Another year of binge-watching, trend-stalking, and obsessing over Jon Snow comes to an end. Whether it was travelling back in time with a sci-fi horror series or reliving the violence of 1980s Colombia, foreign television in 2016 had a lot to say. It was crammed with unexpected twists and shocking turns, which were not limited to the shows you usually expect to find them in.
As complex and experimental content streams off our screens, the definition of what constitutes a TV show is becoming more fluid with every passing year. Comedies have a lace of the tragic running through them, drama and fantasy are intricately intertwined, animated cartoons are the source of profound life truths, and politics is imitating art to an eerie level of accuracy.
New comedy shows like Pamela Adlon’s semi-biographical Better Things and Issa Rae’s Insecure featured voices often ignored and subjects usually glossed over. TBS sparked a hilarious but candid conversation about existentialism, entitlement and self-awareness through its murder-mystery-noir-comedy-satire, Search Party. Goliath, starring Billy Bob Thornton, took the over-done legal drama cliché and made it refreshing. And HBO’s sci-fi Western Westworld, which initially seemed promising, failed to successfully delight or disappoint, but thankfully now has another season to work with.
But it wasn’t just the new genre-bending show. Even long-running series produced some of their most compelling seasons.
Jill Soloway’s family of flawed characters on Transparent made for another honest and glorious season about self-realisation and personal growth. The one-of-its-kind musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend went for a louder, brighter and more ambitious second season.
Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy returned with a powerful installment of the beautiful and brutal British period drama, Peaky Blinders. You’re the Worst, which earned praise for its sensible and sensitive depiction of clinical depression in the last season, outdid itself yet again, discussing the crippling effects of post-traumatic stress disorder through the character of Edgar (Desmin Borges).
Although a huge number of shows that made it another great year in TV, some series shot ahead of the rest. Here is our round up of 2016’s best in TV.
The Night Of HBO’s limited series The Night Of, starring Riz Ahmed and Poorna Jagannathan, was an intense crime procedural and courtroom drama that was so good that almost everyone agrees that it ended too soon. Powerful performances, dark cinematography, and compelling storytelling that touched upon social injustices and the flawed American justice system made for eight episodes of essential viewing.
Better Call Saul In its second season, Better Call Saul stopped being a mere spinoff series. The show let its lead character Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) navigate the all-too familiar landscape of Albuquerque. We all know where Jimmy is headed as he sheds the slightest idealism left in him on his way to becoming Saul Goodman, but the series is making the most of his journey.
Fleabag In one of the most talked-about shows of 2016, actor-writer-comedian Phoebe Waller-Bridge created a sharp, dark, and fresh comedy about a broken, lost and angry woman. She does not make the best choices or redeem herself, but becomes a little more despicable and offensive with every new episode. Fleabag isn’t for the weak-hearted, but it is TV at its bold and brazen best.
The Americans The show about Russian spies posing as Americans during the Cold War in the 1980s has long been a critical darling. In 2016, the series that has often been ignored by major awards produced its best season yet. While the premise is rooted in espionage, the most gripping drama stems from how spying affects the family. The stakes were higher and the twists were even more precarious this season, leading to four Emmy nominations in 2016.
People Vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story Telling a story that has been heard before in a way that is new and engaging is always a challenge. FX’s The People Vs OJ Simpson achieved this feat with powerful performances from Cuba Gooding Jr, Sterling K Brown, Sarah Paulson and the rest of the ensemble. Set against increasing racial tensions in the USA, and played out during what was a very divisive national election, the trial attained a new and undeniable significance.
Veep Julia-Louis Dreyfus cannot help being spectacular. For a show that has been on air for five seasons, Veep manages to spout some of the funniest and grittiest dialogue, giving the fearless political comedy its raw scathing edge. This year, Selina Meyer’s short-lived presidency and the ensuing electoral chaos was mirrored by the absurd but very real political situation in America, making the satire so much more hard-hitting.
BoJack Horseman A comedy, better yet, an animated comedy that follows an anthropomorphic horse (voiced by Will Arnett) that was once a star of a famous 1990s sitcom has become a significant comment on fame, loneliness, addiction and existentialism. This season, the show based an entire episode under water, a place where BoJack has no voice, and in the process gave us one of the most incredible and emphatic hours on TV.
Game of Thrones The HBO show is ending soon. And after what was one of its most powerful seasons, with brilliant episodes like The Door, Battle of the Bastards and Winds of Winter, the realisation of an impending series finale seems like we are approaching the end of an era. Things moved forward, characters returned and some died in a season that made Emmy history.
Stranger Things A throwback to ’80s sci-fi movies, Stranger Things set the bar very high for TV programming in 2016. The Duffer brothers paid homage to cult classics like E.T., Alien, Goonies and every high school love story from the ’80s with a perfectly made horror movie in eight parts. That Winona Ryder stars in the series only increases the level of pop culture nostalgia.
Atlanta Donald Glover’s comedy is a work of genius. Credited as creator, executive producer, writer, director, executive music producer and actor, Glover has created a show unlike anything else on TV. Atlanta is a portrayal of young the African-Americans trying to make it in the music business. The show is hilarious, but it isn’t scared to get real about dreams, reality, struggle, class, race, loss and unhappiness. It isn’t easy to sum up the show in a single sentence – it doesn’t fit into a box, much like Glover himself.