The 15 Best Episodes of TV in 2017…
So Far, part 1

The 15 Best Episodes of TV in 2017…
So Far, part 1

Featuring Forgotten Gods and Silver Screen Idols, A City of Love and a Land of Torment and a Tale of Two Brothers


If there’s been a common theme linking almost all of television (or, at least, American television) so far this year, its deception. Whether it’s people practicing in self-delusion or trying to gain a leg up on others with various ploys and misdirection, so far the throughline of TV in 2017 has been the attempt to fracture reality as we know it.

Which, in all honesty, is the most appropriate tone I could think of in this era of “Fake News” and “Alternative Facts”, where truth and lies have become porous factions that blur with startling frequency. No matter where you look on this list – from the Belcher siblings’ tall tales in Bob’s Burgers to Bette and Joan’s refusal to accept their age in Feud and Jimmy and Chuck McGill’s battle of wits in Better Call Saul – you’ll find people trying to control the narrative.

Everyone believes in their own truth, or at least they hold the conviction to make others think that they do, and no medium is better suited at conveying this than TV. It’s the old friend we invite it into our homes, week after week, who we sit down with for an hour or more while it tries to convince us that everything might actually be ok in the end. It lies to us, and we let it because what the fuck else are we gonna do?


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15. American Gods, S01E05: “Lemon Scented You”


Though it was one of our most anticipated shows of the year, it’s fair to say that American Gods didn’t quite deliver in the way we were expecting. Yes, it was an uninhibited spectacle on every level, with frequent (and refreshingly diverse) nudity, elaborately hilarious violence and baffling plot points aplenty. Was it boring? Fuck, no! Did it all cohere into something satisfying by the end of its eight episodes? Mmmmmm… not reeeally. Still, there were installments that, when taken on their own, are as compelling as anything that’s been broadcast so far this year.

Take “Lemon Scented You”, for example. Falling right at the midway point of this debut season’s concoction of myths and legends rejiggered for the new world, this episode was American Gods at its unhinged best. Don’t believe me? As evidence, I can assure you that the moment where Gillian Anderson appears as Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie (as pictured above) is not the weirdest thing to happen all episode. Nor is the fact that she later shows up as Marilyn Monroe and talks giddily about bombing North Korea, accompanied by a man whose face can morph to show people what they look like when they’re masturbating. Ok, that last bit is actually pretty weird, but at least now you know what you’re getting into.


14. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, S0310: “Kimmy Pulls Off A Heist!”


Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a rare and wholly contained sort of comfort viewing. I can’t honestly say I really think about it when it’s not on, but every time it’s back I don’t know how I’ve lived so long without it. This is true even of a lesser season of the show which, unfortunately, Season 3 certainly is. It’s not a sharp decline in quality that taints the show at this point so much as a sense of complacency, a willingness to run with its tried and true formula and similar joke structures over and over again. But, that’s not to say there isn’t room for exceptions.

Enter “Kimmy Pulls Off A Heist!”, an episode well in the the back half of this year’s installments that goes a long way towards revitalising Kimmy Schmidt. As with the show’s best half-hours, the pace is insane, with jokes flying every which way second after second, requiring vigilance just to pick up on half of them. And the plot – while not as integral to Kimmy’s overarching recovery narrative as the rest of the season – is so ludicrous and minor that it becomes glorious just for being treated as a serious matter. Titus hates shitting at home, so he needs to sneak past a gas station attendant (an inspired Ray Liotta) to use the facilities there. Kimmy gets addicted to pixie sticks in the process, and the whole thing takes on the sort of cocaine-fuelled heist vibe that Liotta would be quite familiar with. All that’s missing is that damn helicopter.


13. Bob’s Burgers, S07E20: “Mum, Lies, and Videotape”


Real talk: what other show is still going this strong after seven seasons? Game of Thrones? Hugely debatablePretty Little Liars? I sincerely doubt it. The Walking Dead? Get the fuck outta here with that weak shit. Point is, it’s hard enough to come up with a decent TV show to begin with, let alone sustain it for several years. And once you start approaching three quarters of a decade without any measurable dip in quality, it just feels like showing off. Still, if you’re gonna have a show rub your face in how good it is, it might as well be Bob’s Burgers, especially seeing as its characters are so rarely very good at anything.

There’s a simple reason why Bob’s Burgers still works while so many shows of its ilk have imploded, and “Mum, Lies and Videotape” has it in spades. It is, in a word, love. I know, I know, but seriously, the foundation of this show is that the Belcher family continue to support and cherish each other even at their most demanding or irritating. In fact,  they often go out of their way and choose the most difficult way of enriching their familial bond, as they do in this episode. Bob fucks up (because it’s Bob) when he’s meant to film the kids’ school plays for Linda. So, once they’re all back at home, Louise, Gene and Tina take turns regaling their mum with the details of the shows they put on, offering exaggerated versions of their pretty basic plays for Linda’s entertainment. They even weave in a theme of how important mothers are in each segment just to solidify the cheesy, burger meat heart at the show’s pudgy centre.


12. Feud, S01E05: “And the Winner is… (The Oscars of 1963)”


Ryan Murphy is a very difficult man to like. First establishing himself as creator of the intentionally vapid (and, beyond that, very forgettable) Nip/Tuck in 2003, Murphy’s name is now inseparable from his next show, the ratings juggernaut that was Glee. Fuck, did I hate Glee. Then, just to show he still had some grit in him, Murphy launched American Horror Story, which I honestly haven’t watched (that said, I did sneak a peek at a scene where Kathy Bates’ disembodied head is forced to watch Roots to cure her racism… so yeah, I’m good). My hangups aside, I have to concede how revolutionary Murphy’s approach to AHS was. Back then, anthology series were increasingly rare, but it seems Murphy’s signature approach of revamping his show each season is now back in vogue.

It was, I must confess, a resounding success for last year’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, the second installment of which – detailing the murder of Gianni Versace – will return next year. And now it seems Murphy has hit paydirt once more with the juicy, scandalous Feud. Exploring the, at first, simmering and, ultimately, explosive rivalry that existed between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, this show is essential viewing for anyone who both enjoys the romanticised sheen of Golden Age Hollywood and longs to take a gander at the unvarnished chaos behind the scenes. The leads – Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Davis and Crawford, respectively – are astounding, and get their greatest moments to shine in “And the Winner is…”, a campy, gin-soaked retelling of the fateful Oscar night that cemented the two actresses as lifelong enemies.


11. Trial & Error, S01E10: “Chapter 10: A Hostile Jury”


It hasn’t been all that long since NBC’s powerhouse sitcom lineup of yesteryear, but it certainly fuckin’ feels like it. Seriously, remember when The Office30 RockParks and Recreation and Community were all on the same network at the same time? That shit was crazy! The interim has been disheartening, with little suggestion that there would be any new shows to take the places of those heavyweights anytime soon. And yet, the beleaguered National Broadcasting Company might finally be starting to get its mojo back. Right now, their roster consists of the superb workplace hangout show Superstore, the enigmatically hilarious The Good Place and even Great News, which started out pretty terrible and now is something akin to 30 Rock-lite.

And now, it seems we can comfortable add to that list Trial & Error, one of the most immediately satisfying new sitcoms in forever. Set in a backwoods town in South Carolina, this show follows the efforts of a dysfunctional legal team as they attempt to exonerate their client, Larry Henderson (the dangerously funny John Lithgow), of a crime he did not commit. Throughout this first season, there are countless misunderstandings, mishaps and misbehaviours that could qualify for the funniest moments on TV this year. None of them, however, hold a candle to the courtroom testimony of one Alfonzo Prefontaine in “Chapter 10: A Hostile Jury”, in which the details of his and Larry’s sexual relationship are read out in court what feels like twenty times. It’s all censored out, of course, but I can’t even begin to tell you how bowel-scrunchingly funny almost two straight minutes of that “beep” noise is.


10. Master of None, S02E06: “New York, I Love You”


Season 2 of Master of None was the sort of thing that doesn’t come around all that often in television, even in the midst of peak TV. It was funny, warm, sprawling, specific, distinct, universal and entirely unclassifiable. And none of its ten episodes better exhibited every single one of those traits than “New York, I Love You”. Predictably enough, it’s something of a love letter to the iconic city, a place where so many individuals cohabitate that their identities are often subsumed by the huddled masses. True to its humanistic bent, Master of None takes the time to slow things down and actually pick out a handful of these people, to shine a light on a few unheralded city dwellers.

To begin with, Eddie is one of the many doormen at a ritzy hotel on (what is probably) the upper east side. His duties extend beyond opening doors for guests and engaging with them amicably; he’s also required to mind pets and give people a heads-up if their spouse has arrived in the lobby while they’re up in a room, busying themselves with… other affairs. We also meet Maya, a deaf woman (with the episode pushing for maximum empathy by cutting out all audio in the scenes involving her) who argues with her husband over his lack of interest in going down on her. Finally, Samuel is a Rwandan cab driver who lives with four of his friends in a tiny flat, all of whom desperately want to find a good place to drink and meet girls. By the end of the episode, all of these people wind up at the same session for a movie without ever meeting. It’s a touching image, one of strangers clustered together in a dark room, all partaking in the same experience, from a different angle.


9. The Handmaid’s Tale, S01E05: “Faithful”


It’s hard not to get hyperbolic when discussing The Handmaid’s Tale, on a number of levels. To start with, I can guarantee you that little else on television this (or any other) year will be as viscerally upsetting as this show. Or maybe you’d like to suggest another program in which fertile women are systematically enslaved and raped in order to produce offspring in a largely sterile world? No? Didn’t think so. But, if that still isn’t enough for you, there’s the utter dehumanisation of these women on an everyday basis, who are reduced to their biological function and robbed of their autonomy so totally that they are forbidden from even reading or writing. Oh, and if they talk back? You see the girl to the left in the above image? Yep.

In another sense, when talking about this show there’s a real risk of overstating how much the horrors of this world parallel the direction our reality is currently headed towards. That said, just because it isn’t happening here yet… Anyway, it’s a heavy show, there’s no doubt about it and we would do well to heed its warnings without getting too hysterical. Of course, it’s a given that in this cruel world moments of triumph for the handmaids – few and far between though they may be – will cut you right to the quick. One such instance occurs in “Faithful”, when Ofsteven, who has been subjected to unspeakable physical deformation, steals an armed guard’s vehicle and… well, let’s just say she certainly makes the most of it. It’s a short lived and largely insubstantial victory, to be sure, but for the onlooking handmaids, there’s little else they can hope for.


8. Rick and Morty, S03E01: “The Rickshank Redemption”

(Adult Swim)

The wait is never worth it. Or, at least, almost never, especially when you stretch it out to almost twice the length one would normally expect to have to wait for something. Because, mathematically speaking (this should be painless), the degree of hype surrounding something is always going to be directly proportional to how long it’s been delayed by. Just ask Frank Ocean, or George R. R. Martin. And so, at what point does that expectation become so unwieldy as to render the eventual product inherently disappointing? I don’t know, but something tells me Rick and Morty came pretty fuckin’ close.

A year and a half on from the Season 2 finale, “The Rickshank Redemption“‘s sudden appearance in April was cause for uproarious celebration, followed by immediate panic. What if the show wasn’t funny anymore? What if, after so long, the schtick had grown tired and stagnant? What if co-creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon were too behind to slip in contemporary jabs at technology and social commentary? WHAT IF THE SUN EXPLODES?! Of course, those fears were swiftly put to rest. “The Rickshank Redemption” is an honourable addition to and exciting continuation of the series, peppered throughout with juvenilia (the fart jokes and Rick’s enjoyment of them) and meta-humour (“Comedy comes in threes!”), as well as the visual flair and profoundly creative violence the show is renowned for. And – because it’s as true to life as a show about an interdimensional space traveller and his grandson can be – there’s an undercurrent of mania and sadness to the whole thing that threatens to bubble to the surface at any moment. Jesus, I can’t wait for the rest of this (coming July 30th, biiiiiiitch!)


7. Legion, S01E04: “Chapter 4”


Come at me if you must, but superhero shows (especially origin stories) tend to stumble right out of the gate and then spend the rest of their time playing catch up. There are exceptions – for instance, the first half of Luke Cage is immeasurably better than what succeeds it – but for the most part, these kinds of programs take a while to really get going, if they ever do at all. Legion – which tells the tale of the mutant offspring of Charles Xavier, founder of the X-Men – is the undisputed exception. Mother of Christ, does this show know exactly what it wants to be, even as it spends virtually its entire first season trying to knock you off balance, lest you get too comfortable with it.

That said, sometimes this show even goes out of its way to lend us some sort of framing device through which to view it. So it is with “Chapter 4”, which opens with a hirsute Jemaine Clement(!) explaining the purpose and nature of stories to us: they teach us empathy, and they teach us fear. What follows is like little else on television, even when you factor in the whole “backstory of a schizophrenic mutant” part. There’s an astral plane with an old school scuba diver living in a giant block of ice, fond of his drink and atonal jazz. Memories are entered, edited, replayed, scoured and, ultimately, found to be entirely untrustworthy. It culminates in a balletic fight sequence so enthralling that, if any show this year bests it, I’ll eat this fucking laptop. And, yes, there’s much to empathise with, but most certainly more to fear.


6. Better Call Saul, S03E05: “Chicanery”


In its first season, Better Call Saul proved that it could tear itself free of Breaking Bad‘s immense orbit, signalling itself as one of the only successful spin-off shows of this decade. That said, while it was a treat to see Saul be so self-assured from the get-go, there was no denying that the stakes of what is basically a high-wire legal drama (with some criminality thrown in for good measure) can’t really live up to the literal life or death struggles of Breaking Bad. Then, in Season 2, the fraught relationship between Jimmy “Saul” McGill and his brother Chuck became the show’s driving force, enriching its tale of good intentions versus old habits. Which leads us to this year’s Season 3, where… holy goddamn shit!

I have no hesitation in saying there were moments of tension so pure and inescapable this year as to leave you breathless. And, in that sense, no episode better represented this rev up than “Chicanery”, in which Chuck takes the stand at Jimmy’s ethics hearing to decry his brother’s many wrongdoings. Dear God, the amount of reversals, double bluffs, shifts in power and sudden reveals in this scene is staggering, as Jimmy – cross-examining Chuck himself – and his brother each try to gain the upperhand. It’s one of the best staged setpieces of its kind in recent memory, a tangled courtroom scene that doesn’t need improbable confessions or ungainly showboating to get its point across. Just simply two men both so assured of their cause that they’d go to any length to win. And, of course, only one of them can.

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So Far, part 1

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