My Top Ten TV Dramas of 2016

by Matthew Thompson

I’m back with part two of my look at television in 2016. Earlier this week, I spotlighted the best comedies of last year and today I’m talking about some of the incredible dramas that graced the small screen in 2016. Here are my ten favorites from this past year.

10. Mr. Robot

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Mr. Robot was the surprise of 2015. From an unlikely source – the formerly happy-go-lucky USA network – came this dark, cyberpunk thriller about a hacker trying to change the world while battling his own psychological demons. It even took the top spot in my list of best series that year. Season 2 was a sizable step back in my eyes suffering from major pacing issues among other missteps – most notably cutting off Elliot from the other characters for so long and sidelining Tyrell for the majority of the season. Yet, I still found myself riveted watching week to week. So many of the aspects of the show remain top-shelf from the acting performances of Rami Malek and company to the daring, original cinematography to the music, including both the original score and the licensed selections. And despite the frustrations I mentioned earlier, I remained engrossed in trying to suss out where this wild ride was taking me and fascinated by the show’s ability to put viewers in their complicated lead’s shoes. While it may not have matched its near-perfect first season, I still found myself glued to Mr. Robot in 2016.

Bonus Points: For seeing the creative ways in which they deploy the title cards each week. I’m not sure a show has ever done them better than Mr. Robot.

9. American Crime

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You’d be forgiven for overlooking American Crime’s superior second season after the middling first, but it is absolutely worth your time. This show initially felt like ABC’s response to the popularity of crime anthologies in 2014 like True Detective and Fargo, but beyond some strong acting performances, American Crime didn’t have a lot to offer in comparison. That changed in Season 2. Rape accusations at a prestigious private school well-known for its basketball team set in motion the events of the season to follow which would examine numerous topics such as class, race, sexuality, online bullying and school shootings. While this may seem like the writers ticking things off a checklist of hot-button issues, it is so much more. This was a nuanced and powerful look at important social issues of our time. No show improved more from 2015 to 2016 in my opinion, making American Crime one of the more underrated shows of this past year.

Bonus Points: For bringing back many of the same actors from Season 1 for more quality performances. I wasn’t sure how to feel about bringing cast members back to play different characters in a new season as it was the first show I’d seen do this, but it didn’t bother me one bit and it was great to see people like Timothy Hutton, Felicity Huffman, Lily Taylor and Regina King back with superior material to work with. The new cast was excellent too.

8. Stranger Things

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I’m a sucker for a good sci-fi series and Netflix delivered on that front this past summer with the tightly paced, built-to-binge Stranger Things. It is clearly a throwback to fiction from the ‘80s, reminiscent of both Steven Spielberg and Stephen King’s works. But in truth, I don’t have a particularly strong nostalgia for the period. I was just impressed with what this debut season did. It hit on a lot of the science-fiction subjects that I love, chief among them my personal favorite: alternate universes. But the sci-fi is combined with supernatural and horror touches that – along with an absolutely killer soundtrack – create an amazing and palpable atmosphere. All this plus the season’s intriguing, ongoing mysteries and the way everything comes together in the final few episodes had me hooked on Stranger Things’ first season. Kudos for some great performances from kid actors too – particularly Millie Bobby Brown – which aren’t exactly common on television.

Bonus Points: For reminding me of my all-time favorite show Fringe! With alternate universes, little girls with powers, sensory deprivation tanks and the 1980s, I couldn’t help but think of Fringe at times while watching Stranger Things.

7. The Americans

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The Americans is very much the ‘80s soviet spy thriller that it appears to be at first glance. It has the kind of tense scenes you’d expect from a show focusing on Russian spies stationed abroad during the Cold War though they often come in an oddly quiet or uncomfortable way that makes them unique to The Americans. But just as much as this is a spy show, it is a family drama. It is the combination of these two aspects that makes the show so special. The past two seasons has seen it reach even greater heights by letting daughter Paige in on the family secret. Seeing her reactions as she learns more – and how her parents react to that – has allowed us to diver deeper into both of the series’ core subjects. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell continue to do incredible work in the lead roles, but The Americans’ recent developments have allowed Holly Taylor to show her acting chops as well.

Bonus Points: For the heartwrenching ways in which they tied off two major subplots involving long-time supporting characters this season. These were both brutal and emotional in the way you’d expect from The Americans.

6. Jane the Virgin

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After two and a half seasons of effortlessly delivering such consistent quality, it is easy to overlook just how cleverly constructed Jane the Virgin remains. It’s a show that embraces being a telenovela while poking fun at the format every chance it gets. It’s the funniest hour-long program on television capable of delivering buckets of laughs through its use of captions alone. It features the best narrator on TV. It uses smart wordplay to transition from one scene to the next. It blends humor and pathos with a twisty narrative to create something unlike any other show on TV. Jane the Virgin didn’t do anything wildly different from what it has in years past, but it remains one of the most fun and addicting series on television.

Bonus Points: For Yael Grobglas’s performance. Petra was already my favorite character on the show and Yael has always been great in the role, but I loved seeing her get to play two characters this past year. It’s cliché to say, but it really did feel like two different people playing them plus she had to do some of that one character pretending to be the other sort of thing. Great stuff.

5. Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones The Battle of the Bastards 1

I fell in love with Game of Thrones the moment I started watching it. Then I got into the books and started reading all the crazy theories and my love grew deeper. For four years, it was consistently one of my favorite things on TV. And then came Season 5. I was disappointed. Because of this and the fact that the writers wouldn’t have finished books for reference from here on out, my excitement was somewhat muted going into the sixth season. But I’m happy to say this was a bounce back year for HBO’s medieval fantasy series. I think where it succeeds the most is in setting up the final stretch of episodes. The last two outings of Season 6 rank among the series’ best delivering one of GoT’s epic battle sequences as Jon faced off against Ramsay in “The Battle of the Bastards” and just about everything I could have asked for and more in the explosive season finale “The Winds of Winter.” I couldn’t be more excited to see where Game of Thrones goes next which is back to exactly how I should be feeling in the off-season.

Bonus Points: For the fact that Dany is finally heading to Westeros! Seven hells, it’s about time!

4. Person of Interest

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It was a bit sad to see CBS burn off Person of Interest’s final episodes so unceremoniously at the end of last network season. It along with The Good Wife have been the bright spots among their drama line-up for years, a cut above their usual, older-skewing procedural fare. And whereas The Good Wife faltered down the stretch, Person of Interest soared with a sensational farewell season for the series. During this final lap, POI brought more vigilantism from some of TV’s foremost badasses while tackling the same kind of complex issues it has from the beginning, things like artificial intelligence and post-9/11 national security. And I couldn’t be happier with how things came to a close. The finale was the perfect way to end Person of Interest and joins the likes of Scrubs, Spartacus and Friday Night Lights as my favorite series finales of all-time.

Bonus Points: For making the ham-fisted way in which they wrote Shaw out in Season 4 worthwhile. I love Shaw. She is my favorite character on the show. I didn’t really care for the way in which she was written out in the previous season. But she was such a big factor in why I loved this final season and series finale that I can’t imagine her not being a part of it. So while that issue could have been handled better in Season 4, I’m very thankful they managed to keep Shaw around for the fifth season.

3. Rectify

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When new evidence results in Daniel Holden being released from prison after nearly two decades, we see how his reintroduction to society affects him, his family and his small hometown of Paulie, Georgia. This is the premise of SundanceTV’s affecting drama series Rectify. On paper, it doesn’t seem like my cup of tea. You don’t have to look much further than this list to see that I prefer shows with action and sci-fi and so on to this sort of slow-paced prestige drama. And yet, Rectify has been one of my favorites each of these past four years. During its final season, it delivered more of what I’d come to expect from the series. A show filled with small, moving moments. One with touching, realistic dialogue that also isn’t afraid to let silence speak for it when necessary. Some of the very best acting performances on television – Aden Young delivers one for the ages in the lead role. And yet it managed to surprise me too, giving me more closure than I expected when it came to the central crime and what Daniel’s future might hold. It was a beautiful end to a beautiful series. I will miss it.

Bonus Points: For the arc that Ted Jr. went on throughout the series. Daniel’s journey was always my favorite part of the show, but I was surprised how different I felt about Teddy by the end of this season than I had at the beginning of the show. Credit to the writers and Clayne Crawford for what they did with the character.

2. Black Sails

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I don’t think the third season of Starz swashbuckling, Treasure Island prequel series quite matches up with Season 2, but it comes pretty damn close and remains the premiere action show on television. Looking back so much happened on Black Sails this season. Brutal storms at sea and the discoveries of secret colonies, pivotal death scenes and harrowing duels, plus all the slippery maneuvering, treachery and backstabbing you’d expect from the pirate series leading up to the finale’s bombastic one-two punch battle sequences fought on both land and at sea. And despite all this, it at times felt like it was merely setting up the series’ final season airing later this month. Look no further than the introduction of Blackbeard. The legendary pirate lingered around the periphery this past season, but looks to pay off in full this year just as two other major players are poised to clash. Black Sails managed to put together another highly entertaining season while preparing perfectly for its final voyage.

Bonus Points: For that amazing carriage sequence in Episode 8. Whew. Crazy. I’d gladly play that in a video game.

1. iZombie

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Whereas Rectify isn’t exactly my kind of show, iZombie 100% is. The out-there premise that finds a zombie medical examiner helping to solve crimes by eating the victims’ brains? Incredible. The way it so deftly blends procedural elements with the ongoing mythology? Perfect. The chemistry of the cast? Delightful. That one-of-a-kind dialogue and banter that you only get in a Rob Thomas show? So full of snark and wit, it makes my heart sing. I love it all. Only the back half of Season 2 aired in 2016, but it was so, so good. There were more interesting personalities for Liv to take on from the humorous (stripper brain) to the sobering (drug addict brain). There were some great guest turns from Rob Thomas’s old show Veronica Mars (including Kristen Bell in voice form and Enrico Colantoni) and a wonderfully meta cameo from Rob Thomas himself… but the other one, of Matchbox 20 fame. They even went the route of more traditional zombie fiction in the finale to spectacular results. This show never lets me down and was my easy choice for favorite TV show of 2016.

Bonus Points: For the honest conversation that results from someone learning Liv’s secret late in the season. Other shows – I’m looking in your direction CW superhero shows – could learn a thing or two from this exchange I think. Oh and for those cooking montages that make brains look delicious each week.

A couple more things:

  • Ranking Debates: I didn’t have much of an issue with this list compared to the comedies. The number one choice was easy for me this time and I felt good about the ten even if there were plenty of other worthy candidates. I did swap Black Sails and Rectify late (iZombie and Rectify playing off the “my kind of show” theme made more sense when they were next to each other!). And I did shuffle the six through eight spots a bit as I wrote these up. But those debates don’t bother me as much as what is at the top and what makes the list. Those I felt great about.
  • A few more dramas that I really liked (in no order): Orphan Black (the best season of the sci-fi clone series since the first with another amazing performance from Tatiana Maslany), Better Call Saul (more great stuff from the Breaking Bad spinoff/prequel), Last Chance U (excellent documentary series honing in one of the country’s best JUCO football programs), Hap and Leonard (quality pulp action with great lead performances from James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams), and This is Us (a tearjerking family drama in the vein of Parenthood).

That will do it for my look back at the best television of 2016. I had originally intended to do another post or two, but these turned out a bit longer than I intended and I’m ready to move on. Feel free to share your favorite dramas from this past year in the comments below. My look back on gaming in 2016 will be coming in the form of two more posts next week, so be on the lookout for them! Thanks for reading!

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15 comments on “My Top Ten TV Dramas of 2016

  1. My favorites last year:
    Straight Sci Fi/Fantasy- The Magicians, The Expanse, Dark Matter (love love love)
    Anthology Goodness- Fargo (OMG)
    Cable Drama- Better Call Saul, The Americans
    Premium Drama- Game of (F-ing) Thrones “Hold the door!!!”, Westworld, The Man in the High Castle (quite possibly the best thing on TV), Black Sails

    Oh noes. I’m up to ten and haven’t mentioned one CW show.

    This is exactly why I can’t do top tens in drama unless I separate the different classes. Network TV is not quality in the same way. It’s candy. It’s beautiful candy. I love the CW. But I cringe comparing any of their shows or any network show to any of these 12 episode, 10 episode runs of intense quality. Mr Robot which wasn’t that good this season (until the end where it was fantastic once again) or Stranger Things (which even though it rubbed me the wrong way [I grew up with kids like that in that actual era- not good memories] I liked the little girl though) both put more into each episode than a month’s worth of Network. I don’t mean to be negative but they really should be two separate art forms. My Network list would be (in order).

    Jane, iZombie, Agents of SHIELD, Gotham, Supergirl, Lucifer, Arrow, The Flash, Person of Interest & Elementary. I’m just going to go on and say they’re ALL comic book shows. They kind of are.

    • I know a lot of people who feel that way and I just don’t. Some of the greatest TV seasons (dramas included) I have ever watched have been 20+ episode network seasons. I do think it is harder to sustain a high level of quality over 20 some episodes than 8-12 so it certainly happens less on network, but I still think it happens. That particular criticism also sort of ignores the fact that only one of the four networks shows I mentioned in this post aired more than 13 episodes in 2016, but I’m not sure whether you were trying to call me out specifically on that or not. American Crime is basically one of those 10-episode prestige dramas on cable just aired on ABC.

      And on the flip side some of the biggest disappointments of 2016 were some of these supposedly tight cable dramas. Banshee wasted away its final eight episodes by adding a couple inane subplots when they should have been focusing on the natural final conflict of the show. Penny Dreadful seemingly didn’t have enough time to do what they wanted and rushed to the finish sidelining their greatest attraction (Eva’s acting) for the final two episodes. To me it ultimately comes down to the writing. For instance, I genuinely think iZombie and Jane are better written than Westworld. For all its production values and great actors, Westworld seemed more concerned with creating mystery (mysteries that everyone could see through to boot) than good plotting and characterization (to be fair, a complaint I’d level at Mr. Robot too). I still liked Westworld, but I think it had its fair share of issues and I was disappointed in it as I had such high expectations.

      Anyway, that is my take on it. Not trying to be argumentative. I like hearing your thoughts on it and just wanted to throw mine out there I guess and perhaps defend my inclusion of network shows here.

      Unfortunately I haven’t seen all of the shows you listed, so maybe they should be on here. I really liked what I watched of The Expanse, but didn’t keep up on it. I’ve heard great things about The Magicians and Dark Matter too. Fargo is awesome and would probably be on this list. I like the show even more than the movie, but it actually didn’t air during 2016 (Season 2 aired in 2015). I’m really excited for next season too. The cast looks incredible. The Man in the High Castle I need to check out. I watched the pilot when it was first put up in Amazon’s pilot test thing-y. I thought it was super cool. Then I read the book and it was so fucking boring. How could they make something that I should love like this so boring? And that turned me off checking out the show, but I still want to fix that one day. Sounds like the show must be better than the book if you think so highly of it.

      Anyway, I always love hearing your thoughts on TV. You watch even more than me. Sorry if I went overboard with the response!

      • You didn’t go overboard. And I absolutely wasn’t calling you out on including network shows. I noticed I got up to ten and hadn’t included Jane which is fantastic and iZombie and kind of went off on a rant… I’m sorry. Fargo was 2015? Wow time flies. You’re right Banshee and Penny Dreadful both ended screamingly bad. Philip K Dick is an acquired taste but a creative (if crazy) mastermind. The Expanse and The Magicians are my favorite things I have watched both first seasons three times each and will watch them again day before the new seasons start. (They each binge so well) But if I had to replace Fargo (disqualified for being too old), it would have to be with Black Mirror. Another great anthology. I hope Fargo starts bringing back the same actors like AHS. I like that anthology style. I like seeing the actors in new roles. You know what else is really good that I forgot to put up there… Scream Queens. That show still cracks me up. But the last time I tried to do a drama top ten I ended up with three lists and I finished with over a hundred TV shows in all. I haven’t done one since. That burned me out.

        • I don’t know why I took what you said so personally in hindsight. Blah. Anyway, I dig what I’ve watched of Scream Queens and Black Mirror, but am a bit behind on them still. Just more shows I need to catch up on!

  2. Great job with the post as always! Although I’m cutting out some shows in 2017, I’m open to picking up some new ones and reading your thoughts on them helps to see what else might appeal to me. I’ve heard so many positive things about Jane the Virgin and the three generations of women being one of the strongest combos TV has to offer, I’ll probably give it a watch now that it’s on Netflix Canada. I absolutely had a blast with iZombie season 2. I liked how all the story lines turned out and some good development for Babineaux. Rob Thomas the musician was a good sport too in that finale. I haven’t watched as many shows you but I really enjoyed People Vs OJ, some of the best ensemble acting too this past year.

    • Thanks! Jane is worth a try if you get the chance. It is a pretty unique show. Glad you dug iZombie this year as well. I really liked what I saw of the People vs. OJ too, but never got around to finishing it for some reason. The acting, particularly Courtney B. Vance, was excellent. I need to go back and finish that up. It seemed like one of the most popular picks among critics in top ten ballots this year on various websites.

  3. Fun post! A few of my favorites not on your list are The Magicians, S.H.I.E.L.D., and The Expanse. Syfy channel really appears to be upping their game with the quality of new shows. Incorporated has been pretty as well. Looking forward to new stuff this year.

    • I did check out the first episode of The Expanse after you wrote about it last year. I thought it was really cool. My experience with SyFy shows wasn’t so good before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was, as you said, great. I was also dying at that one guy’s hair because I remembered you making a joke about it in the post! I just never made time to fit the whole season in. I want to check that and The Magicians out when I can. It definitely seems like SyFy has been improving. Thanks for commenting!

  4. I really need to start watching Black Sails, especially before the final season. Probably won’t have time, but Starz earned my respect with Spartacus.

    I’d add shows like Horace and Pete and The Girlfriend Experience, but otherwise, great list.

    • I was a big fan of Spartacus as well. Hopefully you will dig Black Sails if you try it. I decided to start up The Girlfriend Experience this week since you are so high on it. Only watched the first one, but it was very interesting. I forgot it was only a half-hour. That makes it a bit easier to squeeze in. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Pingback: TV Upfronts 2017: Underwhelmed | The Triple Option

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