Friday, February 3, 2017
The 10 Best TV Shows of 2016: Murder, Prison, Hell, and Politics
10. Game of Thrones (HBO, Season 6; last year: 4 of 62). The biggest, baddest show on television, Game of Thrones finally betrays a few hints of strain in its sixth season, groaning slightly under its own gargantuan weight. The series has become so diffuse, its talent for racing through subplots and leapfrogging across continents can be exhausting as well as exhilarating. Yet the occasional sense of fatigue does little to diminish the show’s staggering achievement, its unparalleled ability to rip off one sequence after another of eye-popping spectacle. A character’s metaphorical rebirth at the end of the season’s fourth episode is an utter triumph—by contrast, the subsequent episode concludes with devastating tragedy—while “Battle of the Bastards”, the show’s rare narrowly focused hour, is an unrelenting assault that is dynamically staged and expertly choreographed. And the first act of the finale, an agonizingly slow reveal of a terrorist plot, is perhaps the greatest extended suspense sequence I’ve ever seen on TV, all roiling tension and ominous music and suffocating fear. Yet Game of Thrones is more than a mere collection of awe-inspiring moments. It is an epic work of scrupulous detail and sweeping drama, and in continually deepening its mythology—in their first season working without the safety net of George R.R. Martin’s books, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss acquit themselves just fine—it never neglects its characters. This is a show about kings and queens, pirates and dragons, but it’s also about the joy of friendship, the cost of perseverance, and the sting of loss. In other words, Game of Thrones is a story about real people, even if its universe is utterly, majestically otherworldly.
9. The People v. O.J. Simpson (FX, Season 1). Given that it’s a show about the most outrageous legal and media circus of the twentieth century, and given that it’s spearheaded by one of television’s preeminent hacks, you could be forgiven for expecting The People v. O.J. Simpson to be over the top. And in part, it is; there’s a sense of hysteria surrounding the enterprise, while some of the performances (in particular John Travolta’s) are shamelessly hammy. But for Ryan Murphy, the creator of the bombastic American Horror Story, that level of extremity is precisely the point. People v. O.J. is provocative, yes, but it is also a frank and insightful look at how, for a few months in the ’90s, America set itself on fire. The series dutifully hits all of the historical marks—the Bronco chase, the Fuhrman tapes, the glove—and then threads them into a hot-blooded tapestry on privilege, justice, and race. More impressively, it understands its position as a TV show, telling a continuous long-form story while still delivering distinct and flavorful individual episodes. The best of these tend to focus not on the crime but on the lawyers, whether it’s the obsessive drive of Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), the wounded pride of Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown), or—in the series’ best hour—the perpetual suffering of Marcia Clark (a fantastic Sarah Paulson). For such a wildly entertaining and invigorating show, The People v. O.J. Simpson always remembers that on June 12, 1994, two lives were lost. It also soberly recognizes that countless others were affected, and few for the better.
8. The Night Of (HBO, Season 1). Another procedural about a murder case, The Night Of is in many ways People v. O.J.’s opposite, stripping away the glamour and celebrity of Los Angeles and replacing it with the cold darkness of Manhattan. But it has a similar sense of sprawl, methodically charting the catastrophic ripple effects of one young man’s fateful night out. That man is Naz, a promising college student played with exquisite intelligence and cunning by Riz Ahmed. In its barest form, The Night Of is a murder mystery, a whodunit that gathers evidence, supplies red herrings, and asks us to serve as a jury in weighing Naz’s guilt. But the show is much, much more than that. It is also a scathing examination of our criminal justice system, how it chews people up and spits them out with minimal regard for their well-being. Even beyond that, The Night Of operates as a quiet, mournful character study. Its other key player is John Stone (John Turturro, in his best role in two decades), the sad-sack defense attorney who accepts Naz’s case and acts not as a defiant trumpeter of justice but as a weary counselor of pragmatism. Yet the real power of this show derives from Naz himself. You may spend considerable time wondering if he committed the crime, but the brutal brilliance of The Night Of is that it renders the inquiry irrelevant. Whether he’s convicted or not, Naz will remain imprisoned one way or another for the rest of his life.
7. BoJack Horseman (Netflix, Season 3). The protagonist of BoJack Horseman is a drug addict, a narcissist, and an unrepentant asshole. He is also a horse. The absurdity of this series, which takes place in a universe where animals are anthropomorphized but occasionally succumb to their baser instincts, is one of its highlights. Its humor is another. Voiced with caustic wit by Will Arnett, BoJack is a trove of wisecracks and putdowns, while the animation delivers one sly visual joke after another. But while BoJack Horseman is a very funny show, it is also a profoundly affecting and deeply dark portrait of celebrity and loneliness. The series has never shied away from making its putative hero unlikable, but he sinks to new depths in Season 3, bottoming out personally even as he experiences a career renaissance professionally. Yet even though BoJack’s downward journey is legitimately upsetting, the show itself is tirelessly engaging, supplying sharp writing while constantly experimenting with form and structure. An episode set entirely underwater is a bravura accomplishment, while a segment that focuses on abortion (“Get Dat Fetus, Kill Dat Fetus”) is startling in its insight and sincerity. Everything pales, however, in comparison to “That’s Too Much, Man!” an overpowering, blackout-driven half-hour that’s both hilariously anarchic and achingly sad. Here is a show that smuggles its story of pain and depression inside a fantastical universe filled with exasperated penguins and moneyed leopards, yet it somehow feels unified. The characters may be animals, but their emotions are entirely human.
6. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix, Season 4; last year: 2). Speaking of painful. In the past, the Emmys classified this show as a comedy, which is its own form of joke. Yes, Orange Is the New Black can be scaldingly funny, and a good thing, because it can also be utterly wrenching. Now in its fourth season, the series has comfortably settled into its own, unique rhythm, though it’s by no means staid. Instead, it keeps pushing and pushing, constantly exposing new facets of institutional corruption. The malevolence of that institution is critical; one of the many astonishing things about this show is that, for all of the terrible things that happen, there aren’t really any villains. Sure, many of the characters make questionable decisions or do bad things, but in the series’ remarkably empathetic view of human nature, nothing is born of inherent evil. Instead, even the most appalling actions are explicable and predictable byproducts of a system that treats women as chattel and that rigorously snuffs out any spark of freedom or expression. This noxious atmosphere of suppression extends to the guards and wardens as well as the inmates, as the show unflinchingly depicts the human costs of imprisonment as a for-profit business. As the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black gradually builds to its crushing conclusion, it achieves a haunting, elegiac power that transcends any single character. (Well, except maybe one.) Everyone suffers. Everyone except us.
5. Veep (HBO, Season 5; last year: 21). Veep is a half-hour show that takes me roughly 40 minutes to watch each week. That’s because I’m invariably laughing so hard throughout the episode that I have to press “pause” and take a moment to compose myself before resuming. This show isn’t just funny—it’s side-splitting. Nor does its humor derive exclusively from insults and threats, though many of those remain gleefully profane. (“I’m gonna have the IRS crawl so far up your husband’s colon, he’s gonna wish the only thing they find is more cancer.”) It is also a marvel of patient, structured writing; some jokes are set up over multiple pages or even several scenes. (A spectacular silent moment near the end of the season’s eighth episode is seeded by roughly seven different mini-jokes earlier in the half-hour.) The series remains remarkably democratic in dispensing its comedy; Julia Louis-Dreyfus will always be its acidic center, but her orbiting cast of advisers, cronies, and sycophants—Kevin Dunn! Sam Richardson! Gary Cole!—is uniformly sensational. It’s a fair question where Veep will turn next, now that American government less resembles politics than parody (that episode where Louis-Dreyfus tweets and inadvertently causes a crisis with China looks awfully plausible now, doesn’t it?). But the show has never really been about politics—it’s about the misery of collaboration, of working closely with people you know and loathe. The real world may be in shambles, but on Veep, antagonism is an art form.
4. Penny Dreadful (Showtime, Season 3; last year: 7). The series finale of Penny Dreadful stopped my heart, something I would have thought impossible when the show debuted as a goofy monster mash-up two years ago. Yet this brittle, beautiful series has always been more than it seemed, and in its final season, it uncovers new depths of lyrical loveliness to go with its garish horror. That could result in dissonance, but Penny Dreadful’s gonzo touches—the demonic possessions, the warped visions, the sex covered in blood—have always served its deeper purpose. This is a series about a band of wounded, damaged misfits, all striving to find a sliver of light and hope in a world plagued by darkness and death. For its final season, it simultaneously broadens its scope and tightens its storytelling; the cloistered world of Gothic London has now expanded to include the Old American West, yet individual episodes are snugly focused, better dissecting the characters and their valiant struggles. The entire cast is excellent—Billie Piper’s continued evolution into a ferocious firebrand is especially satisfying—but the series still belongs to the pale eyes and cracked whisper of Eva Green. She is the show’s soul, quietly investing it with a fragile yearning that somehow binds Penny Dreadful’s extravagant elements together. It makes sense that her character’s death is also the show’s, but her performance will linger in your memory for some time. And so will Penny Dreadful, a stunning three-season achievement that I suspect will develop a substantial cult following in time. Much like several of its supernatural characters, death will not stop this lush, lovely show from living on.
3. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC, Season 3; last year: 30). Wow. Some TV shows get better with time, but few make as dramatic and thrilling a leap from one year to the next as Halt and Catch Fire. In its first two seasons, it was an engrossing but incomplete show, with well-defined characters but a someone meandering storyline. Now? It’s flat-out electric. Transitioning from the dusty prairies of Texas to the glowering boardrooms of California, Halt and Catch Fire’s third season finds its characters in flux, scrambling to harness the potential of the technology boom at the risk of shattering their personal lives. It’s a process fraught with danger, and the show forcefully articulates the challenges and pitfalls of workplace partnership. Lee Pace finds as groove as the heel with the golden heart, but the show’s nucleus remains the alliance between Kerry Bishé’s Donna and Mackenzie Davis’ Cameron. It’s a complex, hazardous pairing between two keenly intelligent women who bring out the best in one another… until they don’t. Halt and Catch Fire takes place in drab offices and dusty basements littered with empty pizza boxes, but its action—the push and pull of two people fighting for control over what they both feel is theirs—is as gripping as any war movie or detective thriller. The writing absolutely shines, both in terms of dialogue and long-form plotting (look, a time jump!), while the actors (including Scoot McNairy, more gracefully incorporated into the narrative this year) lend the material a delicate pathos. On its surface, this is a series about a bunch of tech nerds who dither around with a nascent version of Craigslist. Dig deeper, and you’ll discover a smart, propulsive show with an all-too-perceptive grasp of human nature. Those bulky Commodore 64s you see are the lucky ones—they can get their motherboards ripped out, but they can’t get their hearts broken.
2. The Americans (FX, Season 4; last year: 1). With each breathtaking new season, The Americans stretches further and further from the dynamite premise—Russian spies! Posing as Americans! In the Cold War!—that hooked us way back in 2013. Of course, the show is still nominally about Soviet espionage, but at this point, it could deliver an entire season devoid of actual spycraft, and it would still work as gripping television. That’s because no series on television is more thoroughly dedicated to exploring the lives of its characters, to stripping away their defenses and revealing them for who they are. There’s a sense of piercing agony underlying The Americans, of people craving connection but nevertheless fumbling with their feelings. There is so much emotional anguish swirling across the myriad relationships—between a stern mother and her shaken daughter, between a tortured spy and his smitten asset, between a company man and his disapproving father—that the show simply envelops you in its characters’ pain and desperation. Genre enthusiasts, fear not; The Americans is still exhilarating entertainment. Yet rather than existing as escapist pleasure, the show’s heart-pounding sequences—a grisly murder on a bus (“Tainted Love!”); a brutally swift execution; an excruciating seduction—only feed into its preoccupation with pain and loss. This is a show that makes you feel the full weight of its characters’ burdens, even as it dazzles you with style and craft. In one illuminating scene, Keri Russell’s dubious nonbeliever questions a pastor about his faith, wondering how it could possibly work given that she doesn’t believe in God. His response: “All that matters is how we treat each other.” He’s right. And The Americans continues to treat us with decency and respect, granting us a sacred glimpse into the lives of its characters. Communists may not believe in debt, but we owe this show our thanks.
1. Better Call Saul (AMC, Season 2; last year: 17). This shouldn’t be possible. It was one thing for Better Call Saul, in its first season, to nimbly evade the towering shadow cast by Breaking Bad and to imbue itself with its own distinctive tone, a peculiar mix of sweaty desperation, angular humor, and minor-key family drama. But for the series, in its second season, to develop into the immensely satisfying show it’s become is simply astounding. It is difficult to convey just how perfect this show is—how immaculately balanced, how precise. The visual artistry is flawless, with elegant camerawork and a marvelous, sand-shaded color palette (oh, that suit montage!) The pulpy material, mostly involving Jonathan Banks’ grizzled ex-cop, is exquisitely paced, a delicious slow burn punctuated with bursts of sharp, staccato violence. And the characters are so expertly delineated, they freight every scene with layered meaning and purpose. What’s especially amazing is that, in terms of plot, this is a show primarily about a class-action lawsuit. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the characters. (To paraphrase a certain spy show, all that matters is how they treat each other.) The conflict between Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk, on fire) and his superior brother (Michael McKean, a worthy foil), which slowly simmered throughout Season 1, has now acquired the full weight of tragedy. And the tentative, tantalizing romance between Jimmy and Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn, matching punch for punch), is a wonderfully reciprocal love story of two people who are highly compatible but also acutely different. This is a magnificent season of television, 10 stupendous episodes that build upon one another but also stand alone. When Better Call Saul originated, the concern was that it would simply be a linear roadmap to the beginning of Breaking Bad, and that viewers would focus exclusively on locating clues to that saga’s genesis. To borrow some of Jimmy’s legal parlance, consider that fear quashed.
For the Manifesto’s complete ranking of all 88 TV shows we watched in 2016, click here.