You’ve seen the Best (and Worst) Characters, and the Best Scenes or Episodes, but still, there can be only one true list of the year’s 10 Best TV Shows…
Honorable Mention: “Real Time with Bill Maher” is about to become the most important voice for “The Resistance.” Let’s quit kidding ourselves that Trumpers will ever listen to a thing Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, or John Oliver have to say, and admit that the only political talk show host who has a prayer of winning them over is Bill Maher.
Runner-Up: “Maron” it’s not every show that can go out on an undisputed high note (the fourth season was also the final season), and it’s even fewer that can wring belly laughs out of drug addiction, depression, poverty, etc. Each episode showcases a different aspect of rebuilding your life after a huge bust, and Maron never takes the easy way out. The season becomes accidentally uplifting precisely because it’s not trying to be…at all.
10. [Tie] “Longmire” and “Westworld”…Two extraordinarily different takes on revitalizing the Western genre, and ones that have different sets of problems: whereas “Longmire” is a bit too hokey and old-fashioned, “Westworld” leans too heavily on cynicism and unlikability. Still, both were shows I genuinely enjoyed, and I can’t always say that about critically-acclaimed TV dramas (too many are easier to admire than really enjoy). “Longmire” succeeds with gorgeous cinematography, old-school charm, Katee Sackhoff’s delirious chemistry with just about anyone, a modern-take on cowboys vs. Indians when Longmire takes on a cultivated casino mogul, and an empathetic portrayal of Native American life on a reservation. “Westworld” knocked me flat with “The Man in Black” origin story, Thandie Newton’s Maeve, it’s various other twists and turns, and occasionally deep commentary on the nature of humanity.
9. “Vice Principals”…Since “Eastbound and Down” went off the air, there’s been a distinct lack of series that can speak to Trump America’s feelings of anxiety, class envy, and working-class blues. Danny McBride knows how to craft comedies that play depression and amorality for laughs, and what would look downright awful in somebody else’s hands—two white men destroying a black woman’s home—here comes off as a breakthrough. But McBride’s “Principals” character is a little bit older, more beaten-down by life, and more of a schmoe than Kenny Powers ever was, and this is the first show—comedy or otherwise—in ages to get the quiet desperation of contemporary educators.
8. “Man Seeking Woman”…One of the very few holdovers from last year’s list. [What happened to 2015’s best series? Why did “The Knick,” “Fargo,” “Homeland,” “Nathan for You,” “Justified,” “Getting On,” “Parenthood,” etc. all decide to either skip a year or retire at the same time?] And I think it’s more than earned since “Man” became–if anything–bolder and more confident in its absurdist brand. Millennial comedies are basically populated by cartoon characters anyway, and yet this show’s surreal allegories typically contain more humanity than the average show.
7. “The Good Place”…This might look slightly out of place in a list of dark dramas and realistic, acid-tinged comedies, but that’s exactly why I’m picking it: because “The Good Place” is one of the only shows on TV that asks “Are you a good person?” Not “are you a religious person” or “are you happy with yourself?” but “no really, are you an actually good person?” This deceptively simple question powers one of the most distinctive TV comedies in years, and the most wildly inventive network comedy since “Pushing Daisies” went off the air.
[Tie] 5. “The People Vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and “O.J. Made in America”…Two series that I thought I wouldn’t care about at all. Before sitting down with either, I thought I was OJ-ed out for a lifetime, and it would be beyond boring to watch this case again. But both succeed largely by filling in gaps you didn’t know–in “American Crime Story”‘s case it reenacts the famed courtroom stuff with skill, but it’s the behind-the-scenes drama that captivates. And “Made in America” is only partially about the trial, covering O.J.’s life before the murder, and—best of all—the shocking twists and turns after he was found not guilty.
4. “The Night Of”…The pilot is among the most suspenseful hours of television you’ll ever see. The middle of the series shows you how our awful system gets built, brick by brick. And the ending (while taking some flights off the deep end when it comes to the romance between Naz and his inexperienced but straight laced lawyer) sticks the landing mostly with a sentimental but tough message: good guys may lose more often than they don’t, and even a “win” may not be a real win, but trying to do good will always feel better than just giving up.
3. “House of Cards”…The most prescient TV drama of the year, and the only one that seemed to read the tea leaves of where our election was headed. Plot-lines about Russian meddling, hacking, data mining, using terrorism for political gain, messy conventions, messier primaries, scandals leaked right before the election, and politicians who “open” their lives up only to better obscure who they really are felt spookily accurate. The season finale came close to something I call aspirational nihilism, and its not every series that can make political amorality look transcendent. That “House of Cards” can get you this on-board for “Democratic Fascism” may have proved all too accurate a forecast for the mood the country was really in. [Brain teaser: If the Clintons had cooled it with this “stronger together” carebears stuff, and went full-on Frank and Claire Underwood against Trump, would it have worked better?]
2. “Quarry”…The best series you’ve never heard of, Cinemax’s under-known gem is about a Vietnam veteran accused of committing a war crime coming back home to Memphis, Tennessee in 1972, and he reluctantly becomes a hit man. “Quarry” works on multiple levels, crafting an excellent atmosphere of dread and suspense (the action scenes are ultra-realistic, popping off the screen in a way all the CGI-numbness of today’s movies can’t) but centering plot-lines around real topics like school integration or treatment for PTSD. The terrific season finale—which cuts seamlessly between Vietnam battles and stalking a stateside hit through the woods—makes the case that you’re never really out of a war, and for a man of action, maybe you never really want to be.
1. “Veep”…While “House of Cards” was the most prescient TV drama, the most eerily accurate TV series turned out to be “Veep,” which says more about the mood of confusion and buffoonery of this election in one episode than an entire month of watching CNN.