Not so long ago, I would write long introductions to my Best Shows of the Year lists. But not last year, and not this time: There’s just too much TV to watch.
So, without much ado, here’s my list. Don’t forget to check out my fellow Variety TV critic Sonia Saraiya’s Top 20 Shows (and she also published a very cool list of her Top 20 Episodes of the year). There’s more: I’ve published my list of my 20 favorite new shows, and my 25 favorite returning programs.
In my view, these shows are the very best TV has to offer. I’d re-watch every one of them, if I could only find the time. Enjoy!
20. “Marvel’s Agent Carter” (ABC)
Some cancellations you just never get over (“Enlightened,” sob), and this is one of them. “Agent Carter” was a lovely concoction of action-adventure, superhero aspirations and retro delightfulness, and it hit its stride in its second season. Hayley Atwell was always perfect as Peggy Carter, but the show’s supporting cast and storytelling was even more fun in Season Two. This was a show that did everything right and got cancelled anyway, and I’m still sad, partly because I think many people assume it’s easy to create something this joyful and jaunty — but of course, it requires as much or more craft and creativity as bleak and doom-laden fare. The tiny bit of pluck that Peggy loaned me keeps hope alive that this project will be revived somewhere, somehow, someday. My review of Season Two of “Agent Carter” is here. (Sob.)
19. “Superstore” (NBC)
This is a nimble and enjoyable workplace comedy, one that obeys many of the conventions of the genre — and yet “Superstore” eagerly takes on the kind of hot-button issues that many mainstream comedy shy away from. It’s a lot of fun, it’s smart about life in America right now, and it carries forward the traditions of “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office” quite ably. Here’s my assessment of “Superstore” right before Season Two began.
18. “Stranger Things” (Netflix)
When Don Draper mused about the potency of nostalgia, he could have been talking about this spooky drama, which became the sleeper hit of the summer. Given how many high-profile TV projects full of A-list names are being made these days, it was refreshing that I didn’t have much familiarity with the creators or many of the actors in “Stranger Things”; it’s so rare these days to start watching a movie or film without knowing almost anything about it. In any event, “Stranger Things” worked because it didn’t just draw on the work of various masters of horror and sci-fi, it tenderly evoked the fragility of familial love and the fear and exhilaration that can accompany growing up. Here’s my initial review of “Stranger Things” and an assessment of the entire season after viewing all eight episodes. #JusticeforBarb
17. “Transparent” (Amazon)
The third season of the show was its most scattered, and there were some characters and relationships that could have used more nuance and development. And yet, its retro episode was one of the most affecting half-hours of the year, and the season finished much more strongly than it started. All of the Pfeffermans can be the worst, and the best, because they don’t know how to establish realistic boundaries and are forever ricocheting between a desire for total intimacy and the kind of distancing disdain they learned from their elders. As they ping-ponged between extremes, and occasionally escaped their crunchy Los Angeles bubbles, the show once again found moments of unexpected grace and trembling discovery, even on a cheesy cruise ship.
16. “Fleabag” (Amazon)
I had my doubts about this show at first, but by the end, it had expertly gutted me and left me flopping around on the floor, gasping for air — in a good way. If you haven’t seen this, rectify that situation, in part to appreciate Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sneakily effective meditation on grief and catastrophic mistakes, and also to glory in Olivia Colman’s turn as a flagrantly and happily awful stepmother. This import is a wicked, spiky gem.
15. “OJ: Made in America” (ESPN)
I thought I was done with the O.J. story after the FX miniseries, but this meticulous five-part documentary convinced me otherwise. A thorough, gripping and necessary investigation of the combustible factors that made O.J. Simpson who he was and turned his trial into the kind of complicated sideshow that changed the media — and the country.
14. “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” (HBO)
There are two things people don’t talk about enough when it comes to this show. Sure, it’s entertaining and pointed and all the things you’d expect from a sharp former “Daily Show” correspondent who now gets to use swear words. But what people don’t mention is that Oliver is giving a performance in this role, just as Stephen Colbert is when he does his “Colbert” persona. The beautifully calibrated, extremely articulate rage of the “Oliver” character supplies the kind of slashing, take-no-prisoners, false-equivalence-destroying commentary we needed this year. The other notable thing about “Last Week Tonight” is that there’s a lot of very able reporting at the core of the show’s longer stories. Its in-depth pieces are every bit as solid as those on “The PBS NewsHour” or “Frontline,” but “Last Week Tonight” throws in meme jokes, f-bombs and fun guests like Jaime Camil. Next year is already shaping up to be an apocalyptic nightmare; knowing “Last Week Tonight” and “Full Frontal” will be back in 2017 doesn’t ameliorate that fact, but the existence of these shows makes what’s coming seem slightly more survivable.
13. “Catastrophe” (Amazon)
As it did in its debut season, “Catastrophe” continued to negotiate hairpin emotional turns with admirable and even gleeful adroitness. Few shows are as smart, honest, funny and gut-wrenching about love, commitment and the chaos that both can bring. I love it. Check out my review of the most recent season of “Catastrophe.”
12. “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” (TBS)
Once a week, Samantha Bee unleashes a cold, bracing blast of finely honed rage, and boy, did we need that in the year 2016. Keep it coming.
11. “Halt and Catch Fire” (AMC)
What an assured and entertaining third season, one that once again limned the perils of mixing friendship and business. The intersection of commerce, inspiration, idealism and harsh reality felt, in some ways, like a prequel to HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and its culture of insulated and oblivious absurdity. But “Halt and Catch Fire” has a big, romantic heart at its center, and that combination of tenderness and technological exultation means that it’s one of a kind. Here’s my review of the most recent season of “Halt and Catch Fire.”
10. “Better Things” (FX)
Confession time: I typically don’t gravitate to shows that focus very intently on domestic matters. If I want to be stressed out or distracted by family stuff, I’ve got my own relatives, so I tend to prefer shows set in courtrooms, offices, stores or faraway planets. So, given that “Better Things” frequently depicts a mother handling the complex challenges of balancing her career with the demands of her loving but fractious family, it had a high bar to clear with me. The fact that it landed on this list means that this assured and insightful half-hour cleared that bar with room to spare. “Better Things” had a wealth of things excellent things going for it, including 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.
9. “Insecure” (HBO)
In the past few years, a number of highly personal half-hours that blend comedy and drama have come out of the gate very strongly, and “Insecure” is a terrific exemplar of that trend. Issa Rae’s 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. It also used finely honed observational moments to make it crystal clear just how exhausting it can be for women of color to put up with white people, even well-intentioned ones. Especially well-intentioned ones.
8. “Atlanta” (FX)
Right away, “Atlanta” had its own vibe, and its characters were instantly memorable as well. It quickly built from its strong start, and the installments in the second half of the season, particularly “Juneteenth” and “B.A.N.,” were spectacular. Even though it very smartly explored hangout comedy, the complexity of enduring friendships and the travails of bittersweet romance, what “Atlanta” conveyed most brilliantly was a sense of dislocation and alienation. Earn and his friends were scrambling not just for money and their place in the world, but for any indication that there was a point to their efforts to be understood, to be known, to be seen — and maybe even valued — by a world that was indifferent to them at best and hostile at worst. A distinctive and important debut season.
7. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (The CW)
There are few things I am more invested in than the relationship of Darryl Whitefeather and White Josh. That romance is a minor subplot on this show, which manages to be both whimsical and devastating, often in the same scene, but it’s a testament to the strength of “CEG” is that even minor storylines crackle with energy, nuance and potential. Who knew that the CW would finally bring us a truly addictive female anti-hero, one whose self-absorption and clinically diagnosable deflection strategies turn her into a monster at times? But the songs, and the performance of Rachel Bloom, make Rebecca Bunch much more than just a jerk or a depressed person or a deluded, thirsty lawyer. “CEG” 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. I wrote about the first season of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” here.
6. “One Mississippi” (Amazon)
Why would a show that had only six episodes be this high on a TV critic’s year-end list? Well, “One Mississippi” proves that brevity is not only the soul of wit, it’s often the source of emotional resonance; shorter episodes, when they carve out just the right amount of story and character development, can be more powerful than many padded and meandering one-hour dramas. I still think about these characters a lot, which is one sign that the dry and eventually devastating “One Mississippi” did many things right. My review of “One Mississippi” and “Fleabag” is here.
5. “The Americans” (FX)
Some shows do plotting very well, others excel at atmosphere, and still others are brilliant at creating characters and relationships worth caring about. Four seasons in, this show continues to excel in all three areas, and it also manages to be a frighteningly prescient cautionary tale about what happens when secretive Russians meddle in American affairs. “The Americans” is a rich blend of political themes and interpersonal tragedy, but sometimes it’s funny too (witness Special Agent Gaad’s reaction to shocking revelations about his former secretary). One-hour dramas haven’t really been on a hot streak of late; anthologies, miniseries and half-hours have been garnering a lot of the buzz, and rightfully so. But this show is a glorious, heartbreaking thing of beauty, and it creates momentum and unfurls character development with assured and thoughtful discipline. My review of Season Four is here; I also reviewed a key episode and spoke to the showrunners about a major turning point in the season.
4. “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. One sign that a show’s foundations are very strong: You could spin off just about any component of “Black-ish” and it would probably serve as a solid anchor for a new program (Pitch: The delightfully weird Charlie and the coolly controlled Diane are stranded on a desert island, and these sworn enemies must work together to survive). But let’s hope that doesn’t happen, given that the members of the show’s finely honed ensemble are at the top of their games and combine their varied talents extraordinarily well. Here are a couple of my stories about “Black-ish” and its influences.
3 “The People vs O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” (FX)
Believe it or not, I think this show has something in common with “Jane the Virgin”: It has important and even pointed messages to convey and it asks socially and politically relevant questions, but, like the CW show, “The People v. O.J.” puts all of that topical material in the most entertaining vehicle possible. All of America’s original sins are here: Sexism, racism, class divisions, egoism and an unholy desire for fame. An engrossing triumph. Variety’s extensive coverage of this miniseries is here; a number of my features, interviews and reviews can be found in that collection of stories.
2. “Rectify” (Sundance)
Those in the entertainment industry are being told they don’t produce stories that have relevance to those living between the coasts (and there’s some truth to the idea that TV characters could be more geographically, culturally and financially diverse). But here’s an exceptionally smart and important story about crime, law enforcement, punishment and the endurance of a small-town family, and it was made by a Georgia native and filmed outside Atlanta. Is that non-coastal enough for you? In any event, 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. In its final season, “Rectify” remains one of the great dramas, not just of this time, but of all time. I talked to the creator and cast of “Rectify” for this feature.
1. “Jane the Virgin” (The CW)
We are now in Hall of Fame territory with this show. To date, “Jane the Virgin” has aired 51 episodes of television that have shown a consistent excellence, a distinctive point of view, and a finely honed creativity that is rarely seen in any show at all, let alone one churning out 22 episodes per season. In Season Three, “Jane” confidently kept up its impressive streak, and continued to comment on genre forms while also mining the characters’ emotional states, relationships, quandaries and dreams for effective comedy, pathos and drama. Evil twins, lovesick heartthrobs, surreal segues, social relevance and scenes that grab you by the heart and don’t let go: All of that and more is on the menu, and so is the deep-seated belief that joy, tolerance, understanding and connection are possible and worth fighting for. If I’m going to survive the next few years, I need this show to keep on being a delightful and disciplined oasis of intelligent storytelling, kind-hearted aspiration, escapist fun and puckish narration. Keep on evolving, but never change, Jane. One of my many pieces on “Jane the Virgin” is here. And in this March piece on comedy’s takeover of TV, I wrote that it’s as good as “Breaking Bad.” Yep, I said it.