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Television

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

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