End of Year Television Review: The Highlights of 2017
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We're almost at the end of 2017, so it's the perfect time to reflect on another year of television. As with previous years, we've bandied a group of The Digital Fix writers together to offer our opinions on the best shows of the year. And if you feel like reflecting back on how 2017 compares to previous entries, you can click on the 2015 and 2016 end of year television reviews below.
You'll notice some changes to the format this year. In an age of streaming television and reboots / revivals, we've done away with the overall best show of the year because - quite simply - that's often an impossible task. Instead we look at UK and overseas content, the best new show, documentaries and so much more. Plus we've got the usual best TV news item, performance, episode and moments to showcase some of the highlights of 2017.
Our TV editor Baz Greenland is joined by The Digital Fix head honcho Colin Polonowski, TDF Film's Hel Harding Jones, regular reviewers Craig Huntley and Gary Couzens and new(ish) writer Alistair Ryder.
So let's delve into the highlights of 2017 television...
Best TV News Item Of The Year
Live Action Star Wars TV Series (Baz Greenland)
The big The X Files fan in me would possibly steer towards the season 11 pick-up, but there is no denying the excitement the announcement of a live-action Star Wars TV series will bring. It's part of Disney and Lucasfilm's second phase of Star Wars (along with a Rian Johnson-directed trilogy) and will be the first live-action attempt to bring this universe to the small screen on a weekly basis. We've had animated offerings in Star Wars: Rebels and The Clone Wars (and going back to the 80's Ewoks and Droids), but this will be the first example of whether the rich potential of the Star Wars universe can be adapted with a smaller, weekly budget and be a success.
A close second is the reveal of the first female Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker.
The Punisher renewed for Season 2 (Craig Huntley)
The best TV news story has recently been announced with the renewal of Marvel's most recent Netflix show. Tts first season, although slow to start, had its moments and towards the end of the season it had found what works well and what doesn't. Stand out star Jon Bernthal was born to play The Punisher; to give the story room to breath in its sophomore season is an excellent televisual present before the festive season begins.
Catch up on our season one review here.
Jodie Whittaker announced as the Thirteenth Doctor (Hel Harding-Jones / Colin Polonowski)
Click on the original news story here.
Hel: As if there could be any other. When a nation of women (mostly) wept at the prospect of a woman as The Doctor (a Northern one too) and a lot of deeply upset middle-aged white men stropped about because a beloved (and fictional) character with two beating hearts couldn’t possibly have breasts and a vagina as well. Brilliant.
Colin: Seriously - this is JUST what we needed. While rumours that Kris Marshall were circulating I was worried that Chris Chibnall’s tenure as showrunner might be off to a disappointing start, but he followed through on the foundations that Steven Moffat had been laying over the last few years and finally cast a woman in the lead role - not only that, he chosen one of our best homegrown actresses. I really can’t wait.
You can read The Digital Fix's deeper look at the impact of Whittaker's casting here.
Most Improved Show Of The Year
Sense8 (Baz Greenland)
The first season of Sense8 took a while to find its feet, but season two - coming off the back of last year's terrific Christmas special - was firing on all cylinders from beginning to end. It expanded the scope of the fascinating series, delving deeper into the stories of the central characters, ramping up the tension in the threat of the mysterious Whispers and introducing other Sense8s across the globe. It is a tragedy that Netflix has cancelled the show, but at least we'll get a two-hour finale in 2018 to wrap up that terrific ending to a strong season.
Orange Is The New Black (Craig Huntley)
Having just finished its fifth season, after a mediocre third and fourth, Orange Is The New Black got back what it does best and that's concentrate on the prisoners. In it's fifth season, which was based around a prison siege, it gave us the time to get to know our favorite characters a lot better rather than their daily interactions with the prison guards.
Stranger Things (Hel Harding-Jones)
I never quite made a connection first time around; perhaps there wasn’t enough Winona or Demi-thingies. I still have issues with the writing, that last episode was naff and I still don’t get the praise heaped upon it. However, having said all that, I quite liked this season, even episode seven.
You can read our season two review here.
The Blacklist (Colin Polonowski)
Things were getting a little stale in The Blacklist - the Mr Caplan plotline went on for a little too long and the reveal that we’d already all worked out back in the pilot episode that Red was Elizabeth’s father was something of a damp squib despite the various double bluffs. Thankfully the loss of Red’s empire meant we saw a new side to James Spader’s phenomenal performance - he has to be one of the best characters on screen right now. Megan Boone continued to improve too - she’s a million miles away from the person she was in Season One and she seems to be having a lot more fun; it seems Spader’s acting chops are rubbing off on her.
Most Disappointing Show Of The Year
Red Dwarf (Baz Greenland)
Now I could put Inhumans here; after all, it's the first bonafide flop in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But like Iron Fist, it was still new and unknown when 2017 rolled by. However there was one show that was very disappointing this year, because of how much it had fallen on years gone by.
It pains me to put Red Dwarf in this category, because I have genuinely loved the show over the years. But after a strong return to form on Dave for series 10 and 11, series 12 (or Red Dwarf XII as it was known) was a tired, dated mess of a show. Previous entries had managed to reignite the humour of the early years but the jokes were flat, the stories dull and only the final episode managed to save this from being another series 9 (aka Back to Earth). It was like watching an embarrassing uncle at a wedding trying to recapture his glory days of twenty years ago. It might have been funny then, but the 'hilarity' of series 12 was just cringe worthy.
The Walking Dead (Craig Huntley)
The ongoing saga with Negan has just about turned the show on its head. A frightening character initial with his quick temper and penchant for dealing out violence, the character is now a caricature of his former self. This talk of 'all out war' and Rick chasing around for guns has just about got me bored stiff. It's a shame as I was a real big fan of the show up to season six.
Check out our reviews of the The Walking Dead here.
Black Lake (Hel Harding-Jones)
Scandi noir-ish mystery, check. Snow, check. Cabin in the middle of nowhere, check. Potential haunting, check. This should have been right up my street but the tone, pacing and character development was so inconsistent, despite a really strong first episode. Yet as it edged nearer the end, it seemed to lose the plot (quite literally), it didn’t know what it wanted to be.
12 Monkeys (Colin Polonowski)
The first season of Twelve Monkeys was surprisingly good - and I kind of wish that it was a story tied up in twelve episodes. Something was lost this year - the tight pacing was gone and while a show about time travel spread across multiple time periods was never going to be simple, it just became a little bit too much to keep track of. It’s a shame though as the central performances were as good as before, just the material began to wear thin.
Best TV Reboot / Revival Of The Year
Twin Peaks (Baz Greenland / Colin Polonowski)
Baz: I was a huge Twin Peaks fan, but even I wasn't expecting everything that took pace in this eighteen-part odyssey. It was a show you had to digest week by week, Kyle Maclachlan stunning in three different versions of Cooper (or was it four?) and it was as innovative now as it was back in the early 90s. Stunningly beautiful, utterly absorbing and yes - sometimes frustrating, there will never be another show like it. Unless we do get a fourth season...
Colin: I was never a huge fan of the first two seasons, but David Lynch’s return to Twin Peaks after twenty seven years sees the show pick up as if it had never been away. Utterly bamboozling storylines and what the actual f… moments, this year’s Twin Peaks has been a frustratingly good revival.
Check out our Twin Peaks page, with reviews of every episode, past and present, here.
Roots (Hel Harding-Jones)
The saga based on Alex Haley's novel details the lineage of Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby), the son of a Mandinka Warrior who was kidnapped from his Gambian village to become a slave on a Virginian plantation. It was an original series back in the seventies which I've never seen. However, I found this modern iteration brilliant (despite a slightly rushed final episode) - so vital, anger-inducing and deeply moving. The cast as a whole was astonishing.
Best Documentary / Factual Series
Blue Planet II (Baz Greenland / Craig Huntley / Alistair Ryder)
Baz: Like Planet Earth II last year, Blue Planet II set the gold standard for documentary filmmaking. What made this BBC series so special was the message David Attenborough delivered; not only were audiences treated to the splendours of the oceans week after week, but we were brought face to face with the threat of humanity on marine life. This should be compulsory viewing for everyone.
Craig: Simply breath taking photography; poetic voiceover from David Attenborough but horrific knowledge that shows what the human race are doing to destroy this planet around us.
Alistair: Three years in the making, the David Attenborough-narrated documentary series Blue Planet returns, with an unexpected political urgency that has made it even more essential viewing than before. Come for the beautiful photography exploring unchartered depths, creatures and rituals underneath the world’s oceans, stay for the warnings that mankind needs to do more to protect its oceans- a message even more relevant than before in the year Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Paris climate agreement.
The Vietnam War (Gary Couzens)
Back in 1973 and 1974, ITV broadcast The World at War, a definitive account of one of the defining events of the twentieth century, the Second World War. It was made up of archive footage and had interviews with participants from both sides, and of course many of those are now no longer with us. I was in junior school when the Vietnam War ended, and I remember my teacher telling us this at the end of one day. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's series (ten hours of it in the version the BBC broadcast, though there is an seventeen-and-a-quarter-hour version as well) does the same for this major conflict, which divided America at a time of great social change. More than forty years on, many of those involved, Americans, North and South Vietnamese, are on hand to say their piece. This was a war fought in the television era, with cameras to hand, and some of the archive footage you'll see is truly harrowing, but this series is essential viewing.
Best Television DVD / Bluray Release
Doctor Who: Power of the Daleks Blu ray: 2 Entertain Blu-ray and DVD (Gary Couzens)
As I write this, every Doctor Who episode known to survive has been released on disc, but there are ninety-seven still missing, including some entire stories. The Power of the Daleks is one of them, and it's a story of pivotal importance in the show's history. It was the first story with second Doctor Patrick Troughton, and if the device of changing the leading actor by regenerating the character hadn't worked, Doctor Who may now be just a fondly-remembered Sixties show. For this story, the producers also brought back the Doctor's most famous foes, the Daleks.
All the missing episodes have off-air soundtracks recorded by fans on the original broadcasts, and the six episodes have been newly animated to match, on this Blu-ray in colour as well as the “original” black and white. Obviously we'd all love more missing episodes to be found, and no one knows how many may still be out there and how many are sadly gone forever. But this release shows what could be done with those stories with most or all of their episodes lost, and let's hope that more of them will follow in this form in the future.
Check out review of the bluray release here.
Best Streaming Show Of The Year
Mindhunter (Baz Greenland)
Completely absorbing and disturbing too, this exploration of the early days of criminal profiling is probably the best original show Netflix has done yet (and that's saying something). David Fincher's influence was clearly apparent (there were certainly shades of Zodiac here), but the subject matter wouldn't have worked if it hadn't been for the fantastic performances. The brash eagerness of Jonathan Groff's Holden Ford and the gruff experience of Holt McCallany's Bill Tench made for a strong double act, while Anna Torv just as mesmerising with cold yet inquisitive Wendy Carr. But it was Cameron Britton's gentle, terrifying performance as Edmund Kemper that stole the show and I can't wait to see what other serial killers are portrayed in season two.
Check out our review of season one here.
The Sinner/The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (Hel Harding-Jones)
Yes, I have two - one from Netflix and the other Amazon, and they couldn't be more different. Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman excelled in the psychological, smartly unpredictable and powerful why-dunnit, The Sinner. While The Marvelous Mrs Maisel came from the creator of The Gilmore Girls and is an amazing series about a housewife and mother in 1950s New York who decides to become a stand-up comedian.
Runner-up: The Keepers (Netflix)
The seven-part series which examines the unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik in 1969, and introduces the group of her pupils, now in their sixties, who have relentlessly investigated their beloved teacher's death. Watch it, it's better than Making a Murderer.
The Good Place (Colin Polonowski)
Never gut-burstingly funny, The Good Place has been one of the nicest shows on the box. The second season deftly picks up on the reset that ended the first and quickly finds new ways to cover the same ground before suddenly exploding into something altogether more fantastic.
Bojack Horseman (Alistair Ryder)
This may have not been the most depressing season of BoJack Horseman to date, but it was one of the most narratively adventurous. After Season three’s Underwater episode, season four’s best moments came when it furthered this experimentation with its manner of storytelling, peaking with an examination of memory through a mind ridden with Alzheimer’s in the masterful penultimate episode Time’s Arrow. That BoJack Horseman still manages to be so regularly hilarious despite the subject matter it deals with is why it remains a series worth treasuring.
Check out our feature on how comedies like Bojack Horseman treats the subject of mental health here.
Best UK Show
Doctor Who (Baz Greenland)
While I loved the serialised nature of season nine, Steven Moffat shook things up again for Peter Capaldi's final season. New companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) was a delightful breath of fresh air and the show continued to experiment with a mid-season three-parter, zombies in space and a truly disturbing final two-parter that charted the origins of the Cybermen. Sure the public reveal of John Simm's return was frustrating, but the team up of his Master with Michelle Gomez's Missy and Peter Capaldi's charismatic performance ended the series on a strong note. I'm sure there won't be a dry eye come his regeneration this Christmas...
Check out our reviews of every episode in our Doctor Who page here.
Blue Planet II (Craig Huntley / Alistair Ryder)
See all the reasons listed in the best documentary / factual series above.
Inside No.9 (Hel Harding-Jones)
The darkly comic brainchild of 50% of the League of Gentlemen continued this year (following a Christmas special in December) and its fourth begins in the New Year. Its humour, creativity, and macabre underbelly never fails to make me laugh or have me awe-struck with its cleverness.
Best Overseas Show
Game of Thrones (Baz Greenland / Colin Polonowski)
Baz: The seventh season of Game of Thrones was everything we hoped for. Each episode felt like the ninth episode of previous seasons and while it certainly ramped up the timeframe, moments like Daenerys's dragons being unleashed against the Lannister armies at the Reach and the battle against the dead beyond the wall brought spectacle like never before. And with the meeting of characters like Jon and Daenerys, stories merged together that we had been waiting to happen for years.
Colin: It may have played a little fast and loose with the passage of time (mostly fast), but the newly invigorated penultimate season of Game of Thrones was thrilling from start to finish with some huge set pieces in almost every episode. The final season will have to do a lot to top this.
Check out our reviews of every episode in our Game of Thrones page here.
Big Little Lies (Hel Harding-Jones)
Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Zöe Kravitz and Laura Dern were phenomenal in this HBO mini-series based on Liane Moriarty's bestselling novel, created by David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Set in Monterey, California sisterhood prevails through blind privilege, twisted marriages and stomach-churning violence.
Fargo (Alistair Ryder)
The debate rages on about which season of Fargo deserves to be named the best of the three- but it’s undeniable that season three manages to mix the best elements of season one and season two in to a strange new concoction, equal parts recognisable and unpredictable.
Check out our review of the Fargo season three finale here.
Barracuda (Gary Couzens)
It's hit and miss as to whether Australia drama series or miniseries turn up on British television or not. In the past year The Kettering Incident turned up on Sky, and the BBC had Deep Water (about to be repeated in early 2018), Cleverman and Top of the Lake: China Girl, which I haven't yet seen. But my pick would be Barracuda, that had little fanfare as it went out on BBC3, which by then was online only. Based on the novel by Christos Tsolkas (whose earlier novel The Slap became an excellent miniseries in 2011), it's set over four years, a year per episode, from 1996 to 2000.
Danny Kelly (Elias Anton) is a teenager from a working-class background who goes to a prestigious school on a swimming scholarship. He's good enough to be a contender for the Sydney Olympics. Danny has to battle prejudice, rivalry from his more privileged fellow students and swimmers, and his own demons to succeed. The heart of the story is in the relationship between Danny and his coach Frank Torma (Matt Nable). Excellently written and acted, with plenty of shades of grey in the characters, and ultimately moving.
Best New TV Show Of The Year
Legion (Baz Greenland)
This was a tough choice for me as there were a number of new shows vying for the top spot. But for me it has to be Legion. It took what is in danger of becoming an oversaturated superhero TV genre and dared to be different. A descent into madness, Dan Stevens' David Haller was a fascinating leading man, while Aubrey Plaza was delightfully sexy and evil as the Shadow King. The descent into David's mind, the playful nature of time and some stunning special effects sequences made this one of the most exciting new show of recent years.
Check out our review of the season one finale here.
Runner up: Star Trek: Discovery - a strong opening run of episodes that dared to be different. And how great was it to have Star Trek back on our TVs again where the franchise belongs?
Star Trek: Discovery (Craig Huntley)
Having been a Trekkie for as long as I can remember I was excited to hear about the new Netflix series. Initially it was a shock to see this new incarnation, with the ship prepped for war and not for adventure as per other incarnations, now that we are at the mid season break it gives us time to understand where we are in the storyline and who the characters are on the show and what their goals are. It's a show that is exciting to watch each week and may long it continue for as many seasons as possible.
Check out our Star Trek page, including reviews of every episode of Star Trek: Discovery here.
Star Trek: Discovery / The Orville (Colin Polonowski)
This one will likely pick up some flack - I’ve chosen two wildly different sci-fi shows that share an identical influence but have tackled the material in completely different ways.
While Star Trek: Discovery is probably the darkest Star Trek we’ve seen - even seeing a character dropping the F-bomb on one occasion it has been gripping and surpassed expectations that came with it’s troubled development. Think of it as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine-style Trek turned up to eleven.
The Orville on the other hand is a love letter to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Bottle episodes instead of a large overriding arc and the occasional joke (which I’ve found pretty refreshing actually), it overcomes its largely mediocre central performance - Seth MacFarlane lacks the gravitas the role really needs - by just being really enjoyable and the perfect antidote to its much more serious step-brother. Rather than wallow in its own storyline, The Orville picks up Gene Roddenberry’s original intention to use Trek to tackle modern day issues and it’s done it in a surprisingly deft way so far.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Hel Harding-Jones)
The Handmaid's Tale not only captured the tone and mood of its original source material but of a political climate that we are edging closer towards everyday. It doesn't happen very often, but for me, this series actually improved upon Atwood's novel. It's not the most pleasant television series to watch, more often than not it will make your skin crawl but it's powerful, uncomfortable, gloriously defiant and amazing thanks mainly to its remarkable cast.
The Good Place (Alistair Ryder)
Although Bryan Fuller’s utterly bonkers adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may be TV’s best original vision of the year, my favourite new series is The Good Place. Michael Schur may be the king of US workplace sitcoms, yet his latest series saw him wandering in to unfamiliar territory, as well as his first foray into something that can be accurately described as high concept.
Initial fears that the show may have difficulty stretching out its premise across multiple seasons were immediately cast aside with the first season finale- a shocking twist that has led to an even greater second season, which is even more narratively adventurous (and warmly comic) than the first. More improbably, the show also excels in offering as much philosophical thought on a weekly basis as it does laughs; in a world where your actions will lead you to either exist for the rest of eternity in “the good place” or “the bad place”, Schur’s show excels in exploring the grey area in-between.
Best TV Performance Of The Year
Gillian Anderson as Media in American Gods (Baz Greenland)
Gillian Anderson was simply stunning as one of the new Gods Media, transforming herself week by week into different iconic figures. Her slightly dirty Lucille Ball and her dignified Judy Garland were mesmerising, but it was her performances as breathless Marilyn Monroe and David Bowie from Ziggy Stardust that shone, demonstrating just how talented and versatile Anderson could be as an actress. I don't think any performance has stuck me this year as much as Anderson's David Bowie and I can't wait to see more of her in American Gods season two.
Runners up: Because there have been so many this year, I also wanted to pick our Peter Capaldi as the Doctor (Doctor Who) and Cameron Britton as Edmund Kemper (Mindhunter).
Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks in Alias Grace (Hel Harding-Jones)
An astonishingly layered and mesmerising performance from the Canadian actress in the second Margaret Atwood adaptation of the year.
Peter Capaldi as The Doctor in Doctor Who (Colin Polonowski)
Capaldi’s final year as The Doctor has seen him turn in performance after performance that is leagues ahead of the material he’s given to work with. While Who has been consistently decent this year, Capaldi has been consistently outstanding and it’ll be a shame to see him go. A good thing that Jodie Whittaker is stepping in to give us something to look forward to in the Whoniverse.
David Thewlis as Varga in Fargo (Alistair Ryder)
As always, Noah Hawley’s anthology series introduced us to an accomplished ensemble cast, yet none of the performances were as immediately engrossing as David Thewlis’ turn as the shadowy businessman Varga. Despite his instantly recognisable Mancunian accent, Thewlis completely disappears in to the grotesquerie of the character, delivering his most unforgettable turn since his lead role in Mike Leigh’s 1993 film Naked.
Best TV Episode Of The Year
Twin Peaks: season three, episode eight (Baz Greenland)
Twin Peaks's eighth episode was something very special. The betrayal of evil Cooper and his bloody resurrection by evil Black Lodge spirits made for a gruesome first act, before the second charted the birth of Bob and the evil spirits in the heart of the first man made nuclear explosion and the creation of Laura countered by the Giant in the White Lodge. But nothing could have prepared me for the terrifying final act as those spirits descended on a small New Mexico town in 1956 and slaughtered its population, while a young girl was possessed by a disturbing frog-like creature with wings. The phrase 'Gotta Light?' is sure to send a shiver down the spine of anyone who watched this episode.
Check out our detailed review of the episode here.
The Exorcist: Season two, episode four - One For Sorrow (Hel Harding-Jones)
The So Yong Kim-helmed episode was beautifully set-up and perfectly revealing, leading us several ways before exclaiming all bets were off. At this early stage in the series, we were still asking questions of who, in the Kim family, would be needing help from Father Tomas and Marcus. When that answer arrives, it's unexpected and brilliantly executed.
Check out our detailed review of the episode here.
Master Of None: Season two, episode eight - Thanksgiving (Alistair Ryder)
Aziz Ansari claimed that the second season of Master of None would be more experimental, with more individual episodes that barely factor in to any overarching narrative. The best of these, by far, is the decades spanning coming out tale Thanksgiving, which manages to deal with several weighty themes (most noticeably the relationship between religion and homosexuality in African American culture) while never betraying the show’s essence as an acutely observed character comedy. That being said, it will take a heart of stone to not be moved to tears by the well-deserved happy ending.
Check out our review of the complete second season of Master of None here.
Best TV Moment Of The Year
The Nuclear Explosion and birth of Bob and Laura in Twin Peaks (Baz Greenland)
The second act of Twin Peak's eighth episode is was unlike anything else I had seen on television. The audience were taken through a stunning black and white recreation of the first nuclear test in the New Mexico desert in 1945, flashes of colour amid the swirling cloouds of fire, accompanied by the frenzied string movements of Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. In the fire, an orb is shot forth, giving birth to Bob amid the evil.
But it doesn't stop there; David Lynch delivers something akin to avant garde cinema as the convenience stored with the evil Black Lodge spirits is consumed, before heading to the White Lodge, as the Giant observes Bob's creation and creates Laura as a counterpoint. Visibly stunning, with composer Angelo Badalamenti creating a truly magical score, the sequence is unlike anything I have seen on television, and likely never will again.
The final school dance in Stranger Things season two (Craig Huntley)
This scene conjured up so many memories. Anybody of a certain age will remember walking into that hall, anxious as all hell trying to look cool, spotting your best mates, your school crush, your first dance and also the best bit....sliding on your knees across the dance floor. The episode sums it up well.
The diner scene in Girls (Hel Harding-Jones)
For ,me, the highlight of the year comes in the final season of Girls in the eighth episode What Will We Do This Time With Adam? After a joyous day, realisation hits. There's an exchange of looks, and a crumpling of two faces which delivered such a low-blow of overwhelming sadness and honesty.
The closing scene at The Wall from Game of Thrones season seven (Colin Polonowski)
The reanimated Viseron bringing down The Wall in Game of Thrones. Season eight will be off to a stunning start if it picks up where this left off...
And that's our review of 2017. Doctor Who continued to have a strong presence, be it the announcement of the show's first female Doctor or the continuously amazing performance from Peter Capaldi in his final season. Game of Thrones continued its high standard, Fargo maintained a solid third year and Stranger Things continued to delight. But The Walking Dead was highlighted for all the wrong reasons for the second year in the row.
It was also a year that saw a lot of new shows emerge as favourites. The Twin Peaks revival was unlike anything else on TV, while Star Trek: Discovery proved the wait was worth it. Blue Planet II educated and amazed, and The Good Place became the one comedy show everyone was talking about.
It's been a good year for television and we look forward to what 2018 brings...