For some years now, we have heard the phrase ‘The Golden Age of Television,’ with some question as to whether that’s actually accurate, and what that might even mean. Netflix has arguably led the charge in respect to quality TV production in recent times, but it seems that this push has now reached some kind of critical mass for the streaming platform – as 2017 saw an unprecedented number of excellent shows arrive on the service, while many returned for follow-up seasons.
These series represent the very best in narrative storytelling available on Netflix, with many standing as examples of the importance of inclusion both on and off screen. They span a range of drama and comedy, while some experiment with format and pace in a variety of successful ways. Above all, though, they’re quite simply gold-standard television.
So, as we reflect on another year past, here are the best Netflix shows of 2017. As always, if you think we missed any, or have any of your own choices to add in, feel free to sound off in the comments section down below.
Mindhunter (Season 1)
This compelling drama follows an idealistic young FBI agent as he joins forces with an older, more cynical agent to expand the scope of behavioural analysis within the iconic law enforcement agency. As they break new ground and develop the early blueprints for what would eventually become behavioural science, they spend their time building relationships with incarcerated serial killers, providing training to local police forces, and consulting on local, unsolved murders as they travel around the country. Their experiences play out against the backdrop of political machinations within the upper echelons of the FBI, and the two agents begin working with a renowned psychologist who helps them develop a deeper understanding of behavioural patterns in predators.
Mindhunter was created by writer Joe Penhall, and boasts both David Fincher and Charlize Theron among its producers. It’s based on the book Mindhunter: Inside The FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by legendary FBI profiler John E. Douglas, on whom the character of Jack Crawford in The Silence Of The Lambs was based. This, coupled with the fact that John Douglas is involved with the show as a writer, means that the series has an unprecedented level of detail regarding the early days of behavioural science in law enforcement, as well impressive insight into the profiling of infamous serial killers.
The biggest strength of the show, however, lies in the combination of performance, pacing and tone. Jonathan Groff shines as the lead character, Holden Ford – the man who walks into the FBI’s fledgling forays into behavioural science and spearheads a brand new level of progression. Holt McCallany, meanwhile, stars as Bill Tench – the agent already trying to disseminate profiling techniques to local police forces, and Anna Torv stars as Professor Wendy Carr, the psychologist who finds herself having to chose between a tenured position at Boston University, or a role defining profiling protocols for the FBI.
Series directors David Fincher, Andrew Douglas, Asif Kapadia and Tobias Lindholm create a cohesive narrative here that’s ultimately a slow-build drama, with a genuinely creepy atmosphere. It neither veers into goriness, nor exaggerates the strangeness of its serial killing subjects. The result is a show that presents people who could genuinely be the person queuing behind you in the grocery store, talking in detail, and matter-of-factly, about the heinous crimes they’ve committed and the reasoning behind them. At the same time, we see the FBI agents irrevocably altered by their interactions with a vast range of predators. The show is also notable for a writing team of nine that includes four women.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Mindhunter, though, is its comedic elements. Despite dealing with very real, very disturbing individuals and their crimes, the show doesn’t shy away from the inclusion of humour, which is expertly and deftly sprinkled throughout the episodes – bringing further nuance and complexity to the striking tone. We never feel as though we’re chuckling at the agents, the murderers, or their victims, however. Instead, we’re experiencing their macabre amusement at the strangest of moments, which is perhaps the most relatable human behaviour of all.
Stranger Things (Season 2)
When the first season of the Duffer Brothers’ creation, Stranger Things, arrived on Netflix in 2016, it was with very little fanfare – meaning that it then had to build its audience through word-of-mouth, rather than by an elaborate advance marketing campaign. This proved to be a very effective strategy though for a drama that draws the audience into its tightly woven web of intrigue, and causes us to become deeply invested in the fate of its brilliantly drawn characters.
Season 1 introduced the premise of the Upside Down, an alternative dimension which seeps through into ours in a military facility in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana in the early 1980s. A group of local children become embroiled in strange occurrences when one of their number – Will Byers – disappears in the pilot episode. As a mysterious young girl with psychokinetic abilities appears in the community, the local children, the mother of the missing boy, and the local Sheriff all work to understand what’s happening in their town – and save Will.
That first season became a small screen phenomenon, winning several awards, reinvigorating the careers of Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine, propelling actor David Harbour to leading man status and creating young stars of Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton and Joe Keery. Season 2, meanwhile, takes that early success and builds on it in every way.
The returning cast is bolstered by the additions of Sean Astin, Sadie Sink, Dacre Montgomery and Paul Reiser. The overall premise progresses to present a renewed, greater threat to the community, while also specifically targeting the character of Will, who here’s promoted to series regular, having been the ‘missing child’ in season 1. References to 1980s culture go much deeper, while the story also spreads itself geographically beyond the confines of Hawkins, Indiana.
It was a tough job to follow up on the tremendous debut season that Stranger Things had, but by all accounts, Netflix succeeded.
Santa Clarita Diet (Season 1)
On the face of it, Victor Fresco’s Netflix comedy series, Santa Clarita Diet, is about one family’s attempts to adjust to Mom becoming a zombie. But – to quote Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi – “Look closer.”
Drew Barrymore and Timothy Olyphant star as married real estate agents Sheila and Joel Hammond. In the opening scene, their morning alarm rings, and we learn that Sheila’s notably more careful and considered in her actions than the spontaneous Joel. We meet their 17 year old daughter, Abby (Liv Hewson), who’s trying hard to spread her wings, and we catch a glimpse of the minor familial issues that generally fill their days. The Hammonds live in an idyllic property development, but are sandwiched between the family homes of two law enforcement officers – one from the Sheriff’s Department, and one from the local police – and these two men are evidently professional rivals.
During the first episode, Sheila disrupts a house viewing by spewing a phenomenal amount of vomit over the property, and seemingly dies on the bathroom floor. She immediately reawakens, though, and she and Joel must then get to grips with the fact that Sheila’s essentially a zombie and needs to eat. This is where most of the comedy lies – in the couple’s attempts, along with their daughter, to adjust to a new lifestyle in which Sheila has to kill people for food in order to ‘survive.’
But, this isn’t really a Zombie-Mom comedy. This is a show that’s layered and nuanced and deals with a range of very human issues through the metaphor of the Undead. It’s no accident that the series presents this family at this particular life-stage, where everything to which they’re accustomed is undergoing transformation. Both Sheila and Joel are in the throes of their own mid-life crises, and they’re fast approaching the time when their only child will be leaving the nest.
For this reason – while the whole cast delivers outstanding performances – it’s the character of Undead Sheila that’s ironically the beating heart of the show. She undergoes the most fundamental transformation, as her zombie self is entirely governed by her Id, as opposed to her head, as she previously was. This provides a portrait that’s at once heartwarming and heart-rending, of a woman dealing with the challenge of the ever-shifting role she plays in the lives of her family – and in particular, her child.
At the same time, Santa Clarita Diet effortlessly skewers all aspects of social attitudes and trends, as Undead Sheila slices through convention like a slab of fresh meat – from her response to a lecherous and sexually harassing colleague, to her renegotiation of her boundaries with Joel. This is perhaps most evident in her change of tactic with their Sheriff’s Department neighbour, who has no respect for boundaries at all. But the beauty of this aspect of the story is the way in which her most subtle changes do not appear in a vacuum, but rather lead to changes in Joel and Abby, too.
Orange Is The New Black (Season 5)
With this, its fifth season, Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is The New Black remains one of the most inclusive series on Netflix – having a cast of phenomenally talented women and men, and a ten-strong writing team for 2017 that boasts seven women. Having launched in 2013, based on the memoir of writer Piper Kerman, this Netflix Original series continues to hold pride of place as one of the streaming platforms biggest successes in original programming.
The reason for that success is its evolution. It began life focused on the character of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), as she was convicted of a ten-year old crime of carrying drug money for her ex-girlfriend, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon). Sentenced to 18 months in a women’s prison, the first season was largely driven by the idea of culture shock, while introducing a host of brilliant, complex characters as fellow inmates.
It’s that early investment in those other characters that has led us to the current state of affairs, where Orange Is The New Black is a true ensemble show, in which every character gets to shine. From Danielle Brooks’ Taystee Jefferson, to Selenis Leyva’s Gloria Mendoza; from Nick Sandow’s Joe Caputo, to Kate Mulgrew’s Red Reznikov. Every episode is filled to bursting with standout performances.
But, this 13-episode fifth season in particular is an outstanding achievement, because it picks up immediately after the closing moments of season 4 – which saw a stand-off between inmates and officers in the aftermath of the death of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley). In the opening episode of season 5, that stand-off escalates to a full-scale riot, with the inmates taking over the facility. A core group of Poussey’s closest friends use the riot to demand better treatment and a proper, public investigation into her death, while others take the opportunity to seize power.
The entire season consists of this scenario playing out, with each character progressing in response to the crisis – and this makes for truly compelling television. As each inmate, prison officer, and bureaucrat wrestles with the social contracts, issues and implications of the situation, the drama is driven forward like a freight-train – with director Erin Feeley’s episode 9 (“The Tightening”) in particular bringing elements of classic horror and suspense to the darkened hallways of Litchfield Women’s Prison.
Bloodline (Season 3)
It seems that Bloodline is a show that somehow divides audiences. It’s never been a ‘flagship’ series for Netflix in the way that House Of Cards or Orange Is The New Black has been, and it’s not an inclusive production, by any means. Only one of its 33 episodes has been directed by a woman, and only three women writers have ever been employed by the show. But, this is a tour de force by cast members Kyle Chandler, Ben Mendelsohn, Linda Cardellini, Norbert Leo Butz and Sissy Spacek.
Bloodline is the very definition of the term ‘slow burn TV,’ with its many twists and turns unfolding at a carefully measured, deliberate pace. Season 1 introduced us to the Rayburn family – pillars of the community in Islamorada in the Florida Keys, and owners of the holiday resort, the Rayburn House. Sally (Sissy Spacek) and Robert (Sam Shepherd) are parents to the Rayburn siblings. The eldest, Danny (Ben Mendelsohn) is the troubled ‘black sheep’ who moved away; the second-eldest, John (Kyle Chandler) is a respected local police detective; the youngest son, Kevin, (Norbert Leo Butz) runs a local boat workshop; and the youngest daughter, Meg (Linda Cardellini) is a lawyer. Each has their own lives, but remains connected to the family.
It’s through the roles they play within the family that their characters are revealed, as their eldest brother Danny returns home for a family celebration at the beginning of season 1. As those initial 13 episodes gradually unfold, we realize that none of these Rayburns are the upstanding citizens their community believes them to be. Long-buried, dark secrets rise to surface, causing the simmering tension to bubble over in unexpected and disturbing ways, and eventually, violence erupts. Season 2 deals with the aftermath of that violence, as figures from Danny’s past arrive in Islamorada and rock the boat even more vigorously. The show then becomes about the Rayburn siblings’ desperate attempts to preserve their fragile status quo, amid more unsettling revelations and violence.
This third season takes the Rayburn family in a very different direction, however, possibly because the creators – Glenn Kessler, Todd Kessler and Daniel Zelman – were writing from the knowledge of this being Bloodline’s last hurrah, after the announcement of its cancellation. The opening episode picks up right where season 2 left off – with John Rayburn fleeing the Florida Keys. The almost ethereal tone these first moments strike really lays the foundation for the rest of the season – which is essentially a portrait of a man watching his carefully manufactured reality crumble around him as a result of his own actions.
This is the crux of Bloodline’s third season – where season 1 floored us with an absolutely towering Kyle Chandler performance, and season 2 had that character tugging dangerously at his ‘good guy’ mask, season 3 is a study in character deconstruction. Chandler gives us a John Rayburn who’s circling the drain and has alienated everyone he might once have called upon for understanding. As his family continues to fracture, John loses his grip on everything – including reality. This gives rise to what is possibly the most divisive episode – the penultimate of the series – in which a hospitalized John experiences an almost Groundhog-Day-like psychosis.
While some viewers felt this to be a bizarre ‘filler’ episode, this is the kind of bold narrative move taken by a show that knows it’s ending. As Bloodline has consistently tugged at our consciousness like the Islamorada tide, so too has Kyle Chandler crafted a performance – ending in season 3 – that is worthy of repeated viewing.
Master Of None (Season 2)
Created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, Master Of None is a comedy series unlike any other. With its premise being a look at the personal and professional life of 30 year old actor, Dev (Aziz Ansari), while he navigates life in New York City, the first season of Master Of None took a swipe at one specific issue per episode. For example, one focused on contraception, one focused on the challenge of dealing with parents when you’re first generation American, one looks at the challenges of being an actor of Indian descent while trying to find interesting roles in television, one deals with misogyny, and one deals with the impact co-habitation can have on a relationship.
Season 1 was exceptional television, with remarkable performances from all concerned. But, rather than dive straight back into production on a second season, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang waited two years until they had a story they wanted to tell – and the result is something very special indeed. Instead of very specifically discussing one particular issue per episode, this second season follows Dev on something of a voyage of self-discovery, and takes small detours into philosophical and social observations along the way.
Episode one finds Dev living in Modena, Italy, where he’s been learning how to make pasta and connecting with the local residents. Shot in black and white, the episode pays homage to classic Italian cinema, while depicting Dev having something of an awakening when he meets a woman he’d like to date. As the season progresses, Dev hosts his best friend Arnold (Eric Wareheim), who’s on his way to a wedding, and the two face a number of personal truths as they take in the Italian countryside. Dev then returns to New York and attempts to resume his life there – working as the host of a TV show and dipping into internet dating.
In an excellent season, episode 8 (“Thanksgiving”) stands out, as it depicts a number of Thanksgiving celebrations shared by Dev and his best friend Denise (Lena Waithe) as they grew up. Beginning in the 1990s, the episode explores the family situations of Dev and Denise through childhood, bringing them right up to the present day – covering the years in which Denise was figuring out her sexuality, and trying to reconcile that with her family. The episode is notable for supporting performances from Angela Bassett and Kym Whitley – as well as direction from Melina Matsoukas, and a script by Lena Waithe and Aziz Ansari.
G.L.O.W (Season 1)
Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, G.L.O.W is the kind of comedy series that grows on a viewer slowly. It’s a fictionalization of the creation of the women’s professional wrestling promotion, Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling – founded by David B. McLane in 1986. At the time, women’s wrestling was regarded as something of a novelty, and McLane faced a great deal of obstruction in trying to get his organization off the ground.
In its first few episodes, the main character in G.L.O.W is Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), who’s an unemployed actress keen to make her mark. Her best friend is Debbie Eagen (Betty Gilpin), who was previously a soap actress, but who faces the prejudice of having taken a break to have a baby. We learn early on that Ruth has been having an affair with Debbie’s husband – and the stage is set for these two characters to play out their dramatic arc.
Ruth goes for an audition at a gym, and realizes the project on offer is very different. B-movie filmmaker Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) intends to make a women’s wrestling broadcast – with characters, costumes and storylines – and is looking for women to appear. After a few episodes focused on assembling a cast, the show really takes flight as an ensemble piece, filled with brilliant women who are each facing their own challenges and are becoming more deeply invested in the wrestling show than any of them thought they would be.
G.L.O.W benefits greatly from the inclusion of women in the production process – with 6 of the 10 directors, and 6 of the 8 writers being women. By the time we reach episode 4 (The Dusty Spur), and the female wrestlers are training together and developing their wrestling personas, the show has several plot threads progressing at once – from the relationships between the women, to the relationship between the women and Sam; from the family responses to the women’s work, to the efforts of an incompetent producer to get the show on the air. Each of these subplots is fully fleshed out and well-crafted.
In its entirety, though, G.L.O.W creates a world in which a group of wildly different women begin to work together as a team to create something brand new and exciting – and we see the impact that process has on them on a personal level. It’s both heartwarming and entertaining, and deserves a second season that builds on such a solid foundation.
Friends From College (Season 1)
The characters in Friends From College are undoubtedly over-privileged and somewhat ridiculous, but the strength of this show – created by Francesca Delbanco and Nicholas Stoller – lies in our willingness to spend time with them as they gradually come to realize just how over-privileged and somewhat ridiculous they are. The premise is simple: six friends from Harvard are reunited in New York when two of their number move back into town from Chicago. As a result of this, their relationships and romantic entanglements with each other are magnified – bringing old secrets to the surface and current tensions to a head.
The six friends are Ethan (Keegan-Michael Key), Lisa (Cobie Smulders), Max (Fred Savage), Nick (Nat Faxon), Sam (Annie Parisse) and Marianne (Jae Suh Park). Ethan and Lisa are married, but Ethan is having an affair with Sam, who is married to John (Greg Germann). Lisa used to date Nick, who is getting engaged to someone else. Max is an editor at a publishing house, who is in a relationship with surgeon Felix (Billy Eichner) – but he’s trying to relive his Harvard days as a co-writer with author Ethan. While the group is, on the face of it, tight-knit, each of those threads comes under strain by their sudden close proximity, and the fact that they’re all staring down the barrel of their fortieth birthdays.
Each of the cast does sterling work here, and we’re drawn into their individual predicaments in spite of their over-privileged nature. It’s absolutely the case that Fred Savage steals the show, though, in spite of stiff competition. He effortlessly strolls away with each of his scenes, while clearly having an immense amount of fun. For this reason, episodes 3 (All-Nighter) and 4 (Mission Impossible) are season stand-outs, while episode 5 (Party Bus) features a deeply moving subplot in which Max quietly navigates a relationship implosion on a group excursion filled with the same.
American Vandal (Season 1)
Taking the format of a documentary shot by High Schooler Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez), American Vandal is a razor-sharp skewering of the true-crime documentaries that increasingly fill the airwaves and keep viewers in suspense as to the guilt or innocence of the accused. With all the attendant mystery surrounding possible miscarriages of justice, the series presents itself as a spotlight on the kind of social stigma that can impact the educational careers of children.
The show is created by Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda (who directs the series in its entirety), and has a very simple premise: somebody has vandalized the cars of 27 faculty members in the staff parking lot, by spray-painting them with phallic images. Renowned High School prankster Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) stands accused, and is suspended from school while senior management investigate. Dylan proclaims his innocence, however, and Peter resolves to uncover the truth with his documentary.
The story has a great many twists and turns, as Peter methodically sifts through evidence and testimony to create a picture of what happened on the day in question. It leads him to delve into the relationship and behavioural histories of other students, which poses ethical dilemmas and causes friction between the young filmmaker and his team. It also leads him to pick apart the attitudes of the adults associated with the situation – some of whom are then revealed to be very different from the professional personas they’ve carefully constructed.
While Tyler Alvarez delivers a great performance as the idealistic and driven young documentarian, the real revelation here is Jimmy Tatro as Dylan Maxwell. Over the course of eight episodes, he paints a complex portrait of a young man whose vulnerabilities are locked down beneath an extrovert mask, and who’s in grave danger of resigning himself to the role handed him by society at large.