2016 was a shitshow. Terrible things happened this year. Brexit. President Trump. Suicide Squad. Of all the arbitrary time units ever, this was definitely in the bottom thousand.
Still, though, some good things happened this year. It’s good to know that as the world descends into maniacal chaos, millions upon millions are still being pumped into ways for people to briefly forget how horrible the world can be. Most of that happened on the small screen, which just got better and better this year as the number of shows on television continued to swell beyond all logical reason. It wasn’t all perfect – Fear the Walking Dead exists – but there was an incredible amount of good stuff this year.
With that in mind, here’s my favourite ten shows of the year (after last year’s top nine, I have sold out and now only do conventional numbers). Believe me, it was hard to narrow it down this year. Big league difficult. Also, as ever, no particular order. On with the shows!
I wouldn’t have expected to put an animated talking horse comedy in this list at the start of the year, but life comes at you fast. In fact, this is essentially the TV show I’ve been waiting for all my life, so tailored to my tastes and sense of humour that I’m wondering if the creators have spent time in my mind. Suffice to say, BoJack Horseman is something much, much deeper than that reductive tag suggests. It’s absolutely a comedy, and it’s funnier than about 99% of everything else on TV with a joke rate of about 100 per minute (just pause at any given moment for a golden sight gag) but it’s also one of the sharpest, most woundingly accurate dramas around, mostly simultaneously, chronicling the issue of depression with a brutal frankness that most gritty dramas would steer away from in an instant, Since the first season leaned hard into the ‘talking animals’ gimmick, BoJack has zeroed in on just what it wants to be, and this year’s third season saw Netflix’s best comedy (controversial? eh) reach new heights of comedy, artistry and gut-punchery (not a word, the last one, but it had to fit).
For new heights of comedy, you had a running gag about spaghetti strainers with a legitimately magnificent pay-off, and an episode centering around abortion that brilliantly made the case for the issue to be treated more normally via the medium of a pop song called ‘Get Dat Fetus, Kill Dat Fetus’ (it makes more sense in context, just about). For artistry, you had an episode set entirely underwater, packing in some of the most impressive animated visuals I’ve seen on either film and TV and crafting a heartfelt character arc for the central character… with no dialogue at all. And for gut-punches, well: the final four episodes systematically, painfully destroyed virtually every key relationship on this show as every secret and resentment came home to roost, leading to one of the most heartbreaking conclusions imaginable.
BoJack is cruelly brilliant, and brilliantly cruel. It’s the type of TV that’ll either leave you breathless from laughing, staring in existential despair at the horror of what you’ve witnessed, or both. Watch it, fool.
No particular order, remember? As with last year, I put my show of the year at number two to prove I mean business. And yes, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is my show of the year. Don’t look so surprised.
Crazy-Ex Girlfriend exists in conversation with BoJack, in that it’s an ostensibly comedic character study of a heavily flawed person who makes all the wrong life decisions and constantly alienates their friends in the pursuit of something meaningless. Both are utterly despairing and nihilistic in their outlook, but have an essential faith in the majority of humanity as shown by broadly sympathetic supporting characters. Crazy Ex, though, has much more to do, so the fact that it’s not just good, but absolutely A+ fantastic, is pretty damn impressive. For instance, it’s also a musical, which is traditionally a weird mix with television. Yet Crazy Ex is unerringly consistent in that department, cranking out two or more original numbers per week, around about 50% of which are solid gold (a song called ‘I Gave You A UTI, a Green Day parody about ping pong, a teen-angst song about intentionally not putting effort in and a tap dance called ‘We Tapped That Ass’ are just the tip of the iceberg), and the other 50% are merely great.
It’s also that rare romantic comedy that works simultaneously as a straightforward romantic comedy and as a brutal deconstruction of all romantic comedies. At its core, this is a show about the harm that simplistic narratives about romance can do when they’re applied to reality – the central character, Rebecca, sees herself as the trademark rom-com protagonist, a viewpoint that’s nothing if not horrifically harmful. Yet in season two, it’s broadened out beyond that mission statement to explore how her friends are moving way on past her by taking their trauma and emotional issues and tackling it head-on, leading to a fascinating dynamic where the character we’re meant to root for is one of the least likeable/emotionally developed in the entire cast. Oh, and this show is also pretty great at casually tackling social issues that would spook the majority of shows on cable, let alone network. Bisexuality? Check. Alcoholism? Check. Abortion? Check. Mentioning controversial topics in a random sequence? Check.
Anyway, this show is pure sunshine and joy. It’s so good.
Back when I reviewed this show, it was a wee little indie series that had quietly slipped onto Netflix. Now, it’s a brand in of itself. There are Funko Pops of it. The word ‘Barb’ is now universally recognised shorthand. The 80s are now generally seen as a great time with all of the Cold War nightmares forgotten. Eggo waffles have received a new burst of popularity.
It’s kind of comforting that below the monolithic hype and legion of stale memes, Stranger Things is just a really solid story with excellent production values and an A+ cast. It’s simple, meat-and-potatoes sci-fi that offers simple pleasures that the TV landscape could learn a lot from. For one, it’s paced perfectly, leaving the bloat of every other Netflix original behind for a lean, mean eight hours that never lets up. For two, it has the best cast of child actors you’ll ever meet, who form such a likeable and believable friendship group that you’ll forget why you ever hated child actors in the third place. And for three, it’s a kickass mystery show that answers all its questions and keeps its mythology nice and constrained. The idea of TV seasons as extended movies has often led to shapeless and meandering storytelling, yet here we have a show that really does function as a satisfying, close-ended eight hour movie. Season two, instead of being a necessity to complete the story, is a nice, luxurious sequel that gives us more time to spend with the characters. Stranger Things isn’t dazzling, but it’s dependable, consistent and entertaining comfort food TV.
Better Call Saul
A returnee! In a nearly all-new line-up, Better Call Saul is the only show from my top ten last year to make it onto this year’s. It richly deserves its grizzled veteran (of two years) spot, because season two took everything promising from season one and built on it. Sophomore slump? More like sophomore… improvement (it will catch on). Season two was slower, more methodical and prone to long, meandering digressions, but that was all part of the individual charm that really lifted it. Better Call Saul really embraced its individuality this season, telling its own genuinely original stories free from the Breaking Bad template that season one often returned to and developing its own offbeat, intimate vibe that ensured the show never strayed from its laser focus on character. In season two, Better Call Saul earned the right to lose the spin-off moniker, and began to work as a terrific show in its own right
Game of Thrones
Okay, I only caught up on Game of Thrones this year and this list needed some mainstream credo. Even then, though, this year’s sixth season was pretty great. With the end-game set for 2018, season six finally abandoned the forward-looking slow-burn and began to pay things off while gradually narrowing down the cast to the big hitters. That led to a whole slew of iconic, rewarding pay-offs that only really need short descriptions: Hold the Door, the Battle of the Bastards, the Sept of Baelor, R+L = J, Queen Cersei. Season six kept up the sprawling, interweaving action that’s always been GOT‘s trademark, but it really lifted into being one of the strongest runs yet by telling new kinds of stories – one where the good guys won occasionally, where the outcomes actually satisfied instead of just eliciting shock. While fellow cable mega-hit The Walking Dead becomes flabbier and repetitive in its old age, GOT is as fresh-faced and free of wrinkles as ever, like someone who’s just exited the Botox clinic.
If you’re a fan of comic-book TV, 2016 couldn’t have been a better year. You have Marvel’s ongoing Netflix juggernaut, whatever the hell Gotham is meant to be and the CW’s DC universe that swelled to four shows as of this autumn. There’s never been more choice in that regard. One show, however stood out amongst the flock this year: Supergirl. It almost made my list last year but missed out as it hadn’t quite overcome its growing pains (I’ll stop with ageing analogies soon, I promise!). This year, however, it worked out the kinks and really soared. Supergirl works because it’s unashamedly optimistic – its hero loves saving people, and the city populace often end up standing up and performing their own acts of heroism because they’re all really great people at heart. In a lot of ways, it’s the perfect show for the current political climate – not only offering a middle finger to Donald Trump’s crowd obliquely in its embracing of unity and diverse cast (one of this year’s highlights involved a key character coming out), but also offering a more direct middle finger by essentially becoming a positive allegory for immigration experiences in season two. Oh, and it’s also just a whole lot of fun. There was a crossover episode with The Flash that gave us this:
And a two-episode team-up with a comic-accurate and genuinely good-hearted Superman that gave us this:
Supergirl is a joyful, fun show, but it’s also defiantly progressive in its outlook and resistant to everything that has swept this year into the bottom 1000 of years.
Fans of Charlie Brooker’s cheerfully misanthropic satire were worried when Netflix bought the series last year. Would a show founded on British cynicism and British cast members work when transplanted to an American setting? Would everything just be Americanized? Would entire episodes be set in a Burger King? People shouldn’t have worried. Netflix’s Black Mirror was just like the old Black Mirror where it needed to be, but different in all the right places. In the anthology of six stories, we had a real grab bag of what this show could do, mostly delivered strongly. There was classic style Black Mirror where everything ended horribly and everyone was awful, mildly subversive Black Mirror where everything ended badly and most people were awful except one person who appeared in a cameo, and, best of all, optimistic Black Mirror where everything ended well and everyone was lovely. That last one, San Junipero, more or less justified the season’s entire existence, delivering a pitch-perfect story that proved that Black Mirror is so much more than just a nihilistic condemnation of technology. Not every story this year hit the mark – Men Against Fire was a slog with about 5 minutes of viable drama – but season three was the best selection box you’ll ever receive for Christmas. Except instead of caramel and orange, the fillings would be murder and death.
Person of Interest
“Person of Interest?” I hear you ask. “Doesn’t that sound like a procedural on CBS where white people solve crimes?”. Well, broadly speaking, yes, that is Person of Interest. Please don’t be so reductive, though, hypothetical person. Person of Interest is also a fascinating science-fiction show exploring a post-Singularity world where artificial intelligence exists that possesses the ability to use mankind’s social structures as a weapon. White people solving crimes can be philosophically interesting, and surprisingly diverse when you consider the show’s good LGBT representation. Nuance exists in this world. Expand your mind.
Person of Interest hit its final season last year, squished into a burn-off schedule by a network that killed it with fire once it became interesting, and it managed to craft one hell of a send-off. It’s the rare network show that’s inventive and freewheeling on a miniature budget, working together smart and innovative ideas like an episode called ‘6471’, in which the number applies to the amount of times one person has been forced to sit through the simulation (it’s horribly depressing, but also really great) while delivering gut punch after gut punch as it became clear that the creators would happily murder any of the cast, at any time, in any way. For all the invention and tragedy, though, POI‘s last stand managed to be one of the most profound and hopeful endings I’ve ever seen on a show, even as it casually continued to kill off its main cast right up until the end. POI was too clever and too original to work on a network exclusively populated by has-been comedy stars in low-concept sitcoms where they have to learn to be dads, but it went out swinging, so that’s something. It has now been replaced in its timeslot by NCIS: New Orleans. Life is tough sometimes.
Westworld, loosely based on the internet phenomenon of Westworld podcasts, has been touted as two things by the press. Before air, it was ‘the new Game of Thrones!’, based on the fact that it was expensive and is made by HBO. During air, it has been called ‘a mystery show’ in a slightly sneering tone by critics, with its cryptic and hazy storytelling beaten continuously for prioritizing fan theory bait over character.
I’m here to tell you that those two things are silly. Westworld is much more than an attempt to bottle the Game of Thrones lightning again – the genre comparisons aside, it’s much more focused on theme as opposed to narrative, while GOT swings the other way. And while the mysteries are a key part of the show, it’s a pretty sturdy character drama in its own right that recognises the value of a kick-ass cast including Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Jimmi Simpson, Ed Harris, and most other talented B-listers to take the script and breathe life into it – listen to one terrifying monologue by Hopkins’ villain, and tell me that Westworld doesn’t have characters.
Above all, Westworld is something rare for TV, in that it’s a story about storytelling – as one character puts it, ‘lies to tell a greater truth’. Its setting, a Western-themed park populated by lifelike androids, is one great big canvas for creativity in-universe, a place where visitors can come to find clarity and order in a place where everything makes sense, but actions don’t matter. It’s a story about memory, in which androids are kept in captivity by the inability to recall their past beyond the created back-stories prescribed for them, and therefore about the way in which identity is crafted from past experiences. It’s a story about consciousness, and the search for a deeper meaning when we’ve come to a place where we seemingly cannot advance as a species, while the Hosts provoke questions of where the line can be drawn at all – where does life begin, exactly – with the formation of identity, possession of free will, recognition of your place in the universe, or all of these?
Westworld is a show about questions, so it’s fitting that it provokes so damn many of them, up to and including the question of whether there’s an answer to anything at all. And yes, it’s also a show about mystery, in which the exact chronology of events is obscured, and in which the true nature of characters is slowly revealed rather than shown all at once. But the mysteries are smartly unveiled and become clearer each and every week rather than being obscured up to a ‘shocking’ big reveal, and the quest to see a bigger picture as the clarity of it all increases is one of the most fun parts about watching the show – it works with you, rather than just holding the cards to its chest arbitrarily forever.
Okay, yeah, I spent a lot of time talking about this show. I even spend time talking about in real life, which is rare. If you’re reading this and know me, you probably want me to shut up about Westworld already. But hey. It’s worth talking about.
I have a bad relationship with Mr Robot. Every episode, I expect greatness, and have to look for it instead, really hard. It holds back answers to its mysteries for aeons – there are some mysteries from season one that, going into season three, are still completely unclear. Its story meanders so intensely that it’s safe to say that about 80% of its screen-time can be chalked up as delaying tactics. Sometimes, just to prove it can, it’ll just stop caring about whether things make sense, and offer up a scene that’s completely incomprehensible from any perspective, then ending with the promise of a mystery to be solved about why the scene was completely incomprehensible (it’s usually not solved).
Yet I can’t not appreciate this show. I know it’s a bad thing that in one year it’s slipped from my favourite new show to my problematic favourite on which my feelings consistently shift. Season two was made right in the onrush of awards love and mainstream success of season one, and you can tell the validation that the creator feels in every frame. It goes big and brash and weird in everything it does, throwing mainstream appeal right out of the window. Sometimes, as explained above, that ends in incomprehensibly weird failure. Sometimes, though, it ends in genius, and the genius comes so often that it’s necessary to keep going, waiting for the next bit of genius (this is not a metaphor for drug addiction, I promise).
Season two had gloriously weird structural experiments like a 20-minute segment that served as an eerie parody of 90s family sitcoms, complete with ultra-cheesy opening credits where all the actors turn to camera and smile. It frequently upended everything that previously seemed to be true, with thrilling results, using the unreliable narrator trick for a twist that may have been predictable, wasn’t any less impressive when it arrived. It often ditched its main character for side adventures with supporting characters who became vastly more interesting and dynamic. And when the show regained its focus and began to sprint forward, it was hard not to get swept along in the momentum of it all.
Mr Robot season two was a strange, problematic season of TV, but it was like absolutely nothing else on TV, including shows that are ‘absolutely nothing else on TV’.