Best 10 TV shows of 2016

Wednesday, January 4, 2017 - 3:36pm

NOSELL

FX

 

10. BoJack Horsemen

Building off its previous successes, the third season of "BoJack" continued to explore its titular character’s endless, seemingly futile struggle for happiness and belonging. As BoJack dove into his doomed Oscar campaign, the series never pulled its punches, bringing its protagonist face-to-face with his deepest fears and regrets.

Meeting this nihilistic struggle with distinct absurdity and wit, “BoJack” pushed forward its challenging narrative arcs with some of its most ambitious storytelling. Flashbacks, blackouts and emotionally charged bottle episodes plunged viewers into distinct moments of change, confusion, humor and loss; meanwhile, actions spoke louder than words in the season highpoint, “Fish Out of Water.”

“BoJack” is simply a weird show; however, it constantly works to the series' benefit, often sharpening, rather than dulling its narrative edge and voice. And while BoJack’s eternal crisis forms the backbone of the show, the series continued to provide its supporting players with equally challenging, insightful material — a particular highpoint is Diane’s arc in “Love And/Or Marriage” and “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew”.

The third season of “BoJack” forces the viewer to stare into the weird, colorful, befuddling abyss that is existence in order to reflect on what its characters have gained and lost and laugh and/or cry … both seem appropriate.

 Matt Barnauskas

9. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

When it premiered, the CW’s musical comedy series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” seemed too good to be true. Back for a second season, it has been even better than the first. Season one centered around an unhappy woman who makes a radical change (quitting her job and moving to West Covina, CA) in the name of “love,” and finds happiness along the way. This fall, “Crazy-Ex Girlfriend” took the solid, zany framework built in season one and made it even weirder.

Our hero, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom, “Crazy-Ex Girlfriend”) discovers that love is trying and crazy not only in relationships, but also friendships. To avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” pivoted from its Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III, “Donny!”) driven story to a far more gratifying one: the evolution, and dissolution, of Paula (Donna Lynne Champlain, “Birdman”) and Rebecca’s friendship. It was a necessary confirmation that just as Rebecca Bunch doesn’t need a man to find happiness, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” thrives with, and without, a male-motivated protagonist.

It was another season of funny, catchy, uncomfortable songs designed to entertain while engineered to share insight. During a year of turmoil and change, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” gave viewers what they needed, and provided an escape to a world somehow crazier than our own.

 Emily Bice

8. Insecure

“Insecure,” created by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore, is based on Rae’s award-winning web series titled “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” which aired from 2011 to 2013. “Insecure” follows Rae as a version of herself — Issa, a 29 year old woman trying to figure out life. It’s a fairly standard millennial show, but in a landscape where shows about millennials — “Girls," "Broad City" and the like — are still vastly white, this show is a welcome and needed addition. It easily transmutes the experiences of young Black women to the screen, and has a good handle on irony; the pilot episode, “Insecure as Fuck” deals with how to respond to white people who act as if any person of color must know everything about people of color in general. It’s funny without ever feeling forced, even when dealing with complicated subject matter. If you’re looking for a show to binge-watch to avoid thinking about the looming responsibilities of 2017, this should be it.

— Sophia Kaufman

7. The People v. O. J. Simpson

Football player-turned-criminal O.J. Simpson regained some spotlight this year, but not in the way you’d expect. Preceding Ezra Edelman’s incredible five-part documentary "O.J.: Made in America" was Ryan Murphy’s just-as-phenomenal “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” the first season of his “American Crime Story” anthology series on FX. While the former gave a comprehensive look at the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson as a figure in American culture, the latter focused on the notorious homicide of Simpson's ex wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, showcasing its effect on Simpson, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. (“Snow Dogs”) in a comeback role, as well as everyone involved in the trial. As predictable as the show may be, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” defies almost every possible expectation, boosting its Jeffrey Toobin source material with an outstanding Emmy-winning cast, immersive cinematography, brilliant writing and a nuanced perspective into the so-called “trial of the century.” Had it been put in the wrong hands, the FX show would have been a disaster or simply a middling, somewhat passable piece of television. Luckily, that isn’t the case, as Murphy and screenwriting duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“Goosebumps”) remain true to capturing the authenticity and intensity of the events surrounding O.J.’s trial.

In addition to being a dramatized account of the O.J. trial, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” touches upon topics that are just as relevant and timely as ever: the toxic pervasiveness of the media, the racial turbulence in L.A. post-Rodney King riots, the overt sexism thrown against prosecutor Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson, “American Horror Story”) and more. Even when we think our society has progressed since 1994, it’s amazing that these issues can still resonate today. But perhaps the strongest element of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is the acting, which transformed the famed players of the O.J. trial into engaging, three-dimensional characters. While Paulson gives the performance of a lifetime as Clark, Courtney B. Vance (“Office Christmas Party”) and Sterling K. Brown (“This is Us”) shine in their breakout roles as defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran and prosecutor Christopher Darden, respectively. Within its mere 10 episodes, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” spins its story into something that is not only worthy of great entertainment, but also of necessary viewing.

— Sam Rosenberg

6. Game of Thrones

“Game of Thrones” continuously draws viewers further down the rabbit hole, and there was no exception in the explosive sixth season. The series, which has faced past criticism for its violence, took this past season as an opportunity to probe deeper into the politics of power and the devastating consequences of control. From start to finish, the sixth season pulls from these pillars in a refreshing manner. And though the majority of the season focused on the silent power struggle between King Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman, “Before I Go to Sleep”) and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey, “The Purge”) in Westeros and the war between House Stark and Bolton in the North, “Game of Thrones” built an intricate web that hooked viewers with superb feats in acting and cinematography.

One of the greatest strengths of “Game of Thrones,” especially showcased in the sixth season, lays in its cast. Emotions ran heavy this season, but with a compelling cast taking the reigns, it was nice to see “Game of Thrones” taking advantage of their broad range of talents. For confirmation of the show’s genius in storytelling, one can look no further than the season finale, “The Winds of Winter,” which begins silently, with a haunting, piano-scored montage that beautifully sets the scene. It is through these bold moves, and many more this past year, that “Game of Thrones” succeeds in pushing the boundaries of television. Winter is finally here, and the cold has never been so promising.

— Megan Mitchell

5. The Americans

I’ve never quite seen a show pull off the feat that “The Americans” has. The show made the jump from good to great between its first and second seasons, became one of the top shows on television in its third and somehow got even better in its fourth. The series follows an undercover Soviet spy couple living in America during the ’80s. With two kids and a travel agency, the live a seemingly normal life. This year’s episodes of “The Americans” pushed Philip and Elizabeth more than it ever has before. It continued to show how the rough nature of their lives affects those around them, including their daughter, Paige, who continues to be drawn into their secrets. Philip has to deal with Martha, an FBI secretary whom he “married” (under another name and hairstyle), as her role as an asset to the KGB becomes increasingly dangerous. Really, though, the series is about Philip and Elizabeth. Matthew Rhys (“Brothers & Sisters”) and Keri Russell (“Felicity”) continue to do amazing work portraying the couple, bringing their struggles with their roles as parents, their relationship with their country and the difficulty of their work to life. Not only are the performances and story strong, but the series also continues to be a master of the tension-and-release storytelling method. It’s both deeply emotional and nail-bitingly tense. The show has two more seasons left on its run, and if they’re anything like this year’s episodes, they’ll be must-see television.

— Alex Intner

4. Veep

In its fifth season, “Veep” changed hands from creator Armando Iannucci to David Mandel, who followed in the former showrunner’s footsteps with the same acerbic humor. Though Mandel did not shy away from toying with the show’s characters with arduous plots and unexpected setbacks, the show’s biting tone and sardonic portrayal of American politics continues to shine in its relentless, dark absurdity. “Veep” also continues to be anchored by Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ (“Seinfeld”) deft portrayal of the scathing, unlikable Selina Meyer, who we nonetheless root for. Mandel’s adeptness at evoking pity for a comically horrible character explores who Selena is at heart, making this season one of “Veep” ’s most compelling. In finding Selena at her worst, the series is unexpectedly propelled forward using its greatest strengths.

Like Selena’s maladroit political team, Mandel bravely forges ahead in a new direction with an unexpected end to the season’s arc. In doing so, Mandel explores who Selena and the show is at heart, aided by the constant stream of bureaucratic screw-ups at the hands of one of TV’s funniest ensembles.

— Shir Avinadav

3. Orange is the New Black

“Orange is the New Black” dropped arguably its best season this year, yet again managing to transition between gut-busting comedy and heartbreaking drama with ease. Subtly challenging the series’ own empathy-for-everyone creed, the fourth season gave us an honest depiction of prison privatization and showed the potentially fatal consequences that can result from power structures built on racism, sexism and brutal dehumanization. Sexual assault, unjust solitary confinement, even murder — these are the threats the women of Litchfield Penitentiary face. While a controversial late-season death left audiences divided, the final episode paid tribute to the beloved character with an elegiac flashback sequence depicting a magical trip through Manhattan. The season ended with a PR nightmare, a prison revolt and the most joyful, yet simultaneously most devastating final shot of TV in 2016.

— Ben Rosenstock

2. Stranger Things

This year, the ’80’s were “in” (Adidas Superstars, anyone?) and “Stranger Things” capitalized on the decade’s sci-fi nostalgia in all the right ways. From the fantastic synth-alt music score to the emotional return of ’90’s it-girl Winona Ryder (“Girl, Interrupted”), the Netflix original is hands-down this summer’s breakout hit. Heavily influenced by 80’s films and novels — with references to “E.T.,” “Poltergeist” and “Carrie,” to name a few — “Stranger Things” follows the mysterious disappearance of 12-year-old Will Byers in eight addictive episodes generously strewn with homages to cult favorites. But even those who weren’t around in the ’80’s (which I wasn’t) or are largely unfamiliar with the classics of the sci-fi/horror genre (which I’m not) still find “Stranger Things” spell-binding, wonderful and universally touching. The series, with its Spielberg-esque small-town Indiana setting and impressive performances from adult and child actors alike, is able to play on a complex and varied range of emotional planes, seamlessly tapping into raw parental protection and boundless childhood imagination in the same episode. I found myself sporting a ridiculous smile on hour four of my “Stranger Things” binge because sweet nostalgia hit as I remembered when I, too, ate Eggo waffles and rode bikes into fantastical adventures after school.

— Danielle Yacobson

1. Atlanta

It’s not, I don’t think, hyperbole to say that “Atlanta” redefined what’s possible on television. A scarcely present plot, a two-episode stretch (out of 10) without its star appearing on screen, an all-Black cast — before Donald Glover’s FX marvel, if these attributes were not entirely unheard of, they were quite definitely not the norm. Now, truly, anything’s a go.

In its richly nuanced, quietly cinematic debut season, “Atlanta” was a lot of things: one week a whip-smart entry into the canon of music television (give all the awards to whoever chose “Elevators (Me & You)” to close out the finale), the next a gorgeous ode to Black female friendship, the next an outlandish satire of cultural appropriation (is that even the right phrase to characterize that indescribably perfect half-hour of TV, “Juneteenth”?). Yet, through it all, its themes were never heavy-handed, nor were its politics didactic; the show landed its jokes and its gut-punches in equally effective manner. And while “Atlanta” ’s essential draw was in legitimate surprise — the heady thrills of not knowing what to expect from Glover and Co. on a given week — I keep coming back to the simple, everyday hustle this series, unlike many, actually cared to depict: people just trying to make some money. That reductive logline might not be the most grabby, and there are no chase scenes or explosions to be found here, but “Atlanta” is the most thrilling, exciting show in recent memory. What few boundaries the TV industry has left have been defiantly obliterated, the doors definitively kicked down; I can’t wait to see what’s coming next.

— Nabeel Chollampat