David counts down his top television series of 2016: spies and criminals, dragons and monsters, and one depressed horse.
Where to begin with another incredible year? I can already feel myself transmogrifying into a broken record, so I’ll spare you the [squeak] opening monologue about the [squeak] remarkable breadth and quality of today’s television. You know how good it is. You know that there are more good shows than you can ever hope to watch in a year, micro-targeted for your pleasure on obscure cable channels and streaming services. Thus, this list is less an authoritative Top 10 than simply my way to account for what I was able to keep up with in my leisure time, and give recommendations to you.
Let’s just dive into it. Critically-adored series I have still not added to my queue include: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Silicon Valley, Horace & Pete, American Crime, Search Party, Better Things, You’re the Worst, etc. To fans of those shows…sorry. And, as bears repeating, John Oliver and Samantha Bee are in their own special class, orbiting this list like the moon and the sun, respectively. On to the Honorable Mentions, presented in alphabetical order:
- Better Call Saul. This odd duck of a series is notable for at least two things: Bob Odenkirk’s vanity-free central performance, and the remarkable patience that creators Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould possess in charting the fall (and rise, and fall) of Jimmy McGill. (AMC)
- Black Mirror. The disturbing techno-satire’s new season was inconsistent, with creator Charlie Brooker often getting too twist-happy. But every episode was typically go-for-broke, and “San Junipero,” the series’ warmest story to date, stands tall among 2016’s best hours of anything. (Netflix)
- The Crown. Elegant, beautiful, and oh so expensive. The first of a planned six seasons dramatizing Queen Elizabeth II’s reign has room to improve, but great performances from Claire Foy, Matt Smith, and John Lithgow make even the dullest storylines watchable. (Netflix)
- The Good Place. Mike Schur (Parks & Rec) brings his trademark warmth to this high-concept afterlife comedy, anchored by a winning Kristen Bell and a delightfully befuddled Ted Danson. It’s as equally adept at goofy world-building as it is at thoughtful discussions about human nature. (NBC)
- The Grinder. This glorious meta-sitcom is destined to be one of TV’s great one-season wonders, thanks to its quickly-gelling ensemble and puckish spirit. As the gleefully vain TV lawyer who assumes he can become a real lawyer, Rob Lowe has never been funnier. (FOX)
- The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses. This second round of Shakespeare adaptations (Henry VI and Richard III, starring Benedict Cumberbatch) is a must-watch for the literary-minded, or anyone who just loves Brits swinging swords around. Immaculately produced and precisely performed.
- Luke Cage. After a slow start, Marvel’s latest spinoff eventually finds its own identity, buoyed by a groovy soundtrack and stylish performances from Mike Colter, (future Oscar winner) Mahershala Ali, and Alfre Woodard. I’ve forgotten most of the plot, but I know I had fun. (Netflix)
- Mr. Robot. Like the creators of that show about sentient robots, If Sam Esmail hadn’t spent so much time trying to outsmart his audience, the second season would have easily made the Top 10. It still had its moments of brilliance, however, like the “90s sitcom” episode, and everything Rami Malek. (USA)
- Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The sophomore season of Kimmy Schmidt was more consistent than the first, though it didn’t hit quite the same highs. The season’s back third was elevated by Tina Fey herself as Kimmy’s half-in-the-bag therapist. And everything Tituss Burgess touches is still solid gold. (Netflix)
- Underground. An ongoing series about a slave escape in the antebellum South shouldn’t work, but thanks to nuanced characterizations and some bold stylistic choices (Kanye on the soundtrack!), this one was as ambitious and heartbreaking as the subject deserved. (WGN America)
And now for the Top 10:
10. The Great British Baking Show (PBS)
Best Episode: “The Final”
Wait, what? You may be thinking. You’re giving away one of your precious slots to a competitive baking show that aired in the UK over a year ago? Of bloody course I am, because The Great British Baking Show is a marvelous, life-affirming treasure. It’s got stellar judges in the huggable Mary Berry and the stern-with-a-wink Paul Hollywood; it’s got a pair of jolly hosts in the double entendre-loving Mel & Sue; it’s got stressful challenges (never before has the phrase “Baked Alaska” made me break out in sympathetic hives); and most importantly, it’s got endearing amateur contestants that you root for, not against. GBBS isn’t another Darwinian exercise in juiced-up “drama” but a warm, sweet, delicate confection, with as much eye candy as real candy. Unfortunately, because 2016 wasn’t bad enough, contract disputes at the BBC have killed it. Here’s hoping PBS will still be porting over its final season (in this form) next summer.
9. Rectify (Sundance TV)
Best Episode: “Bob & Carol & Ted Jr. & Alice”
I’m writing this just a few days before the airing of the series finale, but my trust in creator Ray McKinnon & company is absolute, so here it sits. It can be hard to get onto Rectify’s unusual, almost spiritual wavelength. It’s deliberately paced, with even simple conversations loaded with meaning. But its raw power is undeniable; as Daniel, released on a technicality after 20 years wrongfully spent on Death Row, Aden Young delivers several moments an episode that would drown a flashier series in Emmys. The final season has followed him as he takes his first steps out into the real world, away from the hometown that still doesn’t trust him; he’s opened up to a bohemian sculptor (Caitlin FitzGerald), and may for the first time be able to see past tomorrow. Meanwhile, the family he left behind (cynical sister Amantha, self-loathing step-brother Ted, and his parents) is finally splintering under the pressure created by Daniel’s release. I don’t know if justice is on the horizon for the Holdens, but it will mean far more for them to find peace.
8. Bojack Horseman (Netflix)
Best Episode: “Fish Out of Water”
I binged all three seasons in quick succession, so determined was I to finally strike something off the “sorry I haven’t watched this show” section that always prefaces these lists of mine. Part Hollywood satire, part factory for sight gags and animal-related puns, Bojack might be most effective as a simple character study and portrait of clinical depression. Will Arnett voices the titular horse, a former sitcom star grasping for a return to relevance, with just the right mix of sardonic wit and barely-veiled bitterness. The supporting cast (Allison Brie, Paul F. Tompkins, Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, and Kristen Schaal in the season’s pitch-blackest storyline) steps up to the plate whether their characters are announcing Oscar nominees (darn you, Jurj Clooners), promoting female empowerment, or building a giant paper-maché head of themselves. “Fish Out of Water” was a 2016 highlight, stranding Bojack, who’s just trying to promote his new film, in a Chaplin-esque underwater adventure without a single line of dialogue. If you’re curious about the series at all, start there.
7. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Best Episode: “The Threshold”
Relocating the action from Dallas, TX to the heart of Silicon Valley itself, Halt and Catch Fire only got bolder and more sharply-written in its third season. Having already fixed its focus problem by moving Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé to center stage, showrunners Christopher Cantwell & Christopher C. Rogers finally figured out this year what to do with their ostensible lead, Joe (Lee Pace) — let him remake himself as a Jobs-ian tech guru, attracting a new wave of acolytes before a chain reaction of events sets him back on a collision course with the old gang at Mutiny. Meanwhile, Cameron and Donna’s partnership finally hit the rocks, putting the very future of their fledgling company in jeopardy; the latter third of the season, with one explosive board meeting after another, was as darkly thrilling as any Game of Thrones battle episode. This Little Show That Could, having avoided the cancellation axe twice, has improved so dramatically the past two seasons that to not give a fourth (and final) would have been criminal. Thanks for saving it one more time, AMC!
6. Veep (HBO)
Best Episode: “Kissing Your Sister”
The gold standard of television comedy is still Veep, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus is still the queen. Fears that the series would lose its acidity in the absence of creator Armando Iannucci proved completely unfounded, as Veep delivered 10 episodes that were every bit as blisteringly funny as what came before — if anything, it was even more tightly focused, as Selina’s ill-fated re-election campaign dominated, providing new windows into the bulldog incompetence of her staff and Selina’s own catastrophic narcissism. The additions of Hugh Laurie and John Slattery provided a boost; it was also a year for bit players, like Sam Richardson’s Richard Splett and Sarah Sutherland as Selina’s perpetually neglected daughter, to shine. (Also: CONGRESSMAN JONAH!) But now comes the real test: how does Veep carry on when the real world has passed the point of satire, fallen through the planet’s core, and exited into space?
5. Stranger Things (Netflix)
Best Episode: “The Upside Down”
It wasn’t just a nostalgia trip. Stranger Things, in a lean, mean eight episodes, harvested enough DNA from 1980s adventure films and Stephen King novels to be a blood relative, but only the best parts: instantly iconic characters, a memorable monster, clever set pieces, and a fast-moving, generation-juggling narrative that demanded to be consumed as quickly as possible. And best of all, it was completely unexpected, dropping one weekend in July with little fanfare — creators the Duffer Brothers were as stunned by its success as we were by just how great it was. Millie Bobby Brown was the series’ breakout star as Eleven, the mysterious girl with telekinetic powers; Winona Ryder took what could have been a one-note “panicky mom” character and found depths within it; David Harbour, long overdue for a role like this, mixed the professional dedication of Chief Brody with the rueful right hooks of Indiana Jones. There were certainly more challenging series on the air in 2016, but few brought more pleasure.
4. Atlanta (FX)
Best Episode: “Juneteenth”
As Chase and I wrote just a couple months ago, Atlanta proved in its sensational first season that it can be anything: pointed social commentary, relationship drama, weird fantasy, sweet romance. It can also, and more often, be breathtakingly funny. That all of these disparate ideas — kooky public access shows, invisible cars, a black Justin Bieber — came largely from the mind of creator and star Donald Glover is one of the enduring accomplishments of Television 2016. Atlanta also grew in audacity as its first season went along, filling out the edges of this funhouse-mirror version of the Georgia city and wrestling with questions about class, culture, and identity. Glover may be the star as Earn, but he’s more than happy to cede the spotlight to his talented co-stars: Bryan Tyree Henry as Alfred/Paper Boi, the rapper whose only mild success irks him as much as he benefits from it; Lakeith Stanfield as the non sequitur-dropping Darius; and the great Zazie Beets as Earn’s on & off-again flame, Van, whose showcase episode “Value” played like its own short film.
3. Game of Thrones (HBO)
Best Episode: “The Winds of Winter“
I recapped this weekly, and I’m not sure what more I can add. More than a bounce-back from the abject darkness of last year, Season 6 of Thrones just might have been the best one yet. (3, 4, and 6 are definitely top three in some order, but it changes every time I think about it.) Tellingly, this season has managed to frustrate a completely different segment of its audience, who call its accelerated timeline and hard-earned victories “fan service” — to which I say, do you not know how storytelling works? This is the long-awaited, redemptive upswing of the Song of Ice and Fire, GRRM’s perpetual tardiness bedamned; the ultimate climax may be easy to divine, but the road to it is still capable of surprise and awe. Game of Thrones may be our last “consensus show” before we drift into the eternal winter of niche programming and warring streaming services, and from Hodor’s sacrifice to director Miguel Sapochnik’s season-ending one-two punch, Thrones earned that distinction and then some.
2. The Americans (FX)
Best Episode: “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears”
Last year’s #1 just keeps getting better, somehow, and it’s only the lighting-in-a-bottle of 2016’s OJ resurgence that overshadowed it. The Americans’ fourth season continued to turn the screws on the Jennings family: Philip and Elizabeth dealt with the fallout from Paige spilling the beans to Pastor Tim, turning a liability into a positive and subtly grooming their daughter for spycraft. The saga of Poor Martha reached a breaking point, with explosive consequences for both Philip’s real and fake marriages. And as the pressures of their jobs continued to mount, a deadly virus threatened to upend the series’s entire status quo. As our Chase Branch can attest, it can be incredibly frustrating to write about The Americans because of its density and its impeccable craft: what can you say that you haven’t already said? If there is one series on this list that I insist you catch up on before next Spring, it’s this one. Get started.
1A. The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX) / 1B. O.J.: Made In America (ESPN)
Best Episode: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”
Obviously this is a bit of a cheat, but these two series — one a 10-hour miniseries from Ryan Murphy whose cast defines “embarrassment of riches,” the other an 8-hour documentary that provides context and an unbelievable epilogue for the first — are intertwined. The former, brilliantly written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, serves as a monument to a watershed moment in American culture. Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, and Sterling K. Brown all earned well-deserved Emmys. The scope of the “Trial of the Century” didn’t spread just to the criminal justice system, or race relations, or law enforcement, or the intersection of the media and celebrity, but to every tree in the forest, and both People vs. O.J. and Made in America could not have landed more in the 2016 zeitgeist if they tried. Ezra Edelman’s superb documentary, the best thing ESPN has ever produced, takes more than a macro view of Simpson’s life: it’s the story of Los Angeles itself. Both series are searing, entertaining, and unmissable, prompting a national conversation on how much, or how little, has changed.