The first half of 2017 hasn’t yielded a single breakout series in the way 2016 did with the brashly confident, instant classic The People v. O.J. Simpson. But it has offered up something terrific for all tastes. The most discussed series of the year so far has been either HBO’s Big Little Lies or Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Both have a great deal to recommend them, and both bring a seriousness of purpose to examining the bonds between women. The Handmaid’s Tale in particular, for all the splashiness of its premise and its look, is at its best when it’s at its most contemplative. The same is true of Hollywood melodrama Feud, inside-comedy story Crashing, and Vatican soap The Young Pope. This year, for a reason that may simply be coincidence, has caught the best of TV in a somewhat reflective mood. But even if these shows register in a minor key, they’re still pleasures to watch.
Big Little Lies, HBO
A show that didn’t so much transcend its pulp-novel origins as reaffirm the possibilities of a genre infrequently thought of as prestigious. Not to mention those performances. Big Little Lies provided juicy opportunities to several actresses. Nicole Kidman — as the suffering spouse trapped in an abusive marriage — shone in a role that resisted tropes at every turn.
The third season of this genial story of a married couple that sometimes despises one another goes deeper and darker. Rob (Rob Delaney) revs the plot’s engine as he picks up drinking again. After two seasons of sobriety, all at once drinking defines his life. The secrecy of his addiction provides pain and insight into a character that’d typically default to a wisecrack to forestall emotion. Sharon (Sharon Horgan) is as sharp as ever. And, as Rob’s mom, the late Carrie Fisher makes an enduring impression, merging biting wit with a sense of gravity. The “catastrophe” early in this show’s run was an unplanned pregnancy. The show’s only gotten better as the catastrophes multiply.
A warm story about a rough patch, Crashing turns divorce (and subsequent homelessness) as the engine of potential renewal. Comedian Pete (Pete Holmes) loses both his wife and the abode they shared, and goes on to encounter all the oddity and eventfulness he’d shut himself off from before. Crashing may not reinvent the wheel, but it’s a sweetly charming slice of life.
Feud: Bette and Joan, FX
Feud is half love letter to Hollywood and half poison-pen note. The show is at once intoxicated with the glamour of Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) and the acidity of Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and aggrieved at the power structure that kept them locked into, respectively, inhuman hauteur and sarcasm as a defense mechanism. Feud required viewers to get on its very specific level — one where subtext was generally absent, and truths were told in tones as bold and brassy as a Crawford performance. But it had real rewards once you got there.
I Love Dick, Amazon
Transparent creator Jill Soloway goes from a diffuse family story to something far more tightly focused: a look at the preoccupations of one woman, Chris Kraus (Kathryn Hahn). A filmmaker whose career is at a turning point, Kraus heads to Marfa, Tex., with her husband and quickly falls into an obsession with the sculptor Dick (Kevin Bacon). He’s a self-styled cowboy of an artist who works on a monumental scale — exactly the sort of hyper-masculine fellow Kraus wouldn’t seem to have time for. Kraus takes her creative fulfillment from envisioning herself with Dick — a vision she shares with him in a series of discursive letters — and the canvas gradually opens up to all the women of Marfa. It’s a shaggy story that encompasses big ideas about gender and attraction. It recounts the ways that our bodies send us to places our minds would never go, and how satisfying it can be to betray our better judgment.
The Leftovers, HBO
A world on the precipice of apocalypse is still full of possibility. This show, which reinvented itself entirely in its second season, does so again in its third and final installment, moving the action to Australia as its characters prepare themselves for what many of them believe will be the End of Days. In the midst of sustained grief for those who disappeared seven years prior and in anticipation of the final judgment, characters find new depths of emotion. Standouts include Carrie Coon, as ever, and Amy Brenneman, who finds thrilling shades in a character who’s been one of the show’s many enigmas.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu
The breakout hit that could define the future of Hulu, The Handmaid’s Tale excels at depicting the ways in which people slip into tyrannical societies. Once June and now known as Offred, Elisabeth Moss’s character is a person who basically lives outside politics, until suddenly politics — the imposition of a theocratic state where women like her are forced into sexual slavery. Her new life is conveyed with wrenching, propulsive storytelling (even if forays beyond what was depicted in the novel on which the show is based take away from the central story’s power as often as they bolster it). And her life before the collapse of society is all the more moving for how little it prepared her for what came next. Widely hailed as specifically relevant to the times in which we live, The Handmaid’s Tale has more to offer than one-to-one comparisons.
Santa Clarita Diet, Netflix
Drew Barrymore gets a whole new lease on life only after she’s died. That’s the one-joke premise of this loopy sitcom. But, told by one of the most effortlessly likable actresses working, it’s a good joke. Zombie Barrymore and, as her husband and fellow realtor, Timothy Olyphant both sell this story, which marries unorthodox and grotesque visuals with chatty wit. Like the flesh Barrymore consumes in her new post-human life, it’s an acquired taste. To the right palate, it’ll become addictive.
The Young Pope, HBO
Jude Law’s strange and committed performance as a tyrannical Pope who loves power more than God anchored this intriguing series. The Young Pope’s goofy title and premise obscured, at first, the fact that it’s seriously and thoughtfully made. Through the eyes of director Paolo Sorrentino, the Vatican becomes an enchanted, isolated world. One easily brought to heel by a man who knows he’s right.