Time for part two. Again, here’s a reminder: lists like these are largely arbitrary and are mostly just me talking about 24 shows I really like in varying order all leading up to my favorite show of the year. Minor spoilers may abound. Have fun.
10. MR. ROBOT (USA)
Complaints at Mr. Robot season 2 took aim at its overindulgence: extra long episodes, even further journeys into Elliot’s mind, yet another game changing twist, and they’re not unwarranted, but overindulgence is part and parcel of this show. Even when this show is getting on my nerves by indulging in everything but the plot, I can’t help but marvel at the tone and ideas it goes for. There isn’t a more atmospheric show on television. Sam Esmail directed every episode in the second season, making the entire season feel even more unified than the first season. Mr. Robot is also a show that almost accidentally became terrifyingly timely: what to do when the revolution fails and you’re forced to fight back against shadowy, evil forces greater than you, other than make sense of the darkness and find a way to fight back. Dread is what this show traffics in and there’s unfortunately a surplus of dread nowadays. To those who are looking for more straightforward plotting and less thematic pondering I quote antagonist turned ally Tyrell Wellick: “ You only see what’s in front of you, not what’s above you.”
Key Episodes: “eps2.0_unm4sk-pt1.tc”, “eps2.4m4ster-s1ave.aes”, “eps2.9_pyth0n-pt2.p7z”
9. FLEABAG (Amazon Prime)
A scathing, sneakily devastating character study, Fleabag’s titular character (her real name is never mentioned) is one of the finest character creations this year. She’s an “unruly woman” comfortable among the likes of Amy Schumer but there’s a deep sadness and tragedy present behind her depravity and self-destruction. Her fourth wall breaking asides may seem gimmicky at first, but when you discover she’s talking to us because she can’t talk to the only person she wants to talk to, it becomes heartbreaking. Fleabag is devastating, especially later in the season (there’s a moment where she deliberately avoids looking at us that’s a gut punch), but it’s also very funny in how it examines contemporary women and how they treat each other, as well as the terrible men they keep in their company. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is one of the year’s biggest new talents (be sure to check out her earlier show Crashing, which, while not as ambitious as Fleabag, is a charming hang out sitcom that hints at themes she would explore later with the latter.)
Key Episodes: “Episode 1”, “Episode 4”, “Episode 5”
8. THE GOOD PLACE (NBC)
Thursday night comedy is finally alive and well again on NBC after several years. While nothing will match the ridiculous lineup of Community/Parks and Recreation/30 Rock/The Office, Superstore and especially The Good Place are coming close. The Good Place represents a step forward to the NBC sitcom, as it’s nowhere close to a hangout or workplace sitcom. Taking place in the Good Place (heaven, more or less) and following Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shelstrop as she tries to hide the fact that there’s been a mistake and she’s taken someone else’s spot in the Good Place, this is as high concept as a network sitcom gets. And it works ridiculously well. The plotting in this first half season was brisk while still having plenty of laughs per minute. Ted Danson shines here as the architect of the Good Place. Without spoiling too much, the show’s burned through a ridiculous amount of plot already, and gracefully, and it doesn’t seem to be losing steam heading into the second half of its first season.
Key Episodes: “Pilot”, “The Eternal Shriek”, “…Someone Like Me As A Member”
7. THE AMERICANS (FX)
Season four of The Americans continued the ridiculous hot streak this show has been having. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys have never been better as the marriage between Elisabeth and Phillip gets further and further rested by their spy games, as the show begins to move towards an inevitable end point. Recognition must also go to Holly Taylor, the best child actor on television, who continues to play daughter Paige with aplomb as she is further sucked into her parents’ spy world.
Key Episodes: “Chloramphenicol”, “The Rat”, “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears”
6. SEARCH PARTY (TBS)
Search Party could have been yet another “millennials in New York City discover themselves” show, but in reality it’s something more uneasy and darker. A mix of Gone Girl and Girls, Search Party combines a hangout comedy drama and a missing person thriller to great effect. Alia Shawkat is great as Dory, whom you’re never too sure is looking for a missing college friend out of sympathy, or out of sheer boredom, or out of deep seated mental issues. The rest of the cast is similarly strong, showcasing varying degrees of narcissism and disingenuous sympathy when informed that a former colleague they barely knew vanished. The finale in particular is a masterpiece of black comedy.
Key Episodes: “The Night of One Hundred Candles”, “The Captive Dinner Guest”, “The House of Uncanny Truths”
5. ATLANTA (FX)
As soon as Donald Glover described his show Atlanta as “Twin Peaks for rappers”, I was simultaneously confused and intrigued. It turns out that that is a great way to describe Atlanta, which hits a peculiar tone unlike any other show right now. Shows will often capture the feeling of New York or LA but Atlanta captures the feeling of its titular city through a laidback, surreal tone. The show experiments with surrealism often, but only in minor ways that comment on or joke on established reality. The black experience is given such a unique and rich voice here (the entire writers room is black) that Glover proves himself to be on of the best creatives in the industry. Every episode is excitingly confident in its ideas and stories, even when they’re increasingly experimental, like when an entire episode takes place during an in-universe talk show, or when Justin Bieber “guest stars” and he is played by a black man. Atlanta is frequently the most exciting show on television.
Key Episodes: “Value”, “B.A.N.”, “Juneteenth”
4. BETTER THINGS (FX)
Better Things is very much in the vein of Louie in that it’s about a long suffering parent working in the entertainment industry who takes good care of their children. What separates and elevates Better Things is its moving and realistic look at what it means to raise three daughters in the present day, as well as just be a woman of a certain age in the industry. Sam Fox’s daughters can all be pretty terrible but at the end of the day they’re portrayed as real human beings, who are often lashing out because it’s hard to be a child. Her relationship with her children is similarly complex as scenes will transition from friendly rapport to strained communication and back constantly. The show’s world weary tone is an improvement on Louie’s as well: it’s never sour or even surreally scary, it’s Pamela Adlon sighing after another disappointment, maybe laughing, and then getting up and trying again. What better way to approach parenting and life?
Key Episodes: “Future Fever”, “Scary Fun”, “Only Women Bleed”
3. AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE PEOPLE VS. OJ SIMPSON (FX)
Only the OJ Simpson trial could become a media sensation twice. This sensational limited series avoided all of the pitfalls of a Ryan Murphy show (he only produced and directed a few episodes) to become an insightful look at the swirling vortex of racism, classism, and misogyny that was the OJ trial. Everyone knows how it ends, but the measured exploration of the case, as well as the complex portrayals of the figures involved (the same figures, such as Marcia Clark were reduced to tabloid fodder at the time) makes this series necessary in understanding this milestone trial. Sarah Paulson gives her best performance yet as Clark, who’s putting her all into a case that is destroying her mentally. Like the original trial itself, the show revels in its sensationalism often, with its bombastic period appropriate music and campy humor, but it’s the moments of horror (the series never lets you forget that at the end of the day, two people were still murdered) and deep tragedy (the verdict is still heartbreaking, despite knowing what will happen) that illuminate why this trial was important and why it represents the world now and also today.
Key Episodes: “The Dream Team”, “The Race Card”, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”
2. HIGH MAINTENANCE (HBO)
High Maintenance is the most empathetic show on television. It understands that every person is just that: a person with thoughts, feelings, and desires. It’s from this approach that episodes focus on a new customer of (or just someone within periphery of) The Guy, the unnamed main character who is a weed dealer. The show often feels like a collection of short stories whereas episodes will focus on two separate people/stories. None of these stories ever feel like “typical New York” stories however, they all feel fresh and new, and represent a diverse worldview, as well as an off kilter sense of humor. High Maintenance is easily doing the best pure storytelling on television.
Key Episodes: “Grandpa”, “Tick”, “Ex”
- HALT AND CATCH FIRE (AMC)
The story of Halt and Catch Fire is a true underdog story. After a middling first season where it was (not unfairly) deemed a Mad Men knock-off, it came back with a refocused, stellar season. And then it came back again for a third season and it was the best show on television. The show became about the uneasy future, of facing an connected world that none of the characters even know is possible yet. It’s in this vein and in others that it bore striking resemblance to Mad Men. The characters faced the problem of how to move into the future in ways that made sense to each textured character, and when us, the viewers, became unsure of how they would move forward, the show showed us, with a late in the game time jump to the 90’s. No other show was this confident or boasted better performances than Halt and Catch Fire this year. Mackenzie Davis in particular is the standout of the show. Like all great shows, it’s really about the culture of today: how we innovate for philanthropic and selfish reasons, the paranoia of an interconnected world, and the terrifying yet intoxicating prospect of change.
Key Episodes: “And She Was”, “NIM”, “NeXT”
BLACK MIRROR (Netflix)
BROOKLYN NINE-NINE (FOX)
COMEDY BANG BANG (IFC)
DEGRASSI: THE NEXT CLASS (Netflix)
DIFFICULT PEOPLE (Hulu)
IZOMBIE (The CW)
LADY DYNAMITE (Netflix)
MAN SEEKING WOMAN (FXX)
STEVEN UNIVERSE (Cartoon Network)
STRANGER THINGS (Netflix)
THE FLASH (The CW)
THE REAL O’NEALS (ABC)
THE BEST TV EPISODES OF 2016
AMERICAN CRIME STORY : THE PEOPLE VS. OJ SIMPSON — 1x06 — Marcia, Marcia, Marcia
A devastating, horrifying tale of misogyny featuring Sarah Paulson at her best is the best episode of American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson.
ATLANTA — 1x06 — Value
Atlanta focused on side character Van for an episode that thankfully shades in more of her life and character, as well as portray a hilariously unorthodox way to get out of a drug test.
BLACKISH — 2x16 — Hope
Black-ish went full Norman Lear as the Johnsons discuss police brutality with humor, intelligence, and grace.
BOJACK HORSEMAN — 3x04 — Fish out of Water
This beautifully animated and (almost) entirely silent episode of Bojack Horseman is the high point in the series, and the best, most artistic representation of Bojack’s loneliness yet.
BRAINDEAD — 1x07 — The Power of Euphemism: How Torture Became a Matter of Debate in American Politics
Braindead is, and will continue to be unfairly underrated, and this episode saw it take a turn into pitch black political satire, as it explored how political euphemism can mask horrifying torture practices that are very much used in reality.
CASUAL — 2x13 — The Great Unknown
You may not like your parents, but hopefully one of them won’t ask you to help in their assisted suicide, like in this incredibly moving and darkly comedic season two finale of Casual.
GIRLS — 5x06 — The Panic in Central Park
Marnie visits her past for a night and it’s what gives her the strength to move on with her life in this dreamlike episode.
STEVEN UNIVERSE — 3x08 — Mr. Greg
A full Steven Universe musical is just the recipe for discussing past emotional trauma and fostering forgiveness between Greg and Pearl.
THE CHARACTERS — 1x02 — John Early
Between Search Party and his episode of Netflix sketch comedy anthology series The Characters, this was clearly John Early’s year. He plays several characters in this half hour episode, all varying and harrowingly specific levels of hilariously insufferable.
THE NIGHT OF — 1x01 — The Beach
The rest of this limited series never lived up to this perfectly paced pilot: it’s a thrilling mini-suspense thriller, even when you know where it will all end.
VEEP — 5x09 — Kissing Your Sister
The funniest episode of television aired this year is a fake documentary directed by one of the most underrated characters on one of TV’s best comedies.
BLACK MIRROR — 3x04 — San Junipero
Black Mirror, known for its images of technological dystopia, also somehow gave us the best and most optimistic love story on TV this year.