We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.
It’s been a privilege and a thrill to cover TV as a critic in 2016. It’s been a terrible and terrifying year in many respects, culminating with the still-unbelievable election of Donald Trump in November. But television also gave me so much to hope for as the medium continues to find new ways to move and grow and comfort and excite. There isn’t just too much TV to watch right now; there’s too much excellent TV to take in (even if it’s a full-time job!). That’s why I’m offering a Top 10 Episodes list here, so you can try new programs if you don’t have the time or the inclination to chase after every new “Best Show Ever.” Many of these installments are naturally more powerful if you watch them in order, but that’s not the case with all of them. And for the purists and completists out there, my Top 20 Shows of 2016 is below.
10. High Maintenance (HBO), “Grandpa”/“Tick”
Making the leap from Vimeo to HBO this year, High Maintenance delivered some of its most superlative installments to date. The vignette-based series — ostensibly centered on an unnamed everydude weed dealer (Ben Sinclair) but really a funny, sharp, and occasionally heartbreaking love letter to New Yorkers — reached new peaks with its third and fourth episodes, “Grandpa” and “Tick.” In “Grandpa,” a dog’s eyes provide a fresh perspective in the universal quests for love and home. “Tick,” meanwhile, offers both existential agony and unflinching hope as its elderly protagonists confront a fast-changing Brooklyn.
9. Transparent (Amazon), “If I Were a Bell”
Transparent’s transcontinental flashbacks, especially in relation to the Pfefferman family’s historical and intergenerational traumas, are one of the half-hour drama’s most novel and powerful story lines. No wonder, then — especially with a less distinctive third season — that the Andrea Arnold–helmed episode about Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) and Shelly’s (Judith Light) childhood anguish during the strait-laced ‘50s stands out as a remarkable twin portrait of sexual repression and self-silencing. A quiet suffocation smothers both boomers’ early years, and creator Jill Soloway wisely leaves her audience to figure out for themselves how those formative emotional injuries ripple through to the present day.
8. The Girlfriend Experience (Starz), “Blindsided”
If you’ve ever wanted to know what a full-blown panic attack feels like, you can probably get a pretty good sense from the ninth episode of The Girlfriend Experience, as Riley Keough’s Christine, a law intern who moonlights as a high-end escort, finds her entire office watching a sex tape with her in it. That’s perhaps not the most convincing sell for this chilly, cerebral, extraordinary drama, but “Blindsided” is the perfect illustration of its precise yet audacious filmmaking. Augmented by innovative sound design and Keough’s nerve-racking performance, what unfolds is one of the most terrifying and breathlessly immersive half-hours of the year.
7. Black-ish (ABC), “Hope”
Arguably the most politically relevant episode of the year, “Hope” departs from Black-ish’s light tone — but not its deft touch — by tackling a topic that centuries of Americans had hoped we’d no longer have to still be talking about in 2016. Taking place entirely in front of the living-room TV, three generations of the Johnson family watch to see whether a police officer who shot a black man will go to jail. The ensuing disagreements between Dre (Anthony Anderson) and his wife Rainbow (Tracee Ellis Ross) about what to tell their four children about the seeming disposability of black lives is heartrending, infuriating, intelligent, cathartic, and essential.
6. Atlanta (FX), “The Streisand Effect”/“Value”
It’s pretty much impossible to single out just one episode of Donald Glover’s Atlanta, which often feels like an instant masterpiece, so allow me to sing the praises of two. “The Streisand Effect” epitomizes Atlanta’s affection for its city’s weirdness and its citizenry’s resourcefulness, leading Glover’s Earn and LaKeith Stanfield’s Darius on a seemingly aimless mission involving a goat, a samurai sword, and arguments about whether black people know about the white Steve McQueen. “Value,” about Earn’s sometimes-girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz), is my personal favorite — a perfect example of the show’s ironic social critiques and its sly, always-empathetic sense of humor.
5. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix), “The Animals”/”Toast Can Never Be Bread Again”
Season 4 was Orange Is the New Black’s weakest year yet, but the show’s white-hot rage at the dehumanizing effects of prison privatization was admirably relentless. That righteous fury culminated in the Eric Garner–inspired death of innocent Poussey (Samira Wiley) — an accidental murder that is both the logical endpoint of Litchfield’s budget constraints and one of the most devastating events to occur on this frequently sorrowful dramedy. Taking place right after Poussey’s choking, the season finale made for one of the most bleakly honest story lines on TV, as the dead inmate grows cold on the dining-room floor as her warden and guards conspire to evade legal responsibility. It’s impossible not to feel a chill descend as the inmates realize how little their lives matter — and they take action accordingly.
4. Game of Thrones (HBO), “Battle of the Bastards”/”The Winds of Winter”
Mass carnage is never so welcome as it is on Game of Thrones, which concluded its mostly excellent sixth season with a heart-poundingly visceral battle, a shocking massacre, and a very different set of rivals than the one we’d started with. Among the final two installments’ highlights were Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) very relatable paralysis amid war, the Stark sisters’ (Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams) long-awaited revenge on their respective torturers, and Cersei’s (Lena Headey) nuclear-level move for the crown. “Battle of the Bastards” and “The Winds of Winter” are Game of Thrones at its most ruthless, grand, maybe even inspirational — no other show comes close to being so epic.
There’s a lot that should and has been said about Tina Fey and Robert Carlock doubling down on their problematic casting choices in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but there’s no denying that the Season 2 finale was transcendent. Kimmy’s (Ellie Kemper) reunion with her mother (Lisa Kudrow) for the first time since leaving the bunker hinted at the comedy’s unimaginably dark undercurrents while exploring how repressed anger manifests in bizarre and gendered ways. The scene on the Ferris wheel allows mother and daughter to realize together how their lives have been shaped by violent, pervasive misogyny — a topic that sadly gained painful, political relevance in 2016.
2. American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson (FX), “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”
O.J. fever swept the nation again this year, thanks to American Crime Story’s reinterpretation of the 1994–95 murder case and O.J.: Made in America’s accessible contextualization of the pampered athlete in the ongoing fight for civil rights. But it was the exoneration of prosecutor Marcia Clark in the public eye that made for the hour of the year. “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” gave Sarah Paulson, one of TV’s best actresses, a chance to finally win an Emmy after multiple nominations while allowing for Clark to be seen at last as who she was: a deeply wounded woman routinely humiliated by the media for committing the sin of not having perfect hair while trying to put away a sociopathic killer.
With the underwater “Fish Out of Water” and the deliriously defiant “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew,” BoJack’s third season claims, respectively, the most gorgeous and the most daring episodes of 2016. The brilliant heights of both half-hours were enough to give me vertigo: “Fish Out of Water” for its silent, dreamlike, exquisitely pained tale of a horse out of his depth; “Brrap Brrap Pew Pew” for sensitively tackling abortion while archly satirizing the celebrity-feminism industry. Production designer Lisa Hanawalt proved once again that she’s one of the most creative forces in television, and BoJack Horseman proved that its cast of depressed talking animals have more to say about the human condition than most shows put together.
Here are my Top 10 TV Shows of the year:
10. Game of Thrones (HBO)
9. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
8. Jane the Virgin (CW)
7. Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (TBS) / Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)
6. You’re the Worst (FX)
5. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
4. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
3. The Americans (FX)
2. Atlanta (FX)
1. American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson (FX)
And my Top 11–20, in alphabetical order:
Baskets (FX); Broad City (Comedy Central); Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW); Fleabag (Amazon); The Girlfriend Experience (Starz), High Maintenance (HBO); Lady Dynamite (Netflix); O.J.: Made in America (ESPN); Orange Is the New Black (Netflix); Transparent (Amazon).
Check out more from the year in music, culture, politics, and style in Signal & Noise 2016.