My other two lists this year — an overall Best Shows of 2016 and my Best New Shows roster — have 20 shows each on them, but this one has to be a bit bigger. I’m citing the 25 Best Returning Shows because there are just so many ongoing shows doing fine work.
Every show on this list has to go through a rigorous vetting process known as my life: I don’t hang on to season passes for returning shows unless they really deliver the goods most weeks. And it’s the relationships that keep bringing me back, for the most part. A good television show is really the chronicle of a tangle of relationships worth following; friendships that seem real, even in the most strange or surreal circumstances; families that are believably supportive and exasperating; marriages that are full of resonant echoes, even if they’re nothing like my own. When you’ve spent years with a fictional family or a group of friends, or an intriguing mixture of the two, and the show has done the hard work of getting you invested in their loyalties, betrayals and small victories, there’s a good chance I’ll stay with it. Even if it sometimes takes me forever to clear that DVR backlog.
These were among my favorite returning shows of the year (and yes, there are more returning shows that I watch but didn’t list here):
“The Americans” (FX): This drama about Russian agents working to undermine America is, as I noted in my list of the Top 20 Shows of 2016, “a glorious, heartbreaking thing of beauty, and it creates momentum and unfurls character development with assured and thoughtful discipline.”
“Black-ish” (ABC): “Few comedies pack as much into 21 minutes as this nimble program, which comments on topical issues with incisive wit and cutting vigor and also supplies the kind of warm (but not treacly) family dynamics we’ve come to expect from ABC comedies,” as I noted in my Top 20 Shows of 2016.
“Better Call Saul” (AMC): In its second season, this meditation on thwarted aspirations and self-sabotage got richer and deeper, while still displaying the kind of tight plotting and bone-dry humor that were the hallmarks of “Breaking Bad” at its best. “Saul” was more energetic, less clinical and ultimately more appealing in its second go-round, partly due to Bob Odenkirk’s continued mastery of the comedic and dramatic dimensions of the role, and partly thanks to killer supporting performances from Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael McKean and the dependably great Jonathan Banks.
“BoJack Horseman” (Netflix): “BoJack” continues to mine existential despair and Hollywood angst with perceptive compassion, and the way it mixes surreal flourishes with restrained emotional nuance remains truly impressive. And as my Variety colleague Sonia Saraiya points out in her list of the 20 best TV episodes of the year, the show’s underwater episode was a tour de force.
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (Fox): We shouldn’t take this show for granted; turning out really sharp and enjoyable ensemble comedy every week is not easy, but this show and this deft cast make it look that way. It continually finds ways to mine the vast comic talents of its cast, and it’s especially fun to see Andre Braugher, already a master of every kind of dramatic scene, lean into his comedic side with such hilarious results.
“The Carmichael Show” (NBC): This show continues to be one of the low-key gems of the television scene. It supplies the reliable pleasures of a well-executed multi-cam comedy while also taking on topical social and political issues, and it exudes confidence and intelligence while still displaying a welcome subversiveness and curiosity.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (The CW): This CW hourlong comedy “has taken a bunch of conflicting ideas, tied them to smart subversions of rom-com conventions, given the whole thing a bunch of energy, added great dance numbers and catchy choruses, and thanks to this amazing cast, I can’t get enough,” as I noted in my Top 20 Shows of 2016.
“Fresh Off the Boat” (ABC): The adventures of the Huang family continue to be among of the most dependably enjoyable pleasures of TV, and the show’s retro vibe is also a lot of fun. As is the case with a slew of other ABC comedies, this show has a truly gifted array of child and adult actors, and all of whom can adroitly mix acerbic asides and physical comedy with warm-hearted moments and sly satire.
“Game of Thrones” (HBO): “Game of Thrones” does a number of things well: In scale and scope, there’s nothing like it on TV, and its most memorable epic scenes, like the Battle of the Bastards, leave everyone jabbering about the show that night through the next day. It can also be lacerating in quieter moments, many of which focus on a character’s pain or a long-anticipated confrontation or reconciliation. When those moments of intensity — personal, political or visual — really come together, “Game of Thrones” is often spectacular in all senses of the word. Of course, the drama’s shortcomings are also easy to identify: It still doesn’t quite have a handle on how to handle sexual violence (which it still relies on way too much), there are a lot of moving parts to all these storylines and they don’t always mesh well, and in a show that always leaves its fans wanting more of their favorite characters, it gives far too much screen time to plodding filler like the Dorne plot or predictable arcs about one-dimensional characters like Ramsay Bolton. Still, thanks to this show’s cast, its visual poetry, its perceptive moments and its complicated take on the costs of gaining and losing power, this HBO tentpole is unmissable. Hodor. I wrote about deaths on “Game of Thrones” and its Season Six serial killer plot, and I also wrote about Episodes Two, Four, Seven and Nine. #NeverSnow
“Halt and Catch Fire” (AMC): Don’t let the setting fool you. Though there are blinking screens, banks of servers and tangles of cables everywhere, and though it takes the time to get its nerdy details right, “Halt” isn’t as concerned with technology as with what it can do to unite and divide people. This boisterous and smart drama, which was in top form in season three, “has a big, romantic heart at its center, and that combination of tenderness and technological exultation means that it’s one of a kind,” as I wrote in my Top 20 Shows of 2016.
“Happy Valley” (Netflix): “It’s hard to think of a scripted female character who is more complicated and fascinating” than the cop Sarah Lancashire plays in the terrific crime drama “Happy Valley,” which, as I noted in my review of season two, “does a fine job of conveying what it’s like to be a small-town police officer whose daily rounds allow her to confront the dumb, silly and awful things people do to each other, and to wrestle with what she herself is capable of.”
“Jane the Virgin” (The CW): This sprightly and brilliant show continues “to comment on genre forms while also mining the characters’ emotional states, relationships, quandaries and dreams for effective comedy, pathos and drama.” It was the No. 1 show on my list of the Top 20 Shows of 2016.
“Killjoys” (Syfy): “Some TV shows effortlessly tick a large number of the boxes you want them to tick and throw in a few more goodies just for fun, and ‘Killjoys’ is that show for me,” I noted in my second-season review of the outer-space adventure romp. All you really need to know is that it’s “well-made escapism with intelligent underpinnings, the kind of enjoyable show that quietly raises worthwhile questions and is carried through its weekly escapades by an energetic, efficient vibe. At the moment, few shows hit [their chosen] targets more consistently than ‘Killjoys.’”
“Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” (HBO): This weekly necessity is “entertaining and pointed and all the things you’d expect from a sharp, former ‘Daily Show’ correspondent who now gets to use swear words,” as I noted on my list of the Top 20 Shows of 2016.
“Marvel’s Agent Carter” (ABC): This fizzy delight was “a lovely concoction of action-adventure, superhero aspirations and retro delightfulness,” as I noted in my roster of the Top TV shows of 2016.
“Mr. Robot” (USA): However timely “Mr. Robot” was before, in this surreal post-election world, its intense and off-kilter exploration of the real vs. the unreal and the malleability of the truth feels especially prescient. Sure, the USA drama dragged out certain elements of its second season far too long, kept some characters off-screen or apart in ways that undercut its momentum, and undertook some narrative experiments that didn’t quite land. But the desire to change things up and take risky chances was laudable, and the second half of the season contained some thrilling formal experimentation and undeniable moments of suspense, connection and loss. Also, season two contained those “Alf” sitcom scenes, which were just mind-bendingly, bizarrely awesome. I wrote about my rewatch of season one, the big swings “UnReal” and “Mr. Robot” took in their second seasons, and I recapped episodes eight, nine, ten, eleven and twelve.
“Rectify” (Sundance): “The characters in this intimate, timely drama are portrayed with such nuance and depth that it’s impossible not to be drawn into this story, which manages to be both clear-eyed and compassionate about clashing values and the damage done by the intentional and unintentional cruelties of the world,” as I wrote in my Top 20 Shows of 2016.
“Silicon Valley” (HBO): This HBO comedy has always had a lot of tricky elements to balance: It satirizes various excesses of the tech world and startup culture with razor-sharp glee, but it takes great care to make sure that none of its characters end up looking like walking punchlines or predictable cartoons (well, the possible exception is the pompous billionaire Gavin Belson, but actor Matt Ross should have a shelf of Emmys for his ferociously spot-on performance). Once again, the show delivered an enjoyable and crisply executed balancing act, as the principals (and principles) behind Pied Piper were tested by a system seemingly designed to separate humans from their souls.
“Suits” (USA): The consequences of the fraud at the heart of the show’s premise finally played out in a devastating way, and the prison arc “brought new energy and urgency to the show. ‘Suits’ has always been underrated, and its sixth season is one of its best,” as I wrote in a recent column.
“Superstore” (NBC): This savvy, well-acted workplace comedy is “a lot of fun, it’s smart about life in America right now,” as I wrote in my Top 20 Shows of 2016.
“Survivor’s Remorse” (Starz): This season, the show took a darker turn, which gave its cast even more opportunities to show off how well they can handle dramatic material. Of course, it stayed funny, bawdy and irreverent, too. Don’t sleep on “Survivor’s Remorse,” which is about much more than just surviving the high life as a well-paid pro athlete (or navigating the world as one of his relatives or his manager). All the characters on this show are trying to figure out where they fit in the world, and through every fight, negotiation and exchange of barbed banter, their loyalty and devotion to each other only becomes more apparent. (Sidebar: The platonic friendship between M-Chuck and team owner Jimmy Flaherty is one of my favorite things on TV. More, please.)
“Transparent” (Amazon): Despite some third-season turbulence, as the Pfefferman clan continued down the road of transformation, this show “once again found moments of unexpected grace and trembling discovery,” as I noted in my Top 20 Shows of 2016.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix): As was the case with a very different show — “Better Call Saul” — I wanted to like the first season of this show a bit more than I actually did. But like the AMC drama, “Kimmy” did a better job of fleshing out its characters in its second year. “Kimmy’s” funny yet heartfelt exploration of its lead character’s ongoing recovery from trauma gave the show a depth and heart that grounded all the whimsical, topical and goofy stuff, and proved once again that Ellie Kemper and Titus Burgess are treasures we may not deserve.
“You’re the Worst” (FXX): As was the case last season, this half-hour show is often at its best when it goes deep, as it did in a standout episode told from the point of view of Edgar (Desmin Borges). In trying to get sustained help for his PTSD, Edgar encounters the indifference of his friends and the neglect of the VA bureaucracy, all of which sends him spiraling into a very bad place. In season three, “Edgar is trying to take a step forward, which is, in some ways, much harder than just letting a problem fester,” as I wrote midway through the season. “That moment when a person rips off the bandage, so to speak, can be the most vulnerable and scary time; [Edgar has] struggled for so long, and no one has come to his aid.” Taking steps forward was a risky endeavor for all the characters, but watching them haltingly accept the limits of adulthood and the liabilities of self-absorption was mostly engrossing this year, and this season of growth (of a sort) offered the stellar core cast and a terrific array of supporting actors many chances to shine. In addition to the piece about Edgar’s episode, “twenty-two,” I talked to the cast and creator for this feature.