First of all, yes, I know: it’s almost the end of February 2017. We’re already two months into 2017, so it’s pretty damn late to do an “end-of-the-year wrap-up” list. And, to that, I say…you are completely right, reader. But look, I’ll be entirely honest: I don’t do these lists for you. I do them for myself, so that years from now, I have a “record” of sorts about what the year in pop culture really was for me. So yeah, maybe this isn’t exactly timely. But I feel obliged to do it anyway and, if you’re reading this, I hope you get some type of value out of this very untimely list. And, c’mon, cut me some slack here — I still beat the Oscars to the punch, so doesn’t that count for something?
And it wasn’t like I spent the last few months just twiddling my thumbs — the reason I didn’t write out my Top 10’s of the year sooner was because I had so much stuff I had to catch up on first. The way I do Top 10’s isn’t “the best things I saw in the last 365 days” — if it was, most of the best things in 2016 would make my 2017 list. Every year I spend my January going through the quality things I missed out on in the year, all in an effort to make it as through a list as I can.
Which of course is still an impossibility: I’m sure I’ll end up seeing something months from now that I think was good enough to retroactively make my list. But hey, two months into the new year is already late enough: I couldn’t wait until June now, could I? In any case, here it finally is: my Top 10’s of 2016, beginning with my favorite TV shows of 2016. Kicking off the list at number 10 is…
Though he’s gained international fame from his breakout role in The Hangover, Zack Galifanakis never seemed destined to become a “mainstream” comedy star. His sensibilities in his early years was always little oft-kilter, and it quickly became clear that he couldn’t completely shed off that persona while still making worthwhile entertainment (see: Due Date. Except, no, you shouldn’t.) But, thankfully, Galifanakis didn’t have to with Baskets, his FX tragicomedy created by him, Louis C.K., and Jonathan Krisel.
No, Baskets is Galifanakis at his best, a mismatch of awkward comedy and head-scratching surrealism, with a healthy dose of slapstick thrown on top. But what truly made Baskets one of the most delightful shows of 2016 was how much Galifanakis (and I imagine Louis C.K.) committed to the tragedy of the whole thing — to put it bluntly, Baskets is sad. REALLY fucking sad. It’s a depressing ode to the futility of dreaming, and the utter disappointment of a life unfulfilled. The fact that it’s also REALLY damn funny (and through the lens of primary director Krisel, fucking beautiful) is what makes Baskets unlike anything else on television. It truly lets Galifankis’ freak flag fly, and thank god for that. We don’t need more Keeping Up With The Jones’ from him.
9. Orange is the New Black
I’ll be honest: when a show starts to make a down-slide mid-way through its run, I’m quick to kind of shrug it off. I’ll keep watching, sure, but my expectations become substantially lower, and the series goes from “must-watch” territory to “catch it whenever you have nothing else to do.” And that’s what happened with Orange is the New Black Season 3, a still solid season of TV, but lacking the momentum and power that made the first two seasons so great. When that season came to a close, I figured the shows “glory days” were done.
But then Season 4 came, and I take it all back — Orange is the New Black is truly better than ever. Replacing the aimlessness of Season 3, Season 4 kicked the show into high gear, focusing heavily on the privatization and corruption of the prison system that puts all over our beloved characters in such dire straights. Season 4 of Orange is the New Black is fucking ANGRY, enraged at the system and the monsters that it ends up creating. The penultimate episode in particular, “The Animals,” is a masterwork of TV drama, both emotionally stirring and completely devastating, with one of the most heartbreaking and tragic endings of a TV episode ever (props go to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner here, who delivered a real tour de force of direction.)
To touch upon what made the season so stellar would require a lot of spoilers, but rest assured: the way that Orange is the New Black explores some of the most troubling aspects of modern society is completely captivating, absolutely relevant, and emotionally stirring. Enraged Orange is the New Black seems to be the best Orange is the New Black, which makes it such a shame that there’s nothing in 2017 that the show could possibly be angry about to fuel future storylines.
…That was sarcasm. Season 5 is going to be interesting, all right.
In the interest of time, I’m going to keep my thoughts on Westworld pretty brief. After all, I’ve spent a good enough amount of time talking about the show in the past so, if you want more details, you can simply read one of these pieces:
But suffice to say, I am completely on team Westworld. Flaws and all, I found it to be completely captivating as both smart, thoughtful sci-fi and a fun, addicting puzzle box. Season 2 can’t come fast enough and, unfortunately, it won’t — it’s going to be a long wait until the next season arrives in 2018 but, if Season 1 is any indication, it will very much be worth the wait.
7. Better Call Saul
Poor Better Call Saul — the show is consistently one of the best things on television, but airs so early in the year that it’s really easy to forget about how good it is come list-making time. Thankfully the revving up to the next season is already in full effect (this list is REALLY late you guys), so my memory of how freaking great Season 2 was is starting to come back in full force.
Somehow the show managed to improve itself over its already great first season, and continues to cement itself as a very different show than Breaking Bad. Plots in Better Call Saul lack the same sense of danger that they did in the latter show, but somehow still feel just as pressing and important. But more than anything, Better Call Saul is a testament to the wonder of great writing, mixed with captivating performances. It’s not the type of show that will generate a bunch of fan theories or a lot of online engagement, but that in no way means its anything less than drama at its finest. Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, and everyone else involved deserve a massive pat on the back for another fine accomplishment in the world of television.
Describing what makes Donald Glover’s new show work is a surprisingly complex task, but here goes it: Atlanta is yet another surreal comedy-drama on FX, one that could easily share some of the same DNA with Baskets on paper. But one look at this series, and it’s easy to see that the two show’s respective approach to comedy/drama couldn’t be any different, with Atlanta setting out on a path that is entirely its own. It’s funny, yes, and well written, yes. But it’s also completely unique in the drama/comedy field, with no other show out there even vaguely similar to it. I know I’ve already said it once (and will say it at least one more time before this list is through,) but Atlanta truly is unlike anything else on the TV spectrum, and for more than any other reason, that’s why I love it so much.
Also: Lakeith Stanfield’s Darius is one of the best comedy characters of the year, and absurdly funny every time he is utilized. That is all.
5. Bojack Horseman
How is the show about the talking horse featuring about 2,000 cheesy animal puns one of the five best shows of 2016? I ask myself this constantly, because I will never not be in awe at what Raphael Bob Waksberg managed to accomplish with this crazy, crazy show. Bojack Horseman is hilarious, and as a comedy alone, I would have probably found a spot for it on this list. But it didn’t take long for this show to prove itself to be more than just a silly comedy.
Which, yes, is a weird thorough-line with a lot of the entries on this list: we are in a golden age of TV dramedies, and Bojack Horseman fits in quite well with Atlanta and Baskets in this regard. But while those two shows are still in their first season and “working things out” (so to speak), Bojack Horseman was in its third season in 2016, and has pretty much mastered its own unique blend of gut busting humor and heartbreaking drama. It’s themes have never been more clear, nor has its confidence been more strong. Season 3 of Bojack Horseman is a show at the top of its game, and what it manages to achieve emotionally is insane. When it comes to Netflix’s best original show, the answer is pretty damn clear: Bojack Horseman all the way.
4 & 3. American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson and O.J.:Made in America
Look, if you told me that two of my ten favorite TV shows of 2016 would be centered around the public figure that was (is?) O.J. Simpson, I would have called you absolutely crazy. Though I was somewhat aware of the huge scope that the O.J. trial had, I am a bit of a young-un, and thus did not live through the era itself. So, trust me, seeing it laid out in almost 20 hours of real and fictionalized footage is quite the eye opening experience.
But the subject matter of both The People vs. O.J. Simpson and O.J.: Made in America is one thing — it’s the execution that makes both shows so overwhelmingly excellent. O.J.:Made in America in particular is a documentary masterpiece, managing to perfectly tell the entire story of not just O.J.’s rise and fall, but Los Angeles in the post Civil Rights era. I have never seen a documentary so perfectly explore its subject matter, and there were literally dozens of times watching Made in America in which I felt absolutely floored at what I was witnessing. And yes, there’s a whole debate about if Made in America really even is a TV show, but I could honestly care less…because it’s totally a TV show. And you’re wrong if you think otherwise.
But though O.J.: Made in America is a masterpiece, that is no insult to The People vs. O.J. Simpson, which is just as excellent in a very, very different way. In fact, it’s a crazy bit of serendipity that the two launched so close together, because they complement each other very well. Though both focus on the same topic, I never felt like I was learning the same information twice, or felt like the feeling of watching either quite encapsulated me in the same way. But, rest assured, both O.J. Simpson projects in 2016 were some of the very best television around. Because 2016 was just weird like that, I guess.
2. The Americans
I’m starting to feel pretty bad for The Americans at this point: for the third year in a row, it just missed out on being my favorite show of the year. That is its fate for me, I guess — always the Best of TV bridesmaid, never the Best of TV bride.
But just because The Americans once again missed out on the top spot, doesn’t mean the show is anything less than stupendous. It doesn’t even mean the show is getting worse over the years — hell, I would argue it’s getting better, which is kind of insane when you consider the crazy good quality the series has always maintained. But what can I say? There’s no show on television right now that is as constantly engaging, as consistently nail biting, and as overall just as well executed as The Americans. The acting is near-perfect, the writing is near-perfect, the production design is near-perfect: everything about this damn show is just off-the-walls fantastic.
And yet…it always ends up getting kicked out of first place by something not just incredible, but all-time great. A masterpiece of the television form, if you would. And my number one pick this year is no different.
1. Horace and Pete
Because, I’m going to say it again, and this time I really do mean it: Horace and Pete is unlike anything else released in 2016. Hell, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever watched IN MY LIFETIME. A strange amalgamation of comedy and a top-tier melodrama play, Horace and Pete fits no category. It’s really funny, it’s really insightful, it’s really emotionally devastating — it’s really everything, in a way that only the best pieces of pop culture can be.
And make no mistake, Horace and Pete truly fits that category. Not an episode went by where I wasn’t completely awe-struck about what was unfolding in front of me, or stunned at what Louis C.K. managed to create almost entirely on his own. Both directing AND writing something of this magnitude is something only a creative genius could accomplish, and Louis C.K. completely proves himself to indeed be one of those with Horace and Pete.
Which is of course not to say he didn’t have a ton of help by a whole heap of gifted people working on this project. How C.K. was able to get Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Alan Alda, Jessica Lange, and Laurie Metcalf in a room together to create this thing defies belief, because their collective actor powers should have enough force to shatter the entire universe. Instead it just creates some of the most powerful pieces of film I have ever said, wrapped up in a package that is far more emotionally complex and thematically rich than you would expect from the guy who wrote Pootie Tang.
But even more so than with Louie, what Louis C.K. was able to create with Horace and Pete is truly a revelation. I sincerely believe that the man is now one of our most talented storytellers, and has a knack for filmmaking that puts most others to shame. Because Horace and Pete isn’t just the best TV comedy I saw in 2016. Nor was it the best TV drama or, hell, the best TV show. No, Horace and Pete is hands down the best piece of pop culture I had the pleasure to bare witness to in a very, very long time.
So there you have it, my Top 10 TV Shows of 2016. Once again, sorry for the lateness but, hey, better late than never…right? Yeah, that’s what I keep telling myself. Anyways, also check out my list of the Top 10 Films of 2016, while you’re still here.
Also published on Medium.