Michael Lang’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2016

In a year that saw too many deaths of beloved celebrities and sports figures to keep track of, the 2016 Presidential Election, and the world premiere of “Fuller House”, you could easily make a strong case for 2016 as a whole maybe not being so great. I certainly wouldn’t argue with you. But one beacon of light atop a steaming garbage heap of shit: the year in TV! It was really good! Below you will find my personal favorites in the form a Top 10 List. Enjoy!

But before you do, please consider some of my honorable mentions that barely missed the cut: “Veep”, “Transparent”, “The Good Place”, “Westworld”, “This is Us”, “The Night Of”, “Girls”, and “Fleabag”.


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10. Bates Motel (A&E)

This was never a show I expected to attribute any sort of “best of the year” consideration to, but after delivering a season of TV as tense, eerie and moving as “Bates Motel” did in its fourth and penultimate season, here we are. In shedding the needless time-biding sub-plots from seasons’ past in the service of exploring the rapidly-deteriorating mental health of its protagonist (Freddie Highmore), and the effects that has on the characters around him (most importantly, his mother Norma, brilliantly portrayed as ever by Vera Farmiga), “Bates Motel” finally delivered on the promise of its most sincere aspiration – Norman Bates’ descension into madness – with poignant care and craft. This was the series’ finest season by a wide margin, and I now hope it can carry that wave into its final season next spring.    


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9. Mr. Robot (USA)

No, this season didn’t quite reach the high bar set by the near-flawless first season of this show, but it did do enough interesting, ambitious things at a supremely high level to still earn a spot on this list. The Mr. Robot / Elliot Civil War that dominated much of the season, the Alf / 90s sitcom parody intro, the prevalence of Angela, the introduction of Dom; it didn’t all work all the time, but enough of it did to keep me captivated on a week-to-week basis and excited about where things stand for season three.


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8. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)

This show carries a special place in my heart. That it is able to be so many different things at once – a workplace comedy, a romantic comedy, a show about untreated mental illness, a zany musical, etc. – and that it presents each side of itself at such high a level with as much wit, energy, and ambition as it does is a testament to the creative genius of its star / creator / head-writer Rachel Bloom and her terrific writing / songwriting team. Spanning two halves of two different seasons in 2016, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” took the leap from fun, fresh, but flawed little gem to potentially the very best comedy on TV by simply learning what works best and what doesn’t – the sign of any great TV show.


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7. Game of Thrones (HBO)

If “Game of Thrones” only aired its three best episodes of the season each year it would regularly take the top prize with relative ease, because when this show is at its best there really is nothing quite as great. This season’s finest – “The Door”, “Battle of the Bastards”, and “The Winds of Winter” – exhibited some of the most memorable, well-executed moments of the year, the entire run of the series, and in some instances (not to sound overly dramatic) the history of television. The reason I don’t have it higher on this list is because with most seasons of this show, there are entire story arcs that tend to fall flat (Arya’s entire plot) as well with various sub-plots and story-turns that tend to integrate clumsily into the narrative (The Second Siege of Riverrun), and season six was no exception. All in all though, it was another great year for “Game of Thrones”.


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6. Better Call Saul (AMC)

By upping the “Breaking Bad”-adjacent stakes through the character of Mike (Jonathan Banks), delving even deeper into the psyche and backstory of its title character, Saul and/or Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), and expanding the role of Rhea Seahorn’s terrific Kim character, “Better Call Saul” took the leap from perfectly acceptable / very good spinoff series of one of the greatest TV shows ever made to something that genuinely rivals the best of any long-form drama series on television. With one of the greatest TV minds to ever grace the medium in Vince Gilligan (along with longtime collaborator Peter Gould) still at the helm, that definitely doesn’t come as a surprise.  


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5. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)

You can knock Ryan Murphy for many things (i.e. his sensibilities as a writer and storyteller) but one thing you cannot argue is his unique ability to position the very best in the industry around one single project; serving primarily as an executive producer and occasional director, he did just that with “The People v. O.J.”, and the end result amounted to the most minute-for-minute enjoyable, equally surprising hit of 2016. The cast, featuring career-best performances from Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance, was next-level brilliant, the execution of this most-familiar courtroom saga fresh and exhilarating, and the entertainment-value as strong as any other show this year. It’s sad it’s only a one-and-done, but then again that’s part of what makes this “limited series” so special.


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4. The Americans (FX)

From a pure sensory / aesthetic point-of-view, this show is never going to impress on the level of any number of comparable TV dramas; much like the era it chronicles, it’s too deliberate, distant, and low-tech. It’s in the writing and performing of characters and relationships that this show stands out above all others, and it’s precisely why this season resulted in the best the show’s ever done. Not to say this show isn’t capable of ratcheting up tension and suspense, because when it wants to do that, it can channel the best of the likes of “Breaking Bad”; look no further than this season’s harrowing Martha arc. But where “The Americans” shines brightest is in the quiet, personal moments that reflect on the viewer’s four-season relationship with its protagonists and in turn the relationship its protagonists have with each other. That aspect of the show was never stronger than it was in season four; it helps of course that the portrayals of our two main characters – Philip and Elizabeth Jenner (Matthew Rhyes and Keri Russell) – are anchored by two of the sharpest, most nuanced performances on TV.


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3. Atlanta (FX)

You’d be hard pressed to find a first-season show as distinctive, confident, and skillfully crafted as we were all gifted in season one of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta”. The most basic of surface-level descriptions you could levy at this show – a down-on-his-luck under-achiever tackles the burden of managing his cousin’s fledgling rap career – does nothing to characterize the show’s ranging tone, surrealist sensibility, or even necessarily its “plot”. Week-to-week, we were thrown head-first into the middle of what could amount to an episode focused solely on a “public access”-style panel discussion about race relations and gender identity starring the year’s breakout character Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), an exploration of the world outside the core cast through Earn’s (Donald Glover) love interest, Vanessa (Zazie Beetz), or just a “return to basics” in which we follow around our Big Three as they navigate whatever “Atlanta”-esque situation of the night that arises. This really was a landmark first season for Donald Glover and his terrific team of collaborators, one full of striking ambition and endless possibility, and I can’t wait to experience all the new and exciting absurdities they have in store for us with season two.


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2. Stranger Things (Netflix)

Intellectually, I understand that this probably wasn’t the second “best” show to air in 2016. But I am a sucker for heart, comradery, 80s nostalgia trips, exceptionally talented child actors, and Winona Ryder, and “Stranger Things” did pull off all those things definitively better than any show in 2016. I downed all eight episodes of this show over the course of I believe two days, and without question it was the most fun experience I had with any show this year – not for the “Goonies” meets “E.T.” meets “Close Encounters” of it all (though that certainly helped), but for the smart, exciting, emotionally rich story about friendship, grief, and redemption it sought to tell. The show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, told that story with the comparable spirit and confidence of the legendary filmmakers (Spielberg, Carpenter) that inspired them, and the end result was, for lack of a better word, magical.


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1. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)

“Orange is the New Black” has consistently been one of the three or four best long-form dramas on television since it first premiered in 2013. The many ways in which the show’s been able to interweave the fascinating relationships and backstories of its enormous, diverse cast of characters while also injecting serious stakes and real-world social happenstance through its storytelling has been nothing short of impressive. It fell a bit short in its ambition last season, as the writers took the overarching story, tone, and “main” character to a broader, more comedy-based place, and the show’s overall impact suffered as a result. Thankfully in season four, the show returned to its roots and delivered what I would argue its finest season to date.

Beginning at the season’s halfway mark (at which point a certain character receives a special tattoo as a form of some arguably much-deserved penance), “Orange” dropped what was left of its gentle facade to deliver the most essential, gutting, masterfully devised final stretch of episodes the show has ever produced. Via the escalating tension between the woefully, dangerously unequipped corrections officers and the justice-seeking prison inmates, the show was able to beautifully and tragically comment and reflect on the real-world institutional oppression of women and minorities alike, culminating in perhaps the single most devastating moment of television I’ve ever witnessed. Other prominent characters that had served less-crucial roles in the previous season or two (Piper and Suzanne, primarily) returned to prominence in ways both essential to the main story and rewarding to longtime viewers. And other various subplots it presented (Sophia’s illegal confinement, Ruiz’s gang uprising, the Poussey / So-So romance) were layered in specifically and patiently with care while never losing sight of the role they each played within the ensuing endgame.

This was a bold, beautiful, triumphant return-to-form season of “Orange is the New Black” that showcased the very best of what it’s capable of when firing on all cylinders. It was an easy choice for my number one favorite show of 2016.

And that’s a wrap! 2016 really was a terrific year for television. It won’t be easy for 2017 to do better, but with the way TV is going, I won’t be surprised if it does.  Thanks for reading and see you next year!

Written by Michael Lang

A passionate TV watcher and frequent moviegoer, Mike has long enjoyed analyzing and discussing the best (and worst) in pop culture with friends, family, message-board frequenters, and especially his good friends, Chris and Jeff. Now with Screeningclub.com and the SCTV podcast, he's thrilled to finally have the chance to bring those discussions to a public forum.

Follow him on Twitter @Languistics_

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