The question I’m most often asked about television at the end of 2016 is whether or not we’re still in the era of “Peak TV.” With so many people willing to throw film under the bus and proclaim TV the superior medium (when my answer is always that they’re different and we should stop comparing them), what shows are guiding the way? In my opinion, television is in a unique state in that there is an abundance of “good” and a minimal amount of “great.” The list of shows worth watching extends longer than it ever has, thanks in large part to not just the addition of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon but how they spurred other networks to increase production. But have we entered the “quantity over quality” phase of Peak TV? Where are the shows like “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” or “Louie,” and would they even have a chance to stand out in this crowded marketplace?
In considering my ranking of 2016, I was struck by how easily I could shuffle some of the positions below, hinting again at a large number of good shows without significant stand-outs. There aren’t the established “tiers” that there used to be, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Do we want more good TV or do we miss the pioneers who took it to another level? That’s another idea I considered this year when making my list—I’ve always been drawn to what could be called auteur-driven TV, shows that feel driven by a unique creative voice. David Chase, Steven Soderbergh, Bryan Fuller, Louis CK, Vince Gilligan—you get the idea. I vastly prefer shows with a confident voice more than ones that feel made by a committee or focus group. Voices that mattered this year included Issa Rae, Donald Glover, Ray McKinnon, and, yes, Ryan Murphy, among others.
Runner-ups: “Bates Motel,” "Black Mirror," “Bob’s Burgers,” “Fleabag,” “The Goldbergs,” “The Good Place,” “The Last Man on Earth,” “Last Week Tonight,” “The Night Manager” and “Togetherness”
20. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
19. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”
18. “Bojack Horseman”
17. “Documentary Now!”
16. “Stranger Things”
14. “American Crime”
13. “You’re the Worst”
12. “Horace and Pete”
11. “Silicon Valley”
10. “Veep” (HBO)
The departure of creator Armando Iannucci could have been disastrous for HBO’s Emmy-winning comedy, and one could sense a bit of trepidation in the early episodes of its fifth season. However, that uncertainty quickly dissipated as the plotting this season became as hysterical and rewarding as any of the show’s seasons. Four words: Jonah Ryan For Congress. In an era in which we over-praise the new and ignore the old, we’ve started to take this ensemble for granted. Julia-Louis Dreyfus’ work here is some of the best in TV comedy history, but not enough praise gets thrown at one of the best overall ensembles on TV. Players within it like Anna Chlumsky and Matt Walsh seem to actually be getting funnier every year. In a political climate that now seems impossible to satirize and more vicious than this show's writers could possibly dream up, we’re gonna need Selina Meyer more than ever.
9. “Insecure” (HBO)
There are few words more terrifying than “YouTube Sensation,” and so my expectations for Issa Rae’s personality-driven comedy were relatively low, and immediately shattered. Sure, this comedy about being a young woman in ‘10s Los Angeles has echoes of “Girls” and “Sex and the City,” but Rae makes it distinctly her own. It’s not a show about overcoming flaws or insecurities—it’s about embracing them, and making them work for you. It’s right there in the title and in the way Rae doesn’t shy away from her character’s issues. She turns them into raps. It's also worth noting that this feels like the most genuine and believable show about relationships on TV right now. Finally, comedy has been a better genre than drama in recent years when it comes to diversity and examination of social issues in programs like “Master of None” and “Atlanta.” Joining in that trend, Rae’s singular voice is one we really need to listen to right now. I have a feeling it’s going to be one of the most essential over the next several years.
8. “Westworld” (HBO)
The maze of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s sci-fi drama may have gotten a bit too labyrinthine for its own good in the back half of the season, but this show is on the list for two reasons. 1.) It got people talking. In the most crowded era of TV history, we had a true watercooler show, one that people theorized on, argued about, and discussed every Sunday night and through the next day. There’s something to be said for a phenomenon, and this was certainly one of them. 2.) Ensemble. As fascinating as the show's philosophical themes were at times, and as fun as it was to debate its mysteries, we shouldn’t forget about the cast that brought them to life. Sir Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton—if this was a movie cast, they’d call it Awards Bait. And they all delivered, particularly Hopkins and Newton as two ends of the conscious spectrum moving toward the center—the robot and its creator reaching for something greater.
7. “Better Call Saul” (AMC)
AMC’s dramatic prequel to “Breaking Bad” is one of the most morally complex programs in history. If “Breaking Bad” was relatively cut and dry—a good man becoming a bad one—“Better Call Saul” is about a man constantly presented with opportunities to be bad but who struggles to maintain his goodness. And the writers must be just as tempted as Jimmy McGill himself. It would be so easy to do fan service and drop in references to Walter White or Jesse Pinkman, but they have made a program that stands entirely on its own two feet, whether you have any idea who Gus Fring is or not. And season two was arguably even more daring than the first, in that they split up their two main characters (Jimmy & Mike), spent time developing a third (Kim), and devoted even more time in legal boardrooms than most seasons of “Law & Order.” Like Jimmy’s best cons, “Better Call Saul” is a long game—it’s a show that can’t even be appreciated episode to episode. One chapter feeds the themes of another one weeks later, and you can’t really feel its impact until the entire season is over. I have a feeling that only when the entire show is done we'll be able to connect all the thematic dots from episode to episode, season to season.
6. “Halt and Catch Fire” (AMC)
AMC’s other great drama works similarly in the way that it has completely transcended its set-up. People are likely still avoiding this incredible show because they think it’s too focused on tech or period details. It’s not. Like my pick for the best program of the year (don’t skip ahead!) this show takes a setting and circumstance unfamiliar to a vast majority of viewers and turns them into a mirror of ourselves, today. “Halt and Catch Fire” isn’t about computer programming so much as the intersection of brilliance and insecurity. They often go hand in hand. And season three added insightful commentary on gender roles in business while also weaving through its narratives the idea that everything has a degree of transaction within it. The Mutiny program goes from an early iteration of chat room to something akin to eBay. Social activity becomes about goods and services. Everything we do has an echo of business from work relationships to spouses to co-creators to friendships—it’s a balance of getting what we want and giving what the other person needs. “Halt and Catch Fire” gets better every season, and I can’t wait to see how it ends. One final thing: few shows use music more effectively—a hallmark of great TV for this critic. Drop a “Mercy Street” more effectively and you’re more likely to make this list, TV creators.
5. “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” (FX)
Would anyone have guessed that 2016 would be the Year of O.J. Simpson? The documentary “O.J.: Made in America” made my film top ten (#4) and its TV series counterpart deserves just as much acclaim. Ryan Murphy’s fascinating dissection of race, celebrity, and the legal system shouldn’t work. It should be ridiculously soapy, tabloid television. But the genius of Murphy and his team was that they realized that the story of the Trial of the Century had enough extreme elements embedded in it that they didn’t need to turn the volume up on any of it. In fact, they needed to ground the unbelievable in something genuine, and so they cast their mini-series perfectly. Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown, and one of the best ensembles in years didn’t play the caricatures, they played the people. And that’s why this is such excellent drama. If “Made in America” gave us the big picture of O.J. Simpson and placed the trial in context of the end of the last century, “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” returned us to the little picture, the people caught in the middle of a maelstrom.
4. “The Night Of” (HBO)
What is HBO’s masterful mystery “about”? Sure, it’s a whodunit, but that’s really just the foundation on which so much other material is placed. By the end, who committed the crime that horrible night feels like only one piece in a much larger puzzle. One that includes pieces on social class, the legal system, and, most of all, our prison system, without ever losing sight of the characters caught up in all of it. There are so many memorable faces and people to come out of just eight episodes of “The Night Of.” I’ll never forget Riz Ahmed’s increasingly dispirited countenance—he looks like a young man being broken down just a little further with each subsequent episode. He’s not alone—Michael K. Williams, John Turturro, Bill Camp—it’s one of those ensemble pieces in which every single performance not only feels like it has purpose and impact on the overall piece, but like it couldn’t be played by anyone else.
3. “Atlanta” (FX)
Donald Glover’s show is one of the very few this year that truly felt like it was breaking ground in terms of style and voice. It’s a hard show to describe to people—it’s about hip-hop in Atlanta. OK, but it’s also about masculinity, race, celebrity, parenthood, and a host of other things, all delivered in a way that’s consistently unpredictable and often hilarious. Sound like fun? Even in our Golden Age of Television, we generally have a two-party system (Comedy and Drama) and shows, even the great ones, often emerge from familiar templates. Every time you think you know what to expect from “Atlanta,” Glover goes somewhere else. He’s willing to sit out an entire episode (the sixth) or turn one into a spoof of a BET talk show, complete with fake commercials (the seventh). And he’s also more than willing to cede time in the spotlight, recognizing that co-stars Brian Tyree Henry and Lakeith Stanfield are two of the most fascinating and talented performers on television. “Atlanta” was a huge critical hit for FX this year, which means the network is likely to give Glover complete creative freedom for season two. I get chills just thinking about what that’s going to produce.
2. “Rectify” (Sundance)
We may never see another show like “Rectify.” It was a program as unafraid of silence as it was of melodrama. And it’s another series on this list that entirely transcended its set-up. What was initially a program about a man being released after false incarceration became about so much more than just his return and his trauma. We all have issues we try to manage. And one of the things that Daniel Holden (Aden Young) and the rest of this incredible ensemble learned over four seasons was that some things can’t be changed; some things can’t be fixed. Some marriages can’t be repaired. Some tragedies can’t be forgotten. There are SO many memorable scenes in this final season (like the entirety of the season premiere, arguably the year’s best hour on any show and the final four arc), but one stands out for me. In episode five, Daniel’s new girlfriend Chloe recognizes that he’s going through something traumatic and tells him that she can’t save him but she can hold him. Sometimes that’s all we need. Someone to hold us. The final four episodes were as emotionally resonant (have Kleenex ready) as any TV drama in years. They were like open wounds finally healing. But the scar remains.
1. “The Americans” (FX)
I know I said in the intro that I wouldn’t compare mediums, but grant me this: “The Americans” is the closest thing that television has to great literature. I am constantly amazed at its writers’ willingness to confound expectations, heading off on what may first feel like tangents with some of its characters, but somehow tying it all back together down the road. They are willing to kill off major characters without announcing it on Twitter first. They are willing to write scenes in Russian, discard major characters, spend time with minor ones. They’re even willing to do what feels like a season finale in episode nine. It’s a show with its own rhythms, voice, tension. Overall, nothing on television compares to it in terms of thematic depth, cinematic visual language and unpredictable plotting. It has become one of the great spy stories of all time, up there with the best work of John le Carré, but the miracle of this show is that it’s also one of our best family dramas. It’s as fascinated with contemplation and emotion as it is with its awesome array of wigs and double crosses. Knowing that its writers are now working with an end point in mind, there’s nothing on television I’m looking forward to more in 2017.