‘Will & Grace’ made a triumphant return to NBC.
The best new things on TV and the Internet
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
We consume our entertainment a lot differently now than we did even five years ago. “Tube” used to mean “television,” but what does that even mean in an age of podcasts, streaming services, video on demand, network and cable, YouTube and the like? Well, just about anything that’s episodic and piped to you over the air. We consume it all — sometimes on our phones, sometimes on hi-def monitors — and it’s a rich pageant, a window on our world. And some of them stood out more than others.
There’s so much broadcast content available every year, that, as with films, I limit my list to new programs — those that debuted (in their present incarnations) from Nov. 1, 2016—Oct. 31, 2017 (to allow a series to develop at least three episodes before deadline).
11. The Guest Book (TBS). Greg Garcia, who created the quirky, deceptively smart My Name Is Earl and Raising Hope for network TV, got to explore his more adult side in this quasi-anthology series for cable — a season of loosely-interconnected stories about people occupying the same cabin and writing about their experiences. Garcia’s signature deadpan humor while dealing with genuinely dark subjects (blackmail, drug addiction, infidelity) made this one endlessly where-will-they-go-next.
10. Feud: Bette vs. Joan (FX). Ryan Murphy launched his new anthology series, Feud, with one of the classic tales of Old Hollywood: The notorious rivalry between two grandes dames of Warner Bros., especially during the making of their Grand Guignol piece Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It’s both a rumination on the treatment of actresses “of a certain age” in entertainment, and a fascinating “making of” docu-drama. Jessica Lange’s desperate Joan Crawford dominates Susan Sarandon’s fierce Bette Davis, but Jackie Hoffman as Mamacita and Alfred Molina as their director steal their scenes.
9. American Gods (Starz). Neil Gaiman’s riff on mythology as updated to modern-day America was a scintillating, racy, sweaty, lurid and compelling fantasy melodrama, like Oz among the gods. And star Ricky Whittle is more than a bit easy on the eyes.
8. Big Little Lies (HBO). This high-powered miniseries about desperate housewives in an affluent coastal California town could have been a soapy West Coast Peyton Place, but instead became a social satire about suburban cattiness and, eventually, domestic violence. The cast — Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgard, Shailene Woodley — was perfection.
7. Dear White People (Netflix). Queer filmmaker Justin Simien adapts his 2014 feature film satire into a sharply written comedy series about black students on a predominantly white Ivy League campus, and the controversy when one of the black student leaders starts dating a white man. Creatively told from the perspectives of eight students, Simien makes race relations uncomfortably satiric. Woke, wise and wonderful.
6. American Vandal (Netflix). In the wake of true-crime online mini-series like Making a Murderer and The Keepers comes this version, set in a California high school, that sets to solve a mystery: Who painted 27 graffiti dicks on all the cars in the faculty parking lot? Seriously. Only not. This mockumentary, about teens investigating a crime, strikes the absolute perfect tone of it source material but never devolves into camp or farce — you really care, because the filmmaking is so accurate. Superb humor.
5. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu). A series that in the spring was merely a juicy adaptation of a feminist allegory has become, in #MeToo America, an uncomfortable meta-documentary about an all-too-possible future of theocratic laws, female subjugation and right wing nuttery. See? Documentary.
4. Anne with an E (Netflix/CBC). Don’t be fooled into dismissing this umpteenth adaptation of the girl-lit chestnut Anne of Green Gables as “just” a safe, tame, family-friendly miniseries. Amybeth McNulty, as the annoying, loquacious orphan girl who up-ends a puritanical farming community in turn-of-the-century Prince Edward Island, was the most bingeable streaming series of the year.
3. Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime). David Lynch’s original 1990-91 foray into episodic television was a sea-change show that someone redefined the syntax of TV. It would be hubris to expect the 18-episode revival to do that same, but Lynch’s singular vision, so specific and yet perversely universal, left us breathless with anticipation each week. Strange, impenetrable, addictive.
2. Will & Grace (NBC). Sometimes you don’t know you miss something until you get it, which is how the return of this groundbreaking sitcom felt: The characters are the same but have matured into middle age, their banter sharp as ever but their situations mellowed by the post-Obergefell era. Reunions always have sentimental appeal, but this one somehow thaws the iciness of the Trump age.
1. Shit Town (podcast). In the wake of the podcast Serial, an Alabama man calls into a producer of a public radio show and announces a murder has been allowed to go unprosecuted in his podunk burg — a place he calls “Shit Town” — for years. The reporter decides to follow up, and what happens next, over the course of seven chapters — including a revelation at the end of Chapter 2 which surely stands as one of the most shocking moments of the year — forces you to reexamine what you know about people. An endlessly compelling character study, a sad portrait of being gay in rural America, a mystery that is unsolvable yet deeply satisfying … Shit Town was the most humane expenditure of six hours of your time in 2017, and the program of the year.
Honorable mentions: The Mayor (ABC); Young Sheldon (CBS); Missing Richard Simmons (podcast); Good News (NBC); The Vietnam War (PBS); Prison Break (Fox). Too Funny to Fail: The Life and Death of the Dana Carvey Show (Hulu); Ozark (Netflix); Dirty John (podcast); The Daily (podcast).