Today’s question: What’s missing from our list of the year’s best TV shows?
I had to leave this show off of my own ballot, but when it showed up on Emily L. Stephens’, my excitement at it maybe, possibly sneaking onto the big list could only be summed up in three words and two exclamation points: “Yes! Big Mouth!” In true Big Mouth style, the interjection was premature—and if you like that joke, you’re going to love this animated series, inspired by the childhood friendship between Nick Kroll and former Family Guy writer-producer Andrew Goldberg. It can be a bit of a tough sell: “It’s an extremely frank comedy about kids going through puberty!” But that candidness (plus Netflix’s lax content regulations) allows Big Mouth to mine comic veins that other shows wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole, and the flights of fancy enabled by its animated format mean there’s more innocence and heart in Big Mouth than all the cartoon genitalia might imply. Like two other greats of coming-of-age TV, Freaks And Geeks and The Adventures Of Pete & Pete, Big Mouth grounds itself in the mysteries and miseries of growing up, but with a balls-to-the-wall sense of humor and a cast of basically every funny person who’s been on TV in the past five years. Here’s one last pitch: If Kroll Show is roughly analogous to The Muppet Show, then Big Mouth is its Muppet Babies—fantasy sequences and furry egomaniacs and all. (One more honorable mention, on a personal note: Though Mystery Science Theater 3000 didn’t make the cut, it’s forever No. 1 in my heart. And No. 10 on the ballot I submitted for the Uproxx TV critics poll.)
In this era of Peak TV, there’s no way of knowing whether a show is missing because those voting didn’t like it (maybe!) or because they didn’t finish it (likely!) or because they didn’t have time for it (probably!) or because they didn’t even know it existed (entirely possible). And I can see how all of these might apply to Netflix’s Mindhunter, which is messy and unformed and never entirely coalesces through its first season. But the show is anchored by the fact that it is about something that is messy and unformed: the early efforts to understand and document the psychology of serial killers was not allowed to coalesce within the conservative frameworks of the FBI, or within the confines of rigid academic inquiry. Watching the show’s characters fight with the system, their own instincts, and each other became a fascinating exercise in seeing a premise that could have been a dark antihero drama or a network procedural but instead became a fight between those and other generic forces. In the process, Jonathan Groff’s Holden Ford becomes both hero and villain, anchoring a cast that finds depth in serial killers and the people who study them without ever trying to humanize or dehumanize them. I wouldn’t say it was the best show of the year, but it’s one that—under the guidance of director and executive producer David Fincher—worked hard to unsettle my expectations for a show of this type, and I’ll be having nightmares about Cameron Britton’s Edmund Kemper until the show returns sometime next year. (Also, I will stan for any and all hour-long Netflix shows that clocks in at, like, 35 minutes because it doesn’t have to fill out an entire 55-minute block. Make a note, Netflix producers.)
Season two of Stranger Things —sorry, Netflix, but I refuse to play along with this whole Stranger Things 2, “It’s a sequel!” bullshit—may not have arrived like a nostalgic lightning bolt of its blockbuster predecessor, but it was still some damn good genre TV. I didn’t love everything that happened in Hawkins this year—Dacre Montgomery’s Billy felt like a wasted opportunity, and I continually rolled my eyes at the elaborate game of musical chairs the show’s plot played to keep Eleven from solving every problem by the midpoint of episode two—but no show that gives me Paul Reiser, Brett Gelman, and the glory of new best friends Dustin and Steve is going to stay off my ballot for long. More importantly, the show’s second season dialed into the elements that make these characters so much stronger than the Goonies riffs they might initially seem, things like Hopper’s wounded protectiveness, Nancy’s warrior nature, Joyce’s ability to make the big, intuitive leaps—like realizing how to get Will to act as a “spy” against the villainous Mindflayer—that eventually save the day. I love these people, even if I don’t always love the show, and that’s enough to earn it an honorable mention at the very least.
It seems as though Mr. Robot will always live to some degree under the shadow of its visionary first season. That immaculately structured year casts a long shadow—one which, when combined with a divisive second season, has seen the series suffer in both audience size and critical goodwill. Nonetheless, as the creatively resurgent third season wraps up, there’s still almost nothing like it on television. Creator Sam Esmail has not only turned the story of a troubled young hacker in over his head into a penetrating and thoughtful character study of the psychological toll that accrues from trying to resist the seemingly immovable features of contemporary capitalist society, he’s also done it while grappling with knotty issues of political protest, ethical obligations in an interconnected world, and the human cost of online behavior in a way that’s every bit as insightful as the best Black Mirror has to offer. And on top of all that, he’s done it while crafting a gorgeous and aesthetically innovative series, one that highlights some of the most ambitious direction and cinematography currently on the air. It doesn’t always succeed, but even its failures are compelling—most other programs don’t even dare to try such fascinating formal experimentation. And on a major cable channel, no less; who needs USA’s old blue skies when you’ve got such magnetic shades of grey?
For some reason it’s difficult to explain Tales From The Tour Bus to people: It’s an animated oral history by Mike Judge that features notorious stories from the annals of country music. The stories are all nothing but riveting, whether they feature a famous country outlaw like Waylon Jennings (whose misdeeds were so numerous, he got a two-part episode) or lesser-known tragic stories like Blaze Foley and Johnny Paycheck. Car crashes, drugs, and alcohol are constant presences, but the stories crafted by the musicians’ old friends and fellow players constitute the best part of these biographies, told in their own voices. So when you find out that Jennings kept a stash of dynamite under the floorboards, George Jones rode a riding mower to a bar when Tammy Wynette threw all his keys in the bushes, or that Jerry Lee Lewis once demolished a wall of false teeth with a machine gun, Judge’s canny visuals are only exceeded by the gleeful tones of the storytellers, who tell these tales as if they can’t believe they were there either. Everyone I’ve talked to who has actually seen this show is in love with it, let’s put it that way.
After a fitfully entertaining first season, Billions came back fully formed in its second year. It refused to suffer from the identity crisis often branded a “sophomore slump,” instead proving that it knows exactly what kind of story it wants to tell. Season two sees Damian Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod and Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades going further and further outside the law in order to get one over on each other. The various schemes unravel much like the best classic paranoid thrillers, as the characters catch up with the power moves just as the audience does. Billions isn’t an uplifting David vs. Goliath tale, but rather one about two Goliaths colliding head-on while everybody else vies for their throne. The powerhouse performances—Asia Kate Dillon is the season’s best addition, every bit as commanding and complex as Lewis and Giamatti—coupled with the snappy dialogue and stunning directorial turns from the likes of John Singleton, Karyn Kusama, and Ed Bianchi, led to a season of raucously entertaining twists and turns. No show was more outlandishly fun on a week-to-week basis this year.
Insecure is one of the best shows on television, and it baffles me that it doesn’t have the following it deserves. Issa Rae’s HBO series is cutting but heartfelt, funny but warm. Issa and Molly’s friendship is one of the best depictions of female best friends I’ve ever seen put to the screen, and the series’ other main relationship, the troubled, crumbling one between Issa and Lawrence, is refreshing simply for the fact that it shows how two good, complicated people can fall apart, and neither one is a monster. Plus, Natasha Rothwell’s Kelli is the best comic relief on television today. At risk of stirring up some controversy, Insecure is the show that Girls was always reaching for and falling short of: the sort of lived-in, realistic depiction of young people who fuck up all the time despite trying their best that’s so compellingly acted and and well-written the viewer is right there with them. My only issue is that there isn’t enough of Molly’s adorable French bulldog in season two.
I watched The Bold Type at the urging of our reviewer, Allison Shoemaker, who told me it was the show she wished she’d had when she was 17. And although it’s centered on three twentysomethings who work at an NYC fashion mag and wear impossibly expensive clothes, it’s a wonderfully real and relatable story about some very specific fears—genetics and breast cancer, figuring out if you’re queer, dating somebody more sexually experienced than you are. The season finale addresses sexual assault and its aftermath without reducing it to an easy storyline about rape, and it does so perhaps better than any other television show has done this year.
I was surprised that Nathan For You missed our list, considering that two of the (final?) season’s seven episodes were among the best things on TV this year. The first, “The Anecdote,” was the perfect distillation of Nathan For You’s absurdity, on a grand scale. Complicated, ridiculous, smart, and pointed all at once, “The Anecdote” wagged its finger at the culture of celebrity (if you wanted it to) while at the same time creating a Rube Goldberg device—all to keep its host from looking like a liar. All of the rules of the Nathan For You universe collided, and it only cost Nathan Fielder $350,000 of the show’s budget, reportedly. But the one episode that will be talked about for years is the two-hour season (series?) finale, “Finding Frances,” in which Fielder reconnects with one of the participants from a previous episode and uses the resources of this Comedy Central show to help a strange old man try to rekindle a long-dead romance. It’s weird and uncomfortable to see Fielder try and figure out if he’s crossing some sort of line here, but there’s no hesitation in the final cut, even as it becomes obvious that this meeting could very well be a disaster. “The Anecdote” was like every other Nathan For You episode, in the best ways, and “Finding Frances” was like no other Nathan For You episode, also in the best ways. The only question now is where Fielder can go from here.
I’m going to cheat a bit and split my vote between two excellent dark comedies that premiered this year, both of which had their own spin on what constitutes dark comedy. IFC’s Brockmire was a fantastically profane and yet emotionally rich look at trying to claw out of rock bottom. Hank Azaria’s arguably never been better in a non-Simpsons context, his Jim Brockmire a “charismatic open wound” able to say the worst and most self-loathing things in perfect play-by-play announcer cadence. Yet despite his darkness and the darkness of Morristown’s fracked-up environment, the show hung onto a twisted optimism, the old and wonderful idea that when you bring the misfits together they might be able to save themselves. And on the more whimsical side of things there was Netflix’s Santa Clarita Diet, with Drew Barrymore as a type A housewife and realtor who suddenly gets a craving for human flesh. The fun here was about the juxtaposition, the California brightness and bouncy score against increasingly outrageous ways the Hammonds tried to figure out these new dietary restrictions. And it managed to go a step further, sculpting a potentially lazy premise into a compelling look at how family dynamics changed yet still held together. Plus, Timothy Olyphant was granted constant opportunities to have a spastic freakout, and any show that gives us that is performing a public service. Fingers are crossed for both shows to take the coveted second season leap in 2018.
It’s not surprising that Bob’s Burgers didn’t make the big list, really. Now in its eighth season, this animated family comedy has gone from under-appreciated gem to taken-for-granted institution without ever truly breaking through as the true heir to The Simpsons’ legacy that it is. As inventively silly as the Belcher family’s weekly adventures get, the episodes are consistently rooted in the well-established, variably eccentric, but decidedly human characters. And the Belchers’ adventures get wonderfully silly indeed. This season has already seen family patriarch Bob (H. Jon Benjamin) running from the cops while dressed as mythical anti-Santa, The Bleaken; Kristen Schaal’s Louise—the family’s bunny-ear-wearing agent of chaos—thrust into the Clarice Starling role in a Silence Of The Lambs-style doll massacre; and local handyman and indispensable honorary sixth Belcher Teddy (Larry Murphy) handcuffed to a coffee table in a sexy nurse costume. And that’s not taking into account the show’s penchant for breaking out in a lavishly catchy oddball musical number from time to time. Yet, every potentially effortful bit of sitcom wackiness on Bob’s Burgers remains rooted in the characters’ relatable loopy needs and foibles, with the stellar voice cast imbuing each with a vibrant, if delightfully weird, inner life.
I said this last year and damn it, I’m going to say it again: Baskets deserves to be included in any discussion of the year’s best television, and I can only assume that the wider audience who might appreciate it is being put off by its most superficial qualities—a distaste for Zach Galifianakis’ half-deadpan, half-explosive-toddler persona, perhaps, or maybe just the fact that, ostensibly, it’s about a pretentious rodeo clown. But as I said in 2016, the FX show’s first season quickly moved past all those surface eccentricities to find one of TV’s most weirdly affecting family stories, and as expected, season two dug even deeper into its blackly funny soul. From Chip’s brief, ultimately shocking detour into the ugly realities of hobo life, to the episodes focusing on his mother Christine (Louie Anderson, still doing landmark work here) fumbling her way toward august-years independence, to the minor, yet significant steps that Chip’s twin Dale and his manager/friend Martha (Martha Kelly) took toward no longer being a selfish dick and everyone’s doormat, respectively, Baskets’ second season was all about its characters working toward modest self-improvement while undoing years of emotional estrangement. All that, and it still found time for a trip to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and some musings on the Juggalo lifestyle. Watch it, already. Don’t make me say it again in 2018.
It’s nearly impossible to pull off a compelling horror story on broadcast television. It’s been tried and tried again with little success, owing both to content standards and the problem of maintaining life-or-death stakes in an open-ended narrative. And yet Fox’s The Exorcist has managed to figure it out for two tense and thrilling seasons. I was deeply skeptical of the show at first, just as I’m skeptical of any film-to-television adaptation, but the first season won me over with an all-new story that worked on its own and credibly tied itself back to William Peter Blatty’s original tale of demonic possession. The Exorcist had to win me over again in season two, which kept central demon brawlers Father Marcus (Ben Daniels) and Father Tomas (Alfonso Herrera), but brought their good priest/bad priest dynamic to a new family. The reset actually invigorated the show, which, despite being well-acted and genuinely scary, still hasn’t found enough of an audience. That’s a real shame, since The Exorcist manages to combine the best elements of a cop show, a medical show, and a family-in-crisis drama with a heaping helping of jump scares.