The Year in TV: The Best Shows of 2016

These ten shows challenged and inspired us.

There was so much good TV this year, I worry we’re in the middle of a bubble that’s about to burst. How can we possibly sustain this level of quality and variety across broadcast, cable, and streaming alike? How can we have another year full of so many good surprises, I had to leave Transparent off this list?

The sheer number of shows I couldn’t fit here is a testament to these bountiful times. In particular, 2016 was a boon for comedy fans: VeepBlack-ishSuperstore, The Carmichael ShowBetter Things, The DetourCatastrophe, and South Park all had a great year. The networks began to challenge cable’s dominance in the drama department with shows like ABC’s Designated Survivor and American Crime, and NBC’s This Is Us, which is not my cup of tea but has enjoyed consistently record-breaking viewership numbers in its first season so far.

As the distribution and consumption of TV continues to move away from the traditional, calendar-bound model toward a more chaotic and splintered experience, content has followed suit. It was a great year for experimentation on TV: We saw hour-long comedies like Jane the Virgin, which hasn’t faltered yet in three seasons, and half-hour drama-comedy hybrids like the clever Search Party. There were gripping mini-series like The Night Of and the forceful remake of Roots. Quality scripted shows began popping up in surprising places, like the Oprah Winfrey Network, which premiered two meaty dramas this year, Greenleaf and Ava Duvernay’s Queen Sugar. There was the who-saw-that-coming Stranger Things. There was the indefinable and career-defining Lemonade.

And that’s just the tip of the antenna. Below, the ten best TV shows of 2016.


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10. Difficult People

When Flavorwire interviewed Difficult People creator Julie Klausner earlier this year, it was no surprise to hear that she had consciously set out to make a “hard comedy” — not a “thirty-minute drama,” to quote Billy Eichner’s character. And she succeeded: Difficult People’s obsession with New York City’s insider-y entertainment industry results in a plethora of one-liners and tossed-off references that guarantee more laughs per minute than pretty much any other show I’ve seen this year. In a fantastic year for TV comedies, it’s hard to beat this Hulu original for the sheer density of all those capital-j Jokes. 


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9. Fleabag

Ever since Louie premiered in 2010, there’s been no shortage of darkly funny half-hour series driven by the vision of their creator. Fleabag, which premiered a six-episode first season on Amazon this fall, distinguishes itself in the singular voice of its star and creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who initially wrote the show as a one-woman play. Through continual asides and glances at the camera, Waller-Bridge takes us deep into the troubled mind of her protagonist and forces the viewer to see things through her eyes — even when she’d prefer we look away. It’s a hilarious and devastatingly effective narrative tool that makes Fleabag stand out in a crowded field.


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8. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

There’s a good argument to be made that the CW’s Jane the Virgin is the better show: It’s certainly more consistent with its plotting, and really, how can a show be expected to compete with the Latin lover narrator?! But as I mentioned in my list of the year’s best episodes, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the show that consistently brought me the most joy. It’s not just the reliably brilliant musical numbers and the spot-on performances from the show’s incredibly talented cast; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend manages all that while effectively communicating the message that romantic love is crazy, and the American narrative’s insistence on its primacy, particularly for women, is driving us all mad.


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7. Orange is the New Black

 Privatization hit Litchfield Correctional in Season 4 of Orange is the New Black, and it wasn’t a good look. This season was OITNB’s darkest yet, putting forth a terrifying vision of corporate-sponsored chaos that results in the tragic death of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), who’s choked beneath the boot of a guard during a mess hall riot. As America’s stratospheric incarceration rate continues to rise and the country’s racial divide(s) become ever more stark, OITNB has never felt more relevant.


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6. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

In what was probably the biggest TV surprise of the year, Ryan Murphy’s pitch-perfect reimagining of the 1994-95 O.J. Simpson murder trial turned out to be a truly not-guilty pleasure (sorry, couldn’t resist). FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story was a delicious treat, sweet and salty and full of rich layers of irony. The series recast a story so familiar it’s become its own punchline, and through a combination of skillfully nuanced writing and directing and stellar casting, managed to breathe new life into figures who had long ago settled into caricature. Or so we thought.


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5. Atlanta

We knew Donald Glover’s Atlanta was going to be special when the show’s Twitter account started spouting curious little aphorisms and the cover art emerged to show the three leads standing in a row with Georgia peaches stuffed in their mouths. It turned out to be the year’s most inventive new show by far, a slyly funny sitcom shrouded in its own brand of mysticism and steeped in black culture the way few series are. TV shows are often compared to novels, but Atlanta is pure poetry.


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4. The Americans

It’s a testament to the magnitude of this year’s bounty that The Americans is number four on this list, not one. The show has always been better than its viewership numbers would indicate, and its fourth season hit new highs (or, rather, dread-inducing lows) as the lead characters — Cold War-era Russian spies raising a family in America — grappled with an existential crisis in the face of impending nuclear war. As Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) contemplate the end result of their decades-long con, the show makes its strongest case yet that commitment to a cause is no replacement for human intimacy.


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3. Insecure

Issa Rae’s HBO comedy about the personal and professional struggles of two best friends in L.A., co-created by Larry Wilmore, has been a long time coming, and it was worth the wait. Insecure is a deceptively well-made show — every scene is so effortlessly enjoyable, you don’t even notice how cleverly its first season is plotted until the whole thing’s over and you re-watch every episode all over again. (No? Just me?) Every character on Insecure is a complete being; every character makes mistakes. Its central duo, besties Molly (Yvonne Orji) and Issa (Rae), are a pair of smart, funny, foul-mouthed black women who can fuck up and still be heroes. That shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is.


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 2. O.J.: Made in America

The season finale of The People v. O.J. Simpson aired just six weeks before the premiere of ESPN’s five-part, seven-and-a-half-hour documentary on O.J. Simpson, the first mini-series in its 30 for 30 program. And yet there was no chance of O.J. fatigue with this incredible film by director Ezra Edelman, which looked closely at Simpson’s life before, during, and after his infamous 1994-5 murder trial. The timing isn’t quite a coincidence — 20-year anniversaries beget this kind of look in the rearview mirror — but O.J.: Made in America made a hell of a companion piece to the FX drama, and placed an exhaustingly well-known scandal in far broader context than we’ve seen. Edelman expertly guides the viewer through this sprawling tale and what it reveals about the racial animosity that fuels so many of this country’s headline-grabbing stories. 


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1. Rectify

Few shows have the patience of Rectify. But then, few shows have a protagonist like Daniel Holden (Aden Young), who’s spent 19 years on death row for the rape and murder of his high-school girlfriend, before DNA evidence exonerates him, leaving him free to live his life. But what kind of a life is that? After spending nearly two decades in solitary confinement — and enduring horrific sexual abuse at the hands of his fellow inmates — the real world doesn’t really feel real to Daniel. In its fourth and final season, which ends this week, Rectify widens its scope, as Daniel moves into a home for ex-offenders in Nashville, and his family back in Georgia ponders how to move on with their own lives. While so many of our most popular drama series use the twin spectacles of sex and violence to hold viewers’ attention, Rectify’s quiet commitment to and respect for the ordinary lives of its characters keeps us enthralled. “I want to humanize all my characters,” creator Ray McKinnon told Flavorwire in a recent interview, and boy does he.