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The Year in Arts 2017

Matthew Gilbert’s favorite TV shows of 2017

Pamela Adlon in “Better Things.” Colleen Hayes/FX

I do obsess a bit over my Top 10 list. And every year, it gets harder to select only 10 shows out of the hundreds that come out annually on the streaming and cable outlets — oh, right, and on the networks.

Here are the 10 series that gave me the most pleasure in 2017. Here, too, is a second list of 10 shows, many of which could easily have been on the Top 10 on a different day. I’ve decided not to include unscripted or nonfiction series such as “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” and “Next Week Tonight With John Oliver” here, just as a way to stay wieldy.


As always, let me know what I got right, what I got wrong, and what I missed.

1. “Better Things,” FX

Single parenthood, this is your great homage. It’s an intimate, affectionate portrait of Pamela Adlon’s Sam Fox, who presides over three daughters, plus her mother across the street. Part comedy, part drama, the series is built on tiny, mundane moments that have deep, bittersweet resonance. One scene — when Adlon tells an interested man “No” over and over again for two minutes — still makes me feel gleeful. As she also digs into the experiences of an over-40 actress in Hollywood and dating as a mother, Adlon is the force behind the show, co-writing and directing every episode of the second season. Sadly, Louis C.K. is also involved behind the scenes, a difficult irony given the show’s fierce respect for women.

Elisabeth Moss stars as Offred in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” George Kraychyk/Hulu

2. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Hulu

Maybe if this Emmy-winning drama hadn’t come out in 2017, it wouldn’t have been quite as haunting. It would have been a seamlessly designed, powerfully acted dystopia that is elegantly derived from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. It would have been a model of set design, costume, and color symbolism. But the themes — the subjugation of women, male authoritarianism, slippery biblical justifications — resonate hard against the uncertainties of the Trump-Pence era. The red handmaid outfits offer a strong contrast to the pink hats of the Women’s March. As June, known as Offred, Elisabeth Moss is outstanding, conveying rebellion in the tiniest of eye movements. And she is surrounded by an embarrassment of supporting riches, including Ann Dowd, Samira Wiley, Alexis Bledel, and Yvonne Strahovski.


From left: Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon, and Nicole Kidman in “Big Little Lies.”Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

3. “Big Little Lies,” HBO

This was pretty luscious — a bunch of A List actors playing sharply etched characters, a few spectacularly modern homes, and a raging coastline threatening to swallow them all. But what gave it distinction, what made it more than just a soapy pleasure, was the theme of women and the men who robbed them of their power. That theme was most brutally portrayed by Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgard, who delivered one of TV’s most insidious and repugnant portraits of domestic abuse. Sharply written by David E. Kelley, imaginatively directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, and adapted from Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel, the miniseries was a celebration of what can happen when women join forces.

Maggie Gyllenhaal in “The Deuce.”Paul Schiraldi/HBO

4. “The Deuce,” HBO

The realism of this snapshot of Times Square in the early 1970s is miraculous and transporting. You are there. With the same intensity and detail they brought to “The Wire,” David Simon and George Pelecanos take us into the lives of the pimps and hookers working the streets just as the age of porn movies dawns. Each one has his or her dream, with James Franco as the twin brothers in the middle of everything. Will the capitalist system work for these folks? Their stories are told with the kinds of dialogue and plot developments that don’t insult your intelligence.


5. “Insecure,” HBO

Like “Better Things,” Issa Rae’s amiable comedy-drama is personal and intimate, and it blossomed in its second season. Issa, now officially single and looking for adventure, tries to be easy, which isn’t as easy as she thought. Meanwhile, her friend Molly, played by the fantastic Yvonne Orji, tries to find love, which definitely isn’t easy. The show is a rom-com shot through with emotional complexity, where the harder Issa, Molly, and Issa’s ex, Lawrence (Jay Ellis), look to find love, the more they see and learn about themselves.

Sarah Gadon in Netflix's “Alias Grace.”Jan Thijs/Netflix

6. “Alias Grace,” Netflix

Another 2017 Margaret Atwood adaptation, this quiet but piercing story set in the mid-1800s is about a “celebrated murderess” — a maid — who is in jail for killing her master and his mistress. It’s based in fact, but the focus is on Grace Marks’s subjective memories as she tells the story of her life and incarceration to a doctor. She describes the abuse by her father and by the men in the penal system, by turns angry, weak, helpless, and crafty. What is the truth? That’s the question — and a timely one, too — that screenwriter Sarah Polley and director Mary Harron explore. As Grace, Sarah Gadon is unforgettable.


7. “Master of None,” Netflix

Aziz Ansari’s ambitions as a writer continued to grow in the second season of his sweet, wise dramedy, which he created and writes with Alan Yang. No sophomore slump here. The show is still about being a struggling Indian-American actor looking for love and good food in New York, but Ansari’s auteurism has grown, as he alludes to classic movies, toys with linear storytelling, and artfully frames shots. Each episode is a little movie, with its own look and structure. The season, released in May, also includes a plotline involving sexual harassment in the workplace, anticipating many of the issues we’re debating in the season of #MeToo.

Billy Eichner, Julie Klausner in "Difficult People" on Hulu. Photo credit: Linda Kallerus/Hulu -- 17Buzzsaw 17yeartvpicks Linda Kallerus/Hulu/Hulu

8. “Difficult People,” Hulu

This spiky post-“Seinfeld” comedy about a pair of misanthropes in New York wasn’t for everyone, but it was totally for me, especially during a year that threatened to make many of us feel like misanthropes. The popcyclopedic banter between show creator and writer Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner was sharp and aimed at everything from “Roseanne” and Maury Povich to Vice President Mike Pence and gay conversion therapy. Alas, the series has been canceled after three seasons.

9. “The Good Place,” NBC

Any show that completely remakes its original premise at the end of its first season automatically steals my heart. And any show that remakes itself — turns out the good place was really the bad place — and then improves enormously with a sparklingly clever second season makes it onto my favorites list. This network comedy, featuring a tight cast led by Ted Danson and Kristen Bell, effortlessly dabbles in ethical questions and philosophical contradictions while also providing the kind of character-based jokes that you find on smart sitcoms. It’s a trip through the meanings of heaven, hell, good, bad, truth, and fiction, with an AI personal assistant named Janet (D’Arcy Carden) who is the best Siri ever.


Giovanni Ribisi in “Sneaky Pete.”Eric Liebowitz/Amazon Prime Video

10. “Sneaky Pete,” Amazon

There are plenty of complicated dramas out there, such as “Westworld” and “Game of Thrones,” that keep us working hard to keep track of plot turns. “Sneaky Pete” is not one of those intricate dramas, but it’s a lot of fun. Giovanni Ribisi stars as a newly released convict who, to avoid a mobster to whom he owes money, adopts his still-incarcerated cellmate’s identity. The fun is in watching Ribisi’s con man improvise along the way, as well as in producer Bryan Cranston’s hammy turn as the mobster. Another plus: Margo Martindale as the possibly fooled grandmother.


“Game of Thrones,” HBO

As majestic and dramatic as ever, even off-book.

“Downward Dog,” ABC

For dog people, this romantic comedy is a must.

Jason Bateman and Laura Linney in “Ozark.”Jackson Davis/Netflix via AP

Ozark,” Netflix

A twist on “Breaking Bad,” with Laura Linney stealing the show.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” Amazon

A charming story of stand-up comedy as female empowerment in the 1950s.

GLOW,” Netflix

American kitsch, 1980s style, as we watch the formation of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.

“The Americans,” FX

The calm before the storm? The penultimate season was quietly compelling.

“The Crown,” Netflix

The prettiest, most elegant, and engaging history lesson ever.

“Mindhunter,” Netflix

Behind the art of studying serial killers.

“Feud: Bette and Joan,” FX

Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford? It doesn’t get much better.

“Broad City,” Comedy Central

A warm friendship threesome between Abbi, Ilana, and New York City.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.