Got time to spare for one final list? It’s time to check in on the returning TV favourites of 2016.
Let’s bitch it out…
Let’s count things down one last time, shall we? It’s time to see how the returning series we love fared. It wasn’t always a seamless year, as some series struggled creatively (The 100, UnREAL and last year’s #2 Mr. Robot) while others couldn’t quite pull off their best in comparison to previous years (this is the first year You’re The Worst didn’t crack the top 10). Before we get into the list, here’s a breakdown of the criteria.
- Only scripted series were considered (late-night series were excluded)
- Series had to be in their second year or beyond
- Series had to air the majority of their episodes in North America in 2016
- Series had to air a minimum of 6 episodes
And without further ado, the ten best returning series of 2016. Spoilers ahead!
10) Killjoys S2 (Syfy)
In S2 Michelle Lovretta sharpened her tools and turned her enjoyable space romp into one hell of a series. What began as a fun escapist series turned into something emotionally complex, complete with a galaxy spanning mythology and more developed backstories for lovable secondary characters. Tighter plotting and more defined arcs helped to streamline the ten episodes, but arguably the wisest decision that Lovretta made was not to mess around with Killjoy‘s defining feature: the core trio of Dutch, D’avin and John. I estimate that Hannah John-Kamen, Luke Macfarlane and Aaron Ashmore are 50% of the reason people love this show and by giving the audience what they want, Lovretta crafted the year’s best science-fiction series, which is no small feat in a year filled with a bunch of other seriously strong contenders.
9) Transparent S3 (Amazon)
In recent years I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the Pfeffermans as Transparent evolves from a story about Maura (Jeffrey Tambor, magnificent) into a dysfunctional family dramedy. This isn’t a recent development, but S2 occasionally lost its focus and a sense of aimlessness continued in S3. And yet this is the year that featured Shelley (Judith Light, sublime) singing Alanis Morissette on a cruise ship, opened with a frightening standalone adventure through Maura’s eyes, and exposed just how insensitive Josh (Jay Duplass) is in a beautifully acted/directed road trip. A good season of Transparent remains better than the vast majority of TV and Jill Soloway’s series still has the stamp of important, quality television, which is why S3 earns its place on the best of 2016 TV list.
8) Bojack Horseman S3 (Netflix)
This is the year that I caught up on Bojack Horseman (thank United for 8 hour delays at LaGuardia!) and I’m now fully on board. I’m still not fond of the style of animation, or Aaron Paul’s Todd (the most unnecessary character on an otherwise exceptional series), but Bojack won me over with its willingness to explore life’s dark, messy corners. The series works as a brutal critique of fame, Hollywood and our obsessive need to feed the 24/7 news/entertainment cycle, but in its best moments also manages to find the beauty, the horror and the humour in the everyday. Bojack may not seem like everyone’s cup of tea, but its narrative is built on carefully observed universal truths that are relatable to every man, woman and horse with an ounce of self-doubt or loathing. Put it together with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and You’re The Worst and you’ve got the best trifecta of series exploring mental health on TV.
7) Kingdom S2B (Audience Network)
Kingdom is not a show about Mixed Martial Arts.
Ok, it is, but it is also about so much more than that. Like any great drama, Kingdom uses its premise – in this case the biological and constructed family that works out of the Navy Street gym – to explore deep and challenging social issues. In S2B those issues included everything from sexual assault (both male and female), drug addiction, mental illness and depression, and miscarriage to, in the series’ best episode to date, the death of a loved one. Kingdom features an amazing cast who breathe life into characters and storylines that could easily fall into caricature and no review of the series should occur without singing the praises of series MVP and all around stand-out Jonathan Tucker who brings soul and depth to Jay, the roguish and disaffected older Kulina son. Tucker’s S2B arc from champion to drug addict alone is enough to secure a spot on this list.
So let’s try this again: Kingdom is not a show about Mixed Martial Arts and you NEED to watch it.
6) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend S2 (The CW)
Read or listen to an interview with star and series co-creator Rachel Bloom and it immediately becomes apparent how carefully considered Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is. A series unlike anything else on TV, this rom-com musical doubles as a slow motion car accident in which Bloom’s Rebecca destroys everything she touches. The second season could have been a stagnant repetitive redo of the first season, but rather than rest on her laurels, Bloom and her creative team blew up the playbook and took the series in exciting, audacious new directions. The love triangle at the heart of S1 was summarily packed up four episodes in when co-star Santino Fontana’s character Greg left the series, which has resulted in unexpected developments such as the creation of a girl group with former enemy Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz) and Greg’s ex, Heather (Vella Lovell) and a deep division between Rebecca and bestie Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin). It’s a testament to the show’s adaptive and creative flexibility that nothing that occurs feels out of character or out of place; instead the show is perfectly balanced and outrageously scored and sung. CEG may be one of a kind, but it works like a charm.
5) Catastrophe S2 (Channel 4 / Amazon)
Catastrophe is one of two British series in my top 10 this year, but it’s the one that as a married man, I feel most personally connected to. Co-creators Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney imbue their comedy about the ups and downs of marriage and parenthood with just the right combination of laughs to help offset the toxic awfulness that accompanies real life romance. Unlike chipper sitcoms that verge on farce, Catastrophe mines the humour out of everyday experiences such as trying to go back to work after a maternity leave, or office misunderstandings, or increased expectations placed on vacations and anniversaries. It is one hell of a dark, occasionally depressing comedy that is somehow still exceptionally funny. I can’t wait for series three to return to see what these two assholes get up to next.
4) Happy Valley S2 (BBC One / Netflix)
Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley is the gift that keeps on giving. Anchored by one of the most complicated, nuanced portrayals of police work on television, Sarah Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood spent S2 of Happy Valley going through the ringer (again). Unlike Broadchurch, which maligned its impressive debut with a distracted and ultimately dissatisfying S2, Happy Valley managed to develop a compelling new story and build on the tumultuous events of S1 without compromising either plot. New characters were seamlessly added to the mix, including Frances Drummond (Shirley Henderson), Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton)’s creepy groupie, and Clare’s (Siobhan Finneran) new love interest Neil (Con O’Neill), helping to add drama and depth to the core cast. Happy Valley proves that a crime procedural and character development are not mutually exclusive and, in the case of S2, one of the best recipes for creating the best that TV has to offer.
3) American Crime S2 (ABC)
American Crime falls into a weird nebulous zone as the lone anthology series to make the Returning series list. Without the benefit of years to develop its characters, American Crime still manages to create a rich, painful world embodied by flawed characters that feel achingly real. This season focuses on an outcast rape victim and his more popular, well connected attacker, starting with a sex crime at a party and slowly spinning the story out to include the confused, apprehensive and protective parents, the elitist school board concerned with guarding its money and reputation and even internet vigilantes who do as much harm as good. Stocked with one of the best character actor ensembles seen on television (never mind network television), American Crime is beautiful, haunting and compelling. It also brought to prominence Connor Jessup, a young man so talented that his projects made both my TV and film list. He’s one to watch in the years to come, including 2017 when he’ll return for S3 of this amazing series.
2) Rectify S4 (Sundance)
The most understated, soulful, contemplative drama I have ever seen on television ended its four season run this year and the result was the second best series of the year. The cast has always been exceptionally talented, and seeing the narratives of characters we love come to satisfying, unhurried and meaningful end was as painful as it was beautiful. Rectify has always refused to play by the demands of a TV world that rewards twists, deaths and shocking developments; instead it was comfortable to simply let moments play out, preferring to let the camera linger on faces and sunlight. In its final year, the series made efforts to draw things to a close, but without compromising the values that it has always embodied. Arguably the most religious (and certainly the most tolerant) of shows on TV, Rectify was damn original and, in it’s final few episodes, one hell of a great tearjerker. Goodbye old friend.
1) The Americans S4
I was never in a position to include The Americans on these lists because I was always a season (or two) behind. This year I made sure to catch up so that I could watch S4 in real time and…holy cow, you guys. There’s a reason why you hear so much about this show and it is because it is the best series on television.
Critics praising Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys’ acting are spot on because the pair at the heart of the show are incredible (and credibly in love). The direction is masterful and carefully considered, up there with the best of prestige dramas in terms of mise-en-scene and camera placement to create mood and meaning.
And then there’s the tension…
The amount of tension this show can generate is unbearable. Considering that this is a spy show that subverts the tropes of its genre more often than it plays them straight, it is especially impressive how The Americans uses its espionage storylines as fodder for its family drama (which is where the real conflict lies).
This year was an epic one for the series, particularly for character-driven plot developments. S4 sent not one but two principal characters packing: Nina was executed, coldly and brutally, early on and in the tensest three episode arc of the year poor Martha was discovered by the CIA, hidden and smuggled to Russia, never to be seen again. The strain was such that Phillip and Elizabeth had to take a leave of absence, putting even more pressure on Paige (the show’s new “poor Martha!”) to keep the game afoot with Pastor Tim. With a hard deadline of two more seasons greenlit by FX, it is clear that The Americans is ramping up to its end game. The result in S4 is television at its absolute best. I cannot wait for this show to return in March to see what happens next.
- Ash vs Evil Dead S2 (STARZ): Bruce Campbell remains a force of nature in S2, which adds Lucy Lawless’ Ruby to the team and acknowledges that the show’s true kick-ass star is Dana DeLorenzo’s Kelly. More confident and just as gory as S1.
- Dark Matter S2 (Syfy): Speaking of more confident, Dark Matter really went for it in its second year. Killing One (and mostly keeping him dead) is a bold move, as is the introduction of alternate worlds, but if there’s one award this show deserves, it is for its “drop the mic WTF” season finales, which continue to impress.
- Game of Thrones S6 (HBO): The biggest show on TV returned to form year by advancing the plot and dispensing with unnecessary sexual sadism. Plus: Cersei got her vengeance…but paid a steep price (which always makes for good TV).
- iZombie S2 (The CW): The best little genre show on The CW continued to delight as Liv and Major tried to balance their urges, Blaine got amnesia and Peyton returned to emotionally torment Ravi. Now, about that pesky insurrection that’s threatening Seattle…
- Jane the Virgin S2/3 (The CW): This CW gem has never – not once! – dipped in quality and S2/3 proves that the show still knows how to balance its emotional and telenovela plot machinations. Doppelgangers, shootings, weddings and lots of heart? Everything’s fair game on Jane.
- Orange Is The New Black S4 (Netflix): I gave serious consideration to swapping Transparent and OITNB because S4 of the prison drama was so strong. Poussey’s death was gut-wrenching and the other tales of woe and joy that precede it are just as memorable.
- Orphan Black S4 (BBC America): This is the year that Orphan Black finally got its groove back. Refocusing the story on original clone Beth (Tatiana Maslany) was a smart structural move because it allowed the series a framework to hang its gonzo developments on. Hopefully things will stay golden when the series returns for its final season this year.
- Outlander S2 (STARZ): Truth be told I enjoyed the Paris half more than the Scotland half, but altogether the second series of STARZ’s historical drama still delivered on its bodice-ripping, gasp-inducing premise. Caitriona Balfe continues to rock my world and the latest massive time jump should be…interesting to witness.
- Togetherness S2 (HBO): This little-seen series was put to bed after two low-rated seasons, but the dysfunctional marriage tragicomedy brought a lot of heart and chuckles to the table while also reminding me that liking Amanda Peet is OK.
- Younger S3 (TVLand): My go-to feel good series continued to charm in its third season. After bouncing back from a truly ridiculous S2 finale, Younger found time to reignite its love square, visit the Hamptons and end on a far more appropriate (and long overdue) reveal: Kelsey is finally in on Liza’s secret!
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.
- Better Call Saul S2 (AMC), Black-ish (ABC), Halt & Catch Fire S3 (AMC), Last Man on Earth S3 (FOX), Silicon Valley S3 (HBO), Veep S5 (HBO)
Phew! That’s it for the 2016 Bitch Awards (reminder to self, write as you go in 2017). Hope you enjoyed the Returning TV list, and be sure to comment here or on Facebook with your Best Picks.
I’ll be back in a few days with your January 2017 TV preview. It’s surprisingly busy, so steel yourself!