Forget the days when a lone TV critic could honestly claim to have watched everything in the past year. This list is more about taking a minute to salute the shows that rose above the streaming/cable/broadcast glut and impressed me with their stories, performances, structure and, most of all, left me with a sense of satisfaction.
1. “Barry” (HBO) Wickedly funny, deeply felt and unnervingly tense, Bill Hader and Alec Berg’s dramedy about a tormented hit man who accidentally winds up in acting school is a terrific example of how to push a viewer’s preconceptions: Funnyman Hader turns out to be a remarkably versatile protagonist, and Henry Winkler’s work in the series redefines the concept of a comeback. Sometimes a terrific “comedy” turns out to be one of the year’s best dramas.
2. “The Americans” (FX) There’s little left to say, except to salute creators Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, their writers and certainly their cast (especially Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Holly Taylor and Noah Emmerich) for a near perfect and emotionally draining send-off to this superb Cold War family drama, the final scenes of which left just enough room for viewers to supply their own epilogues. (My takeaway is that I’ll never listen to U2’s 1987 hit “With or Without You” quite the same.)
3. “Killing Eve” (BBC America) Sort of a sleeper hit at first, word quickly spread about Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s splendidly paced, six-part action thriller about a deskbound American (Sandra Oh) working in a London intelligence office who begins obsessively hunting for a wily and weird assassin (Jodie Comer) who leaves a trail of bodies across Europe. As it charges toward a confrontation, the series soars on Oh’s and Comer’s performances as two women thoroughly absorbed in a game of chase.
4. “Escape at Dannemora” (Showtime) Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin’s adaptation (with director Ben Stiller) of this story of two convicted murderers (Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano) who escaped a maximum-security prison in 2015 with the help of a besotted employee (Patricia Arquette) is striking for its unadorned quality. It’s a disciplined example of how a masterful true-crime miniseries can skip the need to play up a theme or suss out a larger meaning — which, if you still need one, is about human corruption. What if remorseless people are just bad and get exactly what’s coming to them?
5. “Kidding” (Showtime) Despite my initial worry that David Holstein’s dramedy about a troubled but beloved kids TV host (Jim Carrey as Jeff, a.k.a. “Mr. Pickles”) might bump too close to the sacred memory of Mister Rogers, “Kidding” stands entirely on its own. “Kidding’s” conception of Mr. Pickles’s imaginary world — with puppets and songs — shows top-notch creativity while Carrey gives his most memorable performance in years as a grieving father and estranged husband who begins to reexamine everything he thought he knew about love and feelings.
6. “Insecure” (HBO) My interest in what happens to the characters Issa Rae and company have created in this hilarious and sharply observed dramedy continues unabated — particularly with the show’s third season, in which Rae’s character leaped before she looked, quitting her job as a social worker, becoming a Lyft driver and testing the patience of friends. Beyond the comedy scenes, which are fantastic (that girls’ trip to Coachella alone is worth a re-watch), there’s covert reporting here about surviving the rapid, widening gentrification of Los Angeles.
7. “The Fourth Estate” (Showtime) With President Trump demonizing the media (and recently implying that it’s okay to kill a journalist under certain conditions), master documentarian Liz Garbus delivered this astounding and intimate look at the inner workings of the New York Times’s Washington bureau, where reporters and editors relentlessly pursue the administration’s constant chaos. I remain hopeful that “The Fourth Estate” will reach an audience beyond Beltway news junkies. All Americans need to see this example of the First Amendment in action.
8. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon) It’s on this list as much for its first, Emmy-winning season as its just-released (and so far equally marvelous) second season. This comic period drama about a hyperactive 1950s Manhattan housewife who finds her calling in the Village’s stand-up comedy scene is creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s grandest achievement yet — welcoming, yet bracingly obnoxious (yes, that’s a good thing), with a dazzling attention to timing and detail. “Mrs. Maisel” is scrumptious from start to finish — and appreciatively forthright about pursuing one’s dream in the face of sexism and other midcentury norms.
9. “Atlanta Robbin’ Season” (FX) Most of the talk around this long-awaited second season of Donald Glover’s dramedy — about a peripatetic man (Glover) who winds up managing the nascent rap career of his moody cousin (Brian Tyree Henry) — centered on the “Teddy Perkins” episode, a horror-tinged tale of a Michael Jacksonesque recluse (also played by Glover). But the season’s deeper story arcs, set against the unease of the holidays (a.k.a. “robbin’ season”), further cemented the show’s real worth as a study of the human condition.
10. “Forever” (Amazon) People often say we’re living in an era of outrage, but I think we’re living more in a time of perpetual sadness. A delicate sense of grief (ennui, maybe?) runs through some of the year’s best TV shows, particularly in Alan Yang’s effectively quirky “Forever,” in which Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph play a married couple who discover the afterlife is just an extension of their bland (yet content) suburban routines. Some viewers complained that they expected more LOLs from a show starring two SNL alums, but in the end, we got something far better: a perfect meditation on the meaning of love and commitment.
Some notable additions, if this list could be longer: “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu); “Lodge 49” (AMC); “ The Good Place” (NBC); “Star Trek: Discovery” (CBS All Access); “Homecoming” (Amazon); “You” (Lifetime); “This Is Us”(NBC); and “GLOW” (Netflix).
Disclosure: Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.