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Having given up trying to argue the pointlessness of top 10 lists in the Platinum Age of Television, I posit another new reality to glom onto, and this one is strangely comforting: It's impossible not only to watch every scripted series out there, but to watch every episode of the ones you actually manage to watch.
As strange as it feels — especially since November and December have historically been months where TV critics were frantically trying to watch everything they missed before preparing their Year-End Best-Of lists — there's also comfort giving in to the impossible. I can make my lists with the caveat that these are the best series that I saw. Perhaps some truly great series won't be on the list because I never had the chance to see them. Apologies in advance for that, but for every TV critic I know, this is the new reality.
I can't remember doing a mere top 10 list (though I have done them as a participant in someone else's poll). Even a short look back at THR found me doing 15 dramas and 15 comedies in 2012 (ah, the good old days when you could whittle the year-end list down to 30!).
In 2013, I grappled with the uneven playing field of cable and network, separating my lists into best cable dramas (20 of them), network-only dramas (11) and then best comedies (a combined 17 because, as I reasoned then, network comedies were as good or better than cable comedies so they could compete together). Yeah, it was ungainly, but the sheer volume of excellent television was out of control and making me crazy.
In 2014, I went back to combining the best cable series of the year (a staggering 31 of them) and a separate list of network-only shows (17 total). I've stuck with that formula because networks really are playing a different game — being forced to appeal to the masses often short-circuits the ability to invest in a kookily creative niche show. For me, 2015 was Peak TV insanity (or so I thought then), when I tried to watch everything and created a list of 46 exceptionally deserving cable series and 16 network-only shows.
Exacting and fun — but also exhausting. I'm not Kimmy Schmidt. I was broken. And then 2016 came. When the final totals are counted, we're likely to have 500 scripted series that aired this year. Sometimes you just have to let go. With fellow critic Dan Fienberg also plowing through shows, I still managed to miss (or didn't watch enough episodes of) potentially worthy candidates like Easy, Lady Dynamite, Love and The Crown on Netflix, Quarry on Cinemax, Goliath on Amazon, Queen Sugar on OWN, Underground on WGN, the O.J. Simpson documentary on ESPN and, probably, a lot of others. Not all of them were ever going to be considered for anyone's Top Whatever list, but certainly some of them were.
But that's the TV critic's new reality.
A lot of longtime favorite shows fell into that "Oh, I can watch these any time" pile —It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, South Park, etc. — while some very good shows that I like ended up in a far bigger category called "I started to watch these and then didn't finish because life happened," so I'll list just a few in Halt and Catch Fire, Transparent, Outlander, One Mississippi, Red Oaks, Penny Dreadful, The Flash, Arrow, Narcos, Mozart in the Jungle, etc.
I will get to them. But will any of us get to everything? I still watched an insane amount of television. Countless hours. Unlike movie critics, who watch what's often less than a two-hour movie and then move on, TV critics try to watch as many episodes of as many shows as humanly possible, which isn't really possible.
I managed to create two very thorough lists (38 for cable, which I categorize as the best shows on television, and another, upcoming, 13 for network), but I still feel the need to say sorry to those I missed. So — sorry. Here then, as promised above, the best shows of 2016 that I watched.
The Night Manager
So, Hugh Laurie had a year, yes? His performance in this miniseries alone is worth the investment, but what really helps patch the holes that pop up (and they do) is director Susanne Bier letting the camera gorge itself on the luxurious international settings. If you didn't get a vacation in 2016, just watch this. And oh, yeah — Tom Hiddleston is nice eye candy too, but it's Laurie that makes it all work.
Like The Last Panthers, this series proves the international storytellers are digesting American TV storytelling and then making it their own. Gomorrah is basically the Italian version of The Wire (though, to be fair, few series can live up to that all-time great) and it gives you glimpses into a completely different world, with beats that aren't American at all, which is part of the allure.
Again, Hulu is really finding its way these days, and while there were some off beats to Chance, about a man who makes a bad decision and watches things spiral out of control, Hugh Laurie (especially), Gretchen Mol and Ethan Suplee (most impressively) made it a show to put on your must-watch list. Also, San Francisco has rarely been used to such great effect as a location on a TV series. Nice job.
Novelist Tom Rob Smith took an old genre and shook it, combining a sorrowful love story and menacing mental health tale into something unique and powerful, with three are-you-kidding-me standout performances from Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling.
The Last Panthers
Dark, unexpectedly powerful and beautifully directed, this French (but truly international) crime series was one of many finds for Sundance TV and yet another example of how the Platinum Age pulls from everywhere.
For Hulu, 2016 will go down as its breakout year. And this ambitious Stephen King limited series (with an enjoyable and always gripping performance from James Franco) was just the kind of big-time play it needed. Flawed, yes, but the more the year went on the more this overshadowed so many other offerings.
A more focused (and fun) season of one of television's better genre series, this old friend keeps confirming the obvious: It's impossible to stop watching Tatiana Maslany act.
Full Frontal With Samantha Bee
What a searing, fearlessly full-tilt performance from Samantha Bee. Everybody knew she had it in her — but did anyone know it had to come out so badly and with such force? Again, more would be awesome but I'm thankful for what Bee gave when she gave everything.
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
Now more than ever. And really, every time I watch this show I silently beg to wake up the next day to the news that it will now be on daily. That's impossible, of course, given the level of care put into it, but yeah — now more than ever.
Whereas People of Earth came late in the season, Teachers pretty much kicked it off last January and could have been overlooked. If you missed the laughs, go get your Katy on pronto.
People of Earth
Two of television's most under-the-radar comedies get back-to-back slots on my list. One of the more unexpected and pleasant surprises was this weird and weirdly sweet comedy on TBS, which ended up being wholly original. Wyatt Cenac led a cast that turned in first-class performances.
There were masterful performances here in a story that needed time to unfold and paid off in its studied examination about the power of lies and belief.
Issa Rae popped in a big way with her breakout HBO show, which gave television not just a fresh take on diversity but nuance within it.
Orange Is the New Black
Most series in season four are struggling for something to say. Jenji Kohan responded with a season that could barely contain what it had to say. This series just never stops surprising.
I came upon this gem late — very late — but have been completely knocked asunder by it. First-rate writing and superb, intimate performances (Mackenzie Crook, Toby Jones, Rachael Stirling, etc.) and a languid pacing make this a sweetly enjoyable discovery about hobbyists searching for something with their metal detectors that they didn't realize they needed to find.
Yes, it had flaws and the disparate homages were a bit distracting, but few series were this much fun to watch. I devoured these episodes.
The Girlfriend Experience
It was never about the sex in this series. Watch it and find out, but in the process pay particular attention to the beautiful, impartial direction and set design that makes a nice bed for the writing and acting to lie down on.
In the last few seasons television has had some real breakout moments for actors (and writers) who had already established their accomplished talents and could have just kept it at that level, but the likes of Aziz Ansari, Donald Glover, etc., didn't get there by being satisfied. With Better Things, Pamela Adlon steps out/up and into the spotlight — the exclamation point on a career so far.
You're the Worst
After the second season reset the bar on how high the expectations could be on this series, they were met in the third season. Nothing should be surprising about Stephen Falk's talent or what this cast is capable of.
Every time I finish Catastrophe — which isn't hard with mere six-episode seasons — I yell out in frustration. This is a flat-out great series that needs to breathe longer, to get more attention from its esteemed creators and stars, Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney. Don't sleep on the genius.
The title belies the depth of the storytelling here — which broadened and intensified in season two. I would argue that this might be the most underrated drama on television. Or comedy, even.
The Night Of
You can nitpick a few things — and I would say this is one of the rare series where another two episodes would have really helped — but this story was taut and skillfully told, with truly memorable writing.
The sheer ambition on display here was striking, but pulling it off is what gets it on the list — with an array of outstanding performances to bring it home. Perhaps most impressive is the finale built on what should be a broader, even more intriguing future.
You could argue that this second season was a harder conceit for Sam Esmail to pull off, but the concept not only stayed intact, it grew. I'm not sure how long this magic will last, but I'm still impressed by it.
A standard-bearer of skewering the tech world and those in it, Silicon Valley generated some of the longest, loudest and hardest laughs I had in 2016. That whole cast is Emmy-worthy.
A virtuoso performance (both acting and writing) from Phoebe Waller-Bridge held together this bittersweet gut-punch of a comedy. You always hope to be surprised in the Platinum Age of Television, and this counts.
Better Call Saul
Excellent forward progress in this second season deepened its impact and depth, shedding any doubts that this "prequel" was going to be diminished by the original source material of Breaking Bad (which oh by the way is merely one of the top five series ever made in the history of television, so good luck).
Horace and Pete
What Louis C.K. and a plethora of excellent actors accomplished here in this television stage play is stunning, but what really knocked me backward was the entire concept — that Louis C.K. conceived of this, wrote, acted and directed in it after gathering the cast, paid for everything and then, out of the blue and to everyone's surprise, dropped it online. That's a herculean effort. He basically made one of the best dramas in his spare time in his basement. That's pretty much it.
If only we could make Selina Meyer president. Now more than ever. Beyond that it's pretty safe to say that I will cling to this searingly brilliant show for salvation and that it better go on for another four years.
Game of Thrones
What do you say about a drama that has been ridiculously ambitious and dense from the jump and has dominated television for much of its existence? That its sixth season was one of its finest and that it never, even for a second, lost its magnetic watch-this-immediately pull.
The power of this series never ceases to stun me. Allegories about technology and its (real and imagined) impact come to life in sometimes sweet but often bittersweet and more often than that gut-punching ways when Charlie Brooker puts his agile and twisted mind to it. There's nothing else like this on television.
I've said this in many different ways, but some day people will discover what creator Ray McKinnon willed to life here (and what exceptional actors, particularly Aden Young and Abigail Spencer, made achingly beautiful) and they'll pull it off a shelf like an old book (or, sure, stream it) and be knocked backward by its power. The poster series for Slow TV, Rectify is a thoughtful meditation on existence via a Death Row legal case. And it will be very sorely missed.
The A Word
An autistic child, a small English town, the strains of marriage and parental love and, well, some amazing music set this little gem apart. Writer and creator Peter Bowker crafted a miniseries so simple it hides its rousing ambitions well. Find it, watch it.
Soundbreaking: Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music
This documentary was joyously fascinating and entertaining from, literally, its opening sequence. Soundbreaking is a rollicking and informative collection of sound and vision seemingly colliding randomly but making perfect sense as a history of many decades of recorded music. The documentary connected the dots and the influences seamlessly, becoming a collectible treasure — and one of the most fun things to watch in all of 2016.
This sensational (and, after its second season, still unexpected) combination of gritty crime procedural clashing against its rural setting and exploration of a complicated woman of a certain age is the best show you've never seen. Most of you, that is. Sarah Lancashire is my everything.
Yep, that's the trifecta for the best curated channel in television — a drama, a limited series and a comedy, ending up 1, 2 and 3. Atlanta is Donald Glover's genius deciding it can't be contained. A slice-of-life (that's rarely been seen and hardly this way) that was wholly original character study with a breakout cast that constantly surprised. In a year when the half-hour comedy/drama continued to be a storytelling force, there was none better.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
When this ended — and being a limited series, and one where you already knew the ending, it did, in fact, have to end — it was impossible not to want more, not to wish it were a regular series. Amazing performances and writing lifted a concept that was, on first mention and with certain casting announcements, seen as dubious. What it turned out to be was fascinating television on all levels.
A great series from the start, it cemented its place at the top of all television with a fourth season that paid off on the plotting and emotional investment of the first three seasons with ingenuity, dramatic brilliance and grace. Exceptional writing, an acting tour-de-force and a show as much about marriage as spying, The Americans is a standout treasure.
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