From left: John P. Johnson/HBO; Ron Batzdorff/NBC; Courtesy of Netflix
Top 10? Really? Would you consider a Top 100? The quantity and quality of TV have never been greater.
I should note how weird it is not to include such past and current faves as Game of Thrones (if only for the epic “Battle of the Bastards,” capping an uneven season), Veep and Mr. Robot, and terrific limited series like The Night Of and The Night Manager. But the following are the top shows that truly defined TV in 2016 for me. Can’t wait to see what 2017 will bring.
From left: Ron Batzdorff/NBC (2)
#1 This Is Us (NBC)
This feels like a miracle: a family drama that values emotion, warmth and humor over contrived melodrama, able to make the heart soar and break, usually at the same time. This is the sort of show critics often have to plead with viewers to watch, since it lacks a criminal, legal or medical procedural hook. A rare ray of light in an industry all too eager to go dark, This Is Us is the year’s most refreshingly unexpected and welcome instant success.
It strikes a powerful chord with an offbeat structure that tells the affecting story of the Pearsons over two timelines: Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore) raise their three kids (one adopted at birth), while the adult versions of their offspring, now in their thirties, still wrestle with skeletons and secrets of the past. Manipulative? Sure. Effective? Absolutely. Each episode should come with its own box of tissues.
From left: POO/AFP/Getty Images; Ray Mickshaw/FX
#2 The People V. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)
The media sensation that riveted the nation in 1994 and ’95 became the must-see TV event of early 2016, a spellbinding all-star docudrama taking us deep inside the polarizing murder trial, with a showstopping performance by Emmy winner Sarah Paulson as embattled prosecutor Marcia Clark.
In an uncanny confluence of timing several months later, Ezra Edelman’s absorbing, illuminating five-part O.J.: Made in America documentary provided necessary context, sociological and psychological, in its biography of O.J. Simpson’s rise to gridiron fame and sordid fall from grace. Together, they do justice to this great American tragedy.
Robert Voets/The CW
#3 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)
Call me crazy, but what would a year-end list be without at least one cult obsession? And obsession is at the core of Rachel Bloom’s fearlessly brazen and dazzlingly creative anti-rom-com, in which a woman’s delusional fantasies are magnified by a perverse playlist of musical production-number parodies, nailing every style from the Beyoncé of Lemonade to the elegant soft-shoe of Astaire and Rogers. Deserving of a standing OMG.
#4 The Americans (FX)
While a toxic bio-weapon wreaks havoc in the best-yet fourth season of this gripping Cold War spy drama, it’s the poison of deception that infects the Jennings family, as married Soviet agents Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip (Matthew Rhys) contend with a daughter (Holly Taylor) shattered by the truth of their mission, and Philip’s faux wife, Martha (the brilliant Alison Wright), is sent away to a fate possibly worse than death.
#5 Westworld (HBO)
“This place is complicated enough as it is,” a corporate overlord gripes of Westworld’s theme park, with its infinite mythological mysteries. And yet, there hasn’t been a more obsessively mesmerizing fantasy adventure since Lost’s early days. As robot “hosts” (not always distinguishable from their human creators) gain troubled consciousness—or is it just new code?—this cautionary Frankenstein fable packs a deadly existential wallop. We’ll have to wait until 2018 to see how it all turns out.
#7 Atlanta (FX)
In a remarkable year for deeply personal, offbeat slice-of-laugh comedies—Better Things, Fleabag, One Mississippi, Insecure—Donald Glover’s triumphantly original and occasionally surreal riff on race, fame and culture was a provocative standout. Glover brings a wry, barbed irony to the misadventures of a hard-luck Peter Pan trying to manage his cousin’s rap career while struggling to jump-start his own life.
#6 The Crown (Netflix)
A new British monarch takes her throne, and a star is born in Claire Foy’s luminous yet steely portrayal of the young Queen Elizabeth II, who soon learns the high personal cost of royalty in this staggeringly sumptuous production. John Lithgow is a Winston Churchill for the ages, raging against mortality as he counsels the queen to always put country above family. Our fascination continues to this day.
#8 Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (TBS)
She’s mad, and funny as hell, and with the new bee of the Trump presidency in her bonnet, the buzz over Samantha Bee’s outrageously outraged brand of political humor is only likely to grow. Other comedic commentators achieved personal bests during this historic year—Seth Meyers’s punchy “A Closer Look” segments, John Oliver’s florid rants—but there’s a special thrill in watching Bee break away from the boys’ club with ferociously feminist zeal.
#9 Stranger Things (Netflix)
Making up in exuberantly nostalgic adventure what it may lack in originality, the Duffer Brothers’ exhilarating homage to classic 1980s Spielberg and Stephen King was an authentic summer blockbuster, evoking the wonder of childhood in the exploits of three devoted best buds—and a supernaturally gifted girl known as Eleven—who confront a monster to save their friend. What a wonderfully strange thing for horror to be such uplifting fun.
#10 black-ish (ABC)
This accolade extends to ABC’s entire neighborhood of admirably diverse modern family comedies, each with a distinctly irreverent and topical point of view, whether the subject is racial and cultural identity (black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat), sexual orientation (The Real O’Neals) or exceptionally challenged children (Speechless). Now in its third year, Kenya Barris’s biting satire of upwardly mobile assimilation continues to score, tackling subjects like police violence, religion and job insecurity with wit, heart and style.