Approximately 18,450 new shows premiered in 2016. All right, I apologize, that’s an exaggeration. But it feels true, and isn’t that what matters?
In all seriousness, there were months in which it felt as though a dozen new shows were premiering every day, and it is true that there are now more than 400 scripted shows (new and returning) competing for viewers’ attention.
And yet, I can’t quite bring myself to complain about this deluge, which has brought so much thoughtful and arresting work to our screens. As I wrote in March (and in a giddy September piece as well), the half-hour arena has been particularly fertile, and that’s been an exciting development to watch during the past few years. Television still can be good at inviting viewers to engage with a mainstream-oriented, big-tent kind of program, but much of the cutting-edge creativity and excitement in the TV realm has come from those who are exploring the uses of the limitations of the form.
Limited-run shows, miniseries, anthologies and half-hours force writers to concentrate their efforts, and in using the specific to get to universal truths, they’ve come up with some incisive, funny, surprising and heartbreaking stories. As un-American as this may sound, bigger is not always better — and “small” does not have to mean insignificant. It’s quite the opposite, at least when it comes to many of the shows below and on my overall Top 20 shows of 2016.
Before I get to the list, a couple of notes: My Variety colleague Sonia Saraiya has also posted her Top 20 Shows, as well as a roster of her favorite TV episodes of the year (here is one short piece that combines both our overall Top 20 lists). Check out my list of the year’s best returning shows, and soon we’ll post a staff-written array of the worst TV moments of the year.
Here’s my roster of the best shows that debuted this year.
“And Then There Were None” (Lifetime): If you were one of the four people in America who saw this beautifully appointed and well-acted miniseries, then you know how utterly delicious it was. Agatha Christie’s best work is all about the psychological and social factors that drive people to rebel against class norms and act on the kind of rage that springs from disappointment and stifled aspirations, and every single member of “None’s” large cast brilliantly embodied variations on Christie’s perceptive themes. This was a very smart, silky adaptation that understood the cruel emotions and ruthless urges that inform so much great detective fiction, especially those set among repressed and intelligent Brits. Just fantastic. Here’s my review.
“Atlanta” (FX): This distinctive, important and wryly observational show “quickly built from its strong start, and the installments in the second half of the season, particularly ‘Juneteenth’ and ‘B.A.N.,’ were spectacular,” I noted on my Top 20 Shows of 2016 roster.
“Better Things” (FX): Thanks to its “extremely talented and truthful child actors, great supporting performances and a lead actress/creator who could transition between silly, devastated, angry and bemused without ever missing a beat,” this terrific new half-hour landed on my Top 20 Shows of 2016.
“Berlin Station” (Epix): Epix’s first foray into drama wasn’t the most revolutionary or ambitious spy show on TV, but, having seen the entire season, I can report that it was an energetic and enjoyable ride. Richard Armitage’s character may have been a little on the bland side, but the entire cast, which included Michelle Forbes and Richard Jenkins in key roles, brought all of their considerable talents to bear on the topical material. And yet, for all that, Rhys Ifans walked away with the entire thing by giving a scene-stealing performance as unconventional CIA agent Hector DeJean, one of my favorite characters of the year and a classic type of the spy genre: An amused, cynical man of the world who has seen too much but carefully hides the depth of his romantic soul. My review.
“Billions” (Showtime): As I wrote in my review, “This is a generally well-crafted soap opera about rich people, one that crackles with energy and insider knowledge of its well-heeled territory and the narcissistic insiders who live there. …Too many dramas these days, even modestly ambitious ones, mistake plodding glumness and a dour tone for seriousness of intent,” but “Billions” doesn’t make that mistake. Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Malin Akerman, David Costabile and Maggie Siff all gave fierce, wry, committed performances as high rollers in the Manhattan financial elite, but “the most salient fact about ‘Billions’ may be that it’s funny. Sarcastic asides, humorous insults and well-targeted quips are folded into it like truffles in a plate of handmade ravioli.”
“The Crown” (Netflix): This show is generally smarter and more ambitious than “Downton Abbey,” which never met an obvious plot it couldn’t beat into the ground. But like that PBS show, “The Crown” shamelessly panders to those who love period costumes, dry upper-crust wit and palace porn. Still, even with all those grand ballrooms and sparkling jewels on display, the whole thing might have been too diffuse if not for Claire Foy, who “brings to ‘The Crown’ the watchful intelligence that she displayed in ‘Wolf Hall’; it is a star turn of the highest order, but not remotely showy,” as I noted in my review.
“Fleabag” (Amazon): A “a wicked, spiky gem” that makes you think it’s going to do one thing very well, then does a whole array of hard things brilliantly. For those reasons and more, this show landed on my Top 20 Shows of 2016.
“Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” (TBS): A smart, disciplined, take-no-prisoners program that offered a “cold, bracing blast of finely honed rage” every week, as I wrote in my Top 20 Shows of 2016.
“Goliath” (Amazon): As I said in my review of this entertaining legal saga, “Goliath” “is the product of the merging of executive producer David E. Kelley’s “savvy commercial instincts and the possibilities of the streaming arena, and as hybrids go, this entertaining drama has quite a bit to offer,” including terrific performances from Billy Bob Thornton, Nina Arianda and Harold Perrineau.
“Gomorrah” (Sundance): This epic saga of crime and corruption in Italy has a number of familiar elements, but its execution is admirable. “Gomorrah” is essentially a character-driven story that depicts how amorality infects a culture, and as I wrote in my review, it keeps a “laser focus on how crime organizations wielding drug money and ruthless violence corrupt all kinds of people up and down the socioeconomic ladder — even as they provide a leg up to those on the very bottom. The drama follows the money, as it travels from poor neighborhoods inhabited by African immigrants to the posh offices of wheeler-dealers,” and its observant and even compassionate details linger in the memory.
“The Good Place” (NBC): As I wrote in my review, “for all its fanciful elements and whimsical flourishes, [this comedy] has a rock-solid foundation: It is devoted to questions and scenarios that percolate with moral urgency.” Thanks in large part to a very nimble cast and strategically smart reveals, “The Good Place’s” early run of episodes ended up being an ambitious but amiable good time. My review.
“Insecure” (HBO): This confident, complicated and very pleasing show “takes topics that TV has done to death — friendship, romance, awkward work dynamics and the slow death of post-college aspirations — and made them seem fresh again,” as I wrote in my Top 20 Shows of 2016.
“Lady Dynamite” (Netflix): “The comedy may have an experimental streak, but it’s also quite disciplined in its storytelling, and, despite some loopy segues, it’s matter-of-fact about the ways in which the lead character’s bipolar disorder — as well as the mixed messages of Hollywood’s disorienting funhouse — can end up fracturing reality,” as I wrote in my review. “Lady Dynamite” uses colorful storytelling devices and surreal moments to tell a story that is sad, wise, funny and incisive, and Maria Bamford is a winning tour guide through the crystalline maze of her own mind.
“London Spy” (BBC America): This five-part series has sensational performances from Ben Whishaw, Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling, and features the kind of posh suspense you’d expect from a handsome U.K. production. Yet despite its well-known actors and familiar story elements, “there is something singular about this terrific program, a spare, off-kilter intensity that sets it apart from its peers,” as I wrote in my review. “London Spy’s” lead character never quite knows what is real, given that he’s so frequently being manipulated by people in the government and the media (a theme that feels more topical by the day), but Whishaw gives this haunting drama a necessary and charismatic center.
“The Night Manager” (AMC): This spy drama is a little bit hollow and ephemeral, but it’s also a lot of glossy fun and has undeniably delightful performances from Olivia Colman and Hugh Laurie. Loki is in it too, but the character played by Tom Hiddleston, like Richard Armitage in “Berlin Station,” ends up looking a little staid compared to the devious, manipulative people around him. The core romance never really takes flight, but “The Night Manager” is a seductive but somewhat demoralizing look at the most elite and connected of the super-rich, and the compromised bureaucrats that allow them to bend and break the rules more or less at will. My review.
“One Mississippi” (Amazon): Full of deadpan moments and beautifully subtle meditations on mourning, trauma and romance, “the dry and eventually devastating ‘One Mississippi’ did many things right,” as I noted in my Top 20 Shows of 2016.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” (FX): It’s not often that a drama is both ferociously smart and compassionately perceptive, but this addictive miniseries was both those things and much more. It was “an engrossing triumph,” as I noted in my Top 20 Shows of 2016.
“Stranger Things” (Netflix): This supernatural serial “tenderly evoked the fragility of familial love and the fear and exhilaration that can accompany growing up,” as I noted in my Top 20 Shows of 2016.
“Sweet/Vicious” (MTV): Sometimes the freshness of a show’s concept and the energetic execution of the intriguing ideas at its core make up for other wobbles, and that’s definitely the case with this charming show about sexual assault (which is not a phrase I ever expected to write, but here we are). As I noted in my review, the two stars — Taylor Dearden and Eliza Bennett — are capable and well-matched, and the “main accomplishment of the promising show is that it never loses sight of the issues surrounding rape culture, violation, and consent, but it’s not an ‘eat your vegetables’ kind of program — it’s essentially an enjoyable superhero saga.”
“Wynonna Earp” (Syfy): After a somewhat rocky start, this scrappy serial evolved into one of the most enjoyable genre escapes of the year. Anyone looking for a “Buffy”-esque story about a complicated, flawed woman with special abilities and an entertaining array of friends, enemies and lovers should check out this show, which concerns the supernatural travails of the gun-toting heir of Wyatt Earp. It’s campy at times — but knowingly so — and “Wynonna Earp” never loses sight of the guilt and hope at war inside its fiercely independent lead character. Amid the shoot-outs, demon-hunting and flirtation, “Wynonna Earp” sneaks in a lot of intelligent commentary on identity, family and loneliness, and the icing on top is an array of addictive romances and hookups. What this prairie-set Canadian import lacks in budget, it makes up for in gumption, sass and camaraderie. I enjoyed the heck out of its first run of episodes, and I can’t wait for Season Two.