Best TV of 2016

Fox

We are at peak TV. Not in terms of quality, though there is a lot of that, but in terms of sheer quantity. Frankly, it’s too much. Keeping in mind everything else that is demanding our attention at all times, the hundreds upon hundreds of TV shows available to us through broadcast, cable, the web and whatever else is pure excess. Delicious excess, but excess all the same. I doubt the industry can keep up this rate of production, but for now, let’s dwell in it for as long as we can.

TV is the purest form of artistic escapism. It’s easy, too easy, to lose yourself. Minutes become hours become days. And amid the current political climate, not just in the States but here in Canada as well, debates are raging over the usefulness of art as escapism. Some say art is more important than ever in times like these. This may be true, though I side-eye anyone that looks forward to all the great art we’re going to get in the next few years while dismissing the fact that this will come at the expense of, literally, people’s lives. All that aside, I think escapism is important. I won’t offer any platitudes about art creating empathy or community, but I will say that television gives us a way to unplug and recharge, better prepared to continue fighting the next day. And that’s all we can really ask for from our art.

Honourable mention goes to “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”, the one highlight of the X-Files revival; the consistently hilarious Bob’s Burgers; and Veep, which gave us this killer episode this year (even more devastating amid recent events).

Also, no, I haven’t watched the new Gilmore Girls yet. Chill.

20. Westworld

HBO

Westworld is a show that is betting it can sustain itself on the audience sticking around just to figure out what the hell is going on. This is a gamble, one that helped Lost maintain consistent popularity but also soured the series for many fans disappointed in the finale’s lack of answers. Westworld may suffer a similar fate, but for now, it’s enough to appreciate the intellectual stimulation it offers and wonder where it might be headed. Luckily, everything is buoyed by some incredible performances by Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright. The highlight of most episodes is the moments when you find yourself carefully surveying one of the “hosts”, watching at how they balance roboticism and humanity. That’s what you build a show on.

19. BrainDead

CBS

This already-cancelled series came from Robert & Michelle King, the creators of The Good Wife (R.I.P.), and it arrived at an opportune time. Its portrayal of Washington politics amid a sci-fi breakout of alien bugs that make our politicians act according to their whims felt not only timely, but essential. It occasionally ventured into preachy territory, as the Kings often do, but managed to hold it off every time with its ridiculous premise and sharp writing, not to mention Mary Elizabeth Winstead killin’ it.

18. Outlander

Starz

Though this season failed to capture the sexy zeitgeist of the first season, it replaced it with political intrigue and costumes that bested The Crown for most extravagant. Surrounding the show’s deep romance, it is also depressingly dark. I appreciate that unlike most stories that take place in historical periods, it doesn’t attempt to excuse any of its darkness with, “it was another time” platitudes. Instead, it assuredly makes us aware of where we’ve been and how fragile our relationship with the past truly is.

17. Difficult People

Hulu

It took me months to fully finish Difficult People’s second season, because its humour is decidedly mean-spirited, deliciously so. I’m not always in the mood to indulge in my crueler tendencies, but when I am, there’s nothing more cathartic than listening to Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner make bitingly specific and harsh pop culture references while surveying the chaos of their lives.

16. Silicon Valley

HBO

This show burns through plot like no other comedy I can think of, a genre built on familiarity and comfort. On Silicon Valley, the dudes of Pied Piper have so many ups and downs that it could easily feel exhausting. Instead, the writers manage to make it exhilarating, and it helps that the laughs are just as fundamental to the show’s foundation. I honestly don’t know how long this kind of plotting is sustainable, but this season was thrilling.

15. The Girlfriend Experience

Starz

Though completely different from the Sasha Grey-starring Steven Soderbergh film it’s ostensibly based on, this quiet Starz series is deeply compelling if only for Riley Keough’s impenetrable performance. Thankfully, the series never judges her or her chosen profession, instead enlisting us to scrutinize what she might be thinking at any given moment and watching in full tension as she tries to keep her two lives separate. I give a lot of the credit to co-creators Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, whose washed-out aesthetics perfectly fit the material.

14. You’re the Worst

FXX

Though less boldly impressive than its second season focusing on the realities of depression and its impact on relationships, the comedy’s third season was just as ruthless in its powerful exploration of Edgar’s PTSD, how different people deal with loss, Gretchen’s attempts at therapy, and general aimlessness. It was a scattered season, but brimming with moments of nuanced reflection and sheer gross-out humour.

13. Penny Dreadful

Showtime

Upon completing its stellar third season, it has been frustrating to know that this sumptuous series never got its due. From mastermind John Logan and full of unparalleled production design, stunning costumes and a Gothic sensibility that can’t be resisted, perhaps it was simply too up my alley to be properly profitable. Too bad, because it was a privilege to have Eva Green showing up everyone else every week.

12. Speechless

ABC

It’s easy to disregard broadcast network comedies when there’s so much good stuff on cable or streaming, but sometimes there’s a diamond in the rough among the Kevin Can Waits. ABC’s Speechless is precisely that diamond, with an equal devotion to disability representation and warm, funny jokes. Minnie Driver in particular as the mother stands out with her charismatic performance. It may sound rote, but families like this just aren’t usually shown on TV, and the contrast between their working-class determinism and the upper-class happenings on Modern Family in the next timeslot are absurdly apparent.

11. Insecure

HBO

Issa Rae’s long-gestating series, inspired by her YouTube hit The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, was worth the wait. The Issa of Insecure is barely holding her life together, but she has time to confront things like cultural appropriation, institutional bias and homophobia in the black community with great insight and wit. As we continue to see representation widen its scope on television, it’s voices like Rae’s that are marking territory that ought to remain hers for some time to come.

10. BoJack Horseman

Netflix

Netflix’s animated comedy would deserve to be this high on my list for the episode “Fish Out of Water” alone. By now, that episode has been highly praised by everyone who has watched it, but it is certainly one of the most striking episodes of television from this year. But the series went to some new dark places, further exploring BoJack’s depression and self-destructive tendencies while also making a case that hard work can make a difference. The series is far better than most at blending raunchy jokes with absolute bleakness, within the same scene or line, and I can’t wait to go back and rewatch to catch everything I missed the first time.

9. Atlanta

FX

Who knew the surreal absurdities that hid within Donald Glover’s mind? Atlanta has been described as “Twin Peaks meets the hip-hop industry”, and the comparison is fairly apt. As Earn, Glover plays a Princeton dropout who decides to manage the career of his rapper cousin Paper Boi, and it becomes more difficult than he may have imagined. All the while, we’re treated to tangents, some (spending a full episode with Vanessa) more successful than others (Paper Boi’s bizarre guest spot on the Charlie Rose-esque Montague), but always interesting. It’s a marvel that it all works, but Glover’s gleefully ambitious mind molds it into something special.

8. Fleabag

Amazon

Toxic, brash and breaking the fourth wall more than Kevin Spacey, Phoebe Waller-Bridge stars as the titular Fleabag in this British series about a live-action equivalent of BoJack Horseman’s self-destructiveness, sexual proclivities and tendency for misery. Equal turns heartbreaking and riotously funny, Waller-Bridge’s full humanity is on full display, and the result is a series unlike any other in recent memory, toying us along with sharp wit and achingly relatable pain.

7. Steven Universe

Cartoon Network

It’s clear you like a show a lot when you choose to write your master’s thesis about it, which I’ve done with Steven Universe. There are many, many reasons why I love this series (which may not have hit the heights of its last season in 2016, but remains unlike anything else all the same), but what has been crystallizing for me recently is that while everyone argues over how much we should talk about “identity politics”, this kid’s show over on Cartoon Network has been explicitly about Identity since Day One. It’s not symptomatic — these things are front and centre, and you simply can’t watch it without confronting ideas about gender and sexuality. And I sincerely hope it’s indoctrinating the hell out of our kids, because no TV series has a heart bigger than this one.

6. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

The CW

In its second season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has effortlessly and adeptly shifted its focus from the love triangle that (gloriously) dominated the first season toward something far trickier: what comes after. As Rebecca (Rachel Bloom, who deserves an EGOT, a Pulitzer, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and all the other awards) struggles to figure out what to do after losing both Greg and Josh, on top of dealing with her ongoing mental illness, the show has never been better or more surprising week-by-week. I can’t wait for whatever comes next.

5. The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

FX

It may have partly been because I didn’t live through it the first time, but watching American Crime Story every week was constantly shocking, devastating, hilarious and breathtaking. The cast that Ryan Murphy and co. assembled is perfect, from Sarah Paulson’s agonizing portrayal of Marcia Clark to Courtney B. Vance’s masterful take on Johnnie Cochran. The fact that we all knew exactly where everyone was going to end up and yet all ten hours we spent completely glued to what was happening is a testament to the show’s construction, yes, but also its understanding of the public consciousness. It became the definition of “appointment viewing” when it seemed like nothing that aired weekly could capture the zeitgeist anymore.

4. Stranger Things

Netflix

Speaking of capturing the zeitgeist, no series did that like Netflix’s Stranger Things did this summer. I’m currently writing a conference paper on the show’s relationship with nostalgia, but suffice it to say that the show’s success is not, cannot be, solely the result of faithfully and lovingly depicting a time and a place. To be fair, I would follow Winona Ryder anywhere (#WinonaForever), but the show matched its perfectly-calibrated 80s aesthetic with a string of deeply emotive performances (plus Millie Bobby Brown’s breakout as Eleven) and an understanding that a mystery isn’t enough to bring in everyone — you need pathos, love and friendship to make a geeky genre mishmash hit all the right notes.

3. The Americans

FX

What started out as a spy thriller punctuated with marital issues has morphed season-by-season into the most tightly-wound and gripping drama on TV. Led by equal powerhouse performances by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, this year the series continued its intrepid look at faith, family and freedom (the three F’s) by emitting moral quandaries like the Martha situation and Paige’s trust in her pastor. The Americans is also matched by none in its use of period music, choosing the exact right song to soundtrack the exact right moment. And with an end date in sight, the run to the finish should be justly effective and powerful.

2. Halt and Catch Fire

AMC

TV’s greatest underdog is Halt and Catch Fire, which continued its hot streak this year with a season devoted to Cameron (Mackenzie Davis, goddess) and Donna (Kerry Bishé, goddess) bringing their tech company to Silicon Valley. Part of the show’s appeal is in watching these two actresses bring these fully-formed characters to life in an industry that routinely rejects them, but it’s also about the inevitable betrayals that occur in any relationship and the charges of emotion that simmer until they boil. It also contains one of TV’s only male bisexual characters, and deals with this characteristic smartly, as just a part of his identity rather than the definition of it. Despite abysmal ratings (please watch this), the show is returning for a final season next year, and I have full confidence that they will stick the landing.

  1. Lady Dynamite
Netflix

Many TV shows are now confronting mental illness in a variety of ways, but there’s nothing like Lady Dynamite. Quietly debuting on Netflix in May and not raising much attention since, it is Maria Bamford’s brainchild which reflects her career in comedy and her own experiences with bipolar disorder. It may not sound like much fun, but the zany atmosphere established in the polarizing pilot episode (which breaks the fourth wall more than Fleabag and Kevin Spacey combined) announces itself in such a way that says: if you like this, watch on; if not, thanks for stopping by. It’s not for everyone. But if you want challenging television that can balance ridiculous antics with cultural commentary and the most honest look at mental illness I can think of (I wrote about that in-depth for Hazlitt here), then Lady Dynamite is for you. And it was certainly for me.