The top 16 TV shows of 2016
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It has been quite a year for serialised storytelling. In the last 12 months, the Americans alone served up 455 new shows, making sure nobody, repeat nobody, can keep up. We in India now have Netflix, Hotstar, Amazon Prime and more ways than ever to tuck into the bottomless Nutella jar that is current TV.
Here is my class of 2016. These shows are brave, original, and the best at doing what they’re doing. Most are new, with older shows making it on the basis of being significantly better than previous seasons. They’re all topshelf and premium and unbeatable. And as the protagonist on top of this heap would do, snort them all.
16. The Get Down
Grandmaster Flash stands before a quartet of protégés, brandishing a purple crayon. With this he illustrates the hunt for the heart of any song, and heart is what this platform-heel’d show is built on. Baz Luhrmann’s 1970s vision of The Bronx is uneven but swings ambitiously for the fences, and when it hits, it hits hard. Bonus points for the coolest character name this year: Shaolin Fantastic. Read more
Issa Rae’s pointedly written comedy about young black women looking for footholds in life and love is aimed to rescue black protagonists from caricatured extremes. The characters it throws up are anything but the usual. Mad cool. Read more
14. Search Party
Nancy Drew meets Girls in this oddly satisfying mystery, one better than both parts of that description. A freckled know-nothing finds herself drawn to the disappearance of a girl she barely acknowledged in school. The clues and the hunt are thrilling and surreal, the language is current as can be, and characters unravel in a way only the blissfully young can. A sharp show with a trick or two up its sleeve.
13. Silicon Valley (Season 3)
Mike Judge’s tech comedy isn’t a startup anymore, and the young people running Pied Piper are dealing with higher stakes than ever. The show is still machine-gun heavy on the gags—both verbal and visual, with an ensemble riffing off each other as if recruited for a heist—but this time the circumstances are believably dire. It’d be scary if it weren’t this funny.
12. The Crown
Ace writer Peter Morgan’s show about Queen Elizabeth II is vividly cinematic and wonderfully cast, with Claire Foy as Liz and—surprise surprise—John Lithgow as Churchill. The episode where Churchill has his portrait painted is itself worth the ten-hour price of admission. Read more
11. Better Things
The life of a single mother is explored quite spectacularly—with one eye on catastrophe and one eye on drama—by Pamela Adlon in her frequently insightful new comedy. Adlon is super, the writing is consistently nuanced, and the show sneaks in sentiment when you least expect it.
10. Archer (Season 7)
Archer went old-Hollywood with a season-long noir mystery. Secret agents Sterling Archer and Lana are together, which complicates things as he loses his head over a Sunset Boulevard type heroine even as murderous clowns take everyone hostage. The heat feels real, the plotting is delicious, and the climactic twist gasp-worthy. Elmore Leonard would watch this twice.
Sharon Horgan’s comedy sits Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church on a separation see-saw, resulting in laughs both awkward and uproarious. Two well-meaning characters are continually blindsided by poor decisions, and the narrative stays alluringly unpredictable, tipping the scales one way and then the other, in lawyerly fashion. It’s hard to look away. Read more
8. Better Call Saul (Season 2)
The first season of this Breaking Bad spinoff was excellent television, but it is with round two that this show shrugs off its dependence to the original show. The result is electrifying, a character study for the ages as we watch a young lawyer take off on a flightpath we know to be doomed. The writing is poetically sparse, and Bob Odenkirk can now be crowned one of television’s finest leading men.
7. The Good Place
Created by Parks & Recreation’s Mike Schur, this comedy—about a sinner who undeservedly finds herself on the right side of the afterlife—is one of the sunniest this year, a witty show built upon complicated self-made rules that earns its laughs by committing to those very rules. And by casting Ted Danson as a sort of angel eager to experience human failings. Irresistible.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a hypertalented Englishwoman with the power to revolutionise comedy, and she’s taken huge strides this year with the morbidly brilliant and fearlessly inward-looking Fleabag. Starring herself as a maladjusted woman inclined toward sex and snark, the show is brutally funny and constantly inappropriate. Laughing at it feels like sniggering at a funeral—rude, but goddamned memorable.
5. Veep (Season 5)
Veep is love and Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a comedic goddess, but we weren’t expecting the show to throw out baby and bathwater. President Selina Meyer savagely hurtles through a crazed and desperate attempt to stay President, stopping at nothing. She’s awful but… she’s ours. And, as happens to most candidates we now root for, she’s left without. The profanity is still legendary, but Veep packed a more emotional wallop this year. Read more
4. Horace And Pete
Louis CK dropped this show on an unsuspecting world quite like a secret album, and we’re still coming to grips with its unique form, unlike anything else out there. Written and performed like a play—an all-star play with Alan Alda, Edie Falco and Steve Buscemi—this ruminative drama is set in a timeless old bar and plays out like the ramblings of a drunken playwright. It may talk too much, but it has a lot to say.
Wicked and delicious whimsy abounds in Will Sharpe’s off-kilter tale about a children’s book writer and his demented family. One of the finest British comedies in years, this mad little treat—a fully-formed and novelistic show right from the start, involving a man trying clumsily to kill himself—is something I recommend diving into without reading any more. And oh, it stars the wondrous Olivia Colman.
2. American Crime Story: The People Vs OJ Simpson
Masterful. Prestige television hit its highest note this year when telling the story of a courtroom trial we all knew at least to a degree, and true crime has not been more compelling. The cast is magnificent, the storytelling cunning in the way it zooms into varying individual perspectives while keeping its eyes on The Juice, and the production commandingly cinematic. Never sensationalist, ever sensational. Read more
1. Bojack Horseman (Season 3)
Has there ever been a comedy as profound as this animated show about a horse who used to be a sitcom star? Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s satire started as a gag-filled take on Californication, veered into depression and substance abuse, and, in its melancholic third season—where Bojack chases down an Oscar—has become a richly textured study of vanity and ego. As exemplified by the sublime and speechless underwater episode which shuts up its stellar voice cast, this show is willing to risk everything. All we have is the unending, slow-motion fall from grace that is Bojack’s life.
What makes this the very best show on television? There will be more on Bojack Horseman next week. Or should I say next year? Season’s greetings, dear reader. Don’t binge and drive.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print. Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen.