The television half-hour is the boldest and most exciting art form in popular culture right now, as “former” TV critic Andy Greenwald has been quick to point out over the last couple years, and this was very much the case in 2016. Nowhere was that more apparent than Atlanta, the best new show of the year that exhilaratingly embraced its distinct mixture of mood, feeling and character to weave a tapestry never before seen on TV. But it was far from the only example.
Veep, TV’s most immaculate orchestration for five years running, seamlessly changed showrunners to turn in one of its strongest seasons to date, while its HBO counterpart Silicon Valley has only gotten better with age. Meanwhile, BoJack Horseman continues to push animation in new directions, from a dazzling dialogue-free episode to tackling abortion and three-week long drug benders, and Black-ish has fully settled into being the best network family sitcom in ages.
2016 also continued to give women and minorities a more prominent and long overdue voice in the television landscape. From the aforementioned Atlanta and Black-ish, to freshmen standouts like Insecure, Better Things, Fleabag and late night’s Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, networks have finally seemed to recognize diverse storytelling is good for everyone. One can only hope these last few years are a prelude for more things to come.
The other big takeaway is how blurry the lines between “comedy” and “drama” have become, with the only thing separating the two now appearing to be runtime. From the dark emotional depths BoJack Horseman explored, to the deft way Black-ish handled the recent police shootings, to You’re the Worst’s stark portrayal of PTSD, to the personal turmoil characters went through on what seemed like every other show this year, the most affecting and impactful stories were often seen in the half-hour format. So 2016, well done there.
1. Veep, season five
2. BoJack Horseman, season three
3. Atlanta, season one
4. Silicon Valley, season three
5. Black-ish, seasons two and three
6. You’re the Worst, season three
7. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, season 11
8. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, seasons three and four
9. New Girl, seasons five and six
10. Insecure, season one
11. Togetherness, season two
12. Better Things, season one
13. The Good Place, season one
14. The Carmichael Show, season two
15. Divorce, season one
16. Baskets, season one
17. Archer, season seven
18. People of Earth, season one
19. Man Seeking Woman, season two
20. Girls, season five
Ballers, season two
Catastrophe, season two
Fleabag, season one
Fresh Off the Boat, seasons two and three
The Last Man on Earth, seasons two and three
Mozart in the Jungle, season three
Search Party, season one
Vice Principals, season one
(Although obviously not fictional like all the others, special attention must be given to both Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, the two most vital shows we had in trying to make sense of this crazy real life year.)
As for the television hour-long, 2016 once again got the most thrilling results from its recent embracing of limited series, with The People v. O.J. Simpson and The Night Of leading the way. It still managed to produce more traditionally buzzworthy shows, sure, like Westworld and Stranger Things, but it’s strongest output remained little seen gems like The Americans and Halt and Catch Fire. Meanwhile, television’s flagship show, Game of Thrones, continues to be the most overrated show on the air, and it’s baffling why its many shortcomings are not picked apart more often than they are.
But really 2016 finds the state of the TV drama a little unsure of itself and at something of a crossroads. On the one hand, it wants equal, if not greater, footing with film as the biggest must-see events that drive cultural conversations, and it has had a lot of success with that with the limited series. But on the other hand, the more traditional serialized shows have been much more of a mixed bag, both in terms of consistent quality and viewership, and few hour-longs match the fresh nimbleness and forward-thinking nature of its half-hour brethren.
Not to mention with the glut of content streaming outlets are pushing out, it has become increasingly difficult to keep track of things or for something to break out for more than a brief moment. It will be interesting to see what the landscape looks like in five years and if the industry doubles down on shorter running series or has grown even more fractured.
1. The Americans, season four
2. Halt and Catch Fire, season three
3. The Night Of
4. The People v. O.J. Simpson
5. Better Call Saul, season two
6. Westworld, season one
7. Stranger Things, season one
8. Black Mirror, season three
9. Preacher, season one
10. Agent Carter, season two
The Affair, season three
Billions, season one
Game of Thrones, season six
Masters of Sex, season four
Mr. Robot, season two
The Night Manager