Dec 23, 2016

Listmania: Best New TV Shows of 2016

Scene from Westworld
Every year there are a handful of new shows that come out and help to define the zeitgeist. In 2016, there were several shows that not only got the internet talking, but quickly assured themselves as the series that will define the next few years. In today's Listmania, there will be a look into the shows which premiered between January and December of this year and produced moments that proved why TV is still a viable medium. From high concept dramas to slapstick comedies, this year featured plenty of excellent programming worthy of giving a shot. These are the 20 that went above and beyond and may only continue to do so in years to come.

1. American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson (FX)

There's plenty about this series that shouldn't have work. Known for producing train wreck series with questionable racial politics, Ryan Murphy's dive into nonfiction proved to be what he needed. While there's plenty to argue in regards to the stunt casting, it becomes less and less of a problem as the series reveals its truest intentions. It's a timely story (despite being two decades old) that looks at how America and the court systems deal with a variety of topics ranging from celebrity to race to gender to the jurors themselves. Like the man on trial, O.J. Simpson, the whole thing was a game to see which side would win. What Murphy does is manage to make it very entertaining, candid, and sometimes rugged in the ways that's given him a career. Few series have a run as assured in its execution as American Crime Story. The only question is if its appeal will last.

2. Atlanta (FX)

While Louie set the bar for surreal comedy, it couldn't predict what would come when Donald Glover got his own show. With Community now a few years behind him, his ode to his home city was a hazy and melancholic weirdness that was often funny in its realness as well as its absurdity. Much like Louie, Atlanta is a show that's hard to classify as being either truly hilarious or truly dramatic. It falls somewhere in the middle and produces one of the most assured half hours of TV this year. If nothing else, audiences will not be able to forget the hit song by Paper Boi. It's a story that's autobiographical and strained. It's Glover's neurotic vision of the world, and we're better for having it.

3. Better Things (FX)

If anyone has been deserving of a series for quite a few years now, it's Pamela Adlon. Having worked in TV for decades now, her involvement with Louie helped to bring her cantankerous character to life and make her an endearing part of modern comedy. Her series focuses almost exclusively around female characters who live under one roof. There's struggles and plenty of unpleasant yelling, but it still manages to feel like one of the most honest depictions of family life on TV this year. Much like the show's structure, it's sometimes best to just go with the moment. Much like fellow FX series Atlanta, it can be a bit understated in its execution. However, its honesty may be its greatest attribute underneath all of that yelling.

4. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS)

This year has been pretty frustrating to understand. One can look at the 2016 presidential election and question how we got to certain conclusions. However, this is where The Daily Show's legacy officially shines. With Jon Stewart now retired, his disciples took his place with gusto. Few did it with such expertise and regularity as that of Samantha Bee, whose ability to cover topics with an enthusiastic sarcasm made her stand out in a see of political satire. With countless worthwhile segments that shed light on the moments that mattered, she is likely to remain a welcomed voice to comedy in the years to come, because when she's mad she's great; and it's likely that there's plenty to be mad about in the year ahead.

5. Fleabag (Amazon)

With exception to Transparent, it doesn't seem like Amazon's choice of comedies have really took off. As it stands, Fleabag was one of those sleeper hits that benefited from word of mouth. Lead by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the British series focused on one woman's struggle to run a cafe in the wake of her friend's death. While the show has the fourth wall breaking technique of speaking to the camera, it only adds a deeper and more profound understanding to Waller's psychological being. It's quick and clever in its awkwardness, and the half hour running time makes it one of the most infectious new shows of the year. 

6. Divorce (HBO)

There were few shows that were as familiar in its tragedy and comedy quite like Sarah Jessica Parker's return to HBO. Over the course of 10 episodes, the first season of Divorce chronicled a couple's separation as they tried to find happiness by other methods. The issue is that it isn't easy. Along with having great performances all around, the series was the best scripted series in any genre of TV, producing moments that often felt taken from real life. It's a testament to what great and sincere portraits of everyday life can look like. They may be occasionally unpleasant, but capturing it correctly can be pretty satisfying.

7. The Get Down (Netflix)

The series has the reputation of being Netflix's most expensive series to date. However, it is kind of worth it. While it features the aloof messiness of creator Baz Luhrmann's filmography, there is something awe-inspiring about watching a series have fun. The show balances campiness with a passion that makes the underdog story all the more inspiring. By the end, it's a whirlwind of energy that mixes themes of following dreams with economic changes into a montage of song and dazzling images. It may have problems on a structural level, but there's few shows that are as immediately exciting as The Get Down. The final episode alone when the rap battle goes down reflects what the power of film can do. One can only hope that the show, provided it doesn't go bankrupt, continues to journey into this wonderful world of energy.

8. Luke Cage (Netflix)

2016 hasn't been the best year for superheroes in film and TV. With movies like Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad getting terrible reviews and Daredevil's second season being a tad underwhelming, it's a miracle that Netflix's third series with Marvel turned out to be a whole load of fun. Luke Cage centers around the bulletproof black man whose quest to improve his neighborhood made for a story full of excellent action moments and a soundtrack that featured plenty of funky grooves - not to mention an appearance from Wu Tang Clan's Method Man. It is a series that is nothing but cool and gives Jessica Jones a run for Netflix's best superhero. The only hope is that neither falls into the bad second season trap.

9. Westworld (HBO)

There were few shows that bonded the internet to quite the extent that Westworld did. Even if it's not quite up to its "Next Game of Thrones" moniker, it still managed to serve high concept blends of sci-fi and westerns into one of the most assured series of the year. While it occasionaly relied too much on philosophical discussion, there's no denying that the impact of its many twists helped to produce a compelling series that is striking and assured, worthy of endless think pieces that will keep everyone entertained until the next season comes in 2018.

10. The Crown (Netflix)

It was only a matter of time until Netflix would get in on the British melodrama business. On the bright side, they couldn't have picked a better subject to tackle than that of Queen Elizabeth II as she rose to power over the 20th century. The series (penned by the Oscar-winning talent behind The Queen) is a masterclass in acting that shows the rise of Britain's most influential woman. She is more than a figurehead. She is vulnerable and unsure of her future. She is someone who is easy to root for. Thankfully the writing, cinematography, and music is just as elegant and perfect. As long as the real life Queen Mum is alive, there should be no reason to cancel this series.

11. Horace & Pete (LouisCK.net)

This is a series worthy of recognition on its release platform alone. Out of the blue one day, Louis C.K.'s mailing list became hip to his new project Horace & Pete. Nobody knew how long the series would last or what it would be about. The show would inevitably be scripted and shot weekly and ranged from half hour monologues to hour long dark looks into each character's psyche. The easy comparison point is to call it "Dark Cheers," which even that feels generous. With a great cast that includes an Emmy-worthy performance by Alan Alda, this is a series unlike any other that also sets precedent for how independent TV can be released and make an impact. It may be a little rugged and raw, but its humanity was nevertheless fascinating to witness for its short existence.

12. The Night Of (HBO)

From writer Steven Zaillian comes one of the most exciting crime series of the year. With a first episode whose slow burn is deeply engrossing, the show managed to show the complicated nature by which a court case can travel. It doesn't just change one man's life, but an entire family. With excellent performances by Riz Ahmed and John Turturro, the series managed to maintain its tension even as it slowly came to its satisfying conclusion. There's a lot to unpack from this show, whose cinematography is also cold in an effective manner. With that said, Zaillian reminds everyone why he's one of the best screenwriters out there. He makes the small moments pop with life.

13. Baskets (FX)

While Zach Galifianakis' career is based around confusing and upsetting people, nobody could've predicted what his comedy series Baskets would be. Basically stretching the Pagliacci joke to a full series, he found a way to find melancholy within a comical figure. Having been disgraced from clown school to a rodeo in Bakersfield, California, Galifianakis' Baskets goes through a bizarre life that looks funny but is deeply depressing. The series asks you to laugh at it while also pushing deeper into emotional territory. Also, it does feature one of the most creative casting decisions of the year as Louie Anderson plays Basket's mother, who is nothing short of endearing in its bizarre nature. This is one of those "acquired tastes" shows, and there's no other way to describe it. However, if you like your comedy in the style of Rick Alverson, there's a decent chance you may like this.

14. 11.22.63 (Hulu)

It is a subject that America has been obsessed with for over 50 years. The assassination of John F. Kennedy has produced its share of conspiracy theories. It even inspired author Stephen King to write a book about a man who travels back in time to stop it from happening. Hulu picked it up for series and with James Franco in the lead role, it managed to explore 60's nostalgia along with the neurotic mindset that has made King a pop culture staple for decades now. The series pops with life and tension, producing one of the strongest miniseries of the year that manages to produce a story full of thrills and tears. If nothing else, it proves that Hulu isn't entirely third fiddle to Amazon and Netflix. They can produce a crackerjack of a project when they want.

15. Stranger Things (Netflix)

There were few shows that benefited from nostalgia culture quite like Stranger Things. While telling an original story, the series was full of references to old Steven Spielberg and Stephen King stories that fueled the childhoods of the 1980's. The results were a surreal package that was often striking and full of exciting intrigue. If nothing else, it ability to be a late-summer sensation proves that there's audiences out there for sci-fi that doesn't have to be heady. It can just be weird and fun. It can also bond audiences in unexpected ways in a time where it's hard to do that. Stranger things happened in 2016 than Stranger Things, but its success was a welcomed surprise.

16. Love (Netflix)

The latest series from producer Judd Apatow has a name as uninspiring as his previous entries Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, and Girls. However, this show about unlikable people falling in love had the added benefit of featuring real life couple Paul Rust and Gillian Jacobs, whose chemistry produced all of the show's best moments. Much like other current romantic comedy series, it's unapologetic about its flaws, even finding joy in petty arguments. All of it helps to make it feel tragic and real in a way that inevitably makes for a unique experience. It may be one of the few Netflix series to not be binge-worthy (length and subject matter make it difficult), but it's still one of the most human ones that the streaming service released this year.

17. Insecure (HBO)

It was a great year for black comedies. HBO's Insecure featured one of the most interesting in Issa Rae's candid look at life in Southern California. While there's discussion of work, the series is largely based around her love life and friends who consume most of her time. When one night of improv rapping leads to an embarrassing viral video, her life is changed and the quest for identity in her professionalism becomes a humorous center to the series. It's one of the most assured vehicles of the year, and hopefully will continue to be so in years to come.

18. Angie Tribeca (TBS)

As TV becomes more and more serialized, there's few shows that allow themselves to be out and out comedy. This is never truer than for Angie Tribeca, which managed to be the unexpected successor to Police Squad! by packing recurring gags, nonsensical punchlines, and slapstick humor into every episodes. Rashida Jones also manages to play all of it with a straight face. It's a series for those simply looking for a laugh. Its choice to release every episode at once through a marathon also set the bar for what TBS would do with future series (most recently with Search Party). Thankfully there's one channel out there that is willing to do silly comedy for the sake of silly comedy. We could use more of them.

19. Easy (Netflix)

Indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg comes to Netflix with one of the most unexpected shows of the year. Over the course of a few episodes, he created an anthology series that follows the relationships of various characters. The show falls somewhere between realism and comedy, finding insightful nuance in the moments that aren't often considered. It helps that Swanberg's style of story telling leads to the actors making organic chemistry that makes the scenes pop while producing a story that is wholly satisfying. With a great cast of actors attached to each episode, this is a compelling series for those wanting to look at love stories from a different and maybe more honest approach.

20. Designated Survivor (ABC)

As America went through its own election, TV welcomed back Kiefer Sutherland to play a president under odd conditions. When the State of the Union gets bombed, he takes over against criticism that he isn't qualified and that the country is more torn than ever before. While the series is still finding its bearings, it has managed to mix office drama with espionage themes in compelling ways that make it one of the few network series that stood out this year. With plenty of tension and hard boiling twists, it's a fun show for those wanting to see a president doing his job right, or at least trying to.

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