It’s no coincidence that most of my choices for the best shows of the year features great roles for women. I many be biased, but there seemed to be far more nuance and complexity in many of the women on our tv screens this year than in the male roles. Finally! The women on my top 5 shows are a real mixture but each brilliant in their own way.
Halt and Catch Fire
I was a late convert to HCF (basically watching Seasons 1-3 last Christmas) but the show ended with a fourth season that was just beautiful and perfect. The show started as a bit of a Mad Men copy, with Lee Pace’s Joe Macmillan the Don Draper of the burgeoning PC world of the 1980s, and Scoot McNairey’s Gordon Clark as the less savvy but technically gifted engineer. Mackenzie Davis’ cool girl hacker Cameron Howe and Kerry Bishé as Gordon’s nagging wife Donna were definitely less well developed and the show followed the tropes of the badly behaved tortured man for a while. However, by the end of the first season, we were already seeing more of the four characters as an ensemble and the show switched focus in its second year to Cameron and Donna’s Compuserve-type internet game company Mutiny. The various tech ventures and the way the characters worked together and split up was the thrust of the show from then on as we followed our characters through the birth of the internet. The relationship between the two women began to fracture in the third season, culminating in one of the most painful breakups of any partnership on tv. I could go on and on about Cameron and Donna (and probably will in a separate post) as their partnership was one of the most unique on tv. I spent most of the fourth and final season hoping they would repair their relationship after their devastating split. In season 4, we also had Gordon and Donna’s daughters Hayley and Joanie as grown ups – and very few shows manage to have teenagers who are genuine characters and not just annoying or mini-adults. The final season dealt with change, loss and love in such a beautiful way and had one of the best endings of any show in recent years, with Cam and Donna being the focus. Wonderful acting, fantastic writing, well directed. I’ve already rewatched the whole series three times and I hope others discover this wonderful show in years to come. UK people, it’s all on Amazon Prime!
2. The Handmaid’s Tale
Some found this show too bleak in a depressingly Trump dominated 2017, but this was a story I have loved for years. I was one of the few who liked the Natasha Richardson movie of 1990 and afterwards read the book by Margaret Atwood. Maybe this helped as I knew what was coming in the outstanding Hulu adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss. The series expanded Atwood’s novel and several of the characters brilliantly, but at its core it was still a dystopian tale of an America (now called Gilead) where most women are sterile and those fertile ones left are forced to become sex slaves, or handmaids, to the men in power. The show featured an amazing array of actresses doing career best work. Moss scooped up most the awards going and was brilliant as Offred, conveying so much with her eyes. Similarly, the chilling third episode features Alexis Bledel in a silent role as Ofglen, a woman put on trial and punished in a most horrific way for being gay. Also great were Samira Wiley and Madelaine Brewer – both previously of Orange is the New Black, and the always wonderful, if terrifying Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia. However for me, supporting stand out was Yvonne Strahovski, mainly known for Chuck, the 24 reboot and a weak season of Dexter, who was a revelation as Serena Joy, Offred’s Commander’s wife. She was alternately sympathetic and appalling but Strahovski gave colour and depth to what could have been a two dimensional villain . The show itself had a few flat patches in the middle but for its world building and narrative power, it was a real highlight. Outstanding stuff.
OK, so you were with me for Halt and Catch Fire, even if you didn’t watch, everyone praised The Handmaid’s Tale, but Supergirl as a top 5 show??? Well this is my list so there! Supergirl is the show I look forward to the most in a week, largely for Melissa Benoist’s smile and the positive ray of sunshine that is Kara Danvers. But also 2017 saw the show continue with Alex Danvers and Maggie Sawyer – known as Sanvers to fans – and their relationship was so well handled, even when the actress playing Maggie pulled out of being a regular. Season 2 was a controversial one in some ways with Kara’s love interest Mon-El being a rather divisive character. For many of us, the way the show focussed on him even more than Kara was annoying. At the same time, the addition of Katie McGrath as Lena Luthor saw the Kara/Lena shippers (Supercorp – yes every ship has a name! Karamel is the Kara/Mon-El one) go wild. However, the season ended strongly with some great guest stars – Linda Carter, Teri Hatcher, Brenda Strong and the return of Callista Flockhart. The third season that began in October has been pretty solid, with Odette Anabel as Sam, soon to be supervillain Reign and I’m going to write about the absolutely brilliant 4 way crossover later. Supergirl continues to be so much fun with characters I love and at its core, the Kara/Alex Danvers sister bond being the heart of the show.
4. Orphan Black
Orphan Black ended its five year run with a really strong season that tied up all the loose ends well. The show has always been all about Tatiana Maslany and the brilliant job she does portraying the many clones, but this was also a very strong season for Maria Doyle Kennedy as matriarch Mrs S, and the always gorgeous Evelyne Brochu as Delphine, the sexiest French biologist on tv! Orphan Black’s world got quite complex at times with big bad corporation on top of mad scientist on top of power hungry ruthless baddies, but the core group of Sarah, Felix, Mrs S, Art, Cosima, Delphine, Alison, Donnie and Helena battled together and we really cared about them. Maslany will never get a better role, and the Clone Club community of fans will always love our sestras! A fine end to a brilliant series.
5. Big Little Lies
The superiority of TV over film in story telling and more especially, in nuanced and varied roles for women is illustrated with the wonderful Big Little Lies. Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman showed why they got their gongs with fantastic performances in this story of the lives of the wealthy in Monterrey. However, what looked like a big name version of Desperate Housewives, really wasn’t, in a story that featured the most brutal and complex depiction of domestic violence we’ve seen on tv for a long time. It’s a sign of the state of films that Witherspoon, Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz – film actors – were keen to get their teeth into juicy complicated roles on a tv show, all directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. Alexander Skaargard has never been scarier, Robin Weigert continues to be one of the best supporting actresses around. The look, the music, the characters. It was a brisk 7 episodes of brilliance.
6. The Good Place
The most original comedy around, plus 2017 saw the brilliant end of season 1 twist and the start of the all new good place/bad place world in season 2. Loved that Trolley Problem episode! A wonderful ensemble cast, clever writing but one of these days they are going to run out of plot twists!
7. Marvellous Mrs Maisel
The end of 2017 saw Amy Sherman-Palladino’s return to tv with this Amazon series about a Jewish female stand up comedian in the 1950s. Rachel Brosnahan is brilliant as the fast talking Midge, who is left by her useless husband and finds her way into comedy. Clever, beautifully 50s feel and a ball of energy.
8. Game of Thrones
The seventh season of Game of Thrones was one of its best ever. Now past George RR Martin’s books, we finally got all of the characters we know together – yes Dany is finally in Westeros! There were huge satisfying battles, people who deserved it finally got killed off and even though we lost Lady Olenna Tyrell, Diana Rigg even manged to win her death scene with a brilliant stab at the Lannisters! Abandon logic, this was all about spectacle and setting up the battle against the White Walkers (zombie dragon!!)
9. The Crown
The second series of The Crown is a fantastic production, anchored by Claire Foy’s restrained but wonderful performance as young Queen Elizabeth. Season 2 suffered from a bit too much Prince Philip, but on the plus side, more of Vanessa Kirby who has done a lot to make Princess Margaret a royal fave! Sumptuous design, brilliant acting and a high quality show. I’m sorry to say goodbye to this cast, especially Foy and Kirby, although the prospect of Olivia Coleman as the Queen is also quite enticing.
10. Line of Duty
BBC’s Line of Duty had a difficult act to follow after finally killing off Keely Hawes’ Lindsey Denton last year. Thandie Newton was the main antagonist for AC 12 and her character DCI Ros Huntley was a deliciously ambiguous figure. We are used to thinking the guest star is definitely guilty but Huntley was very hard to read throughout. Line of Duty is notable for the long interrogation scenes that play out like something you might see on stage, and once again there were so many great battles of will. Another brilliant season.
11. X Company
Now here’s one you won’t have heard of! Canadian TV show X Company, centred on Canadian and British WW2 spies, aired its third and final season this year. This was a show I watched initially for Orphan Black’s Evelyne Brochu who stars as Aurora, one of a team of operatives working with resistance groups in Europe during the war. However, the show’s secret weapon was Torben Liebrecht, a sort of German Jason Isaacs, who was brilliant as Franz Faber. The way the tension was built up in the final season was outstanding, with so many complex moral questions. This is a show that deserved a wider audience outside Canada. Well written, brilliantly acted.
12. Master of None
Aziz Anzari’s comedy went pretty ambitious in its second year, with slightly mixed results. I wasn’t that struck on Dev’s season long love story, but there were several stand out episodes. Rightly, the Thanksgiving episode that dealt beautifully with Lena Waithe’s character coming out to her family over a number of years got a lot of awards recognition. I especially enjoyed the New York I Love You episode where we follow three totally different characters. Ambitious and original
13. Better Call Saul
The Breaking Bad spin off prequel is in its third year and we finally got Gus Fring this year! Giancarlo Esposito is always wonderful, but even more engaging was the antagonistic relationship between Jimmy and his aggravating brother Chuck, a masterful Michael McKean. This show has a great cast of characters that we care about and indeed, I know I am dreading when the likable rogue Jimmy becomes cynical grifter Saul Goodman. The highlight of this strong third season was the courtroom confrontation between Jimmy and Chuck with McKean just outstanding.
14. Fear the Walking Dead
The most improved show of the year? Well at times, yes. I’ve given up on Mothership The Walking Dead, and FTWD has never quite fufilled its potential, but it began to this year, with a few truly outstanding episodes. This Land is Your Land, episode 13 and the 3 that followed are the show finally hitting its stride in tension but also in the growth of the characters. As a Lexa fan, I’ve been waiting for Alycia Debnham-Carey to kick butt and in ep 13 her character Alicia Clark is forced into one of those awful zombie apocalypse dilemmas: kill the infected before they turn or get eaten! Fingers crossed they can maintain this quality.
15. Blue Planet II
It’s hard to judge documentary programmes in the same way as scripted ones but the BBC series Blue Planet 2 was just dazzling. Like the equally stunning Planet Earth 2, amazing photography and showing us things we had no idea were of our earth! Enormous ratings proved that the British public adore David Attenborough and state of the art filming in crystal clear HD.
16. The Sinner
A very pleasant surprise was this 8 part thriller that had one of the most memorable openings ever. A seemingly ordinary mother just picks up a knife and kills a young man on a beach one day. Why? What is her story? The story gradually unfolds and thanks to Jessica Biel in the lead, we are pulled into the narrative. There are a few less than satisfying bits to the eventual explanation (it is based on a German thriller) but the ideas of repressed trauma and memory were fascinating.
17. Mr Robot
Another third season show that had a great year, Mr Robot and creator Sam Esmail really went for it this season. Esmail directed all the episodes as Eliot tries to put right the hack that the dark army ran that has left the world in chaos. The fifth episode – which was one single shot (with a few camera trick edits) was amazing. This is a show that is ambitious and thought provoking. I still get a bit lost at times, and it all got a bit Fargo at the end, but a strong season.
18. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
More of the crazy was addressed this season after Rebecca was left at the altar by Josh, leading to pretty much a total breakdown. That the show managed to address Rebecca’s mental health issues in a realistic and delicate way, yet still pulling off at least 2 fantastic songs every episode was a real achievement. Plus there was this song – the funniest for a while!
Yes, I know, everyone else hated this show but I’ve written extensively about why I loved it. I recently saw this show top an ‘unfairly axed by Netflix’ poll on some website, so maybe I’m not totally alone in finding the complexity of Naomi Watts’ character fascinating. A noble failure but it went out trying to do something unique and different.
20. Wynonna Earp
Wynonna Earp fans got a real surprise when episode 5 revealed a very pregnant Melanie Scrofano. I must compliment the show for keeping this and baby Scrofano under wraps as this was a huge game changer. The show has a real confidence to it and the actors have great chemistry. I’m still not a huge fan of the demon aspects but love the characters and the tone of the show. The pregnancy storyline really gave added depth to the season, but the mix of humour and action was just about perfect.
Special Mention – Crisis on Earth X
The CW superhero shows teamed up for a 4 part crossover in November that was just spectacularly great! Not recognisable as episodes of Supergirl, Arrow, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, the story ran for 2 nights in the timeslots of those shows but I have no idea how they will put them on the DVD box sets! Everyone shows up for Barry and Iris’ wedding, only for it to be crashed by visitors from Earth X, an alternate world where the Nazis won the war. Our heroes must team up to defeat them. This crossover worked especially well if you watch all 4 show – as I do. I’m not sure how well it worked for more casual viewers as there were current story threads from each show running through this crossover. Alex Danvers’ split from girlfriend Maggie has her getting drunk and hooking up with Sara Lance, but this actually leads to some great character moments for Alex. Barry/Iris and Oliver/Felicity are dealing with couples issues, Professor Stein wants to leave the Legends and more. All this and Melissa Benoist sings! Exciting, inclusive (5 LGBT characters) and emotional, this was a towering achievement from the CW. Not sure how they will top it!
Just missing my top 20 but still great..
Jane the Virgin which has maintained its place as one of the most delightful shows on TV despite cruelly killing off sweet (if slightly dull) Michael this year.
The Good Fight, the spin off from The Good Wife starring Christine Baranski and Brits Rose Leslie and Cush Jumbo showed Robert and Michelle King can still tell a great legal story even without Juliana Marguiles.
Literally just relased (29th December) Black Mirror on Netflix has produced another strong season, the highlight of which was USS Callister for me, a brilliantly dark, funny and creepy take on gaming and Star Trek.
Imposters was a huge amount of fun! A con woman who marries then robs her partners is pursued by three of them – 2 men and one woman – plus Uma Thurman is a psychotic hit woman!
Major Crimes has just a few episodes left before we say goodbye to Provenza, Flynn and the gang forever. SPOILER last week they killed off leading lady Sharon Raydor (Mary McDonnell) in a bold move. Since The Closer first aired around 13 year ago, we have had great crime stories with a fantastic cast of characters. Consistently solid and entertaining, and I’ll be sad to say goodbye to the LA Major Crimes division.
The Great British Bake Off defied the critics with its move to Channel 4 showing the formula works even with different hosts and judges. Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding were likable and Pru Leith was fine (but was no Mary Berry!) A charismatic bunch of contestants and the winning formula meant it was another year of not so soggy bottoms and Bake Off Innuendo!
American Horror Story Cult was one of the better AHS (although I enjoyed Roanoke a lot last year.) Set in a world gone crazy after the Trump election win, Evan Peters is the charismatic cult leader, Sarah Paulson the leading lady who thankfully stops screaming in about episode 5! As always with AHS, it is hit and miss but there were some pretty terrifying bits this season. Insane and over the top but entertaining.
I’ll probably remember more favourites at some point but this was a pretty good year on the whole. Here’s to more great TV in 2018