The Best TV Shows of 2016

Best TV Shows of 2016 Variety
Illustration: Variety; Images: Courtesy of Netflix/Endemol UK/HBO

Television is a dynamic and democratic medium, seeking both mass appeal and serving underserved niches. Our lists are indicative of just how excellent programming can be when it is specific, heartfelt, and considered; they might require very different tones or formats, but at the end of the day, a good show is a good show. Each of the series on this list found a way to make the particular into the universal, with at times truly astonishing nimbleness and grace.

It’s a testament to the broadness of television in 2016 that both our lists below encompass so many types of shows. More than ever, it feels like there is something good for literally everyone — period dramas, docuseries, late-night comedy, comic-book shows, family sitcoms, ironic telenovelas, and cinematic series that feel like independent films. To be sure, it was quite a year for half-hour programming, — 30-minute shows make up the majority of both of our lists. But within even that format, there has been so much innovation — an animated comedy about depression and addiction, a chilly and powerful glimpse inside the life of a call girl, a broadcast comedy set in a fictional Wal-Mart, a meditation on grief, and cancer with a Southern twang.

It has been a joy to review television in this era. Here are each of our top 20 shows, ranked.

Maureen Ryan’s top 20 shows of 2016 | Read more. You can also check out her lists of the best new and returning shows.

1. Jane the Virgin
2. Rectify
3. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
4. Black-ish
5. The Americans
6. One Mississippi
7. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
8. Atlanta
9. Insecure
10. Better Things
11. Halt and Catch Fire
12. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee
13. Catastrophe
14. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
15. OJ: Made in America
16. Fleabag
17. Transparent
19. Stranger Things
19. Superstore
20. Marvel’s Agent Carter

Sonia Saraiya’s top 20 shows of 2016Read more. You can also read Sonia’s best 20 episodes of 2016.

1. Atlanta
2. Silicon Valley
3. The Girlfriend Experience
4. Halt and Catch Fire
5. Fleabag
6. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
7. Better Call Saul
8. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
9. Insecure
10. BoJack Horseman
11. Rectify
12. Frontline
13. Black Mirror
14. The Real O’Neals
15. Lemonade
16. Veep
17. Superstore
18. The Crown
19. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
20. Lady Dynamite

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  1. I am also trying to watch them from netflix.Thanks for the list.

  2. sweetpotatofilms says:

    The Kettering Incident

  3. Samantha says:

    that first list is pathetic. Jane the Virgin? Superstore? Agent Carter? Are you serious? Especially Jane the Virgin at number one. Did a tween make that list?

    • Simple Facts says:

      Agent Carter may have sucked compared to it’s 5 star Marvel sister series Agents of Shield, but it’s still painfully better than actual trash like godawful Game of Thrones etc etc

  4. loco73 says:

    Also…no one mentioned “Billions”!!!!!!!

  5. loco73 says:

    I agree with some of those choices, but I really liked “Outcast” and “Quarry” over on Cinemax, now I’m really digging the new Ben Affleck / Matt Damon produced series “Incorporated”…and I also really liked “The Expanse”…Still for me the stand-out was “Outcast”…

  6. Diane McFarland says:

    I would include USA Network’s “Eyewitness” to the list. A drama that features strong female, POC, gay characters without resorting to stereotypes. Its not perfect but it does offer a realistic slices of life for a crime drama series.

  7. Jacques Strappe says:

    Thank you for citing The Real O:Neals on your “Best” list. It’s a very sweet and funny family comedy that funds humor in both religious faith and sexuality. Those who claim it mocks Catholicism have never watched it objectively..

  8. Kitty says:

    There have been a lot better shows this year.

  9. Kitty says:

    I feel like quite a few of these shows did not deserve to be on this list.

  10. Kitty says:

    I found this list quite interesting.

  11. eddie willers says:

    Let me add praise to Rectify. Head and shoulders the best.

  12. K Fraser says:

    When your list leaves out Westworld, it’s null and void. If Rectify cures cancer, Westworld cures suffering.

  13. Mike M says:

    My list is simple – there is Rectify, and there is everything else. I give up trying to figure out a second place as it isn’t fair attempting to indicate any other show even deserved consideration.

  14. Kinda like the best of the worst if you tell me……

  15. Tyler says:

    Kevin Can Wait is funnier, by far than the insufferable Kimmy Schmidt, The Real O’Neals is complete, utter bulls**t, and Superstore is amazingly boring.

    • Samantha says:

      I would agree with you but you lost all credibility with Kevin Can Wait. That show belongs in the 90s – and it was bad then

  16. Ervin says:

    Superstore isn’t funny. At all.

  17. Alex says:

    Most of the shows on those lists are unwatchable, “Gotham” is one of the best written shows on TV, why isn’t that on either list? “Family Guy” is the funniest show on TV yet not on either list, but there are unfunny mock news shows on the list. These are not very good critic’s, they have no clue what people want to see. They must be the shows they plug to seem hip.

  18. Jenny Rogers says:

    This is my top twenty tv shows for 2016 & I would say there are several notable exceptions on the reviewer top lists in the article.

    Outstanding tv in 2016:
    The Get Down, Stranger Things, Better Call Saul, Transparent, Togetherness, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Rectify, Halt & Catch Fire, Narcos, Westworld, Mr. Robot, Bloodline, The Affair, Billions, Grace and Frankie, Girls, Orange is the New Black, Gilmore Girls, The Fall

  19. Sam says:

    Westworld?! Have the hipsters turned on HBO already?

  20. suz says:

    1. Jane the Virgin

    Couldn’t agree with you more!!!

  21. John Morrow says:

    Sure wish “Mom” was on a list but then I’m old…and I only watch sitcoms that make me laugh.

    • Cath says:

      That is a good show, but remember that “critics” disdain shows on networks. You also notice that you have to pay, pay, pay to be able to see any of these shows. “Mom” is a well written, well acted show, that is frequently funny even though the subject matter is tough. What else can you ask for?

  22. nauvalyazid says:

    Good lists, I must say. It is indeed impossible to watch most, let alone all, shows. Thus we need more diverse lists like this.

  23. stevenkovacs says:

    The Crown; Westworld; The Exorcist; Search Party; Last Man Standing (NBC); Divorce; The Fall; X-Files; DCI Banks; The Night Manager; The People Vs O.J.; Bloodline; Homeland; Marseille; The Girlfriend Experience; Stranger Things; Archer; Animal Kingdom; Supergirl; Sherlock

  24. NM says:

    Horace and Pete, the best ‘TV’ show of the year.

    • Marty Gillis says:

      ‘Horace and Pete’ was head and shoulders above almost everything else this year. Best drama I have seen since the ‘Breaking Bad’ finale. ‘Mr. Robot’ and ‘Better Call Saul’ both seem to have lost their edge and focus in their 2nd Seasons or one of them might have topped my list.

  25. Annie says:

    What happened to all the shows on ID Discovery? And Notorious? Daredevi. You have to watch EVERY show to make this list..did well with The Crown and Rectify. Now that is a BEST show..

  26. Mikey says:

    I’m sorry, I just don’t get all the love for ‘The Girlfriend Experience’. It was like Canadian Calvinists were attempting to lampoon a late 80s ‘sexy French depressed girl’ movie. Granted, I used to like those movies back-in-the-day. But in the French films at least the actresses gave some hint that they had an interior life.

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