We’re not yet at the halfway point of 2016, but TV is already full of treasures and major achievements. With more diverse voices than ever making television — and young creative talent bringing fresh perspectives and techniques from the filmmaking world to premium channels — the medium has never been more dynamic, inclusive, or important.
Given the abundance of greatness currently on offer, here’s a short list of the best the year has given us so far.
10. O.J.: Made in America (ABC/ESPN)
Twenty years after his acquittal in “the trial of the century,” O.J. Simpson is all over television again — and his story is still enormously relevant, impactful, and critical to dissect and remember. Weaving together intimate footage, vital background, and a slew of quotable interviews, the five-part documentary is a triumph of one of TV’s most essential genres: the long-form nonfiction series. Director Ezra Edelman could have used deeper gender analysis in his biography of a domestic abuser, but his scholarly insights into the many uses of blackness in Simpson’s life and times — how it was championed, adored, and elevated, as well as denied, hated, questioned, and exploited — makes for a fascinating retelling of history everybody needs to know.
9. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
The sophomore season of Tina Fey’s show starts off slow (and kinda racist), but for pure comedic genius — and its ability to mine laughter from the bleakest of human experiences — it can’t be beat. I’m not quite sure why Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fell off the cultural map this year; Tituss Burgess’s hilariously morbid Trident jingle was just as brilliant as “Peeno Noir,” and the sitcom featured a poignant and endlessly witty story line about psychosomatic trauma (of all things) in the latter half of the season that felt like a serious accomplishment. Boasting the funniest ensemble anywhere, the willfully weird Kimmy Schmidt — with its flurry of quips and its thundering emotional might — is still must-see TV.
8. The Girlfriend Experience (Starz)
The ongoing migration of indie filmmakers to television has led to some of the best-looking and most cinematically cutting-edge shows in the history of the medium. Nowhere is that trend more evident than in Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan’s stylish, even quasi-experimental Girlfriend Experience, based on Steven Soderbergh’s mostly worthless movie about a young woman who caters to male fantasies. Featuring a star-making performance by Riley Keough, the Starz series looks aggressively antiseptic but is unmistakably inquisitive, using its broader canvas to explore questions of power, alienation, technology, and surveillance.
7. Happy Valley (Netflix)
Sometimes it seems like there are more cops on TV than in real life, but none are as rooted in her community as police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire). Set in a dying and drug-addicted small town in rural England, Happy Valley is an unusual and intelligent portrait of the relationship between Catherine, who’s struggling to raise the rape-conceived child of her teenage daughter, and the mostly pathetic but genuinely menacing town that she strives to make a livable place. Neither Catherine nor her grandson’s sociopathic father, whom she put away in Season 1, has the luxury of forgetting their pain and the injuries done to them, leading to an indirect yet still powerful battle of wills this year that vigorously examines what it’s like to have your fate wrapped up with the man you hate most in the world.
6. Baskets (FX)
There are currently too many shows about comedians, most of them operating on some variation of sad/angry/grasping. Baskets creators Zach Galifianakis and Louis CK get around that glut by making Chip Baskets (a splendid Galifianakis) the saddest of all the clowns — not for pity’s sake, but to explore what it really means to sacrifice everything for an art nobody even bothers to pretend to appreciate. That the irascible, pretentious Chip isn’t some comedy prodigy like CK is the point: Even in the face of hostile indifference, sometimes you’ve just gotta keep loving to keep living.
5. The Americans (FX)
It was no surprise that one of the best dramas currently on the air pulled off another excellent season. But The Americans was certainly full of shocks this year, from abrupt executions and relatively quick disappearances to the retroactive incredulity (at least on my part) that the spy drama found extraordinary tension not in car chases or double-crossing shenanigans, but in the subtle cracks in the wall between America and the USSR. When even die-hard soldier Elizabeth (Keri Russell) begins questioning her missions and her resolve, Russia suddenly looks on the verge of collapse. The season’s deft arc with teenage Paige (Holly Taylor) grappling with her place in her family after she discovered her parents’ true identity last season, too, made for a quietly spellbinding season.
4. Broad City (Comedy Central)
Since its debut almost three years ago, the already iconic Broad City has consistently pushed sexual, bodily, and feminist boundaries while being the funniest show on TV. The third season was more of that sublime same, opening with a spectacular montage of Abbi and Ilana (Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer) in their respective bathrooms — that place of transformation, wonder, and true self-knowledge. This year marked another peak in Broad City’s best assets: its complicated female friendship, its unabashed ethnic specificity, and its willingness to dive into the sweatiest, smelliest, crustiest, and bloodiest parts of the human body for enlightenment and laughs.
3. Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (TBS) / Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)
Political comedy is as necessary as ever — but we don’t need it every night. This year, Daily Show alums Samantha Bee and John Oliver took over Jon Stewart and Report-era Stephen Colbert’s mantle as the most indispensable voices in topical commentary with their weekly shows. In just 17 episodes (i.e., about a month’s worth of Daily Show episodes), Bee has become the instrument through which we now seek our angry catharsis, while the goofy, encyclopedic Oliver continues to make not just the smartest show on TV, but the rare one that actively makes a difference in the world.
2. “Hope,” Black-ish (ABC)
Like so many of Black-ish’s strongest and most original details, the urgent conversation at the heart of this Black Lives Matter–centric episode — about parents Andre and Rainbow’s (Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross) disagreement over how to talk to their children about police brutality and systemic racism — originated in creator Kenya Barris’s own home. Taking place entirely in a living room as yet another police officer goes unpunished for the beating of an African-American citizen, the three generations of the Johnson family discuss how to keep hope alive in the face of routine and flagrant injustice. Rainbow’s persuasive argument that she doesn’t want her 6-year-old twins to grow up thinking the world is out to get them — and Dre’s heartrending counter that their children need to be taught how quickly hope and change can be “taken away from us” — made for a profoundly affecting conversation about race, history, community, resilience, and parenting — and the most important episode of the year.
O.J. Simpson bookends this list, and for good reason: Both the documentary and the fictionalized miniseries about him make full use of the hindsight afforded us by two decades of distance. Elevated further by astonishing performances, The People v. O.J. is an impressive mix of progressive wisdom, humanizing empathy, salacious details, wide-ranging curiosity, and well-paced, gut-punch storytelling. The courtroom drama is also a surprisingly timely tale of righteous crusades that go awry, and of battling idealisms dented and misused in the heat of war. Most of all, it’s an assurance of hope — that we can learn from the past by making collective art out of it.