Best of the Lavender Tube 2017

  • by Victoria A. Brownworth
  • Wednesday December 27, 2017
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We don't do Top 10 lists for myriad reasons, not the least of which is that TV shows aren't all the same. Writing, directing, acting, presentation, content: it's all different. One can't compare sitcoms to dramas to miniseries. But within that realm of difference there are shows that deserve notice and attention, and really are must-see TV.

Watching queer TV as well as TV that centers women and people of color isn't just watching ourselves anymore. In the age of Trump it's a revolutionary act, a statement of Resistance. In 2017, TV that centered women, POC, LGBT was TV that fought back against the very real, very dangerous oppression of this administration and all it has done to suppress the voices and rights of marginalized Americans.

With that reality in mind, we order this list according to what is most subversive in that context: TV that impacted us because we saw ourselves and because others bore witness to our existence in a time when we are being erased, when even some of the words that describe our identities are being scrubbed from government websites and verbiage.

The most powerful TV event for LGBT people in 2017 was the ABC miniseries "When We Rise." The miniseries was eight hours of LGBT history and of the pivotal years of the AIDS crisis that some of us fought on the front lines. Seeing that history presented on network TV with the same level of import as other histories was groundbreaking. Written by a gay man, Dustin Lance Black, directed by him and gay director Gus Van Sant, black lesbian director Dee Rees and Thomas Schlamme, this was watershed TV, even for the jaded. Three award-winning directors, an Oscar-winning screenwriter, the story of our political coming-of-age through men and women some of us have known and seen on the Castro (we remember the first time we met Cleve Jones there 30 years ago), this was real and personal. Flawed but deeply moving, and so very stridently, volubly, in-your-face ours.

In that same vein, the re-boot of "Will & Grace" feels comfortable and comforting in this current era. Watching Will (Eric McCormack) do selfies with a 23-year-old date who keeps confusing Stonewall and Stonehenge is both cringeworthy and utterly realistic. Jack (Sean Hayes) doing his best "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" make-up and compression garment and meet-your-younger-date-in-a-dark-bar approach to dating is equally real. Grace (Debra Messing) and Karen (Megan Mullalley) show us what it's like to be middle-aged women who prefer the company of gay men to straight ones, and who are most authentic when they are not forced into performative heterosexuality. "W&G" isn't just about gay middle age, it's about straight women (is Karen really bi? We just don't know for sure) and how much women have to suck everything up to be in the world every day as second-class beings dependent on their looks as much as their intellect. "W&G" is one of those sitcoms that gets deeper as you peel back the layers and exfoliate what lies beneath.

"One Mississippi" is such an underrated series, yet if there were honesty in the Top 10 lists floating around as the year draws to a thank-God-it's-over end, this show would be on every one of them. We first heard lesbian comedian Tig Notaro's Taylor Dane sketch years ago on NPR, and there is no single comedy bit we've ever seen or heard that has had the same resonance for us as both humor and Zeitgeist. It's a brilliant, exceptional piece, and you need to YouTube it, because it is that good and worthy. "One Miss" is smart, raw and funny. It's a semi-autobiographical semi-dramedy comedy filled with yearning and intensity, and attempts to make sense of the heartbreak in families that refuse to address their hidden secrets and internal drama. Notaro is terrific.

If we were pairing half-hour comedies, we'd pair "One Mississippi" with Pamela Adlon's "Better Things." Adlon and Notaro are contemporaries, and they have disgraced comedian Louis C.K. in common. Notaro worked with him on the first seasons of "One Miss," Adlon co-created her series with him. Both women have been outspoken about the sexual abuse C.K. has perpetrated on women. Notaro devoted an episode of her series to what were then rumors, now confirmed, about his actions.

It's a shame that C.K.'s tainted either woman, because their work is so far superior to his, and they are both stellar storytellers. "Better Things" is one of the most relatable sitcoms on TV, and Adlon's searching, sarcastic, deadpan-delivery angst as single mother Sam Fox is pure 2017, pure how-the-hell-did-we-get-here reality. Sam's middle daughter Frankie (Hannah Alligood) is in gender-identity flux, which in many ways parallels Sam's own questions about her middle-aged-divorc´┐Że femaleness. We love everything about this series, including the three or so minutes sans dialogue in each episode where we're watching Sam sitting, alone, trying to figure out her life in real time.

"Handmaid's Tale" is on everyone's best lists. It has to be because Elisabeth Moss' Offred is a genius performance, and the Margaret Atwood story about forced breeding and erasure of female agency couldn't be more pertinent in an era where the Speaker of the House said in a speech Dec. 14 that American women need to have more babies. Someone needs to put that video to background music of "Deutschland, Deutschland ´┐Żber alles."

We put "Handmaid's Tale" on our list as a companion to another Atwood novel-cum-series, "Alias Grace." While "Alias Grace" addresses themes of female agency and oppression, as does "Handmaid's Tale," it is also a novelization of the true story of murderess Grace Marks, who in 1843 killed her employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper-mistress Nancy Montgomery. The story is vivid, compelling, enraging. Sarah Gadon is luminously inscrutable as Grace, Anna Paquin is exceptional as Nancy Montgomery, one of the murder victims. Sarah Polley's writing is so very good, as is Mary Harron's directing.

Our three favorite drama series of 2017 - "This Is Us," "American Crime" and "The Sinner" - explicate what's wrong with Top 10 lists. Each of these series was brilliant with award-winning acting and writing, beautiful cinematography, compelling characters and brutal, authentic realism. But each falls on a spectrum of emotion that makes two of these series almost unwatchable due to that hyperrealism. Yet these were the three series we looked forward to each week. The storylines were immersive, the characters felt like people we knew or wanted to know or help. Each in its own way was mesmerizing.

We have loved "This Is Us" since its first episode, and we are not alone. The series is so popular that Twitter has awarded the show its own emoji with the weekly hashtag #ThisIsUs: a tiny box of tissues. That emoji is telling, because this series has one sobbing every week. On one of the few truly intersectional, interracial series on TV, each character has depth, the stories never go where we expect, the main issues - race, gender, sexuality, class - are fully developed. The acting is extraordinary, the characters believable, and the sobbing each week feels cathartic as we follow the three main characters, 37-year-old triplets, through the complexities of their familial lives, past and present. This show is everything "Parenthood" never was for us.

"American Crime" is one of the best series of the past decade, which may be why it was cancelled this year after its third season. Created by John Ridley, the first black screenwriter to win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay ("12 Years a Slave"), the anthology series brought so many vital issues of the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and class to the screen to the tune of a haunting, atonal score. The award-winning series was often hard to watch because it was so visceral. This year's third season, which addressed the opioid epidemic, illegal immigration and sex-trafficking, was powerful and painful.

Redemption felt unattainable at season's end, much like real life. The very things that made the series so formidable may also have been what killed it. The lines between Good and Evil are never as distinct as we would like them to be. In this season those lines were blurred in ways that left us squirming in our seats. Surely Ridley wasn't talking about us in that scene, was he? Surely he isn't saying we are responsible for trafficked teens of all genders being raped, or immigrant farm laborers burned alive in a trailer?

"The Sinner" falls somewhere between these two series: equally strong, acted with a muscular nuance, dark and gritty. Unlike "American Crime," there is a quest for redemption, not just explication. But unlike "This Is Us," the characters are much harder to access and far less likeable. Nevertheless, the interplay between the two main characters, a woman murderer (Jessica Biel) and the detective who needs to know why she did it (Bill Pullman), is riveting. "The Sinner" is also one of the most painterly series of the year. Every shot holds meaning in the often deceptive beauty.

"Master of None" and "Claws" are two sitcoms with terrific butch lesbian characters, Denise (Lena Waithe) and Quiet Ann (Judy Reyes), who are also both women of color. Even if we didn't love these series we would be down for that alone. But these two different series, which center Otherness and ride a wave between what's truly hilarious and what's maybe-I-shouldn't-be-laughing edgy, take us to places we need to see: immigrant America and female/women of color entrepreneurial survival America. Binge these series over the holidays. Your life will be better for it.

We know "The Leftovers" will be on many Top 10 lists, and it is the best series of the year in many respects. We loved it. We were shaken by it. We ached for more of it. We were confused by it. That last is perhaps what kept us from placing it higher on our list. We didn't trust a lot of what we saw in this series because of the blurred line between the surreal and the real. But it had so much power and joy, grief and suffering, and was such an archetypal quest for healing that we couldn't stop watching it.

The last of our baker's dozen bests is "The Exorcist." In a year that saw a relentless cavalcade of series featuring superheroes, "The Exorcist" presented two men, a priest and a former priest, who battle Evil in ordinary worlds, sans capes and tights, solely with the power of their inherent goodness. This series, loosely based on the iconic William Peter Blatty novel, revamped for the second season, and was significantly stronger than the first. The homoeroticism that was hinted at in season one was fully realized in season two. The main storyline of a foster dad with a house full of misfit teens, including a lesbian abused by her evangelical family prior to foster care, was believable, provocative and timely.

The keystone of this series is Ben Daniels as Marcus, the priest who traded his collar for rogue exorcism. Marcus is a deeply complex man whose passion for God and The Truth guides him in all things. But once relieved of his collar, he is also freed to explore his sexuality. In a scene that outraged many viewers, Marcus kissed another man who wanted a relationship. It was an extraordinary moment that revealed the ease with which Marcus traversed worlds, while also remaining true to his passion: ridding the world of the age-old pestilence of Evil. We put this show on our best list for many reasons, including that kiss, the extraordinary Daniels and Alfonso Herrera (Father Tomas), the realistic, harrowing scares, the painterly cinematography, the beauty in small things, and the way it drew us in each week.

There are series that didn't make the cut for our best list, but which were nevertheless entertaining, and which we watched each week. Ryan Murphy's "Feud" and "American Horror Story: Cult" engaged us fully. "Feud" was beautifully crafted, and the two leads, Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford, were superb. The sets and clothes were glorious. Alfred Molina, Judy Davis and Jackie Hoffman were a great second tier. But the series fell apart at the end and never quite captured the essence of the early episodes.

The same was true of "Cult," which was fabulous for the majority of the 11 episodes, but lost its luster in the final episodes. The cast was very good, the gay sex was amazing, and the anti-Trump fervor was palpable. So those two almost made the list, but their final episodes didn't provide the necessary closure for such powerful storylines.

Shows that in a different year might have made our best list are "The Americans," "Broad City," "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," "Damnation," "Dear White People," "Empire," "How to Get Away with Murder," "Queen Sugar," "Scandal," "Top of the Lake: China Girl" and "Transparent." We can recommend each of them for provocative and queer content and strong characterizations.

Finally, comedy had a stellar year, and in the non-scripted category, "SNL," particularly Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton, Kellyanne Conway, Jeff Sessions, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Angela Merkel and others, was extraordinary. Her Sessions is a fully realized monster masquerading as a Keebler elf. Melissa McCarthy's guest appearances as Trump's former Press Secretary Sean Spicer were phenomenal. We also loved Beck Bennett's perennially shirtless Putin and Cecily Strong's Melania Trump.

Samantha Bee's "Full Frontal" was the best of the political comedy shows, with John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" a close second.

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow was the best political pundit of 2017. CNN's Don Lemon (yes, Don Lemon) was runner-up. None of the straight pundit class came close.

So should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind, should old acquaintance be forgot, stay tuned for auld lang syne. Happy New Year!