In 1994, the closest things we had to reality TV were The Real World and O.J. Simpson. The criticism that the genre imposes coherent dramatic narratives onto a world that is often lacking them—and thus hardly qualifies as “reality”—is as old as reality TV itself, but both the fictionalized world of the long-running MTV show and the live broadcasting of the O.J. trial revealed something of the world that gave them birth. We’re defined by the stories we tell, and both were sensational, almost pornographic in their gleeful depictions of just how bad things can get; 1994 was the year of Puck, after all.
In 2016 we were confronted with heavy doses of reality from TV shows both fictional and non-. But for the first time in years, our best shows have largely avoided the temptation to lionize bad men (horses are another story altogether); even Vince Gilligan is more interested in the decay of his protagonist’s goodness than he is in the depths of his badness these days.
That’s a minor difference of perspective, to be sure, but it nevertheless changes the tone of the story being told. And it’s the guiding force behind the shows that were most successful this year. It’s far more interesting—and suddenly more necessary—to examine the effects of evil on the people who are subject to it than it is to plot evil’s rise. That’s true whether the evil in question emanates from long-gestating social sins, devious planning, or, yes, politics.
There was plenty of reality in our TV in 2016, as there has always been. Which is why, despite the great darkness that gathered over almost all of these shows, there was also plenty of hope.
Across its ten episodes, American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson seemed like it was unable to decide whether the jukes and cuts of the O.J. story was high drama or high camp; the same show that allowed Johnny Cochran to patiently walk viewers down the twisting line connecting race and law enforcement in Los Angeles also soundtracked the most famous car chase in history with “Sabotage.” At times this was maddening, but it’s also an accurate representation of what was a phenomenon of both culture and pop culture. Perhaps most compellingly, it showed us how the pressurized fusion of those two worlds came to bear on Marcia Clark; Sarah Paulson’s turn as the embattled District Attorney might have been the best performance of the year. — Marty Sartini Garner
Donald Glover’s emergence as a television auteur couldn’t have been more timely. Even as the show veers into the surreal, Atlanta’s characters feel full and realized. Glover’s Earn, Brian Tyree Henry’s Alfred, and Zazie Beetz’s Vanessa ache with melancholy, and Keith Stanfield’s role as the quizzical Darius injects a skewed poetry into the show’s palpable Southern daze. — Jason P. Woodbury
Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad prequel—like its big brother before it—hinges on a simple question about its central character: where did it all go wrong? Then again, maybe there’s nothing simple about a show that’s so patient and painstaking in sketching out its antihero’s moral decline, one that’s driven by equal parts brotherly feuding, career opportunism, questionable life choices, and simple twists of fate. The show’s second season sustained miraculous tension, given that we all know where it’s headed; we’ve made our peace with Saul Goodman, but root for Jimmy McGill all the same. — Josh Hurst
BoJack Horseman’s incredible third season centers around its cast asking a question our half-man, half-horse protagonist puts forward in the season’s seventh episode: “Are you afraid of being known and knowing others?” Few shows—animated or not—go as dark or as deep as BoJack, its absurdist hilarity never eclipsing the suffering of its utterly broken characters. — Jason P. Woodbury
From the moment she introduced Full Frontal, it was obvious that Samantha Bee was not going to be one of the guys. Unlike Trevor Noah, who is only just finding his footing after a year-plus behind the Daily Show desk, Bee emerged with a determined perspective and voice sharp enough to articulate it. She’s not as popular as her late-night competition—smart, righteously angry women are rarely popular—but she’s a vital presence. — Marty Sartini Garner
Patient storytelling rewards patient audiences, and people who have stuck through five seasons of Game of Thrones’s highs, lows, and WTFs were rewarded with reveals, returns, payoffs, and major catharsis in season six. The scale has never been grander or more awe-inspiring than in “Battle of the Bastards,” easily the show’s crowning achievement to date. Most exciting of all: from the vengeful resurgences of Cersei and Daenerys to the defiant rises of Stark daughters Sansa and Arya, this season’s chess game has been all about knocking aside kings to make room for the worthy Queens of Westeros. — Eric Stolze
Pot and punchlines are a time-tested hybrid, brah, but pot and poignancy have never been a very, like, intuitive combination. Yet here’s a show that really delivers on that promise, making a successful leap from Vimeo webseries to HBO mini-sodes by using a hapless, nameless weed deliveryman as a vessel into the lives of New Yorkers in all their stresses and flaws, from the mundane to the life-altering. Creators (and real-life spouses) Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, the latter of whom also plays the anonymous deliveryman, evade easy stoner humor for unexpected human interest that leaves the viewer high on life—or at least brief glimpses into the lives of others. — Eric Stolze
The gross inner workings of college football are no secret, but the actual mechanics of the junior-college system that allows players to join lower-tiered teams after being dismissed from major programs has never been examined as closely as it is in Netflix’s six-part miniseries. The odds of these guys making even an NFL practice squad are excruciatingly long—no matter how the players, coaches, and administrators might frame them—but the show never feels the need to confront them with that reality; particularly for players who are trying desperately to escape dire social situations, the reality of what awaits them after college resounds like the long ringing of a hollow bell. Instead, director Greg Whiteley shows them in the fullness of their college life: full of dreams, afraid to fail, stunted by the conditions of the world outside the campus gates. — Marty Sartini Garner
Let’s face it: we needed Jon Stewart this fall, and we needed him baaaaad. But while our dearly departed Moment of Zenmaster is still tiptoeing into the waters of retirement, our Next Best Jo(h)n on the Late Night Political Boob Tube Scene is cannonballing into the deep end of TV disrupt. Lord Oliver is hitting his groove as a host, and his season-long campaign to humanize our President-Elect should go down in TV history. On that dark and lonely post-election Sunday, tuning into the “WTF just happened” season finale of Last Week Tonight proved to be the closest to zen we would get that entire horrible, no good, very bad week. — Pat McGuire
From its breathtaking opening episode—certainly one of the most expertly plotted and paced hours of TV this or any other year—The Night Of was a lot of things: gritty procedural, patient indictment of the legal system’s many flaws, intimate portrait of the effects of societal xenophobia on individuals. But at its best it synthesized all of those aspects to demonstrate how our identities are both exposed and formed by our surroundings—and how our responses to the world’s pressure can determine the course of our lives (and thus our identities) even further. While you can quibble with how quickly Riz Ahmed’s Naz undergoes his transformation, that parting shot of him taking his first steps into his new life still haunts me. — Marty Sartini Garner
There’s some question as to whether O.J.: Made in America counts as film or TV (there were episodes, people, come on), but the real question is how the hell that this story actually happened in real life. Even for those who were able to witness the events as they unfolded, the extent to which O.J. Simpson’s rise and fall impacted the narrative of an entire country borders on the absurd. And equally absurd, it seems, is the fact that director Ezra Edelman was somehow able to bring something new to the table in discussing all this, the saga having been covered straight into the ground at this point. As it turns out, there was a lot left to discuss (and a few legitimate bombshells to be dropped), so much so that by the end of the fifth and final part, you’ll actually be sad that it’s over. And probably also sad for the state of world in which we live, hard as it is to believe at times. — Nate Rogers
There’s almost nothing that Mike Judge‘s Silicon Valley doesnt do very well. The jokes are top notch, the characters are vivid, and the acting’s great, but the show is also fueled by a relentlessly topsy-turvy plot. And as in the similarly well balanced Parks and Recreation, the show’s characters and storylines inform the jokes, which makes the show as a whole feel like more than just comedy; it feels like a work of art. (Plus dick jokes.) — Daniel Harmon
Stranger Things came out of nowhere to become one of the most popular and talked about shows of the year. And although it contains more cultural references than a Tarantino monologue, the show also managed to create something that feels original, if also pleasantly familiar. Season two can’t come soon enough. — Daniel Harmon
In Veep’s gloriously profane fifth season, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer goes from being vice president to Commander-in-Chief. Engulfed in chaos and surrounded by a bumbling staff (played by the most capable improvisers on TV), Meyer confirms every fear you’ve ever had about a politician’s self-interest while demonstrating Louis-Dreyfus’s ability to infuse vulgarity with emotional weight. — Jason P. Woodbury
Don’t let the Shakespeare quotes or philosophical musings mislead you: this sci-fi/Western mutation aims to be pure pulp, and it hits its twisted target with deadly accuracy. Originating from a campy Michael Crichton–scripted ’70s film (clearly a beta test for Jurassic Park), Westworld is like an entire used bookstore’s worth of vintage paperbacks shredded and reassembled into a cruel, clever collage; if it seems self-serious, so do its many dime-novel influences, from Isaac Asimov to Philip K. Dick to Louis L’Amour. Story-wise, the wagon wheels spin a bit and the twists are telegraphed, but the acting is committed and inspired across the board, particularly from the androids desperate to escape their theme-park purgatory; Evan Rachel Wood and James Marsden are at career bests as they bring tortured pathos and helpless rage to their Wild West Barbie and Ken, respectively, and Thandie Newton’s Maeve is a long-overdue showcase of sensuality, complexity, and ferocity in what may be the most underrated performance of the year. — Eric Stolze