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THE BEST TV SHOWS OF 2016 (SO FAR), RANKED

THE BEST TV SHOWS OF 2016 (SO FAR), RANKED

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The sheer number of television shows produced each year is staggering, enough to make you sigh deeply as you sift through your streaming options on any given night. That’s where our passionately curated Small Screened ranking comes in.

Some ground rules before we begin. One, we’re only assessing shows based on episodes that have aired during 2016. Two, shows can move up and down the ranking from week to week. And finally, like our companion lists for movies, documentaries, albums, and video games, we’re including just the very best of the best — the transcendental, the binge-worthy bangers, the no-doubters. Because if you’re committing this many hours to watching a show, it had better be phenomenal.

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New ➤30. BrainDead

The Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King didn’t give themselves a break when their popular TV show wrapped last spring. Instead, they cooked up a smart, sexy, conspiracy-tinged political drama that also happens to revolve around a Washington, D.C., resident (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who believes that creepy, crawly superbugs are eating politicians’ brains. It’s more Scandal than The Walking Dead — the brain-munchers are deployed to mock political inaction on Capitol Hill — and you almost buy the science behind it. Tragically, the latter half of its title won out: CBS declined to renew the series for a second season.
Where to watch it: CBS All Access

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29. Catastrophe

Rob (Rob Delaney) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan) make an unlikely couple — and even unlikelier parents. A Season 2 time-jump finds the pair in the thick of raising two children and gives us a frank look at all the challenges co-parenting entails. It’s crass, sexy, and above all else, real, with plotlines about postpartum depression and a parent’s dementia. No matter how foul-mouthed Rob and Sharon’s banter is or how misguided their decisions, the characters’ genuine affection for one another shines through in every scene.
Where to stream it: Amazon Prime

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New ➤ 28. Better Things

Pamela Adlon worked with Louis C.K. on his namesake series, so C.K. makes a fitting collaborator on Adlon’s own auteur-driven comedy. Playing working actress Sam, Adlon draws from her own experiences (single parenthood, a nutty British mother) to depict a devoted, smart-mouthed, sexually enlightened mother of three that everyone in Bad Moms wished they could be.
Where to stream it: FXNOW

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27. The Carmichael Show

The Carmichael Show is vigilant. In his first season, comedian Jerrod Carmichael used the laugh-track-filled multi-cam sitcom to tackle topics that go unexplored on most shows: the Black Lives Matter movement, transgender issues, and more. But the occasionally awkward bully-pulpit style took a little while to warm up to. For Season 2, the NBC comedy leaned on its deeply funny characters to take aim at even more societal ills, from Bill Cosby to gentrification, and didn’t back down. Instead of feeling like an unwanted Facebook post from your crazy uncle, it felt like a real conversation.
Where to stream it: Hulu (with NBC subscription), or purchase on Amazon or iTunes

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26. Jane the Virgin

Yes, the title, the premise, the plotlines on this CW series are all ridiculous. But it’s a telenovela — it’s supposed to be over the top. And Jane also tackles serious, controversial issues without moralizing, elevating a melodrama about an accidentally artificially inseminated virgin who’s raising a baby, managing a love triangle, and dealing with drug lords, secret twins, evil professors, and a police department conspiracy. Jane deserves praise for its bilingual storytelling, depictions of strong female relationships, and uncommon mastery of a narrator’s chyrons… but ultimately, it’s just plain fun.

Where to stream it: 5 most recent episodes available on The CW’s website; Season 2 episodes on Netflix

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25. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Season 1 of Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt had its flaws, but co-executive producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock didn’t change things up too drastically for the sitcom’s sophomore season. Which is fine by us. We do get to know Kimmy, the cult survivor thrown in the middle of NYC society after a decade in an underground bunker, a little better, and the series takes the time to plumb the depths of her damaged psyche. The important thing is that Kimmy manages to deliver as many belly laughs as it did last year.
Where to stream it: Netflix

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New ➤ 24. Designated Survivor

Never has large-scale terrorism been this fun. While most TV dramas have become increasingly skeptical, cynical, and at times downright maniacal about the office of the presidency, Designated Survivor clumsily pushes back against this trend, assigning the title of commander-in-chief to Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland doing his best normal-guy impression) in the wake of an attack. Kirkman is a CrossFit warrior in Warby Parker glasses who’d make Jack Bauer proud, rising to the office and staying loyal to his family at all costs. In an election year, it’s the perfect dose of escapism from the headache-inducing news cycle.
Where to stream it: Hulu

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New ➤ 23. Transparent

Jill Soloway’s autobiographical series starring Jeffrey Tambor grew from a radical concept: tracking a newly out transgender woman’s experience, and her family’s ability to cope with change. Season 3 delves deeper into its characters’ spirituality and capacity for empathy, explores an array of complex sexual identities, and renders family dynamics among divorced parents and grown siblings with aching specificity.
Where to stream it: Amazon

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22. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Former YouTube sensation Rachel Bloom’s CW musical comedy is quietly revolutionary, offering sharp yet subtle commentary about the way women treat each other and themselves and featuring one of the most diverse casts on TV. The series, now in its second season, expertly draws its rom-com antics from heroine Rebecca’s compulsive behavior and past traumas, while also satirizing the genre via song-and-dance numbers worthy of Sondheim.
Where to stream it: Netflix

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21. Orange Is the New Black

On the eve of Season 4’s premiere, Netflix announced that it had renewed the fan-favorite series for an additional three seasons; how much more of this world is left to mine? fans wondered. Jenji Kohan & Co. proved there’s still room to reinvent the format by pushing the show’s world into our own. Litchfield’s new regime constructed and broke down new obstacles in the prison-industrial complex, and set up a heartbreaking climax that felt ripped from 2016’s dismal headlines.
Where to stream it: Netflix

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20. Lady Dynamite

Maria Bamford’s semi-autobiographical, surreal spin on mental illness in Hollywood share obvious DNA with Arrested Development: Mitch Hurwitz and Pam Brady are executive producers; sight gags, wordplay, and mockery of Los Angeles idiocy abound; and it features countless comedy-world cameos, extended fantasy sequences, and genuine self-introspection. It’ll take you a few episodes to wrap your head around what you’re watching, but once you’re hooked, you’re hooked.
Where to stream it: Netflix

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New ➤ 19. Quarry

In this stealth Cinemax gem, a depressed and impressively mustached Vietnam War soldier (The Invitation‘s Logan Marshall-Green) returns home to Memphis and quickly finds himself indebted to a shrewd contract broker (Top of the Lake‘s Peter Mullan). These slowly unspooling eight episodes will pull you in with authentic ’70s vibes, gorgeous cinematography, and quirky side characters, and send you off with a surprising finale that will stick with you.
Where to stream it: MaxGo

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New ➤ 18. American Horror Story: Roanoke

This is the best show on television that features a character that silently terrorizes terrible people while wearing a pig’s head. The meta comedy-thriller also features a killer cast, arguably better, even, than the other Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk series appearing on this list, the great American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. But seriously, who the hell is Piggy-Man?
Where to stream it: FXNow

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New ➤ 17. Narcos

Killing off your show’s lead character is a daunting prospect — even more so if viewers know it’s coming. When Eric Newman and José Padilha took over Narcos‘ reins for Season 2, they managed to orchestrate the demise of Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) with suspense and a sense of inevitability. It sure helped that the show cut down on Agent Murphy’s incessant narrating from Season 1, and the contrast between splashy cartel schemes and small-scale depictions of those they affected served to ground an illicit drama in humanity.
Where to stream it: Netflix

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New ➤ 16. Channel Zero: Candle Cove

Based on a popular creepypasta story about a mysterious children’s TV show that plants murderous thoughts in the minds of its young viewers, Candle Cove is essentially a Stranger Things that focuses primarily on the adults. The Syfy series is super-creepy, and its version of the Demogorgon is the nightmare-inducing Toothchild, an icky monster that feeds on the teeth of its entranced victims.
Where to stream it: Syfy

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New ➤ 15. Difficult People

Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner are mean-spirited and petty, and live by the “no hugging, no learning” Seinfeldian code, which makes them our favorite kind of platonic power couple. But with every exploitative adventure anchored by their best friendship, the jokes they make at the expense of others (interns, New Jerseyans, Method Man) seem downright sympathetic.

Where to stream it: Hulu

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14. Baskets

In the golden age of television, there’s little room for buffoonery. To spoof the oh-so-serious trend, and lament the art of idiocy, Zach Galifianakis and Louis C.K. created Baskets, which casts the former as a clown struggling in the California suburbs. Galifianakis’ Chip Baskets is a dunce, and if it weren’t for the harsh reality and morose filmmaking style employed in the series, he’d have us in stitches. But the FX show refuses to be that digestible. Pratfalls roll-jump into — ta-da! — existential dread. Wordplay gags loop from comical to manic to funny again. As Chip’s mother, Louie Anderson parades around in a muumuu but plays the role entirely straight. Baskets is a breakthrough work of parody, heartbreaking, hilarious, and odd — everything a portrait of a sad clown should be.

Where to stream it: Hulu

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New ➤ 13. Black Mirror

This haunting anthology series about the perils of modern technology arrived on Netflix (after two seasons airing in the U.K.) for its six-episode third season on the same day much of the U.S. was debilitated by a Black Mirror-style hack. Brilliant.
Where to stream it: Netflix

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12. Better Call Saul

Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s drama is two-faced and tactical. The series can inch closer to its fateful origin, Breaking Bad, and indulge in cameos and references while still upping the ante of its own drama. Bob Odenkirk has mastered the art of serio-comedy, giving the tragic Jimmy McGill tics that still play wacky. It helps to have a powerful opposing force. In Season 2, Jimmy’s relationship with his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) erupts into a Shakespearean showdown, scorching their worlds even more than Arizona’s blazing sun.
Where to stream it: Season 1 is on Netflix; Season 2 is on AMC.com (requires a cable subscription)

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11. Veep

The fifth season of HBO’s political satire pulled the television equivalent of Indiana Jones’ idol grab. Gone was creator Armando Iannucci, off to pursue new projects; David Mandel (Curb Your Enthusiasm) took the reins, promising to maintain the vicious and often clueless air of Selina Meyer’s presidency. What could feel like imitation amounted to Veep‘s most blistering season yet, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus bringing cutthroat insults to the election-recount game and the Richard-Jonah rivalry melting down into a lame-duck campaign of their own. Mandel has added dashes of Curb — Mike (Matt Walsh) interviewing baby surrogates was maximum awkward — but Season 5 was all about Veep out-Veep-ing itself. We’re still cringing from the time Selina played her mother’s death for a boost in poll numbers.
Where to stream it: HBO GO/HBO NOW and Amazon Prime

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10. 30 for 30: O.J.: Made in America

As soon as you thought you already knew everything there was to know about America’s most famous convicted athlete, ESPN’s five-part documentary series illuminates Simpson’s steep rise and sharp fall. Directed by Ezra Edelman, the project is contextualized with ample archival footage tracing O.J.’s journey — from his reactions to the Black Panthers in his college ball days to his wildly successful Hertz campaign to his move to that Brentwood manse. By the time Edelman works his way up to the infamous double homicide, you feel as betrayed as the talking heads who once thought themselves vital players in O.J.’s inner circle. And the closureless finale is all the more frustrating without any dramatic embellishments whatsoever.
Where to stream it: On WatchESPN and the ESPN app

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9. The Americans

The art of spycraft is enigmatic and sexy — but Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) are veterans who know that the deadliest weapon in their arsenal is trust. As such, this FX drama is rooted in interpersonal relationships, tracking the longest of long cons. Season 4 saw the teenage Paige (Holly Taylor) respond to the espionage career thrust upon her by birthright, and she learned to manage her pastor and his wife, now her “sources”; and Philip’s secret fake wife Martha (Alison Wright) flexes her dramatic muscle as her storyline approaches potential resolution. The tension is tremendous, and there’s not an ounce of narrative fat in any episode.
Where to stream it: This season’s episodes on iTunes or Amazon Video

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8. The Night Of

Just when you thought you were true-crimed out, this adaptation of British miniseries Criminal Justice creeped its way on to HBO. The pilot opens with a grisly murder, introducing our assumed perp and the cast of detectives, lawyers, and family members, each with their own stake in the confounding case. Every episode walks the razor’s edge between tension and melodrama, all while exploring the human collateral of a case fast-tracked to trial. We see Rikers Island inmates bend Nas (Riz Ahmed) from wide-eyed college student to shaven, thuggish drug-runner; the struggle for his dad’s taxi partners to get their cab, their livelihood, back from police; and more of John Turturro’s eczema-scabbed feet than we ever wanted or needed as John Stone, legal advocate for the downtrodden. The end product is immersive and quietly explosive, an edge-of-your-seat caper more tragic than it is bombastic — as in the real world. Crime doesn’t get truer than that.
Where to stream it: HBO GO or HBO NOW

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7. BoJack Horseman

Despite abundant goofy sight gags and dad-worthy puns, Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Lisa Hanawalt’s cartoon animal sad-com is not an easy watch. Season 3 is its darkest one yet, which is no small feat for a show about a washed-up alcoholic actor and his depressive frenemies. BoJack leans into its existentialism, and with each season delves deeper into its characters’ backstories to explore the pains of personal growth, or lack thereof, asking big questions: what happens when you achieve your dream, but you still feel empty? Season 3 begins with BoJack on the Oscar campaign trail, but circles back to 2007, around to Todd’s and Princess Carolyn’s respective romantic struggles, and proves success is a tenuous concept, no more tangible than the anthropomorphic animals parading across our screens.
Where to stream it: Netflix

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New ➤ 6. Atlanta

After stints writing for 30 Rock, starring in Community, and a lucrative side-hustle rapping as Childish Gambino, Donald Glover found time to create, star in, write, and direct several episodes of his new half-hour series. Atlanta is a rare species: a deeply funny show offering pointed social commentary, probing Georgia’s racial climate in between chuckles. Whether it’s casting a black actor as Justin Bieber, lambasting social media obsessives, or just making a freaking great rap song, Glover’s massive endeavor manages to feel effortless, capturing a specific mood and experience with wit and precision.
Where to stream it: FXNOW

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5. Stranger Things

Who thought the 1980s would bring us this summer’s sleeper TV hit? Netflix’s campy mystery looks plenty familiar, and that’s the point — the nostalgia-baiting saga of small-town kids gone missing is anchored by the warm-fuzziest tropes of our childhood, from the banging ’80s soundtrack to its close-knit friendships. Its eight tantalizing episodes(a short series by Netflix standards!) left so many cliffhangers to unpack, so we’ll be sharpening our conspiracy theories till we get more news about Season 2.
Where to stream it: Netflix

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New ➤ 4. Westworld

Watching Westworld is not a spectator sport. From its murky timeline to its fully fleshed artificially intelligent robots, HBO’s upgrade of the mediocre 1973 Michael Crichton movie requires intense theorizing and precise concentration. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy weren’t content just to build an expensive foundation for the Western wish-fulfillment amusement park — they jam-packed that breathtaking scenery and carefully plotted backstory with a killer cast, heady neurology, cheeky musical cues, and conspiracy theories to spare. If you look carefully behind all those diversions, Westworld offers subtle commentary on the nature of TV writing and production at a period recognized as the medium’s peak, on a network known for its commitment to narrative prestige. It’ll raise questions about the nature of consciousness you never knew you had.
Where to stream it: HBO GO and HBO NOW

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3. Silicon Valley

Now that the plot exposition out of the way, the Silicon Valley dudes can just goof off as their sharply drawn characters. The trials that Pied Piper endures are secondary to Gilfoyle’s (Martin Starr) endless ribbing of co-engineer Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and every absurd word uttered by Jared (Zach Woods). Thanks to the cast and writers’ faithful depictions, Silicon Valley doesn’t need to feature pyrotechnics like a million-dollar Alcatraz party to skewer its titular culture — though that sure helps.
Where to stream it: HBO GO and HBO NOW

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2. Game of Thrones

Season 6 went down in history as the year the show (mostly) outpaced George R.R. Martin’s source text — and the year the show treated its female characters as conquerors on par with their male counterparts. After that Jon Snow bait-and-switch, Sansa’s crushing confrontation with Littlefinger, Hodor’s tragic origin story, all of Bran’s time-travel malarkey, and Lady Lyanna’s eviscerating speech, GOT has shocked us at every turn, truly earning its eternal place in all your water-cooler conversations. The mega millions in production value are a mere afterthought.
Where to stream it: HBO GO and HBO NOW

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

FX’s The People v. O.J. is a perfect time capsule from 20 years ago, made all the more prescient by how familiar each episode looked today. Building up from the Rodney King race riots through to the emergence of Court TV and that Earth-shattering verdict, Ryan Murphy’s miniseries focused on the trial that defined ’90s America could have failed spectacularly — but he and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski did their research. Every performance, drawn from a well-publicized real-world analogue, was uncanny in its accuracy (though some were more believable than others, of course). Most important, ACS took the mass hysteria seriously, breaking the case of a generation down into bite-size beats. Combine that precise empathy with its formidable scope, and O.J. triumphs in our TV court.
Where to stream it: FXNOW with cable subscription

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