Drumroll please…it’s time for the best new shows of 2016.
Let’s bitch it out…
It is time to get serious people.
It’s encouraging to know that in a year when there were more than 400+ scripted TV shows released so many of them weren’t just good, they were f*cking great. If I’m being honest, I think the quality of new series was better than returning series, which although still pretty darn good, pales in comparison to this crop.
Without further ado, let’s discuss the astoundingly good TV that debuted this year.
- Series had to debut this year (this includes anthologies)
- Series had to debut in 2016 or air the majority of their episodes in North America this year
- Series had to air a minimum of 6 episodes (miniseries are excluded)
10) Outsiders (WGN America)
The first of two WGN America series on this list is likely also the most surprising – a hillbilly drama about a group of mountain people in conflict with the denizens of the mining town who live at its base. That description barely touches the surface of what Outsiders is truly about, however; it has a Romeo & Juliet love story between members of the opposing groups, the return of an outcast who throws a wrench in the complicated mountain ruling system and a burgeoning war between capitalism and tradition represented by those who see the mountain as a symbol of hope and money compared to those who see it as their home. It’s far more nuanced and intriguing than a show with ATV battles and David Morse chewing the scenery has any right to be. And yet it works (often quite well). Definitely worth a look, even if the subject initially seems off-putting. Think Justified on a mountain.
9) Underground (WGN America)
The second of two unheralded series from the little seen WGN America, this buzzy period slave drama is nothing like recent celebrated, pedigreed films tackling the same subject (12 Years a Slave, Birth of a Nation). The soundtrack by Kanye West in the trailer is your first cue, and the pilot episode makes it clear that this is more of a heist film than anything else…only the heist is the smuggling of slaves to safety. The first season proved to be a blend of adventure, excitement and compassion marked by surprising tragedy (we know this narrative and it is not a fairytale), anchored by a cast of great character actors. Few people are aware of Underground and that’s unacceptable. Fans of the show are eagerly waiting for its return to find out where this tale goes next and more people need to get on that bandwagon.
8) Stranger Things (Netflix)
Full confession: originally I left Stranger Things off this list because it felt passé and overhyped. Then I recalled the feeling of binge watching the first season back in mid-July and low and behold the show ended up back in. While the media ultimately turned the series into something far bigger and less intimate than I would have liked (Barb!), there’s no denying the power of those synth-infused opening credits, or how the perfectly cast teen and child actors bonded over their Goonies-esque desire to find their friends, or gasping at the scene of a genetically enhanced bald girl flipping a van over a bicycle. Stranger Things won all of that summer hype by embracing our desire for 80s nostalgia, but that’s certainly no reason to punish it; if anything, that’s a reason to celebrate it.
7) High Maintenance (HBO)
I expected to hate High Maintenance because the premise seemed bland and too drug-focused: a bike-riding pot dealer simply called The Guy (Ben Sinclair) provides the connective link to various people in New York in a series of standalone stories. Then when I started watching, I realized how adventurous the series is. Embracing the structure of the webseries from which it has been adapted, showrunners Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld introduce and tell complete stories about brand new characters in just 10-15 minutes, something that most shows barely manage to achieve in 30-45 minutes. These stories of random New Yorkers are deeply touching, comedic and expertly constructed (as written on the page, embodied by the actors and enhanced by the A+ direction). Come for the buzzy episode about the dog who falls in love with his dogwalker and stay for the widowed grandfather who attends day raves and tries to connect to his high strung daughter or the Helen Hunt obsessed queer agoraphobe. High Maintenance wasn’t even on my radar when it debuted this fall on Friday nights, but it proved to be a surprisingly strong addition to the 2016 TV slate.
6) Atlanta (FX)
As I mentioned in the Best Episodes Part 1 post, Atlanta is probably the best show I watched that I felt least connected to emotionally. That doesn’t make it a lesser show; it’s simply that I don’t feel as invested in the individual characters’ journeys because I don’t entirely believe the show is. Unlike the following two shows on this list, Atlanta is most interested in exploding the concept of a TV show in order to explore its central thesis about race, class and poverty. While I don’t relate as strongly to Earn (series creator and “star” Donald Glover) or Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), I did thoroughly their adventures with black Justin Beiber (Austin Crute) and the night partied like famous people at Primal Night Club. More than anything, though, the reason Atlanta placed so highly on this list is because it is so experimentally innovative: an entire episode was dedicated to Van (Zazie Beetz), another played out as a talk show on a fictious BET-like station and another centered around educating to audiences the historical importance of Juneteenth. Through it all, Atlanta proved unafraid of shaking up conventional narrative structures, sidelining characters when they weren’t required by the plot and trying new things. It is truly a show that is unlike anything else on TV.
5) Better Things (FX)
Better Things was co-created by Louie CK and his fingerprints are all over the series: episodes focus on mundane everyday occurrences, there is a casual easy way that scenes flow and ebb into one another and, most significantly, episodes purposefully sidestep plot in favour of simply presenting moments. To give so much credit to CK, however, does an injustice to Pamela Adlon, the star of the series whose experiences are at its center. When Better Things debuted, it appeared to be about a long-suffering single mother raising three daughters while trying to balance her acting career. If you’re fixated on plot, then that premise is apt, but in truth the series is much more interested in small family moments than showbiz (though there are quite a few great “inside Hollywood” jokes for those who care). Adlon and Better Things explore the intricacies of how family works – in all of its beauty, its insufferable annoyances, the highs and lows. It’s a finely crafted, surprisingly affecting series that flew under a lot of radars and deserves a much wider audience.
4) Insecure (HBO)
Oh Insecure, you had me at “Broken Pussy.” Issa Rae’s adaptation of her own webseries Awkward Black Girl turned out to be both one of the most conventional series to end up on this list and simultaneously one of the most original. Credit the fact that Rae is speaking from a voice that is rarely, if ever, heard on TV (and certainly on HBO, where she remains the sole female creator). There’s a foundation of like-minded sitcom tropes embedded in Insecure‘s central premise – from the awkward racial undertones in the We Got Y’all office environment to the witty banter between Issa and her bestie Molly (Yvonne Orji) to Issa’s broken relationship with long-term partner Lawrence (Jay Ellis). And yet, as the series progresses, it is clear that Rae has a handle on the unique intimacies of the story that she’s shepherding, from the frankness of the conversation between black women, to the dead air that hangs in relationships that can be revived (but probably shouldn’t). Insecure eschews the responsibility of being a story about all modern black women in favour of telling its own story and, in so doing, liberates itself to tell a vibrant, emotional and compelling story all its own.
3) Fleabag (BBC3 / Amazon)
I returned to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s six-part adaptation of her one woman stage play many times over the year: I brought it up constantly to colleagues, screened the raunchy pilot for my mother over the holidays and recommended it unequivocally to everyone regardless of their TV preferences. Part of Fleabag‘s staying power is its relatability; this is a series that everyone can identify with, despite the specifics of the story that it is telling. The series starts off like as a dirtier, wittier TV-friendly version of Bridget Jones’ Diary, then veers unexpectedly at the halfway point into legitimate pathos, touching on something far more significant and raw. Waller-Bridge anchors the project with heart and wit aplomb, disarming us with her verbal barbs to lower our guard and ensure we’re unprepared for the reveal of how lonely, broken and grief-stricken her unnamed character truly is. Clocking in at only six episodes, Fleabag leaves you gutted and hollowed out. It hurts...it hurts in all the right ways.
2) The Girlfriend Experience (STARZ)
The Girlfriend Experience came out of nowhere and completely floored me. The STARZ adaptation of Steven Soderbergh’s low-budget indie flick charts a similar narrative trajectory – law student becomes high-priced call girl – but showrunners Lodge Kerrigan & Amy Seimetz best the film by slowly, methodically charting Christine (Riley Keogh)’s transformation over 13 half hour episodes. The result is arguably the most frigid, sterile viewing experiences, so much so that I often described the experience of watching the show as peering out through a blue-tinted ice cube.
At the very least The Girlfriend Experience is compulsively intriguing. It’s a thriller without the conventional thrills; a character drama with a protagonist that’s distant and unrelatable; a series that challenges conventional morals and beliefs. With two episodes in my year end countdown, it was inevitable that it would rank highly here, but even I didn’t expect to spend as much time unpacking its aesthetics over the year. It’s a true original, and that’s why it’s the second best show of the year.
1) American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson (FX) / OJ: Made in America (ESPN)
Yes, I’m cheating, but sue me if the two don’t go together.
2016 was unequivocally the year that brought OJ Simpson back into popular culture in a big, critical way. American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson, Ryan Murphy’s FX series, fronted by top notch acting talent, exemplary writing and amazing direction, was an early highlight from the start of the year. The series covers a condensed timeline, starting with the murder of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman and going through to the end of the trial. In the process the show recasts the narrative around Marcia Clarke thanks to Sarah Paulson’s amazing portrayal and transforms the ridiculous antics of the trial of the century into eminently watchable drama. Look for (continued) well deserved awards dominance for the lead trio of Paulson, Sterling K Brown and Courtney B. Vance in 2017.
If People vs OJ is the appetizer, then OJ: Made in America is the main course. The 5 part, 10 hour ESPN docuseries by Ezra Edelman dives deep into not only OJ, but the culture that created him. Exploring issues of race, class, entitlement, and corruption over decades, Made in America charts OJ’s rise to fame as a professional athlete, spokesman, and actor before his downfall with the murders and his felony charges in Las Vegas. The docuseries extends well beyond Simpson, though, sifting through the institutional racism that created the trial’s racial divide and created a culture that generates black celebrities so long as they’re willing to forget their history and their race. If People vs OJ makes it obvious that the trial was a farce played out for the media, Made in America presents a mountain of compelling evidence that the trial was only a small part of a much larger, more complicated discussion about race in the United States. Considering the year we’ve had, the docusieres is compulsory viewing. Taken together, this was the best that TV got all year.
Honourable Mentions: These are the series that were good, sometimes even great, but didn’t quite edge out the top 10.
- And Then There Were None (BBC One / Lifetime): An all star British cast + Agatha Christie’s best novel = a powerhouse three part miniseries that looks absolutely fantastic (Caveat: I am a sucker for anything Charles Dance and he’s pretty damn amazing in this).
- Chewing Gum (Channel 4 / Netflix): This amazingly vulgar sex comedy about a teen girl (Michaela Coel, outstanding) trying to lose her virginity is absolutely hilarious. At six half hours, it’s compulsively binge-able.
- Class (BBC): My house has been Doctor Who free for nearly two seasons, but this teen “spin-off” set at a high school complete with Bad Wolf rift is surprisingly fun, energetic and populated with a nicely balanced motley crue of students. Bonus points for a gay lead protagonist and Katherine Kelly’s Emma Peel-ish performance as Miss Quills.
- Colony (USA): 2016 featured several dystopian future series about society being separated into high and low classes by a giant barrier, but this is the best. Despite including alien overlords, Colony eschews genre conventions in favour of a gritty, semi-realistic world by focusing on guerrilla warfare and politics (sometimes maddeningly so).
- Crazyhead (Channel 4 / Netflix): This “British Buffy” is crude, hilarious and filled with great characters and mythology. The adventures of Amy (Cara Theobold) and my new hero/spirit animal Raquel (Susan Wokoma) is pure fun.
- London Spy (BBC Two / Netflix): This five part miniseries may have faltered in its final installment, but stars Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent bring class and sophistication to this ripped from the headlines story about the lover of a dead spy found stuffed in a suitcase.
- One Mississippi (Amazon): Comedian Tig Notaro’s dry wit brings warmth and humour to this intimate series about grief and history. It’s small scale, but quietly devastating.
- Queen Sugar (OWN): A breathtakingly gorgeous series directed entirely by women? Check. A smart family melodrama? Check. Queen Sugar is evidence that night time soaps can be both classy and entertaining. There’s nothing wrong with a series this good.
- Search Party (TBS): This genre blending series arrived unexpectedly in the middle of December and quietly catapulted onto several Best of Year lists. Mixing the detective genre with a sharp, pointed critique of narcissistic millennials shouldn’t work, but it does.
- Speechless (NBC): The best “family” sitcom of the year features Minnie Driver (killing it), a financially stricken family and a handicapable son (played by real life handicapable actor Micah Fowler). The series debuts strong and never falters.
- The Exorcist (FOX): Horror TV usually sucks (see the Worst Of list for several reminders), so it is a huge surprise that FOX’s series not only delivers the thrills and scares, it does right by its source material with more than a few shocking twists. DOA ratings will likely doom it, but The Exorcist is worth checking out (especially after the big reveal in episode 5)
- The Expanse (Syfy): The smartest science-fiction series on television. The show doesn’t hold your hand in its complicated examination of war, rebellion and politics and it is all the better for it.
- The Good Place (NBC): Kristen Bell and Ted Danson are delightful in this afterlife comedy from the creator of Brooklyn 99 and Parks and Recreation. Come for the hilariously original world-building and stay for the great sight gags.
- The Magicians (Syfy): Admittedly this Harry Potter meets Chronicles of Narnia adaptation of the best selling fantasy trilogy is hit and miss, but when it is on, it’s quite enjoyable. Bonus points for the most original use of hand motions to simulate spell casting.
- The Path (Hulu): This cult drama never quite rose to the level of its A-list talented cast (including Hugh Dancy, Michelle Monaghan and Aaron Paul). It does have some truly beautiful visuals and loads of potential, however, so it remains worth a look.
Notable Absences: The following shows were ineligible for consideration because I didn’t watch them (400+ shows people!) or because I’m not caught up.
- 3% (Netflix), Berlin Station (Epix), Lady Dynamite (Netflix), The Crown (Netflix), The Night Manager (AMC)
That’s it for new TV. Tune back mid-day Jan 1 for the list of Best Returning TV of 2016. In the interim, sound off below with your comments or post your own top new series.