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Editor’s Note: This is the second 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.
2016 was quite the year for television. 455 scripted shows made it to the air (per FX’s annual report) this year (up from 421 last year and a record high for the medium), and while there was certainly an uptick in quantity, I wouldn’t say there was necessarily an uptick in overall quality. Last year, I started whittling down my Top 10 List from a list of 25 shows (and that was after I knocked several off just to get to a “manageable” amount to work with). This year I started with 18 and eventually pared it down to ten.
However, unlike last year where I kept my list to a strict ten, this year I’m throwing eight Honorable Mention shows onto the list, because, frankly, the difference between being number nine and number eighteen is negligible at best, nonexistent at worst. Four through seven on my list all offered excellent seasons, filled with complex and interesting characters and wonderfully constructed arcs. The top three shows on my list were, far and away, the best single seasons to air this year. Each provided me hours of escape from my every day life, and forced me to think deeply about the past and present in new and engaging ways. I highly recommend each of these shows. If you have some time this holiday season, give them a look, and then be sure to let me know what you think.
There was a great deal of uncertainty heading into the sixth season of HBO’s reigning Emmy champion Veep. It would be the first season without its creator, Armando Iannucci, at the helm. And with the actual 2016 election turning into a viciously contested clusterfuck, it wasn’t clear how much America would be willing to laugh along with the accurate absurdities of a show so steeped in political satire. But as the absurdities of Veep began to bleed into the absurdities of the real world, it was clear that we needed a show like this more than ever. The series remains incredible sharp in all facets, despite its age, and the decision to fully flip the script for season seven (which will focus on Selena’s life outside of Washington- at least initially) was a brilliant decision almost no one saw coming.
I wrote about season one of The Crown here, but Netflix’s ambitious look into the life and times of Queen Elizabeth II was a major gamble (the rumored price tag for season one of the series was a cool $100 million) for the streaming service that has paid off in a major way (glowing reviews and awards notice). Claire Foy was transcendent as Elizabeth, capturing both the woman behind the crown and the monarch she never expected to become at such a young age. Also excellent was John Lithgow as Winston Churchill and Jared Harris as King George VI, a father who never wanted his daughters to have to deal with the public scrutiny he himself didn’t want (and for which he always blamed his elder brother for forcing upon him- another key plot point within the first season). The series is expected to run for at least six years, with each season encompassing ten years of the Queen’s historic reign. As someone who never much cared about the British monarchy, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this very humanistic look at the people who make up the public face of royal Britain.
It continues to amaze me that a show that began so poorly has managed to develop into one of the most complex and engaging dramas on television, but here we are. The third season of Halt and Catch Fire moved the show’s action to Silicon Valley, and the show was all the better for it. The show’s cast- led by luminous Kerry Bishé and the spectacular Mackenzie Davis- were absolutely on fire this year. The writers have officially solved the “Joe Problem” that plagued the show’s first two seasons, and Lee Pace was given a chance to shine (and Joe a chance to really grow as a character) this year. And Scoot McNairy’s Gordon remains the heart and soul of the series. As is often a sad refrain of a number of my reviews and entries on these lists, not nearly enough people have given Halt and Catch Fire a chance, but it’s the best workplace drama since AMC’s wonderful Mad Men. You don’t even need to watch the uneven first season, just dive into season two on Netflix after Wikipediaing season one. The series will return next year for a final run, and I will be sorry to see it go- but so pleased we were given a chance to spend so much time with these utterly engaging characters.
I didn’t enjoy the third season of BoJack, on the whole, as much as the show’s stellar second season. But season three of BoJack offered two of the series’s absolutely best episodes: the much-lauded “underwater episode,” “Fish Out of Water,” and the emotionally crushing episode “That’s Too Much, Man!” There’s something pretty special about a series that can use complex cartoon characters to explore the deep recesses of depression and fame, while making sure to remember to inject elements of hope into the proceedings. After three seasons of watching BoJack spiral, it was wonderful to have the show hint that, perhaps, there might be something positive in BoJack’s future- but only if he’s willing to work on himself in the interim.
I came a bit late to the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend game, binging the entire first season this past summer, but I’m so glad I did. This show is a complete gem. While the first season played with love triangles and various romantic comedy tropes (brilliantly, I might add), the second season (currently airing) has switched the focus a bit, dealing with what happens when close friendships break down. Rebecca Bunch (the crazy talented Rachel Bloom) remains a complicated character, but the series never makes her mental and emotional issues the butt of the joke. She’s a flawed protagonist, but we don’t pity her. And the memorable (and darkly funny) cast of characters who surround her simply get better each week. I’m so invested in the lovely White Josh-Darryl love story, that I will be absolutely crushed if they ever break up. And I haven’t even touched on the musical numbers . . . which are top notch on every level (as you can see in the above clip).
I have only a faded memory of the actual OJ Simpson trial (I was in grade school when it all happened, but it wasn’t a story that really resonated with me, as I certainly wasn’t old enough to understand all the elements that went into making the trial such a major flashpoint of the time), but I do remember people being quite mean to Marcia Clark, the glove not fitting, and the shock when OJ was acquitted. So, to have a series that changed the national narrative surrounding Clark and actually made me believe that the jury might not acquit OJ this time around? Well, that’s pretty special. Full of stellar performances (Sarah Paulson’s Clark, Sterling K. Brown’s Christopher Darden, and Courtney B. Vance’s Johnnie Cochran chief among them), excellent writing, and the ability to capture nostalgia while telling all sides of the American tragedy that was the OJ Simpson trial is nothing short of spectacular. No one expected this series to be this good, this smart, or this successful. When coupled with equally excellent ESPN documentary on the same topic, it was the year of OJ. And, for once, that was a good thing.
The first season of this funny and heartbreaking series was adapted from the stage play of the same name from star/creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge. I showered the show with praise in my season one review, but it bears repeating just how well-written and performed this show is. In the span of six half hour episodes, we come to care about Fleabag and hope the best for her (even though we know she has a lot of personal work to get through before she can reach the level of “happy”), only to have the rug completely pulled out from under us in the end. The series walks the line between comedy and drama, filled with excellent performances (while Waller-Bridge is the show’s key player, her friend and business partner Boo (Jenny Rainsford), sister (Sian Clifford), brother-in-law (Brett Gelman), father (Bill Paterson), and stepmother (Olivia Colman) all play crucial roles), and smart, snappy dialogue. The show never apologizes for Fleabag’s poor choices, and we don’t need it to- the story is engaging enough that simply watching the inevitable unfold is more than enough.
Rectify has become my go-to recommendation when people ask me for a show to watch. This isn’t just because the show is absolutely wonderful (it is), or because the performances have a depth and resonance to them that is hard to find within any entertainment medium these days (they are), or because the cinematography, story, and setting pull the audience in and envelope them into this slowly moving, quiet world (they do). I recommend Rectify because if people are really serious about exploring the best Peak TV has to offer, this is it. And its final season, which just finished airing, puts the cherry on top of a four season run that never faltered.
Were there moments that didn’t ring completely true? Sure. But I cannot think of a single character arc or major plot development that didn’t feel wholly organic. As this incredibly talented cast moves on to new and (at least for the first two to break rather big on network TV- Clayne Crawford on Lethal Weapon and Abigail Spencer on Timeless) more popular projects, I’ll forever be grateful for the four years spent watching them in Paulie and Nashville, as their characters struggled with the mundane and the extraordinary. And for those who only watch shows once they know they finished strong, have no worries. Rectify absolutely stuck the landing.
The Americans is a series that takes a bit of time to get into. I needed two attempts to fully buy into the premise and characters, and only fully caught up on the series earlier this year. But, even as a late adopter, it was impossible not to recognize the sheer brilliance of the series’ fourth season. Series leads Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, and Noah Emmerich were all in fine form throughout the season, but it was the performances from the show’s supporting cast that really made season four the show’s strongest yet.
I was never the biggest Martha fan, but damn it if Alison Wright’s season four work didn’t turn me into the character’s biggest cheerleader. Same goes for Annet Mahendru. And Richard Thomas’s delivery of the season’s most hilarious and haunting line (“They seduced … and married … my secretary.”) was a thing of brilliance. I suspect this season will mark the climax of the entire series (which will return for two more final seasons starting next year), and what a climax it was. I have fully bought into the brilliance that is The Americans, and while I’m still unsure if I want the Jennings clan to escape the clutches of Stan and the FBI, or if I want Agent Beeman to catch his guy and gal, I’m certainly excited to see where the show goes next.
I wrote a long review extolling the virtues of the fourth season of Orange is a New Black, and I certainly won’t subject you to another 2,000 words on why this was, from start to finish, a perfectly constructed season of television. But, boy, it was a perfectly constructed season of television. And that isn’t something that is clear from the season’s opening few episodes, which drag and don’t seem to have a clear focus. However, when viewed from the end of the heartbreaking twelfth episode, well, the arcs are all crystal clear. Everything put in motion from episode one pays off by the end of the season. You can see how tragedies could have been avoided with intervention at various moments. How the season’s final tragic outcome was not simply the fault of one person’s actions, but rather the inevitable conclusion considering each choice and action taken by so many over the course of the season.
That realization doesn’t make the end better, or even easier to stomach. But by taking the time and intricately plotting each movement and story, Jenji Kohan and her writing staff have created a story that highlights how the smallest action by the most inconsequential person can end up leading to something truly awful. With some of the best performances these season on television (Danielle Brooks, Samira Wiley, and Lori Petty were particular standouts), Orange reached new creative heights, while breaking the hearts of everyone watching.