At the end of each year critics pore over the previous 300 and some odd days, doing their best to remember everything that premiered and pulling forth what they believe to be the best examples of the medium they cover. This is an impossible task for so many reasons. The human memory is faulty. The idea of what constitutes the “best of anything” is highly subjective.
Also, and this is really the most important part, 455 scripted series aired on television during 2016. Out of that number, we are asked to select 10 best new shows, or returning shows, or episodes, or parkour sequences, ugly cries. You get the picture.
What’s far more enjoyable is to look at television in terms of the excellent parts that make it worth watching. It’s fantastic to call out an inspiring character. Talking about a unique feeling that a series engendered in us, or the bravery with which an episode of television is executed, can be exhilarating.
The reasons we loved watching television in 2016 are numerous, and there are far too many of them to list in this space. Here are the 10 that immediately came to mind, in no specific order:
1. We loved listening to mesmerizing original soundtracks on series such as HBO’s “Westworld” and “Marvel’s Luke Cage” on Netflix.
Following a years-long dry spell in the realm of original scores, 2016 yielded a number of incredibly poignant entries from these series and others. Ramin Djawadi’s orchestral score for “Westworld” captured the transition in a character’s emerging sentience via subtle chords and harmonies, adding extra level of subliminal commentary atop what we were seeing.
The original score for “Marvel’s Luke Cage,” composed by A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge (who composed the score of the animated series “Black Dynamite”), is a compelling mélange of funk, jazz, hip-hop, R&B and strains of classical music as rendered by a 30-piece orchestra. Listen to Young, Muhammad and Djawadi discuss their work in this audio feature:
2. We loved watching Lyanna Mormont flaunt her righteous indignation on “Game of Thrones.”
It’s easy to strike the fear of seven hells into people while sitting atop a dragon or after immolating all of your enemies in a sky-high green bonfire. Lyanna Mormont, the 10-year-old Lady of Bear Island, wielded only her confident scowl and the honor of her house to set those who faced her back on their heels. That was enough. When Jon Snow called upon her support in the Battle of the Bastards, she made him fight for her 62 men. She was there at the prebattle parley to answer Ramsay Bolton’s threats to feed her to his starving hounds with a defiant frown.
But her finest moment arrived after the battle was won, standing before the leaders of other great houses. Replying to Lords Manderly, Glover and Kerwin’s refusal to ally themselves with Ned Stark’s illegitimate son, the diminutive Lyanna Mormont faced men much older and larger than her, and surgically read them for filth. Shamed by a tween, the men rallied behind Jon in the end — and he has nobody else to thank for that than this fierce young woman with the strength of 10 mainlanders.
3. We loved watching the talk show within a show, and all of its twisted commercial sponsors on the “B.A.N.” episode of FX’s “Atlanta.”
From week to week, we could never be sure of what we’d get in Donald Glover’s boundary-busting comedy, which added to the thrill of viewing it. “You will not find the caffeinated bounce and lightness of the standard half hour here or see the usual sitcom ensemble recipe,” I wrote when the show first premiered, and back then I had no idea how true that statement would prove to be.
In this episode, underground hip-hop artist Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) appears on a BET-style network’s talk show to discuss supposedly transphobic lyrics with an LGBTQ activist. The details of their debate are secondary to a surreal field piece about a young black man who believes he’s actually a middle-aged white professional, and increasingly ludicrous fake ads for cheap products targeted at African-Americans repackaged as luxury items. But the climactic moment (shown in our Mix video feature) captures the frustrating double standard that applies to hip-hop artists in terms of free speech.
Unsparing in its criticism, “B.A.N.” is nevertheless stunningly hilarious and one of the year’s most adventurous episodes.
4. We loved the way ABC’s “Black-ish” illuminated the painful social inequities that people of color face in modern America.
In an episode titled “Hope,” Anthony Anderson’s Dre and Dre’s wife Bow, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, are put in the position of explaining a protest of another police shooting to their 6-year-old twins.
Soon the entire family is embroiled in a discussion about race relations in America and the unsettling double standards that some law enforcement officials adopt when dealing with African-Americans, a reality about which black and Latino parents have long had to educate their children to keep them safe and alive.
As Bow and Dre dive into the topic, joined by their teenagers Zoey and Andre, Jr., the episode turns into a complex struggle to make sense out of it all. And at its centerpiece is a monologue in which Anderson poignantly gives voice to the undercurrent of fear that accompanies every moment that marks a step forward for African-Americans.
Cable gets a lot of praise in this Platinum Age of Television, but episodes like “Hope” underline the crucial role that broadcast television plays in sparking difficult conversations we otherwise might not have.
5. We loved collectively reveling in the 1980s nostalgia of Netflix’s “Stranger Things.”
You don’t have to be a child of the '80s to fall in love with Matt and Ross Duffer’s horror sci-fi adventure, following three boys and an androgynous girl with paranormal abilities known only as Eleven as they search for a missing friend.
The Duffer brothers are too young to have a direct connection to the era, but did they ever get the details right. From the soundtrack and the moussed-up hairstyles on its teens, down the inspired casting of Winona Ryder as Will’s frantic mother Joyce, “Stranger Things” took all of us back to a Spielbergian era, when kids set out on crazy adventures on bicycles.
Along with the boys, Joyce is the only person who believed Will was still alive in that subbasement to our universe that the kids name Upside Down. Eventually her maternal faith is rewarded. Unfortunately no such hope awaits another minor character, Barb, who also has been sucked into that underworld. But even if Barb doesn't make it back, she achieves immortality in a different sense by becoming a meme (for reasons that are still unclear to me).
6. We loved the unreliable narrator’s steady slide from a peak of sexual assertiveness into a valley of self-loathing in Amazon’s “Fleabag.”
The audience never learns the name of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s hypersexual protagonist in “Fleabag,” a woman who fondly breaks the fourth wall to share brutally honest observations about the people around her. Our mysterious heroine is her own biggest fan, bouncing from one sex partner to the next without apology or a care that her business is failing and her personal life is falling apart.
It soon becomes apparent that she is hiding something not only from viewers but also from herself. Only in the show’s final moments do we realize that this darkly comedic figure is not at all the carefree, confident sensualist she pretends to be — and her about-face transforms this wry comedy into a completely different experience in the space of a few seconds.
7. We loved the bold sneak attack of Beyoncé’s visual album version of “Lemonade.”
It hit us like an act of God, premiering on HBO with little advance fanfare and no preview trailers. We felt its aftershocks all summer long. “Lemonade” distilled the pain and rage of black women into a visually stunning choreopoem. It is a true accomplishment of high art, realized through the vision of seven different filmmakers and the collaboration of dozens of visual artists, dancers, celebrities and even appearances by everyday people made famous by their heartrending loss.
“Lemonade” spawned playlists, literary syllabuses and countless conversations about female power. And for once, millions of men must have felt relieved that they were not the source of inspiration for Queen Bey’s post-infidelity opus, her husband Jay Z.
8. We loved the way that WGN America’s “Underground” tackled difficult topics and made them watchable, especially in the groundbreaking episode “Cradle.”
“Underground” is a tough sell for the average viewer; not many people would be hot to commit to a drama about slavery, let alone one that employs anachronistic musical choices in its soundtrack. But as I wrote when the show debuted in March, the show is to be admired “for pushing aside any implied obligation to be utterly earnest” while nevertheless respecting the seriousness of its subject.
No episode honored this idea more adventurously than “Cradle,” which looked at slavery as it was experienced by four children — two slaves, a slave owner’s son and a slave catcher’s child. “Cradle” uses their stories to explore many ideas, but illustrates with savage clarity the way in which racism is taught, passed down from adult to child to serve the greedy and powerful.
9. We loved laughing through our rage with TBS’ “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.”
Only recently has “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah really begun to bare his teeth at the establishment. Meanwhile, former “Daily Show” correspondent Samantha Bee, who worked with Jon Stewart for 12 years, came out blasting from the moment her own show premiered, acting as the feminist filter through which no bullshit could pass unnoticed. In this year’s singularly misogynistic, racist, homophobic and xenophobic presidential election cycle, Bee’s inimitable ability to crack us up without giving up any of her anger at each increasingly offensive development is breathtaking.
In the coming months you can wager that Bee, along with John Oliver and Noah, will face their share of backlash over their purported role in shilling their own version of fake news and keeping their viewers ensconced in misleading liberal bubbles. This is a misdirect. Actual news organizations have already begun retreating into a fog of normalizing the horror of a Donald Trump presidency, which makes the work of fact-driven satirists more crucial than ever. May Bee continue to lead this charge.
10. We loved all the moments in FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”
Those incredible Marcia Clark wigs on Sarah Paulson. John Travolta’s impression of Robert Shapiro’s eyebrows. The re-enactment of the slow-motion Bronco chase, as portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. with Theo Huxtable . . . er, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, behind the wheel.
Seriously, though — those eyebrows.
Miniseries and made-for-TV movies inspired by actual events are a dime a dozen, but Ryan Murphy’s 10-episode re-creation of the crime of the 20th century kept viewers on the edge of their seats, even though the outcome of the case is in the history books. When Nathan Lane re-enacted F. Lee Bailey’s carpet bombing of the N-word all of the courtroom, we blanched at the sight. Even the first sight of O.J. putting a gun to his head during the chase is enough to elicit a gasp, even though we know he lived.
Murphy’s touch is lighter on this project; its script was developed for television by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Nevertheless, the limited series’ marriage of gravitas and absurdity is realized in hundreds of small moments, the sum of which has created truly extraordinary television.
Other favorite moments
There are too many to cover them all! How about that crazy death on “The Americans?” The devastating reveal about a major character on “Westworld?” Lagertha’s shocking wedding gift to her spouse-to-be on “Vikings?” Daniel’s soul-crushing monologue about reality on “Rectify?” That moment is seared into my brain. There’s also lots to love about the way that “Transparent” took its audience “To Shell and Back.”
What were the reasons that kept you loving TV in 2016? Share them in the comments section.