The 10 Best TV Shows of 2016 (So Far)
Television is slowly but surely coming to dominate your every waking moment of media consumption, from binge to basic cable, and we’re only halfway through the year. Already 2016 has brought us all-time greats from high up in the Northern battlefields to down on Canal Street. And if the Golden Globes can reward Lady Gaga, surely ScreenCrush can recognize TV’s best too, right? Right?
Here’s ScreenCrush’s Britt Hayes, Erin Whitney and Kevin Fitzpatrick’s favorite TV shows from the first half of 2016:
Erin Whitney’s Top Three
3. Broad City
Season 3, Comedy Central
I’m not sure if it’s just because I’m a New Yorker that I love Broad City so much and find it so relatable, but damn is it accurate. Here’s one example: After this season’s episode “B&B-NYC” where Abbi and Ilana camp on their rooftop with a tent, someone on my Facebook feed posted a picture of them doing the same thing days later. Or there’s Ilana’s annoyance at the dead body that’s stopped the subway in “Getting There,” the hipster Phish-loving volunteer in “Co-Op,” or Abbi’s DMV nightmare in “2016” (oh yeah, we’ve all been there). Abbi and Ilana’s hilarious misadventures capture the utter chaos and lunacy of living in New York City, especially as a young person. It’s like taking all the geographically-focused comedy of Seinfeld, Sex and the City, and Girls, hotboxing it, and then stepping back to ask, “Wait, why do we live in this weird, disgusting city again?”
But you don’t have to live in New York to appreciate Broad City’s humor. The third season of the show perfectly captures the zeitgeist. There’s Abbi’s Tinder dates, which hilariously poke fun at the deception of the app’s well-manicured profiles. There’s the shock and awe of meeting Hillary Clinton as two liberal female millennials. There’s the impossibility of getting a Uber when the surge is too high and you’re too broke to afford it. And two of the season’s best moments celebrate the nostalgia of two millennial-certified, beloved ’90s movies, Sister Act and Mrs. Doubtfire. Best of all, Broad City touches on how sex-positive our generation is with the proudly bisexual and poly Ilana. The show’s timely humor may not resonate as strongly in five or 10 years, but for right now, it’s the most refreshingly funny thing on TV.
2. Lady Dynamite
Season 1, Netflix
“What the [expletive]?!” Is the first thought I had when I jumped into Maria Bamford’s Lady Dynamite completely blind, very confused, and a little inebriated. The series opens with the comedian, who’s playing a version of herself, acting in a high-energy hair commercial, smiling maniacally into the camera. But Maria is not in a hair commercial; she’s standing on a street corner dazed and talking to herself. A woman walks up to her and says, “No no, this is not a hair ad. It’s the show. Your show.” Maria looks to the camera, introduces herself infomercial-style and then jumps in the air as a van explodes behind her.
That bizarre introduction is just the beginning of how weird and erratic things get on Lady Dynamite, a semi-autobiographical show that’s as wacky and delightful as it is profound. It follows the fictionalized Maria through three time periods: her past working in LA before she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, when she returned home to Minnesota and checked into a mental health clinic, and her present-day self as a comedian in LA (similar to Curb Your Enthusiasm). The show’s surreal, meta moments and oscillating energy are at times confusing and overwhelming, but they also echo Maria’s manic ups and downs. You’re tossed around Maria’s mind as she navigates mental illness, relationships, her acting career, issues with confrontation and self-esteem, finding stability through various new-age life coaches, and being a woman in the entertainment industry. It’s difficult to describe just what’s so brilliant about Lady Dynamite because it comments on so many topics with so many different types of comedy. There’s no rules to Lady Dynamite, and that’s what makes watching it feel like such an invigorating, thrilling experience. It’s quite the ride, and I only hope Netflix lets Bamford to continue taking us on it with a second season.
1. Orange Is the New Black
Season 4, Netflix
Orange Is the New Black began as a show about a privileged white woman entering an ethnically diverse New York prison, commenting on race and class in a place where everyone is equalized. But in its fourth year Orange became a true character-driven ensemble. Shifting away from Piper (Taylor Schilling) and turning her into one of the show’s most disliked characters, this season focused on telling the stories of the minor characters we rarely spend time with. This season’s best conceived storylines revolved around Lolly (Lori Petty), Blanca (Laura Gómez), Diane (Maritza Ramos), Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), and Healy (Michael Harney), all with some of the series’ best performances, including an especially fantastic performance by Petty, along with Christina Brucato as the young Lolly.
The fourth year of Orange also marked a significant shift in tone. While the series has been most celebrated as a comedy, Season 4 distinguished the show as a proper member the drama category, spending more time on darker, emotional moments. I laughed out loud a lot less this season, which was partially a disappointment – Poussey, Taystee, and Black Cindy were somewhat under used this year. But two-thirds of the way into the season I began to appreciate that shift and how committed the writers were to telling important, if often uncomfortable and upsetting narratives about police brutality, Black Lives Matter, mental illness, and addiction. The show became so heavy by the end that at one point I decided to take a short break from it, needing some space before I jumped back into the emotional episodes about grief and loss.
But that break also made me realize why Orange is one of the best shows we have right now, and what sets Season 4 apart from the rest. While Orange is one of the original bingewatching shows, this season’s 13 episodes were full of powerful moments best consumed with breaks and a slower pace. It might not have been as fun to watch as the last three years, but it certainly felt more cathartic.
Britt Hayes’s Top Four
Season 5, HBO
There was some concern when Veep creator (and In the Loop director) Armando Iannucci left the series at the end of Season 4, but those fears ultimately proved unfounded. The latest installment of the HBO political comedy is the series’ best yet, and that says quite a lot given Iannucci’s absence. Season 5 finds Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Selina Meyer predictably beset by one calamity after another in her bid to become the first female President of the United States, while characters like her daughter Catherine (Sarah Sutherland) and political buffoon Jonah (Timothy Simons) have their roles expanded with intensely hilarious subplots. Jonah’s campaign to become Senator is cringe-humor at its finest, equaled only by the presence of Peter MacNicol as his deranged uncle.
For all its biting political satire and relentless humor, there’s also something wonderfully real about Veep. In one of the season’s best episodes, Veep pulls off an impressive feat: We despise Selina for her repulsed reaction to Catherine’s heartbreak, and not two minutes later our own hearts are breaking for her when she’s poised to lose the presidency. But it’s what happens next — when a group of women unwittingly bump into her during a White House tour — that makes this show so damn special.
3. Penny Dreadful
Season 3, Showtime
Penny Dreadful is that show; the one you’ve been sleeping on for two seasons with vague plans to eventually catch up, only peripherally aware of how great it might actually be. Now is your chance, as John Logan’s exquisitely horrific Showtime drama dropped a surprise series finale during the third season — a season that is, without a doubt, the series’ best yet. The turn of the century gothic drama boasts a consistently wonderful ensemble cast with an elegant mythology tied to Dracula, Frankenstein and other literary icons of fright, all of which hit a crescendo in Season 3 as the myriad plots reached terrifying peaks. Logan & Co. find real horror not in the monsters that go bump in the night, but in humanity and our unending battle against the forces of evil within. What began as a show that seemed like a far more stylish and sophisticated League of Extraordinary Gentlemen quickly established itself as a provocative, insightful tale that asks questions of religion, faith, and what makes a good man bad — and a bad man good.
Eva Green and Rory Kinnear were the show’s co-MVPs, a fact that became all the more evident in Season 3 — particularly during “Blade of Grass,” an intimate episode that felt more like a two-person stage play, as Green’s eternally tormented Vanessa Ives revisits her past in an asylum where she found solace with an orderly who — as fate would have it — happens to be John Clare. Penny Dreadful pulled off some impressive things over the course of three seasons: Reminding us that Josh Hartnett can act, taking a prostitute’s tragedy and transforming it into a monstrous feminist revolution, giving us Patti LuPone in two fantastic roles, and — most importantly — knowing when its story should end in an era when TV shows live on long past their expiration dates.
Season 2, Lifetime
For all the talk of The 100’s righteous feminism, that CW show (which stumbled a bit in Season 3) is not nearly as fierce as UnREAL, Lifetime’s drama that takes you behind-the-manufactured-scenes of a Bachelor-esque reality series to paint a painfully real, deviously flawed portrait of humanity — and women in particular. Putting “reality” TV and the beauty industry on blast is hardly novel, but UnREAL takes an approach that is utterly fearless and never shies away from the deepest, darkest, and ugliest parts of its characters.
Things have only gotten more intense in Season 2, as Rachel continues to reject medication in favor of willfully indulging her manic tendencies. Like Season 1, it provides smart commentary on the artistic inclination to invite negative experiences for the sake of creative prosperity; in this case, Rachel is a better employee — but not necessarily her best self — when she’s off her meds.
This season also introduces a racial element, as the show-within-a-show welcomes the first black bachelor, which Rachel hopes will be a landmark moment in television history. In addition to its usual brutal feminism, UnREAL Season 2 features similarly unflinching moments of tension and commentary designed to elicit the sort of discomfort that could only come from painful recognition.
Where The 100 offers strong, aspirational (though still occasionally flawed) feminism for a younger set, UnREAL is the no BS feminist show grown-ups have been waiting for. It doesn’t offer a singular female role model, but instead depicts women as fully-dimensional people who make mistakes, sometimes on purpose, and who all believe they’re doing the right thing for their gender to some degree ... even if they’re doing all the wrong things to get there.
1. American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson
I never would have guessed that a show produced by Ryan Murphy would be so great, but here we are. Created by Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson is no mere melodramatic retelling of the Trial of the Century. It’s a complex, riveting drama about the birth of reality television as we know it. Every aspect of the trial was sensationalized by the media to the point where no one involved was viewed as an actual human being. Instead, the trial became our first real-world miniseries event; it was appointment viewing for an entire generation.
But The People v. O.J. Simpson goes above and beyond the origin story of reality with incredible performances from all involved. Sarah Paulson was terrific as the tortured Marcia Clark, who falls victim to the media and is judged not by her legal competence but by unfair beauty standards, as if she were an actor and not a lawyer. I defy you to find a moment on TV this year more heartbreakingly real than watching a male cashier ridicule Clark for buying tampons while Portishead’s “Sour Times” plays in the background. Paulson isn’t the only one bringing her A game: Sterling K. Brown is just as fantastic as Christopher Darden, Nathan Lane is delightfully horrendous as F. Lee Bailey, and even John Travolta (Travolta!) is incredible in his role as Robert Shapiro. It’s a brilliantly layered, complex examination of media and race, and proves that the Trial of the Century is just as relevant today as it was then — however unfortunate that may be.
Kevin Fitzpatrick’s Top Three
3. The Americans
Season 4, FX
That The Americans will be allowed to end on its own terms with two final seasons is nothing short of a miracle, considering that while the FX spy drama consistently manages to top itself year after year, ratings have never placed it anywhere close to the realm of TV juggernauts. Still, stealth effectiveness almost serves as testament to the series itself, which this year pivoted toward the threat of biological warfare, while still spinning oblong plates like Paige’s confession to Pastor Tim, and the constant threat of exposure.
If anything, Season 4 took the Jennings too far into enemy territory, to the point that characters in-series recognized their need for a step back; one of the rare time-jumps not borne of desire for an arbitrary shakeup. Perhaps the strongest testament to the show’s willingness to subvert expectations was the heartbreaking departures of not one, but two series regulars, Annet Mahendru’s Nina and Alison Wright’s Martha. The former seemed almost an inevitable endpoint for a drama so rooted in historical reality, while the second similarly reached an inevitable boiling point, albeit one with far more threatening prospects to stretch over intermediate episodes. The Americans may never garner the recognition it deserves in a sea of #PeakTV, but it nonetheless grew with startling precision in Season 4, served by actors and writers at the top of their game.
2. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Season 2, Netflix
Single-camera comedy is an increasing rarity, particularly ones so willing to emulate a live-action cartoon like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Season 2 faced the tremendous task of balancing its delightful absurdity with some very grounded and human character beats. Putting Reverend Wayne’s trial behind offered a much more introspective look at Kimmy, whose can-do attitude starting bristling against the very-real PTSD that Season 2 often treated as quirks or throwaway gags.
Titus also got a deserving spotlight, with glimpses into his and Vonda’s past. The series seemed less certain what to do with Jacqueline or Lillian, but the addition of Anna Camp as the former’s unhinged social rival Deirdre Robespierre offered a fun twist on stock Mean Girl-isms, while Lillian Kane yelling at hipsters will never not be funny. And all of them swam in an sea of perfect gags like Jeff Richmond’s off-brand pop hits, endless callbacks, and meta-references like Reverend Wayne’s Mad Men past. Best of all was the addition of Lisa Kudrow as Kimmy’s mother; their literal roller-coaster airing of grievances vacillated from poignant to ridiculous with every turn, offering a lovely payoff to the groundwork of Kimmy exploring her issues in therapy (with bonus drunk Tina Fey!).
Season 2 wasn’t without its low points, whether tone-deaf reactions to the tone-deaf racial jokes that inspired them in the first place, or the abrupt end of non-start stories like Kimmy’s relationship with Dong (which may have been worth it for a hotel crewed by raccoons, or that Joshua Jackson cameo). Still, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt remains one of the few truly great single-camera sitcoms out there, and it really hit its stride in Season 2.
1. Game of Thrones
Season 6, HBO
Moreso in Season 6 than ever before, Game of Thrones felt like an impossible adaptation, with an expansive cast spread out across vast continents and rapidly running out of George R.R. Martin material to draw from. The season was not without issues; characters spent hours in paper-thin storylines to delay an inevitable return, and other subplots delivered thrills without actual character. Season 6 often saw Game of Thrones stories become mere puzzles to solve, most notably the fervor to unravel Jon Snow’s death.
Still, the removal of Game of Thrones from Martin’s groundwork allowed the characters with worthwhile interests to actually align. Misery porn gave way to catharsis, to actually granting heroes the occasional victory; moments like Jon and Sansa’s reunion resonating as the happiest Game of Thrones had ever been. Visual feasts like Miguel Sapochnik’s “Battle of the Bastards” or Daenerys setting armies alight were pinnacles of televised action, both for viewers and longtime readers anxious for a glimpse of the end.
Season 6 brought something for everyone, whether those impatient for the narrative to conclude, drama junkies in search of nuanced work, or conspiracy theorists hoping for returns. Game of Thrones Season 6 felt as strong as TV will ever be, balancing incredible spectacle with characters that never fail to sustain our investment.