home for late-night talk show/news segments, and the need for clear-headed progressive voices in 2017, has elevated this triumvirate of hosts-turned-newspeople to the front lines of the #Resistance. Between Seth Meyers’ “A Closer Look” segments, John Oliver’s droll but detailed long-form journalism, and Samantha Bee’s snarky catharsis, everyone sweating bullets for the next four years needs people like them in their corner.