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Sonia Saraiya’s 20 Best TV Shows of 2016

Variety logo Variety 12/9/2016 Sonia Saraiya

2016 has been the year of the regnant half-hour. We are in the thrall of genre-defying 30-minute episodes, whether they are particularly brilliant broadcast sitcoms or cable and streaming comedies with the heart of independent film and the budget of prestige drama. Some are animated, some are auteur-driven; sometimes these shows boast sitcom joke structure, while others can barely be thought of to be funny at all. But whatever the case, they are all over this list — from premium cable, streaming services, the broadcast networks, and across the pond.

Dramas are a little bit less reliable. Peak television appears to suit nimble shows with a lot of room to adapt; dramas, with their longer runtimes and broader ambitions, are close to floundering. Many of the dramatic hours on my list aren’t even traditional dramas, but anthology series — a format that has stretched our definition of television even as it has proven irresistible to the viewing public.

There’s nothing wrong with what the Emmys still call comedies occupying so much of my list — these half-hours are so brilliant that they are well worth the real estate. But — to create a shaky dichotomy — half-hours are frequently the realm of the personal, while hour-long dramas, that medium that ushered in what we call the golden age of television, are often the realm of the political. We have an incredible array of television shows that offer intimate portraits and dissect specific relationships. We have fewer shows — fewer good shows — that take on the political structures, economic forces, and social attitudes of the world around us. The high-quality shows that do take on those topics are increasingly set in the past — the past being somewhat comprehensible, apparently, compared to this confusing present. 2016 seems to have also been a year where Americans have had to confront who we really are, compared to who we thought we could be. In that landscape, what we choose to put on television — our broadest medium — is more important than ever. Because yes, while we have an awful lot of television, it sometimes seems like we don’t have enough truly essential, deeply brilliant television.

Fortunately, the 20 shows below are examples of the exceptions. The shows I’ve ranked below, at their best, combine the political with the personal — they take on both the essential razor focus of empathy and the characters’ roles in the tapestry of the world we live in. This year more than ever, these pockets of brilliance feel rare and precious. Here are the top 20 shows of the year, ranked.

Click here for Variety TV Critic Maureen Ryan’s top 20 TV shows of 2016.

20.

“Lady Dynamite” (Netflix)

This comedy from Maria Bamford and Mitch Hurwitz is absolutely bonkers — time-shifting, reality-bending, and anchored by a completely loopy protagonist. But it’s so different, and so daring, that it deserves a spot on this list. “Lady Dynamite” demands a lot of focus, but once the viewer finds a way to follow its cinematic grammar, it proves to be an enormously generous comedy about what it feels like to lose your mind and then try to find it again — punctuated by scenes drawn from Bamford’s own diagnosis with bipolar disorder. Experimental comedy isn’t always a treat; “Lady Dynamite” is.

19.

“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (The CW)

This CW musical comedy is quite unlike anything else on television — both in its dependence on musical numbers and in its portrayal of enmeshed mental illnesses. The show’s snappy patter and lightweight numbers are full of wry wordplay and self-conscious mockery, but behind that is a show that has remarkable awareness of how people cope with their issues, whether those include addiction, mania, depression, or disordered eating. It’s a funny, tragic little show — one that with just a few more smart-alecky references would be too clever by half. As it is, it’s just smart enough for its own good. Watching it is quite a ride.

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18.

“The Crown” (Netflix)

It’s hard to overlook this sumptuous period piece, which pours its heart and soul into depicting the elegant details of Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension and early reign. But it’s not just production values; beyond an admiration of the trappings of monarchy, “The Crown” is endlessly curious about what it means to be the monarch and a mere human at the same time, interrogating not just Elizabeth — played gorgeously by Claire Foy — but everyone around her, including a wheezing Winston Churchill, flighty Princess Margaret, and Elizabeth’s priggish young husband Philip. It could stand to be a little less fawning over the monarchy, to be sure, but in being so arresting, “The Crown” also astutely observes why humans might want monarchies in the first place, guiding the audience through pomp and circumstance with the eye of an experienced tour guide.

17.

“Superstore” (NBC)

This little NBC sitcom about a bunch of employees at the fictional equivalent of a Wal-Mart has slowly become one of the most reliable and multifaceted sitcoms on television, characterized by a much-needed sharpness and dissonance that prevents the show from slipping into schmaltz. “Superstore” is, if not exactly a pessimistic view of the world, than at least one acutely aware of its flaws; there is a bit of despair endemic to the characters, the setting, and the show’s sense of humor. In the midst of fluorescent-lit empty aisles, “Superstore’s” characters create fragile bonds with each other — never to imply that friendship is stronger than the world around them, but instead to observe that human connection, frail as it is, is the only way to survive this place.

16.

“Veep” (HBO)

In an election year, it’s hard to not find extra appreciation for political satire, but “Veep” did us a favor by producing one of its best seasons yet. In addition to Jonah’s congressional run and the Nevada recount, this season offered us “Mother,” a masterclass in comedic performance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

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15.

“Lemonade” (HBO)

It’s hard to remember that “Lemonade” was a television special, because it rapidly became a global phenomenon. The hourlong visual album is part film, part music video, part spoken word — and it is, in its own way, the shot heard round the world. At first, what is flooring about “Lemonade” is just how varied and stacked it is — Beyoncé recorded the album and shot the videos largely in secret, as is her wont, but this time a whole host of A-list guest stars collaborated with her: Serena Williams, Zendaya, Amandla Stenberg, Quvenzhané Wallis, and of course husband Jay Z. Beyond simply the spectacle — and beyond even the original music, which includes instant classics — “Lemonade” is rapturous and engaging work, a cinematic exploration of identity that is the pop star’s least commercial, most independent effort yet.

14.

“The Real O’Neals” (ABC)

This ABC comedy — which, despite being new for 2016, is already in its second season — has been astonishingly assured right from the start, depicting the fallout when teenager Kenny comes out to his very Irish Catholic family — the same night that the parents tell the kids they’re getting a divorce. There are so many ways a show like “The Real O’Neals” could feel schmaltzy, but the show is mischievously funny — playing mom Martha Plimpton off of Noah Galvin’s Kenny for the best effect. The whole ensemble is great; the family is believably affectionate and related; and best of all, in focusing on coming out in high school “The Real O’Neals” is funny in ways not seen on sitcoms before. Kenny’s dream-sequence ideal prom, alone, is uncharted territory for broadcast networks.

13.

“Black Mirror” (Netflix)

The British anthology series now on Netflix is a polarizing show, but love or hate it, it’s endlessly debatable — an insinuating set of premises about technology and human nature that have the haunting appeal and tight-lipped brilliance of “The Twilight Zone.” The vignettes set in near-future settings with near-real technology are not always brilliant, in terms of plot of execution — but the implications are consistently fascinating, and can be picked over and examined for months and years to come. With this season’s six installments, Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones had some variation in quality — but in “Black Mirror’s” manipulation of reality, technology, and ageless human frailty, every episode offers something chilling.

12.

“Frontline” (PBS)

In an election year, “Frontline’s” evenhanded reporting is more valuable than ever; in its 34th and 35th seasons, the venerable PBS documentary series rose to the challenge. This year of “Frontline” has offered a searing documentary on America’s heroin epidemic, an exploration of policing with Jelani Cobb, the year’s most in-depth and reliable coverage of the war on terror, and “The Choice” — the best piece of campaign reporting on television. It not quite the same type of show as many of the others on this list, but “Frontline” is a perennial reminder of television’s potential and power to inform.

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11.

“Rectify” (Sundance)

The final season of this under-appreciated, gorgeous show about healing, survival, and the merciless grace of life is just as wrenching and poetic as the last three seasons were. The difference is only that we know this story is ending; in the final season, Daniel Holden has finally left Paulie, the scene of so many of his memories and humiliations, just as the truth is finally being uncovered all of 20 years later. In this final season, the cast shines, and the show is careful to dole out its ending with the same bittersweet harmony that has characterized so much of the power and beauty of the show to date. The final scene of this season is the kind of hair-raising loveliness that makes TV worth watching.

10.

“BoJack Horseman” (Netflix)

The third season of this animated Netflix show is not quite the masterpiece that the second season was — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful television, following through with rigorous and painful clarity on the continued adventures of BoJack Horseman, failed sitcom actor attempting to make a comeback. In addition to producing the best episode of the year — “Fish out of Water” — the third season eschewed the simplicity of most sitcom character arcs for the gnawing worry that there may be no way out of BoJack’s cycle of addiction and easy gratification. It’s existentially raw, but so validating, too.

9.

“Insecure” (HBO)

This debut season from Issa Rae is the strongest relationship-based half-hour on TV this year, one without any bells and whistles except the texture and sound of being black in this world. Rae, who plays a version of herself, is immediately engaging; the real breakout is Yvonne Orji, who plays her best friend Molly. A lot of shows try to depict female friendship well; “Insecure” goes farther to unapologetically center Issa and Molly’s relationship, a dyad of humor, love, and survival that keeps them both afloat. “Insecure” is a less ambitious show than some, but what it does tackle, it tackles beautifully — with what is, low-key, the best music repertoire on television.

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8. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix)

It’s always a treat when a comedy with bones that are largely conventional finds a way to surprise the audience, and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s” second season — one that is keenly about identity, trauma, and growth — is a joke-dense sitcom in which a rape survivor starts seeing an alcoholic therapist largely due to the promise of stickers. It’s tense and weird and joyful, held up by the same comedic principles of “30 Rock” but with the much higher stakes of a person who has, quite unexpectedly, gotten a second lease on life.

7.

“Better Call Saul” (AMC)

Vince Gilligan’s sequel-ish series to “Breaking Bad” was hard to latch onto in the first season, partly because — with characteristic deliberation — Gilligan and Peter Gould established a slowly expanding world of careful moments and detailed interactions. As I should have guessed, they knew what they were on about. The second season of “Better Call Saul” is, in some ways, even more emotionally gripping than “Breaking Bad”; knowing that Jimmy McGill turns into Saul Goodman means that “Better Call Saul” is just watching a trainwreck in slow motion, as a goodhearted man becomes a two-bit crook. Bob Odenkirk continues to astound with his screen presence — and this season allowed Jimmy’s erstwhile love Kim, played by Rhea Seehorn, to step into well-deserved limelight. Seehorn’s scene with the post-its, midway through the season, makes a job hunt conducted with a flip phone into searing television.

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6.

“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” (FX)

This Emmy-winning juggernaut has already received heaps of praise — and it’s all well-deserved. In the midst of any number of period pieces hoping for prestige glory, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” found an exhilarating balance between documentary, cheesy late-night special, courtroom drama, and socially aware drama. With 20 years’ vantage point, the show found a way to bring modern concerns about celebrity, media, and surveillance to bear on the 1995 case.

5.

“Fleabag” (Amazon Studios)

This British import from Phoebe Waller-Bridge is just a slim six episodes on Amazon Prime, but from the first frame it is an explosive, challenging, and darkly unsettling comedy — starring, and charmingly narrated by, the unnamed protagonist, played by Waller-Bridge herself. To some degree, “Fleabag” is the modern heir to the sarcastic, knowing narration of any number of comedies exploring the female condition — “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” “Sex and the City.” But Waller-Bridge looks at the camera head-on, talking to herself as if she is talking to the audience. But beyond sex and shoe-shopping, “Fleabag” is about guilt and trauma — and how we can use our quirks to dodge tougher truths running underneath the surface. In performing to the audience, our protagonist conveniently distracts us from noticing who she really is.

4.

“Halt and Catch Fire” (AMC)

This drama about the fledging years of the tech industry was a slow burn, but by the middle of last season, it had found verve by focusing on its female characters’ new company and working relationship. The third season takes everyone to San Francisco, and over the course of just 10 episodes manages to take apart and rebuild each of its characters, so that by the last episode, the protagonists have all four almost completely transformed. It’s quite a feat for any show; for “Halt and Catch Fire,” which is depicting four very different characters in a particularly volatile setting, it’s an incredible tapestry of movement and reinvention, managing to make its characters increasingly unrecognizable and also achingly familiar with each successive step.

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3.

“The Girlfriend Experience” (Starz)

This extraordinary work of television is what’s possible when you combine the aesthetics of indie filmmakers with both the streaming model of releasing a whole season at a time and, well, the obvious appeals of pornography. “The Girlfriend Experience” is an unsettling, sexy, chilly look at the life of a law student who decides to ditch school to be a high-priced call girl. It’s a choice the world doesn’t quite know what to do with, and “The Girlfriend Experience” allows the audience to come to its own conclusions about Christine’s motivations and desires, her investment and interest. There’s something hair-raising about lead Riley Keough’s preternatural comfort in front of the camera, where she manipulates both the audience and her clients with her studied, blank beauty. “The Girlfriend Experience” is entirely unlike anything else on television, and difficult to get out of your head.

2.

“Silicon Valley” (HBO)

The HBO comedy was good before, but the third season is wall-to-wall brilliant. The season starts with tech founder Richard being fired from his own company, and follows as Pied Piper, his creation, tries to hold on to what made it special as it attempts to become a billion-dollar company. A lot of things go wrong, of course. What is special about “Silicon Valley” is how ruthless the show is willing to be with its story, while allowing its characters to expand with warmth and dimension. That, and just how frighteningly accurate it is about the aims of American businesses, in tech or out.

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1.

“Atlanta” (FX)

This sophisticated, imaginative show from actor, comedian, rapper, and writer Donald Glover is, hands down, the best show of the year. The half-hour show is a comedy of sorts — a surreal, dark, tonally agile impression of life rapping in Atlanta, with its triumphs and indignities on full display. The cast — Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Lakeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz — are all more than they initially seem to be, and their becoming is illustrated through formal experimentation and subtle tweaking of reality that is quite unlike anything else on television. Without breathing a word on the topic, “Atlanta” is also an incredibly political, sharp show — observing divisions and bridges across race, class, gender, education, and work status. But this is not all; it is also executed with apparently effortless precision — a treat, in this era of Peak TV.

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