Many consider this a golden age of television. We tend to agree. While some might think that cinema is having something of an identity crisis (and that might be true, but some tend to always think that), TV seems to be having an identity carnival. The introduction of streaming channels and devices has opened up so many creative avenues for television programming, which is no longer stifled by the old cable model. To celebrate the television accomplishments of 2016, we have chosen what we think are the best fifteen programs of the year, along with their best episodes.
American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson
On paper, this didn’t sound great. A retelling of the OJ Simpson trial starring John Travolta and David Schwimmer that is produced by Ryan Murphy as a sort of spin-off from his American Horror Story show. In reality, it is a wall to wall triumph. Sarah Paulson and Courtney B. Vance as nemeses Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran are dynamite. Both climb into the skin of their characters and live it. The supporting cast are all fantastic with Travolta’s weaselly turn as Robert Shapiro being a constant delight and David Schwimmer’s bug-eyed declarations of ‘Juice!’ every few lines never got old.
Best Episode: “Marcia Marcia Marcia”
The sixth episode of the show focused solely on Marcia Clark as she navigated the media circus she had become the center of. She tries to balance her home life with the trial of the century; her dickhead ex-husband tries to take the kids, she faces cashiers who make jokes about her tampons, her looks are constantly scrutinized, she’s told to smile more, the cameras are everywhere ,and the trial, the easy win, begins to dissolve around her. We stay with Marcia as she tries to cope with it all. Sarah Paulson won the Emmy for this show, and her work in this episode is off the charts good. – Sean Fallon
There is no working actor who is as unpredictable as Donald Glover, and Atlanta, his first original comedy series, is further proof of that. Preceded by a string of tonally consistent promos on FX that served to mystify more than clarify what would soon unfold, Atlanta sees Glover self-consciously reflecting on the rising career of a fictional hip-hop star, as set against a vast tapestry of racial, economic, and political hyperbole. It’s often hard to come away from any individual episode of the show knowing exactly how to feel about it, or whether or not you actually understood its maniacally subversive intent. But then that is the show’s main appeal, in so much as that the viewer can begin to feel at home in the mundane and the absurd only to have the rug of contextual understanding pulled out from under them in a moment.
Best Episode: “B.A.N.”
“B.A.N.” is the most uproariously ridiculous installment in the entire ten-episode series arc of the first season of Atlanta. Seeing Paper Boi contend with a politically correct talk show host on an African American centric basic cable channel opens the door for one of the more demented satires on TV from the entirety of 2016. Confronted by a blatantly antagonistic feminist figurehead disgusted with the rapper’s latent misogyny, the entire affair soon derails into incisive satire when a character who was born a 20-something black man states that he believes he is a 40-year-old white man, and intends to undergo corrective surgery to address said issue of transracial dysphoria. Brought on to offer another perspective on women’s issues and the LGBT community, the guest unexpectedly states that he his vehemently opposed to gay marriage, to which Paper Boi laughs his head off. And so should we. – Sean K. Cureton
This one flew under the radar, but Baskets was absolutely the best new show to premiere in 2016. Written by Louis C.K. and Zach Galifianakis, Baskets follows a man from Bakersfield, California, trying desperately to be a French clown and failing–turns out, not speaking French makes French clown school pretty tough. Even-keeled pacing and an existentialist comedic voice lend Baskets a wry balance of black comedy and slice-of-life drama, portraying Chip Baskets’ strained relationship with his mother Christine, his twin brother Dale, his French wife Penelope, and himself as he navigates life in Bakersfield. Louie Anderson plays Christine Baskets, the Baskets twins’ Costco-loving mother, with a deftness that never makes fun of the archetype he’s drawing from. It’s a must-watch for fans of comedy sprinkled in with quietly brilliant drama.
Best Episode: TIE – “Cowboys” and “Sugar Pie”
Each episode of Baskets is special, but the back half of the season had some gems that were dynamic in different ways. “Sugar Pie” is melancholy but telling, showing the core personalties of Chip and Dale as they handle a crisis, as well as Christine’s own isolation and loneliness. Louie Anderson does an excellent job in the beginning of this episode as he expresses the eager anticipation of Christine to meet with her friends, only to be subtly rejected by her peer group. Anderson portrays Christine so well that I ache when I watch the opening of this episode. “Cowboys” has more of a pure comedy tone, with a story that focuses on Chip’s relationship with his rodeo clown boss, Eddie, as well as his bizarre friendship with insurance claims adjuster Martha. It’s beautifully shot, and there are some great jokes in this one, too. Both very different episodes, but if you’re going to watch Baskets, these are the two I’d recommend. – Staley Sharples
Better Call Saul
For a show that seemed completely unnecessary when it was first announced three years ago, Better Call Saul feels vital. Despite the expanse of incredible television available now, Vince Gilligan’s mastery over the art form is still impressive. The story is still taking its time reaching the definitive end we know is coming, but along the way it packs value into every second. Each episode touches on the profound with no need for the life-threatening intensity of its predecessor. The relative lack of tension has no negative effect, because the writing and acting is so impeccable that everything feels important. There is a fragility to Jimmy’s psyche and his relationships, and the fact that they are still fairly normal members of society plays into a very human anxiety that anything can happen. It took me a long time to finish this season because I was so nervous for these fictional characters, but every time I started watching I wanted to tell every person I knew to watch it too.
Best Episode: “Nailed”
It’s hard to pick a best episode of this season, but I ended up choosing ‘Nailed’ as it is representative of the way the world works in Better Call Saul. Good behaviour isn’t always rewarded and often isn’t respected. Bad behaviour, on the other hand, can be high risk high reward. It’s easiest to think about this in terms of bank robbers and drug dealers, but this dynamic is something that is explored in Jimmy’s relationships. We make our own decisions, but we are also shaped by our environments and the way we are treated by others. In this way, the well-liked, respectable older brother Chuck has been slowly revealed to be one of the most detestable villains on television. Despite this, he is given every reason to act be antagonistic to our anti-hero, and I was often firmly on the side of the person who would in most situations be the villain–desperate for the unethical plan of Jimmy’s to work and devastated when it begins to fall apart. Last time I felt this way, I was watching one of the best TV dramas ever made, and its prequel has the potential to be even better. – Jack Godwin
After two seasons of top-notch television, it’s hard to imagine that Netflix’s BoJack Horseman could get any better, but season three is proof that this fascinating musing on depression, self-doubt, and the struggle to change still has some tricks up its sleeve. Season three expands on its characters’ strengths and weaknesses as BoJack navigates awards season, Diane tweets for celebrities, Todd creates a ride-sharing company for women that devolves as quickly as it succeeds, Mr Peanutbutter continues to provide some positivity and light, and Princess Carolyn struggles to run her own company. The storylines are interesting and fresh, the writing is the best on television, and the character explorations are as strong as ever. This is one to watch.
Best Episode: “Fish Out Of Water”
BoJack’s fifth episode, a mostly silent underwater adventure culminating in the lingering exploration of existential ideas regarding connection, loneliness, and fear isn’t just the best episode of the season, it’s arguably the best episode of any show this year. When BoJack travels to an underwater city for a film festival, he finds himself responsible for the safety of a lost baby seahorse. In a city where he doesn’t know the language and struggles even to communicate, BoJack connects in a more meaningful way than the show has shown us before. The episode is colorful, zany, gorgeous, and as emotionally hard-hitting as anything the show has ever done. If you’re going to watch one episode of BoJack Horseman (or hell, any episode of any show this year), make it this one. – Schyler Martin
This show was perhaps television’s biggest surprise of the past few years. I’ve known people who were put off by the title alone, but skipping this show means missing out on one of the most singular experiences currently on TV. The show follows Rebecca Bunch (played by co-creator Rachel Bloom), a depressed and over-medicated lawyer who runs into her childhood crush Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III) and spontaneously decides to abandon her career in New York and follow him back to his hometown of West Covina, California. The show treats its premise with a stunning amount of nuance and empathy. The “Crazy” part of the title isn’t meant to be condescending; Rebecca’s struggles with depression and anxiety fuel most of the drama, and these issues are treated with appropriate gravity. But the show is really a comedy, and like many of the best comedies, its darker aspects exist in tandem with its goofier ones rather than in conflict with them. Maybe it’s just that jokes about a mentally ill young Jew are right in my wheelhouse (one gag about Rebecca’s confusion over the right way to spell Chanukah had me rolling), but no show made me laugh more this year than Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Did I mention it’s a musical? This show is a musical.
Best Episode: “That Text Was Not Meant For Josh!”
No other episode captures Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s ability to match humor and tragedy better than this one. It begins with Rebecca accidentally sending a revealing and embarrassing text to Josh. Her rush to get to his apartment in order to delete it is scored by an ’80s rock group of a Greek chorus, though the band’s members spend most of the song arguing over whether “textmergency” or “textastrophe” is the catchier term. The episode takes a much darker turn later on, as Rebecca’s increasingly elaborate lies begin to catch up with her for the first time. As she looks at the shards of glass from her broken window, she imagines herself singing a showstopping ballad called “You Stupid Bitch,” directed at herself. The song will be familiar to anyone who’s dealt with depression. Rebecca’s vicious self-hatred is heartbreaking to witness, and the gradual implication that she’s considering suicide makes for a powerful moment. Before starting this show, I wouldn’t have believed it capable of earning a moment like that. That’s what makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend so unlike anything else on television. – Josh Rosenfield
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee
Samantha Bee got me through this last election. She was my oracle of knowledge who told great jokes and constantly looked ready to fuck someone up should they get in her way. Full Frontal is a remarkably simple show, it’s Bee standing there breathlessly giving you information at breakneck speed while being hilarious and wearing blazers that you would cut your own mother’s throat to possess. Alongside this monologues are pre-taped sections where Bee meets people and calls them out on their shit. It’s wonderful.
Best Episode: “President Obama”
You know who needs to get called out on their shit? Neo-Nazis. You know who have a habit of trying to ruin the lives of people who call them out on their shit? Neo-Nazis. The internet, having radicalised these baggies of dogshit in skin suits, is where they live to troll and hurt people as much as they can. Enter Samantha Bee who, on this episode, proceeded to dedicate an entire segment to insulting, belittling, explaining, and ridiculing the so-called Alt-Right aka Neo-Nazis. It was the medicine we needed after seeing these KFC buckets filled with baby shit presented by some media outlets as a fresh, new, well-dressed, well-groomed political movement that was gaining traction in Washington. Bee pulls no punches, and if you want unfiltered, angry, funny news, well now you know where to go. – Sean Fallon
Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones wasn’t featured on this list last year due to season five being not very good. It was so bad that people were calling it the death knell of a show on its way out. Not to be put out to pasture just yet, Thrones came back strong and 2016’s season six was one of the best the show has ever done. Characters who were abused in season five got their revenge, storylines that had stalled were given a kick up the arse, and new characters were brought in as old ones died tragic but satisfying deaths.
Best Episode: “Battle of the Bastards”
Opening with Daenerys finally kicking some ass, the episode then spent most of its time with Jon Snow as he led a rag tag army against a much superior force led by unrepentant shit, Ramsey Bolton. The battle was epic, the stakes sky high, and the pay offs incredible. The director, Miguel Sapochnik, managed to make a TV battle that would put some movies to shame and also never lost sight of the characters and their stories within the melee. The episode will take years off your life, but it’s totally worth it. – Sean Fallon
The Good Place
One thing is for certain: Michael Schur knows great comedy that appeals to a broad audience. As the creator, writer, and producer of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Schur has found a niche in sitcom characters that are silly but realistic. The Good Place is no different and perhaps Schur’s best work so far. It’s highly conceptual for a half-hour sitcom: dealing with the concept of the afterlife, the show’s protagonist Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is a woman who’s been sent to The Good Place by accident. Assisted by her assigned soulmate Chidi (the phenomenal William Jackson Harper), Eleanor tries to fit into the definition of “good.” The Good Place is a great riff on our own morality and our ethical standpoints, asking us what it really means to be “good.” A goofy turn from Ted Danson makes this show a delightful new addition to network comedy.
Best Episode: “The Eternal Shriek”
Ted Danson’s performance in The Good Place reminds me so much of another one of my great television loves, Bored To Death. Danson takes the wistful soliloquies of his morally questionable character George Christopher and applies them to Michael, the supervisor of the neighborhood in The Good Place where so many things go awry. This is a great Danson episode, and it sets up our characters for a big shift in the story. – Staley Sharples
Horace and Pete
When Louis C.K. dropped the first episode of his web series Horace and Pete in January of this year he did so with no buildup or prior announcement. While fans of Louis’ stand-up and FX show Louie likely went in expecting a comedy show, what they experienced was a soberingly real glimpse into the lives of troubled and complex characters. Filmed like a stage play with brooding silences and a live feel, Horace and Pete is a 10 episode series that invites the audience to be a fly on the wall of a family-run Irish bar (since 1916!) as the lives of its workers and patrons interweave. The colourful characters stories are brought to life by a strong cast that includes Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, and Jessica Lange, and more. If the cast wasn’t enough, the writing of this show is captivating even when it stumbles, and it’s a great example of a project created from the heart. Louis wanted no restrictions on his material and chose to use an experimental method of distribution as well as fund the show himself earning back enough in sales to cover its production. Horace and Pete was recently purchased by Hulu and will likely appear in 2017.
Best Episode: “Episode 3”
Episode 3 was my favourite 43 minutes of “television” this year, almost exclusively utilizing a tight closeup shot of Laurie Metcalf recounting a beautifully written (and surprisingly erotic) story to her ex-husband (Louis C.K.) about a choice she’s made to engage in an affair with a much older man. It’s moments like this that let the writing of Horace and Pete shine through. Relying on subtle facial expressions and earnestly-delivered dialogue, we watch two characters connect through their mistakes, their hurts and their humanity. With so little happening, it’s amazing how captivating this episode really is. It stands out for its honesty and charged atmosphere, and for its ability to deal with the dirty, uncomfortable side of love and sexuality. – Becky Belzile
The Judd Apatow-produced Netflix original series Love is by far one of Apatow’s most refreshing and forward-thinking projects to date. As a diehard fan of the tragically cancelled Undeclared, I loved early Apatow’s gentle storytelling and compassion for his young protagonists still trying to figure out life and how their relationships fit within it. Love felt like a natural extension of that, with Mickey (the incredible Gillian Jacobs) and Gus (Paul Rust) bringing plenty of their own convoluted views and bad habits to the unlikely romance, testing one another’s views and anxieties. The show, set in Los Angeles, is a love letter to the city as well–although I lived in Los Angeles briefly, the show’s excellent locations and cinematography made me a little homesick for the city. Less biting than You’re The Worst, and more raw than Master of None, Love is an excellent show about, well, love.
Best Episode: “The Table Read”
One of the best things Love does is flips the “Nice Guy” and “Hot Crazy Girl” tropes on their heads– tropes that were perpetuated in other Apatow projects, most notably Knocked Up. In “The Table Read,” we get to see Gus and Mickey in a new light, where Gus, the “Nice Guy,” shows his own condescendingly arrogant flaws. Mickey, who has been portrayed as a complex character with addictive tendencies (read: “Hot Crazy Girl”), draws our sympathy as we watch her fall prey to her worst anxieties and self-sabotaging tendencies that are spurred on by Gus’s not-so-nice behavior. It’s a great and compelling watch to anyone who’s been in that uncomfortable in-between stage of a relationship–the precipice between casual dating and commitment–with someone who is kind on the surface but capable of deeply hurtful behavior. – Staley Sharples
Marvel’s Luke Cage
In 2016, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Netflix offered up two long-awaited series—the return of Daredevil, and the arrival of Luke Cage. The former was charming if uneven, but the latter was pure adrenaline. We first met Luke as a supporting player in Jessica Jones, so it’s satisfying to finally learn the depth of his backstory and marvel (no pun intended) at his hero’s arc over the course of 13 propulsive episodes. Luke (Mike Colter) has begun his life over, sweeping up hair in a barber shop up in Harlem. It’s a humble, but serene life, though of course, his peace can’t hold. He earns the unwelcome attention of Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (the brilliant Mahershala Ali, walking the tightrope between regal and terrifying) and his cousin, Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard, where have you been?), a city councilwoman who champions Harlem while stealthily bleeding it dry. Luke Cage is perhaps the most self-referential of all the Marvel offerings so far—with gorgeous framing that evokes the comics, a vibrant setting that harkens back to the era when comics were enamored of the urban environment and Easter eggs and surprise cameos you don’t need to be a comics head to appreciate (Method Man, The Delfonics, Sharon Jones onscreen one last precious time). In perhaps the most touching homage, star Mike Colter insisted that Luke wear a trademark hoodie, in reference to Trayvon Martin. It’s in later episodes you begin to notice more and more hoodies casually worn all over Harlem by the show’s extras. Luke Cage is more than a superhero, he’s a bulletproof Black man in America. And he’s started a movement.
Best Episode: “Manifest”
Luke Cage is a man’s story, but this mid-season episode belongs to the women. Claire (Rosario Dawson) handles the emotional labor (for us and for Luke) though the show is wise to make this just a facet of her character and not her sole reason for being. This is a woman you want in your corner. Dawson is impossible to turn away from when she’s onscreen and she has a chemistry with Luke that even Jessica Jones was lacking. Simone Missick as Misty Knight delivers an understated, quietly tormented performance here as she struggles with her own doubts about her work and her relationship with Luke—and fans of the comic are no doubt waiting for her character to fully come into her own (big things are ahead). But the powerhouse performance here is Woodard’s, as we watch a woman fully come to terms with the depth of her rage and reckon with her newfound influence. It’s exciting to watch a female character breeze through multiple scenes acing and then obliterating the confines of the Bechdel test. Sure, we have to talk about Luke. But more often than not, what the female characters are obsessed with is power. Too often “power” has a negative connotation, but it’s worth remembering its definition is actually very simple: “the ability to act.” Power is what the women of Luke Cage want—some for good and some for evil—but watching them earn it makes for some of the year’s best TV. –Samantha Sanders
The Night Of
Starting as a murder mystery and moving through a mini, Oz-like prison narrative and courtroom drama, The Night Of, on paper, could be mapped to look a lot like an extended Law & Order episode. But, thanks to top notch performances from the legendary John Torturro and breakout star Riz Ahmed, fine-tuned writing and directing from Richard Prize, Steve Zaillian, and Steve Marsh, and a brave late story direction, The Night Of ends up being a seminal work of the terrifying flaws of the American penal and court system and a portraiture of fate’s influence against uncertain and unexpected outcomes.
Best Episode: “The Call of the Wild”
Stick with this one until the end to find a conclusion that is at once straightforward, unexpected, and refreshingly sincere. – David Shreve, Jr.
Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. And The Duffer Brothers’ unexpected smash hit Netflix Show Stranger Things delivered that drug in one of the purest forms. But there was more to this strange, sci-fi/fantasy epic than just the satiation of an empty need to be reminded of the past. This comfortingly familiar story of a ragtag group of outcast adolescents, a teenager seeking her own identity in a small town, and a pair of grieving adults trying to make things right was more than just throwback to comfortingly familiar story types. Aside from being astonishingly well-crafted for the young team of sibling directors, the first season of Stranger Things was also surprisingly astute in allowing a storytelling intersection at which the value of collective nerdism changes to the aging individual.
Best Episode: “Chapter Four: The Body”
At the very heart of Stranger Things, placed right in the chronological center of its story, hero sheriff Hooper breaks into the morgue and makes a chilling discovery, one that knocks the aesthetic of the series onto its head, switching from Spielbergian fun to Stephen King-inspired dread and horror. While there are episodes with more entertaining and scarier sequences, this pivotal chapter measures the depth of the story and knots together its many influences until they become completely unrecognizable within a show that has its own unique identity. – David Shreve, Jr.
This year Supergirl’s return for its sophomore season could not have come at a more welcome time. The optimism that this character, and the show as a whole, embodies have always been a form of inspirational escapism and that is still very much intact. After the much needed move from CBS to The CW saw the introduction of far more politically charged writing. Season 2 of Supergirl uses superheroes and aliens to allegorically tackle themes of xenophobia, racism, and political extremism. The many aliens inhabiting National City are essentially refugees and the organization CADMUS, the big bad of the season, push an anti-alien agenda through fear-based rhetoric and acts of domestic terrorism. As lacking in subtlety as it may be, the show’s approach is still supremely effective. Likewise, this season makes Supergirl the first live-action superhero property ever to have a queer character in a lead role. It’s without a doubt a massive milestone that should not go unrecognized. On top of that, Supergirl just a fun show with big emotions, awesome superhero action, and some truly great characters.
Best Episode: “Medusa”
Granted the second season has yet to conclude but the mid-season finale represents one of the high points of the show. While Kara and Alex’s mother is visiting for Thanksgiving, CADMUS sets in motions a plan to release a Kryptonian virus which has been retrofitted to kill all alien life forms. The episode, which opens with a mass killing at an alien bar, considered a safe space where they can be themselves, is the most politically charged episode so far and fully encapsulates the queer themes of the show as well. Importantly the episode is the big culmination of Alex’s coming out as she tells her mother, and her love-interest, Maggie Sawyer, finally reciprocates her feeling. As well, there’s a ton of fun superhero action and an emotionally satisfying finale involving Lena Luthor, one of the season’s many great new characters. – Ryan MacLean
Featured Image: The CW