There were over 400 original scripted television shows released in 2015, and based on everything that I've read and seen, that number only increased in 2016. Amazon alone has nearly 30 new shows premiering in 2017, so the number of television viewing options will only increase. On the plus side, the quality seems to have risen across the board as well: we are living in a Golden Age Of Television, where the boundaries about what shows can be and or can do are falling.
There seem to be no limitations on the different hybrids: you can create emotionally-draining dramas at sitcom length (Transparent), animated comedies about depressed horses (BoJack Horseman), fantasy epics (Game Of Thrones), quiet southern character studies (Rectify) or fourth wall-breaking tales of sex and guilt (Fleabag), and it all works. As Billy Eichner so eloquently summarized it, "Fuck Lucille Ball, we have Constance Zimmer now."
There is certainly no better way for people to push through the fog of channels and options than word-of-mouth, whether it's coworkers' recommendations, friends who force you to watch things, or critics' lists.
Now for methodology: I didn't include any late night programs (Saturday Night Live has had a very good, and very talked about, season so far) or talk shows (otherwise, the essential Last Week Tonight and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee would probably crack the comedy top 10), no reality shows, no web series, and no documentaries (which means no OJ: Made In America, although it's really more of a very long movie).
And of course, I can't watch everything. Here are my blind spots: among the many excellent programs I've seen cited by other critics, I haven't had time to watch Jane The Virgin, The Girlfriend Experience (Matt Zoller Seitz would be very disappointed), My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Search Party (my coworker was lukewarm on it), One Mississippi, The Crown, Easy, Insecure, and Lady Dynamite. Last year I noted that I haven't been able to get into Halt and Catch Fire, maybe because Lee Pace's eyebrows are just too aggressive for me, but I vow to watch this show in full before next year's list. I haven't gotten to catch up on The Night Of past the pilot (but it comes highly recommended). I started watching Better Things and fell behind (but plan on continuing); and I'm only halfway through Horace & Pete, and am not sure whether it is a brilliant, melancholy theatrical take on Cheers or a failed experiment (I have six more episodes to plow through before that becomes clear). Like last year, I remain deeply uninterested in The Affair.
My four most disappointing shows of the year: Vinyl was the 'True Detective season two' of 2016, a colossal and expensive failure across the board (despite a lot of talented people involved); UnREAL stumbled badly in season two, leaning on soap opera twist after soap opera twist (there was quite a body count by the end) rather than the characterization that made season one standout; Daredevil season two started out very strong with the Punisher story arc, deflated a bit once Elektra got involved, and ended with a giant thud of a finale; and I completely gave up on Fear The Walking Dead, which slowly made me hate every character on the show.
Now (a lot of) honorable mentions: Bob's Burgers remains the best show about a loving family on television (animated or not); Broad City season three wasn't quite as strong as the year before, but they still travelled to Abbi's childhood home and fit in an episode-long Mrs. Doubtfire, homage; It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia remains dependably funny ELEVEN seasons in; Vice Principals wasn't perfect, but Walton Goggins was; Preacher basically spent its first season making a (very enjoyable) prequel to the real show; Black Mirror was hit-and-miss depending on the episode, but it reached new heights this season ("San Junipero"); South Park continued serializing their plots in season 20, which started out very strong ("Member Berries") but hit a creative road block when Trump won and they had to scramble to piece together the final episodes; The Good Place was the best freshman comedy of the fall; Last Man On Earth came very close to making the top 10, thanks to an added seriousness in season three; Difficult People, which figured out exactly what kind of show it wanted to be in season two, also just barely missed the top 10 (blame Kevin Spacey); and Andre Braugher still makes me crack up every week with his line readings on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He deserves all the supporting actor awards in the world, why won't you people listen to me!
— Oswaldo Jimenez (@oswjim) November 23, 2016
A lot of my favorite shows of 2015 ended last year (Mad Men, Justified, Hannibal, Parks and Recreation, Key & Peele, maybe Louie?), while a bunch went on hiatus until 2017 or later (Fargo, The Leftovers, Review, Rick & Morty, Nathan For You, Master Of None). Which means this year's is very different from last year, with only a handful of the same ones. However, that does include the number one drama...
And so, here are the DRAMAS that moved and compelled me:
1. The Americans (season 4) The spiritual successor to the Breaking Bad throne (the most thrilling show on TV, one that has gotten better and tenser every season) hit new peaks this year. Storylines came to a thrilling and tragic head for several main characters (poor Martha), Elizabeth had a gut-wrenching assignment that challenged her assumptions about their mission, Dylan Baker had an incredible guest-star arc, Paige's turbulent teenage years moved in a troubling direction, and there was even a big time jump. If you've tried to watch it and have stumbled on details of plot plausibility, you're missing the point: the emotional core of the show is agonizing and spectacular. Every glance between Elizabeth and Phillip contains multitudes.
2. Rectify (season 4) Daniel Holden and his family finally got some sort of resolution about the murder of Hanna Dean in the final season of Sundance's immaculately-drawn show. More importantly, Daniel began to take the necessary steps toward letting his past go and reintegrating into society in Nashville, one heartbreaking monologue at a time. On the whole, I'd be hard pressed to name a more deeply-felt television series (besides Deadwood), one that dealt directly with the uncertainty of the human condition in all its failures and beauty.
3. American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson (season 1) It had an incredible cast doing some of their best work ever (Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, and Sterling Brown in particular). The themes of the show were shockingly relevant reflections of society today, with standout episodes commenting on racism ("The Race Card," "Manna From Heaven"), sexism ("Marcia, Marcia, Marcia") and reality TV. It also was one of the most compelling and addictive shows on TV all year, even with most people very aware of the outcome of the case and the big plot details. Despite the foreknowledge (or perhaps because of it), it was able to execute what it was trying to do flawlessly. And it also gave us the repeated refrain of "Uncle Juice."
4. Transparent (season 3) Last year was the year of "inherited trauma," while this season was about re-connecting the ridiculously narcissistic Pfefferman clan with their Jewish heritage (or not, in the case of Josh, who briefly accepted Christ as his lord and savior for his son). The best episodes of the season let the family energetically bounce off of each other ("To Sardines and Back"), explored the spiritual crisis of sweet Rabbi Raquel ("Life Sucks and Then You Die"), and offered a glimpse into Mort and Shelly's childhoods ("If I Were A Bell"). Best of all, the finale gave Shelly her finest, most cathartic moment on the show ("Exciting And New").
5. Game of Thrones (season 6) In retrospect, season five was the nadir for the show ("Hardhome" and the finale excluded, of course). The writers made a symbolic (and literal) course-correction in the season six premiere (particularly with the gutting of the Dorne storyline, a wise move), and things steadily gained steam after that. We got the resurrection of Jon Snow, the tragic origins of Hodor, the reunion of Jon and Sansa, the surprise return of The Hound (as a pacifist lumberjack), Tormund Giantsbane flirting with Brienne of Tarth, the incredible Battle Of The Bastards, and the thrilling finale, in which about a third of the cast was killed off by Queen Cersei and Jon Snow's true parentage was revealed. And of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the end of the most important GoT tradition: Rickonwatch.
6. Better Call Saul (season 2) Saul was funnier (Hoboken Squat Cobbler!), more comfortable with its Breaking Bad roots (Mike's one man war against the Salamancas), and more tragic (everything involving Chuck and Jimmy's long-simmering family feud) than last year. Best of all, the show gave Kim a bigger piece of the spotlight, including season highlight "Rebecca."
7. Westworld (season 1) As I previously wrote, this was a very serious show about BIG IDEAS involving consciousness, violence, the ouroboros of human existence and storytelling in the age of the internet. It also was a very fun "puzzle" show that was sometimes confusing and sometimes incoherent. At the end of the day, I was actively excited to watch it every week, and I'm even more excited to see where it goes in season two. However, it really should have been named Robots: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things?? Let's Find Out!!
8. Stranger Things (season 1) I missed out on the hype train (and the subsequent backlash train) when the show was first released over the summer, and I am very grateful for that. Removed from the Barb mania and the Eggo waffles fandom and the endless, tiring thinkpieces, this was just a very enjoyable sci-fi throwback that went down really easy. Sure it was derivative at times, but it leaned into its Spielbergian qualities in a lot of good ways. Though I'm still not sure whether Winona Ryder was completely over the top in a good or bad way.
9. Mr. Robot (season 2) It is hard making Important TV Shows, and Sam Esmail and the team behind Mr. Robot learned that with season two of their hit USA show. This season was much more ambitious and much more frustrating than the first (especially the fact they isolated Elliot from the rest of the cast—and the audience—for the first eight or nine episodes), but when it was good (as with the experimental "Master-Slave" or Elliot-free "Successor"), it was still one of the best on TV. I don't really understand what happened with Angela in the two-part season finale, but her character growth over season two was one of the highlights.
10. Luke Cage (season 1) The best Marvel TV show of the year had the best soundtrack/musical cues of any show this year; it played with Blaxsploitation tropes in fascinating and fun ways; it had a star-making performance by the understated Mike Colter; it had one of the steamiest sex scenes I've seen in a TV show in the pilot; and it had two great villains in Cottonmouth and Mariah Dillard (unfortunately, the third villain, Diamondback, was a bust).
And the COMEDIES that cracked me up every week:
1. Atlanta (season 1) Although there were plenty of surreal touches (the Migos drug deal, Black Justin Bieber, and the invisible car all come to mind), the show that was billed as “Twin Peaks with rappers” turned out to be more "Louie with rappers." This was the most formally daring and exciting show of the year, jumping from concept to concept while retaining a curiosity and humanity that is a wonder. The show can address police brutality, mental illness, and transphobia ("Streets On Lock"), then turnover an episode to the wonderful female lead Van ("Value"), then do an entire episode (including fake commercials) around a fictional talk show ("B.A.N.") or set in a club ("The Club"), and any or all of them could be your favorite episode of the year. The mix of the profound (the lived-in details about living just north of the broke equator) and the silly (that invisible car payoff, Zan!), made this the best comedy of 2016.
2. Veep (season 5) After creator Armando Iannucci left following the fourth season finale of the filthiest show on TV, I thought there was no way this year would live up to previous ones. But it may have been the best season yet, and certainly was made me laugh out loud more than any other comedy. Few things are better than the rise of Congressman Jonah Ryan, Hugh Laurie was perfect as President Meyer's veep, and this season included two series highlights, "Mother" and "Kissing Your Sister."
3. High Maintenance (season 1 or 7, depending on how you look at it) HM made the leap to HBO with flying colors, offering a wide-ranging portrait of NYC as if you set up a camera in your own cramped apartment then passed it to your neighbor. As I wrote back in September, the show is able to capture the absurd magnetism that keeps us all tethered to the NYC grind without whitewashing the mundane struggles, the exuberant hustles, and the narcissistic shittiness that comes hand-in-hand with everyday life here. It also included one of the best episodes of 2016 with "Grandpa," that not only shows the city from the perspective of a dog, but actually considers the dog's inner life as seriously as any other human character.
4. BoJack Horseman (season 3) If you thought BoJack was nihilistic and depressing in season two, then HOO BOY were you in for a treat with the extended bender that was season three. The season climaxed with the devastating "That's Too Much, Man!" in which a drug-fueled blackout binge ends in blunt tragedy. Along the way, there was a lot of excellent detours, including flashbacks to the heady days of 2007, a visit to the Labrador Peninsula, Diane's matter-of-fact abortion episode, and arguably its best episode ever, the mostly-silent "Fish Out of Water."
5. Catastrophe (season 2) Season one was my favorite new comedy of last year, showing us the manic, brief courtship between the main couple after a one-week-stand turns into a pregnancy. Season two made the bold decision to jump ahead several years (and more babies) in time to get to the meat of what the show's concerned with: how do adult relationships and priorities evolve over time? Can you keep the romance alive? And when does a Parisian massage go too far?
6. Fleabag (season 1) We never learn the name of the titular character, played by the show's brilliant writer/creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, throughout these six episodes. But thanks to the constant fourth wall breaks, we learn a whole lot about her obsession with sex, her misery over the death of her best friend, her struggles with her family and keeping her guinea pig-themed cafe open, and the overwhelming loneliness and guilt that is eating away at her. Things that could have been annoying—especially those constant asides to the camera—turn out to be the show's conduit for the most memorable jokes ("Do I have a massive arsehole?" really is one of the best punchlines of the year).
7. Girls (season 5) Girls got its mojo back in the penultimate season, getting back to what it does best: tell mostly-contained short stories about damaged but sympathetic characters. It's a credit to how far everything has come that Marnie, the worst character of the titular girls, took the spotlight in the best episode of the season ("The Panic In Central Park"). "Hello Kitty," "Love Stories," and "I Love You Baby" were also fantastic episodes that showcased the show's romanticism and unique voice.
8. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (season 2) The spiritual heir to 30 Rock got even better in its sophomore season, tossing aside the weaker elements of the first season (the kids) and cramming in tons of NYC jokes along with a whole subplot about gentrification. Tina Fey also stopped by to play Kimmy's alcoholic therapist in the superior second half of the season, and few things made me laugh as hard as Kimmy's animated "happy place."
9. You're The Worst (season 3) After embracing a clinical depression storyline last season, this anti-romcom tackled bereavement and PTSD this season, with the Edgar-centric episode "Twenty-Two" a big highlight. The show risked making Gretchen and Jimmy almost too repulsive in the early episodes, but they were able to bring it all back together for the spectacular last two episodes...which of course ended with a heartbreaking cliffhanger.
10. Silicon Valley (season 3) There were so many fantastic comedies this year, it was very hard choosing the final spot here (at different points of making this list, I had Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Last Man On Earth, Difficult People and South Park in this slot). But in its third season, Silicon Valley seemed to be even better, finding new hilarious and ridiculous ways of snatching victory away from the Pied Piper guys (without it getting annoying). There was also more Big Head, which is always a good thing, and it had a pretty classic and memorable horse joke.
What did you love to watch this year?