Second Screen: The Best TV Shows of 2016

Jim Hemphill attempts the improbable task of listing the best – or at least most pleasurable – that the small screen had to offer in the past year.

Let’s start by admitting that the very idea of a “best of” list when it comes to television is a bit absurd in a year like this, when there are more scripted series on the air than ever before, and when the overall quality is so strong – it would be impossible for any human being to truly claim authoritative knowledge of everything good on the air, and it’s even more difficult for someone like me who is not a full-time TV critic. (As I’ve often lamented, the worst thing about working in film and television is that it makes it impossible to find time to watch all the movies and TV shows I’m interested in.) So I’ll qualify this list by stating the obvious: these may not be the best shows of 2016, but they’re the shows that have given me the most pleasure and meant the most to me. In alphabetical order, they are:

American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson (FX)
A rare instance of an insanely hyped and acclaimed show that lived up to everything anyone said about it, an enraging, hilarious, moving, thoughtful State of the Union address in the form of a true-crime miniseries. Creators Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski were already in the pantheon of great American screenwriters thanks to their work on The People vs. Larry Flynt and Ed Wood, but this is their masterpiece – a show that hits a sweet spot between intelligence and accessibility that few works in any medium attain, and that’s both timeless and completely of its moment. A reflective and lively consideration of power, race, celebrity, and class in America, it’s the Citizen Kane of TV shows.

The Catch (ABC)
An effervescent hybrid of The Thomas Crown Affair and Out of Sight, this romantic caper show is as slick and stylish as they come. Yet the apparently effortless style (arrived at, of course, via rigorous scripting and design) gives way to some surprisingly poignant moments of longing and adult romance, largely thanks to the career best work of Mireille Enos and Peter Krause as an investigator and a con man whose love affair is constantly thwarted by their professional lives. Underneath the genre trappings is an affectingly relatable meditation on the complexities of balancing work and relationships – a common theme in shows from the Shonda Rhimes empire, but never explored with the giddy energy one finds here.

Crisis in Six Scenes (Amazon)
To read the overwhelmingly negative reviews of Woody Allen’s six-part comedy after watching it is to swim in a sea of ignorance and idiocy that, ironically, completely validates nearly every target of Allen’s satire in the very attempt to put it down. The criticisms – ranging from the claim that the show is too “talky” (as opposed to every other sitcom?) to the assertion that it’s self-absorbed and out of touch – all indicate that the commentators arrived at their theses long before actually viewing the series. The truth is that Allen’s 1960s-set tale of an upper-middle-class couple’s life thrown into upheaval by the appearance of a young radical activist is as good as anything he’s ever done – which means it’s as good as anything anyone has ever done. Less a series than an extremely long feature, its extended running time gives Allen the space to expand upon his usual philosophical musings while also addressing sociopolitical concerns in a manner that’s largely new to his work. (He touched on some of the same material in Blue Jasmine but takes it further and deeper here.) Contrary to popular critical opinion, Allen’s timely analysis of class issues is wide-ranging, thoughtful, and provocative; the claim that the show is out of touch seems based entirely on a misreading of the piece as an endorsement of Allen’s character’s views and those views alone. This way of thinking represents the most basic misunderstanding of art and how it’s created that I can imagine, but it’s the kind of thing that has plagued Allen throughout his career, in spite of the fact that from Take the Money and Run (1969) onward he’s usually made it clear that his onscreen alter ego is to be taken as a buffoon. It’s amazing that Allen has to deal with this kind of dumb shit after almost 50 years of making films, but it doesn’t seem to have slowed him down; he continues to do great work year after year, to the point that even a magnum opus like Crisis in Six Scenes can be taken completely for granted.

The Family (ABC)
A Dostoevsky novel in the form of a mainstream network mystery series, Jenna Bans’ brilliant drama dug into its cultural moment with depth and nuance, exploring the question of what makes a monster in 21st century America with empathy and insight. An ensemble piece that examines its core kidnapping tale from a variety of perspectives, The Family explores a striking number of huge topics over the course of its first (and sadly last, now it has been canceled) season: the intersection between public and private lives; the question of individual sacrifice vs. the greater good; the hopeless (and sometimes dangerous) desire for certainty; and most profoundly, the question of what creates evil. At the center of it all is a superb performance by Andrew McCarthy (who also directed some of the show’s best episodes), whose work is sympathetic without any sense of false softening or sentimentalizing – his deeply disturbed pedophile is as chilling as he is heartbreakingly human. The fact that this show wasn’t showered with awards and the viewership it deserved completely confounds me; perhaps its greatest strength – its seamless integration of theme, character, and plot – is also what keeps its greatness from being self-evident. Unlike a show like True Detective, which bluntly states its theses in the dialogue, The Family bakes its philosophical inquiry into the narrative. The ideas are both less explicitly articulated and more multifaceted – an answer to and commentary on our current political climate, in which all issues are reduced to meaningless ideological sound bites that do nothing to take into account the complexity of the human condition.

The Fosters (Freeform)
This singular program, which takes an unconventional approach to the very conventional genre of family drama, is the best synthesis of entertainment and positive social activism since the glory days of Norman Lear. By dramatizing issues including (but not limited to) gay marriage, racial profiling, the privatization of public services, and the role class plays in our legal system and in society at large, showrunners Bradley Bredeweg, Joanna Johnson and Peter Paige brilliantly convey the private repercussions of public policy – and they do it without ever preaching to their audience or resorting to didactic oversimplification. Issues aside, The Fosters also happens to be both the best teen show since My So-Called Life and an extraordinary portrait of an adult marriage; as the couple who head the family at the show’s center, Teri Polo and Sherri Saum provide a complex depiction of married life in all its life and death struggles, subtle negotiations, minor and major grievances, and temptations and disappointments. The show recalls the best of Cassavetes in its recognition that extreme, sometimes contradictory emotional states are at the core of the human condition, not part of its periphery – this is a melodrama that earns every one of its points, high and low, political and personal, hilarious and tragic.

Mr. Robot (USA)
I’ve long made the argument that while there’s a lot of great writing and acting on television, arguments about its superiority to film are absurd because the visual grammar is just so mundane – even a classic, allegedly “groundbreaking” show like The Sopranos has almost zero innovation when it comes to the way it’s framed, lit, and edited. Aside from occasional exceptions (which occur mostly when feature auteurs like Steven Soderbergh or Martin Scorsese work in TV), television has barely evolved as a medium since the 1950s – if anything, it’s gotten worse, since the demands live TV placed upon directors like John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet forced those filmmakers into some astonishingly elaborate visual strategies. Yet my snobbery has now been answered by Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot, the best-directed show on television and one that can stand alongside the finest cinema has to offer. Setting aside how trenchant and insightful Esmail’s content is, the ways in which he expresses his themes via composition, camera movement and sound design are positively mind-blowing. He’s like a modern day Hitchcock in his ability to fuse his style to a character’s point of view, and he shares Hitchcock’s uncanny skill for tapping into potent societal neuroses – his dissection of corporate culture and its tendrils is as unsettling as it is accurate.

Scandal (ABC)
Like Woody Allen, Shonda Rhimes is so prolific that it’s easy to take her for granted, but make no mistake – she continues to be one of the most distinctive and entertaining voices in television, and Scandal, in its fifth season, has only gotten better and better. An old-school melodrama elevated to the level of high art by whip-smart writing, superior performances, and elegant cinematography, this tale of the on-again, off-again romance between Washington fixer Olivia Pope (the great Kerry Washingon) and President of the United States “Fitz” Grant (the equally great Tony Goldwyn) packs more pure pleasure into each frame than any other show on TV. Premium cable shows might get the awards and acclaim, but few scribes outside of Rhimes’ writers room are creating characters with the richness and intelligence one finds here; the show is filled with smart, sexy, arrogant, strong, foolish, compassionate, heroic, humbled and cruel people, and it consistently pulls off the neat trick of jamming its episodes with dizzying reversals that are completely earned. Of course, it probably helps that the series is set against the backdrop of our increasingly surreal political landscape – the question is whether or not Scandal will be able to sustain its ability to shock in Season 6, now that real life has made even its most outrageous plot twists seem restrained by comparison.

Stranger Things (Netflix)
Like The People v. O.J. Simpson, this show came with a lot of hype that it largely justified, transcending its trappings of ’80s nostalgia to become something more than the sum of its influences. Although there are heavy doses of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg and other sources from the age of Stand By Me and The Goonies, creators Ross and Matt Duffer aren’t so much riffing on their inspirations or falling back on them as they are creating the next logical step in the evolution of the genre. This series doesn’t just invite comparison with the best of Spielberg, it earns it with its clever and ingenious plotting, expressive compositional style and psychologically astute portrait of childhood. The Duffers have fully absorbed their influences into their DNA, so that the references feel organic rather than thrust upon the material; as Godard once said, it’s not where you take something from, it’s where you take it to, and Stranger Things takes the raw materials of ’80s pop culture and turns them into something wholly original and beautiful.

Superstore (NBC)
Not only the funniest workplace comedy since The Office (on which series creator Justin Spitzer worked as a writer) but also the most ambitious and audacious, Superstore brilliantly combines virtually every sort of humor – social satire, physical comedy, romcom, verbal wit, etc. – and delivers on every level without ever making a tonal misstep. Using its setting (a big-box department store) as a forum in which to explore a number of topical issues with unexpected delicacy, the show addresses the implications and contradictions of 21st-century capitalism with an incisiveness and breadth that one associates with the best work of Billy Wilder or James L. Brooks – it puts virtually every other half-hour comedy on the air to shame. Superstore is deadly serious in its intent, but buoyant on its surface – there’s a Tati-like grace to the set pieces, and the badinage is often laugh-out loud hilarious. The show’s philosophy is embedded in its narrative structure, which is precise yet broad enough to support many lovely digressions and asides; sometimes extras in the background are given moments as funny and touching as the leads in lesser series. This speaks to Spitzer’s confidence and the abundance of ideas that his writers and directors supply; they never have to labor over a joke or an idea the way so many comedies do, because they always know there are more where those came from.