The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

Here are are the shows we obsessively binge-watched and couldn't stop talking about.
IMAGE Esquire

It's been a tumultuous year, which means that most of us turn to our TVs—or laptops—for some light entertainment. But unlike most areas of entertainment that often reflects our own culture back at us, television works at a much quicker rate—meaning that TV is more likely to depict, through comedy and drama, our current cultural climate with an exacting speed and accuracy.

This year's TV offerings might indicate that we're at "Peak TV," but they have certainly brought us some groundbreaking and provocative episodes of narrative storytelling proving that the art form is at the highest point in its long history. With even the lightest, frothiest fare (such as the most ridiculous reality TV) manages to have something to say about the state of the world today, and the most ridiculous fantasy and sci-fi series are rooted in realism like never before.

Here are the best TV shows of 2016—the series we've watched, talked about, and obsessed over.

25. The Get Down

Hip-hop culture + New York in the 1970s + the Australian dude who made Moulin Rouge!: it all should've added up to disaster. But this summer's happiest TV surprise was that Baz Luhrmann's crushingly expensive Netflix drama about the birth of hip-hop turned out great. Combining elements of coming-of-age romance, historical fiction, crime drama, and musical, The Get Down is certainly over the top. If you find Luhrmann's endless party scenes overstimulating, it may not be the show for you. What (usually) saves it from silliness, though, is the way it situates likable, complex characters—played by a young, talented group of actors—in a world that fosters their dreams of stardom without downplaying the poverty and danger of the '70s Bronx. The input of hip-hop legends like Nas and Grandmaster Flash, who both get producer credits, ensures the show is historically accurate and does justice to great music. —Judy Berman


24. Younger

Even if Sutton Foster wasn't one of the most charming actresses on the planet, Younger would still be a must-watch. In its second season, we see Sutton Foster's 40-something suburban mom Liza continue to play at being a 20-something Williamsburg hipster in order to get ahead in book publishing. Hijinks ensue, as they should, with a terrific supporting cast showing how Gen X and millennials mix and match more than we might think. Bonus points for the razor-sharp satire of the publishing world, including a David Wain guest spot as a male feminist author with some penis problems, and Richard Masur as Richard L.L. Moore, a fantasy author with a Santa Claus-style beard and some demanding proclivities, sexual and otherwise. The only way the show could improve is if Season Three would feature a group karaoke outing, allowing living Broadway legend Foster, and former teen pop sensation and series regular Hilary Duff, to show off their moves. —Maris Kreizman

23. The Walking Dead

Alright, let's talk about that season-ending cliffhanger, in which new boss Negan eenie-meenie-miney-moes our heroes before settling on an unknown main character to bludgeon. Like roughly 70 percent of what goes on in the world, it set off a round of Internet outrage. And yes, it was frustrating. Yes, it was manipulative. But frustrating and manipulating viewers is also what a television show is supposed to do. The Walking Dead had us counting the days until its season premiere in October and also thanking God social media wasn't around back when CBS had us wondering who shot J.R. —Dave Holmes

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22. London Spy

When Danny (Ben Whishaw) meets Alex (Edward Holcroft), he thinks he's found his soul mate. They move in together, start building a life… and then Alex suddenly disappears. What Danny encounters when he starts searching for his boyfriend is as shocking to viewers as it is to him. But despite its title, novelist Tom Rob Smith's five-part miniseries London Spy isn't your typical espionage thriller. The murky international conspiracy that propels its plot is, in part, a metaphor for the experience of being an outsider in a society that hates you for just because you're gay or poor or female. And like so many British serials, with such legends as Charlotte Rampling and Jim Broadbent supporting Whishaw, the show features a cast worthy of the big screen. —Judy Berman

21. The Crown

Netflix's big-budget and ambitious undertaking of Queen Elizabeth II's reign over England can, at times, be a mixed bag. Handsomely produced with an incredible eye for historical accuracy (creator Peter Morgan also wrote The Queen as well as the play The Audience, both following his most favorite royal subject throughout vital moments during her reign), the series sometimes suffers from a distinct lack of drama. (For Americans, there's only so much scandal to wring from a painting of Winston Churchill or Prince Phillip's flying lessons.) Yet it's incredibly watchable thanks to its gorgeous style and brilliant acting turns from Claire Foy and John Lithgow, along with superb performances by Matt Smith and Vanessa Kirby. It's the perfect show to watch with tabs of Wikipedia open on your laptop or iPad to verify that the events of the series truly did take place. —Tyler Coates


20. The Good Wife

I always tell people that The Good Wife isn't just a show for moms, despite what its title suggests. And it's not your typical case-of-the-week legal procedural, either; while it started out as such, it became a more ambitious drama that rivals what you typically see on cable networks (and boasting a tight narrative considering its 22-episode seasons). Wrapping up its seven-season run earlier this year, the final season was primed for failure—a fan-favorite had departed the series last season, and its producers hired two actors (Cush Jumbo and Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to replace the irreplaceable Archie Panjabi. The bet paid off, bringing protagonist Alicia Florrick a new legal partner and a new romantic partner. But most importantly, the show offered network TV a stunningly flawed anti-hero—a female anti-hero, at that, whose ethics and morals were tested at every turn. —Tyler Coates

19. You're the Worst

Television comedies tend to go to dark places these days. No show goes to such extremes as the anti-rom-com You're the Worst, in which a handful of deplorable Los Angelenos fight and fuck and drink and destroy themselves (and others), all while daring you not to root for them every step of the way. While its second season took a surprising turn when it honed in on Gretchen's (Aya Cash) clinical depression and the struggles her boyfriend Jimmy (Chris Geere) faced while trying to support and love her, the third season placed similar efforts into exploring Edgar's (Desmin Borges) posttraumatic stress disorder. You're the Worst is about, well, terrible people—but terrible people deserve love and friendship, too, and this is a comedy that makes them undeniably affectionate and real. —Tyler Coates


18. Casual

In a first season that improved with each episode, Zander Lehmann's Jason Reitman-backed Casual distinguished itself from TV's recent glut of LA-set romantic comedies (You're the Worst, Love, Togetherness) by focusing on family. Michaela Watkins' Valerie Meyers, newly separated from her cheating husband, and her taciturn teenage daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) end up staying with Valerie's younger brother Alex (Tommy Dewey). The idle, commitment-phobic creator of a dating site, he's gotten rich off of other people's search for love. And, of course, the siblings' reunion reveals that the ghosts of their childhood still haunt their current relationships. But the show reached new heights in Season Two. The latest batch of episodes finds Valerie, Laura, and Alex—three very different loners—struggling to make and keep friends as they continue courting romance. Love triangles, heartbreaks, and old flames keep the storyline moving, as Casual begins to further differentiate itself from its largely hetero competitors with some of TV's subtlest portrayals of sexual fluidity. —Judy Berman

17. Stranger Things

The summer's breakout show came out of nowhere—not that it really should have surprised anyone. An eight-episode homage to '80s supernatural thrillers? A healthy mixture of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King? A John Carpenter-inspired soundtrack? A ragtag group of misfits that rival The Goonies? A supporting character who would go on to win the hearts of the Internet despite being onscreen for a manner of minutes? THE BLESSED RETURN OF WINONA RYDER? Stranger Things is a postmodern masterpiece tailor made for our time, a hodgepodge of childhood nostalgia and escapism that, well, is much more entertaining than it is intelligent. —Tyler Coates


16. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver

In early February, before kicking off his third season, John Oliver told us he was finally ready to take on Donald Trump. For the better part of 2015, Oliver had completely ignored the Orange One on Last Week Tonight. As the loud anthropomorphized piece of dried fruit became an actual Republican presidential nominee, Oliver acted accordingly, picking his moments to hilariously and carefully analyze Trump's more dangerous qualities (and there are a lot of them!). More importantly, this season, Oliver, as he told us he would, maintained self-control to not over-cover the election, choosing to focus on important topics like journalism (!), the Olympics, and Brexit. —Matt Miller

15. The Night Manager

This U.K. import might as well have been Tom Hiddleston's James Bond audition tape. The six-episode miniseries, adapted from the John le Carré novel of the same name, cast Marvel's Loki as a hotel night manager recruited by British intelligence to infiltrate the inner circle of an international arms dealer (Hugh Laurie). These suave adversaries and the beautiful locations where their intrigue plays out—Majorca, Marrakech, the Swiss Alps—make The Night Manager one of the glossiest spectacles on the small screen. But Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier (After the Wedding, In a Better World) draws out the story's substance, too, underlining its political subtext with Olivia Colman's astounding performance as a righteous (and pregnant!) spy fighting institutional corruption. —Judy Berman

14. Broad City

For two seasons, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson were content with making one of the funniest shows on TV about two 20-something best friends navigating a slightly surreal New York City. But Broad City upped its ambition in Season Three, forcing carefree Ilana to finally face the consequences of her unwillingness to grow up. Dumped first by her job and then by her long-suffering non-boyfriend Lincoln (Hannibal Buress), she learns from the crisis without sacrificing the joie de vivre that makes her so fun to watch. Not that getting serious—or enlisting Hillary Clinton to make a guest appearance—prevented Glazer and Jacobson from creating some of the series' most hilarious moments to date, from an art gallery disaster in the season premiere to a recreation of Mrs. Doubtfire's famous restaurant scene that features a perfect guest appearance by Mara Wilson. —Judy Berman


13. Silicon Valley

No industry is more ripe for satire than tech, and no creator is better suited to the task than Mike Judge. Thankfully, you don't have to understand data compression to follow the three-season saga of Pied Piper, which has slowly become TV's best case study on the conflict between art (in this case, the developers trying to make the best product they can) and commerce (the corporations and financiers trying to cash in on their innovations). Season Three finds Richard (Thomas Middleditch) fighting for control of his own invention and highlights the absurdity of the cottage industries that prop up the tech world, from media to overseas click farms. But its real draw is a cast whose chemistry increases with every episode. From T.J. Miller's boorish Erlich and Zach Woods' human non sequitur Jared to Suzanne Cryer's robotic but righteous Laurie Beam and constantly feuding frenemies Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), it's impossible to pick a favorite character on a show where everyone's a standout. —Judy Berman

12. Transparent

The third season of Jill Soloway's groundbreaking series follows in the style of its first two seasons: the Pfefferman clan is still as mixed up and fucked up as ever, delivering a brilliant mix of comic highs and dramatic lows. The latest season offered a shift from the Maura Pfefferman-centric storyline and allowed us to see the inner lives of other characters, who are just as nuanced as the family matriarch. Sarah (Amy Landecker) is at an emotional crossroads, and Shelly (Judith Light) searches for her own identity. But it's Trace Lysette and Kathryn Hahn who really shined this year playing outsiders to the Pfefferman family—two women who are both burned by son Josh (Jay Duplass). —Tyler Coates


11. Game of Thrones

Now free of the cycle of despair that was Game of Thrones' source material (sorry George R.R. Martin, but you're depressing as fuck), the HBO series was able to heal some of the wounds it had inflicted in its first five seasons. Yes, beloved characters died (you're holding that door in our hearts, Hodor), but it also built up and empowered many of the women who had been unforgivably brutalized throughout the series. Part redemption, part reward for fans who had suffered along with the show's characters, Game of Thrones finally delivered—both visually and conceptually. —Matt Miller

10. High Maintenance

The news that the beloved webseries from co-creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair would make its debut on HBO may have left some fans scratching their heads. How could the show's micro-storytelling—tiny slices of the daily lives of random New Yorkers, all of whom interact in some manner with Sinclair's aloof weed deliveryman known only as "The Guy"—translate into a 30-minute cable comedy series? It worked pretty well, as it turns out, with the HBO version of the series capturing the heart and soul of its online predecessor. Along for the ride are a few familiar faces from the original iteration of the series (Dan Stevens, Max Jenkins, Helene York, Greta Lee, and Michael Cyril Creighton all reprise their roles). But more importantly, it exposed a larger audience to Blichfield and Sinclair's tender, reverent look at a city full of people going out of their way—sometimes to hilariously disastrous results—to connect with the known and unknown faces that surround them. —Tyler Coates


9. Veep

The only political satire to outdo Veep in terms of completely ridiculous comedy is the actual garbage fire of an election currently playing out in this country. When both Democrats and Republicans are approaching Julia Louis-Dreyfus and congratulating her on eviscerating the other political party, you know she's making a powerful and balanced critique of our batshit government. —Matt Miller

8. Better Call Saul

Breaking Bad never seemed like a show that needed a spinoff, but after two excellent seasons, Better Call Saul has done more than justify its existence. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould's prequel takes us back to the days when crooked lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) is still Jimmy McGill, a talented, tireless attorney who has the best of intentions but can't resist breaking rules. While the heartbreaking origin story of another Breaking Bad fan favorite, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), was the highpoint of the show's first season, this year's episodes focused on newer characters. By putting Jimmy's relationship with his successful, petty older brother Chuck (Michael McKean) under a microscope, Better Call Saul asked important questions about what it means to be a good person. It's their conflict that makes Rhea Seehorn's Kim Wexler the season's most crucial character, caught between her boss Chuck's moral rigidity and her sometime boyfriend Jimmy's kind heart. —Judy Berman

7. The Night Of

Not since The Wire has a show—with such stunning and unflinching accuracy—detailed the horrors, flaws, and institutionalized failures of our criminal justice system. An eight-episode limited series, The Night Of has created a focused work that contrasts the monotonous, daily horrors of true crime with the saturated tabloid-ized justice system we see on our television news stations. —Matt Miller


6. Lady Dynamite

A spiritual sister to BoJack Horseman, Lady Dynamite is sort of like a live-action cartoon that shines a wacky, comedic spotlight on a serious subject. Like BoJack Horseman, the on-screen Maria Bamford is a difficult person struggling to maintain her career in show business. Although, in a contrast to BoJack, her problem isn't a vice as much as it is her bipolar disorder, and she's actually not the difficult one—it's everyone else who create the most problems. Lady Dynamite has probably done more for awareness of bipolar disorder than any other show on television, accomplishing that feat not by showing it is a debilitating, crushing illness, but by lightly poking at its complications and depicting Bamford as a heroic survivor as opposed to a tragic victim. And at a time when meta show biz comedies focus on semi-famous men with depression, Lady Dynamite is a fresh and brilliant spin with a feminine take. —Tyler Coates

5. Insecure

Issa Rae's ascent to Hollywood seemed like a sure-thing after the cult success of her webseries The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. The road to HBO, however, was a tricky one, but Insecure's much-anticipated debut this season was worth the wait. Co-created by Larry Wilmore, Insecure follows the similar misadventures of Issa Dee, a 29-year-old black woman in Los Angeles who is feeling aimless in her relationship and work, and who is tested by her long-term friendship with Molly (Yvonne Orji). It's a refreshing take on the contemporary black female experience—one that is rarely seen on big or small screens with such honestly, humor, and joy. —Tyler Coates


4. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee

Remember when late night political commentary was supposedly doomed because certain people left their Comedy Central desks? Ha. Full Frontal disproved that theory about two minutes into its first episode. Samantha Bee and her writing team are devastatingly smart and terrifyingly funny. Their jokes knock you on your ass. They are fearless in covering women's issues, religion, gun violence, anything. Their synonyms for Ted Cruz are the slimiest in the business. Full Frontal takes its one chance a week—and on TBS, no less—and nails it. Political commentary is in good hands. —Sarah Rense

3. BoJack Horseman

Thanks to Louis C.K., comedy shows about the sad, pathetic struggles of sullen white guys are a dime a dozen—and with each Louie imitator, the boundaries of "comedy" have certainly shifted. Enter BoJack Horseman, which by all accounts is yet another meta comedy with serious dramatic overtones that would be almost unwatchable if it weren't for the fact that it's a cartoon about an anthropomorphic horse. Perfectly balancing the absurd and the excruciatingly real, BoJack goes to psychological places that most TV shows avoid—and it works, because between each horrible action our beloved horse anti-hero commits is somehow forgivable because, well, he's just a horse. This season continued the stunning work, delivering another heartbreaking storyline with enough blink-and-you'll-miss-it sight gags to warrant a second (and possibly third) viewing. —Tyler Coates

2. Atlanta

Donald Glover is known for his weirdness and aloofness—the character that made him famous on several seasons of Community is seemingly nothing like the distant figure he is in real life. But one thing is for certain: He is a funny man, even if he manages to make you pause and think about what you'll eventually laugh at. His glorious Atlanta, on which he serves as creator and showrunner in addition to its star, is a blissfully weird look at contemporary black life in the southern city in 2016, with enough commentary on hot-button topics that could make the show feel preachy and overwrought. Through stellar performances and surrealist humor, however, Glover pulls off what most shows fail at: holding a mirror to our time and poking fun at it, while also providing some of the most thoughtful and provocative commentary of the world in which we live.—Tyler Coates


1. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Ryan Murphy's treatment of racism, sexism, tabloid exploitation, and the most notorious criminal trial of the 20th Century could have been a trashy mess. But the first season of his newest anthology season was a near-perfect masterpiece, a brilliant combination of high and lowbrow subjects paired perfectly with some stellar performances from the likes of Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, and Sterling K. Brown (plus campy, over-the-top appearances by Nathan Lane, John Travolta, and Connie Britton). And it was perfectly timed, proving in the midst of ongoing national conversations about race and sexism that the issues we encountered two decades ago still loom heavily over our culture today. —Tyler Coates

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* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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