The common perception is that we are in the midst of another golden age of television, that — given the rise of auteur-driven prestige dramas and the breadth of styles, topics, tones, and senses of humor — there’s now something out there for everyone. What has changed, however, is not a massive shift away from mind-numbing reality shows, soulless network comedies, and countless CSI/NCIS spinoffs and toward the sorts of thoughtful highbrow and offbeat lowbrow shows that dominate our list, but a drastic alteration in the ways we access television. The old model of broadcast television suggests in its very wording that it was transmitted to us rather than either chosen by or curated for us — for better or worse, people were forced to consume what was served to them.
The proliferation of subscription-model television — driven by Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, as well as the once-pricey premium channels, HBO and Showtime — has now made hundreds of TV shows available even to the many brave enough to cut the cord. This has given executives, showrunners, and artists alike the bravery, and certainly the profit motive, to actually refine their shows for something other than the lowest common denominator, allowing them to reach niche audiences craving something a bit too audacious, strange, or challenging for traditional networks. It’s impossible to imagine more than a few choices for our favorite TV shows of 2016 airing even a pilot a decade ago, let alone receiving the critical love and ratings necessary to justify their continued existence.
Coupled with the exponentially expanding ways in which we access and watch TV is Hollywood’s growing disinterest in the mid-level budget material that its 70s Renaissance brought to the fore before the age of the blockbuster gobbled up every last dollar once reserved for their production. Aside from a handful of established auteurs (and our Paul Thomas Andersons, Coen Brothers, and James Grays are slowly fading from the multiplexes), the $10-50 million budgeted films are simply not greenlit like they used to be. And as American cinema forks toward the low-budget indies on one side and Hollywood blockbusters and prestige pics on the other, in steps television to fill in the gap. Whether it’s the Fincheresque Mr. Robot and The Night Of or the Soderbergh spinoff The Girlfriend Experience, it’s clear that a number of TV shows have reached a level of personalized aesthetic and thematic expression that was once solely relegated to cinema.
In this new televisual landscape, we found a plethora of shows that pushed the boundaries of what the medium can accomplish. From Louis C.K.’s intimate, personally financed Horace & Pete and Donald Glover’s hilarious and confrontational Atlanta to socially and philosophically challenging epic documentaries like OJ: Made in America and HyperNormalisation, the sheer array of wit, intelligence, and formal experimentation that television offered us remains a bright spot in a year that most of us will not remember fondly.
Along with a few mainstays from last year’s list, we also discovered new delights in the absurd (Baskets, Lady Dynamite), reminding us that TV can simultaneously be hilarious and emotionally complex, that mindbending sci-fi (Westworld, Black Mirror, Stranger Things) can, with equal aplomb, delve into our deepest anxieties and desires or whet our appetite for nostalgia. But if we learned anything through our experiences with TV this year, it’s that television is rapidly evolving into something unrecognizable from what it once was. It continues to break free from the shackles of network executives and the implacable demands of advertisers. Thankfully for us, it has become all the better because of it.
Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace
Created by: Million Dollar Extreme
To understand Million Dollar Extreme: World Peace, imagine a Portlandia that doesn’t try to make jokes or skewer such an easily-circumscribed (sub)cultural target as liberal hipsters. Or, Portlandia voted for Donald Trump, but maybe as performance art. Sam Hyde, Charls Carroll, and Nick Rochefort’s sketch comedy show features the Flint water crisis as mixology, breakups, a pickup artist giving a disabled dude tips to get pussy, blackface, and weightlifting: all the hot takes in your FB timeline — or Reddit feed, if you nasty — melted. It is really dumb, but in a way that seems difficult to achieve. How can something so meaningless and empty have such an innovative sense of self? Adult Swim cancelled MDE: WP after one season because Sam Hyde posts stuff about liking Donald Trump on his Twitter, and some writer for Buzzfeed or wherever said the show was alt-right propaganda. Million Dollar Extreme’s flashy voidness of meaning was too threatening to the parallel, but carefully masked, void at the heart of mainstream industry and values. But, as Hyde tweeted on January 22, “Obama awards the Purple Heart to Bangbus on his last day in office.” That is to say: this great nation’s brave producers of video culture, and the sacrifices they make on our behalf, will never be forgotten.
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson
Created by: Scott Alexander & Karaszewksi
Ryan Murphy’s shows are typically known for their unpredictability and excess, but the first installment of his newest project, American Crime Story, offered viewers something different: a restrained take on true crime that has become part of our cultural fabric. The People v. O.J. Simpson tackled complex issues at the intersections of race, gender, and class, touching on everything from Hillary Clinton’s campaign to the Black Lives Matter movement while still leaving room for more than one satirical wink to the impending rise of our Kardashian-saturated mediascape. Murphy’s soap-opera sensibilities have always allowed his actors to shine, and American Crime Story was no different. Sarah Paulson played ill-fated prosecutor Marcia Clark with empathy and bright-eyed intelligence. As Clark’s co-prosecutor Christopher Darden, Sterling K. Brown exuded a naive intensity and vulnerability. Together, their chemistry lit up the screen. The show never forgot it was telling the story of real people, whose frustrations, humiliations, and small triumphs were all too real, with far-reaching consequences. The People v. O.J. Simpson wasn’t just a telling metaphor of our current moment, it was compelling television at its finest, with the power to leave its audience as raw and exposed as its characters.
War & Peace
Created by: Tom Harper
In the third episode of Tom Harper’s exquisite adaptation of War & Peace, the meek and open-hearted Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano) squares off in a duel against Dolokhov (Tom Burke), a trained soldier and notorious scoundrel. Bezukhov scores a lucky shot, but his one-time friend won’t go down so easy. Animated by sheer, white-hot hatred, Dolokhov props himself up, prepares to return fire — and misses, collapsing face-first into the snow. Seeing his own life spared and his foe vanquished, Bezhukov’s reaction is not exultation, or even relief; he mutters a single, self-excoriating word: “Stupid.” The image of 19th-century Russia that Tolstoy offers us is circumscribed by such acts of civilized, ornamental violence. It provides an exquisite backdrop for his characters’ small acts of pettiness and cruelty, but also mercy, generosity, kindness… the constant cycle of failure and renewal, epiphany and loss of clarity that makes up the human experience. And while we may get swept up in the grandeur of the Napoleonic wars, neither Tolstoy nor the filmmakers adapting his magnum opus ever allow us to lose sight of the futility of violence and its distraction from the serious, sacred business of living.
Created by: Ilana Glazer & Abbi Jacobson
There is no show without their friendship: A love that refused to be one-note or predictable, even as the Abbi and Ilana caricatures embarked on more and more surreal excursions into sitcom conventions. Swapping identities, juggling multiple dates in one night, returning the fundraiser money you inadvertently stole from a childhood friend. From the premiere’s bathroom overture to the climactic terror at 1,000 feet, Broad City’s third season was its most ambitious and refined to date. As the set pieces and storytelling reached new heights (and changed locations), the show remained grounded in the free chemistry between its heroes, whose frankness about their past humiliations, creative insecurities, secret desires, and adoration of each other invited us into a mundane that felt alive and ready to burst. Adventures that screamed, “Live a little!” It was in the recurring fake wokeness of Ilana, Abbi’s pivots from humility to egomania, and the way they surprised each other in almost every episode. In a New York minute, Broad City would tackle abject millennial woes with a politics of precarity, double over into poop jokes, and remind you to call your best friend, even though it felt like she was already sitting right next to you.
Dir. Adam Curtis
Our own Joe Hemmerling most accurately defined HyperNormalisation as a more woke version of Michael Moore’s work, though that’s precisely what makes this nearly three-hour long, archival-footage-heavy documentary one of the most 2016 things to hit a TV-screen last year. Indeed, Adam Curtis charts the last four decades of Western politics to expose the forces that shaped the world we live in: a bewildering string of events that have prompted us to accept the “normality” of the simplified version of reality that economic and political operators have surreptitiously built. The British filmmaker articulates such a premise through shockingly plausible conspiranoia arguments (i.e., Henry Kissinger, Jane Fonda, and Felix Rohatyn inventing vaporwave), denouncing media manipulation while indulging in a fair bit of it himself as he leans on lots of stylishly-presented ambiguity, peaking with Trump’s election in an epilogue that can’t help but feel tacked-on despite its timelines. Nevertheless, Curtis manages to negotiate the distance between Gazelle Twin and Alex Jones, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Dinesh D’Souza, in an audacious filmic essay the likes of which they don’t make anymore, ultimately shaping his sketchy theses into a compelling piece of cinema.