‘Stranger Things,’ ‘The Night Of’ And More Of 2016’s Best New TV Shows

The exponential growth in original TV series that’s led to Peak TV has required not only a tidal wave of new shows every year, but of really good new shows. So when I assembled my overall top 20 list for the year, it not only featured five brand-new series — Horace and Pete, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Atlanta, Fleabag, and Better Things — but could have featured two or three times that amount and few would have felt out of place.

So, because everybody gets a trophy at What’s Alan Watching, I decided to expand beyond those five shows to give you 16 more I at least considered, because 2016 was just that excellent in terms of new material. Add ’em up, and you’ve got 21 promising-to-great new series of the year, and that still leaves off a lot of interesting things. (This list doesn’t even include Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, which I watched very little of in an attempt to detox from the election.)

Where I counted down to the top spot with my overall list, I’m going to go in reverse. You already know what my 5 favorite new series of the year were, so we’ll start with the 6th and move on from there.

6. Stranger Things (Netflix)

The Duffer brothers’ salute to Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and other things awesomely ’80s could have easily felt like an empty and shameless exercise in nostalgia. Instead, their story of a group of D&D-loving middle schoolers, their telekinetic new best friend, and a monster from a dark parallel dimension called The Upside Down turned out to be so much fun — and with terrific performances from both the kids and Winona Ryder and David Harbour as the grownups on their side — that even King himself was singing the praises of this particular tribute act. And by doing only 8 hours, Stranger Things licked the problem that tends to afflict most Netflix shows (including a few others on this list) where they have more episodes to fill than story to fill them.

7. The Good Place (NBC)

Mike Schur’s high-concept comedy about a woman (Kristen Bell) who winds up in a version of Heaven through a clerical error initially felt more clever than funny, outside of Ted Danson’s marvelously silly work as the Good Place’s celestial architect. But its discussion of morality and ethical philosophy proved incredibly lively and engaging while Schur and his writers figured out what made each character comically tick, and by the time Adam Scott turned up as the d-bag representative of the Bad Place, The Good Place had started rounding into form as a worthy successor to Schur’s previous work on Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Office.

8. The Crown (Netflix)

A classic example of the old Ebert axiom that what a story is about is far less interesting than how it’s about, Peter Morgan’s drama — Netflix’s most expensive to date — about the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign dealt with a subject and rituals for which I usually have little use. But Morgan and his actors — including Clare Foy as the young Elizabeth, Matt Smith as Prince Philip, John Lithgow as Winston Churchill, and more — brought the stuffiness of the royal family to vivid life, making Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne, and the way she was forced to sublimate her own personality and desires for the sake of the eponymous headgear, into a poignant slow-motion tragedy.

9. Baskets (FX)

Even Baskets co-creator and star Zach Galifianakis admitted he didn’t know if the show would work, but in time his desert-dry comedy about a pretentious rodeo clown, his obnoxious twin brother, and their Costco-obsessed mother (Emmy winner Louie Anderson in drag, yet never a joke) proved to be an oddball delight — the kind of show destined to confuse or alienate all but a select few, but make those few (myself included) absolutely adore it.

10. The Night Of (HBO)

Steve Zaillian and Richard Price’s drama, about college student Nas (Riz Ahmed) being charged with murder after a one-night stand has gone horribly awry, debuted with one of the year’s most breathtaking episodes of TV, but became uneven afterwards. It shone whenever focusing on the specifics of Nas’s attempts to survive in jail while waiting trial, or the shabby details of the life of his eczema-afflicted lawyer John Stone (John Turturro), but tended to stumble whenever it came time to deal with the trial itself, or the question of whether Nas actually did it. The finale was the whole series in miniature: brilliant in spots, frustrating in others. But when The Night Of was good, it was great.

11. Quarry (Cinemax)

This pulpy ’70s drama about a Vietnam vet (Logan Marshall-Green) blackmailed into becoming a hitman for a Memphis crime syndicate put some of its sketchier characters and relationships at the center of the narrative, but was so beautifully shot — including a jaw-dropping Vietnam War sequence in the season finale — with such a strong sense of period and location and atmosphere, that it was utterly engrossing, anyway. Hopefully, Cinemax orders another season.

12. Lady Dynamite (Netflix)

Within the post-Louie subgenre of sad and deeply autobiographical comedies about stand-up comedians, Lady Dynamite stood out for being both the darkest and the weirdest, as co-creator/star Maria Bamford’s life story toggled back and forth between absurd triumph and bipolar failure, with each piece of it making the other better. A poignant Comedy In Theory (tm Matt Zoller Seitz) that could also be a hysterical comedy in actuality.

13. Speechless (ABC)

Another winner from ABC’s family comedy factory — which manages to turn out shows that are both distinct from one another while feeling reliably funny, smart, and sweet — focuses on a special needs family, led by Minnie Driver’s terrifying mama bear and John Ross Bowie’s laid-back dad, who have built their entire lives around teenage son J.J. (Micah Fowler), who has cerebral palsy and needs the help of aide Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough) to
communicate. The writers and Fowler wisely make J.J. a complicated kid first, and a disability a very distant second, and that sets the tone for how the entire show works — which, midway through its first season, is very, very well.

14. Underground (WGN America)

What happens when you mash up a historical atrocity with a caper story? You get WGN’s thrilling, clever, and frequently powerful Underground, about a mass escape by a group of Georgia slaves, each with their own specialty (the muscle, the manufacturer, etc.) and personal motivation for risking their life in pursuit of freedom. The story wrapped up so well that it almost felt disappointing that so much of the finale was devoted to keeping the surviving characters in play for season 2, rather than aiming for an anthology miniseries model. But the performances by Aldis Hodge, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and others were so strong, it’s hard to blame the creative team for wanting to do more with them.

15. One Mississippi (Amazon)

Tig Notaro’s career-redefining stand-up routine about the convergence of two life-threatening illnesses and the sudden death of her mother became the basis for another Louie-ish autobiographical series, this one staying in a more melancholy key, with characters — particularly Tig’s emotionally-repressed stepfather Bill, played by John Rothman — so well-drawn that you could probably tell they were drawn from real life even if you didn’t know the specifics of Notaro’s story.

16. Luke Cage (Netflix)

The third of Netflix’s Marvel series captured the highs and lows of the project — and the larger Netflix drama experience — across its 13 episodes. On the one hand, Cage had Mike Colter’s quietly charismatic performance in the title role, a terrific ensemble around him including Simone Missick, Alfre Woodard, and Mahershala Ali, a killer soundtrack and vibrant fictionalized Harlem that managed to intersect superheroics with social commentary, including a Method Man rap about the dangers of being a black man in a hoodie when you don’t have Cage’s powers. On the other, the story ran out of material long before the season wrapped, contorting itself this way and that in order to keep going because there were 13 hours to fill and an aversion to filling some of them with standalone adventures.

17. This Is Us (NBC)

The biggest hit of the fall — and a rare broadcast network drama awards contender, if its Golden Globes nominations are anything to go by — the time-bending family drama has had plenty of creative ups and downs in its short life so far. The parts involving Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson as Randall and Beth are strong enough to carry the rest of the show, and at times the other pieces (particularly the ’80s flashbacks) come close to matching “The Randall Show.” But This Is Us has struggled to define several characters beyond one core characteristic (in particular, it’s depressing that the show doesn’t seem to find anything interesting about Kate beyond her weight), and the show’s reliance on twists at times forces the characters into untenable positions.

18. Queen Sugar (OWN)

Like Quarry, this drama about three Louisiana-bred siblings reuniting to try to rescue the family sugar cane farm was often more a triumph of direction than writing, and as more plot piled on over the course of the season, the show had less time for the kind of lingering, atmospheric photography that made such an impression in the first few episodes (directed by series creator Ava DuVernay). Still, there would be at least one knockout sequence per week, like the siblings learning the full story of their family’s tragic history with this piece of property, and when it was clicking, Queen Sugar looks and feels like nothing else on TV.

19. Angie Tribeca (TBS)

TBS didn’t seem to know what to do with this seriously stupid, Naked Gun-esque parody of TV police procedurals starring Rashida Jones, Hayes MacArthur, Jere Burns, and Deon Cole (plus a dog). Its whole first season debuted as part of an all-day marathon, and had been sitting on a shelf for so long that a second season was ready to premiere less than six months later. But the machine gun pace of the jokes, the cast’s commitment to the silliness of it all — Burns in particular is so hilarious that other cop shows need to retire the archetype of the exasperated captain — and the parade of high-profile guest stars (James Franco, Bill Murray, Lisa Kudrow) were enough to convince the cable overlords to order a third season. Surely you can’t wait to see it.

20. Insecure (HBO)

Issa Rae’s code-switching comedy about a pair of L.A. friends struggling to figure out what they want out of their work and romantic lives wasn’t one of the year’s funniest new half-hours, but it had such a clear voice and sense of its characters that it’s a more-than-worthy addition to HBO’s lineup.

21. Love (Netflix)

There are more consistent, less flawed shows I could have chosen for this final spot, but sometimes love for a TV show isn’t rational, which is how I wound up falling for this romantic comedy about a pair of dysfunctional Angelenos — she (Gillian Jacobs) an emotional trainwreck, he (Paul Rust, who co-created the show with Lesley Arfin and Judd Apatow) a nice guy a bit too aware of what a nice guy he is — who meet awkwardly, then fall in and out of a relationship even as their own lives go through highs and lows. Incredibly shaggy and at times (particularly during the seemingly endless premiere episode) almost deliberately off-putting, Love also had the abundant chemistry of its leads, and a wellspring of affection for both of them, no matter what self-destructive, uncomfortable thing they were doing next.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com