The Best TV Shows of 2016

By  · Published on December 28th, 2016


It was a very good year for television.

A good television show can get you thinking. A great television show will keep you talking. This is a mantra I’ve kept for years as a professional appreciator and critic in the realm of television. It’s a guiding principle for my own year-end list of the best shows. Which shows had us talking? Which shows were the ones that demanded our attention? And most importantly in the ever-expanding landscape of prestige television, which shows stood out from the pack and showed us something new? This isn’t limited to new shows – there are plenty of examples of shows that are seasons-deep that struck a new chord this year.

In fact, we begin this year’s list with one such show.

16. Orange is the New Black

The fourth season of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, one of the streaming network’s original originals, found a real groove in taking on a number of highly relevant topics – from Black Lives Matter to mental illness. This created a season that reminded us how poignant this world can be. It proved that even as Netflix renews it for three more seasons (it’s due back in 2017), showrunner Jenji Kohan still has plenty of gas in the tank.

15. Luke Cage

If you’re looking for a theme in this year’s list, it’s the abundance of streaming networks showing up. Let’s call this an ongoing trend. For Netflix and Marvel, the stakes continue to grow as it builds out its Defenders universe. But with Luke Cage, it felt like world-building took a pause so that showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker could tell a story with some weight around Harlem’s indestructible hero. The show suffered from some pacing issues, but it delivered huge on character and thematic heft. It’s apropos that Luke Cage ended up doing so much of the heavy lifting while Daredevil’s second season was building for the future. I’d count that as a win for audiences.

14. Veep

It’s hard to know where Veep goes in the wake of the 2016 election. There’s something unnerving about imagining this world in which a bad election result can be miraculously saved during the closing credits of a season finale (or was it?!) That said, Armando Iannucci continues to feed his wonderful cast ample opportunity for big laughs and they continue to knock it out of the park. This season also included the most savage Selina Meyer verbal dress-down in history. That one minute clip alone is worth inclusion in any list.

13. Broad City

Remember optimism about the 2016 Election? Some of you might. Others might still have optimism, but let’s table that conversation for now. For those of us who were all-in for the candidate who ultimately lost, there was no more complete TV moment than the “2016” episode of Broad City, in which Hillary Clinton made an appearance. Elsewhere, the show continued to be a brilliant canvas on which Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson paint comedic works that will be hung in halls of fame in perpetuity. All that to say that Broad City continues to be one of the most consistently funny shows on television.

12. Catastrophe

Catastrophe is the kind of show that feels like it’ll forever be underrated. Which is unfortunate, because together Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan are brilliant. This includes their chemistry on-screen and their work as the show’s two primary writers. Their second season flashed forward into family bliss, which comes with its own set of humorous trials and tribulation. The second season also features more Carrie Fisher as Rob Delaney’s crazy mother. And now I’m tearing up again. What a cruel world.

11. You’re The Worst

After an incredible second season in 2015, it was hard to imagine that You’re The Worst could get better by any impressive measure. I mean that with nothing but love and respect for the show. We have to face the fact that season two was capital g Great. The show benefited greatly from spreading its story around a bit to Edgar (Desmin Borges) and Lindsay (Kether Donohue). On the strength of its ensemble, You’re The Worst managed to continue the momentum it gained with its second season throughout its third.

10. Westworld

There’s plenty about Westworld that was frustrating. It’s certainly a show that loves its secrets, for better or worse. But it built a mountain of mystery that had many wondering, two-thirds of the way through its opening season, whether or not they’d be able to stick the landing. Then it did and everything was made worth it. All the speculating and theorizing and the deep dissection paid off in a way that we haven’t seen since those early seasons of Lost. Let’s hope that in future seasons they can avoid repeating Lost’s history. For now though, I’m ready to book my ticket back.

9. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

If scholars of television ever want to teach Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to future showrunners, they can use the musical number “It Was a S*** Show” as an example of how to send off a beloved character at an awkward time. Early in season two was a rough time to lose Santino Fontana’s Greg, but the show pulled it off and pivoted to a storyline in which Rebecca becomes friends with a now donut-eating Valencia. If you’ve made it this far and you don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s because you keep ignoring my pleas to watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I can’t believe we have to have this conversation again.

8. Bojack Horseman

Netflix’s animated series about a horse who wears people clothes has been a nice diversion during the summer TV months. Personally, I use it to quell my post-Game of Thrones blues. But this year it delivered an episode so singularly great – I’m talking about “Fish Out of Water” – that it had to slip into the top ten. That’s not to say that one episode was all the good it did this year. Season three is excellent from top to bottom. But “Fish Out of Water,” that was special.

7. The Girlfriend Experience

We talk so much about remakes, spin-offs, and reboots that we often ignore when something comes along in that kind of package and rises above. Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience is based on the Steven Soderbergh movie of the same name, but its only connection is that it’s about a call girl. The show levels up a bit by casting Riley Keough in the central role and enlisting Lodge Kerrigan and the brilliant Amy Seimetz as writers. It’s dark and full of wit to go with all the sexy stuff, some of which is also dark and full of wit. It would be a star-making breakout sort of show for the likes of Keough and her co-star Paul Sparks, if it weren’t on a network that barely anyone watches. Hopefully when everyone picks up Starz for American Gods they will go back and watch The Girlfriend Experience, because it’s more than worth it.

6. Atlanta

There’s a reason shows are critically lauded. Most of the ones that get the most love from critics are actually good. And in 2016, there were few shows that were as simultaneously off-beat and steadily crafted as Atlanta. It gets a rap as Donald Glover’s show, but there’s so much more going on here that’s worthy of praise. It is technically one of the most creative shows being produced right now, its comedy is filled with nuance, and the biggest surprise is how much room Glover cedes to costars like Brian Tyree Henry, allowing them to absolutely shine. Of all the shows on this list, Atlanta will likely be the one I rewatch in 2017.

5. Fleabag

Go find Fleabag. It’s on Amazon Prime. It’s very funny and charming and vulgar and you’ll fall in love with its star and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge. We told you that you should be watching this show in October. Now we’re telling you again. Sorry for being so persistent, we’re just quite smitten with it.

4. The People v. O.J. Simpson

If you’d have asked me a few years ago, I would have safely predicted that a Ryan Murphy show would never make it onto one of my year-end lists. At least not since season one of Glee, that is. But here we are. The People v. O.J. Simpson was a fantastic recreation of the trial that captivated a nation. It explored the personalities within the story in new, fresh, and often dumbfounding ways (“JUICE!”) and it brought back to life an increasingly relevant time in our country’s history. Also, John Travolta: The Diva Years is off to a blistering start.

3. Black Mirror

It’s good to have Black Mirror back and safely on Netflix. This season – with marquee episodes “San Junipero” and “Nosedive” – reaffirmed our collective confidence that Charlie Brooker and team can resist an Americanization of their show. It’s still quite British, plenty paranoid, and often brilliant. And with an even larger helping of episodes promised for 2017, it’s brilliance can continue unabated.

2. Game of Thrones

Worst show at keeping secrets: Game of Thrones.

Best show at massive battles and green-smoke paybacks: Also Game of Thrones.

Season 6 of Thrones was an uphill battle. They dealt with an offseason of speculation about a new book from George R.R. Martin, a new life for its recently slain hero, and a lot of new territory as they ran out of adaptable storylines. If the season had ended after the Siege of Riverrun in episode eight, I’d be more likely to have Thrones on my shit list than my best-of list. But man, those last two episodes. Shit. If you need more of my thoughts on Thrones, strap in and start here.

1. Stranger Things

Sure, it relies heavily on a large slice of the audience having nostalgia for Steven Spielberg’s 1980s. But wow, was Stranger Things a delightful surprise. It was also the year’s biggest narrative driver around the world of television. From those who jumped on the Barb bandwagon to those who continue to pull apart its layered story, Stranger Things is the new cult show. It’s taken that title away from the behemoth of Game of Thrones and denied Westworld the moniker in a year where it was poised to usurp the mysteries of Westeros. 2016 will be remembered for a lot of different reasons, many of which are a downer, but it will also be remembered as the year The Duffer Brothers took us back in time and truly harnessed that Spielberg 80s nostalgia in a way that felt fresh and invigorating. When they come back in 2017 for a second season, perhaps it will be to save us from the Upside Down.

Watch the Top 10 in video form:

For more of our look back at the year that was, check out our #2016Rewind:

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)