Top 10 TV Shows of 2016

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The golden age of television clearly isn’t going anywhere. 2016 was another year blossoming with fresh ideas and classic seasons of classic shows. From old favorites to excellent premiere seasons, television was full of gems this year in just about every corner of the TV-sphere. Here are our picks for the ten best shows of 2016.

 

 

Matt’s Take:

10. The Get Down

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Baz Luhrmann’s disco and hip-hop coming of age fantasy defied just about every expectation. Sporting an energetic tone and zippy editing, The Get Down is a masterclass in style, capturing the feel of a ’70s blaxploitation action film and applying it to the stories of a group of teenagers in the South Bronx in the summer of 1977. Epic in execution but intimate in drama, not to mention its irresistible soundtrack that mixes classics with standout original songs, there’s never been anything quite like The Get Down on television before, and television was better off for it.

 

9. Better Call Saul

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Improving upon an already strong premise, the Breaking Bad spinoff only improved in its sophomore season, increasing the emotional value of its supporting characters two-fold while keeping the story of the future Saul Goodman very much on track. The writing stayed consistently sharp while Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s iconic style remained as effective as ever. Calling Better Call Saul merely a spinoff doesn’t do it justice. The show is its own entity, a companion piece to the classic drama that would be just as good had it never existed.

 

8. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

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For humanity in general, there’s no question that 2016 was just a shit year. But when the world seems to be falling apart following mass shootings and victorious politicians promoting hate, there’s been a voice of comfort who just always seems to know exactly what to say. Last Week Tonight didn’t always get to be funny in 2016, though it usually managed to anyway, but it did always hit its point home, largely thanks to the man in charge himself. John Oliver’s approach isn’t meant to be the voice of reason that Jon Stewart defaulted to later on in his time hosting The Daily Show, but with his former boss retired, Oliver too many times had to look into the camera, at a country in mourning, and put on a good show. For all his comedy, consoling, and refusal to let bullshit slide by, he pulled it off every time.

 

7. Atlanta

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At just 33, Donald Glover has conquered writing (30 Rock), acting (Community), and the music scene (under the guise Childish Gambino). Along that thinking, Atlanta makes perfect sense as his next career move. A half-hour comedy about the small time rap community in Atlanta created by and starring Glover himself. The result is a more fascinating piece of his career than the other three combined. Atlanta has the build of a simple crowd-pleasing sitcom. It’s got hysterical characters better together than apart, genuine goals for a sense of direction, and a hint of romance to round things out. But under the usual tropes, all executed just about flawlessly, there’s a surrealist style that keeps things incredibly fresh, visually and comedically, as well as a raw commentary on how we view race, economic status, and human nature in general. Combined, these factors give the show importance, a unique visual flare, and genuine emotion attached to characters who are easy to love.

 

6. Game of Thrones

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Six seasons in and HBO’s sprawling fantasy epic hasn’t lost any steam. In fact, this year being its most rewarding season, it might have even gained some. Game of Thrones has always been a grand spectacle with an unruly vision. Season six saw that begin to reel itself in. Characters reunited or came together for the first time in a season full of payoffs. Daenerys commanding the Dothraki. The Starks retaking Winterfell. Arya’s revenge. But that didn’t mean the show lost its most defining aspect, ruthless and unforgiving heartbreak. For every dragon victoriously breathing fire under their mother, there was a tragic door being held open for death. The only difference is we’re getting somewhere, finally.

 

5. Veep

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How many shows can you name that not only survived the dreaded showrunner change, but came out the other side better than ever? Veep was already a great series prior, but season five pushed it to another level. The mean-spirited comedy came back with its seriously well thought out recount plotline, a meaningful arc for Catherine that never sacrificed the show’s tone, and the riotous congressional campaign for Jonah Ryan. Even more startling is how the show came closer than you’d think in mirroring the real-world 2016 presidential election. With recounts, scandals, and, ultimately, crushing failure, Veep felt as real as ever while still entirely itself. Now the only question is how to top it.

 

4. Transparent

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Funnier and somehow even more culturally aware, Transparent‘s third season finally saw the critically lauded series ascend to true greatness. Where the first two seasons sported great episodes and moments, season three as a cohesive whole is a far more powerful work. The characters are at last fully realized, often separated on their own moments of transcendence, whether they’re tricking themselves into it or not, but coming together for intimate peaks at their complicated, layered histories and how they push each other past them. Transparent may have been pitched as a show to raise awareness for trans issues, of which it still is at least in part, but the show has gone beyond its basic, progressive premise to be a show about finding your place in the world and then, only after, finding your place again in your family.

 

3. Horace and Pete

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Louie may be on a prolonged hiatus, but that doesn’t keep Louis C.K. from experimenting with the television format. Set up like an intimate theatrical production with just two or three sets, Horace and Pete dug into countless issues in fascinating ways with a variety of voices through it tragically short run (the comedian cancelled the series after its first season concluded, as he was unable to fund it himself through his website). Sometimes there was intimate family drama dealing with mental illness, loss, and dreams unfulfilled. Sometimes you just listened to unnamed bar patrons argue about politics. No matter what was going on, Horace and Pete was undeniably engaging, once more proving Louis C.K.’s versatility as an artist. One of the greatest ones in the television medium at that.

 

2. BoJack Horseman

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With season three, BoJack Horseman solidified itself as the spiritual successor to Mad Men. This shockingly poignant series explores the empty void life sometimes seems to point us to and how, if we’re not careful, we can get stuck in a rut of depression nearly impossible to get out of. That’s pretty amazing for an adult animated comedy featuring a bunch of talking animals. But for all the hilarious animal puns and gags, BoJack Horseman still captures the aimlessness of everyday life in a more realistic nature than any show has since Matthew Weiner’s masterpiece ended. Now we have this much weirder masterpiece on our hands, one not afraid to trample on celebrity culture, make a dumb joke about a dung beetle, and leave you crying in a ball on your sofa all in the same episode, let alone season. BoJack may emotionally break you, but it’s okay, there’s a joke about a golden retriever’s obsession with pasta strainers in the next scene.

 

1.The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

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Who are we as a country? Have we evolved? Or are will still as ugly as we’ve proven to be in the past? This startling, in-depth portrait of one of the most famous trials in American history is about far more than whether O.J. Simpson killed Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, it’s about how society responded to this icon’s downfall. It’s about how racism can be wielded as a weapon to hide the ugly truth. It’s about how women are held to a higher standard. Plain and simple, it’s about America and it’s people’s failures to create a society where everyone is equal, whether they be black, white, male, female, or a football star, a failure that only became more noticeable as 2016 rolled along. Sarah Paulson and Courtney B. Vance as Marcia Clarke and Johnnie Cochran, respectively, gave the best performances of anyone on TV this year. Meanwhile, the effortless writing brought about the facts of the case, as well as the dramatic embellishments, in a thrilling, emotionally trying manner, making for a show that had you on the edge of your seat even though you knew what was coming. One of the show’s most overlooked qualities, however, is it’s pulpiness, as seen through its delightfully self-aware send up of celebrity culture (Connie Britton’s scene-stealing portrayal of Faye Resnick is the most delightful example). For it’s high-quality drama, staggering performances, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and ability to make us question the very fabric of our society, there’s no question that The People vs. O.J. Simpson was the very best TV had to offer in 2016.

 

Some Honorable and Dishonorable Mentions:

2016 was a great year for comedy. New shows like FleabagInsecure, and Search Party brought really fresh things to the mix, while key returners like Documentary Now!Broad City, and Orange is the New Black remained consistently strong and hilarious. Even Girls had something of a comeback season in 2016. I also specifically want to mention Steven Universe, a delightfully warm and charming animated series for kids with really strong, progressive values and plenty of fascinating world building for the adults (think The Legend of Korra but much sillier and less dramatic, yet no less infectious).

On the drama side, the beloved Stranger Things just missed my top 10 for the year. Meanwhile, The Night Of was a thrilling and beautifully made crime saga, despite a few minor issues, and The Crown made a strong debut. There was also the return of Black Mirror, which mostly succeeded in intrigue and just flat-out great, varied filmmaking.

Now, for some of the worst TV I watched in 2016, I know worse shows on TV exist (we can still somehow point to The Big Bang Theory ten seasons in as a great example of this), but shows like Mr. Robot and UnREAL had such awful returns that they deserve to be ostracized for it. Meanwhile, Legends of Tomorrow and Lady Dynamite were highly anticipated series that just failed to connect (for the latter, the biphobic episode was enough for me to turn my back on it).

Then there were the shows that certainly weren’t terrible, but just should have been a lot better. After big promises in 2015, South Park and Bloodline completely fell off this year. Even Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt saw a significant enough dip in quality to warrant some disappointment. Of course, there was also the hotly anticipated debut of Westworld, a beautifully filmed/acted HBO series muddled in its own trickery and lacking in any and all character or emotion. That said, 2016 will still absolutely be remembered as part of the golden age of television. This was, once again, a year where a few favorites had to be left off the list.

 

Mike’s Take:

10. Stranger Things

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The Duffer Brothers’ sleeper hit of the summer was the least original series of the year, and I mean that as a total compliment. Stranger Things is a love letter to 80s genre movies, and its pitch perfect homage is a thing of beauty. The influences can be seen everywhere, from the synth-y, John Carpenter-esque opening title credits, to the Spielbergian popcorn sci-fi plot, to the Goonies-like group of young kids that band together to save the day. But beyond providing the warm nostalgia fuzzies, this show brought forth an addicting body-snatching mystery, poignant messages about family and growing up, and some truly wonderful performances—particularly from pre-teen cast members Gaten Matarazzo, Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, and breakout star Millie Bobby Brown. Stranger Things may have fallen victim to being over-hyped by a plethora of memes and Buzzfeed listicles, but the internet fandom does little to tarnish one of the most binge-able shows of the year. Bring on season 2!

 

9. Search Party

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Missing-person mysteries are a dime a dozen these days, but none of them have a group of “detectives” like Search Party. From the ingenious minds behind the 2014 critical darling Fort Tilden, this TBS mid-season comedy sets up a Nancy Drew-esque whodunnit and leaves it in the hands of a group of aimless, privileged Brooklyn hipsters. While the actual mystery is engaging, the real thrill of Search Party comes from its razor-sharp satire of city-dwelling millennials. The key to its success, however, is that it never turns its characters into caricatures, despite constantly mocking them. Riotously funny, packed with exciting guest stars, and with a mesmerizing performance from lead Alia Shawkat, this is a show that should not be missing from anyone’s watchlist.

 

8. Difficult People

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The cynical New Yorker is a character who hasn’t been given the proper sitcom treatment since Seinfeld went off the air…until Difficult People came along, that is. Comedian Julie Klausner’s Hulu comedy got whipsmart in its second season, honing in on the endearing friendship between Billy and Julie, despite their mutual disgust at everyone else around them. This season had a lot of fun things going for it—searingly funny one-liners, Shakina Nayfack’s amazing “trans truther” character, A-list guest stars like Tina Fey, Julianne Moore, and Lin Manuel Miranda—but its heart lies in the effortless chemistry between Klausner and her co-star Billy Eichner. These two might have built a friendship out of hate, but it’s almost impossible not to love them.

 

7. Black Mirror

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Season 3 of the UK hit moved stateside when it was picked up by Netflix, and what a wonderful gift that was. Charlie Brooker’s thought-provoking, engrossing, and often horrifying stories of technology gone awry continued to probe our minds and depict a future that seems frighteningly close to reality. The third outing of Black Mirror dealt with everything from social media popularity to VR video games to cyber-bullying in ways that will make you think twice about almost everything you do. Interestingly, this season also featured some lighter entries that point a future that isn’t totally bleak. Black Mirror will once again keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. A modern-day Twilight Zone, this show is always one step ahead of where we are in the world right now. The only thing that might move faster is technology itself.

 

6. Veep

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Most shows plateau after a certain number of seasons, but Veep seems to be getting better each year. Season 5 was easily the series’ best season yet, which is saying a lot considering the show also lost its original showrunner this year. Still, Veep moved forward confidently, with a hilarious—and surprisingly true-to-life—recount plotline that put Selina to the ultimate test. Julia Louis-Dreyfus continues to be excellent, but its the ensemble performance of her staff that really helps to make this show so fantastic. Veep also wasn’t afraid to go dark this season, but it never lost its biting sense of humor, even as things began to look dire for the Meyer campaign. Though the season ended on a surprising note, my only real concern is how the writers plan to outdo themselves next year. They’ve certainly set the bar high enough.

 

5. Atlanta

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Donald Glover is having one hell of a year. Aside from getting cast as a young Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Han Solo prequel movie, and dropping the truly epic “Awaken, My Love!” album under his Childish Gambino moniker, the multi-hyphenate also found time to debut his own series on FX. Glover himself described Atlanta as “Twin Peaks, but with rappers,” and one look at the show solidifies this. The story of Earnest “Earn” Marks trying to manage his cousin’s up-and-coming rap career is ambitious in its convention-breaking and surrealist style. The show touches on race, sex, masculinity, fatherhood, and money with an unparalleled fearlessness, while also managing to be gut-bustingly hilarious. Atlanta is easily one of the most enthralling debuts of the year, and proves that Glover can do just about anything he sets his mind to.

 

4. Insecure

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The auteurist movement continued to be a major part of the television landscape this year, and no voice felt fresher than Issa Rae’s. Coming off of her wildly popular web series Awkward Black GirlInsecure managed to take her humorous slice-of-life sensibilities and translate them into a fully thought-out and wildly entertaining half-hour comedy. Rae shines as both the creator and star of the show, and whether she’s setting her very un-woke white co-workers straight, therapeutically rapping about her work and love life problems into a bathroom mirror, or just shooting the shit with her best friend Molly, she remains a magnetic screen presence. Insecure is full of problematic characters, but they’re nonetheless engaging, and made even more interesting by their flaws. It shouldn’t matter that these multi-dimensional, complex figures are mostly black women, but it does. This show’s themes may be universally relatable, but its cast is essential in expanding the diversity of storytelling on TV.

 

3. Bojack Horseman

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Bojack Horseman might be the only show around that featured poignant introspection and mediations on existential malaise alongside plots about a talking dog and sexy orcas using spaghetti strainers to save an underwater city. As ridiculous as that last sentence sounded, this show handles the tightrope walk between being a thoughtful drama and a gleefully zany cartoon with aplomb. Season 3 continued to show how fascinating the world of Bojack Horseman can be, with an episode that tackles abortion, a nearly-wordless Lost in Translation homage that takes place underwater, and another trippy drug episode that culminates in one of the series’ most heartbreaking moments so far. Series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg manages to infuse each of these situations with equal parts absurdist humor and genuine pathos, making for a truly unique viewing experience. Bojack is a talking cartoon horse. He also happens to be one of the most interesting antiheroes on TV right now.

 

2. Fleabag

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“I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” So says Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag character in the premiere of her outrageously funny and unexpectedly heartbreaking Amazon show. The quote does well to describe her character, a self-absorbed, sex-addicted mess whose single-girl-in-London life proves to be far less glamorous than imagined. Harder to describe is the show itself, which is like a mix of GirlsBridget Jones, and House of Cards, but also like none of those things at all. Fleabag is a true original, and this is thanks in no small part to Waller-Bridge, who adapted the series from her own one-woman play. Though her character is off-putting and often brings misery to herself and those around her, she’s impossible to take your eyes off of. Perhaps it’s because, despite our best efforts to prove otherwise, we all have a little Fleabag inside of us. She’s certainly an extreme version of our worst behaviors, but—through Waller-Bridge’s excellent fourth-wall-breaking narration—she always says exactly what we’re thinking.

 

1. The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

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No matter how well you think you know the actual O.J. trial, you’re likely to glean some new information from the first season of this Ryan Murphy-produced TV series. The People vs. O.J. Simpson is so much more than a recreation of one this country’s most notorious court cases. It’s an examination of racial and gender inequality that unfortunately still feels all too familiar, a meditation on fame and the dangers of idol-worship, and a harrowing portrayal of the vulture-like nature of the American media. This show goes where documentary cameras and courtroom footage couldn’t, giving us an entirely knew perspective on something we thought we knew inside and out. The actual O.J. court case became a cultural phenomenon in 1995, and this show brilliantly looks into the why and how. Gripping, highly self-aware, and with an all-star cast—led by the incomparable Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, and Courtney B. Vance—The People vs. O.J. is easily the best and most important show of the year.

 

Some Honorable and Dishonorable Mentions:

Once again, there were too many good TV shows in 2016 to not give a few extra shoutouts at the end of my list. Game of Thrones had another impressive season that ended in an exciting new place. Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete continued to prove just how much of an artistic visionary he really is. Better Things gave frequent Louie collaborator Pamela Adlon a platform to showcase her wonderful slice-of-life brand of comedy. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend continued to dazzle with funny and impressive musical numbers in season 2. Younger ended its third season on a shocking and unforgettable note. You’re the Worst continued to get very, very real and break genre conventions. The Good Place proved that Parks and Recreation creator Michael Schur is just as adept at inventive world-building as he is comedy. Finally, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee became a welcome addition to the late-night talk show roster and essential viewing during the Presidential campaign.

On the bad side of things, UnREAL delivered a truly disappointing second season when they tried and failed to have an intelligent discussion on race. Vinyl, which had so many good names behind it, became one of HBO’s most expensive mistakes. Will Arnett, who’s so so good as the voice of Bojack Horseman, does little to improve the uber-serious and very dense Flaked. While Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life was a fun and enjoyable reboot, Fuller House proved that not all the shows we used to love need to be brought back. Lastly, Woody Allen attempted to get into the streaming service game with Crisis in Six Scenes and the entire thing was a painful-to-watch misfire.

Somewhere in the middle is Westworld, which is certainly one of the most talked-about shows of the year. It was incredibly impressive from a filmmaking standpoint, and you can’t knock its sense of ambition, but it too often sacrificed important character development for flashy shootouts and fast-paced horseback rides. These things are fun, but when you know they’re being carried out by robots, it’s essentially like watching someone else play a video game, which is about the least fun thing you can do. Still, the show was somewhat saved by its explosive final scene, and Thandie Newton’s Maeve, who was the most captivating character on the show.

 

 

So how’d we do? What were your favorite shows of the year? Let us know in the comments below!

 

 

By Matt Dougherty and Mike Papirmeister

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