year in culture 2016

The 10 Best TV Shows of 2016

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Over the next few weeks, Vulture will be publishing our critics’ year-end lists. Today, we’re looking at the best TV shows and episodes.

It’s always tough to narrow an entire season of a vast medium down to a Top 10 list, but for 2016 it’s damn near impossible. This is, hands down, the best year for scripted television since I became a critic of film and TV 25 years ago; it might be the the best year since I started watching TV as a kid in the 1970s. The sheer variety of subjects, modes, and styles was dazzling, and it wasn’t just premium cable and streaming services that delivered wild innovation and pitch-perfect classicism; the networks stepped up, too. My initial Top 10 list had nearly 30 titles on it, and the longer I sat with it, the more I added. Some notable programs that didn’t make my Top 10 list — such as USA’s Mr. Robot and HBO’s Westworld — were so formally ambitious that they deserve respect, too; their failures are more interesting than most other shows’ successes. So it might be best to think of this list not as the cream of the crop, but as the tip of the iceberg.

1. Atlanta (FX)
Like its time slot–mate, Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, actor-rapper Donald Glover’s half-hour “comedy in theory” drew a lot of inspiration from Louie, which threw out most of the sitcom’s stifling rules and treated the medium as an auteur’s laboratory. But the first season of Atlanta was such a profound, personal refinement of that sensibility that it shrugged off all reference points and became its own marvelous thing. No live-action TV series was as comfortable with deadpan discomfort, stoner ellipses, startling moments of surrealism, and beauty for its own sake (the magic-hour shots of Atlanta streets were enchanting). But the series is equally impressive as class- and race-conscious cultural anthropology that smuggled its politics into characterization and story.

2. The Girlfriend Experience (Starz)
This series about Christine (Riley Keough), a Chicago law student and intern who moonlights as an escort to rich men, was theoretically a continuation of Steven Soderbergh’s semi-satirical 2009 feature. But showrunners Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan pushed into much darker, more mysterious territory, creating a weekly half-hour equivalent to the sorts of existential head-scratchers that Antonioni and Bergman were making in the 1960s, equally intriguing as character drama, erotica/pornography, and psychological horror. The finale is one of the greatest single episodes in the history of television: endlessly rewatchable and fascinating.

3. American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson (FX) and O.J. Simpson: Made in America (ESPN)
Nobody could have foreseen that one of the most exhausting and infuriating American criminal trials would yield not one but two classics 21 years later: a satirical yet humane scripted mini-series from Ryan Murphy, Larry Karazewski, and Scott Alexander*, and a deep-dish nonfiction novel for television from filmmaker Ezra Edelman.

4. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
The second season of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s series was a remarkable portrait of depression, delusion, and failure rivaling Mad Men; season three found the equine hero on an upswing, but learning that the only thing worse than not getting what you want is getting what you want. The underwater episode is an all-timer.

5. The Americans (FX)
Just when you thought that Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’s series about Russian spies in the ‘80s couldn’t top itself, it did; the unusual structure of the season (basically a shortened season four and the first part of season five) only added to the feeling of instability and constant surprise.

6. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)
Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s series has the psychological insight of a more ostentatiously “serious” drama, plus goofy rom-com banter, slapstick worthy of I Love Lucy, smartly judged moments of misery and doubt, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of clever original songs.

7. Stranger Things (Netflix)
As popular as the Duffer Brothers’ sci-fi/horror/family drama was, it still got flack from 1980s-genre-cinema gatekeepers for mainstreaming so many references to once-cultish favorites. But it wasn’t the references that made this show so beloved; it was the scrupulous attention to community and family dynamics, and the low-level gnawing fear of sudden tragedy.

8. Rectify (Sundance)
The fourth and final season of Ray McKinnon’s series about a newly released death-row inmate took the show in an even more unabashedly New Testament direction, stressing healing, forgiveness, and transformation. Along with Atlanta, OWN’s Queen Sugar, and Cinemax’s 1970s drama Quarry, it was also part of a great wave of new Southern fiction that counteracted many of the stereotypes that still fuel too much of American TV.

9. Horace & Pete (
Louie creator Louis C.K.’s mini-series looked and sounded like a taboo-busting 1970s Norman Lear sitcom but channeled the contained, corrosive despair of a postwar stage drama, depicting a bar full of mostly embittered and delusional Brooklynites with compassion and an eye for eccentric detail. It overreached at times, but who cares? There was nothing else like it, and the devastating finale pretty much ruined Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” for all of time.

10. Search Party (TBS)
Co-produced by Michael Showalter, Sarah-Violet Bliss, and Charles Rogers (among others) this was one of the year’s biggest surprises. Swooping out of nowhere to capture a particular slice of the Zeitgeist, this series about a group of spoiled, clueless New York 20-somethings searching for a disappeared classmate managed to brutally satirize specific kinds of entitlement while taking the dawning self-awareness of its heroine (Alia Shawkat) seriously.

*The article originally misidentified Scott Alexander. We regret the error.