The 20 Best (and 5 Worst!) Shows of the Year
From the birth of consciousness to the afterlife, find out what made EW TV Critic Jeff Jensen’s top 20 list of shows to watch and the top five that aren’t worth your time (or space on your DVR).
BEST: 20. Horace and Pete (louisck.net)
BEST: 19. Stranger Things (Netflix)
BEST: 18. Lady Dynamite (Netflix)
BEST: 17. Roots (History)
BEST: 16. Better Call Saul (AMC)
BEST: 15. Documentary Now! (IFC)
BEST: 14. Mr. Robot (USA)
BEST: 13. black-ish (ABC)
BEST: 12. American Crime (ABC)
BEST: 11. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)
BEST: 10. Westworld (HBO)
I still love you, Mr. Robot, but in 2016 my passion for provocative serial in a corporate-controlled, reality-blurred world belonged to HBO’s blockbuster entertainment about blockbuster entertainment gone haywire. Plus, it had actual robots. Beat that, fsociety! Westworld satisfied our want for immersion in mystery, while questioning the value of getting lost in such things. But it also provided a meditation on identity as fiction and prison, powerfully embodied by Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, and Jeffrey Wright. They rocked a tough challenge: getting us to care about androids lacking any authentic character. Most resonant was their manipulative, authoritarian author (Anthony Hopkins), a mad showrunner-in-chief campaigning to make his buggy storytelling machine great again. Throw in twist-ending shockers to match our political moment, and Westworld stands as the first zeitgeist drama of the Trump era. Congratulations?
BEST: 9. Search Party (TBS)
We first met Dory (Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat) gazing at a picture of a missing woman. We left her staring at her reflection, looking either profoundly lost or horribly exposed. Over the course of Dory’s obsessive hunt for Gone Girls both within and without, Search Party skewered self-absorbed, self-projecting young adults without making them hateable, scoring sharp points about enmeshment and empathy, phoniness and friendship in our social-media culture. Creators Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter crafted a model of character-driven mystery, while a cast of skilled, dialed-in comedians — John Early, John Reynolds, Meredith Hagner, and an outstanding Shawkat — brought hilarity and dimension to what could have been empty caricatures. With the whole series dumped onto TBS during Thanksgiving week, Search Party was the best show no one binged in 2016. Seek it out.
BEST: 8. The Good Place (NBC)
A high-concept mystery-com that ponders and spoofs what it means to be good, the new comedy from Parks and Recreation co-creator Mike Schur is a hilarious, form-busting twin to our No. 9 show, Search Party, albeit different in personality. Kristen Bell is pitch-perfect as Eleanor, a 21st-century Ugly American who dies, gets mistaken for a veritable saint, and ascends to an automated village with custom homes, soul mates, fro-yo shops, and Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a cheery holographic concierge. Eleanor’s illegal presence is allegedly causing “the good place” to malfunction, but maybe there’s something intrinsically glitchy about this heavenly simulacrum, beginning with its severe standards for entry. The show is blessed by Schur’s huge imagination (yep, there’s a “bad place”; they snort rails of powdered time and do Nixon-tape karaoke) and smarts for serialized storytelling. But his most valuable player is Ted Danson, giving a divine comic performance as a humanity-smitten angel, the wise but beleaguered middle manager torn between legalism and grace.
BEST: 7. Rectify (Sundance)
There might have been no better scene on TV this year than the sequence in Rectify’s season 4 premiere when ex-con Daniel Holden (Aden Young) speaks of guilt, loneliness, and an alienation so great he’s forgotten what’s real and can’t decide if he even deserves his existence. “This may sound hokey as s—,” his new mentor tells him, “but you got to figure out some way to love yourself.” In the quiet, precise poetry of creator Ray McKinnon’s mystery of character, there’s no BS — only a thoughtful pursuit of truth, even as “truth” remains elusive and fogged. I could linger forever in its ambiguities, but that might be missing McKinnon’s concluding points. An increasingly wrenching final season has dialed down the surrealism as Daniel’s hazy-headed journey approaches hard revelations. Watching Daniel and his family try to divorce themselves from what’s obsolete — pain, careers, each other — and step into the future as new creations has been a teary, bittersweet joy. By the finale, I might be borrowing against next year’s Kleenex budget.
BEST: 6. Better Things (FX)
Here is the divorced single mom, walking the long chalk lines of a soccer field in the sweltering heat, dragging a cooler of snacks. Here is the modern parent, struggling to raise three anxious and angry daughters in anxious, angry times, guiding them through the complexities of feminism and gender identity — not to mention her own messiness. And here is a knockout artistic triumph for Pamela Adlon, star and co-creator (with Louis C.K.) of Better Things, keeping it real and making it all wonderfully entertaining. It’s reductive to say the show is only about overwhelmed single parenthood; it’s also a funny, smuglite Hollywood satire about the journeyman actor’s life. But it so potently captures the always-on, it’s-all-on-you grind of solo parenting that it felt like a gift to those of us who walk that lonely line every day. We need a culture of better things that recognizes everyone’s experience; Better Things advances that vital mission.
BEST: 5. Atlanta (FX)
We knew Donald Glover as Troy Barnes on Community and as Grammy-nominated musician Childish Gambino. Now we know him as something else: a storyteller of singular, invaluable vision. Tracking Glover’s wannabe music manager Earn and his flailing efforts to stunt his weed-dealing cousin Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) into a hip-hop star, Atlanta reframed a familiar tale of straight-outta-desperation striving into Kafkaesque existentialism for the Black Lives Matter moment. Mirroring Earn’s surreal searches for promotion, paychecks, and simple survival in an absurd and dangerous world, the season itself adventurously roamed, drilling down on supporting characters like Van (Zazie Beetz), the mother of Earn’s infant child, or fielding bold satire. One subplot reimagined Justin Bieber as African-American; one whole episode spoofed a BET-like roundtable talk show, complete with scathing parodies of commercials targeting black consumers. In a year rich with innovation in the comedy genre and eclectic with personal work that was nervy with broader concerns —see Maria Bamford’s Lady Dynamite, Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi — Atlanta led a revolutionary wave.
BEST: 4. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)
2016’s other hot take on O.J. Simpson was a must-watch of a different sort, blending poli-sci docudrama and brassy star-driven melodrama into brainy, juicy entertainment. American Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy not only affirmed the power of his hyper-pop sensibility and the anthology format, but he might have perfected both by teaming with prestige biopic scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (The People vs. Larry Flynt). They used their fictional license with thoughtfulness and imagination to show us what documentary cameras couldn’t, and what the media of the time wouldn’t, from jury deliberations to the anguish of Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson). And they made inspired connections between the truth-scrambling hustle and warping spectacle of Simpson’s (Cuba Good- ing Jr.) trial and our era of vainglorious reality TV. The killer cast — including breakout Sterling K. Brown, and Paulson and Courtney B. Vance in next-level turns — gave performances as big as the personalities they played but humanized them, too, remythologizing tabloid icons into complex figures deserving empathy.
BEST: 3. The Americans (FX)
How do we live when our sources of meaning — God, country, family, work — ask us to act against our conscience? Undercover KGB agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) went wiggy navigating these quagmires, and The Americans produced TV’s most complex drama tracking the moral horror. A season that turned a tobacco tin containing virulent biological poison into a dynamic metaphor saw these rebels to a dying cause become utterly toxic. The stakes were apocalyptic; the battlefields were intimate. Good soldier Elizabeth destroyed an immigrant family living the American dream, snuffing out a life-giving friendship. Conscientious objector Philip tried to save sham wife Martha (Alison Wright) from the consequences of his exploitation; he succeeded only in robbing her of self-determination. The Americans, a period drama about the Cold War, achieved resonance by capturing the feeling of being on the wrong side of history, betrayed by your culture and yourself.
BEST: 2. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
Candy-colored “cartoon person” Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper) came down with a perplexing case of the burps, a condition rooted in unexamined hurt that subverted her sugary spirit. It was a gut-busting riot watching her unravel and get real; season 2 of TV’s funniest comedy was about the importance of being breakable. Showrunners Tina Fey and Robert Carlock — impressively amping their manic, poppy voice — produced a prescient comic odyssey about personal recalibration and collective responsibility. They fixed their riskiest joke, the white-washed Sioux identity of Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski), remaking her into a sharper satire of both white guilt and white supremacy, and Titus (Tituss Burgess) reconsidered his contrived ab-fabness via sweet romance. An extraordinary, wildly meta finale celebrated and critiqued binge escapism in fraught times that demand our engagement. We need “happy places” where we can vent our stress, but we’re not meant to live there.
BEST: 1. O.J.: Made In America (ESPN)
The American tragedy that is the life of O.J. Simpson contains a multitude of themes that sum up the story of us, right here, right now. Like the landscape artists who mythologized the West, filmmaker Ezra Edelman gave himself a massive canvas — a five-part, eight-hour docuseries — to craft a richly reported portrait of the football legend and deconstruct the culture that shaped, enabled, and exploited him. Edelman drilled down on race and image-making, revealing how Simpson ran away from his identity and refashioned it so he could flourish in white society and in business. But Edelman also explored the ironies of that makeover, showing how Simpson became a symbol for Los Angeles’ long-suffering African-American community and provided an opportunity to strike back against racist, brutal policing. Where this epic was most powerful were the many moments in which interview subjects were captured confronting — or denying — their roles in creating Simpson and producing miscarriages of justice that still trouble us today. We see ourselves in O.J.: Made in America. Do we dare look?
WORST: 5. Vinyl (HBO)
Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter were given a reported $100 million to create the next great drama. Instead, they produced the year’s costliest novelty record, a flashy mix of cliché scuzz, full of hideous male riffs and way too much coke snorting. Wasted: a ready-to-rock cast led by Bobby Cannavale, and our time.
WORST: 4. The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again (Fox)
This corporate remake of the cult classic was DOA zombie pop. Had it been live, it might have felt alive. But the cast couldn’t match the manic energy of the original players. Incorporating the crowd-participation rituals only accentuated the going-through-the-motions hollowness of the whole dead-inside thing.
WORST: 3. The Family (ABC)
A boy presumed dead returns home more than 10 years later, jolting an ambitious politico mom (Joan Allen). Everything intriguing was subverted by tortured characterization, ridiculous plotting, and dubious casting. Taken with the lackluster Conviction and Notorious, ABC’s Shondaland-forged genre of potboiler soap may be tapped out.
WORST: 2. Fuller House (Netflix)
Best reboot of the year? Gilmore Girls. Absolute worst? Fuller House, a needless, cynical exercise in nostalgiasploitation that insulted fans with lazy execution and just-drifting through mugging from John Stamos, Bob Saget, and Dave Coulier. And the meta-shaming of nonparticipants Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen? How rude.
WORST: 1. Who Killed JonBenet? (Lifetime)
With hot trends, you take the good and the gross. Last year the true-crime wave unleashed by Serial gave us The Jinx. That was good. This year: Who Killed JonBenét? It was gross, a sensationalistic cash-grab that mixed schlocky re-creations and news footage. The queasiest choice? Having Phoebe Lawrenson narrate as “JonBenét” from beyond the grave. The Lovely Bones this was not.