The best TV shows of 2016
This list was originally much longer. Much, much longer. It was a small novella, proclaiming our love for TV in 2016. It was a little ridiculous, to be honest, so we trimmed it down as best we could.
This list concludes our week of recapping TV in 2016 in our own unique way. We decided to wait until the year was over to have a year-end recap. Crazy, right? We’ve looked at our most disappointing shows of the year, and out most underappreciated shows. We also looked ahead to the most anticipated new shows of 2017 for good measure.
So now we wrap things up with the best TV shows of 2016 (at least the best according to us). There will inevitably be a few we missed – actually, there will be a lot we missed. So feel free to shout them out in the comments and let us know what we should be watching.
Ash vs Evil Dead
It’s becoming more and more common for properties to make a comeback years after they’ve gone off the air, but the results are usually a little mixed. They can be satisfying, but it’s rare that they can recapture the magic of the original. Ash vs Evil Dead does.
The second season recently ended with a third on the way, and it keeps getting better. It’s dark and bloody, but it retains the humor that made Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness cult hits. It also gives Bruce Campbell a chance to shine. And without Campbell, this franchise would never have made it this far.
If you don’t mind a little gore – actually, make that a lot of gore – then this show is a must watch.
Writer, comedian, actor, and rapper Donald Glover has created something rare in TV: a unique show.
Atlanta is difficult to easily explain. It’s both a comedy and a drama, but it doesn’t fit neatly into either box. It’s the story of a guy looking for his place in the world while managing being a father, a producer for his cousin’s rap career, and dead broke. This critically lauded series has won several awards and stands to collect several more in the near future, and they are well earned.
There’s nothing else quite like Atlanta on TV. It is well acted, poignant, and never exactly what you think it will be. It’s subtle when it needs to be, and over-the-top when it can get away with it. It also features a “Black Bieber,” which is a highlight of the season.
The 10-episode first season is complete, and a second is on the way.
2016 was a big year for show revivals, and one of the best was the Netflix return of the British show, Black Mirror.
Even with just seven episodes over three years, the Black Mirror instantly became a cult classic in the UK, with individual episodes being so well received that they were licensed off to potentially make full movies out of. It quickly made its way around the world, but it isn’t an easy property to market or sell. Most networks don’t want a show where the first and second seasons are just three episodes each, but thankfully, Netflix isn’t like most networks. It was in a position to take a chance on the show, and it paid off big.
The third season of Black Mirror was initially meant to be 12 episodes but it was later split into two, with six episodes released in October and six more scheduled for later (presumably this year, but Netflix hasn’t confirmed that yet).
Even though there are only 13 episodes available at the moment, they can take a long time to get through. The show is dense, and each episode can take an emotional toll. That just confirms that it’s one of the best shows of the year.
Another original show for Netflix, and another groundbreaking series for the streaming platform’s lineup.
The Crown follows the life of Queen Elizabeth, from the early days when she was a princess through her coronation and beyond. It is made for entertainment, of course, but it also sticks as close as it can to the true history. That makes for an interesting experience, as you may know some of the details already, but the show provides context.
The show is also beautifully shot, with an incredible cast giving nuanced performances. There’s a very good reason that The Crown has been nominated for several awards – and why Netflix has already confirmed a second season.
Many have claimed the $100 million show is Netflix’s finest to date. Tastes will vary, but that’s hard to argue with.
This is the second list of ours that The Expanse is on, the other being our picks for the most underappreciated TV shows of 2016. But even if the ratings aren’t setting any records, the SyFy Channel show is one of the best of the year.
Based on the books by James S.A. Corey, The Expanse is set in a very well-conceived and realistic future, where humanity has left the Earth, but unfortunately we brought our prejudice and violence with us. As Mars and Earth are locked into a bitter cold war, an unknown group looks to ignite a war by attacking settlements in the asteroid belt. Space is brutal and unforgiving, and so are the humans living in it.
The Expanse is hard sci-fi, with logic dominating the setting. It’s still fiction, of course, but it’s well thought out and grounded in reality. There aren’t many other shows like it, and it deserves a spot on this list.
This is the only non-fiction show on this list. It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure, but it’s also a legitimately well-made show.
Expedition Unknown follows host Josh Gates as he travels the world to explore legends and myths, from lost cities to forgotten to tombs to the yeti. He approaches them from a rational point of view, and some of his investigations have even helped lead to legitimate discoveries. The real selling point, however, is Gates himself.
Gates is charismatic and good-natured, making friends with locals wherever he goes. He frequently stops for a beer and has experiences that will make you jealous. Throughout it all, he will keep your interest and make you laugh.
While we tried to balance this list with a little bit of everything, the majority of the show here are gritty. Even the comedies like Atlanta have some truly dark moments. Expedition Unknown, now in its third season, is a refreshing alternative.
Game of Thrones
It’s tough to do a best of list and not include Game of Thrones, and this season was especially worth it.
The sixth season of Game of Thrones is the first to completely move beyond the George R.R. Martin books. That makes them noteworthy, but also left a huge question mark. The show has proven itself countless times already, but it always had the safety net of the source material. That left things uncertain going into the new season. It was also coming off the show’s weakest season to date (relatively), so no one knew what to expect.
The results were one of the best seasons of Game of Thrones yet. If anything, the show felt less constrained than ever before. Storylines that have gone on for years were wrapped up efficiently, and in many ways brutally, and you can almost see the beginnings of the end. There were also several moments that were jaw dropping. They may end up in the books as well, but for the first time fans of the books and show were shocked together.
Game of Thrones only has two seasons left, and both will be shorter than usual, meaning this is the last full season we’ll get. And it was a good one.
Halt and Catch Fire
Another show on our list of most underappreciated shows of 2016, Halt and Catch Fire, is heading into its fourth and final season later this year. And it’s going into it on a high note.
With Mad Men and Breaking Bad both off the air, Halt and Catch Fire is AMC’s best show. Sadly, it isn’t close to being its most popular, hence the next season being its last. Still, each season has felt like a chapter, offering a complete story while continuing on.
The third season of the period drama that depicts the early days of the computer revolution switched the show from Dallas to San Francisco, and it jumped a few years as well. That gave it a new focus and a reinvigorated feeling. Each season offered something new and different, and the third was possibly the best yet.
Halt and Catch Fire returns for its final season this summer, so catch up while you can.
Netflix’s third Marvel series offered a different take on the superhero genre, and it absolutely worked. Described as the “Wu-Tang-ification” of the Marvel universe by its show’s creator, Luke Cage offered both style and substance.
It took a character that is not that far from being superman and made him one of the most down-to-Earth and relatable heroes yet in any live action medium. It also honored African-American culture and did so in a way that celebrated it with joy. In our modern, cynical world, it was a refreshing offering.
The story was actually fairly predictable and familiar – a wrongly convicted man fights to do the right thing – but it did it so damn well that you hardly noticed. It also ratcheted up the excitement for The Defenders even more.
Part of the reason we hold off on our end of year lists is because of any last minute surprises. Released on December 16, The OA was at risk of flying under every radar, eclipsed by the holiday season. Thankfully, the show quickly began to earn a lot of buzz, and more and more people are giving it a try.
So far, the show has remained mostly unspoiled, and that’s the best way to experience it. The less you know going in, the better. All you really need to know is that it focuses on a blind girl that disappeared seven years earlier, only to suddenly return with her eyesight. Explaining any more would be spoilers. It’s also difficult to classify, and most explanations don’t do it justice.
Netflix is having a huge amount of success with its eight-episode series, and The OA is one of the streaming platform’s best shows since Stranger Things. Due to the format (not to mention the difficulty in classifying the show), it’s difficult to see most networks taking a chance on a show like this. The ending is also controversial, with people either liking it, or hating it so much it makes the entire series retroactively worse. It has people talking, however, so there’s that.
Sometimes less is more, and when showrunners know the story they want to tell, when they pull it off the results are powerful.
The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story
If you need proof about the quality of this show, look no further than the Emmy’s where it absolutely dominated, receiving 22 nominations. Of course, that doesn’t always make it a great show for the average viewer – just look at the graveyard of critically acclaimed shows that were canceled after just a few episodes for proof of that. There are often disconnects between critics and audiences, but thankfully this isn’t one of those occasions.
What makes The People vs OJ Simpson exceptional is that it managed to walk a fine line between telling a story fueled by history and nostalgia, while also making it relevant to today’s problems. The show was poignant and relevant, and more often than not raised questions that were uncomfortable, but needed to be raised. The acting ranged from amazing (Sarah Paulson) to bewildering (John Travolta), but it was always griping.
If you were too young, or you somehow managed to avoid hearing anything about the actual trial of OJ Simpson when it was going on, here’s your chance to catch up in style.
It’s rare that a show built around a major surprise can unveil that surprise, then return the next season and match the original in quality. Yet somehow, Mr. Robot did exactly that.
Part of what makes the show so memorable is that it doesn’t treat computer hacking like some mysterious form of magic. It doesn’t dumb it down, but it does present it in a way that makes it relatively easy for anyone to follow. Given how prominent and important hacking has become in our society, it’s strange there aren’t more shows like it.
The second season of Mr. Robot showed its stars grow even more into their roles. And given that they were drenched with awards for their work in the first season, that’s saying something.
Mr. Robot won’t appeal to those with a luddite flair, but it will appeal to those that love good TV.
When Stranger Things was released last summer, it wasn’t long before the eight-episode season became a phenomenon. Within a few weeks if you hadn’t watched it but planned to, you were forced to avoid spoilers like they were mosquitoes. Netflix doesn’t reveal its ratings, but you have to imagine that this show not only tracked well, it probably got more than a few people to sign up for the service.
The show just hit all the right notes. The kids that starred in it were remarkable, the 80s nostalgia was palpable, and the pacing was good enough that eight hours felt like a two hour movie. It was the ultimate in escapism, reminiscent of older shows and movies while trading on the fears of modern entertainment.
Unsurprisingly, Stranger Things is one of the most award heavy shows of the year, and with good reason.
You may have noticed something of a theme in this list. Our favorite shows tend to be original in one way or another. Stranger Things is original in several different ways.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
With TV growing ever more cynical, it’s nice to see a show that goes in the exact opposite direction with a protagonist who is endlessly, almost pathologically upbeat and cheerful.
The second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt didn’t have the same surprise value that the first did, but it made up for it with a significant amount of Tina Fey and Ellie Kemper at her finest. It’s Kemper’s show and she holds it up well, but adding Fey as a therapist with a hilariously tragic drinking problem is a huge bonus.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is one of the best comedies of the year. The fact that it was on Netflix, where it could be binge-watched and then rewatched at any time, just made it all the better. A third season is due later this year, and it has huge shoes to fill.
If TV history has shown us anything, it’s that when a show loses its creator and showrunner – especially a show that is a reflection of that person’s unique style – it almost instantly drops in quality. Somehow Veep not only managed to avoid that, it may have gotten a little better.
Veep is the creation of British producer Armando Iannucci, and in many ways a sequel to Iannucci’s hit UK show, The Thick of It. the two shows are not just similar, they are two sides of the same coin. So when Iannucci announced that he was stepping down as showrunner after the fourth season of Veep, there was more than a little concern. As it turns out, replacement David Mandel was more than up to the task.
There are a few subtle differences in the two producers’ styles, but the end result remains a sharp political satire that helps make light of the cynical and convoluted world of politics. The only better political satire in 2016 was the actual election, but it didn’t star Julia Louis-Dreyfuss.
Veep may have been hurt by the over saturation of real political coverage in 2016, but that didn’t stop the cast and crew from putting on a hell of a show and earning a sixth season.
With Game of Thrones down to its final two seasons, HBO may have found its replacement in terms of a perennial awards magnet that also manages to generate nearly psychotic levels of fascination from fans.
Westworld managed to create a compelling story filled with mystery. There were countless fan theories throughout the series, which shows the engagement and investment people have in this show. The first season depicting a theme park for the rich and powerful filled with androids on the verge of self-awareness had so many layers that it demands multiple viewings.
If you somehow haven’t watched the show and plan to, and you also managed to avoid spoilers from the first season, then kudos to you. Watch it now while you still have that luxury, because sooner or later the first season will reach the same level of pop culture saturation that Game of Thrones did. And even if you’ve never seen Game of Thrones, you probably know what happened to poor old Ned Stark.
We’ll have to wait until 2018 for the next season of Westworld, but there is enough in the first season to keep us rewatching – and keep us dropping theories – until then.