Television

The 10 Best TV Shows of 2016

Glenn Garvin's top shows of the year.

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'Westworld'
'Westworld,' HBO

The most overused cliche in TV criticism in 2016—and believe me, this is not a designation to bestow casually—was the phrase "peak television." For this we must blame John Landgraf, paterfamilias of the sprawling family of FX cable networks, once regarded as one of the smartest guys in television, now better known as a genocidal threat to TV comedy for unleashing a wave of morose Louie C.K. sitcoms on his defenseless viewers.

Landgraf, at a gathering of TV critics last year, said his industry was drowning in oversupply. "I long ago lost the ability to keep track of every scripted TV series," Landgraf said. "But this year, I finally lost the ability to keep track of every programmer who is in the scripted programming business. …This is simply too much television. My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent peak TV in America, and that we'll begin to see declines coming the year after that and beyond."

Journalists immediately inducted Landgraf's words into the Television Hall of Profundities, then quoted them ceaselessly without ever wondering (and certainly without asking) what they meant. Like: Too much for television for whom, exactly? Landgraf and other programming bosses? Undoubtedly. Half a dozen FX shows lost a whopping 20 percent or more of their audiences this year, and the broadcast nets aren't far behind: their viewers all disappeared in double-digit percentages in 2016. Certainly a good chunk of those missing viewers were seduced away by the abundance in programming across the many platforms—broadcast, cable, internet, video-on-demand—that we collectively refer to as "television."

But on the other side of the TV screen—that is, the side where the viewers sit—I've yet to hear a single complaint about "too much television." TV programs are not motor vehicles that careen out of control and kill people (though somebody who accidentally tunes into, say, CBS' Bull, could be forgiven for arguing the contrary). The audience watches what it has the time and interest for and ignores the rest.

Earlier this year, Landgraf's minions at FX, seeking to bolster his point, released a list of 1,415 shows that aired during TV prime-time hours in 2015. (And no, they didn't forget Dog with a Blog or Fat N Furious.) That sounds like a mind-boggling number … until you consider that it's only about a tenth the number of books published in the United States in a typical year. Has anybody delivered a fiery oration on "too many books"?

What the list really proved was that the concept of TV has evolved and expanded quickly and so abruptly in the past five or six years that there's barely any agreement even on the terms of the discussion. The list only included programs from broadcast and cable; Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Crackle and all the other streaming Internet services were excluded. These services, which began mostly as a device to watch network shows outside the strictures of the cable box, have become a major source of original programming. (Netflix alone produces about 40 of its own shows, more than most broadcast networks.) Landgraf may not consider Orange Is the New Black or House of Cards to be something other than TV, but I doubt that many viewers would agree.

About the only thing that's clear is that the vast audience for home entertainment continues to migrate toward options that allow it the maximum freedom to evade artificial constraints on its time and taste. If television history were written as a miniseries, the main story arc would be the continuous efforts of viewers to use new technology to break out of the box created by TV's origins as a government-protected cartel. In the 1980s and '90s, viewers used cable TV to escape the old three-channel universe and its lowest-common-denominator ethos. Now they're employing television's new cyberspace incarnation to cut the cord and break out of the usurious rates devised by a cable industry that was granted monopoly status by municipal governments greedy for franchise fees.

What Landgraf sees as a peak is actually a mass act of liberation. And it has engendered an ever-better environment of television programming, some of the best of it devised by Landgraf and his FX colleagues. My choices for the year's 10 best:

10. (tie)Patria O Muerte: Cuba, Fatherland or Death (HBO), BrainDead (CBS) and The Good Place (NBC). Three murderous critiques of state power, two of them played for laughs. The Good Place mockingly conceives the afterlife as a utopian playground designed by central planners and administered by celestial commissars; it doesn't work out any better for them than it did for Stalin. BrainDead, in which the brains of virtually every politician in Washington were eaten by parasitical space bugs, didn't get the ratings it deserved, possibly because in the bizarro world of 2016, it often seemed to be competing with the evening news. But there was nothing funny at all about Patria O Muerte, a documentary in which the testimony of ordinary Cubans, huddled in the rubble of their own homes, lays bare the barbaric idiocy of the wave of American parlor pinks who chatter about visiting this barbed-wire paradise before it's ruined by Starbucks.

9. Westworld (HBO). Whether you see it as a clinical dissection of creation myths, an ambiguous essay on the nature of free will, or a lascivious ode to the joys of robot sex, this oat opera about a cyborg-populated amusement park going off the rails is big-ticket television.

8. The Big Bang Theory (CBS). The decision for this brilliant but childish collection of Cal Tech nerds to grow into actual adults getting married and having babies has paid off big: In its ninth season, Big Bang is the No. 1 show in the Nielsen ratings.

7. Hitchcock/Truffaut (HBO). It's a simple idea: Two epochal directors chat about their work, their points illustrated with abundant clips. But the result is possibly the best documentary ever made about filmmaking.

6. The Night Of (HBO). Scripted by Richard Price and by turns cynical, angry, bleak, and weary, this noir account of a murder case lurching through New York City's criminal justice system is as riveting as it is depressing.

5. Better Call Saul (AMC). It no longer seems important or even relevant to label Better Call Saul a prequel to the drug-kingpin drama Breaking Bad. In its second season, Bob Odenkirk's performance as a sleazy lawyer in the making has created a character so compelling that he stands completely alone—and very, very tall.

4. Preacher (AMC) and 3. Lucifer (Fox). Corporate and aesthetic cousins (they're based on titles from the same family of DC Comics), Preacher and Lucifer offer similar mixes of sly humor, cross-eyed theology and curiosity about the nature of evil and punishment. And while I doubt if Notre Dame's theology department is going to adopt the views of God as indifferent or at least hopelessly distracted (Preacher) or as a divine Tony Soprano (Lucifer), that doesn't mean they aren't thoughtful and provocative, however anarchic their trappings.

2. The People v. O.J. Simpson (FX). More watchable, even, than the trial itself, Ryan Murphy's epic miniseries brilliantly traced the themes of race, class, gender and American media obsession that ran through the Simpson case while etching indelible portraits of the insatiably ambitious prosecutors and the bombastically egotistical defense attorneys.

1. The Americans (FX). With Showtime's Homeland not airing this year (it will return in early 2017), this series about suburban Soviet moles became not just the best spy show on television but the best show, period. To the ongoing collisions over politics, culture, and national identity, The Americans added a new one this season: the religious temptation, as one of the spy couple's teenage children joined a church. I can't wait for the crossover episode with Lucifer.

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  1. Homeland jumped the shark, fall off its waterskis, was eaten by the shark, pooped out by the shark and settled in a goopy mass to the bottom of the ocean for lobsters to dine on pretty much after the first season.

    The Americans has always been the superior show.

    1. plus it has Keri Russell

      1. Homeland was unwatchable by the second season but they do have Morena Baccarin, who is super hot. Makes Keri Russel look like a tom boy. Not that Russel is not a cutey pie but clearly second fiddle to Inara.

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  2. What the list really proved was that the concept of TV has evolved and expanded quickly and so abruptly in the past five or six years that there’s barely any agreement even on the terms of the discussion.

    I don’t think TV is alone in this.

  3. Look at the front page of CNN.

    In Yuuugggeeee type: Obama to Putin: ‘Cut it out’

    Well, I guess that Putin won’t try messing with Obama again! He sure showed him!

  4. Clickbait: WHAT JOHN BOY WALTON LOOKS LIKE NOW IS INCREDIBLE!!!

    Me: Uhhhh…. no, it isn’t. He’s on “The Americans”. He looks like an older version of the picture you have for that stupid, lying clickbaity shit you are peddling….

    These fucking people…

    1. Also on “The Americans”? Larry Dallas, the Regal Beagle’s most eligible bachelor.

  5. I really enjoyed BrainDead, but it was a bit naive in thinking that there is a difference between the D.C. culture in reality and the D.C. culture after brain parasites attack.

    1. I didn’t watch, but hopefully the DC culture in the show was more consistent and less stupid.

  6. Lucifer seems to me, to be a concept with huge potential that is a wasted popcorn fart of a show.

    Stranger Things?

    Luke Cage?

    1. Stranger Things got me to bust out the d20s

      1. I’d categorize Stranger Things as more of a great story, than great television. It was like a well done adaptation of a Steven King novel. I don’t have much hope for season two.

    2. Lucifer manages to be campy without being completely retarded, and I like that. I sometimes look at it on my TiVo, and I’m like “Really?” and then I watch it and just enjoy it so much.

      1. I kept waiting for them to do something more with the show and gave up on it after 4 or 5 episodes.

        For comic based demon stuff, I thought the cancelled Constantine was a lot better.

        I’ve also enjoyed the Exorcist; pretty creepy for network TV.

        1. I find Lucifer to be Brilliant with it’s creative and at the end of the day more coherent theology than most branches of Christianity can muster

    3. “Stranger Things?”

      “Luke Cage?”

      That wades into the confusing territory of “does Netflix count as television??”

      1. No different than HBO, from that standpoint…

        And they have 3 shows on the list.

        Which reminds me of another one, that is pretty different and I really enjoyed, Quarry.

        Kind of a downer, but compelling characters.

    4. Stranger Things was well done. A lot of people seem to like it for the nostalgia, but I didn’t grow up in the 80s and I still liked it. It did a good job of combining a lot of genres – high school, nerd culture, family drama, small town cop detective, government conspiracy, sci-fi (Xfiles-like), superpowers, etc. The writing, acting, and production was above average so it hit a lot of sweet spots.

      Luke Cage was good, but not wasn’t really novel. I think I might just be tired of the typical superhero schtick. Again, a lot of people liked it because of the way it highlighted Harlem culture. It did a good job of that, but I think it needed a little bit more to carry it.

    5. I like Luke Cage but DAMN is that show slow.

      1. I felt the same way with Daredevil. Too many episodes and they’re slow as hell.

    6. Because it came from the Neil Gaiman version of the character. The comic book was dark and hilarious.

      1. the comic book – which centered around a little girl taking over gods creation – has absolutely zero relationship to the tv show, which is a brainless csiclone procedural.

  7. Half-Virtue’s list of TV he has enjoyed this past decade:

    – Battlestar Galactica
    – The Walking Dead
    – Game of Thrones
    – Burn Notice
    – SuperNatural
    – Archer
    – Arrested Development
    – DareDevil
    – It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

    All the hits. All the classics.

    1. That’s more TV than I’ve watched since the intertoobz were invented. I probably average about 30 minutes a month. I watch movies with the wife. but TV, almost never.

    2. Quit Walking Dead this year. Got tired of the unremitting bleakness. And of buying new hatchets/ tomahawks. A man can only use so many. Jesus, it was impossible to watch a season and not buy a new one!

      1. I’ve teetered on the edge with Walking Dead a bunch of times but than get drunk and find the strength to power through sometime later. The season opener this year was fuckin’ brutal, but there is some interesting developments on the horizon, I recommend giving episode 2 a shot.

      2. I guess having read the source material soured it for me, I couldn’t last past the season one “Quest for the CDC” arc. I heard they fired many of their writers after that though and tried to get the thing back on track, any truth to that?

      3. I don’t mind the bleakness, it’s the terrible writing that annoys me. I hate watch it when I have time.

    3. Which ones are your virtuous picks, and which are your vice picks??

      1. Ha, it’s not the TV that is virtuous or vicious, but myself. Two ever-present forces battling for my soul.

        But to shoehorn an answer for you: the long hours of watching TV, vice; the whiskey bottle and bong on the table as I watch TV, vice; (self-reflection usually leads to a long litany of vice labeling) the shows listed, virtuous hero stories or simple feel good comedies — you will find no Criminal Minds or sociopath wet dream television on my lists.

        Fuck Evil — I hope hell exists so murders burn.

    4. I quit watching Battlestar Galactica after the humans declined to destroy the robots, that also coincided with some really stupid plot lines.

      1. Show was pretty good, but had the most horrible ending ever. Liberal PC bullshit.

  8. What is the appeal of Big Bang Theory? I watched it once and turned it off after the fourth canned laughter interruption.

    1. I’ve watched a few episodes of that. It’s actually pretty funny. And I love the voice of the blonde chick with glasses.

      1. You referring to Mayim Bailik? Blossom? I guess her voice is cool but what is cooler is she is actually quite the talented actress and has a Phd.

        1. Nope, the other, other girl. Bernadette.

          1. OH GOD!

            My ears bleed when she speak usually

            1. It’s funny because somebody married her.

    2. I reckon, that everyone has a show or two they like with a laugh track but they discovered those things when they were young and for that brief space of time the laugh track was still a novel experience that had yet to be destroyed by over saturation and hack writing.

      1. Honestly if the show is written well you shouldn’t notice (need) a laugh track. It is so over used I can;t watch any thing with one anymore. Even one of my heros of the 80s, Alex P Keaton, isn’t capable of making me ignore the laugh track.

    3. kaley cuoco’s boobs.

        1. Even their gravitational pull couldn’t hold me when she cut her hair. Way to signal that you’re married and no longer available…

    4. As an engineer, Big Bang Theory really drives me up a wall. It’s all the negative parts of the engineer/scientist/grad student stereotype. All the quirks that the characters have are cute and funny on the show(with a laugh track), but are the traits that are incredibly off putting in real life.

      1. The show Blackface for Nerds. It works for the same reasons IFLS has a million followers.

    5. I gave up on BBT a few years ago.

      I agree having the geeks grow up made it a better show, and half the time the 3 women in it are more interesting than the men the problem is in the process of doing it they completely reworked the characters of the leads to the point where they really make no sense any longer and they ceased having anything in common with the socially maladjusted science nerd. The show is now basically Friends for millenials and the original version of that was superior.

      1. Good comparison, but without any of Joey’s testosterone.

    6. It’s not a patch on Community.

      If you want to do a show about nerds you have to be on the nerd spectrum yourself.

    7. “Silicon Valley” is a far superior geek humor show to “Big Bang Theory”. Actually, once you watch Silicon Valley and go back to watch Big Bang, it’s like watching Black Hawk Down and comparing the combat scenes in there to the Vietnam flashbacks on Magnum P.I.

      The D2F scene alone is something that “Big Bang Theory” could never pull off (pun intended).

    8. Hate that fricking show. I panic yell if it comes on while
      I am in the room and insist on the channel being changed.

  9. The decision for this brilliant but childish collection of Cal Tech nerds to grow into actual adults

    Slow down…

  10. What’s Stranger Things, chopped liver?

  11. I think there is an exhausting amount of TV out there now, but I’m not sure what market force would push against that and cause fewer shows to be made. So long as there is advertising for niche audiences, niche shows will be produced.

    I can’t say what my favorite show was this year. I still have to watch the finale of Rectify, and if they nail that, that might take my top spot. I was amazed at how good The People v OJ Simpson was, and Better Call Saul and The Americans are always excellent, though somewhat forgotten by the end of the year. Veep had some of its best material, though it did get too cartoony in places. I also have to check out Atlanta, which I’ve heard is aces.

    1. The market force that will push against it is oversaturation spreading viewers too thin: too much good TV (which usually has a significant budget) for the people to watch will result in some good shows having insufficient audiences to support them financially, and then fewer shows will get made in the future. I don’t think we are quite at that point, yet.

  12. No one likes Blacklist here?

    And I am a dweeb and do enjoy Marvel Agents of Shield.

      1. very much so

      2. +1 literal wood

    1. Blacklist looks interesting but I havn’t had time to catch it, I was really into Agents of Shield till I hit a busy stretch missed half a dozen episiodes that I couldn’t find on demand and was completely lost with where the show had gone.

      I really need to get back to it at some point however.

      Also on that list is Vikings

      1. Blacklist is pure mediocrity. I watched one episode and was able to pick out the “suspenseful” twist in the series in five minutes. It was supposed to be a twist that lasted the full season.

    2. Initially. But the lead was just bad. Red kept me watching for most of the first season but couldn’t keep me longer than that.

  13. The Hitchcock/Truffaut documentary in HBO is really excellent. I always thought that Vertigo was really creepy, but never could put my finger on exactly why. Some of Hitchcock’s commentary makes it pretty clear what some of the scenes were implying – necrophilia and what not.

  14. I will never, EVER understand how people waste their lives away watching a television. What a waste. DO something instead!

    1. Comment on the internet or something!

  15. BingeWatch List
    Vikings
    Last Man on Earth
    Adam Ruins Everything
    The Grand Tour (Amazon)
    Justified
    Better Call Saul
    Walking Dead
    Burn Notice
    GoT
    Breaking Bad
    Our World War (BBC)
    Stranger Things
    Outlander
    Man in the High Castle
    and yes
    Project Runway

    1. Vikings is much better than I expected.

    2. Justified was great. FX did have a nice run with some great shows that didn’t find much audience. Also, Natalie Zea.

    3. Any list without The Wire is for rubes.

      1. Sopranos. The Wire was excellent, but it fell below Sopranos in ranking with me because of the botched final season where they had that stupid serial killer storyline. If they’d cut it off after four seasons, it would have been the best show ever on TV.

      2. Sopranos, meanwhile, was brilliant from start to finish.

  16. “TV” will be greatly improved when cable/satellite returns to it’s roots – channels a la carte.

  17. i fell in love with Westworld the moment they turned ‘Paint it Black’ into a western theme.

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  19. Well, I really enjoyed this year’s season of House of Cards earlier this year. I love that the show continues to show ALL the politicians as sleazy scumbags, especially the Clinto, err Underwoods. Every move calculated on how it affects them and their power, rather than the usual BS of selfless politicians trying to help the country. Quite liked the (short) first season of Better Caul Saul. Looking forward to season 2 coming to Netflix. Now, I know these shows are old but I started watching the Star Trek shows. Pretty silly/cheesy, but enjoyable.

  20. Big Bang Theory is Gotham’s bitch…

  21. Hulu is like strolling down the slum gutter. The Brits and Aussies have great TV too. You know, the ones that are written well. If it wasn’t for Netflix, Amazon and CW’s Marvel I’d die.

  22. What? The Big Bang Theory is pathetic shtick.

  23. I’ll throw in two recommendations.
    1) The Man in the High Castle. An alternative history that may or may not be real.
    2) Humans. the plot of Blade Runner dropped into present day suburban London.

    Okay, so maybe I’m just a Phillip K. Dick fan.

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