For concerned parties, there will be minimal to no discussion of the news in this.
2016 sucked for a hundred reasons. You know what didn’t? TV. After years of personally dwindling TV consumption, some sort of creative supernova happened this year and there were amazing new shows dropping every week. There were too many; they’re coming from all angles at this point (Broadcast! Cable! Ten streaming services people have heard of! Something called a Seeso!). I consume pop culture at what can only be described as a disturbing clip, yet my Dad recommended I watch People of Earth, and I’d never heard of it. A coworker recommended High Maintenance; again, never heard of it. THAT’S AWESOME! Keep it up television! So, let’s do what we do so well, and rank some TV shows that were so great (and needed) this year and discuss and argue about them! This will only be NEW shows, which regrettably makes no mention of existing glorious work being done by Better Call Saul, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Silicon Valley and fifty others. If you want those ranked, read every best of the year list on the internet. TV is so great right now.
The Night Of, HBO – The first four episodes of this would have landed it at number three or higher. The last four were blah enough to remove it completely. I loved the slow pacing and how little the show cared about revealing if Naz was guilty or not. It was, if briefly, a wonderful antidote to the “DID THEY DO IT?” discussions that shaped people’s consumption and discussions of The Jinx/Making a Murderer/The Killing/Serial.
This Is Us, NBC – I have not seen a single second of this show. People love it, and it’s made by the crew who gave us Friday Night Lights. I’m adding it to avoid being yelled at.
O.J.: Made in America, ESPN – I have also seen none of this documentary, as it came out just after (somehow) another show about O.J. Simpson I had just watched. It wins the award for “Most number of friends have yelled at me that I have to watch this.” Will do.
THE BEST OF THE YEAR IN AN ORDER THAT COULD CHANGE BASED ON THE MINUTE YOU ASKED ME
7. Westworld, HBO
What a difficult show to talk about. Some people are just goo goo bananas for this thing, but I am not one of them (probably sounds familiar to the friends who have had to listen to me argue that that other expensive fantasy HBO show is overrated). I was one of the cynics that thought the writers felt it was a lot more clever and geniusly plotted than it actually is. The scenery is catnip with sweeping vistas of Monument Valley and the rest of Utah. If huge plot twists are your thing, sure, come on over and try to figure out who is and who isn’t a robot. If you’re a character person (me) who will watch a lesser show because the characters are fascinating, this show is oftentimes absolutely terrible. It is fun to have something so weird and unique on tv, though, something that demands such careful attention in the age of no one actually watching what they’re watching. And the highest compliment I can pay it is that it has a lot of interesting things to say about complex social issues, something that sets it apart from . . . that other HBO show.
Why You Missed It: Too much sci-fi, don’t have HBO, realized you couldn’t take a McPoyle sibling as a serious actor
Show MVP: No one, part of my frustration with it
Come For: Anthony Hopkins chewing every piece of scenery into oblivion
Stay For: The hope that season two tightens up this mess
6. The Good Place, NBC
Are you still missing Parks and Rec? Me too. Are you just discovering Parks and Rec on Netflix? Then watch this too! It’s a happy show! With optimism and silliness and one time, huge flying shrimp in the sky. Season one is only half over, you can catch up easily on NBC.com. Kristen Bell is doing us all a favor slumming it on TV for a bit, the show’s imagination is completely insane, and every episode ends with a cliffhanger! I hate that, but people like that? I think? When Ted Danson’s character explained the human behavior points system that decides if people can get in to the Good Place, we had the freeze frame of the year. If you can read those and think none of them are funny, congratulations, you never need to watch this show.
Why You Missed It: You didn’t like Parks? Saw too many ads during the Olympics and decided you were annoyed?
Show MVP: Bell’s Eleanor, no brainer
Come For: Color! Mirth! Laughing!
Stay For: The inevitable reveal of the crew from the Bad Place
5. Stranger Things, Netflix
This has to be the most fun anyone had watching TV this year, right? The creators somehow did something I hate (take cues and inspiration from things they know people love and smash them into some soulless amalgamation of those things) and made something suuuuuuuuper entertaining. I avoided this for a while because 80s nostalgia and Winona Ryder (above, with frequent co-star, string of Christmas lights) both do nothing for me. I was stupid and wrong (actually, Winona was still blah and sometimes too much). Those four kids are cool as hell and your blood pressure will spike rooting for them. The teenagers are cool as hell, too. Hopper is the greatest movie or TV cop in a decade, if not ever. I am bitter there will be a season two with the same characters; their story should have ended in that chemistry classroom, after that devastating look back.
Why You Missed It: Too much sci-fi, thought it looked scary, heard ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ in opening scene and ran for the hills
Show MVP: David Harbour’s Jim Hopper, the MAN
Come For: The times you get The Goonies and Stand By Me tingles. Those are tough to make happen!
Stay For: N/A. You won’t need to be told to stay around.
4. Search Party, TBS
We are truly down the rabbit hole, folks: there is an amazing show on TBS. Maeby from Arrested Development plays an aimless millennial who tries to solve a missing persons case (her college classmate) to give herself some purpose in life. She’s great, but the real stars are her three friends along for the ride. They are all self-absorbed, sometimes infuriating narcissists . . . until they aren’t anymore. The show walks a fine line between making fun of millennial myopia and showing how much respect it has for these people, too (disclaimer: in the pilot, all of their quirks are dialed up to 11. This, mercifully, does not continue). It’s like how Shaun of the Dead made fun of zombie movies while also paying homage to how much the makers love zombie movies. The show is an incredible dark comedy with plot twists.
Why You Missed It: This blog post is the first time you’ve heard of it
Show MVP: John Early’s Elliott (second from left), one of the funniest characters this year
Come For: A mystery! What happened to Chantal?
Stay For: Peter from Office Space as a shady private investigator, the moment you realize you wish these people were your friends
3. Preacher, AMC
If Game of Thrones fans are apoplectic at the thought of their sprawling, oft-violent, sci-fi/fantasy magnum opus based on hugely popular books ending soon, I’ve got another one for ’em. Except, you’ll also get laughter, characters you actually care about and a vampire (try to guess which of the above three is the undead bloodsucker!). It’s a testament to how fun and crazy this show is that it had plenty of kinks to work out in its first season and it still lands this high in my happy TV cortex brain zone. I am told the events of season one are a prequel to the events in the comic books, which are an extended road trip. It’s completely batshit nuts a lot of the time, so if you’re a Fuller House type cat, this may be terrible. There is mind control, angels wearing cowboy hats, the most insane fight scene ever televised and flashbacks only explained at the last minute. I don’t know. I just want everyone to watch it with me. So fun.
Why You Missed It: Looked too weird, snuck under your radar since no one watches AMC since Breaking Bad and Mad Men ended
Show MVP: Ruth Negga’s Tulip (above, right); how is she not the biggest movie star alive?
Come For: Jesse Custer’s perpetually flawless coif, a ‘do unrivaled since John Dorian left our televisions
Stay For: The big reveal of what those 1800s flashbacks actually meant. SEASON TWO NOW, PLEASE
2. The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
This show won every conceivable Emmy for good reason. Every scene is an acting masterclass. Cuba Gooding, Jr. won an Academy Award and he is the worst actor on the screen. Every twist and turn of a story we all think we know by heart is revealed to have ramifications and aftershocks for more and more characters. The story is placed within the framework of the racial unrest of Los Angeles after Rodney King. I was extra fortunate to start watching this show with the bare minimum knowledge of the case; basically, the Bronco chase, the glove, and the acquittal. Every episode had six moments I thought “oh, no, they made that up for the show,” but Vanity Fair’s morning after “fact vs. fiction” articles proved it was all true. In the wake of the election, the show seems, in hindsight, like it was the perfect piece of storytelling to be released this year. In both situations, the right answer is evident to both warring parties. One side desperately and tactfully subverts the obvious, damning truths to achieve their own varying, personal goals. They also tap into a latent anger and weaponize it to affect the outcome. They bend and break the rules to win. The other side is fatally arrogant, resolute in the fact that they will be victorious because they know, objectively, that they are right. They drown in their own rising tide of complaints the other side didn’t play fair. In both scenarios, the loser is forced to wonder if the wrong decision was the inevitable one. The analogy isn’t as laughable as you may think.
Why You Missed It: The pretty fair assumption an O.J. Simpson TV show would be stupid, you assumed you already know everything there is to know about the case
Show MVP: Three-way tie: Sterling Brown’s Chris Darden (above), Courtney Vance’s Johnnie Cochrane, Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark (also above). All astonishing
Come For: The acting
Stay For: The episode ‘Marcia, Marcia, Marcia’
1. Atlanta, FX
I have changed the order of every show above this one twelve times. I have never even considered moving this one. Instantly one of my favorite TV shows ever made, it is hilarious, it is emotionally affecting, it sometimes exists in a magical realism dream state where a character says another one owns an invisible car (the payoff to which is the loudest I’ve laughed at a TV, possibly ever). Sometimes it follows a plot, sometimes it doesn’t even remember what the plot is. There’s a variety show episode with an animation sequence. There’s an episode where none of the main cast appears whatsoever. Justin Bieber is the focus of one episode you have to see to believe (trust me). It wins the blue ribbon for the quality of a show that I prize above all else, that you never want it to end because you always want to know what the characters are up to this week, even if it’s absolutely nothing, because they’re your friends? Because they’re so relatable? Because they’re funny and honest? I truly don’t know. I do not care. I raced home every Tuesday to hang out with them. I will re-watch it soon to catch fast-flying, great dialogue I missed . . . and just to hang out with them.
Why You Missed It: you don’t have cable, FX marketing had trouble selling what it was about, black people upset you in some fashion
Show MVP: my deepest apologies to Brian Tyree Henry (above, right), whose Paper Boi is the best character on TV this year, better than all of the incredible ones mentioned above . . . except for his co-star Keith Stansfield’s Darius (above, left). Darius is a force of nature
Come For: brilliant and weird commentary on race issues via incredibly funny and rich characters
Stay For: the Bieber episode, the ‘Montague’ episode, the Van episode, the club epi-
That was fun! What did I get wrong? What weird shows did you find this year? Fun!