Top 10 TV Shows of 2016
1. BoJack Horseman (Netflix) showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg, season 3
What It’s About: Washed-up sitcom star, BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett), deals with existential angst and self-hatred as he pitters away his life living in his oversized Los Angeles mansion.
Why It’s Good: I ranked BoJack Horseman as the second best television series of 2015 for its remarkable second season, thinking that dramatic comedy could not get any better. I was wrong. In its third season, Raphael Bob-Waksberg and company outdid themselves. Season three digs even deeper into the self-loathing of washed-up sitcom-star turned Oscar-contender, BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett, giving the best performance on television using only his voice). This season is also more revealing of our society’s current shortcomings. There are the obvious objects of the show’s scorn, including the Hollywood awards system, progressive startups, and sociopolitical debates about hot-topics like abortion. However, as the season moves into its remarkable homestretch, the focus boils down to BoJack’s own self-loathing and endless inability to transform recognition of his limitations into genuine change. BoJack Horseman is a character who distills many of our modern anxieties. His hyper-self-awareness, allergy to emotional connection, endless narcissism, and obsession with how he’s perceived by the world makes him an emblem of the social media era. If art can act as a mirror, then BoJack Horseman is a mirror that reflects our deepest insecurities and anxieties. In the midst of laughter, it shows the brokenness of our own souls.
2. Game of Thrones (HBO) showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, season 6
What It’s About: The story of the fantasy realm of Westeros, where the great houses plot against each other in order to claim the Iron Throne that holds the Seven Kingdoms together.
Why It’s Good: I would’ve included Game of Thrones on this list for “The Winds of Winter” alone. The impeccable opening of the finale, which saw Queen Cersei eliminate her foes in one green blast of hellish wildfyre, is the best filmmaking the show has ever achieved. If Game of Thrones has often thrived off torturing its characters, and subsequently its viewers, season six finally allowed some triumph in the midst of horror. For example, monsters like Ramsay Bolton were finally dispatched and Daenerys Targaryen finally sailed for Westeros with an army in tow. By going beyond the books, this season allowed the show to refine George R.R. Martin’s often-sprawling storytelling and focus the series on a tale of empowerment through hardship and endurance. Even if Game of Thrones has been a harrowing tale over its six seasons, this past season finally showed that it has hope and morality at its centre. That more than a tale of suffering and desperation, it might actually prove to be a mythic tale of good triumphing over evil that inspires hope and not just despair.
3. Better Call Saul (AMC) showrunners Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan, season 2
What It’s About: Con artist-turned criminal lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) works hard to show the world he can be a great counselor, even if everyone around him, including his reclusive brother (Michael McKean), thinks he’ll never escape the criminal history of his past.
Why It’s Good: Better Call Saul’s quiet confidence is inspiring within the landscape of modern television. Instead of plowing through mammoth amounts of narrative each episode, this show slows the pace, narrows the focus, and delivers excellent storytelling with a moral centre. Prequels are rarely as good as Better Call Saul. They are also rarely good in ways that are different than their predecessor. Better Call Saul is not Breaking Bad. Its strengths are more in patience than in tension, more in wit than in bombast. It is another morality tale of a good man becoming bad through the pressures of his family and environment, but told with such sympathy for its characters and attention to their flaws as to become a classic American tragedy.
4. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC) showrunners Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, season 3
What It’s About: A look at the personal and professional struggles of four tech prodigies during the height of the personal computing boom of the 1980s.
Why It’s Good: Halt and Catch Fire was a good, if uneven, show in its first season and an even better one in its second season. Its third, which follows the characters as they transition from Texas to Silicon Valley and struggle to stand out in the world of competing IPs, cemented the show as a great one. By depicting how difficult it is to compromise your ideals in order to maintain personal and professional relationships, the show finally matched the dramatic quality of Mad Men, which it has aspired to do since it first aired.
5. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX) showrunners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, season 2
What It’s About: A meticulous reenactment of the “Trial of the Century,” exploring the socio-political themes and personal and professional lives of the lawyers involved in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson in 1995.
Why It’s Good: I did not imagine a show with Ryan Murphy as a key creative component could ever be good, but The People v. O.J. Simpson surprised me. Perhaps it’s that Murphy surrounded himself with professionals who know what they’re doing—the stellar cast, centred by Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, and especially Sterling K. Brown (giving one of the most sympathetic performances in the history of the medium); the writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski who understand perspective better than most any people working in television; talented directors Anthony Hemingway and John Singleton who understand the black experience in America in ways that Murphy will never be able to. And Murphy’s own predilection for tawdriness worked into the insanity of the material, which tells a story that epitomizes the many intersections of race, class, and celebrity that make America.
6. Mr. Robot (USA) showrunner Sam Esmail, season 2
What It’s About: A mentally-ill, genius hacker (Rami Malek) joins a techno-anarchist organization bent on destroying the corporatocracy.
Why It’s Good: Season two of Mr. Robot takes so many narrative and aesthetic risks that I could understand many people considering it a failure. However, I will always accept this kind of bold, complex artistry, warts and all. Mr. Robot is dense and often visually ugly in its dedication to its protagonist’s skewed perspective, but it’s also more fascinating than almost any show on air. This season jettisoned major characters for long parts of the season, withheld massive amounts of narrative context, and delved even deeper into Elliot Anderson’s fractured psychology. It often frustrated in its opacity, but in certain episodes, such as “eps2.m4ster-s1ave.aes,” where Elliot experiences reality as a skewed sitcom (with a cameo appearance by Alf), the show demonstrated daring and executed that daring with ease. When it comes to formal daring, Mr. Robot lays bare the timidness of most of the “complex” TV shows currently dominating the landscape.
7. Westworld (HBO) showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, season 1
What It’s About: A complex look at the inner and outer workings of a futuristic theme park where rich humans can explore a meticulous recreation of the Wild West while near-sentient robots satisfy their every whim.
Why It’s Good: Westworld is a Christopher Nolan thriller by way of Lost. Its often more about mythology than character, narrative structure than emotion, but its pleasures are substantial. This is a show that understands the implications of plotting and repetition. It’s also a significant example of science fiction themes about consciousness, memory, and the nature of humanity seeping into mainstream pop-culture. If HBO is searching for a complex, enthralling heir to Game of Thrones, they could do much worse than Westworld.
8. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FXX) showrunner Rob McElhenney, season 11
What It’s About: Five narcissistic assholes run a bar in Philadelphia, habitually ruining the lives of each other and everyone they encounter.
Why It’s Good: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is always the funniest show on air. In 2016, this was no different. The pure vulgarity of It’s Always Sunny can be off-putting to some people, but the show remains as canny a depiction of ordinary human awfulness as exists on television. This past season, episodes about ski parties and ocean-liner quarantines took the fore, showing the gang dealing with their own insecurities even as they find themselves in situations which push even the limits of their taste.
9. House of Cards (Netflix) showrunner Beau Willimon, season 4
What It’s About: President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) plots with his manipulative wife, Claire (Robin Wright), to maintain control of the United States and hold off the various machinations of his rivals at home and abroad.
Why It’s Good: If a show’s worth were equal to how addictive it is, House of Cards would be the best show on television. Its fourth season (and the final one by creator Beau Willimon) corrected some of the worst trends of its past two seasons (namely, insufficient adversaries and too much serendipitous timing for Frank Underwood), while returning the relationship between Frank and Claire to the show’s centre. As well, in the midst of the 2016 election cycle, House of Cards became something I never expected it to be: a more preferable version of American politics than reality was offering. If only our political monsters were as ruthlessly effective and appealing as Frank Underwood.
10. New Girl (Fox) showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether, season 6
What It’s About: The ongoing antics of a high-spirited but eccentric group of thirty-something friends (Zooey Deschanel, Jake Johnson, Max Greenfield, Lamorne Morris, Hannah Schmidt) who share a loft space in Los Angeles.
Why It’s Good: New Girl is a classical sitcom, in that the conflict is contrived, the characters are exaggerated, and the reality of the show is preposterously warped. These are not bad things; in fact, the show would not be a sitcom without these trappings. New Girl is the best sitcom on television and about as good you can hope to get if you stick to the conventions. It’s a show that understands friendship and the difficulties of adulthood in a world where the rules have changed since previous generations. In the final half of its fifth season where it detailed the runup to Cece and Schmidt’s wedding the show achieved the perfect combination of contrived antics and genuine affection. It did what all good sitcoms are supposed to do: first, make the characters and their relationships feel real, and second, make the viewer feel like the years they spent watching the program were actually years spent with close friends. It might be somewhat juvenile to feel like you’re friends with a television character, but it also takes a talented writer and cast to foster the connection between viewer and character in such profound ways.
Honourable Mentions (In Alphabetical Order):
Archer (FX) showrunner Adam Reed, season 7
Narcos (Netflix) showrunner José Padhila, season 2
Silicon Valley (HBO) showrunner Alec Berg, season 3
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix) showrunners Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, season 2