The Most Surreal TV Moments of 2017

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Getty Images

The year 2017 was a great many things: depressing, troubling, longer than the basic standards of time would suggest is possible. But it was also incredibly, incredibly surreal. This was the WTF-iest year in recent memory, and it gave us plenty of WTF television to match.

The political climate — specifically, the impulsive tweeter in the Oval Office — was responsible for generating a lot of that surreality. But even on television that didn’t involve coverage of White House press conferences or accused pedophile Senate candidates riding up to polling places on horses named Sassy, things frequently skewed toward the trippy.

Our award shows got surreal. Many of our scripted dramas — like The Leftovers, Legion, Twin Peaks: The Return, American Gods, American Horror Story: Cult, and SyFy’s Happy — were surreal in delightful, disturbing, and indisputably freaky ways. Even reality shows became a little strange. I mean, Discovery Channel actually aired a program called Phelps vs. Shark, in which Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps raced a great white shark, which turned out to be a CGI shark, and that was maybe the 215th weirdest thing on TV in 2017. In any other year, that’s a solid top-ten entry.

If TV is a mirror of our time, then I suppose it only makes sense, to the degree that anything makes sense anymore, that it reflected so many WTF moments right back at us. Here’s a reminder of the ones that made us go, “Wait, am I really watching this?” in 2017, listed in chronological order.

(Note: This list is not comprehensive because a comprehensive list would not fit on the Internet.)

January 16: The Young Pope gets a kangaroo

Photo: HBO

The Young Pope had everything: a hot young American pope (Jude Law) who worked out and drank Cherry Coke Zero, Diane Keaton as a basketball-playing nun, and, most random of all, a kangaroo. In the second episode, Lenny Belardo (Law) discovers a rather large, live gift from the Australian foreign minister, lures the animal from its cage, and insists it be let loose in the Vatican garden, where it becomes a papal pet of sorts. (For a while, anyway.) The sight of Law staring intently at that kangaroo serves as the Young Pope tipping point — “Did you get to the part with the kangaroo yet?” was a thing that was said in at least one Vulture staff meeting — that confirmed how weird this show would become.

January 20: President Trump’s inauguration

I am leaving political moments out of this rundown for the most part, simply because they will dominate the list if I don’t. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the televised inauguration of Donald Trump, wherein America watched the former host of The Apprentice get sworn in as president of these United States while the candidate he beat, Hillary Clinton, had to sit a few feet away and witness the whole thing unfold right in front of her eyes. The swearing-in was followed by a Trump speech that was shorter than usual but still managed to make America sound like a dystopian hellscape. Although it wasn’t captured in the TV coverage, when the ceremony ended, George W. Bush reportedly said, “That was some weird shit.” Oh, honey. The weird shit was only getting started.

January 29: The Stranger Things SAGs speech

The first “Is this actually happening right now?” awards show moment of the year came just days after the inauguration, when the Stranger Things cast was named best TV drama ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. David Harbour gave an impassioned speech about repelling bullies and sheltering freaks. But it was the facial expression journey embarked upon by his co-star Winona Ryder, also onstage, that made the whole thing special. We didn’t know it at the time, but in those two minutes, Ryder’s face became a sneak preview for the whirlwind of feelings we would confront in the year ahead.

February 26: “No, there’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture.”

First La La Land “wins” the Oscar for Best Picture, confirming what many suspected would happen. Then comes the commotion. A man in a headset appears out of nowhere. Emma Stone mouths the words, “Oh my God.” And suddenly, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz announces there was an error. “Moonlight,” he says, holding up the card with the winner’s name on it. “Best picture.” A confused but jubilant Moonlight director Barry Jenkins accepts the honor while the Oscars telecast turns into a symphony of sublime celebrity audience reaction shots — a confounded Nicole Kidman, Viola Davis with her jaw on the floor of the Kodak Theatre, Taraji P. Henson shooting footage of the whole thing with her rose-gold cell phone. Nearly ten months have passed and I still can’t believe this actually happened on live television.

April 30: That time Joel Murray got eaten by a vagina on American Gods

The adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s wild fantasy novel featured more than one provocative, bonkers sexual encounter, but the very first episode — in which Joel Murray’s character has sex with the goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) and gets swallowed whole by her nether regions — set a WTF bar in a year when scripted TV had hit “peak WTF.” Having not read Gaiman’s book beforehand, my response to this scene was: “Holy shit! Freddie Rumsen from Mad Men just got eaten by a vagina on national television!” Now my response to it is: “A white man was destroyed by a powerful black woman? Yeah, that’s perfect for 2017.”

May 21: All hail the Twin Peaks arm tree

Remember how I just said that American Gods set a WTF bar for TV in 2017? Well, Twin Peaks: The Return came along shortly thereafter and vaulted over that sucker, over and over again. There were so many surreal moments in the revival’s story of Agent Cooper and the Black Lodge that they’d require their own separate list, possibly written on an endless paper scroll that leads to a portal in the woods. I mean, there was Wally Brando, that weird-ass conversation between Audrey Horne and her husband, and pretty much every second of episode eight. But the moment that immediately proved The Return would be even more out there than we imagined was the reveal of the Evolution of the Arm, a manifestation of one-armed Mike’s missing appendage that took the form of a barren tree with an electrical current running through it and a tumor on its tippy-top. It also spoke in a weird whisper voice and said, “I am the arm and I sound like this,” then made strange noises with what would have been its tongue, I guess? Seriously, all of this really happened. At that instant, Twin Peaks: The Return reminded us that Twin Peaks invented WTF television, so you either needed to flip it off or surrender to its bizarreness and just let it carry you wherever the hell it was going.

July 7: When Candy Crush turned into an adventure sport

Game shows got bigger and odder in 2017. There was NBC’s The Wall, which was basically a combo platter of supersized Plinko, trivia night, and the weepier parts of This is Us; Fox’s Beat Shazam, a show that answered the question, “What would happen if Jamie Foxx hosted Name That Tune but we turned it into an ad for an app?”; and the aforementioned Phelps vs. Shark. But for me, the weirdest game-show moment of the year was when contestants from Survivor and Big Brother played Candy Crush on gigantic digital screens … while attached to harnesses that made it look like they were rehearsing aerial fight scenes for an as-yet-untitled Matrix movie … while Mario Lopez provided color commentary. It was all part of the short-lived CBS game show Candy Crush, which I watched exactly once. Why did I watch it? Because the power of 2017’s idiocracy compelled me.

September 17: Sean Spicer at the Emmys

It was weird when Sean Spicer became part of a gag at the Emmy Awards, considering he spent the first part of the year routinely lying to the country in his role as White House press secretary. But watching a room full of TV royalty respond was even more surreal, in ways both amusing and gross, and it completed 2017’s trifecta of WTF awards show moments that began with the SAGs, continued with the Oscars, and took a bow when Anna Chlumsky of Veep unhinged her jaw due to Spicer shock.

September 25: The debut of Megyn Kelly Today

The new 9 a.m. hour of the Today show turned to all things Megyn Kelly this fall, with Kelly herself explaining that her extremely expensive newsfotainment program would be much more nourishing than the hard-hitting segments that made her famous on Fox News.

“The truth is I’m kinda done with politics for now … it’s gotten so dark and I’m over it,” she said. Which, what? Kelly was hired because she discussed political issues and interviewed newsmakers. Now that she’s landed an even bigger platform at the most politically divisive moment in recent American history, she thinks it’s time to ignore politics?

Yes, this wasn’t as surreal as listening to the Twin Peaks arm tree talk. But it sounded just as ridiculous. Which is why, a couple of months later, Kelly is seeing a ratings bump by interviewing Trump’s sexual-assault accusers on the air. Guess she’s not done with it after all.

October 31: Wendy Williams passes out while dressed as the Statue of Liberty

The host of the Wendy Williams Show was nearly at the end of her live Halloween episode when, alarmingly, she began to slur her words and fainted on the air. Fortunately, Williams recovered and returned after a sudden commercial break to close things out, explaining that her costume had made her overheated. That she happened to be dressed as the Statue of Liberty when this happened made it especially, uh, disturbing. Which makes it a natural bookend to a WTF-filled year that began with the inauguration of President Trump.

The Most Surreal TV Moments of 2017