My Top 50 TV Shows of 2016
I do a lot of work from home, and I had a baby last year, so I've been on the couch a lot keeping better track of 'peak TV' than any sane person should. I watched episodes of other 200 scripted series, sometimes just sampling one or two but often watching every episode. I don't recommend this lifestyle, but since I did it, here are my findings. There are a lot of new shows on here that premiered this year and knocked new shows I enjoyed more last year down the list or off of it entirely. More and more, it's easy to make a good first impression, but hard to sustain a premise after 2 or 3 seasons. Thankfully, there's more new shows premiering literally ever week, so I'm never stuck watching a show after I'm bored with it.
1. BrainDead (CBS)
Coming off of 7 acclaimed seasons of The Good Wife, Robert and Michelle King could've done just about anything with their TV industry clout. And what they did was sell the most staunchly traditional network, CBS, on a high concept sci-fi political satire in which bugs from outer space start controlling the brains of U.S. government employees and elected officials. The show predictably garnered little buzz in a summer schedule crowded with cable hits, and failed to get a renewal, but the 13 episodes they produced make BrainDead perhaps TV's best 'one season wonder' since Terriers. The fact that the brain bugs tend to make their hosts' political opinions more right wing may have threatened to make the show into a smug liberal fantasy, but BrainDead was actually smarter and more accurate about its depiction of how government works than just about any D.C.-based series in recent memory. But the show spent more time being wickedly funny and bizarre, with standout performances by Tony Shalhoub's hilariously wrong southern accent and Johnny Ray Gill as a tinfoil hatted truther who actually turns out to be right.
2. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)
People who can both act and sing are in short supply in the upper echelons of Hollywood, which led YouTube star Rachel Bloom to populate her gloriously neurotic musical soap opera with actors I've never seen before who attack both her songs and her hilarious dialogue with total conviction (Brittany Snow, imported from the Pitch Perfect movies for a guest arc, is literally the first person on this show that I've seen in anything before). The show was charmingly original when the first season premiered in the fall of 2015, but it was really the second half of the season and the beginning of the second season that cemented Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as one of the most consistently funny, creative shows on TV.
3. The Venture Bros. (Cartoon Network)
The first season of The Venture Bros. aired in 2004, and has aired so sporadically since then that it's only reached its 6th season this year. But if anyone in television deserves all the time they need to make their show as densely detailed and consistently hilarious as possible, it's Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, who have continued to build their satirical version of comic book mythology into something as rich and layered as any of the shows they affectionately ridicule.
4. Westworld (HBO)
Few prestige dramas have arrived with more built-in prestige than Westworld, but it's been proven time and time again that stacking your show with recognizable movie stars isn't all it takes to keep people watching your show every week. But Westworld made great use of its insanely impressive cast, particularly when it came time to play robots who were realistic enough to entertain the human guests, and to convince us, the viewers. James Marsden made excellent use of his underrated talent as an actor who can play a cliche with incredible conviction, and Thandie Newton gave perhaps the single greatest acting performance of 2016, completely naked for a significant amount of her screentime no less.
5. Billions (Showtime)
Maggie Siff played the richest female character on the relentlessly testosterone-fueled Sons of Anarchy, and on Billions she continues to tip the gender balance in a cable drama landscape that mostly affords moral and emotional complexity to male anti heroes. Billions is full of powerful high paid men on a collision course with each other, and would be all too familiar if it wasn't for Siff, and for Paul Giamatti, who speaks in ridiculous folksy riddles like Kevin Spacey on House of Cards but actually gets normal realistic reactions from the baffled people around him.
6. The Night Of (HBO)
I have a lot of reservations about the plot of The Night Of, which felt contrived from the jump and concluded with an almost arbitrary anticlimax. But the tiny details of the story, the grace notes of the performances, were all riveting and perfect, from one of the great performances of John Turturro's uniformly excellent career to the wonderfully unglamorous Bill Camp and Jeannie Berlin.
7. You're The Worst (FXX)
You're The Worst is far from the only comedy on television about dysfunctional couples, but it's somehow at once the funniest, the darkest, and the most perversely romantic. And the penultimate episode of the third season was its most ambitious to date, with incredibly choreographed long, uninterrupted dolly shots as the three couples at the center of the show started to fall apart simultaneously at a wedding.
8. Bob's Burgers (FOX)
Loren Bouchard and H. Jon Benjamin have been entertaining me for 20 years now, from Dr. Katz to Home Movies, and now that they're 7 seasons deep into a primetime network run of Bob's Burgers, it feels like they could keep this up forever. I kinda hope they do.
9. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX)
Andre Braugher spent decades building up gravitas as one of TV's finest dramatic actors only to deflate it, one hilarious episode at a time, as the boss on one of primetime's silliest sitcom ensembles, and I love him so much for it.
10. Atlanta (FX)
Donald Glover's track record of track record of making exceptional television and mediocre rap music had me approaching his new series, set against the backdrop of ATL hip hop, with cautious skepticism. Thankfully, Atlanta was in keeping with Glover's TV career, with him taking the same creative freedom FX previously gave to Louis C.K. and playing with it with more purpose in a show that shapeshifted over 10 episodes, sometimes starkly realistic and sometimes existing in a surreal heightened reality to get its satirical points about race in America across with viciously unsparing wit.
11. Fleabag (Amazon)
Fleabag is adapted from Phoebe Waller-Bridge's one woman play, and a significant amount of the show features the title character breaking the fourth wall to say hilariously profane things. But over the course of 6 episodes of manic comedy, the tragic backstory on the periphery slowly emerged, held together by comedic misadventures in dating and sometimes poignant ruminations on sisterhood.
12. Broad City (Comedy Central)
Broad City was dazzling in its first two seasons, and it's great still. But I'm increasingly interested to see what Ilana Glazer can do in other contexts and other projects, before she completely turns Ilana Wexler the character into some kind of ridiculous Kramer or Urkel cartoon.
13. Speechless (ABC)
ABC pumped ratings and awards back into the hoary family sitcom format with Modern Family, which I haven't been able to stomach in years, but they've increasingly revitalized the format with a slate of shows that celebrate black and Asian American families and families with gay children and children with disabilities. And none of that would matter if the well intentioned inclusive programmed wasn't also actually funny, if Minnie Driver and John Ross Bowie weren't the kind of perfectly loving, pissed off parents who refuse to accept anything but the best adolescence for their teenage son with cerebral palsy, played by Micah Fowler, who's inherited their inability to suffer fools.
14. The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore (Comedy Central)
The backlash to Jon Stewart's The Daily Show and its many spiritual children began many years ago, and there are certainly some arguments against the effectiveness of this particular stripe of left wing political satire. But what's way worse than these shows not fulfilling some promise they never made to save the world is if they go off the air, and I already feel like we've lost a very needed voice in the last 4 months since Comedy Central unceremoniously canceled The Nightly Show, which was saying a lot of things that weren't even in the vocabulary of Trevor Noah's Daily Show, let alone any other show on national television.
15. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS)
Samantha Bee's louder, angrier version of the Daily Show formula rubs some the wrong way, and might even get more pushback for not being the highly theoretical cable TV comedy show that could stop the world from going to hell. But at a time when TV news is dropping the ball spectacularly, comedy shows are one place where the truth gets to sneak out.
16. Preacher (AMC)
Preacher debuted almost simultaneously with Cinemax's Outcast, another comic book adaptation about a young man fighting forces rising up from hell. But where Outcast was dour and dark, Preacher was pulpy and electric, with exec producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg reveling in the over the top premise but not pushing it into the kind of gross out comedy they usually lean on. Ruth Negga as Tulip is just amazing on this show, one of my favorite new faces of TV in 2016.
17. The Exorcist (FOX)
Amongst all the Christianity-themed horror on cable this year, FOX brought back the biggest franchise of that genre. The first season of The Exorcist was a bit like The Force Awakens in that you have to get halfway through before you see how it connects to the original story, and the element of surprise really makes it work. The original movie is one of my all time favorites, and I was amazed at how much they were able to capture its pure sense of dread and evil with a different cast and modern effects.
18. American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson (FX)
As far as I can tell, the 30 something seasons of television produced by Ryan Murphy never contained a coherent plot until he decided to base a show on one of those biggest court trials of our lifetime. He still manages to Murphy it up a bit with with a dozen Kardashian family meta jokes when one would have sufficed and needlessly fictionalized scenes like William Hodgmann's heart attack, but Courtney B. Vance, Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown absolutely earned those Emmys.
19. iZombie (The CW)
I miss iZombie, which is currently in the 9th month of its absurd 12 month break between seasons that The CW scheduled for some reason. But I'm still itching for more, as the 2nd season concluded memorably with Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas killing off both the villain played by Steven Weber and the other Rob Thomas from Matchbox Twenty.
20. Black-ish (ABC)
Black-ish is only on its 3rd season but already feels like kind of a standard bearer for current network sitcoms. And I've enjoyed the unlikely guest arc by Daveed Diggs of the experimental hip hop group Clipping.
21. Hap And Leonard (SundanceTV)
I think this show probably would seem more trendy and cool if it was named after the 1990 novel it's on, Savage Season, but that's probably for the best. A fun weird southern gothic shaggy dog tale with great performances by Michael K.Williams, Jimmi Simpson and Christina Hendricks.
22. Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central)
I went to college with Amy Schumer and acted opposite her in a film about 14 years ago, so it's been surreal to watch her become not just hugely famous but a polarizing figure who gets angry thinkpieces written about her every week. I have mixed feelings about her work overall, but her eponymous Comedy Central sketch show is by far her best achievement to date, and I think it's a shame that she's putting it on a hiatus a bit after its excellent 4th season.
23. The Circus: Inside The Greatest Political Show On Earth (Showtime)
I watched as little TV coverage of the election as I could this year, as it became immensely clear that CNN and everyone else were screwing the pooch in a monumental, historic way. But I made an exception for Showtime's weekly series that offered up 30 half documentaries from the campaign trail from January to November. The show didn't always get it right -- Mark Halperin got it wrong as much as any commentator this year -- but they got a perspective from the eye of the storm of the campaign that I rarely saw elsewhere. As we spend the next few decades puzzling over what the hell happened in 2016, I think The Circus will emerge as a useful document.
24. UnREAL (Lifetime)
UnREAL was my favorite new show of 2015, and I'm sad to say that it was one of the more notable sophomore slumps of 2016, shoehorning police brutality into its plot in a way that ultimately rang hollow and perhaps even opportunistic. But its second season was far from the disaster that many proclaimed it to be before it had even ended, and Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer continued to sink their teeth into 2 of the most complex roles on TV.
25. Halt And Catch Fire (AMC)
Halt And Catch Fire's focus shifted over its first three seasons from its male leads to its female leads, and then to the bitter, contentious end of Donna and Cameron's friendship and professional partnership. I'm still making up my mind about how the 3rd season ended with a chronological flash forward, but I'm excited to see how the 4th and final season makes sense of it all.
26. Pitch (FOX)
I'm not a sports fan and a hard sell for shows about sports, and I was skeptical that Pitch, about a hypothetical first woman in Major League Baseball, would be a bland feelgood show about a fictional athlete's inspiring imaginary achievements. Instead, it's a frank and unvarnished look at all the garbage that someone has to deal with to be the first anything in our modern hyperactive sports media ecosystem. Kylie Bunbury is great as the girl who doesn't want to settle for being a trailblazer if she's not also a winner, and Mark-Paul Gosselaar gets to deploy his considerable douchebag charisma in an actual good show for the first time in his 3 decades on television.
27. The Grinder (FOX)
Another one season wonder, and I'd be more mad about FOX canning it if it didn't feel like the show hadn't so effectively played out its original idea in the 22 episodes they got, with Rob Lowe's conceited TV star one upped by hilarious guest star Timothy Olyphant usurping his legal drama franchise.
28. The Magicians (SyFy)
SyFy has seriously stepped up its original programming in the last couple years with a number of pretty promising shows including The Expanse and Channel Zero. But the one that got off and running with the strongest first season is The Magicians, which my wife and I enjoyed so much that she's been devouring the Lev Grossman novels it's based on.
29. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
Last Week Tonight gets a lot of deserved credit for John Oliver's deep digs on a different topic every week. But let's also applaud those "and now this" voiceover segments that offer a breather between segments and have often been the funniest things about the show this year.
30. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
30 Rock is an absolute classic in my book, and at this point I've made peace with the fact that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is never gonna be on that level. But Tituss Burgess alone will guarantee that I watch every episode they produce.
31. Lady Dynamite (Netflix)
Maria Bamford has been one of my favorite comics for a decade, and I'm delighted that 2016 finally brought a TV vehicle that makes use of her unique talents and sensibility. Lady Dynamite teeters along the edge of being too much, more odd than funny. But it's also a refreshingly ambitious antidote to the usual autobiographical sitcoms about the life of a comedian.
32. The Good Place (NBC)
The Good Place is less a sitcom and more of a live action cartoon, a Futurama style of heightened universe that can bend at a moment's notice to accommodate a good joke. Now that Ted Danson lives on TV year round, I'm glad he's keeping busy with this and not a C.S.I. show.
33. Difficult People (Hulu)
TV comedy is full of show business satires, but Difficult People is the one that feels the most consistently ahead of the curve, making fun of new trends before other shows are even aware of them. And the second season had some memorably insane stories -- the episode with the "old timey" people, the episode with Method Man -- that I dare say gave me a little of a classic Seinfeld feeling.
34. Veep (HBO)
After taking a few years to recover from 8 seasons of House, Hugh Laurie was perhaps the busiest TV actor of 2016, headlining both Chance and The Night Manager. But I thought his best role of the year was his continued guest arc on Veep that kept the show lively in its fifth season.
35. Stitchers (Freeform)
In its second season, I think Stitchers started to realize that its ostensible protagonist, Emma Ishta, is kind of bland, and gave more screentime to the much funnier Allison Scagliotti, who elevates Stitchers from a lightweight sci fi series to an extremely watchable one much as she did on Warehouse 13.
36. Teen Titans Go! (Cartoon Network)
My 7 year old watches a lot of Cartoon Network, and Teen Titans Go! is both his and my favorite show in the network's daily rotation. I understand there was a much more serious Teen Titans series before this and people are mad that it was replaced by a wacky comedy spinoff skewed at a younger audience, but Teen Titans Go! parodies TV tropes as creatively and relentlessly as anything since the early seasons of Community.
37. Fresh Off The Boat (ABC)
Eddie Huang has long since stopped doing voiceover narration for the network sitcom about his adolescence, even as they continue using his name and general biographical details. And I think it's a shame that he could never quite embrace the show or bend it to his sensibility, because Constance Wu and Randall Park are maybe the funniest TV parents on the air right now. I sure hate that Danny Brown theme song though.
38. Superstore (NBC)
After slashing and burning its once mighty comedy lineup and starting over from scratch, NBC is slowly finding its footing in sitcoms again, and Superstore increasingly feels like the centerpiece of its lineup. I'm always happy to see Kids In The Hall vet Mark McKinney on TV, but Lauren Ash deserves recognition as the most fearless and hilarious performer in the show's ensemble cast.
39. Masters Of Sex (Showtime)
Lizzy Caplan may be one of the best comedic actresses of her generation, and it feels somehow wrong to me that such an increasingly somber period drama is the first job she's had that's lasted for 4 (soon to be 5) seasons. But it's been great to stick with Masters and Johnson through this whole saga and finally see them get married at the end of the latest season.
40. Documentary Now! (IFC)
The Lorne Michaels-produced Documentary Now! is mostly an excuse for a bunch of former SNL stars and writers (Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Seth Meyers, John Mulaney) to do even longer and more esoteric versions of the kind of long esoteric sketches they used to occasionally get away with at 12:50. And it's been a delight to watch these guys lose themselves in recreating the world of a movie like The War Room or Stop Making Sense and make it blown out and ridiculous and not have to worry about explaining the joke or finding a current event tie in for the idea.
41. The Get Down (Netflix)
This year two big name directors premiered big budget shows about the musical history of 1970s New York. And it was a mild shock that the embarrassing, quickly canceled disaster was the Martin Scorsese one while the Baz Luhrmann one showed a lot more promise. Luhrmann's about the last person I'd pick to film hip hop's origin story, but his sugary old school musical style that puts Grandmaster Flash at the center of his fictionalized mythology is strangely intoxicating.
42. New Girl (FOX)
New Girl started a half decade ago as an ostensible star vehicle for movie starlet Zooey Deschanel and her title character. But it very quickly became clear that Deschanel is just part of a very talented ensemble (my line has often been that it's like if the title of Friends was "Phoebe"). And this year, the show proved my point by being able to carry off several episodes with no Deschanel at all while she was on maternity leave, even if it was clear that you can't just replace her with a nonentity like Megan Fox and still have as good a show.
43. Childrens Hospital (Cartoon Network)
Childrens Hospital concluded its run of 86 perfect little 12 minute episodes this year, by which point its initial mission of parodying Grey's Anatomy had warped into a surreal little universe of its own. A shame that Rob Corddry had to put this show to bed to focus on something as boring as Ballers.
44. Agent Carter (ABC)
Last year I put Marvel's gritty Netflix shows on the list and neglected ABC's fun little Captain America spinoff, but this year I really didn't get much enjoyment out of Daredevil and Luke Cage, while Agent Carter was a delight. Unfortunately, ABC canceled Haley Atwell's show, and then canceled her other show Conviction almost exactly 6 months later.
45. Roadies (Showtime)
Before Showtime canceled Roadies, I wrote a long piece for Stereogum detailing the many foibles and flaws of the Cameron Crowe series. But in the course of writing it, I found myself becoming a bigger fan of the show than I wanted to admit, and feeling a bit sad that it wouldn't be back next year.
46. Stan Against Evil (IFC)
John C. McGinley's run on Scrubs was one of the greatest TV performances on a not particularly great show. And I'm glad he finally got a suitable starring vehicle, an asburd horror comedy created by standup and former Simpsons writer Dana Gould, who lets McGinley fight supernatural evil while delivering rambling tangents like "The thing about Hendrix was, he only made 3 albums, and Band of Gypsys was live. Now, Bootsy Collins..."
47. Suits (USA)
A couple months ago, Meghan Markle unexpectedly became an international celebrity when it was revealed that she's dating Prince Harry. So let me just say, I saw her first, I watched this silly little legal drama for 86 episodes, and I'll keep watching long after the tabloid headlines subside. I'm sad that Gina Torres is leaving the show, but her farewell episode was one of its all time best.
48. The Mindy Project (Hulu)
The Mindy Project started out with a young doctor who loves rom coms living out a cute little rom com life where she eventually marries her cranky co-worker. And then, this year, Danny Castellano turned out to not just be kind of lovably cranky but a total prick, and they got divorced and Chris Messina joined The Mindy Project's revolving door cast of former regulars. It was kind of weirdly a bummer, but the show still has Mindy Kaling and Ike Barinholtz and Xosha Roquemore, so it's still pretty funny.
49. Dead Of Summer (Freeform)
So many shows on TV these days are about parodying or paying tribute to the tropes of '80s horror movies, but Dead Of Summer stood out for its attachment to its characters, who you got to know well enough over its 10 episodes that you actually worried about the kids as the killer picked them off, and mourned some of the characters that died.
50. Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee (Crackle)
In a comedy landscape increasingly crowded with podcasts and memoirs and autobiographical shows and movies, it's refreshing to watch Jerry Seinfeld talk with other comedy legends in a much lighter environment. This year's episodes featured a rare look at Steve Martin seriously discussing his craft, and an episode with Garry Shandling that had a poignant nostalgic air to it even before he passed soon after.