2016 was an okay year for TV. The landscape featured less superb television than in years past, but a greater depth and variety. In the world of Peak TV, every individual is able to be fully nourished by what is offered. And that is a deeply welcome change from how things used to be. Everyone is now welcome and everyone is now catered to.
What 2016 brought, in a way that does feel significantly different from even just 2015, is that no matter who you are, what you need to feel catharsis, what stimulates your intellect, there was something on TV targeted for you. Since the beginning of the film industry (and who knows, possibly the beginning of the newspaper industry) these annual top ten lists are always prefaced by qualifying how they simply reflect one specific point of view. But now it has become incredibly obvious just how much the annual top ten lists simply reflect one individual’s tastes. Guess what? On some cable channel right now is TV show that no one has ever mentioned to you, but you would absolutely love. Go find it.
Of course, with all that being said, my list is objectively correct and inarguable fact.
It is interesting that a show could make a triple homicide into a metaphor for being in the closet. USA’s Eyewitness deftly walks the tightrope of keeping the two boys central to the plot sympathetic despite the fact that their refusal to come out of the closet has an impressive body count. And while there were missteps here and there across the first season, the characterization and thematic weight of the series was some of the best of the year. Both watching Philip and Lukas’s struggles with their sexuality and their romance, alongside Sheriff Helen Torrance’s struggles with her past and her difficulties trying to build a family, made for some intensely personal and strong story telling. Eyewitness was the show this year that I have rewatched the most. While the central murder case never ceases to be interesting, the main draw of the show is watching these tragically flawed characters try to overcome their weaknesses and be a family.
9. This Life
The first season of the CBC’s cancer drama had some strange pacing, introducing major characters in odd places and only slowly unfolding the conflicts in the family’s lives. But with the characters established, the show’s second season was able to slowly unwind them. Unique for this particular style of family drama, This Life is willing to let the kinds of decades of resentment that actual families have bubble to the surface. There wasn’t a finer, juicier scene this year than when the four siblings attempt to stage an intervention for Oliver, the gay and bi-polar brother, only to have it fall apart completely as all of them begin to attack each other. When the show shifts into sentimental mode, it can do so because it is willing to let its character drag themselves to their darkest places.
The Norwegian drama Skam uniquely has each season told strictly from a single character’s point of view. There are vast oceans to the world of Skam but the audience is only ever privy to few jagged rocks the point of view character knows about. While the first two seasons were slightly slow, the third season, centered on Isak, barreled forward more like a wrecking ball. He fitfully tests the waters, peaks out of the closet, goes back in, gets mad, tries to date someone, watches his nascent relationship fall apart and eventually finds peace with himself all in Skam‘s signature understated style. The season really works because Tarjei Sandvik Moe’s cherubic face is able to so perfectly express sweetness and shame equally. Also I feel like pointing out, with great amusement, that the trailer for season three contains the least subtle symbolism I have ever seen.
7. Steven Universe
I still can’t believe that Steven Universe exists, nor that it is as wildly popular as it is. We live in a country where a cartoon that is explicitly about lesbians, and features some blatant metaphors for lesbian sex, is watched by a million and a half people. And on top of that it is just incredibly good. There is a level of melancholy to the show that is rare in the sorts of children’s cartoons that Steven Universe hails from. While Steven’s mother’s death happens long before the first episode, grief is so central to every character’s heart. The show is always willing to take time out from alien invasions and monsters to examine the depth of its characters’ pain.
6. The Good Place
What does it mean to be a good person? NBC’s comedy has managed to get a remarkable amount of comedy out of what is essentially a philosophical treatise on morality. Kristen Bell plays Eleanor Shellstrop, a woman who, “kinda sucks, but in a fun, chill way.” After her death she has mistakenly been sent to “The Good Place,” and more or less has learn how to fit in with people who are considered the best of the best that humanity has to offer. Her moral lapses cause existential destruction to her new supernatural living space, so she has to learn ethics before she literally destroys the universe.It shouldn’t be as downright hilarious as it is, but somehow The Good Place makes episodes dedicated to Kant’s philosophy rolling on the floor funny.
5. BoJack Horseman
The unique trick that BoJack Horseman pulls is that it gives its protagonist everything he wants, and then reveals how much worse that is than if he hadn’t gotten it at all. In season two he got the role he spent his whole life chasing, the main character in a biopic based on Secretariat. Season three picks up with BoJack doing the awards show circuit, in the hopes of eventually winning an Oscar. But, as is with everything in BoJack’s life, that doesn’t make him happy and only leads to another self-destructive spiral. I don’t think any show has presented as realistic a depiction of depression as this animated comedy about talking animals. BoJack is always incredibly fragile, and always on verge of destroying everything good in his life with his terrible choices motivated by terrible pain. While the highlight of the show is a sumptuous, nearly silent under water episode, the emotional climax of the penultimate episode is one of the most devastating things I have watched.
4. American Crime
The second season of American Crime never actually tells the audience what happened that night. Just drops enough hints to allow for any number of equally valid theories (my own interpretation I will acknowledge is based on the fact that I happen to like both characters involved). But the fallout from that incident spirals into a devastating critique of the educational system. Pulling on decades of incidents taking place at both public and private schools the show constructs a season about sexual assault, homophobia, school shootings, wealth and privilege, race and racism, school athletics, the criminal justice system, suicide, religion. The season’s primary villain, Felicity Huffman’s headmistress Leslie Graham, spends the season focused entirely upon PR spin for her school without giving a shit about any of the students involved. However even she eventually succumbs to the tragedy, and her own role in it. But really the true villain of the season is the instinct to cover your own ass. No one ever gets the help they need, the kind of help that would have stopped the exponentially expanding series of tragedies, because a compassionate response might open them up to liability. Special mention should go to Connor Jessup and Joey Pollari who both play teenagers forced out of the closet by the investigation and have two very different, but both self-destructive and tragic reactions to it.
3. The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story/O.J.: Made in America
This is sort of a cheat, but these two series perfectly complement each other and should be watched in tandem. Race relations in America are fraying to points we haven’t seen since the L.A. riots. But how did we get here? Ryan Murphy’s limited series on the O.J. trial points to that historical event as the foreshadowing of everything our culture became and an example of how things went wrong. Filled with brilliant performances, it delves into the fraught drama of the most well publicized trail in history. But even the show had its limitations. ESPN’s documentary was able to contextualize the trail in a way a drama, even a good one, could not. The first two episode of the series contrasted O.J. Simpson’s rise to stardom with the social forces impacting African-Americas in L.A. The O.J. Simpson trial didn’t just happen, even if the actual murders did just happen. Rather the trail was part of a decades long history of L.A.’s race relations. Even if the jury came to an obviously stupid conclusion (and there are actual interviews with jurors where they admit both that they were completely wrong and that they voted for reasons that had little to do with the trial), it was part of that long history. Parts two and three of the documentary cover the trail, and the final part covers everything that happened after it. O.J. Simpson is never less than a villain in documentary, but he could have lived out his life in comfort. However he simply could not accept not being famous. All of his subsequent problems arose from his insatiable desire for fame.
2. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee
2016 was a bad year. I do not doubt that 2017 will be worse. But what made 2016 bearable was that we got Samantha Bee. If there is one criticism of Jon Stewart, it is that he did care very deeply about his role as “the sanest man in America,” leading him to a very detached and overly cautious version of The Daily Show. It was better than any other news organization, and always willing to call out bullshit, but it couldn’t ever be angry. Samantha Bee is angry. Very angry. Her tongue is dripping with venom and fury. And she does not care about pretense, she cares about justice. Her commentary is scathing and she has no mercy for idiocy. Now is a time to be angry, so now is a time to be thankful that Sammy Bee is on our TVs.
1. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Towards the end of its first season Rebecca Bunch, the titular crazy ex-girlfriend played by the incomparable Rachel Bloom, realizes she might actually be the villain. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend showed that there can still be a truly great anti-hero TV show, but instead of yet another man doing morally dubious things, it should be a musical comedy. The show is interested in exploring the emotional lives of the stereotypical characters in romantic comedies, with Rebecca always casting herself as the beautiful protagonist only for her romanticized ideals (as in literal musical numbers) to crash into reality. The second season somehow managed to make her even deeper and more complex by centering the season on the dissolution of her main friendship, and how painful two people growing apart can be. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a deeply humane series, taking an incredibly heightened reality (again, musical numbers) and using them to illuminate some of the most complicated and complex human emotions. It is impossible to articulate how astute its character work is without ever losing its wacky nature. It was the best TV show last year and remains the best one this year.
It also produced the single best song of the year with the impeccable “You Stupid Bitch.”