Monday, 19 December 2016

2016 in TV: My top ten shows

TV has hit some real high points in 2016. We're heading for 500 scripted shows in 2017 and so many of those are actually worth watching. As 2016 winds to a close, it's time to mark that with my top ten shows of the year.

So, without further ado...

1. The Americans

By the time The Americans reached the eighth episode of its fourth season, I felt that it was going to be tough for the show not to be my number one for the year. By the end of it, I was virtually certain that nothing would top it. Over its first three seasons, this FX drama did some wonderful things, and has, like a lot of great shows, only improved as it's gone along. This season, an intense eight-episode arc surrounding Philip's dilemma over what to do about Martha, Paige's coming to terms with her parents' secret and their attempt to keep Pastor Tim from exposing them, Elizabeth's friendship with Young-Hee, and the looming threat of the biothreat all set the tone for a near-flawless season of television. Throw in some tragic deaths, a stunning episode in "The Magic of David Copperfield V: The Statue of Liberty Disappears", Stan and Oleg's excellent arcs, and the acting ability of the entire cast - Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, and Alison Wright in particular - and you've got a season worthy of more praise than any one person can give.

2. Halt and Catch Fire

When Halt and Catch Fire changed its focus to Cameron and Donna's enterprise running Mutiny in season two, it was a step up from a solid first season that lacked real clarity. When the show made another somewhat radical shift for season three, moving all of the characters to Silicon Valley (plus pushing Joe MacMillan to his own company, including Gordon at Mutiny, etc.), it took yet another step up. Though the early hours were slow to kick fully into gear, it gradually built upon existing and new layers to underpin the heavy final five episodes. Joe's separation from Mutiny was an inspired idea, with the character working far better in something of a villain role (both for storytelling purposes and for Lee Pace), while the conflict between Cameron and Donna, culminating in a stunning sequence at the climax of "The Threshold", was some of the most wonderfully horrible pieces of storytelling of the year - Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé both terrific throughout.

3. The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

With Ryan Murphy's name attached, you'd have been forgiven for assuming that People v O.J. might have been a wackier look at The Trial of the Century. Instead, what we got was a gripping, deeply emotional series detailing less Simpson's role in his own case and more the other players - namely Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran. Spectacularly played here by Sarah Paulson and Courtney B. Vance, respectively, the characters were given an insight that made them both immensely compelling as they attempted to prove their client's side of the case to the jury. Equally - and perhaps more - terrific was Sterling K. Brown, whose Chris Darden became a huge player in both the case and Marcia's quest for justice. This series worked out far better than anyone could have hoped, and ended up being one of the best pieces of television of the year.

4. Better Call Saul

In its first season, Better Call Saul had the tricky job of establishing itself as its own thing while being stuck with the idea of the series being Breaking Bad's spinoff. It succeeded, and the second season took that foundation and transformed it into a series that, while connected to its precedessor - with a number of characters returning - was an entirely separate beast. What's remarkable about this is not that it worked, but that the second season was so great at being can't miss television. Most of that comes down to the development of supporting characters, namely Rhea Seehorn's Kim Wexler, who became an integral part both of Jimmy McGill's life and Better Call Saul as a show in season two; Jimmy's transformation into Saul (and Mike) may be why we joined the series, but now the other characters are just as important - so much so that, at times, Jimmy felt like a footnote on his own show. Couple that with some excellent-as-ever performances from Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean, and the odd breathtakingly shot sequence - the one-shot at the beginning of "Fifi", Jimmy trying on the colourful shirts in "Inflatable", Kim's phone call montage in "Rebecca" - and the result is a show worthy of its roots.

5. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Even living outside the U.S., the concept of politics in 2016 seems to have died a painful death, replaced by the insanity of the dumpster fire that was the UK's EU referendum and the U.S. Presidential Election. Comedy provides a relief in the dark times, and John Oliver's satire was a welcome aid in dealing with this year. Always incisive, informative, and entertaining, Oliver's half-hour show is one that perfectly blends humour and journalism (despite his suggestion that the show isn't journalism; ironically, one of his best episodes of the year was the early August instalment on the declining state of journalism itself). More than all the others on this list, aside from The Americans, this was the show I looked forward to most each week.

6. The Night Of

The Night Of's hook was the story of a college kid getting arrested for a crime he may or may not have committed, and what happens to him afterwards. But what became the miniseries' greatest strength was not so much that as it was the themes it addressed: the flaws of the justice system, policing issues, the effects of being in prison, racism. Indeed, by the time it came to the finale and the wrapping up of the case, I didn't much care whether Naz (Riz Ahmed) was innocent or guilty; what mattered was how The Night Of expressed the things it wanted to say about the world. As it was, the finale ran far too long and wrapped up the series in a less than stellar way, but the impact of the case was felt in the epilogue, and that was what mostly mattered. It was a harrowing look into the horrible situation of a murder investigation. Plus, John Turturro (and his character's affection for a cat, despite his allergies) was fantastic.

7. Westworld

As the first season of Westworld wore on, it became increasingly more frustrating as mystery was prioritised over character, the finale in particular something of an exposition dump as nine episodes of misdirection and withheld information was made up for. That being said, Westworld's ability to manage all that it did without the series falling apart at any point is somewhat remarkable, and that an entertainingly good/sometimes great season was delivered is impressive. Between the spectacle of it all, and the acting prowess of Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris, Anthony Hopkins, and especially the stunning performance of Thandie Newton, Westworld is ultimately deserving of its spot here, despite its issues.

8. Game of Thrones

Frankly, this would be worthy of inclusion on the list for its season finale alone, which was a demonstration on how to wrap up a season and how to provide a satisfying end to several story arcs in a single episode. Not the least of which was Cersei's attack on the Sept of Baelor, a scene that I'd argue is the best to have aired on television in 2016, and certainly the best sequence Game of Thrones has done. Despite some missteps - Arya's entire arc as a girl with no name, mainly - Thrones shook off most of its issues from a somewhat stagnant and problematic fifth season to get back on its game.

9. Person of Interest

Almost an entire year after its previous episode aired, Person of Interest returned for its fifth and final season in May, burnt off by CBS. But the chaotic and unpredictable airing schedule (at one point, three episodes aired over two nights) didn't prevent its last hurrah from being a successful one. A reduced episode order allowed for a greater inclusion of the serialised storytelling that made the show so good in its previous two years - though several episodes still contained a procedural element, more than I'd have hoped for - and the desperate nature of the team's fight against Samaritan enabled a heightened pace that made for an intense season. The Shaw-centric "6,741" was a genius episode, the one-hundredth turned the show on its head with three hours to go, while the series finale was heartbreakingly perfect. Would it have been nice for less procedural stories and more episodes in general? Sure. But what we got was pretty damn great.

10. Baskets

Having premiered in January, chances are that if you've heard of Baskets, you've forgotten about it. A sad indictment of the depth of television in 2016. But this Zach Galifianakis comedy is one worth remembering. The "Hangover" star plays Chip, a clown attempting to get by after dropping out of clown school in France and agreeing to a Green Card marriage leaves him working at a local rodeo. Baskets conveys its humour in subtle ways, with the delivery key to their impact, but it is the series' emotional side that really resonates; watching Chip desperate to succeed at his dream as his life struggles around him is both entertaining and harrowingly sad. Though Baskets is almost certainly in need of watching just for Louie Anderson, who is magnificent as Chip's mother (he even won an Emmy!).

How does my list compare to your top ten?

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