Before we get this show on the road, let me do the standard preface that comes with any set of rankings. I’m one man and I can’t see everything. I have more blind spots here than I probably should, but oh well. This is all down to my tastes and nothing is “missing.” Cool, we good?
Let’s go. This was a more splintered year in TV than most, but there were still plenty of great gems that were worth hyper-focusing on. This was also a year of progress, where the best shows started to move away from the Golden Age prestige drama format and branch out in their protagonists, their genres, and in the way they dealt with their complex issues.
Best TV Shows:
8) Documentary Now!, Season 2
One of the signatures of the Wiig/Hader/Armisen SNL era was a tendency to do sketches that largely seemed oriented towards what made the performers laugh, in the hopes that the audience would go along. While often a shaky foundation, this approach would yield results that spoke to the passion and commitment that these performers had for their material.
Documentary Now! is that on the whole, applying the passion that Fred Armisen and Bill Hader (along with executive producer Seth Meyers) has for performance and for these documentary stories. It’s an insanely impressively committed series in how closely it replicates and builds on the jokes through performance and its own wry wit, often turning the original documentary into making a new point through the episode. Like episode “Juan Loves Rice and Chicken” that takes the passion for cooking from the original Jiro Dreams of Sushi and adds its own thoughts on legacy and family. It’s one of the most impressive and dedicated bits of comedy play on television, well worth it for people who know the originals and those who don’t.
7) Westworld, Season 1
I will confess how often I got annoyed by the conversation surrounding the first season of Westworld, HBO’s successful attempt to find a show to slot into the impending Game of Thrones void. It often seemed like we attempted to make this either a puzzle box to be solved or a grand treatise of god and man, to the exemption of the other.
As I powered through the season, it became clear that the show was best experienced as both. It’s a constantly shifting mystery that’s tons of fun to take in and piece through and pull out clues. It’s also a remarkably powerful piece of thematic meditation on what it means to be human and how we relate to our minds and to the ideas of God. It’s also a wicked fun piece of television, stacked to the rafters with great actors, awesome music cues, and plenty of tense thrills all the way to the final moment of its first season.
6) Bojack Horseman, Season 3
No show has ever ramped up quite like Bojack Horseman. It started out as a half-baked Hollywood satire loaded with animal puns and quickly turned into a full-baked Hollywood satire loaded with animal puns and also some of the most realistic portrayals of self-loathing and depression and the difficulties of professional and personal relationships when you’re depressed and self-loathing.
Season 3 continued that weird mix of riotous hilarity and all-too-real drama with some of Bojack Horseman’s best material so far. It smartly expanded its world, fleshing out the phenomenal supporting cast and their backstories and inner lives, all while maintaining the focus on its surprisingly compelling lead and the emotional trauma he continues to go through.
5) Fleabag, Season 1
One of the most remarkable trends of recent years is the auteurist television show, a single voice crafting an enormously personal story told for however many seasons they get. Fleabag is one such show, marked by how raw and real the situations Phoebe Waller-Bridge puts herself (as lead character Fleabag) into and how many dark laughs she’s still able to wring out of it.
From the moment she first looks into the camera and speaks to us, Fleabag feels masterfully in control of itself (even as it depicts characters who aren’t), gliding through a wealth of difficult tonal situations and cringe moments with the utmost grace. Fleabag is a hard watch, but seeing what Waller-Bridge gets out of a broken character and a few bad situations makes it all worth it.
4) Game of Thrones, Season 6
The biggest show on TV (if we’re being real here) had a lot to deal with going into its 6th season. It would be the first without George R.R. Martin’s source material to back it up and it was coming off a 5th season full of questions and controversy that worked against the show, rather than for it.
Fortunately, the challenge was one that gave Game of Thrones a serious kick in the ass, letting them turn in what is, for my money, their best season yet. Almost every storyline, even the most famously slack of the show, was firing on all cylinders and seemed focused and ready to reach their end. This was a show that didn’t just feel like it was wandering while they figured some stuff out, but actually felt full of purpose and excitement to show you what it had in store.
Combine that with some of the best direction and action the show has ever seen and you’ve got an epic the like of which TV has never really had a chance to see before.
3) Atlanta, Season 1
Another auterist show, from the apparently infinitely talented Donald Glover, that manages to pull off the greatest trick of all.
It’s a show that is crafted by one person that’s almost never about him.
Instead, Atlanta is the story of a city and the lives of those in it. Sure, Glover is great as Earn, but the show is equally and perhaps even more powerful as it moves to episodes about his friends, his family, and the city surrounding. Atlanta is a hazy dream, capturing the feeling of a city that’s too often just dressed up to be somewhere else. Sure, I live a divorced experience from what the characters of this show have, but I recognize their place, their environment, who they are. It’s a smartly-written and impeccably directed show that creates a small universe that you want to explore every nook and cranny of. It’s specific, real, and lived-in, as clever as it is affecting.
2) American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson
Did anyone expect the return of OJ Simpson this year? The man and his story vaulted back into relevance, and its not hard to see why. Intersecting and difficult issues of race, class, fame, and power all collided in the Trial of the Century and on the precipice of our reexamination of all of them, there was OJ to remind us part of the journey that took us where we were.
From the American Horror Story team, I honestly didn’t expect what I ended up getting out of this show, though maybe it’s because Ryan Murphy took a backseat on this one to showrunners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who crafted a thriller that kept you on the seat even when you knew the ending. They opened up one of the most covered stories of the last century to examine everything inside it. It was a show smart about race and fame and how the two of them combined. It also featured some of the most jaw-dropping TV performances of the year, from actors you would absolutely expect it from (Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson) and from actors who came here to surprise (Sterling K. Brown and David Schwimmer). As a procedural, this was an absolute delight and a nail-biter, but what makes it a classic is that this is perhaps one of the smartest looks at how we got to The Way We Live Now.
1) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Seasons 1 and 2
There is no show that found a quicker way into my heart than Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. A show that is at all times aware of what it is and what it’s doing and uses that awareness to constantly subvert itself. One of the smartest shows about mental illness and its effect on others. A daring show that’s a full-blown musical starring perhaps one of the most difficult and toxic protagonists since Breaking Bad. A labor of love that feels like it doesn’t that as an excuse to not keep its plotting and pacing tight. It’s a show that sings (no pun intended) in almost every moment and every character interaction. One of the quietly best casts on TV anchors some of the quietly best writing on TV. Brilliant, hilarious, heartbreaking all often in the same episode, there’s just not much better right now than Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.