What’s missing from our list of 2016’s best TV shows?
Of the shows I watch that didn’t make the cut, the one I’ll go to the mat for is Ash Vs. Evil Dead. In its second season, this remains the single fastest, grossest, most entertaining half hour on television. What can you say about a series whose own logo shows the screen being covered in blood and guts? In some ways, the show feels like a mutated version of You Can’t Do That On Television, only with entrails instead of slime. It would be tempting to say that Ash Vs. Evil Dead is just a thrill ride, a drive-in splatter-fest doled out in 30-minute increments. But there’s real storytelling at the core. This season, we’ve seen Ash (the superb Bruce Campbell) come to grips with his past, returning to his hometown and even (briefly) making amends with his estranged father. It could have been a carnival geek show, but the series has characters and plots worth following.
Sure, it may not have reached the delirious highs of its first year, but the sophomore season of Mr. Robot continued to deliver some of the most bold and inventive storytelling on television. (Warning: There are spoilers for season one herein, so go watch it first, like we told you to last year.) It’s understandable why the first half of this year turned some people off: Once again, we couldn’t trust our own eyes, as the unreliable narrator played with Emmy-winning intensity by Rami Malek resumed his mind games with the audience, raising as many questions as they answered. But get past the surface-level trolling job, and the deception was essential to the story, as fundamental to the fractured hacker’s psyche as his imaginary companion, Mr. Robot (Christian Slater). The show’s Gordian knot of criss-crossing narrative threads is kept afloat by the phenomenal performances, but it would all come crashing down without Sam Esmail’s painstaking attention to detail. Plus, it’s so distinctive as to now be ripe for parody, but the cinematography remains some of the most striking on TV.
While there is part of me that really wants to slot 90 Day Fiance into this, I understand that while that horrible exercise in exploitation might be super entertaining, it does not qualify as “good” under any known definition. So I am going to give this slot instead to the final season of Comedy Bang! Bang! The show has always been gleefully experimental to an almost avant-garde degree, but as it neared the end, Comedy Bang! Bang! just got crazier and crazier and crazier. From week to week, Comedy Bang! Bang! could be an entirely different show, and it was never afraid to devote an entire episode to a bizarre digression, like Slow Joey—a supporting character played by Haley Joel Osment—starring in a 1970s-style nautical sitcom. “Weird Al” Yankovic proved a predictably perfect sidekick/foil for Scott Aukerman. While I’m bummed the show is ending, I’m glad we got 110 episodes of such inspired lunacy.
I’ve got to lend my support to The Crown. I understand the days of rabid Anglophilia and Downton Abbey fandom are over, but I truly believe this manifestation of Peter Morgan’s obsession with the royal family is special TV. Yes, it’s packed with artful melodrama—and corgis—but it’s sneakily political, exploring both the monarch’s power and in some cases her futility. It’s also, naturally, gorgeous to look at and filled with the kind of top-notch performances you expect from the Brits and John Lithgow, who crossed the pond to play Winston Churchill. Claire Foy, who does most of the heavy lifting as Elizabeth II, is one of my new favorite actresses. Long live the Queen.
Baskets just narrowly missed inclusion on my ballot—and truth be told, it came quite close to falling off my TV rotation entirely in its earliest weeks. It wasn’t until the episode “Uncle Dad” that the FX series stopped seeming like a show about Zach Galifianakis being a blustering dick to everyone—a formula that was fitfully funny, but not exactly built to last—and started to reveal some sympathy for its own characters, even the ones that initially seemed like the broadest, most unlikable caricatures. By season’s end, Baskets had taken the story of a pretentious rodeo clown and his twit twin brother, his Costco-loving mother (played with disarming subtlety by Louie Anderson), their professional DJ adopted twin brothers, and assorted other people in their orbit bordering on the absurd and make you feel for all them, even giving Galifianakis’ dickishness some heartbreaking context. If the show continues along that trajectory, I fully expect its second season to make the cut next year.
I’m a fan of period dramas and Victorian/Gothic literature in equal measure, so for three years Showtime’s Penny Dreadful scratched my particular itch. This show was always something of a narrative mess, and it didn’t correct that in its final year, but once again the performances and the visuals were so overwhelming and immersive that they covered a lot of flaws. So many compelling scenes and stories played out this year, be it Lily (Billie Piper) rising and falling in her newfound immortality, the Creature (Rory Kinnear) heartbreakingly trying to reconnect with his long-forgotten family, or Brian Cox and Timothy Dalton chewing scenery back and forth as they fought over Ethan (Josh Hartnett). And any discussion of the year’s best episodes needs to include “A Blade Of Grass,” a masterful showcase for the unmatched intensity Eva Green brought to the show, as Vanessa Ives waged her doomed battle against evil. Its tragic finale was of a piece with the series, even though creator John Logan’s reassurances that this was the intended ending felt hollow in the context of all the loose story threads. Here’s hoping the upcoming comic book continuation manages to pick up the slack.
RuPaul’s Drag Race had been pushing through the growing pains faced by so many aging reality shows: a shallower talent pool, players who know how to play the game all too well, and a lack of fresh ideas. But this year, RuPaul came roaring back with not one, but two fabulous seasons. Season eight saw an exceedingly strong class, even though eventual victor Bob The Drag Queen was a foregone conclusion as soon as he appeared wearing his first catsuit. The hillbilly chic of Chi Chi DeVayne and the fat, fem, and Asian Kim Chi are personalities that deserve a place in the Drag Race hall of fame. If that wasn’t enough, Ms. Charles sicced All Stars 2—one of the strongest season’s in the show’s history—on us. A format change (the winner of the lip-sync challenge chose who was getting sent home that week) was an unexpected twist that created some delicious drama among the universally strong set of queens. Those sent home were often booted on technicalities or for having the wrong loyalties rather than for lack of talent, and it was stunning watching these ladies slay week after week. Now, for the love of god, can we get Willam back please?
I’d never argue that BrainDead should be in the upper reaches of a year-end best-of list. (Full disclosure: It didn’t make my own top 15.) But if we’re talking about television that’s likely to delight and amaze the pop culture scholars of the far-flung future, I think that one day it’s going to flummox a lot of folks to learn that in the summer of 2016—toward the end of the darkest, weirdest presidential election of the mass-media age—a major network aired a show about how Washington, D.C. had been overrun my mind-controlling alien bugs that heightened everyone’s partisan political leanings. Though at times creators Robert and Michelle King (fresh from The Good Wife) seemed more interested in being wacky than in making a cogent point or even in telling a fully thought-through story, their characters were genuinely likable, and their quirky touches (like the Jonathan Coulton-sung recaps, or the way that the aliens only listened to The Cars’ “You Might Think”) were consistently original and delightful. More importantly, as blunt as BrainDead could be, in retrospect it was maybe the most honest TV series of the year when it came to explaining how hardened and bitter our ideological divisions have become.
I didn’t see quite enough to feel qualified to contribute a list of the best TV of the year, but my colleagues’ canon is the best in the business. (Hey, we’re post-conflict-of-interest.) I particularly enjoyed seeing its inclusion of Black Mirror, whose Sapphic sci-fi “San Junipero” is one of the ecstatic highs of the year, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which gave us a bisexual man and gave him a solid relationship. But gay romance is largely getting squeezed out of traditional TV: Low-rated Looking concluded with a movie; Please Like Me parent Pivot folded (stranding it stateside until a recent deal with Hulu); The Outs returned online after four years to find a whole rainbow of worthy queer webseries. So it’s all the more gratifying to see the commercial survival and creative thriving of The Real O’Neals, a very funny family sitcom built on a too-rare premise: It’s told from the perspective of a gay man. Well, a gay teenager, Kenny O’Neal (Noah Galvin), who lives somewhere in between United States Of Tara’s wry Marshall Gregson and Glee’s theatrical Kurt Hummel. With Martha Plimpton and Jay R. Ferguson at his flank, The Real O’Neals is a terrific family sitcom, classic television that could hardly have been made until now.
Speaking of conflicts of interest: Who In The World Is Cameron Esposito? recently returned to the pages of The A.V. Club, after a year-plus hiatus that involved, among other projects, the first season of Seeso’s Take My Wife. Given that link between comedian and publication, I was a little uneasy about including the show in my top 15, but then again: 1) I don’t know Esposito personally, 2) I’m not involved in editing her column, and 3) I loved the first season of the sitcom she and Rhea Butcher made about their lives as comics who happen to be spouses and spouses who happen to be comics. Semi-autobiographical examinations of stand-up scenes are a dime a dozen these days, but Take My Wife distinguishes itself by depicting the effects that Esposito and Butcher’s line of work has on their relationship. On top of idle chatter about celebrity crushes and anxiety about financial debts, the domestic-comedy concerns of Take My Wife are shot through with the tension of one partner reaching new professional heights while the other struggles to get her career off the ground. Each is on her own trajectory, and that gives the first season a pair of strong ongoing storylines, but Take My Wife really shines when those storylines lead Esposito and Butcher to the same stage.
It’s time to pour one out for Togetherness. The Duplass brothers’ HBO dramedy was canceled due to low ratings, even after what our own Erik Adams correctly called “a near-perfect second season.” Why was it so good? Really, it’s the amazing cast and their ability to reach emotional depths while portraying engaging and believable character arcs. A personal favorite is Tina’s (the amazing Amanda Peet) transformation from aimless to purposeful, channeling her ferocious fearlessness into figuring out what she wants in life beyond a lackluster romantic relationship. It’s the perfect show to binge if you’re looking to settle into the doldrums of winter but also make it out alive—there are only 16 episodes, so you should be able to escape the sorrowful skew of onscreen adult responsibilities relatively unscathed.
High Maintenance was a particularly high-profile webseries, as far as webseries go, but it received a decidedly low-profile launch by HBO standards this fall, and only had six weeks to make an impression. But in those six weeks, show creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld continued to explore the simple story potential in following a New York City weed dealer (Sinclair’s “Guy”) through an unexpected collection of customers. While the format means that there’s no clear “seriality” to speak of, the six episodes grow increasingly complex, expanding the world of the show in unexpected ways: An entire episode is told from the perspective of a dog (the sublime “Grandpa,” one of my favorite episodes of the year); a character from the webseries—Heidi—re-enters Guy’s life unexpectedly; and in the finale we get a story that’s about Guy and his own life, pulling back the layers on this cipher in new ways. While suddenly a small fish in a big pond, High Maintenance still struck me as one of the most ambitious projects of the year, and I’m eager for another hit (and proud I went this long before using a weed pun, you’re welcome).
The Great British Bake Off is not prestige TV. But it’s the show I looked forward to the most in 2016, a year when reality provided more than enough drama. With its enormous charm, sharp editing, and emphasis on quality bakes over humiliating contestants, the Bake Off is an antidote to antagonism and divisiveness. That’s not to mention its diversity in contestants, knowledgable judges, and hosts who never fail to devise bake-based puns. To watch an hour is to step away from gritty reality and gritty television and into the warm sugar-scented tent where people come together over a love of baking.
Reality television may not hold the same position in our schedules as it once did, but in 2016 Survivor once again made its claim as not only the best reality show on TV but also one of the best TV shows period. Survivor aired two seasons in 2016, and both stand to go down as some of the best the show has ever offered. While Survivor: Millennials Vs. Gen X is still playing out, the season has escaped its horrendous gimmick and instead come down to some great gameplay and intense challenges, with many worthy competitors fighting for the million dollars. That said, Survivor: Kaôh Rōng is the year’s highlight, a season stacked with a compelling and entertaining cast, and one of the all-time great Tribal Council blindsides to boot. Stellar gameplay and cast aside, Survivor continues to prove that few shows understand editing and pacing the way it does. Challenges and Tribal Council are edited to keep you on the edge of your seat, and a perfectly timed cut to a confessional or offhand comment can suddenly shed a new light on the dynamic between the players. Survivor understands what makes for great reality TV: colorful characters and a healthy dose of emotional manipulation through editing. Never change, Survivor.
The discussion around Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s second season mostly centered on its tone-deaf third episode, which took a meta swipe at complaints over the show’s casting of Jane Krakowski as an (intentionally) white-washed Native American woman. To be clear, “Kimmy Goes To A Play!” is a disappointing misstep that’s definitely worth calling out. But what got lost in the shuffle is that Kimmy Schmidt’s sophomore outing is otherwise pretty phenomenal. More structurally and thematically ambitious than the first, Kimmy Schmidt’s second season maintains a madcap comedic energy while seriously exploring Kimmy’s trauma at having been held hostage for half of her life. Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Jane Krakowski, and Carol Kane all get strong season-long arcs to dig into while Anna Camp and Tina Fey turn in great recurring guest performances. But it’s Lisa Kudrow’s appearance in the rollercoaster-filled season finale that really clinches Kimmy Schmidt as one of the best shows of 2016.
Wow, guys. I thought Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was such a foregone conclusion that I didn’t even notice its absence from the master list! So I agree with Caroline, but with that pick taken (y’all really think Veep is funnier than Kimmy?!), I’ll opt for another former critics’ favorite that apparently some people thought lost a step and/or gained a designation of “problematic”: Inside Amy Schumer, the fourth season of which did not seem to get as much acclaim following Schumer’s breakout 2015. I feared the show would go too heavy on bits relying on Schumer’s increased celebrity, and while there was a little bit of that, season four had some of the show’s best sketches ever, including (on the satrical side) a couple of terrific pregnancy-related bits and (on the sillier side) that Snake Doctor sketch with Claudia O’Doherty (“I fixed your snake!”), which made me laugh more than almost anything else I saw on TV this year… except Kimmy Schmidt, of course.
I’m glad Becca grabbed Togetherness, because I was so conflicted—I loved the entire season except for the treacly, traditional finale, which sort of ruined it all for me. But that leaves me room to stump for Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule, whose fourth season offered more of its otherworldly joy. The show absolutely feels like a labor of love at this point: Surely John C. Reilly is deeply invested in the role of his life, tapping into the title character with confused glee. You can binge the entire season in 90 minutes, though I’m not sure if that’s the way to watch it. Maybe it’s better to stumble on Dr. Brule’s real-life adventures in news reporting at 3 in the morning, half-asleep, where you can learn about eggs, music, crime, and Brule’s sad, wonderful life story.
Supergirl’s transition from CBS to the CW hasn’t been seamless—it gained a new network, a new Superman, and a new production home, but it lost regular appearances by Calista Flockhart’s Cat Grant. But in its second season, Supergirl continues to grow, with its complex and captivating female characters and compelling themes of family, community, and sacrifice. Supergirl puts a whole lot of heart behind its action. Plus, Supergirl’s sister, Alex, recently came out as gay, making the DC television universe queerer than Marvel’s. I was late to the Supergirl train, which is why I now consider it my duty to encourage others to jump on in to the campy but emotional world of the Danvers sisters, who are both superheroes in their own right.
I have repeatedly stumped for Audience Network’s Kingdom in various corners of The A.V. Club. And at least a few other people share my passion for Byron Balasco’s hard-hitting drama about a family of MMA fighters in Southern California—DirecTV’s already renewed the series for a third season. If you do decide to enter the fray, you’ll get an inside look at a world not usually seen on TV (outside of UFC pay-per-view events). At its core, though, Kingdom is an intense family drama. It’s as no-frills as the gym where the Kulina family, led by Frank Grillo as Alvey, trains. But in its first two seasons, the series has dealt with addiction issues, rape, and mental illness. And there’s even an antihero or two, in case you need to root for one outside of Better Call Saul or BoJack Horseman (but always against your better judgment). The cast members give stripped-down performances, from Grillo’s self-centered patriarch to Joanna Going as Alvey’s deceptively fragile wife. Kiele Sanchez has also held her own as one of the lone women trying to manage fighters on the show, but Jonathan Tucker continues to be the standout. He gives a live-wire performance as the damaged Jay, who’s at his best when life is beating him to a pulp.
Our own Ashley Ray-Harris skillfully diagnosed the recent missteps of Netflix’s flagship drama, which bit off more than it could chew in its fourth season, at least in terms of trying to tackle the Black Lives Matter movement and a bevy of other hot-button social issues. So I’m reluctant, as part of the white, straight demographic to which the show definitely panders, to entirely overlook the flaws its detractors identify. But at this point, I’m also too invested in the sprawling cast of characters that Orange Is The New Black keeps expanding to deny that its serialized storytelling kept me enthralled, even when the show sometimes betrayed said characters. As social commentary, OITNB is often misjudged. As drama, it remains gripping TV, in no small part because of that incredible, diverse, ever-growing ensemble, composed of actors who invest even the most schematic storylines with emotional truth. I’ll be back next season, even as I understand why so many of my friends, colleagues, and fellow critics won’t.
While its fourth and final season saw the show falling into some of the action-thriller traps it traditionally did a flying scissor-kick over in the past, TV is going to be a whole lot duller without Banshee wrecking the joint up over on Cinemax. When Antony Starr’s nigh-unkillable (but eminently wound-able) crook-turned-fake-sheriff Lucas Hood finally rode out of the town of Banshee, he took one of television’s most gleefully over-the-top series with him. The tiny Pennsylvania town—a virtual hellmouth of Nazis, rogue military types, Amish and Ukrainian gangsters, a seemingly invincible Native American hulk, and various other criminal types and assorted human trash—was home to a series that consistently erupted in some of the most viscerally bloody violence, florid backstories, and raw sexuality to ever grace the screen. And yet, the whole enterprise was grounded in genuine—if heightened—humanity thanks to an outstanding cast. At times, Banshee seemed simultaneously a parody of the crime drama form and the purest, highest expression of the same.
Amazon’s comedy-drama Red Oaks accomplishes something no other period piece has this year: It never once indulged in cheap nostalgia. A low-key coming-of-age story set in the mid-1980s, Gregory Jacobs (who directed Magic Mike XXL) and Joe Gangemi’s series doesn’t use its setting to score points with homages or obvious references; instead, it provides specificity to more universal conflicts, mainly the bone-deep fear of not living up to one’s potential because of class obstacles and missed opportunities. Although it flew well under the radar, Red Oaks’ second season was monumentally superior to its debut year in almost every conceivable way, especially its direction, courtesy of such veterans like Hal Hartley, Amy Heckerling, Gregg Araki, and executive producer David Gordon Green. Amid its bright aesthetic lies an anxious series about running in place and running out of time, all while desperately trying to hold onto good things before they slip out of grasp. It’s remarkable that a series with that bleak idea at its center could be some of the best comfort TV released this year. It’s like a big bowl of mac and cheese, only with a healthy dose of Paul Reiser.
Superheroes are now so established in media that the standard hero stories are beginning to bleed over into other genres. Trailers for Logan make it look like it will be a Peckinpah anti-Western, Gotham is a police procedural, albeit one told by an 8-year-old on meth, and Suicide Squad is… whatever the hell Suicide Squad is. Luke Cage infuses superheroes with blaxploitation DNA in a welcome new way to tell a well-worn story. The first season suffers the same affliction as Netflix’s other Marvel shows—namely, it could have two to four fewer episodes—but it also builds on one of their best qualities: presenting a vital, lived-in New York that shapes the lives of each character. The opening credits visualize it perfectly by having images of Harlem landmarks scroll across Luke’s (Mike Colter) body. The city has formed him, and he shapes it in return—sometimes by the good deeds his powers allow him to perform for the community, and sometimes just by punching it until it looks how he wants it to.
For the second straight year, iZombie missed the cut for The A.V. Club’s list of top shows. It’s understandable why this show might be so oft slept on: It’s a quirky zombie procedural on The CW. But allow me to try and sell you this show in one hypothetical question: What if Veronica Mars was a zombie who solved crimes by eating victims’ brains? Is that an oversimplification? Sure. But with Veronica Mars showrunner Rob Thomas at the helm (alongside fellow Neptune High alum Diane Ruggiero), iZombie comes preloaded with machine-gun witty repartee, amazing ensemble chemistry, and honest-to-god surprising plot twists. It also never takes itself too seriously, which can be a breath of fresh air compared to its current undead sibling, the humorless and unendingly grim The Walking Dead.