With so much great TV out there these days it seems like an impossible task to whittle them down into a top 10 list. There’s just so much quality TV out there that one person just cannot watch it all. Any list is going to leave out shows that rightly have a spot on it. I missed out on tons of great shows this year like Atlanta, Better Things, or the final season of Rectify but I didn’t want that to preclude me from chiming in on some of the great shows that 2016 gave us. Naturally, I couldn’t keep it just to 10 shows so you get a top 12 because The Warren Room loves bragging about great TV.
12. Westworld (HBO)
Westworld‘s ambition alone earned it a spot on this list. Next to Game of Thrones, this was one of the biggest TV shows to air this year. To say I was excited about this show would have been an understatement. While its first season didn’t quite reach the heights of HBO’s other juggernaut, it certainly set itself up to do so.
Westworld featured captivating performances from Sir Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffery Wright, Thandie Newton, and James Marsden, just to name a few. Every week I found myself both enthralled by the series’ tale of the dawning of consciousness and frustrated as the plot seemed to be treading water. It wasn’t until over halfway through the season that the tension and stakes felt truly high.
Despite its slow build, Westworld has a captivating premise that I cannot wait to see explored further when it returns for a second season.
11. Mr. Robot (USA)
Mr. Robot was one of the best shows I watched in 2015 so the second season of the psychological thriller was another highly anticipated event for me.
Season two of Mr. Robot continued to feature an amazing central performance by Rami Malek as tortured hacker Elliot Alderson while also showcasing standout work from Portia Doubleday (as Angela) and Carly Chaikin (as Elliot’s sister Darlene), and new cast addition Grace Grummer (as Agent DiPierro) as well. Mr. Robot continued to present a compelling message about the digital world we live in today but the plot lacked a lot of the drive that season one had.
What knocked Mr. Robot so far down my list this year was the way this season was structured. The first half of the season built toward a reveal that we probably didn’t need to wait six episodes to see unfold. Much of the material involving Elliot and Mr. Robot seemed to go in circles as the more interesting material was left to Darlene and Angela who struggled to fill the void left by Elliot. It’s pretty telling when my favorite episode of the season didn’t even feature Elliot in it.
Despite my complaints, season two of Mr. Robot continued to shock and enthrall me as I watched the story unfold. The writing and direction from Sam Esmail and the performances of the entire cast continue to make this a show worthy of investment. I just hope that the third season features a much tighter story arc.
10. Stranger Things (Netflix)
Here is a show that practically dominated the internet last summer. Netflix’s Stranger Things served as an homage to 80’s sci-fi and coming of age films. Here we follow a group of boys as they search for their missing friend in the wake of the appearance of a mysterious girl. All of the young actors were tremendous finds and their performances elevated their characters beyond any mere archetype.
With just eight episodes in the season, Stranger Things was able to avoid the sagging middle stretch of the season that many Netflix originals suffer from. Each episode felt vital and advanced the story in meaningful ways, either by revealing new character details or a new twist in the mystery. You’re going to want to start the next episode as soon as you finish the one you’re watching. Which, I suspect, is exactly what Netflix is hoping you’ll do.
The greatest compliment I can give to Stranger Things was that it was fun. Which is more than I can say for a lot of dramas out that take themselves way too seriously.
You can check out my spoiler-free review of the show right here.
9. Black Sails (Starz)
After an average first season, Black Sails really came into its own in its second season and last winter’s season three saw the show reach even higher with both its plot and the spectacle on display.
Season three saw Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) sink deeper into darkness as his war to free Nassau from England intensified, it was up to John Silver (Luke Evans) to protect Flint from himself. Meanwhile, the legendary pirate Blackbeard (Ray Stevenson) made his return to Nassau.
With bigger twists, bigger battles, and bigger effects, season three of Black Sails was an intense ride from start to finish, culminating in an all-out war in the season finale. Every episode was packed with crowd-pleasing moments as relationships between characters grew and paid off in meaningful ways.
As the show heads into its final season in January of 2017, I cannot wait to watch this story come to a close and I could not be more confident in the showrunner’s ability to make it a satisfying one.
8. Person of Interest (CBS)
Person of Interest closed out its five-season saga this summer with 13 episodes that brought the story of Team Machine’s war against the evil artificial intelligence Samaritan to a satisfying conclusion.
It was a real treat to watch these characters that I had grown so fond of work together one last time. While it felt to me like the massive threat of Samaritan was muted for most of the season, the final three episodes really brought the entire saga home and the series finale is easily one of the best I have ever watched. It successfully tied up the five-year journey the show was taking and gave each of the characters a fantastic send-off. The strength of that final episode alone earned it a spot on this list.
You can check out my review of the series finale of Person of Interest right here.
All five seasons of Person of Interest are available to stream on Netflix.
7. Veep (HBO)
When a new showrunner takes over for an established show there is always cause for concern. Thankfully David Mandel didn’t just continue Veep‘s hilarious, profane, and biting political satire, he gave it its best season yet.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus didn’t just continue to give a career-defining (seriously, this woman will keep winning Emmys until the show ends) performance as VP turned President, Selina Meyer, she also found news depths to Selina’s humanity. With the standout episode “Mother,” we got to see a more conflicted side of Selina even while she continued to be a pretty awful person.
Given the insane political landscape of 2016 America, it was pretty odd to see Veep‘s once outrageous brand of politics inch a little bit closer to reality.
6. Bojack Horseman (Netflix)
In its third season, Netflix’s talking horse sitcom Bojack Horseman continued to excel at finding the perfect balance between side-splitting humor and deeply depressing character work.
This is not a show that everyone will enjoy but if you can get past the whole “talking animals interacting with humans” thing then you’ll find a deeply moving picture of a man (horse?) doing his best to find happiness in all the wrong places whilst chasing away the very people who would bring him that which he is so earnestly seeking.
On top of being a depressing look into the life of Bojack, season three continued to be a hilarious satire of the show business. The show found new ways to point out the insanity of Hollywood thanks to Bojack’s campaign for an Oscar this year.
I have to single out the incredible episode “Fish Out of Water” where Bojack goes undersea for a film festival and is simultaneously rendered without a way to communicate vocally. It was truly a special piece of TV, with a simple message and beautiful animation. Thanks to episodes like “Fish Out Of Water” viewers were able to see deeper into Bojack’s psyche than ever before. More than just a comedy, Bojack Horseman is a tragic character study and one that rewards viewers who stick through it.
Check out all three released seasons of Bojack Horseman on Netflix.
5. The Crown (Netflix)
This one came out of nowhere for me. I was initially uninterested in The Crown as costume dramas about the plights of royalty (see Downton Abbey) aren’t usually my cup of tea.
Well, I’m glad I stuck around for this one, although it didn’t take much to rope me in. With incredible production values and standout acting from Claire Foy, Jared Harris, Matt Smith, and John Lithgow, The Crown soared as a thoughtful and moving look into the burden of being a queen.
Like Stranger Things, this Netflix original avoided a lack of direction by structuring each episode around a particular problem or historical event that took place during the early days of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. What you’ll find with The Crown is a sad look at how one woman must constantly put aside who she is for the sake of a symbol that she never much wanted to be. This is a beautiful show that needs to be on your Netflix list.
Season one of The Crown is streaming on Netflix now and you can read my review of the first season here.
4. Better Call Saul (AMC)
Season two of Better Call Saul saw the show diverge into two separate shows in one. One part was a legal drama following the misadventures of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) as he struggled to go on the straight and narrow in a world that had no interest in letting him do so. The other followed Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) as he plunged deeper into Albuquerque’s criminal underworld.
Regardless of which part of the show was taking center stage in a given episode, it was always beautifully shot and acted by all, including a standout performance from Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler whose role was greatly expanded from season one.
If any doubts of this show being a cheap cash-in on the Breaking Bad brands were still around after season one then this season unquestionably erased them. Jimmy’s transformation into Saul Goodman may not be as drastic as Walter White’s journey to Heisenberg, but it is a journey no less thrilling.
Season one of Better Call Saul is available to stream on Netflix. You can read my review of the second season finale here.
3. Game of Thrones (HBO)
This season of Game of Thrones saw the show move beyond George R.R. Martin’s novels and as a result delivered its most dynamic and satisfying season in years. Finally free of the restraints of directly adapting an existing book the show was free to expedite the story and bring together characters who had never been placed together before.
Season six featured the show’s biggest spectacles yet with the massive “Battle of The Bastards” and the siege of Meereen taking place in episode nine. No other show on TV can deliver on the scale that Game of Thrones can.
While parts of the season occasionally felt unnecessary (Arya’s extended stay in Braavos or Brienne’s journey to Riverrun being the obvious culprits) so much of the season was as good as GoT has ever been. It all culminated in the incredible season finale “The Winds of Winter” as three core characters rose higher than ever before and the stage was set for the endgame.
2. The Americans (FX)
Put simply, The Americans is one of, if not the best drama on TV and season four was the show’s best season yet.
Season four saw KGB sleeper agents Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings (the sublime Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) crumble under the pressure of the impossible mission they’ve been tasked with. Meanwhile, their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) continued to struggle with her knowledge of her parent’s true identities. The consequences of previous seasons came to bear this year as many characters were confronted with the choices they’ve made over the years.
No show on TV hits you with a gut punch as hard as The Americans does. These characters are trapped in untenable situations and it’s only a matter of time before something gives. It’s crushing to watch Phillip and Elizabeth struggle to fight for a lost cause while their work continues to adversely affect those around them. With two more seasons left in this thrilling story that’s just as much about a marriage as it is spy-craft, the levee will no doubt break soon. The Americans is one of the greatest dramas I’ve ever watched. I can give it no higher recommendation than that.
The Americans is available to stream on Amazon Prime. Watch. This. Show.
1. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)
Here was a show that I had the lowest of expectations for and could not have been more wrong about. Produced by Ryan Murphy and developed for TV by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson presented a gripping dramatization of “The Trial of The Century.” What could have been a vapid and tertiary look at such an important event in American history instead took a hard look at both legal teams involved and did a tremendous job of humanizing people who had been made into caricatures because of the trial. Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, and Sterling K. Brown all delivered career-defining performances as Marcia Clark, Johnny Cochran, and Chris Darden respectively as all three struggled with the weight of such a high-profile trial.
Beyond the incredible acting and direction, The People v. O.J.Simpson served as an important reflection of America as it is today. It was a great reminder that the divisions in American culture didn’t just show up in recent years, they’ve been around for a very long time. The O.J trial brought many of those issues to bear back in ’94 and showed just how much further we have to go even in 2016.
The People v. O.J. Simpson was the best TV show I watched in 2016, hands down. You owe it to yourself to watch this show. It is necessary, vital and takes a fascinating looking at a massive moment in American history.
You can read my review of the series here.
So there you have it, my top 12 shows of 2016. Here’s to more great TV in 2017!
Thanks for sticking it out and reading through the list! Did you watch any of these shows? Let me know in the comments and be sure like the blog on Facebook and subscribe to the mailing list!