NEW YORK – So-called “Peak TV” remains the blessing and the curse for viewers in 2017, with the tally of scripted series now totaling some 500. Where to begin saluting all the great shows? Here are 10 to salute, recall fondly and, for viewers who missed any of them, catch up with:
“American Gods” (Starz): A former convict is hired upon his release by a charismatic con man and finds himself in a hidden world where a battle brews between Old Gods and New Gods. The stated premise for this dazzling series makes no more sense than the series itself will for many viewers. No matter. The trippy, eye-popping visuals (along with brilliant acting) never gives the viewer time to feel confused.
“The Americans” (FX): For its fifth season, this thriller about Russian spies posing as 1980s-era all-American marrieds (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) took an illuminating look at the American Dream while gaining unsought relevance as the Cold War of that distant age is bestirring anew.
“Big Little Lies” (HBO): Money can’t buy happiness in the cushy seaside Northern California community where this miniseries unfolds. Every wife and mother has a beef with other locals while the men mostly misbehave. Then someone dies violently. It’s a gripping mystery and social dissection that puts women in the forefront, with an extraordinary cast including Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (CW): This romantic-musical-comedy-drama never fails to find insight and humor in the plight of a smart, attractive young woman who also happens to be a bit loony in matters of love. Co-created and starring the radiant Rachel Bloom, it is funny, poignant and supercharged with musical production numbers that would find a warm welcome on any Broadway stage (how DO they create and film those witty sequences week after week?).
“The Deuce” (HBO): In this ambitious drama series, the denizens of the Deuce (shorthand for Manhattan’s 42nd Street wasteland) trace intertwined narratives set against an exactingly re-created Big Apple of circa 1970s. The rich spectrum of characters (ranging from prostitutes and pushers to mobsters and dirty cops, and even a college-dropout-turned-barmaid) explore the modern evolution of pornography. David Simon (“The Wire”) is a writer-creator, and the spectacular cast includes Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco. A remarkable, eye-opening flashback.
“Feud: Bette and Joan” (FX): Starring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, two screen stars deemed over the hill by studio lords, “Bette and Joan” is set a half-century ago. But this sumptuous miniseries zeroes in on the ageism, sexism and misogyny afflicting Hollywood (and society overall) right now, as well as then.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu). Elisabeth Moss portrays one of the few remaining fertile women in the cruel futuristic dystopia of Gilead, a totalitarian society where human rights are trampled and this special caste of women is forced into sexual servitude in a desperate attempt to repopulate a ravaged world. A cautionary tale when the novel was published in 1985, this TV series adaptation gained even more urgency after last year’s presidential election. A stirring cautionary tale indeed!
“The Opposition with Jordan Klepper” (Comedy Central). Move over, Breitbart, Alex Jones and “Hannity.” Klepper is on the case. Adapting to the current media ethos with its ever harsher, ever more absurdist pitch, Klepper in effect hosts a supercharged version of “The Colbert Report,” whose time slot he inherited in September (and not a moment too soon) when he unveiled his fake rantcast. His nightly show captures the present moment as shrewdly as Colbert did on his bygone Comedy Central show. Like the voices he mocks, TV-Klepper is against all ideas and movements along with the conspiracies he sees lurking behind each of them. His show is bitterly funny and right on target at a time when everything is in ugly dispute, especially reality.
“Ozark” (Netflix). When not advising clients on their 401(k) plans, humdrum Chicago financial adviser Marty Byrde launders cash by the millions. But then he gets jammed up with the Mexican drug cartel he cleans that money for. So he and his family skedaddle to the Missouri Ozarks, a safer base of operations where he hopes to set things right before he, his wife and kids all end up dead. Jason Bateman heads this marvelously twisty, sometimes scary, often funny thriller as the Byrdes scramble to stay solvent, and alive.
“The Vietnam War” (PBS). It may seem odd to describe an 18-hour Ken Burns docuseries as a crash course, but this heartbreaking, insightful masterpiece moves quickly as it tracks every step of a disastrous military misadventure that still haunts the nation, and, judging from the country’s ongoing involvement in Iraq, seems to have taught the nation little. It’s an essential TV event for everyone who lived through the Vietnam era, and especially for those who have come along since.