Clarity right out of the gates: this list is in no way exhaustive, in case the single digit didn’t tip you off, and will include shows that may not have premiered this year but had a great 2016 in terms of storyline, character development or just a really well-executed few episodes that made it a contender amongst this year’s crop of excellent small-screen work.
Feel free to debate/defend in the comments!
In case you thought pint-sized Pamela Adlon was only ever going to be allowed to shine when she stepped into a scene opposite Louis C.K., this wonderfully weird and so, so raw non-traditional sitcom was created by the dynamic duo but the magic of the show rests firmly on her narrow shoulders. As a single mother/working actress raising three young daughters, Adlon, who serves as the show co-creator with C.K. as well as writer and exec producer, faces the regular stuff of family life—boundaries, disappointment, heartbreak, privacy, empathy, shame—with a specific, culled-from-her-life female and feminist POV that made me gasp, cry-laugh and get squirmy-uncomfortable in equal measure. FX has already renewed it for a second season and I. can’t. wait.
Recommended episode: “Woman is the Something of the Something”
Wino Forever! A welcome return of my fave ’90s waif and a generous helping of ’80s-era Spielberg, the Duffer brothers’ Stranger Things gave us something that was openly nostalgic but still stood on its own thanks to a cast of mostly-new faces whose secret adventures made me long for pre-Instagram nighttime bike rides. The show’s fixation on dangerous scientific experimentation and the threat of the mythical Upside Down was also legitimately unsettling, to the point that the weirdness of the visuals stick around, like so much otherworldly goo, for days.
Recommended episode: “Chapter 1: the Vanishing of Will Byers”
American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson
Once you get past executive producer Ryan Murphy’s fixation on showy camera movement—he directed four of the 10 episodes—a tragically miscast David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, the fact that it’s hard to buy Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. for even the short scenes he leads and let the revelatory—literally—work of Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark wash over you, it’s riveting TV even if you lived through it the first time around. It’s especially meaningful for those of us who were too young to understand the historical, racial implications of the trial and the dawn of the 24/7 news cycle.
Recommended episode: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”
Girls (Season 5)
After a scattered fourth season—UGH Mimi-Rose, the disastrous Marnie & Desi union, Fran—this was a return to form for Lena Dunham & co. From another (hilariously) doomed wedding to Shoshanna’s adventures in Japan, the surprise and integral return of Charlie and the continuing tightrope walk that is the budding Jessa and Adam romance, this season hewed closest in spirit to the early days of the show that, for better or worse, launched a thousand thinkpieces about what it means to be young, privileged, charming, clueless and confused in New York.
Recommended episode: “Panic in Central Park”
How this show manages to mix the navel-gazing tendencies of an early episode of Girls with a dash of True Detective darkness is a marvel and really shouldn’t work. Try explaining to someone unfamiliar that Search Party is sitcom-mystery and watch their brow furrow with doubt. I get it! But the micro-mystery at the heart of the show that catapults unmoored protagonist Dory (Arrested Development star Alia Shawkat, who also serves as a producer) into action, even if ill-advised, hints at real stakes and while it makes time for unlikable characters to eye-roll and laugh at, it’s hypnotic stuff.
Recommended episode: “The Night of One Hundred Candles”
This was a hard show to experience with a second screen, i.e. anyone with an opinion and a Twitter account shared their theories about multiple timelines and real identities, ruining some of the fun of figuring out the serpentine story of HBO’s sci-fi fantasy land, based on a 1973 John Grisham novel. Even so, the concept of an amusement park where guests get to indulge their basest of fantasies on robot-humanoid hosts who start to recall the emotional and body trauma was a twisty delight, full of important questions about choice, empathy and humanity with a powerful black female force (Thandie Newton for all the awards) leading the robot rebellion.
Recommended episode: “Dissonance Theory”
BoJack Horseman (Season 3)
The absurd, and adult, animated show where weird and wonderful animal-human hybrids co-exist with just plain old homo sapiens has been great in fits and starts but really found its flow in the third season where has-been actor BoJack (voiced to perfection by Will Arnett) has finally nabbed a starring movie role but the publicity and ego games that go along with it are almost his undoing. Shout out to great voice cameos, including Jessica Biel, as herself, Candice Bergen, Weird Al Yankovic and Fred Savage.
Recommended episode: (the cinematic and nearly-silent) “Fish Out of Water”
The Night Of
Like so many before it, The Night Of started out life as a British mini-series before it was adapted for American TV. Even so, this taut crime thriller feels definitively of our times as straight arrow Nasim Khan (breakout star Riz Ahmed) steals his father’s taxi for a night of ill-advised college fun that turns deadly and points to him as the prime suspect, no thanks to a series of poor choices he makes in the wake of the murder of his one-time paramour. The audience is smartly never shown what happened during the parts of the night of that Nas himself can’t remember and are forced to confront the evidence piling up against him and all of the racial implications of a lower-class Pakistani-American on trial for the murder of a young white woman. The prison system itself, and the way it dehumanizes its inhabitants and transforms them into criminals if they weren’t already, is front and centre in this gripping must-watch show.
Recommended episode: “The Beach”