The best TV shows of 2016 AKA a list of what I chose to watch which I then have to rationalize as “clearly” the best

Because if it was worthy of my attention, it must be worthy of universal attention. You’re welcome, world.

In no particular order, except that Atlanta is my top choice.

Atlanta (FX)

I came into this show with a positive bias toward Donald Glover (tip of the hat to Troy on what might be my favorite show period, Community), so I was primed to enjoy it. What happened? I was in awe of it. Which to me is when a piece of entertainment becomes art. When you move from experiencing pleasure to creating meaning. This can happen with any piece of entertainment if you will it, but with some pieces, you don’t choose to see profundity, it just sort of washes over you. It’s not even that the show is necessarily profound or transcendent, it’s just so damn authentic and unique that I’m grateful it exists. That we reached a cultural point where it became conceivable (and permissible). And now I hope the Trump era doesn’t preclude such art; if anything, let more of it be inspired by the reality where that virus is our appointed leader. Anyway, the show is a surreal wonderland that is simultaneously grounded AF. Its tone is beautifully imagined and deliberately realized, its characters fully alive, and its social consciousness unobtrusive but heavy. (See: “B.A.N.” which gives you a totally weird and wonderful and inspiring look at transgender issues, among other things. Also, it’s a showcase for the show’s highlight: Brian Tyree Henry, aka Paper Boi.)

Memorable line: “Everything’s made up, man, n***a, stay woke.” – Darius to Earn

Insecure (HBO)

God forgive me (especially as a former Media Studies teacher), I didn’t know who Issa Rae was, but I’m thrilled I do now. Similar to Atlanta, this show just felt “real” in a way I never feel in other shows. Maybe it’s that both shows represent worlds and worldviews that exercise my empathetic imagination, and so what I’m really delighting in is the creativity activity and wonder it awakens in me. Hopefully I’m not just fetishizing and somehow appropriating curated visions of the Other, visions that still fundamentally serve hegemony in the end. That very privileged concern aside, the show is really engaging, and it makes you care about characters who are beautifully flawed and nuanced and rationally irrational in totally singular ways. It’s watchable AF (sorry to overuse that already). Season 2 of this and Atlanta…I have no idea what to expect, but my expectations are high. (Obviously though, I don’t expect any catering of content to me, the peak intersectional privilege boy.)

Bojack Horseman (Netflix)

I’ve been all about this animated world since it started, and season 3 was further proof of its brilliance. For more, I refer you to this and this. As brutal as the show can be, I find in it a Nietzschean triumph; it leaps into the abyss, yes, but it keeps emerging out of it with its own set of values, meaning, and purpose. Bojack, then, is the ultimate existential hero.

Stranger Things (Netflix)

I just watched this last week, and my complete surrender to it came in large part from the great company I watched it with. I had heard plenty of vague praise, but I didn’t really know what to expect. There’s plenty to problematize in the show, but it’s perfectly constructed in terms of atmosphere. I was born in the 80s, so that decade doesn’t mean very much to me, but I don’t need to know its tropes and particular styles to appreciate the design of this ideally paced and framed series. What really makes the show work, however, are the performances of its young actors and actresses. I mean…shit. Straight up impressive, yo. Those kids were convincing. Like, was this a documentary? It’s rare that I come to believe a child actor is their character, but with everyone in this production, I suspended all disbelief. And then, completely primed to be consumed, I was turned Upside Down.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)

This one is pure comfort food, which: network television. It’s diverse, it’s absurd, it’s unapologetically silly; it’s ideal escapism. I expect nothing else from the show. Except please more Adrian Pimento because Jason Mantzoukas is the best.

Veep (HBO)

I mentioned awe with Atlanta, and that’s how I feel about Veep. I actually don’t understand how this show happens. Its writing is so relentless and brutal and hilarious and unique to each character that…well shit, I have no language for it. With all the improvisers on the cast, I assume it’s built like Curb Your Enthusiasm, at least in part, but whether it’s written or improvised, it’s hard to believe and yet impossible not to believe. Also, it’s five seasons in and progressively genius.

Westworld (HBO)

I wrote about this one already, but I’ll sum that up: I’m pretty sure this show is shit, but I wasn’t about to kick it out of bed. (That’s a terrible mixed metaphor…) I probably stuck with the show at first to keep up with the zeitgeist (see: shit white people are watching). It just felt like the new Game of Thrones, so…how could I, dutiful “popular” consumer, miss it? It ended up being a scrambled mess of pseudo-philosophy and “high”-concept material, but…I really don’t care. I simply enjoyed it. And…so much penis. Easily the most penis in any show this year, so that deserves some praise, right? There’s definitely not enough penis in patriarchal culture, so kudos to the show for centralizing it again. That and naked, explicitly objectified (as in they’re robots) women. Well done, show-runners. But hey, we didn’t come here for social consciousness – we didn’t even come here for logic – wait, what did we come here for?

Luke Cage (Netflix)

Jessica Jones is way better, but Luke Cage was good enough. I guess. It was great when Cottonmouth was the show’s focus, and then…I don’t know. It dragged on for too long and got weighed down by an obnoxiously hyperbolic main villain (Diamondback) and an awful assistant villain (Shades…I mean, really, were there no better actors out there for this role?). The series should’ve been significantly shorter and more focused. Stick to Harlem, Cottonmouth, and Mariah Dillard. That political drama – and Luke Cage’s role in challenging it – was more than enough. All that biblical brother shit? It stretched the show thin and pulled it completely out of the world in which it was working perfectly. So why am I even including this? Well, the company I watched it with made it memorable. So there’s that. Which is nice.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS)

If you’re watching Last Week Tonight, you care about entertainment, but you also want something that makes you feel sort of “woke.” Welcome Samantha Bee into your world then. She’s killing it. More than anyone out there, in fact.

(Kudos to SNL this season for its topical humor too.)

Love (Netflix)

Produced by Judd Apatow, so it’s exactly what you expect, i.e. affluent, 30-something white people having quirky love problems and funny existential crises. In other words, a perfect show for this particular audience. (Also: Gillian Jacobs. Speaking of her: Don’t Think Twice.)

Lady Dynamite (Netflix)

I don’t know how to explain this show, so I won’t bother. (Also, we’re nearing the end of this thing, so I’m losing steam. Which, aren’t I in control of that? Can’t I keep writing later? Man, shut up.) I’ll take the easy way out and say some shit like this: Maria Bamford defies definition. And that’s why the show was such a gift. There’s nothing like it.

I’ve said that a few times now, which is a testament to the opening of artistic possibility on television (all that “golden age” mumbo jumbo), which…is that even the right way to describe the medium (well, the technology) through which we’re experiencing these works?

Bo Burnham: Make Happy (Netflix)

Stand-up special, but it’s deconstructed stand-up, and it’s the most well-crafted, flawlessly executed set I’ve ever seen. If you hate “meta” work, stay away, but if you’re a white liberal male, you’ll eat it up like the sad clown you were born to become.

Silicon Valley (HBO)

I don’t laugh very often when I watch this, but it’s so comfortable and pleasant. I’m not sure why. I think it started with my rooting for Kumail Nanjiani to be in everything possible after I “fell” for him listening to “The Indoor Kids” podcast. And then the elaborate dick joke at the end of season 1 secured my fidelity. This season, it was mostly Zach Woods’ Jared that kept me hooked. Him, and the obviously smart writing.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

I imagine most people find this show unbearable, but it’s absolutely delightful to me. It’s no 30 Rock, which it feels like it’s trying to be. Like, is this a spin-off somehow? I know Tina Fey is in there as a totally different character, but…maybe that’s just Liz Lemon trying to distance herself from her former life. Whatever, the show works for this guy.

The Carmichael Show (NBC)

Why is this a network show? I mean, I’m glad it’s getting that possibility of widespread recognition, but…that’s not even true anymore. It could easily thrive on a different platform. The laugh track and all that comes with your standard sit-com, it feels…disruptive. Like the show could really take off if it broke free of those shackles. The dialogue-centric nature of each episode feels like it would have so much more impact if the characters didn’t pause between every line like they’re on The Big Bang Theory. (Every sit-com works like that, of course, but just by way of most popular example.) Not to pigeon-hole it, but look at how well Black-ish does without sit-com boundaries. Jerrod Carmichael looks so uncomfortable stuck in that fabricated world too. All the characters are just making do, but man…I want this show to be so much more.

Broad City (Comedy Central)

Just yes.

Game of Thrones (HBO)

I finally joined a viewing party for this bad boy, and it made it so much better. I frequently wonder why I still watch it, and having a shared experience finally gave it some real value. Like, it’s not good when you’re relieved that a show is almost over. I mean, I guess it’s one less commitment to worry about, but I don’t feel that way about most other shows on here. If I don’t like something, I stop watching it. But this? I can’t stop now. It’s like I owe this show something. Fuck you, Game of Thrones. But also, come back and let’s get this shit over with. I’ll love it, and then I’ll love it even more when I don’t have to pretend I love it any more than I really do.

Harmontown (

I saw Harmontown live in March this year. Yes, it’s a podcast, but it’s also filmed for subscribers. I discovered the podcast in a time when I really needed it (like Pete Holmes’ You Made It Weird and Cracked), and getting to see these affable misanthropes (how one literary critic described Hamlet) is a weekly homecoming. I identify with Dan Harmon because I identify so much with his revered creations: Community and Rick and Morty. The show/podcast doesn’t resonate as much as it used to with me, which I take as a great sign of growth, but it remains a fulfilling experience.

Shows I still have at least a marginal desire to watch and probably would have lazily (in that there’s no discretion here but just a lengthy catalogue of my consumption) listed in this post if I had seen them:

  • Rectify
  • The Americans
  • The Night Of
  • Black Mirror
  • Transparent
  • The Man in the High Castle
  • All the O.J. stuff
  • Fleabag
  • Catastrophe
  • Better Call Saul (season 1 didn’t quite do it for me aside from one episode, but apparently the second season takes off)
  • Horace and Pete
  • One Mississippi
  • Baskets

Well, that’s a glimpse into my surprisingly robust consumption habits this year. It’s weird. I don’t consider myself a heavy TV watcher, but…this list reveals otherwise. I consume a lot.

People often complain that they don’t have time for this or that thing (like, I don’t know, political/social activism). And it’s silly that we accept that excuse. Because we all know it’s bullshit. We have plenty of time. We just choose to spend it selfishly. To consume. To let reality persist as it will, as we then might say it must. I hope we don’t look back and wonder what we could have done had we not been so enthralled in these alternate realities and fictional characters that we give so much of our love and attention to.

And yet, my hope will be betrayed by my desire. My desire to forget. To be safe. Comfortable. Entertained. Moved. Give me a guaranteed emotional experience without personal responsibility. Don’t make me step into reality to face unknowns. Don’t make me give anything up. Don’t I deserve this life, this leisure?

This is a pleasant fiction.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *