There was no escaping 2017 in 2017. Even in the realm of television, it felt as though pretty much everything was somehow a comment on “The Trump Era” or “The Way We Live Now.” It was exhausting at times, but also fascinating to see TV creators work through some of the biggest issues facing our culture, more or less in real time.
So we’ve decided to highlight the TV episodes that best reflected the major themes of 2017. This isn’t a list of the best episodes of TV from this year — if it was, we’d have to include Nathan for You’s incredible season finale, Master of None’s Emmy-winning “Thanksgiving” episode and surely something from The Leftovers’ stunning farewell season. But, no, this is us looking back at the TV episodes that felt the most like 2017.
That means we came up with a handful of big-picture topics that kept recurring throughout the year — political awakening and resistance, women speaking out against sexual misconduct, to name a few — and cherry-picked episodes that tackled those ideas. We limited it to one episode per series, and some subjects were heftier than others, so that’s why certain themes have more entries.
And with that, here’s the story of 2017, as told by 13 TV episodes.
Girls, “American Bitch”
There’s perhaps no single episode of TV from 2017 that better captures the conversation around sexual misconduct than Girls’ “American Bitch.” The episode opens with Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath meeting a renowned (and fictional) author named Chuck Palmer, played by Matthew Rhys, at his handsomely decorated apartment; Palmer’s recently had a number of women come forward alleging that he pressured them into performing sex acts.
Hannah wrote about the stories in a piece she got published online, and Palmer’s asked her to talk with him in person so he can explain his side of things. What follows is a masterpiece of a half-hour, wonderfully acted by both Dunham and Rhys, as they spar verbally and intellectually about the nature of consent, power imbalances, the way information spreads in our current moment and the importance of believing women. (It’s worth noting that the real-life Dunham publicly waded into these topics this year, without the same level of nuance and clarity.)
As the two characters go back and forth, and as Palmer eventually convinces Hannah to let her guard down, you feel him circling her like a shark. He basically offers a clinic in how these sorts of men often get what they want: He flatters her, listens to her and shares details about himself with her, all before he does something that crosses a line — in this case, he matter-of-factly exposes himself to her. But it’s the episode’s closing image that resonates most strongly. In a rare bit of surrealism for Girls, we see Hannah walking out of Palmer’s apartment building, while a seemingly endless line of out-of-focus women stroll into the entrance, one after another.
— Kyle McGovern
One Mississippi, “Can’t Fight This Feeling”
There were multiple TV shows this year that addressed sexual harassment, but few, if any, were as courageous and powerful about it as Tig Notaro’s brilliant Amazon sitcom, One Mississippi. The episode in question, “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” was pretty clearly inspired by the now-confirmed allegations against Louis C.K. — who also has a producer credit on One Mississippi.
When Kate (Stephanie Allynne) pitches her boss Jack (Timm Sharp) on an idea, he starts masturbating while sitting at his desk. Director Minkie Spiro perfectly captures the disorientating and horrifying scene as Kate, frozen and unsure what to do, trails off until he finishes and she quietly leaves the office. It’s a scene that directly takes on C.K. without naming him, and that takes on the overall culture of sexual harassment in the workplace. It also shows how necessary it is to believe women; Tig believes Kate (even when Jack flat-out denies it) and never once questions her. That’s how it should be.
“Can’t Fight This Feeling” is available for streaming on Amazon.
— Pilot Viruet
Big Little Lies, “You Get What You Need”
It’s too easy to misremember Big Little Lies as no more than a star-studded, meme-minting bit of lifestyle porn, with its beachfront properties, fishbowl glasses of Chardonnay and group trips to Frozen on Ice. But beneath that glossy veneer is an absorbing and unsparing tale of abuse, one that comes to a head in the series — actually, make that “season” — finale, and which connects two of the female leads (Nicole Kidman’s Celeste and Shailene Woodley’s Jane) to one of the supporting male characters (Alexander Skarsgård’s Perry).
Near the episode’s end, we see Perry for the monster he is when Celeste and Jane exchange taken-aback glances and realize that they share a tormentor. A fight then erupts, as Perry reacts to being found out by attacking Celeste and beating back Jane, Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline and Laura Dern’s Renata.
Zoë Kravitz’s Bonnie sees the violence from afar and interferes, pushing Perry down a flight of stairs. With that reveal, we get the answers to the whodunnit that the premiere sets up, but the supposed murder mystery is incidental. What really makes this denouement so memorable is that it turns that story of abuse into one of triumph — a despicable man is uncovered, and a group of women join forces to defend themselves and take him down. It’s exactly the sort of ending that 2017 needs.
— Kyle McGovern
Dear White People, “Chapter V”
All of Dear White People focuses on racial tensions but “Chapter V” is the most memorable episode of the show’s debut season. Masterfully directed by Barry Jenkins (who excels at filming scenes with near-tangible claustrophobia), the Netflix series’ fifth installment comes to a head at a house party, where Reggie (played by Marque Richardson, reprising his role from Justin Simien’s 2014 Dear White People film) and others get into a scuffle over a white friend rapping along to a song and saying the N-word.
Campus police quickly pulls a gun on Reggie, demanding to see his ID even as everyone reiterates that he’s a student. It’s a tense scene that mirrors the very real instances of police brutality against black people, and especially black men. Reggie doesn’t know if he’s going to get shot, and neither does the viewer, and his usual collected demeanor is up-ended as he faces possible death. The aftermath is just as powerful: Reggie breaks down, panicking and crying alone in his room — a final shot that runs contrary to his cool and level-headed public image, but one that speaks volumes on how race issues break us down.
“Chapter V” is available for streaming on Netflix.
— Pilot Viruet
The Bachelorette, “The Men Tell All”
Rachel Lindsay, the first black star to lead a season of ABC’s The Bachelorette, made it clear early on in her run that this season would be “no different than any other” and that she was “just trying to find love,” she said in an interview on Good Morning America the day after her casting was announced. Still, there’s no denying that the reality TV franchise found itself in new territory this year: The 13th season featured the most diverse group of contestants in the show’s history, with nearly half of the participants being people of color.
But the biggest flare-up related to race wasn’t between Rachel and any of her suitors — it was among the men themselves. Not long after the season premiered in May, contestant Lee Garrett was exposed as having apparently sent out racist, sexist and homophobic tweets in 2015 and 2016. Then, on the actual show, he went head-to-head with fellow contestant Kenny King multiple times, calling the wrestler “aggressive” and saying King was “playing the race card” when he then called Garrett out for using that term. That was just one of several clashes he had with contestants of color throughout the season. The other suitors got the opportunity to take him to task on the annual “Men Tell All” episode. Several contestents attempted to get Garrett to admit that racism is behind his behavior, whether he knows it or not.
“The racism that is engrained in your behavior to the point of invisibility is still pushing you to behave in a certain way towards Kenny, towards Eric, toward me in a way that you don’t even recognize,” Anthony Battle says to Garrett at one point, as other contestants snap and nod in agreement. “Are you acknowledging that even if you didn’t intend it are your actions motivated by racist thoughts that are implicitly embedded in your mentality?” It’s a refreshingly frank moment. And, to be honest, it’s the sort of conversation we need to be having on television more often.
A segment of “The Men Tell All” is available for streaming on YouTube.
— Erin E. Evans
Brooklyn Nine-Nine, “Moo Moo”
It always felt strange that Brooklyn Nine-Nine never acknowledged systemic racism within the police force, so season four’s “Moo Moo” — in which Terry (Terry Crews) is stopped and manhandled by a white police officer while he’s in his own neighborhood, looking for his daughter’s baby blanket— was a long time coming. We see differing perspectives as Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) is worried that reporting the incident could end up affecting Terry’s career.
But as I wrote earlier this year, “this particular workplace comedy setting means the show can talk about the ‘brotherhood’ of being a police officer” while also addressing the inner conflicts that arise from being a police officer and being black — two communities that often play against each other. In the end, Holt agrees to file the complaint but Terry doesn’t get the city council liaison position he was applying for — likely because of the report.
“Moo Moo” is available for streaming on Hulu.
— Pilot Viruet
One Day at a Time, “Bobos and Mamitas”
For my money, One Day at a Time was the most socially and politically relevant series of 2017. The second episode of the show’s first season, “Bobos and Mamitas,” shows that there are different forms of activism and that you’re never too old to learn how to resist. Fourteen-year-old Elena (Isabella Gomez) tries to explain sexism to her mother Penelope (Justina Machado) and grandmother Lydia (Rita Moreno) in terms of “microaggressions” and “mansplaining.”
The older women have their own ideas of “real” sexism that’s more overt, or even physical, but Elena’s words stick with Penelope, who ends up quitting her job in protest upon learning a male staffer makes more money than her. After a visit from her boss, Penelope’s able to not only get a raise, but such a significant bump in pay that it’s higher than her co-worker’s. It’s a personal form of resistance, sure, but still potent.
“Bobos and Mamitas” is available for streaming on Netflix.
— Pilot Viruet
The Handmaid’s Tale, “Night”
All throughout 2017 — a year bookended by the Women’s March on Washington and the maelstrom of sexual assault allegations that poured forth in the wake of the New York Times’ takedown of Harvey Weinstein — female resistance was a prevailing theme. And that same sort of revolutionary spirit was reflected on the small screen — albeit in the context of a fictional dystopia — with “Night,” the tenth and final installment of the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Throughout the season, we watch as Elisabeth Moss’s Offred, one of the titular handmaidens, struggles to maintain her sanity and humanity as a concubine in the authoritarian Republic of Gilead. Her battles are often cerebral, taking place in relative solitude, but in “Night,” we finally get to see a group of women take collective action. After the handmaidens are summoned for one of the routine executions they are forced to take part in, they’re surprised to see one of their own in the middle of the circle, convicted of the severe crime of endangering a child.
Rather than stone her friend Janine to death, Offred steps forward and drops her rock in an act of defiance. The other women slowly follow suit, making for a small act of rebellion that signals the women’s enduring hope and resilience. Even in the face of the oppressive and seemingly unassailable patriarchy that holds them all captive, they won’t give up.
“Night” is available for streaming on Hulu.
— Brianna Provenzano
This Is Us, “Jack Pearson’s Son”
Who didn’t feel a bit of anxiety this year? American teens are certainly experiencing it now more than ever. The term “economic anxiety” was thrown around non-stop as an explanation for why the 2016 presidential election turned out the way it did — meanwhile, we know that plenty of Donald Trump’s supporters were actually fueled by “racial anxiety.”
Anxiety creeped its way onto TV, too, and one episode in particular conveyed just how frightening anxiety attacks can be. NBC’s award-winning drama This Is Us is known for pulling at the heartstrings, but it also puts us inside the head of Sterling K. Brown’s Randall Pearson, who knows quite a bit about anxiety himself. In the season one episode “Jack Pearson’s Son,” we see him deal with it as a teenager, when he stresses about a research paper on Hamlet and his dad has to calm him down, reminding him to breathe.
Fast forward to adulthood — he’s parenting his two kids while his wife, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), heads to D.C. to care for her sick mother, and he’s also caring for his own father who’s on the verge of death, on top of juggling a big client deal at work. At the end of the episode, the anxiety starts to take hold of his body — his hand shakes uncontrollably, his vision gets blurry and he can barely move. Thankfully, though, his brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley), shows up to console him, just as their father once did.
And maybe that’s what we all can hope for in 2018: someone on standby, who can offer a hug when the weight of the world is just too heavy to bear.
“Jack Pearson’s Son” is available for streaming on Hulu.
— Erin E. Evans
The Carmichael Show, “Shoot-Up-Able”
Here’s how timely The Carmichael Show’s mass-shooting episode was: It was temporarily pulled from NBC’s schedule because it was set to air the same day as multiple mass shootings in the U.S. NBC eventually aired the episode two weeks later. What makes “Shoot-Up-Able” required viewing is that it doesn’t glorify, or even show, violence; it’s all about the aftermath. The plot focuses on Jerrod (Jerrod Carmichael), who survives a mass shooting at his local mall and doesn’t know how to process it, so he dismisses his family’s concern as an overreaction, instead of having a real discussion about it.
This is an introspective half-hour, depicting lingering trauma, and featuring multiple conversations about guns and violence — whether characters are joking about mass-shooter stereotypes or blaming Jerrod for rolling the dice and going somewhere “shoot-up-able,” like a crowded mall. But most crucially, it’s an episode that respects the victims and doesn’t sensationalize the shooter.
“Shoot-Up-Able” is available for streaming on Hulu.
— Pilot Viruet
BoJack Horseman, “Thoughts and Prayers”
At this point, the conversation around gun control feels hopelessly cyclical. In the aftermath of a mass shooting, there’s usually a familiar back and forth: Some politicians call for new legislation to tighten gun laws, while others say it’s not the time to politicize a tragedy, and eventually the story disappears from headlines and cable-news chyrons until the next shooting inevitably takes place. It’s a numbing fact of life in this country that BoJack Horseman brilliantly skewers in the season four episode called “Thoughts and Prayers,” showing us how a bunch of cynical Hollywood types react to such an event.
The long and short of it: A shooting happens in a shopping mall, which complicates the release of Ms. Taken, a Taken knockoff that features a gratuitous shootout scene set in a shopping mall. The star and producers are all more concerned with what the shooting means for their movie than what it does for the nation or the people directly involved. “You always hear about mass shootings affecting other people’s movie openings,” says Ms. Taken star Courtney Portnoy (voiced by Sharon Horgan). “But you never think they’re going to affect your movie opening.”
The most telling line — the line that gives the episode its title — comes right after that, though: “Of course, my thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families.” It’s a refrain many characters echo throughout the half-hour, saying what they feel they have to say before they look back down at their phones and go about their business.
“Thoughts and Prayers” is available for streaming on Netflix.
— Kyle McGovern
Donald Trump loomed over so much television this year, even indirectly. But black-ish didn’t bother with thinly veiled criticisms or on-the-nose metaphors; the ABC sitcom started 2017 off by centering an entire episode about the psychological effects of the 2016 presidential election. Set two months after the voting results came in, “Lemons” captures a slew of reactions from different characters: Bow (Tracee Ellis Ross) throws herself into activism by donating and working phone banks; Junior (Marcus Scribner) obsesses over memorizing a Martin Luther King Jr. speech for a school assembly; Jack (Miles Brown) chooses optimism (claiming he sees a cup as half-full, even though it’s an empty bowl); and so on.
Meanwhile, Dre, in one of actor Anthony Anderson’s best performances, finds himself increasingly frustrated at the office because everyone can’t stop arguing about (or getting outraged over) politics long enough to get any work done. In Dre’s office, we get even more perspectives, including a Republican boss who refused to vote for Trump and a white woman who once voted for Barack Obama but couldn’t bring herself to vote for Hillary Clinton.
But the most affecting aspect is Dre’s monologue about loving a country “even though at times it doesn’t love me back.” He speaks up after a co-worker claims that Dre’s silence means he doesn’t care about America. “I didn’t see all of this outrage when everything was happening to all of my people since we were stuffed on boats in chains,” Dre responds. “I love this country as much — if not more — than you do. And don’t you ever forget that.”
“Lemons” is available for streaming on Hulu.
— Pilot Viruet
Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Season 15, Episode 53
Understatement of the year, but: Politics were the lingua franca of 2017. It feels like more people than ever are paying attention to what’s happening in Washington and in special elections across the country. Ex-White House staffers are podcast superstars. Digital subscriptions are up for some of the nation’s most storied newspapers. People are watching votes on C-SPAN like they’re the NBA Finals (that wasn’t just me, right?). And if there’s one moment from TV this past year that typifies this political awakening that’s happening for people all throughout America, it’s Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue on May 1.
In front of a studio audience, the late-night host revealed that his then-infant son was born with a congenital heart disease, and that the baby had to undergo open-heart surgery to survive (the child’s since undergone a follow-up surgery). But Kimmel wasn’t getting personal just because he was feeling emotional and raw — though he clearly was, judging from how often he choked up and how teary his eyes got; he was getting personal to get political, and was using the occasion to start an honest dialogue about the American healthcare system and who has access to affordable coverage.
This year, a guy who was known for being competent at hosting a mostly inoffensive talk show and having a long-running in-joke with Matt Damon got serious about holding government officials accountable — so much so that he dedicated more monologues to the debates around health care and gun control.
And this transformation — which inspired New York magazine to dub Kimmel, only somewhat cheekily, our new Walter Cronkite — started with that first monologue. “If your baby is going to die and it doesn’t have to, it shouldn’t matter how much money you make,” Kimmel said then, his voice clenching. “I think that’s something that, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or something else, we all agree on that, right?” OK, maybe that’s the understatement of the year.
Kimmel’s May 1 monologue is available for streaming on YouTube.
— Kyle McGovern