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THE SINGLE BEST THING ON TV IN 2016 WAS…
OJ: Made in America. Absolutely flawless, with unimaginable access to important figures from Simpson’s life, career, and of course from the crime itself. The quality and depth of footage, photos, and the candid nature of the interviews was unparalleled. In addition to the FX series, OJ Simpson may have been the biggest TV star of the year. Those who weren’t alive for the fiasco were able to see it, and all the rest of us were able to relive it, and to learn new things from it. Ezra Edelman’s project and his finishing product was stunning and all-time great. It’s among the best documentaries of any type I’ve ever seen.
And now for the stuff smart people made up… or at least put their own spin on… none of this is in any particular order. That’s a cop out by me, to avoid suicide trying to decipher between all of this greatness.
OUTKICK’S 2016 TOP TEN IN SCRIPTED DRAMA
Somehow, this show keeps getting better. The story grows deeper, and the vision of Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields continues to impress. There’s no better on screen duo anywhere than Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. While the Emmy Awards are just now recognizing the overall quality of The Americans, the nominations still have to eventually turn to wins. FX is television’s best network, and that includes all streaming services and premium channels.
Of everything FX provides, it’s more than arguable that the Jennings’ story is the network’s top achievement. This season, Alison Wright’s work during the conclusion of the Martha storyline provided some of the most dramatic moments of the year, and although the finale wasn’t my favorite of the four season-enders the show has given us, that’s the only negative I have…and it took effort to even get there. An incredible, monumental drama. One of the best of my lifetime. I covered the series weekly as well, so if you’re late to the party, you can read each review as you advance through the season.
GAME OF THRONES
Some balked last year when I didn’t place Thrones in my 2015 list, but I simply wasn’t particularly taken with Season 5. That’s not the case this time out, as Season 6 may have been the best, most consistently entertaining we’ve experienced from this show. While Battle of the Bastards was overrated and far too much style with little substance, the finale was among the best episodes anywhere on television this year. Jon Snow has become polarizing amongst the fans, but we were treated to visual delights, plot twists, and a sense of maturity in the execution. Lena Headey has never been better, and Cersei saved her most diabolical move for last.
Season 6 ended in a blaze of green smoke, and we’re all better for it. This was a season that built to its big finish, and did so with successful diversions along the way. While I still have little interest in either Arya or Bran, almost everything else “hit.” Welcome back to the list, all those who were confused sitting in Westeros in 2015.
PERSON OF INTEREST
Season 5 was the ending of network television’s best, and most under-appreciated show. Jonathan Nolan had quite a year, as Westworld premiered, and Person of Interest took its final bow. Luckily, Person of Interest paid off those who found it in their guides following time slot moves, doubling up on episodes to burn them off, and every other trick in the book. The story that defines our time, of government and surveillance overreach under the guise of national security, couldn’t have been told better than it was in POI.
The five main characters all had major highlight sequences during the last lap, and each came to a believable end. Root may have ended up being the MVP, but both the writing of Finch in the last set of episodes, as well as the performance of Michael Emerson, were absolute masterpieces. POI will always hold a place in my all-time favorites list, and it’s sitting on Netflix begging to be binged.
HALT AND CATCH FIRE
AMC’s series using the 1980s computer and technology boom as a backdrop and catalyst for a study of self-destruction and ego started in pedestrian fashion in Season 1, relying on strong acting to balance out a somewhat mediocre opening act. In 2015, Season 2 ranked among television’s best, narrowly missing this very list a year ago. Following Season 3, it’s impossible to deny how good a television show it’s become. The five primary performances on Halt can only be matched, but they can’t be beaten. Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, Lee Pace, and Toby Huss are otherworldly, and they’ve carried the show since day one.
The writing improvements, and the development of first Mutiny as a company and its slow dissolution were absolutely brilliant. Add to it the bold choice to jump four years in the story during both parts of the season finale, which actually WORKED, and you have one of the more compelling, riveting series anywhere one earth. It’s gotten better every year, and has fully realized the potential it originally brought. Season 4 will be its last, but with “www” now part of the story, the last run of episodes should be appointment television of the highest order.
It’s still Netflix’ best show, and Season 3 was a thing of beauty. With all due respect to Stranger Things, which was somewhat overvalued but very good, with all due respect to Orange is the New Black and Luke Cage and Jessica Jones and everything else, Raphael Bob-Waksberg still holds the title as the streaming world’s top showrunning dog. Especially as Aziz Ansari took the year off. Yes, it’s animated, but as I’ve said before, that fact should be meaningless. It isn’t just because of Archer, Bob’s Burgers, and Rick & Morty and how they’re all perceived at this point that animated doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Horseman is a series designed to use animals to mitigate the dread and depression that accompanies it. This is as dark as TV gets, and it’s also as good as TV gets.
The fourth episode of Season 3 MIGHT be the best single installment of any series this year. It’s on any credible top five without fail. If you’ve continued to shun BoJack because it looks like a cartoon, I can’t help you anymore. Read my reviews of the past two seasons and ask yourself why you’re avoiding something so special. Seriously, it’s ridiculous if you’re still refusing to give in and watch.
AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON
The case of the century, with every salacious tidbit one could possibly imagine within its grasp, only needed an expert touch. When you add to it a cast that, with the exception of John Travolta’s downright hideous Robert Shapiro, was without any other flaws, you have the ingredients for 22 Emmy nominations and multiple wins, including victories for Sterling K. Brown (who had one hell of a year with OJ and This Is Us), Courtney B. Vance, and Sarah Paulson. This was, in almost every respect, a masterpiece of a true crime novel turned into an episodic “ripped from the headlines” series.
As if FX needed another top property, they got one. The question is longevity, because Ryan Murphy has revealed the follow-up will be a look at Hurricane Katrina and the response to it as a crime against humanity. That’s a big risk, because there are so many cases that could have been used. We’ve already seen Treme, and it was exceptional. Here, I’m not sure there’s enough meat on the bone to evade the same kind of fall-off Serial experienced when moving from Adnan Syed to Bowe Bergdahl. But, Season 1 was an undeniable superstar of a show, basically from top to bottom. I reviewed the series weekly here at Outkick, and those pieces are all available to you.
Ray McKinnon’s slow burn work-of-art came to a close a few weeks ago, and in four brief seasons, it’s hard to find more than a small handful of even minor missteps. Aden Young’s performance, once you see it, cannot be unseen. It’s unimaginable that he walked away with virtually no accolades outside of critical circles, but his series and the master class of acting he unleashed over the past four years is gloriously available on Netflix for all to see. Someday, you’ll watch it, and this role will mesmerize you. Abigail Spencer, Clayne Crawford, and so many other talented individuals enhanced their profiles, leading to network jobs like Timeless and Lethal Weapon, but this was a tour-de-force from Aden Young.
It’s quite possible that with the exception of Bryan Cranston and Jon Hamm (and even those are arguable, not definitive), no one has been on his level in the past decade. It’s amazing how much “show” existed within Rectify, and it proves McKinnon knew what he wanted from his series from the jump, and worked to his conclusion. He never wrote himself into difficult corners, and kept most of his tricks close to his chest until the final few episodes. This was one of the finest drama series of our lifetime, and will stand the test of time.
This is a polarizing choice, especially with critics, but for me, it was an easy selection. This is my kind of series, and Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy provided a rich, entertaining, fast-paced, occasionally too busy and convoluted story with an extremely satisfying season finale. While there are questions as to how many twists one show can do before it’s all meaningless, right now we’re in the sweet spot. Season 2, which probably won’t hit until at least late spring of 2018, needs to ground itself to prove it’s here to stay, but the ratings, the casting, the visuals, Ramin Djawadi’s score, all of it worked for me. It was also among the most popular set of reviews I wrote here at Outkick in 2016.
We had a boatload of interactions and questions on social media over @JMartOutkick, and it comes because of the mystery and the theorizing and all the things that kept viewers tuning in at a higher clip than the first seasons of either Game of Thrones or True Detective. This was the series HBO needed, just to remind everyone that Vinyl was just a blip. It’s not the golden age of HBO in terms of drama, but nothing will ever match what we saw at the turn of the century. I enjoyed the hell out of Westworld.
BETTER CALL SAUL
Jimmy McGill’s slow-motion car crash started strong in Season 1, but everything that made the first ten episodes good was refined and improved in Season 2. For most dramas, the second year ends up being the crescendo, but there’s no reason to believe we’re on the verge of a drop off. Bob Odenkirk has become a household name thanks to the Saul Goodman character, but it’s the nuance and subtlety of Jimmy McGill that has been his crowning achievement. In 2016, he took a great job, and found a way to ruin it almost immediately.
The lasting impression of the entire season came in the last two minutes of the season opener, where in his brand new office, McGill sees a light switch with a taped note reading “Always Leave On. Never Turn Off.” Within seconds, his curiosity and his habitual line-crossing led him to flip the switch. Nothing happened, but it was a symbol of everything that his brother Chuck and his (sometimes) squeeze Kim Wexler have tried to warn him about. He’s talented enough to do it the right way, but he enjoys stomping on morality.
Jonathan Banks…my god Jonathan Banks is awesome. Mike Ehrmantraut as a character is up there with the great secondaries we’ve seen in a drama. He could star in his own spinoff of a spinoff. We know how Better Call Saul ends, because not only do we know about a Nebraska Cinnabon, we also watched Breaking Bad. It’s incredibly impressive that watching the set-up to a precipitous and obvious fall has been THIS much fun. I got a kick out of thinking maybe it was Saul Goodman who made that Leia tribute yesterday.
It’s funny. Top Ten lists are easy right up until the final slot. There are no less than five (maybe ten) shows I could put here, and as a result, there’s a Next Five category coming up next. But, subjectively, I was wildly entertained by Cinemax’ rookie drama this fall. The adaptation of Max Allan Collins’ book series about a Vietnam vet who falls into a life of crime upon returning to the United States caught me off guard. I anticipated liking it, but never did I expect to be so taken with it. I didn’t watch it live, and binged it in early December, so it’s fresh in my mind.
Logan Marshall-Green is a stellar lead, and the supporting cast is rock solid. At times, the series placed each character in bad spots, and their behavior was outlandish at best, but all of them pulled back to the center before it became comical. Joni Conway was the closest to becoming an albatross, as her reaction to Mac’s adultery was laughable, considering it came as a result of her banging a coworker while he was overseas. Eight strong episodes, a ridiculous finale with an incredible Vietnam sequence. We’re still waiting on official renewal news, but this is DEFINITELY one to seek out On Demand if you missed it.
I’m rewarding something new, and maybe something a little more obscure from two guys in Graham Gordy and Michael Fuller who also assisted on the Rectify writing staff and are two names to keep an eye on going forward. Plus, Buddy folks…
THE NEXT BEST FIVE SHOWS
THIS IS US
Another rookie show, and in most years, a top ten series. There were a few things that held it back, most notably the fact that Kate Pearson is written as nothing but a fat girl who desperately doesn’t want to be fat, and that’s all she can ever seem to talk about. There has to be somewhere else the writers can go with the character. In certain respects, every character on This Is Us is fairly simple at this point, and I’m waiting for depth behind the static nature of the show before I put it in the top ten. I think it will get there, even in this era of Peak TV, and it’s certainly very good.
The twists of the first two episodes set the stage for a series where it’s important to watch carefully in the final minutes, but even when there wasn’t some kind of “reveal,” the drama was solid. Great performances from Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, Ron Cephas Jones, Mandy, Milo, and everyone else. Probably network television’s most consistent hour.
HORACE AND PETE
It’s very possible you’ve never heard of Horace and Pete before. It’s a Louis C.K. created, acted, and directed web series, and even with many comedians popping in and out of the cast, it’s presented more as a tragic play than anything else. Taking place within a downtrodden Brooklyn bar, the show is a series of dark, realistically somber conversations between a broken family and a fleet of patrons with problems, prejudices, and a propensity to get liquored up and say unfortunate things. Steve Buscemi plays the current generation’s Pete, with C.K. serving as Horace. Ownership and the future of the bar are main topics, and the struggle over control brings in Edie Falco as Horace’s older sister. Alan Alda is the older Pete, and he’s basically the closest thing to Archie Bunker you’ll find.
The writing is impeccable, and the acting is very theater-like, which is a compliment. It’s not an easy watch, because none of these people are particularly happy or healthy in their mental states, but it’s excellent and was the closest of any of this “next” list to making the Top Ten.
It wasn’t perfect, but damn if it wasn’t insanely fun to watch. Built off the 80s sci-fi and teen genres, Stranger Things takes pieces of E.T., The Goonies, and The Thing (among others), and brings it to a modern audience. The nostalgia is terrific, and the opening theme is among the best on TV. That’s a column for another day. Elements of horror are employed in the Upside Down world, which features a terrifying monster. It was that side of the story that fell a little flat for me, and the best moments of the series came when we got to hang out with Eleven and the cast in Hawkins, Indiana. Winona Ryder and David Harbour were absolutely awesome, Millie Bobby Brown was the breakout star, and the kids were excellent, PARTICULARLY Gaten Matarazzo, whose look and voice were ultimate 80s.
The Duffer Brothers came from nowhere to put forth one of the more successful pop culture phenomenons of the year, and Season 2 will have an enormous level of hype, and we’re all curious to see where things go from here. And yes, we would really love to know what happened to Barb.
I’m torn here, because honestly, Season 2 was a mixed bag, and it was the performances that put it in this list. Black Mirror almost knocked it out completely, as the US adaptation was awfully good. I was unimpressed with much of the first three Mr. Robot episodes, and Sam Esmail seemed more interested in toying with his audience and trying to be intentionally obscure than he was actually accomplishing anything. But, Rami Malek, Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday, Christian Slater, Grace Gummer, Stephanie Corneliussen, Martin Wallstrom, Craig Robinson, and Michael Cristofer were all just so good, as were the smaller roles. The way the show was shot, the use of music, the people, and the OTHER things helped cover up for a pretty shaky sophomore effort.
From Top Ten last year, and honestly Top Five last year, to barely in the Top 15 this year is a little concerning. Esmail has always seen his show as a four-season story, and I do believe he has some wonderful things in store for us. The better episodes this year were among TV’s finest, and the worst were forgettable and frustrating. Season 3 needs to renew our faith in the show. As I’ve gotten further away from my reviews of each episode, I just haven’t had that same feeling I did in 2015. It faded from view. This isn’t a show that should do that, when it’s firing on all cylinders.
It had the same problems all the Marvel Netflix series have had…namely, it’s too long. Jessica Jones (my favorite of the lot), Daredevil, and Luke Cage would all be exquisite ten episode shows, but instead are a little bloated and as a result, two or three episodes end up on the scrap heap of your brain. With that said, Luke Cage was cast well, paced well, and was both interesting and somewhat filled with topical relevance. I go with Cage over The Night Of, because I really didn’t care for the way Nas was portrayed in the back half of the series. As good as it was in many respects, it strained credulity, and the UK series it was based on was far better.
Mike Colter shined in Jessica Jones, and he is the perfect Luke Cage. A dark show, as the Netflix comic adaptations have generally been, but even more so than its predecessors. The vision was even, it was balanced, and Luke Cage dodged the “weird” for the most part, which is a feather in its cap. The name of the game is entertainment, and this show easily fits and often exceeds that bill.
IF THERE WAS A NUMBER SIXTEEN, IT WOULD BE… BLACK MIRROR… OR AMERICAN CRIME… OR…
SURPRISE OF THE YEAR: PITCH
I had no idea it was going to be this good. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, and was sad the season was so short. Along with the success of the very watchable Lethal Weapon, Pitch gave FOX a legit drama to tune into. Empire has never matched its first season, and much of the rest has floundered, but the Ginny Baker story proved to be so much more than I expected. We saw the pilot at ATX back in June, and many of us came away intrigued, but outside of the lame brother trying to cash in storyline, it was strong throughout. Most of the side stories have worked, and the Mike Lawson content in particular was extremely well thought out. Worth catching up on via Hulu when you get some time.
AND NOW I WILL SHUT UP…even though there are so many other shows I’d like to talk about. Eventually it becomes a bowl game situation…where there are too many and the accolade loses its power. That will not happen here. This is the list. It is set in stone.
That’s a lot of words. I have plenty more coming for the best in comedy on Friday…come yell at me, call me names, and tell me what I forgot on Twitter @JMartOutkick or via email@example.com. Damn there’s a lot of TV to watch these days. It’s a blessing… and a curse.
RIP Carrie Fisher. You are one with the force and the force is one with you.