I believe we are finally leaving the era of Peak TV. In these final days, there is still plenty to watch. Too much in fact. But the cream of the crop has risen higher and the middle ground is what’s grown more plentiful. That means there is an exceeding amount of good TV, but at least in my experience, a smaller percentage of it was truly great. Of course, given the overall number of shows that leaves a remarkable amount of remarkable TV and there’s more than ever to argue about and discuss. This year offered great scripted pleasures, guttural screams of documentary and continuously stunning sports programming. If I were being truly honest, as a lifelong Cubs fan, this entire article would be about the sensational majesty of Game 7 of the World Series. But there’s much else to talk about, recommend, and bask in the light of (but, really, holy shit, that game). So even if I’m less high on the state of TV than many around me, there’s nothing but highlights on this list, and plenty I had to leave off to contain my word count. This is my favorite television of 2016, a year that saw the medium play every note imaginable.
Show of the Year: High Maintenance
Between the shifting seasons of True Detective or Fargo and the individual installments of Black Mirror or Easy (see below), the anthology has returned to prominence after lying rather dormant for decades. High Maintenance, pulled from its origins as a web-series to the hallowed halls of HBO, doesn’t quite fit within the constraints of that genre. Technically, there is a character (The Guy, played by co-creator Ben Sinclair) and a plot (The Guy delivers weed) tying each episode together. The setting remains New York, and especially this season characters recur or connect through other means.
But the spirit of the anthology courses through High Maintenance and that hybrid provided by those connective tissues elevate it to one of the best filmed works of any mediums this decade. It was understandable to be slightly hesitant about the transition to a half-hour format on a (slightly) more regulated platform. But nothing was lost, and if anything the move revitalized the show by allowing it to combine stories and threads in intriguing new ways. See the finale, the season’s standout, titled “Ex”. First, we return to Patrick (Michael Cyril Creighton), an agoraphobic hoarder introduced years ago on the web-series. His story here is gorgeous and thoughtful, careful consideration given to his most ludicrous behavior. Then we move into a tale about The Guy himself, one of the rare times Maintenance has indulged in its central character so directly. The title of the episode pivots dramatically and beautifully, and the themes extend in thoughtful ways throughout two otherwise dissimilar tales (both are, to some extent, about dealing with something/someone you thought you had already come to terms with).
The rest of the half-hours also saw returning characters, and introduced lovingly drawn new creations. One episode even focused on a dog in a way that sounds hokey but was as human as anything the show has done. Even at six installments, the season wasn’t perfect (“Selfie” has a nice first half but then dives far too into the meta). But as a whole, High Maintenance continued to provide an outlook that is as vital today as it’s ever been. The moral of the series, if it can be said to have one, is that each person has a story and they all deserve to be told. Most have conclusions that read more as commas than periods. The show breathes with rise and falls of real life, small triumphs and relative skids that arrive on a daily basis for everyone. A show this kind and empathetic and welcoming would always be appreciated, but 2016 has made its deceivingly humble mission something of a rallying cry.
The Next Five:
Rectify, for the short, immense length of its underseen run, was a series that both indulged in and reinvented pulpy Southern tropes. There was a horrific crime, for which the protagonist spent nearly two decades in jail. There have been questions of true innocence or guilt, and seedy characters popping up to drop threads about an underlying mystery. Yet there was a gentleness and sincerity always at odds with that more familiar menace. The balancing between these two impulses came to a head in the fourth and final season of the series. The cast was as tremendous as ever, namely Aden Young as the formerly imprisoned Daniel and Abigail Spencer as his troubled sister. Scenes moved with a poetry or with a rage, or even more remarkably set the two next to each other and found a middle ground. And, in the mark of many great final seasons of television, Rectify took less of a conclusive tone than an expansive one. This season showed how heavily Daniel’s past loomed over him, while combatting that with speckles of light. Plenty of action came to a head, but life goes on even if we’re not there to see it. New settings and characters only highlighted how brilliant this show has been at imbuing this world with grace and fluidity. Rectify was a show never destined for the large ratings or widespread internet attention; it never tried that hard to fit into narrow definitions of television. Instead it forged its own path and created a universe both eerily similar to ours and yet like nothing ever seen before.
Each season of BoJack Horseman has somehow tipped into bleaker and bleaker territory, impressive given that last year saw the protagonist attempting to bed the teenage daughter of his ex-girlfriend. Yet here we are, and the third year had an absolutely gutting penultimate episode before rising slightly in the conclusion. Preceeding that downfall was a trajectory back towards spiraling that included a heretofore-unknown second sitcom and a misbegotten awards race. There was even a luscious, and widely lauded, undersea episode spent in almost complete silence. Informing all of that, of course, were sublime jokes that ranged from goofy Hollywoo satire to elongated runners with brilliant payoffs (two words: “spaghetti strainers”). And beneath that humor was the bile of self-hatred and depression. It’s a triumph that something as bizarre and singular as BoJack Horseman made it on the air (well, the internet air). That it has stayed as unique, hilarious and meaningful while somehow growing in quality is something closer to a miracle.
Jane the Virgin
Though containing one of the most dynamic and ever-shifting stories on television, Jane the Virgin has somehow managed to remain static in one important area: quality. And the way this show burns through plot makes that even more impressive and almost unheard of for a series halfway to a hundred episodes. The why is simple, provided you account for the brilliant writing staff, the electric direction and the absurdly talented cast. Jane the Virgin has always had a ball with the evolving narrative, but that has never meant as much as the characters at the heart of the story. While other soaps can feel trite in their conflict, Jane roots nearly every slight or miscommunication in an authentic bond. This is why the second season finale was a perfectly constructed moment in TV cliffhanger, but nothing compared to the emotional gulfs explored by the third season premiere. Jane the Virgin has always known how to indulge while simultaneously examining those indulges. 2016 just added an impossible longevity to the equation.
There are few greater televisual pleasures than watching a show soar through the prime of its life. Even better when that series is the one kids show at a peak when other greats have either ended (Gravity Falls) or slightly drifted from their maximum potential (Adventure Time, which can still pull off a stellar episode, see below). Steven Universe has been great for a time now, but 2016 was a nearly consistent high point, traveling through the past and hurtling towards the future with a constant, steady eye on its ensemble of Gems and humans alike. This was the year that gave us unabashed treasures like “Mr. Greg”, and earned development for folks like Amethyst. Universe has become confident enough to dip into flashback territory without feeling weary or cheap, as its most recent episode “Three Gems and a Baby” proves. Steven Universe is able to pivot from mythology to character development to comedy and back again so quickly because it knows precisely how to intertwine all of those things so they become equally meaningful. That was true a year ago, yet in 2016 they managed to find even more peaks to climb.
American Crime Story
All signs pointed toward American Crime Story being reckless trash, and future iterations may live up to those expectations. But, remarkably, by exploring the apparently fertile ground of the OJ Simpson trial, this series was able to dig turn tabloid nonsense and legal fuckery into a thrilling exploration of race and justice in America. Though not the unshakable force that was OJ: Made in America, this dramatization took a different route to a similar goal. Here, former jokes like Marcia Clarke were reborn into stirring figures, thanks in part to the year’s best TV performance (Sarah Paulson). Nearly all perspectives were given shading, even if the show did occasionally indulge in overbearing nonsense (the camerawork during the infamous “n-word” sequence is nauseating in the incorrect way). American Crime Story humanized Tonight Show punchlines and grounded an otherworldly tale. In doing so, it both exceeded expectations and set impossibly high new ones for whatever comes next.
Episode of the Year: Black Mirror’s “San Junipero”
If you were to show someone “San Junipero”, sans context, it would leave them wholly unprepared for other episodes of Black Mirror. So on that level, and that level only, “San Junipero” may not be a great episode of its show. By nearly any other metric, this is why a sublime example of why we care about science fiction and what storytelling can do in general. That may sound hyperbolic. Yet those are the feelings that this episode instills: massive, undying odes to the things we love. And I’m not sure there was anything I loved this year quite as much as “San Junipero”.
Following two 20-something women meeting in a beachside town in the late 80’s, the episode begins as detached from the Black Mirror tone of creeping dread and technological unease. Those elements come, though to more subdued effect than usual, but even before than arise we feel something. These two women instantly fall for one another, their archetypes (the quiet nerd, the outgoing dream) swirling around each other effortlessly. Eventually the situation pulls back, as clues give way to a new scenario that unquestionably changes the foundation of what we’ve seen so far.
Yet “San Junipero” is great sci-fi because it allows the themes of its premise to inform the lives of its characters, rather than the other way around. This is the story of Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and love and loss and heartache and hope. And the twists that arrive simply dovetail with those feelings rather than upending them. That’s an incredible trick to pull off, and one that wouldn’t be possible without every aspect of this thing going the exact right way. The production design is cute, but thoughtful. The music is electric and the song choices purposefully on-the-nose. Davis is incredible and Mbatha-Raw radically illuminates a character whose layers are constantly being peeled back. When we do learn the truth of these two women, and the world around them, we are initially stunned. But this episode of Black Mirror quickly moves back into the more poignant emotions, never settling for mere parlor tricks. This is an episode of television about life and love and death that never becomes remotely trite or overly simplistic. It ruptured my heart with thoughts on nostalgia and missed paths through life. It is hopeful but wise, explosive yet measured. It is nearly everything that science fiction storytelling can be, all in an hour’s running time. Do you know what that’s worth?
The Next Five:
“Hope”, from Black-ish’s fantastic second season, is by almost every definition a “Very Special Episode”. That type of sitcom installment has heavily worn out its welcome by 2016, but there are few (no?) examples of the form greater than this one. It helps that “Hope” has a more pertinent point-of-view than something as simple as “drugs are bad”, by focusing on a story no other network sitcom is equipped to handle. Here, Black-ish dives headfirst into the quagmire put forth by its premise and its time on air. The discussion of police brutality is rich and versatile and the Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin references sing with specificity. Most importantly, “Hope” deviates from any specific message to show how different people within a similar spectrum relate to horrifying events. These are the same people we know from each week on the show, changed by these events in realistic ways. To call “Hope” important feels cheap, even if it is true. So instead let us call it rousing and vital and what topical television should aspire to be.
Girls: “The Panic in Central Park”
Few shows run the gamut of quality as widely as Girls has. The worst glimpses offer empty malaise or screeching narcissism. But its best episodes are treasures, turning those same ideas into more moving or self-aware explorations of youth. “The Panic in Central Park” is a clear contender for best the show has ever put forth, catching up with a mostly forgotten character in a short story that pulls out the best things Girls has ever offered. Maybe it’s just the glean of Christopher Abbott having given one of 2015’s best performances in James White, but he instills Charlie with a verve the character never originally had. And Marnie, maybe the most insufferable of Girls’ many raw nerves, has never been more fascinating or precisely drawn. “The Panic in Central Park” has much to say about past love and figuring out which routes are now closed off to you. But at its heart it is a beautiful study of two people, living in New York City, seeing their circles meet again and forever disengage.
Easy: “Chemistry Read”
In some ways, Easy feels like the Chicagoan companion to New York’s High Maintenance. Both pull from the indie sensibility and follow varied stories through their given urban environments. Yet even if Easy lacks the older series’ consistency, it’s able to pull out stunning individual tales like “Chemistry Read” in its first season. Focusing on a local actor played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (there she is again), this half-hour manages to find the precise tone to capture the hiccups that life can throw at unexpected times. Her performance sells much of the episode, but Joe Swanberg does his best work of the first season behind the camera as well. The final shot is a perfect metaphor for the lives bouncing about this series, and this episode in particular.
Lovesick: “Abigail (Part 2)”
Lovesick had the ideal second season, doubling down on what worked from year one and jettisoning much of the rest. This was obvious by the time it arrived at the finale, revisiting a title and intertwining numerous stories with a confidence that stands in direct opposition to most of the central characters. “Abigail (Part 2)” takes a fairly sitcom trope of recent years, the “what happened last night” puzzle and imbues it with new life. That’s partially because the form so perfectly fits with Lovesick’s usual goal of merging the past and the present. But it’s also because, by this point, the show knows the characters so deeply that it can throw any two of them together for either dramatic or comedic purposes. “Abigail (Part 2)” manages both ends of the spectrum, and ends with a rising heartbeat. This is earned by the episode, and the growth present elsewhere throughout the second season.
Adventure Time: “The Music Hole”
Any Adventure Time episode that features Marceline playing a Mitski song was bound to make this list. It helps that “The Music Hole” creates indelible moments all around that, and ends with the introspective uplift the series has become known for. Adventure Time has so many modes, more than any other series on TV at the moment, and many of them linger around the edges of this episode. There’s absurdity and musical prowess and a wide-ranging supporting cast. But it all comes back to the growing maturity of Finn, a path that was almost unthinkable when this show debuted years ago. Yet here we are, and an episode as thoughtful as “The Music Hole” almost feels commonplace. But it deserves to be cherished all the same. Adventure Time may not be hitting home runs as often as it once did, but if anything that speaks to how widespread and experimental it has become. You can’t win every round when you’re this busy redefining how the game is played.