Choosing 10 shows to sum up the best of the year in television has always felt arbitrary, and more reflective of our comfort with round numbers than with the number of shows truly worthy of celebration each time out. I’ve had years on the job where my best-of list could have stopped at 7 or 8 shows, while in others, the cut-down from 15 to 10 proved maddening.
The latter problem has only gotten worse in the era of Peak TV, where a Top 10 list represents a much smaller fraction of what’s out there — both overall TV and the really good stuff — than it did even 5 or 6 years ago. So this year, I will not be giving you a Top 10 list. Nor a Top 15 list. Nor even really a Top 20 list, because I couldn’t stop myself from cheating and counting two different shows on the same topic as one entry. I tried and tried to cut things down to 10, and while I technically had to do it for the sake of the upcoming Uproxx Television Critics Poll (formerly the HitFix poll), I was unhappy the whole way through, because I was leaving out too many shows I thought had outstanding seasons.
Even at 20/21, this list doesn’t include some of TV’s most consistently excellent series like black-ish and Jane the Virgin. Nor does it feature some shows that swung for the fences and produced both great episodes and forgettable ones, like The Night Of. (Because everybody gets a trophy at What’s Alan Watching, look for a best episodes list later this month.) It has some outstanding imports, but not the engrossing second season of Happy Valley. I went back and forth for a while on the proper order for a lot of it, and there’s barely any appreciable difference in my affection for, say, the 8th place show and the 17th place show. I feel confident that my top 5 is what my top 5 was always going to be, but the order of a lot of it is just what felt instinctively right on the day I had to finalize the list to get it ready to publish.
On this list you’ll find a handful of broadcast network shows, a bunch from cable and from streaming, and even the highest-end web series ever made. It’s pretty evenly split between half-hour series and hour-longs, though most of the former trend more towards the serious than the dramatic (while one of the funniest is an hour-long show that’s also a musical), because there’s never been more fluidity among genre and form on TV — including what’s actually considered to be television — than there is right now.
This was another great and bold year in TV. Now excuse me while I beat myself up for a while for the couple of dozen shows from my preliminary list that I couldn’t contort myself into making the final cut.
20. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
Brooklyn had a few stumbles this year, particularly when the show unsuccessfully dabbled in a serialized arc with life-and-death stakes for its heroes. But when it’s on — whether giving Holt and Peralta the mumps at the start of the year or making Holt indignant with rage at being given sexual advice from a subordinate — few shows on TV are funnier or more joyful. In a TV landscape full of half-hour series that play with tone and form and genre, there’s nothing wrong with a straightforward workplace comedy when it’s executed as well as this one.
19. Game of Thrones (HBO)
With its sixth season, Game of Thrones finally got ahead of the George R.R. Martin books on which the series is based, though the producers know where Martin’s version of the story is going and what secrets he has yet to reveal. At times, the lack of concrete — and public, show-spoiling — source material seemed liberating to GoT, which moved more nimbly (no longer bothering to devote half a season or more to characters traveling from place to place) and had several stretches (notably the three-episode stretch from from “Oathbreaker” to “The Door”) as strong as the series had ever been. At others, though, the season felt aimless, and/or still bound to pre-existing Martin story choices, like the Jon Snow resurrection that everyone but the men in the Night’s Watch saw coming long before it happened. But the finale — particularly its explosive opening sequence in King’s Landing — was the show’s best-crafted episode ever, and in other moments like Tyrion talking to Dany’s dragons or Hodor’s devastating origin story, Game of Thrones felt the weight of its own history more beautifully than even its most ardent fans could have imagined. The series seems destined to always be slightly less than the sum of its parts, but there were enough spectacular parts here to make the list.
18. Catastrophe (Amazon)
There are a lot of half-hours on TV right now — and on this list — that are small, intimate little dramas with occasional jokes, and the humor can offer welcome relief from all the existential despair. In its second season, this British import created by and starring Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan was the inverse of that: a raunchy, balls-out hilarious romantic comedy about two immature but well-meaning people struggling to maintain the family they backed into creating, and yet a show that can offer strikingly honest and raw emotional moments amidst all the frank sex talk and creative insults. (Sharon, describing Rob to her therapist: “Just imagine a nice-enough guy taking a shit and reading about Hitler, and that’s my husband.”) Not long after season 2 arrived on Amazon, Delaney suggested they might take a long break before continuing; thankfully, he and Horgan are already at work on season 3 of this filthy pleasure.
17. Transparent (Amazon)
Season 3 of the Emmy-winning family dramedy put Jeffrey Tambor’s transgender matriarch Maura back at center stage after she was a bit marginalized the year before, and Jill Soloway and the rest of the creative team tried a number of gorgeous experiments, including a season premiere that featured Maura without the rest of the family, a road trip where Josh (Jay Duplass, whose canceled HBO show Togetherness was another tough cut from the top 20) and Maura’s trans friend Shea (Trace Lysette) went through an entire relationship in the space of a couple of days, and a flashback to Maura and Shelly as kids in the ’50s. The season as a whole felt a bit less cohesive than the previous ones, though, with characters often taking huge, unexplored leaps in their respective journeys through the year, but with this cast and creative team, even a slightly disappointing collection of episodes will still be among the best things on TV.
16. American Crime (ABC)
I had to take a mulligan on this show, which I found too clinical and distant in its first season and early in its second, only to be blown away as John Ridley’s anthology miniseries moved deeper into the story of a rape scandal at an elite private school, and the many lives wrecked in its wake. Few shows on television are more thoughtfully photographed, with every shot (and every edit) making a clear statement about an increasingly complicated emotional situation, and Ridley and his directors got staggering performances from both familiar actors like Lili Taylor and Felicity Huffman and young unknowns like Connor Jessup and Joey Pollari. There were a few stumbles at the end (the hacktivist as walking plot device), but the climax of the seventh episode, with Jessup and Taylor sitting together in a diner booth as they contemplate a new tragedy and what’s coming in its aftermath, was so devastating I almost forgot to breathe while watching.
15. Girls (HBO)
At the beginning of its penultimate season, TV’s most polarizing half-hour was starting to feel a bit long in the tooth, not entirely sure how to write for characters who should have aged out of many of the stupid things they were doing when they were earlier in their 20s. This, though, turned out to be the entire point of the best Girls season in years, as Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, Shoshana, and the guys all tried to grow up, with varying degrees of success. The show was excellent in both its off-format spotlight episodes like Shoshana in Tokyo or the usually unbearable Marnie going on a surprising New York odyssey with ex-boyfriend Charlie, and in more conventional ensemble pieces like the one where Hannah figured out that Adam and Jessa were dating. Ending the story next season feels right, but this most recent batch of episodes suggests I’m going to feel the show’s loss far more acutely than I might have expected a year or two ago.
14. Better Things (FX)
One of many current spiritual descendants of Louie (including One Mississippi and two shows further up this list), Louie alums Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K.’s new comedy shares the looseness and strong command of tone of its predecessor, but with a more specific focus on motherhood and the many highs and lows that Adlon’s Sam goes through with her three children, often with the terrible moments coming within seconds of the great ones, and vice versa. It’s a simple, lovely new show with the confidence of one that’s been on the air for years, in part because its creators worked so perfectly together on one of the most influential series of the last decade.
13. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
In the early going, the second season of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s comedy about a woman (Ellie Kemper) trying to restart her life after spending years underground as prisoner of a doomsday cult seemed not too different from the first, even though season 1 was made to air on NBC, while season 2 was written and produced knowing that the show’s proper home was Netflix. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, because the writing is so cleverly ridiculous, and Kemper and her costars so endearing in how they embrace the material. But it did feel like a missed opportunity, since the sheer darkness of the premise was clearly kept at arm’s length when Kimmy was meant to be an NBC show, and no longer had to be for Netflix. But in the season’s fantastic second half, the show finally addressed Kimmy’s traumatic backstory head-on, without in any way undermining the laughs, with the introduction of Fey herself as Kimmy’s Jekyll-and-Hyde therapist, and then with the note-perfect casting of Lisa Kudrow as Kimmy’s mom. It was deeper, richer, and more satisfying, and could still go joke-for-joke with anyone else on TV.
12. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
One of the few series in TV history to get Emmy nominations for both best comedy series and best drama series in different years, Orange seems to alternate between light seasons and dark ones, usually getting stronger results from the latter approach. This was one of the dark years, as the show followed the dehumanizing nature of prison to an even more troubling level thanks to Litchfield’s obliviously cruel and unqualified corporate overlords, whose many mistakes amplified the race war that Piper inadvertently started while trying to play gangster to feel better about herself. The last few episodes were so powerful that I hope the show breaks its usual pattern and stays in its more serious mode when it returns next year.
11. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Peak TV means never having to stick with a show that’s not quite working when there are so many great viewing options, past and present, only a click away. But even in this era, patience can be rewarded enormously when an uneven show figures itself out, when a good show finds the path to greatness, or when a great show somehow levels up again. Halt and Catch Fire has done all those things over its three seasons to date, and this year’s episodes were its best yet, particularly a remarkable two-hour finale that gave its characters the chance to watch — or, better, participate in — the birth of the modern internet. Even before we got there, though, Halt told one impressive, painful vignette after another about the difficulty of creating, and connecting, and the many ways that computers can make both tasks infinitely easier and infinitely more difficult. AMC’s giving the show — a microscopically-rated one that wouldn’t be able to survive in any other era — one more year to wrap up the story. This season will be hard to top, but one that’s merely just as good will ensure Halt goes out as a worthy successor to the early AMC dramas that helped lead to Peak TV.
10. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW)
If all Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had to recommend it was the two to three original songs per week — which allow co-creator, co-songwriter, and star Rachel Bloom to channel everyone from Marilyn Monroe to the Spice Girls to Beyoncé — it would still be a treat. if Crazy Ex-Girlfriend were just an uncomfortable comedy about its heroine’s romantic obsessions, utter lack of boundaries, and gift for offending others, it would still be fun. And if the show were just a drama about a lonely and damaged woman who doesn’t understand how badly her actions hurt the people she cares about, it would still be terrific. That’s how strong the show is at crafting characters, situations, and flights of fancy. But the fact that it’s all those shows in one — and that the songs, the jokes, and the psychological candor all complement one another — makes it truly special.
9. Better Call Saul (AMC)
Here’s another instance of two seemingly incompatible series peacefully coexisting under the same title. In its second season, Saul split time between being a straightforward Breaking Bad prequel, with Mike Erhmantraut running afoul of some of Walter White’s future enemies, and something much harder to define but no less compelling, as Jimmy’s inner grifter rebelled against what should have been his dream job, Chuck became obsessed with ruining Jimmy’s career before Jimmy ruined the family name, and Kim (Rhea Seehorn, suddenly treated as the show’s third lead, and doing vulnerable, charismatic work deserving of the promotion) tried to stay out of the McGill drama and just do her job, even as she began to take greater and greater glee in becoming Jimmy’s con woman sidekick. Though the two shows rarely intersected this year, each was extremely entertaining on its own, with the same level of careful, patient craft as the parent series, and our knowledge of who and what Jimmy and Mike will become added a tragic undertone to even a gut-busting scene like Jimmy baking a bizarre pie lie about what one of his clients was up to:
8. Fleabag (Amazon)
The year’s most exciting surprise, this import created by and starring British actress and playwright Phoebe Waller-Bridge started off seeming like a ribald comedy about the sexual misadventures of a young woman with no internal filter — even if her most shocking thoughts were ones she only chose to share with us in the audience. On that level alone, it was hysterical and a contender for this list. But gradually over the course of its six episodes, Fleabag proved to be a lot more complicated and beautiful, mixing serious discussions of family and grief and loss right in with the jokes about vibrators and anal sex. I’d put a scene in the fourth episode, where Fleabag has a meaningful conversation with a loan officer she runs into while they’re attending neighboring retreats for women and men, against any dramatic moment on TV this year.
7. Veep (HBO)
The history of TV shows continuing without a creator as talented, and with as distinctive a voice, as Veep‘s Armando Iannucci isn’t pretty. But Iannucci’s replacement David Mandel not only didn’t screw things up, he was at the helm for arguably the show’s funniest and most satisfying season yet, as Selina and her staff scrambled in the aftermath of an electoral college tie, the scheming of vice-presidential candidate (and wannabe POTUS) Tom James (which hit an incredible comic climax when Selina realized what Tom really wanted), and Jonah’s unlikely run for Congress. And when the season reached a point where the only options were to blow up the show or awkwardly retreat back to the status quo, Mandel boldly gambled on trying something new, which in hindsight turns out to be the only choice he could have made, given how the current state of real-life U.S. politics is almost satire-proof.
6. Atlanta (FX)
Donald Glover says he doesn’t like to repeat things he’s already done, and boy did it show with the debut season of this comedy about three friends on the fringes of Atlanta’s hip-hop scene. As creator, star, frequent writer, and occasional director, Glover and his collaborators made sure that every episode was a surprise in some way, whether casting a black actor to play (without comment from the show) Justin Bieber or doing a collection of race-related comedy sketches under the guise of rap star Paper Boi (the wonderfully expressive Brian Tyree Henry) appearing on a cable talk show. The show’s tone was at once starkly real and magically absurd, so that a running joke about an invisible car might prove less of a joke (and more) than it first seemed, even as the financial and emotional realities of Earn’s life felt honest and raw. I have no idea what Glover and company will do for an encore next season, but I can’t wait to see it.
5. Rectify (Sundance)
Through the first few episodes of its fourth and final season, what was once one of television’s most sorrowful dramas had practically morphed into a light comedy (by Rectify standards, anyway), as its characters finally began reassembling the pieces of lives that broke either when Daniel Holden (Aden Young, spellbinding as always) went to prison for a murder he probably didn’t commit, or when he was improbably set free at the start of the series. It was still wonderfully written, acted, and shot, but there was a nagging sense that the show could have ended the year before with Daniel’s exile from his hometown. But the concluding episodes (including this Wednesday’s series finale, which I’ve seen) have hit like a ton of bricks, as characters who seemed mostly okay weeks earlier were forced to grapple with just how much pain they’ve endured, and how hard it is to truly start over. Rectify will one day be remembered as an all-time classic, even though (like The Wire) virtually no one watched when it was on.
4. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
Again, there are a lot of half-hours on TV (and this list) that are either dramas with occasional jokes, or comedies with occasional tears. The animated BoJack brilliantly manages to be both at once: a surreal, hilarious show business satire whose main character is an anthropomorphic horse, and a cripplingly sad story of disappointment and loneliness in which we are reminded again and again how depressed and in pain that horse is, even when he’s campaigning for an Oscar against the stars of movies like The Nazi Who Played Yahtzee. The show’s two halves should have no business working together, but instead each makes the other better, so that BoJack can go on a weeks-long bender with a former co-star that in every moment is simultaneously ridiculous and tragic. That improbable blend of profound melancholy and wacky hijinks is perhaps best captured in the jaw-dropping, largely silent episode “Fish Out of Water,” where BoJack takes a trip to the ocean floor and struggles to communicate. Other streaming shows seem more prestigious on paper, but BoJack is the best show Netflix — and nearly all of TV — has to offer.
3. O.J.: Made in America (ESPN) & The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)
What were the odds that not only one of the best shows of 2016, but two, would be on the subject of the Trial of the (Last) Century? The scripted People v. O.J. (the first installment of a new Ryan Murphy anthology) and the 5-part 30 for 30 documentary Made in America (directed by Ezra Edelman) were not only superb individually, but turned out to be perfect companion pieces, with the FX drama focusing primarily on the two legal teams (and finding surprising empathy for all of Marcia Clark, Christopher Darden, and Johnnie Cochran, magnificently embodied by Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, and Courtney B. Vance), while the ESPN doc was more about O.J. himself and the culture of mistrust between the LAPD and the black community that played such a huge role in the trial. The real trial was so bizarre, and full of so many colorful characters that even a middling account would probably have been riveting. These two went well beyond that — in both cases wisely treating each installment as its own individual story (a People v O.J. episode about the jury, an O.J.:MIA episode mainly about the L.A. riots) — turning an 18-year old murder case into the TV event(s) of the year.
2. The Americans (FX)
When you’re already arguably the best drama on television (especially with The Leftovers taking the year off), how do you get even better? In the case of The Americans, you increase the level of hopelessness tenfold, with a season where a bunch of major characters were either killed off or sent into exile, and where the job of being deep cover spies became so stressful for Philip and Elizabeth that the KGB had to give them an extended vacation just to keep them from irreparably cracking. The stakes were higher, the acting never stronger (I still shudder thinking about the lecture Elizabeth lays on Paige about the Pastor Tim mess), the drama repeatedly shattering. And we still have two more seasons to go in this story! If The Americans keeps improving, I’m not sure my heart can take it.
1. Horace and Pete (LouisCK.net)
On a cold Saturday at the end of January, subscribers to Louis CK’s email list got a mysterious message about a mysterious new show he had made called Horace and Pete, saying only, “Go here to watch it. We hope you like it.” And with that, CK’s fans went down the rabbit hole of what was at once the most forward-thinking show on television (produced in secret outside the network/studio system, distributed directly to the creator’s audience, and shot digitally so that CK could turn around each episode within days of the current events he kept making his characters reference) and the year’s most unapologetic throwback. Horace (which is now available on Hulu) turned out to be a 10-episode series of filmed plays set at a 100-year-old Brooklyn bar run by the eponymous brothers (CK and Steve Buscemi) and their mean, sexist, racist “uncle” Pete (Alan Alda, somehow giving the performance of his already Hall of Fame career) as they, and their sister (Edie Falco) struggled to escape the gravitational pull of family history, mental illness, and more.
As if the mere existence, structure, and business model of the show weren’t already surprise enough, Horace kept stunning its audience week after week, whether opening an episode with a 9-minute close-up of Laurie Metcalf (who’d never even appeared on the show before, and stole it utterly) delivering a monologue about an erotic encounter with her elderly father-in-law, traveling back in time 40 years (with CK playing Horace’s abusive father and Buscemi as a younger Uncle Pete), or even the fact that the 10th episode was, without warning, the end of story. It was, like many experiments, flawed in parts (the bar banter ripped from the headlines never really fit with the rest of it), but week after week, Horace and Pete both delighted and astonished, expanding the possibilities for what a TV show can be and how it can be made, while just being a masterclass in storytelling in its own right.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.