How good is television right now? Let me tell you how good television is right now.
When I posted “My Favorite TV Shows of 2015” last December, I expanded my end-of-the-year celebration to include 20 shows, instead of the 15 I’d limited myself to in the previous year. There was just too much good stuff to discuss and recommend.
This year, I’m expanding to 25, despite the fact that only three shows from last year reappear on my list. Alas, 2015 honorees Agent Carter, Hannibal, and Mad Men are done forever. Louie is on indeterminate hiatus, perhaps never to return. The Jinx and Show Me a Hero were limited-series. Doctor Who, Fargo, Fortitude, and Jessica Jones were all off in 2016. That left just ten shows with a chance to repeat, and somehow all but three got shouldered off the list.
I could discuss how several of my favorite shows from last year got bumped because they had weak, dull, or disastrous seasons in 2016. (Oh, UnREAL, how you let me down.) But why see the glass as half-empty? Let us instead celebrate that the glass is constantly—almost alarmingly—overflowing with goodness. More than half of the shows on my list, in fact, premiered in 2016, and I almost certainly could have put together a respectable list entirely from brand new properties. Call it “Peak TV,” or call it “the New Golden Age of Television,” but I’m not sure there has ever been so much quality content coming so quickly or available so readily.
And this opulence breeds opportunity. Gone are the days when a handful of broadcast networks had to ensure that a handful of shows appealed to the broadest possible, lowest-common-denominator audience. There is room now for networks and providers to take chances on difficult subjects and bold experiments. There are new production and distribution options that allow creators more control over their creations. And, perhaps most excitingly, the expanding TV marketplace seems to be opening doors to a diversity of auteurs and content that would previously have been unimaginable. Just looking back at my year-end lists from 2014 and 2015, I am kind of ashamed and appalled at how very, very white they were. While this no doubt says as much or more about me as it does about the marketplace, I don’t think anyone can deny that 2016 saw an encouraging surge in quality shows that are—to use the overused phrase—”unapologetically black.” There is still a long ways to go before we can claim to be living, as some pundits have suggested, in a “Black TV renaissance.” (And there is further still to go to ensure that Latino, Asian, LGBTQ+, and other severely underrepresented groups have the opportunity to put their experiences on-screen.) But the rise in stories of color being told by people of color is nonetheless exciting, not least of all because it’s making TV better.
No critic assembles a list like this without fear of regret and recrimination, so a few prefatory notes are probably in order. First, it would have been impossible to watch everything in 2016, and I didn’t come close: there are some obvious omissions on my list. The Americans and Rectify are generally agreed to be among the best TV dramas we have right now, but I still haven’t caught up with them. (I keep trying to watch The Americans, and—though it’s very well made—I somehow keep struggling to stay emotionally interested in it. Rectify is much more my cup of tea—and almost certainly would have made my list—but I came to it late and didn’t manage to get up to speed in time for the current season.) And, considering that I didn’t start watching Breaking Bad until it was off the air, it’s probably not a shock that I still haven’t gotten around to Better Call Saul.
There is also no point pretending that this is an objective process: sometimes a show that other people find brilliant is just, for me, a tonal mismatch. For example, I’ve watched a few episodes each of Baskets, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Lady Dynamite, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and none of them quite clicked for me. (I may give them another shot when I have the chance, but I also may not. Part of enjoying the current largess of television riches is accepting that there’s neither time nor obligation to stick with a show that doesn’t quite float your boat.) I also—with rare exceptions—don’t find the traditional sit-com format particularly interesting, even if they’re very well done. (We could argue about definitions—there are shows on this list that could be considered sit-coms, I suppose—but you won’t find Blackish, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or Speechless.)
Finally, one of the reasons I gave up ranking my lists is that I find it both impossible and unnecessary to compare apples, oranges, and rare exotic fruit. This list contains specials, documentaries, weekly news shows, cartoons, limited series, and ongoing series both comedic and dramatic. For example—due to the peculiarities of this list—ranking would require me to decide whether an eight-hour documentary is a greater or lesser artistic achievement than a 10-hour dramatization of the same events. What would be the point?
And so—in dull, non-competitive alphabetical order—I’m simply presenting the 25 best TV experiences I had in 2016. (And, where appropriate, I’m also naming my favorite episodes—mostly because it gave me an excuse to watch some of them again.)
Director Ava DuVernay’s essential documentary 13th (Netflix) takes its title from the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” From that problematic subordinate clause, written in 1864, DuVernay draws a maddening line through history to the present day, in which the mass incarceration of black men is a multi-billion dollar industry. And, though the prison industrial complex is her central subject, DuVernay recognizes that it is not a subject that can be discussed in a vacuum: the documentary masterfully and efficiently discusses the entire continuum of America’s white supremacist history, including chattel slavery, Jim Crow, the “war on drugs,” popular culture, police brutality, and other topics: the result is a horrifying indictment of our sustaining nexus of prejudice, capitalism, and public policy. Informative, electrifying, and infuriating, 13th is nothing less than a 90-minute comprehensive primer on institutional racism.
Making a significant leap in quality and sophistication from its deeply flawed debut season, Season Two of John Ridley’s anthology series American Crime (ABC) was brimming with intelligence and insight. Exploring the fallout of a sexual assault that occurs amongst students at a prestigious private high school, Ridley and his ridiculously talented troupe of actors tell a story about privilege and power that explores inequities of class, race, education, gender, and sexual orientation, while always keeping the drama firmly grounded in genuine, maddeningly flawed human beings. Offering some of the best direction on television, a steady stream of acting masterclasses from veterans like Lily Taylor and Felicity Huffman, and a lot of smart, nuanced observation about American society, it’s hard to imagine asking more from a network drama.
Best Episode: Episode Seven came dangerously close to repeating some of the sensationalistic missteps of the previous season, but it pulled off its difficult material with grace and restraint, and climaxed in a scene—between Lily Taylor and Connor Jessup—that was among the best I saw all year.
AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON
I wasn’t particularly interested in the O.J. Simpson case back in 1994–95, and I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me that one day I’d become completely engrossed with not one, but two, deep explorations of it. (And, as late as last year, I certainly would have laughed if you’d told me that a Ryan Murphy show would ever make my Best of the Year list.) But The People v. O.J. Simpson (FX) went behind the scenes of the 10-month courtroom circus to deliver 10 hours of fantastically entertaining drama. Counter-intuitively, knowing exactly how the case would turn out made the “plot” more suspenseful, not less, as every decision the legal teams made carried an ominous air of inevitability and tragedy. But it was the interpersonal stories that made The People v. O.J. Simpson so compelling: with stellar performances from Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, Courtney B. Vance, and many others, the familiar faces from the trial became some of the most interesting and fascinatingly flawed characters of the year.
Best Episode: While the other O.J. show (see below) did a better job of exploring the broad intersectionality of race, gender, and class that made the O.J. case such a potent American microcosm, The People v. O.J. Simpson excelled at finding ways to humanize these issues through its central characters. No episode better demonstrated this than the horror film of misogyny that it put Marcia Clark through—almost certainly winning an Emmy for Paulson in the process—in “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE
With over 100 books published in her name, and countless adaptations and expansions of her stories in every medium, Agatha Christie’s work has basically become a genre in its own right: peculiarly British period mysteries, with a gentle wit, a gentile manner, and just a naughty soupçon of sinister corruption. But after so many safe, usually tongue-in-cheek Christie productions, BBC One made the familiar tropes feel fresh, and the comforting formulae discomforting, with its brilliant, pitch-black presentation of And Then There Were None (which aired in the U.S. on Lifetime). Playwright Sarah Phelps took a few, modernizing liberties with the oft-adapted mystery about ten strangers being murdered one-by-one on an isolated island. (The flirtation between haunted governess Vera Claythorne [Maeve Dermody] and callous soldier-of-fortune Philip Lombard [Aidan Turner] is not quite as chaste as it was in the novel, for example.) But these minor changes were all in service of a larger faithfulness to—even a revelation of—the perversely dark heart of Christie’s most cynically nihilistic tale. Unlike earlier adaptations, Phelps doesn’t gloss over the sins that brought each of these strangers to the island, and she doesn’t chicken out on the shockingly bleak ending that gives everyone more or less exactly what they deserve. Like many Christie productions, And Then There Were None has an all-star cast, but Phelps makes this old tale feel startlingly fresh by embracing the reality that it’s a story without a single hero.
Best Episode: An awkwardly staged climactic scene can’t detract from the thrilling crescendo of And Then There Were None’s frenzied final installment, in which the pressure-cooker erupts, and deeply buried secrets resurface, and the carefully maintained walls of civilization collapse around the survivors.
With the first season of the deliriously mercurial Atlanta, FX reinforced its position as the prestige basic-cable network—see also: several other shows on this list—and renaissance man Donald Glover catapulted himself to the top ranks of television auteurs. As struggling would-be music mogul Earn Marks, Glover is the calm, dry center of an experimental formal storm, allowing Atlanta to spin almost any kind of tale about being black and broke in the 21st century. One episode, set entirely in a police station, shifted on a dime between boredom, slapstick, and brutality. Another, which took place in a club, paid off a throwaway gag about an invisible car in what was probably TV’s best laugh-out loud moment of 2016. The final episode, a shaggy dog tale about Earn’s desperate quest to recover his jacket from an Uber driver, culminated in a reveal of devastating emotional power. Show creator Glover—like Louis C.K. did before him—is proving that he can do anything in realizing his unique and uncompromising vision, and he’s partnered with a brilliantly evocative director (Hiro Murai) and a supporting cast that can carry anything he asks them to bear. (There’s no weak link here: Zazie Beetz, Keith Stanfield, and particularly Brian Tyree Henry are all giving awards-worthy performances of remarkable depth and conviction.) Poignant or gritty one moment, silly or surreal the next, Atlanta doesn’t so much straddle genres as it breaks down the walls between them, insisting on being as gloriously strange and shifting as life itself.
Best Episode: The pilot is the best introduction to the world of Atlanta, and there are no bad episodes. But for sheer, giddy experimentation, it’s hard to beat the seventh episode, “B.A.N.”, in which Henry’s surly rapper Paper Boi appears on a snooty roundtable talk show to discuss black masculinity, identity, and transphobia. The satire is pitch-perfect as Glover creates a fictional show on a fictional network, complete with fictional and increasingly hysterical commercials for real products.
When Pamela Adlon’s Better Things premiered, it begged comparison with its FX predecessor Louie. (Adlon was a writer, producer and frequent co-star on Louie, and Louis C.K. is an executive producer, writer, and director on Better Things.) The comparisons were natural, but they probably didn’t always serve Adlon’s show well. Even I found myself faulting Things, early in its run, for not being as daring and experimental as Louie. (For that, you have to go to Atlanta.) But Adlon is doing something very different in Better Things: if the show lacks Louie‘s experimental breadth, it more than makes up for it with a more subtle and sustained emotional depth. Adlon’s character Sam Fox (a lightly fictionalized version of herself) is a realistic, fully rounded woman, balancing—never perfectly—her roles as a working actress, a struggling single-mother, a patient-if-prickly daughter, and an unapologetic sexual being. Adlon’s sensitive performance is bolstered by the two generations of actresses on either side of her: Celia Imrie, revelatory as Sam’s needy, eccentric mother Phyllis; and Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, and Olivia Edward as the three children Sam is awkwardly ushering through various stages of growing up and finding their own identities. (Though men pop in and out, Better Things has no regular male actors, and doesn’t need them.) “I don’t know how you do it,” Sam’s friend says to her, to which Sam replies honestly: “I don’t, actually. Everybody always gets a little bit screwed. Even when I do my best, it ain’t never enough.” This frank acknowledgment of the messy impossibilities of a modern woman’s life is what makes the mundane realities of Better Things feel fresh and almost revolutionary, as Adlon finds humor, horror, and heroism in subtle, fleeting moments of always imperfect effort.
Best Episode: The season finale, “Only Women Bleed,” is a tour-de-force of plotless wonder: it’s just a normal, chaotic day in Sam’s life, incorporating a thousand small moments and one major, quiet revelation handled with heartbreaking sensitivity.
For the most part, I agree with the general consensus that Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror stumbled a bit in its transition from the U.K’s Channel Four to America’s Netflix. (Opinions vary, but I thought “Playtest” was the real weak link in this latest chain of episodes.) But let’s be serious: the only thing this show suffers in comparison to is itself. Continuing to live up to its title, Season Three of Black Mirror provided us with dark, smart reflections of the world we live in. Sometimes—as in the terrifically bleak third episode, “Shut Up and Dance”—the reflection was almost perfect, the world we see almost indistinguishable from our own. At other times—as it did in the clever and insightful “Nosedive,” and the fun-but-less-successful “Hated in the Nation”—the show worked like a funhouse mirror, transforming our current condition into something distorted and grotesque. Once in a while—as in the brilliant “San Junipero”—Black Mirror was like Alice’s looking-glass, opening a window into a more fantastical world that echoed our reality in less direct (but still deeply poignant) ways. At its frequent best, Black Mirror works like the Magic Mirror in Snow White, speaking nothing but uncomfortable truths. And we gaze into it knowing that—like objects in a rear-view mirror—the frightening futures we glimpse may be much, much closer than they appear. If the nearly flawless Seasons One and Two of Black Mirror had never existed, Season Three would still be hailed, deservedly, as the most insanely inventive and darkly insightful show most of us have seen in a long, long time.
Best Episode: After piling darkness upon darkness upon darkness in other episodes, Brooker blasted us with technological light in the surprisingly hopeful and romantic “San Junipero.”
Unlike many of my fellow Americans, I don’t have any particular fascination with, or veneration of, the British Royal Family: the Windsors always struck me as dull, pale, purely ceremonial relics of a by-gone era, granted shallow authority and celebrity out of tradition alone. Why, one wonders, do they even matter in this modern age? Interestingly, that seems to be more or less exactly the question Peter Morgan is asking—always respectfully—in his excellent Netflix series The Crown. The first of a proposed six seasons chronicling the entire reign of Queen Elizabeth II, these ten episodes find the young monarch (Claire Foy) struggling to understand what it means to embody the role that first her father, and then she, reluctantly inherited. She is a young woman of no particular qualifications, elevated to a largely symbolic role with no particular responsibilities, and yet somehow expected to represent the essential goodness of a nation and the divine will of God. Foy gives a subtle, remarkably controlled performance, always locating the humanity in Elizabeth, even—or especially—during the moments when she must subsume her own identity to this ethereal and indefinable duty. (And the perfectly proper, always contained figure of Elizabeth is surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that enliven the proceedings, including Matt Smith as the irascible Prince Philip, Vanessa Kirby as the determinedly less proper Princess Margaret, and John Lithgow’s almost guaranteed Emmy-award winning turn as Sir Winston Churchill.) Beginning at a moment in history when the British Empire was crumbling, The Crown does not ignore the question of the monarchy’s relevance, but finds magic in exploring the nuanced mysteries of an institution that only matters as long as everyone—the queen, most importantly—believes and behaves like it does.
Best Episode: In the seventh episode, “Scientia Potentia Est,” Elizabeth grapples with the limitations of her own youth, education, and experience, even as she is must assert the Crown’s authority over the older and wiser dignitaries who are running the government in her name.
I’m a sucker for a pitch-black comedy with a hidden heart, and that description doesn’t even do justice to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s astonishing Fleabag (Amazon). Creator and writer Waller-Bridge plays the nameless title character, a young London cafe-owner who describes herself—quite accurately—as “a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” Constantly breaking the fourth-wall to speak to us in wry asides about her interpersonal, sexual, and financial misadventures, the character endears herself to us nonetheless with perfect comic timing, an outrageously filthy frankness, and a startling vulnerability. What we quickly learn is that our heroine is not so much brass as broken, and not so much anti-social as isolated: we suspect, in fact, that she’s talking to us because she has no longer has anyone else to whom she can really open up. Over the course of six episodes Waller-Bridge reveals that this upbeat, indomitable, gleefully amoral woman is teetering—just barely—on the edge of a vast abyss of sadness, grief, and guilt. That we love her for it is a testament to Waller-Bridge, from whom (more) great things must now be expected: her writing is sharp, funny, insightful, and unsentimental, and she creates a character both hilarious and heartbreaking with one of the best performances of the year.
Best Episode: In the fourth episode, Waller-Bridge’s character attends a silent women’s retreat with her uptight sister Claire (the excellent Sian Clifford). Understandably resistant to the phony peace promised by the strict regimen—”We’ve paid them to let us clean their house in silence”—she nonetheless stumbles upon some, in two of the best scenes any show produced all year: first in a quietly profound encounter with an old acquaintance, and then in a surprising moment of tenderness with her sister.
GAME OF THRONES
Jon Snow (Kit Harington) may have gone from corpse to king over the sixth season of Game of Thrones (HBO), but this year was all about the women. Producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have taken a lot of grief over their treatment of female characters over the years, and a lot of it was justified. But, as Game of Thrones moves into its final act, it’s becoming clear that the women were the heroes all along, and that the extraordinary arcs they’ve traveled make them the strongest, most complex, most formidable characters around. (Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner, Emilia Clarke, and Lena Headey all gave awards-worthy performances this year, and none of them were out-of-place in an absurdly large cast without a single weak link.) Few shows have maintained such a consistent quality over six seasons, and Game of Thrones shows no signs of slacking off in its final two seasons to come: the show’s always impressive production team achieved new heights of technical achievement in 2016, even as Benioff and Weiss continued to develop the complex characters and deeply humane themes that have made this the richest and most rewarding show on television.
Best Episode: The season finale, “The Winds of Winter,” did what Game of Thrones does best: delivered heart-stopping, game-changing surprises that seemed, in retrospect, absolutely inevitable. Any show can shock its audience: when Thrones delivers explosions—literal and figurative—we can look back and see how they’ve been moving towards us for six seasons, deliberately, down a subtle emotional and thematic fuse.
THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE
I wasn’t a particular fan of Steven Soderbergh’s chilly, shapeless experimental film The Girlfriend Experience, and I had few hopes for a TV show spun off from its premise. But that just goes to show what I know: Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan turned The Girlfriend Experience (Starz) into a unique, stylish, fascinating study of disconnection and control. Riley Keough gives a compellingly complicated, maddeningly elusive performance as Christine, a Chicago law student working as a high-end escort providing the titular encounter for the 1-percent. The show—which features some of the best direction and cinematography on television—is as perfect a match of form and function as I can imagine: it is beauty without warmth, sensuality without intimacy, both frankly direct and frustratingly distant. Clinical, cynical, and cold, the show provides us just teasing glimpses of real humanity beneath the surface of these practical characters and these commodified transactions, and the result is one of the smartest, most eerily evocative shows of the year.
Best Episode: I’m torn. The season finale, “Separation,” was a fascinating one-act play, almost entirely divorced from the storylines of the rest of the season: not so much a continuation, it was a perfect encapsulation of everything that made Season One of The Girlfriend Experience so intriguing. But my vote probably goes to the ninth episode, “Blindsided,” a remarkably tense half-hour that finds Christine’s double-life blowing up in her face: it comes dangerously close to completely humanizing Christine, but—even in her most sympathetic moments—Keough’s performance keeps us fantastically uncertain about whether the emotions we’re seeing are real.
HALT AND CATCH FIRE
Its flawed first season now a distant memory, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers’ Halt and Catch Fire (AMC) just keeps getting better. Much of the credit goes to the excellent ensemble cast, led by Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé as two of TV’s strongest, most emotionally complex women. But the real beauty of Halt and Catch Fire is how it found the perfect synthesis of subject and theme, as the first season’s Mad Men-lite battle over building a better computer segued in its second season into the birth of online chat rooms, and in its third season to the birth of the modern internet. Halt and Catch Fire brilliantly utilizes computers as a two-edged metaphor, drawing on their potential for both alienation and connection. As Halt and Catch Fire‘s makeshift family breaks apart and comes back together, we realize it was never about the computers: it was always about the characters, and their—and our—longing for community.
Best Episode: The final four episodes of Halt and Catch Fire’s third season were one of TV’s best runs this year, and my vote for best episode goes to the penultimate entry, “NIM,” which pulls off a bold time-jump that feels not like a cheat, but like an earned and breathtaking deepening of the rifts and raising of the stakes.
I’m not sure there’s a more ironically titled show than Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley (Netflix). In a sea of dark crime dramas, the series stands out for the bleak, unrelenting realism of its world view, which recognizes that everyone—cop, criminal, or civilian—is just a deeply fucked up human being enduring the sadness and squalor of life as best they can. But this very acknowledgement of life’s endless hardships is exactly what allows Wainwright’s painfully human characters to shine, and no character on television shines more vividly than Police Sgt. Catherine Cawood, played to world-weary perfection by Sarah Lancashire. Haunted by her daughter’s suicide, raising a grandson born from rape, Catherine is as tired and broken as any of the criminals and victims with whom she has to deal. But, somehow, deal she does: with patience, humor, and startling decency. There are no cardboard heroes or villains on Happy Valley, but there is the quiet, messy, unglamorous heroism of a woman finding the strength each day to hold herself—and her small, damaged world—together.
Best Episode: “What a shit week!” Catherine screams to the heavens, near the end of the second season finale, and she’s not exaggerating. But the episode also features Catherine at her absolute best: trying, with a tough, kind, almost maternal patience, to salvage an actual human being from the deluded, fraudulent schoolteacher played (brilliantly) by Shirley Henderson. And Lancashire’s delivery of Catherine’s final monologue is the kind of emotionally complex piece of work that makes you forget to breathe until it’s over.
HORACE AND PETE
In January, subscribers to Louis C.K.’s website received a mysterious email reading, in its entirety, “Horace and Pete episode one is available for download. $5. Go here to watch it. We hope you like it.” With this stealthy, secretly produced, self-distributed model, Louis C.K. took a bold step forward into the exciting future of television, in which artists will have increasing control over their own art. But the show’s other foot was firmly planted in the honorable past: hearkening back to the early days of television, Horace and Pete turned out to be a series of filmed one-act plays—ranging in length from 30 to 67 minutes—set in a 100-year-old family-owned Brooklyn bar. This generative tension between past, present, and future turned out to be key, because the characters themselves were grappling with the concept of change: how to respect “the way things have always been done,” while recognizing that tradition and nostalgia can be vehicles for perpetuating misery and injustice. With an all-star cast delivering brave, career-best performances—including C.K., Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Jessica Lange, and many others—Horace and Pete was a powerful, unique, unclassifiable thing, which could never have been made any way except the way C.K. made it. Horace and Pete wasn’t always a pleasant place to hang out, but it was a major evolution of what the medium of TV can do. If the future of television is this kind of uncompromising artistic vision, sign me up.
Best Episode: The tenth episode—which surprised viewers by being the finale—was a wonderfully structured piece of work, opening with the previous generation of the family, bringing the current generation’s story to a brutal close, and just hinting at the possibility of hope while suggesting that the cycle of misery may, in fact, be inescapable. But the amazing nine-minute monologue guest-star Laurie Metcalf delivers in a single, unbroken shot at the opening of Episode Three was probably Horace and Pete’s high-water mark.
If Issa Rae had simply carried over the observational humor of her successful “Awkward Black Girl” web series to half-hour serialized format, Insecure (HBO) would still be worth the price of admission. (And make no mistake, she did bring it: Insecure’s humor is funny and true, whether it’s dealing with the appalling cluelessness of her character’s liberal white co-workers, or exploring the messy, aimless inertia of both careers and relationships in your late-20s.) But while Rae’s humor benefits from giving the jokes a little more room to breathe—letting the cumulative awkwardness of certain situations build up over the course of entire episodes, or over an entire season—it’s the surprising depth of the characters, and their relationships, that makes Insecure something special. Rae creates a frustrating, endearing, awkwardly sympathetic character, one we’re excited to see grow over what we hope will be many seasons. And the real heart of the series is the relationship between Issa and her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), as these two very different women share a bond more interesting and complicated than either of them share with the various men in their lives. It feels like the most genuine female friendship on television, as the show does an amazing job of unpacking the layers of love, support, anger, envy, judgement, trust, concern, and a thousand other emotions that make up their rock-solid foundation.
Best Episode: There were moments in Insecure’s first season when I wasn’t sure the dramatic elements were working as well as the comedic, but those doubts were a distant memory by the time Issa’s floundering relationships all came to a breaking point in the season finale, “Broken as Fuck.” After a season of indecision bordering on indifference, the show found real emotional stakes in Issa’s breakup with her boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis), which hit both Issa and the audience harder than expected. But few scenes all year could rival Issa’s 2 AM car ride with Molly, a scene filled with humor, resentment, forgiveness, and stunning grace. If you want to see what friendship between women looks like, look no further.
LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER
When you think about it, it’s a format that really shouldn’t work at all: just a guy, sitting at a desk, lecturing us about topics like immigration reform, payday loans, and police militarization. Every week, John Oliver says some variation of, “Here’s a thing you probably don’t know enough about, but it’s important, so let me explain it.” And we listen, not because it’s important—though, by the end of each episode, we are inevitably convinced it is—but because Oliver is smart, and funny, and entertainingly passionate. Last Week Tonight isn’t a talk show, and it isn’t a comedy show, and it isn’t even really a news show: it’s America’s best classroom, and Oliver is the funny, brilliant, morally wise teacher we all wish we’d had.
Best Episode: While Oliver’s greatest public service is shining light on overlooked problems like underfunded lead-poisoning prevention programs, he’s also the voice we need when major, world-shaking events happen. On his post-Election Night show, he provided the perfect blend of horrified jeremiad, outraged accusation, and urgent call to arms, all while reminding us that we still had the capacity to laugh.
Look, I can’t exactly claim to be a member of the Beyhive. (I don’t know that I ever intentionally listened to a Beyoncé song before this year.) I also don’t particularly like music videos. (I’m the guy who, in the early ’80s, predicted MTV would never last. “Who the hell wants to sit and watch music?” I said.) And my wife will tell you that, in general, my interest in (and awareness of) contemporary music pretty much ended around the time the Doobie Brothers broke up. And yet, if you push me to name the best hour I spent in front of a television all year, I’ll tell you without hesitation that it was the 60 minutes I spent watching the extraordinary achievement of Lemonade (HBO). Working in collaboration with a number of talented directors, and featuring transitional poetry and prose by Somali poet Warsan Shire, Queen Bey brought her deeply personal conceptual album to beautiful, evocative life, delivering some of the most stunning images and emotionally charged moments of the year. A perfect marriage of sight and sound, of the personal and the political, of pain and empowerment, Lemonade was a moving work of art, and a haunting testament to the strength and beauty of black women everywhere.
I recently asked a white friend—a lifelong comic book fan—what he thought of Luke Cage (Netflix). “I liked it,” he said. “But I don’t think I was quite the target audience for it.” That reaction is just one of the reasons I celebrate the show, because it’s about time we got superhero stories that weren’t made entirely from and for a white perspective. (Next up: Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther movie in 2018.) Though not quite as consistent or emotionally satisfying as Jessica Jones—still the best of the Netflix Marvel shows—Luke Cage was a quantum leap forward in representation for both the shamefully white Marvel Cinematic Universe and the superhero genre in general. It wasn’t just that Luke Cage had a black protagonist (Mike Colter): it was also created by a black showrunner (Cheo Hodari Coker); it featured an almost entirely black supporting cast (including fantastic performances from Mahershala Ali, Simone Missick, and Alfre Woodard, among others); it was saturated with African-American cultural and pop-cultural references; and it took place in Harlem, dealing with real-world issues like criminal justice, economic inequality, identity politics, police and political corruption, and gentrification. And—apart from being groundbreaking—it was also a hell of a lot of fun, telling a thrilling action-adventure story, in a richly realized world, populated with interesting, well-developed characters. (The first half of the season—focusing on Ali’s fascinating Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes—worked better for me than the second-half conflict with Erik LaRey Harvey’s more cartoonishly unhinged villain, but that’s a minor gripe.) Netflix continues to demonstrate that the superhero genre can be a vehicle for sophisticated, thematically rich storytelling, and Luke Cage proved that those stories don’t all have to take place in white, middle- and upper-class worlds.
Best Episode: Early in the season, Coker took his sweet time establishing this community and its characters before ramping up the plot and action. But, by the third episode, “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight,” the show was firing on all cylinders. Formerly reluctant hero Luke stepped up to answer the question in the episode’s title, culminating in a thrillingly staged assault on a mob safe-house set to Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring Da Ruckus.”
O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
The perfect complement to The People v. O.J. Simpson, the five-part, eight-hour ESPN “30 for 30” documentary O.J.: Made in America is a masterpiece of long-form nonfiction. Whereas Simpson’s character was something of a cypher in Murphy’s fictionalized reenactment, documentarian Ezra Edelman takes a deeper and broader look at the forces and factors that shaped Simpson’s rise and fall, beginning with his days as a college football star in the 1960s, continuing with his infamous 1995 trial for a double-homicide, and ending with his imprisonment for kidnapping and armed robbery in 2008. The result is a fascinating, insightful exploration of an enigmatic man, and, through it, a smartly synthesized, staggeringly comprehensive essay on America’s issues with race, celebrity, violence, and justice. It is easy to dismiss our fascination with the O.J. case as a hunger for juicy (no pun intended) celebrity scandal, but O.J.: Made in America brilliantly proves how the trial—and Simpson’s entire life—can serve as a worthy case-study for discussing nearly every issue troubling the American soul.
Best Episode: The clash of competing narratives in the 1995 trial is explored in the incredible fourth episode. The groundwork Edelman has laid in the first three episodes, explaining the long history of racial tension in Los Angeles, is paid off brilliantly as the defense’s justifiable political attack on the institutional racism of the LAPD swamps both the facts of the case and the prosecution’s more direct narrative of male privilege and domestic abuse. Edelman helps us understand how this happened, even as he is careful to remind us—in unflinching fashion—that the horrifically brutal murders of two real people were all but forgotten in the exchange.
Based on the novel by Natalie Baszile, Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar (OWN) is the story of three very different siblings—wealthy NBA-wife and manager Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), ex-con single-father Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), and journalist-activist Nova (Rutina Wesley)—who take over the running of their father’s sugar cane plantation in Louisiana. In many ways, it’s a typical family-based prime-time drama, in the tradition of shows like Dallas and Dynasty. But that description doesn’t do justice to the intelligence of the show’s writing, the richly textured world it presents, or how its complex characters and their relationships gracefully carry the weight of black history in their effort to hold onto the land that is their family’s legacy. The show has a beautiful and evocative visual palate—DuVernay assembled an all-female, multi-cultural team of directors for the first season—and it treats its actors with a remarkable patience and subtlety that elevates the excellent performances and deepens the emotional stakes. Occasionally, the subplots err a little on the soapy side for me, but that’s a minor complaint: the magic is in the execution, and Queen Sugar makes what could be otherwise a commonplace soap-opera into a richly resonant world.
Best Episode: Queen Sugar‘s direction in the first season was consistently among the best on television, but later episodes never quite matched the saturated, sensual beauty of the first two episodes, which were directed by DuVernay herself.
The original mini-series of Roots, broadcast on ABC over eight consecutive nights in 1977, was a television event that will never be surpassed. Based on Alex Haley’s Pulitzer-Prize winning historical novel about his ancestors’ multi-generational journey out of slavery, the show was viewed by something like 130 million people, or over half the population of the U.S. at the time. (I was eight years old when I watched it with my family, and for me—as for most white Americans—Roots was the beginning and end of what I understood about slavery until I was well into adulthood.) The new, eight-hour History Channel production could not possibly have hoped to achieve the ratings success or cultural significance of the original, but the very ways in which it doesn’t try to are key to why it is, in many ways, a stronger and more powerful piece of work. The original Roots was designed largely for white audiences; as a result, it featured many subplots about sympathetic white characters. (Kindly TV dads like Lorne Greene, Robert Reed, and Ralph Waite had significant roles in the 1977 series. And a large portion of the first episode centered on the conscience-stricken ship’s captain, played by Ed Asner, who transports Kunta Kinte in chains to the new world.) The new Roots makes no such effort to make its material palliative for white audiences: its perspective is entirely black, and the result is a much more powerful and honest depiction of the horrors of chattel slavery. More importantly, the somewhat patronizing “noble savage” tone that sometimes permeated the original is gone: now, Haley’s fictionalized ancestors—embodied in fantastic performances by Malachi Kirby, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Anika Noni Rose, Forest Whitaker, and others—are fully realized characters who maintain their intelligence, courage, and agency even in their bondage. Where in 1977 we felt pity for their victimhood, here we marvel at their heroism. Though relatively faithful to the source material, this updated version of Roots—like the other slave show on my list (see below)—is a powerful reclamation of the narrative of African-American experience by African-American artists.
Best Episode: The differences between the two versions are best seen in Episode One, which chronicles the life of young Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte (a fierce, magnetic, self-possessed performance by Malachi Kirby) from Africa to Virginia. The basic beats of the narrative are the same, but the textures, nuances, and perspectives of the story are completely different. Kunta Kinte’s West African village, for example—an overly-simplified, grass-hut agrarian tribe in the original—is presented as a culturally rich, thriving, sophisticated civilization of real people here. And—freed from the point-of-view of the white characters—the voyage on the slave ship becomes a series of tense, intelligent exercises in survival and rebellion. (In one of the best scenes of the series, the Africans dance on the orders of their captors, while secretly communicating with each other through song about their plans to kill the slavers and seize the ship.)
Like it’s titular protagonist—a human/alien hybrid being raised by three alien women—Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe (Cartoon Network) is a tiny, life-affirming wonder. Each of the show’s 12-minute episodes can feel light, charming, funny, and almost disposable, but the cumulative effect is as emotionally powerful and profound as anything on television. It is difficult to talk about “seasons” with Steven Universe—the show drops in unscheduled batches known as “Steven Bombs” that fans wait for impatiently—but the 50-odd episodes that aired in 2016 were among the best in the show’s incomparable run. Sugar and her team expanded their extraordinarily complex world-building, but, more importantly, they also deepened and furthered the stunning, almost stealth emotional development of the show’s indelible characters. Steven Universe consistently delivers hysterically silly slapstick comedy, lovely and amazingly catchy musical numbers, and thrilling action-adventure sequences with aliens and monsters. At its unfailingly generous heart, however, it is dealing with important, difficult, deeply humane issues of love, family, forgiveness, gender, consent, insecurity, morality, and the challenges of growing up. There is no other show on television that can make me laugh, sing, or cry so effortlessly, and there is no other show on this list that I’ve been more adamant about recommending to everyone I know.
Best Episode: Steven (Zach Callison), Amethyst (Michaela Dietz), Peridot (Shelby Rabara), and Lapis Lazuli (Jennifer Paz) all had significant, evolutionary growth in 2016. But the finest example of the show’s deeply moving, slow-burn character arcs was how the brilliant musical episode “Mr. Greg” finally brought Pearl (Deedee Magno Hall) to a place where she could move beyond the grief, anger, and resentment of her unrequited love for Steven’s late mother Rose.
Like the best Stephen King novel that King never wrote, adapted for the screen through a John Carpenter/Steven Spielberg collaboration that never was, the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things (Netflix) hit a near-perfect nostalgic sweet-spot. Set in a lovingly realized version of the 1980s, the show created a genuinely thrilling (and often very scary) horror/sci-fi scenario, but what made it work was pitch-perfect casting and a dedication to grounding the fantasy in believable, sympathetic characters. Veterans Winona Ryder and (especially) David Harbour availed themselves admirably, but the real stars here were newcomers Finn Wolfard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caelb McLaughlin, and Millie Bobby Brown as the children forced to confront the monsters under the bed. The actors—and the show’s sensitive writing and direction—perfectly captured the awkward friendships, fears, and longings of early adolescence, making this intrepid group of heroes sympathetic and achingly vulnerable.
Best Episode: For the best example of how this show merged the emotional stakes of pre-teen friendship with thrilling sci-fi adventure, it’s hard to beat the moment when Eleven (the astonishing Milly Bobby Brown) has her telekinetic stand-off with bullies in “Chapter Six: The Monster.”
Can a show about slavery be fun? As it turns out, the answer is “yes,” because Misha Green and Joe Pokaski are producing one of the best action-adventure series on television with Underground, on WGN America. Centering on a group of slaves determined to make their escape from a Georgia plantation in 1857, Underground is a genre-reclaiming, storytelling machine: one moment it’s a clever heist movie like an antebellum Oceans 11; the next it’s a horror-tinged chase story, like The Walking Dead if the pursuing zombies were slave-catchers (and if the pursued humans were sympathetic, well-developed characters). With a fantastic cast led by Aldis Hodge and Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Underground is a stylish, exciting, empowering marvel. Is it realistic? No, probably not, and it occasionally takes some regrettable detours into sensationalism, or otherwise tests the limits of our suspension of disbelief. But what of it? It is no less realistic than a thousand other western, cop, lawyer, or gangster shows: what Green and Pokaski have done is claim African-American history as a valid topic for genre fiction, telling an entertaining story that both recognizes the horrors of slavery and pays tribute to the courage of those who endured, survived, and triumphed over it. “It’s about not lettin’ the white folks define your story, right?” Rosalee (Smollett-Bell) says at the end of the second episode, in what could be a mission statement for Underground. “It’s about makin’ it your own.”
Best Episode: I liked Underground from the start, but its hooks were fully set in me by the thrilling third episode, “The Lord’s Day,” which saw the carefully-constructed escape plan come together with some painstaking and nerve-wracking preparation, and then—in the final moments—blew the plan out of the water with the kind of bold storytelling twist that leaves you breathless.
With Game of Thrones entering its final laps, HBO desperately needed a new prestige drama to fill its shoes. Westworld isn’t that show—it just barely made my list—but I found that, once I stopped faulting it for its lack of depth, I started appreciating it for its incredible breadth. Executive producers Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan have reimagined Michael Crichton’s fairly simplistic robot theme-park as a complex, multi-layered world stuffed to the breaking point with interesting characters and ethical, existential quandaries. Like Lost and other “puzzle shows” before it, Westworld has trouble delivering in a satisfying way on all of the mysteries and metaphysical themes it recklessly introduces, but the parts are greater than the whole here: the production values are fantastic, and the cast—including Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, and Ed Harris—is among the best on television. It’s not a perfect show—for one thing, it desperately needs a sense of humor—but it’s good enough to hope it finds its footing. The producers have suggested that Season One was just a prologue to the real show: if future seasons embrace everything that worked in the first season, and stop trying so hard to be deep and mysterious, Westworld could be an exciting place to spend a little time.
Best Episode: The pilot episode, “The Original,” had a lot of work to do to acclimate us to this world, and did it remarkably well. But the season finale, “The Bi-Cameral Mind,” gave me the most hope for the series: it cut through a lot of the unnecessary mystery and metaphysical claptrap, and set up—in brutal, thrillingly unexpected fashion—a far more interesting and enjoyable show to come.
I don’t have the space or energy to discuss every show that came close to making this list, but a few mentions are in order.
I am still watching, and very much enjoying, previous honorees Orphan Black (BBC America), The Flash (The CW), and You’re the Worst (FX)—but they all delivered weaker seasons in 2016 that just barely bumped them off the list. (Orphan Black and The Flash both took some unfortunate storytelling turns, and lost some of their unique spirits in the process. You’re the Worst delivered some brilliant individual episodes, but spent too much of its third season being the nasty, mean-spirited comedy I’d spent two years trying to convince people it wasn’t.) Catastrophe (Amazon) is still one of the best comedies around, even if its second season didn’t wow me as much as its first. And, though I admit I’ve become less enamored of The Affair than I once was, the real reason it isn’t on this list is that only half of its third-season has aired so far.
UnREAL (Lifetime), on the other hand, catapulted itself head-first off my list with the worst sophomore season of any show I can remember. The show seemed to sacrifice the complex and nuanced relationship work that made the first season so special, and doubled down instead on the sensationalistic sleaze that I liked the first season in spite of.
For sheer, non-groundbreaking entertainment, I very much enjoyed both Supergirl (The CW) and Pitch (Fox): both shows have fantastically compelling female leads (Melissa Benoist and Kylie Bunbury, respectively), and both shows provide more than enough fun and charm to make up for some overall storytelling problems. (As of this writing, Pitch is on the cusp of cancellation, but it’s a show that deserves another season to find its footing and audience.)
The Night Manager (AMC) was a tense, taut spy drama, let down only by a weak final episode that somewhat betrayed the spirit of John LeCarre’s cynically sophisticated novel. Meanwhile, The Night Of (HBO) was a stylish, well-acted legal drama, but—as with previously acclaimed HBO shows like True Detective—it felt to me like brilliant acting and directing were over-compensating for some fairly messy and problematic writing.
Bojack Horseman (Netflix) is a fascinating hybrid of a show, mixing anthropomorphic animal humor, sharp Hollywood satire, and soul-crushing emotional tragedy. I think the tonal mixture is exactly what doesn’t quite work for me—making it a show I like, but never quite love—but it had at least two episodes this year that probably should have earned it a spot on my list.
So that’s my take on the best TV had to offer in 2016. What did I overrate, underrate, or miss completely in 2016? As always, your comments, criticisms, and recommendations are welcome.