Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The best TV of 2017 so far

Master Of None (Photo: Ali Goldstein), Downward Dog (Photo: Brian Douglas/ABC), and The Handmaid’s Tale (Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu). Image: Libby McGuire.

From a business prospective, the forecast for TV in 2017 isn’t the brightest: While ratings continue to erode for the broadcast networks, several cable outlets that joined the original-programming gold rush are now backing out, with cash-flush digital competitors like Facebook and Snap poised to stake those abandoned claims. Creatively, it’s an entirely different story. Even the cable channels who are giving up on scripted TV can declare some artistic victories (Sweet/Vicious for MTV; Underground on WGN America), and the stalwarts and the upstarts of the scene are still offering plenty of rewarding viewing options. Here’s the TV that The A.V. Club loved during the first half of 2017, from new popes and New Testaments, satisfying adaptations of literature and film, half-hours still digging up fertile comedic ground, and some fresh tricks from some of old dogs (plus one actual canine bringing life, albeit temporarily, to an ancient format).

American Gods (Starz)

Photo: Starz

“It will be glorious, win or lose,” Odin (Ian McShane) intones, which is a fine sentiment for an all-out war between old and upstart gods, but could hardly apply to a TV adaptation of a popular fantasy novel. It’s not just that fans of Neil Gaiman’s book are proprietary about it, but American Gods is equal parts epic road trip; the inner monologue of its protagonist, Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle); and divine detours, which presents the old “unfilmable” challenge. And yet, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have managed to weave a wondrously weird, sprawling tale that’s nonetheless cohesive. It’s as whimsical as it is bloody, and as astounding as it is grounded, thanks to performances from McShane, Whittle, and Emily Browning, the latter of whom stars as Laura Moon. Really, there’s no mere mortal among the cast, which includes Gillian Anderson, Crispin Glover, Kristin Chenoweth, and Jonathan Tucker. But it’s Laura’s arc that anchors even the trippiest of sequences, as she learns to make as good a case for being among the workaday living (the keyword is “living”) as she does the pantheon of gods. And in doing so, American Gods earns its spot on this list. [Danette Chavez]

The Americans (FX)

Photo: FX

In season five, Soviet sleeper agents Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) faced their toughest challenge yet: the limits of The Americans’ long-fused storytelling. Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields drew their married spies back from the frontlines for 13 episodes, a stretch that allowed them to foreground the emotional drama that has always underpinned the show’s spy action. An emphasis on internal turmoil and existential crises reduced the number of sparks thrown off by the Russell-Rhys dynamo, but that just freed up the capacity for Holly Taylor and Frank Langella to fire up. The Jennings’ biological daughter began training in earnest to join the family business (prompting sparring sequences with Elizabeth, whose content and execution were loaded with meaning), while their surrogate father prepared an exit—and raised serious questions about Philip’s ability to do the work. The Americans has always depicted the Cold War at the microscopic level, but this was a whole new level of magnification, one in which you could see the normally invisible consequences of international conflict ripple across the family unit (both genuine and manufactured) in real time. [Erik Adams]

Bates Motel (A&E)

Photo: Cate Cameron

It’s nearly become de rigueur for tributes to A&E’s dark drama Bates Motel to include some variation of a defensive, “Okay, yes, it’s a Psycho prequel, but hear us out…” Hopefully, now that the show has completed its fifth and final season, subsequent appreciation can move past the series’ wobbly beginnings and focus on the fact that, for the past four years, Bates Motel has consistently risen above expectations and delivered a smart, deeply felt, and often very funny character study of one ill-fated family’s efforts to avoid the inevitable. One of the things that made this last season such an unexpected delight was how completely it rewrote the book on retelling the infamous Marion Crane storyline from Hitchcock’s film. Throwing out the movie’s progression of events, Bates Motel made the story its own, and in so doing, provided a key pivot from the first half of the season to the back. Despite the loss of a central character, Bates Motel stuck its blood-spattered landing with heart and narrative finesse, preserving the show’s legacy in a form that would make amateur taxidermist Noman Bates proud. [Alex McLevy]

Better Call Saul (AMC)

Photo: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

It only took Vince Gilligan a couple episodes to convince skeptics (and maybe himself) that we actually needed the backstory of a scene-stealing supporting player. Two and a half years later, his gripping spinoff stands neck and neck with the crackling cliffhanger machine that spawned it. Superficially, Better Call Saul has never looked more like Breaking Bad than it did in its third season, as Gilligan reintroduced his most popular heavy—Giancarlo Esposito’s chillingly polite fast-food kingpin Gustavo Fring—while his incorrigible ambulance-chaser hero fell further into a Walter White morass of compromised values. But no one could really confuse this Shakespearean tragicomedy for anything but itself. Saul continued to go its own way through the patient craft of its visual storytelling (see: any episode that let Mike quietly do his thing, like a safecracker in a heist movie) and the cruel logic of its helixed downward spirals, entwining the fates of a shyster attorney, his bitter bastard of a brother, his honest-lawyer partner, the ex-cop he’ll one day call an uneasy associate, and a smart drug-war lieutenant. The performances were across-the-board incredible, but it was Bob Odenkirk’s slow-motion moral crisis that held the center—cracks gently spreading across his cheerful con-artist bravado, a good man becoming Goodman en route to strip-mall damnation. [A.A. Dowd]

Big Little Lies (HBO)

Photo: Hilary Bronwyn

Big Little Lies should be used in a course on storytelling, so well does it adhere to that old adage that the ending should be a total surprise but feel inevitable. The seven-episode miniseries sticks the landing, with every single episode a masterful blend of suspense, humor, and top-notch acting from an incredible cast, including Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgård, Zoë Kravitz, and Adam Scott. The idyllic California setting belies the violence and bullying that leads to the murder that opens the series, creating a classic whodunit combined with a powerful, necessary story of abuse and rape. Maybe that’s why Big Little Lies was unfairly tagged as a “women’s series,” but these topics that so often get turned into PSAs or Lifetime vehicles are explored with a realistic, empathetic nuance that’s usually lacking when telling stories about such topics. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Brockmire (IFC)

Photo: Erika Doss/IFC

Jim Brockmire is a laughingstock, the sport he’s devoted his life to is in decline, and the city where he’s opted to stake his comeback and/or drink himself into the grave is being sucked dry by a natural gas supplier. Yet not all hope is lost on Brockmire, an acting showcase for Hank Azaria that also provides a rewarding, post-Togetherness landing for Amanda Peet. In the role of Jules James, Peet is often the source of that hope, playing the owner of a minor league baseball team whose commitment to turning her squad and her hometown around are matched only by her thirst for massive glasses of iced white wine. Azaria and Peet make a lovely Nick and Nora of the ballpark, in the middle of a sitcom that brings plenty of off-color commentary to the tradition of quotably foul-mouthed sports comedies. Although none of those movies could’ve pulled off something like “Road Trip,” a late-season entry that takes a frank look at the choices Jules and Jim have made and lets them revel in lives that the majority of the world would scoff at. [Erik Adams]

Catastrophe (Amazon)


Catastrophe has always mined fear of mortality for humor. Take, for instance, the “geriatric” pregnancy that kicked off the show. But a real-life death hung over the most recent set of episodes: Carrie Fisher’s. By the time the third installment debuted on Amazon, it was clear that it would feature one of the final performances from the beloved actor and writer. That, of course, isn’t the only reason that Catastrophe’s most recent season deserves attention. Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan’s spitfire chemistry remains unimpeachable and impeccable as their characters wrestle with the simple act of trying to sustain the family they built almost by accident, under financial strain and potential infidelity. Delaney is the true MVP this time around. He does something heartbreakingly nuanced with Rob, whose journey is characterized by his slow descent into alcoholism. The series never falls into the typical clichés that come when tackling that dependency, all building to a conclusion that is both shocking and devastating. That it’s preceded by a scene in which Fisher is brutally honest about the costs of addiction only added to its power. [Esther Zuckerman]

Dear White People (Netflix)


Few film-to-TV adaptations end up working out, in part because few feature-length premises can bear being fleshed out for a 10-episode (let alone the old 22) order. If you got bored watching everyone get Taken from Liam Neeson after a while, imagine trying to maintain interest in an ongoing prequel about the covert agent. But Justin Simien’s Dear White People is an outlier here—the movie was just begging to be fleshed out so it could become something more than a civics lesson for said white people. There’s no hand-holding in this 10-part Netflix series, which devotes every half hour—each more biting than the last—to a different student’s perspective. But Simien maintains an overarching storyline, offering an emotional catharsis as well as a payoff for the more serialized aspect of the comedy, while still leaving room for season two. [Danette Chavez]

Downward Dog (ABC)

Photo: Brian Douglas/ABC

We were as surprised as anyone that ABC’s talking dog sitcom turned out to be so wholly winning. A lot of this can be traced to the performance of Ned, the greatest canine actor since those dogs in Babe. As Martin, he’s our window into the day-to-day dealings of Nan (Allison Tolman), the focus of his life, as she tries to carve out a career and figure out a relationship with her ex (Lucas Neff). Martin’s Look Who’s Talking Now perspective yields a sitcom like no other, as lines like “even though Nan and I have this amazing relationship, it’s not like I don’t have insecurities” offer the view of the human-dog relationship from his side. Tolman gets a long-overdue starring sitcom role as Nan, the designer dealing with a clueless boss and a complicated relationship, but the inclusion of Martin kicks this sitcom into a new level of charming. Unfortunately, the world failed to head Neff’s recent Twitter plea on the show’s behalf; Downward Dog was embraced by critics and premiered at Sundance, but even those blue ribbons couldn’t keep Ned on the dog-show circuit. Cancel-happy ABC was wise to grow out of Imaginary Mary, but sending Downward Dog to live on a farm upstate is just inhumane. [Gwen Ihnat]

Fargo (FX)

Photo: FX

Sibling rivalry, “unfathomable pinheadery,” and an unforgettable air conditioner scene helped make sure the third time was the charm for Fargo (as was the first and second). Although it features the most contemporary setting yet, season three is rooted in Old Testament feuds and ancient Greek depictions of futility. The story has a familiar frame, which makes every detour pack a powerful wallop. Just as we think we know who’s holding out on what, a new revelation comes crashing down. But the cast and writing keep the story moving along, never relying too much on any one Minnesota accent or glimmer of V.M. Varga’s (David Thewlis) teeth. Creator Noah Hawley’s maintained the suspense of previous outings without sacrificing any of the dark humor. It’s no wonder that this isn’t Hawley’s only mention on this list; ditto TV MVP frontrunner Carrie Coon. As Gloria Burgle, Coon embodies both the growing pains of a police force struggling to keep up with technology and the small town ethos that’s reluctant to acknowledge that move is even necessary. [Danette Chavez]

Feud (FX)

Photo: FX

The first few episodes of Feud indicated that the first season of Ryan Murphy’s latest FX anthology was going to be an immersive journey into the world of early ’60s Hollywood, where former screen queens like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had to cobble together their latter-day careers. Murphy’s valentine to the town and time period made it seem like the show was headed for a fun, campy free-for-all. Who could have predicted where Feud would go from there? The two magnificent actors at its core—Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange, bolstered by bold supporting turns from Judy Davis, Alfred Molina, and Stanley Tucci—wound up leading us through examinations of beauty, addiction, success, and motherhood, concluding with a profound look at the aging process. Turns out that Murphy and company (working from a screenplay by Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam) were slyly using the Davis/Crawford rivalry as a springboard to show us the deepest, darkest aspects of life we all grapple with. [Gwen Ihnat]

The Good Place (NBC)

Photo: Vivian Zink/NBC

Michael Schur’s The Good Place has the kind of big, fantastical concept that doesn’t normally lend itself to television—particularly in a half-hour sitcom. But as with Parks And Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Schur has created another winning workplace ensemble comedy whose office just happens to be the afterlife, crafting its own patchwork family out of the myriad souls, angels, devils, and celestial robots thrown together there by circumstance. It certainly helps that two members of that ensemble are Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, but—also in Schur fashion—The Good Place gives equal footing even to cast members who don’t have beloved personas to fall back on, with William Jackson Harper’s Chidi, Jameela Jamil’s Tahani, and Manny Jacinto’s Jianyu/Jason all becoming fully rounded by the end of the first season’s 13 episodes. It’s still too early to tell just how long the show can sustain its conceit or grapple with its central moral questions. But the game-changing twist of the finale certainly has us eager to find out, which is more than you can say for most, lower-stakes sitcoms. [Sean O’Neal]

Great News (NBC)

Photo: Patrick Wymore/NBC

Now that most broadcast shows would kill for the type of ratings that kept 30 Rock on the verge of cancellation for most of its run, NBC seems to be back in the business of cultivating quality comedies, regardless of their Nielsen potential. (And if they happen to be owned by the network’s parent company, that’s all the better.) It’s good news for Great News, the zippy sitcom created by 30 Rock alum Tracey Wigfield, executive-produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, and set behind the scenes at a cable news show. From the emotionally stunted TV professional in the lead role (Briga Heelan as Katie Wendelson, finally stealing scenes in a show of her own) to the sprightly instrumental score by Jeff Richmond, it’s all very reminiscent of the last show Wigfield, Fey, and Carlock all worked on together. Great News fills a 30 Rock-shaped void in the network schedule while building its own, whacked-out world of deluded and/or oblivious onscreen talent (John Michael Higgins and Nicole Richie as the surprise comedic double act of the year) and fast-flying punchlines. But the high-concept twist doubles as its secret weapon: Andrea Martin as Katie’s mom, Carol, who takes an internship at her daughter’s show, setting in motion parallel arcs about the second act of Carol’s life and the first act of Katie’s, both of which draw tremendous comedic power from the fact that neither mother nor daughter can leave the other alone. Throw in the season-long background gag that blossoms into the driving force of the final episodes, and you’ve got a workplace sitcom that lives up to the example of its beloved predecessor while displaying a level of ambition that exceeds its unjustly meager ratings. [Erik Adams]

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

Photo: George Kraychyk

The Handmaid’s Tale had a lot riding on it when it premiered on Hulu in April. Aside from being a new adaptation of a beloved text, it was consistently branded the most important show of the season, based on the real world’s chilling slouch toward dystopia. The first 10 episodes of the show were by no means perfect: It stumbled structurally, musically, and in how it handled race. Still, showrunner Bruce Miller, star Elisabeth Moss, and executive producer Reed Morano—who set the tone by directing the first three episodes—wrung arresting moments from a horrifying tale. The Handmaid’s Tale elicited images that will invariably be burned into the memories of all who watched: Alexis Bledel’s Ofglen waking up in a sterile room and realizing her genitals have been mutilated; Madeline Brewer’s Janine perched on a ledge, baby in hand, threatening to take her own life; Moss’ heroine Offred wailing after her Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, reveals that her daughter has been nearby all along. And it really, if for no other reason, belongs on this list because of Moss and her incredible work. [Esther Zuckerman]

Harlots (Hulu)

Photo: Liam Daniel

Despite its impeccable period fashions, Harlots has more in common with The Sopranos than most Regency dramas. This woman-led series, which centers on dueling brothels in 18th-century London, deals in the same illicit business, power struggles, and family-before-all ethics. But where creators Moira Buffini and Alison Newman depart is in their treatment of women. The patriarchy still looms, but rival madams Margaret Wells (a top-notch Samantha Morton) and Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville, whose powder just barely keeps her rage at bay) enlist few male soldiers in their battle, relegating them to their customer base. Things grow increasingly competitive and complicated over the candy-hued first season—the only thing that is clear is that neither has the moral upper hand, a more effective cliffhanger than any that preceded it. And there were several, because Harlots loves to dangle those loose threads in a kind of storytelling striptease. But for all that flash—not to mention flesh—the series’ biggest reveal is its frank discussion of sexual politics, which remains as pertinent as ever. [Danette Chavez]

I Love Dick (Amazon)

Photo: Amazon Studios

With all the impressive, female-fueled series premiering in the first half of the TV year, I Love Dick got lost in the shuffle. But it’s worth seeking out. Adapted from Chris Kraus’ novel by Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins, the show follows Chris (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband, Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), from New York to a writers’ conference in the small town of Marfa, Texas. Chris immediately becomes obsessed with artist and workshop founder Dick, played by a smoldering Kevin Bacon. The show never goes where you think it will: For a while, Chris’ obsession actually ignites her marriage, as well as her own creativity. Her desire for Dick is so all-encompassing that it winds up affecting almost the entire town, especially the women, who find their own inspiration in turn. The show is unabashedly and full-frontally sexual, and it also has a ton to say about muses, art, desire, and creativity, especially how women deal with those elements as they all intertwine. Still not sure? Watch episode five, in which various female characters tell the story of the first time they felt erotic arousal. If the art-school vibe of that episode doesn’t win you over, the show’s likely not for you. But if it does, you have seven other episodes to dive into immediately. [Gwen Ihnat]

The Leftovers (HBO)

Photo: Van Redin

Providing a satisfying resolution for a show that was all about what happens when people are denied satisfying resolutions, The Leftovers went out with a final season that, thankfully, didn’t strive for answers and instead took a cue from its second-year theme song by letting the mystery be. That was certainly a relief for anyone who was worried that Damon Lindelof might be tempted to wrap things up with a Lost-style feint toward explaining the overarching mythology or pseudoscience behind the Sudden Departure (and who hadn’t read an interview with Lindelof in the past seven years). But more importantly, it affirmed what fans of this little-watched, yet fiercely loved HBO drama already knew: The Leftovers is a show about our universally shared crisis of living in perpetual uncertainty, not about solving whatever sci-fi, irradiated metal mumbo-jumbo that caused it, and that’s what gave this ostensibly high-concept series its recognizably human center. The abbreviated final stretch allowed us to spend a little more time with all those fascinatingly bruised, fucked-up characters—many of them granted stand-alone showcase episodes—as they all fumbled their way toward achieving whatever measure of peace one can have in a post-apocalyptic world. It was quietly moving, it was audaciously grand, and it was often weird and funny as hell. Plus, it had an episode with a boat orgy that ended with a lion eating people. In life, isn’t that all you really need? [Sean O’Neal]

Legion (FX)

Photo: FX

It’s clear from an early montage that Legion’s David Haller (played by Dan Stevens, in a 180 from his days as cousin Matthew Crawley) is neuro atypical—maybe because of his undiscovered superpowers, maybe because he has schizophrenia, maybe both. The show’s nonlinear narrative unspools from those questions but never really answers them, instead pulling at threads from inside David’s mind that form a rich story layered with uncertainties. At its best, Noah Hawley’s take on this X-Men-related origin story doesn’t hinge on viewers even being interested in superheroes, as he probes what memory means and how we manipulate and repress it. It also gives a nuanced, terrifying, and sometimes uplifting view of mental illness, as David attempts to untangle memory from reality. Dan Stevens’ performance is masterful, but the real scene stealer is Aubrey Plaza, whose performance should put to bed any typecasting as sardonic, apathetic characters. Early on, Plaza’s character(s) can seem like a stand-in for mental illness, but Hawley avoids easy allegory as Plaza turns from explosive to unflappable in a snap. But the show can be playful, too: One of the most terrifying scenes is framed like an early silent film, complete with choppy film rates and intertitles. And if you’re put off by talk about an “astral plane,” you’ll at least enjoy that it’s home to Jemaine Clement in a leisure suit. [Laura M. Browning]

Man Seeking Woman (FX)

Photo: Michael Gibson/FXX

Rom-com sitcoms rarely ever rise to more than a delightful diversion (assuming they don’t squander all their goodwill with their finales). But Simon Rich’s surreal take on the genre—adapted from his short story collection, The Last Girlfriend On Earth—managed to avoid treacle while delivering the winsome story of Josh Greenberg. Jay Baruchel starred as the mumbling everyman, whose romantic exploits were aided and hindered by best friend Mike (Eric Andre). Josh’s ever-relatable quest for love anchored the show’s flights of fancy, including dates with literal trolls and kaiju street fights. As the series went on, it made more room for women—like his sister, Liz (Britt Lower), whose stand-alone episodes were frequent highlights—and their mother, Patty (SCTV and SNL alum Robin Duke). By the third and final season, the Woman had been found, but the show didn’t lose any of its fantasy or momentum. Katie Findlay’s Lucy was never just Josh’s girlfriend—she was his narrative equal, helping to shoulder the absurdist burden. Man Seeking Woman was more of an ensemble comedy than ever in its final episodes, which made the wedding capper all the more resonant and appropriate. It’s one of few shows that grew up before our eyes. [Danette Chavez]

Master Of None (Netflix)

Photo: Netflix

In its second season, Master Of None proved once again that Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang, and their talented collaborators make the best short films on television. From the black-and-white Bicycle Thieves homage that served as the premiere to the tender coming-out story of “Thanksgiving,” Ansari and company debuted more tight tales about identity, city life, and, of course, love. Give or take the overarching love story—opinions on the effectiveness of the would-be romance between Dev and engaged Italian pasta-maker Francesca vary—the episodes are structurally playful and full of creative filmmaking (as well as delicious-looking food). But what continues to be Master Of None’s greatest strength is its underlying sweetness. Its love for family and friends is its calling card. Relish it now. More episodes may not be coming for a while. [Esther Zuckerman]

One Day At A Time (Netflix)

Photo: Michael Yarish

Netflix’s One Day At A Time reboot is both a throwback and an upgrade. Showrunners Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce give the classic Norman Lear production some vital new elements: Mom Penny (Justina Machado) is a vet with post-traumatic stress disorder, the family is Cuban, and best of all, Rita Moreno is an abuela with attitude. But the essential components are still there: the love of the family, the struggles of its single mom, a combative elder child, an easygoing younger one, and a nosy super named Schneider who excels in overstepping. For fans of the original, the set layout is even the same, with an added bedroom for Grandma; so is the theme song, now bolstered by a decidedly Cuban rhythm. Yes, the show is still going to have its “everything can get solved in an episode” plots (Penny’s daughter doesn’t want to do her quinceañera; Penny has a conflict with a male co-worker), but the new staging freshens what was once a standard sitcom setup, making it now seem like a raw stage performance. The combination of all these elements makes for yet another Netflix must-watch, and one of the most heartwarming series of the year. [Gwen Ihnat]

Review (Comedy Central)

Photo: Comedy Central

Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly) spent every episode of Review making terrible decisions that always left you assuming this would be the last—that surely this would be the catastrophic choice that finally pulled him back from the brink. As such, initially it was difficult for fans to accept the swift, surprise end to the Comedy Central series, which came a mere three episodes into its third season. Surely this was just the rock bottom that would lead to Forrest realizing that he’d destroyed his life, all out of a blinkered devotion to determine whether it was “any good.” Surely there was still redemption to come. But no, barring Daly’s suggestion of someday continuing the character à la Alan Partridge, that really was it for Forrest and for Review, a show that now ranks among the darkest comedies—one of the darkest shows, period—ever produced on American television, a distinction it earned by staying true to Forrest’s tragic flaw, right up to the terrible decision that left him, at last, with nothing. [Sean O’Neal]

Silicon Valley (HBO)

Photo: John P. Johnson

Criticism of Silicon Valley’s fourth season has largely focused on the “one step forward, two steps back” nature of Pied Piper’s troubled life span. But there’s something weirdly beautiful about the HBO series’ commitment to Richard Hendricks and his fellow programmers’ perpetual struggle to keep their heads above water, the company they created that’s stuck in a Charlie-Brown-kicking-the-football feedback loop of confidence turning to disaster at every turn—especially because it manages to make these peaks and valleys so damn funny. Whether it’s Richard finding common cause with former enemy Gavin Belson, Dinesh finally getting a girlfriend only to end up having her apprehended by the FBI, or ever-hopeful Jared continuing to steal nearly all his scenes thanks to Zach Woods’ guileless performance, Silicon Valley still has its finger squarely on the egocentric pulse of start-up culture, with a razor-sharp wit to match. If this is indeed Erlich Bachman’s swan song, he’s getting an appropriately riotous send-off. [Alex McLevy]

Twin Peaks (Showtime)

Photo: Showtime

There was plenty of reason to be pessimistic about a new season of Twin Peaks. Reviving the cult show more than 25 years later threatened to spoil a mystery that had lingered ever since its cliffhanger finale; revisiting its many quirks, long ago folded into our cultural fabric, risked turning them into pandering kitsch. But amid all that hemming and hawing, did anyone honestly think that the new Twin Peaks would turn out this good? Not only has the series avoided ruining the elliptical mystery that defined the original series—but it’s compounded it, creating an all-new tangle of threads that leaves even those well-versed in Black Lodge mythology completely unable to guess what will happen from week to week. Granted, this hasn’t been without controversy: There sure are a lot of new characters to keep track of, which has given some of the old familiar faces short shrift; the pacing has seen some ostensibly important storylines introduced, then abandoned for weeks at a time; watching Kyle MacLachlan stumble around as a childlike amnesiac gets a little old, and so on. Still, the mere fact that fans are left debating these things—along with Wally Brando—proves just how delightfully unpredictable the whole endeavor has been. However it all turns out, the new Twin Peaks has managed to give fans something totally unexpected, which is the best they could have asked for. [Sean O’Neal]

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

Photo: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

It defies logic, not to mention the law of averages, that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt continues to delight as much as it does three seasons in. Kimmy’s latest stream of episodes sees her grapple with college life, finally working her way toward a real career after all of those lost years in the bunker. It’s a great hook to hang a season on, as Kimmy finds a secret strength on the Columbia rowing team. But her supporting players this season are even better. Tituss Burgess might well be the true star of season three, as his Beyoncé-inspired videos after Titus’ breakup with Mikey were absolute highlights. Lillian (Carol Kane) gets a lovely relationship with Artie (Peter Riegert), while Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski) learns how to live without a man for once. But there’s also a surprise one-hit wonder; inspired guest turns by Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Maya Rudolph, and Josh Charles; and the welcome (if brief) return of Jon Hamm’s reverend and Tina Fey’s alcoholic therapist. The cast is uniformly stellar, but it’s the rapid-fire wisecracks and non sequiturs that make us rewatch and rewatch so as not to miss a single laugh, which is hard to do when Kimmy Schmidt crams in impossible amounts per episode. And the setup that ends this season makes it look like season four will be just as enjoyable. Our only complaint: We need more Mimi! [Gwen Ihnat]

The Young Pope (HBO)

Photo: HBO

It’s been a great year for filmmakers throwing their hats into the limited-series ring. With The Young Pope, Academy Award winner Paolo Sorrentino threw the biggest hat of them all, the tiara of Pope Paul VI, a gorgeous piece of art-deco-inspired work that winds up crowning one Lenny Belardo (Jude Law)—Pope Pius XIII to his millions of followers. Law is at his career best as Lenny, an inexperienced loudmouth with conservative-strongman tendencies who rises from his personal fiefdom in New York to seize one of the most powerful positions in the entire world—though, given the timing of the show’s production (which began in 2014), any similarity to the current situation in the White House is merely an eerily prescient coincidence. Because unlike Donald Trump, Lenny’s contradictions and tortured backstory make him a genuinely compelling antihero, one living in a world more beguiling and elegantly composed than our own, with a papal inner circle that includes a cardinal secretary of state whose devotion to the Holy See is matched only by his support for Napoli S.S.C. and Diane Keaton as a reluctant mother figure who has awfully cheeky taste in pajamas for a nun. Beneath the ritual finery and satirical slapstick is a moving series that would make a better companion piece with The Leftovers than it would with Veep, one that will keep deepening the mysteries of faith whenever Sorrentino gets around to making its promised sequel, the title of which echoes and existence of which authenticates one of Pius’ signature declarations: “There’s a new pope now, and this is only the beginning.” [Erik Adams]

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