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Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

There were way too many reasons to stay home this year

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If you stayed indoors a lot this year, odds are you were thoroughly entertained. Whether you chilled with Netflix or cleaned up the DVR, there was always something worth watching, and that was one of the few reassuring notions of 2016. There’s a reason for this: Hollywood is hipper than ever to at-home demands, which means more filmmakers, stars, writers, and producers are abandoning feature filmmaking for episodic television. Who can blame them? It’s a bigger sandbox.

Fortunately, the wasteland of network television has paved the way for cable and streaming platforms to start building empires — and they have. From HBO to AMC, Amazon to Hulu, it seems like they all have at least one must-see flagship show. But that also means there’s more content than ever. This year alone added a whole new batch of shows to the ever-expanding fold: American Crime Story, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Atlanta, Insecure, Stranger Things, et al.

Odds are they’ll all have flavorful second and third and fourth seasons, which means we’re really just adding lanes in our non-stop, year-long couch-a-thons. Eventually, we’ll never leave the television; the television will become us. Considering how much of it we watch on our phones — you know, basically our own digital appendage — that might have already happened. Alas, here are 25 of our favorite shows that we gave so much of our own lives to throughout this crappy, crappy year.

Agree, disagree, join us.

–Michael Roffman
Editor-in-Chief

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25. RuPaul’s Drag Race

ru paul Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 8; All Stars, 2.

Network: LOGO

Most Valuable Player (MVP): As this is the sole reality program on our list, let’s cut Drag Race a break and divide this award into two categories: judge and contestant. For the latter, the clear standout is Katya Zamolodchikova, a season seven competitor (and eventual Miss Congeniality) who came back to absolutely dominate the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars. Did she win the crown? No, and it doesn’t matter. In and out of drag, this queen is the funniest bitch on television.

As for the other? As my friend Neal likes to say every time RuPaul Charles walks the runway, “G.O.A.T.” As the Heidi Klum, Tim Gunn, and Tyra Banks of Drag Race, Mama Ru is irresistible. His one-liners are no small part of what makes this the most subversive show on the air, but Charles is also largely responsible for the show’s massive … heart. And now he’s got an Emmy to back that up.

Strongest Episode: While season eight had its fair share of terrific entries — episode eight, “RuPaul’s Book Ball,” is particularly strong — 2016 was all about All Stars 2. Nearly every episode was a gem, but “Revenge of the Queens” raced forward from a moment so thrilling and fun it actually lives up to the frequent Drag Race epithet “the face-crack of the century.” As Phi Phi O’Hara let loose a volley of petty jibes about eliminated contestants, something not dissimilar to the Jaws theme crept in. The whole world cried, “girl, SHUT UP,” and with that, a dressing-room mirror suddenly became a window behind which all those eliminated contestants were standing. It was the kind of moment reality television is supposed to be about, but rarely is, and it set up one of the series’ strongest outings to date, culminating in a thrilling lip-sync and a truly satisfying elimination. Praise Rihanna, this was a good one.

Analysis: Reality television is a tricky thing. It can be addictive but also sort of poisonous, a guilty pleasure that’s often long on the guilt and short on the other thing. On the other hand, some of the best reality television shows can’t rival the water-cooler, pass-the-popcorn moments of their more tawdry brethren. And then there’s RuPaul’s Drag Race. LOGO’s flagship series satirizes the genre in which it excels, week in and week out. It’s always, always in on the joke, with largely quick-witted contestants who know the games they’re playing, both in the competition and for the camera. It’s gleefully subversive, creating seemingly innocuous mini-challenges that involve lip-syncing through glory holes or mini-golfing with low-hanging ball sacs. And then there’s that format, in which contestants tackle one task or another before stomping down the runway and, if they’re particularly unlucky, having to lip sync for their lives.

If that was all RuPaul’s Drag Race was, it would still be a national goddamn treasure. But while it’s busy doing all that fun, GIF-able stuff, it’s also quietly telling stories we don’t often get to see on screen. These people transform themselves with paint and glue, all while revealing things about the lives they’ve led. Homophobic families, the high suicide rate among young LGBTQ people, struggles with drug addiction, shame, fear, pride, and love — these are all regular topics. Yes, this is a show where Roxxy Andrews ripped off her wig to reveal another wig, but it’s also a show where two contestants have come out as transgender on camera, where a young man joyfully urged the world to celebrate life before revealing he’s HIV-positive, and where queens who’ve been fighting the good fight for decades get the chance to offer wisdom and warmth to kids from small towns who are terrified of being seen. Oh, this is a pleasure, all right, but not for one second is it guilty.

–Allison Shoemaker

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24. Ash Vs. Evil Dead

Ash vs Evil Dead Season 2 2016

Season: 2

Network: Starz

MVP: It’s impossible to ignore the physical comedy and vintage wit of Bruce Campbell, but there’s also no denying the up-and-coming presence of co-star Dana DeLorenzo. As the machine gun-toting and eternally swearing Kelly Maxwell, DeLorenzo gives Campbell a run for his boomstick, and this season she became the heroine the franchise deserves.

Strongest Episode: “Trapped Inside” resurrects Ash’s sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), aka the Deadite who started it all, and the siblings’ highly anticipated rematch is nostalgia at its finest. The two go toe to toe in their childhood home, trading venomous barbs as the Romeo Void’s new wave hit “Never Say Never” blasts nearby. It’s very cool horror.

Analysis: Ash Vs. Evil Dead came back harder, faster, and funnier in its second season. Bringing Ash and the Ghost Beaters back to his Michigan hometown was a smart move by former showrunner Craig DiGregorio, a creative decision that allowed the narrative to breathe in a more central location, especially following last season’s road trippin’ adventures. What could have been a disaster — expanding Ash’s backstory and the Evil Dead mythology — wound up being a saving grace for the series, evolving not only our titular hero but his sidekicks in Pablo, Kelly, and Ruby.

While Joel Tobeck’s big baddie Baal was a major letdown, DiGregorio and his team kept things refreshing by twisting genre conventions each episode, tossing our heroes into haunted hospitals, demolition derbies, icky morgues, and much, much more. Once again, the show’s soundtrack proved to be one of the best on television, ranging from iconic (Journey, Cutting Crew) to weird (Napoleon XIV, Roy Rogers) to downright ridiculous (Limp Bizkit). It’s just a shame the whole thing ended in a behind-the-scenes shakeup with DiGregorio exiting stage left. Sigh, here’s hoping it’ll lead to a groovy third season.

–Michael Roffman

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23. Insecure

 Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 1

Network: HBO

MVP: Like another female-fronted comedy a bit higher on this list, Insecure’s MVP is also a co-creator (the other is Larry Wilmore — R.I.P, The Nightly Show), and as with that other entry, that would be the case even if she weren’t running the show. Issa Rae proved she was a comedic powerhouse with her web series The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl. With Insecure, she doubles down, also finding plenty of opportunities to display some compelling dramatic chops. She’s great when she’s pouring her heart out. She’s great when she’s shutting someone down — co-workers, her boyfriend (Jay Ellis), her best friend (Yvonne Orji), anyone really — and she’s great when she’s holding a mic, strolling through “Broken Pussy”. Insecure’s inaugural season wasn’t a perfect one, but Rae was never anything but terrific.

Strongest Episode: That’d be the season finale, “Broken as Fuck”. An entry that’s easy on the lightheartedness that made the opening episodes such a delight, episode writer Rae makes up for it by dealing with two broken relationships in devastating fashion. It also underlines the single most important connection the show has: the friendship between Molly (Orji) and Issa, which though filled with complications is even more filled with love and fierce loyalty. Their 2 a.m. drive near the episode’s end is one of the season’s strongest scenes, a well-acted beauty that’s biting and tender and just about perfect. In a largely heartbreaking finale, it’s this one moment of sweetness that hits hardest.

Analysis: God, what a breath of fresh air. We’re mercifully living in a time where there’s no shortage of terrific shows fronted, if not run, by women, including a few that rival Insecure in terms of thoughtfulness (again, see later on this list). Still, rarely has a show felt so familiar and so simultaneously new; the awkwardness of leaving your 20s and realizing you haven’t got shit figured out has been done, but never quite in this way, and rarely with such a strong perspective. Issa doesn’t simply have to contend with the strangeness and occasional miseries of being alive while not being super great at it. She also has to contend with being a black woman, right down to the perpetual faux-wokeness of her co-workers and all their secret white people meetings and white people texts. Is it any wonder she’s got so many, ahem, insecurities?

To mistake Insecure as HBO’s attempt at inclusivity would do both the show and yourself a major disservice, however. This is the kind of thoughtful, character-driven work that the network does best (when it’s not flying around on dragons, anyway), a fully-rounded portrait of a complex woman who’s far from perfect but nearly always endearing. Rae’s surrounded by terrific performers, Orji in particular, and as a frank look at friendship, sex, love, and trying desperately to be a goddamn grownup, Insecure can’t be beat. If you want to support female artists of color, watch it. If all you want is good television, the advice remains exactly the same.

–Allison Shoemaker

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22. Red Oaks

red oaks 2 Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 2

Network: Amazon

MVP: This ensemble dramedy thrives from a number of unexpected performances, and this season found each character confronted with deeper and more compromising conflicts, especially Paul Reiser’s lovable dickhead Doug Getty. The win, however, goes to Richard Kind, who continues to be The World’s Lamest Dad, oozing with tragic pathos and charming nuance. His drunken karaoke performance of “Rhinestone Cowboy” in season highlight “The Bris” single-handedly wins him the title.

Strongest Episode: “Paris” comes close, if only for its fish-out-of-water storyline between David (Craig Roberts) and Skye (Alexandra Socha), but that choice isn’t exactly fair to the rest of the cast. No, the best true-to-form episode is “Independence Day”, the spiritual sequel to last season’s “Fourth of July” that not only finds everyone going through the motions but introduces John Hodgman’s sympathetic video production manager, Travis. The guy worships Shivers for Christ’s sake; he rules.

Analysis: More people need to be watching Red Oaks. It’s a crime this show isn’t trending, and that could arguably be due to Amazon’s lack of marketing. Executive producers Steven Soderbergh and David Gordon Green have something incredibly special on their hands: an exercise in ’80s nostalgia that feels less like a parody and more like a lived-in medium for ultra-rich characters. Veteran icons like Reiser, Kind, Jennifer Gray, and Gina Gershon are all serving up their finest work to date alongside a promising cast of up-and-comers that includes Roberts, Socha, Oliver Cooper, and Ennis Esmer.

Even better, the show looks fantastic. In addition to Green, filmmakers Amy Heckerling, Hal Hartley, and Greg Araki return to knock out one heartwarming episode after another, treating each chapter like a short indie film. This isn’t a standard emulation of John Hughes or Cameron Crowe; no, this is a far more natural portrait of the time period, brimming with the subtle filmmaking that Green tends to trademark. It’s addicting, too, fueled by a delightful soundtrack of deep cuts and a sense of time that speaks to the verisimilitude of creators Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs. Get there.

–Michael Roffman

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21. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

crazy ex girlfriend season 2 Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 2 currently, though we got half of the first season in 2016, too.

Network: The CW

MVP: Well, it’s Rachel Bloom … but there’s a ‘but.’ Last year’s Golden Globe winner deserves every inch of the buzz she’s getting for her performance as Rebecca Bunch, and even more for her work as a showrunner. But, she’s got someone hot on her heels, and that person is definitely the current season’s MVP. Bloom’s best foil is Paula Proctor (Donna Lynne Champlin), who became something of a second lead when season two kicked off. Champlin’s grounded, emotionally rich work is easy to overlook because she’s just so damn funny, but her careful handling of Paula’s second-season arc has made her not one of the best performers on the show, but one of the best performers on television. And oh, yeah, she’s a singer who can blow the doors off the whole damn place. She blew the doors off my TV, and TVs don’t even have doors. Put plainly, this show belongs to these two women, and while the show’s writers may have separated them, I won’t. I just fucking won’t.

Strongest Episode: This is a close one. “That Text Was Not Meant for Josh!” was the first season’s standout, managing the nifty trick of being the single most affecting outing in its early run while also being the funniest. (It also includes “You Stupid Bitch”, which is exhibit one in why Bloom getting snubbed by the Emmys is absurd.) Still, this has to go to “When Will Josh and His Friend Leave Me Alone?”, an episode with no shortage of similarities to “Text”. Like its predecessor, it pushes Rebecca to a breaking point that’s both upsetting and deeply funny. Both episodes have catchy tunes that belie the really messed-up stuff going on in reality (“Textmergency” and “We Tapped That Ass”). What sets the latter episode apart is an abortion storyline, one handled simply, frankly, and utterly without drama. In a year of bullshit, it was defiantly simple, refreshingly responsible, and political by the sheer fact that politics had not one damn thing to do with it.

Analysis: Apologies to Damien Chazelle, but 2016’s best musical was a television show. Bloom and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna made something that’s tough to believe even exists, a musical that uses the trappings of romantic comedy to tell a story about mental illness in a culture that tells us to define our happiness and success by our romantic relationships. Sure, there’s some romance, too, but nearly all the people on this show have no business being in serious relationships (excluding Darryl and White Josh, of course). They bounce around, smacking into each other in ways that sometimes lead to sex but more often lead to self-discovery on a good day and some very questionable choices on a bad one. It defies everything we expect of a female-fronted television show, and that would be a great accomplishment, even if it weren’t a musical.

Of course, it’s also fucking hilarious. Somehow, a network long associated with teen-oriented fluff has given us anal sex jokes in the form of extended parking metaphors, allusions to licorice-based erotic asphyxiation, an entire song about the perils of having heavy boobs, a “Partition” send-up that includes the lyric “please don’t be a murderer,” and some of the best episode tags in the business (“I left my wife for a prostitute!”). Bloom and Brosh McKenna have one of the best writing teams around — music nerd tip, that staff includes Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, who writes much of the music with Bloom and Jack Dolgen — and together they’ve created comedic TV gold. Come for the substance and stay for the dirty jokes or vice versa. Your pick. Either way, you won’t be disappointed — though Rebecca Bunch almost certainly will be.

–Allison Shoemaker

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20. Horace and Pete

horaceandpete Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 1

Network: LouisCK.net

MVP: Great as all the acting is on the show, this award needs to be handed to Louis CK for going even deeper than his eponymous FX series ever did with this self-financed, self-released effort. His writing has never been more heartfelt, brutal, and true.

Strongest Episode: The conversation that drives the third installment of this series, with Horace’s ex-wife opening up to him about the affair she’s having with her father-in-law, is lent true gravitas and emotional intensity thanks to the peerless acting of Laurie Metcalf.

Analysis: Horace and Pete came into the world unlike any other TV show — there were no hyped-up trailers or pre-release PR blitz by the cast. Instead, creator Louis C.K. snuck it out via his mailing list, asking simply that we download it and, hopefully, enjoy it. Even more of a surprise was the tone of this 10-episode limited series. Eschewing the poignancy and out-and-out absurdity of his FX series, C.K. instead created something somber and haunted. It felt at first like we were spending time in Cheers for every other moment of the day beyond the 22 minutes cut together for broadcast.

As more episodes were released, expanding the story by going further into the often despairing personal lives of the main characters, the show got richer and more textured. C.K. was able to imbue this new project with the best elements of his other work by connecting the world of these tavern owners and their hangdog collection of regulars to more universal experiences. The people at either end of this particular bar are dealing with real problems, real agonies, and the real world. There’s nothing glamorous or sexy about it. But neither is life a lot of the time.

–Robert Ham

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19. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee

FULL FRONTAL WITH SAMANTHA BEE

Season: 1

Network: TBS

MVP: Well, I mean, Samantha Bee. With only one season out there, Full Frontal succeeded wildly because its host and main writer, Samantha Bee, was so damn good at both. She paces the stage with level-headed coolness despite a rage of revenge words bubbling inside her. She pens jokes that sucker-punch hardest at the end. Best of all, she delivers her lines with unworried snark, the type of biting one-liners and well-researched pileups built so concretely that she has nothing to be nervous about when delivering them. Then again, she’s had plenty of practice. Samantha Bee was the longest-serving regular correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, yet she was never offered the chance to replace him. People will always be left to wonder what the show would have become if she took the role, nevertheless was offered it — and though Trevor Noah is only just now finding his footing as its host and not as a teleprompter reader, Bee shows she was too good for it anyways.

Strongest Episode:
It’s hard to pinpoint the worst part of the President-elect’s disgusting run for office, but most people, political affiliation aside, point to five words that drew the line: “grab them by the pussy.” Then god gave us “Pussy Riot/GOP Fear the P”. Samantha Bee went to town mocking “pussy” word replacements, calling out the hypocrisy of Trump befriending Bill Clinton’s accusers and delivered a burn that Paul Ryan is still nursing. I played it for my parents at Thanksgiving. I played it for my friends before going out to a party. I e-mailed it to my relatives. Everyone had to see it, because the only thing better than witnessing an incredible burn is fanning its flames.

Analysis: Can this please go from being a weekly to a weeknight? Samantha Bee devours the news and spits it out with ease. What viewers need is that analysis on a more regular basis. The final thought Samantha Bee leaves us with at the end of each of her shows isn’t that the world sucks (though true) or that wit can kick that shittiness in the back of the knees (also true), but that she’s paving the way for women to break into their respective male-dominated fields. Samantha Bee became the first female host of a late-night satirical news show, and her show proves that gender has nothing to do with talent. Case and point: her final episode. She raises the bar one last time by telling Glenn Beck — yes, the baiting, racist radio host — that our future will require “a broad coalition of nonpartisan decency” by “all of us against ‘Trumpism.'” Beck, without wasting a second, replies, “I agree.” So do we.

–Nina Corcoran

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18. You’re the Worst

youre the worst Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 3

Network: FXX

MVP: While previous seasons relegated Desmin Borges’ Edgar to periphery comic relief, season three of You’re the Worst gave him the meatiest storyline, which is weird to say when describing a half-hour romantic comedy. But dealing with Edgar’s PTSD from the Iraq war was neither romantic nor comedic, playing the long-game with his struggles until the big reveal as to just how bad he was suffering.

Strongest Episode: Not to dwell here, but “Twenty-Two” was not just a high point for the show, but one of the best half-hours of television all year. Named after the amount of war veterans that commit suicide daily, the episode follows many in which Edgar has stopped taking his psychiatric medication, with seemingly little effect on his life. We see scenes play out that we’ve already experienced now from Edgar’s perspective, realizing just how bad of shape Edgar is in. Life or death consequences hang in the balance without getting preachy in an episode that’s about a brave as comedy television gets.

Analysis: While last season of You’re the Worst was the big transformation for the series, where it evolved from smart and quirky rom-com to dealing with mental health issues, season three found the show really testing its possibilities. Aside from Edgar’s PTSD, we still had Gretchen’s depression to work with. New to the equation was Gretchen going to therapy to deal with her mother’s unfair expectations and Jimmy coping with the grief, or lack there of, over his father’s death.

It all should be so much heavier than it is. And aside from one poorly conceived diversion centering around Vernon and Paul getting lost in nature, the show confronts its characters’ baggage head-on. This reaches a climax by the season finale, when Jimmy’s proposal to Gretchen goes sour by just a mention of the word “family.” Unlike other comedies that play conditions for laughs, there’s a respect that You’re the Worst has for humanity that is heartening to anyone that views themselves as, in any way, fucked up.

–Philip Cosores

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17. Game of Thrones

game of thrones Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 6

Network: HBO

MVP: Miguel Sapochnik (True Detective, Masters of Sex) wove a rich cinematic style throughout Game of Thrones’ final couple of episodes this year. His masterful direction also yielded the strongest outings of the season, with “Battle of the Bastards” even earning Sapochnik an Emmy for Outstanding Directing. His brilliant Westerosi track record — including the standout season five episode “Hardhome” — has made him a favorite among die-hard fans. And while Sapochnik’s busy work schedule prevents him from participating in season seven, the director hinted at Comic-Con that he may return during the conclusive six-episode run of season eight.

Strongest Episode: “The Winds of Winter”, Sapochnik’s final send-off before the series’ extended break, was richer than a glass of Dornish Red, containing all of the tropes we’ve come to love: the death of a king, a royal serving of vengeance, and plenty of dragonfire. It’s worth noting that this episode also shares its title with the pending sixth installment of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, which is slated for release sometime in the year 2085.

Analysis: Jon Snow rallies armies as the King in the North, Daenerys Targaryen is actually sailing West, and the cruel Cersei Lannister has resumed her wildfire reign as Queen of the Seven Kingdoms, torching The Sept of Balon the Blessed in the process. Shame! Shame! Shame! Like the calm before a winter storm, the principal characters have solidified power throughout season six. And as the larger story narrows in on its final 13-episode endgame, fans have started getting answers to long-held theories and prophecies, such as a certain hero’s true lineage setting him up to be the flame that ignites this whole messy powder keg.

Bonus: ‘Hold the Door’ translated for international broadcasts.

–Dan Pfleegor

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16. Transparent

transparent Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 3

Network: Amazon

MVP: Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura will always be the most important character on Transparent, but season three was clearly Judith Light’s time to shine. Shelly has often felt like the forgotten character on the show, to the point that when she confronts her entire family on the season ending cruise, her mistreatment is almost a revelation to the audience. This of course paves the way for her one-woman show, singing Alanis Morissette’s “One Hand in My Pocket”, and becoming the first person on the show to find a sort of peace with who they are.

Best Episode: Transparent’s evolution has allowed it to tell trans stories besides Maura’s, which is key because there are endless experiences that transpeople encounter that are wildly different from the show’s lead. That’s why “The Open Road” is such a successful episode, as it gives life a character that is a world away from Maura. Shea is young, a stripper, and wrestling with very real concerns of making money and finding love while being trans. Josh’s infatuation with her is selfish and turns hurtful when she confides in him that she has HIV. It leads to one of the most resonant lines of the year: “I’m not your fucking adventure. I’m a person.”

Analysis: Transparent’s third season felt comfortable, like the show really knows what it is, what it wants to be, and how to get there. This means that a standalone episode that dives into the Pfefferman past doesn’t even raise an eyebrow, and instances in which Maura recedes from the spotlight feels healthy within the show. Transparent has never been a show about one character; it’s a show about a family that extends to the various lives it touches, and if that means that some people need to take a backseat at times, it’s all done in the good of the narrative.

Still, season three also made it known that Transparent is more than a show telling stories. There’s certain atmosphere when watching Transparent that hits on feelings of nostalgia and beauty that makes the interactions of the characters feel so important. There’s a preciousness to the human experience that the show is certain to convey, and it lets the audience know that the loveliness of being alive extends to people across the board. This might sound like hippy bullshit, but the all-around presentation that Jill Soloway has given Transparent is a world that feels unlike any other. It’s magic, and one of the high points of the year is when it shows up on Amazon Prime.

–Philip Cosores

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15. The People vs. OJ Simpson

people vs oj Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 1

Network: FX

MVP: The first installment of American Crime Story is essentially one long showcase for great performances, but of them, Sarah Paulson’s work as the doomed head prosecutor Marcia Clark elevates everything around her, even as she’s tasked with doing virtually everything an actor can be asked to do in one performance. Whether vulnerable or humorous, longing or resolute, Paulson manages to do what the media staunchly refused to a little over 20 years ago: find the humanity in Clark.

Strongest Episode: Along that same train of thought, it has to be “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” the show’s definitive hour and probably the best hour of television in Ryan Murphy’s career to date. This is where the show’s two parallel narratives (the Simpson case and the media circus building around it) truly dovetail, as seen through Marcia Clark’s slow, crushing realization that her life no longer belongs to her. As the case begins to go off the rails and the public narratives about the case begin to invade the courtroom, the embattled Marcia strains to keep things respectable and professional. Yet from the second Judge Ito snarkily remarks on her perm, Murphy’s thesis is clear: celebrity stopped being consensual right around that time.

Analysis: You probably don’t need us to tell you that The People v. OJ Simpson is a substantial achievement for the miniseries format and one of the year’s best shows. But what’s most remarkable about it is how it uses the most controversial American event of the ‘90s to re-examine the incubation of so many of the nastier aspects of modern society. Everything from the conflation of tabloid and legitimate journalism to the rise of the Kardashians is expertly folded into the series’ true-life storytelling. It’s pop sociology as modern American history.

We’ve already talked of Paulson’s exceptional work as a woman realizing just what kind of a wasp’s nest she’s wandered into only when it’s too late, but she hardly gives the only standout performance. Courtney B. Vance’s take on Cochran is deeply unsentimental; though he’s ultimately trying to make a difference in other ways, the show hardly shies away from the innate hypocrisy of his rallying around Simpson. Sterling K. Brown’s work as Christopher Darden plays like a long, earnest walk to the gallows as his big break collides with his eventual public unraveling. And as OJ himself, if Cuba Gooding Jr. doesn’t quite cut the same imposing physical figure that Simpson once did, he ably inhabits the show’s vision of the fallen star as a man who truly thought he was too big to fail.

–Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

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14. Documentary Now

Documentary Now! - Season 2

Season: 2

Network: IFC

MVP: Season two saw Bill Hader steal the spotlight. It’s easy for Fred Armisen to get all the love, especially for his good-but-not-great impersonation of David Byrne in “Final Transmission” (despite the real Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz dubbing it “supremely funny”). But in that same episode, Hader lives in Armisen’s shadow with perfect resentment and fear. In “Globesman”, he works humor into a hat while upholding the glumness of Salesman. For “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything”, he weaves absurdity into an episode that starts off seriously similar to the doc it’s ripping off. He’s a slow-grower, but when Hader’s comedy hooks, it drags the viewer in for the long haul, where every tiny smirk, twist of the head, and intentional pause becomes comedy in itself.

Strongest Episode: The adaptation of Hollywood producer Robert Evans’ autobiography for two-hour season finale “Mr Runner Up: My Life As an Oscar Bridesmaid” rides on the immense talent of Hader. Here, he plays Jerry Wallach, a man licking every inch of the plates that Hollywood serves its money on. Hader works best when he goes big, and Evans’ enormous ego is one Hader replicates masterfully with every soulless joke and desperate grab at a wad of money. The way he puffs that cigar! That title card about Crash! The way the entire episode lingers afterwards, a telling portrayal that exceeds the expectations of a prolonged sketch! Folks, they nailed it.

Analysis: It’s an all-star trifecta of Saturday Night Live alums. Yeah, that’s a hit-or-miss setup, but for Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Seth Meyers, it means capitalizing on what they do best for a hit: impersonations, exaggerations, and overwrought details that become hilarious in the unraveling of their absurdities. Documentary Now commits to these recreations. Whether it meant using 1920s cameras to mock Nanook of the North in the first season or calling strangers to dress in ’80s garb for a live shoot mocking The Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense this season, the three elevate their humor by exaggerating the stylistic elements that helped give the content its fame. Though the show recedes from capitalizing on relevancy when given the chance (namely in “The Bunker” where they let correlations between the 2016 election and those in The War Room speak for themselves), they still use every creative juice in them to keep the spoofs bursting with humor — which, given its Hader, Armisen, and Meyers, means they won’t be running out of that creativity any time soon.

–Nina Corcoran

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13. Silicon Valley

silicon valley season 3 Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 3

Network: HBO

MVP: Not that T.J. Miller needs more attention on what’s already been a critical mass year, but good lord it’s scenes like his epic fail bong rip that make you realize what a comedy lord the guy has become. The very definition of faux elegance/wisdom/good facial hair, his Erlich Bachman continued to show incredible ego, and stupidity, in HBO’s new classic Silicon Valley. Bachman’s like if Brad Pitt’s couch stoner from True Romance stumbled on to some cash and decided to spend it in the worst and loudest ways imaginable. But yeah, the bong cough that rides out through an entire scene of serious dramatic revelation? That kind of blunt, giggle-inducing humor is why Bachman’s such a uh, hit, man. Bonus round: Be sure to watch his outtakes from Erlich’s unending ageist rant against his new boss, Jack Barker.

Strongest Episode: At its best, Silicon Valley is one of the best shows on TV because a) it is just goddamn hilarious, and b) it’s comedy programming built on top of reliably silly, funny, and likeable characters. Few episodes ran as smoothly and sensationally as “Maleant Data Systems”. Like, just when you think gee-shucks super geek Richard is about to get things going his way, and you’re rooting for him after three seasons … BAM. Bloody nose on his boss’ desk. That’s just perfect screwball timing and pity right there.

Analysis: Mike Judge’s HBO series ran a pretty terrific third season this past spring, still nailing its manically humorous highs while capitalizing on its strange cast’s ability to resonate with viewers after a few years. Screw the Geek Squad. The Pied Piper dweebs are the techno gang viewers let back into their houses week after week as they just kept failing upwards in big money boys land. Richard, Erlich, Dinesh, Gilfoyle, and “Jared” continued to be pipsqueaks as they coasted from gig to gig, trying to save their precious code and reputations, all while having to deal with things like — clears throat – tiny server space, terrible mascot design, robo-deer, really bad jackets, and of course, hardcore horse action that PETA was pissed off about in real life. It truly is a brave, stupid, new world. And Silicon Valley can’t help but keep laughing at it.

–Blake Goble

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12. 11.22.63

11.22.63

Season: Mini-series

Network: Hulu

MVP: Honestly, capturing Sadie Dunhill was always going to be the biggest challenge of this adaptation, even over finding a believable Lee Harvey Oswald. Stephen King painted one hell of an angel in the sweeping pages of his time travel novel, and it was Sarah Gadon who brought her down from heaven with a performance that swiftly erased whoever we dreamed up in our heads while flipping through the book. Much like James Franco’s Jake Epping, we never wanted to leave her.

Strongest Episode: Series finale “The Day in Question” packs the greatest punch, bringing things to a close with all the anxiety and sentimentality of King’s novel, but then there’s “The Kill Floor”. This one’s the closest approximation to a standalone episode for this series, finding Jake stalking the murderous Frank Dunning (a peak Josh Duhamel) on a wild side-mission, one that concludes bloody and chaotic. To date, not a lot of filmmakers have accurately captured King’s best-selling tension as well as Fred Toye does here.

Analysis: Originally conceived to be a feature film by Jonathan Demme, 11.22.63 eventually found a home at Hulu with executive producers J. J. Abrams, Bridget Carpenter, Bryan Burk, and King himself. Most fans agreed that this would be the best move for the novel, which was far too long to squeeze into a two- or even three-hour film, and when it finally debuted earlier this year, that notion was confirmed. From the casting to the pacing to the edits to the presentation, everything clicks with agreeable results. What’s more, it feels like an honest adaptation, teeming with palpable drama and deep references to King’s most celebrated works.

Even the necessary edits make sense. For example: Having George MacKay’s Bill Turcotte tag along with Jake on his quest was an incredibly dicey move, straying far away from the novel’s complicated narrative. Yet Carpenter navigated those murky waters with ease, embellishing Bill’s story with a dark, disturbing conclusion that felt in sync with King’s most disturbing chapters. Sure, there are some large chunks missing from the adaptation — Jake’s trip to Florida comes to mind — but in the end, the cuts are economical, imperative, and rewarding. Looking ahead, 11.22.63 set a new bar for all the King adaptations to come in the New Year.

Who wants pound cake?

–Michael Roffman

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11. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

johnoliver15_02.jpg

Season: 3

Network: HBO

MVP: John Oliver, newly minted with two Emmys. Duh. But for real, in its third year, Oliver showed no signs of waning and no softening of his blows, and in a talk show market saturated with like, you know, just fellas … Oliver is perhaps the most distinctly shrewd, witty, and lion-like of the bunch. This was not a Jon Stewart vacancy being filled. It’s Oliver, masterfully making himself relevant and must-see every week.

Strongest Episode: Episode 20, “Journalism”, features some of Oliver’s finest writing and investigation, putting a mirror on his work and the journalistic process at large. While the political joust and semi-regular roasting of 2016 as a crappy year was always warranted, Oliver showed his modernist Murrow chops with his in-depth analysis of modern news. Print, news, radio, cable, online – it’s all in a strange place right now, what with the vaunting of the “fake,” and budgets being slashed as “content” has become the newly accepted term for classics like, well, writing and writing. But Oliver’s meaningful and rigorous take on why investigation and small sources matter? Almost puts a tear to your eye. He champions the little guy, puts stuff like TRONC on blast, and makes tragic-comic gold out of something both complicated and compelling.

Analysis: Oliver rocked it again this year as Last Week Tonight continued to be a force in silly serious news. Every episode was like 60 Minutes with a pulse: deep, hearty, and hysterical reviews of current events. Brexit, charter schools, credit reporting, refugee crises, opioids, Guantanamo, police accountability, and the unending absurdity that was the election cycle this past year – all was covered and nothing skimped on. Oliver proved time and again, in fierce form, that the very fabric of everyday living, national and international, was worth looking at in detail. When the system’s built on being confusing, Oliver brought giddy CliffsNotes. His restlessness and search for disclosure and accountability made for riveting television week in and week out. But that’s the Pulitzer hyper talking there. Oliver’s legit and continues to be so. But like, never without remembering how to kill a joke and bring some levity to our mad, mad world in the process.

Like, “lice on rats on a horse-corpse on fire.”? Not a bad name for the 2016 election, Oliver.

–Blake Goble

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10. Bojack Horseman

bojack horseman Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 3

Network: Netflix

MVP: While there is a case to be made for Mr. Peanutbutter and his business exploits (spaghetti strainers for everyone!), the titular BoJack remains the broken heart of this series. Season 3 finds BoJack forced to endure the slog of an awards campaign for his role in the biopic Secretariat, exposing the chasm between the horse on the movie posters and BoJack’s own struggle to define himself.

Strongest Episode: Rightly hailed by many as one of the best episodes of television this year, “Fish Out of Water” eschews the clever dialogue that has become one of BoJack’s defining traits in favor of a wordless underwater odyssey. Required to attend a screening of Secretariat at the Pacific Ocean Film Festival, BoJack dons a helmet that deprives him of the ability to speak, drink, smoke, and hurt the ones he loves. Instead, this episode relies on Lisa Hanawalt’s brilliant art and Jesse Novak’s ghostly score to tell a story that proves words are a luxury this cartoon doesn’t need to make an emotional impact.

Analysis: More so than ever before, Season 3 sees the supporting cast of BoJack Horseman given storylines and character growth independent from its main character. From the relationship struggles of Mr. Peanutbutter and Diane to Princess Carolyn’s professional aspirations, the series may have found that the secret to sustaining itself lies in embracing an ensemble approach moving forward. As BoJack grapples with big questions about his own identity and purpose, there are minor epiphanies aplenty, from Todd admitting that he may be asexual to Mr. Peanutbutter’s potential bid for California Governor next season.

To call BoJack Horseman a comedy would be to ignore the continually somber and difficult realities creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg forces his characters to navigate. In Season 3’s penultimate episode, BoJack’s former sitcom daughter Sarah Lynn overdoses, the tragic result of a bender with BoJack and a bleak moment that sees him lose likely the last person who could truly relate to his struggles. It’s a heartbreaker, but the true brilliance is in how BoJack Horseman continually juxtaposes the fantasy of Horsin’ Around’s sitcom joy with the messy truth of life.

Never one to miss a beat, the show even manages to spoof the Full House reboot that aired on their own network with the painfully titled Ethan Around. Ripe with sight gags and Hollywood scorn, what ultimately resonates with BoJack Horseman isn’t how ridiculous celebrities are, but how universal personal pain can be.

–Zack Ruskin

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09. Better Call Saul

better call saul season 2 Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 2

Network: AMC

MVP: It’s been a blast watching Bob Odenkirk continually find new depths in Jimmy “Saul Goodman” McGill, but season two belonged to Michael McKean, who, along with the writers, has turned what could’ve been a gimmick character — he thinks he’s allergic to electricity lol! — into a damaged, empathetic, and truly vicious man. Up until the season’s final episodes, Chuck resonated as morally upstanding, the Gallant to Jimmy’s Goofus. Now, his desperation has snapped the tenuous bond that still existed between the two, revealing a mean streak a mile wide. McKean oscillates nimbly between grace and snarl while always leaving room for small flashes of character, such as his beautiful piano solo in the second episode. Also, a quick shout-out to Mark Proksch, who brings such unique comic texture to his role of goofy, flustered Pryce, who I so dearly hope we haven’t seen the last of.

Strongest Episode: Penultimate episodes are almost always a highlight: storylines converge, climaxes arrive, and the endgame is hurtling toward us at 100 miles per hour. “Nailed” was no exception, kicking off with Mike’s badass truck heist before hitting queasy, emotional paydirt with Chuck’s courtroom breakdown and reaching a breathless, sweaty climax with Jimmy and Chuck’s race to the copy store. There’s a lot of violence on TV, but Chuck’s head crashing into the copy store counter was one of 2016’s most visceral shots.

Analysis: After a solid, if occasionally uneven, first season, Better Call Saul finally crawled out of Breaking Bad’s shadow. We’re invested in Jimmy now, not Saul, while Mike’s story, despite being rife with Breaking Bad cameos, is beginning to take on dimensions of its own. On the latter front, it’s been fascinating to see a nascent Mike, a man who, unlike the one we saw on Breaking Bad, has yet to learn the danger of “half measures.” We’re not just watching the moral corruption of Jimmy, but of Mr. Ehrmantraut as well.

But while Mike’s adventures with the Salamancas (and the possibility of more Gus Fring) is cool and all, this season belonged to the central trio of Jimmy, Chuck, and Kim, all of whom had their moral compasses twirled. Like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul is a show about questioning your values and reconciling them with relationships. Unlike its predecessor, however, the series operates on simple, sustained storytelling, adopting a tone and pace that’s decidedly more cerebral. This isn’t a show about characters “breaking bad.” It’s a show about characters asking what it means to do so. That’s what the legal system is for, after all.

–Randall Colburn

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08. Veep

veep Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 5

Network: HBO

MVP: It’s tempting to want to spread the wealth, but in one of the few picks the Emmys consistently get right, not enough praise can be bestowed upon Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ astounding performance as President Selina Meyer. Take this season’s fourth episode, “Mother”, in which Dreyfus displays a myriad of emotions, including contempt, narcissism, and numbness, all culminating in a cathartic breakdown as she eulogizes her mother.

Strongest Episode: “Kissing Your Sister” took one of the season’s long-running gags — Catherine filming a documentary of her mother’s staff — and paid it off in spades with one of the series’ all-time greatest episodes. Switching to a documentary format, the episode filled in the gaps of the previous eight episodes while landing the sharpest jokes and most affecting pathos of the season.

Analysis: The loss of showrunner Armando Ianucci after season four should have been a massive setback, as his signature voice defined the show’s run. Instead, former Curb Your Enthusiasm producer David Mandel taking over resulted in an invigorating spark that made for Veep’s best season in years. It’s a testament to the chemistry of the top-notch cast and writing team that Veep managed to improve in the wake of major behind-the-scenes changes.

In a year with a real-life presidential election filled with more scandal and incompetence than ever before, the ridiculousness of Veep’s plot points felt increasingly less like fiction. The show excelled with its brilliant skewering of career politicians and DC culture, one filled with comically inept individuals constantly having to clean up their mistakes. In hindsight, plot points involving recounts, foreign hacking, and diplomatic snafus with China feel remarkably prescient. As hilarious as it is, Veep remains the smartest analysis of American politics on television, and after the success of season five, the creators have more than earned our trust to keep delivering brilliant satire, even as the reality becomes continually more absurd.

–David Sackllah

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07. The Americans

 Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 4

Network: FX

MVP: Picking an MVP of The Americans is a comically impossible task. It’s a series that couldn’t exist without the powerhouse performances of its two leads, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, but it’s nearly as dependent on a knockout turn by a young actor (Holly Taylor, no longer technically a child but equally as good when she was). It’s tempting to give this one to the terrific Alison Wright (Martha), but given her storyline this year, that’s complicated. Let’s go with newcomer Dylan Baker, who grounded KGB agent William Crandall with an emotional honesty that made even the most over-the-top moments profound. There’s no way to write about his best moment without spoiling it, so just watch, will you?

Strongest Episode: With “The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears”, The Americans did something bold, incredibly effective, and decidedly un-Americans. Wrapping up one storyline in brisk, quietly devastating fashion (again, Alison Wright is the fuckin’ jam), and then stirring the others up, The Americans then unexpectedly jumped several months into the future to show us a very different world. Rhys’ debut outing as a director for the show felt every inch a season finale, but somehow five episodes still followed. It’s thrilling.

Analysis: How in the hell do Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields do it? Every year, The Americans is one of the best shows on television. Every year, it has its best season ever. Every year, it couldn’t possibly soar higher, and yet every stinkin’ year, it does. Russell and Rhys give two of the best performances on television week in and week out, and yet they’re surrounded by a cast so excellent that no one really seems to stand out. Together, Fields, Weisberg, and their ensemble create a devastating look at marriage, parenthood, and American culture as subtle and heavy-hitting as anything else on TV.

It’s so good, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that it’s a spy thriller. In its fourth season, The Americans didn’t shy away from the intrigue — there were still plenty of wigs, thank the lord — but instead raised the stakes that much more, as the Jennings’ family and emotional lives became more and more inextricable from their, for lack of a better term, professional lives. That’s thanks in no small part to Baker’s William Crandall, a fellow sleeper whose loneliness and jealousy affect nearly every character with whom he comes in contact. But the most surprising spy of them all is the one whose status as an informant proved the most devastating: braid-wearing, boy-kissing, bible-studying, All-American kid. Paige Jennings neatly encapsulates everything that makes this series so remarkable. She’s just a girl with a fucked-up home life — and oh, yeah, she’s reporting back intel on her pastor and his wife. You know how family drama is.

–Allison Shoemaker

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06. Real Time with Bill Maher

real time 2016 Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 14

Network: HBO

MVP: President Barack Obama finally speaking with Bill Maher after years of pleading, petitioning, and a clever million-dollar Super PAC donation during 2012 given in mockery of the Citizens United v. FEC campaign finance ruling by the US Supreme Court. Their conversation covered a lot of ground, but it was uniquely entertaining to watch an unabashed Maher probe Obama about whether or not he had given up cigarettes completely. The President’s coy wink spoke volumes.

Strongest Episode(s): The four special-edition post-convention live shows filmed right after the Republican and Democratic conventions. They were experimental, stripped-down versions of the traditional hour-long broadcast. But they gave an immediate and honest analysis of the world’s biggest pep rallies.

Analysis: Much has been said about the 2016 elections, but a few canny individuals can say, “I told you so!” Bill Maher, himself a target of Trump’s legal-team-strike-force, predicted the reality star’s victory early into his 14th season of Real Time by accosting self-satisfied voter’s comfort about the pending Hillary Clinton victory. Throughout the 38-episode run, Maher was Cassandra from Greek Mythology, blessed with a cunning foresight but cursed by an audience too stubborn to listen. Perhaps we’ll all take the comedian’s words a little more seriously next season.

–Dan Pfleegor

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05. The Night Of

the night of hbo Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: Mini-series

Network: HBO

MVP: In theory, this should be a hard task, what with all the memorable moments featuring Riz Ahmed, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Bill Camp, but there’s really no argument when you have John Turturro on the bill. Filling in for the late James Gandolfini, Turturro brings light to a very dark and bleak story as the ambulance-chasing lawyer John Stone. Of course, it also helps that he’s the series’ most interesting character, a lonely soul suffering from a miserable case of eczema while also trying to connect with his disappointed son. For eight straight episodes, Stone gives us so much to love: his street-smart wisdom, his tortured relationship with a grieving feline, and his ensuing aggravation toward one jerkstore pharmacist.

Strongest Episode: Opening chapter “The Beach” sets everything into motion with painstakingly economical storytelling, merging multiple arcs into a simmering crime story — it feels like a short film. But few hours of television this year were as anxious and thrilling as mid-season stunner “The Season of the Witch”. It’s director Steven Zaillian’s savviest moment behind the camera — and also the typewriter, alongside co-creator Richard Price — as he ably shifts between the episode’s burning threads, from Naz’s big beatdown against Calvin to Stone and Chandra’s curious alliance to Box’s comprehensive map of the evolving crime scene. There’s also a major revelation that leads to a dicey alleyway chase with Stone in pursuit.

Analysis: Prestige television isn’t something that’s alien to HBO; they more or less invented it. Although the network has been struggling to find a proper follow-up to Game of Thrones — and no, Westworld is sadly not the answer (neither was Vinyl) — they’ve never failed at offering game-changing programming. Their excellent 2015 mini-series Show Me a Hero quietly suggested that feature-length films might not be able to compete with episodic television by delivering arguably the greatest drama that year. The Night Of confirmed that theory this past summer by taking an ill-fated, overused genre — the tawdry, mundane procedural — and wrenching it into the most riveting, sobering, and unpredictable narrative of the year.

Films rarely have that power, namely because they don’t have the time to be so patient. Zaillian and Price capitalized on that freedom by never wasting a minute in all eight episodes, flooding the proceedings with the kind of small, juicy details that might otherwise be seen as distracting red herrings on the silver screen. There’s an assured sense of place and purpose for every character, both major and minor. (Who didn’t love Chip Zein’s lovable pathologist, Dr. Katz? C’mon.) And while a few threads lead to a few questionable turns — ahem, Chandra’s fate didn’t sit too well with the online jury — they never compromise the story. If anything, they embellish the show’s humanity because, really, we all fuck up and we’re all often judged for it.

Ultimately, that’s the most terrifying takeaway of The Night Of.

–Michael Roffman

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04. Halt and Catch Fire

halt and catch fire s3 Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 3

Network: AMC

MVP: Halt and Catch Fire circles around four protagonists whose significant character flaws are intrinsic to their being, but season three sets up Mackenzie Davis’ Cameron to be the most sympathetic of all of them. After a move to California finds her company becoming less and less the vision she had for it, Cameron remains true to herself in her most important decisions, even if that comes across as immature, stubborn, or short-sighted to the outside world. In a world set in technology, Cameron is the artist that is sick of compromising, and Davis’ portrayal of her earns the audience’s desire to see her become happy above all else.

Best Episode: Aside from The Wire, it’s hard to think of another TV show that continually reinvented itself like Halt and Catch Fire has. That’s what made the transition from the climax of its eighth episode, “You Are Not Safe”, to its two-part season finale such a pitch-perfect flex of its narrative command. After Ryan’s suicide and the failure of Mutiny’s IPO, everything about the show seemed to be ending, but the season concluded with a hard reset. In “NIM” and “NeXT”, Donna and Gordon are divorced, Cameron is living in China and working for Atari, and Joe seemingly wants to make everything from the past right. It functions like the band getting back together (to, you know, CREATE THE INTERNET), and left the audience salivating for a fourth and final season.

Analysis: Halt is definitively niche, with AMC continuing to renew it despite its low viewership. No matter how loud its devoted audience sings its praises, it hasn’t caught on with Emmy voters or mainstream culture. Still, the fact that season three was its strongest yet and resulted in a much-deserved fourth and final run has to be viewed as a success not just for the program or the network, but for the kind of storytelling that only seems possible in this particularly fruitful time for television.

The world of Halt is familiar yet foreign, where the rise of personal computers in the ’80s is fictionalized and turned into a character-driven drama. It’s effective not because of the time (the ’80s) or the place (the computer industry of Texas and California), but because of the people that it introduces us to. Throughout the first two seasons, the story flipped from seeing Joe and Gordon as the business heads to Donna and Cameron being in charge, but by the end of this season, it was clear that all four planets would need to figure out how to orbit together to reach a satisfying conclusion. The stories evolve naturally from the characters we get to know, and whether it is romance, friendship, work, or just a silly game with lighters, Halt gives audiences the emotional payoffs they deserve.

–Philip Cosores

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03. Atlanta

atlanta fx Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 1

Network: FX

MVP: Donald Glover will be the one getting most of the well-deserved love as performances go, but the arguable true center of Atlanta is Brian Tyree Henry’s Paper Boi. A late thirtysomething who’s getting his big break a lot later in life than most of his peers, Paper Boi’s deadpan wandering through the increasingly insane world of hip-hop and its surrounding satellite cultures makes for some of the season’s best material.

Strongest Episode: Every episode of Atlanta’s debut manages its own unique, standalone tone even as (no matter what you’ve been told) every episode fits within a cohesive, artfully told whole. Because of this, picking just one episode that stands out is a tough proposition; “B.A.N.” and “Value” and “Juneteenth” and “The Jacket” could all have a case made for them. But our choice lies with “The Club”, the show’s best half-hour distillation of all its primary interests: the trio’s ongoing exhaustion with the performative aspects of rap culture, the closed ecosystems of Atlanta, the constant reminders that someone is always making more money than you, and the truth that most of the time, people are just trying to blow off some steam in between fits of getting by.

Analysis: Atlanta is already becoming one of those TV shows that every pop culture writer pushes on everybody they know and for good reason. Donald Glover’s brainchild is a remarkable work right out of the gate, one of the more fully-formed TV shows released in the past few years. The assurance and artistic confidence of it are almost intimidating, and yet it’s one of the better slice-of-life stories that cable television has managed to date. And for all of the laurels about its artistry, on a much simpler level, it’s also just the funniest show on television right now.

Atlanta finds its characters in the minutiae of their everyday lives, whether in Darius (Keith Stanfield) making a philosophical point with his gun range targets or Earn (Glover) spending an entire day scrambling around the city in hopes of finding a key that’ll let him go home to the kind of home that you wouldn’t expect of an up-and-coming rapper’s manager. Yet in Atlanta’s odd, sometimes fully surreal universe, nothing is entirely as it seems.

–Dominick Suzanne-Mayer

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02. Broad City

broad city Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 3

Network: Comedy Central

MVP: There’s no way to split apart the powerful relationship of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, the interlocking yin and yang of millenial mania. To pick one or the other of the dynamic duo would be sacrilege, so perhaps then Hillary Clinton (who makes an appearance in the hilarious “2016”) can stand as the icon of power symbolizing their friendship.

Strongest Episode: The sitcom as art form frequently struggles with change, especially one as bombastic, sincerely surreal, and grand as Broad City. But there’s always been an emotional core behind the cartoonish sexuality and scatalogical humor, as seen in extreme closeup on “Burning Bridges”. After going through intense change, Ilana’s wild, carefree smile falls, revealing raw heart and real, complex feelings. Abbi faces a lot of change in the episode, too, the stakes of her decisions ringing out above the wacky shenanigans. It’s a tear-schmearer, something you might not have expected from Broad City.

Analysis: While the end of the year saw a frustrating defeat for a powerful woman, this show felt incredibly of the moment and needed in its celebration of unique, flawed yet powerful, relatable yet surreal women and their friendship. From sex to relationships to menstruation to churrons (a culinary combination of a churro and a macaron, of course), the show excelled in subtle emotional moments as much as it did slapstick insanity. These episodes went to heightened extremes, pushing even further than the already excellent first two seasons, and yet Abbi and Ilana still felt like real, relatable people, the kind of friends that everyone needs, as crazy as they might be — a real testament to the duo’s acting and writing.

The supporting cast stood tall as well — Hannibal Burres’ Lincoln stole his fair share of scenes with laconic delivery and perfect timing, and there was raw, clinging depth to John Gemberling’s Bevers — but as Abbi and Ilana fly off to Israel at the end of the season, it’s clear that the two can be surrounded by any cast of characters and pull out and accentuate the hilarious little details that drive us all. Yas, Queens!

–Lior Phillips

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01. Stranger Things

stranger things Top 25 TV Shows of 2016

Season: 1

Network: Netflix

MVP: Credit it to general cuteness, Spielbergian nostalgia, or the fatigue of watching horror kids always getting possessed, but it was Stranger Things’ central group of scamps that stole the show. Like the Spielberg, King, and Dante protagonists of yore, Mike, Dustin, Lucas, Will, and Eleven transcended precociousness with their curiosity, ingenuity, and warmth. To choose one feels like a fool’s errand. Would you single out one of the Explorers? One of the Monster Squad? One of the Losers’ Club? Horror doesn’t need any more creepy kids. Horror needs kids like this. Kids like this remind us that kids believe in ways adults don’t. There’s magic there.

Strongest Episode: “The Body” stands out for being the moment when Stranger Things asserted itself as something more than a summation of its influences. Here, the kids began investigating the supernatural underpinnings of Will’s disappearance in earnest; Joyce caught a brief glimpse of whatever world Will is trapped in; Nancy sees the monster in Barb’s final photo; and Hooper, chillingly, discovers that Will’s body is hollow inside. It’s an episode of discovery, the moment all the mysteries begin unfurling their myriad tendrils. It’s the moment when we realized just how special Stranger Things really was.

Analysis: Let’s all take a step back: Try to remember a world without Barb thinkpieces, Finn Wolfhard cover songs, and viral videos of Millie Bobby Brown sneezing or whatever. Let’s remember Stranger Things as a TV show and not an event. Let’s remember the first time we saw the opening credits, the way its hollow, drifting letters coasted on a chorus of frantic synths, triggering synapses in our brains that hadn’t glowed in decades. Let’s remember how Mike’s basement and Dustin’s hat and all of their bikes conjured up a world we all instantly recognized, even if it never quite existed. Yes, shallow as it may sound, a big part of Stranger Things’ achievement is in how it summoned the spirit of the suburban ‘80s, or at least a version of it that checked all the right boxes.

But it wasn’t just an aesthetic thing. This wasn’t a Buzzfeed list made manifest. Nobody was wearing pastels. At its best, Stranger Things felt like a reaffirmation, a course correction for genre fare that sought to make a place for curiosity and imagination, to create a new gateway for kids and adults alike. Modern horror doesn’t need to rely on one-upmanship of American Horror Story or the cruelty of The Walking Dead or the slick sadism of Hannibal. There’s a reason it captured the zeitgeist in the way it did. There’s a reason we obsessed over Barb and Steve and Dustin — it was fun. In a year when we really needed it, Stranger Things found a way to make fear fun again.

–Randall Colburn

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01. Stranger Things
02. Broad City
03. Atlanta
04. Halt and Catch Fire
05. The Night Of
06. Real Time with Bill Maher
07. The Americans
08. Veep
09. Better Call Saul
10. Bojack Horseman
11. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
12. 11.22.63
13. Silicon Valley
14. Documentary Now
15. The People vs. OJ Simpson
16. Transparent
17. Game of Thrones
18. You’re the Worst
19. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee
20. Horace and Pete
21. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
22. Red Oaks
23. Insecure
24. Ash Vs. Evil Dead
25. RuPaul’s Drag Race

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