Since our launch in 2012, we have published annual lists of the best films and TV shows of the year. Each year, the quality of television seems to improve dramatically, and in 2016 it’s safe to say that the best television of the year is as good as- if not better than- the finest big-screen offerings. Henceforth, we proudly present this list of the best and worst television offerings of the past year.
A few significant shows excluded from this list, because we didn’t watch them: Daredevil, Stranger Things, Luke Cage, American Horror Story, The Americans, The Fall, Veep, Divorce, Ballers, The Walking Dead, The X-Files, The Crown, The Good Wife, This is Us, Transparent.
TV’s most honest liberal sprinted into 2016 with a lot of truth to tell, and dozens of informed political and media figures to discuss the election with. Throughout the year, Maher was a source of comfort for many of us as the Trump phenomenon became a reality, never pulling his punches in criticising those on the right and- more importantly- on the left, whose mistakes led to the eventual outcome.
Very different, but equally compelling, to Maher’s show, this 25-episode Showtime series presented the election campaign as a documentary in real-time, shooting rallies with film cameras and contextualising recent developments in US political history. Hosts Mark Halperin, John Heilemann and Mark McKinnon’s ability to remain unbiased was tested as Trump became a more and more outrageous candidate, but the show never lost its energy and clear vision of the campaign. A standout was a special episode on Vice President Joe Biden, just two weeks before the election, that quietly reminded us all what it means to be a dedicated public servant.
and now, the comedies and dramas…
23. BILLIONS (SHOWTIME)
Cold, crass and not half as smart as it thinks it is, this Wall Street drama is more style than substance, and reduces the great Paul Giamatti to a lazily-written stereotype. Damian Lewis has never been so unlikeable.
22. KEVIN CAN WAIT (CBS)
“Real men bond by watching sports and drinking beer”. The ultimate family sitcom for the casual midwestern Trump voter, Kevin James’ latest multi-camera is painfully old-fashioned but relatively harmless (we think).
21. VINYL (HBO)
Despite having directed the abysmal pilot, Martin Scorsese (for whom this since-cancelled rock ‘n’ roll drama was a career low-point) had little influence on the aesthetics of this arrogant, indulgent mess. More visible was the involvement of Mick Jagger as producer: this show embodied every inch of his vanity and exhibitionism.
20. FLAKED (NETFLIX)
Pitched as a live-action spin on his Bojack Horseman, Will Arnett’s other Netflix-based midlife-crisis dramedy lacked any of that show’s subtlety and balance of tone. Lacking warmth, humour and sympathetic characters, Flaked explores a community of obnoxious entitled hipsters in Venice Beach and expects us to mourn for their perceived lack of purpose. A solid soundtrack and impressive directing by Wally Pfister made it watchable, but this passion project is truly a waste of Arnett’s enormous talent.
19. DESIGNATED SURVIVOR (ABC)
When the US President, Congress and Senate are all killed by terrorists in the opening scene of your pilot, it’s difficult to raise the stakes in subsequent episodes. This was a fatal error in the conceptualisation of this Kiefer Sutherland-starring thriller, as more and more uninspired subplots are introduced week-after-week, none of which can generate the excitement of that terrific first episode. Sutherland and Kal Penn are both excellent as freshly-ordained President Kirkman and his press secretary; Designated Survivor could have made an excellent feature film. It simply can’t sustain a series.
18. THE PEOPLE VS O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY (FX)
Though often straying into the waters of a cheesy soap opera, Ryan Murphy’s 10-episode account of the infamous O.J. trial benefited from a large cast with varying degrees of talent: on one hand, the excellent Sarah Paulson; on the other hand… John Travolta. The show picked up energy midway through, adding elements of racial politics and media influence to the twisted tale, and was ultimately a sufficient retelling of an absurd period.
17. GAME OF THRONES (HBO)
HBO’s tiresomely self-serious fantasy stampeded into its sixth season with the cliffhanger of Jon Snow’s death waiting to be resolved. The outcome of the storyline was moderately engaging, leading to the spectacular Battle of the Bastards episode (possibly the show’s best). The other 9 episodes of this season were, at best, distracting.
16. BRAINDEAD (CBS)
Succeeding as both a goofy monster horror and smart political satire, this Mary Elizabeth Winstead-starrer sees alien insects eat the brains of Washington politicians, essentially turning them into Trump supporters. Topical but never too preachy, this show’s cancellation was a major disappointment.
15. CRISIS IN SIX SCENES (AMAZON)
Woody Allen’s first TV effort wasn’t a disaster: it’s impressively shot, he and Elaine May make a hilarious couple and the final episode is a brilliant piece of Preston Sturges-esque absurdity. At the same time, it’s hugely flawed, with Miley Cyrus delivering one of 2016’s most irritating performances as a loudmouth political activist, and a structure and pace that display Allen’s lack of television experience. Nonetheless, it’s worth a watch.
14. 11/22/63 (HULU)
Hulu’s adaptation of Stephen King’s 11/22/63 had a terrific premise: James Franco travels back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK. Its pilot is a delightful hour of bonkers nonsense. Rapidly, however, the show began to introduce a few too many subplots and lost focus. By the surprisingly moving finale, it has regained much of its initial momentum. A thoroughly watchable 60s-based adventure.
13. THE INCREASINGLY POOR DECISIONS OF TODD MARGARET (IFC)
The first two seasons of David Cross’ comic farce are television gold. This long-awaited third instalment was largely misjudged, structured around a contrived alternate-dimension conceit. Halfway through, returning to the show’s roots (and the awesome Johnny Marr theme song), it got significantly better. Will Arnett and Sharon Horgan play brilliantly against Cross’ narcissistic compulsive liar Todd, and Jack McBrayer is a welcome addition to the cast. This show has, however, run its course.
12. GOLIATH (AMAZON)
Viciously engaging performances from Billy Bob Thornton and William Hurt saved David E. Kelley’s otherwise unexceptional legal drama; a pantomimic, less colourful Better Call Saul. The initial mystery of an oil rig explosion, totally uninteresting, spins off into various subplots of murder, betrayal, sex and disfiguration. Unmemorable, but enjoyable in its own snarky way.
11. MR. ROBOT (USA)
A disappointment after the fabulous first season, the return run of Sam Esmail’s hacker drama added unnecessary supporting characters to the mix and severely lost focus on Rami Malek’s Elliot– a performance that single-handedly carried this show to brilliance in 2015. Malek continued to do exceptional work this season, and the editing remains the best on TV. Nevertheless, Mr. Robot should (and, hopefully, shall) return to its gritty roots for next year’s Season 3.
Billed as “the next Game of Thrones“, HBO’s big-budget hybrid of sci-fi and western shares that show’s messy structure and oversized cast, but often compensates with compelling insight into the mind of its android theme park workers. Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright and Jimmi Simpson are standouts amongst the crowd of humans and robots, the atmosphere of dread slowly emerging is impressively handled, and the various enigmas glimpsed both inside and outside the titular park are intriguing enough to justify further adventures.
At once an affecting poem on urban isolation and brutal takedown of Instagram culture (every episode has, at its centre, a ‘Gram-friendly moment), Donald Glover’s hip-hop fairytale is the best new comedy of 2016– if you feel comfortable calling it a comedy. Eclectic persona weave in and out of Earn (Glover)’s life as he tries to make it a better one. A near-flawless debut effort from a master of subtle satire.
Bouncing back after a surprisingly downbeat second season, Year 3 of Mike Judge’s workplace sitcom anatomisation was full of brilliant observational comedy and genuinely moving character interactions. This is the show The Big Bang Theory and its “adorable nerd” contemporaries should aspire to be…
Released at the height of primary season, and with numerous parallels to Election 2016, House of Cards took full advantage of its unique position of cultural relevance in its most enjoyable season to date. As the scheming Underwoods, running for reelection as President and Vice President respectively, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright give two of television’s most impressive performances. Here’s hoping Cards can maintain its momentum going forward into the Trump era.
Loveable characters exploring a deeply screwed-up cultural environment– with puns! Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Schmidt remains the most unabashedly joyful show on TV, with Ellie Kemper and Titus Burgess leading a cast of exceptional warmth.
A masterclass in compelling costume drama, the BBC’s 2016 adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic opted for Russian grandeur over Downtonian British snobbery, with captivating results. Paul Dano is stellar as revolutionary Pierre, and the lavish production (including Martin Phipps’ extraordinary score– the best TV music of the year) allows one of the literature’s most nuanced tales to be told accessibly and thrillingly.
A show as unpredictable and controversial as its central character, Paolo Sorrentino’s Vatican miniseries is a Catholic House of Cards on steroids. As the narcissistic, media-baiting pontiff, Jude Law has found the role of his career. This Pope struggles with his faith, his urges and an untrustworthy staff in a stunningly-presented political thriller. When a show about the Catholic church uses LMFAO’s “Sexy And I Know It” for a montage, you know it means business.
Consistently the source of television’s most unique cinematic aesthetic, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad prequel continues to equal that show’s style and suspense. Bob Odenkirk is superb as dodgy lawyer Jimmy McGill, but it’s the varied supporting players who truly shone in Season 2, from Rhea Seehorn as Jimmy’s ambitious partner Kim to Michael McKean’s as Jimmy’s brother Chuck. Always surprising, never slow, Saul has built a world that could see it continue for years to come.
Three seasons in, and Bojack Horseman continues to be the most profound and moving drama on television. Simultaneously, it lives up to its premise as an animated comedy about a cartoon horse, with this 13-episode run featuring a Lost in Translation-inspired underwater journey and Bojack’s attempt to win an Oscar. Will Arnett lends a weary resignation to the perpetually-dour Hollywood stallion, with Alison Brie and Aaron Paul among the stupendous supporting cast. When it isn’t making us laugh with some of the wittiest send-ups of the film industry ever put on screen, it’s breaking out hearts with its quieter moments. Bojack Horseman is a very special show.
Every year there’s one television show that proves why the small screen is the definitive location of our times for important, inquisitive storytelling. In 2016, that show was The Night Of. Co-created by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian (who directs every episode), this 8-part HBO miniseries explores the flaws of the US justice system and systemic culture prejudices through the lens of a murder trial. Riz Ahmed’s Nasir goes home with a girl, takes some pills and wakes up the next morning to find her brutally murdered, with no memory of what happened. The show’s focus isn’t on Nasir’s search for the truth as much as it is on the unfair treatment he receives due to his Islamic background and the effects of a horrific prison environment on his character.
As jail transforms Nasir from quiet academic to hard drug user, John Turturro’s gumshoe lawyer John Stone seeks justice on the streets and in the courtroom. Stone is a tremendous creation, with Turturro presenting a man whose financial motivation is overwhelmed by his emotional investment in Nasir’s case. The part was originally intended for James Gandolfini, then Robert DeNiro, but it’s impossible to imagine either acting giant giving as beautiful a performance as Turturro does. Stone, who spends an absurd but brilliant amount of the show seeking help for his eczema, is a true hero for our difficult times. The show itself plays like a deconstruction of police procedural dramas, forcing the viewer through the cracks that are rarely explored. Ahmed and Turturro are aided by some equally flawless players: Bill Camp as a sympathetic detective, Jeannie Berlin as a determined prosecutor and Michael Kenneth Williams as Nasir’s sole source of wisdom on Rikers’ Island. Shot and scored as startlingly as any David Fincher feature, The Night Of is a true gem in what was arguably a less-than-stellar year for HBO. This is creatively-driven television at its best, with sharp social commentary at its beating heart.