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Review: 2017 Best Of TV

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You know, this is a year-end tradition as dependable as Christmas shopping and Hallmark Channel holiday movies - critics listing the best stuff they saw on television over the course of a year. And at a time when there's over 400 scripted series on TV, this might be the most important list you are going to hear this month. So let's bring in NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.

Hey, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Yeah, no pressure, dude (laughter).

GREENE: No pressure. Well, and I say this is important because I know it - I mean, the year is ending, but this is the time of year when, actually, like, after opening gifts or doing some cookie - you can actually sit and catch up on good TV.

DEGGANS: That's what I always say. This is sort of your binge-watching guide. So I'll tell you a few things, and then you hop on the services and check them out, and that's your holiday season.

GREENE: Done - consider it done. All right, so what trends stuck out to you, and what should I be streaming in this holiday season?

DEGGANS: Well, before we talk about specific shows - and I know this may sound like the understatement of the year - but 2017 really felt like the year of women in TV. And it's not just for all of the sexual harassment scandals that have exposed so much of this awful behavior in Hollywood. I predicted back in January that this year was going to be a real standout time for women because there's so many high-quality TV shows that have such great characters for women, that center on women, that are created by women, executive produced by women. And...

GREENE: Well, didn't we see some Golden Globe nominations that really speak to that recently? "Big Little Lies" and "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" - I mean, they fit that bill, right?

DEGGANS: Exactly. I mean, "Big Little Lies" got the most nominations of any TV show in the Golden Globe Awards. And they had four meaty parts for women in that show, and it was also executive produced by two of its stars. So, you know, this is a time when we're seeing great roles for women, and it's reflected in a lot of the shows that I picked as my best this year.

GREENE: Which are...

DEGGANS: (Laughter).

GREENE: What's your list?

DEGGANS: Well, let's go to my top pick because I don't want to, you know, have people in suspense too much longer.

GREENE: Good.

DEGGANS: But my top pick is...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMROLL)

DEGGANS: ...Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale."

GREENE: OK.

DEGGANS: You know, this was an excellently executed adaptation of a classic book, and it spoke to today's times. I mean, it was like the script writers had a copy of tomorrow's newspapers to know that we'd be talking about all of this sexual harassment stuff and all of this gender stuff. This dystopian drama about a world where women are made into second-class citizens by a theocratic government forcing fertile women to act as breeders for the ruling class - Elisabeth Moss became the queen of quality TV. She's mesmerizing as Offred, the lead character. We've even got a clip with her first words in the series describing the room where she's kept as a handmaid. Let's check it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HANDMAID'S TALE")

ELISABETH MOSS: (As Offred) ...And a window with white curtains, and the glass is shatterproof. But it isn't running away they're afraid of. A handmaid wouldn't get far. It's those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge. My name is Offred. I had another name, but it's forbidden now. So many things are forbidden now.

GREENE: That's dramatic. I mean, it sounds like this show would've been extraordinary in - at any moment, but given the conversation about sexual harassment right now and women speaking up, I mean, wow.

DEGGANS: Exactly. It's a nightmare in which toxic masculinity has taken control of the entire country, and it mirrors, in some ways, the issues that we're talking about right now.

GREENE: OK, so do you have a second pick? I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to try the drumroll. I can't beat you out on that drumroll. That was great. But what's...

DEGGANS: Yeah, just leave that to the drummers, dude.

GREENE: Yeah. What's your second pick?

DEGGANS: Well, for me, the show I like second best was HBO's "The Deuce." And on the surface, it couldn't be more different from "The Handmaid's Tale" because this is a story about the rise of porn in 1970s-era New York, how that transformed from something that was illegal that was sold in, you know, paper bags under the counter to something that would eventually become a mainstream, billion-dollar business.

Now, this show was created by David Simon. We know him from creating "The Wire." And it bears his relentless eye for detail and despair. I mean, this is not a sexy drama. And even though James Franco got a lot of attention for playing twins who were sort of based on real guys who were at the center of this scene...

GREENE: He played both twins - right? - which is - which was a lot.

DEGGANS: He played both twins. But the real heart of the series, I think, is Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays this streetwalker who focuses on becoming a director of porn films because she wants to get out of the street life. Now, we've got a scene here where she's trying to convince a director that porn will soon be legal and that he should let her learn how to make porn films by working under him. Here's a clip. Check it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DEUCE")

MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL: (As Eileen “Candy” Merrell) If they can make and sell that in Europe, it's not going to be long before we can make and sell it here.

DAVID KRUMHOLTZ: (As Harvey Wasserman) How do you know?

GYLLENHAAL: (As Eileen “Candy” Merrell) It's America, right? When do we ever leave a dollar for the other guy to pick up? If I'm wrong, well, at least I learned something about making movies. Maybe I could go out to California, go work for Disney. And if I'm right...

KRUMHOLTZ: (As Harvey Wasserman) Well, aren't you the smart one?

GREENE: I love Maggie Gyllenhaal.

DEGGANS: Well, it turns...

GREENE: I love her.

DEGGANS: Oh, she's so great. She's an executive producer on this show, which meant that she had a lot of control over how her character was portrayed. And it turns out, that character was a smart one because porn, as we know, is now a multibillion-dollar business.

GREENE: Did you have a worst show of 2017?

DEGGANS: Well, you know, talking about the worst shows is boring because most of the worst shows are just mediocre. But there were a couple of shows that kind of stuck in my craw. One of them, for me, is this show on Fox called "The Orville," and it's basically a rip-off of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" starring "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane, and he plays the captain of this spaceship called the Orville. But it's not really a satire. I mean, it has funny parts in it, but it's not really a satire of "Trek" like "Galaxy Quest" was. So check out this clip. Here, MacFarlane's Ed Mercer - he plays Captain Ed Mercer - talks to an alien crew member who tells him that he's about to have a child.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ORVILLE")

SETH MACFARLANE: (As Ed Mercer) My God, you lay eggs?

PETER MACON: (As Bortus) Yes, sir.

MACFARLANE: (As Ed Mercer) Wow. You know, I always wondered how a single-gender species populated itself, but - are they big - they big eggs?

MACON: (As Bortus) They are somewhat large, yes, sir.

MACFARLANE: (As Ed Mercer) And do you sit on it? You sit on the egg?

MACON: (As Bortus) Yes, sir.

MACFARLANE: (As Ed Mercer) If you got one more in you, dibs on the omelet.

MACON: (As Bortus) Sir.

MACFARLANE: (As Ed Mercer) Sorry, bad joke. Bad yolk (laughter). You know, I'm just not going to try comedy with you anymore.

GREENE: Oh, my God, Eric. What's happening?

DEGGANS: (Laughter) Exactly. You can feel your brain melting away while you watch this.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: It's not...

DEGGANS: So not quite funny, but not quite serious either.

GREENE: No, no, it's not anything. I don't want to end on that bad note. Can you give us a few more from your good list, Eric?

DEGGANS: Sure, sure. I loved "Ozark" from Netflix, which is this wonderful drama with Jason Bateman playing this financial planner who turns out to be somebody who was laundering money for a drug cartel and has to move to the Ozarks to save himself and his family; "The Vietnam War," the documentary that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick did for PBS - just amazing; and "Better Things" on FX.

Now, this is a show that's a little controversial because Louis C.K. was very involved with it, and, of course, he had a sexual harassment scandal. But it stars Pamela Adlon, who co-created it, co-wrote a lot of it, directed every episode this season. It's a story about a single mom trying to hold her family together. It's really very well done, and I really hope it survives the fact that Louis C.K. has ceased doing business with FX and won't be working on the show anymore.

GREENE: You have done your job, Eric Deggans, and given us a wonderful list. And so I know how I'm going to spend my holiday now.

DEGGANS: Binge away.

GREENE: I will.

DEGGANS: (Laughter).

GREENE: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Have a good holiday, Eric. Thanks.

DEGGANS: You too.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMINIC GLOVER, GARY CROCKETT AND JASON GLOVER'S "SLAM DOWN TOUGH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.