Which shows are deemed “the best” is really a subjective thing. But it would be tough to dispute that some shows are simply fantastic, whether you watch them or not. Through a combination of great acting, attention-grabbing storylines, amazing cinematography, and more, there was plenty of amazing TV this year. Here are our top 18 picks, in no particular order, for television series that had great seasons in 2016.
Warning: some spoilers ahead.
It’s fresh, it’s new (well, the interpretation, anyway), and it depicts an eye-opening, futuristic reality that paints a dark picture of technological development. In this sci-fi western thriller based on the classic Michael Crichton film, synthetic androids or “hosts” run an amusement park where anything goes. It stars big names like Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, and James Marsden, and it ended with a serious bang. The good news is that Westworld has been renewed for a second season already. The bad news: we won’t see it until 2018. Judging from the first season, however, it’ll be worth the wait.
This fantasy drama continues to be HBO’s anchor, even in its sixth season. With a talented ensemble cast and plot that entangles betrayal, power struggles, and the odd incestuous relationship, the TV interpretation of George R.R. Martin’s opus has kept viewers gripped through its entire 60-episode run thus far. With season seven scheduled to debut in mid-2017, chances are GoT will comfortably make this list again next year.
It’s easy to argue that TWD‘s popularity was damaged thanks to its frustrating cliffhanger ending in March, followed by the brutal killings in the October season premiere. But there’s no denying that the show remains a well-acted, beautifully crafted series with mind-blowing practical effects and attention to detail that arguably doesn’t really get the credit it deserves come awards season. Beyond the cinematic eye candy, Walking Dead remains a riveting glimpse into human nature, what lengths people will go to for survival, and how dire straits can turn anyone into a stone-cold killer. In 2016 we got to see the group deal with tremendous tragedy, and a formidable villain like they’ve never seen.
Mr. Robot, USA
This series follows the reclusive and socially awkward Elliott Alderson (Rami Malek), a brilliant hacker who struggles with his unchallenging job as a computer tech and anger toward the very company he’s paid to protect. Beyond the hacking and technology aspects of the show, it offers a deep look into mental illness, technological vulnerabilities, and corporate greed. Its mix of fantastic acting, gripping storylines, and shocking twists keeps viewers continually interested. Sure, a few clever Redditors figured out the big reveal in the second season early on, but that didn’t make it any less compelling. In fact, this was a season you could easily watch again and again, picking up new details each time around.
Lead actor Tatiana Maslany finally received the accolades she so deserves with a Best Actress Emmy win this year for playing multiple clones in this sci-fi series. In the fourth season, as the secrets unravel, the “sisters” team up to try and take down a clandestine organization. But the real draw is Maslany’s amazingly nuanced portrayals of everyone from a rebellious single mother to a brilliant and eccentric scientist, with several characters often appearing in the same scenes. Knowing next year’s season 5 will be the show’s last made season 4 bittersweet.
Network TV still has some tricks up its sleeve, and NBC hit a bona fide home run with this series, which stars veteran actor James Spader as Raymond “Red” Reddington, otherwise known as the “concierge of crime.” The constant questioning about Red’s real relationship to FBI officer Liz (Megan Boone), the clever ways in which he manipulates the FBI into doing his dirty work, and his manner of brutally interrogating a criminal while quoting Voltaire or recalling his time in Minsk keeps viewers consistently intrigued. With the future of characters like Mr. Caplan (Susan Blommaert) hanging in the balance, and a spinoff on the horizon centered around Ryan Eggold’s character Tom Keen, The Blacklist’s fourth season is a clear winner for 2016.
Stranger Things, Netflix
A breakout hit for 2016, Stranger Things has garnered tons of attention for its fantastic cast, thrilling story, and throwbacks to ‘80s pop culture and monster flicks. It spawned tons of Halloween costumes, made the kids of the cast instant stars, marked a comeback for veteran actress Winona Ryder, and probably helped the Kellogg Company sell a whole bunch of Eggos. With a second season already in the works, chances are this series will make its way to the list once again in 2017 as we wait to find out more about the Upside-Down, and what really happened to Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown).
Hilariously cheesy, this comedy promised a unique mix of hilarity and musical numbers, and delivered in spades. At the heart is Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), who leaves a job as a high-powered attorney to move from New York to West Covina, CA in an effort to woo an old high school boyfriend, with whom she has become obsessed. Anxiety-ridden and tightly wound, Rebecca is often caught up in her own fantasy world (through which the many original musical parodies arise), while sparing no expense or shame to win her Prince Charming. While 2016’s second season shifted focus slightly from the original storyline it was just as full of vivid color and catchy tunes. (Check out Love Kernels for a good laugh.) Bloom was rewarded with Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards for her role, and was recently nominated once again for a 2017 Golden Globe.
Arguably one the biggest breakout hits of the year — for network TV, at least — this series’ release was perfectly timed, right in the midst of the U.S. Presidential Election. Kiefer Sutherland plays low-level politician and designated survivor Tom Kirkman, who becomes President following a terrorist attack that takes out the entire administration at the State of the Union address. Viewers get an inside look at the tough decisions the leader of the free world must make, and behind-the-scenes challenges he faces, especially as an honorable and moral man. The show has reportedly received plenty of help in the authenticity department from cast member Kal Penn, who briefly left acting in 2009 to join the Obama Administration as an Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement.
Better Call Saul, AMC
As a highly successful spinoff, Better Call Saul focuses on key Breaking Bad character Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), and explains how and why he became a crooked lawyer. While the first season was relatively slow-paced, this year’s second season shed new light on Saul – rather, Jimmy McGill – and how much of a role his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean) played in essentially breaking Jimmy’s spirit. While Jimmy is an undeniable con man, you can’t help but feel drawn to him. The relationship tensions between Jimmy, his brother, friend/love interest Kim (Rhea Seehorn), and “colleague” Mike (Jonathan Banks) always leave you wanting more.
Any drama with Billy Bob Thornton in the cast tends to be captivating, and this one is no exception. Premiering in October, the legal drama stars Thornton as Billy McBride, a lawyer who is ousted from the firm he founded, and starts drinking heavily to cope. When he ends up with a case of sweet revenge on his lap, he puts down the bottle (OK, not really) and the gloves come on. Originally called The Trial, the show marked Amazon’s first straight-to-series order, which shows that the streaming service had high hopes. Luckily, these materialized into a hot show for 2016.
The third season of this hilarious series about the Bay Area tech scene kept viewers up-to-date with the story of shy programmer Richard Hendricks (Thomas Midleditch) who creates an incredible piece of software, but struggles to get it to market amidst a cut-throat world of venture capitalists, major tech firms, and greedy investors. In this season, Richard is ousted as CEO of his own company, and forced to deal with the board’s new choice for CEO, Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky), an eccentric businessman who’s plans are completely opposite to Hendricks’. And let’s not forgot the equally eccentric Hooli CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), who continues to make odd and often oblivious moves in an effort to ensure his mega-company keeps up. The show has been lauded for its accurate portrayal of the tech world, and many characters are actually based on real-life tech moguls, making it all the more fun to watch.
Black Mirror, Netflix
Originating as a BBC anthology series, Black Mirror had two short seasons before flipping over to Netflix, where the streaming service picked it up as an “original series.” In October 2016, six episodes were released that prove Netflix has kept things fresh. The vast majority of episodes hone in on technology in modern society, examining the potentially horrifying consequences of taking things too far. The season starts with a bang with Nosedive, starring Bryce Dallas Howard, which looks at how our obsession with social media and “likes” could frighteningly become a controlling force for our place in society. San Junipero, the fourth episode in the season, has also been lauded as one of the series’ best. We wish there were more than just six episodes, but we’ll take what we can get.
The show’s fourth season hit the streaming network in June, and helped the series keep its title as one of the most-watched original series for the platform. While the show has always teetered on the line between heavy drama and light comedy, this season pivoted more toward the dramatic end, with the death of a major character and a deeper focus on everything from rape to drug use and extreme racism. We also learn more about scene stealer Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba), what she did to get into prison, and just how troubling her mental illness is. It was a fantastic season to set the stage for what’s to come.
Looking at a family’s daily ups and downs after discovering that the patriarch Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) is transgender, this show’s third season kept the momentum going, continuing to deal with the heavy subject matter with a dose of levity. In fact, the third season’s Rotten Tomatoes rating achieved an incredible 100 percent, lauding the performances and the honest portrayal of the show’s many dimensional characters.
The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, FX
An electrifying account of the infamous O.J. Simpson trial, this true crime anthology series helped viewers see another side of the situation beyond what the media portrayed back in 1994. Tackling the myriad of factors that led to the acquittal of the disgraced NFL legend, the fantastic writing and amazing cast — including Emmy winners Sterling K. Brown, Sarah Paulson, and Courtney B. Vance — made this one of the most captivating series of the year. The show helped spark new conversations around race relations, and gave viewers a better understanding of the challenges Marcia Clark faced as head prosecutor at the trial.
The latest in Netflix’s Marvel superhero series, Luke Cage stars Mike Colter as the title character, a former convict turned superhero with incredible strength and (nearly) unbreakable skin. With its nod to 1970s films like Shaft, a great cast, and an incredible soundtrack, the series offered a fun and compelling narrative, while also tackling the issue of race relations. With critical praise and a second series order in its back pocket, it’s clear that viewers are anxious for more of this excellent series, not to mention Netflix and Marvel’s Jessica Jones, in which Luke Cage first appeared on screen.
Providing an in-depth look into the life and early reign of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), the inaugural season of this factually based drama, released in November, already has viewers and critics hooked. The plan is reportedly for the series to run for six seasons, each looking at a period in the Queen’s life, from her wedding in 1947 up to the early part of her time as Queen. Even for those who aren’t necessarily into the whole royalty thing, this captivating look at the world’s longest reigning monarch is hard to put down.
Finally, we’ll give some honorable mentions here. While we wish we could have included every great show on television in 2016 on this list, in the interest of brevity, a few ended up on the cutting room floor. Those who just missed our list include This Is Us, Modern Family, How To Get Away Murder, Fear the Walking Dead, Ray Donovan, Blindspot, and Suits.
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