Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Ed's Top 20 TV Shows of 2016

Michaela Coel as Tracey in Chewing Gum
It was a turbulent year, 2016. Lots of death. Acres of sadness. Elections that took up way too much of our time and ended badly. And while there were plenty of distractions to be found on TV - even if "escapism" in this case meant being transported to a world even more brutal and chaotic than our own - many of the best shows tried to engage with the big questions that we usually watch TV to avoid.

As you can see from this list of the twenty shows that I personally thought were the best from a dizzyingly strong and varied year, it was something of a watershed year for shows about race in America and elsewhere. A slew of shows in massively different genres tackled the history of racism, the contemporary black experience, and the friction that exists at the points where black and white America meet. It was also, in a bitterly ironic turn, all things considered, a great year for shows by and about women, with shows both new and old offering different takes on feminism, female friendships, and the challenges of being a woman.

Considering how central racism and misogyny ended up being to the Presidential election, it's appropriate that some of best shows of the year (including THE best show of the year) tackled issues of race and gender so directly. It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how this most dynamic, splintered and fast-moving of art forms responds to the next few years, because those problems are not going away any time soon.

A brief note on eligibility for this list: Obviously I can't watch every show on TV (especially in a year where American networks alone produced 455 original shows) so series I didn't watch (or didn't watch enough of) were not eligible. There were several shows that I loved in the past which I didn't watch this year either due to a lack of time, availability (Rectify) or because of a lackluster previous season (Girls). I'm sure they would have been included had I seen them (the positive response to the penultimate season of Girls, in particular, had me kicking myself for letting season four put me off). Also, I'm counting O.J.: Made in America as a film, which is why it is not included here. If it were included, it would rank very highly.

Like all lists, this is a subjective selection based on an incomplete experience.

20. Horace and Pete (louisck.net)

When FX announced last year that Louis CK's hilarious, endlessly inventive show Louie, arguably the most influential comedy of the decade, would be going on an indefinite hiatus, it seemed like we might have to wait a while for his next project to emerge. After all, he'd spent the last five years directing, writing, acting in and often editing 61 episodes of television while also continuing to perform new stand-up material around the country. He'd be forgiven for taking things easy for a while.

Instead, CK jumped into a new venture, a previously unannounced web series starring himself, Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Edie Falco, Jessica Lange, and a cadre of great actors (like Rebecca Hall and Laurie Metcalf) who dropped in for the occasional guest spot. If the cast wasn't stunning enough, the show itself was a stark departure; a bleak, brutally sad series about the latest in a long line of men named Horace and Pete to own a crumbling bar in Brooklyn. Through their toxic relationships with each other and the assorted members of their family, and the interactions between the bar patrons, Horace and Pete explored decades of anger and regret, the political turmoil of America in an election year, and the crushing disappointment of unfulfilled lives. Just as CK's first sitcom, Lucky Louie, hearkened back to the unvarnished, often confrontational sitcoms of the '50s, '60s and '70s, Horace and Pete had the feel of the live plays that were a staple of television's early years, but delivered with a tone (not to mention distribution model) that could not be more contemporary.

Standout Episode: "Episode 3", in which Laurie Metcalf all but guarantees herself an Emmy.

19. This Is Us (NBC)

I've been looking for a reliable tearjerker since Friday Night Lights and Parks & Rec went off the air and a contender finally arrived in the most unlikely form: A network drama which manages to effortlessly span multiple decades, tones, and genres, all while focusing on the interconnected lives of a group of people who share a birthday. That description is deliberately vague because part of the joy of this show is seeing how the pieces fit together, and what connects new parents (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore), a sitcom star (Justin Hartley), a woman who begins a tentative new romance at a weight loss group (Chrissy Metz) and a man who finally meets his biological father (Sterling K. Brown). This Is Us manages to deliver compelling twists that don't interfere with its subtle, often moving character work, and moves easily between drama, comedy and satire without missing a beat. It's an old-fashioned ensemble drama delivered in a novel, exciting way, and a reaffirmation that old ideas are not bad ideas, they just have to be done right.

Standout Episode: "Pilot", in which all the players are introduced and the most effective revelation of the show (so far) is delivered flawlessly.

18. The Night Of (HBO)

The Night Of went through a protracted and painful journey before debuting on HBO over the Summer. Based on the BBC series Criminal Justice, it was initially planned as a vehicle for James Gandolfini, marking his return to television for the first time since The Sopranos ended in 2006. When Gandolfini passed away in 2013, Robert De Niro was cast to replace him, and was then replaced in turn by John Turturro. It's a credit to everyone involved that none of that tumult shows in the final project, which is an elegant and brooding exploration of the criminal justice system, and what it does to a young Pakistani-American (Riz Ahmed) arrested for a murder which he may not have committed. Ahmed is great as Naz, a basically good guy who finds himself at the mercy of first the police, then his fellow inmates, and eventually the court; the great character actor Bill Camp is terrific as the detective who arrests him but is plagued by doubts; while Turturro is on career-best form as John Stone, an unscrupulous lawyer plagued by eczema and willing to do anything to free his client.

The story suffers from expanding the original's five episodes to eight, which results in some wheel-spinning and a loss of momentum in its middle chapters. What it loses in forward movement it gains in theme and atmosphere, as writer Richard Price (the novel Clockers and its Spike Lee-directed film version, The Wire) more fully explores the ways in which prison brutalises prisoners, arguing that the justice system is more effective at creating a hardened criminal than reforming one.

Standout Episode: "The Art of War", in which Naz becomes more enmeshed in prison life and Stone begins to dig more deeply into the case in the hope of finding different suspects.

17. Game of Thrones (HBO)

HBO's flagship series entered its sixth season with a daunting task. Having more or less exhausted the story material provided by George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series, show runners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff had to take a much bolder leap than they had in the past. Instead of making relatively small changes to the source material, they had to set out on their own path with only the slim guidance of Martin's planned novels to work with.

The upshot of all this was that, after the often stodgy fifth season, which felt like they were trying to stretch the story out for as long as possible in the hope that Martin would finish the next book in time, the sixth moved like a fucking freight train. With renewed urgency, Weiss and Benioff tore through plot points, fan theories and characters with a speed and intensity that was unrecognisable compared to the more sedate pace of seasons past. For those who had long hoped that "R + L = J" would be proved canonical, or that The Cleganebowl would one day happen, this season was especially sweet, as was its insistence on given Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) plenty of scenes together, while "The Battle of the Bastards" delivered the series' most stunning action sequence to date. The constant stream of dopamine hits offered by this season made it less complicated and involving than its predecessors, but also much more fun.

Standout Episode: "The Door", in which a beloved character dies in the most noble (yet convoluted) way imaginable.

16. Insecure (HBO)

One of the main criticisms leveled at the ongoing trend for distinctive, auteurist TV dramedies (think previous HBO shows like Girls or Looking, and more recently Amazon's Transparent) is that they prize the first half of the portmanteau over the second. Such a claim could not be made of Insecure: While Issa Rae's show (co-created with Larry Wilmore) has a woozy, bleached-out look reminiscent of its HBO compatriots, and it treats the romantic and professional crises of Rae's character ( also called Issa) just as seriously as Andrew Haigh treated the lives of his characters, it's funny as fuck. Rae and her writers mine every ounce of comedy out of their exploration of what it means to be black, particularly when working in predominantly white workplaces, and the ways in which gender and race inform every aspect of Issa's life, as well as that of her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), as they navigate the already messy territory of their late-20s.

Standout Episode: "Insecure as Fuck', in which we are introduced to the characters, and Issa performs the instant classic rap "Broken Pussy".

15. Difficult People (Hulu)

Season one of Julie Klausner's blistering update of the Seinfeld formula - irredeemable New Yorkers  hatching schemes and trading barbs - was very enjoyable, but was also finding its feet as it went, as evidenced by its tendency to lean too heavily on Klausner and her costar Billy Eichner at the expense of a strong ensemble. The second season was an unqualified success, with scripts that dovetailed to create brilliant, baffling farces, more room to develop its supporting cast (including the introduction of my favourite new character of 2016: Lola (Shakina Nayfack,) the trans truther)  and more obtuse pop culture references than even the most pop culture-addled misfit, i.e. me, could handle. There's a long, complicated and dull argument to be had about what the "best" comedy on television is right now, but there is no question in my mind about which is the funniest. Season one had potential, season two fulfilled it. I can't wait for season three.

Standout Episode: "Patches", in which a series of beautifully constructed misunderstandings lead to Klausner getting cast for a Showtime series because the casting director thinks that she is mentally handicapped, while Eichner inadvertently becomes a replacement child for Klausner's mother (Andrea Martin).

14. Chewing Gum* (E4)

Adapted from Michaela Coel's play Chewing Gum DreamsChewing Gum is one of the most exuberant British comedies in years. Following the efforts of Tracey (Coel), a 24-year old from a deeply religious family, to lose her virginity, it's a raucous show about fumbling desire and the vibrancy of life on a council estate in modern, multicultural London. Coel's central performance as Tracey is fantastic - funny, warm, believably awkward - and the writing is razor-sharp, both on a line-by-line basis and in its ability to tell the ongoing story of a young woman's sexual awakening over six episodes. It may be the best structured British series since Spaced, a comparison I don't make lightly. Post-Brexit, its depiction of a Britain of all colours and sexualities feels even more valuable.

Standout Episode: "The Last Supper", in which Tracey's cousin Boy Tracey comes to visit and the tensions bubbling under the surface for the past four episodes come to a head at a chaotic family dinner.

*Technically a 2015 show, but it debuted on Netflix in the US this year so I'm counting it.

13. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

The crown jewel of Netflix's original programming continues to be this animated series, which manages to be both one of the funniest and one of the saddest shows currently on television. To give a sense of its ambition, the third season took on emotional territory previously explored in season five of Mad Men (and did so brilliantly) as BoJack (Will Arnett) tried to become a better person while also gunning for an Oscar for his performance in a biopic Secretariat. The show dug deeper into the backstory of the characters, relished the opportunity that the Oscar subplot offered to satirise Hollywood and the months-long mud wrestle that is awards season, and, after a brief period of calm, plunged BoJack into the deepest, bleakest hole of his life. A show about talking animals shouldn't be this moving, but it is.

Standout Episode: "Fish Out of Water", in which BoJack goes to an underwater film festival and accidentally finds himself caring for a lost baby seahorse. A near-wordless half hour that has all the grace and charm of Tati.

12. Westworld (HBO)

Last year, Jurassic World took an old Michael Crichton story and rehashed its story beats without doing much with his ideas. This year, Westworld did the opposite. While it shares the name and setting of Crichton's 1973 classic about a Western-themed amusement park in which paying customers play out their violent and sexual fantasies against advanced androids, showrunner Jonathan Nolan took it to deeper, stranger territory, crafting a story that explored the philosophical ramifications of artificial intelligence and the very purpose of storytelling in a way that Crichton's leaner original did not. Plus, it's got lots of great action set pieces and explosions, which is nice. It's a sweeping epic underpinned by a long list of great performances from (but not limited to) Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Ed Harris, Thandie Newton and Anthony Hopkins. The latter, playing the creator of the park, does some of his best work in decades.

Standout Episode: "Dissonance Theory", in which the pieces start to fall into place and Maeve (Newton) starts to become aware of the true nature of her existence.

11. Broad City (Comedy Central)

The problem with being one of the most exciting shows on television is that it's hard to replicate the shock of the new, and even if the quality remains the same, that initial surprise can never be recaptured. Such is the case with Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer's series about friendship and the travails of being a young woman in New York (or at least the only slightly exaggerated version of New York they inhabit). They delivered another string of great, funny episodes this year, but after you've seen them be bold and brilliant twice already, by the third time round it starts to feel expected. That doesn't take away from the fact that Broad City gave us such delights as a trip to Abbi's childhood home in Pennsylvania, a relationship between Abbi and her boss that caused a believable fault line in her friendship with Ilana, and the sight of Ilana riding a naked Blake Griffin like a horse.

Standout Episode: "Rat Pack", in which Abbi experiments with Tinder and a party devolves into a clandestine hunt for a rat.

10. Silicon Valley (HBO)

In its fitfully great first season, Silicon Valley was characterized (fairly) as "Entourage, but nerds" as its assortment of tech bros kept getting themselves into scrapes, all of which were pretty much resolved by the end of the episode. In its second and third seasons, the show figured out that it was more compelling to have them resolve their immediate problems only if it caused much worse trouble further down the road. As Pied Piper became a more viable commercial prospect in season three, its founding members found themselves being sidetracked by their own creation as CEO Richard (Thomas Middleditch) was replaced by a feckless company man (the great Stephen Tobolowsky) and they were forced to work on a project they hated. Their bitterness and frustration, while warranted, spurred them on to misguided action, including a heist which unravels in truly spectacular fashion, while offering an ever more incisive critique of the cult of Silicon Valley, and the broader tech industry it represents.

Standout Episode: "Bachmanity Insanity", in which Bachman (T.J. Miller) lets his hubris get the better of him, setting up both his financial ruin and a surprisingly sweet season finale.

9. Veep (HBO)

You'd never know that Veep lost its creator and showrunner this year after Armando Iannucci left to pursue other projects. The best ensemble on television, along with some of its sharpest writers, took the previous season's cliffhanger - in which President Selina Meyer's (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) re-election hopes ended in an Electoral College tie - and used it to spark a series of professional and personal crises for Meyer and her staff (and to teach an unexpected civics lesson).  Whether it was chronicling incompetent former staffer Jonah's (Timothy Simons) run for Congress or Selina's mixed feelings about her mother's death, the show was never less than brilliant from the first minute to the last.

Standout Episode: "C**tgate", which uses chaos and farce to lay bare the experience of being a woman in politics.

8. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW)

No show on television has a steeper uphill climb than Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on a week-to-week basis. Apart from being saddled with a title which, while intended as a winking bit of irony, can be off-putting, it's also a musical that delivers at least two or three original songs every week. It's a daunting task which creator and star Rachel Bloom and her team meet and surpass each and every week, creating a show which works as a delightful musical, a fiercely smart show about sex and gender, and a showcase for a ridiculously talented ensemble. It also has, in Bloom's character Rebecca Bunch, one of the most interesting characters in all of TV: A sweet-natured, relatable heroine who is unquestionably a stalker. The fact that the show has managed to maintain its edge even after blowing up its premise at the end of season one is a reassuring sign for its creative future, even if its commercial one is constantly imperiled by low ratings.

Standout Episode: "Josh Has No Idea Where I Am!", in which Rebecca goes missing and has a long-delayed revelation while her friends try to figure out what happened to her.

7. Fleabag (BBC Three)

For about a week or two, everyone on Twitter started posting pictures of three fictional characters who they felt best summed up the constituent elements of their personality. In response to that, my friend Lewis posited a new version of the game: post a picture of Fleabag (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and two other characters, because no other character has been so instantly and completely relatable. Based on Waller-Bridge's one woman show, Fleabag is a pitch-black comedy about a couple of weeks in the life of a young woman trying to maintain a certain degree of nihilistic remove in the aftermath of a sudden tragedy. As well as being a great study of a fascinating character - the kind of complex role that in recent years has been the domain of men in pensive American dramas - it's blisteringly, brutally funny, like if Chris Morris remade Amelie and replaced all of the whimsy with bitter disdain. It's also an exceptionally well-structured work of storytelling, one which deftly sets up a surprisingly moving finale by delivering a real gut punch. Between this and Chewing Gum, it's clearly a boom time for female-driven British sitcoms based on plays.

Standout Episode: "Episode 4", in which Fleabag and her sister Claire (Sian Clifford) are sent away to a silent retreat and are forced to contend with their shared past and very different worldviews.

6. The Americans (FX)

When The Americans started in 2013, it came with a can't-miss premise (Russian spies try to maintain their cover as an all-American family in the heart of Reagan-era Washington) that also seemed like it would be hard to sustain. Television is built on the constant reassertion of the status quo, and the need for dramatic spy antics would make it hard to put the genie back in the bottle week after week, especially when balanced against an intense exploration of marriage and family. The genius of the show is that the status quo is constantly being redefined and re-established, with each new change further complicating the relationship between Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), their relationship with their children (Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati) and their unsuspecting (for now) FBI agent neighbour (Noah Emmerich). This season saw the Jennings' secret being half-revealed to the pastor of their daughter Paige, necessitating a multiple-episode discussion about how to contain the knowledge, and the introduction of another Russian agent (Dylan Baker) whose solitude and loneliness served as a potent contrast to the intimacy that exists between Elizabeth and Philip. A number of shocking deaths added to the general sense of things beginning to spiral out of control, something which will surely only grow more pronounced over the show's final two seasons.

Standout Episode: "Chloramphenicol", an episode which heightens the conflicts of the early part of the season to a fever pitch by separating the members of the Jennings family, then delivers one of the show's biggest shocks yet.

5. Search Party (TBS)

One of my favourite films of the last ten years is Aaron Katz's Cold Weather. It's a rain-soaked, unmistakably Portland take on a detective story in which a young man investigates his ex-girlfriend's disappearance, a mystery which briefly lends structure and meaning to an aimless in-between period in his life. Search Party, created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers and Michael Showalter, starts from a similar premise: A young woman (Alia Shawkat, one of our most consistently brilliant actors) finds herself stuck in a personal and professional rut. When she discovers that someone she went to college with has gone missing, she enlists her group of self-obsessed friends in her quest to figure out what happened, setting in motion a strange and calamitous series of events. It's an often hilarious comedy and a compelling mystery which manages to both critique the narcissism of its characters while having a lot of sympathy for them, even in their darkest and most misguided moments. Plus, it's got GOATs like Rosie Perez, Christine Taylor, Ron Livingston and Parker Posey, all of whom do great work in supporting roles.

Standout Episode: "The Captive Dinner Guest", in which Dory (Shawkat) and her friends lure a potential suspect to her apartment in the hopes of extracting information from him.

4. The Good Place (NBC)

You could never fault Mike Schur for a lack of ambition. After co-creating two of the best sitcoms of the past decade (Parks & Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) he could have relaxed a bit, or at least made another show about lovable public servants (as long as we're not talking about those contemptible librarians). Instead, he made a sitcom about the very nature of good and evil, which from its first episode creates an entirely new mythology about how the afterlife works. And because it's from Mike Schur, it not only works, but manages to be funny and heartwarming at the same time.

Kristen Bell stars as Eleanor, an averagely awful person who accidentally winds up in The Good Place, the part of the afterlife reserved for only the smallest percentage of truly good and selfless human beings. The early episodes of the season focus on Eleanor's attempts to hide her illegitimate status from the architect of The Good Place (Ted Danson, in the role he was born to play as a celestial being who finds every human activity fascinating) while working with Chidi (William Jackson Harper) an ethics professor who tries to help her understand what it means to be a 'good' person. While there's a lot of great jokes contained in that premise, the show quickly detonates it, setting up new, more complicated conflicts that are only just starting to play out. It's unclear if The Good Place will have the longevity of Schur's other sitcoms, but after only ten episodes it can sit comfortably alongside them as a pinnacle of the form.

Standout Episode: "Most Improved Player", in which the rules of The Good Place are called into question, Ted Danson and Kristen Bell make talking at a table into electrifying television, and we get a first hint of The Bad Place.

3. Better Call Saul (AMC)

By the end of its first season, Better Call Saul had justified its right to exist as a separate entity by showing that there was a compelling story to be told about how well-meaning but morally flexible Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) became Breaking Bad's criminal lawyer (in every possible sense) Saul Goodman. By the end of its season second, that story became almost too much to bear, as McGill's transformation became a slow-motion tragedy endangering the lives of the people he cares about the most. That's largely due to Odenkirk's charismatic central performance and his ability to be both sincere and cynical at the same time, but also creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould's willingness to let their story unfold at its own pace. We still haven't really met Saul, and we still might not by the end of the upcoming third season, but taking such a long time still doesn't feel excessive. This story is going to take as long as it needs to, and I am happy to be along for the ride, even as I dread the destination.

Standout Episode: "Nailed", a great showcase for Michael McKean as Jimmy's brother Chuck, who spends the episode trying to uncover one of Jimmy's schemes, with dire consequences.

2. Atlanta (FX)

2016 was a good year to be Donald Glover and basically no one else. (Well, except maybe Riz Ahmed.) Not only did he put out a great new album as Childish Gambino, he also got cast as Lando Calrissian in the Han Solo standalone Star Wars movie and created, wrote and starred in his own critically acclaimed TV series. Atlanta feels like the natural culmination of the post-Girls, post-Louie movement of auteurist sitcoms that gave us Master of None, Broad City and Baskets. Like those shows, Atlanta feels like a distinctive, idiosyncratic vision, one informed by Glover's musical career, his sketch comedy background, and his childhood in the city. It's a show which manages to be both authentic, particularly in its depiction of what it's like to live paycheck to paycheck and the ease with which it discusses race, while also being surreal and prone to moments of absurdism, such as the decision to make the seventh episode a fake public access talk show, complete with satirical commercials. It also boasts one of the best performances on television from Brian Tyree Henry as Paper Boi, the cousin to Glover's Earn and an ascendant rapper who spends much of the first season grappling with his newfound fame and his desire for more of it.

Standout Episode: "Juneteenth", in which Earn and his girlfriend Van (Zadie Beetz) attend a Juneteenth party hosted by a rich white guy who knows a lot about black culture and his black, aggressively bourgeois wife. It's the show at its most cutting, incisive and funny, and also features the most painful moment of cringe comedy I have seen in years, if not ever.

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

Before it aired, there was little reason to suspect that The People v. O.J. Simpson would be good. The early trailers veered from atmospheric to garish, some of the casting choices (John Travolta? David Schwimmer? Cuba Gooding Jr.?) seemed like exercises in kitschy gimmickry, and the involvement of Ryan Murphy (he of the transcendent disaster that was Glee and the straight-up disaster that is American Horror Story) should have sent chills down our collective spine. Within a few episodes, though, we stopped watching out of morbid curiosity and switched to outright adulation. The show became a phenomenon and, in retrospect, it's easy to see why. You have great source material (Jeffrey Toobin's "The Run of His Life") adapted by talented writers (Ed Wood and The People v. Larry Flint screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) and performed by actors who knew exactly how to pitch their performances. (Sure, Travolta isn't the most subtle of performers, but Robert Shapiro is not a subtle man, so his eerie hamminess actually fits.)

Outside of the marquee casting choices, the true revelations of the season lay with its less famous cast members: Sarah Paulson's relentless, brittle turn as Marcia Clark, the barely suppressed rage that Sterling K. Brown brought to Christopher Darden, and Courtney B. Vance's electrifying, unmissable performance as Johnny Cochran. All of these factors made The People v. O.J. Simpson something miraculous - an exercise in camp which had real, substantive things to say about race and gender in America, and a wildly entertaining romp which ended on a note of haunting emptiness. It earned the sweeping grandeur implied by its subtitle.

Standout Episode: "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia", in which Sarah Paulson is allowed to dig deep into the character of Marcia Clark as she juggles the case, her divorce proceedings, and the glaring eye of a media seemingly hellbent on turning her into a villain.