For most of my life, TV felt like a small city where you knew everybody’s name. Even in the early 2000s, you might see an actor pop up on late-night TV or a magazine cover, and even if you didn’t watch their show, you’d say, “Oh, yeah, that’s the guy from that show.” You didn’t know everybody intimately, but you still knew who they were.
That started to change in the late 2000s, and as of 2016, TV is in full urban sprawl mode. It’s a cliché now to say there’s so much TV that no one critic can watch all of it, but it’s true. Vox employs two full-time TV writers — myself and Caroline Framke — and lots of our other writers watch lots of TV, and we still can’t keep tabs on everything.
Consequently, TV in 2016 is much more reflective of a world beyond the limited viewpoints on offer in the past. Streaming services and cable channels like Sundance are only too happy to import the best TV from around the globe. Diverse voices are more welcome throughout the medium than ever before. Even genre distinctions no longer feel all that important — most of the best shows on TV don’t exist comfortably as “dramas” or “comedies” or even “dramedies.”
This broad flourishing of creativity has been fruitful for many reasons — but it’s also largely destroyed the notion of a consensus “best TV show.” Sure, you’ll see the same titles crop up on many critics’ lists, but it’s hard to imagine a situation where one show appears on every list across the board.
TV used to feel like a broad, communal experience, where Americans gathered around to enjoy the same sorts of programs, at the same time, in the same sorts of ways. Now, it feels more like a quiet, psychic link between like-minded folks — maybe none of your close friends or family watch Horace and Pete, but somebody out there does, and you can find them on social media.
But in 2016, TV felt spread thin. There were still many, many good shows, but fewer great ones than I saw even last year; it was easier to make a top 10 list than at any time since I’ve been a critic. And yet once you get past the “great” tier, the “incredibly good” tier is vast and wide-ranging. There’s so much out there, and so much more coming.
Television is our best entertainment medium for responding to the state of the country, because it moves at lightning speed. But I worry that constant expansion will cause something to snap back, right when the country needs to have a mirror held up to it more than ever.
And yet I’m hopeful. Many of the shows on this list are first or second season shows, and even more young shows were in consideration. The state of television is shaky, but strong.
We’ll see what 2017 brings. For now, these were the 21 best TV shows of 2016, ranked in order of preference.
21) The Magicians, season one (Syfy)
I’m a sucker for the Lev Grossman novel trilogy that inspired the show, but I was pleased and surprised by how organically and intriguingly The Magicians expanded on its source material. This story of 20-something magicians who are drawn to an academy for the magical arts — and then realize magic is never going to make them feel whole — often combines the existential ennui of Mad Men with the wild storytelling inventiveness of Adventure Time. It’s slow to start, but by the end of season one, you’ll be hooked.
20) Silicon Valley, season three (HBO)
This pitch-perfect satire of oblivious tech-bro culture hit its highest point yet in the second half of season three, when its characters finally launched the app they’d been building for months — and learned that even though it was technically unrivaled, most people found it impossible (or pointless) to use. Silicon Valley is both the funniest show on this list and the most prescient when it comes to the ways our digital lives feel both more and less real than our physical ones.
19) Bates Motel, season four (A&E)
A&E’s Psycho prequel finally realized its tragic potential in a fourth season that kept turning to one central question: If you knew your child had a mental illness that led to criminality, how would you take care of him while still protecting others? If you’ve seen Psycho, you know the answer is “not well,” but actors Freddie Highmore and Vera Farmiga take the material to brutal heights.
18) Girls, season five (HBO)
Late in its run, Girls quietly aired its best season since its first in a world where its creator became even more of a political flashpoint than she had already been. Lena Dunham’s adventures on the campaign trail prompted exasperated sighs from the right and (especially) the left, but she’s still making a really good TV show about a group of friends who spend their 20s realizing how ill-suited they are to be friends with each other in the first place.
17) Superstore, seasons one and two (NBC)
You know those long-gone manufacturing jobs that political candidates kept talking about during election season? Those in the working class are increasingly taking retail and service-industry jobs — but when’s the last time you saw a TV show set in a Chipotle? NBC’s Superstore is a one-show attempt to rectify that problem, and its story about department store labor looking for a better deal from management proved unbelievably timely. But it’s also crammed full of great jokes and features TV’s best new will-they/won’t-they romance.
16) Horace and Pete, season one (LouisCK.net)
Almost as exciting for the independent TV revolution it represents as it is for the terrific TV program it turned out to be, Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete is a shaggy, rambling story of two men, a bar, and the neighborhood they call home. At some points, season one felt like the quintessential New York TV series, but at others, it felt like a new American myth of the dying working class. C.K.’s masterstroke was filming the whole thing like a live TV drama from the 1950s, which only added to its “stage play lost in time” quality.
15) Black-ish, seasons two and three (ABC)
Black-ish has been more hit-and-miss in season three than it was in its superb second season, but it remains one of the few shows on TV to wring laughs out of topics as varied as police violence and the existence (or lack thereof) of God. It’s also one of TV’s most class-conscious shows, as Dre Johnson (the always great Anthony Anderson) attempts to bridge the gap between the poverty of his childhood and the plenty his own children are growing up with. Even if the show were much worse, Anderson and Tracee Ellis-Ross (as Rainbow, Dre’s wife) would make it worth watching.
14) Better Call Saul, season two (AMC)
Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s Breaking Bad prequel sometimes felt uncertain of itself in season one — telling stories in fits and starts. Season two slowed everything down, mostly to focus on what happened when Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk, as the man who will become Breaking Bad’s morally murky lawyer Saul Goodman) gets a job at a big law firm. You already know from Breaking Bad that Jimmy will flail, but Better Call Saul turned that flailing into a poignant examination of what it means to want to do good but find doing bad so, so, so tempting.
13) Insecure, season one (HBO)
In some ways, Issa Rae’s series feels like a skewed sequel to Girls. Her fictional Issa is almost through her 20s and starting to figure out what her future might look like. But that idea is both exciting and a little terrifying, and Insecure examines just what happens when she starts pulling at the threads of her life to figure out which ones she wants to knit back in and which she wants to unravel. Rae and costar Yvonne Orji (as show Issa’s friend Molly) offer one of TV’s best portraits of female friendship.
12) The Girlfriend Experience, season one (Starz)
More and more independent film voices are finding a home in cable and streaming television. In 2016, the best example of their crossover appeal was this half-hour drama series, based on a Steven Soderbergh film and written and directed by indie film mainstays Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan. The series’ pedigree was top-notch, sure, but it wouldn’t have worked without a razor-sharp understanding of how to turn a film about a sex worker into a TV series about a sex worker and about our complicated relationships with the personas we present on social media.
11) Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, seasons one and two (The CW)
There’s still juice in the antihero show — but sometimes you have to turn it into a musical comedy to find it. Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s breathlessly inventive portrait of one young woman who too often thinks only of herself and frequently plays the emotional wrecking ball in others’ lives could have easily been unbearable. But somehow, it perfectly manages the blend of emotional darkness, light comedy, and musical numbers required to keep all of its plates spinning.
10) The Good Place, season one (NBC)
Mike Schur’s new comedy earns major points for degree of difficulty. The serialized tale of a woman who dies and winds up in “the good place” — only to realize she should have gone to the bad place — has the kind of plot that sounds like it should be undergirding a lesser Adam Sandler comedy. But in Schur’s hands (and thanks to a terrific ensemble cast, led by Kristen Bell), the series becomes a very funny treatise on ethics, forgiveness, and fixing a broken world. Extra credit for Ted Danson’s very natty suits.
9) BoJack Horseman, season three (Netflix)
This animated chronicle of the adventures of a depressed horse working in show business — in a universe where humans and anthropomorphic animals live alongside each other — grows a little more complicated and despairing with every new season. It’s a rare series that can juxtapose the sheer joy and inventiveness of an underwater-set, nearly dialogue-free episode with the dark horror and bottomless sadness of season three’s penultimate installment, in which BoJack goes off the deep end and takes someone else with him.
8) Fleabag, season one (Amazon)
The “sad comedy” is essentially a subgenre now, but this British import created by and starring the incredibly nimble performer Phoebe Waller-Bridge is one of the most exciting new entries that subgenre has seen in ages. The protagonist — who goes only by the titular “Fleabag” — spends most of season one’s six episodes tearing apart her life, her relationships, and herself. But there’s a reason for her plunge into inky black darkness, and the series is unflinching in digging to her very core. Also, I promise, it’s hilarious.
7) Rectify, season four (Sundance)
Ray McKinnon’s gorgeous ode to the rural South closed up shop this year after four seasons and 30 episodes. The final stretch basically amounted to an epilogue to the story of seasons one, two, and three — and yet, true to Rectify form, that epilogue was filled with grace, humor, and bittersweet moments. After 19 years on death row, a newly exonerated Daniel Holden moved from his little hometown of Paulie, Georgia, where he’d lived for a few months after his release, to Nashville, where he attempted to restart his life. His family, meanwhile, was left to pick up the pieces from Daniel’s brief return to their lives. Few shows on TV are this wise, or this soulful.
6) The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, season one (FX)
Somehow, the story of O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial proved the most timely TV series of the year. The latest magnum opus from Ryan Murphy had big twists, big turns, and drama to spare — but because it was based on such a famous story from the past, the twists and turns served to illuminate the trial’s role in inventing the modern media landscape we know today. There were so many ways for this project to go wrong; that it somehow became the most thought-provoking — and most entertaining! — show of the year feels like a minor miracle. (O.J.: Made in America, which aired on ESPN, made our list of the year’s best films.)
5) Atlanta, season one (FX)
The most confident debut series of the year, Donald Glover’s new comedy just oozes great ideas and surrealistic masterstrokes. One episode might take you inside a rapper’s interview on the fictional Black Action Network, another might detail a young woman’s attempts to thwart a drug test. And the series’ sharp satire and even sharper jokes meant it was consistently funny, even as it was digging into the reality of the black experience in America in 2016. Glover, who worked previously as a writer on 30 Rock and an actor on Community, has long been one of TV’s funniest people. With Atlanta, he proves he’s one of its most vital creative forces, period.
4) Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, season one (TBS)
Late-night comedy might not have been able to sway the election, but it never should have had that power anyway. Though Bee has been criticized by some for exemplifying a kind of smug liberalism that doomed Democrats this fall, I’ve always felt that her show was far too angry to fit that description. Bee doesn’t think she can prove anything to you; she knows you probably won’t listen to her, so she’s not going to bother with being polite. Couple that persona with the best comedy writing team in late night, and you have a recipe for one of the year’s very best shows.
3) The Americans, season four (FX)
After its stellar fourth season, The Americans would really have to screw something up to lose its way in its upcoming final two seasons (which will air in 2017 and 2018, respectively). Season four dug ever deeper into the show’s central themes of trust, loyalty, and belief. It shook, harder than ever before, the very foundations of the fake/real marriage between Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the show’s central pair of KGB spies playacting as “normal” Americans in the Reagan ‘80s. The Americans works because it understands that nobody in its universe is a pawn in some Cold War game. They’re all human beings, with hopes, dreams, and lives that can so easily be snuffed out.
2) Orange Is the New Black, season four (Netflix)
The fourth season of Orange Is the New Black felt like a Rosetta stone for decoding the rest of Jenji Kohan’s brilliant, troubling series about a women’s prison. Whether you thought its final two episodes — which knit together many disparate storylines via one sad, seemingly avoidable tragedy — were manipulative or incredibly powerful, they offered up the show’s most full-throated condemnation to date of the power structures we all live within. No TV show is as interested in how simply being alive can turn you into a villain — no matter how much you might hope not to be.
1) Halt and Catch Fire, season three (AMC)
After a middling first season and a terrific second season, it was anybody’s guess how AMC’s 1980s-set tech drama might fare in season three — particularly with the departure of its showrunner and the addition of an almost entirely new writing staff. (Series creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers were the only two who remained.) But the series confronted its upheaval head-on and became the very best on TV this year, a potent look back at the earliest days of the internet that also glimpsed, through some hazy curtain, the world we live in right now.
Everything about Halt and Catch Fire season three, from the barely masked sexism its women encounter in the tech sphere to the unease its other characters feel at the looming specter of a hyper-connected world, seems of a piece with 2016 — even if season three technically takes place in 1986.
The series understands that maxim of great television set in some other time and place: We might have different clothes and different homes and different technology, but we’re still the people we always were. There’s nothing so human as longing for change — except, perhaps, for being frightened of that change.