Whether you want to call it Peak TV, Post-Peak TV, or just TV, the current ecosystem of television contains an overwhelming amount of shows. There’s never been more television shows to choose from, as well as mediums to watch those shows on, in the history of the format. The most significant driver of this shift is the sheer number of networks launching original programming. While it was novel when Netflix debuted House of Cards four years ago, now every streaming service, cable channel, or website (like Facebook) seems to have original programming to keep up with the trends. With that in mind, we thought it would be a good idea to look back at the first half of 2017 in television to determine which network has been the most successful.
Instead of basing success off of viewers or subscribers, as we don’t want to just crown CBS the champion yet again, we decided to build this around the quality of the television shows. Now, we’ve already ranked the top 10 shows of the year so far, and in order to determine which network had the best first half of 2017, that will come in to play. It’s important to note that it’s not enough to have the best show on television if the rest of your lineup is derivative. That’s why for this exercise, we will look at the network’s entire lineup to decide who put together the best showcase of television in the year so far.
To help us delineate this process, we’ve grouped the networks into four categories based on their nature:
01. First comes the traditional broadcast networks, including CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and the CW. While they no longer dominate the market on quality television the way they did 15 years ago, they still reach the largest numbers of eyeballs and contain inventive, engrossing programs.
02. Next up are the cable channels like AMC, FX, TBS, USA, and so on. While FX began the wave with shows like The Shield and Nip/Tuck over a decade ago, once AMC transitioned to original programming with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, every other cable network decided to follow suit. Now, every cable channel, from Lifetime to the History Channel, produces original shows.
03. The third category is premium cable, the subscription networks like HBO, Showtime, Starz, and Cinemax. While HBO dominated this market for most of the past 20 years, the other networks have steadily built up a roster of auteurs like Steven Soderbergh, Bryan Fuller, and now David Lynch to compete.
04. Finally, we have the streaming/Internet category. Services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon now feature as many original shows as any other network, as evidenced through critics lists, awards season, and your Facebook/Twittter feed.
We’ll take a high level look at each network’s lineup, pick out their best or most notable shows, and pit them against each other to see how they stack up. While subpar or forgettable shows won’t necessarily detract from the network’s standing, whichever has the more well-rounded lineup will move on. We’re to see which network gave the viewer the best possibility of finding a great new show from their original programming.
Now that it’s all set up, let’s jump in.
With all of the “event programming” moving to cable and streaming over the past few years, it’s easy to forget that the original networks still have must-see television outside of primetime football and basketball games, singing competitions, live musicals, and game shows hosted by Jamie Foxx. We’ll start with CBS, the unquestioned number one network in the ratings for years now. Quality wise, the network controlled by the dual NCIS and Criminal Minds franchises comes in last place, anchored by mediocre traditional sitcoms featuring Kevin James and Joel McHale. While critics have long grown tired of The Big Bang Theory, the network still has a few bright spots in Allison Janney and Anna Farris’ work on the surprisingly sociopolitical, Mom, as well as the goofy family comedy Life In Pieces, where newcomers like Zoe Lister Jones go toe to toe with legends like James Brolin and Diane Wiest on a week to week basis. Next is Fox, whose biggest show Empire has been suffering from melodrama and overplayed storylines in its latest season. The network still has its Sunday night animated lineup, but all of those shows (The Simpsons, Family Guy, and Bob’s Burgers) are well past their prime, however enjoyable some of them remain. Even once-fun hangout comedies like New Girl spent the year stalling an inevitable conclusion.
Then there’s the CW, which by embracing specialty genre shows has had one of its best years yet. With a collection of fun superhero shows like The Flash, Arrow, and Supergirl, subversive comedies like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane The Virgin, and the debut of Riverdale, which turned the Archie characters into a brooding teen drama, the CW is quietly creeping up on the rest of the networks. Meanwhile, ABC found a hit with the engrossing albeit ridiculous Designated Survivor, but the Shonda Rhimes’ shows of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How To Get Away With Murder were full of diminishing returns. On the comedy side, promising sitcoms like Fresh Off The Boat and The Middle stumbled a little upon its respective season finales, while Black-ish stood out as the network’s gem, especially as the election gave the writing team a slew of material to confront thoughtfully.
In terms of current network comedies, however, no one could top NBC’s trio of The Good Place, Superstore, and the prematurely canceled The Carmichael Show. The Good Place matched the twisty world-building and philosophical musings of Lost with the rapid wit of Parks and Recreation, while allowing TV MVP Ted Danson to give one of his best performances. Superstore took the work-based situational comedy of The Office to Middle America, building tightly constructed jokes over a diverse cast. And finally, The Carmichael Show deconstructed the family sitcom while paying homage to the Norman Lear comedies of old as it updated the political discussions with current takes on issues like the Trump election, the armed forces, racial slurs, and mass shootings by exploring multiple sides of issues without patronizing or alienating anyone. In addition to this trio of sharp comedies, NBC also wrapped up the first season of This Is Us, a rare bonafide smash of a new show that explored the inner workings of a family’s past and present, anchored by tremendous performances and engrossing storytelling. Based on these four shows, NBC moves on.
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.
Over the past three years, streaming services have aggressively expanded into original programming, and that trend has only increased throughout 2017. So far, Amazon Prime has done just OK with Sneaky Pete and their wildly subversive I Love Dick, though things will likely improve for Jeff Bezos’ unstoppable conglomerate in the second half of the year, when their award-winning juggernaut Transparent returns for its fourth season. Hulu, on the other hand, continued to improve their brand, turning plenty of heads with The Handmaid’s Tale. By finally giving Elisabeth Moss a leading role, the dark dystopian thriller brings Margaret Atwood’s vision to life in an unnerving manner that should prove quite lucrative for the brand come award season. Looking ahead, they’ll have some worthy returns in Difficult People and the much-hyped acquisition of Castle Rock, the Stephen King multi-verse series currently being developed by JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot team. Very exciting.
Ultimately, we have to go with Netflix, as the sheer volume of original content they air creates a situation where the standouts outnumber the weak. From strong debuts like Dear White People, One Day At A Time, and GLOW, to stellar seasons of returning comedies like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Love, Netflix has never not been entertaining. Yes, they’ve had a fair share of missteps in recent months, both ambitious (The Get Down) and rote (Iron Fist), while stalwarts like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black returned with increasingly diminishing returns. But hey, one scroll to the right and you get the second season of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, which built upon the themes of its sharp debut season to become one of this year’s strongest shows thus far. Bottom line: There’s no competition with Netflix when it comes to original streaming.
The Final Four
Ah, the final four. Shall we? Right off the bat, we can eliminate NBC, which had some great shows, especially in the political nature of its comedies and given its more populist medium, but none of their titles can stand up to the more inventive programming that the other finalists have at this point. Sorry, peacock. Next out is Netflix, which had a great array of comedies, especially Master of None, but lacked a truly great drama to stand up against what FX and HBO offered. In other words, this is really a final two, and it’s a difficult one.
On the comedy side, FX gets a slight edge with a remarkable season of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and a wildly creative third season of Man Seeking Woman, especially stacked against HBO’s more familiar Silicon Valley and Veep. Unfortunately for them, it’s the drama side where things get trickier. Fargo’s third season was kind of a mess, and though Feud was entertaining, the script never lived up to the performances of Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange. Then there’s The Americans, still one of the best shows on television, but whose fifth season was its weakest and most unfocused to date. In fact, the only FX drama to make our top 10 list was Legion, whose dreamy, inventive nature immediately sat shotgun with the return of Twin Peaks.
Comparing all that to HBO’s collection of The Young Pope, Big Little Lies, and The Leftovers, and you start to see how their well-rounded selection tips the scale in their direction. The Leftovers was one of the most original series in years, ending on a high note, while Big Little Lies became one of the most talked about shows on television during the Spring. Along with The Young Pope, it shows that as Game Of Thrones marches towards its inevitable conclusion, HBO still stands unparalleled in launching must-see new shows that are of quality, whether it’s miniseries or ongoing series. And while nothing on TV catches the dizzying highs of Twin Peaks right now, you can put HBO on at any time and find top notch programming.
But hey, we’re only halfway through 2017.