TV might have saved 2016. Seriously, it wasn’t the best pilot season network-wise (I’m still having nightmares about that CBS comedy slate) but how many shows were you passionately invested in in 2016? How many characters did you care about? How many worlds did you happily dive into once a week to take a break from the disasters of our own? 2016 was a good year, at least in TV- a bigger, stronger, more diverse, more eclectic, more imaginative year than ever before.
1. Orange is the New Black
Netflix’s second hit is, in my opinion, still its crown jewel. A rare show that truly justifies the binge model, every new OITNB season is a catch-and-release situation that captures you, is inescapable until the finale credits roll, and takes some time to recover from. It doesn’t punish bingers with middle episodes too plotless to tolerate in a non-binge situation, it’s a steady march towards a gut-punch finale with perfect mini-arcs and single episode pops along the way. Season four went deeper on series-long developments like Piper’s spiralling moral judgement, racial tensions, systemic corruption and the guards’ abuses of power, finding time along the way for an extraordinary storyline for Lori Petty’s fascinating Lolly and more simply perfect work from Taryn Manning. The final episode centered around my favourites Samira Wiley and Danielle Brooks and took me 2 hours to get through because they made it hard to breathe. OITNB sometimes gets left off year-end and best-of lists because it’s digested in short, intense bursts rather than kept top of mind with weekly episodes or a long-slog binge but season four was too incredible to forget so it tops my list looking back on a truly fantastic field of television in 2016.
I’ve gone on and on about this already but this character-driven story about humans trying their damnedest to do good and get by continues to be my favourite television series of the modern era (second this year only because that OITNB finale was such a singularly emotional masterpiece). As the result of a fortuitous scheduling reshuffle, Showtime gave us two seasons of Shameless last year (both excellent, of course) and there were times when its continued presence on my TV really did save a bad week (because 2016).
3. Horace & Pete
What a gorgeous piece of art this was. Art, really, is the word for it. It was online with no consistent release schedule, no channel or studio attached, no designated form or episode length. It was episodic, so it was television, but it was self-contained and self-funded like an indie movie, and it felt like theatre more than anything. It was oldschool and timeless and innovative and familiar and rebellious all at once, like tons of things and literally nothing anyone had ever seen before. Not to mention it showcased some of the greatest writing and performance I’ve ever seen in any medium at any time.
I’m so sad this gem is ending. It wasn’t always perfect, sometimes it was actually infuriating, but when it was great it was beyond great and the best episodes of season five were absolutely incredible. We started with Marnie’s wedding, ended with The Moth and, in between, Shoshanna went to Japan, Hannah went through a perfect slow-burn “nice guy” heartbreak, and, most intriguingly, Adam and Jessa got together. There was a ton of character growth in season five, and a ton of unintentionally hurting each other. It was all very beautiful and often quite funny and maybe my favourite season of the show.
5. Bojack Horseman
This animated piece of absurdity about depression and ennui and the struggle of being human continues to astonish with a third season that explores the isolation of success, highlighted by the grand opus that is the entirely silent “Fish Out of Water”. One of the most human shows on TV has no human characters.
Donald Glover is one of the definitive creative geniuses of his generation. The mind-bending mix of magical realism and grounded honesty at the heart of this excellently cast, deliciously inventive perfect half hour show is all the evidence you should need (though there’s plenty of other evidence). God, we really needed Atlanta.
We also needed Speechless. Not only is this ABC comedy the most honest and refreshing and condescension-free portrayal of disability that I’ve ever seen but it’s the best family sitcom in years and an absolutely necessary boost to the stale network half hour format. With the exception of the sister Dylan, every main character was incredible well developed only a couple episodes in and continued to deepen over the course of the wholly excellent first season. John Ross Bowie’s Jimmy is already in my personal pantheon of great TV dads and Mason Cook as anxious middle child Ray is for my money the best comedic performance on network right now.
It feels like forever since this beautiful Duplass-created gem went off the air but its quiet, tender, weird, personal second season will never be forgotten, at least not by me.
There are a couple moments of every TV season that I can’t get out of my head. First among them in 2016 was the finale of Transparent‘s third season when Judith Light sang “Hand in my Pocket”. It was bizarre and haunting and hilarious and it made me cry a lot and wonder why I was crying and consider everything that had come before and what could possibly come after and it was quite simply perfect. The mystery of how Jill Soloway and her inspired cast make me care so much about such monumentally selfish people is beautifully confounding. Bonus points for “Oh Holy Night”, a gorgeous showcase for the transcendent Kathryn Hahn.
10. War & Peace
This lovely BBC miniseries does a wonderful job of capturing the scope of Tolstoy’s genius epic without meandering too far down the hyper-detailed sidestreets that make the novel hard to stick with. It’s beautifully shot and excellently written but, most importantly, the casting is right-on, which makes the characters easy to connect with and thus easier to keep straight as more and more of them are introduced. James Norton hides heartbreaking conflict behind steadfast heroism as the dashing Andrei and the wonderful Lily James yet again proves she’s second to none in the game of making a relatable contemporary hero of a pre-feminism literary icon (see also her zombie-killing Lizzie Bennet and her courageous/kind Cinderella). Paul Dano plays Pierre with the discomfort, longing, and oppressive intellect that is his oh-so-satisfying bread and butter as a performer; at one point an entire scene is made of him slowly eating a potato and it’s somehow a profoundly emotional viewing experience. Do yourself a favour and see Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway before Josh Groban leaves but, before you do, watch this miniseries.
11. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
This show gets better every year. It’s stupid when it’s stupid but its genius can be truly startling.
12. Silicon Valley
It’s a testament to the once-in-a-generation chemistry of this ensemble that this HBO comedy is still working after years of repackaging a simple premise (will they get funding to work on their compression project?!) and trying to recover from the death of season one’s breakout star (Christopher Evan Welch). But it’s totally still working, partly because the writing staff keeps finding ways to thwart expectations but mostly because this cast is perfect together, from the core programmers (Thomas Middleditch and the sardonic superteam of Martin Starr & Kumail Nanjiani) to bizarre supporting players (TJ Miller, Jimmy O Yang, Matt Ross, Josh Brener) to my favourite comedy crush Zach Woods as the only good man in tech.
13. You’re the Worst
In the first episode of this wonderful show’s uneven but still pretty wonderful third season, Lindsay (MVP Kether Donohue) stabs her husband with a kitchen knife. That’s really the main anecdote you should remember from season three. Also, Jimmy’s dad dies and that’s a whole thing. Not nearly as special as season two but still my beloved You’re the Worst. Bonus points for being giving me Samira Wiley the day after I finished OITNB season four; that saved my heart a lot of pain.
14. Late Night with Seth Meyers
I miss Jon Stewart so much. Poor Trevor Noah is trying so hard but I just can’t shake the feeling that he’s too much of a douchebro to trust him the way I trusted Jon (call me naive but I just can’t picture Jon Stewart tweeting mean things about fat girls). In the absence of Jon, Seth has stepped up. The smart and self-effacing former SNL head writer tried the standard Late Night monologue for awhile and quickly realized he wasn’t all that good at them, eventually opting instead to just start behind the desk with a Weekend Update-style opener. Messing with the accepted format of an entire genre of show is bold. Perhaps even bolder is Seth’s total willingness to carry the “serious” torch among his network compatriots (Colbert’s his closest comparison but, without his bouffon character, even he’s lost a lot of his edge). The other late night hosts are pretty much pure viral-bait goofiness- which is fine, it has its place, as long as we also have Seth doing what Seth’s doing. Sure, he interviews the random stars of dumb NBC shows as is his Late Night duty, but he also brings on a lot of authors, podcasters, theatre performers, journalists, and political figures. He interviewed Kellyanne Conway and didn’t let her off a single hook; he has Bernie Sanders on with impressive regularity. His house band features a rotating guest drummer because he wanted to hire his buddy Fred Armisen to bandlead even though Fred Armisen is way too busy to actually sit in with the band at Late Night. He calls almost every guest “my good friend” even if he hasn’t seen them since the last time they were on his show; and when someone cancels at the last minute, he calls some random actual good friend to come down from SNL rehearsal to fill in at the last minute (it seems like Aidy Bryant is on like once a month, which I would never complain about). His post-election speech was the only thing that made me feel even a little bit better that day, and with his nightly segment “A Closer Look”, Seth makes me feel a bit better pretty much every day. Because he’s on it. He’s got a diverse, informed writing staff (including standout Amber Ruffin), a comedian’s freedom and a journalist’s sense of duty. He’s got the Jon spot covered, and that’s absolutely clutch.
2016 was home to two very different all-new-player seasons of the best-produced reality show on TV. There’s something particularly satisfying about a really good new player season and, though Kaôh Rōng certainly has its detractors, I consider both of these really good seasons. The spring season was marred with med evacs, a bitter jury, and way too much focus on that damn chicken, but it had about 8 players I’d love to see play again and casting is the secret to any good season. Villain edits aside, I really liked Scot and Jason as both characters and strategists; I think both Nick and Neal have the potential to be great returning players one day; and the fierce women who ran the game post-merge (crafty powerhouse Cydney, young but bold Julia, Aubry of course, and even Michele) were some of the most dominant we’ve seen. The casting was also the star of Millennials vs. Gen X in the fall, even more so. I’d have to give it some more focused thought but I’m tempted to say that Millennials vs. Gen X was my favourite all-new-player season ever. If the cast had a single dud, it definitely didn’t have more than 2 or 3 of them. Engrossing personal stories, strong strategy, smart narrators, and an overlaying sense of oldfashioned good sportsmanship defined this season, a game with more breakout stars than almost any other (Zeke, David, Jay, Michaela & Bret- just for starters) and a winning story the likes of which we’ll never see again.
16. Baroness Von Sketch Show
The all-female Canadian sketch group behind this show is pure genius and the result is the best TV to come out of this country in forever. In a post-Key & Peele world, Baroness Von Sketch Show is the best sketch going and second place isn’t close.
Gah. Did you watch Rectify?! I know you didn’t watch Rectify– almost no one did- but you really ought to have watched Rectify. Rectify is the beautiful/complicated/weird masterpiece that everyone missed because they were too busy talking about how good The Wire was (another show no one watched while it was actually on, because they were too busy talking about The Sopranos, which was in its time overshadowed by The West Wing– are you catching my drift?). The first season was a bit schmaltzy with its heavy flashback structure and the show can be a hard sell because its weakest performance is the one you think at first you should be paying the most attention to (Aden Young as newly released death row prisoner Daniel Holden) but Rectify is glorious once you commit and are able to really see it. Beautifully shot and moodily scored, this Southern Gothic from the Sundance Channel is incredibly well-made and impeccably performed by its mindblowing supporting cast who brilliantly turn a crime drama into a searing geographical portrait. The career-best work done by Abigail Spencer, JD Evermore and, especially, Clayne Crawford in this series is the sort of gradually deepened long-game character performance that can only exist in weekly non-anthology TV, an art form that’s disappearing far too quickly. There comes a point when the emotional realities of life in Paulie are so engrossing that you care as much about whether Janet sells the tire store as you do about finding the answer to the murder mystery hook on which the premise was hung. Rectify is only 30 episodes; you really need to watch it.
One of TV’s most fascinating relationships is between Michaela Watkins and Tommy Dewey as too-close siblings on this beautifully unclassifiable half hour from Hulu. Valerie and Alex are such deeply developed characters by season two that an episode feels like visiting old friends in that way that only great TV can. Season two also finally figured out what to do with problematic teenager Laura, thanks in no small part to clutch guest arcs from Dylan Gelula and particularly Rhenzy Feliz. Frances Conroy’s gotten tiresome quickly but that’s just quibbling.
19. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
The “fun but grounded stories about and by complicated adult women” subgenre the current CW brass is sporadically dedicated to is a real light in the darkness of network hourlong programming. It’s just too bad that Hart of Dixie happened a year or two too early to find its tonal soulmates in Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (also No Tomorrow, which I liked quite a bit but never really hit). This wacky musical that unleashed the quirky genius of Rachel Bloom onto the world got even better in its second season by facing down its demons (mental health! alcoholism! the tragic toxicity of unhealthy adult friendships!) with a light touch and nerves of steel.
I love this show about the hypothetical first woman to pitch in the MLB. It’s just a really solid network drama that stands apart in its refusal to be either a procedural or a Shonda-style soap. The writing has a tendency to zig when a zag would lead to more complex storytelling but on the grading curve of network dramas, Pitch consistently gets at least an A-. The stunning Kylie Bunbury is a steely-eyed badass in the lead role of an athlete who never asked to be a role model and, as the team’s veteran catcher, Mark-Paul Gosselaar finally found the sort of perfect-fit role he’s been looking for for 25 years, leaning hard on that ability that seemingly only he has to be snarky and perfectly sincere all at once.
I’ve already written more than I needed to about this one-and-done summer gem but suffice it to say it was clever, it was funny, it was incredibly well cast, and I loved it.
The heir apparent to The Office, this woke little workplace comedy is one of the best laughers on the air right now with a killer cast that shows incredible bench depth week in and week out. I’m still not sold on Mark McKinney as the wacky manager but Lauren Ash is giving one of the best comedic performances of this television age and it drives me crazy that not enough people are seeing it.
23. New Girl
I thought I was out on New Girl when the once-magical sitcom hit its weird post-Nick & Jess phase and became merely charming but the creative handling of Zooey Deschanel’s pregnancy improbably put the show back on track by forcing the writers to think outside the box and forcing the supporting cast to carry more of the load. The result was an expanded role for Cece (long overdue; Hannah Simone is a delight), a solution to the nagging Winston problem, and a key growth arc for the series’ most interesting character Nick. The show will never top its 2012 brilliance (the back half of season one and start of season two) but, especially after a dip in the middle, its 2016 was pretty darn delightful.
24. The Middle
I cry in pretty much every episode of The Middle; it just hits me in the heart with its earnest optimism and the characters’ begrudging sweetness. It’s simple but it doesn’t need to be complicated. It’s maybe the least cool show ever, but that totally works for it.
This show on the other hand is very cool, maybe even a little bit annoyingly so. It’s all these hot, hip people doing hot, hip things like starting microbreweries and having threesomes with the girl from Garfunkel & Oates. The fact that it’s more moving than obnoxious is a testament to creator Joe Swanberg’s deft touch and unpretentious manner. I often find anthology series unsatisfying because they lack the world building of a serialized show that brings you back to the same place every week but Swanberg built such a strong worldview and tonal throughline into Easy that even its most disparate vignettes ultimately feel like part of the whole in a really rewarding way. Great performances everywhere here but Dave Franco is the unexpected MVP.
26. The Grinder
A strong cast led by the perfectly paired Fred Savage and Rob Lowe elevated this goofy, self-aware sitcom and made its risky high-concept premise work. It was weird, it was meta, it was clever as all hell. Of course it died a death far more premature than it deserved.