Lists, lists and more lists. Where does it end, at this time of the year?
Such is the mania, a person would be tempted to make lists of TV types that won’t be missed. Like, say, Les Moonves, previously the big boss of CBS. Or Megyn Kelly, whose strange, tortured shift from Fox News to more mainstream NBC has ended with fraught negotiations about her exit. Eventually she will take her views about blackface somewhere else. But for now, who can be missing her?
But let’s talk content. As best-of TV lists are made this year, one theme becomes obvious. With more than 500 scripted series airing, many lists are less about the very best shows than they are about the meaning of high-profile series. Excellent productions, particularly small-scale drama or comedies, or documentaries, tend to be forgotten or ignored.
So let me assist you with a mini-list of things that you won’t be reading about here, there and everywhere, but will offer rewarding viewing.
Atypical (Netflix) is funny, wise, sometimes a bit wobbly in tone but always charming. With two seasons of eight half-hour episodes, it’s a delightful experience. The show’s central character is Sam (Keir Gilchrist), an 18-year-old high-school senior who is on the autism spectrum, and much of the drama and comedy is anchored in Sam’s innate need to have “normal” experiences now that he’s 18. He wants to date a girl. He wants to understand the high-school hierarchy of cool kids, nerds and mean kids. He wants to think about a career. Life is complicated by his mom, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is wonderful), having an affair, his dad (Michael Rapaport) being depressed about that and his sister Casey (the excellent Brigette Lundy-Paine), an engine of sarcasm, figuring out whether she likes men or women.
Wild Wild Country (Netflix) is long-form documentary-making at its best. It chronicles what happened when Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers left India and created a commune-city in remote Oregon. The Rajneeshpuram existed in Oregon between 1981 and 1985 and, boy, did all sorts of trouble ensue. It’s a rich tale, incredibly affecting, sad, funny and wise. And all true.
She’s Gotta Have It (Netflix) is the TV adaptation of Spike Lee’s classic early film. It arrived just as 2017 ended, meaning it got lost in the overviews of both that year and this. The film and series chronicle artist Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), a self-described “sex-positive, polyamorous pansexual” who lives in Brooklyn. Nola lives her sex life to the fullest, largely with three male boyfriends who compete for her attention, for her admiration and, some of them, for her heart. Each man offers Nola something specific. Each also lacks something that the other offers.
Icarus (Netflix) was also streamed first in 2017 and then received a rush of attention when it won the best documentary Academy Award for director Bryan Fogel and producer Dan Cogan. Fogel wanted to prove something: That the entire anti-doping process in sport was nonsense. He does it with a remarkable and very personal story.
The Staircase (Netflix) is the mother of all true-crime documentary series. In the matter of newspaper columnist and novelist Michael Peterson, and the alleged murder of his wife, Kathleen, and possibly another person, this account of what happened has been called the Citizen Kane of the true-crime genre. Such series as Making a Murderer and The Keepers borrowed from the style of investigation established by this program, a project that began in 2001. In 2018 the tangled story and long investigation was revived with new material.
Casual (CraveTV) is a brittle but sharp and adult comedy-drama about life, love, family, friendship and figuring out that, if your parents screwed up, it’s up to you to make a better life. Executive-produced by Canadian Jason Reitman, it is mainly about a bachelor brother (Tommy Dewey) and his newly divorced sister (Michaela Watkins) living under one roof again. Together, they coach each other through the crazy world of dating while raising her teenage daughter (Tara Lynne Barr). All four seasons, with eight 30-minute episodes, are on Crave TV.