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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of four posts from the site’s television writers detailing their top shows of 2016. In order to qualify for the list, a show had to air original episodes in the United States during the 2016 calendar year.
While 2016 wasn’t a good year on the whole, we can take solace in the fact that it was a great year for watching TV. This year presented a wide range of high-quality comedies, dramas, and dramedies for viewers to immerse themselves in. The problem, if you want to call it that, is that there was so much good TV to choose from that there’s no chance of any reasonably busy and productive member of society to catch up with it all. As such, I won’t pretend that this list is anywhere near comprehensive—so please save the letters and tweets about how I forgot this show or that. I’m sure they’re all great, and I beg your forgiveness for not having seen them yet.
I should also note that although I’ve listed my ten favorite shows from 2016, I didn’t try to rank them according to perceived quality or even in terms of personal preference. After all, how do you compare shows as wildly divergent as, say, Game of Thrones and Lady Dynamite? Instead, consider this a “in no particular order” listing of the shows that made me laugh, cry and/or think the hardest this year. And so, without further ado, the list.
As both the star and creator of Atlanta, and in his rapper alter-ego of Childish Gambino, it’s safe to say that Donald Glover has had a banner year creatively. The show compares favorably to another FX hit, Louie, in that you never quite know what to expect when you watch an episode of Atlanta: one week, the series offers a trenchant depiction of police brutality and the next an absurdist version of Justin Beiber as a black man. If you like TV shows that break the mold and keep you on your toes, then Atlanta is definitely for you.
In its third season, BoJack Horseman continued to mine a surprisingly rich source of comedic and dramatic material from a cartoon series about a talking horse. Will Arnett’s performance as BoJack has more humor and depth than anything he’s done since Arrested Development, and he leads an incredible cast of regular voice actors that includes Alison Brie, Paul F. Tompkins, and Amy Sedaris. BoJack is a protagonist you love and hate in equal measure—sometimes in the very same scene—and for a cartoon character, he and his assortment of friends and hangers on are more three dimensional than the characters in most live-action series.
O.J.: Made in America is unlike the other series in this list in terms of format (the series was a documentary presented in five, two-hour-long chunks) and content (focusing on one of the most infamous individuals and crimes of the 20th Century). But it deserves inclusion in any Best Shows of 2016 list because of how captivating the material is. Made in America is practically Shakespearean in scope in showcasing the dizzying rise and tragic fall of one of America’s greatest sports heroes— including hishglighting his complicated and problematic relationship to the African American community.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I haven’t finished the first season as of this writing—see my earlier comments about being too busy to watch all of the TV. But two-thirds of the way into Westworld, I can see why it’s been the most buzzed-about HBO series since the next show on this list. With its blend of cowboy cosplay, cybernetic mockery, and existential drama, Westworld is a brainy yet exciting drama that’s unlike anything else on TV.
Westworld may have captured its fair share of buzz in the latter half of 2016, but, as always, in the first half of the year our eyes turned to the drama happening in the Seven Kingdoms. As usual, the sixth season of Game of Thrones offered more death, and sex, and sexy deaths than you could shake a stick at. But with major characters like Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow conquering their enemies and forming allegiances, it does feel like the show is finally ramping up to its big finale. Will Season 7 be the one where we find out who will seize the Iron Throne?
I suppose the selection of the next two shows will lay bare my political allegiances, but no matter. Like the next show on this list, Full Frontal proudly carries the legacy of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart while still forging its own comedic and journalistic identity. For those who were, shall we say, less than pleased with the outcome of the recent election, Bee provided the moral indignation needed to get through—not to mention, of course, the piercing humor and insight that elevated that indignation beyond mere crankiness.
For those who yearn for the days of long-form investigative journalism, look no further than Last Week Tonight. It’s unfortunate in a way that a half-hour comedy show is one of the few mainstream sources for such journalism, but that’s another matter. The fact is that Oliver and his crack team of writers and researchers deliver informative, fascinating treatises on such deep subjects like charter school and subprime loans while never forgetting to be funny at the same time.
It’s not surprising that Maria Bamford never found mainstream TV success until now—she’s simply too weird and too brilliant for conventional network shows. But given her own platform on Netflix, Lady Dynamite is bursting with the sort of bizarre yet endearing humor that has long made Bamford a favorite among stand-up fans. There isn’t a clear and concise way to sum up her show…it must simply be seen to be believed.
The last two shows on the list allow me to indulge in a bit of self-promotion, as I reviewed Stranger Things for Entertainment Fuse. Little did I realize at the time what a massive phenomenon the show would become. It’s easy to understand why, as Stranger Things offered an appealing blend of 80s influences along with new-school storytelling devices. Perhaps it’s not as good as the hype makes it out to be, but it was a nicely packaged retro popcorn movie for the TV-streaming age.
While high-budget action-dramas like Westworld and Game of Thrones get much of the attention, HBO has proven equally adept at making quirky, brilliant comedies like Silicon Valley. Having reviewed the show’s most recent season, I attest that Silicon Valley was as funny as ever—albeit with a few bumps along the way. We’ll see if gaining and losing and regaining big-time business success will have any effect on the Pied Piper crew in Season 4.