Published on December 26th, 2016 | by Craig Silliphant0
The Best Television of 2016
We look at the best shows on television in 2016, a year when pundits say that the movies have died, reborn to the boob tube.
It’s been said recently that movies are dying, being reborn as television. We’ll see if that turns out to be true, but there were certainly more great TV shows this year than there were good movies. So we thought we’d go through some of the best shows of the year, some you may have seen, some not. It was a pretty big list, so I chose to focus on certain shows and just name check others. These are many of the shows that surprised me this year. And I’m sure I’ll kick myself once it’s posted as I remember shows I missed. That said I’m pretty suspicious of most of the garbage water on major networks, so chances are, if your favourite sitcom or CSI show isn’t on here, it’s because I don’t like it. And hey, there’s so much content out there right now, and I’m only one guy, so there could be shows I’ve totally missed.
It’s also interesting to see the rise of Netflix this year. As I’ve pointed out before, there was a quote from the head honcho at HBO about the streaming vs. content war — he said that HBO wants to become Netflix before Netflix can become HBO. It’s looking like Netflix is winning that war, and this is a time we’ll look back on as an era where Netflix not only changed how we were consuming media, but what media we’re consuming. They’ve had a glut of shows hit the air (and even movie deals with some leading creators), many of them quality, some of them servicing fans (like say, Gilmore Girls). I noticed there were a few movies I had wanted to see that had squeaked past me from late 2015 or early 2016 and it dawned on me that I hadn’t seen them because I was watching more stuff on Netflix. And conversely, I’ve seen a lot more documentaries or B-movies simply because it was right in front of me on the venerable streaming service. Anyway, I’m once again going down a Netflix hole, so instead, let’s look at The Feedback Society’s Best Television of 2016!
I have a feeling this won’t hold up as well over time, and in fact, when I tried rewatching it, it didn’t have the same thrust as the first time through. It’s very ‘of its time,’ which is a weird thing to say for a show that apes 80s culture and zeitgeist so much. But with the resurgence of things like synthwave music and the 80s aesthetic, the show has been accused of being more pastiche and nostalgia than legitimate entertainment in some circles. However, I can’t deny how entertained I was, seeing those kids ripping around on bikes like we did as kids in the 80s, fighting things that seemed like they crawled out of a Stephen King book or a Spielberg Amblin Entertainment-style movie. Season two will either catapult the show to new heights, or expose it as a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox.
When I first saw this show, I thought it would be Netflix’s attempt at grabbing the Downton Abbey set, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. In fact, this story about the rise of Queen Elizabeth II played more like Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire — smart, well written, and lavishly produced. Here is the Feedback Society’s full review.
Better Call Saul
A spin off from Breaking Bad, it’s hard to believe that you could take a comic relief side character and craft a spellbinding show around his mythos. It’s a different animal, that’s for sure, but it may even be better. When I watched Breaking Bad the second time, it wasn’t as great, or at least, like Stranger Things, there wasn’t a lot of replay value. A lot of the addictive nature of the show relied on cliffhangers and mysteries that have some of the air sucked out of them once they’re resolved. Better Call Saul though, is a character study, less concerned with the adrenaline of dodging bullets or desert drug deals. And it’s worth stating that Kim Wexler is one of the best female characters in recent memory. She’s not a sidekick or a Dexter’s wife/obstacle to Jimmy — she’s a living, breathing character. More women on TV like this, please.
Season two of Fargo did the unthinkable — upped the ante after season one, and managed to do it with yet another cast of characters (for the most part) and another (for the most part) unrelated storyline. Even Kirsten Dunst was amazing in this, which is saying a lot. It’s smart, funny, and has a great cast. Note: I realize that this show started airing at the end of 2015, but I got it in early 2016, so I’m still counting it. And it’s such a great show that it begs mention.
I debated putting this on the list, but ultimately decided to give it the benefit of the doubt. After all, it featured a brilliant and elegantly conceived world, a labyrinthine storyline, and a cast of top actors like Anthony Hopkins. It also felt very cold, though that wasn’t my issue with it — I actually like the frigid aesthetic in sci-fi. I think they just had trouble finding the balance in some of the mysteries, the plants and the payoffs and when to hold out on a reveal and when to drop something. The show is downright tantric with its tease and hold strategy, until pretty much the second last episode. But everything else on this show is done so well, that it deserves to be on this list. And I’m also excited to see where they’d take a second season, if we ever get one (last I heard, they said maybe in 2018).
The Black Mirror
I’m so glad the world was able to discover this amazing show when Netflix picked up its third season. We Feedbackers have been rabid fans since season one, loving its paranoid, Twilight Zone take on culture and technology. I would even go as far as to say that season three was the strongest and most consistent yet (it may or may not have had the best episodes of the entire run of the show, but each episode was dazzling in its own right). It really is one of the very top shows of the year, but rather than me gushing on, you should read Dave’s excellent write up on the show here. One of the best episodes was season 2.5, a.k.a. Black Mirror White Christmas (2015), which Dave also reviewed here.
Season one owed a lot of debt to Fight Club (well, the whole show does, of course), but season two was that build the world or die moment, and Mr. Robot didn’t disappoint. This show about a weird, lonely hacker and the people who surround him, some of them trying to bring down the corporate world, is a thumb in the eye of the establishment. I can’t say too much about the season without giving things away, but there are some major mind fucks in there. Some that could have felt gimmicky but didn’t.
The show follows the new comedy format of: ‘sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s horribly sad and that’s funny,’ as seen in shows like Louie (and in fact, Baskets is produced by Louie CK). There is a hilarious cast of misfits, led by Zack Galafianakis, but Louie Anderson steals the show. I said earlier that Kim Wexler is one of the best female characters in a long time — but I now amend that to include Christine ‘Mama’ Baskets. She’s a funny, heartfelt character, to be sure, but it’s really Louie Anderson that brings her to life. He’s not playing it as in a Monty Python-esque, “Hey, I’m a dude playing a woman and isn’t that funny?” He’s just playing a woman. I realize that could start a whole other think piece about all the good female roles going to men, but this not the time and place.
Donald Glover is a music star this year with Childish Gambino, a soon-to-be movie star after landing the coveted role of Lando Calrissian in the Han Solo stand alone movie, but it’s Atlanta that’s really showing us his talent. This show about two cousins, one of them a burgeoning rap star, is as funny as it is wryly observational. Like Baskets, it pushes the envelope of what comedy means these days. Like Louie, it eschews the status quo sitcom rules in terms of things like what characters you have to focus or what stories you have to tell. I just watched a whole episode about a side character, Glover’s character’s baby mama, and it was a wonderful detour into ideas like female relationships and what it means to grow up and take responsibility for your life. I can’t believe people are still watching shit like The Big Bang Theory when there are shows like these ones on the air.
Here is a show that just keeps getting better and better with each season. Sometimes it can be frustrating when they do things for the plot that no one would ever do, but overall it’s riotously funny. It’s also good to see the story grow on this show. It started out being about a group of tech nerds in an incubator, growing their dot com idea, but by season three, they’re playing at a bigger level against the Google-like Hooli and other betrayals and wins in the corporate world. It’s still about that group of guys, but as a show it’s not still stuck in the basement (or Erlich’s living room) because they’re not afraid to change where the show goes. (And yes, without too much of a spoiler, I realize that they do sort of end up back there, but that feels organic as well and still pushes them in new directions).
The Night Of
This was supposed to star James Gandolfini before he passed away, but John Turturro ended up filling the role of an ambulance chasing lawyer representing a man who may or may not have stabbed a woman he just met to death — and can’t remember what happened. This was mature, cinematic television, one of the best cases for the death of movies, or at least, their caterpillar transformation into television.
American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson
With some strange casting choices (that work out well, like David Schwimmer and John Travolta), expect to see The People vs. OJ pick up a lot of hardware at awards season. The story was very well laid out, whether they were focusing on the case and the trial, OJ’s reactions to those things, or even storylines like the tabloid treatment of Marcia Clark. As a companion piece, watch the 30 For 30 OJ episode, which is really well done.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
While it’s sad that one of the best researched and executed news sources in the world is actually a comedy, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is a godsend, the last refuge of the damned. Surpassing The Daily Show, Oliver’s program continues to be smart, amusing, and most of all, relevant, whether it’s covering Trump vs. Hillary, or other societal breakdowns.
It’s probably not the strongest Marvel Netflix series thus far, and these series always feel a couple of episodes too long, but it was a solid entry and Luke Cage brings something more unique to the table in the form of a more down-to-Earth hero. It was also excellent to see a show that wasn’t so…um…pasty. This world presents a more diverse cast (well, that’s not really true — I guess I’m just dancing around saying that it’s a cast of black people. There, I said it. And it felt good. And it felt good to see, as uncomfortable as I know it made some in the Nazi Alt-right). It featured one of my favorite actors of recent note, Mahershala Ali from House of Cards and Moonlight, and there were even some great musical guests, like Charles Bradley.
The Venture Bros.
Season six continued to grow this universe, while the family moves to New York City and we meet even more great pastiche characters from the toys, movies, and comic books of our childhoods. We don’t get fast seasons of The Venture Bros, because the creators really take their time and do it all themselves, but when we do, we’re in for a glorious season of comic timing, goofy characters, and bizarro plotlines.
South Park, Girls, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are three shows that are still killing it multiple seasons in. It’s hard to believe how fast South Park can put together an episode, staying right on top of the Trump headlines this year (and ‘member Member Berries?). It’s Always Sunny keeps finding different narratives and goofy ideas to make this show better than it’s ever been. And while I don’t love every episode, I love that Lena Dunham takes the big chances she takes on Girls. When she does connect with the ball, she blasts it out of the park. Game of Thrones was pretty tight this year too. I like that we can start to see the end coming together. More TV needs to have a plan (even if theirs is sort of up in the air) as opposed to stumbling towards an ending because there’s still money to be had.
Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer handed in another season of hilarious slacker, stoner antics in New York City with Broad City. It’s a show that takes the piss with things like the patriarchy, but it’s also not afraid to show its main characters as feminist posers sometimes, in moments where Ilana especially, wants to articulate something she heard somewhere, but usually messes up the point.
It was sad to see Mark and Jay Duplass’ Togetherness become a victim of expensive, poorly performing shows like Vinyl at HBO (as well as Michael Lannan’s Looking, which at least got a movie this year to finish off the story, though it wasn’t great). Anyway, it’s nice to see that the Duplass Brothers got a deal with Netflix that apparently affords them a lot of creative freedom. Netflix also make us bust a gut with another season of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and a first season of Maria Bamford’s Lady Dynamite. Archer also had a great season, still rebuilding after the disastrous Miami plotline, as they moved to LA and started a detective agency.
And while I’m not caught up, I keep hearing people mention Bojack Horseman. I also haven’t watched The Americans or the more recent seasons of The Veep, which I know others have been raving about. And I only saw one episode of The Get Down, which I really liked — I just haven’t watched enough of it to put it on this list. I’ve watched one episode of HBO’s Insecure at the time of this writing and it has potential.
Quarry was also a surprise — a show about a Vietnam vet that comes home and is forced to become an assassin. The OA on Netflix right is pretty compelling. It takes its time, but I just watched episode four and it hits with a bang — they didn’t go the Westworld ‘let’s confuse them forever’ route. However, the same narrative messiness and vagueness that gives it strength, also trips it up in the end (no spoilers). Otherwise, it would have easily made the actual best of. It’s still well worth watching though.
The Walking Dead
I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself an apologist for this show, but I will admit to watching it faithfully. I’m a big fan of the comics, which sort of compels me to watch. Most recent seasons have one or two episodes that are among the best on television that year, a few that feel a bit like filler, and a couple that are downright misfires for one reason or another. This season so far was pretty terrible, even as they usher in one of the best villains/characters the comic book ever saw. It rambles aimlessly and even had an episode where one of the almost unrecognizable side characters went off on an adventure that had nothing to do with the plates we had spinning in the air. I know I said this was a good thing when I spoke about shows like Atlanta, so maybe I’m contradicting myself, but what’s more likely, is that you still have to do it well and tell a compelling story if you’re going to take narrative leaps like that. Fear the Walking Dead was a better show this year.
You don’t know how excited I was for this. They need to George Lucas ole’ Chris Carter right into a consultant position though. While there was at least one brilliant episode in the middle, they tried too much goofy shit and bookended it with a very weak and confusing mythology episode. This was their big chance for reboot redemption after the final few seasons and they pretty much blew it. Darin Morgan’s ‘Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster’ was the highlight though. Classic Darin Morgan.
I loved season one of this show and I was really excited for season two, but so far, it’s just been in a holding pattern of lameness. In Dave’s review of Black Mirror, he mentioned that a lot of shows feel like episodes of Black Mirror that were dragged out too far past their concept, and Humans season two feels like this.
I wanted to like this, but it just went off the rails. And after finding out it was responsible for really hurting HBO and some great projects there like Togetherness, I like it even less. I hope it doesn’t kill Bobby Canavale’s career, because I do like him as an actor.
I loved some of this show. There were some outrageous scenes, from Cassidy fighting and then falling from an airplane to the hotel room keyhole fight scene with respawning enemies. But almost every episode would go and screw it up somehow, many of them leaning into Gilmore Girls territory, talky subplots about feelings, relationships, and even love triangles. I can’t fathom how they made some of these decisions when they had such insane source material to draw from. There are a ton of cool stories in just the first year or so of the comic, and they touch almost none of them.
I am also disappointed that we didn’t end up getting a third season of Rick and Morty this year — one of the absolute best shows on TV. To quote Morty, “Get your shit together!” Hopefully we’ll see some soon. (Note: if they happen to drop it before January 31st, then I humbly apologize and it will probably belong at the top of the Best Of list!).