The Best TV Shows of 2016

You guys, there is so much TV. So many channels, so many shows, so many episodes of those shows, and so many ways to experience a medium that has truly come into its own over the course of this young millennium. (Maybe that’s why it took us so long to post this list.) (Just kidding, that was Jesse’s fault!) In order to tame those achievements, this year we attempted to focus on individual episodes when possible – not to disregard full great seasons, but to zero in on the craft that makes these shows so great. 2016 may be weeks gone at this point, but with TV unencumbered by the traditional fall-to-spring season or by the kind of prestige/award positioning that can create such feasts and famines over in the film world, there’s never really a bad time to pick ten or twelve shows for you to check out. Most of these shows are still pretty readily available for your consumption (some are about to begin new seasons or continue old ones!), so who cares that it’s January as I write this? It could be April or December or August or Smarch. These shows would still be a remarkable bunch of achievements.

The Twelve Best TV Shows of 2016

An award of special distinction: The Expanse

SyFy, Season One

I demanded that Jesse let me write this capsule even though I knew The Expanse wasn’t going to show up on anyone else’s list. But it’s not because it’s a bad show — it’s just that no one I know watched this. SyFy aimed this show directly at the Battlestar Galactica fandom, and for the most part, it succeeds creatively — though it somehow failed to find those BSG obsessives and convert them into viewers and evangelists for the show. Except for me, I guess!

This show borrows BSG’s washed-out palette and space politics, but it adds a noirish mystery to the mix: Thomas Jane plays a renegade cop on corrupt and unjust Ceres, a mining colony in space. He becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to a rich daughter who disappeared from Ceres. There are half a dozen other storylines — including a freighter ship destroyed and remaining crew left stranded in space, and an IRA-like terrorist organization making moves for workers’ rights, Shohreh Aghdashloo doing some sort of nasty politics on Earth — but they all coalesce around the missing girl and the secrets she uncovered. It’s complex, exciting TV. If you find time once you’ve finished our top ten, check it out — there’s a second season coming in February 2017. – Maggie

10. (tie) Vice Principals

HBO, Season One

It may have been enough to warrant inclusion here if all Vice Principals had going for it was the prospect of seeing Danny McBride and Walton Goggins mix it up together as a couple of blowhard assholes in a Jody Hill show. And the show does satisfy on that level, providing ample opportunities for both actors to lob hilarious insults and behave badly. But it also offers some nice twists on the formula as McBride finds comic notes in his uptight Neal Gamby that make him distinct from, but no less fascinating than, Kenny Powers in Eastbound & Down (also, Gamby’s relationship with the new husband of his ex-wife, played by Shea Whigham, is making me laugh out loud just thinking about it to write this). And you’d be correct to expect Walton Goggins’s Lee Russell to be something of a smooth-talking viper (his line readings are frequently perfect), but he’s such a perfectly observed and specific character, a malevolent dandy who is not as clever or ruthless as he thinks he is, but may be even more amoral. While surely not conceived with a specific political parallel in mind, that the series as a whole tells the story of nasty and unqualified men scheming to take a position of power from an impressive woman marks it as particularly prescient. Maybe it will play a little differently after the conclusion of this year’s bitter election here in the U.S., but the Hill/McBride mix of laughs that verge on horror has never been more of the moment. So while the rest of the season does a good job of exploring the characters and the dynamic between them (and since I’m loath to spoil some of the turns the story takes in the latter half of the season), I’ll single out the second episode, “A Trusty Steed,” in which the two rival vice principals band together to undermine the woman (a charming and formidable Kimberly Herbert Gregory) that has taken the job they feel entitled to and burn her house to the ground. Initially intending just to sneak around looking for anything incriminating, Gamby & Russell embolden each other and the sequence escalates deliriously, ending up equal parts comic and shocking. It’s exhilarating and despicable and, while the show goes on to elicit some empathy for its two antiheroes, it’s an action that defines them. They’re assholes. – Nathaniel

10. (tie)Girls

HBO, Season Five

Five seasons in, Girls has perfected the art of the single episode. Each season so far has featured at least one masterful short story in televisual form; by now there’s suspense in watching the show, waiting for that single-episode wonder to drop in and outclass even the excellent stuff Lena Dunham and company get up to the rest of the year. For 2016, that episode was “The Panic in Central Park,” a long-awaited-by-me episode that focused entirely on Marnie, the most basic, beautiful, disappointed, and, for plenty of viewers, insufferable of the four girls at the show’s center. The dreamlike episode follows Marnie as she reconnects with her ex-boyfriend Charlie, who looks, sounds, and acts like a completely different person from the guy who dumped her offscreen a few seasons ago. They enter a kind of ex-lover overnight reverie, as the usually uptight Marnie goes with the flow of Charlie’s erratic, sometimes troubling, eventually upsetting life: crashing a fancy party, pretending to be a prostitute, stealing boats in Central Park, sex in a squalid apartment. The actors on Girls have often been conflated with their characters in the press, something that seems both unfair and understandable, never moreso (on both counts) than with Williams, who it’s easy to suspect understands Marnie’s entitlement and control issues all too well. But as she often does, Williams makes Marnie a fascinating, empathetic figure in this episode, as her impromptu date with Charlie pushes her to make a decision about Desi, her beyond-insufferable new husband. All of the fifth season was strong, but “Panic in Central Park” is funny, strange, disturbing, and bittersweet, deepening the show’s most reviled character. It’s a big reason why Girls is the only show I watch that remotely fills that Mad Men void for me, and while I’ll watch every episode of Season Six as soon as possible. Especially if they give Shosh one of these. – – Jesse

9. You’re the Worst

FXX, Season Three

Like Girls, You’re the Worst is also setting up an expectation that it deliver a single, semi-stand-alone masterpiece of episodic television once per season. But while “Twenty-Two,” the Edgar-centric, PTSD-exploring episode from Season Three certainly fits the bill there, I’d like to discuss a different one (with the acknowledgment that “Twenty-Two” was fucking terrific). In “The Inherent, Unsullied Qualitative Value of Anything,” wretched souls Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) attend a wedding reception, just as they did in the pilot – only this time, they’re maybe on the outs, rather than starting to circle each other warily. Jimmy, who considers himself newly fixed by the death of his father, has written a list of pros and cons about things in his life, including Gretchen; Gretchen, in therapy for her bouts with depression, is desperate to get her hands on it and read it. The episode is assembled through a series of long, unbroken steadicam shots, snaking through rooms of the reception and capturing bits of other subplots of the show. In other words, it doesn’t stand alone the same way as last season’s “LCD Soundsystem,” as it swivels through many of the season’s developing plots (while “LCD” burrowed deep into one in particular, from a vantage point that made it strangely easy to drop into without the proper context). But the episode’s style, courtesy of director Wendy Stanzler, unifies it all into a single package that could feel like a stunt, but instead comes across as an absolutely organic (and yet still absolutely virtuosic) way to tell this particular chapter of Jimmy and Gretchen’s story. You’re the Worst is a beautifully written show, but it’s especially gratifying to see something with such memorable, funny characters and dialogue stretch itself with these kind of technical gambits. It’s smart and charming enough to survive without them, but too ambitious and audacious to let them go. This episode, and this whole season, pretty much earned my loyalty for however long this show runs. – Jesse

8. Atlanta

FX, Season One

Watching Donald Glover’s phenomenal Atlanta, you get a strong sense of what’s interesting to Glover: people and what’s in their hearts, music, the shifts in tone and stance when different communities bump up against each other, specifics of place, how to create a life for yourself without compromising your identity. And don’t get me wrong, the show is FUNNY. The show observe fine-grain detail of people’s quirks, from the spacey and consistently hilarious Darius to Earn’s deadpan reactions to a world that sees him a certain way.

The different communities explored in the series aren’t just black and white — that would be a much broader and simpler and probably inaccurate and unfunny show. There are endless subtleties within groups, carefully observed in episodes like “Juneteenth” and “B.A.N.” and “Nobody Beats the Biebs.” But my personal pick (not my favorite; they’re all my faves) is one in which Earn barely appears: “Value,” which follows Earn’s baby mama Van on a night out with an old friend. The old friend dates the rich and famous; Van feels judged and uncomfortable until the two of them connect over some weed. Then we see Van at work: as a teacher, on a day of random drug testing. Van is stressed and resourceful and funny, and the fact that the series can hand over an episode to her without a second thought proves how generous and wide-ranging this show can be. – Maggie

7. Better Call Saul

AMC, Season Two

The second season of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul slowly pushes our “hero” Jimmy ever closer to his ultimate transformation into the Saul Goodman we know from the previous series, and the sad loner we see in the show’s very rare post-Bad flashes forward. Even though we know where the show is going, it consistently surprises on the way there. This is a show about brothers and cons, and about how the past is never really past, and echoes continually into the present and future. Over the course of the second season, we learned more about Chuck and Jimmy’s pasts as Jimmy tries to establish himself knowing that he will never have the respect of his older brother. Jimmy embraces his rascally side, playing con man with Kim, shooting the cheesy TV commercials of his dreams, and forging documents to embarrass Chuck. But in Jimmy’s mind, it’s a fair-play type of con, justified because he’s doing it out of love for Kim. Chuck sees it differently.

Chuck and Jimmy are more alike than Chuck thinks. In “Klick,” the last episode of the season, it’s revealed that Chuck has conned the con man, who is only con-able because he truly cares about his brother. Chuck, on the other hand, hates Jimmy. He hates Jimmy’s tackiness, his bonhomie, his suits, the way he talks. He hates that his parents loved Jimmy and forgave him. He hates that Jimmy has taken care of him and has seen him at his weakest, and he hates that Jimmy might just be as smart as him. Jimmy’s a bad seed whose questionable actions spring out of love. Chuck is the good son who holds unfathomable hate in his heart. The show, as always, is mesmerizing. – Maggie

6. The Americans

FX, Season Four

It can be difficult for any show to feel fresh several years in. But it’s particularly tough for a prestige drama as ruthlessly engineered as The Americans; once an audience has a handle on its plotting the twists can start to feel creaky rather than revelatory. A slow burner, albeit one that made room for scenes of tooth extraction and suitcase corpse stuffing, by this point the series also had what felt like an untenable amount of balls in the air. Plotlines could be dropped for entire seasons then return without warning, a faith in viewers’ attention spans that could also be frustrating. Seamless illusions are part of the series’ thematic D.N.A., but could it surprise anymore? “The Magic Of David Copperfield V: The Statue Of Liberty Disappears,” the eighth episode and pivot point of the fourth season, proved that The Americans still had many tricks up its sleeve, and that even with an endpoint in sight (the final two seasons were announced while this one was still running) nobody should get too comfortable, least of all the Jennings.

In many ways the episode feels like a culmination of every season that came before it. The show had made a habit of dispatching characters efficiently, and often without warning. Martha, who was introduced back in season one as a love interest, and eventual spouse, for one of Philip Jennings’ aliases, always seemed to operate with an ax over her head. But when her farewell came in “Magic” it wasn’t violent, though the potential lingered. Instead it was deeply tragic, the ultimate illustration of the human tolls the Cold War maneuverings of the Jennings’ take, and would often rather ignore. Martha, lonely and mournful before meeting “Clark,” wanted only to be loved. Now she’s being shuttled off to Russia to avoid being sentenced for treason, and potentially revealing her husband’s secrets to the U.S. It’s a destabilizing moment, for both the characters and the series itself whose action by episode’s end has leapt several months forward to a world that looks different in subtle but critical ways. It’s a flourish as masterfully carried off as the episode’s titular magic act, and bodes well for the show as a whole to stick its future landing. – Sara

5. Search Party

TBS, Season One

When it comes to television, there are many, many satisfying ways to do the not-quite-legit P.I. There’s Veronica Mars.There’s our beloved Terriers. There’s even Andy Barker, P.I.. They’re all intensely likable.

The reason TV is able to support so many of these types of shows is that, while the mechanics of solving a mystery are usually similar, it’s the dark forces that our protagonists are up against that set them apart from each other. In Veronica Mars, it was Veronica vs. the 1 percent. In Terriers, Hank had to conquer his own past (and, you know, the 1 percent again). In Search Party, the good ol’ Millennial quarter-life crisis is recast in noir, with the main character, Dory (played by the delightful Alia Shawkat), searching for herself as she supposedly looks for a missing college classmate. That sounds like it can be insufferable, and at times the characters are, but Search Party is the best possible marriage between Girls and mumblecore-mysteries like Wild Canaries or Cold Weather.

Take, for instance, the episode titled “The Night of One Hundred Candles.” Our heroes borrow a car and head up to Chappaqua (what up, Westchester) to attend a vigil for Chantal, the missing classmate. The episode is everything at once. There’s a cringing laugh when Chantal’s college a cappella group performs “Since U Been Gone” in her honor. There’s a different kind of cringing laugh one one of Dory’s friends tags along in hopes of getting back money he lent from a classmate he hadn’t seen since graduation. There are a couple of genuine moments of suspense when suspects present themselves and Dory does a little snooping. It all comes to a climax that reminds the audience that, yes, Dory is doing some really weird, not-cool soul-searching by poking around a bereaved family’s house—but you kind of want her to continue. – Marisa

4. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

The CW, Seasons One and Two

Never judge anything by its title. When ads for this series started showing up in the subway last summer, I was one of the people who passed by and scoffed. Nobody in television could be self-aware enough to do anything interesting or subversive with a phrase so clearly sexist as that, especially on a network like the CW. Plus it was apparently a musical? No way that could be sustainable. I dismissed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on the spot and went on my merry way, even after the accolades and awards for it began pouring in. But, as seems to happen to me a lot in these days of peak TV, when the first season showed up on Netflix I gave it a chance. And once the theme song dropped in the pilot I never looked back, bingeing all eighteen episodes in a weekend.

The “crazy” is both literal and empathetic, the show more a portrait of loneliness and compulsion than the candy-colored romance the posters teased (though it has that too). Co-creator and star Rachel Bloom is careful never to let Rebecca Bunch off the hook for her often-unhinged behavior, but she also never lets viewers forget that this is a woman in great, self-inflicted pain. If that wasn’t clear before season one highlight “That Text Was Not Meant For Josh!” (which originally aired February 8th, 2016), the central musical performance drives it all home in ways even those who haven’t struggled with mental illness will recognize. Many of the earlier musical numbers were great providers of both comedy and character work; “You Stupid Bitch” has those things while also being uncompromisingly dark, a three-minute manifestation of the nasty, self-loathing voices that live in Rebecca’s head, performed on a Divas Live-esque backdrop that only buoys the agony of the lyrics, Rebecca urging the unseen audience to sing along and confirm every bad thing she believes about herself. The love triangle between Rebecca, her (very brief) high school sweetheart Josh, and his best friend Greg would continue to be the driving engine of the plot for the rest of the season but the show’s true heart was never more beautifully and agonizingly realized. – Sara

3. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Netflix, Season Two

Returning to Netflix after its dazzling first season, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt quickly proved it was more than a match for any sophomore season jitters, picking up dangling threads from the season one finale, planting seeds for even more ambitious storytelling, and treating us to Lillian’s bizarre romance with probably-murderer Robert Durst (a brilliantly cast Fred Armisen). Supported at all times by Ellie Kemper’s trickier-than-it-looks performance (equal parts killer comic timing, emotional grounding, and superhuman charisma), the show proceeded to spend its second year giving us the same volume of terrific rapid-fire jokes and crackerjack performances, but it also dug even deeper into the emotional lives of the characters. The episode “Kimmy Goes To Her Happy Place!” is basically the series in microcosm (though it’s missing an appearance by Jane Krakowski, who continues to prove her mastery of the Fey/Carlock one-liner). The “happy place” of the episode’s title is a charming, brightly colored wonderland that Kimmy retreats to when she’s angry or scared, a fantasy where she is an animated princess cavorting with animals that bear striking resemblances to people she knows. And just as in the series as a whole, this bright, funny facade proves to harbor a darker undercurrent founded in the trauma Kimmy experienced back in Durnsville. But it’s the way that the show somehow mines that trauma for more and more jokes without undermining the emotional journey Kimmy is going through that marks the show as really special. There is an actual weight to Kimmy’s realization that she resents her mother for the role her neglect played in her abduction, despite (or perhaps because of?) the fact that it comes about because a drunken Tina Fey hectors her to interpret the incredibly gory violence that swept across her animated fantasy. And all of this happens in the same episode where Titus accompanies his new boyfriend, Mikey, to a family dinner where Mikey intends to come out of the closet to his conservative family, one of whom is an actual puppet. That’s right, the episode’s B-story is a genuinely sweet one for both Mikey and Titus that also features (among the cascade of hilarious jokes at the family dinner) an old Italian grandmother portrayed by a literal puppet.
Titus: “Is that a person?”
Mikey: “If it is, this could kill her.”
– Nathaniel

2. The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

FX, Season One

I admit that I started watching The People vs. OJ Simpson as a byproduct of ’90s nostalgia, wanting to see my own past reflected back at me with shiny stars and funny wigs filling in the gaps of my memory. In the actual ’90s, I was aware of the OJ Simpson trial—you couldn’t be alive at the time and not be aware of the OJ Simpson trial—but only through its most pop-cultural of elements: the Bronco chase, the late-night jokes (those Dancing Itos!), the transformation of Johnnie Cochran into Jackie Chiles. It was dramatic and exciting; who wouldn’t want to revisit such a romp?

Well, The People vs. OJ Simpson really opened my eyes to what a romp it was not. The OJ trial sat at an amazing nexus of racism, sexism, criminal justice reform, and reality celebrity, all at the dawn of the Court TV era. And The People vs. OJ Simpson is savvy in that it chose to take these issues one at a time within a mostly-chronological framework, rather than try to stuff everything into every episode as it ticked along a regular timeline. Regular readers of know how much of a sucker I am for episodes that feel like episodes, and boy howdy does OJ run with it, to use a not-very-apt football metaphor.

If you’re going to praise one episode of OJ, it’s natural to zero in on the Marcia Clark episode. It is a fantastic hour of television. It is an apology to Ms. Clark from the media, offering a slim corrective for the way it portrayed her at the time, and Sarah Paulson, to use phrase that definitely wasn’t common in the ‘90s, slays. But it would be sad to overlook the episode that focuses on the jury. That is a microcosm of a microcosm, like the little copy of Goodnight Moon that’s slipped into one of the illustrations in Goodnight Moon. In a series about the effects of racism, manipulation of the court, and reality-celebrity, the jurors—sequestered for nearly a year—are a tiny society unto themselves, dealing with internal racism (the African American jurors complain about getting shabbier treatment than the white jurors), manipulation of the court (the cat-and-mouse game prosecution and defense played by dismissing jurors sympathetic to the other side), and reality celebrity (so many of them wrote books). And, in the end, it all came down to the jury.

The jurors are also the most fascinating talking heads in OJ: Made in America, the eight-hour documentary on the trial that was also released this year. What they said made my jaw drop. Sadly, the documentary did not make the list (though I did vote for it). It’s hard to consider one without the other. Both shine a light on how the OJ trial is a stand-in for these much larger issues. The documentary takes the macro view: It starts way before the Bronco chase, with a look at race relations in Los Angeles at the start of OJ’s football career. It goes in mostly chronological order. It is just as engrossing. The People vs. OJ Simpson and OJ: Made in America showed me that, sometimes, you can take two different approaches to the same story, and have them both be right. – Marisa

1. Stranger Things

Netflix, Season One

There have been complaints that Mike, Will, Dustin, and Lucas are not all that distinct in Stranger Things but, to the extent that divisions appear, Dustin is the pragmatic one. He knows, for example, why he isn’t Mike’s best friend. He didn’t transfer to Hawkins until later. He missed out on years of shared history. He understands that takes him out of the running for the title, because logic tells him you can’t have more than one best friend. “Well, I call bull on your logic,” Mike replies, “because you’re my best friend too.” Part of the much-commented-upon appeal of Stranger Things is the nostalgia factor, since it recalls what you wore and what you watched and what your neighborhood was like in the ’80s. But, if you’re a certain age, it can also make you think back to who you were at the time, back when a couple of schools years felt like your whole life, when you knew who your closest alliances were (and how they ranked in terms of importance, even if it meant a three-way tie for Number 1), and how logic can seem at both unassailable and totally not relevant to your day-to-day life. – Marisa

As a ’90s kid born the same year that Stranger Things takes place, I don’t have a lot of firsthand nostalgia for the period it depicts. Sure, I adore its aesthetic similarity to the Amblin, Carpenter, and King stories I grew up with, and Marisa nails something about the way the kids’ relationships are approached with both warmth and wisdom. But it’s possible the biggest nostalgic button the show pushed for me was actually in the way it popped up out of nowhere, with a cool poster and an intriguing trailer, and conquered the summer. For all of the influences it synthesizes, the show proved to be a fount of iconic moments on its own. Joyce & the Christmas lights. Eleven and her Eggos. The Demogorgon and the Upside Down. Barb. Stranger Things had such an impact in pop culture that it has already proved itself more than just the sum of its influences. And it ends so perfectly that I’m equally excited for and wary of a sequel season. – Nathaniel