We watch a lot of television. Most of the time, our job descriptions are a dream come true. Sometimes, though, television is very bad — and as the people responsible for covering it, we can’t look away. We’ve seen all the rebooted franchises and rehashed talk-show formats; the streaming bloat and the prestige fatigue. We watch the football games and the 24-hour news, the awards shows and the special reports. Peak TV means there’s more television to watch than ever — but along with great programming comes predictable duds, riding the wave of buzz and media to stink, with passive-aggressive insistence, on our always-on screens.
The Variety TV staff went through this year’s programming to come up with the frustrations, disappointments, and atrocities that dotted the television landscape. Some are grand ideas that flopped in execution; others are moments of failure within larger shows. There are many different ways to make terrible television, as it turns out, but what all of these things have in common is a kind of bad faith with the audience — lazy storytelling, self-indulgent production, exploitative foundations, or shameless pandering.
Television reflects our collective unconsciousness, and lately, it’s been widespread and splintered — niches upon niches, creating bubbles of conversation that never intersect. But perhaps, if we can’t agree on what’s good — or even what’s tolerable — we can agree on what sucked. Here’s the worst TV of 2016, ranked.
12. “The X-Files” (Fox)
Yes, of course, there was one pretty good dish set out with this batch of moldy, overheated leftovers. Darin Morgan’s silly but sweet werewolf episode approached the quality levels of early-era “X-Files,” but the rest of this six-episode outing was, not to put too fine a point on it, a mess. And not even a hot mess: The storytelling was simply bewildering when it wasn’t padded or meandering. None of the conspiracy stuff made any sense, and it was hard not to wonder if most episodes had been put together with the help of an “X-Files” Scene Randomizer. No matter what you thought of the rest of the mini-season, the truth is out there: “Babylon,” the fifth episode, is one of the worst and most incomprehensible episodes of television to air this year or any other. Let’s hope Fox doesn’t revive this artifact again until it has a better set of scripts to give the stars, who are still great at being Mulder and Scully. (But for the love of Scully, get Gillian Anderson a better wig.)
Both shows are already heading off the air, and we still can’t differentiate which is which. The interchangeable dramas are both soapy female-led legal procedurals with a media twist — and they’re also both pretty much canceled. While ABC won’t go on record to confirm that the series have been axed, “Notorious” and “Conviction” were the first-and-only broadcast shows to have their episode orders trimmed. But there’s still hope for more mediocre TV: the net kept options open on the cast members.
10. “Roadies” (Showtime)
Showtime’s stab at capturing the highs and lows of a touring rock band lacked just about everything that made “Almost Famous” such a terrific film, despite their common parentage in Cameron Crowe. The focus on the grunt workers of rock ’n’ roll should have been fertile ground for interesting characters and situations. Instead, “Roadies” usually felt too sitcom-y to take root as a character dramedy. It didn’t help that Luke Wilson and Carla Gugino had zero chemistry in what was supposed to be the show’s core relationship.
9. “Chelsea” (Netflix)
Talk shows are hard. Late-night talk-show hosts, in particular, have to balance being topical, likable, and just different enough from the other schmucks on the guide to give people a reason to tune in — but not so different that you induce further wakefulness in your audience. Which is why Chelsea Handler’s ostensible late-night show on Netflix feels so inessential. She still doesn’t seem completely at ease in front of the camera, and the show’s aimlessness even manifests, synecdoche-esque, in the form of Handler’s dog Chunk wandering the set and poking into interviews that are inconsequential at best, and enervating at worst. Not every nontraditional talker has to have the crazed deconstructionist bend of an anti-talk show like Adult Swim’s “The Eric Andre Show,” but “Chelsea” also lacks all of the hallmarks that make a late-night show worth watching: There are no bits to go viral, no especially sharp points of view. “Chelsea” is, at its core, a soulless viewing exercise.
8. “Top Gear” (BBC)
The BBC was put in something of an impossible spot when a host of one of its most popular shows worldwide hauled off and hit a producer during a location shoot. It had little choice but to discipline Jeremy Clarkson, but in pushing him out the door along with his co-hosts James May and Richard Hammond, the Beeb poured sand into the engine of the global “Top Gear” phenomenon. Successor host Chris Evans had no shot at re-creating the fun that the show delivered with the bro-mantic adventures of Clarkson, Hammond and May. And tapping “Friends” star Matt LeBlanc as Harris’ sidekick was a nonsensical choice that was awkward on-air from the first minute.
7. “Vinyl” (HBO)
HBO’s 1970s rock ’n’ roll fever-dream drama was a disappointment in large part because its auspices were so impressive: The “Boardwalk Empire” duo of Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese, the electric Bobby Cannavale and Mick Jagger thrown in to boot. You couldn’t take your eyes off Cannavale’s Richie Finestra, and his backing band was full of great players (Ray Romano, Olivia Wilde, Juno Temple, Paul Ben-Victor). But the show overall never gelled, and the story took off on too many self-indulgent flights of fancy to make sense of what should have been an intriguing look at a dynamic time in the cultural life of this country. Plus, for a show that claimed so much intimacy with the music industry, its depiction of cocaine use was… imaginative?… at best.
6. “The 100” (The CW)
It all started out so promisingly. The third-season premiere of “The 100” was rousing and fun, but it wasn’t long before the CW show, which had made its name with a combination of moral ambiguity and well-earned twists, forgot or abandoned much of what made it popular in the first place. As season three unrolled, concerned fans thought a bombastic tone, overwrought melodrama and undercooked characters arcs were the worst they’d have to deal with, but far worse was to come. In the middle of the season, the drama, which had won over LGBTQ viewers with a complex relationship between two queer women and had ridden a big wave of support from gay fans, killed one of those women off in a clichéd and extraordinarily unfortunate way. The outrage was understandable, given that the death of Lexa reinforced the unfortunate but frequent message that gay women (and LGBTQ fans) are expendable. This watershed moment ultimately led to great deal of soul searching in the industry about why gay women are so infrequently leads but die so often. In this important work, Lexa lives on. Reshop, Heda.
5. “Crisis in Six Scenes” (Amazon)
This should never have been made. A six-episode vanity project from a beloved independent filmmaker would have been more understandable if that filmmaker had not been subject of some very public and uncomfortable allegations about his relationship with his adopted daughter — allegations that were re-aired in the New York Times just months before the project was greenlit. But even if there hadn’t been charges of molestation in the mix, the project turned out to be an embarrassingly bad piece of filmmaking. Miley Cyrus, cast as the firebrand hippie that turns the leads’ lives upside down, is absolutely awful. It’s bad enough that Woody Allen put himself in front of the camera again; it’s worse that “Crisis in Six Scenes” has him on the receiving end of a platitude about adopted daughters. It’s mind-boggling that anyone thought this was a good idea.
Though it’s impossible for anything to overshadow Billy Bush’s moment with President-elect Donald Trump, we can’t let the ex-“Today” show host off the hook for his big oops with Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte. Shortly after leaving “Access Hollywood” for NBC’s morning show, Bush made quite the first impression by landing an interview with Lochte about being robbed at gunpoint in Rio — which, of course, turned out to be completely false. It was a low point in sports journalism; Bush bought the story hook, line, and sinker. Even Bush’s “Today” co-worker Al Roker later told him it was a lie, live on the air. Lochte somehow spun this ignominy into a gig on “Dancing With the Stars,” while Bush eked out a few more months at “Today” before the hot-mic “Access Hollywood” video torpedoed his run. It’s safe to assume Bush is hoping 2017 is a better year.
3. Everything JonBenet (CBS, A&E, Investigation Discovery, Lifetime)
2016 was the year of O.J. Simpson, but it was also the year of JonBenet Ramsey. Coinciding with the 20-year anniversary of the pint-sized beauty queen’s notorious death, a slew of networks jumped at the chance to make a buck off of the murder of a 6-year-old. CBS put out a four-hour true crime docuseries “The Case Of: JonBenet Ramsey,” A&E aired a documentary, Investigation Discovery had a three-part special and Lifetime offered up a soapy TV movie. The programming reveled in the titillating details of the girl’s murder — exploiting her death by having her little-girl voice narrate a film, and acting out the blow that shattered her skull with a human skull, a pigskin, and a blonde wig. The aftermath of the television barrage is still lingering: Burke Ramsey filed a $150 million defamation lawsuit against CBS for portraying him as his sister’s killer. This was a trend we wish we could have skipped.
2. “The Walking Dead” (AMC)
To be fair, life in a post-apocalyptic zombie world should indeed have stakes, and blood will get spilled. But chopping off heads just for sport is a lazy substitute for true narrative or character development. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Our merry band of survivors happens on a new community, which is run by a cruel leader with a vicious streak, who picks them off one by one. Pick a season, any season. We’re stuck in a narrative loop straight out of “Westworld.” And after a sixth season cliffhanger that left viewers grumbling about which fan favorite character faced the wrong end of Negan’s barbed-wire wrapped bat, the seventh season opened with an episode that was so gory it was clear that standards-and- practices had fallen asleep at the switch. If the sight of blood spattered on the ground didn’t shock you, the squishing sound certainly did. As the cartoonish Negan continues to toy ever more cruelly with his victims, the show toys with its viewers — who deserve better.
1. Donald Trump (everywhere)
Donald Trump is the television show we wished we could have stopped watching. With his easy confabulation and commercial-length attention span — his carefully maintained pompadour and fake tan — he is the embodiment of television’s most pandering, superficial, and morally bankrupt tendencies. Perhaps it sounds reductive to refer to our president-elect as a work of television. But Trump is television — the worst kind of television, which is commercial, nonsensical, and image-obsessed. Every flaw and hypocrisy that television has, Trump discovered and then exploited. This golden age of television has been about raising the bar for what television can be — and raising the estimation that the industry has for the audience at home, who have become voracious for excellent, high-quality programming. Trump, meanwhile, built an entire political platform on the dehumanizing logic of ratings —that playing to our basest fears with bullying, racism, and untruth is guaranteed to be a hit.
It may be successful, but it is the opposite of quality. Indeed: Without fail, everything that Trump has touched over the last year has turned to crap. Television news fell apart in trying to cover him — caught between playing every minute of his rallies with dropped jaws and fighting ineffectively with his surrogates who claimed how white supremacy wasn’t really white supremacy. His appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” demonstrated just how spineless its host really is. His game-show entrance at the Republican National Convention reduced a major political party’s rallying point of unity into a smoke-machine fueled runway show. Trump made a cheap-looking reality competition show out of the highest office in the land.
Unfortunately for Trump, it is not just that he is bad TV; it’s also that what is best about television completely escapes him. A man who bandies about with stereotypes and victimization on a casual Twitter spree cannot really feel empathetic catharsis for flawed, suffering, human characters on a screen. A person who thinks the only principle of human existence is “winning” cannot appreciate the shades of loss and grief that color most people’s stories. Television has proven time and again that it can be democratic, inclusive, engaging, intelligent, investigative, truthful, and challenging. Donald Trump cannot be — is not much interested in being — any of those things.
But television does want to be — as is evidenced by the wonderful productions in the industry this year and spanning the last several decades. The industry’s weaknesses are being played by Trump with terrifying virtuosity. But it has strengths, too. In what feels like another era entirely, television had a bad enough reputation that we called it “the idiot box.” Sometimes it seems as if Trump believes we are idiots for watching him — no better than mindless drones plugged into the screen. But we are not idiots. Donald Trump was the worst television of the year — partly because he showed us how television’s worst impulses were getting the better of us. Now it just remains to be seen if he is — already — the worst TV of 2017, too.