This month I’ve reviewing the Best Of 2016. Everyone loves lists come year’s end and although 2016 as been a fucking nightmare, there were some great works that came out this year. I’ll be doing a Best Of Music, Best Of Movies, Best Of Books, and today’s Best Of TV. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts so feel free to comment here or harangue me over on Twitter or on my Facebook page.
TV isn’t really TV anymore. Streaming hasn’t replaced network viewing, but in terms of quality, technique, and creativity, streaming programs rule television. Network shows are racing to improve, but for every success, there are ten more dreadful, formulaic rehashes–shows of horrific acting, canned laughter, boring sets, sad and tired tropes, and lazy camera work, that somehow, millions upon millions of viewers.
I can’t watch network television. I’m out of practice and patience. Nearly all of my show viewing is streaming thanks to Apple TV. I can count on one hand the number of network programs I can stomach and even then only briefly.
Given streaming and network operate on slightly askew schedules, for this Best Of I want to focus on shows that came out in 2016. There were some fantastic seasons this year of shows finding their voice, continuing superb stories and acting, and of series reviving themselves. However, I want to give this list over to debuts. So here are my best new shows of 2016.
1. Westworld, HBO
It’s no secret that Westworld is the show of 2016. In attempt to keep the masses of viewers addicted to Game of Thrones, HBO hyped and promoted Westworld incessantly. Then the show did something odd–it delivered. This is not to say there aren’t glaring problems with the show or that it couldn’t all come crashing down heading into its second season. But the show was able to be intelligent working through not just plot twists but genuinely interesting metaphors. It is a series that rewards contemplation and repeated viewing.
2. Atlanta, FX
Donald Glover already has one of the best albums of 2016. He’s taken his time not just crafting a fantastic album but simultaneously making the best show on television. That’s right, Atlanta is the best show of 2016–not just the best new show, the best show period. It is a complex show managing to be easy viewing. Glover is a polymath, but Glover didn’t bring Atlanta to us by himself. Glover’s younger brother Stephen wrote almost half of the episodes, and Hiro Murai, who’s been almost exclusively a music video director and has a long working relationship with Glover, took the confident narrative shooting it in a subtly innovative manner for a television series. Dramas reliant upon and functioning through satire are often lumped into the category of comedy. Atlanta skirts the self-congratulatory nature of most drama, while refusing to be too smart for the room in its humor. However, the show is biting in its tone while being earnest in its depictions.
3. Wynonna Earp, SyFy
Beginning in 2015 SyFy began to quietly put together a cadre of rather good shows–12 Monkeys, The Expanse (a favorite of mine), Dark Matter, and Killjoys–to which this year it’s added The Magicians, Hunters, and Wynonna Earp. This last show has been the one that’s really captured my attention. The Magicians has cornered the what if a bunch of Harry Potter fans decided to write for the CW market and Hunters is just kinda there. The eponymous hero is without a doubt one of my favorite television heroes–smart and unwilling to take shit. The show rises above its comic book source material, which is good in its own right, to be both familiar and strange.
4. Luke Cage, Netflix
While I realize many and most lost their shit over the aggressively mediocre Stranger Things and consider it to be the best show Netflix has put out this year, I doubt. This year Netflix has upped the ante with shows creating some of the best television available. The jewel this year was Luke Cage, another show in the same universe as Daredevil and Jessica Jones, giving us a confident, bulletproof black man in the age of white supremacy. Without being overtly political, Luke Cage is compelling and the best superhero show (or movie) available.
5. Love, Netflix
When this show quietly showed up on Netflix, I don’t think people really knew what to expect. You could call this a dark comedy but unlike You’re the Worst (a show that is probably the nearest comparative example), Love isn’t about horrible people undergoing their horribleness together but rather about people overcoming ego and insecurity to not just be together but be better. Don’t get the wrong idea, Love is difficult to watch as its awkwardness is acute. Gillian Jacobs as Micky Dobbs is able to reveal just how fragile an ego a navel-gazing person can have. Surrounded by people who could and want to love her, Micky imagines and truly feels herself isolated and misunderstood. The other side of the coin is Paul Rust’s Gus Cruikshank who is so desperate to please others, so wants to be liked he wills himself into insignificance. When the two begin a long courtship, it’s less about attraction than it is about two people coming to see the other as they really are, providing an escape from the crippling selves they’ve become on their own. The emotional honesty of this show is cringe-worthy and addictive.
6. Flaked, Netflix
Will Arnett has found his footing since the end of the much loved Arrested Development. As a voice of BoJack Horseman in the animated show of the same name, he’s been able to harness his voice acting talents while still being able to gracefully thread the comedic and dramatic (BoJack Horseman is one of the best shows of any genre about depression). To pair with this show, Arnett has co-created and co-written with Mark Chappell Flaked, the story of an alcoholic clinging to his status as an AA guru to give his life direction or any meaning. The struggle to find self-worth and come to terms with who one is and what one has done seethes through this show. While the world of dark comedy may be his wheelhouse, in Flaked Arnett shows himself to be, when he has the material, an exceptional dramatic actor.
7. The Crown, Netflix
We live in a post-Downton Abbey world…thank fuck. But many still feel the need to fill that period drama hole in their hearts. Other PBS Masterpiece shows have failed to do so even though they’ve been wholly adequate. Seeing this need and knowing that there is still a cultural fetish for Queen Elizabeth II, Netflix gives us The Crown. As a biographical series there are no surprises story-wise, the draw of this kind of show is the imagining. While not boring, The Crown is reserved and dry perfectly mirroring its subject matter. I couldn’t help but think of the old Pink Floyd lyric, “quiet desperation is the the English way.” Claire Foy plays the young queen perfectly as does Matt Smith in the role of Prince Philip. Smith is pushing against the role that made him famous, that of the man-child eleventh doctor of Doctor Who, and succeeds. Foy has played a queen before and well in Wolf Hall as Anne Boleyn. With this role, it seems as though Foy has found something momentous. My hope with The Crown is that it will carry us right up to the present day such ambition would make the series more than mere biography.
8. Fleabag, Amazon Prime
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is amazing. As an actor she has superb comedic timing and the ability to shift between bemusement and tender sadness. She is a talent and in Fleabag she shines. In fact, this was the show that finally got me to pull the trigger and get Amazon Prime. Another show of hers, Crashing from Channel 4 and streaming on Netflix now, is less edgy as it were (but Fleabag sets a high bar) yet certainly well worth watching.
9. The Get Down, Netflix
There is a balance and deliberateness to The Get Down that overcomes its superficial nostalgia. Although, to be fair, as a Baz Luhrmann product it does wallow at times. While the majority of viewers have gotten sucked into the insulting sentimentality of This Is Us, it is The Get Down that’s the best family show on television.
There are shows that I’m intrigued by but haven’t gotten the chance to watch enough of yet and look very promising: Search Party on TBS, Queen Sugar on OWN, and Billions on Showtime.
Then there are shows I like but haven’t warmed up to yet such as Insecure on HBO (a show an order of magnitude better than Girls and could become the best show on HBO) and Better Things from FX. These are well-written and acted but just so awkward and emotionally cutting I find it difficult to make it through the episodes, but I’m certain they will be superb.
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