Top TV Shows of 2016

Like so many other things in 2016, the year in television was a bit of a disappointment compared to 2015.  Some of it has to do with the shows that ended in 2015 generally being better than the ones that started in 2016.  Some of it is because quality continuing series aren’t returning until 2017 (see: Fargo, The Leftovers, Sense8, and Homeland).  But I’m pretty sure most of it is because I watch less than 10% of available scripted shows and I’m probably missing a lot of great ones.

So keep that in mind while going through my current Top 10 list, with honorable mentions.  I say current because I’m sure that I’ll finally get caught up on one of the 90% of shows I hadn’t seen and be angry that I didn’t include it on this list.  Oh well.  At least I’ve gotten better at not watching shows I don’t like (bye, Walking Dead!) to make room for shows I might like.  Anyway, the shows in the list include the network the show originally aired on (if applicable) and the streaming service it can be found on or will be found on sometime in 2017 (if applicable).

10. iZombie (The CW/Netflix)

A show best described as a featherweight police procedural with zombies doesn’t exactly scream “Top 10 Show” material.  But whatever it lacks in originality it makes up for in sharp dialog, compelling characters, and just being incredibly fun to watch.

9. The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime)

Season one of The Man in the High Castle managed to coast by on a fascinating premise, great world building, and some stunning production values, despite being hampered by bland characters making stupid decisions to keep the sometimes dodgy plot going.  Now, with the novelty of seeing a world where the Allies lost World War II having worn off somewhat over the course of the previous season, the show needed to its storytelling despite losing its showrunner halfway through production.  And, thankfully, it did.  It wasn’t perfect, some of the thick plot armor on a few of the characters is particularly egregious, but the pacing, plotting, and character work are all done much better than the previous season.

8. Veep (HBO)

Losing creator Armando Iannucci could have sunk Veep, and the show did become broader and bit less sharp under David Mandel this year.  But it still had probably the best comedy casts on television, and possibly one of the best of all time, and it still  managed to provide plenty of jokes (and insults).  And of course, the Jon H. Ryan Jonah Ryan for Congress plot line was about as hilariously amazing as you’d expect.

7. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s first season was mostly strong until the last couple of weak episodes covering the absurd trial of the Reverend.  So this season responded by making the first few episodes significantly weaker than the rest of the year.  I’m not really sure if this season had more laughs than the previous one or if it’s just better to end strongly than begin strongly.  But last year it was one of the better comedies that aired, so it didn’t need to do much more to be one of the best comedies of 2016.

6. The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX/Netflix)

You’d think a requirement for making a series based on the O. J. Simpson case would be to not woefully miscast O. J. Simpson.  But Cuba Gooding Jr. is completely miscast as Simpson, and yet the series functions perfectly fine despite that.  The key is the show making Simpson a sideshow at his own trial, with the lawyers of the prosecution and defense taking the spotlight.  Gooding Jr.’s Simpson blessedly gets less screentime than Courtney B. Vance’s Johnnie Cochran, Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark, and Sterling K. Brown’s Christopher Darden, with all three of those performances resulting in deserved Emmys in September.  It may be a bit overstylish at times, but it’s generally a well made reminder of why the trial captivated American for so long over twenty years ago.

5. Silicon Valley (HBO)

Silicon Valley is in a tricky position because most of its comedy comes from the fact that Pied Piper always has to be a company with potential, but it can never grow into a very successful company.   So there’s a lot of progress followed by setback in a loop for many iterations.  I’m not sure how sustainable in the long term, but I know that for me it still hasn’t gotten old three seasons in.  In fact, this was probably its best season yet, with enough novel takes on its formula to keep things from getting stale.

4. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

When Orange is the New Black was renewed for at least three more seasons after the disappointing third (somehow the show got rid of Larry and got worse), I wasn’t enthusiastic.  I figured that Netflix was just going to let the series keep going despite declining quality like Jenji Kohan’s previous show.  So the fourth season taking the series in a much darker, and better, direction was a nice surprise.  It’s true that it’s a different sort of show from the one that submitted for best comedy at the Emmys three years ago, but it’s an incredibly compelling season of television that reminds us that the show still takes place in a prison.  Now, will season five continue the trend of alternative lighter and darker seasons?  The cliffhanger ending of season four suggests not, but who knows.

3. The Americans (FX/Amazon Prime)

A year ago I complained that they were having the two main spies at the center of the series doing too many things at the same time.  Well, this season turned that into a major part of the plot, as having to put on so many hats wigs gradually wears down the Jennings family over the course of most of the season.  This piles even more drama on top of a series that still excels in sustaining tension and making incredibly uncomfortable situations compulsively watchable.

2. Game of Thrones (HBO)

Given the hit-and-miss nature of deviations from the books in previous Game of Thrones seasons, the fact that Season 6 would be the first after running out of published source material didn’t exactly inspire confidence.  It turned out that this was a blessing.  Without having to follow the various plot threads of the lengthy books, the series was free to speed through to the show’s endgame.  And following the meandering fifth season, this was an incredibly welcome relief.

1. Better Call Saul (AMC/Netflix)

It really shouldn’t be a surprise that Better Call Saul is good.  I mean, if this had been a series created by the team behind Breaking Bad but unrelated to it, I’m not sure if anybody would have expected it to be a pale imitation of their previous work.  But after tons of failed prequels even the prospect of a prequel to one of the best TV shows ever was met with fears that it would stain Breaking Bad’s reputation.  Well, it turns out that Better Call Saul is far from a stain on Breaking Bad’s reputation, and is an entirely worthy successor.  Of course it isn’t as action packed as its predecessor, and hasn’t reached the heights that it achieved in its last three seasons, but it was still a great season of television and the best show that I watched that aired in 2016.

Honorable Mentions

Bojack Horseman (Netflix)

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox/Hulu)

Lady Dynamite (Netflix)

Mr. Robot (USA/Amazon Prime)

The Expanse (Syfy/Amazon Prime)

The Good Place (NBC/Hulu)

Other Shows Watched

Archer (FX/Netflix), Atlanta (FX), Billions (Showtime), Black Mirror (Netflix), Daredevil (Netflix), Luke Cage (Netflix), Orphan Black (BBC America/Amazon Prime), Preacher (AMC), South Park (Comedy Central/Hulu), Stranger Things (Netflix), The Crown (Netflix), The Flash (The CW/Netflix), The Night Of (HBO), This is Us (NBC/Hulu), Timeless (NBC/Hulu), Westworld (HBO), You’re the Worst (FXX/Hulu)

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