It seems like every cable network has to have original programming these days, even it’s often so hit or miss. From Vikings on The History Channel to SyFy’s list of original shows, every network threw their hat in the ring. Lifetime had nothing to show for the year so far as Unreal took 2017 off. TBS fared okay with a season of the enjoyable Angie Tribeca, the international Conan fare, and the politically biting Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. USA’s best show Mr. Robot, coming off a lackluster second season, doesn’t even return until October, and nothing else on the network makes too much of an impact. TNT tried their hand at anti-hero dramas with Good Behavior and Animal Kingdom, though neither fully resonated. And BBC America has the final season of the once-great Orphan Black, but little else for the year. Altogether, each network seems to have one or two good shows, but none put together a lineup strong enough to rival AMC or FX.
Before we get to them, though, let’s talk about Comedy Central. What once was a surefire network year-round has so far floundered in 2017. Sure, there’s still The Daily Show, but they’ve yet to truly replace the shows they lost in 2016 (see: Key and Peele, Kroll Show). Moshe Kasher, Jim Jeffries, and TJ Miller all had shows, and there was the ill-advised President Show, but apart from the truncated final season of Review, the last gasp of Workaholics, and the spotty debut season of Detroiters, nothing really stood out for the network that once dominated cutting-edge comedy. Fortunately, they appear primed to have a dominant fall season with the return of Broad City, Nathan For You, and South Park.
That brings us next to AMC, which has gone through its fair share of struggles in the two years since Mad Men finished up. To their credit, Better Call Saul has quietly grown into one of the best shows on television — despite a third season that leaned a little too heavily on Gus Fring nostalgia — but besides that, their schedule has been cluttered by the fully exhausted Walking Dead franchise and its endless marathons that seem to be a weekly thing at this point. Having said that, the second season of Preacher got off to a promising start, and the cruelly underrated Halt and Catch Fire returns for a final season in August. Still, AMC’s prestige has receded significantly from the days of Don Draper and Walter White.
Finally, we have FX, the clear cut winner of this round. Long-running programs like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia are aging better than they have any right to be, and the network found gems already with the dramatic, soapy Feud and the psychedelic mind games of Legion, which redefined what a superhero show can be. Throw in an admirable season of The Americans, an intriguing new project by John Singleton with Snowfall, and even a middling season of Fargo, and it’s clear that the network dominated the first half of the year on cable. Even without last year’s critical darling Atlanta, which won’t return until 2018 (after Donald Glover wraps his work as Lando Calrissian), it’s already made a strong case for the network of the year.
On the subscription side, HBO has reigned at the top for years, but is that still the case? This year, Starz put up a fight with Bryan Fuller’s American Gods, a splashy debut that played with mythology alongside huge performances, in addition to a new season of the dependable Power. Then there’s Showtime, which made the strongest case against HBO by being home to the best show of the year so far, Twin Peaks. We’ve been endlessly praising the return of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s cult series, and there’s no question of its dominance, but what else does Showtime have? Well, save for the second season of Billions, which happened to improve on its first run by embracing a little camp and Paul Giamatti’s scenery-chewing performances, not much. Not only did they lose Shameless, but the debut of I’m Dying Up Here has failed to take off, despite a strong lead-in by Twin Peaks. Fortunately for them, Ray Donovan and Episodes returns next month, and eventually so will the mediocre Homeland, but there’s a reason Showtime is going all in on Twin Peaks right now.
That leaves us with the titan itself, HBO. Even without Game of Thrones and Westworld to dominate the conversation for the first half of the year, the network was led by a trio of thoughtful, often bewildering shows that often pushed boundaries in the style of Twin Peaks. First was The Young Pope, a profound meditation on religion that toyed with audiences, thanks to its obtuse, surreal format. In some respects, it was an art film in the guise of a TV show, one that often felt Lynchian in nature. Then there was Big Little Lies, a twisty and intriguing limited series that looked at the secrets of an affluent California small town, featuring dramatic, powerful performances by greats like Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, and a career-best Reese Witherspoon. And finally, there was The Leftovers, which concluded its run in an appropriately ponderous manner as the show pushed the limits of what they could explore. Top it all off with a stellar season of Silicon Valley, a worthy ending to Girls, and an unfocused albeit hysterical season of Veep, and HBO easily won this round. Easily.