Horace and Pete

Prior to counting the top 40 television programs of 2015, The A.V. Club issued the following disclaimer:

Any one critic’s list of a year’s best television is bound to have some blind spots, but the members of a voting body (like the A.V. Club staffers and contributors responsible for the following list) can usually fill in one another’s gaps. 2015, however, might be a first in television history, in which no roundup of the year’s finest programming is guaranteed to be all-encompassing.

Television production didn’t slow down in the 365 days that followed, so that preamble goes double for 2016. When one of the year’s smartest, most innovative comedic efforts was rushed out, two episodes a night, during a week when Americans were mostly busy gobbling turkey and elbowing each other for electronics deals, even the highlights are in danger of being overlooked.

But selective memory doesn’t invalidate lists like these. It makes them more valuable. In the time of Peak TV, curation is key—more options call for more guidance. The 30 shows that follow (15 today and 15 Wednesday) aren’t a complete map to everything that was great in this year in television, but rather The A.V. Club’s most enthusiastically endorsed points of interest. These are the dramas that let us see through other people’s eyes, the comedies that found laughter even in the most tragic of circumstances, and the topical late-night programs that pushed us to be a little less stupid. It’s the best TV of 2016 that The A.V. Club was able to see during 2016, though we’ll surely be catching up on the year’s other best TV well into 2017, 2018, 2019, and beyond.

30. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)

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The bad news is John Oliver and his writing team were unable to stop the rise of Donald Trump. But while some have criticized the show’s impotence in the face of a threat the entire political establishment was helpless to prevent, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver remains an entertaining and informative voice of reason in a largely maddening media landscape. Delivering lessons on topics that don’t always get the attention they deserve (from opioid abuse to planning for retirement to debt buyers), Last Week Tonight structures its top stories with clips from news programs, occasional interview spots, and the serious-serious-joke rhythm familiar to anyone who grew up watching sitcoms in the ’80s. The jokes don’t always land, but Oliver’s tone—a mixture of frustration, amusement, and occasional horror—holds it together with a sincerity and directness that never feels anything less than authentic. As the world descends still further into chaos, there’s something to be said for such straightforward sanity. [Zack Handlen]

29. Horace And Pete (Hulu)

Louis CK’s latest project was foremost an experiment. Part multi-camera TV drama, part Mike Leigh-esque stage play, part grab bag absurdist meditation on our current moment, the series subverted the traditional TV model through its independent production/distribution strategy and its complete lack of advertising. It was a uniquely exciting experience to watch on a weekly basis, mostly because there were no expectations codified and established beforehand. But if Horace And Pete was only a triumph of distribution, then it wouldn’t be one of 2016’s best creative endeavors. The series chronicled the last gasp of a dying, cancerous institution and the disastrous legacy it left behind through the behavior and actions of its owners and purveyors, a premise that has more resonance now than it did when it first “aired” at the end of January. Fiercely empathetic, unabashedly coarse, and proudly ambitious, Horace And Pete featured some of the best writing and performances of the year, but more than that, it felt utterly alive, as if the edges of the frame were vibrating in real time. It was a shot in the gut that took the form of an American tragedy about individuals who couldn’t outrun their fates. Louie might be in the rearview mirror, but there’s plenty of innovation on the horizon. [Vikram Murthi]

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28. Black Mirror (Netflix)

Charlie Brooker’s techno-chiller anthology series is at its best when it feels like it’s taking place about five minutes into the future, tweaking our 21st-century anxieties just enough to reveal the nightmares lurking beneath. By that metric, season three excelled from the start with “Nosedive,” in which Bryce Dallas Howard’s desperate efforts to keep her social media ratings in the acceptable range make for the year’s most queasily suspenseful hour. While Brooker remains a master of exploiting our darkest fears of the connected age (as in the terminally bleak “Shut Up And Dance”), it would be a huge mistake to reduce the show to a simplistic “technology is bad” message. In its finest hour, the transcendent “San Junipero,” the promise of genuine human connection facilitated by cutting-edge science is explored in heartrending fashion. Not all of the six new episodes hit such heights, but from the video-gaming gone awry of “Playtest” to the weaponized comments sections of “Hated In The Nation,” Black Mirror remains essential viewing for our uncertain times. [Scott Von Doviak]

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27. Girls (HBO)

It took Marnie falling apart for Girls to really get its shit together. The 10-episode fifth season of the Lena Dunham vehicle was Girls’ best season since its first, with each of the show’s actors delivering some of their best work. While Dunham’s Hannah Horvath struggled to make it work with square peg Fran (Jake Lacy), her ex, Adam (Adam Driver), takes up with Hannah’s BFF, Jessa (Jemima Kirke). Their relationship is both painstakingly slow and feverish, leaving the actors plenty of room to really find their characters. While Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) flounders in Japan—a B-story that really took off in episode five, “Queen For Two Days”—it’s Marnie (Allison Williams) who really nailed the meat of this season. Going through both a marriage and a separation, Marnie’s psychoses run the gamut, and Williams shines throughout. Episode six, “The Panic In Central Park,” where Marnie’s ex, Charlie, returns, is a must-watch. [Marah Eakin]

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26. Black-ish (ABC)

Television has attempted to grapple with police brutality in recent years, largely on dramas that borrow storylines from current events, like Scandal, The Good Wife, and CSI: Cyber. But the only television show to capture the nuance, complexity, and anguish of anti-black policing is Black-ish. ABC’s family sitcom had already managed to avoid a sophomore slump, but in the back half of its second season, the show delivered “Hope,” one of 2016’s best television episodes and a perfect representation of Black-ish’s strengths. Black-ish often uses conventional family-sitcom plot devices and structures, but because the show stays committed to using those devices and structures to explore black family life and racial themes, it remains unlike any other sitcom on television. “Hope” is one of Black-ish’s greatest achievements, but it’s one special episode among a whole slew of brilliant ones. In season three, the show continues to grow, recently handing off the voice-over reins to Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross, who is one of the most captivating physical comedians on network television) for a sharp, layered episode about interracial dating. Black-ish treats these complicated themes with depth and conviction, because at the end of the day, it’s always about the characters. [Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya]

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25. Search Party (TBS)

The promos for Search Party didn’t inspire confidence: Some self-involved Manhattan twentysomethings led around by Alia Shawkat seek a fellow millennial (who they barely know) who’s gone missing. But executive producer Michael Showalter showed again why he’s so very good at what he does. He and writers Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers crafted a riveting mystery, in which the Greek chorus of these narcissistic investigators (Meredith Hagner and John Early) offered much more mirth than annoyance. Vets like Parker Posey and Ron Livingston are always going to bring it, but Shawkat was an out-and-out revelation. As her Dory became obsessed with the disappearance, it became more difficult to accurately gauge the level of danger she was in. Was Dory on the track of something sinister? Or was she just trying to create a sense of purpose in her achingly aimless life? Search Party kept us guessing until the very last second, while simultaneously leaving the door open for a whole new level of drama in a possible second season. And TBS’ simultaneous online-binge/two-episodes-a-night release made it easy for those absorbed by the mystery to ride it out all the way to the end. [Gwen Ihnat]

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24. Stranger Things (Netflix)

The internet has become one big nostalgia cycle, so it would be easy to dismiss Stranger Things as the product of a 1980s obsession that just won’t quit. But the Duffer Brothers created a pastiche of horror and sci-fi tropes that felt at once familiar and fresh, in no small part due to a compelling mystery and excellent acting turns by its cast—from both those who actually experienced the ’80s and those who didn’t. Winona Ryder brought her characteristic ability to appear both vulnerable and brittle to Joyce Byers, a woman so driven to find her missing son that she plunges into an unknown oblivion in search of him. Newcomer Millie Bobby Brown stunned as the mysterious, powerful child whose escape from an ominous facility kicks off Stranger Things’ plot. Rather than an episodic TV show, Stranger Things felt like an eight-hour movie, and that structure propelled viewers from one episode to the next. Stranger Things had its issues, but it was something that a lot of prestige TV forgets to be in this day and age: really fun to watch. [Molly Eichel]

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23. Better Things (FX)

Pamela Adlon’s contribution to Peak TV is a biting, female-driven comedy about motherhood that doesn’t revolve around rote lessons and martyrdom. The series, which Adlon co-created and produced, also frequently plays up its dramatic component: In the first season, there were storylines about feminism and what it’s like to be a working actor, sometimes in the same episode. Better Things also featured a family of multifaceted women at nearly all stages in life, who explored their agency and desirability. The matriarchal role was a star-making turn for Adlon, who has a litany of voice credits to her name but was previously best known as a supporting player. As Sam Fox, Adlon was tasked with the juggling of career and family that’s expected of all working mothers, but she brought a lot more to the role than self-sacrifice and a minivan. Sam’s flaws and insecurities were on full display, as was her utter devotion to her three daughters. It wasn’t a one-woman show, though: Celia Imrie, who plays Sam’s mother, Phyl, was a comedic eye-opener. And as Sam’s daughters, Hannah Alligood, Mikey Madison, and Olivia Edward managed to give their mom hell without completely losing audience sympathy. [Danette Chavez]

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22. The Night Of (HBO)

Richard Price likely leaped at the opportunity to adapt Criminal Justice based on its synopsis alone: Peter Moffat’s British miniseries follows one man through the entire justice system, a topic that Price had already thoroughly dissected in his novel Clockers and in so many episodes of The Wire. But Price’s American adaptation, The Night Of (co-written with Oscar winner Steve Zaillian), is so much more than its elevator pitch, homing in on the metamorphoses of the supporting characters as well as the accused. Yes, it’s the protagonist—a Pakistani-American man named Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed)—who’s at the center of a legal cyclone after being suspected of murdering a young woman during a night he can’t remember. And yes, it’s Naz who undergoes the most obvious transformation, physically and mentally steeling himself while he’s incarcerated so he can survive. But his journey also has severe effects on his attorney (an eccentrically weary John Turturro), his parents (Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan), and his mentor in prison (Michael K. Williams). Even the detective that put him there (Bill Camp) starts to question his once-unwavering faith in Naz’s guilt. In that way, The Night Of shows the vampiric effects of a high-profile court case, how it saps the energy and permanently alters all involved. When it’s over, how has it changed the characters’ views on race? On police? On family, on romance, on convicted criminals? Soberly presented with almost no stylization, all of these storylines depict the justice system as a dulled meat grinder—not chewing people up and spitting them out as much as slowly eating away at them over long periods of time. [Dan Caffrey]

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21. Jane The Virgin (The CW)

With vivid color schemes and giddy joy in its own silliness, Jane The Virgin has a buoyancy even in moments of gravity. Gina Rodriguez anchors the high-flying zaniness of this universe with her sweet, smart, luminous portrayal of Jane Villanueva, the titular virgin accidentally inseminated in season one. This year, the show transcended not just its high-concept premise but the seeming limitations of its title. Wedded and bedded, Jane is a virgin no more, and the show’s emotional beats remain as strong as ever. Grounding the story in honest emotion (and honestly emotional performances from its ensemble) allows Jane The Virgin to explore the farthest-fetched plots from the telenovelas and bodice rippers it simultaneously celebrates and sends up. But mastery of familiar genres isn’t the only savvy touch. The fourth-wall-breaking Latin Lover Narrator (Anthony Mendez) could be the voice of ironic distance, but his fervor makes him as invested as any viewer, welcoming us into this wacky world with the enthusiasm of a fan, not an omniscient observer. With its delicate balance of soapy absurdity and rock-solid reality, Jane The Virgin knows a show doesn’t have to be gritty or glum to be smart and subversive. [Emily L. Stephens]

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20. Fleabag (Amazon)

The first time Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) turns to the camera, you’d be forgiven for groaning inwardly, but all fears disappear precisely three minutes and two seconds into the proceedings—when she arrives at “Do I have a massive arsehole?” Created by Waller-Bridge and inspired by her play of the same name, Fleabag takes the breaking of the fourth wall and turns it into a device that’s as filled with pathos as it is cringe-inducing oversharing. There’s a reason for all that direct address, and it changes the role of the audience from observer to one half of an admittedly one-sided friendship. To spoil it would be a crime, so let’s put it this way: The camera fills a void in Fleabag’s life, and it’s that underlying loneliness that brings the show together. Waller-Bridge knows exactly what she’s doing, and in her capable hands, Fleabag lands like a punch to the gut, a pitch-black comedy that will rip your heart out if you’re not careful. [Allison Shoemaker]

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19. Lady Dynamite (Netflix)

With comics everywhere baring their souls in lightly fictionalized autobiographical sitcoms post-Louie, it takes a lot to stand out. Mining the contrast between onstage mirth-maker and personal train wreck has proved potently revealing for the likes of Aziz Ansari, Marc Maron, Tig Notaro, and Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher. But no one has made the battle more wrenchingly affecting and delightfully loopy than prodigiously talented and candid-about-her-troubles stand-up Maria Bamford. Lady Dynamite documents the Bammer’s attempts to find the usual balance between artistic integrity and commercial success (equal parts helped and hindered by her neurotic but loving agent, a brilliant Fred Melamed); her wary, hopeful search for love (she dates not one, but two characters played by former onscreen Supermen); and the comic’s real-life battles with serious depression (even, in blue-tinted flashbacks, institutionalization). With her drawn, tired face and prodigious gifts for eccentric mimicry, there’s a manic, desperate joy to Bamford’s stand-up, a quality carried over through the series’ 12 episodes. A parade of uniformly outstanding guests, fantasy sequences, showbiz satire, and a talking pug that sounds like Werner Herzog, Lady Dynamite is as thrillingly inventive and searchingly honest as Bamford herself. [Dennis Perkins]

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18. Silicon Valley (HBO)

Richard Hendricks watches in horror as a focus-group respondent describes his difficulty with the Pied Piper compression platform. “It said stuff was on my phone and my iPad, but when I looked at the memory, it said ‘0k used.’ So stuff wasn’t on there,” the user says. This, naturally, sends Richard into an apoplectic fit—not just because the young software engineer is prone to apoplexy (marvelously underplayed by Thomas Middleditch), but because he too is in a situation where he owns something but data indicates that he doesn’t possess it. This is the driving paradox of Silicon Valley’s third season, in which ownership and control (or at least the appearance thereof) cause characters to undermine shortsighted bosses, pay exorbitant amounts of hush money, and refuse to bury highly visible (and no-longer-living) symbols of their hubris. Characters are humiliated in front of horses riding each other and in costumes that make them look like they’re riding a horse, and although nobody on screen appears to have a firm grip on the reins, that’s clearly not the case with the show’s creative core. Three years on, showrunner Alec Berg and company are still finding imaginative ways in which the Pied Piper guys can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and if the hard reset of the season-three finale is any indication, their reserves of comedic comeuppance and colorful insults are nowhere near 0k. [Erik Adams]

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17. Game Of Thrones (HBO)

Considering Game Of Thrones has earned a spot on our Best Of TV list every year since its debut, it’s not exactly shocking that we’re celebrating it again this year. But the show’s sixth season marked a new era for the bloody HBO darling. For the first time ever, Game Of Thrones worked entirely outside the pages of George R.R. Martin’s novels, putting readers and non-readers on the same foot. That collective sense of unknown made its surprises all the more satisfying. From a major character return to an emotional sibling reunion, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss began to offer concrete narrative momentum after several seasons that frequently felt like they were spinning their wheels (Dorne, anyone?). The brutal, fan-theory-bolstering finale explicitly set the stage for the show’s protracted climax (13 episodes split across two seasons). While the big, showstopping “Battle Of The Bastards” failed to fully recapture the magic of season five’s “Hardhome,” the show soared in moments of more intimate human drama, like Hodor’s big scene in “The Door.” And after years of critique over its overuse of nudity and sexual violence, Game Of Thrones finally found ways to empower its female characters rather than just traumatize them. [Caroline Siede]

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16. You’re The Worst (FXX)

A year ago, this FXX comedy elevated itself by exploring the root causes of its characters’ self-destructive behavior, committing to a complex consideration of Gretchen’s depression that won numerous accolades and deepened the show’s central relationship. While You’re The Worst couldn’t match that accomplishment in season three, it continually demonstrated that it was not content to coast on it. In addition to Gretchen’s time in therapy and expanding the existing thread of Edgar’s PTSD, the show put each of its characters under the microscope, becoming Therapy: The Sitcom as Jimmy struggled with his father’s death and Lindsay dealt with the consequences of her choice to reunite with Paul. The show retained its bawdy rhythms throughout the season, yet it was always looking for new ways to test itself, whether in its character arcs or risky decisions, like episodes focused exclusively on two recurring characters or composed entirely of long shots. The result may have lacked both the novelty of the first season and the clarity of the second, but there remains an emotional depth to the conflicts that drive the show’s comedy that has never diminished, reinforced by an ending that affirmed the show’s status as one of TV’s finest tragicomic investigations of human relationships. [Myles McNutt]

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Tomorrow: The top 15 shows of the year.