Carolyn’s Fave Five: TV in 2017

In times of particularly intense struggle or hardship, people sometimes say that it’s difficult to see why film or TV or video games might matter. To me, it’s often times like this when the necessity of art in our lives becomes the clearest, and in 2017, I found television particularly important as a way of trying to make sense of life in an increasingly hostile and frightening America. There’s a great deal of noteworthy and doubtless wonderful TV this year that I didn’t make the time to watch, so just to be clear, this isn’t intended as a list of the very best TV of 2017. Rather, it’s the TV that I admired the most, out of the relatively small amount of TV that I actually saw.

5. The Good Place

The Good Place offers up perhaps the deepest considerations of what it means to live ethically that you can find on television today. Is it a poignant drama in which characters find themselves navigating weighty, morally complicated situations? Nope, it’s a hilarious show that takes place in an utterly unique vision of the afterlife where the main street might be lined with frozen yogurt shops and the town square might have a fountain of chowder. For reasons I won’t spoil, the four newly deceased main characters aren’t out of the moral woods yet, despite seemingly arriving at their eternal reward. No, they must continue to work on figuring out what it means to be a genuinely good person, and then put those lessons into practice.

The pleasures of The Good Place come not just from its lighthearted but substantial explorations of thorny moral issues or from its sharp dialogue and great performances, but from its fascinating worldbuilding and delightfully twisty plotting as well. The result is delicious escapist entertainment that’s not all empty calories, and no show this year managed to lift my spirits as consistently as this one.

4. Stranger Things

Season two of Stranger Things is messy where the first felt focused. It introduces fascinating new characters only to sideline them in favor of the core cast from season one. Where the first season stood strong on its own, season two begins plot threads only to leave them thoroughly unresolved, obviously setting up conflicts for future seasons to deal with. I was left frustrated and wanting throughout. Then the final scene came along. My heart cracked open as I watched Eleven, Mike and the rest of the gang be ushered into adolescence by “Every Breath You Take” and everything was forgiven.

One place where this season didn’t skimp was Eleven herself. She developed from enigma to person, a girl whose feelings we can understand: one who has suffered so much and missed out on so much, who has so many reasons to feel angry and bitter and lost, but still, heroically, tries to connect, to love, to be there with and for others. As a good friend of mine wrote, “Do people really (not) understand that to have a show where people say, express, and show love is already enough? Is everything? A show where boys do real affective labor, girls have the power to save the world, everyone touches and wants to heal, and people live to fight for each other.” Yep. She’s right. Sometimes it’s enough.

(For more on season two of Stranger Things, read my piece Eleven Is the Hero I Needed in 1984.)

3. Halt and Catch Fire

Halt and Catch Fire was always a show about connection, in both the technological sense, as its characters repeatedly attempted to pioneer ways for people to act and interact in the thrilling new frontier of cyberspace, and in the interpersonal sense, as these brilliant, ambitious people loved each other, despised each other, and often found themselves reaching across divides of hurt and misunderstanding to achieve some kind of reconciliation with each other. By its fourth and final season, we knew these characters well and so did their creators, who explored connection more deeply and honestly than they ever had before. They gave Donna, Cameron, Gordon and Joe room to evolve and a chance to form healthier, steadier, less conflicted relationships with each other, and allowed them to acknowledge how much they really need each other.

Tragedy strikes and things don’t work out for everyone, but as TV critic Alan Sepinwall wrote, “the One True Pairing of Halt was Donna and Cameron,” and these two find their way back to friendship after years of bitterness and hurt. Things change, and this show, which reinvented itself time and time again, ultimately centers the relationship between the two brilliant and complicated women who started off Halt‘s run existing slightly in the shadows of its two male leads. It’s them we thrillingly leave on the brink of the Internet explosion, with so much untapped potential laid out before them; a potential that they both know they can only make the most of together. Halt and Catch Fire never lost sight of the fact that it’s our connections with each other that matter more than anything, and the final season is a beautiful expression of this truth.

(The entire run of Halt and Catch Fire is now on Netflix. Listen to our podcasts on the show’s fourth season as you make your way through it.)

2. The Keepers

In early November of 1969, Sister Cathy Cesnik of Baltimore was murdered, and for decades, former students of hers have doggedly continued to fight to uncover the truth behind her death. As this seven-episode documentary series grippingly reveals, Joseph Maskell, a priest at the all-girls high school where Cesnik taught, repeatedly sexually abused a number of students, and it may well have been Cesnik’s discovery of this, and her efforts to do something about it, that led to her murder.

The Keepers works fantastically in the way that so many other recent true crime podcasts and documentaries have worked, with revelations and twists and turns that keep us engaged in the process of uncovering what really happened. But more than that, it’s an astounding portrait of heroic women who honor the life of their former teacher by absolutely refusing to give up the fight for justice on her behalf, and of other incredible women, too, who were abused by Maskell and find the courage to speak out against his misdeeds despite the tremendous psychological harm he inflicted on them. In a year where some powerful men finally faced consequences for decades-old patterns of sexual abuse and misconduct, while the man occupying the most powerful office in the world remains impervious to any consequences from his own vile behavior, The Keepers is a galvanizing reminder of the moral imperative to continue challenging power’s tendency to protect itself, whether that power has its roots in fame, wealth, politics, or religion.

1. Twin Peaks: The Return

Twin Peaks, let me be clear, is hardly the “most feminist” show of the year. It is, however, the most daring, astounding, challenging, and awe-inspiring show of the year, and quite possibly, of any year. In 2017, a year that made so many of us feel like we’d shifted completely into some sort of surreal, warped vision of the United States, Twin Peaks paradoxically felt like a concrete thing to hold onto, a show whose compassion and morality shone through, even when its logic was at its most strange and dreamlike. Early in the season, David Lynch’s own Gordon Cole tells a fellow FBI agent who transitioned on the job that he had told her colleagues, “those clown comics, to fix their hearts or die.” That sentiment, “fix your hearts or die,” has echoed in my head and heart ever since, an urgent plea to this country as it wages war on transgender folks, Muslims, women, people of color, the poor, the sick, and others.

Twin Peaks: The Return elevates the incident that set the series in motion way back in 1990, the murder of Laura Palmer, to the level of a cosmic crime, suggesting that the violence men do to women under patriarchy perpetually breaks the world anew, and in scene after scene, it illuminates the anguish and injustice of a world in which women are so often dehumanized. I’ll never forget this scene (embedded above) with Charlyne Yi’s Ruby, who is sitting at a table at the Roadhouse when two imposing men approach her. She quietly asserts that she’s waiting for someone, but the men simply pick her up, set her on the ground, and take the booth for themselves. She has no recourse. They have all the power and she has none. It’s as if she doesn’t deserve to exist, to take up space just for herself. She crawls into the crowd slowly and lets out the most horrified and pleading and desperate of screams, a scream that seems to me to speak on behalf of women everywhere whose value is disregarded, whose humanity is rendered invisible, whose will is ignored. That, to me, is the sound of 2017.

Check out all of our 2017 year-end retrospectives!
Read about:
Ebony’s Comfort Blankets of 2017
Carolyn’s Favorite Movies of 2017
Ashley’s Happy Distractions of 2017
Carolyn’s Favorite Games of 2017
Anita’s Most Memorable Media of 2017

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