There were 455 scripted TV shows that aired in 2016. No one could watch them all and no one save for critics could watch even a significant fraction of them. We have so many options now and a decent portion of them are really solid choices that are capable of exciting and enchanting us. This is always a hard list for me to make because I watch so much TV and I really love most of what I watch. So in addition to my top 10 that I’ve briefly talked about, I included an additional 10 honorable mentions that I would recommend just as enthusiastically as my actual top 10. Especially since when I finalize these lists, I always feel like I have more to say about my dramas so my comedy favorites get a little neglected.
1. Rectify (Sundance) What a beautiful, special show. Over the course of four seasons, this show has treated its characters with such empathy and grace. It has been a slow and thoughtful journey all leading up to the finale and an important realization. Mistakes of the past can’t always be rectified, but we can still grow and move past them. We can become better. We can heal. Daniel’s imprisonment and subsequent release are moments that will shape not only his life, but the lives of each member of his family and the people drawn into their world. But they do not have to define them any longer. There is room for hope and all the messy emotions that accompany it. There is a place for dreams that take you far outside your comfort zone. There is a place for family and love, for forgiveness and understanding. It is a time for rebirth. This show has been one of the most emotionally satisfying I have ever experienced and I will always be grateful that it existed and went out on its own terms.
2. The Americans (FX) This show just keeps getting better as the seasons go on. It’s in the act of maintaining the tension and the emotional release that I find the show most impressive and it did that better than ever this year. After years of service with little break, the Jennings finally got to step back from their duties and truly be a family. It was a peace that couldn’t last as they still have a job to do, but that small bit of relief made all the difference. This could be a dark and depressing show. It’s full of lies and secrets and pain, inflicted both intentionally and unintentionally. But just as Philip and Elizabeth’s break helped bring them back from their breaking point, this show finds ways to prevent itself from becoming unbearably bleak. It’s a show that loves and honors the connections these characters make, even if those connections ultimately end in heartbreak. It recognizes their value and the way Martha shaped Philip and Young Hee shaped Elizabeth. Just because they started as assets to be manipulated didn’t mean that was their full value. We were encouraged to love them and care for them just as much as the Jennings did even when we knew we shouldn’t. It’s remarkable storytelling and I could never recommend this show enough.
3. American Crime Story: People vs. OJ Simpson (FX) I can’t speak to the authenticity of this series but I do know what it has done to re-contextualize this trial and the people involved in it. The original was such a media spectacle that it seems a perfect fit for a television show like this, especially when combined with a talented cast such as this one. We got to see the role racism and sexism played, the way it became a media circus, and most importantly, we saw a show that never forgot the victims in this case. Yes, the trial was technically centered around OJ Simpson but it never felt like he was the star of the show. It was a battle of the lawyers and we saw how deeply the outcome of this case affected Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden. They wanted to win it for the Brown and Goldman families. They may not have won then and they have been mocked for it ever since, but I appreciate what this show has done to make people see how wrong they were to do so and for ending the show with Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, who somehow got lost amongst the madness of this trial.
4. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW) This show could have made the list for the music alone, which continues to be fantastic, but even beyond the clever songs, this is one of the most confidently made shows on TV. It always feels like it always knows where it wants to take these characters. It knows when to lean into expectations and when to run the other way from them. The second season has been especially smart in ditching the love triangle in a believable way while focusing on the real relationship of the show, the messy friendship between Rebecca and Paula. The supporting characters round out the cast in the most delightful ways and the show has become even better as more of them are able to be highlighted.
5. Person of Interest (CBS) I would have loved a longer final season but there were so many outstanding episodes in the one we got. This season gave us a look into Shaw’s mind and the depth of her love for Root. No matter what happened, in any scenario Samaritan could dream up, Root was her constant. Her touchstone. She is her safe place and the only thing on the planet she would die to protect. I think the writers would have loved to give these two more time, but maternity leave made that impossible, so we were given this beautiful gift and I’m grateful. We got some truly lovely moments of Team Machine coming together to protect The Machine and Finch. We saw to see the people the Machine had saved and later recruited to her cause come together to save the people who originally saved them. We saw this family come together to save each other and save the world. However unrealistic, I would have loved if they could have done it all without any losses. But I know that was never in the cards. John’s death was always coming and I’m sure he’s in the Machine listening to Root call him a big lug and having all those conversations with Joss they never got to have while she was alive. These characters will live on and the memory of this show will live on in the hearts of the fans and create new ones as people discover it through Netflix.
6. Queen Sugar (OWN) This show is a perfect example of why I read critic’s lists of the best new shows coming out in a season. It wouldn’t have even been on my radar but once it was described by more than one person as a blend of Rectify and Parenthood, I knew I had to watch it and I was in from the first episode. Over the course of the first season, the show drew out so many emotions from me and did so without feeling forced or manufactured. It feels real and honest about these characters and where they are in their journeys, individually and as a family. The characters aren’t without flaws but those flaws (as well as their strengths) are treated with such gentle empathy. It’s a show that recognizes that we are all works-in-progress and will sometimes fail before getting it right. It cares deeply about these characters and the worlds they inhabit. It has created a family that truly feels like a unit, even when they are at odds and disagree over the best course of action. It loves fiercely. It was my favorite new drama of the year and I will be anxiously awaiting season two.
7. Superstore (NBC) I don’t think any show made me laugh more this year than Superstore. It has one of the strongest comedic ensembles on TV and it was so sure of itself from very early in its run, reminding me a little of a cross between Better Off Ted (which you should go watch if you haven’t already seen it) and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Like all good workplace comedies, it throws very unique and distinct characters together and has turned them into a family. These people may drive each other crazy but there is also a lot of genuine affection between them. It’s a show that isn’t afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve or be entirely ridiculous and that is a blend I just cannot resist.
8. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC) Refocusing any television show to focus primarily on the ladies and their accomplishments is a surefire way to get me interested and that’s exactly what this show did. We saw them build Mutiny in Cameron’s house last season and in this season, saw their empire grow before ultimately collapsing. But whether their relationship was strong or broken, Donna and Cameron remained the biggest draws for this show. It was so willing to make them complicated and messy in a way that is normally reserved for male characters and it was all the better for it. The men were still there and played important roles, but there was always the sense that it wasn’t their story. Joe finally felt like he was more in the background, though still capable of pulling everyone’s strings when necessary, and it was a better use of his character. And when everyone coming back together in the end for one more grand idea feel like the perfect kind of full circle as everyone grew and changed so much from where they were in the beginning. It was no longer a lopsided dynamic, but a team of people with their own unique skills who could come together and make the future possible. I’m relieved that this show was renewed for one more season so it could finish telling the story it has set out to tell.
9. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX) Week after week, Brooklyn Nine-Nine makes me happy to watch regardless of the plot or character combinations. It is the definition of comfort TV for me. It’s a show that has developed a strong sense of what it is and who its characters are and that knowledge opens up so many options for them. That certainty allows them to try different things, like the Florida arc this year, that look different but still feel like the show we have come to know and love. It’s not an easy task for a comedy to continue putting out strong episodes year after year without feeling stale or like the characters are in permanent holding patterns but this show manages it. It changes up just enough to give it new direction and energy while retaining the heart and humor that made us fall in love with it in the first place.
10. Mom (CBS) Somewhere in the past three and a half seasons, Mom turned into one of the best comedies on television. It’s smart about addiction, the work it takes to stay sober, and the importance of a strong support system not just in sobriety but in life. Bonnie and Christie are better because of their group of friends and the show has only improved by shifting the focus to those relationships. Allison Janney and Anna Faris complement each other so well in their comedic styles and have brought this complicated mother-daughter relationship to life. There is love there but there is also resentment and sorrow, all of which show up at different times and occasionally all at once. It’s no longer afraid to go for the serious, dramatic moments and give them time to breathe and resonate all while maintaining the sense of humor that many of these characters have developed as a way to cope with and understand their own lives. It was a tricky balance to find, but it’s truly mastered it this past year.
Honorable Mentions: You’re the Worst, Speechless, Pitch, Sweet/Vicious, The Carmichael Show, Girl Meets World, Jane the Virgin, The Good Place, Supergirl, The Night Shift