In 2016, the chasm between television and cinema became ever smaller: production values increased while channels took hugely expensive risks on audacious ventures, adaptations and new, offbeat ideas. There were a great wealth of shows catering to every demographic, which allowed both cable and streaming channels to expand ever further. As we move into 2017 – with the promise of returning titans like Fargo and The Leftovers – television seems to be on an unbeatable roll, with absolutely no signs of slowing.
Here are the Top 10 shows that beat away the competition and provided the most entertainment, joy and heartache than any other. Of course there will be spoilers.
10. Preacher – Season 1
I can count the number of graphic novels I’ve read on one hand, and Garth Ennis’ Preacher – a West-Texan fantasy following Jessie Custer as he deals with accidental possession – isn’t one of them. Tongue-in-cheek to the extreme, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s adaptation takes this celestial plot through unexpected surprises as Custer contends with a cattle-slaughtering tycoon and two haphazard debt-collecting angels while the same time befriending an angst-ridden teen aptly called ‘Arseface’, a centuries-old Irish vampire (played with comical gusto by This Is England‘s Joe Gilgun), and a former ex-con lover Tulip (the terrific Ruth Negga). The story is berserk, and the route it takes to get to the fateful finale serves up handfuls of impressively choreographed violence (the motel scene in ‘Sundowner’ is a major highlight) whilst gradually advancing the lore of Custer’s power and the dark history of the small Texan town (often shown in bafflingly ominous cold-opens). Preacher is a darkly funny, hugely fun mix of good vs evil (vs evil), with an abundance of stylish violence, moral quandaries, and a New Testament kind of character mythologies thrown into a successful mix. Season 1 wipes its slate in the muck, taking to the road to spread the gospel and combat immortal fallen souls in a tantalising end.
9. Westworld – Season 1
Before it’s premiere in October, much was speculated about Westworld and its troubled, lengthy development: from last minute rewrites, to controversy surrounding the nudity of its cast of hundreds, there was no shortage of think pieces and scrutiny before the first episode had even aired. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s epic science fantasy deployed a labyrinthine structure to its hunt for the centre of a maze, with an absurd number of narrative threads and twists that allowed for constant speculation and theorising. Westworld‘s strength was that it was never not intriguing, and even during wavering moments of plate-spinning and it’s slow-burning, often confusing parallel narratives, these strands were mostly always rewarding of patience. A few late-act turns reinvigorated its mystery when it was at risk of becoming stale sustained by some career-best performances from Hopkins and Wright, and a lot of tremendously satisfying puzzle pay-offs.There’s only so much obtuse storytelling that one can sit through without conclusive ends, so here’s hoping Season 2 maintains this intrigue without burying itself with a constant withholding of information.
8. Stranger Things – Season 1
There’s been so much written about Stranger Things since it’s release in July that it has become something that need not be reviewed: watched by everyone, adored by all, it was quite probably one of the most talked about shows of the year (tied with my #9). Matt and Ross Duffer have created a gorgeously victorious throwback to the 1980s: fully embracing of its forebears yet entirely respectful of the genres that granted its existence, this atmospheric-as-hell sci-fi tale overtakes most era tributes due its perfect casting of the central characters. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) and co. repeatedly out-act their elders, which is even more notable when these elders are uniformly fantastic (though I think I’m in the minority when I say that Winona Ryder, with her exaggerated gesticulating, was poorly cast), addressing their bewildered excitement, fear, and curious, Stand By Me pact-nature to a mysterious conclusion. They’re nearly all at the dawn of their careers, and by the strengths of this alone, they’ll most certainly go far. Stranger Things doesn’t really require a second series, but as long as the Duffer’s have their minds on the prize and don’t buckle to the demands of the internet, there’s no reason why it can’t be as good as the first.
7. Atlanta – Season 1
2016 had so many worthwhile comedy-dramas – Zach Galifianakis’ peculiar Baskets, as well as the always appealing Pamela Adlon’s Better Things to name two – but there were few that mixed subtle, simplistic stories with astute laugh-out-loud humour as sharply as Atlanta. Coming from nowhere in the last quarter of the year, by the season’s end it had certified itself as a must-watch, becoming one of the most eccentric and subdued comedies of the year. Featuring all-around brilliant casting, Atlanta had a surprising ace up its sleeve: creator and writer Donald Glover. Glover’s goofiness in Community felt overblown to the point of fatigue, but here, his understated mumblecore chops work to his benefit, often effortlessly, and regularly funny. This suburban comedy brings a huge amount of chemistry to its art vs commerce narrative, with smatterings of unusual visual flourishes and a down-to-earth, trenchant style of comedy that made it a slight, refreshing, and completely rewatchable debut season.
6. Silicon Valley – Season 3
The third season of HBO’s tech start-up comedy Silicon Valley is as consistently side-splitting as ever: eternally putting the smartest idiots around – led by Thomas Middleditch’s Richard Hendricks – through the ringer, snatching victories away at the last possible second in plausibly written, and head-smackingly inane moments of personal and monetary vanity. Hendricks and his band of merry programmers are once again at the whim of countless external sources: humiliated at every turn by their own hubris, and yet, all completely likable in their own idiosyncratic way, but it’s the crack team of writers that continue to animate these scripts with a genuine whip-smartness that elevates it above nearly all other situational comedies. Every character is fully formed: their egotistical behaviours and their selfish deeds really shouldn’t garner much sympathy, but their situations are given such a breadth of understandable human desperation with the constant, unspoken desire to do right by each other (except maybe T. J. Miller’s Ehrlich) that their major failures feel mostly undeserved. Silicon Valley continues to be an acerbically self-aware satire populated with the idiots and megalomaniacs of the tech industry that is arguably Mike Judge’s finest work.
5. The People vs. O.J. Simpson: An American Crime Story – Season 1
One of the biggest surprises of the year came in the form of a 21-year-old case that has been examined and dissected innumerable times (including the expansive archival documentary O.J.: Made in America released throughout June), but fortunately this anthology series found a fascinating way to wring constant thrills from the meticulously crafted specifics: by not leaving out a single detail or triviality. Each episode dazzled with its accuracy to the high-profile case (watch side-by-side videos of this dramatisation and real courtroom videos: every movement, facial tick or stutter has been replicated to astonishing effect), and avoided retrying the infamous celebrity under the guise of a drama, but rather investigated the system and the forces that allowed the man to walk free of the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. It’s frustrating to watch because we know exactly where the story takes us, but the journey is absolutely fascinating and every cast member (yep, even John Travolta and his ridiculous hairpiece) played to their very best, with Sarah Paulson’s turn as lead prosecutor Marcia Clarke being the undeniable MVP. It was a one-off season of riveting procedural drama that never pretended to know more than its audience, instead being a fantastic dramatised history lesson without ever lapsing into tedium.
4. Better Call Saul – Season 2
The second year in a row that Breaking Bad successor Better Call Saul is high on my list, and it continues to break free of those weighty chains: fast becoming a more intriguing, and far stronger story than Walter White’s ever was. Slippin’ Jimmy McGill continues his spiral toward the awkward persona we know and love – as well as his future monochromatic Cinnabon managing alter ego, Gene -continuing with his duplicitous, manipulative and pathetic attorney-for-hire schtick in defiance of the companies and clients that screw him over. Season 2 ups the verbal sparring between his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) and his on-off girlfriend/co-partner Kim (Rhea Seehorn), as well as handing fans and newcomers alike an incredibly airtight story that ambushes your expectations by taking choosing unforeseen paths for each arc. Before Better Call Saul had even started, most were concerned with just how McGill would fade away and become Goodman, but now we’re two seasons in, the show has forged its own way into being a fantastic and vital piece of serial drama. I’ve every faith that Vince Gilligan will pull it off, and that’s something I never should have doubted.
3. You’re The Worst – Season 3
If there’s one sitcom that deserves the most love, yet has struggled to find a true audience, it’s this one. Following two thirty-something arseholes and their equally woeful friends, we’re privy to their relationship as it grows, buckles, swells and breaks over three seasons. You’re the Worst is the finest, funniest, and most heartbreakingly authentic comedy on TV in years. Season 2 ended with a teary admittance of love, casting our characters into a brand new light for Season 3: this time around each of our characters get their episode under the microscope so we can get more acquainted with their wretched – but chiefly justifiable – egotism as slowly disintegrates their relationships. We have Gretchen (Aya Cash) a music PR executive on a path of crippling depression and self-destruction; Jimmy (Chris Geere), the hugely insensitive author of sleazy erotic novels dealing with familial animosity and death; and then there’s the PTSD survivor Edgar (Desmin Borges, whose solo episode is a year-best) and improv comedian girlfriend Dorothy (Collette Wolfe) and cuckholding, emotionally manipulating couple Lindsay and Paul (Kether Donohue and Allan McLeod). While each story could be seen as generic on paper, they’re written with such understanding and empathy for human nature that they become the most well-rounded characters from a single-camera comedy on a major network. Season 3 was a hugely experimental season too, with the aforementioned isolated stories interweaving with previously seen moments, a single-shot, one-location episode, and a well handled and well-mannered approach to the manifestations of anxiety and selfish behaviours. You’re the Worst is a must-see for everyone with an iota of compassion for things we pretend to hate, but are actually the things that keep us together.
2. Horace and Pete – Season 1
Louis C.K.’s exploratory Horace and Pete snuck onto our schedules in January with no prior announcement: a surprise release with no fanfare that felt less a TV show and more a theatrical stage play, with live, fluid movements and real-time human interactions. A sitcom without a laugh track, a drama without spectacle, and a window to a stage without farce or melodrama, it dipped into racism, politics, and familial relationships in such an organic and truthful way that made it rise above almost all other TV this year. This unexpected, one-season story revolved around a generational establishment (the titular Horace and Pete’s, a Cheers-like bar with little cheer) whose bad blood and bickering suffused every episode with a desperation that was tough to watch, but the fearlessness with which it portrayed its subjects distinguished itself from the crowd. In 10 episodes it only once left the bar making it one of the most unforgettable single-location dramas that was as innovative in its use of space as it was conscious of real world events (supposedly, each episode was finished within a week, with each script having placeholder conversation points in order to match that which was happening in real time). By the end, Horace and Pete governed that you can’t outrun the mistakes of the past, but by offering small glimpses of the future, it never once lost hope.
1. Rectify – Season 4
As if it were any surprise, Ray McKinnon’s amazing southern gothic Rectify is my top pick of TV in 2016. I’ve been singing its praises now for 4 years, telling all who would listen to check out this unfeasibly beautiful show. This season, we followed Daniel Holden to a half-way house as his family coped with his departure: broken down marriages, crises of faith and business buy-outs uniting the core threads of this sublimely muted show. As I’ve said before, Rectify expertly weaves relatable tragedies with dramatised ones, which adds to the feeling that its not just a drama, but a true snapshot into the lives of one family, and those this high-profile, decades-old case affected. Season 4 – which sadly, is its final season – gave us a conclusion that wasn’t so much a definitive end, but rather one that works entirely in the context of the show’s taciturn, soft nature. As Daniel dreams of a future for the first time since his release from death row, the credits roll. Without pomp, flair or melodrama, we get to say goodbye to Rectify for the last time. It’s a stunning piece of TV that breaks your heart and then some, but also gives closure to a life that had been stolen in the most breathtakingly delicate way that one can imagine. Not only is it the best show of 2016, it gets the prestige honour of being in the Top 5 of the best TV shows ever made.
Though this Top 10 is definitive, there are double the number of shows that are completely worth your time: from one-off mini-series, returning greats, and brand new properties that made it difficult whittling it down to such a standard number. These honourable mentions include The Night Of (absorbing procedural with a fantastic turn from Riz Ahmed), The Eric Andre Show (which continues its reign of terror over unsuspecting Z-list guests), BoJack Horseman (often funny yet consistently gut-wrenching in its candidacy to addiction), Search Party (Alia Shawkat finally gets a lead role in this dark Nancy Drew-alike whodunit); Mr. Robot (Season 2’s domination over experimental storytelling is like no other); Banshee (majestic, The Raid-style choreography with action set pieces to rival Hollywood); and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (the best cast of dickheads since Seinfeld stays strong in its 11th season).There are loads more, but part of the excitement is discovering a gem for yourself, then turning all who will listen toward it.
Check back tomorrow for the Top 10 TV Episodes of 2016.
BFSR Award illustration header by cal.con.
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