Time for me to round up another year in television! Many of my friends use their spare time to run marathons or flip houses or play with their kids or other dumb shit like that. Being a serious person, I sacrifice my free time to watch hundreds of hours of TV each year so that I can provide recommendations to the 10 or so people who care enough to read this (hi Mom). It’s a difficult calling but we all have to develop our natural talents and I’ve always been amazing at sitting on a couch and working the remote. I wouldn’t call myself the Michael Phelps of TV watching, but I wouldn’t blame you if you did.
I can’t help but feel like 2016 was a bit of a dip in quality (although certainly not in quantity). It might be because five of my 2015 Top Ten did not air new episodes this year – either because they ended (Mad Men, Justified) or took a year off (The Leftovers, Rick and Morty, Fargo). There were a couple great new shows but not enough to fill those holes, and some shows moved up in the rankings not because I liked them more but just because spots opened up above them. Still though – lots of amazing shows if you know where to look.
- The Americans. After two years at the #2 slot, “The ‘Cans” (as I call it) took advantage of the Leftovers hiatus to claim the top spot as Tim’s Favorite Show of 2016. I have my quibbles with this season (too much EST, not enough of my favorite character) but this show continues to nail the perfect blend of spy and family drama. Best news – we’re getting two more seasons and a definite end date for the writers to work toward. As other fans of the show have joked on Twitter – presumably the series will end with Philip and Elizabeth rigging the 2016 election.
- Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I love musicals, and LOVE the idea of a great hour-long comedy with 2-3 musical numbers (a mixture of Broadway type numbers and pop song parodies) in each episode. Rachel Bloom is a fantastic performer and writes hilarious songs that both work within the show and are great to listen to on their own (here’s my all-time favorite, but you can lose hours playing songs from this show on YouTube). Please watch it (Fridays on the CW) because it really needs the ratings.
- Bojack Horseman. Another show that moved up in my rankings due to some spots opening up. It continues to execute much better on the dramatic side than you would expect from an animated show with talking animals. I want to highlight the standout performance of Paul F. Tompkins as Mr. Peanutbutter, who is both the funniest character and often the wisest.
Atlanta. My favorite new show of 2016 was a show about a guy named Earn (Donald Glover from Community, who is also Atlanta‘s creator and head writer) trying to make it in the music business by managing his cousin’s rap career. The standout episode in my mind was “Value” which followed a day in the life of Earn’s sometime girlfriend Van as she tried to pass a drug test at work. Possibly my favorite episode of television in 2016.
- Better Call Saul. I’m not sure if this show had a radical improvement from season 1 to season 2, or if I was just feeling its vibe better. Maybe my general distaste for spin-offs led me to be unreasonably hostile to it in season 1. Whatever the reason – I fully acknowledge now that BCS is one of the best shows out there and stands alone from its Breaking Bad heritage.
- Silicon Valley. I consulted the Conjoined Triangles of Success and determined that yes – Silicon Valley is still one of the best shows out there and required viewing for people who work in tech. I’m starting to wonder though how long the writers can keep these characters in the position of “scrappy upstart” before it becomes too unbelievable. Every time they’re up – some crazy thing happens to bring them back down! And vice versa.
- Happy Valley. A very different “valley” indeed. Season two of this British crime drama wasn’t quite as good as the first, but still excellent. I thought it had maybe one two many plotlines for a six hour season, but that’s small potatoes next to the towering performance given by Sarah Lancashire as a police sergeant whose essential goodness often goes unrewarded.
- The Girlfriend Experience. Another great new show – this takes the premise of Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film-of-the-same-name and applies it to a very different character. The writing on the show wasn’t top-10 caliber, but I want to call out the ultra-stylish direction (from co-creators Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan) that really drives home how same-looking most other television is these days. The careful framing of shots shows how the characters are boxed-in by their surroundings.
- Veep. The political satire of Veep hit extra hard this year (maybe the last year any of us can joke about politics?), and not just because of the parallels between the presidential election in the show and the real one. Every time the interplay between the core cast gets a little stale, the show throws in an amazing guest star to shake things up. Special commendation to Sam Richardson as Richard Splett who went from a bit background player to one of the series’ MVPs.
- Mr. Robot. Another show, like Girlfriend Experience, that overcomes some story problems with wonderfully inventive and interesting direction and production design. The first season ended on a world-changing event, and I fully expected the writers to walk it back in the second season, maybe showing that the event wasn’t as thunderous as was previously implied. Instead they did a commendable job in imagining the consequences and the parameters of the newly changed world.
Other shows I enjoyed, in no particular order: Sweet/Vicious, Stranger Things, The Night Of, The Good Place, You’re the Worst, Westworld, Fleabag, Game of Thrones, Black Mirror (really just “San Junipero” and “Hated in the Nation”), All the Way, The Night Manager, Orange is the New Black, Man Seeking Woman, Angie Tribeca, Thirteen, London Spy, Confirmation, The Path
Shows I like but haven’t had time to finish: Rectify, Insecure, The Crown, Difficult People, Search Party, Horace and Pete, One Mississippi, Luke Cage, Goliath, Lady Dynamite, Catastrophe, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Get Down, Broad City, Better Things, Togetherness, Quarry, No Tomorrow, Jane the Virgin, Casual, Outlander
Most disappointing: Vinyl, Preacher, Billions, Hap and Leonard, BrainDead, 11.22.63, Roadies
“Zoo” award for best bad show to watch and make fun of: Timeless