My Top TV of 2016

December 11, 2016

It didn’t occur to me until compiling this list that for the first time ever I had more viable choices to winnow through picking the best TV of the year than I did movies of the year…I actually had trouble coming up with 10 solid films for that list (more on that in that entry) which hasn’t been the case ever. But TV…between premium cable options, Amazon Prime, and Netflix in addition to network TV struggling to stay competitive in that arena there were lots of choices for quality, exceptional television this year.

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10) Blackish/The Goldbergs (tie)

I’m calling spot 10 a tie for the (IMO) two best traditional network sitcoms running. Blackish takes the traditional family sitcom and injects each episode with a level of seriousness and topical awareness that hearkens back to All in the Family but from a wholly African American perspective. The Goldbergs takes the family sitcom and douses it in heavy (but non-cloying) nostalgia by setting the action in the 1980s and focusing each episode tangentially around a key pop-culture or historical aspect of that decade. Both shows succeed based on stellar performances and authentic heart.

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9) Frequency

There were oddly a handful of shows this year that remade old movies in serial yet updated form (Lethal Weapon, The Exorcist, etc.). One that worked for me was Frequency which is an update of a 2000 movie about a son who talks to his dead father via ham radio and the “butterfly effects” that flow there out of. The CW update revamps the story a bit, stretching it out and lathering it in two era settings and substituting a female detective daughter (played by Peyton List) for Jim Caviezel’s original role. I’m just a sucker for time-travel tales that deal with the consequences of action so that’s likely what sold me on this show but I enjoyed every episode thoroughly.

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8) Better Things

While I certainly missed having a new season of Louie this year, Better Things was the next best thing. Louie C.K. is on board as a co-writer and co-creator in this, Pamela Adlon’s  (who played Louie’s romantic foil on a few seasons of that show) version of that show’s concept of an honest, artsy, uncomfortable single parent show this time from a a mother’s perspective. Adlon plays Sam Fox, mother of three daughters and working actress in L.A. Better Things shares the wit and unconventional nature of Louie while also being totally its own unique self.

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7) Luke Cage

While we approach superhero critical mass at the cinema, on network TV and now on Netflix as well, Luke Cage emerges in much the same way as last year’s Jessica Jones did–by using the trappings of “superhero” to tackle something much bigger. That’s what the best modern superhero comics do and that’s what Netflix has found a way to do that big budget pictures do not. Luke Cage is a fully realized world complete with great textures, environment and sound (that soundtrack tho!).

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6) Better Call Saul

A spin-off like this shouldn’t work but it does. Breaking Bad was one of the best shows in history and rather than repeat the formula here, this show takes its own direction. Bob Odenkirk reprises his role as the crooked lawyer Jimmy McGill (Saul) but we see his origin  and that of other Breaking characters unfold naturally and somehow surprisingly. A great comedy noir and character piece that would have been unheard of ten years ago.

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5) Atlanta

Man, this was Donald Glover’s year. What with the surprise release of a Childish Gambino album at the end of the year that was straight on ’70s soul funk perfection to cap off a year when his baby project Atlanta launched to critical and commercial success, he should be celebrating. Atlanta was a blast in so many ways and it’s unapologetic both in its authenticity and its unapologetic refusal to moralize or simplify. Great cast, great soundtrack, totally timely.

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4) Bosch

Michael Connelly is one of my favorite crime writers working today. His Lincoln Lawyer and Harry Bosch series’ have both been reliable reads every year for the past couple of decades. Mainstream accessible pop-crime fiction that doesn’t insult your intelligence in the way say James Patterson does. Anyway, here we have his titular creation Harry Bosch brought to the screen–and it works completely thanks to Titus Welliver. Two seasons in we see a cop show that deals with the real issues facing such an institution today being addressed while also handling character development and big-budget action all the while.

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3) Stranger Things

The 1980s are the go-to focus for nostalgia seekers today–the best episode of Black Mirror (see below), the focus of one of the best comics today (Paper Girls), the setting for one of our best current sitcoms (see above), the source for synth and beat and sample inspiration (see a lot of current popular music). To that note, Netflix’s Stranger Things banks on the celluloid memory and loves of a couple generations by nodding to E.T., Indiana Jones, The Lost Boys, Monster Squad, Firestarter and a ton of others in this year’s smash Stranger Things. It would be pandering to fanboy and fangirl biases if it weren’t so damn entertaining and well executed. Such a good cast, such a good original soundtrack (not even considering songs, I’m talking the score by Survive who made two great soundtracks and an original album this year all worth your time) such an exciting story. Worthy of a binge and a re-binge.

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2) OJ Simpson: Made in America

Some folks threw this in their best movie list as it is a documentary, but as it was serialized across 5 installments on ESPN I’m counting it as TV. The 30 for 30 series is dependably solid even for those of us who aren’t sports junkies (Believeland this year was also superb) but with Made in America ESPN upped their game to the next level. It was the year of revisiting 90s news but particularly OJ Simpson’s story. I didn’t catch the biopic recreation but I did tune in for all 10 hours of this documentary and found it superb from first shot till last. Not only do we get the full scope and history of OJ’s tragic personal story arc, we get the entire historical and sociopolitical implications of his story from race relations in the 1970s through the police state of Compton in the 1980s on through Rodney King and the impact of the verdict itself. This is a nuanced, full on examination of everything OJ from his humble beginning through his historic trial and beyond and the issues raised are worth our reexamination today more than ever.

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1) Black Mirror

Netflix picked up the British sci-fi cult favorite that depicts dystopian near-future scenarios and though they only released six episodes this season those six episodes were the best of the show thus far. Each episode was perfect in pretty much every aspect and each was all too plausible in its scenario from the extreme impact of social media in the near future (“Nosedive”) to 3D violence in video games (“Playtest”) and the desensitization of soldiers (“Men Against Fire”)…heck even the disappearance of the bees tied in with the inhumane behavior of folks on the comment sections (“Hated in the Nation”). It wasn’t all grim of course. The best episode of the batch was pretty happy (“San Junipero”) as it layed out our love of nostalgia (particularly for the US 1980s) for all to see in its natural conclusion.

Honorable Mentions: Though I’m not all the way through it yet Netflix’s The Crown is truly amazing, after a crappy week of depression for everyone who loves rationality SNL gifted us the comfort and encouragement of their best episode in years  with Dave Chapelle and A Tribe Called Quest as guests, and BBC’s superb crime drama Undercover is recommended to all; while not as strong as last season Showtime’s The Affair remains compelling.