Whatever else you say about 2016, it was a year packed with brilliant TV. The small screen gave us our most exhilarating and horrifying moments over the last 12 months, as the most restlessly innovative art form of our time kept evolving at warp speed. TV had it all: ambitious dramas, smart-ass comedies, political mockery, stoners, jokers, rappers, sci-fi monsters, trans truthers, Hollywood murder trials, the Battle of the Bastards and frozen waffles. These shows were the best of the best. (And check out of list of the 20 best TV characters of 2016.)
Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfield's beloved web comedy translates smashingly to TV, giving us the ultimate dank New York story: the inner lives of city stoners, as witnessed by the bearded stranger who delivers their weed, known only as The Guy. He's like the nameless Clint Eastwood gunfighter in a spaghetti Western, except he gets mugged on his bike. The show takes a beautifully blunted look at the countless weird stories being lived out behind their locked, hotboxed doors. But none more fascinating than the tale of Gatsby the dog, who gets a whole episode ("Grandpa") from his canine point of view – one of 2016's most dazzling half-hour trips.
"I had a major breakthrough in music therapy. I don’t need to go to outpatient therapy because I am the c-word. I am cured!" Maria Bamford brings a boldly original kind of binge-com with Lady Dynamite, not the kind of thing you've ever seen attempted before – playing herself as a comedian with Bipolar II disorder, flipping between auditioning in Hollywood and being hospitalized in a psych ward back home in Duluth, Minnesota. The series stands in the frontline of shows breaking new ground in the depiction of neurochemical disorders, but something about Bamford's compassionate touch makes it all seem like a laugh worth sharing.
The realest couple on TV gets realer. Gretchen and Jimmy would rather just have sex and do drugs than face their feelings, but You're the Worst gets funnier as the feelings grow more complex. Jimmy is a mortifyingly credible portrait of a terrible writer, delusional in his hope the world will acclaim his World War II novel. ("Just so many descriptions of semen on stockings." "But stockings are a symbol of the deprivation of the Second World War! As well as how much repressed Kitty’s slutty little legs wanted semen on them!") And Gretchen gets treatment for her "my brain is broken" situation, learning the different types of therapy: "A psychiatrist is like, 'Here, take these pills, ho.' A therapist is all, 'Oh, tell me your shit. I couldn’t make it as an actor.'"
A 10-act drama from Louis C.K., released as a surprise on his own website, writing and directing the whole thing himself. It's different from Louie in every way – except the stubborn refusal to follow any formula, even his own. Horace and Pete is set in a Brooklyn dive bar that's been passed down from generation to generation, like a lot of traumas in this family. Steve Buscemi really nails the mood as Pete, the cousin cursed with remembering all the family history: "I said that I have a good memory, not that I have good memories." The whole cast excels – Alan Alda as a right-wing bigot, Jessica Lange, Edie Falco, Laurie Metcalf. Plus the brilliant presence of Paul Simon, who sings the theme song as well as bellying up to the bar … just another customer watching his life slip-slidin' away.
Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer have so much contagiously intoxicating chemistry, they could spend a whole season just shooting the shit about pugs, pegging and Rihanna. So give the broads credit for pushing in new directions this year – including some surprisingly tricky romantic dilemmas. Abbi and Ilana take on the world, from the killer "Jews on a Plane" episode where they try to score tampons mid-flight ("I'm sitting in a pool of my own uterine lining") to the one where they woo the hot hippie dude at the food co-op, who utters the Phish-quoting punch line of the year: "Deduct the carrots from your pay, you worthless swampy fool!"
This was the season our equine hero attempted a self-diagnosis: "I think I'm just a dumb asshole – can't it just be that?" Sorry, BoJack, it's a bit more complicated when you're a depressive alcoholic cartoon horse who's also the washed-up ex-star of the sitcom Horsin' Around. Raphael Bob-Waksberg's animated satire went some new dark places this year – most impressively, under the sea in "Fish Out of Water," a nearly dialogue-free Lost in Translation parody that's also the show's most astonishing half-hour yet. BoJack dons a diving helmet and heads for the bottom of the ocean, a place where everybody speaks fish language and nothing resembles back home … only to find he's still the same dumb asshole.
Pamela Adlon brings the pain when it comes to family life: "We're all girls, and we're all women, and we all bleed, and we all suffer. Then the bleeding stops and we still suffer." After her attention-getting stint on Louie, she's a punk mom with her own sardonic style of single parenthood – when she finds a condom hidden her teenage daughter's room, it isn't time for a Very Special Episode mother/daughter talk. She just steals it for herself. And in a year when menopause made a comeback as comedy gunpowder, from Broad City ("I totally forgot about menopause!") to Veep ("Her lady fruit is rotting"), Better Things has the funniest episode about it since Edith Bunker, with Adlon announcing, "Aunt Flo has left the station forever."
The wildly funny romance of two best friends in the big city – you know, the kind of friends who stick together because they’ve insulted and alienated everybody else in the big city. Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner (who's also still killing it in his own Billy on the Street) dream of making it in show biz, whether they're brainstorming TV projects ("Glee but with dogs" is seriously a great idea) or their Hamilton-style hip-hop musical about Jimmy Carter: "I was a peanut farmer, a Southern charmer / Making Palestine my valentine like Greg meeting Dharma." Difficult People is a whirlwind of caustic one-liners and celebrity cameos – Tina Fey, John Mulaney, Kate Pierson, even Lin-Manuel Miranda – but the heart of it is the friction between these two.
Now more than ever, Julia Louis Dreyfus' President Selina Meyer has choice words for the American people: "I'm declaring a state of Go Fuck Yourself." Veep keeps setting new standards for high-speed hostility, even in its first season without creator Armando Iannucci – and even when its satire got outflanked by a real-life election year that turned into a tall glass of frozen strawberry fuck-up. As the nation collapses ("We'll be Greece – the country, not the musical") and Selina treats the White House staff "like an alcoholic father who's just stepped on a Lego," the show keeps throwing more horror into the mix. Special honors to Timothy Simons' Jonah, possibly the most loathsome fictional human on TV, earning this compliment from Dan Bakkedahl's runner-up Roger Furlong: "You look like Clark Kent if they dug up Christopher Reeve's corpse to play the part."
Jill Soloway's family portrait remains one of a kind – even though we've had three seasons to get to know the messed-up Pfefferman clan, they keep revealing new quirks and traumas that we couldn't have imagined. Maura Pfefferman (the ever-amazing Jeffrey Tambor) and her selfish upscale L.A. brood struggle with different kinds of transitioning, both surgical and spiritual. This season's MVP: Judith Light as the often-overlooked matriarch Shelley. She finally finds her voice via her one-woman cabaret show To Shell and Back, belting her impossibly poignant cruise-ship rendition of Alanis Morrissette's "Hand in My Pocket," a song that will never sound the same.
As 2016 brought home the unbelievably chickenshit toadying of the TV news machine more than ever – barely one step removed from Jimmy Fallon's stomach-turning smell-the-glove session with Trump, destined to go down in suck-up history alongside Sammy Davis Jr. smooching Richard Nixon – John Oliver came to look like some kind of accidental renegade. In his 15-minute longform pieces, he's cool and collected, yet fraught with comic outrage. He nailed his election post-mortem, summing up Trump's agenda as "the to-do list on Satan's refrigerator – which incidentally Satan no longer needs now that hell has frozen over."
Who could have predicted this prison drama would get stronger each season? But Orange keeps reinventing itself as new inmates arrive at Litchfield Pentitentiary with new stories. Samira Wiley's Poussey gets the most shattering moments, along with Diane Guerrero's Ramos, Danielle Brooks' Taystee, Kimiko Glenn's Soso and Jessica Pimentel's Ruiz. (Ramos also speaks the funniest line: "If I hadn't buried my feelings so deep that they only come up when I watch Stepmom, I would totally be tearing up right now.") And in a moment that's both agonizing and comic, Yael Stone's Morello gets what you would have to classify as a conjugal visit.
"I have a horrible feeling that I'm a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can't even call herself a feminist." Phoebe Waller-Bridge was this year's most hilariously toxic bachelorette, living the dream in London, where she manages a guinea-pig–themed café that's going out of business. In her spare time, she's a sex-obsessed, self-destructive, kleptomaniac mess hooking up with a clown parade of Brittania's sorriest male specimens, venting about sex and society ("Tits get you nowhere these days – trust me"). But she's hysterically funny and relatable as she keeps bringing a little misery into everybody's life, especially hers.
Like Jon Snow himself, Game of Thrones rose from the grave. Now that the TV version has lapped George R. R. Martin's books, it's hitting new heights – the Battle of the Bastards was its most spine-chilling, blood-gushing pageant yet. Danyaerys gets back in touch with her unchained inner dragon. Arya steps out of the House of Black and White a deadlier warrior than ever. And after everything Sansa Stark has suffered, she finally gets a chance to serve some hungry dogs a well-deserved dinner. Bon appetit.
There's never been a spy thriller anything like The Americans, which just keeps tightening the emotional screws. A nice suburban home in the Eighties is haunted by the family secret: Mom and dad are Soviet spies. Their high-school daughter knows the truth. The FBI agent next door doesn't … yet. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are superb as the couple bonded by espionage as part of their sexual chemistry. And no TV drama uses music so brilliantly – the season-finale moment with Leonard Cohen's "Who by Fire" hits even harder now.
A year ago, when there were still nine Supreme Court justices and zero Presidents who'd hosted reality shows with Meat Loaf, we had no way of knowing how vital a role Samantha Bee would serve in the daily shitstorm of 2016. But as soon as she debuted Full Frontal in February, Bee came in swinging and never let up, proving herself the realest voice in fake news. Even more than her fellow Daily Show alum John Oliver, Bee doesn't mince words: "Let's just have a Supreme Court vacancy for a year because some chinless dildo wants a Justice who will use his gavel to plug up your abortion hole." Keep raging, Sam. It's gonna be a long 2017.
The scariest twist of Black Mirror: It looked less and less like science fiction as the year went on. The British anthology horror series blew up in its third season, focusing on dystopian technology scenarios that seem so terrifying because most of them feel like no more than 10 minutes in the future. Especially the "Nosedive" episode, where all your personal interactions get a Yelp-style one-to-five star rating. (Best line: "I don't know what's up with you, but I cannot have a 2.6 at my wedding!") Black Mirror makes you a little less fascinated in scrolling through your phone and a little more curious about the people walking around you.
Stranger Things spoke to the Barb in all of us – and for some of us, that's a lot of Barb. It became the year’s word-of-mouth sensation; what initially seemed like a harmless Eighties nostalgia trip ended up an emotional powerhouse. A group of comic-geek kids into the X-Men and Dungeons & Dragons, try to solve the mystery of what happened to their missing friend, in small-town Indiana circa 1983. They meet a strange, silent and bald girl named Eleven who loves frozen waffles but harbors a few secrets of her own. With its perfect cast (both adults and kids), Stranger Things was more than just another supernatural thriller because it got the details of geek friendship so right. And to put the conceptual cherry on top of this Snappy's Snack Shack slushie – welcome back, Winona.
The ultimate Hollywood murder trial, kicking off Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story franchise with a tale of celebrity psychosis: America's favorite football jock turns out to be a psychopath coddled by a starstruck legal system. No matter how well you might think you already know the story, The People v. O.J. Simpson is a whole new experience, with out-of-nowhere career performances from John Travolta, Courtney B. Vance, Sarah Paulson and yes, David Schwimmer. With the ESPN O.J. doc Made In America as a crucial companion piece, it hits home because all America's darkest national obsessions seem to be lurking in here somewhere.
A comedy hero for our times: Donald Glover shines as Earnest "Earn" Marks, a Princeton drop-out back in his hometown, trying to start his life over as a hip-hop manager. Glover's brainchild Atlanta stands as the most ambitious, outrageous, surreal and riotous thing to hit TV all year. Earn runs wild with his rapper cousin Paper Boi as well as stoner philosopher king Darius, who’s always up for a baked debate about whether Malcolm X is secretly still alive ("Nobody's seen the body since the funeral") or why black people don’t know who Steve McQueen is. (Darius does, but as he explains, "Yeah well, I'm Nigerian.") Atlanta digs into sex, money, race and fatherhood with truly fearless flair. As a big Community fan who’s been memorizing Glover's facial tics since Troy met Abed, I thought I already had a clear idea what a genius this guy is. I didn't. Here's to Season Two – Atlanta can't rise again fast enough.