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The Best TV of 2016

The Best TV of 2016 offers a bold mix of reality, virtual reality, animated reality, and pure fantasy across broadcast and streaming.

TV Show: Adam Ruins Everything

Network: TruTV

Cast: Adam Conover

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Adam Ruins Everything

Adam Conover’s educational comedy is a weird hybrid that follows in the footsteps of shows like Penn & Teller’s Bullshit, Drunk History, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, but carves out its niche. Conover takes on a different topic with each episode and explains common misconceptions and mostly forgotten history that flies in the face of conventional wisdom about those topics. Fellow nerds may know offhand that Listerine was originally floor cleaner or that manufacturer Luxottica owns the vast majority of eyeglass brands and retailers in the United States (and gouges the public with its virtual monopoly), but for most viewers, that stuff isn’t common knowledge. What makes Adam Ruins Everything fun is Conover’s self-awareness. Nearly every character on the show becomes an unwilling participant to Conover’s need to explain. Adam makes himself the butt of the joke; all this explaining can get tiresome to the characters, especially when he’s busting preconceived notions. Weirder is the show’s oddball continuity, which is filled with recurring characters and continuing story lines. This blurring of fictional framing pieces with factual information is unusual, but endearing. — Chris Conaton

TV Show: The Americans

Network: FX

Cast: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Keidrich Sellati

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The Americans

Since the airing of its pilot episode in 2013, the award-winning spy drama The Americans has been a riveting favorite at PopMatters. The series masterfully plays with notions of American naiveté (or “innocence”, as the myth goes) and paranoia during the waning years of the Cold War. Viewers become invested in the humanity of each compromised character only to be brutally reminded of the calculated aggression that ideologies can and do provoke. The marketing behind Season 4 all too obviously ups the ante on the sexual tension that runs like a live wire through the very alternative lives of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), but thankfully the series itself doesn’t pander to the obvious, or otherwise question viewers’ intelligence. As Elizabeth and Philip find themselves struggling with their roles in this hostile world, viewers, too, are encouraged to consider the lot they’re given in life, their values and how they came about them, and their small place along the current historical-political timeline. — Karen Zarker

TV Show: Atlanta

Network: FX

Cast: Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Keith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz

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Atlanta

In just two episodes, it’s abundantly clear that Atlanta, Donald Glover’s mesmerizing new half-hour on FX, was worth its lengthy inception. The show was in development back when Glover was building Howard Roark-esque pillow forts on Community, and though it seemed for a time like it would never come to light, Atlanta has emerged confident and fully-formed. The initial offering, which consisted of a one-hour block, gave the feeling of tuning into a program that’s already great and that’s been thriving for years, not one aspiring for accolades and rooting out an audience.

Atlanta is so much more than a music industry show, or even a show about rappers. It’s a testament to the mix of ennui and desperation felt by smart, capable people as they see themselves underachieve, and the (occasionally drastic) measures they take to try and shake themselves free. Whether that’s Earn pretending to be Alonzo to make some connections, or Van trying to use a condom full of urine to pass a drug test, no show on television is capturing this ephemeral mix of emotions in more addictive, off-kilter ways. — Grant Rindner

 

TV Show: Banshee

Network: Cinemax

Cast: Antony Starr, Ivana Millicevic, Ulrich Thomsen, Frankie Faison

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Banshee

In a rebranding move away from its sultry late-night reputation, cable channel Cinemax has found its niche in the grim and gritty hardcore action drama. Following the less interesting Strike Back but preceding Steven Soderbergh’s auteur period project The Knick, Banshee (2013-2016) easily showcases the most impressive stunt work, fight choreography, and action set pieces for a drama not set in the high-fantasy realm of Westeros. Co-creators David Schickler and Jonathan Tropper interweave pulpy themes combining post-industrial rural American Gothic with an MMA-tilted neo-noir crime drama focus. The result is primal and unruly and utterly addictive (and don’t forget those raunchy, exploitative opening credits sequenced to the show’s tragic grunge-metal theme). The standout storyline of season four arguably features the fallout of Kurt Bunker (Tom Pelphrey), a former white supremacist neo-Nazi that works for Banshee’s Sheriff’s Department as an un/conscious attempt to regain his humanity. Key scenes feature Bunker in mournful self-loathing as he wrestles to forgive himself. Bunker’s redemption arc is juxtaposed against his younger brother Calvin (Chris Coy), a rising White Nationalist leader. Calvin embodies hatred and unquenchable rage, and it’s a fever-pitch nightmare performance that boils over onscreen. Calvin borderlines on over-the-top — a signature of the Banshee writing staff — but his character horrified nonetheless. In retrospect, TV fiction once again feels more like a harbinger for real-world negative social movements that experienced political enablement by year’s end. — Garrett Castleberry

 

TV Show: Berlin Station

Network: Epix

Cast: Richard Armitage, Rhys Ifans, Leland Orser, Michelle Forbes

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Berlin Station

A premium cable series that looks sumptuously cyberpunk, this new show by Epix generates compelling spy drama by keeping its scale relatively small compared to the scope and bombast of Homeland or 24. Berlin Station shows the intricate workings of a CIA station in the German capital, and the city’s aesthetic suffuses every frame with otherworldly cool. Richard Armitage leads an arresting cast of spies and assets, including hard-partying CIA lifer Rhys Ifans and hyper-competent administrator Michelle Forbes. With its roster of conflicted antiheroes and the spies who love them, Berlin Station doesn’t exactly revolutionize the prestige cable drama arms race, but it’s so damn stylish it’s hard to fault it for that. For fans of FX’s thrilling Cold War drama The Americans, Berlin Station offers a similar taste of twisty espionage intrigue. Any show that uses Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans” as a theme song has got to be worth checking out. — Natasha Gatian

 

TV Show: Bob’s Burgers

Network: Fox

Cast: H. Jon Benjamin, Dan Mintz, Eugene Mirman, Kristin Schaal

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Bob’s Burgers

The most consistently funny and genuinely sweet show on television, Bob’s Burgers understands that there’s plenty of humor to mine in family relationships that don’t have to end with emotional scarring or breaking them up. The Belchers are close without ever coming across as saccharine; they care while also expressing their love with increasingly ridiculous and off-the-wall actions; they support one another unconditionally, even if that means defending erotic friend fiction to an entire school. The many ways in which Bob and Linda encourage their children, though often to embarrassing and strange conclusions, is unexpectedly heartwarming and always hilarious. Tina, Gene, and Louise are so wholly realized as to have their neuroses and obsessions so clearly known to the rest of their family members (and the audience) makes for an always engaging adventure with the Belchers. That the shows also boasts some of the best original songs on television is an added bonus. — J. M. Suarez

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TV Show: BoJack Horseman

Network: Netflix

Cast: Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie, Paul F. Tompkins, Aaron Paul

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BoJack Horseman

Just how deep is BoJack Horseman’s (Will Arnett) existential depression? Deep enough that he believes the only way to alleviate it (he’s gone past the point of thinking it can be purged) is to do nothing less than secure an Academy Award nomination. To set the bar that high, you’re bound to fall, and what a plummet BoJack suffers in the final three episodes of the third season of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s lacerating Netflix comedy. Just by reading the plot summaries, a non-viewer may want to know why people would subject themselves to episodes like “That’s Too Much, Man!”, in which BoJack thoughtlessly prods his much-younger co-star, who’s suffering from drug addiction, to embark on an epic bender. The answer is that for every time you’re wincing in revulsion, you’re likely to laugh, too, be it the antics of BoJack Horseman‘s stellar ensemble (Princess Carolyn [Amy Sedaris] gets the VIP nod this season), or the flood of background puns that demand repeat watches. — Sean McCarthy

Best TV 2016: Page 2

 

TV Show: Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Network: Fox

Cast: Andy Samberg, Stephanie Beatriz, Terry Crews, Melissa Fumero, Andre Braugher

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Brooklyn Nine-Nine

The tonal successor to the much-missed Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine offers several of the same dynamics, to excellent effect. Though both shows were created by Mike Schur and share some similarities, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has its own voice, marked by a silliness inherent in Andy Samberg’s humor, offset by Andre Braugher’s dry, serious delivery. Rounding out the cast is a host of police detectives and department employees who run the gamut from overachieving to hardly qualifying as employed. Their evolving relationships with one another have fleshed out the characters that now in its fourth season, the series has hit its stride. There’s certainly no need for yet another police procedural on television, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s unique take has transformed a usually gritty and intense genre into a workplace comedy, one that celebrates a yogurt-obsessed sergeant, an ego-centric admin, a deadpan boss, and goofballs galore. — J. M. Suarez

TV Show: Channel Zero: Candle Cove

Network: SyFy

Cast: Paul Schneider, Fiona Shaw

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Channel Zero: Candle Cove

Candle Cove takes an old internet short story, a “story” that’s barely more than a handful of messages about a weird, half-remembered kids show, and expands it into an unsettling anti-nostalgia trip about returning to your hometown. When Mike Painter (Paul Schneider) was a kid in his small Ohio town, six children were murdered in a series of incidents that were never fully explained. Mike’s twin brother was among the victims, and the murders were somehow connected to an obscure, dirt-cheap puppet pirate show called “Candle Cove”. Mike’s return to the town coincides with the return of “Candle Cove” to television, and it seems like he might be the key to stopping any further mayhem. What Candle Cove does so well is keep the audience guessing. Paul Schneider is expertly cast as an everyman, bland enough to seem trustworthy even as it becomes obvious that he knows more about the original murders than he’s telling people. For a large chunk of the six episodes, it’s not entirely clear if Mike is the hero or the villain. The show exploits this uncertainty by using it as a pivot point to fuel a creeping sense of dread. Simultaneously Candle Cove is smothered in a feeling of inevitability, filling in more and more of the backstory via flashbacks. Eventually the present and past come together in a finale that packs an emotional wallop. — Chris Conaton

 

TV Show: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Network: CW

Cast: Rebecca Bloom, Vincent Rodriguez III, Donna Lynn Champlain

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Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

This season, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend did something exceedingly brave and, well, crazy. It took a torch to its own premise. Within three episodes, it destroyed the love triangle that made the first season so compelling, and jettisoned one of its most interesting characters in one of its most audaciously moving scenes. What started as a fascinating subversion of romantic comedy tropes, and the role women occupy within them, has become something deeper, richer, and even more thoughtful. The performances are pitch-perfect and the songs are left-of-centre-incredible (a recent parody of The Spice Girls turned into a Hocus Pocus love fest and a call for all woman to hold a feminist political coup.) Season two is sharper, stronger and, frankly, the show we all want and need. The new title song talks about the show’s emotional thesis statement; and in 2016, it has made good on all its lofty promises. — Jay Bamber

 

TV Show: Dark Matter

Network: SyFy

Cast: Melissa O’Neil, Anthony Lemke, Alex Mallari Jr

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Dark Matter

Dark Matter continues to offer up a rough and tumble future of factions and lost causes. As with all good science fiction, the focus isn’t technology, but the purposeful struggles fought in the hearts of its main characters: loyalty or desertion, camaraderie or isolation, creation or destruction. Dark Matter‘s memory-obliterating second chance turns into distanced abstraction as the crew rediscovers their personal history. Some choose to eschew their past, and others to forge the paths they think they should have taken. Both choices lead to unintended consequences, calling into question the reality of self-determination. Season two launched into new territory by exploring how much a common moment of disruption can overcome threads of history literally woven into the fabric of the universe. The Android’s awakening emotions recalls the best internal brawls in Star Trek‘s Spock and Data, while the “blink” drive offers new plots twists for Raza’s crew. — Daniel Rasmus

 

TV Show: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Network: BBC America

Cast: Samuel Barnett, Elijah Wood, Hannak Marks, Fiona Dourif

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Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Dirk Gently opens with the aftermath of a brutal slaughter in a hotel penthouse. A piano is smashed in half, there are shark bites in the walls, and blood is everywhere. Then, for some reason, a cute little kitten walks around in the room. Todd Brotzman (Elijah Wood) is the unfortunate bellhop that stumbles onto this scene and becomes a suspect. Then Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett), a man he’s never met, shows up and declares that Todd isn’t only his best friend, but also his assistant. Dirk is a detective but he doesn’t do any investigative work, preferring to let the universe lead him around until he solves the case. In the midst of all of this, the show also throws in a mysterious corgi, a kidnapped woman, a missing teen girl, government black ops, a rare debilitating disease, a strange cult, and a holistic assassin (Fiona Dourif) who uses the same method as Dirk, except with killing people. It shouldn’t work. It should be an absolute mess. Yet, from the start, Dirk Gently tells its story so confidently that it feels like everyone involved (except for maybe poor Todd) knows where they’re going. This is a show that is super weird but also meticulously planned and highly, highly entertaining. Dirk Gently pays attention to its characters, finding their humanity despite all the strangeness. Oh, and they do know where it’s going, and it pays off marvelously at the end of this short (eight episodes) season. — Chris Conaton

 

TV Show: Drunk History

Network: Comedy Central

Cast: Derek Waters

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Drunk History

Four seasons in, and Drunk History is showing that it’s essentially able to run forever on its concept. Get comedians drunk and have them tell a story from history. Rely on the combination of compelling stories and intoxication-related bloopers to provide hilarity. Repeat. Whether the story is familiar or obscure, the show treats everything with a sense of irreverence and fascination. It helps that the storytellers are generally so damn invested in their tales that their passion comes through no matter how many drinks they may have had. Host Derek Waters amiably encourages his subjects to keep going while also indulging in bizarre digressions that probably make sense to the drunk person at the time. Meanwhile, the show’s on-the-cheap reenactments still pull in a wide assortment of enthusiastic actors, both famous and not, to play roles and lip sync along. This season’s highlight was getting Hamilton‘s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda to recount the life and times of Alexander Hamilton in a very different way than his musical, while having actresses Alia Shawkat and Aubrey Plaza play Hamilton and Aaron Burr, respectively. — Chris Conaton

 

TV Show: The Expanse

Network: SyFy

Cast: Thomas Jane, Stephen Strait, Cas Anvar, Dominique Tipper, Wes Chatham, Florence Faivre, Shohreh Aghdashloo

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The Expanse

SyFy took a big swing with The Expanse, attempting to create a science fiction Game of Thrones. It too is based on a series of complicated books, and it too spends large chunks of its first season building its world. Of the show’s three main storylines, Shohreh Agdashloo’s is the most thankless. Her politician character is mired in a plotline that doesn’t pay off at all in the first season but is essential for establishing the political situation in a solar system where Earth, Mars, and the asteroid belt are at odds with each other. Much more interesting is Joe Miller (Thomas Jane). He’s a hard-boiled detective based on the asteroid Ceres who takes a side case and ends up so obsessed with tracking down a missing girl that he essentially ruins his career in the process. Even better is the rollicking space opera section of the show, where Jim Holden (Steven Strait) and his small band of space miners get blamed for the destruction of their freighter. While trying to clear their name and track down the people who were actually responsible, they inadvertently leave a trail of devastation in their wake and get themselves into deeper and deeper trouble. The storytelling in The Expanse is very strong, but equally strong are the show’s production values. SyFy wisely spent the money to make everything in The Expanse look convincing, and that goes a long way towards making the show as compelling as it is. — Chris Conaton

Best TV 2016: Page 3

TV Show: Full Frontal With Samantha Bee

Network: TBS

Cast: Samantha Bee

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Full Frontal With Samantha Bee

Last January, The Daily Show alumni Samantha Bee entered Full Frontal into the late night political comedy wars. As the name indicates, the show was designed and marketed as a feminist voice in a genre dominated by male voices. Combining John Oliver’s obsessive research with a pinch of Michael Moore’s ardent liberalism, Bee more than held her own. The most surprising aspect of the show is how funny Bee’s feminist ranting can be. Gender inequality tirades are often didactic and preachy rather than funny. Bee’s love of language, naked outrage, and biting satire generate a great deal of laughs. Here’s hoping that during President “Pussy Grabber’s” four-year reign Bee and TBS stay strong. Not only will women need a champion, but we’re all going to need a good laugh. — Anthony Merino

 

TV Show: Game of Thrones

Network: HBO

Cast: Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Sophie Turner, Iain Glen, Maisie Williams

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Game of Thrones

When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. When you play the game of thrones, you can hold the door open to save the future legacy of a mystic prophecy, or you can render one to splinters as an army hails you with arrow fire. You can come back from the cold dead and enact icy vengeance, or you can torch a temple of dissenters with naked fury. You can see into the past to uncover revelations about your future, or you can go blind until you can use your future to reconnect with your past. You can be treated like a dog, whimpering on the floor for the last morsels of your dignity, or you can become devoured by those self-same beasts, shaped by your own hand. You can allow yourself to be the subject of fanatical religious persecution or you can rise above the clamor and stamp out insurrection at the source. When you play the game of thrones, you can forge fresh new alliances. Or you can burn them all down to the ground. — Carl Wilson

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TV Show: Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

Network: Netflix

Cast: Lauren Graham, Alexis Bledel, Scott Patterson

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Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

This four-part Netflix reboot brings back the beloved Gilmore girls: Lorelai, Rory, and Emily. A major focus of this reboot series came from the passing of patriarch Richard Gilmore, which influenced the majority of Emily’s storyline. Longtime fans can rejoice that all of Rory’s past loves make an appearance and endgame Luke and Lorelai are stronger than ever. Kelly Bishop and Lauren Graham give all-time best performances throughout the episodes, although, Rory’s storyline isn’t strong enough to make Alexis Bledel really shine. She does what she can, but Rory’s early-30s identity crisis leaves much to be desired, as it mostly portrays a character known for intelligence and goodness as a jaded, lost writer and part-time adulteress. Although there are some bumps in the road for this reboot, it certainly lives up to the quirky world set up in the original. Gilmore Girls is just as emotional and boundary-pushing as ever and should earn Lauren Graham and Kelly Bishop long-needed Emmy nominations. — Alyssa Rasmus

 

TV Show: How to Get Away With Murder

Network: ABC

Cast: Viola Davis, Alfred Enoch

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How to Get Away With Murder

How to Get Away With Murder has always been a ridiculous show; in fact, it’s kind of built into its DNA. Season three hasn’t done much to rectify that; it still relies of narrative twists rather than internal logic, and it hasn’t met an overwrought monologue that it doesn’t like. However, it still has Viola Davis’s barnstorming, seat-shaking central performance, and this year it struck gold with one of the most compelling mysteries of any show in recent memory. In the first episode, the protagonist’s house went up in flames and so did an unidentified main character. From then on the show went into high gear, throwing out suspects and potential victims at a pace that was almost hard to keep up with. As the show revealed its hand in the mid-season finale it delivered a genuine shock that defied all the rules of network television and served as honest-to-goodness emotional gut-punch. — Jay Bamber

 

TV Show: iZombie

Network: CW

Cast: Rose McIver, Malcolm Goodwin, Rahul Kohli

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iZombie

An excellent second season that built upon all the groundwork of the first season, iZombie continues to straddle the line between light and dark, humor and grimness. Liv’s world is still expanding and more is being discovered about the zombie epidemic and it’s larger implications, but at the heart of the series is how she navigates her increasingly complicated personal life, particularly as it intersects more and more with her professional life. The series excels in balancing the supernatural plot with genuine emotional stakes; it understands that using humor in bleak moments is often the antidote to creating an overly morose show. It’s clever use of different personalities for Liv each week also keeps the show fresh while adding further dimensions to the larger story. iZombie remains a highlight because it combines smart writing with consistently engaging characters, and it only gets better with each episode. — J. M. Suarez

 

TV Show: Jane the Virgin

Network: CW

Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Yael Grobglas, Justin Baldoni

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Jane the Virgin

Jane the Virgin‘s blend of melodrama, humor, and heartfelt emotional arcs is a not only a feat of genres, but a genuinely entertaining series that delivers week after week. Although the premise is as outlandish as any on television, the show’s unique ability to make the many soap opera tropes it employs more creativity and slightly off-balance devices (the narrator works especially well in achieving this) than it spoofs. Gina Rodriguez remains an exceptional find, playing Jane as a practical romantic constantly navigating the many relationships in her life, both romantic and familial. What makes the series stand out even further is the relationship between three generations of Villanueva women, and the many age and cultural issues they explore regularly. Jane the Virgin is a standout for its clever writing, its wonderful acting, and its skill in bringing together tropes with thoughtful storytelling in a way that reinvigorates both. — J. M. Suarez

Best TV 2016: Page 4

TV Show: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

Network: HBO

Cast: John Oliver

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Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

A commonly circulated belief going around is that comedians just haven’t found a way to effectively mock Trump. The belief is that it’s next to impossible to compete with someone who has managed to make every one of his policy beliefs fit on a bumper sticker (or a hat). One of the reasons why so many pundits believe Hillary Clinton lost the election is that “people hate nuance”. Yet, just like how Trump defied conventional wisdom, John Oliver repeatedly demolished the belief that you need to cater to an audience with hyper-short attention spans. His takedowns on topics like fraudulent credit score practices and disappearing print newsrooms routinely stretched well past 15 minutes, and still manage to make the “must-watch” list for instant-click sites like BuzzFeed or Huffington Post. Oliver’s well-deserved dual Emmy wins for Best Variety Show and Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series shows that “on message” can actually mean substance. It doesn’t hurt that the substance is ferociously funny. — Sean McCarthy

 

TV Show: The Night Of

Network: HBO

Cast: Riz Ahmed, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Bill Camp, John Turturro, Syam M. Lafi

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The Night Of

There are crime stories, and then there’s Richard Price. Price, a key force behind The Wire, has made a career out of turning the genre fiction of police procedurals into serious literature. In HBO’s The Night Of, he’s created a world every bit as complex as the Baltimore of that earlier series. The first episode deals in the kind of tension rarely found outside a Richard Wright novel. Once the inevitable crime occurs, the series begins to weave a complex web of relationships, probing into every nook and cranny of the police station, Riker’s Island, the courthouse, the D.A.’s office, each populated by a cast of complicated characters, from the hapless ambulance-chasing attorney whose feet are plagued with eczema (the very excellent John Turturro), to the jailhouse tough driven by an odd obsession with education (The Wire‘s Michael Kenneth Williams). Originally designed as a stand-alone season, there’s talk of a second, but always with the memory of True Detective season two lurking in the background. — M. King Adkins

 

TV Show: Orphan Black

Network: BBC America

Cast: Tatiana Maslany, Jordan Gavaris, Kevin Blanchard, Dylan Bruce, Matt Frewer, Gord Rand, Uni Park

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Orphan Black

BBC America’s Orphan Black continues its deep dive into genetics and gender in its fourth season. Still showcasing the extraordinary acting talents of its lead, Tatiana Maslany, the series offers further opportunity for Maslany to explore new clones, and continue to flesh out the core group, particularly as they interact with one another. The shifting dynamics and growing relationships between the clones has always been the most engrossing part of the show, despite its intricate and twisty sci-fi plot. As more becomes revealed on Orphan Black, more questions arise. The show smartly balances the two well, but regardless of the larger genetic plot involving cults and secret scientific testing, the ways in which the clones alternately engage and distance themselves from their circumstances and one another is infinitely watchable. — J. M. Suarez

 

TV Show: People of Earth

Network: TBS

Cast: Wyatt Cenac, Luka Jones, Alice Wetterlund

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People of Earth

Wyatt Cenac’s laconic charm is expertly deployed in People of Earth, a surprisingly low-key alien abduction comedy. Cenac is Ozzie Graham, a reporter who visits a support group for recovering alien abductees (they prefer to refer to themselves as “experiencers”) and comes away convinced that he too has been abducted. While the show initially plays the various experiencers for laughs, it quickly humanizes them as Ozzie decides to stick around in the small town of Beacon and delve into his own scrambled memories of abduction. The other parts of the show are often the bits that are laugh-out-loud funniest, as a small group of orbiting aliens bicker amongst themselves while trying to do their jobs of monitoring and abducting humans. We’ve seen similar nuggets in scattered media elsewhere over the years, but People of Earth fully commits to the “aliens as workplace comedy” idea and the results are often hilarious. There’s a warm, lived-in feel to the show that’s unusual for such a high-concept comedy. — Chris Conaton

 

TV Show: The People Vs. OJ Simpson

Network: FX

Cast: Cuba Gooding Jr, Sterling K. Brown, Courtney B. Vance, Sarah Paulson

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The People Vs. OJ Simpson

I admit it, when I saw a glimpse of Selma Blair as Kris Jenner in the teasers for The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, I thought that FX was aiming to air a better-than-average E! Hollywood True Story interpretation of the “Trial of the Century”. For those who lived through this trial the first time, you couldn’t be blamed for not wanting to revisit something that has spawned some of the worst media characteristics of our times. But Ryan Murphy’s masterful series avoided cliché after cliché, and took on the racism and class divide that has only seemed to intensify since Simpson’s acquittal. Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson each gave career-defining performances as Johnny Cochran and Marcia Clark, but the most heartbreaking performance may be Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden. There’s no doubt about the ending, but the parallels between the trial and today’s climate (be it Black Lives Matter, or the sexism that was rampantly on display during the presidential campaign) kept viewers enraptured in a story that no one thought needed to be retold. — Sean McCarthy

 

TV Show: Planet Earth II

Network: BBC

Cast: David Attenborough

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Planet Earth II

Planet Earth II is a six-part British nature documentary from the BBC, but only considering it as such would be as inadequate as calling the pack-hunting snakes of the Galapagos Islands that swarm around the hatchling iguana population “mildly threatening”. The show is a crowning achievement, featuring the combined efforts of narrator Sir David Attenborough and some of the most miraculous camera work (in 4K UHD) that has taken years to assemble (from 400 terabytes of footage). So, expecting the documentary to only be covering the same ground as any other nature doc would require the same gross underestimation as made by a pride of lions when chasing a giraffe in the Namib Desert, or the city pigeons of Albi, France, when a Wels catfish slowly sidles up next to them. In nature, fish eat birds, frogs kick wasps, leopards hunt pigs in Mumbai, and sloths swim for sex; Planet Earth II is as close to the fantastic beasts and bugs of this world as we have ever been, although 1.5 million penguins are pretty hard to miss. — Carl Wilson

Best TV 2016: Page 5

TV Show: Preacher

Network: AMC

Cast: Dominic Cooper, Joseph Gilgun, Ruth Negga

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Preacher

Preacher occupies the foul-mouthed and gore-soaked terrain somewhere between NBC’s cancelled Constantine (2014) and the Starz network’s Ash vs Evil Dead (2015-). All three shows focus on the mystical sorts of things that crawl up from the nethersphere (usually as a direct consequence of the hubristic hero’s apathetic journey) and have to be hit over the head with shovels, magic shovels, or improvised shovels made from spikes, spit, and double-sided sticky tape. The viscera are carted away in convenient travel-sized receptacles. Adapted from Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s comic book run for Vertigo, the titular Preacher (Jesse Custer, played by Dominic Cooper), fits this recent supernatural trend, but he’s propelled forward by a kid called “Arseface” (Ian Colletti), a cheeky Irish vampire (Joseph Gilgun), and a gun-toting ex-girlfriend called Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga). Other characters ebb and flow in the small-town western setting (such as the two Laurel and Hardy angels), leading to a fantastic dénouement through which the physical and spiritual landscape is irreparably altered — something of a rarity in TV World, but something equally entirely unsurprising for a man wielding the power of a god that can be trapped in an old coffee tin. You’ve never had a friend like this. — Carl Wilson

TV Show: Real Time with Bill Maher

Network: HBO

Cast: Bill Maher

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Real Time with Bill Maher

That America actually let – nay, encouraged — a billionaire racist pussy-grabbing ignorant hate-filled reality show buffoon into the highest office in the nation only proves what Bill Maher has been saying on Real Time with Bill Maher since the show’s inception in 2003: Americans are stupid. He’ll let you know that quite clearly in his closing sanctimonious monologues, which appear to be aimed at the ignoramuses out there, yet all the while his unwavering gaze is directed at us, the viewers (wherein I’ll give his visage the middle finger). Oh, yes, Maher is blunt. He doesn’t pussyfoot around the issues no matter who the notable guest at his desk may be. Indeed, he can at times rub us the wrong way, what with his West Coast elite liberal dismissal of pretty much the whole of middle America, not least the South, and he’s caught all kinds of flak for his unapologetic, tireless criticism of Islam that can veer dangerously close to outright prejudice (but is fundamentally a distrust of all religion). Maher is sarcastic, indeed, but there’s a pointed rock of truth packed inside every thing he lobs our way, wrapped in humor or otherwise. Smart sarcasm, along with activism (and a little help from The Herb), may be the only things that get us through the next four years — and for the decades of the damaged aftermath that we anticipate under a Trump regime. There’s nothing about Maher that we’d want to change in 2017 – except maybe that tired bass guitar that escorts the opening and closing of each program — and that out of date set. We need our fearless critic and the well-timed, sharp little rocks packed inside everything he lobs at us for the foreseeable future. The next four years are going to hurt like hell. In Maher’s stinging humor, at least, we’ll find some comfort. — Karen Zarker

 

TV Show: Silicon Valley

Network: HBO

Cast: Thomas Middleditch, T. J. Miller, Josh Brener

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Silicon Valley

In the spring and summer 2016 television calendar year, TV still felt like a safe space for raucous laughter (diametrically oppositional to fleeting gut-check chuckles post-election). While “humor” is ultimately a subjective experience, 2016’s sharpest industry satire arguably appears in the third and best season of writer-creator Mike Judge’s HBO comedy Silicon Valley. Like South Park‘s recent seasons, Judge tightened his storytelling arcs by further serializing his tech world workplace budd(ies) comedy. While light on the female casting (at times part punch line, part industry criticism, part HBO problematics), the series excels when writers and performers embrace corporate cynicism and flip it on its head into sublime idioc(rac)y. Season three locates intermediary moments of comedic nirvana when leaning on its most fraudulent innovators: Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller), Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti (Josh Brener), and Hooli CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross). Bachman’s manipulation (and subsequent liquidation) of Big Head’s hush money / “intellectual” buyout puts a gut-busting spin on cronyism in the age of Millennial millionaires. Not to be undercut is the synergistic bromance timing between Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani); comedic anchors that converge along points of desperate deadpan delivery and lower-middle management angst. Season three’s rise-and-fall-and-rise-again-fall-again boardroom politics feel less repetitive than prior seasons, yet absurdly acute. Investors should eagerly anticipate installing the Silicon Valley Season 4.0 update, assuming the whole venture doesn’t go belly up first. — Garret Castleberry

 

TV Show: Stranger Things

Network: Netflix

Cast: Winona Ryder, Finn Wolfhard, David Harbour, Millie Bobby Brown, Caleb McLaughlin

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Stranger Things

Stranger Things can be summed up in two words: nostalgia zeitgeist. This sci-fi / horror / family drama embodies the best (and absolute worst) of America in 2016. Maybe that’s why the horror aspects still sting after repeat viewings. Indeed, this tiny series landed seemingly out of nowhere in summer 2016 (a televisual UFO) from relatively unknown filmmakers / TV creators and showrunners, the Duffer Brothers. Stranger Things has all the feels, if you will. It taps into the ironic dualisms of emotional experience: childhood memory and material popular culture. The eight-episode drama could cynically be described (perhaps by Mike’s [Finn Wolfhard] aloof dad, Ted [Joe Chrest]) as Netflix’s algorithmic production strategy perfected. It’s gripping, goes down easy, but hides itself in a fortress of nostalgic pulp. The genre mixing borders on excess, but as a product evoking childhood in ’80s America, with heavy overtones of absentee parenting, the material culture referential overload couldn’t be more on point. While questions linger as to how quickly this series will run out of (or retread into) Spielberg / King / Carpenter homages, there exists a certain dread that audiences may need at least four years of said escapism to find their way out of the (real-world) Upside Down. — Garret Castleberry

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TV Show: Transparent

Network: Amazon

Cast: Jeffrey Tambor, Gaby Hoffman, Jay Duplass

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Transparent

The third season of Amazon’s trailblazing Transparent continues to follow Maura Pfefferman as she embarks on living her life openly as a woman, while also delving into the rest of the family. Part of what makes Transparent so important is not just the focus on a three-dimensional trans person, but also in the ways it doesn’t try to create a perfect embodiment of how to be trans. Maura’s a selfish person at the core, despite her struggles, and much of that selfishness has been passed on to her children. Watching the Pfeffermans indulge in their narcissistic and often destructive behavior drives much of the story, but the ways they then deal with the consequences of their actions, both positively and negatively, is what ultimately makes the series so compelling. The show’s brilliant intersectional examination of gender and religion, through several generations, is a highlight of the series, but with this season in particular. This “conversation” is achieved in such a way that makes it clear that only Transparent could tell this particular story. In making such specific choices, these characters and their experiences become relatable in unexpected ways. — J. M. Suarez

 

TV Show: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Network: Netflix

Cast: Carol Kane, Jane Krakowski, Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess

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The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

After a stellar first season, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt had a lot to live up to in its second. Fortunately, it was more than up to the task. Kimmy’s continuing adventures in New York City, following her rescue from a cult, are just as off the wall and hilarious as ever, but instead of solely focusing on her as a stranger in a strange land, the season also delves into Kimmy’s pre-cult past. Ellie Kemper is surrounded by the always-excellent Titus Burgess, Jane Krakowski, and Carol Kane; they have a comedic chemistry that elevates the series beyond the clever jokes and observations it does so well. Rounded out by memorable guests stars such as Amy Sedaris and Anna Camp, the show’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual gags and throwaway jokes also make for essential repeated viewings, and one of the year’s best series. — J. M. Suarez

 

TV Show: UnREAL

Network: Lifetime

Cast: Shiri Appleby, Constance Zimmer, Craig Bierko, Genevieve Buechner, B.J. Britt, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Josh Kelly, Amy Hill

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UnREAL

The second season of Lifetime’s Peabody Award winning UnREAL continues its unflinching look at the behind-the-scenes of a The Bachelor-style show. The many manipulations and harsh truths that make up that world are on display to full effect. Centered on showrunners Quinn King (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), the two find themselves at odds for much of the season, yet still manage to ultimately support one another, albeit in non-traditional way, especially in the way that female friendships are usually depicted. Although this season stumbled a bit, the series remains one of the best on TV, with its unique mix of shock value, inappropriate humor, and emotional blackmail. — J.M. Suarez

 

TV Show: Westworld

Network: HBO

Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffrey Wright, James Marsden, Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins

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Westworld

Westworld both lives up to and surpasses its well-documented (and strategically extended) pre-distribution hype. It’s one thing for creator / showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy to offer up a cold tray of AI flesh for HBO audiences; prototypical visual stimuli in an age of “Peak TV” overconsumption. It’s another thing entirely to build a serialized drama around philosophical inquiries into definitions of human consciousness and existential debates that dare bring dehumanization to the forefront of popular culture. Inspired by the book and film of the same name, Westworld indulges the spirit of author-director Michael Crichton’s most cognizant plot conventions: larger than life theme parks, the God-complex embedded within creators, and the ramifications experienced by creations and visitors alike. Fortunately for audiences, this lush visual spectacle, drenched in binary oppositions and art history Easter eggs, disguises its deeply meditative drama in ways that may prolong its lifespan. Talk about intelligent design. How meta. — Garret Castleberry

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