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 Idiocracy—Veep 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.