Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

The first season of Better Things (Season 2 premiere Thursday, Sept. 14, FX) debuted quietly and closed to a deafening chorus of critical huzzahs, but no one had an answer for the question: “Is it a comedy, or is it a drama?” Creator/star Pamela Adlon has summed it up best as an “incredible feelings show,” so there. Better Things is a different animal than other Comics Kinda Play Themselves series; thanks to the influence of Adlon’s creative partner, Louis C.K., the closest comparison is Louie. Adlon’s a far better actor than C.K., and she can make you laugh, cry and scream along with single mom Sam and her three daughters—the most layered, interesting kids on TV, BTW—with uncanny ease. Catch up, noncritics.

Eastbound and Down Goes to School is back in session! Vice Principals (Season 2 premiere Sunday, Sept. 17, HBO), which reunites E&D creators Danny McBride and Jody Hill, is a study in hysterical vulgarity second only to Veep; the heated exchanges between McBride and brilliantly cast co-star Walton Goggins take it to whole ’nother level above Kenny Powers. Season 1 ended with frenemy vice principals Gamby (McBride) and Russell (Goggins) becoming “co-interim principals,” a dirty, dubious victory dampened by Gamby being gunned down in the high school’s parking lot. Nonspoiler: He’s alive, and things are going to get even weirder and darker in Vice Principals’ final (yes, final) nine episodes.

There are very few nominations to complain about in the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards (Sunday, Sept. 17, CBS); the quality is so high, I can let a few Stranger Things nods slide, if not the unbelievable snub of BoJack Horseman (seriously—WT fuck?). And I’ve already decided who’s going to win: Veep (Comedy Series), Better Call Saul (Drama Series), Shameless’ William H. Macy (Lead Actor, Comedy), Veep’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Lead Actress, Comedy), Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk (Lead Actor, Drama), The Handmaid’s Tale’s Elisabeth Moss (Lead Actress, Drama), Baskets’ Louie Anderson (Supporting Actor, Comedy), and Westworld’s Thandie Newton (Supporting Actress, Drama). Now you don’t have to watch the Emmys.

The first season of creepypasta (user-generated Internet stories and urban legends) weirdness turned out to be more hype than horror, but Channel Zero: No-End House (Season 2 premiere Wednesday, Sept. 20, Syfy) looks more like the one that will kick the anthology series into high gear. The setup for No-End House is familiar: A young woman (Amy Forsyth) and her friends trip through “a bizarre house of horrors consisting of a series of increasingly disturbing rooms,” but then throws in the twist that her perceived “reality” might be just another room. Like the current season of American Horror Story (how ’bout them clowns?), Channel Zero: No-End House is the stuff of mind-melting nightmares. Yay!

The funniest aspect of afterlife sitcom The Good Place (Season 2 premiere Wednesday, Sept. 20, NBC) could very well be Concerned Christians breathlessly exclaiming, “That’s not the real Heaven!” How could it be? What with the nonjudgmental fun and the presence of brown people? After the big reveals that closed Season 1 (spoilers: The Good Place is actually the Bad Place; Ted Danson’s Michael is a lying liarface; and Kristen Bell’s Eleanor is, well, still a terrible person), The Good Place is open to more possibilities now: Could Michael be pulling a double fake-out as a worthiness test? Is the Bad Place the better place? Is Eleanor actually in Twin Peaks?

CBS has defined Stoopid Summer TV for the last several years—not even counting Big Brother—with hilariously obtuse shows like Under the Dome, Extant, BrainDead and Zoo, but Salvation (Season 1 finale Wednesday, Sept. 20, CBS) is the best/worst yet. For 11 weeks now, an MIT student, a maverick tech billionaire and a woman who does … something? … at the Pentagon have been postulating, posing and occasionally even working to find a way to stop an asteroid from wiping out the planet. The title implies they’ll figure it out, but I’ve been rooting for the mass extinction event since the first episode wherein the phrase “gravity tractor” was uttered. Bring on oblivion! We’ve more than earned it.

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No, not all of the great shows are here; 2016 served up too much quality TV to contain in this space, while not all of the great shows rise to the level of year-end best lists. (Too many other critical lists are surrendering space to Stranger Things; just sayin’.)

These 16 shows are binge-worthy alternatives to holiday family time—Merry Xmas!

Westworld (HBO): This Westworld was smarter, sleeker and more terrifying than its 1973 origin flick, but it also imbued the Wild West park’s androids with a tragic “humanity.” (Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton for all of the awards.) It also reminded us that actual flesh-and-blood humans are just the worst.

Veep (HBO): Now more than ever, huh? Vice president-turned-president-turned-footnote Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) suffered an exhausting political beating months before the rest of us did in 2016, but at least hers was funny (and slightly more F-bomb-heavy). Forget IdiocracyVeep is our republic’s true guide.

BoJack Horseman (Netflix): Animated series BoJack Horseman has always been about the aggressive shallowness of Hollywood and celebrity, but Season 3 went deeper and darker (and more experimental, including a dialogue-free underwater episode) than ever before. It’s also funny as hell. OK, it’s everything as hell.

Lady Dynamite (Netflix): Maria Bamford’s Lady Dynamite was a meta-comedy that did for bipolar disorder what BoJack Horseman did for depression and Jessica Jones did for PTSD: It made entertaining, thoughtful art out of the usually “too heavy” to talk about. Both way surreal and way real … sounds good, feels right.

Quarry (Cinemax): This overlooked, 1972-set crime-noir series is grittily crafted down to the most minute details, spun with jarring twists, and anchored by Logan Marshall-Green’s intense, mercurial performance as a reluctant hit man. It’s the Memphis-barbecued second season of True Detective you really wanted.

Better Call Saul (AMC): The debut of Better Call Saul was a fantastic surprise that expanded upon Breaking Bad, building its own pre-Heisenberg world. From hilarious to heartbreaking, Season 2 further transformed small-time Albuquerque lawyer Slippin’ Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) into future legal shark Saul Goodman.

Halt and Catch Fire (AMC): Behind Saul, Halt and Catch Fire is AMC’s best drama, even if it doesn’t generate Walking Dead numbers. The ’80s-set computer-revolution saga moved to Silicon Valley in Season 3, amping the startup fireworks between Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé, who overshadowed even Lee Pace (!).

Mr. Robot (USA): Elliot (Rami Malek) and hacker group fsociety brought down E(vil) Corp at conclusion of Season 1, but it just caused more problems than it solved. Mr. Robot 2.0 was less buzzy, and trickier to follow, but it gave Elliot’s circle (especially Carly Chaikin and Portia Doubleday) space to shine.

Goliath (Amazon Prime): David E. Kelley and Billy Bob Thornton streamed a classic Los Angeles legal-noir drama that overcame a middling plot with killer performances from Maria Bello, Molly Parker, Nina Arianda, Tania Raymonde, William Hurt and, of course, Thornton himself. Binge with a stiff drink—or eight.

Atlanta (FX): Donald Glover’s Atlanta wasn’t what anyone expected. Something far more than a comedy (though there are hilarious moments) or a drama (ditto, heavy moments), it unfolded like an indie flick in no hurry to get any Big Moments, and depicted the flat-broke-and-black experience with unflinching detail.

Better Things (FX): One of the rawest comedic TV portrayals of single motherhood ever, Pamela Adlon’s Better Things swung from sweet to sad to snarky with an assured precision that her creative partner, Louis C.K., never quite nailed with Louie. Subtle jabs at Hollywood’s treatment of women are just a bonus.

You’re the Worst (FXX): The Only Anti-Rom-Com That Matters got back on track after some downer detours last year—which isn’t to say You’re the Worst didn’t take chances in Season 3. Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere) may never work out, but it’s sweet (and profanely hilarious) to watch them fail.

Shameless (Showtime): Emmy Rossum, who’s played Shameless’ surrogate Gallagher mom Fiona for seven seasons now, recently got a pay bump to at least equal co-star William H. Macy’s salary. Coincidentally, she also turned in her best, most heartbreaking work this year. ’Merica isn’t Modern Family; it’s Shameless.

The Good Place (NBC): Kristen Bell and Ted Danson are an unbeatable comic combo, and fears that afterlife sitcom The Good Place would be too weird for broadcast TV were apparently unfounded: It’s a (relative) NBC hit and, even better, the Jesus people are mightily offended by this inclusive version of “Heaven.”

Wynonna Earp (Syfy): If you were somewhat disappointed with Syfy’s recent zero-fun heroine epic Van Helsing—I know I was was—look back a little further in 2016 for Wynonna Earp, a Buffy the Gunslinger supernatural series that star Melanie Scrofano tore up with quippy glee. Also: hot Doc Holliday!

Not Safe With Nikki Glaser (Comedy Central): Nikki Glaser’s Not Safe was a sex-and-relationships talk show that combined intelligence, real information and filthy comedy that more than lived up to the show’s title. So, of course, Comedy Central canceled it after 20 episodes to make room for more Tosh.0. For shame.

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High Maintenance (Friday, Sept. 16, HBO), series debut: Unapologetically bipolar comedies (half-hours that lean a bit too heavy to be “dramedies”) are apparently the thing this season, and along with Donald Glover’s Atlanta, High Maintenance essentially defines them. The former Web series—created, written and directed by wife-and-husband team Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, about New York City weed dealer The Guy (played by Sinclair)—looks like just another stoner-com from the outside, but it’s deeper than that. The Guy, who’s the only constant of the series, is the thread between a roster of clients who are both comically bizarre (like the deceptively dim bros we meet first) and tragically human (seemingly stereotypical gay-guy/straight-girl BFFs Max and Lainey, the meat of the pilot episode’s story). The pair’s bitchy repartee soon takes a dark turn into co-dependency hell that’s as bitter as it is funny; maybe it’s time to re-evaluate the veiled pathos of Will and Grace. High Maintenance is too layered to watch, well, high; hold off for 30 minutes, perhaps.

The Good Place (Monday, Sept. 19, NBC), series debut: Now-dead Eleanor (Kristen Bell) tries to be a better-ish person with the help of an “afterlife mentor” (Ted Danson). NBC has been promoting the … hell? … out of The Good Place, and Bell and Danson are an unbeatable comic combo, but this might be too wonderfully weird for network TV. Watch hard; watch fast.

Kevin Can Wait (Monday, Sept. 19, CBS), series debut: Former awful sitcom star Kevin James returns from awful movies with an awful new family sitcom—it’ll probably run for 10 seasons on CBS. In Kevin Can Wait … gawd, even the title sucks … James plays a recently retired beat cop who finds that life at home with the family is exactly like a sitcom from the ’80s. Again, 10 seasons.

This Is Us (Tuesday, Sept. 20, NBC), series debut: The closest thing to a straight-up family drama on broadcast anymore has been CBS’ Life in Pieces—and that’s a half-hour comedy. This Is Us is a gorgeously written, filmed and acted capital-letters Family Drama with a mildly quirky plot hook; it’s a smart and grown-up alternative to everything else on Tuesdays. Thanks for trying, NBC.

Bull (Tuesday, Sept. 20, CBS), series debut: Michael Weatherly jumped off the NCIS money train for this? Bull, based on “Dr.” Phil’s early days as a trial consultant, is the latest case of When Legal Dramas Happen to Good Actors (an epidemic this season), as the likable Weatherly is wasted in a rote procedural amongst pretty, interchangeable lawyer-models. And, no mustache?

Lethal Weapon (Wednesday, Sept. 21, Fox), series debut: Riggs (Clayne Crawford, Rectify) and Murtaugh (Damon Wayans Sr.) are back! Uh, why? To paraphrase Murtaugh, Crawford is too good for this shit, and it would have been great to see him in something original, something better, just something … else. Imagine if TV turned Speed into a series—that would be more sustainable.

Designated Survivor (Wednesday, Sept. 21, ABC), series debut: When you ask, “What could be worse than choosing between Clinton and Trump?” you get Designated Survivor: After a deadly attack on Washington D.C., a low-level cabinet member (Kiefer Sutherland) becomes the president of the United States. DS has action and drama to burn, but why didn’t Jack Bauer save the real president? Hey, wait a minute …

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It’s been a rough couple of seasons for broadcast network television. Programming competition from cable and streaming services is at an all-time high, resulting in the era of There’s Too Many Shows.

You’d think that, in response, the broadcast networks would raise the quality and imagination going forward into the new fall season, and give viewers a reason to come back. Problem is, you’re thinking. ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC? Not so much. (Who would have believed a decade ago that The CW, The C damned W!, would become the visionaries?) Not only have they given up on thinking; the networks have just given up, period: The majority of their proposed 2016-17 season new shows—a relative term, as there’s nary a “new” idea among them—look like complete garbage.

A sampling of what’s to come this fall:

Conviction (ABC): A hot lawyer (Hayley Atwell) goes to work for a hot district attorney (Eddie Cahill). Glad ABC canceled Agent Carter so Atwell could do a legal show, a TV rarity.

Notorious (ABC): Oh look, a hot lawyer (Daniel Sunjata) and a hot news producer (Piper Perabo). It’s about “the unique, sexy and dangerous interplay of criminal law and the media,” but more like “filler until Scandal returns.”

Designated Survivor (ABC): A low-level cabinet member (Kiefer Sutherland) suddenly becomes the president of the United States. Hey, you asked, “What could be worse than choosing between Clinton and Trump?”

American Housewife (ABC): Katy Mixon (Mike and Molly) is a brash housewife in the prim suburbs. American Housewife used to be titled The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport, but that almost made it sound original.

Speechless (ABC): Minnie Driver is a harried mom with a special-needs son—and it’s a comedy! This must be Driver’s revenge against TV ’Merica for the cancellation of About a Boy.

Frequency (The CW): Remake of the 2000 movie, this time with a female cop (Peyton List) connecting with her dead dad in the past through a ham radio. Kudos to The CW for not updating it to a haunted Snapchat app.

No Tomorrow (The CW): An uptight girl (Tori Anderson) falls for a free spirit (Joshua Sasse) who believes the world is ending in eight months. An optimistic timeline, even on The CW.

Bull (CBS): And another legal drama, based on “Dr.” Phil’s early days as a trial consultant. Michael Weatherly jumped off the NCIS money train for this?

Kevin Can Wait (CBS): Former awful sitcom star Kevin James returns from awful movies with an awful new family sitcom. It will run for 10 seasons on CBS.

Man With a Plan (CBS): A laugh-tracked family sitcom virtually identical to Kevin Can Wait, only with Matt LeBlanc in the stay-at-home-dad role. It will run for 10 weeks on CBS.

MacGyver (CBS): Reboot of the 1985-92 TV series, not 2010’s MacGruber. I’m as disappointed as you are.

Pure Genius (CBS): A tech billionaire (Augustus Prew) and a renegade doctor (Dermot Mulroney) start a cutting-edge hospital to treat sickies for free. From executive producers Jason Katims and Bernie Sanders.

This Is Us (NBC): “From the writer and directors of Crazy, Stupid, Love … sometimes life will surprise you.” Hard pass.

Timeless (NBC): A scientist, a soldier and a history professor race to stop a time-traveling terrorist from rewriting the past and, therefore, the future … or something. Maybe a bit “thinky” after The Voice, NBC?

The Good Place (NBC): Now-dead Eleanor (Kristen Bell) tries to be a better-ish person with the help of an “afterlife mentor” (Ted Danson). Is that Adult Swim weed making the rounds?

The Exorcist (Fox): This should go as well as Fox’s Frankenstein remake, Second Chance—remember that? Exactly.

Lethal Weapon (Fox): Riggs (Clayne Crawford) and Murtaugh (Damon Wayans Sr.) ride again! Only the iconic line “I’m getting’ too old for this shit” has been replaced with “Rush Hour never happened.”

Son of Zorn (Fox): Animated warrior Zorn (voiced by Jason Sudeikis) returns to the live-action suburbs to make peace with his ex-wife and son. Yeah, the Adult Swim weed is definitely making the rounds.

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