10. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Showrunner(s): Rob McElhenney
Where to Watch: FX
MVP of the Show: In a season with so much surprising growth — Mac came out of the closet! — Season 12 belonged to Dennis Reynolds (Glenn Howerton). Maybe it’s because we’re still reeling from his potential exit, but Howerton shed a new light on the Gang’s touchy sociopath: He actually cracked, and his reasons for leaving onscreen were legit.
Must-See Episode: “The Gang Turns Black” was a risky move, arriving at a time when any dialogue on race often boils down to vitriolic exchanges and blind accusations. But Always Sunny navigated those waters with aplomb, touching on several hot-button issues under the guise of a ludicrous parody of The Wiz. It was as hilarious as it was sobering.
WhyWe Binge: Doing any show for 12 years is hard without it becoming overkill, and that goes tenfold for any comedy as subversive and outrageous as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. But McElhenney, Howerton, and Charlie Day brought an energy to Season 12, tackling real-life issues while dipping into some unexpectedly dark areas.
09. The Handmaid’s Tale
Showrunner(s): Bruce Miller
Where to Watch: Hulu
MVP of the Show: The ensemble is great all around, but Gilead couldn’t ask for a better taskmistress than Ann Dowd’s fierce, imperious Aunt Lydia. She’s zealous, pious, and a true believer in The Handmaid’s Tale’s authoritarian patriarchy, and Dowd’s tour de force performance makes her one of the most compelling avatars of Margaret Atwood’s rape-culture dystopia.
Must-See Episode: There’s a strong case to be made for any of the first three episodes, which set up the world of Gilead and Elisabeth Moss’ Offred with incredible style. For my money, though, “A Woman’s Place”, the sixth episode, is the show in microcosm; between Mexican delegates trying to understand Gilead’s new rules, to the flashbacks to the Waterfords’ idealized future, it’s the best episode of the show.
Why We Binge: Miller’s show turned out to be far timelier than it should have been in 2017, the year of President Donald Trump and the #MeToo movement. Articulating the many facets of misogyny and rape culture in both the macro and micro, The Handmaid’s Tale is a bracing reminder of women’s continued struggles to be seen, heard, believed, and empowered.
08. The Deuce
Where to Watch: HBO
MVP of the Show: Maggie Gyllenhaal crackles as Candy, an aging prostitute whose business acumen lends itself to the burgeoning porn industry in 1970s NYC. As her character navigates the murky space between the pleasurable and transactional qualities of human connection, Gyllenhaal the actress deals in both physical and emotional vulnerability, with her character pivoting between revealing scenes of explicit sex and tender, strained ones with her young son and judgemental mother. Still, her journey isn’t one of escape or redemption, but rather an entrepreneurial one, making her journey that much more unique and powerful.
Must-See Episode: “What Kind of Bad?”, the season’s fifth episode, marks the moment when the series’ large cast of characters really begins bouncing off of each other in meaningful ways. It also includes the best scene of its eight-episode debut, which finds Gyllenhaal’s Candy verbally sparring with Rodney, a garish, pushy pimp played by Method Man. Their conversation stealthily slips from amiable to playful to genuinely antagonistic, its shifts hidden in a word’s inflection or a turn of the back. It marks one of Gyllenhaal’s most aching moments on the show, and a career-best turn from Method Man. Meth was great on The Wire, but the assist from Gyllenhaal here brings out a torrent of fire the rapper had yet to release onscreen.
Why We Binge: Because any new show from Simon, who previously created The Wire, Treme, and The Corner, is something to watch. Nobody can cultivate an ensemble like Simon, and his ability to explore systemic issues via intimate stories that sprawl across the economic divide makes him unique in the landscape. Also, porn.
07. The Leftovers
Where to Watch: HBO
MVP of the Show: Justin Theroux. While several different performances could easily earn these honors (Carrie Coon, Amy Brenneman, Ann Dowd, and Scott Glenn all come to mind), the final season’s most compelling journey was undertaken by Kevin, who traversed parallel realities and several continents in search of some kind of truth that he might accept enough to live in a world gone mad. In some of the strangest episodes of an incredibly strange show, Theroux managed to find the heart and soul at the center of a father, a brother, and a part-time international assassin.
Must-See Episode: “The Book of Nora”, the show’s near-overwhelming series finale, takes its best shot at ending a shortened series by leaning into the moral vagary that always existed at the core of The Leftovers. Nora finds her way into a maybe-illegitimate procedure that would send her to the “other side” and to whatever might be found there, if anything at all. Years later, she and Kevin reconnect in Australia, and Coon’s show-closing monologue about what she found (and didn’t find) there is perhaps 2017’s single best scene of television. It may not be the closure many fans wanted, and yeah, that climactic soliloquy is probably Lindelof and Perrotta’s outline for a fourth season delivered in a few aching minutes. But it ends on as perfect a note for this show about wanderers as it could possibly find: one of them taking the hand of another, telling them that “I believe you.”
Why We Binge: Sure, The Leftovers didn’t end up being quite the show that its creators had initially envisioned. That it even lasted as long as it did in a crowded era for prestigious HBO programming, with the semi-comprehensible lack of viewership it had and the far more baffling lack of awards-season support, is a small miracle in itself. But even in a brief final season, the series managed to sustain its momentum as one of the headiest and most truly compelling shows on television. What could have been a high-concept hook evolved into an interrogation of who we are, what we can be at our most noble and depraved alike, and what it is to live in a world that frequently abandons all logic. Get on board now so that you can be well-versed when it’s the subject of a million “the best show you didn’t watch” thinkpieces 5 to 10 years down the line.
06. Stranger Things 2
Showrunner(s): Matt and Ross Duffer
Where to Watch: Netflix
MVP of the Show: Look, David Harbour is great and Winona Ryder is the star of the show, but this season belonged to Joe Keery. As Steve Harrington, Keery dropped the whole James Spader schtick and found his inner Josh Brolin, becoming the best babysitter Hawkins, Indiana, has ever seen. If they kill him off in season three, this writer riots.
Must-See Episode: This season’s second chapter, “Trick or Treat, Freak”, pretty much encapsulates why fans obsess over Stranger Things. It’s the most aesthetically pleasing hour of the show’s current run, what with all the Halloween accoutrements, and given that this is a show all about aesthetic, it really doesn’t get better than this.
Why We Binge: By tearing a page from The Book of James Cameron, the Duffers expanded their world, upped the stakes, and dug deeper into its core cast while adding new faces. It was so much fun that the Internet managed to collectively disregard the garbage X-Men impasse and reach the end with high hopes for a third adventure.
05. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Where to Watch: The CW
MVP of the Show: Lots of people are funny on television. Lots of people are dramatic on television. Lots of people sing on television. Rachel Bloom does all three and better than most. She’d be the MVP even if she weren’t a writer and executive producer who’s written or co-written more than 100 songs for the show in its three seasons. She got the lyric “let me choke on your cocksuredness” on The freakin’ CW. All hail the champ.
Must-See Episode: “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend Is Crazy” is one of the most stylistically daring hours of the year, transforming for an hour — well, two-thirds of one — into a ’00s horror film. It’s wild, thrilling, and wonderful.
Why We Binge: Come on, it’s a musical about mental illness that deconstructs the rom-com genre, one pop parody at a time. There’s nothing else like it. That’s been true for each of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s three seasons, but this season — Bloom called it “funny Fatal Attraction” — has gone to darker and more honest places than ever before. It’s nailing every punchline, and half of those also hit you right in the emotional solar plexus. It’s moving, thoughtful, uncomfortable bliss.
04. Alias Grace
Showrunner: Sarah Polley
Where to Watch: Netflix
MVP of the Show: In a year positively stacked with towering performances, Sarah Gadon gives one of the best of the year. In the opening shot — one shot, mind you — she becomes half a dozen versions of “murderess” Grace Marks, each dreamed up by the men she encounters. She does it all by adjusting the tilt of her head and the curve of her lips. It’s incredible, and it just gets better from there.
Must-See Episode: Listen, it’s only six episodes, and under no circumstances should you watch them out of order. The real triumph of the bunch is the last, in which Grace lets loose with something that may or may not be the truth, but every chapter of this terrific Margaret Atwood adaptation is no less than essential.
Why We Binge: For the love of god, don’t. As directed by Mary Harron (American Psycho), Alias Grace is the best Margaret Atwood adaptation of the year, and that other one won a cartload of well-deserved Emmys. But like The Handmaid’s Tale, this is an experience best consumed in smaller doses, both because it’s an experience that’s worth savoring and because it’s real damn upsetting. A fictional exploration of the life of a historical figure, Polley’s miniseries is a fascinating thing, unraveling the layers that surround Grace to reveal the stinging onion beneath. Or not. Who really knows the truth?
03. Nathan For You
Showrunner(s): Nathan Fielder
Where to Watch: Comedy Central
MVP of the Show: Nathan, duh. Our humble protagonist took on pathos and dimension in the series’ brilliant finale, but in lieu of this entire write-up focusing on “Finding Frances”, let’s also highlight some of the minor players in the season’s earlier episodes. There’s Andy, the cab owner who’s bizarrely excited about taking down Uber via a sleeper cell; the diner owner who’d rather be on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives; and, of course, the effervescent, mumble-mouthed Anthony Napoli, who can’t host the season’s opening celebration without calling into question how many Jews died in the Holocaust. Bless them all.
Must-See Episode: “Finding Frances”, the season (and maybe series?) finale, both functions as a traditional episode of Nathan for You — Mud 2: Never Clean is classic NFY — and a revealing look at the sense of untrustworthiness that emerges when our minds believe the lies our hearts tell us. In questioning what’s real in the realm of human emotion, Nathan also offers a stealth exploration of the ways in which cameras and context inevitably color our concept of what’s real. It’s one of the best movies you’ll see all year.
Why We Binge: Because it might be the funniest and most original show on TV right now. Unlike other “guerilla” comedies, Fielder isn’t out to expose or embarrass people; rather, he’s interested in pushing humanity’s patience and logic to their breaking points. In the process, he shines a light on the underhanded ways in which businesses strive to thrive in a post-depression culture where the American Dream has more or less evaporated. On its surface, Nathan for You can seem like a mean show, but Nathan is always more interested in the absurdities of human kindness than he is its capacity for cruelty. That’s refreshing.
02. Halt and Catch Fire
Where to Watch: AMC
MVP of the Show: The one good thing about the series ending is that it will open up Mackenzie Davis to more opportunities. Along with Kerry Bishé’s Donna, Cameron became the lead of the show a couple seasons earlier, and her development from an erratic, young, punk computer genius to an established, (well, more) mature, leader over the show’s decade was something to behold.
Must-See Episode: A crazy-good crop to choose from, but we’ll highlight “Goodwill”. After the death of a loved one, the characters gather together at the departed’s house to pack up. Emotions are high, never maudlin, and the care that writer Zack Whedon takes with Bos (Toby Huss) as he coerces Joe (Lee Pace) to eat some of his chili is masterful.
Why We Binge: How many times have we been told to watch a show with the caveat of “It gets bad around season X, but before that…”? You won’t find that with Halt and Catch Fire. It’s 40 episodes of people growing up and away from one another while others grow close and remain so. That’s life. That’s all it is. Cue “Solsbury Hill”.
01. Twin Peaks
Where to Watch: Showtime
MVP of the Show: There were over 237 cast members that made up Twin Peaks: The Return and not a single name could hold a candle to the inimitable Kyle MacLachlan. Lynch and Frost shouldered their star with the entire weight of the series, tasking him to play the terrifying Mr. C, the doofus Dougie Jones, and the mummified Special Agent Dale Cooper. It was a total Kafka-esque experience for MacLachlan and also for the fans who watched their hero’s journey with bated breath each week.
Must-See Episode: By now, everyone knows about “Part Eight” — even if they never watched a single episode of Twin Peaks. Like a nuclear bomb, the black-and-white spectacle consumed everyone upon arrival, scorching TV Twitter like Sarah Connor in that nightmarish scene from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It became the television event of the year, even before the credits rolled, and it still feels like a dream. The fact that this all stems from what was originally a primetime ABC series is just baffling.
Why We Binge: All summer, Twin Peaks: The Return offered an escape from 2017. Everyone went into the 18-part series completely blind and everyone came out shaking their head, having experienced something both wonderful and strange. For many, Cooper’s inter-dimensional journey felt personal, as if they were reconnecting with a feeling that had long been missing. After all, the world is a dark place today: We’re sinking, we’re burning, we’re falling. So, seeing our hero — a beacon of virtue in every sense of the word — slowly seep back into a world that had similarly become as evil as our own quickly turned existential. We wanted to get through, we wanted to wake up; unfortunately, we’ve yet to hear Laura scream.