In an attempt to avoid the cliched “we’re living in a golden age of television” line, let’s just say that 2016 was another brilliant year for TV.
Returning shows like Game of Thrones and The Americans managed to shock us even when we thought there was no way they still could. BoJack Horseman once again reminded us that even though an animated show about a talking horse in Hollywood seems ludicrous, it can still deliver a deep emotional impact. Shows that have been on the air for years, like Halt and Catch Fire, Veep and Black Mirror, had some of their best seasons to date. Needless to say, it was a good year to be a fan.
But it wasn’t just shows we were familiar with that captivated us. Donald Glover’s Atlanta, a series about trying to make it in the competitive world of hip-hop in the titular city, used its dark humor to address important topics like racism and poverty. The People v. O.J. Simpson was an exhilarating re-telling of the O.J. Simpson trial, and even though we knew the outcome, it kept us engrossed for 10 weeks. Better Things took the mundane day-to-day issues that face a single mother raising three children and addressed them with such honest and hilariously bleak humor that the show quickly found its way into our hearts.
There’s no question that 2016 was a great year for television, and three of Polygon’s biggest TV watchers sat down to write about the 10 shows that resonated with them most.
Allegra Frank, Senior Reporter
[Note: This list is in order from 1 to 10.]
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX): What could have easily been a dramatic retelling of the most electrifying reality show in history was instead the greatest series of the year. It’s even one of the best shows that’s aired in the last five years. The People v. O.J. Simpson was an intimate character study of some unforgettable people, a show that was somehow funny and heartbreaking — just like the chilling court case it was based on. Sarah Paulson deserves every award possible for her version of Marcia Clark, easily TV’s most sympathetic hero this year.
BoJack Horseman (Netflix): BoJack was more daring in its third season. With the audience going in fully aware of how dark this animated “comedy” can get, its creators were able to dive to the lowest depths early and often. (In one case, and the season's most critically acclaimed episode, that dive is literal, a send-up of old Merrie Melodies cartoons.) BoJack is more than just a show about sad people for sad people, however; it's a study of what it takes for people to actually make changes, after hitting rock bottom again and again. That's what makes this cartoon so challenging, affecting and impossible not to love. Not to mention that the goofs are the darn goofiest.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW): This is the funniest, happiest show about depression on TV. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is much more than just a show about depression, of course; it's also a musical, a romantic drama, a comedy about the power of female friendships and a million other things. Everything that it tries to be, it's somehow great at. That's a really impressive feat. More impressive: No two episodes are similar, and every episode is great.
High Maintenance (HBO): High Maintenance is not, contrary to the pun in its name and basic premise, a stoner comedy. Yes, it’s an HBO comedy about a pot dealer, but it's also a series of vignettes about the diverse plethora of people who make New York City their home. That’s endearing on a personal level — I’m a big fan of NYC — but it’s also an achievement in storytelling. The husband-and-wife duo behind High Maintenance have woven an intricate web of characters and lives, all of them beautiful, all of them witty, all of them poignant. Watching High Maintenance is like watching six half-hour mini-movies.
Better Call Saul (AMC): Better Call Saul shares a lot in common with its big brother, Breaking Bad, and their similarities continue to surprise me. There are no shootouts, but there are still high stakes. Jimmy McGill’s troubles are just of the more relatable small-town type than the grandiose illegal kind Walter White got caught up in. Jimmy’s relationships with his conniving brother Chuck and worried best friend Kim became more vexing this season. Plus, any more time to spend with an alive-and-well Mike Ehrmantraut is a win in my book.
Baskets (FX): A comedy about a narcissistic, classically trained clown trying to stick it out in their small hometown? Yeah, it shouldn’t really work ... but it does. And it’s wonderful. It’s also mighty strange, but with Zach Galifianakis at the wheel, that’s to be expected. Less par for the course is how beautiful and heartfelt Baskets can be. Its first season goes to a lot of places, but it always comes back home to Louie Anderson, who plays a woman in a performance that could be totally, totally offensive in the wrong person’s hands. Baskets is a surreal show, but it’s a touching one because of Anderson’s work — even in spite of its self-absorbed, if hilarious, lead.
Better Things (FX): It's easy to describe Better Things as a female-led version of Louie. That’s unfair. It’s less dreamlike than Louie’s modern classic dramedy; it’s a much more traditional comedy. But that’s all relative, of course. Better Things doesn’t push the same boundaries as Louis CK’s series, but his frequent creative partner Pamela Adlon’s show is a rare, honest look at single parenthood. It’s funny in ways that will have you nodding with recognition, which makes for some of the best humor.
Atlanta (FX): Atlanta has sparked a lot of conversation this fall, and I’m not sure that I have anything new to add here. I’ll just say this: The episode where Paper Boi is on a straitlaced, wacky public access show was one of the most shocking and hilarious I saw all year. What made me a true fan of Atlanta was that the show followed this installment up with one that mostly featured its two main female leads for an introspective half-hour. Atlanta could be and do anything, and it was, and it did. That’s why I’m still thinking about it.
The Girlfriend Experience (Starz): I watched much of The Girlfriend Experience through my fingers. It’s not a horror show in the strictest sense, but it’s as tense as Breaking Bad or The Sopranos. Replace sleazy Walter White and Tony Soprano with a steely-eyed, budding female attorney, and you have an entrancing season of television. The Girlfriend Experience builds up to an ending that is totally surprising and frightening, but it doesn’t feel like it comes out of left field. Every beat of this show is unexpected. Every beat of this show is good.
Lady Dynamite (Netflix): I'm big into surprises, so here’s one more. Lady Dynamite popped up on Netflix as a comedy for Arrested Development and Wet Hot American Summer fans. I am both, but those shows did not prepare me for how freaking weird Lady Dynamite is. I cannot begin to explain this absurd comedy, which follows Maria Bamford’s semi-autobiographical adventures pre- and post-rehab. I will say this, though: This show shuttles across multiple timelines, myriad aesthetics, heavy topics like mental illness and failed relationships, and various mood states. Lady Dynamite makes all of that look easy to do. It’s a dense show, but it’s worth wading through.
Samit Sarkar, Senior Reporter
[Note: This list is in order from 10 to 1.]
Fleabag (Amazon): You could be forgiven for skipping this show based on its seemingly overdone premise: a comedy about a 20-something woman living in London who struggles with her career and her love life. But in Fleabag’s six-episode debut season, creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge establishes herself as a unique tragicomic voice. You fall in love with her titular character as she breaks the fourth wall with her raunchy inner monologue. And then you cry with her as you come to understand where her pain comes from — both the things she’s done and the things that have happened to her.
Better Call Saul (AMC): If Breaking Bad was a show about chemistry — the science of change, and in that case, the explosive transformation of “Mr. Chips into Scarface” — then its prequel series is a show about the physical property of inertia. As much as Jimmy McGill wants to prove his brother Chuck wrong, he can’t escape his Slippin’ Jimmy days. When Kim considers setting up a law firm with him, on one condition, he can’t meet it because he can’t promise to play it “straight and narrow.” Both Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn have been revelations on Better Call Saul, which no longer needs to be measured against its predecessor — it’s its own wonderful thing.
BoJack Horseman (Netflix): Yes, everyone was talking about the beautiful silent film that was this season’s fourth episode, and rightfully so. It’s always great to see an animated series try new stylistic directions and experiment within this limitless format. But the best thing about BoJack Horseman — in addition to hilarious sight gags like everything in the 2007 flashback episode — continues to be that it treats all of its characters, person or animal, like human beings with histories and emotions and existential angst. If only all of us could have Candice Bergen as a therapist-slash-newspaper-subscription-retention-agent.
Girls (HBO): Yes, I’m as surprised as you are. Girls had seemed to be puttering along until it would eventually peter out, but in its fifth season, the show turned a corner by letting its titular foursome grow up and grow apart — one of the sad inevitabilities of life in your late 20s. Lena Dunham’s Hannah continued to make plenty of Very Poor Decisions, like a certain sex act in a coffee truck, but we also saw sparks of unselfishness and generosity of spirit bubble up amid her lingering immaturity. And that kind of character development wouldn’t be quite as meaningful without the years of history that preceded it.
Game of Thrones (HBO): The terrific sixth season of Game of Thrones felt like a satisfying release of all the negative energy that the show had built up over time, especially in season five, which was the show’s worst year to date. It seems clear that the showrunners were freed by not having to stick to the books anymore. Without that constraint, they gave us intense sequences like nothing we’d ever seen on the show before and emotional character moments that filled our hearts and tore them apart — all while moving the story toward the beginning of its end.
Veep (HBO): The best comedy on television pulled off a rare and impressive feat this year. Series creator Armando Iannucci departed and was replaced by David Mandel, a change that could’ve been particularly threatening for a series with as specific a tone and writing style as Veep. Instead, the show had its best season yet, with its stellar cast delivering ever more vulgar, ridiculous and hilarious lines. I’m still laughing at Richard Splett’s ranking of Robert de Niro movies. And considering the way that real-life politics devolved into absurdity in 2016, perhaps the episode presented as a Catherine Meyer documentary will be a more appropriate setup for the next season.
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC): The showrunners of Halt and Catch Fire transplanted our heroes from Dallas to San Francisco for its third season, but it wasn’t like the characters left their baggage behind in Texas. Instead they’re weighed down by the pressure-cooker environment of late-’80s Silicon Valley — racing against bigger competitors, deciding when to make major business moves — and by the history between them. Mutiny’s most consequential board meeting was one of the most unforgettable scenes in all of TV this year, with Mackenzie Davis illustrating the shock and pain of feeling betrayed by her own company. I’m so glad we’ll get one more season of the show as it moves into the early days of the World Wide Web.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX): I was only about 7 and a half when O.J. Simpson (allegedly) murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in June 1994, so my memories of the situation are vague. That was just one of the reasons I found Ryan Murphy’s retelling of the Trial of the Century so compelling. It functioned well enough as a mostly factual account, giving airtime to finer points like a potential conflict of interest for Judge Lance Ito. But the performances and writing turned the miniseries into a weekly must-watch, faithfully bringing to life people who had already become characters two decades ago in the eyes of Americans. And like many other shows in 2016, The People v. O.J. Simpson sparked discussion of issues that are just as relevant today as they were back then: race relations, the nature of celebrity, fairness in the justice system, police brutality, domestic violence and more.
Atlanta (FX): An unbelievably impressive debut, Atlanta was remarkable in many ways, but above all else for displaying such an incredible confidence in its vision. Every episode, no matter how loosely connected to a semblance of overarching narrative, felt like it emerged fully formed from the mind of Donald Glover and his cohorts — including his brother Stephen Glover, who wrote multiple episodes, and director Hiro Murai. I’m not sure there was anything more self-assured on TV this year than “B.A.N.,” the seventh episode of Atlanta, in which rapper Paper Boi appears on a talk show on the Black American Network. Along with shows like Fleabag, Atlanta demonstrates that the most interesting stuff on TV is coming in the half-hour format.
The Americans (FX): The best show on television has a long way to go before it reaches the 1990s and the end of the Cold War, but it seems increasingly unlikely that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the two deep-cover Soviet agents at the center of The Americans, will make it to that point. This year, the show’s fourth season included a time jump in which their KGB handlers put them on a forced hiatus because of how badly the Jennings’ spy work was being affected by the severe stress of the gig. We also saw a number of beloved characters disappear and/or have their lives wrecked, and as always, everything stemmed from the actions of our antiheroes.
Julia Alexander, Entertainment Reporter
[Note: This list is unordered.]
Atlanta (FX): Atlanta introduced a new side of Donald Glover to those who may only know him as Troy from Community or by his rap alter ego, Childish Gambino. The show follows Glover’s Earn as he tries to juggle his directionless life while helping his cousin, Paper Boi, a rising hip-hop star in the Atlanta community, find mainstream success. Atlanta succeeds in large part because of its dark humor, addressing issues like imprisonment with a sardonic bite that both enlightens and educates. It’s a powerful debut, and shows off a different side of Glover that we rarely get to see.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX): When it came to drama on television this year, no series did it better than The People v. O.J. Simpson. The show, which starred Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, managed to create a sense of urgency and anxiety in every episode, despite us knowing how it was going to end. It also featured some of the best performances of the year, with a special nod to Sarah Paulson and her portrayal of lead prosecutor Marcia Clark. Showrunner Ryan Murphy and his team of writers found a way to retell the infamous story surrounding the trial in a way that felt dramatic without ever sacrificing empathy for sensationalism.
BoJack Horseman (Netflix): There are few shows that stay with me for months after I watch them, beyond certain jokes or quotes, but BoJack Horseman’s third season became the most important series in my life this year. BoJack has a way of framing depression, loneliness and consequences that other shows lack. It’s not motivational or uplifting; it may actually be the saddest show on television right now, and that’s what I love about it. It doesn’t try to dress up, make light of or hide how devastating depression can feel, but it’s also not hopeless. BoJack’s friends, like Todd and Diane, are there for him, even when he’s at his worst, but that doesn’t mean the narcissistic character isn’t aware of his actions.
In one episode, BoJack is talking to a confused bride-to-be and says, “One day, you’ll wake up and realize that everyone loves you but nobody likes you. And that’s the loneliest feeling in the world.” It’s lines like that one that stick with you and remind you just how eye-opening the show can be.
Crazyhead (Netflix): I happened to stumble upon Crazyhead one night while dealing with a bout of insomnia and — sleep deprivation aside — it was one of the best things that could have happened. Crazyhead is so charmingly odd and features an endearing cast of misfits, it’s nearly impossible not to fall head over heels for it. The show, which feels like a toss-up between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Misfits, follows a couple of demon slayers in England. As on the two aforementioned shows, only they can see the demons. Everyone else around them thinks they’re suffering from mental illness, hallucinating horrifying creatures. Although sci-fi in premise, the show is more comedic than anything else. It’s all just so wonderfully bizarre.
Stranger Things (Netflix): Stranger Things is weird. From the first episode to the last, everything about it is odd, but it also contains some sensational storytelling. Creators Ross and Matt Duffer know how to build up mystery, teasing you with every new detail but pulling back at just the right moment. It was nearly impossible to stop watching once the first episode got rolling, and because of their sharp writing, it kept you on edge until the credits rolled on the last. Not to mention Stranger Things saw a brilliant performance from Winona Ryder, one of my favorite actresses who is usually so underused.
Black-ish (ABC): I’ve said time and time again that Black-ish is my favorite show. It has been since it first started in 2014, but this season has been the series’ shining moment. From episodes about police brutality to remembering your roots, Black-ish never apologizes for entering territory that might be uncomfortable for ABC viewers. It never strays away from a controversial topic just because it might not jell well with some and, it’s because of that dedication to kickstarting important conversations through comedy that it’s as successful and brilliant as it is.
Black Mirror (Netflix): As someone who grew up with cyberpunk sci-fi that used technology in dystopian worlds as a reason for why everything had gone awry, I’ve always been fascinated with stories about tech leading to society’s downfall. Black Mirror, as it has done before, managed to hit the nail on the head with its third season, looking at topics like social media obsession and video games. The show navigated between different motifs, using romantic comedy situations or ’80s horror settings to tell different tales. Black Mirror also has the singular ability to disturb me enough into not being able to watch an episode in a single setting. Creator Charlie Brooker and his team are very good at what they do, and this season reiterated that point.
Insecure (HBO): Shows about young women in their 20s and 30s are a dime a dozen at this point and, despite Samit’s adoration for the most recent season of Girls, I’ve found myself bored with the same stories being played out. Insecure follows two women in their 20s, dealing with stressful jobs, single life and complicated relationships, but doesn’t fall into the same patterns. Insecure feels raw, and above all else, relatable. It’s not as outlandishly funny as Broad City, nor is it as petty and self-involved as Girls, but there are moments in each episode that hit home hard. The chemistry between on-screen best friends Issa (Issa Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji) is palpable and incredibly inviting, making you root for each of them.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO): 2016 proved to be a year that needed John Oliver more than anyone else. Oliver doesn’t have time for bullshit — whether that’s the Olympics, FIFA or, most importantly, the recent American election. Oliver said what we were all thinking but better, never stopping to censor himself. When times got tough, Oliver got louder, using his 30-minute comedy show to address major concerns brought on by the idea of a Trump administration, pointing out the ridiculousness surrounding the campaign. Most importantly, John Oliver was your guy. He was there for you, preached for you and got angry on behalf of you. His weekly show became the comic relief we needed in one of the most tense years that I can remember, and I’ll always be thankful to him for that.
Veep (HBO): Veep worked for so long because it felt like a situation that we could never really be in. And then the election happened. Now, so much of what happened on Veep feels like a strange reality show that we can’t escape from, but because of that, the comedy feels better than ever. The jokes land a little harder, the characters become slightly goofier and everything just seems more centered. With Veep being in its later stage, too, we know these characters. We know what makes them tick, what they thrive off of and, because of that, we feel at home with them. Veep is one of the few shows that I can just throw on and let play, episode after episode. It’s comfort TV, but it never loses its charm or wit. It’s still everything we want Veep to be.