What an outrageously abundant year it’s been for great TV — and we’re only halfway through. 2016 has been a small-screen gold rush so far, from low-key comedies to mega-glitz miniseries, the Battle of the Bastards to the City of the Broads, hilarious fake news to horrifying true history — with dragons and spies and crooks and drunks. When two of the year’s best shows are totally different takes on the same 1994 murder trial, you know all bets are off.
So here’s a salute to the 10 best TV shows of 2016 so far:
The Americans (FX)
It might be ridiculous to call this a high-tension season, because The Americans is always about as relaxing as a bout of do-it-yourself dental surgery. But this astounding espionage drama just keeps raising the stakes. Philip and Elizabeth (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) are still a nice normal suburban couple in the Eighties who happen to live a secret double life as Soviet spies, the kind of day-to-day that involves things like a gruesome killing in an airport shuttle bus while an oblivious passenger sits with her Walkman cranking “Tainted Love.” (We’ve been waiting four seasons for the show to find a spectacular way to use that song, and they did not disappoint.) But now that their teen daughter (and her pastor!) is in on the secret, the suspense level just escalates — politically, emotionally and sexually. The Americans is a drama that keeps getting stronger every season, and considering how great it’s been from the beginning, there’s no telling where it could go for the final two seasons.
Broad City (Comedy Central)
Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer go hard the third time around, whether taking on the delicate issue of how to get your period unexpectedly on a plane to the even more delicate issue of how to snuggle with Hilary Clinton. The Phish-themed food co-op episode was a true highlight this season, as well as a learning experience for those of us who have no ability to recognize subtly coded references to the Phish-friendly lifestyle Abbi used to lead. (“Deduct the carrots from your pay, you worthless swampy fool!”) Even the well-played moments of sincere romantic drama — a topic these ladies usually breeze right through — feel right on. Yasss, queens.
Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (TBS)
All hail the warrior goddess of fake news. How can Samantha Bee hit so hard week after week with comic rage where she doesn’t compromise on either the comedy or the rage? Every Monday night on Full Frontal, she’s savagely funny about topics that aren’t funny at all. “Love does not win unless we start loving each other enough to start fixing our fucking problems” is a hell of a hard-headed response to Orlando. The show doesn’t overlap much with her fellow Daily Show alum John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight — he’s cool and collected, going deep on the fine points of the week’s political idiocy, while she responds quickly to the headlines and lets it rip. (And both are funnier than they ever got to be on The Daily Show.) But Bee’s rookie season has been a delight.
Game of Thrones (HBO)
Ned Stark used to say that he who passes the sentence must swing the sword. But at this point, even if it was George R. R. Martin who passed the sentences, the sword has passed to the TV version. Game of Thrones has been pushing into new territory all through this excellent sixth season, from Melisandre magically reviving Jon Snow to the climactic Battle of the Bastards. It’s not just a masterful GoT season — it’s a creative reawakening after the suffocating fifth season, moving faster and aiming higher than ever. Arya gains her sight back and emerges from the House of Black and White into her most bad-ass adventures. Danaeyrs and Tyrion hit new heights of dragon-bonding. And the long-long-long suffering Sansa Stark gets to give some hungry puppies an extremely satisfying dinner. (Revenge is a dish best served to the dogs?) Even if it was cheating to resurrect a certain dead Night’s Watch heartthrob, it was a symbolic new beginning. When Davos tells Jon Snow, “You were dead. Now you’re not. That’s completely fucking mad, seems to me,” he could be talking about the whole show.
Horace and Pete (LouisCK.net)
And now for something completely different. Louis C.K. tops himself (and tops even Louie) with a drama that arrived as a total surprise — made in secret and released on his website with no fanfare. It’s the tale of a grim Brooklyn bar that’s been in the family too long, which is just one of the horrific family curses that’s gotten passed down from father to son. Horace and Pete is basically 10 filmed plays, with Louis C.K. (who wrote and directed) and Steve Buscemi as the cousins stuck with this dump. Alan Alda is magnificent as the vicious Uncle Pete — it’s kind of priceless to see him play an Archie Bunker-type bigot. With its bleak monologues and awkward pace, it gets at human misery like nothing else on TV, with virtuoso performances from Laurie Metcalf, Jessica Lange, Edie Falco — and Paul Simon, who not only sings the theme song but makes a great cameo as a particularly sad barfly.
Lady Dynamite (Netflix)
Maria Bamford’s amazingly brave binge-com about a mental breakdown is what people mean when they talk about comedy “going there.” For Maria Bamford, however, “there” is where she happens to live, so there’s no question of going or not going. She plays herself as a forty-something comedian trying to make it in Hollywood, when she isn’t getting institutionalized in psychiatric wards back home in Duluth, Minnesota. Along with shows like Bojack Horseman and You’re the Worst, it breaks new ground for portrayals of depression on TV — the hospital scenes are devastating because they’re so compassionately ordinary. There’s Ana Gasteyer as her bloodthirsty agent, Patton Oswalt as a career-counselor bike cop, and Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath in a brilliant cameo as a magic sugar beast. Bamford is heartbreakingly funny on her bleak romantic life: “I can finally get to do all the things I was putting off because I was in a relationship, you know? Just going to salsa clubs alone, or going to a cat show alone. Acknowledging the homeless on a regular basis, you know? Embroidery, it’s so beautiful.”
O.J.: Made in America (ESPN)
There’s something sadly inevitable about the way O.J. Simpson has come back as a national obsession this year, and you can see why all through this astonishing, fascinating, infuriating “30 for 30” documentary. Over nearly eight hours and 50 years of footage, O.J.’s bland smile is as chilling as Reagan’s — they both had an uncanny ability to seem folksy and genial no matter what kinds of depravity they were selling. It gets into so many little-known areas of the story — from Nicole’s journals to O.J.’s gay dad to the way he played a dirty cop in the 1977 TV movie A Killing Affair. It also does a surprisingly good job with the football part, explaining why exactly the Juice inspired so much gooey-eyed devotion, even from the cops who kept turning up on his doorstep after his brutal attacks on his wife. It also explores how his life turned even darker in the 2000s, after the world stopped noticing. Made in America goes deep on the fucked-up racial history of the LAPD, and the fucked-up history of a man who got every fantasy of American success handed to him on a platter — and who turned into a stand-in for all America’s worst fears about what our history has come to.
Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
The best season yet for OITNB — nothing else can match it these days. Litchfield Penitentiary is getting more crowded than ever, now that it’s a for-profit prison with shareholders to satisfy (“It’s sardine time, bitches!”). And that means new prisoners coming in while others spin off into whole new dramatic directions: We thought we already knew Diane Guerrero’s Ramos or Jessica Pimentel’s Ruiz, but we didn’t know a damn thing. Orange should have succumbed to the cult of the quirky by now, but instead it keeps pushing further emotionally, with so many amazing actors taking on so many damaged characters. (Wanting Morello to be happy will be the absolute death of me.) Piper is still the weak link in the story, but even she gets some great moments in a stunner of a season from beginning to end.
The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)
Ryan Murphy’s brilliant fictionalized take goes well with the Made In America documentary — two completely different ways of looking at a Hollywood murder trial that still resonates because it goes to the heart of our national obsessions. The People v. O.J. Simpson is an old-school miniseries, the kind they used to make, with constant hey-it’s-that-guy stunt-casting coups. (America has been waiting decades to see Cheryl Ladd out on a date with John Travolta.) It also ends up being a story about the Nineties: There’s something touching about seeing the Pulp Fiction star with the resurrected David Schwimmer. In the summer of 1994, neither of these guys could get arrested — the Friends premiere and Tarantino’s movie were still months away. (Hell, Schwimmer and Travolta might have watched the trial in the same coffee bar some afternoons, with Schwimmer the one wearing a bowtie.) It makes a certain kind of sense that Cuba Gooding Jr. is a dud in the lead role; he’s a blank space, as O.J. always was. That’s what makes The People v. O.J. Simpson so horrifying — Murphy makes it look like the people are O.J. Simpson.
“I’m freeing Tibet! Bono’s gonna shit his sunglasses!” A one-of-a-kind season for a one-of-a-kind comedy, as Julia Louis Dreyfus keeps refining President Selina Mayer into one of the truly great monsters in the history of TV comedy. She presides over a whole White House full of monsters, with the deepest and most murderous supporting cast on TV right now — from Timothy Simons’ always-awful Jonah (“How am I doing? Eating so much pussy I’m shitting clits, son!”) to Dan Bakkedahl’s almost-as-awful Roger Furlong (“You need to trust me on this because I’ve been doing this since before your mother was throwing herself down the stairs belly first”). The only halfway redeeming character is Sarah Sutherland’s First Daughter Catherine, who ends up nearly stealing the season with her student documentary. The only weak spot this season was the “Mother” episode about a death in the family, because Selina just isn’t the kind of character who warms up to Very Special Episode sentimentality. For better or worse, she’s beyond humanizing, and that’s what makes Veep a unique monument to the awe-inspiring power of soul-draining bile.