Top 30 Shows of 2016
2017 is here which means two things: 2016 is finally over and it’s time for the year in review. Over the next few days (hopefully one a day but with my new job starting… who knows) I’ll be releasing a 2016 list until I run out of lists or 2016 runs out of good shit to talk about whichever happens first.
Not up for consideration:
Shows in 2016 that were not considered for this list, for one reason or another:
The Young Pope
I have started it, I’m about halfway through and it is really good. But with 2016 drawing to a close before I could finish the whole series and considering the show doesn’t actually come out until 2017 it’s not on this list. But I would assume it’ll make a showing in 2017’s lists.
Embarrassingly I just have not finished the show. The first three episodes didn’t grab me the way I was hoping they would–especially after the first 30 seconds of it got off to such a crazy start. I will eventually get around to finishing it but just too late for consideration.
The Hollow Crown
I wasn’t really sure how to compare this to the others on this list. It’s not really a season of a television series or miniseries in the same way as the others on this list. It has a lot of pretty amazing performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and the rest of the cast and I certainly recommend it, especially if you like Shakespeare.
The Last Panthers
Technically came out in 2015 in the rest of the world but I didn’t see it until 2016 because I have the unfortunate privileged of living in America. One of the better French shows I have ever seen. And a really great dark and brutal take on the familiar jewel thief crime drama.
Good but just not quite good enough. Worth checking out if they are your thing.
Incredible… and I do mean incredible performances. But the wit is not enough save the show at times when it just gets too joyless. I am waiting with baited breath for the second season because I believe that Zach Galifianakis has the beginnings of something special here.
Better than many of Netflix’s attempts at love and a much more modern take on the love story at that. The pseudo-anthology show tells these pretty beautiful stories of snippets of love and the joy and pain it brings us. But I couldn’t help thinking that it would have served itself better by delving into one of its stories more than choosing to tell so many.
A violent and fast-paced Italian crime drama based on a book of the same name by Robert Saviano. The first season was pretty average in my opinion but when the second season began to get good reviews I gave it another chance and was glad to see it had made a marked improvement.
Horrace and Pete’s
A daring experiment in both story telling, production, and distribution. Louis CK continues to prove that he is a genius. But at times the show felt more like a lecture than art and even art at it’s more serious has to give something back to the audience.
I love seeing black women on TV who are full fledged adults. I would be more interested in this show if they weren’t children in every other aspects of their lives besides in their careers. While Issa Rae does a great job of telling the human stories of the people she’s trying to she often demonizes those same characters by making their flaws a much more prevalent part of the show than of the characters around them.
After I had given up on this show after season one I didn’t see really any chance in me bothering to come back. I was promised that Rectify season four was so much better than the first three that it was even worth getting through season 2 and 3. After trudging through the middle two seasons it was nice to see that in season four Rectify fixed many of the issues it had always had. Even though the show managed to add some interesting characters that it was in desperate need of once it started finally telling the story of moving forward as opposed to constantly looking back it still had a lot of problems that make it anything but an elite television show.
The Top 30:
The best of the best. I watched it all (or as close to it as was necessary) and this is the cream that rose to the top.
30. People of Earth
Weird. Super weird. But funny. Really funny. It’s really good to see Wyatt Cenac back on television with his dry humor. And on top of that a lot of the rest of the cast, many of whom I have rarely been impressed by do a pretty great job in this show as well.
29. The Detour
Natalie Zea and Jason Jones make a pretty unexpectedly good team in The Detour. What I thought was going to be a shoddy version of one of the dozens of road trip comedies over the years is actually pretty refreshingly charming.
28. The Crown
The subject matter is as stale as it gets. I really couldn’t care any less about the problems of a bunch of rich white royals who haven’t been relevant for centuries. But it is shot beautifully and written well and Claire Foy is as brilliant as always.
Not much more than a lot of really funny people and a very funny script. Sometimes simple works as well as anything else.
Pheobe Waller-Bridge and a great cast of fresh faces tells a hilarious and dark love story. This won’t be the last time you see Waller-Bridge on this list who pretty much came out of nowhere to prove she is one of the best writers and actresses working.
25. Luke Cage
Just tons of fun, and faithful to a beloved Marvel character. Unapologetically black with a cast that really might just be too good for a Marvel Netflix series.
24. This is Us
This is Us has some unfair stigma because it’s a network drama. Unfairly so perhaps but it’s not like you will see another network drama within a country fucking mile of this list. You just won’t. This is the exception to the rule. It turns out if you cast seven great actors and Mandy Moore and cycle through a steady stream of talented guest stars you can make good TV even if your writers room is slacking in creativity.
23. You’re the Worst
The show continues to tackle some pretty impressive topics for a sitcom. The 30 minute format continues to prove how versatile it can be with shows like this.
22. Silicon Valley
Same cast, same premise, same good show. There isn’t much else to say here. I wish Kumail Nanjiani got more room to run on this show but that is a small complaint for an otherwise excellent show.
21. Stranger Things
Even though it road some pretty heavy nostalgia to some higher critical praise than it deserved Stranger Things was still great TV. Finding four child actors who are not just not bad but actively good was nothing short of a miracle.
20. The Kettering Incident
A dark, eerie Australian gothic thriller and mystery that feels a lot like one of my favorite shows from last year Fortitude. The directing by Rowan Woods and Tony Krawitz is definitely the highlight of the show but Elizabeth Debicki’s performance is a definite highlight. If you like dark and creepy this is the show for you as it gets more and more chaotic for Dr. Macy as the series goes on.
19. The Good Place
A pretty classic sitcom in every way, down to staring the king of classic sitcom’s Ted Danson. Michael Schur is a veteran of the network system and continues to find ways to get the absolute best out of it.
18. Search Party
The first show I’ve ever actively hated that was still good. I still recommend it to people, the writing and acting are great and it’s an interesting take on both the mystery and comedy genres. Unfortunately, I loathe every single character from the bottom of my fucking soul. So personally… just…. fuck this show.
17. One Mississippi
A semi-autobiographical look at the if of comedian Tig Nataro is simultaneously beautifully sad and joyfully funny. The six-episode first season is more than worth checking out. Especially if you’ve ever been a fan of Nataro’s previous work.
Scrotal Recall is just a much better name. The show is still really good and Antonia Thomas is as talented and beautiful as ever. I always find that romantic comedy television shows shoot themselves in the foot sooner rather than later but the way Lovesick uses the passage of time I don’t see that happening with this show.
Excellent performances. Brutally violent. Unrelenting period drama. Quarry does everything it possible could right.
14. Mr. Robot
The second season ended as strong as Mr. Robot’s first season, unfortunately it got off to a slow start which can hurt a show in quality, especially one that runs only 10 or so episodes a year and is competing with some of the best television we’ve ever seen.
13. Broad City
Unless someone finds a way to injure Ilana Glazer or Abbi Jacobson’s humor this show is going to continue to be great, possibly forever. Or like 8 seasons, that’s usually the life of these things.
12. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
I’ve been loving Drik Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, it has made me want to go back and revisit the book which I picked up after falling in love with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but didn’t find it had the same irreverent glint about it. This show does have everything I loved about that book though. It’s goofy, its chaotic, but it’s still so well written and acted. And the finale is devastating on top of all of that.
11. The Night Manager
David Farr and Susanne Bier individually have never really managed to do anything that impressed me, or the general public if their box office and rotten tomato ratings are any evidence. Until now. Team these two up with Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddelston and you have something pretty magical. The story of hotel manager turned informant is riveting over its 6-episode run. Plus any show that introduces me to Elizabeth Debicki is always going to be high on my list.
10. Happy Valley
Happy Valley does not seem to have gotten the same level of praise in its second season that it did in its first season. Now it is entirely possible that it’s still a huge critical hit in the UK and that praise just hasn’t made it across the pond this time around. But I thought this season was as gut-wrenching and tragically beautiful as the first. The UK police drama has gotten a bit of a reputation for falling off in its second season, not entire deservedly so, but there certainly have been some offenders. While I am causiously optimistic about Broadchurch’s third season it’s second season was a massive step down from its frankly incredible first season. London Spy didn’t even make it a full season before falling off the cliff managing only to string two really good episodes together. And of course possibly the most famous offender The Fall who had a great run for about 8 or 9 episodes, before omitting a very unceremonious seppuku. Why? I will never be able to answer that question. Happy Valley on the other hand keeps the pace of the show going well, it doesn’t make the two typical mistakes a police drama often makes: sticking too strictly to your original plot or straying so far from your premise you forget what got you here. The performances are still stellar, Sarah Lancashire is one of the most underrated performers on TV today she keeps giving one stellar performance after another, in a role that really is not easy, Catherine Cawood is a beautifully complex character and without such a deft touch that could have easily been lost on screen. And of course there is still James Norton who is a wonderful villain to loathe, even in prison he looms sinister over the show in a way that I thought was very well executed. I don’t know if this show has a third season planned British TV tends to quit while they’re head more often than not, but if it does I would love to see this story continue.
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s adaptation of Garth Ennis’s 1995 comic book was much better than I expected it to be. Not that going in I had low expectations, I was looking forward to Preacher since I heard of its announcement, but there was no chance I ever expected to enjoy it as much as I did. The chemistry of the main three cast members was so excellent I probably could have watched them host a daytime talk show. Joe Gilgun in particular had a stellar year. One of really only two Misfit alumni to do something with his career after the fact I was glad to see Gilgun play Cassidy, the wise-cracking good guy vampire. The part was almost tailor made for him. Rogen and Goldberg made a very interesting decision by treating the first season as a prologue or test-run I’m really not sure what to think. Because up until the last thirty or so seconds of the final episode I thought that they had simply made the decision to use the characters of Ennis’s book but a plot of their own, which I was certainly enjoying. And then they quite literally blew up their entire premise at the end of the first season and set themselves up to start right on page one come season 2. I am really excited for this show going forward and I hope the gamble worked, but in a vacuum season one is a marvelous season of television.
8. The People vs O.J. Simpson
I am really glad that I didn’t give up on this show. I was definitely considering quitting on it after episode 3. It was a lot of pretty unwatchable performances from people who maybe don’t have any business being on TV anymore. The first three episodes are full of Robert Shapiro, Robert Kardashian, and O.J. Simpson played by John Travolta, David Schwimmer, and Cuba Gooding Jr. respectively. It’s not to say that these are the worst TV performances I’ve ever seen but if those three names instilled a sense of confidence in you I’d like to welcome you back from your coma, you’ve missed a lot since 1996—honestly, you might wanna go back to sleep, it’s about to get rough in 2017. I’ve said a lot about my number eight show so far and not any of it has been good thus far, but there is a reason this show is at number 8 on my list. After the initial episodes, before the trial starts the show is a lot of exposition, which I was conflicted about at the time. If this was just a regular show I would have had no problem with it, but The People vs. O.J. Simpson is a pretty accurate retelling of one of the three or four most famous events of the last three decades. It felt weird to be getting all of these character introduction and plot setup for characters who the viewer was already abundantly familiar with. The trouble here is that it is still a television show, with a sense of story arc it could have hardly started in the middle of the trial. The first three episodes are a necessary evil to get us to some of the most enjoyable TV watching of this year. I have said shows like Stranger Things and Dirk Gently are great shows mostly because they are fun to watch. The People vs O.J. Simpson is the perfect example of that, Ryan Murphy found a way to take a story that everyone knew and turn it into much see dramatic television week after week. A lot of the credit there goes to its stellar cast. I kept coming back week after week for Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden, and Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark. Proving that with a great cast and great writing you can make anything must-see TV. I mean there’s a show about a fake pope whose entire shtick is that he’s a prick, and it’s really pretty good.
If you had asked me who Phoebe Waller-Bridge was in 2015, I would have had literally no idea. I would have been embarrassed not to know who she was, a self-proclaimed anglophile like myself. If you had showed me a picture of her, there is a very very small chance I would have recognized her from The Iron Lady or Man Up. But how much changes in a year. By the end of 2016 Waller-Bridge has put herself in the same category as Sam Esmail, Stephen Falk, and Steven Soderbergh. These are the men and women I would follow into battle if they asked. Fleabag is an incredible work on its own, but this is the second show from Phoebe Waller-Bridge on this list which is just an amazing achievement. Fleabag is another show, like You’re the Worst and One Mississippi that is changing the kind of topics and themes that half-hour comedies—sitcoms?—honestly I’m not even sure what to call them anymore—can tackle. Not that many years ago if there was show about a woman coping with the death of her friend, the guilt that she caused it, and the gravity of having lost the only person she ever cared about it would have been a drama, and that drama likely would have been about a hard-nosed detective. Instead Waller-Bridge tells a profoundly sad and depraved story through the lens of humor and creates a show with equal ability to make its audience laugh as cry.
6. Peaky Blinders
Sometimes you wait for things for too long and the can only disappoint. I don’t know if there’s an OED word for that but if there isn’t already if should really be called Detoxing. Dr. Dre took just way too long to release Detox to the point where if it ever came out it had to be a top album of all time or it would be a flop. The same can easily happen with TV shows. Peaky Blinders season three took only a little bit less than two years to come out after the end of season two compared to the 16 years Dre took before he finally admitted Detox just wasn’t happening. Season three however, did not disappoint. Back in the action with the Shelby boys as they wreaked havoc through the early 20th century streets of Birmingham was an absolute joy. Cillian Murphy is as good as ever and as the years go by Paul Anderson, Helen McCory, and Joe Cole just get better and better. There has to be something in the water at English thespian schools because they just churn out dozens and dozens of amazing actors. This season finally reached its Goodfellas moment too where the fun and party is over and maybe it’s actually just all gone to shit and this isn’t the glamorous life we all hoped it was. I will never get sick of period pieces set in post-war England and Peaky Blinders is the perfect example of that. And luckily Steven Knight and Tom Hardy are teaming up for Taboo in the new year, to tie me over until Peaky Blinders season 4.
5. Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones is a lot like the Lebron James of TV shows. It is good, really good, but there’s no way to sound smart saying Game of Thrones is good. “Oh my god guys you’ll never believe this great show I just started watching! This kid Bran gets pushed off a tow…”
“Game of Thrones? Are you talking about Game of Thrones? Yeah that kid ends up sitting a tree for two years until he uses his best friend as a door stop be going back in time and treating his mind like a fucking rubix cube.”
There’s no glory in being the “Game of Thrones” guy in a television argument. So people have just stopped talkingabout how good it is. When in actuality being consistently great should be something you are praised and not punished for. This season of Game of Thrones was absolutely fucking nuts. And not in a tits and dragons way like season 1 and 2. The show continues to mature, and unlike season five the sand snakes play much less of a role in the rotating storylines. It’s possible that when it all comes down to it that being untethered from the books is really the best thing for Benioff and Weiss. Let’s hope so.
4. The Night Of
For the first time in the history of television an American has remade an English show and improved upon it. That achievement alone should put this at number one on this list. But I decided for the sake of credibility I’d be a little more reasonable. A while ago I wrote about the first episode of The Night Of and how breathtaking it was. There was almost no chance the show was going to keep up that breakneck pace, I don’t even know what a show like that would’ve looked like. But The Night Of certainly didn’t fall back down to the average. The show continued to far outpace expectations because the things that were great about the first episode remained great. The main cast was fantastic, rapper extraordinaire Riz Ahmed gave a haunting and depressing performance as we watch his painful transformation. John Turturro gave the best performance of his life over those eight episodes. Which is even more impressive when one considers that he had possibly the most thankless job in all of show business and if his performance had been less than stellar James Gandolfini’s ghost would have been hanging over every line. Halfway through The Night Of went back to type, but it’s far from a criticism to say that a TV show became more of a TV show. The whodunit storyline came under some criticism but it’s unfair to assume that The Night Of can be a character examination for 8 episodes, the plot had to come to a head one way or another and the best way to wrap up a plot is to actually tell a story which The Night Of did excellently.
3. The Americans
The Americans is one of those rare shows that starts really good and just continues to get better year after year. A lot of that has to do with a stale-proof premise. I could watch a show about Russia spy’s masquerading as the family next door for 20 seasons. As the show moves closer and closer to its finale the stakes keep increasing. With a possible move back to Russia hanging over the Jennings family the potential for compelling story arcs and brilliant performances is at its height. This season Holly Taylor really came into her own. While Keri Russell and Mathew Rhys have always been excellent I have always thought that the two children are were a weak point of the show. Of no fault of the show runners or the children in question, that is just the danger of casting children in a TV show. But this year Paige had a lot of screen time and well-earned at that. I kept realling hoping Pastor Time would get killed, but that was mostly for selfish reasons, not because it would improve upon the show. I was sad to see Martha and Nina go, its always hard on The Americans when characters are so unceremoniously shipped off because Joe Weisberg has a penitent for getting the best out of his performers. With one final season left for The Americans I am excited to see where the show will go next. As the cast is getting filtered down there are few conflicts left to explore besides the one that has been haunting the show from the beginning. Will Noah Emmerich ever stop being the worst FBI agent ever and finally arrest those pesky KGB neighbors of his?
2. Black Mirror
I have said my piece, extensively so, on Black Mirror. Black Mirror is a show that has to be judged on the sum of its parts—for obvious reasons. This season had some all-time classics, that notwithstanding how many shows can say year after year that they have no bad episodes? Not many. For more of my thoughts on Black Mirror, got here.
It is becoming harder and harder to distinguish between the elite shows every year. The problem is that TV continues to get better and better definitely collectively, but if someone wanted to argue individually I certainly wouldn’t be the one to take them up on that. When I’m thinking about ranking albums or movies or fucking Shakespeare plays a lot of it is contextual. X is the best album of 2016 because I feel it is 90% as good as the best album I’ve ever heard while Y is only 85% as good. When things approach excellency and often times near perfection it becomes harder and harder to compare them to one another. You’re not going to get me to say that anyone or a few shows on this list are better than The Wire, Mad Men, Seinfeld, or even Blackadder. I’m just not that stupid. But I will say it’s maybe not as far off from the truth than people would have you believe. Atlanta eked it out over its competition on the back of many pretty standard attributes. The cast was amazing, from the four main characters, to the handful of recurring ones, to even the cameos. The writing is brilliant, not just haha funny, but smart. Hiro Murai is one of the most surprising talents to come out of 2016 and his directorial talent stunned me, and if the many interviews are any evidence stunned many FX executives. A lot of sitcoms in the past any number of years have been clever, funny, and sporting great production. But nothing has ever been like Atlanta. Atlanta challenged what could be done with the half hour format; even as recently as two years ago I could have never imagined someone doing an episode like “B.A.N.” or even “Nobody Beats the Biebs” on a prestige drama, much less a sitcom. Donald Glover has himself something tremendously special here and I would love to see where this goes going forward. Plus anything that will give me more Brian Tyree Henry and Keith Stanfied I’m all for.