year in culture 2016

Jen Chaney’s 10 Best TV Shows of 2016

Photo: Vulture

“Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

That line from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town came to mind as I attempted to determine which of 2016’s TV series rise to the level of absolute best. Oh, television, you’re too wonderful — and vast, and constantly expanding, and filled with episodes on my DVR and in my Netflix queue — for anybody to realize you.

Yet here I am, trying to make a list of the top ten shows of the year, which initially resulted in a rundown of more than 30 titles. Clearly I had to put some limits on it, if only for weeding out purposes. So I decided to focus solely on scripted fare. That means solid late-night shows like Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and revelatory documentaries like O.J.: Made in America won’t be mentioned here. Although, come on, we all know by now how amazing that O.J. Simpson documentary is, don’t we?

Instead, I give you the ten best scripted comedies and dramas that streamed or aired during 2016, plus ten more worthy of an honorary mention. If you asked me to make this list again in an hour, it would probably change a little. There is so much quality television, and such a thin margin between the great and the greatest, that this year-in-review exercise is more challenging than it’s ever been. One more caveat: Yes, there is some overlap between Matt Zoller Seitz’s list and my own. As wonderfully unrealizable as the TV landscape is, there are still certain series that are so extraordinary, they’re impossible to ignore, even at the expense of redundancy.

1. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX): The most compelling and surprisingly revelatory show of 2016 did the two things, simultaneously, that audiences seemed to crave most from their television. It gazed backward at a familiar time, specifically the overanalyzed murder trial of a football hero turned prime suspect. And two: It surprised us, enabling us to consider familiar, often sordid events from perspectives that made it seem like this case, with all its implications about race, gender, and wealth, was unfolding for the first time in 2016.

2. Veep (HBO): In an extraordinarily tumultuous political year, Veep returned for its fifth season while dealing with some change of its own: series creator Armando Iannucci stepped down as showrunner, and Curb Your Enthusiasm vet David Mandel took the job. Yet, the Oval Office satire ran so smoothly it was like there had been no behind-the-scenes transition at all. This was one of Veep’s finest seasons, one that remained as biting, vulgar, and hilarious as always, but that also delivered some moments of unexpected poignancy, not to mention an eerie prescience regarding real-life political moments yet to come.

3. The Americans (FX): This year, the series finally received the Emmy nominations that confirmed what TV viewers already knew: The Americans is the best episodic drama on television right now, and has been for a long while. In a year when predicting plot points held special appeal, The Americans blindsided us with some we didn’t necessarily see coming (Nina!) and cranked up the heat on Philip and Elizabeth Jennings without ever dropping the ball on character development, emotional resonance, and an ability to painstakingly reflect the period in which it is set.

4. Atlanta (FX): This is an admittedly FX-heavy list. I tried to figure out a way around that, and then I just gave up because I realized if I left off any of the network’s shows that I wanted to include here — and there’s still yet another to come — I’d be lying about what most impressed and resonated in 2016. Which brings me to Atlanta, the most confident, brashly experimental, funny, and piercingly observant, new, continuing series of the year. Every episode dropped something unexpected, from a black Justin Bieber to a fake, classy commercial for Mickey’s Malt Liquor (“You’re drinking it wrong”), while also bringing its characters — Earn, Paper Boi, the city of Atlanta itself — to low-key yet fully vibrant life.

5. BoJack Horseman (Netflix): I feel like I’m seeing the remarkable third season of BoJack on almost every critic’s top ten list. Yet when I recommend this show to non-TV writers, they invariably look at me like I, myself, have a horse for a head. Just trust me, especially when it comes to these 12 episodes in particular: You need to watch this. It’s pop-culturally astute, delightfully weird (the largely silent underwater episode: my God), and, particularly in its last couple of half hours, more heartbreaking than just about any drama on television.

6. Better Things (FX): I swear to God, this is the last time I’ll mention FX. Seriously, though, I couldn’t omit Pamela Adlon’s indie-movie portrait of single motherhood, especially when it reflects, with such blunt honesty and genuine warmth, how it feels to get older, to care for a parent while also being a parent, and to keep bumping one’s head against the unfair standards society sets for women. Atlanta is the best new show of the year, but Better Things comes in close second.

7. Better Call Saul (AMC): Better Call Saul is not the pulse-quickener that its antecedent, Breaking Bad, was, and it’s never tried to be. Even so, there were moments in the most recent season that stopped the heart and bum-rushed the adrenaline, all while serving the broader theme of this second run of episodes: that there’s something deliciously appealing in deceiving others.

8. The Good Place (NBC): As a mainstream network comedy, The Good Place does the basic things it is expected to do: Keep the jokes coming and continue to push its characters into ever-evolving, odd situations. But because it happens to be a show set in heaven, it also does a whole lot of other, higher-concept things, like building a very specific, wonderfully imaginative version of the afterlife, raising genuinely thought-provoking philosophical questions, and keeping viewers perpetually guessing where the cracks in this supposedly perfect celestial place are going to appear next.

9. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix): I could tell you that I included the second season of the Tina Fey–Robert Carlock comedy because it so carefully and skillfully delves into Kimmy’s post-kidnapping PTSD without sacrificing its sillier, eight-gag-a-minute qualities. That would not be a lie. But the full truth is that this made my top ten because I laughed harder at this show than I did at anything else all year long.

10. Casual (Hulu): Oh, good. Just what we need. Another show about sad people in California. Well, in this case, yes, actually. The first season of Casual was good, but the second one was superb and dealt with the various aspects of midlife crisis — including the way it leads to regressive behavior — with a richness that deserves more widespread acknowledgement than it received.

The Honorable Mentions, i.e. Ten Shows That Came Extremely Close to Making My Top Ten:

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)

Fleabag (Amazon)

Game of Thrones (HBO)

Stranger Things (Netflix)

Search Party (TBS)

Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)

High Maintenance (HBO)

Transparent (Amazon)

Younger (TV Land)

Girls (HBO)