The best TV shows of 2016 so far have obliterated boundaries.
Once upon a time, television was a medium partly defined by what could and couldn’t be shown or said. Great writers, directors and creatives worked within those boundaries to create some of our favorite shows and iconic characters, but it’s amazing to think about the “limits” of TV today. Every year, the best series continue to push up against those limits that existed the year before, redefining the art of TV and the culture it influences (even as it is influenced by the culture). And while there are some great shows we couldn’t celebrate on this list, we’ve collected what we believe are the boldest, brightest and best of the best.
The success of Girls has always depended on Dunham’s boldness, and that boldness has been so offensive to so many that it’s actually inspired an unconscious online campaign designed to muzzle the disruptive she-devil. Depending on where the haters came from, they attacked her looks or her politics, but the goal was the same. And at every moment, she has held up to the pressure and asserted her right to artistic expression. Not once has she demanded that anybody like her, but she has adamantly refused to back down to the will of those who don’t. Lena Dunham is a confirmed badass, and every time she proves herself in the face of the cowards that are her enemies, I want to stand up and cheer. She is asserting that art matters, and in many ways expresses a deeper truth than mere ideas ever could. That, I think, is where the real power of Girls lies, and though it reached a new level of maturity in its latest season, it never lost that unmistakable raw artistic pop.—Shane Ryan
The Carmichael Show is as brave as it is hilarious. It regularly tackles serious social and political issues, including gun control, trans rights and Black Lives Matter, during one of the most contentious times in recent history. It’s an unapologetically black show about real life on a major broadcast network, and despite being shot as traditionally as a sitcom can (a studio audience, multiple cameras, a studio soundstage) it feels more daring and realistic than the flashier Black-ish. If you miss the era of Norman Lear sitcoms that were about something more than just making you laugh, you should be watching The Carmichael Show. It also has one of the best casts of any sitcom on TV today, with hilarious work from Loretta Devine, Lil Rel Howery, Tiffany Haddish and Jerrod Carmichael. If the Emmys had any sense, David Alan Grier would be a shoe-in for this year’s award.—Garrett Martin
When The Grinder first debuted on FOX, many people, or at least a certain set, compared the show to Lookwell. You may have never heard of Lookwell, and that wouldn’t be surprising—Lookwell failed. They made a pilot, and that was it. The pilot was genius, but it was weird and idiosyncratic and they didn’t think it could sustain itself on TV. The Grinder, by dint of getting a full season, succeeded at a greater degree than Lookwell, but only slightly. After one season the show was canceled (admittedly, to nobody’s surprise) making network television much less weird for the moment. And this is incredibly disappointing, because The Grinder was also a very good show. It was smart and clever, and kept evolving. Eventually, the show grew into something fascinating and delightful, especially for those who love TV. That’s who The Grinder was really for. You had to know the tropes of law dramas, and sitcoms and also the backstage machinations of television. It was a show for TV obsessives, who also didn’t take television too seriously. And still, it was ambitious to believe they could garner a big audience with its premise, and so The Grinder seemed destined to become a show that divided the television viewership, but one that would also be a critical darling. And it also would have been great if Rob Lowe could have drawn in more people in to watch the show, if only to get it a couple of good seasons. There was definitely life left in The Grinder. Instead, it turned into Lookwell with a full season order, but, surely, it will develop its own cult following. Meanwhile, we can all dream of some sort of Law & Order type show, with Ty Lookwell and Dean Sanderson in the leads.—Chris Morgan
One of the most unexpected success stories of the year was this adaptation of a little-loved Steven Soderbergh film into a moody and beautiful TV series. Having Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, two brilliant independent filmmakers, on board to write and direct the episodes certainly helped bring atmosphere and dramatic depth to the show, as well as a finely tuned lead performance by Riley Keough as Christine, a law student who turns to escort work to ease her financial burden. But this project also took pains to bring some much-deserved dignity to the world of sex work. There’s no judgement or leering salaciousness involved. Just a clear-eyed understanding of how some women willingly use one of their most valuable assets to get by in this world.—Robert Ham
The inaugural season of John Ridley’s anthology series American Crime could arguably be called a mixed bag. While certainly admirable in its ambition and thematic scope, ABC’s stab at cable-worthy prestige programming frequently came across as thudding, didactic and woefully on-the-nose, with many of its characters appearing to act more as ciphers for political positions, rather than as flesh-and-bone human beings. With Season Two, however, the series thoroughly upped its game, trading in more traditional depictions of racial tensions for a much richer, more nuanced narrative built around class and homophobia. Set in Indianapolis, the season examines the repercussions that emerge when the mother of a low-income student at an elite private high school accuses several star student athletes of raping her son. Aided by phenomenal performances from Felicity Huffman, Regina King, Timothy Hutton, Lili Taylor—not to mention a flurry of talented younger actors—American Crime paints a haunting vision of the darkness lurking behind idealized Americana. It all builds to the kind of dramatically explosive crescendo that leaves one staring blankly at the screen, unsure of what has just transpired. God bless ABC for deciding to keep this experiment going for another season, despite less-than-stellar ratings.—Mark Rozeman
Consistency gets you there. That’s the key to what makes Brooklyn Nine-Nine one of the strongest network sitcoms out there. Even its lesser episodes still work as amusement. Its best efforts, of course, take its viewers to exquisite comic heights, but the series has long been careful not to overshoot in achieving its goals. Season Three did things differently, though, shaking up its carefully maintained formulas through romantic connections and through a pretty major game-changer in its finale episode. What may come in Season Four is up in the air. Florida Nine-Nine, perhaps, with Jake and Holt discretely fighting crime down in the Sunshine State, as the rest of the gang puts Jimmy “The Butcher” Figgis away back in New York City? We’ll see come September. For now, we can just sit back and admire the ways in which the series and its stellar cast managed to stick to what works from one week to the next, while still finding ways to totally upend the status quo and take its characters in potentially new directions.
You could have sat on your laurels, Brooklyn Nine-Nine. You could have just been reliable, a twenty minute break from the rigors of real life, a stage for Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher, Stephanie Beatriz, Terry Crews, Chelsea Peretti, Melissa Fumero, and Joe Lo Truglio (plus guests ranging from Kate Flannery, to Dennis Haysbert, to Jason Mantzoukas) to perform on, week in and week out. But you didn’t do that. You threw us a curveball. Maybe that curveball will smack us in the face this Fall, but for now, your moxy is worth admiring.—Andy Crump
In real life, the crew at Paddy’s Pub would have died after eleven seasons-worth of their shenanigans. But on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the longer Charlie, Dennis, Dee, Mac and Frank last, the more introspective, strange and hilarious this show gets. Having survived over a decade now, these characters have become more predictable, but there’s a comfort in that. We know in this past season that things are going to get out of hand when they bring an outsider into a game of Chardee MacDennis, or that one of Charlie’s few gifts is that he’s surprisingly good at bird law—but the show finds great new ways to play off all these characteristics we’ve grown to love about these monsters. There’s no better example of the growth It’s Always Sunny has shown in its later years than in the season finale and one of their finest episodes “The Gang Goes To Hell,” where The Gang finally realizes that they are in fact terrible human beings and prepare to die for their actions. Of course, in the end, they can’t really go down like that, and they survive to continue with their awful, cartoonish behavior for many years to come. All is as it should be. Like wine poured into a beer can, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia just keeps getting better with age.—Ross Bonaime
Generally speaking, we like our comedies and our comedians to be funny. Maria Bamford—actress, voice actress, stand-up—is funny in the strictest sense possible, but her Netflix series, Lady Dynamite, blends her humor with melancholy and hurt. Don’t worry: You’ll laugh. You will laugh! Lady Dynamite is hysterical, and it’s hysterical on a wide array of axes, incorporating everything from slapstick, to absurdism, to cringe humor into one hyperactive rush of comic goodness. But it’s also deeply human and deeply sad, the kind of comedy series where the laughs tend to catch in one’s gullet, or squeeze through gritted teeth. Sometimes you laugh so as not to wince, or just to keep yourself from shedding tears in front of your friends (or in front of your own damn self). Sad comedies are a dime a dozen in 2016, especially for Netflix junkies, but the manic qualities of Lady Dynamite’s humor, its frank approach to its themes of mental illness, and its cavalcade of comedian guest stars—whether they’re mainstream comedians, alt comedians, or mainstream-alt comedians—give the show a brio and soul all its own.—AC
Perhaps no new show this year truly captured how thoroughly the TV landscape has changed quite like AMC’s Preacher. Both in premise and execution, the series represents the kind of madcap oddity—a southern fried crime-drama-cum-gothic-horror-satire—that would have never gotten past the first stages of development in the days before Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. In re-imaging Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s subversive comic series about a super-powered Texas preacher and his journey to confront God as a long-form TV narrative, co-creators Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Sam Catlin have maintained the essence of Ennis and Dillon’s original creation, while working to shade in the spaces in between. Like the best storytellers, the trio understands that pure spectacle—whether it be eye-popping fight scenes, intense gore or blasphemous humor—only gets you so far and that you need compelling characters to hook audiences in week-to-week. Whether it’s Dominic Cooper’s stoic yet troubled Jesse, Ruth Negga’s bad girl Tulip or Joseph Gilgun’s hedonistic Cassidy, the show definitely has that in spades. Indeed, what’s perhaps most impressive about Preacher is the way in which its characters (no matter how over-stylized they may be) still register as human beings with hopes, fears and legitimate emotional baggage—however perverse or unconventional they may be.—MR
You might consider Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt problematic with a capital “hashtag P,” particularly in its second season; between yellowface, the double down on Jane Krakowski’s casting as a person of Native American descent, a deluge of gay jokes, Asian jokes, hipster jokes, and, well, too many other kinds of jokes to name, there’s literally something here to offend all who queue it. There’s almost —heavy emphasis on the “almost”—something democratizing about that, but the show is so earnest, so quick, so frequently funny, and so well-acted that its offenses matter as a component of its story. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a gosh-darned gem, everybody’s favorite problematic series. It’s a show where raw enthusiasm, rapid fire punchlines, and abiding human empathy carry each episode, from the first to the last.—AC
In its most wrenching and provocative season to date, creator Jenji Kohan’s portrait of life in a women’s prison turns toward the belly of the beast: the moral compromises of our incarceration industrial complex, from the exploitation of inmate labor, to the tortures of solitary confinement. By turns bawdy and bleak, Orange Is the New Black strains, at times, to contain its sprawling, diverse cast, but its enduring strength is to treat prisoners as people whose stories are worth telling, warts and all. This empathic bent, at its acme in the series’ distinctive flashbacks, is an instrument of hope in the face of despair, leavening the proceedings even as a storm gathers on Litchfield’s horizon. Still, for its surfeit of funny asides, gleeful one-liners, plots and ploys and schemes, the thrust of the fourth season is its embrace of resistance, of rage. When the climax comes, Orange Is the New Black at once mourns the results of the ruthless system in which it’s set and marshals its energies toward abolishing it, capping off a tragicomic®evolution.—Matt Brennan
Between a diminished Daily Show and the less cutting CBS version of Stephen Colbert, John Oliver’s HBO show has become the most important political satire show on TV today. And the truth is, it’d probably still have that title, even if Colbert and Jon Stewart were still on Comedy Central. Oliver turns complicated real-world issues into digestible, twenty-minute bits of hilarious righteous indignation every Sunday, and that’s after the first ten minutes of his show, where he does more than probably any other TV figure in America today to inform us on what’s happening in other countries. From his on-going harangues of Trump, to his in-depth explanation of Brexit, to his regular series of exposes on systemic corruption throughout our government and society at large, Oliver is as informative as the best journalism and funnier than anything else on TV.—Garrett Martin
When Bob Odenkirk showed up towards the end of the second season of Breaking Bad, playing sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, it was a small shock to the system for anyone who has long appreciated his work as a writer and a comic actor on series like SNL and Mr. Show. Little did we know that this was only the beginning of a tragic, hilarious and epic tale that would start to take on the scope of an epic Russian novel. The two seasons of this prequel to Vince Gilligan’s meth drama has accomplished the nearly impossible, by expanding upon the source material of Breaking Bad with dynamic and sometimes heartbreaking results. And give full credit to Odenkirk (and his co-stars Michael McKean, Rhea Seehorn, and Jonathan Banks) for further bringing to life how shaky a person’s morality can be, especially when there’s great gobs of money involved.—RH
Many of us were initially skeptical when we first heard about WGN’s new series, as we had no idea what the visionaries of Underground were plotting. TV and film-going audiences have grown accustomed to stories featuring black people as whipping posts—stories which are important, but can still be devastating to witness. Thankfully, co-creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski went in a very different route. In the end, they did not just make an excellent and empowering first season of television; they went to the enemy’s camp, and they took back what they stole from us—our stories, and our black American heroes. This act of reclamation as heroism is an act of rebellion reflected in every episode of the series. And as you watch the stories unfold, it all begins to make perfect sense: Of course slavery was a time when blacks were not just enslaved, but in a constant state of rebellion. Underground isn’t just about characters who attempt to make the 600-mile run to freedom (characters brilliantly portrayed by the likes of Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge and Alano Miller), it’s about all those seemingly small acts of rebellion before someone runs, and it’s about honoring the acts committed by those who chose to stay (acts we saw performed by the formidable Amirah Vann and the great Adina Porter). Perhaps, most importantly, it’s about the complicated psychology behind it all.
Maybe it’s just a fantasy, but after Underground, I can’t help but imagine a world where the children of my children are not miseducated into thinking that slavery was just a time when black people kept their heads bowed. They’ll know, as sure as they know the name of the first President of the United States, and as sure as they know that Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, that they are the descendants of American warriors. Underground, in inspiring a new generation of TV-watchers, educators, showrunners, actors, filmmakers and all manner of artists, and in taking back our stories, and reclaiming our right to flawed and complicated heroes—is changing the course of history; is changing the world. And, lucky for us, this is just the beginning.—Shannon M. Houston
There are precious few comedies out there as singularly sublime as FOX’s The Last Man on Earth, and fewer still on network television. Creator and star Will Forte has appeared in just about every comedy series ever made, including nearly a decade on SNL, and I guffawed at MacGruber as violently as the next guy, but Last Man might very well be his best work. The show somehow manages to excel at both dark and screwball comedy, wringing out its post-apocalyptic premise not for overblown melodrama (like a certain zombie-related series conspicuously absent from this list), but for unpredictable fun steeped in gut-busting absurdity. This is not to say Last Man isn’t without its fair share of emotional depth: the series has touched on everything from suicide—in the pilot, no less—to sibling rivalry, and done so with surprising gravitas. But damned if I don’t belly-laugh and love this show a little bit more every time Forte’s Phil/Tandy/Skidmark exclaims, “Oh, farts!” Last Man’s second season took both its humor and heart to the next level, with the addition of top-flight straight man Jason Sudeikis only souping up what has become an excellent ensemble cast, anchored by an Emmy-worthy Forte and the delightful Kristen Schaal. The Last Man on Earth is pitching its margarita pool in must-watch territory.—Scott Russell
When a great TV show first comes along, there’s always the concern that at some point its greatness may falter. How long can a series keep up its stellar writing and performances? Will it run out ideas? Or add a character or a plot line that takes the show off course? Thankfully, we had nothing to worry about with the fourth season of The Americans. As the series continued to explore notions of family and loyalty against the back drop of the ‘80s cold war, plot twists that were inevitable played out in jaw-dropping ways. The breathless, breakneck pace of the first half of the season, which saw Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (the amazing Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) facing the reality of being caught, provided some of the most tense television ever produced. There was a pervasive sadness to this season as (SPOILER alert) three terrific characters—Nina (Annet Mahendru), Martha (Alison Wright), and Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas)—departed the series. Paige (Holly Taylor) also learned more about the true nature of her parents’ work, Elizabeth was asked to sacrifice far too much and Philip became even more disillusioned. The season finale set the stage for a powerful final two seasons. We can’t wait to see what happens next.—Amy Amatangelo
It’s hard to know what to write about a universally praised show like Game of Thrones after six seasons. We all understand why it’s so great—the way George R.R. Martin and his HBO writers explore the gray areas of morality, the sense that even though “Westeros” is a fictional place, it reflects the behavior and patterns of real life better than most shows on television, and the insanely, insanely great storytelling. But after this year’s finale, something else became absolutely clear: There is only man who truly deserves to sit on the Iron Throne. That man is director Miguel Sapochnik He is responsible for “The Winds of Winter,” the best episode Game of Thrones has ever done (he also directed the second- and third-best episodes ever, “Hardhome” and “The Battle of the Bastards”). Everything about the 67 minute Season Six finale—the longest running time in Thrones history—was flawless.—SR
First, let’s all take a moment to truly take in what has transpired here. There is most definitely a world wherein The People v. O.J. Simpson—a dramatic retelling of the titular character’s infamous murder trial—works as little more than a shameless exercise in campy exploitation, a regurgitation of the sort of titillating tabloid mania that monopolized American pop culture in the early 1990s. The fact that the show boasts the directorial hand of Ryan Murphy, one of TV’s most bombastic, least subtle auteurs did not exactly engender confidence. But here’s the thing—perhaps Murphy’s greatest contribution in this venture was putting aside his more hardcore sensibilities and simply allowing the material do most of the work. Indeed, just as they did previously with Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, series writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski successfully constructed a narrative that breathed humanity and tragedy into what had become a tacky punchline. Certainly, they had great partners in the form of their ensemble. Not only did Courtney B. Vance add gravitas and layers to Johnnie Cochran, who has spent two decades being reduced to a flamboyant, rhymin’ caricature, but Sarah Paulson’s devastating performance as Marcia Clark almost single-handedly delivered the prosecutor from the tyranny of her perm-heavy public image, retroactively rebranding her as a feminist icon. The People v. O.J. Simpson may not have always been perfect television, but in its strongest moments, one could only gape and marvel at what was achieved. The show took on one of the most heavily documented incidents of the 20th century and somehow made it feel fresh again. Respect.—MR
According to a recent New Yorker profile on the show, the writers and showrunners of Silicon Valley admitted that “they had written themselves into a corner” by the end of the second season with the ousting of Richard as CEO of Pied Piper and an uncertain future for the company. Their concerns were, thankfully, short lived as the sitcom pivoted into a brilliant third series that managed to delve into the often-unruly and knotty machinations of the tech company boardroom, the ridiculous hubris and overreach of some startups, and how even the most brilliant people can have no social skills whatsoever. Throw in a shockingly hilarious visual metaphor involving horse breeding and some of the most nimble comic actors around, and you’ve achieved greatness.—RH
Veep is the smartest, best comedy on television, and I don’t say this lightly: I’m ADAMANT. On the macrocosmic level, it nails American politics—the amount of corruption and incompetence, along with a thick web of conflicting interests, which makes it impossible for anything real to be accomplished. More often than not, Selina Meyer ends up backing a position directly opposed to her true beliefs, and the goal shifts from political progress to mere survival. Finding a scapegoat or dodging a crisis is vastly more important to a politician’s life than passing a law or aiding the country, and no show looks at this reality with a more cutting kind of cynicism than Veep. On a microcosmic level, it’s a show that’s absolutely packed with comedy. This is like Aaron Sorkin if he were funny—overlapping, interrupting dialogue flies in at a lightning pace, chopping down egos, exposing insecurities and generally adding layers of the most hilarious cruelty to a bitter, cutthroat world. It can be high-brow, and it can be low. “Political comedy” is not an easy genre to pull off, but Veep has made it an art form.—SR