The Best TV Shows of 2016 (According to Kevin Fitzpatrick)
I have watched every single episode of every scripted and non-scripted TV series that aired on any continent between the hours of 12:00 A.M. on January 1, 2016, and 11:59 P.M. on December 31. I then watched it all a second time, in preparation for this list.
This, friends, is essentially the presumption that comes with a year-end “Best of” list, and as you can imagine, is quite a bit to live up to. 2016 has been another strong year for our increasingly undefinable content space; one in which escapism seemed more valuable than ever. We’ve laid waste to Slaver’s Bay by dragonback, seen the ins and outs of the criminal justice system five times over, and even ventured Upside Down into a world populated solely by monsters and redheads in mom jeans.
The struggle to give every show its due is real, and I can barely count the heartbreaking omissions like FX’s The Americans (which eked its way onto our midyear Best of, so yay!) or Amazon’s Transparent, to say nothing of series I never had time to complete, like HBO’s Insecure, Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete, or even NBC’s This Is Us. And if you want to yell at me about Westworld, feel free! Everyone else does.
Either way, we’ve got a nice mix of genre (if not network), so allow me to present ScreenCrush’s Best TV of 2016 (according to me, anyway), for which SPOILER WARNINGS should be stated at least once.
You’d be forgiven to make it through the entire six episodes of Fleabag without realizing that half the characters are never actually named; so complete is creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ability to bring viewers into her title character’s blackly comedic perspective. Biting, bleak and a little bit uncomfortable, Fleabag feels like an unholy British combination of Girls and House of Cards, hiding even its darkest underlying secret in plain sight.
That secret elevates the fourth-wall breaks into something a bit more intimate – almost conversation – while still maintaining the theatrical energy of Waller-Bridge’s original Fleabag performances. It’s short and sweet, and probably more crass than anything you’ll see this year, but still a darkly feminist take on the single life in London over 30, with more than a few poignant moments of connection and heartbreak amid the edges.
Fleabag is currently available on Amazon Streaming.
9. Game of Thrones
Part of the reason these year-end “Best of” lists prove so difficult is the likelihood that a series has been recognized before; with competition only growing more fierce as the year wears on. Game of Thrones in particular ended up among my selections for a midyear list, and could just has easily given up a slot to something equally ambitious like Westworld, but Season 6 of HBO’s monster adaptation really did accomplish something phenomenal in its first post-book year.
“Battle of the Bastards” will likely prove the foremost memory of anyone’s look back on Season 6 – and with good reason, given the unpredictability and production value – but the sixth year started paying off investments in the series like never before. Not only were years-long character arcs like Arya’s training or Cersei’s humiliation finally blossoming into major shifts in the status quo, but the series seemed to recognize some of its own past missteps in the process.
The payoff even swung in both directions, to contrast rare happy moments like Jon and Sansa’s reunion with Cersei’s layered and well-foreshadowed vengeance against Margaery and the Sparrows (he wrote, listening to “Light of the Seven”). Even amid a few neglected and dragging storylines, Game of Thrones Season 6 easily ranks among the series’ most impressive to date; to flourish without the training wheels of George R.R. Martin’s books, and make the most of our final 10-episode season.
Game of Thrones is currently available on HBO, with Season 7 due in summer 2017.
8. BoJack Horseman
It never fails to impress that what seemed once like a crudely-drawn cashgrab for a post-Arrested Development Will Arnett and a post-Breaking Bad Aaron Paul revealed itself as one of the more thoughtful, expressive and layered meditations on depression in ages. Even at the seeming heights of success for his work in Secretariat, the demons of BoJack Horseman always find a way to reach through; even amplify one’s worst self-destructive instincts.
The third season of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s absurdist take on post-Hollywood wisely shifted a bit more focus to the supporting players like Todd (Paul), Diane (Alison Brie), and Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins); all of whom flirt with success of their own, but come out with personal revelations. Certainly guest turns from Westworld’s Jeffrey Wright, Angela Bassett and Candice Bergen put Season 3 over the mark as well, but none so much as an episode that features few voices at all; pushing BoJack’s metaphor of isolation to a lovely underwater Lost in Translation.
It’s an open question how many more years BoJack can continue to plumb the depths of depression without losing its edge, but Season 3 provided the strongest case yet for its brand of ultra-sharp Hollywood satire (that Oscar prediction chart will certainly come in handy), whose effectiveness is only heightened by its endless affinity for sight gags and animal puns. Biel-ieve it.
BoJack Horseman is streaming in full on Netflix, with Season 4 due in 2017.
7. Stranger Things
Here’s another slot in which Westworld might have cracked the list, given both it and Stranger Things occupy similar slots in watercooler discussion. What seems like a simple throwback premise turns into a complex rearrangement of nostalgias, and inflames the imagination to a point that discourse turns in on itself by the third month of obsession.
Nevertheless, Netflix managed something impressively original in Stranger Things, as the Duffer brothers stitched together a children’s adventure of small-town weirdness into something far more sinister, and wholly cinematic. There’s a knife’s edge to walk between fantasy and horror, and the presence of adult pros like Winona Ryder and David Harbour kept a healthy emotional grounding to the story of a young boy’s disappearance, turned-nightmare version of E.T.
Add to that some breakout turns from young Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin and Gaten Matarazzo, or the intermediate class of Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton and Joe Keery, and Stranger Things becomes something more than a summer blockbuster. It’s the rare nostalgia grab that feels wholly unique, and a love letter to the films that defined generations of directors.
Stranger Things is currently available on Netflix, with Season 2 expected in 2017.
6. Last Week Tonight / Full Frontal With Samantha Bee
I’m cheating! And putting late-night in a list for the first time! Whatever politics you hold, few would argue that 2016 has been a dumpster-fire GIF of a year, and few late-night hosts kept us so informed or sane as the irate and unapologetic reporting done by both Daily Show alums Oliver and Bee. In a world where late-night hosts are often content to tousle more than test, both series cemented themselves as intelligent, left-leading leaders of the field, without the need for an institutional name behind them.
Granted, Oliver is sometimes labeled ineffective (at least against headlines hyperbolizing “evisceration” left and right), the diversity of Last Week Tonight topics in 2016 included everything from police accountability, to car financing, Brexit, Puerto Rican debt and an in-depth look at Trump’s infamous border wall. It’s insightful and irreverent in way that nicely contrasts Full Frontal’s more raw and impassioned approach, while Bee and her correspondents’ trips into the field bring a more diverse array of perspectives.
Both hosts proved essential viewing for the 2016 election in an age of misinformation, and are sure to be equally vital in 2017.
Last Week Tonight is available on HBO, while both series will return for new seasons in 2017.
5. The Get Down
It feels odd to be talking about the first half of a season; only set up as such from troubling reports of The Get Down’s inflated production under Baz Luhrmann. Part One nonetheless offered a burst of color and theatricality in an age where prestige music dramas feel old hat. Set in the burning South Bronx of 1977, The Get Down chronicled the origins of hip-hop in a fresh, energetic coming-of-age that read more like superhero origins in a Kung-Fu western than Luke Cage and Iron Fist combined.
Even amid larger-than-life set-pieces, The Get Down never loses sight of its social-conscience either, between neighborhoods riddled with crime and political exploitation, or a surprise coming-out of sorts to underground queer culture of ‘70s New York. It’s an ambitious undertaking that never revels in cruelty of hopelessness for its characters, but always feels alive with possibility; whether breaking ranks into gospel-disco, envisioning a brighter neighborhood, or discovering all the musical possibilities of The Get Down Brothers in sync.
And like Stranger Things, The Get Down recognizes the importance of its young cast as much as the elder statesmen, whether in star-making turns for Justice Smith and Herizen Guardiola, or old pros like Jimmy Smits and Giancarlo Esposito. Even Kevin Corrigan gets surprising chance to shine as a drug-addled washout producer, whose comic stalling ends up forming one of the better musical numbers of the series.
It’s an explosion of style at a time when period and music genres alike need them, and we can only hope the second half proves so strong.
The Get Down, Part One is currently available on Netflix, with Part Two due in 2017.
4. Orange is the New Black
Orange Is the New Black has always had a push-and-pull relationship with its one-time protagonist Piper (Taylor Schilling), and an even less definable balance between drama and comedy, but Season 4 felt like an extraordinary crystallization of that potent mixture. Long gone was the wide-eyed WASP introduced to a world of diverse (and mostly friendly) women; replaced with someone whose presumption of authority and abuse of racial politics got a swastika burned into her arm.
So too did Season 4 drop the previous year’s comedic emphasis for more in-depth looks at the failures of a privatized prison system, and its timely intersection with Black Lives Matter (culminating in a show-stopping penultimate hour directed by Matthew Weiner himself). Mental illness also garnered worthy spotlight with heartbreaking turns for Lori Petty’s Lolly, and even Michael Harney’s Healy, to say nothing of the long-awaited explanation behind Suzanne (Uzo Adoba)’s incarceration.
Orange Is the New Black will be carrying on for some time, having already secured renewals for Seasons 5, 6 and 7, but if 4 is any indication, Jenji Kohan has not run out of ways to keep the show’s formula fresh, and its exploration of injustice within the justice system as immediate and vital as ever.
Orange Is the New Black is available on Netflix, with Season 5 due in 2017.
3. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
On the flipside of our obsession with true-crime mysteries, FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story took a case that had every aspect overturned and over-analyzed for decades, and instead focused on the people and prejudices that turned an open-and-shut homicide into the judicial farce of a generation. No subject matter seemed less suited to the Ryan Murphy treatment (or eyebrow-raising casts like John Travolta or David Schwimmer), only to end up one of the most nuanced and weighty examinations of media culture and reality television in a decade.
Even those unorthodox additions did little outshine powerhouse performances like Sarah Paulson’s fierce-yet-wholly-overwhelmed Marcia Clark, or Courtney B. Vance’s theatrical and silver-tongued Johnny Cochrane. Even Cuba Gooding Jr., perhaps one of the oddest fits for the imposing and low-register Simpson, imbued the character with a mix of self-assurance and sadness that made those final moments of freedom seem like a darker walk than any life-sentence.
Everyone involved brought their A-game (and the occasional Juice), and the mere fact that 10 episodes could find space for deeper moments of humanity and longing like Marcia’s relationship with Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown) amid all the courtroom theatrics place People into 2016’s echelon. It’s a feat uncertain to repeat in two subsequent seasons, but one that captured both today and yesterday with equal aplomb.
American Crime Story will return in 2017 for a Katrina-based season.
For the longest time, the only description FX would offer of Donald Glover’s Atlanta was “Twin Peaks with rappers,” and after all ten episodes, I’m still hard-pressed to conjure anything more succinct. Crisp, unorthodox and every bit as likely to spend one week on a shaggy dog story as animate a cereal commercial into a depiction of police abuse, Atlanta had no shortage of oddball humor to accompany its upstart perspective on rap culture.
For his part, Glover’s Earn Marks serves functionally as the straight man, pursuing his dream without neglecting his duties as a father. It’s breakout turns from Brian Tyree Henry and Keith Stanfield that elevate Atlanta’s comedic edge into a complex arrangement of masculinity, existentialism and unease with racial categorization.
Zazie Beetz too brings a weary optimism and independence to Van, and it’s Atlanta’s willingness to experiment with spotlight episodes like “Value” and “B.A.N.” that afford the series an unmistakable freshness, and a necessary addition to the landscape going forward.
Atlanta will return for Season 2 in 2017.
1. The Night Of
It’s especially fortuitous that Riz Ahmed has become the star du jour, considering HBO’s The Night Of started filming years earlier, under the same Criminal Justice banner of its U.K. progenitor, and with James Gandolfini in the role John Turturro came to embody. Nevertheless, the soulless nightmare of today’s criminal justice system kept The Night Of equally timely, bolstered by a modest dash of True Detective-style sleuthing to keep viewers engaged.
It wasn’t just Naz (Ahmed)’s transformation from terrified suspect to prison-tatted parolee that gave the eight-episode miniseries its haunting dramatic center, but also the weary specificity imbued by Turturro’s John Stone, psoriasis and all. More than that; Naz’s time accused of killing a woman whose company he barely remembers came to eat at everyone involved, from his parents (Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan) heartrendingly driven to doubt, to Bill Camp’s Detective Box slowly realizing his own rush to judgement.
It’s explosively tense premiere might be reason enough to land The Night Of atop this list (perhaps diminished for subsequent hours losing that momentum). Still, a steady sense of craftsmanship in those muted grays and dull shots – as well as aural emphasis on all those clanking doors and ringing phones – offer a sensory immersion that keep HBO’s ultra-gritty approach to criminal justice and racial bias rattling around in your memory long past that bittersweet ending.
The Night Of is available on HBO, with talk of a second season still in question.