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Derek’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2016

January 13, 2017

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I intentionally watched less TV in 2016 than I had the past several years. I mean, I didn’t do so for any good reason, I did it because I wanted to focus on watching more films in 2016, but as a result I quit watching a multitude of mediocre shows that I was only staying with because I had been watching them from the beginning and had some small emotional attachment. In addition, the poor internet quality in my apartment meant I was only able to keep up with *two* streaming shows despite there being many more that I really wanted to catch. All that being said, in this time of #peaktv I still found a great many shows that I liked and even some that I loved over the course of 2016. Four of my five favorite shows from 2015 didn’t return in 2016, so the top of my list looks quite different this year. And on top of that, I definitely “cheated” in making this a list of 10 by combining a few shows into the same spot, but it represents how I consumed and contemplated the things that I watched this year, so I hope you enjoy reading it at least. Let me know what you think!

Honorable Mention:

 

Agent Carter – The second season of Marvel’s superior network TV series (sorry Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) was an improvement from the already fun season one. The best moment was a beautifully choreographed, musical number at the start of the series finale episode. I’ll miss this sweet little show now that it is over.

 

Atlanta – Donald Glover’s creativity apparently extends far beyond community college meta-humor, musical talents, and stand-up comedy. I never knew what to expect from week to week with this show, but Donald and the terrific cast always delivered something creative and meditative that could be enjoyed on many levels.

 

Better Things – A half-hour, slight comedy, slight drama about motherhood isn’t exactly a show targeted at me, but the naturalistic style of Better Things really drew me in. Pamela Adlon’s divorced, mother of three, working actress always hit the right balance of reality, sincerity, and humor so that this single, 30 year old engineer felt like he had something to gain from every episode.

 

The Jim Gaffigan Show – Another show whose second season took a step up from the first and will unfortunately not be coming back for a third. Jim decided to steer the show in a slightly more surreal direction and it worked wonders for the balance of the comedy and familial relationships in the show.

 

Last Man on Earth – After a brilliant pilot followed by wild swings in quality over the rest of the first and all of the second seasons, Last Man on Earth finally discovered a consistent and interesting approach in season three. The selfish, over-eager, grating quality of Will Forte’s character began to bother less as the characters finally learned to roll their eyes and go about in spite of him, and the real angst of life on Earth with only a handful of survivors was finally able to take center stage as a result.

 

And now, to the top ten…

 

  1. Angie Tribeca and People of Earth

TBS got into the original programming game in a big way in 2016. Right at the start of the year they debuted (In a 5 hour marathon) the first season of the Airplane!-style, police station comedy Angie Tribeca followed in the fall by the second season of Angie Tribeca and finally in the winter by the first season of the alien encounter therapy group comedy People of Earth. Both shows operate in different modes, Angie Tribeca as a goofy, over-the-top joke machine and People of Earth as a surprisingly poignant take on the marginalized in society, but both shows really worked for me because of how they allowed me to laugh in 2016.

 

  1. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

The second season of the colorful Netflix comedy took me a bit longer to make it through than the first (which had a lot to do with the poor quality of my internet this year, but please, continue in this narrative with me), but the concluding arc about Kimmy seeking therapy for coming to grips with her decade in captivity was simultaneously funny (thanks to a great turn as an alcoholic, therapist by Tina Fey) and touching in how it connected Kimmy to her mother. Still, I can’t deny that the first several episodes were a bit of a slow starter compared with the first season and that’s why Kimmy occupies the same spot on this list as she did last year.

 

  1. Mr. Robot

Creator Sam Esmail took the reins and directed all of the episodes of season 2 of Mr. Robot instead of just a handful as he did in season 1. As a result, there was uniformity to the feel of the season, which wasn’t necessarily lacking in season 1, but it became an even greater strength of this very artistically ambitious show in season 2. There was some bloat in the runtime of a few of the episodes and as a result the story didn’t feel as tight as previously, but that was a small price to pay for the beauty on display throughout.

 

  1. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and Garbage Time with Katie Nolan

2016 was a pretty bad year for news in general, but the presence of these three comedians definitely added a bit of levity to the grim proceedings. My preference of the three is still Oliver, in part because the limitlessness of HBO allows him to spend more sustained time on one topic without the commercial breaks and because he is less tied to presenting the most recent news and instead goes deep on non-mainstream issues. That said, my favorite segments of the year were delivered by Sam Bee and Katie Nolan. Sam brought some comedy to the frustrating dichotomy of the NRA regulation and sales approach in this segment (https://youtu.be/usgOsNhkKVE) and infuriated on multiple levels with this segment on crisis pregnancy centers (https://youtu.be/SY0A6gyyQys). Katie has the ostensibly lighter show about sports, but when she wants, she can hit real hard as she did in her segment about the Baylor rape scandal (https://youtu.be/yj-27FnGskY). 2017 will be a little better because these three are around.

 

  1. Silicon Valley

The third season of HBO’s male-centric, computer programmer comedy managed to pull off an impressive feat: create a way for smart people to behave smartly and not have to temporarily act artificially dumb for everything to not work out perfectly (or even super well) for the characters. Whether it was success or failure for the guys at Pied Piper, the results were never less than funny and always felt like the perfect result for the well constructed characters.

 

  1. The People v O.J. Simpson: An American Crime Story

This was the beginning of my 2016 education and entertainment about the trial of the (20th) century. I was ages 3 through 12 during the 1990s and didn’t understand any of the nuance, or really anything period, about the trial of O.J. Simpson. These 10 episodes of FX new anthology series (though who knows how they will top something so extraordinary with a different crime story) primarily covered the trial portion of the O.J. Simpson story and as a result they were able to delve deep into the lives and motivations of those involved with this incredible true story.

 

  1. Bob’s Burgers and Brooklyn Nine-Nine

My two favorite comedies on TV occupy a similar type of comedy space despite one being an animated show about a family that owns a restaurant and one being a live action show set in a New York police department. Neither show has much story continuity (although when Brooklyn does put together an arc, it leads to hilarious results), but the character continuity binds everything together and gives both shows an old-fashioned feel to the rhythms of the jokes and the sincerity of the characters. As difficult as laughs were to come by in 2016, these two shows helped to keep me afloat.

 

  1. Rectify

Gentleness isn’t a particularly cinematic quality. The way that Rectify was able to create a feeling of gentleness over the last 8 episodes of its run was remarkable and for that reason it was difficult to get these episodes out of my mind this winter. In this season, acquitted murderer Daniel Holden moved away from his hometown in Georgia and began life in a halfway house in Nashville. The show took on a new dynamic as it could finally explore how Daniel’s absence, instead of his presence, affected his family. The cumulative effect of the 30 episodes of the deliberately paced, introspective Rectify ended up leading to a quietly powerful show that stuck all of its emotional landings. Daniel told his sister in the finale that he was cautiously optimistic about the future and even though Rectify is now gone from the TV landscape, I harbor the same feeling that it was able to pave the way for other shows like it.

 

  1. O.J.: Made in America

The second O.J. Simpson project that I watched in 2016 was this five night, eight hour documentary that didn’t just cover the events surrounding Simpson’s arrest and trial, but told the full story of his life, the influences that pulled him from childhood through his current situation in Nevada, and ultimately expanded the scope to see the bigger picture of celebrity and race relations that were at play around the trial. I watched all of this documentary over the course of the Independence Day weekend, which is to say that it was the only show that I “binge watched” during the year and I feel like that reality effectively communicates the power of the storytelling on display in Made in America.

 

  1. The Americans

What makes a TV show “watchable?” What makes a show the first thing you click play on in the DVR when you have a backlog of several days? I know that, for me, the grim shows tend to be the ones that are most difficult to convince myself to watch when the more fun shows are waiting to be seen. All of this to say, the fact that The Americans  was the show that I was most interested to watch every week over the course of its 13 episode fourth season defied expectations for my typical rhythms of life. The Americans is a dark show, a grim show about secret Russian spies doing terrible things and compromising their goals and desires for the hope of some normalcy amongst their family. And even more than in previous years, the fake American family took center stage as the teenage daughter learned of her parent’s true identity and began to grapple with the fact that her allegiances truly lied in a different country than the one in which she was raised. The complex moral dilemmas and beautiful small moments combined to make The Americans my most frequently anticipated, first watched, and favorite show of 2016.

 

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