Full discloser: This list is anything but comprehensive. How could it be? With new shows flooding the airwaves and streaming services, it’s impossible to keep up. Netflix alone seems to release an original series every week. No doubt there are absences from this list. No doubt I will discover great shows from 2016 in the New Year. So in a weird way this list as fluid as it is written in stone.
2016 was another great year for television. With shows like The Leftovers, Fargo, and Master of None taking the year off, I found room for a few new shows on this year’s list.
12 - Daredevil (Netflix)
Season 2 of Daredevil built on the grittiness of its first season with the addition of Elodie Yong as Elektra and Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle/The Punisher. Watching this show felt like reading the best Punisher/Daredevil comics of the ‘90s. Best of all, it doesn’t suffer from the overpopulation of characters like Marvel’s recent films.
11 - This Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
John Oliver and the This Week Tonight staff continued to shed light on underreported or otherwise unreported stories as well as attempting to make sense of the nuttiest election year in recent memory. They did it with equal measure humor and profundity. And in the end, he left us with one overwhelming conclusion that we all basically agree with: Fuck you, 2016!
10 - Mr. Robot (USA)
Now with more Alf! Perhaps no show was a bigger surprise last year than Mr. Robot. This quirky drama with an enigmatic name and odd premise hit the overcrowded television landscape with little fanfare. And if the oversaturation of content and overflowing DVRs wasn’t enough to have Mr. Robot become just another show that failed to find an audience, it was on USA of all networks. I mean, really? USA? But it started gaining overwhelmingly positive word of mouth and landed on many critics’ top 10 lists for 2015. The new season had a lot to live up to, and most of us who were big fans of season one, were more than happy to overlook the bumps in the road (sometimes big ones). I’ll be the first to admit that my enthusiasm for this season had a lot to do with the show as a whole -- that includes season one and any season that has yet to come -- and less to do with any specific episode in this uneven season two.
09 - Bob’s Burgers (FOX)
This show gets better every season. One of the few laugh out loud shows in my rotation. It’s certainly not the most realistic family show on television, but it may be the most relatable. Butts!
08 - Game of Thrones (HBO)
No longer are Benioff and Weiss beholden to the source material. That was most apparent from the extreme change in pace the show displayed this season. Actions that would have previously taken an entire season took mere episodes and the show was the better for it -- mostly. At times Martin’s books did act as an anchor, causing the show to be mired in its own muck. But that anchor also served to hold the story in place. Without it, the show did a little drifting this season. But that was before an endgame was in place. Now that B & W know exactly how many episodes remain they can steer the ship smoothly to port. (Like with the touching and tragic Hodor reveal.) And Dany can set sail for Westeros. Finally!
07 - Westworld (HBO)
Westworld took a while for me to warm up to, and to be honest I never fully got there. In a way, it’s the perfect show for today’s social media landscape. It’s a show that is a puzzle, but one with a solution that begs to be crowdsourced. At times the whole thing left me cold. Westworld is the San Antonio Spurs of television shows. I enjoy watching it in that it’s intellectually stimulating, but in no way is it emotionally engaging.
06 - Stranger Things (Netflix)
Similar to how Mr. Robot came out of nowhere to capture the attention of critics in 2015, Stranger Things captured the imagination of seemly everyone in 2016. Because of the Netflix model (of which we are all aware of by now), one day Stranger Things just appeared. All eight chapters. And for most of us, it was finished as fast as it appeared. This Duffer Brothers’ offering proves that when film or television is heavily influenced, the word “derivative” is only used when the finished product is bad. But when it’s good, it’s one of those viewing experiences that welcomes us to share in the affection of the original material and reminds of our own childhood.
05 - Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Thank you, AMC. This show has been one of the very best shows on television almost since the day it aired. Despite this, the show’s ratings are terrible. Yet, AMC has stuck by it. They renewed it for a third season and when the ratings remained bad… they chose to renew it for a fourth and final season (coming in 2017). After season one -- when the show was basically Mad Men set in the ‘80s world of personal computers with Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan as your generic Don Draper figure, the show pivoted. Hard. Season two saw the focus shift to the female characters and the show was much better for it. This past season saw a time jump but remained on the same track as we bore witness to the birth of the internet while the characters continued to struggle with their own connectivity issues.
04 - Veep (HBO)
Veep’s creator Armando Iannucci departed, making way for a new showrunner (David Mandel) in 2016. The result was the show’s best season to date -- or at the very least, its funniest. Jon H. Ryan for congress!
03 - Better Call Saul (AMC)
Continuing to hold the belt for best cold opens on television, Better Call Saul, suffered from a very unique problem: the title character was the least compelling part of the show. Fortunately, the show spends ample time with Mike (that’s when the show really excels). And when we are with Jimmy, most of his time is spent bouncing off Kim and Chuck. Both Jonathon Banks and Rhea Seehorn excelled and earned every bit of story time they were given.
01 - The Americans (FX)
There is a quiet scene in episode ten of this season’s The Americans between Keri Russell and Frank Langella. They sit at a kitchen table. Gabriel (Langella’s character) simply inquires, “Do you want me to ask?” What follows is twelve seconds of silence as Elizabeth (Russell) considers. In that long pause is some of the best acting put on any screen this year. It’s tense, powerful, and heartbreaking. Not just because of the amazing performance Russell gives, but also because the moment built off the previous 48 episodes of the series. There were so many moments like that this season. So much of what makes this show great is how internal it is. It’s a show about personal struggles and personal stakes set against global ones.