As 2016 comes to a close, we here at Nerdist can’t help but think about one thing: how we’re one revolution of the sun closer to dying from an inevitable asteroid strike. We also can’t help but look back at the year in pop culture and sort through everything we watched, dividing all our intake up into carefully curated lists. The term “Peak TV” often gets bandied about and 2016 definitely lived up to the hype, delivering a bevy of incredibly well-crafted, engrossing TV shows for our viewing pleasure. Too many, some might say. To those people, we say get thee to a TARDIS. So, without further ado, here are the best TV series of 2016 as chosen by the Nerdist editorial team.
Are we guests or are we hosts? Are we man or are we machine? Are we human or are we dancer? At least two of those questions were tackled by HBO’s simmering sci-fi Western-turned-pop culture phenomenon Westworld. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s reimagining of Michael Crichton’s 1973 film delivered a heady dose of science fiction mixed with Wild West action, and the result was a highly addictive serialized adventure that inspired Lost-like levels of frantic theorycrafting. But beyond deciphering the mysteries of the show, Westworld boasted an array of dazzling performances from the likes of Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, Jimmi Simpson, Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, and many more. While some of the rules of the show got wonky along the way, Westworld‘s thoughtful exploration of questions of consciousness and identity coupled with its outsized action and intrigue made it one of the year’s best. And in case you’re wondering, this article was written 30 years in the past.
Our collective cultural fetish for all things 1980s culminated in one of the most addictive Netflix original series to date. With its killer synth score, multidimensional mysteries, the best use of D&D since Community, and the best use of waffles since Parks & Recreation, Stranger Things crafted a genuinely compelling mythology and delivered a thrilling adventure we couldn’t help but dissect in excruciating detail. Remember: friends don’t lie, so I’m telling you the truth when I say that this is one of the year’s best.
While the most talked-about musical of the year was Hamilton, the best one on TV was undoubtedly Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Anyone who has ever compulsively refreshed an ex’s Facebook page or made themselves sick with hypothetical overanalysis will find something to love about this show. Come for the surprisingly thoughtful relationship drama, stay for the raunchy, delightfully self-aware songs about heartbreak and obsession.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
If you time traveled back to 1994 to tell me that the ongoing O.J. Simpson trial would be turned into one of the best shows on TV 22 years later, I… wouldn’t have given a shit because I was six years old and more concerned with making my G.I. Joes fight Spider-Man. But 22 years later, Ryan Murphy and company did indeed turn a national spectacle and a deeply complicated court case into one of the hardest hitting dramas I’ve ever seen on TV. If nothing else, this show serves as a powerful showcase for a murderer’s row of deeply talented actors like Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, and Sterling K. Brown.
While everyone sings the praises of admittedly excellent Cartoon Network shows like Rick and Morty and Adventure Time, many more overlook the quiet brilliance of Steven Universe. Anyone who has ever wished they could be a part of the Sailor Scouts will vibe with this story of a goofy kid who finds out he has incredible powers and that the fate of the universe is at stake. With a genuinely compelling ongoing story, surprisingly progressive politics, unreasonably catchy songs, and humor that’s smart enough for adults but accessible enough for kids, Steven Universe is a real gem and quite possibly the best thing on Cartoon Network. Sorry, Cow and Chicken fans.
Game of Thrones
While Game of Thrones didn’t take my suggestion to Weekend at Bernie’s Jon Snow’s dead body at the Wall all season long, it did deliver some of the biggest and bloodiest battles, the most shocking twists, and absolutely bonkers theories we’ve seen to date. The best part (or the worst part, depending on who you ask) is that this is the first time we have well and truly gone off book, which made each episode a visceral thrill as we plunged headlong into the unknown. From the Battle of the Bastards to Varys secretly being a mermaid, this season of Game of Thrones was one of the best things on TV this year… and even Jon Snow knows that.
Stop sleeping on this incredible Cold War spy drama. Even though it gets passed over like so many first-borns every awards season, this story of two KGB spies posing as Americans in suburban Washington D.C. consistently delivers the best twists and turns on TV. Current geopolitics aside, this 1980s-set drama is remarkable in the way it touches on matters of faith, identity, and family. Its slow-burn tension and constantly building paranoia will have you frantically running over to your window during commercial breaks to spy on your neighbors. Because, honestly, what is Mrs. Blornsfeld up to over there anyway? Who waters their begonias that much?
It may have taken nearly 20 years to figure out how to crack the ultraviolent, supernatural nut that is Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher, but Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg finally did it. The results, as we saw this year on AMC, were bloody and brilliant. With a vampire smackdown aboard a jetliner, an exploding Tom Cruise, and a DIY arts and crafts rocket launcher in the first episode alone, this comic book TV show hit the ground running and sprinted to the head of the pack. Season two can’t come quickly enough.
Because being a Renaissance Man wasn’t enough, Donald Glover went ahead and created one of the best TV shows of the year as well. In Atlanta, Glover plays Ernest Marks, a Princeton drop-out who moves back home to Atlanta to become the manger of his mid-level rapper cousin. Is he extremely out of his element? Yes. Is he trying his damnedest to be a good man, son, and father in a weirdly relatable way? Yes. Is there anything else like it on TV? Hell no, and that’s why we love it. The show swings from surreal to serious to supremely silly in a heartbeat, much like Glover himself, which makes Atlanta such a unique televised treat.
Based on the mount of groan-worthy puns and dumb sight gags alone, BoJack Horseman deserves a spot on this list. But this animated series about an alcoholic, depressed, anthropomorphic horse pursuing fame, fortune, and an Academy Award is one of the funniest, darkest, and most poignant comedies on TV. To wit, the best and most audacious episode of the season was a practically silent meditation on alienation and loneliness. It’s a pitch perfect skewering not only of the entertainment industry, but the modern condition and all the emotional baggage that comes with it.
In a world without The Twilight Zone to couch necessary morality plays in slick sci-fi trappings, Charlie Brooker stepped up to the plate by creating series of deeply unsettling 21st century techno-parables that made me want to throw my phone in a river and become a Luddite. With dynamic performances from the likes of Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Bryce Dallas Howard, as well as hard-hitting subject matter that inspired fan theories galore, Black Mirror was essential viewing in 2016. Considering the show’s track record with deeply disturbing episodes coming true, I am genuinely terrified for our future, but can’t wait to watch.
These were but a handful of the truly excellent TV shows we watched in 2016. Which were your favorites? What would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments below.
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Additional reporting by Alicia Lutes, Rachel Heine, Kyle Anderson, Michelle Buchman, Matthew Grosinger, and Michael Arbeiter.