Top 5 TV Shows of 2017

It’s December, which means it’s the season to reflect on the year and assign an arbitrary number to the things you liked over the past 12 months. This year, I’m splitting up my lists in order to tantalise my readers, and give me more things to post this month. (I’m still working on my review of Danganronpa V3, which should hopefully be out sometime next week). I’ve decided to start with TV shows, because no new TV shows are coming out or ending this month that will bump anything off this list. If Black Mirror Series 4 ends up surprise dropping just after I post this, then so be it, but other than that, the TV season is over for this year. I’ve also extended the boundary to mean that old shows can now appear on this list, meaning I’m ranking it by season, not simply first season, which I thought was a bit limiting. Anyway, with that rambling out of the way, let’s continue.

Honourable Mentions

I didn’t have any of these last year, but 2017 has been so fantastic for media (perhaps compensating for other deficiencies) that all my lists now need this. I guess I’ll start by shouting out the last thing to be bumped off my list – Nirvanna The Band The Show, which aired two excellent seasons this year despite not even being on my radar until it was half way through the second season. It’s notable for its semi-documentary stylings, wherein the majority of the show is scripted, but chance encounters with ordinary people often change the direction of the episode’s plot. It’s also got a really nice relaxed and unique style of comedy that comes with the improvised nature of the show. It’s hard to find to watch, but worth seeking out. I think Crashing also deserves a mention on here; even though it’s another “comedian makes semi-autobiographical semi-comedy show”, it really worked for me, and since we can’t watch Louie anymore, this fills in the void nicely.

There are loads more shows I’d want to talk about in detail, but because that’d make this way too long, here’s a list of what to check out for you; Lady Dynamite Series 2 (the first season made my list last year, this season is more of the same in a very good way); Curb Your Enthusiasm Series 9 (the worst season of Curb is still good TV, and it’s just nice to have Larry back); Back (basically Peep Show with beards, but who doesn’t love Peep Show?); Big Mouth (Nick Kroll and John Mulaney cartoon about puberty… somehow surprisingly touching); The Good Place (The best network show everyone is talking about); The Mick (The best network show no one is talking about) and Vice Principals, which finished its short run to become an excellent dark comedy, even if the ending didn’t blow me away.

5. On Cinema: The Trial of Tim Heidecker

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Part of what makes me love the trial season of On Cinema so much is that it’s really ambitious television. On Cinema, for those who aren’t aware, is a web series hosted by Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington where they review films on a scale of 1 to 5 (or is it 6?) bags of popcorn. As the series progresses, hints as to the two’s personal lives are revealed and the show becomes a mini soap opera that plays out on the set of a film review show. The On Cinema universe has even expanded to take over the twitter handles of both Tim and Gregg, as well as the creation of the band Dekkar, and a whole separate TV show Decker, created by Tim and Gregg (in character). The show’s fanbase are also an integral part of the experience, continuously in character when interacting on social media. It’s an amazing experimental miniature universe, which was bought to some kind of a culmination this year in the trial of Tim Heidecker, broadcast live over 6 days, and played amazingly straight by a cast of On Cinema regulars and some lawyers. I’m not sure if the trial itself was more captivating than watching it with the On Cinema Facebook page open, but On Cinema has only ever partly been about the show, and has grown to encapsulate the fan base. Even so, the trial stands out as great television, with some classic courtroom drama and pretty hilarious cringe comedy. Without the fans, this might land only in my honourable mentions of the year, but On Cinema wouldn’t exist without its fanbase. Now, if you’ll excuse me…

Even putting aside my bias as a Gregghead, this trial was a total SHAM and a mockery of the legal system. It’s obvious to everyone with half a brain that Tim meddled behind the scenes here – he paid off witnesses for fuck’s sake! Also, that Star Trek writer was completely misguided, and Tim was leading the witness anyway. What a disgrace…. but at least we can now focus back on what matters, the movies.

4. Trial and Error

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I talked in my Office post, as well as in my review of The Good Place, how much of a Michael Schur fan I am. In Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine Nine and The Good Place, he’s crafted three worlds that are a pleasure to inhabit, with extremely likeable characters and comedy that is relaxing and laugh out loud funny. Many shows have attempted to crib his style, but the one that comes the closest is for sure sure this year’s Trial and Error. I think it succeeds in aping Schur’s style mainly by not trying. The town of East Peck bares a passing resemblance to Pawnee, but its local customs have more of the absurdist comedy of a Fey/Carlock show. The show also has much more of a running plot than any of Schur’s shows, even The Good Place. Because of its courtroom setting (I’m sensing a trend), the show has much more of a narrative thrust, which gives it a great sense of pacing and light tension to the comedy. But although the comedy of the background is absurdist, and the narrative is pushed to the forefront, the character comedy that defines a Schur show is replicated brilliantly here – even though each character is a joke, they’re a joke with real heart, and that’s the essence of a truly great single cam ensemble comedy. I hope I’m not diminishing the show’s unique charms by constantly comparing it to Schur’s shows, but given that Schur is my favourite comedy tv show creator working at the moment, it’s high praise indeed.

3. Review: The Final Season

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I’ve written extensively about this season of Review already, and its place as only #3 on this list should give you an idea of how amazing this year was for television. Review, is, after all, still my favourite TV show… ever. And this final season, despite its short length, wrapped it up admirably. I think the final episode ranks among this year’s best episodes of TV, but the preceding two episodes felt slightly as if they were in service of setting up for that finale, and as such they make the whole season a little worse. (To continue the courtroom theme, while justifiable, I found the way the trial wrapped up a little disappointing). Still, two mediocre episodes of Review are still two incredible episodes of television. Andy Daly’s show tracks the fall of Forrest MacNeil with the kind of dark comedy that most comedians would be terrified to touch with a ten foot pole. And he does this while still managing to craft a show that’s amazingly funny and explores ideas about criticism and what it means to have an unwavering dedication to your work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV show quite like Review, and this final season, and most importantly, this final episode, ends it perfectly.

2. Master of None 

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The first season of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None was pretty good. Although Aziz Ansari isn’t a perfect actor, he’s a great comedian, and much of his best material translated well to a tv show. Some episodes in the first season went above and beyond, but often they were a bit meandering, a bit unmemorable – not funny enough to make the mundane watchable, but with not enough to say that the comedy wouldn’t be missed. The second season immediately injects the show with a bit of energy by constructing a loving ode to Italian cinema – beautifully shot and lightly funny, with a plot that sets up perfectly Dev’s struggle in love during the second season. As it progresses, each episode does something unique and memorable, and even the more “mundane” of the episodes are bolstered by a strong ongoing plot. Episodes like “Thanksgiving”; “First Date” and “New York, I Love You” distract from the central love affair between Dev and Francesca, but are strong enough to work on their own right. Meanwhile, the pivotal romance, explored in the Italy episodes, “The Dinner Party” and the two final episodes, is absolutely heartbreaking and brilliantly real. Even if Ansari isn’t the greatest actor out there, the script seems to be tailored to make his (to be generous) “naturalistic” performance shine. What’s more, the series’ signature sense of style is played up to the fullest, with an excellent soundtrack and visual direction. A jump in quality and confidence this severe is always heartening to see, and even if Master of None doesn’t return for a third season (which, given the ambiguity of the final shot, I hope it doesn’t), it makes me anxious to see Ansari’s next project.

1. Nathan For You

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Nathan For You has always had a special place in my heart as the counterpart to Review that I found delivered more laughs out loud, but was, at least in my eyes, always in the shadow of its Comedy Central companion (I do realise how arbitrary the comparison is, but I’m not the only one to have made it). Finally, with the fourth season, it has surpassed it. To be more precise, two episodes really make this season shine above the rest. That’s not to say other episodes weren’t great; they played out as “standard” Nathan For You episodes, meaning they delivered lots of laughs and great moments, but weren’t quite groundbreaking. However, “The Anecdote” and “Finding Frances” rank as two of the best episodes of television I’ve seen in a long time – good enough to catapult this season of Nathan For You to the top of an excellent year for TV. I can’t say much about “The Anecdote”, because to do so would be to ruin the surprise, but it is the perfect blend of hilarity and really clever humour, capitalising on the pre-release hype of the fans in a genius way. “Finding Frances”, the series finale, turns from classic laugh-out-loud Nathan For You schemes into a touching exploration of love that plays with the boundaries of the show’s reality TV format to genuinely profound effect. The final shot, which uses a drone to reveal the cameras that have been filming the entire show, is lent a huge poignancy by the people on whom it focuses. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything about this episode, but I don’t really see any way Nathan For You could improve on it. If this ends up being the show’s final season, it will have gone out not only on a personal high, but on a high for all reality TV.

So that’s my favourite TV of the year. The other two lists (films and games) will come out over the course of December, but before that will be the V3 review, so look forward to that!

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Review: The Good Place

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It’s very rare that a sitcom actually manages to improve so considerably on a second viewing – that re-watching really makes that big a difference. But The Good Place is a rather unique show, and as such demands a re-watch, and for fans to really reconsider the groundworks the series is based on. It’s for that reason that I cannot suggest reading this review without first having completed series one of The Good Place, because the spoilers here will be much more impactful to watching the show than for any other sitcom I think I’ve ever seen.

I think that really speaks to the scale and uniqueness that Mike Schur is aiming for in this show. Previously known for workplace sitcoms like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation (both great in their own right), Schur hasn’t really ever created something akin to this before. Let’s be honest – the reason for this is business based; workplace sitcoms without much of an overarching story are perfect for syndication, while a show like The Good Place which ends each episode on a cliff hanger, really isn’t. I guess that it’s only because NBC has Superstore and is trying to revive Thursday night comedy that Schur was allowed to be so experimental with The Good Place (but that’s complete speculation on my part). The premise of The Good Place is immediately unusual; it revolves around a woman (Kirsten Bell) who has mistakenly been put in ‘the good place’ by a fumbling deity-like figure played by Ted Danson. Of course, this turns out not to be the case – the real premise is that a malignant deity (played by Ted Danson) has trapped four people inside their own personal hell, playing each of their personalities off of each other in order to create a place of eternal torture. I think to see how impressive The Good Place is, it’s important to examine how each premise works on its own.

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The initial premise is the one that carries the series right up until the second half of the final episode on an initial watch, and so remains probably the most important in the minds of most casual viewers. The entire structure of the good place is immediately sketchy, however, and I did see people theorise that it might actually be the bad place from episode one. It’s important to note, however that the show does a good job of deflecting that theory, mainly by ignoring it and assuring constantly that not only is this the good place, but it must be because there is also a bad place (run by the amazing and always hilarious Adam Scott). All the problems with the good place are repeatedly asserted to be all Eleanor’s fault, which is a neat deflection, and one that creates an amusing premise within the fake premise. Speaking of Eleanor, both premises revolve around the four central characters (and Michael but more on him in a bit). These four are Eleanor (Kirsten Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto). Nicely, most of these are played by relative newcomers, and all of them play their parts well, with the exception of Jacinto, whose line delivery sometimes came across a bit forced. I also started off the series with a dislike for Tahini, but this is something that changed circa. Episode 3 or 4. These four are supposed to be ‘perfectly matched to torture each other’, yet this choice of characters somehow manages to work in the first premise as well. There’s great friendly chemistry between Bell and Jackson Harper but you can also see why they ‘torture’ each other, even if Chidi being a Kantian ethics professor facing a moral dilemma is a little bit on the nose. Once again, Tahani being so self-centred raises questions about the moral implications of the good place, but this is further stuffed under the carpet because the good place itself is so flimsily built for heaven. While we’re on the topic, the ethics of the good place are brilliantly specifically designed for comedy – and I urge everyone to screenshot any time some of the rules are bought up – there are gems a plenty. In fact, the entirety of the good place is funny – its plastic-y aesthetic really makes it a certain type of heaven; the one chock full of frozen yoghurt stands, to be precise. The initial premise, then, disguises it’s twist quite well, and a lot of that has to do with pacing – the series carries the audience from cliff-hanger to cliff-hanger, joke to joke at lightning speed, and we aren’t given much time to catch our breath and wonder about the problems of the good place.

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So yes, initially the show works well. But the show feels like it’s missing something right until the very end. Parts (like the giant insects) feel inconsistent with the rest of the show, and the whole thing feels like it should be a little funnier, that the characters should all be getting on more, and joshing about in the expanse of heaven. When I heard about a show about heaven from Mike Schur, I didn’t expect it to be quite as tense and quite as mopey for some of its characters. Of course, these fears are put to rest at the final moments, and during the subsequent re-watch. You see, the show isn’t aiming to be a traditional network sitcom, it has loftier ambitions. And these ambitions are revealed at the end of episode 13 by Michael.  And I’m not quite sure if I mean Michael Schur or Michael the architect. Clearly the name was intentional though, both are the ultimate creators of the universe the characters exist in, and both create the set-ups that lead to the torture of the protagonists. I’d like to give a special shout-out to Ted Danson, whose performance here is the performance of a career, simultaneously creepy and whimsical. And of course, there’s that smile. The final twist of the show manages to cleverly put everything into its rightful place in a way that I didn’t quite realise up until I’d seen the show again. It strikes a slightly false note that this elaborate set-up was made solely for four unremarkable people, but accepting that leads to an otherwise pretty perfect twist; guessable from the start, but something you’d never even consider. Of course, more is likely to be revealed in season two, so I’ll stop talking about it here, but it really is a feat of the kind I haven’t really seen in a sitcom like this.

I don’t think that The Good Place is a perfect show, mind. It could do with being a bit funnier, and some of the performances are a little off. I also have neglected areas of character development here, and focused mainly on the big picture (maybe I’ll go more in detail when it comes to season two), and that’s a shame, because the character stuff is where much of this show lives and dies. But I wanted to focus mainly on why this show is so special, so ambitious as to be worth talking about and worth remembering for years to come. Because it so is.