2016 Had So Much Good TV, It Was Almost Too Much — We Pick Some Standouts

Dec 19, 2016
Originally published on May 2, 2017 3:32 pm

2016 was a perplexing and wonderful year for those of us who love great television.

Despite what was going on in politics and news, entertainment television surpassed itself this year with the sheer number of new TV shows that were good or better. But, in an odd way, that has become a different problem.

Viewers are drowning in content, coming at them from every device in their home, and much of it is very good. There's so much great content, it's tough to remember the days when much of television was truly terrible — not just predictable or formulaic, but so limited in its ambition that it wasn't even good conventional entertainment.

There was, for instance, a UPN show back in the '90s called the Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, about a black butler who worked in the Civil War-era White House. Who the network insisted wasn't a slave. And it was a comedy. That actually happened.

This year, the bar was raised through the roof. Television is littered with series that are good and trying to be great. It's a cycle of ambition: Netflix wants to beat HBO, AMC and FX. Amazon wants to be Netflix. Hulu wants to equal Amazon. And they all mostly see a path to success through buzzy, sophisticated, adult-oriented dramas and comedies that are catnip to connoisseurs of fine television.

I'm a black man who has been writing about television since 1997. And I've spent many of those years insisting that breaking TV's habit of focusing on white characters and culture not only gives nonwhite people a fair shot in the industry, it makes television itself better by injecting fresh stories, perspectives and performers.

We saw that idea come to fruition this year, and my list of top TV shows reflects that achievement. In a divided America, TV shows that dismantle our segregation are more important than ever.

In a different era, Billy Bob Thornton's profane, brilliantly knowing rummy of an attorney in Amazon's Goliath would have been one of the year's top performances. Or the slick special effects, bravura acting and convoluted storylines grounded in theories of human consciousness powering HBO's Westworld would have made it a runaway favorite. Ditto with the offhand brilliance of Louis C.K.'s online series Horace and Pete, Fox's earnest drama about Major League Baseball's first female player, Pitch, NBC's cheeky comedy about the afterlife The Good Place, and on and on and on.

The fact that none of these made my Top 12 list of Best TV Shows in 2016 may tell you as much about me as it does about the state of television this year. But here's my take on the shows that affected me most over the past 12 months.

12) Stranger Things (Netflix) — It wore its '80s and '90s nostalgia on its sleeve and sometimes moved slower than molasses on an Indiana maple tree. But this story about a group of plucky kids from a small Hoosier town who confront a monster from another dimension proved to be the summer's most unexpected hit, handing Winona Ryder the best role she's had since the 1990s. And for viewers old enough to remember Close Encounters, E.T. and the works of John Hughes, it was wonderful to watch a TV show that could both evoke and subvert tropes from classic pop culture touchstones, often in the same moments.

11) Search Party (TBS) — There are lots of smart TV comedies built around snarky, self-centered millennials navigating life. But only one features a millennial seeking fulfillment by trying to solve the mysterious disappearance of a college classmate. Alia Shawkat does an amazing job playing a woman unexceptional enough to be a doormat to everyone in her life, but smart enough to step up when someone who was once nice to her in college vanishes without a trace, bringing her supremely oblivious friends along for the whodunit.

10) Billions (Showtime) — On the surface, it's a tense tale about efforts by U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhodes Jr. (Paul Giamatti) to nail billionaire hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) for insider trading and bribery. But it's really a fanciful, compelling look at the massive egos behind New York's financial industry and criminal justice apparatus. It's new money versus old money; a self-made billionaire versus the son of a storied family who expects to be anointed mayor, governor or senator before too long. If you've ever wondered how such Masters of the Universe behave behind closed doors, this show provides a convincing look.

9) Game of Thrones (HBO) — This pick has me conflicted. I remain troubled by the way this series deploys explicit violence for shock value, from the mountains of dead and dying in the "Battle of the Bastards" episode, to the way Arya Stark feeds the fingers of his sons to bitter lord Walder Frey before killing him. But there is no denying the massive triumph that was GOT's last season, filled with movie-level spectacle and decisive advances in the story. We finally saw female characters take agency, including Sansa Stark emerging as a calculating force, Cersei Lannister epicly destroying her rivals by blowing them — and a building — up and Daenerys Targaryen preparing her attack on the Iron Throne. No TV show does this work better, bringing a visceral, gritty sword and sorcery epic to the not-so-small screen.

8) The Late Show with Stephen Colbert's live shows from the RNC and DNC (CBS) — As critics began sniping that the network maybe handed David Letterman's mantle to the wrong guy, Colbert found his snarky spirit with live shows centered on "covering" the political conventions. He snuck onto the stage at the RNC as a parody of a character from The Hunger Games, drafted Supergirl co-star Laura Benanti to unleash a devastating Melania Trump impersonation, got his old pal Jon Stewart to make a cameo and brought back that guy who used to host the Colbert Report. It's tough to know if he can maintain that energy during a Trump administration, but these two weeks of shows were a great glimpse of what Colbert can achieve when he's truly on his game.

7) The Night Of (HBO) — Like The Wire once did in its heyday, this limited series about a son of Pakistani immigrants accused of a brutal rape and murder exposed the shortcomings of a crushing, real-life bureaucracy — this time, the world of New York's criminal justice system. When John Turturro's hangdog defense attorney informs Riz Ahmed's accused murderer that the truth doesn't matter and his life hangs on telling the best story to the jury, the true absurdity of criminal trials in the modern era stands revealed.

6) Insecure, Luke Cage and the renaissance of black stories in "prestige TV" — I hate to lump disparate shows like Issa Rae's HBO triumph Insecure with Marvel's spot-on translation of Luke Cage to Netflix. But what they have in common — along with OWN's textured family drama Queen Sugar — is the explosion of stories created by and starring black people in the corners of highfalutin' television usually reserved for white-centered series like Mad Men and Girls. Insecure told the story of a flawed, floundering black millennial woman; Luke Cage was an updating of one of Marvel's oldest black superheroes with equal parts hip-hop swagger and Blaxploitation homage; Queen Sugar was a family drama with sincerity and substance. That all these high quality series aired in the same year is all the argument you need for more diversity in television.

5) Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS) — With new Daily Show host Trevor Noah too focused on being a nice guy to really bring the pain, it fell to Samantha Bee to continue Jon Stewart's legacy of speaking super-snarky truth to power. But Bee has moved beyond that moment to develop her own powerfully feminist voice in late night, educating viewers on everything from the rise of white supremacy in the "alt-right" movement to the history of how Republicans cultivated ties to Christian evangelicals.

4) This Is Us (NBC) — This show takes the most adept balancing act in television and turns it into the most compelling family drama on TV. The plot is high concept enough — centered on three siblings and a father who all share the same birthday, the series vaults between the siblings' time as children and their lives as 30-somethings. But there's also a host of complex storylines — from one sibling's problems with morbid obesity to another's struggle to handle growing up as a black child adopted into a white family. What could feel like a barrage of Very Special TV Movies, instead has coalesced into an engaging portrait of a complex family with equal parts heart and humor. Just when real quality drama seemed dead on network TV — especially on NBC — this series brings new hope.

3) The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX) — The miracle of this series was how it told us so much we didn't know about the most media-saturated trial in history. With 20 years' distance, we were able to see how the injustice of Rodney King's beating stoked anger at the Los Angeles police, which helped lead a beleaguered jury to acquit one of the most famous murder defendants in modern history. And there are standout performances here by Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran and Sterling K. Brown as Chris Darden (Brown should get TV's MVP award for starring here and as adopted sibling Randall Pearson in This Is Us). This is what a true crime series should do: illuminate our modern problems with policing, race, celebrity and media while relaying the gripping story of a historic trial.

2) O.J.: Made in America (ESPN) — Tempting as it would be to put this show in the same category as American Crime Story, in truth, it is a whole other beast. It's tough to believe that viewers would have the stomach for more stories about O.J. Simpson after FX's excellent series, but this five-part documentary miniseries proved there was even more to Simpson's rise and fall as an American icon. There are too many crackling moments to list them all here, including jurors who admitted they acquitted Simpson as payback for Rodney King, information on Simpson's gay father, a history of the LAPD's violently racist policing strategies and a look at Simpson's refusal to be identified as black — until white America rejected him. Small wonder this is a project some think could be the first documentary nominated for an Oscar; as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, it's also one of the best TV shows of the year.

1) Atlanta (FX) — Donald Glover's personal, darkly comic take on the struggles of two young black men to make it in Atlanta's rap scene was pioneering, creative, incisive and inspiring. In one episode, Glover cast a black actor as Justin Bieber, showing the audience how differently it feels to see a black man act in the same entitled, bratty borderline thuggish way we have largely tolerated from a white pop star. In another, we see Glover's character, struggling college dropout Earn Marks, try to make nice with his sometime girlfriend by accompanying her to a party thrown by a couple who might help her career. When it turns out the husband is a wealthy white guy who fetishizes black culture and the wife is a black woman who looks down on working class black people, we get a guided tour of the most thorny race and class issues dividing America. Glover, who wrote, directed, and even helped curate the music for some episodes, has crafted an eccentric, affecting series that feels authentic even as it breaks new storytelling ground.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Before the bells ring in 2017, we want to look back on some of the great television that aired this year. So if you want to know what to binge-watch in the few remaining days of 2016, Eric Deggans is here to tell us. Hi, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: There is so much good TV out there. If, in these final days of 2016, somebody wants to go back and binge watch the best stuff they missed, what are you going to tell them to watch?

DEGGANS: You know, I'm a black man. I've been writing about TV for a long time. And I've been pushing the industry to be more inclusive and more diverse, not just because it's some - out of some sense of fairness but because it teaches us about each other. We're such a segregated society that television can be an important way of bridging those worlds. So, you know, on my list is the growing number of great shows about black people and black culture including "Insecure" on HBO with Issa Rae...

SHAPIRO: I love that show.

DEGGANS: ...This former YouTube star...

SHAPIRO: Yes.

DEGGANS: ...Done a great job with a comedy that's just about an average black woman. "Luke Cage," which is a great Netflix show about one of Marvel's first black superheroes translated to the modern age with a lot of hip-hop swagger. And then top on my list was "Atlanta," Donald Glover's masterpiece about two guys trying to make it in Atlanta's rap scene but also gave us a really important look at race and class and all kinds of things. We even have a clip. Let's listen to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ATLANTA")

DONALD GLOVER: (As Earnest Earn Marks) I don't want a handout. I want to manage you.

BRIAN TYREE HENRY: (As Alfred Paper Boi Miles, laughter) Manage. You know where the word manage come from?

GLOVER: (As Earnest Earn Marks) Manus, Latin for hand.

HENRY: (As Alfred Paper Boi Miles) Probably, but I'm going to say no for the purpose of my argument. Manage come from the word man, and that ain't really your lane.

GLOVER: (As Alfred Paper Boi Miles) My lane?

DEGGANS: So that was Donald Glover trying to convince his cousin, an up-and-coming rapper, to let him manage him. And this show always and continually puts things in front of you and sort of says, here it is, you know, think about it.

SHAPIRO: You've also got a late night entry on your list here. Obviously the election gave a lot of material to late night shows, whether it's Stephen Colbert, John Oliver. You like "Full Frontal With Samantha Bee" from TBS.

SHAPIRO: Exactly. This is a show - as much as Trevor Noah took over "The Daily Show" from Jon Stewart, I think Samantha Bee actually really translated Jon Stewart's sense of outrage and also his way of educating viewers about things that were going on in media and politics and the hypocrisies within both of them. We've got a clip of her talking about, for example, some of the trolls that have been employed by Russia to spread fake news throughout the information ecosystem. Let's check it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FULL FRONTAL WITH SAMANTHA BEE")

SAMANTHA BEE: The Kremlin has focused their trolls' efforts on shoring up support for the Ukraine war, advancing Putin's standing on the world stage and most recently, meddling with the American presidential election.

DEGGANS: So it's been great to see Samantha Bee bring a feminist voice, a very incisive voice that educates people about what's going on in media and politics. And she went to Russia to interview a couple of people for this story. So she's also doing some enterprise reporting, too.

SHAPIRO: Eric, two of the shows on your list of the best TV of 2016 are about the same subject, which is O.J. Simpson.

DEGGANS: I know.

SHAPIRO: I thought we got all the coverage we could possibly stomach in the 1990s. What was it about this year's coverage of that story that you found so compelling?

DEGGANS: You would think, well, I think 20 years of distance really serve storytellers well. So we have "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story," which is FX's limited series. We've got some wonderful performances by people like Sterling K. Brown playing Chris Darden, the prosecutor. And then we have "O.J.: Made In America," this five-part ESPN documentary that also unearths all kinds of things. So these are two really great shows that give us new insights, and for that I listed them number two and number three on my list.

SHAPIRO: Sterling Brown also stars in another show on your list, a network drama called "This Is Us." And I'm so glad you included this because the other day I was on the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast talking about this show and nobody on the panel liked it as much as I did. So I'm glad you and see eye to eye on this.

DEGGANS: I am a sucker for a great family drama. And first and foremost, "This Is Us" is a great family drama. And it is a show that explores race and class issues very subtly and, you know, in an authentic and kind of innovative way. It does so many things well. And it's nice to see sort of the standard broadcast network really step up and succeed with a show that's high quality in a way that we haven't seen in quite a while.

SHAPIRO: That's our reviewer Eric Deggans on some of the best TV of 2016. Eric, great to talk to you.

DEGGANS: I'm going to have a full list on npr.org so check it out there.

SHAPIRO: Will do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.