Each year, as TV gets exponentially bigger, it is important to stop and ask, is it actually getting better? I think that’s what makes taking the time to write an annual year-end list so rewarding. At the beginning of this year, I wouldn’t have thought it possible that 2016 could top a year that featured another brilliant season of Fargo and the premiers of Mr. Robot, Deutschland 83, and Master of None. Yet, here we are and I can say without a doubt that 2016 was the best year of television I have ever experienced, further evidenced by the fact that 6 of the shows on this list premiered this past year. Maybe 2016 wasn’t that bad after all (spoiler alert: it was).
1) Horace and Pete, Season One (Web Series on LouisCK.net; now on Hulu)
From its very conception, Horace and Pete was a wildly adventurous show. Created by Louis, C.K. and released on his website with no fanfare, the series was self-produced, self-casted, and self-financed from beginning to end. This freedom from a network or streaming service allowed C.K. the opportunity to craft something truly unique and thus the self-described tragedy of Horace and Pete was born.
The framing, dialogue, and acting are all much more synonymous with that of the theatre than what the viewer is used to on the small screen, which allowed the performances, especially those by guest actors, to really breathe. There may not have been a more exceptional piece of acting in television all year than the long monologue by Laurie Metcalfe in the show’s second episode. The framing embraced space similar to how a play would use an entire stage and set, and the showed chose to live in silence rather than force dialogue between characters, creating a tense and sometime uncomfortable atmosphere that forces the audience to cling on every word. What’s more, the show features an all-star cast headlined by C.K., Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, and Edie Falco, with supporting roles and guest appearances from a wide range of comedians and other A list actors, alike.
Moreover, C.K. kept the audience guessing until the very end, to the point that each time you thought you understood the show’s main focus it shifted its premise in a newly unexpected way. Doing so without strict adherence to a linear storyline allowed Horace and Pete to hold important conversations on issues from abortion and the 2016 election to the stigma of mental health and how to deal with the past while moving into the future.
In the end, what Horace and Pete understood more than the next person – and what made it truly moving – is that human beings are fundamentally frustrating. No matter how hard the characters in the show may try – whether it be with a cousin or sibling, an uncle or an estranged spouse, a friend or a parent – they cannot help but be let down. That is the real tragedy in this story.
2) Atlanta, Season One (FX)
At the center of the peak TV boom is a vast array of distinct 30-minute comedies that have continually pushed the boundaries of the genre forward, from HBO’s Veep and Silicon Valley to FX’s You’re the Worst. Yet, none have been as breathtakingly unique and outlandishly brilliant as Atlanta’s debut season.
The series, created by and starring Donald Glover (and primarily written by his brother Stephen), at first glance appears to be a straightforward story about two cousins trying to navigate the Atlanta rap scene, with Brian Tyree Henry delivering a compelling performance as Paper Boi and Glover playing his manager, Earn. It looks to fit all the old motifs: Earn, a Princeton student has returned home after dropping out of Princeton and falling on hard luck to try to meet ends meet and take care of his daughter. That, however, is where the typical tropes end and the insane creativity of Atlanta begin.
Atlanta is happy to meander away from its central storyline and what sets it apart is the absurdity of casting a Black Justin Bieber and setting an entire episode on a satirical talk show. But through the ridiculousness, the show forces the audience to confront and think critically on vitally important topics, such as police brutality, mental illness, transphobia, issues of race, and especially Black culture – conversations that have only increased in importance since the close of the 2016 election.
Now that is not to say that the main storyline of Atlanta isn’t captivating and moving as well. Even through the show’s innovative movements away from the main plot, at the center of the story is the relationship between Earn and his best friend/ mother of his child Vanessa (Zazie Beetz). The audience still finds itself rooting for the off-and-on again couple, as well as the rap career of Paper Boi. That the Glover’s can take us on a ride as wild as Atlanta’s first season and still maintain a strong narrative is a testament to their storytelling prowess.
3) Mr. Robot, Season Two (USA Network)
The first season of USA Network’s Mr. Robot was critically lauded and adored by audiences everywhere for its breakneck pacing, innovative camera work, and zeitgeist-like cultural relevance. The show had a clear A plot, with a guiding light for the show’s entire season, with quirky romances and friendships on the peripheries that made for a season that was enjoyable for viewers of all types.
Then there was Mr. Robot’s second season, an introspective, slow-burner much more focused on the inner-workings of the mind of the show’s protagonist than the world it had built and the first season had built towards. While many found this to be a frustrating turn of events, and lamented the slower pace and super-sized episodes, the show maintained many of the characteristics that made it my favorite show of 2015.
In fact, one may say that those qualities are even enhanced in Mr. Robot’s second season. Sam Esmail’s auteurship is even more pronounced as he helmed the director’s chair for every episode this season. His camera work continues to be some of the innovative in all of film, big screen and small. After winning an Emmy for his work in season one as the show’s protagonist, Elliot, Rami Malek’s performance was even more powerful as he rose to the challenges of season two, taking the audience even deeper inside Eliot’s troubled and unreliable mind. The supporting cast of B.D. Wong, Christian Slater, Portia Doubleday, Carly Chaikin, and Michael Christofer continued to dazzle and newcomers Joey Badass, Craig Robinson, and Grace Gummer were exquisite additions.
The bottom line is Mr. Robot is operating on a different creative plane than anything else on the small or large screen right now. And to do that while also maintaining a compelling, fresh story is legitimately unique and possibly once-in-a-generation so sit back and enjoy the ride.
4) The Night Of, Season One (HBO)
Combining elements of a typical network crime procedural with the high-brow directing, A-list cast, and budget of premier, HBO’s newest crime drama The Night Of brimmed with a tension that made you squirm from the first seconds all the way through until the show’s final verdict.
The performances throughout The Night Of helped to elevate the show into a true masterpiece. The casting was spot on, from the emerging Riz Ahmed as the show’s protagonist Nasir Khan to each and every supporting cast member: Bill Camp was gripping as Det. Dennis Box; long-time character actors John Turturro and Michael K. Williams were as powerful and dynamic as ever; Jeannie Berlin is incredibly engaging as District Attorney Helen Weiss; and HBO stalwarts J.D. Williams and Glenn Fleshler (who has had quite the year between The Night Of and his role in Showtime’s Billions) are always a joy to see on screen. What makes these performances all the more awe-inspiring, however, is the inspired writing of Richard Price (The Color of Money, The Wire) and Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List, All the King’s Men), whose dialogue made even the smallest interactions riveting to witness.
The Night Of largely lost itself in the minutiae of the crime committed and the procedures thereafter. Zaillian’s camera lingered on what is typically thought of as mundane: rain on a window, prison gates closing, the bagging of evidence, the embrace or movement of characters. It was this focus, however, that made watching the transformation of the character’s in the story so moving. The show decided to spend more time exploring the human effects of a single crime rather than attempting to find who had actually done it. This was done in such a way that by the end of the season, the jury’s decision ultimately didn’t matter. All that was left behind was a collection of broken people whose lives had been changed forever, regardless of the verdict. It was this focus that allowed The Night Of to be a refreshing and creative entry into the crime genre.
5) American Crime Story: The People VS. O.J. Simpson, Season One (FX)
Docu-dramas are inherently difficult to pull off, as heading into the pilot the majority of the audience already knows the story that is about to be told. That was certainly the case for The People VS. O.J. Simpson, as older audiences lived through the show’s subject matter and the saga of O.J. Simpson has permeated into all aspects of popular culture, making it inescapable for younger generations.
Yet, thanks to the brilliant work of an all-star cast, The People VS. O.J. Simpson managed to deliver a thrilling crime drama that captured all of the absurdities of the Simpson trial and all that led up to it. The cast had everything: David Schwimmer revived his career as Robert Kardashian and created my favorite mashup of the year; Courtney B. Vance and Sterling K. Brown delivered breakout performances as opposing lawyers Johnnie Cochran and Christopher Darden; Sarah Paulson delivered yet another exceptional performance that audiences have come to expect from her as Marcia Clark; and the peripheries were full of strong performances from the likes of Rob Morrow, Nathan Lane, Connie Britton, and some peak John Travolta. The only real weakness in the cast was in the titular character, as Cuba Gooding, Jr. never really felt like a strong fit to convey the combination of O.J. Simpson’s domineering physical presence and his smooth public persona.
The performances of the cast were enough to overcome the occasionally ham-handed camera work of director Ryan Murphy to deliver a stunning, enjoyable docu-drama that captured every bit of the absurdity of one of the strangest public sagas of modern American history.
6) Silicon Valley, Season Three (HBO)
Shows must reinvent themselves while staying true to their roots in order to stay fresh and relevant. So, when the Pied Piper gang managed to find moderate (albeit short-term) success on Silicon Valley, it made the show’s third season feel quite refreshing. With that being said, is there anything more enjoyable than Jared, Ehrlich, Guilfoyle, Dinesh, and Richard plotting together in a room how to right their fortunes? Silicon Valley’s band of misfits continues to stay as original – and as hilarious – as it heads towards its fourth season, delivering a continually topical, important, and sometimes cringe-worthy satire on the tech world’s Mecca.
7) Hap & Leonard, Season One (SundanceTV)
Based on the collection of short stories by Joe R. Lansdale, Hap & Leonard originally looks to be the all too familiar period noir, set in the 1980’s with two main characters (Michael K. Williams & James Purefoy), who had very different experiences with the Vietnam War heading out on a treasure hunt of sorts, with a love interest on the edge of the narrative (Christina Hendricks). This all changes dramatically, however, with Jimmi Simpson’s brilliant turn as the sociopathic drug dealer Soldier and his amazon girlfriend Angel. Their appearance makes the show just weird enough to push the boundaries of a typical period piece. What all these different pieces ends up with is a season of television that is undeniably fun at every turn the titular character’s journey.
8) Togetherness, Season Two (HBO)
Every so often, even with the proliferation of television series and streaming options, a show comes along and gets cancelled well before it should be. Sadly, that is the case with HBO’s Togetherness, which has been cancelled after just two seasons. Every episode of Togetherness was bursting at the seams from the emotional weight of a nuclear submarine coming straight for your heart. Combining that power to elicit every feeling imaginable in just 30 minutes or less with two-years of incredible performances by Amanda Peet made Togetherness something special. The show delivered two of the most poignant seasons of television, and will leave behind beautifully heartfelt lessons on what it means to be a friend, sibling, spouse, or parent. What a shame that there isn’t room for one of the most thoughtful shows around during the era of peak TV.
9) Westworld, Season One (HBO)
Ranking things is an inherently menial task but with that being said, my toughest decision with this list was between Togetherness and Westworld. As I mentioned above, Togetherness delivered the most emotionally charged season of television in all of 2016. Westworld, despite it’s cinematic brilliance and virtuoso performances from an ensemble cast, never forced me to feel empathy for the hosts, causing all of the twists to come across as hollow. This is especially problematic when there are so few redeemable human characters by the end of the season. Honestly, after everything is revealed, who am is the audience left to root for? …Felix?! Honestly, if Felix is the hero of the show, Westworld failed somewhere along the way.
10) Better Call Saul, Season Two (AMC)
Making a show that focuses on elder law interesting is a difficult feat, but Gilligan and company’s dedication to the minutiae is always fascinating to watch and quite admirable. That, plus stellar performances from Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, and Rhea Seehorn are enough to make Better Call Saul one of the stronger series of 2016, even if its subject matter is a bit dull at times.
By Matt Atwell