The 20 Best TV Shows of 2016
Blog Post by Jeremy Grayson (Jeremy G.)
[Television] Posted on December 20, 2016
The Year in Review
How do you define "Peak TV"?
At the forefront, the term refers to the fact that there have never been as many shows on American television as there are right now. (Close to 500 shows aired – either on television or one of the Internet's numerous streaming sites – at some point in the past year.) Peak TV is also, as of this writing, the perfect representation of human mortality. Why don't we have time to take out the trash? Peak TV. Why don't we spend more time studying for grad school? Peak TV. Why aren't we watching half the shows our friends enjoy? Because we're busy watching the other half, in this golden age of Peak TV.
But "peak" is a relative measurement, and the more I look at business trends – the continual rise of niche cable networks attempting scripted dramas, the rate at which Netflix releases more and more new programs, and the continued influx of year-round miniseries (or "limited series," whatever that means), I can't help feeling that the actual peak of TV is still a few years away. Production might start to show signs of slowing by the end of this decade, but this Peak "era" likely won't be fading away until at the least the mid-2020s.
In an age where even the most devoted of TV fanatics can't even hope to watch half the shows which aired in a given year, quantifying said year in the long scheme of things becomes impossible. But based on the few dozen shows I managed to watch in 2016, there was plenty of great stuff airing in these last 12 months. As with every year, there were a number of duds – sorry, Fuller House – but a whole slew of great shows to make up for them.
So, bearing in mind that I'm doubtlessly ignoring half of your favorite shows, let's look back at 20 ways in which this year's TV… um, peaked.
20. Agent Carter
The best show to air under the Marvel Cinematic banner this year was, surprisingly, not one of the high-profile Netflix dramas – Daredevil dragged itself through a sophomore slump, while Luke Cage spent too much time stumbling around in search of a direction. No, the high point came in the form of Agent Carter, which, in its engaging second season, capitalized on the retro film-serial aspects of the show's period setting (straight down to throwing in a Hedy Lamarr doppelganger) and delivered a tight, energetic 10-episode story that showcased Hayley Atwell's range without forsaking her talented supporting cast. Alas, the series was cancelled, but not before it delivered a literally show-stopping musical number that evoked the best of Fred and Ginger.
Donald Glover's surreal, engrossing dramedy about lower-class black America channeled numerous ideas and tones – a commentary about corrupt school systems one week, an animated cereal commercial focused on police brutality the next. In the process, it developed a group of nuanced, tragic, yet oddly humorous characters, including Glover's woebegone hero Earn and Brian Tyree Henry's soft-centered rapper Paper Boi. The balance between character and tone was not well-sustained – too often, the show undercut its serious themes with a need for self-conscious quirkiness – but overall, this was one of the year's more interesting experiments.
18. Person of Interest
Two great CBS dramas drew to a close this past spring. One, The Good Wife, ended on a whimper, its aimless final season building to a dispiriting finale. But Person of Interest – which had its final 13 episodes unjustly burned off in the space of a few weeks – finished its five-season run with a bang, delivering action, intelligence, and plenty of emotion as it tidily wrapped up the show's numerous arcs. For much of its run, PoI was overlooked as just another CBS crime procedural; hopefully, its fanbase will grow in coming years, as its themes of government espionage and artificial intelligence continue to stay relevant.
17. Horace and Pete
No show on television this year was as unconventional as Horace and Pete. Released without any advance warning on Louis CK's entertainment website, the show was free of any network notes or restrictions, and CK took full advantage, composing a series of stage plays that were at once tragic, disturbing, and bitterly hilarious. The show's ability to turn on a dime in the midst of any scene, and change the tone of any conversation, often lead to episodes that felt padded and bulky, and the up-to-the-minute political conversations already feel outdated. But at its best (the Laurie Metcalf episode, the crushing finale), H&P was incredible television, and hints at even more audacious experiments in the future.
16. The Carmichael Show
There's something refreshingly nostalgic – yet incredibly relevant – about The Carmichael Show. Though it takes the appearance of a conventional three-camera sitcom (complete with laugh track), this NBC series is in fact one of television's most intriguingly political comedies. Its willingness to explore numerous topics, from numerous viewpoints, makes for a refreshingly even-handed take on the world, whether the subject is social media, gentrification, or (in the second season's best episode) Bill Cosby. A Norman Lear-esque sitcom for the 21st century, this is one of television's most welcome little surprises.
It seemed ludicrous to attempt an ongoing drama depicting slavery in the 19th-century South, particularly in the same year that the History Channel was developing a high-profile remake of the acclaimed classic miniseries Roots. But the new Roots, while handsomely produced and directed, suffered from rather some banal plotting and dialogue. Meanwhile, Underground proved highly watchable, never undermining the horrors of slavery while still producing a fast-paced, high-adrenaline show about an attempted plantation escape. WGN is still attempting to establish its footing in the TV landscape (rest in peace, Manhattan), and this promising new show will hopefully steer the network towards greater recognition.
14. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
The first season of Tina Fey's upbeat, enjoyable sitcom premiered on Netflix, but its network-TV roots were evident in its relative conventionalities. Season Two, though, was wholly produced for the online service, and took greater chances, as the show grew darker and more complicated in its examination of its eternally positive title character. But even with the increased level of drama, there were plenty of laughs to be had, as jokes both visual and verbal flew by with alarming speed. But the season's most important development? Introducing the world to Bunny and Kitty.
13. Broad City
Comedy Central's innovative little series flirted with serialization in its third season, as Abbi and Ilana's relationship was put to the test. But through it all, Broad City remained as fresh and funny as any show on television. Highlights included Abbey's trip to the world's most hellish DMV, a lengthy parody of Mrs. Doubtfire, the rat-cam, Abbi's episode-long Ilana impersonation, the airplane-set finale, and everything involving the words "yas kween." With its compelling stars and incredible rate of laughs-per-minute, Broad City has yet to miss a beat.
12. Better Call Saul
The whole of this engaging Breaking Bad spinoff has never quite equaled its parts – but the parts, to their credit, can be pretty remarkable. The balance between Jimmy and Mike's respective story arcs gave this season an improved rhythm over the first, even if the arcs themselves can seem overly drawn out. The show also has a solid control of tone and cinematography, not to mention humor (Simple Simon, anyone?) – but the season's MVP is undoubtedly Kim Wexler, whose moral conundrums have made her one of the most complex women on contemporary cable television.
11. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Love, we're often told, is blind. That was the theme which sparked Rachel Bloom's unassuming TV series when it spawned last fall. In the time since, however, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has grown into a dizzying, gleeful dissemination of romantic archetypes, while creating some of the most warm and human love stories you'll find on TV. On top of that, of course, are the show's wildly inventive musical numbers (such as "JAP Battle" and "Love Kernels"), which affectionately riff on every genre under the sun. With such dismal ratings, it's doubtful the show will be around to engage us much longer, but it's a ton of fun for as long as it lasts.
The mythology of iZombie often makes little sense – it's convoluted, overdone, and there are usually too many story arcs intersecting at once (on top of the show's already time-filling standalone plots). None of that matters. This is one of the most purely entertaining shows on television, with enjoyable characters and even more enjoyable inter-title puns. Neatly balancing serious drama and witty dialogue, the Veronica Mars team has crafted a show that capitalizes on the zombie craze without succumbing to its usual clichés, and have anchored it with the wryly engaging performance of Rose McIver.
9. The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
I'm too young to remember the Trial of the Century, so I can't personally vouch for this miniseries' accuracy. But there's no denying its entertainment value. Retelling the story of the OJ Simpson trial in an exploitative, highly dramatized vein seemed like a bad idea on paper, but the writers carefully developed each character, allowing us to see such publicly reviled figures as Johnny Cochran and Marcia Clark in a newer, more sympathetic light, and explored resonant themes of race and class all the while. While not as deep as it could have been, this remains a profoundly accomplished miniseries, and stands as the second-greatest OJ Simpson miniseries of 2016. (I didn't include the phenomenal OJ: Made for America on this list, due to its wide recognition as a film, but let's take a moment to salute its brilliance.)
Despite the wide acclaim for the dark British comedy Amazon imported a few months ago, I went into Fleabag expecting the show to be another crude and raunchy comedy. And indeed, there was no shortage of off-color humor. But creator/star Phoebe Waller-Bridge cleverly used her character's sexual addictions as a defining characteristic, mining drama from the most unexpected of places. And all the while, she gave one of the year's most absurdly delightful performances, casting wry quips and glances towards the audience as if daring us to sympathize with her character. The final episode of this incredibly brief season achieved a variety of tones – comedy, tragedy, melancholy, disturbance, and hope – and left me as satisfied as any other finale I've seen this year.
7. Search Party
TBS aired all ten episodes of its latest comedy in the space of a single week, so it's easy to understand why it's been almost entirely overlooked. But those who tuned in found the most profound and introspective look into millennial culture to premiere since last year's Master of None. A subversive social commentary wrapped up in an engaging season-long mystery, Search Party's outlook was suitably, unsettlingly bleak, its main character (excellently played by Alia Shawkat) seemingly the only voice of reason in a world gone mad. The season's final twist hits the mark perfectly, tying up both story and theme into one tidy little package.
6. Orange is the New Black
Just when we thought we had Netflix's engrossing prison series pegged as a comedy, it turns around and gives us its darkest, most dramatic season yet. The racial and cultural divides spread throughout Litchfield Penitentiary have turned the prison into its own living, breathing world, and at times this season, that world often felt as though it would burst into flames. Juggling dozens of characters and making nearly all of them feel human and relatable is a feat on its own. But Orange does one better in its fierce, uncompromising look at "the system," and the way it confines every character – from inmates to guards to bureaucrat suits – to a miniature prison of their own.
5. Halt and Catch Fire
My colleague Jay has already summed up the strengths of Halt's first two seasons, but AMC's little-watched computer-age drama struck true gold in its third year. There's plenty of technological talk, as the characters slowly began laying the groundwork that would lead us to the newfangled thing we call the Internet. But amidst all the technobabble, Halt and Catch Fire found the humanity in its characters and their tumultuous alliances, particularly in the fascinating relationship between Cameron and Donna. The climactic boardroom scene to "The Threshold" may well have been the most riveting and devastating scene to air anywhere on TV this year.
4. The Americans
It's become almost a cliché to call The Americans one of the best shows on television, but it deserved nothing less than that label in 2016. In its fourth season, the show began rewarding viewers' patience in spades, as Philip and Elizabeth were pushed to the breaking point, and one heartbreaking character loss followed another. Through it all, the show achieved a blend of intrigue and paranoia, with tension constantly ramping upward as the season went along. With two seasons still to go, it's anyone's guess where this show will head next – which makes me all the more intrigued to find out.
3. Jane the Virgin
The staggered airing of network seasons makes it difficult to quantify any single year of Jane the Virgin as the very best show on television. But factoring degree of difficulty into the equation, it still deserves plenty of consideration. The show aired 21 episodes this year – more than any other series on this list – and there was nary a dud in the bunch. The show continues to explore new and creative venues, always remaining true to its characters through the most absurd and unconventional situations. With its multiple interweaving long-term storylines, Jane the Virgin has transcended its telenovela format – it's quite literally become a novel for television.
2. American Crime
The "yearly anthology" format has become impressively popular in recent years, allowing series to tell complete, self-contained stories every year in the space of 10 episodes. While The People v. OJ drew most of the attention this year, the best of 2016's anthology shows was the little-watched ABC drama American Crime. Tackling a wide variety of biting and socially relevant topics – including rape, social class, racism, gun violence, school systems, and sexuality – American Crime could easily have felt preachy and didactic. But in the capable hands of John Ridley and an incredibly stellar cast – particularly Connor Jessup, delivering the breakout performance of the year – the second season of American Crime was a revelation. Tautly written, meticulously directed, with no fundamentally good character in a world that seemed determined to cripple them all, American Crime is pure humanized drama at its finest.
1. Bojack Horseman
If you had told me just a few years ago that a cartoon about a talking horse trying to recapture the glory days of his TV stardom would one day be the best show on television, I would have directed you straight to the men in white coats. But in three short seasons, Bojack Horseman has gone from an amusing Hollywood satire into one of the darkest, most depressing, yet still most emotionally resonant shows on television. Its main (mane?) character has been put through the wringer more times than any of us can count, turning more Don Draper than Mr. Ed. And the supporting cast has evolved around him, with characters like Princess Carolyn and Mr. Peanutbutter maintaining their humorous quirks while growing more complex the more we get to know them. The show's command of tone is masterful, segueing effortlessly from hilarious comedy to dark drama and back again within a single scene, never letting one overshadow the other. And all the while, the series' dedication to the aforementioned Hollywood satire can be seen everywhere, from throwaway one-liners to background in-jokes, making this one of television's richest comedies.
Not content with simply delivering affecting drama and hilarious laughs, Bojack gave us "Fish Out of Water," not merely the best episode of the season, but of 2016 television as a whole. An almost entirely dialogue-free episode, set in an imaginative underwater world, "Fish Out of Water" invokes the silent films of early 20th-century animation, conveying boatloads of emotion without uttering a single word. It's an astonishing highlight to an astonishing season.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, it's difficult to quantify the year in television. Too many shows, not enough time to watch them all. But Bojack Horseman produced a season that can stand comfortably alongside the golden years of The Simpsons. I'd say that makes for a pretty good year.
Angie Tribeca, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, The Good Place, The Grinder, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, One Mississippi, Rectify, Superstore, This Is Us, You're the Worst
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