Dec 24, 2016

Listmania: The Best Shows of 2016

Scene from Game of Thrones
If there is one thing that has remained true for quite a few years now, it's that TV continues to have an embarrassment of riches no matter what genre you prefer. The year 2016 managed to mix escapism with hard hitting subject matter relevant to the climate it was created in. Today's Listmania is dedicated to taking the old with the new to determine what was so great about TV. What is clear is that there's too much good stuff out there, so you have no excuse to get off your couch. If you're looking for something to watch, these shows would be a great place to start.

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 LouieAtlanta 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. You're the Worst (FX)

The show started off as a great satire on romantic comedy. While having a pitch black sense of humor, the show has shifted to exploring depression in all of its forms. While last season featured one of the best examples of this, season three explored in greater detail the psychology behind what makes someone tic. It may have been vulgar and at times distracted from its own emotions, but there's no moment on TV this year as satisfying as seeing war veteran Edgar (Desmin Borges) try and come to terms with his PTSD over the course of one afternoon. It is heartbreaking and uplifting in equal doses. While these people still have some bad judgment, they're becoming better people - and that is the show's greatest strength.

4. 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.

5. 2016 Presidential Election Satire

Shows: Last Week Tonight (HBO), Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS), Late Night (NBC), The Late Show (CBS), The Daily Show (Comedy Central)

Speaking as this year featured a barrage of absurd news stories, it became bizarre how comforting political satire became. In fact, these shows even became platforms for the hosts to express their views while telling a few jokes. It is likely that at least one of these shows appeared in your news feed from going viral in the past year. They all usually feature top notch writing that informs as well as entertains. It may be an example of true journalism's meaning shifting in 2016, but these voices manage to keep audiences sane when the world was far from it. Speaking as four of them are related to Jon Stewart's run in The Daily Show, it's nice to know that the series is already having a strong impact on the world at large.

6. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)

With AMC sliding ever further into genre fare, Halt and Catch Fire remains their best series thanks to its ability to find drama in the computer industry. With a cast that has aged well, the series artistically explores the world through mesmerizing direction, fun song choices, and drama that has made the characters shine. Who knew that moving to the west coast would help the show to develop its strongest season yet by exploring how the team who could wound up having conflicted ideas of how to get there. With a proposed final season coming next year, the show is going out on top with promise of more great character drama likely to follow.

7. 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.

8. Supergirl (CBS/CW)

Hands down, the best superhero related media from the past year wasn't on the big screen or Netflix. It was on the small screen. While the early episodes were a little goofy, Supergirl would evolve into the show that America needed right now in the face of good guys fighting each other and Luke Cage dealing with darker themes. Lead by Melissa Benoist, Supergirl was an upbeat show whose themes were just as complex as its darker peers, but managed to be delivered through high flying fun, inventive crossovers, and just a sense of fun - not to mention a supporting role from Lynda Carter. If only all superhero shows still knew how to smile, then maybe the world would be a better place. For now, the shining beacon of hope for superhero pop culture is Supergirl. Nothing comes close.

9. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

There is so much timeliness in season four of Orange is the New Black that it may end up being a definitive piece of 2016 pop culture. The prison was no longer just a place for an ensemble of impeccably charming actors. Now it was a place where bigger social themes were explored with unrepentant consequences. These themes included corrupt prison systems, police shootings, treatment of mentally ill and drug addicts, and the general treatment of women. The season goes to some dark places for the sake of strong commentary. Still, the show has regained its relevance in powerful ways. The final stretch of episodes alone are some of the series' best work to date. Here's hoping that things only continue to go that way.

10. 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.

11. Game of Thrones (HBO)

There is a reason that Game of Thrones is one of the most popular shows in HBO history. In 2016, this was made evident on a weekly basis in which small character moments would lead to meme ready phrases and gifs. The show, at its best, has turned its nihilistic world view into an art form that transcends its fantasy trappings. This season along featured some of the show's greatest moments, including one of the best season finales of the year. Fans will likely be quoting every episode for years to come, and that's a testament to great genre writing. If nothing else, it justifies the complaints that things need spoilers. Also, hold the door.

12. 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.

13. 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.

14. 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.

15. 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.

16. Horace & Pete (

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.

17. Penny Dreadful (Showtime)

This was not the best year for Showtime. Along with the disappointing Cameron Crowe series Roadies, the channel lost two of its major series including Masters of Sex. The other was the Victorian Horror series Penny Dreadful, who quietly announced their farewell halfway through the heartbreaking finale that put an elegant end to a series full of weirdness that gave Eva Green a showcase for her talents. It may be a show full of checklist horror icons, but the show managed to use them effectively to their advantage. There wasn't a show like it on TV, and Green's absence will make the medium a little more disappointing. With that said, there's something to admire about a series going out on its own time. That alone makes its ending not a tragedy, but a triumph.

18. Togetherness (HBO)

Mark and Jay Duplass' second season about 30-somethings trying to navigate the world proved to be just as endearing, uncomfortable, and hilarious as the original. With the characters starting to venture off onto their own paths, the tragedies of relationships began to become clearer. With a cast whose chemistry made every moment feel natural, the show managed to be one of the best comedies that HBO had to offer in the past year. While it ended abruptly after its second season, the series can at least be relieved to have ended with a touching and poignant finale that embodied everything about what made the show such a great independent comedy on TV.

19. Girls (HBO)

It may be difficult to suggest why Lena Dunham's notorious series is still on the air. Over the course of five seasons, very little has actually happened within the series. However, season five saw small breakthroughs for some characters that ended up making it one of the strongest seasons yet.  This was the season that saw Marnie (Allison Williams) meet up with ex-boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbott) and saw Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) wander aimlessly around Japan, faking her happiness. With one season left, it's hard to determine what the show's arc truly is. Still, it's been fun to hang out with the girls and see them try to live their own lives, even if one could argue that they're not doing it all that effectively.

20. American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare (FX)

For fans of Ryan Murphy's off the wall horror anthology series, it's been difficult to justify watching the show in recent seasons. While interesting, they're hardly "scary." Then there was a season that felt stripped down to its bare bones and forced to let the raw nerve take control. It was a series that cleverly explored the different video formats from true crime stories to found footage style attack films. This is a season so insane that it features Sarah Paulson playing three different roles and has a finale that puts Inception to shame. It may be far from the most confident season the show has ever produced, but its madness is what makes it so appealing to begin with. 

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