2016 in TV: A Collective Drama of Division, Pouring Out of a Million Channels

If you’re a fan of both TV and freedom, 2016’s been a tricky year — an overwhelming abundance of the former seemed to dovetail with a tragic narrowing of the latter. Of course, there are millions of Americans who look to the next four years with hope, not horror. There are also millions of Americans who watch The Big Bang Theory every Thursday night.

Like Twitter (and the internet in general), TV in the digital age can look and feel vastly different from one viewer to the next. According to an annual study released by FX, in 2016, the number of original scripted series increased by 8%, from 421 to 455. The study indicates a decrease in the number of broadcast, pay cable, and basic cable series, for the first time since FX began its yearly count in 2009 — and, not surprisingly, a corresponding increase in the number of original streaming series, which more than doubled this year compared to last.

With so many series in production each year, we’re all picking and choosing from a vast menu of shows that either affirm our views or dispute them; put us to sleep or force us to bolt upright; feed us warm, tasty bullshit or challenge our palates with something closer to the truth. Of course, the seemingly unending proliferation of original programming is a symptom of an industry boom, not a carefully planned celebration of the kaleidoscopic beauty of the American people. No single show can encapsulate the “truth” about the lives of Americans, but collectively, this year’s series carried on a conversation across networks and genres that reflects the cacophony of our fractured times.

As I wrote back in the spring, TV used to be a steady boyfriend; now, it’s a series of haphazard Tinder dates. Television may have lost its veneer of authority now that the viewing audience is splintered into so many niche demographics, but this arrangement has given way to a menu that more accurately mirrors the lives of the people who watch it. This year, the dude-skewing FX premiered its first series with a female lead, Better Things, created by Louis C.K. and Pamela Adlon. Adlon stars as Sam, a single working mother with three unruly daughters, one of whom clearly identifies as a boy — in the season finale, middle-schooler Frankie (Hannah Alligood) winds up in the principal’s office after using the boy’s bathroom.

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Better Things’ vision of an all-female household led by a woman who literally only wears pants finds a natural counterpoint in ABC’s American Housewife, a new sitcom starring Katy Mixon as “the second fattest housewife in Westport.” The show positions Mixon’s Katie as a kind of anti-hero — a mother of two who hasn’t made it her life’s goal to lose weight. And it clearly regards its protagonist as a feminist, as does Katie’s husband, who in one scene casually wears a T-shirt that reads, “My wife is married to a feminist.” But this kind of progressive signaling masks a very conservative undercurrent. Narrated in Katie’s voice, American Housewife appears to give its leading lady all the agency she desires — she just so happens to desire a life at home with the kids, and lucky for her she has a husband who earns enough for the both of them.

American Housewife is what you might call a safe bet for ABC — a show that outwardly aims to please both self-proclaimed feminists and proponents of traditional “family values.” Other networks took bigger risks, like USA, which broke with its usual slate of “blue skies” programming when it premiered the dazzling but flawed Mr. Robot last year. The stylish drama about a disaffected young hacker named Elliot (Rami Malek) had a mesmerizing first season, ending with a global financial collapse that erased the world’s debt.

But as an argument in favor of human beings over soulless corporations, Mr. Robot falters, particularly in its second season, which aired over the summer and which seemed to prize its own precociousness over any of its characters. NBC’s Superstore provides a somewhat unlikely yet thematically fitting contrast. The sitcom, currently in its second season, follows a group of employees at a big-box store in St. Louis, Missouri. Throughout the first season, the workers’ growing dissatisfaction over the conditions of their labor culminates in a walkout. Of course, Superstore lacks Mr. Robot’s visual panache; its creator, Sam Esmail, is a filmmaker dipping into TV for the first time. But Superstore’s commitment to and interest in the lives of its aggressively ordinary characters is a more powerful indictment of capitalism’s soul-crushing endgame than Mr. Robot’s romantic cynicism writ large.

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This year, TV also gave us two new treatises on that most studied of modern creatures: the millennial. CBS’s The Great Indoors is a familiar kind of attack on this oft-smeared generation, setting up a contrast between intrepid reporter Jack (Joel McHale) and the team of coddled, clueless twentysomethings he has to manage in his new capacity as the digital editor of an outdoor-adventure magazine. The show’s through line — that kids these days are too selfish and screen-bound to appreciate true adventure — is contested by the new TBS sitcom Search Party, which stars Alia Shawkat as a recent college grad stuck in a rut so deep, she latches onto the disappearance of a former classmate whom she barely knows in order to shake up her life.

Shawkat’s Dory becomes an amateur detective, dragging her boyfriend and her two shallow brunch pals along with her as she traverses New York City and beyond in an attempt to find their old college acquaintance, whose face is plastered on posters throughout the city. The series, in particular its witheringly clever ending, functions as both a comment on and indictment of the kind of millennial apathy that The Great Indoors is only interested in as a punchline to a lame joke we’ve all heard before.

Elsewhere, two very different series managed to add whole new dimensions to a story we thought we were sick of hearing. FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story and ESPN’s docu-series O.J.: Made in America, which aired within weeks of each other this summer, re-introduced the “trial of the century.” The recent 20th anniversary of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, in which a jury found him not guilty of killing his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman, was occasion enough to revisit Simpson’s story. But American Crime Story and Made in America also arrived amidst rising public acknowledgement — and denial — of the persistent problem of police brutality against African Americans, culminating in the presidential election of a man who deliberately stoked racial anger and called for “law and order.”

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Both the scripted series and the documentary place O.J. Simpson in the context of racial animosity in the L.A.P.D. and the country as a whole. They also implicitly expose the inadequacy of the progressive narrative at the heart of Roots — the landmark 1977 miniseries about American slavery that was remade this year, airing over Memorial Day weekend. A&E’s remake was a formidable and unflinching accomplishment, making a strong case for the importance of ancestral pride in the midst of a crushing, dehumanizing system. And yet the series ends on a note of uplift that betrays the events of the years to come. As Laurence Fishburne’s narrator clacks away at a typewriter, he reveals his intentions for writing down the story of his ancestors — “sold to thousands of plantations, millions of men and women, who struggled to survive and fought to be free every day.” As American Crime Story and Made in America demonstrate, this is a fight that continues to this day.

The best shows of 2016 were the ones that refused to wrap things up in a bow — the ones that knew exactly what they were and what they were not, and didn’t pander desperately to a lowest common denominator, which on TV usually means violence. The biggest, buzziest dramas — your Westworlds and Game of Thrones’ and Walking Deads — always seem to boil down to that big, bloody finish: The “Battle of the Bastards” or the final, magnificent explosion; the moment a subjugated robot whore will pick up a gun or a knife or bash a man’s head into a plate-glass window.

But not every series that featured violent acts made such a meal of them. When Poussey (Samira Wiley) dies in the fourth season of Orange is the New Black, which was released in June, it’s a moment of chaos and confusion; she’s strangled by a guard’s boot pressing down on her neck during a mess-hall riot. It’s a panicked, frenzied scene that places the viewer in the middle of the action — not a slow-mo spectacle of heroic sacrifice. There’s no glory in her death, just as there’s no glory in the death of Nina (Annet Mahendru), the KGB spy who dies in blunt, unceremonious fashion in the most recent season of The Americans.

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From the vantage point of December, two scenes stand out in my mind, both climactic endings to epic, ratings-smashing HBO dramas that tend to overshadow everything else when they’re on the air. One, from the Season 6 finale of Game of Thrones, sees fan favorite Arya (Maisie Williams) finally enacting revenge on the tyrant who orchestrated the deaths of her mother and brother, feeding him a pie filled with the bodies of his dead sons before slitting his throat; the other, from the finale of Westworld’s first season, sees an army of long-suffering robots descend upon the polished attendees of a fancy gala. I can’t shake the feeling that the creators of these juggernauts are members of the same “elite” that their shows take such obvious pleasure in punishing. Like a certain reality-show star and his team of billionaire thugs, time and time again, these shows end with an appeal to some mythological ideal of “authenticity” that usually manifests itself in brutal violence.

As an exhausting year comes to a close and a potentially terrifying one begins, I take comfort not in the shows that indulge our fantasies of total control or pander to a cynical craving for senseless violence, but those, like Rectify, that acknowledge society’s failings while leaving room for quiet moments of transcendence. Or The Americans, which treats violence not as an awesome spectacle but a dreaded chore. Shows that know exactly what they are and what they are not; shows that know they’ll probably never match the viewership of Game of Thrones, but that continue to nudge us away from nihilism and toward grace, humility, and humanity regardless. If only more of us were watching.