We tend to complain a lot about TV these days. Too much TV! Too many choices! Too expensive! Or, in the case of the 467 minutes of O.J.: Made in America, perhaps: Too long!
But never before has a single medium pushed the boundaries of creative ambition, been so essential to the challenging social norms, played such a crucial role in politics, pushed standards of inclusion in storytelling, and made us laugh, cry, and, more simply, wonder. So let’s celebrate!
These lists ask us to compare television apples and oranges—a revival series resurrecting the zippy banter of a mother and a daughter to the maze-meandering psychodrama or an Old West robot theme park—making the resulting rankings resemble somewhat of a TV fruit basket, and one not nearly big enough to hold the year’s impressive bounty.
There are shows that were as strong as they’ve ever been—You’re the Worst, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Orange Is the New Black, Game of Thrones, black-ish, Casual, Bojack Horseman—that were sacrificed for no other reason than I thought it’d be nice to include some fresher blood this year, although a list of Best Episodes of the year would likely include entries from many of those series.
There were great moments in late-night—specifically from Seth Meyers, James Corden, and Saturday Night Live—that I’d have loved to include if there was room. There was a live TV musical that I loved, and a glut of spectacular freshman comedies, fronted by women in particular, that would merit their own list: Divorce, One Mississippi, Fleabag, Speechless, The Good Place…
All of this, plus the embarrassing reality that, on any given night we might find ourselves binging episodes of The Great British Bake-Off, Chopped, or reruns of Sex and the City instead of dutifully keeping up to speed on Homeland, Shameless, or The Crown, which we swear we’ll finish soon.
So it is with bloodshot eyes and a smattering of bedsores that we present to you our list of Best Shows of 2016. There were over 400 shows on TV last year. Suffice it to say that our taste might not jibe with yours. That’s OK. But we watch a lot of TV and this is what we think.
20. Stranger Things
The simplest thing a good show needs to do is often the hardest: just entertain. Gauging by its full-throttle domination of the zeitgeist, few shows executed that basic mandate more successfully than Stranger Things. Creators the Duffer Brothers built a painstaking (though blissful, for us) homage to ’80s cinema and sci-fi paranoia, evoking E.T., Poltergeist, Alien, Jaws, Gremlins, and even Heathers while creeping out a nation of TV fans. That, and it brought on a revival of Winona Ryder adoration and introduced us to a brood of preternaturally talented child actors plus Emmy Rossum’s twin.
19. Queen Sugar
Queen Sugar, Ava DuVernay’s Louisiana soap opera produced with Oprah Winfrey, wasn’t so much a slow-burner as a slow-scorcher, least of which because of the fire it set to industry standards. DuVernay populated the series with a cast of fresh talent, all actors of color, Hollywood had ignored, and each episode is directed by a woman of color primed for a big break. Criminal justice, rape culture, and the tapestry of black family are explored with DuVernay’s deliberate pacing, finally giving the rich, meditative story treatment to black, Southern life that has typically been reserved for brooding white guys. The impact of a show like this is huge—helped by the fact that it’s so engrossing, too.
18. Billy on the Street
Part game show, part stand-up comedy, part searing cultural commentary, Billy on the Street is sorely underappreciated. Sure, people find it funny. They love it when that gregarious Billy Eichner shouts at all the people. So loud, that one! And the celebrity guests, giddy to be galloping through the streets of New York surprising unsuspecting strangers, are a hoot. But underlying all of this is the most biting satire of pop culture, fame, and sociopolitical pretention that you can buy “for a dollar.” It’s a game-show joke assault that’s one of TV’s biggest laugh riots, but one that should also be taken seriously.
17. Black Mirror
The anthology series’ standalone episodes aren’t so much horror allegories as they are premonitions—warnings, really—against the rise of technology at the expense of human decency. “A Twilight Zone for the Digital Age,” as The New Yorker recently labeled it. This season featured “San Junipero,” which created the year’s rawest love story in a virtual reality simulation. And then there was “Nose Dive,” which put on blaring, terrifying display the repercussions of a culture reliant on likes and Yelp-like reviews, with the help of Bryce Dallas Howard giving the year’s wildest dramatic performance.
Released from the suffocation of think pieces, Girls was finally allowed to exhale in Season 5. The result was its strongest season yet, no longer a satire of wayward millennials but more a drama about those characters’ desperation to grow up in spite of their self-destructive instincts. Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, Shoshana, and, finally getting a meaty arc, Elijah alternately unravel and find their strength. What began as a portrait of clueless twentysomethings is now something more affecting: a look at adults realizing that their lives have been shattered by the reality they had refused to face, now trying to piece things back together.
15. RuPaul’s Drag Race
This year brought the stellar eighth run of RuPaul’s Drag Race and a new season of All-Stars. As a high-heeled double header, they featured an army of talented queens, from breakouts Bob the Drag Queen, Naomi Smalls, and Kim Chi, to the titans who returned for All-Stars: Katya, Alaska, Detoxxx, and Alyssa Edwards. This show lives and dies on the strength of its contestants, and these queens brought enough humor, shady drama, and gag-worthy fashion to reincarnate you. Pulsing underneath all the drag is heart that, in a rare twist for reality TV, hardly feels exploitative, but instead necessary. Sharing their struggles for acceptance—by the world and themselves—Ru’s girls, as the Emmy-winning host says each week, are actually saving lives. Now, can I get an amen?
14. Better Things
The highest praise I can give Better Things is that each episode in its extraordinary first season didn’t merely exist as entertainment, but as a feeling. Created by Pamela Adlon along with her longtime creative partner Louis C.K., the series borrows heavily from her life raising three girls as a single mom and working actress. Everything about the series is personal, down to the clothes Adlon wears and the title credits she wrote out by hand. The gift we’re then given is a portrait of motherhood painted with watercolors of strength, femininity, exhaustion, sarcasm, and ferocious love all bleeding into each other.
It’s startling that Issa Rae, who created, produces, writes, and stars in HBO’s Insecure, is only the third black woman to create and star in her own comedy series. (Following in the footsteps of Wanda Sykes and Sherri Shepherd.) Insecure is vibrant proof why her voice is so vital, finally giving black Los Angeles the love letter—hell, even just the acknowledgement—it’s never gotten. All of the (deserved) talk of Insecure’s groundbreaking importance might disguise the simple, universal appeal of the show: a girl who is, as episode titles describe, “Messy as Fuck” or “Thirsty as Fuck,” trying to be her authentic self while still trying to figure exactly what that is.
12. This Is Us
A lot of people hate This Is Us. That’s fine. But it’s hard to ignore the power of what the sprawling NBC melodrama is attempting—and achieving. Its shameless wringing of tears is done with admirable emotional authenticity, touching on broad themes like adoption, weight loss, and race in ways that feel specific and relatable. Its early swings at narrative twists have thankfully tamed, but without losing the power of watching this thoroughly modern family relate to each other. There should be something for everyone in this age of #peakTV. We’re lucky there’s something this carefully and lovingly crafted for those of us who just want to cry.
It’s time to say goodbye to the best show you never watched. Simmering along on SundanceTV, for four low-rated, criminally underappreciated seasons, the sleeper drama did all those things popularized by those brooding, moody prestige dramas we’ve spent the last five years celebrating—visceral world-building, slow-burn character study, moral complexity—but did them better. The initial logline was fascinating: A man returns home to rebuild his life after serving 19 years on death row before DNA evidence calls his conviction into question. The story that unfolded, little-seen as it might have been, superseded merely “fascinating.” It was unshakably human.
10. Search Party
It’s hard to talk about millennials without being absolutely insufferable. Yet part satire, part thriller mystery, Search Party managed to be the most addictive and, thanks to its wallop of a finale, satisfying binge of the year. The dark comedy follows a hipster-narcissist modern day Scooby Doo gang as they search for a missing friend. The wild twists their search takes contrasts against the riotous Jack-and-Karen banter between John Early’s Elliott and Merdith Hagner’s Portia. And yet the broadness of all that—the thriller elements and the comedy—is tempered by the refreshingly poignant and specific observations about the anxieties and challenges facing millennials that broad generalizations and stereotypes, funny as they are, tend to ignore.
9. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
In today’s age of streaming services and cable networks with endless budgets and production timelines, ambition typical translates to special effects, far-flung shooting locations, and a constellation of twisty, confusing characters. On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, creator, star, and writer Rachel Bloom stages an entire TV musical each episode, provocatively commenting on sexism, dating, sexuality, and mental illness through weekly original songs. It, for my money, is the most ambitious show on TV. Season 2 has the show back with a sense of confidence in its cleverness and messaging, transforming what was a quirky discovery into, now, a reliable delight.
8. American Crime
American Crime’s second season tackled a host of issues so plentiful and potent—rape, homosexuality, race, privilege, economic disparity, bullying, social media, the education system—they should blend into a noxious potpourri of didacticism. But the jarring narrative of a teenage boy who accuses another student of sexual assault instead prodded our own prejudices and ability for compassion. Creator John Ridley employed some of the most inventive storytelling devices I’ve ever seen on broadcast TV, using close-ups, one-shots, silences, and blackouts in intentional, sometimes uncomfortable ways. And a cast including Felicity Huffman, Regina King, Lili Taylor, Hope Davis, and young breakouts Connor Jessup and Joey Pollari astonished us—when they weren’t horrifying us.
7. The Americans
It’s a pleasure to finally get to stop calling The Americans underrated, with the show finally scoring major Emmy nominations for Best Drama and stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, and audiences binging their way through its first four seasons. The crafty spy game introduced in 2013 now has more layers, with Season 4 featuring a more complicated structure and a renewed commitment to surprising the audience—in ways that are honest to the story and the characters and never for mere shock value, though no series adheres more to the idea that no beloved character is safe. It makes watching The Americans a tense, intense experience. Just as it should be.
Few shows feel as emotionally true as Transparent, likely because of its fearlessness in making its protagonists—the messy Pfefferman family—so prickly against the soothing, sometimes utterly romantic cinematography. Each episode is its own poem, exposing the battle between selfishness and selflessness it takes to discover who you are, and the existential crisis that erupts when it comes to light that who you thought you wanted to be doesn’t make you happy. Transparent has always championed the need for compassion while remaining honest to the notion that we’re not always capable of it. No moment captured that more than Judith Light as Shelly Pfefferman, tearfully belting Alanis Morissette on a cruise ship—as beautiful and surprising a sequence as TV produced in 2016.
To borrow a political term, this was supposed to be a “transition year” for Veep. Its creator and the man responsible for its razor-sharp, intelligent, curse-spewing voice, Armando Iannucci, left the series, with Curb Your Enthusiasm alum David Mandel taking over. Instead, Season 5 barreled forward, hardly skipping a beat (or a four-letter word). Julia Louis-Dreyfus was never better—a tall order—than in “Mother,” suffering hysterics at her mother’s funeral for all the wrong reasons. The show’s intelligence, speed, and sheer volume of jokes is a triumph of writing and editing, with its end-of-season twist a triumph of some steel creative balls: How is this show going to exists now that Selina is no longer in the White House?
4. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
The prolific Ryan Murphy’s first American Crime Story didn’t just recontextualize a two-decade-old media circus for a new cultural moment, but rewrote the rules for what a limited event series could accomplish. Not only did The People v. O.J. Simpson dramatize the Trial of the Century in vigorous and addictive ways, but each episode themed itself around a broader social issue that found renewed relevance and resonance: the advent of reality TV, identity politics, race and class bias, the farce of celebrity, and, with “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” exposed our shameful misogyny for the way we treated Marcia Clark. The acting from Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown, and John Travolta was big, and loud, and emotional, just the way a series about this trial should be.
The best auteur-driven series make you feel like you’re spending time in the creator’s world, and Donald Glover’s Atlanta certainly did that. But it also, and crucially, made you feel like you were spending time in Atlanta. It’s provoking in the way it tackled race, manhood, and responsibility through the lens of Glover’s Earn, a broke young father managing his cousin’s burgeoning rap career. But it was also so matter of fact that, for all its big swings at comedy (Black Justin Bieber, for example), that it ends up seeming engrossingly real—“lived-in,” to employ an oft-used criticism phrase, but never more apt than here. It was sweet. It was funny. It was Southern. It was black. It was universal. It was, well, great.
2. O.J.: Made in America
The 467-minute, five-part documentary miniseries, because it is so good, has incited a debate about whether, because it also had a limited theatrical release, it qualifies as a film or a television series. The argument, basically, is to determine which awards will be available—Oscars? Emmys?—because it is liable to win them all. (The end result: It’s eligible for them all, too.) Remarkably, all 467 minutes of this expansive, in-depth essay on justice, race, fact, context, and a culture that built O.J. Simpson only to, ultimately, exploit him as a media circus. Like American Crime Story, it’s not just a retread of the trial, but a meditation on the cultural pulse of Los Angeles, specifically, that explains while stopping short of justifying what we now consider to be an unfathomable miscarriage of justice. Unlike American Crime Story, Made in America isn’t dramatized. It’s real life. That’s what makes it so haunting.
1. Full Frontal With Samantha Bee
Throughout the entirety of the 2016 presidential campaign, people would routinely moan, “I wish Jon Stewart was around to cover this.” That’s ridiculous, because we had something better. We had the next Jon Stewart and, in this day and age more crucially, she was a woman. Full Frontal With Samantha Bee shares a DNA with the The Daily Show, on which she honed her mad-as-hell, exasperated skills. And while we knew we needed Bee’s rage against the media and political hypocrisy to keep us sane, what we didn’t know we needed was her staff’s dogged investigative skills and global curiosity. Standing in front of a screen delivering late-night’s sharpest, funniest takedowns of the 2016 political clown show, she was the voice inside our minds. But her superior field segments expanded our minds, revealing people, communities, and ideologies from around the country (and the world) that sometimes startled us, sometimes elicited compassion, and, at best, informed us enough to join a fight. Given the rhetoric of this past year, we should be grateful we can say, at least in this fight, we’re with her.