THR TV Critics Debate: The Best and Worst of 2016 at the Midpoint

Tim Goodman and Daniel Fienberg discuss The Year of OJ and another six months of Too Much TV.
Ray Mickshaw/FX
'The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story'

It's a rite of the season that the calendar turns to June and folks start doing their "Best of the Year at the Midpoint" lists because June is the sixth month and there are 12 months and therefore that's the midpoint in the year — even if 5/12ths isn't the midpoint of anything. But now, with June in the rear-view, the year really is halfway through. 

Daniel Fienberg: So let's look at some of the best and worst. Tim, how would you say that 2016 is doing thus far?

Tim Goodman: I think it's very strong, particularly if you focus on the amount of high-quality fare that's rolled through. I looked back at some of the stuff I've loved so far and I can tell my year-end best-of list will once again be pretty long and packed with goodness. I mean, just real quick you've got The Americans and Game of Thrones and Orange Is the New Black at or near the top and lots of lesser-known stuff like Happy Valley, Casual, Catastrophe that fills in elsewhere. I mean, it's a long list. But maybe I'm being too positive?

Fienberg: That's what people always say about you, Tim. "He's too positive." But you're also right. The Americans had arguably its best season and Game of Thrones bounced back strongly after arguably its worst season, and Orange Is the New Black delivered a season that started out deceptively light and then hit an emotional stride at midseason on the way to a devastating close. 

The smaller shows you mentioned were all ones you reviewed and so I had to catch up on them, and Catastrophe's second season was probably even more anxiously hilarious and stealthily sad than the first. Casual has had a fine season, though I'm not quite as high on it as you are, and I desperately need to make time for the second Happy Valley season. 

Speaking of our reviewing split, this has been The Year of OJ and I reviewed both the FX miniseries and the ESPN doc, which is my favorite piece of TV of the year by a wide margin. Have you been able to make time for Uncle Juice?

Goodman: I'm in deep catch-up mode on O.J. and, like lots of us critics, probably tons of other shows. Remember when summer was a great time to catch up on what you missed? Yeah, so much for that. I was looking back on stuff you reviewed and a number of the less buzz-heavy ones stood out, like Love and Lady Dynamite on Netflix and Hap & Leonard on Sundance and Underground on WGN and it's like, "Oh, God, where am I going to get the time." I'm sure that's what most people are feeling out there in the general population even though they're probably not committed to seeing everything like we are. But it does add to that feeling that six months of television has provided a pretty deep pool to dive into. I was thinking of big standouts staying strong like Better Call Saul and Veep and Silicon Valley and Outlander, plus interesting newbies like Roots in the limited series category or streaming series that are easy to miss like The Path on Hulu. It gets kind of crazy. I'm still running into people who haven't even started Girls or keep asking me if it's worth their time to check out the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Everybody's drowning, Dan.

Fienberg: Heck, I haven't finished Lady Dynamite (or Kimmy Schmidt) and I thought the initial batch of screeners Netflix sent out had top-tier potential. But Netflix doesn't pile up and thus getting through episodes feels like something that requires my urgent attention less than shows that take up DVR space. And that's for things I love and it doesn't get into a show like The Path, which probably requires more concentration and didn't instantly work for me beyond the performances. Maybe I'll commit to catching up on that when you give a second shot to the absurdist pleasures of Baskets.

But you keep mentioning good shows! Better Call Saul continued its organic improvement from an already promising first season. Girls convinced many people it was worthy of reexamination, even if I never felt it ceased to be worthy. Silicon Valley was funny and depressing and frantic and nerdy and exceptional and it was, for me, the third funniest show in its HBO Sunday block after Veep and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.

I hate to ask, but does network TV still exist? I'd salute the quantum leap taken by the second American Crime season and provocative and hilarious runs of Black-ish and The Carmichael Show, but … umm …

Goodman: I only keep mentioning all the good shows so that it equally ruins both of our summers as we stay locked inside frantically trying to catch up. Network shows? Oh, like Uncle Buck? Oops. Hey, I reviewed The Catch three months ago and still haven't recovered — plus they renewed it! Sigh. I'll say this about network shows: The comedies keep me coming back. It's always been the key strength of that segment of the industry (that segment being a thing other than cable, premium cable or Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc. — otherwise known as the neighborhood I won't visit very often unless reminded to do so). The dramas were underwhelming, I think. I've said before that I'll watch Elementary or The Blacklist or whatnot merely to be mindlessly entertained on nights when I don't want to think too much. But the latest batch we got was pretty weak. But yeah, the comedies will keep me returning. Not that everything works on cable or streaming, as you know. I mean, I'm still disappointed in Roadies and the implosion of Vinyl; Feed the Beast was pretty woeful and the second season of Bloodline was impenetrable for me. Recent stuff like Animal Kingdom (which got renewed) didn't do enough for me to knock something else out of the rotation. I think when it comes down to whether I want to catch up with a network show or hang in there to see if a cable series will get compelling, I revert back to what I mentioned earlier — a stronger desire to catch up on the O.J. stuff or Hap & Leonard or Underground. You have to be ruthless in the Too Much TV era.

Fienberg: If you're done with your uncharacteristic wave of positivity, we can turn to some negativity and, like you say, cable and streaming are far from perfect. We rave about so much of what Netflix produces, because so much of what Netflix produces is so good, but Netflix produces so much that you're bound to get the occasional Flaked. And I don't care if Netflix is positively over the moon about the undisclosed ratings for Fuller House, to me it represents the lowest of the low when it comes to nostalgic pandering — and I say that as somebody who watched and reviewed Rush Hour, Damian and Uncle Buck this spring. Remind me again why CBS is throwing so much money at developing around the MacGyver brand name?

I'm still not sure anything I watched this spring was worse than CBS' Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, though. A perfect, and perfectly reprehensible, encapsulation of Donald Trump's "Put a wall around it" fear of foreigners and globalism, this one got renewed and will live on for another season of shock scare, "Oh no, my white cheerleader daughter went to Egypt on vacation and now she's chained to a goatee-stroking sultan!" promos. Sorry, I'll be throwing up in the corner if you need me.

Goodman: It does feel strange being so blatantly positive. But I continue to be impressed by all the stuff worth watching. I remember regularly saying that 80 percent of everything on TV is either bad or skippable but that the 20 percent is worth all the time you can spend on it. I wonder if those percentages have shifted much. Either way, I'm pretty confident there's more great television than anyone with a life can consume. (And if we want to keep some negativity in the discussion I guess we could just say that summer programming for the networks sucks, at least on the scripted front. As usual.) But I'll close my end of this on yet another upbeat note (trend alert!) and add that I was also pleased with a lot of the limited series/miniseries offerings we've had over the past six months. The Last Panthers on Sundance was excellent, as was the wholly different Starz vehicle, The Girlfriend Experience. The Night Manager from AMC-BBC was probably a tad overrated critically, but it was very entertaining and a real visual feast. And I think that Thirteen from BBC America was really strong. Same with Hulu's 11.22.63. But you know what? I really hated The X-Files. There you go — you can't keep the negativity at bay entirely. I hope you're happy. Anyway, last thoughts from you on these last six months?

Fienberg: Well, my first thought is to be impressed you didn't try calling the Golden State Warriors the best TV of 2016 this far. And my second thought is that you need to watch O.J.: Made in America. But I agree with you probably on that 20 percent figure and I don't think that ratio-wise, it has changed. But the overall volume has changed, so the quantity of must-watches have only increased.

Sadly, the general reservoir of time hasn't increased proportionately. So I have to go watch some TV.

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