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.