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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A Whole or a Sum of Parts?

What constitutes a “favorite”?  It’s not uncommon for someone to ask what your favorite television show or music artist is if you tell them you watch television or listen to music.  And between the ability to rate shows on Netflix, movies on IMDB, and basically everything on Amazon, or liking things on social media, even those of us who don’t catalog everything they watch/listen (like me) to are provided with lots of opportunities to show what they like most.  But if you watch many shows and listen to many artists, what method do you use to determine which is a favorite?

I have made a habit of rating every musical album I listen to.  In order to come up with the rating, I listen to the whole album and decide how it works when listened to from beginning to end.  Of course, this method only really makes sense on CDs that lack the ability to skip tracks.  Otherwise, CD players allow you to skip and sometimes change the play order, you can make all sorts of playlist combinations with digital files and streaming services, and even when listening to a vinyl record if you only like one side you can choose to just not turn the record over when it’s done.  However, this does provide a standard to compare albums for rankings.

The main issue is that I don’t actually listen to albums from beginning to end often, with some exceptions of great albums whose wholes are better than the sum of their parts.  I’m more likely to either make an abridged version, skipping tracks, or more commonly use one of my attempts to combine parts of two or more releases into a better one.  Or I’ll put the playlist with all of the songs I really like on shuffle.

So, since I don’t often listen to albums as a whole, why should I rate them that way?  Why am I punishing a 50 minute album that I like 35 minutes of and hate the rest versus an album that only uses 30 minutes of a CD’s 80 minute capacity and sells for the same price?  Mostly because this is the most effective standard I’ve come up with, and if I came up with a new one I’d have to re-rate over 800 albums using the new system (this isn’t happening).  It’s why I differentiate between a “favorite” album (one that contains a lot of things I listen to in some form) and a “great” album (which can be easily listened to from beginning to end).

It’s similar when you’re talking about musical artists in regards to volume and quality of output.  Do The Rolling Stones (or U2 or Stevie Wonder or Weezer or one of many other examples) have weaker discographies than because they kept putting out lackluster albums long after their peak?  You can argue that it makes their discography weaker on average, but does it diminish what they did before?  Some people might argue that producing annoying songs that get media exposure sours them on other things they liked that the band made.  And because of the subjectivity of music and the importance of the context of listening to it, they wouldn’t be wrong.  I wouldn’t personally agree with them, but it’s a reasonable reaction.  But for artists, since discographies aren’t really as comparable as albums, I prefer to think of them in relation to how much material they put out that I like, no matter how much stuff they did I didn’t like or when they happened to release it.

And then there are television shows.  Like music artists, they can go on for too many seasons, but how does this effect whether I want to call them a favorite?  Well, Seasons 3-8 (and probably 2-9) of The Simpsons are by far my favorite comedy of all-time.  The problem is that I’ve seen less than a handful of episodes of the show from the past decade, and there are now twice as many weaker seasons of the show than “Golden Age” seasons.  How can I justifiably call something my favorite comedy if I haven’t even seen half of it?  Dramas can also go on for far too long; I still want Netflix to give me the option to rate Dexter seasons 1-4 and Dexter seasons 5-8 separately.

Serialization is both a blessing and a curse.  It allows stories that would normally need to be told within an hour to be spread out and told in depth, and it encourages you to get through weaker episodes because there is a sense that it’ll be important in the end.  But it also means that it’s harder to go back and watch an episode by itself like you can with most comedies and older dramas, and continuing story lines both between and within seasons mean that you may be hooked into seeing what happens even when you have long stopped enjoying the series.  I’ve gotten better at dropping shows from the days when I watched all four seasons of Heroes even though only the first of was good, but even then I’ve stuck through two season of The Strain for some reason.

With “shared universes” becoming the new rage in comic book movies, there is even a feeling that you need to see everything in the series (sometimes three movies a year) in order to be caught up.  It’s slightly more expensive, but at least less time consuming then trying to keep up with the Arrowverse on The CW.  It’s now up to three live action shows (Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow) with full-length seasons that occasionally cross over with one another, resulting in slight confusion if you’re only caught up with one of them.  That’s small compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which in addition to its movies has two shows on ABC with another in development and two shows on Netflix with another three planned.  None of this has really expanded beyond comic book shows yet, but you could do nothing but watch keep up with those two universes and still have a nearly full schedule.

But having to consume lots of things you don’t particularly like to make the things you do like doesn’t seem like a good use of time.  Neither does watching a show you haven’t enjoyed for years just because it was once one of your favorites, or repeatedly listening to an album you really don’t like because you like the artist, or listening to songs you don’t enjoy because you want to listen to the album all the way through.  But if you never do those things, you may not find out that a show gets better again after a few weak seasons, or an album grows on you and you begin to like it.  But time is precious, and sometimes we just want to consume something we already know we enjoy.  That’s what favorites are for, and really the best way to determine them may be to ask whether or not you want to be consuming it, or parts of it, repeatedly over the years.  But that definition doesn’t require a 1000+ word blog post to describe, so who cares.

Top TV Shows of 2015

There were 409 different scripted shows producing new episodes for television channels and streaming services in 2015, somehow an increase over the staggering 376 from 2014. It’s literally impossible for anyone to keep up with all, or even most, of it at this point, including critics whose job it is to do so. And quite of a lot of those shows were good. Some very good. I’m not sure if I would say any of these seasons is an all-time great, with none of them being in my top five of the past five years for example, but the amount of good shows is higher than ever.

The quantity of television shows doesn’t necessarily mean the increase in quantity of television is necessarily as dramatic. Ever since The Sopranos set an example of 13 episodes a season, shorter episode numbers have been increasingly common. Some content providers continue to stick with around 13 episodes per season for their shows, but others (including HBO and Amazon) have been increasingly setting the standard at 10 or even less. None of the shows I watched this year aired more than 16 episodes; in fact I’ve actually been semi-actively avoiding shows with more episodes because they’re a daunting time commitment if you haven’t been watching them from the beginning.

I decided to rank the shows that I’ve watched and make a list out of it, and then I realized that ranking television seasons was going to be nearly impossible. You can watch and compare several episodes in a day, or listen and rank a few music albums, but even with the short seasons of television even the perpetually unemployed can’t re-watch all the television shows they want to rank in a useful amount of time. So I was stuck trying to compare shows that I watched live throughout in the year and shows I binge watched throughout the year and… it didn’t work. Watching a show over ten weeks is a much different experience than watching the episodes one after another over a weekend (for example, I’m not sure if I didn’t like The Knick season 1 more than season 2 because it’s better or because I binged the first and watched the second as the episodes aired).

I compromised and set up the shows I’ve watched every episode aired this year of (less than 10% of what was available!) in four tiers that made vague sense and then listen them alphabetically.  Also listed are the channels they premiered on (if applicable) and the streaming service their seasons are on or will be on sometime in 2016 (if applicable).

Top Five

Better Call Saul (AMC, Netflix)

better call saul
Ursula Coyote/AMC

While Better Call Saul may never be Breaking Bad, it did have a better overall first season than its illustrious predecessor.  Despite being more comedic than than Breaking Bad ended up being, the show manages to create a genuine emotional investment in the character we know we end up as Saul Goodman.

Fargo (FX, Hulu)

fargo
FX

Like the first season, this year Fargo took full advantage of its limited series format to add and remove characters and plot elements without regard for needing them to continue in another season.  It was more ambitious in scope than season one, with more quirky characters, more villains (including Mike Milligan and the Kitchen Brothers, which is an amazing name for a prog rock band), and more subplots.  It impressively managed to make all of them seem like they belonged in the same series, give or take a UFO sighting or two.

Justified (FX, Amazon Prime)

justified 2
Prashant Gupta/Sony Pictures Television/FX

After a disastrous fifth season, it was gratifying to see Justified turn itself around and go out with one of its best years.  With its sharp dialog, surprising yet grounded plot twists, and a fascinating antagonistic relationship between former coal miners Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder, at its highest points the show was one of the most fun and entertaining on television.

The Americans (FX, Amazon Prime)

americans
Patrick Harbon/FX

Suffering from a few too many plots that both take time away from major story lines and strains the credibility that the Jennings could do all of them while maintaining their cover as travel agents, the third season was a slight step down from the second.  Most of this has to do with the fact that the fact that season two was exceptional, so it’s only in comparison to its predecessor that the excellent third season suffers.  While the show can seem emotionally cold and is certainly very self-serious, it was still one of the most tense and thought-provoking shows airing this year.

Veep (HBO)

veep
HBO

In a television age where most new half-hour shows seem to be in a contest to see which can be heavier, more dramatic, and more important, Veep continues to be the best in the category by simply trying (and succeeding) to be the funniest.  The only question is whether or not it can maintain its quality next season with the departure of creator Armando Iannucci.

The Next Ten

Daredevil (Netflix)

daredevil 2
Netflix

Marvel’s deal with Netflix allows them an outlet for their comics that don’t fit in with the clean, almost antiseptic look and feel of the MCU films and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  First up for this ambitious, five-show partnership was another try at adapting Daredevil after the forgettable movie attempt a dozen years ago.  Luckily, this second try proved very successful, with some of the year’s best action sequences either on television or on film.

Game of Thrones (HBO)

game of thrones
HBO

It was definitely the weakest season of the show, with two subplots in particular (Dorne and, to a lesser extent, Winterfell) being particularly not up to par.  Still, it’s a show that inspired me to read 1.7 million words worth of its source material, so even with its downturn I think it’s still pretty good.

Hannibal (NBC, Amazon Prime)

Hannibal - Season 3
Brooke Palmer/NBC

Like season two, the third season was split into two halves.  The first half featured a European Adventure that resulted in the show disappearing so far up its own ass it wound up going all the way back through the entire digestive tract, while the second half was a stylish adaption of Red Dragon.  The first half had its moments, but it wasn’t until the second half that the show was back to the level of quality of the excellent first two seasons.

Jessica Jones (Netflix)

jessica jones
Netflix

While Daredevil was a better traditional superhero show, Jessica Jones was the better drama.  Superpowers did play a part, but it was more the villain Kilgrave’s power to get people to do anything he said than Jessica’s super strength.  Its quality storytelling on surviving abuse and compelling lead hero and villain outweighed the fact that the supporting characters (the ones that aren’t getting their own Netflix shows next year at least) were mostly weak and the show only had enough plot for ten episodes instead of thirteen.

Mad Men (AMC, Netflix)

mad men
Michael Yarish/AMC

Having three slow episode to start a season isn’t exactly abnormal for Mad Men, but is more noticeable when you only put out seven episodes in a year and its your last season.  Still, the season picked up with “Time & Life” and managed to wrap up the series in a satisfying manner.

Mr. Robot (USA, Amazon Prime)

mr. robot
USA

Yes, it liberally borrows from Fight Club with its anti-corporate speeches, a secret group dedicated to wiping out debts, and certain plot elements among other things.  And the show’s staff is very aware of this (see the musical cue at the end of the penultimate episode).  However, the season offered up enough twists and added enough depth to its main character to make it a quality thriller.

Parks and Recreation (NBC, Netflix/Hulu)

parks and rec.jpg
NBC

Two years past its prime, I figured that the sixth season finale was going to be the best send-off the show could hope for at that point and was actually disappointed it got renewed.  Luckily, the time jump in the final season allowed the show to regain some of its lost creative spark, resulting in a funny and heartwarming (though bordering on saccharine in the finale) final season.

Sense8 (Netflix)

sense8
Murray Close/Netflix

You can hardly fault its ambition.  Having eight very different main protagonists spread across eight different locations must have been a nightmare to plan and shoot.  And even if it took a while to get going and didn’t always make sense, its emotional high points cemented its status as one of the years most memorable, if not consistent, shows.

Silicon Valley (HBO)

silicon valley 2
HBO

It’s kind of weird that the second best comedy on television in 2015 wasn’t even the best comedy that aired on HBO during the hour following Game of Thrones.  The show struggled a bit to replace Christopher Evan Welch, but everything else was more consistently funny than season one.  I mean, there aren’t many shows on television doing hilarious episode-long running jokes about SWOT Analysis and Schrödinger’s cat.

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime)

high castle 2
Amazon

It was slow, had some questionable plot points, its lead characters were incredibly bland (but at least not insufferably annoying like the adult children in another prominent Amazon production), the season ended just as many of its more intriguing plot lines are getting going, and overall it was more interesting than it was good.  Fortunately, the show made enough of the fascinating premise in its debut year to not feel like a completely missed opportunity.

Honorable Mentions

Bojack Horseman (Netflix)

Doctor Who (BBC One/BBC America, Amazon Prime)

Homeland (Showtime)

Show Me a Hero (HBO)

The Knick (Cinemax)

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

You’re the Worst (FXX, Hulu)

Other Shows Watched

Broadchurch (ITV/BBC America, Netflix), Community (Yahoo! Screen), Master of None (Netflix), Orange is the New Black (Netflix), Orphan Black (BBC America, Amazon Prime), Review (Comedy Central, Hulu), Sleepy Hollow (Fox, Hulu), The Strain (FX, Hulu), The Walking Dead (AMC, Netflix), W/ Bob and David (Netflix)

The Walking Dead – Mid Season 6 Notes

Just like a year ago, The Walking Dead began its season with promise and then proceeded to mostly squander it. The difference is that this time, instead of going from “Could the Walking Dead finally be a great show?” to “nah, but it’s still pretty good”, it went from “this could be a pretty good season” to “yawn”.

Spoilers below

Continue reading “The Walking Dead – Mid Season 6 Notes”