Wednesday, February 01, 2017

2016: The Year in Television

A lot of television critics are calling 2016 the best year of television ever, and they're probably right. 2015 was the year that we really recognized and named the era of Peak TV, and 2016 was the year that it really took over as the dominant cultural art form of our time. Sure, movies are still making megamillions, and video games are more ubiqutous than ever, but it seemed as though TV was the driving factor for a lot of cultural conversation over the past year.

It seemed like there was far more good television than in most years, and that I had more shows that I wanted to watch that I missed than I had had in years. I might still take other years ahead of this one in terms of the TV produced, but all things considered, television in 2016 may well go down as one of the best years of any medium in modern pop culture.

There is simply too much good television now (455 scripted shows by the "official" count), and it seems like it is continually getting harder and harder to choose what to watch. I ended up integrating a few new shows into my repertoire this year, but I undertook only one extended project (rewatching Community) during the entire year. I think, to an extent, that it felt easier to manage smaller portions of television rather than large chunks, but I know I am going to have to commit to some longer shows at some point - or just finally remove them from my list.

So I got to the end of the year and felt as though the list of shows I wanted to watch far outnumbered the list of the shows that I actually was able to watch, and that the sheer volume of quality television makes any attempt to identify "the best" shows of the year to be an almost impossible task. But I will do my best to discuss what I saw, what I wanted to see, and in some cases what I deliberately skipped along the way.

In terms of the specific categories I used, I decided this year to eliminate the "science fiction/fantasy" category that I have used in the past, instead incorporating those entries into "drama". There was usually only one or maybe two entries in that category and they were always dramatic anyway, and it's a lot easier to track my watching with one less category.

For each category (comedy, drama, reality, and variety/talk), I have provided - with some commentary - lists of what I watched, what I missed (with the possibility of catching up on later), and what I deliberately skipped from the year. I have also included my ongoing lists of shows I finally watched and/or rewatched during the year, what's in the queue next, what shows are still on my list to investigate, and those outstanding projects (both long and short) that never seem to get any closer to being done but that hang around nevertheless, before concluding with a few of the premiering and returning shows that I am looking forward to seeing in 2017.

Comedy


This might have been the best year for comedy on television, period. Sure, there have been some great years in the past - you could make an argument for the period in which early Seinfeld, late Cheers, late The Cosby Show, and early The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air overlapped in 1991, or perhaps 2006 when Arrested Development was ending and 30 Rock was beginning, but I think that this year likely beats them all.

All five comedies I watched this year landed on my top shows of the year, there were almost as many other comedies that I wanted to watch that I did not get to see, and then there were that many again that were not in my viewing list but that are still operating at a very high level. Here are my thoughts on the comedies from 2016.

Watched:

Atlanta (Season 1, FX) - Creator and star Donald Glover described his show as "Twin Peaks with rappers", and he ended up close to that mark. I was excited about the show based on Glover's pedigree, but it far exceeded even my wildest expectation. Atlanta took television to a new level, though it built on the success of shows like Louie, and it established a new standard not only for comedy but also for a template for really exploring an area - in this case, the rap culture of Atlanta.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 3-4, Fox) - No show made me laugh out loud more often this year than Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It is in full stride with all of its characters, and there is arguably no other show that I look forward to watching each week as much as I enjoy the 9-9; in fact, it's the only show that I try to watch regularly rather than binging, which is saying something about how much I enjoy it.

The Good Place (Season 1, NBC) - If you had told me a year ago that a network comedy - or any comedy, for that matter - would feature discussions of ethics, morality, Kant, Plato, and the afterlife, I would not have believed you. Even now, after watching the first season of The Good Place - the newest comedy from Mike Schur of The OfficeParks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) - I still have trouble believing that it worked, but it provided a great source of humour and pathos for its characters along with its philosophizing, and I'm very interested to see where it goes in its second season.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season 2, Netflix) - I was really surprised at the places to which this show went in its second season - places of surprisingly raw emotion and pain (in the form of grief burps). It stayed surprisingly light even as it illuminated some dark places, and I think it is poised for exploring some really interesting territory in Season 3.

Veep (Season 5, HBO) - Veep's fifth season was unfortunately prescient in the way it looked at the way its fictional election unfolded - particularly as the real election tumbled its way to its ultimate conclusion. I cannot imagine that Veep thought it would end up being so close to the truth, but with the way things are happening in real life now, I'm very interested to see where they go from here.

Missed:

There were a lot of comedies I missed over the course of the year. Some were shows I just did not have the chance to get to, whereas a few others were shows that came to my attention through year-end lists. These shows are all on my "shows to investigate" list, and any of them might bump up to the top of the queue at some point in the next few months.

BoJack Horseman (Season 3, Netflix) - I had never paid much attention to BoJack in the past, but the most recent season got enough praise that now I feel as though I have to check it out.

Dirk Gently (Season 1, BBC) - The comedy based on Douglas Adams'  novels received a mixed reception, but I think it will be worth checking out, especially since it's now on Netflix.

Search Party (Season 1, TBS) - A late-breaking show that got a bump in buzz and that stars Alia Shawkat (Maeby from Arrested Development), which makes it worth investigating. I watched the first episode, and I was intrigued enough to warrant keeping it on my radar for now.

Superstore (Season 1-2, NBC) - Along with The Good Place, Superstore is the heir apparent to quirky NBC comedies from the past, which is a good enough pedigree to warrant at least minimal interest on my part.

Skipped:

There were a few other comedies that I skipped throughout the year. Some I had started watching but not continued; most of these were just a byproduct of not having the time and/or energy to follow on a regular basis.

Black-ish (Season 2-3, ABC) - I did hear really good things about this comedy, especially their episode about police violence. It might be worth checking out sometime.

Fresh Off The Boat (Season 2-3, ABC) - The comedy about a Taiwanese family in mid-90s Orlando had some great moment in its first season, but I just did not get around to anything past that.

The Great Indoors (Season 1, CBS) - Although this multi-cam sitcom initially appealed to me because of its cast - Joel McHale, Stephen Fry, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse - it came, got a lot of blah buzz, and will probably last several seasons on CBS, providing paycheques for its stars and forced laughs for its audience, which probably will not include me.

The Last Man on Earth (Season 2-3, Fox) - I watched the first half-season of this show last year, got distracted, and never got back into it. I doubt I will now.

Love (Season 1, Netflix) - Although I really enjoyed Gillian Jacobs in Community, the concept of this show - single people looking for love in Los Angeles - did not appeal to me enough to try it out.

Modern Family (Season 7-8, ABC) - I think I stopped watching this show three or four years ago, and I had no need to tune back in now.

New Girl (Season 5-6, Fox) - Ditto.

Silicon Valley (Season 3, HBO) - Double ditto, except that I stopped partway through Season 1 instead of after three seasons.

Transparent (Season 3, Amazon) - I just never got into this show, but it stays on my radar nevertheless.

Rewatched: Community (Season 1-5)

In the queue: Community (Season 6); Clone High; Dirk GentlyMorton and Hayes

To investigate: Andy Richter Saves the Universe; Black-ishBoJack HorsemanBored to Death; The Larry Sanders ShowMaster of None; Search PartySlings and Arrows; Superstore

Outstanding projects: Black Adder; Curb Your EnthusiasmFawlty Towers; Monty Python's Flying CircusParks and Recreation (Season 5-7); Police Squad!The Thick of It

Looking forward to 2017: Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 4-5, Fox); Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 9, HBO, TBD); The Good Place (Season 2, NBC, Fall) Great News (Season 1, NBC, April); Mystery Science Theater 3000 (Netflix, TBD); Powerless (Season 1, NBC, February); Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season 3, Spring); Veep (Season 6, Spring)

Drama


After years of having intense serial dramas that I followed, this past year was the least invested I have been in a decade in ongoing dramas on TV. Aside from Better Call Saul, every other drama I watched was short-form in its design (although we will get more Stranger Things), which I think shows something not only about my state of mind but also about the current nature of dramatic television.

I think it's easier for me to watch shorter segments right now, but I also wonder whether the age of the serial drama that lasts seven seasons and well over a hundred episodes is arguably behind us, now that The Good Wife - perhaps the last example of the old guard - is now finished. In the meantime, I'll just keep enjoying the renaissance of short-form dramatic television.

Watched:

American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson (FX) - I was dismissive of the show at first, as it seemed to be just another cash grab and that it would end up being a glorification of celebrity and fame. Instead, this show offered up an essential analysis not only of the trial itself and the principal players, but of fame, celebrity, the judicial system, race, and America. The presence of three scene-stealing performances from Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, and Sterling K. Brown elevated the show even further, and the show easily set itself as one of the most important shows not only of the year, but easily the decade, and arguably the twenty-first century.

Better Call Saul (Season 2, AMC) - The first season of Saul took a few episodes to really find its rhythm apart from being the prequel spin-off to Breaking Bad, but the second season had no such stumbling in its onset. The season spent its time allowing Jimmy McGill to encounter the world of partnership law in order to have him truly begin to find himself. BCS remains an understated gem and one of the subtle wonders of the era of Peak TV - it is telling its story in its way with its own pacing, and viewers are in store for an incredible ride over the next three or four years.

The Night Of (HBO) - The Night Of came with a high concept: taking the idea of a criminal investigation that is usually fast-tracked through one episode of a series like Law and Order and exploring it over eight episodes from several different angles: the accused navigating through the correctional system; law enforcement trying to solve the crime; and the way in which the legal teams (both prosecution and defense) process all of the information as the trial goes on.

This prestige mini-series started off really well, and the first five episodes were as good as any stretch of crime fiction in recent memory. The final three episodes took a couple of unfortunate liberties with a couple of main characters that sullied the final product, but it still stands as one of the more fresh and vital examples of a genre that has otherwise been relatively stale for a while, and John Turturro's John Stone is one of the best characters on TV in recent memory.

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (BBC) - This movie threw Sherlock, Watson, and company into the classic Victorian era with little explanation as to how it happened. It was an entertaining episode, and it was enough to tide me over until Season 4, but it also held up on its own as an interesting mystery, both in in its plot and in the question as to why the characters had been thrown back over a century.

Stranger Things (Season 1) - What more is there to say about the retro sci-fi horror thriller hit of the year? It scratched an itch we did not know we had, and it became the unexpected hit of the summer. It was an incredibly crafted example of "movies as TV", and it set the bar very high for any of the many imitators that are sure to follow.

You, Me, and the Apocalypse (Season 1) - Although the concept was interesting - a group of seemingly unconnected strangers end up crossing paths in the month before an asteroid hits the earth - and the cast was similarly fascinating (Rob Lowe, Jenna Fischer, and a scene-stealing Megan Mullally), the final product was a little lacking. I suppose that's why it did not receive a second season, but I'm also not sure what they could have done with the story anyway.

Missed:

The Americans (Season 4, FX) - This story of Russian spies in Reagan's America has been on my radar for years; maybe this will be the year I finally catch up in time for the final season next year.

Black Mirror (Season 3, BBC/Netflix) - This British tech-horror-thriller anthology series is all on Netflix now, so it's definitely high in my queue.

The Get Down (Season 1, Netflix) - I might end up catching up with Baz Luhrmann's story of late '70s hip hop in New York once the second half of the season drops later this year, or it might be one that end up skipping entirely - I'll have to see how the rest is received.

Horace and Pete - Louis C.K. is one of the more fascinating creators of television right now, so his escapade into self-funded and self-distributed "theatrical" television has piqued my interest since it was released last year.

Mr. Robot (Season 2, USA) - I only barely started binging the first season of the breakout hit of 2015, but there's enough there to make me intrigued about where the story is going.

The Night Manager (AMC) - A short half-dozen episode AMC mini-series based on a John Le CarrĂ© novel seems like a good way to pass a bit of time.

Skipped:

Game of Thrones (Season 6, HBO) - I note this here for posterity, as it has been several years since I made the decision to not watch Thrones - and I still do not regret it.

Marvel's Daredevil (Season 2, Netflix) / Marvel's Luke Cage (Season 1, Netflix) - After my experience with Jessica Jones last year, I said I would not watch any more Netflix Marvel series. It did not take much to avoid Daredevil's second season, but Luke Cage started getting good enough buzz that I decided to check it out. I watched the pilot, and although there were a couple of moments and characters that seemed interesting - particularly Mahershala Ali as the villain Cottonmouth - I was immediately reminded of why I swore off these series last year: they're graphically violent, anywhere between three and five episodes too long, and ultimately not worth the time they take for what they provide.

Vinyl (Season 1, HBO) - I was initially intrigued by the concept of the show - the travails of a record producer in the rock-and-roll '70s - but I did not get around to even watching the first episode before the negative buzz deterred me from watching it. The show did not get renewed, anyway, so I do not feel like I missed much.

Westworld (Season 1, HBO) - I think I'm just mostly out on HBO dramas by this point, but I think I made the right decision in not investing in this show, given the amount and type of internet chatter as the season progressed. The general reaction to the show seems to have justified my choice.

The X-Files (Season 10, Fox) - Sure, there was a nostalgia factor, and I heard that there were a couple of great episodes in the half-dozen that aired, but I just did not get to watching them - and then I found I did not really miss the experience.

Finally watched: Fargo (Season 1-2, FX) - Season 1 was incredible enough on its own, but Season 2 might be one of the best single seasons of TV I have ever seen.

In the queue: Black MirrorBroadchurch (Season 2); The Hour; Mr. RobotThe Night Manager

To investigate: The Americans; The Get Down; Halt and Catch Fire; The Man in the High Castle; Orphan Black; RectifyTop of the Lake

Outstanding projects: Battlestar Galactica; The Cape; Friday Night Lights; Horace and PeteStar Trek: Deep Space Nine; Star Trek: The Original Series (S2-3); Mad Men; The West Wing; The Wire

Looking forward to 2017: Better Call Saul (Season 3, AMC, April); The Deuce (Season 1, HBO, TBD); Doctor Who (Season 10, BBC, TBD); The Expanse (Season 1, SyFy, February); Fargo (Season 3, FX, Fall); The Handmaid's Tale (Season 1, Hulu, April); Legion (Season 1, FX, February); Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (Season 1, Netflix, January); Sherlock (Season 4, BBC, January); Star Trek: Discovery (Season 1, CBS All-Access, May); Stranger Things (S2, Netflix, TBD); Taboo (Season 1, FX, January); Twin Peaks (Season 3, Showtime, May); The Young Pope (Season 1, HBO, January)

Reality


So this is actually pretty much just the Survivor category at this point, as there are no other reality shows I watch. I wrote a couple of posts over the course of the year about SurvivorRanking the Winners and Top Twists, and I continued to enjoy watching the show as it continues to grow and change in strategy and personality. There's still a lot of life left in the game, and there still a lot of blindsides and twists to come.

Survivor: Kaoh Rong (Season 32, CBS) was one of my least favourite seasons in terms of casting, strategy, and final result. The show recycled the "brain vs. brawn vs. beauty" twist that had worked really well only three seasons earlier, but it felt like it was a bit too soon to rehash the concept. There were a few really interesting competitors, but there were a few too many twists, and the final result was disappointing. This season was actually filmed before the previous season that had aired (Survivor: Cambodia - Second Chance), and I hope it will be the last one to feature the old style of strategic play.

Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen. X (Season 33, CBS) was much more satisfying in almost all regards. The theme - a competition between generations - was compelling, the competition was fierce, and the end result was highly satisfying. It seems likely that many of these players will return at some point in the future - including two for next season - so this season will only likely increase in reputation as its cast members return in future editions.

In the queue: King of the Nerds (BBC)

Outstanding projects: The first seven seasons of Survivor (Palau; The Australian Outback; Africa; Marquesas; Thailand; Amazon; Pearl Islands)

Looking forward to 2017: Survivor: Game Changers - Mamanuca Islands (Season 34, CBS, March); Survivor: TBD (Season 35, CBS, Fall)

Variety/Talk


Thanks to the wonder of YouTube and the constant insanity of the demise of American democracy, I spent more time than usual tracking with various late night programs. Here are the six I followed most closely with some commentary on each, in order of preference.

(Dis)honourable mention: The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon (NBC) - I was out on Fallon even before he mussed Trump's hair. He certainly has mastered the art of chumming with celebrities and playing goofy games, but in a year when we needed people like him to be stronger advocates, Fallon was notable in his apparent disinterest in doing so. Sure, he cracks wise about the things that are happening, but I would not look to him for any kind of meaningful leadership in being a voice to encourage critical thought.

Any Given Wednesday with Bill Simmons (HBO) - Simmons will be (and has been, on his podcast), the first to admit that his show never hit its stride and that he is probably relieved that it was canceled. It was unfortunate, since there were a few moments that worked well, but he is definitely much better on his podcast than he was on the show. I might have like to see him get a bit more time to find his footing, but I still have enough Simmons in my life to be happy, so it's just as well that his attention is not as divided.

Late Show with Stephen Colbert (CBS) - Colbert really seemed to find himself in the midst of the election after a rough start to his new gig. His interviews were still definitely the highlight of his work, although he did provide a couple of great monologue pieces about all of the happenings of the campaign, and it was great to see him resurrect a bit of the old Colbert rapport with the material.

Late Night with Seth Meyers (NBC) - I was genuinely surprised by how much Myers emerged as a satirical force over the past year. He seemed much more comfortable after he made the transition to the desk, and he used the "Closer Look" format with great effectiveness. He still comes off as a bit smarmy at times, but he has generally found the right balance of sarcasm and pointed criticism.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS) - The only female presence on late night is refreshingly angry most of the time. She provides a lot of catharsis through her well-informed tirades, and she really seems not to care what people think of her - which is a good thing. Though there are times in which I am concerned that she is playing into the stereotype of a "nasty woman", I think it is important that she continues doing what she's doing in cutting through the misogynistic culture of television and politics because what she is saying is important as well as the fact that she is the one saying it. I only hope that it will not be too long before she will not be the only woman on late night.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) - John Oliver continued his crusade against misinformation in his third season, and he mostly hit the mark. Although his blasts are occasionally marred by unfortunately scatological humour and a mean streak that emerges every once in a while, he continues to provide some of the most informative segments about otherwise neglected subjects. I know Oliver has his detractors, but I am not one of them.

Favourite Shows of 2016


Most of the shows I watched ended up on my top ten list for the year, mainly because I did not watch many more than ten shows; at the same time, so many of the shows I watched were so good that I could not leave them off my list. I kept my list to scripted fare (not reality) and I decided to rank my top ten this year. In terms of the relative quality to each other, 7-10 are roughly equal to one another, there was a bit of a jump to 6 and then to 5, with the top four another jump away. Here are my top shows for 2016 as it stands right now.

10. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
9. Brooklyn Nine-Nine
8. The Good Place
7. Better Call Saul
6. The Night Of
5. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
4. Stranger Things
3. Veep
2. American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson
1. Atlanta

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