Ranked: The Best TV Shows of 2016 (that I actually watched)

My love for “television” started on September 22, 2004.

That’s the day that Lost premiered on ABC, and it completely changed how I watched TV. In all of those years since I started taking TV seriously, 2016 is, without question, the best year of TV watching I have experienced.

Everything was just so damn good this year, and while I was only able to give my full attention to a handful of shows out of the 400+ scripted series currently airing, I’m very happy with what I saw.

Below is every 2016 show that I watched a significant portion of this year, ranked.

Please note – I really liked all of these shows for the most part, so even if something is ranked “low”, it doesn’t mean that it’s “bad”.

Enjoy.

18. The Walking Dead (2nd half of Season 6, premiere of Season 7)

There was nothing that enjoyable about this show this year. The second half of Season 6 was arguably the show’s worst stretch, and much has been said about the pornographic nature of the Season 7 premiere. The show made a terrible decision in making its audience wait for months to learn who Negan killed, and I think the recent drop in ratings is evidence that I’m not alone in thinking this.

Do I plan on catching up eventually? Probably – I feel like I have too many years invested into this show. Like TV Critic Matt Zoller Seitz says, The Walking Dead is the definition of a “bad relationship” show. In his words the show is “taking its audience for granted or treating it like garbage for weeks, then doing or saying something that momentarily makes you think the series is delivering on its promise, only to backslide quickly and become ostentatiously mediocre again.” The Walking Dead has had some great stretches, but not recently.

Best episode: “Not Tomorrow Yet”
Best performance: Michael Cudlitz

17. Love (Season 1)

If The Walking Dead had the worst finale of the year, then Love comes in at a close second. I won’t spoil anything, but as the last scene played out, I groaned, and if the show doesn’t deal with what happened in a reasonable manner in Season 2, I’m probably out. Otherwise, Love is a decent show with some hilarious moments and fun performances. “The Date” is easily one of the funniest episodes of 2016.

Best episode: “The Date”
Best performance: Claudia O’Doherty

16. The Night Manager

The Night Manager makes a solid case as to why Tom Hiddleston should be the next James Bond. The show includes some solid direction and acting, but I think it could’ve used some tightening up. The first half is solid, but doesn’t quite keep up the excitement and energy as it moves to the second half. The show is still a fun watch, and with a length of only 6 episodes, it’s also an easy one.

Best episode: Episode 2
Best performance: Tom Hiddleston

15. Westworld (Season 1)

Westworld had one of the best series premieres I’ve ever seen. For the week between the premiere and the 2nd episode, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Unfortunately, that sense of wonder dissipated quickly, and while Westworld is a show of intriguing mysteries, those mysteries come at a detriment to actually caring about the characters, who are played by wonderful actors doing the best they can with the material.

Despite my main beef with the show, there are so many good elements – the cinematography and the production design are beautiful, the score is both fitting and moving, and the potential of where the show will go next is intriguing enough to keep me hooked. I may not have been the biggest fan of season 1, but dammit I’m excited for season 2.

Best episode: “The Original”
Best performance: Thandie Newton

14. The Night Of

A thoroughly solid limited series with some thoroughly solid performances. Some story lines worked much better than others – the Chandra story line was cringe worthy at moments, and the all-too-convenient “we found the guy who really did it!” at the end didn’t really seem realistic in the grand scheme of things – but the story lines that worked are what kept this show afloat as one of the best watches of the summer.

Best episode: “The Beach”
Best performance: John Turturro

13. High Maintenance (season 1)

High Maintenance has been around for a couple of years in the form of a web series, and I regret that I didn’t come around to this franchise until the TV show premiered on HBO this fall. The show tells the stories of average New Yorkers with one binding connection – they all have the same weed dealer (who is portrayed wonderfully by Ben Sinclair). The show (and the web series, which I can’t recommend enough) explores a range of emotions effectively, and at times you’ll find yourself wanting to laugh, cry, look-away, or not blink. And they literally had an episode that was filmed entirely from the perspective of a dog!

Best episode: “Grandpa” aka the dog episode
Best performance: Ben Sinclair

12. Documentary Now! (season 2)

Documentary Now! followed up its hilarious first season with an even more hilarious season. Bill Hader and Fred Armisen are two of the funniest people on the planet, and this series just lets them go to town and and be their absurd selves without any real filters. While the show doesn’t require you to be familiar with the documentaries they are spoofing, watching the docs beforehand only makes you appreciate the amount of thought and work that went into making each joke, as subtle or outrageous, as funny as possible.

Best episode: “The Bunker”
Best performance: Tie – Bill Hader and Fred Armisen

11. Black Mirror (season 3)

I mean, have you seen “San Junipero”?

Best episode: “San Junipero”
Best performance: Mackenzie Davis

10. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

As the news gets more and more absurd, late night shows are taking the opportunity to shine. Last Week Tonight has always been a favorite, but Oliver’s analysis is becoming more and more essential. I can’t wait for him to come back in 2017.

9. Search Party (Season 1)

Search Party came out of nowhere, and I probably wouldn’t have even thought about giving it a chance unless I had caught wind of some early reviews. Did anyone ever expect TBS to make one of the best comedies of the year?

Search Party is both hilarious and thought provoking, and both a take down and argument for “millennial culture” in a social media age. It both explores and pokes fun at what it means to really care about someone or something, and portrays characters that are simultaneously stereotypes, a parody of those stereotypes, while at the same time being realistic and relatable. The best way to sum it up is that Search Party is a much smarter show than it needs to be, but that intelligence and those layers are what elevates it to greatness.

Best episode: “The Night of One Hundred Candles”
Best performance: John Early

8. Mr. Robot (Season 2)

Mr. Robot Season 2 is so different than the nearly flawless Season 1, and while it isn’t as good, it’s necessary for what the show is trying to accomplish. In some regards, season 1 could’ve played as a one-season miniseries, but instead of trying to replicate that formula, Season 2 is much more interested in world building and character development. I may have been frustrated from time to time with Season 2, but it always had my full attention as it picked apart and explored the psyche of the main character, Elliot.

What I respect most about this season is the risks it took. There was a big twist in the first half of the season that could’ve been easily botched, but it wasn’t. There was a significant chunk of an episode that played out like a 90’s sitcom that could’ve been easily botched, but it wasn’t. New characters were added that could’ve not worked as well, but they do. Every time Mr. Robot tried something new this season, it succeeded, and while we didn’t get another Season 1, Season 2 was a key to a door to a room that holds some crazy shit inside of it, and I have a feeling Season 3 is going to knock our socks off.

Also, this show uses its soundtrack better than any other show on television. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the Phil Collins “Take Me Home” sequence from the season premiere all year.

Best episode: “eps2.4_m4ster-s1ave.aes”
Best performance: Rami Malek

7. Game of Thrones (Season 6)

This show is kind of the anti-The Walking Dead – while TWD has seemingly stopped challenging itself because they assume the fanbase isn’t going anywhere, Game of Thrones continues to top itself season after season, episode after episode. What did we, as mere mortals, do to deserve the one-two punch of “Battle of the Bastards” and “Winds of Winter”? Both of those episodes easily belong in the conversation for GoT‘s best episodes, and we got them in consecutive weeks! While it’s sad to see this show nearing it’s endgame, I feel lucky to have been rewarded so much for being a fan.

Best episode: “Winds of Winter”
Best performance: Kit Harrington

6. Veep (Season 5)

A show that was already great just had it’s best season, five seasons in. There were concerns that this season wasn’t going to be as good when show runner Armando Iannuchi left after season 4, but those concerns were quickly crushed after this season premiered. In the style of Arrested Development, Season 5 had a number of long brewing jokes that built up all season long and came to a head in in the 9th episode, “Kissing Your Sister”. The episode plays out as a documentary shot and edited by Katherine, Selina’s daughter, and it is both the best episode of the season and arguably the best episode of the show.

And much like Game of Thrones gave us “Winds of Winter” after “Battle of the Bastards”, Veep followed up “Kissing Your Sister” with a surprising finale that throws everything we assumed about this show under the bus. With odd parallels to the state of politics we are currently in, Veep is becoming an eerily essential show – and a show that once was only supposed to be a comedy is becoming eerily real.

Best episode: “Kissing Your Sister”
Best performance: Julia Louis-Dreyfus

5. American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson

When I first saw the commercials for this show, I laughed out loud.

Boy, every assumption I had about this show was dead wrong. The story, told over 10 episodes, is super-heightened with a sense of spunk, but that’s the only way I think it could’ve been told. The hyper-stylized story proves episode after episode why the story of OJ’s trial could be considered a modern myth that is just as relevant as something like Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’.

We see themes important in this trial – race, sex, celebrity, the responsibility of the media, justice, etc. – playing out in our world everyday. The People vs. OJ takes every hot-button topic that was important both then and now, throws them in a stew, and lets us sit back and watch what happens when everything comes to a boil.

Best episode: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”
Best performance: Tie – Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, Courtney B. Vance

4. Stranger Things (Season 1)

It’s not a perfect show, but it is still great. Some may argue that the only thing that makes it great is the way it pushes the nostalgia buttons, but I argue that it’s much more than that. Stranger Things is a wonderful ensemble piece, with great performances from everyone, of all ages, in the cast. Every character had something important to do, and every episode had a forward-moving and touching energy that made you want to keep watching. It’s a show that fans of all ages can enjoy and obsess over, and it’s a show that leaves you walking away feeling good.

Stranger Things is escapism-TV at its finest, at a time when we need it most.

Best episode: “Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Byers”
Best performance: Millie Bobby Brown, although this could probably be awarded to anyone in the main cast.

3. Atlanta (Season 1)

The freshest and most original thing I’ve seen on TV this year. I can go on and on about what makes this show so great, but I think the best way to sum it up is “watch this show.”

Best episode: “Juneteenth”
Best performance: Zazie Beetz

2. OJ: Made in America

Some critics have considered this a movie, some have considered it a TV show. I’m considering it TV because:

  1. The majority of people watched this as a TV series
  2. It works best playing out over five separate parts

This five-part, 8-hour look at the life of OJ Simpson is the most fascinating thing I’ve seen on TV this year. Just like People vs. OJ, the story is much bigger than the man and the trial. The documentary series examines race relations in America, the downfalls of celebrity, the boundaries of the media, and many other fascinating topics. It tells an almost-Shakespearean story of the rise and fall of an American icon, and doesn’t shy away from showing just how hard that fall was. Nothing on TV was as gruesome as the crime scene photos from the murder, and nothing is as sleazy as part 5, where we get a look at OJ’s life after the trial. And nothing is as revealing as the interviews with those closest to OJ, coming to a realization of the part they played in this larger-than-life story.

1. Better Call Saul (Season 2)

Season 1 of this show was great, but season 2 is just as good as any season of Breaking Bad. And while this show is beholden to the universe Breaking Bad has already established, it really has grown into its own entity. Bob Odenkirk, Jonathon Banks, Rhea Seehorn, and Michael McKean turn in masterful, effective, and empathetic performances week after week, while showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould guide a production that creates episodes that are both patient and exciting. Every element of this show works – the acting, the production design, the editing, the montages, the cinematography, the flashbacks, the jokes – I could go on and on. Gilligan and company have proven their ability to make shows get better and better as they move along, and the potential this show has makes me really excited to see what happens over the next couple of seasons.

Best episode: “Klick”
Best performance: Bob Odenkirk

Honorable Mentions

Vice Principals – I was all about it for the first episode or two, but there is nothing really there to balance out how (for seemingly no reason) mean-spirited this show is. Danny McBride and Walton Goggins are very charismatic in their roles, but I had to give it up.

Easy – Well acted, with every episode telling a story with a new cast, but I noticed after 4 episodes that the show kept telling the same story over and over again. There was nothing really refreshing, and the show got stale quickly. I do plan to finish the season eventually, though.

Best Show of the Year: Better Call Saul
Best Episode: “Kissing Your Sister” – Veep, “Klick” – Better Call Saul (runner-up)
Best Actor: Rami Malek – Mr. Robot, Bob Odenkirk – Better Call Saul (runner-up)
Best Actress: Sarah Paulson – The People vs. OJ, Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Veep (runner-up)
Best Supporting Actor: Michael McKean – Better Call Saul, Sterling K Brown – The People vs. OJ (runner-up)
Best Supporting Actress: Zazie Beetz – Atlanta, Rhea Seehorn – Better Call Saul (runner-up)
Worst TV of the Year – Fuller House series premiere

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