Daniel Fienberg: The Best TV of 2016

6:00 AM 12/15/2016

by Daniel Fienberg

Two very different takes on the Trial of the Century, an underseen British crime procedural and a news comedy show that became an outlet for liberal rage were among the best things to watch this year, according to THR's TV critic.

'O.J.: Made in America,' 'Rectify' and 'BoJack Horseman'
'O.J.: Made in America,' 'Rectify' and 'BoJack Horseman'

Like the mismatched couple at the center of a 1940s romantic-comedy, television and film have been battling. For years, they've fought for superiority, with movies taking the high ground for decades over the coarser pleasures of the "boob tube," but television beginning to move ahead during this current Golden Age.

So maybe 2016 was the year that movies and TV reconciled, found common ground and began to make sweet, sweet love.

Is a film festival acquisition that premieres on Netflix a movie or a TV show?

Is a documentary produced with TV money but introduced to the world in theaters a TV show or a movie?

And that thing that the wealthy entertainer produced on the sly basically as a filmed play and then dropped on his personal website with no warning — is that TV? I mean, it's not a movie, so it MUST be TV, right? It's not a restaurant. It's not a book.

Our vernacular, a relic from a bygone age (2006, probably), is now completely unfit to deal with a world of fluidity between mediums.

That fluidity is why my colleague Todd McCarthy had a certain ESPN-produced documentary as his top film of 2016. For its upcoming end-of-year critics' package in print, THR decided to count that doc as a movie rather than a TV program to avoid overlap between film and TV critics. But for online purposes, it counts as whatever I want it to, which happens to be TV. (That's why my online Top 10 list for 2016 includes 11 entries: Number 11 here appeared as number 10 in the magazine since aforementioned doc was not in contention.)

As it stands, my Top 11 list includes streaming shows, shows from England, animated shows, comedy-news shows and, yes, a movie that premiered at Sundance and is going to be nominated for an Oscar, but is still part of ESPN's 30 for 30 franchise.

  1. 11
    11

    American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson

    Courtesy of Prashant Gupta/FX

    This one sounded like a recipe for disaster. Ryan Murphy, master of excess and frequent bungler of subtlety, takes on a famous trial already notorious for its ugliness and excess? Surely the best-case scenario was a promising start, some fun, campy performances and disappointment by the end. Wrong.

    Anchored by initial scribes Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, The People v. O.J. Simpson finds some uneasy humor in the Trial of the Century and several performances, John Travolta's symphony of arched eyebrows and inexplicable accent tics in particular, hint at cartoonishness, but the series remains unexpectedly grounded. Sarah Paulson's perfectly frazzled turn resurrected Marcia Clark's image after two decades of mockery. Sterling K. Brown brought wounded pride and hubris to Christopher Darden. Courtney B. Vance nailed Johnnie Cochran's theatricality, but found the canny genius beneath the peacocking.

    There are so many potent themes on the surface here that it's hard to care that People v. O.J. Simpson only sometimes has enough time to dig deep. We didn't know we needed a 10-hour series about the Simpson trial; how were we to know we needed 15 hours?

  2. 10
    11

    Horace and Pete

    Courtesy of LouisCK.net

    Nothing says TV in 2016 like Louis C.K.'s difficult-to-describe dramedy surprise, which appeared without warning on the comic's .net website and combined the stagey aesthetic of a 1950s anthology series, the boozy, working class family pathos of a Eugene O'Neill play and just a whiff of the edgy commentary of Paddy Chayefsky or Norman Lear. Audiences didn't know what to make of the show's a la carte price tag. Critics weren't quite sure when or if this was a thing that was supposed to be reviewed. Awards groups don't seem sure if it's comedy or drama or if it's TV at all. And even when the Emmys figured out how to take notice of Laurie Metcalf's breathtaking one-off performance, voters still dropped the ball and complacently gave the trophy to Margo Martindale for her semi-annual cameo on The Americans.

    Perhaps that's fitting, though, because Horace and Pete is about bucking complacency at every turn, from production to distribution to the rules of TV storytelling. Or maybe it's just a good 10-episode series about a family bar featuring great performances from Steve Buscemi, Jessica Lange, Edie Falco, Alan Alda and anybody else Louis C.K. happened to invite for a day or two on-set.

  3. 9
    11

    Halt and Catch Fire

    Tina Rowden/AMC

    AMC gave its '80s/'90s computer pioneers drama a last-second renewal on the eve of its finale and avoided a torrent of Save This Show columns from critics — an outpouring earned by three seasons of steady growth culminating in a year perfectly blending technological advancement with some of TV's most carefully evolved character dynamics. Lee Pace's Joe continued a provocative journey into Steve Jobs-dom, Scoot McNairy's Gordon continued to fray around the edges and Toby Huss' Bos became a full and welcome participant in the drama.

    But what still sets Halt and Catch Fire apart is the friendship/partnership/rivalry between Kerry Bishé's Donna and Mackenzie Davis' Cameron, a relationship that laughs in the face of the Bechdel Test by being about computers, business, mentorship and ambition — basically everything but the dudes in their lives. The payoff to building characters this prickly, with histories this complicated, came in the second half of the season when an IPO and a potential new business venture sparked roundtable negotiations that had the crackle of emotional warfare. Bless our strange TV marketplace that lets a show this low-rated get four seasons.

  4. 8
    11

    Veep

    HBO

    Will HBO's dark comic take on Beltway power struggles and political dealings still be funny amid the real-world stakes and stumblings of a Trump administration? Unclear. But in its fifth season, Veep remained bitingly funny and horrifyingly prescient as it turned its attentions to the ungainly process through which we elect our most potent leaders.

    Bucking conventional wisdom that Armando Iannucci was the show's black heart and razor tongue, Veep handed reins to David Mandel and nary a creative beat was skipped. And bucking conventional wisdom that at some point we're going to get sick of giving Julia Louis-Dreyfus awards year after year after year, the fifth Veep season was full of "You ain't seen nothing yet" stakes-raising for the already decorated performance — particularly "Mother," in which Selina has to figure out whether and how to leverage her mother's death for political gain.

    Beyond Selina, as inappropriate and misguided as ever only with more clout, Veep's great season made room for Jonah's congressional campaign, Catherine's new romance and the jockeying for the presidency that leaves everything in limbo as we look to the next season.

  5. 7
    11

    Happy Valley

    Ben Blackall/Netflix

    Sally Wainwright's BBC One mixture of family drama and gripping police procedural hasn't been entirely ignored by Netflix, but the streaming giant has yet to figure out how to mount a domestic awards campaign for leading lady Sarah Lancashire. And that's a shame because Lancashire is giving one of the best performances available to watch or stream on your television. She should have Emmys, Golden Globes and SAG Awards on her mantle already. Her Catherine Cawood, sergeant in the West Yorkshire police, is funny, tough, unrestrained and haunted by her own choices and failings. She's both good at her job and in way over her head as, for the second straight season, what was once a quiet town of quirky little crimes become the setting for rape, murder and unearthing of the past.

    There may have been a few too many coincidences holding together the second season plot, but Wainwright's writing and direction — why not give HER a Star Wars movie? — plus Lancashire and a supporting cast headed by James Norton, Siobhan Finneran and the great Kevin Doyle, keep the proceedings far too tense for quibbles.

  6. 6
    11

    The Americans

    Courtesy of FX

    Just another year of twisted espionage, parental challenges and fantastic '80s deep cuts for Philip and Elizabeth, who spent the fourth season becoming increasingly tortured by the choices their life kept forcing them to make. FX's critical favorite only ramped up the suspense by pushing Paige deeper into her parents' world, giving Henry a new friend, introducing lethally contagious disease and making us say "Poor Martha" a record-breaking number of times.

    Even if it's only Margo Martindale actually [inexplicably] winning Emmys, the TV Academy's 2016 recognition of Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell was both late and wholly deserved. The kitchen showdown between Paige, Elizabeth and Keri Russell's forehead vein was among the year's best scenes.

  7. 5
    11

    Full Frontal with Samantha Bee

    Ali Goldstein/TBS

    Jon Stewart became a bearded hermit. John Oliver repeatedly refused to turn his show into a weekly referendum on election insanity, going so far as to dedicate nearly a half-hour to pyramid schemes the weekend before we went to the polls. Jimmy Fallon just wanted to run his fingers through our future president's hair. As America was going crazy this spring and fall, more and more frequently Samantha Bee and her TBS show became the place left-leaning viewers turned for barbaric yawps of righteous rage.

    Whether she was unleashing torrents of bleeped euphemisms for female genitals, tormenting Ted Cruz for his college theater work in The Crucible or doing in-depth reports on Syrian refugee camps, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson or abortion restrictions in Texas, Samantha Bee became the person willing to say things that needed to be said, educate voters on things they needed to be educated on and scream when we all needed to scream.

  8. 4
    11

    BoJack Horseman

    Courtesy of Netflix

    Oh, BoJack. Will you ever find lasting happiness? Will you ever find out if you're more man than horse or more horse than man? Fans of the Netflix animated favorite surely hope not. Even maintaining its familiar seasonal structure, complete with a penultimate episode of crushingly mirthful misery written by creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the third season found a way to be funnier than any previous season, and also sadder.

    Bob-Waksberg pushed the show's structure in strange, fresh directions and artist Lisa Hanawalt packed the frame with more jokes than can possibly be processed in a single viewing. The season included an extended lampooning of the awards rat race, multiple in-joke-heavy flashbacks to 2007 and a spectacularly inappropriate episode about abortion, but the generally acknowledged highlight was "Fish Out Of Water," a largely dialogue-free episode set at an underwater film festival. There was no more innovative comedy episode of the year, unless you want to talk about two or three different installments of my No. 3 show.

  9. 3
    11

    Atlanta

    Quantrell D. Colbert/FX

    Donald Glover's FX comedy seemed to be almost precision-engineered to initially alienate bros who loved him as Troy on Community, and then eventually to win them back. The story of a directionless Princeton dropout who becomes manager to his rising hip-hop star cousin set itself up as a music satire, immediately proved that wasn't what it intended to be and then spent the rest of the season proving that there were absolutely no rules governing this fictional universe.

    From Black Justin Bieber to elaborate commercial parodies to a lampoon of bourgeois African-American identity to invisible cars and glowing chicken wings, Atlanta was whatever it wanted to be in any given week. Intellectually nimble, provocative and embedded deeply in America's 2016 psyche, this was a statement-making debut season.

  10. 2
    11

    Rectify

    Courtesy of SundanceTV

    Eventually, 20 years down the road, Ray McKinnon's SundanceTV drama will be justly hailed as a classic and embraced by audiences as disparate as indie movie fans invested in character-driven drama, mystery fans entranced by twisty yarns and conservative Christians enamored of shows dealing directly with spirituality and redemption. The performances by Abigail Spencer, Clayne Crawford and Adelaide Clemens will be revered for their mixture of soul and unexpected sass and for how their characters evolved in ways that seemed elaborate, but also organic, over four years.

    Late adopters will pore over the television of the '10s trying to figure out how Aden Young never received a single major award nomination for his turn as one of the oddest, most pained, most hopeful characters ever to grace the small screen. Why wait 20 years, though? Rectify only ran 30 episodes and this year's final season was a perfectly graceful sendoff, all teary self-discovery, unexpected wit and even a few answers to the show's big questions. Rectify is the only show to make my Top 10 each of the past four years and one of the best shows of this Peak TV Era.

  11. 1
    11

    O.J.: Made in America

    Courtesy of ESPN

    It took maybe 15 minutes for Ezra Edelman's 30 for 30 documentary to make it clear that I was in the hands of a master storyteller. Edelman's portrait of NFL legend and civilly convicted murderer O.J. Simpson shifts gears from Simpson's Nevada parole hearing to college football in the late 1960s to the origins of Los Angeles' black migration to the growth of the LAPD's influence to the Watts Riots and back to USC and O.J. Simpson's explosion as a sporting icon.

    I call things "tapestries" every once in a while, but it's rare to see a tapestry woven as expertly as this 467-minute, five-part documentary. Yes, the Trial of the Century gets substantial time, with appearances by nearly every living person who participated in or gave consideration to it, but there's every bit as much richness in the side stories — like Peter Hyams discussing his directorial strategy with Simpson on Capricorn One or several Hertz bigwigs recalling the crafting of Simpson's image as a famous spokesman.

    It's a definitive chronicle of Los Angeles' civic unrest, American race relations over the past 50 years, toxic masculinity and the fleeting nature of sports heroism. It's a harrowing and disturbing legal thriller exposing flaws in the system. It's a Shakespearean story of hubris and self-destruction. If you asked me what O.J.: Made in America is about, I'd probably just say: "Everything."

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