Television that keeps you awake nights — maybe that wasn’t your standard for excellence in 2017, a year in which many found sleep hard enough to come by. But it seems to have been mine.
The continued explosion of programming makes compiling annual best-of lists tougher than ever. I could easily list 20 or more other shows that made television a better place this year. (And I did. See “honorable mentions” below.) But what the shows I’m singling out have in common is that they moved me not just in the moment but for hours, days, even months, afterward:
The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu). The 1985 Margaret Atwood novel about a post-U.S. theocracy in which women have been stripped of civil rights became a nightmarish thriller. Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss — whose return as police detective Robin Griffin in SundanceTV’s Top of the Lake: China Girl was also one of the year’s notable performances — was Offred, a modern woman plunged into reproductive servitude in a society where resistance is a capital offense. Other casting coups: Samira Wiley and Alexis Bledel as friends from Offred’s past and present, Ann Dowd as one of the “Aunts” complicit in the subjugation of the handmaids, and Yvonne Strahovski as a former televangelist who finds herself both victimizer and victim in the new order. Where to watch: Hulu; Season 2 is scheduled to launch in April.
The Leftovers (HBO). Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s drama about the sudden disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population was never about explaining where those people went, but about what the people left behind made of unfathomable loss. The show went to places Perrotta’s wonderful and disturbing novel hadn’t prepared me for, eventually reaching the inexplicable but perfect ending I never knew I wanted. Where to watch: All three seasons are available to HBO subscribers. Also on DVD.
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC). This drama about the heady early days of personal computing ended its run this year with a season that dealt with love, profound loss, and the drive to find the ultimate search engine. That it did so while keeping women at the center of a tech-driven story proves such things can be done. Where to watch: First three seasons are on Netflix. Season 4 can be found on Xfinity’s subscription add-on, AMC Premiere.
Black-ish (ABC). Broadcast comedies exist in formats far more constricting than their cable and streaming counterparts, but when one manages to be family-friendly, funny, and meaningful, the impact can be enormous. I’d have included Black-ish for this season’s premiere alone — a Columbus Day episode with a Hamilton-inspired cast performance as well as animation in which Philadelphia’s Roots helped Dre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) make his case for the celebration of Juneteenth. Other topics Black-ish somehow made work were the aftermath of the presidential election and postpartum depression. No wonder Entertainment Weekly called Black-ish creator Kenya Barris the heir apparent to All in the Family creator Norman Lear. Where to watch: 9 p.m. Tuesdays, ABC. Catch up with past episodes on Hulu.
One Day at a Time (Netflix). Speaking of Lear, his influence is still being felt in a reimagining of his 1975-84 sitcom. The new One Day at a Time, from producers Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce, focuses on three generations of a Cuban American family. Justina Machado stars as Penelope Alvarez, a divorced nurse and Afghanistan war veteran living with her son and daughter (Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz), and the show’s not-so-secret weapon — her mother, Lydia, played by the legendary Rita Moreno. (Schneider, also reimagined, is played by Todd Grinnell.) If you don’t think a comedy with a studio audience and a couch can have anything real or important to say, I recommend “Hold, Please,” the episode in which Penelope spends hours trying to reach someone at the VA. Where to watch: Netflix. The second season premieres Jan. 26.
The Vietnam War (PBS). Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 10-episode, 18-hour examination of U.S. involvement in Vietnam is more than a history. Told from multiple perspectives through the stories of those who were there, it’s a how-not-to handbook for decision-makers, and its story of not one, but two, divided countries is as timely as anything I saw this year. Where to watch: Available on DVD and via paid download from Amazon, iTunes, and other platforms. PBS Passport members can stream the entire series as part of their subscription until Dec. 31.
The Crown (Netflix). Yes, we fought a war not to have to care about these people. But you needn’t be a monarchist, or even an Anglophile, to appreciate the way Peter Morgan uses Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) and Prince Philip (Matt Smith) and their not-always-postcard-perfect family (along with a boatload of Netflix money) to look at the 1950s and ’60s from an angle we don’t often see. (Come for the ancient gossip, stay for the Suez Crisis.) This season, released Dec. 8, includes a not particularly rosy view of President John F. Kennedy (Michael C. Hall) and his wife, Jackie (Jodi Balfour). Plus, there are corgis. Where to watch: The first two seasons are available on Netflix.
Insecure (HBO). There’s nothing insecure in Issa Rae’s hold on the characters she created. This season found the messy lives of best friends Issa (Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji) competing for our attention with the messy moving-on life of Issa’s former boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis). But it’s Rae’s ability to make Issa sympathetic even while calling her on her poor choices that continues to draw me. Where to watch: Seasons 1 and 2 are available to HBO subscribers on multiple platforms, including On Demand.
Big Little Lies (HBO). It wasn’t just the performances of stars like Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley that made this murder mystery set in an affluent beach community more than a guilty pleasure. Adapted by David E. Kelley from the Liane Moriarty best seller, Big Little Lies ultimately may have proved to be a story about abuse, but it was also a nuanced look at friendship, marriage, and parenting — with some remarkable ocean views. Where to watch: All seven episodes are available to HBO subscribers. Digital downloads can be purchased on iTunes, Amazon, and other platforms. Also available on DVD. And although it won the mini-series Emmy, HBO has ordered another season, anyway.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon) and Downward Dog (ABC). Yes, it’s a tie for 10th place, as I end with two eight-episode shows that made me feel better, not worse, in 2017. In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Rachel Brosnahan stars, irresistibly, as Midge Maisel, a 1950s homemaker-turned-stand-up comic. This show, from Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, is so good I want her to stop even thinking about Rory Gilmore and just focus on writing more for Midge.
If only we could also have more Downward Dog, as well. The first broadcast network comedy to screen at the Sundance Film Festival, it didn’t premiere until mid-May, just one indication that ABC might not have been the right home for this smart, funny talking-dog show, which grew out of a web series. Allison Tolman (Fargo) starred as Nan, whose dog, Martin (voiced by show cocreator Samm Hodges and played by a rescue dog named Ned), was constantly breaking the fourth wall to complain about, among other things, Nan’s unwillingness to spend all 24 hours of her day with him. I know how Martin feels: The cancellation left me feeling abandoned, too. Where to watch: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is on Amazon Prime Video. Downward Dog is currently available only for paid download on iTunes, Amazon, and other platforms.
Honorable mentions: ABC’s Speechless; FX’s Better Things, Feud: Bette and Joan, and The Americans; AMC’s Better Call Saul; BBC America’s Broadchurch; Amazon’s One Mississippi; HBO’s The Deuce and Silicon Valley, Netflix’s Stranger Things, The Keepers, GLOW, and Master of None; CBS’s Young Sheldon and Madam Secretary; NBC’s The Good Place; the CW’s Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; CBS All Access’ The Good Fight and Star Trek: Discovery; and Freeform’s The Bold Type.