2016 was yet another year in the “golden age” of television, a landscape more competitive than ever thanks the continually growing catalogue of streaming options. Below you’ll see my list of favorite shows that ran during 2016, with only their 2016 seasons being considered. I can’t watch everything of course but I give a healthy number of shows a two or three episode chance.
Also, I’m sticking to scripted dramatic/comedic television. No documentaries or reality.
But first, a few notes on notable omissions:
- Westworld and Mr. Robot both seemed more concerned with fooling viewers than working with their characters.
- South Park feels more important than ever but the back-half of the season was not very good and quite repetitive.
- I wish I saw in The Americans and Transparent what seemingly everyone else does.
- Nothing on network TV has enticed me, and I gave This Is Us a real chance.
- The Night Of featured maybe the year’s best episode with its pilot but quickly became dull and clichéd. Marvel’s Luke Cage is in a similar boat for me.
- The Walking Dead stinks and I haven’t personally bothered to follow even reception of it for three years now.
- Veep still rules, and would be #11 for me, with other HBO comedies Insecure and Ballers getting close as well.
What separates Amazon’s Bosch from the countless other police procedurals around right now is its noir-esque take on L.A.’s seedy underbelly. The series moves slowly, very slowly; but the meticulous pacing allows Patrick Cady’s gorgeous photography to show itself off and a talented cast to communicate to us every detail of how their characters think and speak. Led by the always solid Titus Welliver in the role of his career, Bosch has managed in each of its two seasons to successfully adapt multiple novels by Michael Connelly. Its structure and pacing lend themselves to those rather noble ambitions. There are certainly moments when Bosch can be a bit too talky for its own good. For the most part, however, the show’s dedication to the slow burn is what makes it so interesting. And being a streaming series where you don’t have to wait a week for the next chapter, its sluggishness is less of an issue.
#9) Game of Thrones
Season 6 was a strange one by Game of Thrones standards. For the first time, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had to extend their storytelling beyond George R.R. Martin’s novels, though Martin still gave them general directions for where the characters were going. This brought about big moments and revelations that shocked even the most dedicated fans. It also brought about a new style for the show’s pacing. Gone were the always fun “on-the-road” subplots, in were characters traveling seemingly halfway around the world over the course of like fifteen minutes. The inconsistent sixth season was far from the show’s best, mostly due to wasting valuable screen time dragging out the inevitable (Snow’s resurrection, Arya’s return to Westeros, Dany’s return to Meereen).
But even a weaker GOT season is still some of the best entertainment around; mostly thanks to an outstanding cast, smart choice of directors, and cinematic production values. The season’s two best episodes (“The Door” and the finale “The Winds of Winter”) rank as two of series’ very finest hours. Maybe the season acted a bit too leisurely setting up its endgame, but that endgame implies we’re in for complete mayhem over the final fourteen episodes. I can’t wait.
#8) Bojack Horseman
During its second season in 2015 Bojack Horseman found its footing as TV’s strangest dramedy. Equal parts outrageous showbiz satire and unapologetic character study of a depressive, the show knocked it out of the park. The third season wasn’t quite as strong and tended to get self-serious at some strange times, but still captured the odd tone that’s made it the most acclaimed animated comedy around at the moment.
The voice work, specifically that from Paul F. Thompkins and Amy Sedaris, has always been strong. This season, Sedaris’ Princess Carolyn was not only given more to do but given stuff to do that gave insight into her beyond just being an agent hopelessly intertwined with the titlular character. Of course, on the comedic side, Bojack has always been solid. It’s loaded with visual gags and subtle references that reward attentive and/or repeated viewing. Any pop culture nerd will appreciate the series. Get on it if you haven’t already.
With the surprisingly surreal Atlanta, Donald Glover finally found a show worthy of his considerable talents. Actually he created/starred in/co-wrote/and even occasionally directed a show worthy of those talents. What started off as a dryly funny and minimalist dramedy about an aspiring rap manager with no other real options quickly became a gutsy experiment bordering on magical realism. The outstanding first season grounded itself once again at the end, as it needed to in order to truly move forward.
On top of Glover, the main cast is all outstanding (Brian Tyree Henry as Paper Boi, Keith Stanfield as Darius, Zazie Beetz as Van). Atlanta creates very real problems for its very real characters, resulting in a narrative that feels so much more natural than anything else on TV. The photography from Christian Sprenger is also as good as you’ll ever see on a single-camera show.
#6) The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
The best limited series of the year features the dramatic recreation of events many of its viewers watched in real-time years ago. Taking a layered look at the most famous criminal trial in modern American history, The People vs. O.J. Simpson creates genuine drama every step of the way despite the fact that you know how it’s going to end. It’s not simply just “Oh, there were racial elements that contributed to the actual trial and coverage of it”. Each character is given their own story and the way those stories come together to impact the trial is what makes this such a fascinating series.
Powerhouses performances from Sarah Paulson and Courtney B. Vance help the show navigate the courtroom scenes. Cuba Gooding Jr. does as good of a job an actor can when taking on a role as recognizable as that of O.J. Simpson. “True crime” is a popular subject but one that’s mostly resulted in exploitative documentaries. The People vs. O.J. Simpson shows off what the genre can be.
#5) Stranger Things
Netflix’s addictive ode to the works of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter proved a cultural phenomenon for reasons beyond the fact that it reminded us of our favorite stories. Referencing things is easy, capturing the spirit of something is not. Stranger Things, in which small-town Americans of various ages are thrust into an unpredictable plot only a child could imagine, takes elements of different classics to create its own mythos and style. It’s thrilling, funny, nostalgic, and genuinely thoughtful all at the same time.
Much of the credit goes to the collection of awesome child actors. Child actors so often ruin otherwise solid pieces of work that seeing so many of them not just holding their own but standing out here was incredible. I have my doubts about the show for season two. I’m not just sure how much more story there is to tell with these characters in this style. But for eight episodes, Stranger Things was damn near perfect.
#4) Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul is so much better than it has any right to be. As a spinoff/prequel to hit show Breaking Bad, titling itself after a character usually used for comedic relief, Better Call Saul could’ve/should’ve been a lame cash grab; a bad show hoping to grab thirsty viewers for four or five episodes before they realized what it is. The fact that Better Call Saul isn’t just a worthy successor to Breaking Bad but one of the best dramas on TV is astonishing. I keep trying to think of reasons to say this show is inferior, but I just can’t.
On a filmmaking lever it’s just as creative with its use of object photography, montages, and pacing. Jimmy McGill -soon to be Saul Goodman- is a fascinating character played perfectly by Bob Odenkirk. Season two made a more significant effort to give the other two leads (Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut and Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler) nuance and both performers were up to the challenge. The complex relationships on the show allow for drama at every turn even though we know for a fact both Jimmy and Mike will make it out alive and well (since they’re, you know, on Breaking Bad).
#3) Silicon Valley
Silicon Valley gets better, funnier, and sharper in its satire each season. While it may take a great many liberties portraying of the section of the Bay Area widely considered the hub of technological innovation, it does so to make its often large-scale jokes land. It’s a show both critical of and in love with its subject matter. As Richard Hendrix (a perfectly neurotic Thomas Middleditch) and his Pied Piper startup team continue to navigate different levels of the industry we continue to get hilarious guest actors and various interesting subplots.
For all the app jargon and humor, Silicon Valley draws most of its laughs from the strange camaraderie between its central characters. Many of the laughs come courtesy of Erlich (T.J. Miller), the most ridiculous character on television but a dude played with such misguided genuineness by Miller that you can’t help but continually fall under his spell of bullshit. Silicon Valley is the rare comedy the keeps getting better and theoretically could continue that run for another five years at least. It’s the best show to come onto HBO in quite some time.
#2) Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Originally slated for NBC with the first season written under network TV restraints, the zany Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt got even better in season two thanks to its newfound awareness of its medium. The cast is so much fun from Ellie Kemper’s unparalleled enthusiasm in the title role to down to Carol Kane’s somewhat mysterious New York lifer Lillian. Much like 30 Rock (another Tina Fey creation), the show packs more jokes-per-minute than any of its competitors. It doesn’t have punchlines. Every bit of dialogue is a joke in and of itself and there are also a great deal of sight gags. I probably missed half the material because I was laughing too hard at what came before it.
There were times in season two where Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt got a little darker than anyone expected, dealing with Titus’ nervousness about romantic relationships despite his flamboyance and diving deeper into the psyche of the women who were kidnapped underground for fifteen years. But the series approaches these subjects in such an exuberant way that the laughs never slow down. Also, Jane Krakowski is a national treasure.
#1) Halt and Catch Fire
Moving from Texas to California for season three, the always intriguing Halt and Catch Fire has become the best thing on television. As a period piece dealing with the personal computer boom in the 80’s/90’s, the show’s tech talk and production design are fascinating. As a multi-character study, the brilliant performances from its central cast (Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishe) keep it personal even as the dialogue dives into much larger themes. The show’s aesthetic is unique thanks to sleek set design and photography style that emphasizes non-symmetrical lines and squares in its framing.
It’s refreshing to see a relevant drama whose characters are genuinely excited about their work and the future. The cynic in me assumes that will change as the show reaches its conclusion next season, but in a world where most main characters on dramas are getting eviler and eviler each year, I love seeing flawed but generally decent idealists explored with the same depth a Walter White, Tony Soprano, or Don Draper would receive.
Thanks for reading! I’ll be back soon with my favorite 10 albums and eventually my annual gigantic year-end movie post which’ll include a top 10.