So, in spite of the fact that I only very occasionally post on this site anymore, the tradition continues. It began for me as a list of my favorite episodes of the past year and recently I shifted my focus on just narrowing it down to my 30 favorite shows because there are far too many great episodes to consider. When making this list, I very much take the new Emily Gilmore approach in that if a show doesn’t bring me joy–even if it’s well made and well-acted–I throw it away. I only make room for the shows I’m excited about. So there are a few notable exceptions on this list but there are also a whole lot of worthy shows, some of them underrated and under the radar, many others appropriately heralded on countless other lists.
Now, keep in mind, this is a list compiled by me and me alone and while I did watch a ton of TV this year (and every year), I can’t watch everything. So some shows that received a good bit of praise this year (Horace and Pete, BoJack Horseman) aren’t on here simply because I haven’t seen them. And I’m making the new rule that if your entire series drops mid-December or later, you’re only eligible for the following year’s list. So, if season two of The Man in The High Castle or season one of The OA end up being the most amazing things I’ve ever seen, I’ll acknowledge them next year. And if your favorite show isn’t on the list, it’s probably because I didn’t like it so feel free to react in appropriate outrage.
Oh, and if you haven’t seen a particularly show, skip reading about it because there will be SPOILERS.
AGAIN, THIS IS MY WARNING THAT THIS ENTIRE POST IS FILLED WITH SPOILERS FOR MOST OF THE SHOWS LISTED SO READ WITH CAUTION.
Now that I’ve covered my bases and with those limitations in mind, please enjoy my list of the Top 30 Shows of 2016.
30. Search Party (TBS)
This one grows on you–as do the shallow, self-obsessed characters at the center of it–and the last couple of episodes are particularly fantastic. Its indie-film sensibilities allow it the freedom to become its own uniquely quirky type of mystery that is often played for laughs but becomes genuinely intriguing as things progress. Pound Sign I Am Chantal.
29.How To Get Away With Murder (ABC)
How To Get Away With Murder is a guilty pleasure in the sense that its stories are bonkers, its courtroom drama is absurd and a single hour generally holds somewhere between 5 to 100 ludicrous plot twists. But I don’t feel guilt for how much I love it because it does all of those things amazingly well. I mean, it’s not as good as Scandal in its heyday, but its leaps and bounds more fun than that show is now and I honestly don’t get why more people aren’t into it. So, on the basis that sometimes TV should just be wild, outrageous fun, HTGAWM earns a spot on this list. Viola Davis sells every single thing that happens–no matter how preposterous–and even the damaged, self-absorbed grad students of hers have grown on me. I don’t know if I’m likely to win any new converts here but I have fun watching this show each and every week and I don’t feel an ounce of shame over it.
28. Casual (Hulu)
I shot out a tweet early during season two of Casual giving it a bit of crap at its slow, meandering way it chooses to get to the point sometimes, but I guess eventually I just embraced the show for what it was and learned to appreciate it. I had a pretty similar relationship with the first season. It’s a slow-burning show that deals very frankly and fully with dysfunction with a family, the flawed, broken people that we are and the way we allow our brokenness to infect those around us and destroy our relationships. You know, just a happy little tale about how sad and pitiful humanity is. It moves slow sometimes because that’s how these trainwrecks occur but it does pretty regularly find the right sweet spot, landing some humor and insight and making these pathetic characters somehow endearing in spite of their mess. Michaela Watkins is giving an unbelievable performance here too, by the way.
27. Underground (WGN)
Some budgetary restrictions hinder Underground during some pretty key scenes throughout season one and I imagine that that’s the main reason a lot of people are overlooking this gem (although I would argue that this terrific cast more than makes up those shortcomings). I once read it being described as Prison Break meets the Underground Railroad or something to that respect and that’s a pretty accurate description. What’s impressive about Underground is that it does an admirable job being a fun action/adventure series full of chases and tensions and shoot outs and everything else, but it also pays appropriate respect to the weight of the topic it’s exploring. It’s a show that a lot people seem to be sleeping on but I’d recommend catching up and joining these characters on this journey because it’s definitely a worthy investment.
26. Man Seeking Woman (FXX)
This show premieres so early in the year (it comes back next week) that my feelings for it have mostly faded by the time I make this list. But I made a note to myself to not leave it off this year so I’m seeing that commitment through. If you haven’t seen it, it’s an absurdist comedy that has a lot of really bizarre, hilarious fun with just about every relationship topic and taboo you can think of and it is very, very good at what it does. You truly don’t know what you’re going to witness on any given week–be it a love affair with Santa, giant robots fighting in the middle of the city, or an inside look at those cult meetings your moms totally holds telling everyone how great you are, but you will do plenty of laughing in the midst of your gasping.
25. Sweet/Vicious (MTV)
I can’t say that I don’t watch this show and worry that it may inspire others to take justice into their own hands on college campuses across America–that’s the job of the police. Then again, this show wouldn’t resonate the way that it does if the criminal justice system hadn’t been failing sexual assault victims on such a monumental level. Revenge fantasies are cathartic in situations where one might feel powerless and so Django Unchained for the MTV crowd follows two female college students who are taking a stand against rapists on their campus by dressing up as ninjas, beating the crap out of them and warning them that they’ll return if they ever touch a girl without consent again. Things escalate as our two heroes discover the risks of vigilante justice (namely, accidentally killing a guy) which complicates a bunch of relationships that were already pretty complicated to begin with. We’re only five episodes into this series and it’s not perfect as it tries to balance its silly, irreverent tone with the weightier topics it wades into, but it’s much sharper and more profound than one might suspect at first glance. It’s got a promising young cast, dialogue packed with plenty of wit, won my heart with an incredible inclusion of “Defying Gravity” in its pilot episode and there’s been at least one scene per episode that has really just punched me in the gut and reminded me that this show’s really got some important things to say.
24. The Last Man on Earth (FOX)
Will Forte’s Tandy character is one of the more irritating creations on television and he ran some people away early on but he’s developed some endearing qualities over time and I’m generally happy to spend 30 minutes with him every week. However, most of the comedy comes from the group trying their best to endure his immature approach to life while in the midst of an apocalyptic wasteland. This show is very funny and has assembled a fantastic cast over the course of three seasons. During the latter half of season two, the show did admirable work going a bit darker as Tandy was reunited with his brother (Jason Sudeikis) only to watch him succumb to the virus. In season three, January Jones and Mary Steenburgen have done terrific work depicting their characters’ very different spirals into darker material and the results have been consistently hilarious but effectively tense and occasionally gut-wrenching as well.
23. Goliath (Amazon)
I’ll be the first to admit that Goliath doesn’t stick the landing and that’s a big deal. After a lot of expertly crafted build-up, the last two episodes descend with a whimper and while they’re not awful by any means, they’re certainly disappointing. Still, it doesn’t justify why so many have seemed to overlook this addictively entertaining legal drama from David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro. While the mystery at the center sometimes falters (again, especially towards the end) the characters are exceptional and whether playing for big drama or nailing the lighter moments, Billy Bob Thornton does terrific work here. A lot of recognizable actors (Maria Bello, Olivia Thirlby, Molly Parker and a very showy performance from William Hurt which I enjoyed) make up the team of legal baddies but it’s Thornton’s team (the hilariously Nina Arianda and damaged Tania Raymonde) that make this odd little show so funny, smart, sweet and compulsively watchable.
22. The Path (Hulu)
Cults are a tricky thing to depict in television and film and The Path doesn’t avoid all of the pitfalls as it builds this unique world around the Meyerism movement, but it does it better than most. The show is grounded by three strong performances from Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan and most notably, a very tortured, intense turn from Hugh Dancy. Ultimately, The Path ends up being a really gripping study of the pros and cons of organized religion, at times celebrating the beauty and community of faith while at other moments documenting the dangers of spiritual abuse and religion. For anyone with a religious background, there’s actually a lot to relate to here that keeps the show grounded even while it becomes increasingly clear that Meyerism is far more sinister than your local Baptist church.
21. Orphan Black (BBC America)
If this show has been guilty of getting lost in the muck of its own vast mythology, I think we can safely say this was the season that course corrected. Orphan Black has remained a show worth watching even at its most convoluted but season four successfully trimmed some of the fat story-wise and felt far more cohesive as a result. The big draw, unsurprisingly, remains to be Tatiana Maslany in a collection of incredible performances that bring this unique, twisted sisterhood to life, each member of the clone club given their own distinct personality that has Maslany relying on her comedic skills one scene and collapsing in despair the next. What could have been a gimmick continues to, instead, be a force of nature; a magical thing to behold as Maslany does some of the heaviest lifting I’ve ever seen an actor even attempt.
20. The Good Place (NBC)
Sometimes, I’m kind of in awe that this show ever got made at NBC, but I’m so glad it did. If you want to watch The Good Place for all that it’s worth, you can ponder all of the question that its premise and discussions raise about religion, morality, ethics and the afterlife–but if that’s too deep for you, you can just enjoy the fact that it’s a hopelessly charming and clever thirty minutes of TV. It’s a show that arrived with such impressive confidence, constructing this world and tackling this dilemma head on, not shying away from toying with far more mythology that I think I’ve ever witnessed on a network sitcom. The entire cast is great and while that may have been expected from Ted Danson and Kristen Bell, each of the supporting players have proved their worth as well and done tremendous work to find the heart and humor of each of their characters. Going forward, I’d nix the flashbacks, but other than that, this is one that I hope really gets renewed–even though it may take The Bad Place freezing over for that to occur.
19. American Crime (ABC)
In season one, I applauded American Crime in concept for wanting to be a series that dealt with heavy, difficult subjects on network TV even if I didn’t love the execution. Season two of the show was a little more accessible and a little less punishing to watch, without ever compromising its mission. It’s a show that you can’t walk away from without feeling something and pondering some of its scenes for weeks and months to follow, thought-provoking scenarios being brought to life by an excellent cast (including a particularly impressive performance from young actor, Connor Jessup) that effectively put a human face to the “issues” we hear about. I appreciated that the show often did things you wouldn’t expect, avoided relying on gimmicks to drive home shocking aspects and was able to communicate its messages without lecturing.
18. House of Cards (Netflix)
House of Cards has gotten a lot of nominations it probably didn’t deserve next to better shows thanks to the pedigree involved and I feel like it gets kind of a bad rap because people are bitter about that. It’s still a show well worth watching and season four was its strongest year since its first, crafting a perfectly executed arc that told of the demise of Frank and Claire and their ultimate reunion as equals. It was dark, compelling and more addictive than the past two seasons, with excellent performances across the board from Robin Wright’s Emmy-level work, Kevin Spacey hamming it up in particularly sinister fashion and really strong guest performances from Ellen Burstyn and Joel Kinnaman.
17. The Magicians (SyFy)
I just flat-out love this show. It plays by its own rules and its rules are just pure insanity, to be honest. I have not read The Magicians books (and will probably wait till after the series ends at this point) and I know some changes irked book fans, but what has ended up on screen is a truly fantastic experience in the truest since of the word. The show is often funnier than most comedies with smart, quick-witted dialogue omnipresent throughout a series that takes its characters into others worlds and some pretty terrifying places. The mythology is dense but even if you get lost a few times, you end up being so engaged with the characters’ journeys that you at least relate on an emotional level and catch up eventually. The easiest way to explain this show is to say that it’s Harry Potter in college with a touch of Narnia but it’s a lot more than that, smarter than you’d guess, consistent ridiculous fun and not afraid to force us to witness things even if they’re hard because beneath all of its fantasy and fun, The Magicians is wrestling with some pretty heavy things.
16. This Is Us (NBC)
I’m leery of shows that are manufactured just for the sake of giving us “the feels” and NBC’s ad campaign for This Is Us has been obnoxiously heavy handed in that regard, but the series itself really is a special little beacon of light in the dystopian landscape that has been 2016. Sure, there are several instances throughout its first ten episodes where a scene is clearly designed to make us cry and sometimes they lay it on thick, but you can’t help but grab the tissues and just embrace it because This Is Us has turned out to be a smart, funny, hopelessly appealing family drama that earns every heartwarming second it pumps our way. You can’t help but fall in love with this family and all its quirks and drama as brought to life by a stellar cast that includes this year’s breakout star, Sterling K Brown (so good here), Chrissy Metz (doing terrific work with a storyline that wouldn’t have worked as well in lesser hands), Justin Hartley (blowing my mind with how good he is here–he’s always been fine,but he’s great in this) and Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore as their time-hopping parents. There have been scenes and moments that have really resonated with me and they’re probably different than the ones that resonate with you but what’s special about this show is that it highlights this unconventional family by telling stories that ultimately hold so much power (and yes, make us cry) because of how universal they are.
15. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW)
Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I’ve had a complicated love/hate relationship with this show, but I think I can safely say at this point that I’ve landed squarely on the side of love. I think as the show’s progressed, it’s done a better job of telling richer stories and giving all the characters who aren’t named Rebecca substantial things to be a part of. Case in point, early in season two, we lost Greg (Santino Fontana) who had been the strongest supporting character throughout season one and the show hasn’t faltered at all. In fact, because it’s strengthened every other aspect of the show, it’s actually better than ever (though I’d still take a Greg appearance in a heartbeat). Going deeper in the Rebecca/Donna friendship, making Valencia an ally and giving Heather more to do have all been terrific choices. The show has always been about its tremendously hilarious songs but I feel that over time, it’s gotten more successful at bringing some of that same bite and insight into the rest of the show. Or maybe it’s always been this good and it just had to grow on me more. Who knows? But speaking of the songs–they’re really amazingly great. And the fact that they come up with 2-3 musical numbers a week (with only a few clunkers along the way), filled with complex staging and choreography is quite the feat. Favorites for me include the epic ballad of self-loathing, “You Stupid Bitch,” Greg’s ridiculous post-sex victory lap “I Gave You A UTI,” Rebecca’s “JAP Battle” with her childhood frenemy and the Fifth Harmony-esque anthem where teenage girls remind Rebecca to “Put Yourself First (In A Sexy Way).” Oh, and “Greg’s Drinking Song.” And “Friendtopia” is brilliant. Ooh and “Research Me Obsessively.” And the list goes on.
14. Mr. Robot (USA)
There was simply no way that Mr. Robot was going to be able to reach the same heights of season one where it so effectively pulled off this tremendous twist in the midst of introducing us to this frantic, unstable world that doesn’t look all that different from our own. Despite the challenge of following that up, I really loved season two a lot more than perhaps others did. Even though most figured out the twist of Elliot being in prison long before it was revealed, I found everything they did with the character during that time to be fully captivating and you’ll never hear me complain about a trippy homage to 80’s sitcoms that features an ALF cameo. I was also pretty pleased with the way things escalated towards the end and the bizarre turns surrounding Tyrell and Whiterose. Still, I think the most important thing that Mr. Robot did this year was flesh out the other characters more, doing some really excellent work with Darlene and Angela in particular. So much of season one was Elliot’s story–with the Darlene twist necessitating that she be kept at arm’s length–but now I feel more invested in the rest of them. In fact, “Successor” was easily the season’s stand-out episode and Elliot was nowhere to be found as Darlene was given her own showcase and Carly Chaikin delivered a stunning performance.
13. Gilmore Girls: A Year in The Life (Netflix)
I had a hard time figuring out where to place this one. On one hand, I know that I entered into this show buzzing with nostalgia and that could have effected my feelings towards it, while I sometimes feel that I’m being too cautious because I really loved it, nostalgia or not. But it lands where it lands, and regardless of any of that, I’m just thankful to the Netflix gods that this thing exists at all and thankful to the Palladinos that it doesn’t suck and was a journey well worth taking. I’ve already written a lot about my complex feelings about everything that happened, but to sum it up, Gilmore Girls is one of my all-time favorite shows, is full of some of my all-time favorite characters and boasts some of the all-time wittiest dialogue and all of those factors were firmly in place in these new chapters.
12. Atlanta (FX)
Donald Glover is gifted in just about every way an entertainer can be gifted so giving him his own Louie type series feels like a no-brainer. Like Glover, Atlanta is smart, unpredictable and very funny, most often in slight, subtle ways. It’s a world that feels very authentic and different than most anything else out there and I think that’s part of the reason people are so excited about it. The excitement is absolutely warranted as Atlanta was able to produce an entire debut season without a single weak episode. The free-flowing nature of the series that allows for bold departures from week to week make it the sort of series that cares less about character growth and development than others–although it does make room for it–so I don’t feel as emotionally connected to it in the same way that I do other shows which is ultimately why it ended up just outside my top 10. But maybe that’s just me. Ultimately, the show functioning with this level of freedom allows it to be the brilliantly unique invention that it is.
11. Black Mirror (BBC/Netflix)
I’m a latecomer when it comes to Black Mirror and have only watched a few episodes from the first two BBC seasons when it was introduced to me about a month or so ago. I mean, it was on my to-do list to check it out, but i hadn’t gotten around to it yet. For the purposes of this list, I skipped ahead to the third season of the show and couldn’t have been more thrilled consuming every second of it. These are smart and creative and wildly entertaining stories that I found myself completely absorbed in with each passing episode. The production is all top-notch as we travel through time and across several different locations and the performances are outstanding, bringing this provocative material to life in an honest, engaging way. I’ll be honest, I’ve never been the biggest Bryce Dallas Howard fan but I thought she was excellent in the season opener “Nosedive” that had her existing in a world where people were constantly trying to improve their ranking and facing the consequences whenever it dropped below an acceptable level. “Hated by the Nation” is a move-length sci-fi murder mystery that I thought was just brilliant, “Shut Up and Dance” was twisted, chilling and packed with adrenaline whereas “Playtest” was just downright creepy with a gut-punch of an ending. Still, it’s pretty unbelievable that a show so bleak would also produce a standout episode like “San Junipero,” an infectiously optimistic love story spearheaded by great turns from Mackenzie Davis and the incredible Gugu Mbathe-Raw. Even with an episode that ends on a happy note, there are a lot of concepts to wrestle with and, of course, that’s what makes this show such terrific fun.
10. You’re The Worst (FXX)
Season two of You’re The Worst pushed the show into deeper, darker territory and had a very strong, defined arc throughout its run. I don’t necessarily need every season to be designed that way so, unlike others I heard from, I wasn’t upset about the direction season 3 took. Tonally, it ended up being a pretty perfect mix of seasons one and two, and although sometimes it decided to double down on wild, irreverent humor and the overall awfulness of the characters, it still allowed for stories about the death of Jimmy’s dad and Gretchen learning to live with her depression to breathe and go dark when needed. One of the standout episodes of the year shifted the attention away from Jimmy and Gretchen entirely and focused on Edgar’s struggle with PTSD–it was an incredibly well-done episode of television and I appreciate that the show has been careful never to drop this story thread. Whether or not you can stomach the overall worstness of these characters may vary, but for me, I rarely laugh harder than I do at this show and when real things happen to the characters, I find myself caring about them very much. I am still not over the utterly heartbreaking way the writers chose to end the season with Jimmy proposing to Gretchen while bonding over their hatred of all other people before immediately getting cold feet, driving away and leaving her stranded.
9. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
The idea of systemic racism can be a hard one for some to grasp as they get caught up on individuals within any given system that may or may not be racist themselves. I feel like the final two hours of season 4 provided a pretty powerful example of the concept while also grappling with all the complexities that are often intertwined in most wrongful deaths at the hands of law enforcement. Samira Wiley gave a strong performance all season long but her final, hopeful flashback episode in the midst of everything that was going on back at the prison was especially poignant. Orange is the New Black was becoming less compelling to me with each season (still good, just not best of TV good) but I thought the fourth season was a return to its ‘A’ game. With Alex finding herself in the midst of a group covering up a murder, Piper being branded with a swastika and Nichols falling off the wagon, there was a lot of gripping (and often irreverent and funny) material filling each hour. As with any season of the show that features such a sprawling cast of characters, there are countless characters and stories I could mention but the bottom line is that all of it was very strong this season. With smart things to say about mass incarceration as it pertains to race, class, celebrity, mental illness and other factors, Orange is the New Black is certainly an important and enlightening show, but this season it also managed to grab a hold of the magic that made it one of the most addictively entertaining shows back in its first season.
8. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
I’ve tried but I feel like there aren’t any real words to capture the infectious optimism that consumes your mind, body and soul when you watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt but it is genuinely one of the brightest spots on TV and I love it for all that it is. I mean, it’s a bold and brave show too–one that explores how PTSD can effect trust, sex, friendships and one’s view of themselves and season two continues to deal very directly with the darkness of its premise while never losing its wonderful sweetness. Ellie Kemper makes it look effortless but I don’t think enough can be said about all of the layers she is packing into a very good and very funny performance. There is a childlike innocence to Kimmy–both the show and the character–but the series isn’t afraid to explore why that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Of course, they did so by teaming her up with a messy Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde therapist played by Tina Fey who gives decent advice during the day and gets blackout drunk at night–and it was more delightful than it had any right to be.
7. Jane The Virgin (CW)
When Xo had an abortion earlier this year, the divide between her and Alba, the fallout that followed and the eventual reconciliation all felt very honest in a way that was shocking, simply because of how rare it is. A more conservative show would have likely featured Alba talking Xo out of the abortion whereas a show too hung up on being progressive would have had featured Alba eventually becoming enlightened about a woman’s right to choose and neither of those outcomes would have been true to the characters. In the end, they went with what I believe is the most progressive route and embraced the fact that sometimes there are vastly different beliefs and opinions within a family unit and you need to love, accept and forgive one another regardless. It’s not shocking for anyone who follows this show and recognizes how frequently it’s able to celebrate liberal ideals while also honoring faith and religion. Because of this unique approach, it’s able to tell stories that no one else is and offer a perspective that you won’t find anywhere else among all other 455 scripted shows on television. The episode where Jane The Virgin finally became just Jane (several weeks after getting married thanks to Michael getting shot, of course), the show was able to really delve into some interesting aspects of what happens to one’s identity when they lose their virginity after being raised in a culture that emphasizes sexual purity. It was a really brilliant, sweet and funny hour of television. Because, let’s not forget, despite doing all of these really impressive things, Jane The Virgin is funny. It’s still a soapy, over the top comedy that is full to the brim with some of the most ridiculous plot twists you’ll ever encounter. If you’re like me, you’ll roll with them all because the show is just so entertaining, the characters so endearing, the writing so good and consistent, the laughs so frequent and earned and if after all that you still have a hard time buying certain twists, a very charismatic and funny narrator will help you get there. As Rogelio, Jaime Camil remains a national treasure who does a fantastic job providing the most potent comic relief of the show, although plenty of that has been coming by way of Petra this past year and Yael Grobglas has knocked it out of the park at every turn.
6. Veep (HBO)
Raucous, childish and shockingly profane, Veep has always been a snapshot of what we kind of all imagine DC is like behind closed doors, and 2016 just happened to be the year that fact became ever more outrageous than fiction. Still, Veep continues to be the sharpest comedy on TV, both with its knack for timely political insights and also its uncanny ability to push the English language to its furthest limits of humor. This is just an incredibly well written show and it had a lot to play with this year as Julia Louis-Dreyfus depicted Selina Meyer’s increasingly desperate and unhinged response to the results of an election recount. Throw in storylines about Jonah Ryan running for Congress, Hugh Laurie as a conniving Vice Presidential candidate and Mike adopting a child that is clearly much older than what he was told and you’ve got one of the strongest seasons of the series to date (no small feat considering the show’s mastermind, Armando Iannucci, had stepped down as showrunner).
5. Stranger Things (Netflix)
We didn’t know a lot about this one going in except that the trailers looked awfully cool and when it dropped on Netflix earlier this year, it captivated most of us immediately. It’s easy to chalk up Stranger Things’ success to its nostalgia-fueled aesthetic, but I’d say that’s selling the series far too short. With countless different movies and TV series trying to cash in nostalgia in some way, the fact that most of those endeavors are not actually done well would suggest that there’s some art to it. And that’s where Stranger Things comes in. It pays homage to several beloved films of the past while also being something wholly fresh and unique. It is not easy to craft a season of television this remarkably consistent and addictive and these eight episodes were dang near perfect; celebrating things we love while doing its own thing, I also believe Stranger Things succeeded in that way that it did by assembling one of the most impressive casts on television, one that includes several young actors who all knock it out of the park. Some may scoff at the nostalgic sci-fi adventure being so high up on my list, but I’d scoff at anyone who believes the funnest show on television doesn’t deserve recognition.
4. Bates Motel (A&E)
Throughout its four seasons, Bates Motel has been showcasing the story of a disturbed young man growing up to be one of the most notorious killers and horror icons in the history of cinema. But beyond that, it’s been telling the story of the most unsettling, twisted romance I’ve maybe ever seen of a mother and son dangerously codependent, enamored with one another in a way that is clearly unhealthy, particularly on the part of the son, Norman Bates. As things have escalated through the seasons, Freddie Highmore has continued to morph into a more chilling and unstable version of this character, each year giving him a chance to turn in an even more outstanding performance than the one before. He’s matched with a pretty phenomenal scene partner in Vera Farmiga (both of them have been robbed of countless Emmy nominations, although she did get one for the first season) who, as Norma Bates, became increasingly frantic this season as she tried to rescue her son from himself. It’s a testament to how absorbing this world and these performances are that, despite knowing how things would eventually end, when Norman finally kills his own mother (in what was intended to be a murder/suicide), it’s no less shocking and heartbreaking. Following the death of Norma (and really throughout the whole season as things unraveled in spectacular fashion), Nestor Carbonell had the opportunity to give his strongest performance to date and the show’s final two episodes end up being two of the best hours on TV this year; the beautifully morbid masterpieces that Bates Motel does so well.
3. The Americans (FX)
The Americans has done a tremendous job building our sympathies for the Russian spy family at the center of this phenomenal drama but it never wavers from also showing us how many lines they are willing to cross in service to their country. Of all the awful things they’ve been party to, watching Phillip forced to send his very scared and confused cover wife (poor Martha!) off to Russia (and for quite some time, believing she was going to have to be killed) and Elizabeth forced to stage an affair with the husband of the only woman she’s been able to strike up anything resembling a real friendship with (even if it was all based on lies) were among the most tense and heartbreaking storylines that show has ever featured. While there is plenty of dark intrigue fueling this Russian spy series (which, the way things are going, may as well get a modern day spin-off someday soon), it is, at its core, a family drama and the fallout of Phillip and Elizabeth’s work in regards to their marriage and children provides the weightiest moments in a way that is always stirring and artfully done. The Americans is one of those rare shows that has improved with each season and as it nears its end, I’m appreciating this uniquely tense and moving drama all the more.
2. Rectify (Sundance)
Tucked away on the Sundance Channel, there’s a lot of people that have never heard of Rectify and when I list my favorite shows, they look at me like I’m making stuff up when I mention it. The thing about it is that I can describe the plot of Rectify but no one I recommend it to is going to appreciate what a special show it is until they watch it for themselves. Rectify is a spiritual experience in a sense, unlike anything else on television in that way. It established a very unique tone and atmosphere in season one and has been true to it for four seasons. With this remarkable final season, the show offers some semblance of closure without ever tying anything up to neatly, as is the nature of the show and life itself. It did, however, depict the journeys of several characters as they tried their best to grasp onto hope and expectation despite the excruciating past they’d all experienced in different ways. Rectify is exceptional across the board which allows this quiet story to deliver big emotional punches in its signature subdued fashion, capturing emotions, relationships and revelations in the messy, unresolved fashion in which they truly exist. The deal is sealed, however, with one of the most outstanding casts ever assembled. Aden Young has broken my heart a thousand times over and his gut wrenching monologue on inescapable loneliness from the season’s first episode and the sweet dance he shared with his new friend, Chloe (Caitlin Fitzgerald, a very welcome addition here) were two of the most powerful scenes of the year, albeit in very different respects. Abigail Spencer is a marvel as his spitfire sister, Amantha while Clayne Crawford did his best work to date this year as Teddy came to terms with the dissolution of his marriage (his wife, played by the excellent Adelaide Clemons). J. Smith Cameron and Bruce McKinnon always brought forth such an honest portrayal of a marriage built on genuine affection that was often strained by the weight of an impossibly difficult scenario. From the main cast to peripheral characters, the show was bursting with great performance and the final season gave them all one last chance to shine. With something resembling closure regarding Daniel’s case, some personal strides and realizations among each of the core characters and a surprising amount of smart, effective humor, the final season of Rectify may be its finest yet and it’s certainly a strong reminder of how much I’ll miss this one-of-a-kind TV experience.
1. American Crime Story: The People V. O.J. Simpson (FX)
There was some hesitation on my part at the thought of Ryan Murphy getting his hands on one of the most infamous murder trials of all time, but the result far surpassed my wildest expectations. Murphy assembled a stellar creative team that helped adapt the notorious tale into what I ultimately feel is the most impressive television series of 2016. Anyone who has endured the highs and lows or Murphy’s work can recognize that The People Vs. O.J. featured all his strengths without any of his weaknesses and the series itself ended up being a brilliant study into why the O.J. Simpson murder trial became the cultural event that it was. With observations on race, gender, class, celebrity culture and the media, the criminal justice system and so much more, The People V. O.J. Simpson did a tremendous job shining a light over every significant layer of what this case meant to American society as a whole. It never got bogged down in message moments (like a lot of Murphy’s work has done before) but rather let the material speak for itself, brought to life by an amazing cast led by unforgettable (and Emmy-winning) performances from Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance and Sterling K. Brown. It’s really hard to narrow down which incredible show deserves the number one spot on this list, but ultimately, I gave the edge to this one because of how effectively it captured the attention of its audience, successfully serving as a vehicle to examine important topics within the context of a familiar story. It was really expertly crafted, much of that having to do with the fact that it never got too lost in hitting story beats or highlighting timely themes that it forgot for one second to be true to the characters (and ultimately the people they represent). The show was addictive, always engaging, clever, funny and appropriately sobering throughout its run. It was so effective that it forced us to get caught up in all of tension of the story despite knowing how it ends, made a real-life legal team 2016’s ultimate shipping combination (thanks to honest, gripping performances and scenes that recognized the intimacy of the process) and often made us reexamine our conclusions regarding the players involved.
Late Night Shows
As always, I kept my top 30 entirely focused on scripted TV but I do enjoy a lot of late-night stuff as well. My 3 favorites this year were:
1) Late Night with Seth Meyers (NBC)
This show has everything. A Closer Look, Jokes Seth Can’t Tell, Amber Says What, Fred Armisen describing the plot of TV show, MTV’s Dan Cortez, the entire Meyers family paying a visit and interviews that tend to be actually interesting. And he does all this very, very well four times a week!
2) Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS)
I wasn’t an immediate convert to Bee’s show but she has won me over through the course of the year. Incredible pieces on the Syrian refugee crisis were both funny and poignant, as was her awkward sit down with Glenn Beck (which some people felt irked by, I enjoyed it). Other times, the show is just flat-out hilarious like its segments about fake news of the conspiracy theory that Trump can’t read.
3) Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
Oliver loses a few points with me because, despite his long-form takes and round up of the week’s news being incredibly insightful and informative, his comedic rhythms while delivering all of this have become a little too repetitive and predictable. Still, on the right night, there’s no one better–this year that was any segment having to do with the election, particularly his famous Drumpf piece.
The Affair (Showtime)
I love the four lead performances on this show so much that I’ll follow it just about anywhere. It tests my patience sometimes but I find myself loving it more often than not.
This is a show that had mostly worn out its welcome a season or so ago, although I still found plenty to chuckle at when I watched. By the end, we all mostly hated Jenna (as we probably would any teenager that we spent the last five years hearing the every thought of) but I thought the series finale was surprisingly smart and moving, displaying a level of maturity I hadn’t expected.
Better Call Saul (AMC)
There are a few revered shows that didn’t make my list because they just don’t do it for me for a number of reasons and I genuinely don’t believe they belong on the list. This one….it’s more complicated. I don’t know what it is, but this show just isn’t for me and it’s hard for me to fairly figure out where to put it on the list. I respect the opinions of everyone who loves it and I can can recognize its strong writing and terrific performances, but it doesn’t excite me. I often find it tedious.I like it enough to keep watching and am pretty gripped by things between Jimmy and his brother, but overall, I feel like this just isn’t my thing and I can’t fairly place it anywhere on the list and feel good about it.
While not as intelligent or complex as a drama about a state’s attorney taking on a corrupt hedge fund manager could be, Billion is still quite a lot of fun to watch. The dialogue often finds a really fun, enticing rhythm as Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti and Maggie Siff all deliver superb performances that make this one worth watching.
A failed experiment from Robert and Michelle King, this sci-fi political comedy never ended up being a good show, but it did have some good moments. In fact, it had some downright brilliant moments. In the end, I couldn’t help but respect the show for trying all that it did.
The Carmichael Show (NBC)
After pretty much every episode, my wife and I end up discussing in-depth whatever topic the show decided to bring up that week, so The Carmichael Show certainly succeeds in its effort to be a conversation starter. It could be a little more subtle in its approach but it is always very funny and engaging no matter what they’re discussing.
The Crown (Netflix)
Looks amazing and full of top-notch performances (especially Matt Smith) but as someone who’s not ALL that interested in the monarchy, this didn’t necessarily convert me. Although it did keep me far more engaged than most monarchy-centric projects, so that’s something.
The Fall (BBC/Netflix)
This went in a very interesting direction for the final season. I’m not entirely sold on it and it certainly moves too slow for the first few episodes, but the finale is amazing and made the wait worth it for me.
The Good Wife (CBS)
I had plenty of issues with the final season of The Good Wife but it still had its moments and, honestly, the idea of this world and this writing existing without having to service Alicia sounds like a dream come true to me. I appreciate Alicia for what she was as a character but I think her story has run its course and I think, with a few large quibbles (the horrendous “Iowa” episode, dragging Hamilton royalty Renee Elise Goldberry back for that foolishness in the finale), the seventh season served as a solid final chapter for her. All this to say though, I couldn’t be more excited about The Good Fight and hope the fresh start gives the Kings’ the kind of masterful inspiration they were struck with back in seasons 2 and 5 of this series.
The Get Down (Netflix)
Never lives up to what it could be, but I still found it to be a lot of fun to watch.
This one has been off for months and won’t return with April so it feels very distant to me at the moment, but the truth is that I probably should have found a place for it on the list because it’s a very fun show with a whole lot of brains.
It feels like a Judd Apatow movie turned into a TV series because it basically is. Love feels like a the cousin to You’re The Worst and while not as sharp or addictive, it still ended up being a solid watch for me with characters I’d be happy to visit again.
The Middle (ABC)
For my money, still the best family comedy on TV. It’s aged considerably better than Modern Family and has the uncanny ability to tell small, simple stories and make them really sweet and funny without repeating themselves too often.
Low-brow and crude one second, heartbreaking and incredibly insightful the next. Mom isn’t for everyone but I continue to be very impressed with its commitment to taking on addiction with brutal honesty.
Queen Sugar (OWN)
I started this one late and I’m still only halfway through but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Smart family drama with a lot to say. While the pacing is a little off (particularly anything having to do with the sugar plantation), my patience has been paying off by way of strong performances and intelligent, provocative writing.
I like the intent and overall tone of this show even if, at this point, it’s still trying to make it all gel some weeks. I applaud ABC for making an effort to showcase families that look different and Speechless for finding humor in the midst of difficult circumstances.