Plain and simple, all criticism is subjective. Criticism is the art of defending your opinion, not to make it bulletproof but rather simply understandable. You don’t have to like the shows I do, but hopefully you understand why I like them.
“Understanding” turns out to be one of the overriding themes of my 2016 list, since with each passing month I realized that sympathy was in increasingly short supply outside the small screen. As such, I found myself drawn towards programs in which I found myself in initially unfamiliar territory, only to learn something new for the virtual journey I had undergone. I didn’t necessarily walk in the shoes of the characters in the shows below, but I did walk besides them, and often felt grateful that they let me tag along.
As such, more than any other year that I’ve tried to do this, I ignored anything and everything other than the emotional impact a particular show had on me. I penalized those that depicted the world as a relentlessly hopeless garbage fire and rewarded those that demonstrated how moments of grace can and do happen if you work hard enough at creating opportunities for them. Technical achievement and innovative narrative techniques weren’t ignored, but rather made secondary to programs that favored earnestness over archness. Below are shows that engaged with the world rather than distanced themselves from it.
Agent Carter (ABC)
The second (and unfortunately last) season of Agent Carter was the single-best one set in the MCU to date. You could argue that Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were more important due to the topics/casting featured on those programs. But neither had the start-to-finish consistency of Agent Carter. Building upon the solid character foundations of the first season, Agent Carter managed to tell three equally compelling stories about women that felt like outsiders in their own time, and interwove their various paths in ways that challenged audience sympathies in fascinatingly complex ways. On top of that, in Peggy/Jarvis, the show had one of the great small-screen couples of 2016. When they fought, it HURT, and that’s the mark of three-dimensional characters.
Documentary Now (IFC)
The second season truly only produced two classic episodes ( “Juan Likes Rice And Chicken” and “Final Transmission”), but those episodes just happen to be two of the best three episodes that I saw this year. (The other will appear later on in this list.) I’m not sure I expected to be emotionally moved by a parody program such as this, but those two episodes hit me in the solar plexus. There’s nothing better than being surprised as a critic, and Documentary Now provided some of the best surprises on TV this year.
If you don’t see where this six-episode show is going, the finale will hit you like a freight train. If you do see it coming, the show turns into a slow-motion tragedy. Either way, it’s one of the most confident shows of the year, with writer-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge crafting one of the more complex protagonists of the calendar year. Anyone that strives to be good but perpetually comes up short will find something to identify with here, even if that identification highlights something potentially unpleasant. Fire up this show at 8 pm: By 11 pm, you’ll have gone on one of the best journeys of 2016.
The Good Place (NBC)
Less a sitcom and more a dramatic treatise on what it means to be a global citizen, The Good Place runs the risk of being preachy but ends up being quietly vital. There aren’t a lot of laugh-out-loud funny moments on the show (with most of those being provided by D’Arcy Carden’s celestial guide Janet), but there’s a relentless intelligence in every frame. Like Westworld, there’s a central mystery at play here, but unlike Westworld, I care enough about the characters on a week-to-week basis that the true nature of what’s really happening is secondary. There’s something subversive going on here, and I think we’re only going to truly appreciate it once that mystery is revealed. In the meantime, no show on TV makes a better weekly cases for not being dicks to one another than this one.
There’s something to be said for executing the basics. That sounds like a backhanded compliment, but of all the dozens of shows that look and feel like Killjoys, only this one provides enough visceral joy, solid character work, and unexpected humor for me to carve out time to watch. Peak TV means Peak Choice, and every show needs to do something to justify anyone actually watching it. Hannah John-Kamen makes every disparate tone on this show hold together as a bounty hunter who’s part Han Solo and part Daenerys Targaryen. More attention got paid to The Expanse and The Magicians, but this was the true SyFy gem.
Survivor’s Remorse (STARZ)
I came into this show thinking it would be the basketball version of Entourage, although I’m pretty sure Entourage never dedicated an episode to the topic of female genital mutilation. (It may have had an episode dedicated to Johnny Drama getting kicked in the groin, but that was more of an attempt at humor rather than social commentary.) Without spoiling the incident that kicked off this year, this third season saw tremendous growth for an already promising show. RonReaco Lee might have delivered my favorite performance in any program in 2016, deftly mixing near-Shakespearean monologues with downright scary rage bubbling under his character’s Reggie’s skin due to a late-season introduction of his long-long father. But this is also a show that lets every character shine, particularly via the unlikely duos of Cassie/Chen and M-Chuck/Jimmy. “Money can’t buy happiness” is a trope as old as time, but it gets a refreshing, and specific, spin in this underrate gem from STARZ.
The 6th to 11th Best Shows (In Alphabetical Order)
The Americans (FX)
Most shows peak in their first or second season, but The Americans managed to produce its best work in this, its fourth season. It took advantage of the sheer time we’ve spent with its characters to make each episode more fraught with tension than anything post-Breaking Bad. It’s honestly unclear how this show has two more seasons left in it, given how perilously close that Stan is to discovering the Jennings’ true identity. But in The Americans we trust at this stage of the game. When all is said and done, this might be the greatest show FX has ever produced, and that’s saying something.
Better Things (FX)
It’s tempting as a critic to make wildly inaccurate statements in an effort to seem profound. So I’ll try to openly couch this statement up front: Better Things revealed aspects of motherhood that was simultaneously specific and universal that I’d never seen depicted onscreen before. And yet, these revelations felt immediately true and relatable. It was as if Pamela Adlon took my eyes, moved them just a few degrees, and suddenly wide swaths of everyday experience popped into focus like a Magic Eye drawing. The struggles seemed real, the victories seemed earned, and the family dynamics were free of any sign of overt artifice. I don’t know how Adlon did it, and I can’t wait to see her pull it off again next year.
There’s probably no more consistently reliable brand right now than ABC family comedies, which have grown into a diverse set of crowd-pleasing, non-condescending programs. But Black-ish stands head and shoulders above them all, able to educate without lecturing at a time in which the national dialogue on race needed smart, diverse voices in its popular entertainment. For the February episode “Hope” alone, this show deserves to be on multiple year-end lists. But its mixture of warm, intergenerational family dynamics, near Monty Python-esque workplace absurdity, and interrogation of socioeconomic anxiety earns this show a place on this list.
Much in the way that Better Things casts a unique-yet-familiar light on family, so too does Catastrophe on modern relationships. Plenty of shows can intoxicate viewers with lush visuals, but Catastrophe actually tricks the audience into thinking they are watching something they shouldn’t via the intimate, overlapping, profane, and sexy dialogue between co-creators/stars Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney. More than anything, this is an “adult” show, not in terms of its nudity but rather in its perspective. These are two people too smart to know they aren’t on the perpetual verge of failure, and yet ultimately too human to avoid dancing along the precipice rather than stay safely away from the edge. Why? Because they feel alive on that precipice, and realize that the only thing standing in the way of utter destruction is one another.
Fourteen of you watch this show. I know this because I’ve seen the ratings, and you are the fourteen people who watch it. You’re the lucky ones. This paragraph isn’t for you. This paragraph is for the other 7.4 billion of you that haven’t watched it yet. (Yes, even you, infants in households without televisions. I’m lumping you in here as well.) The final season is one of the most hypnotic, at times unbearably graceful shows of the past decade. This is a show that made paint literally drying approach the sublime. The program moves at a glacial pace, but that reflects the way in which the past refuses to let go of its characters, and how they run away only to find themselves stuck in quicksand. There will be no clean victories for anyone when all is said and done, but the fact that forgiveness can even exist at this point for them is a miracle unto itself.
Stranger Things (Netflix)
Are we on the backlash to the backlash yet? The backlash to the backlash to the backlash? It’s so hard to keep count anymore. Who cares. As a blast of pure, unadulterated entertainment that got to some fundamental truths about the power of friendship, Stranger Things was the best surprise of 2016, full stop. I never binge-watch anything, and I ripped through this show in two days. It ticked off every box in my internal nerd scorecard, but also managed to be analog in the best of ways. Its use of Christmas lights were the best practical effect of the year, because the show layered in emotional meaning behind those lights from the outset. I didn’t really care what the true nature of The Upside Down was. I just wanted Eleven, Joyce, and Will to be happy. Forget the super cool title card sequence, overt homages to Stephen King, John Carpenter, and Steven Spielberg: This is a show that found huge stakes in seemingly small settings. But you don’t need a global crisis to create great drama. “Stranger Things” understood that scares only work if you care for those in danger. If you didn’t look at the image below and cry, I’m not sure what to say.
Shows 1 through 5 (In Order)
4. [Tie]) American Crime Story: The People V. OJ Simpson (FX); Veep (HBO)
Yeah, I’m cheating a little, only if you assumed I’d have one show per slot or at least skip another number on the way to the top. Oh well. But trying to decide between two of the most entertaining-yet-devastating shows of 2016 provided to be impossible. You’re gonna make me decide between the two most scathing indictments of the intersection of politics and pop culture this year? You’re gonna make me decide between Sarah Paulson and Julia Louis-Dreyfus? No thank you. I’ll die on many hills, but not those two. The People v OJ Simpson had the power of distance to draw comparisons between the mid-90s and today, while Veep proves more prescient with each passing moment. The shows that made the top three were smaller in focus, but these two shows went big and connected on nearly every swing.
3. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
“Comfort food TV” is a valuable commodity. The ability to start an episode and more or less get what you expect is nothing to sneeze at. BoJack, on the other hand, leaves audiences in perpetual confusion over what might unfold. In lesser hands, this would lead to a jagged, uneven, disconnected experience. Instead, the myriad ways that this show takes its viewers on unexpected yet ultimately interconnected journeys leads to some of the more cathartic moments in any medium. By all rights, there should be repetition at this point in BoJack’s “one step forward, three steps back” approach to self-improvement, but episodes like “Fish Out Of Water” (the best episode of TV in 2016, full stop) and “That’s Too Much, Man!” demonstrate just how much mileage this show can get from a character that knows the right thing to do, even if he worries that any action might ultimately be meaningless. Rather than give into nihilism, BoJack shows the struggle, and ultimate value, in putting in the work to make meaning out of life.
2. Jane The Virgin (The CW)
I often think of a certain Hamilton line while watching this show: “The fact that you’re alive is a miracle.” The “you” in this case is the show itself, something that is always on the knife’s edge of utterly falling apart and yet always manages to produce something sublime. Like Westworld, it’s as much a show about the stories we fashion to frame our seemingly random lives. Unlike Westworld, it populates its world with characters about whom we actually give a damn. That makes its metatextual flourishes and subjective Narrator additions to an already-solid foundation, rather than replacements for it. Jamie Camil’s Rogelio is one of the great sad clowns of modern TV, fighting his own obscurity but also his paternal primacy. But in the end, it’s about the Villanueva women: When those three are on the porch working out the problems, I feel like there’s a chance things might actually be OK in my own life. I can’t pay the show any higher compliment than that.
1. One Mississippi (Amazon)
Sometimes a show just lands an uppercut when you didn’t even know the fight had started. (That’s a weird metaphor, but I started boxing classes a few months ago, so cut me some slack.) I’m fortunate enough sometimes to get episodes ahead of time, and One Mississippi was part of a huge stack that I got all at once. I planned to watch one or two (max) before sampling other shows. Instead, I watched all six in one three-hour, laugh-and-sob filled session, and immediately thought I’d taken the most gorgeous journey I had all year. Months later, that feeling has yet to be altered. Tig Notaro’s approach here is initially difficult to decipher: It’s tempting to think that her deadpan delivery and use of ironic dream sequences are meant to be off-putting. Instead, they eventually reveal themselves to be defense mechanisms designed to deflect the almost absurd amount of shit heaped upon her by a seemingly indifferent universe. This is maybe the “smallest” show in terms of scope, but ultimately it’s “bigger” than a certain show set in Westeros. Along with BoJack and Jane, One Mississippi doesn’t just lament the world in which we live, but is brave enough to suggest that we don’t have to accept it. None of these shows dare suggest change is easy, but do suggest that making a connection with just one person is the hardest yet most rewarding act a person can do. These shows are trying to crowdsource joy in a world that’s in desperate need of it. And for that, these have my thanks in 2016.
Ryan McGee currently covers SNL for Rolling Stone. He has previously written about television for Screencrush, The AV Club, and Hitfix, among others, and co-hosts a podcast with Maureen Ryan Ryan will be contributing a weekly TV column here beginning in 2017. Follow him on Twitter.
Reposted from The Boob Tube Dude