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20 Best TV Shows of 2016

Which show came out on top?

Alexander Zalben
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1 of 20 Ray Mickshaw/FX

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

Twenty years after his real-life murder trial, O.J. Simpson once again captivated television viewers in this addictive miniseries from Ryan Murphy, which was really about so much more than Simpson and his (alleged) victims. Addressing topics like racism, sexism and the injustices of the criminal justice system, The People v. O.J. Simpson felt more relevant than ever in 2016, and featured standout, award-winning (and in some cases, career-defining) performances from Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance, among many others in a star-studded cast. If nothing else, the fact that we're still thinking about and talking about The People v. O.J. Simpson, even though it premiered way back in February, makes it our clear pick for number one show of 2016. -- Liz Raftery

2 of 20 Curtis Baker/Netflix

2. Stranger Things

Who would have predicted at the beginning of the year that a weird, '80s throwback Netflix sci-fi series starring Winona Ryder and a cast of unknown kids would go on to become the obsession of millions? But with pitch perfect casting, intricate production design that made the show seem like it was lifted out of the Reagan era, and a simple, scary, and fun mythology, Stranger Things was a refreshing change from the grim reality that's gripped most of modern television. It helps that new stars like Millie Bobby Brown and the rest of the cast were as engaging -- if not more so -- than the rest of the adult cast. We won't forget Eleven, the Upside Down, or even poor Barb any time soon. 2017, and the second season, can't get here quickly enough. -- Alex Zalben

3 of 20 AMC

3. Better Call Saul

Vince Gilligan is a storytelling master. The second season of Better Call Saul, his and Peter Gould's prequel to Breaking Bad, is vastly different than its predecessor. Where every moment of Breaking Bad was white-knuckle tense, Better Call Saul is slow-paced and purposefully, misleadingly meandering: a season's worth of set-up, turns out to be as detailed and deliberate as calligraphy. Every piece, from writing to acting to color scheme, is executed with unparalleled proficiency.-- Liam Mathews

4 of 20 HBO

4. The Night Of

HBO's long-gestating limited crime series proved to be worth the wait. Over the course of eight episodes, the show crafted a compelling whodunit whose twists and turns pointed to a different conclusion at the end of each installment. But viewers soon realized the question of Naz's (Riz Ahmed) guilt or innocence was beside the point. Though The Night Of drew to a satisfying conclusion and cleared up the central mystery, the questions it raised still loom large when all was said and done: questions about the validity of the criminal justice system; rampant Islamophobia; and socioeconomic tensions that pervade New York, and the rest of the country. The night might be over, but its impact is extended way beyond the case itself. -- Liz Raftery

5 of 20 FX

5. Atlanta

Donald Glover's surrealist rap music dramedy -- the hip-hop Twin Peaks, as he called it when debuting it to the press in January -- had a simple premise: a man-child bumbling through life in Atlanta begins managing his cousin rap career. But it became clear from the very first frame that Atlanta was so much more than that: social commentary; a love letter to black culture; and a critique of it, too. Wildly unpredictable -- going from scary violence, to dark humor, to weighty emotional scenes in a flash -- Atlanta became an instant favorite of critics and viewers, becoming the most-watched comedy debut on basic cable since Inside Amy Schumer in 2013. Yes, it's that good.-- Malcolm Venable

6 of 20 Curtis Baker / SundanceTV

6. Rectify

In its fourth and final season, Sundance's Southern drama Rectify continues to be a quiet revelation that stands out from its louder, more obvious peers through a subtle, award-worthy performance by star Aden Young and the beautiful character work detailing the human condition that's made possible by the careful direction of series creator Ray McKinnon. Though it remains as slow-moving as ever, the truth about what happened to Hanna all those years ago is bubbling near the surface, and as climactic as the reveal may be, the series' exploration of the effects of trauma on one man, his family and the town it ripped apart two decades prior remain the highlight of what has become a masterclass in storytelling. It's a shame more people haven't watched the show over its run, but don't be surprised if Rectify lives on long after the series finale airs and we bid goodbye to the haunted world of Daniel Holden. It's that good. -- Kaitlin Thomas

7 of 20 Justin Lubin/NBC

7. The Good Place

It's rare to need a "previously on" for a sitcom, but The Good Place is serialized in a way that's never quite been seen in a show this funny before. And its big question -- "what does it mean to be a good person?" -- is more like something from a heavy drama, too. It's by far the most creative and unique network comedy of the year. But all of that wouldn't matter much if it wasn't also laugh-out-loud hilarious; but a writing staff heavy on Parks and Rec alumni and an ensemble cast anchored by immensely likable performances by Kristen Bell and Ted Danson keep the laughs coming while the plot unfolds. -- Liam Mathews

8 of 20 Scott Everett White/The CW

8. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Even if it wasn't the only hour-long comedy-musical with a radically feminist message on TV, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend would be delightfully unique. Creator and star Rachel Bloom takes full advantage of the show's musical format, taking serious topics -- such as alcoholism, depression and coming out as bisexual -- to theatrical and often cringe-worthy new levels. But the destructive behavior of the main characters isn't just included for easy laughs or drama. Instead, the show forces its characters to face their issues head-on and -- in its own, often comical, way -- allows them to grow. -- Sadie Gennis

9 of 20 John P. Johnson/HBO

9. Westworld

HBO's sci-fi puzzle box isn't without its flaws, but they're easy to overlook because Westworld is asking all the right questions about artificial intelligence and technology -- questions that will become science fact in no time. The series has also rallied the internet hive-mind to examine every frame for clues about the show's myriad secrets, the likes of which we haven't seen since Lost. But what's really made the show pop is its juxtaposition of heavy science-fiction themes with the classic western genre, combining immediate physical threats of classic cinema with timeless existential dilemmas to make a show that attacks your intelligence from multiple angles. And with so many directions the show can go in further seasons, there's no telling where it will take us. -- Tim Surette

10 of 20 Ron Batzdorff/NBC

10. This Is Us

NBC's family drama from Crazy Stupid Love writer Dan Fogelman is the breakout hit of the Fall. This Is Us has managed to tap into hearts nationwide and endear them to the Pearson family, spearheaded by Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore). The show flips between Jack and Rebecca raising their three children in the past, and the present where the three kids are adults with families and careers of their own. Each week is a tender look at what makes and breaks a family, both with heart wrenching confessions, touching speeches and well-crafted humor. While This Is Us may have drawn people in with a huge plot twist in its pilot, the real strength of this drama is that it can be endearing and captivating without having to rely on fancy plot devices like time travel or super powers. The show thrives on relationships, and its well-rounded extremely talented cast keep you coming back every week. -- Megan Vick

11 of 20 Colleen Hayes/FX

11. Better Things

Pamela Adlon took a format that has been around nearly as long as television -- a half-hour family comedy -- and turned it into something completely new with Better Things. This thoughtful look at a struggling actress single-handedly raising her three young daughters is quietly groundbreaking in its takes on menstruation, motherhood, gender identity and what it means to be a woman. -- Sadie Gennis

12 of 20 Courtesy of Netflix

12. Marvel's Luke Cage

It seems that every new iteration of the Netflix Marvel Cinematic Universe elevates how we tell serialized superhero stories. Daredevil made it okay to be gritty again. Jessica Jones was a feminist anthem. This year, Luke Cage brought a bulletproof black man to the forefront of pop culture. The 13-episode series took an unflinching look at black life in America and dove into the complex issues facing African-American communities, while simultaneously being inclusive to all super hero audiences. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker combined his musical prowess with his comic book fanaticism to create a show that moved like hip-hop while introducing Luke Cage to a new generation of superhero fans. The show wasn't afraid to test boundaries and be in your face about issues that may seem most apparent to black people, but are universal in nature. It handed out truth in one hand while thrilling with breathtaking action sequences in the other, and the best soundtrack of 2016 television blared in the background. After Daredevil's shakey sophomore season earlier in the year, Luke Cage was exactly what Netflix needed to get everyone pumped for Iron Fist and The Defenders in 2017. -- Megan Vick

13 of 20 HBO

13. Game of Thrones

After five seasons of faithfully (and sometimes not so faithfully) adapting George R.R. Martin's novel series, HBO's Game of Thrones finally broke free from its source material, and presented what was arguably its best season yet. From the rise of the matriarchy, to the delivery of secrets Thrones fans have been dying to know for decades, Westeros was never the same after Season 6 -- and with only a reported 13 episodes left, set the stage for an epic finale. -- Alex Zalben

14 of 20 Patrick Harbron/FX

14. The Americans

Pretty soon we're going to run out of superlatives to describe The Americans. Season 4 was the FX drama's best yet, as it continued to explore the Jenningses' complex relationships and familial, emotional drama with the same taut, thrilling tension afforded a typical spy show action set piece. Only The Americans can pack as potent a punch and convey more dread than a horror movie through the threat of bioweapons, the threat of being unmasked and the threat of your budding spy daughter potentially dating your FBI agent neighbor's son. Thankfully, this was also the year the Emmys finally woke up, giving the show its first nominations for Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, and for drama series. Our next mission: Get them a win. -- Joyce Eng

15 of 20 HBO

15. Silicon Valley

As long as the real Silicon Valley remains so powerful and absurd and thin-skinned, the show Silicon Valley will remain vital (we can't wait to see what the show has to say about Peter Thiel's bizarre place of cultural importance). But in addition to its laser-accuracy satire, Season 3 of the HBO comedy deepened its characters, making us fully invested in the failures and victories of the Pied Piper team in a way the first two seasons didn't quite pull off. Thomas Middleditch got his first Emmy nomination this season for his role as Pied Piper co-founder Richard Hendricks, and he deserved it. His oscillating mix of sputtering incompetence and cocky self-assuredness is a joy to watch. -- Liam Mathews

16 of 20 Ben Cohen/FX

16. Baskets

FX's sweet, funny, and utterly odd Zach Galifianakis comedy started off as television's ultimate friend litmus test in 2016. Ostensibly about a lifelong loser who wanted to be a French clown -- see what we mean about friend litmus test? -- Baskets took one of the year's most dazzling turns as it developed from eccentric comedy in its early episodes into a touching look at family and dreams by the time Season 1 ended. Anchored by Galifianakis' unique sense of humor and Louie Anderson's Emmy-winning performance, Baskets is one of 2016's largely undiscovered gems. -- Tim Surette

17 of 20 Netflix

17. BoJack Horseman

In its third season, Netflix's original series -- a cartoon about a depressive horse, voiced by Will Arnett - continued to prove that the whole was so much more than the sum of its parts. Underneath its colorful exterior, and beyond the rapid-fire jokes, BoJack Horseman is one of the darkest shows on television, and also one of the most brilliant. (Don't believe us? Check out the near-silent episode "Fish Out of Water," or the penultimate installment "That's Too Much, Man!") Despite being a series that features talking animals with funny names, BoJack Horseman also offers one of the most accurate portrayals of mental illness in the current television landscape. -- Liz Raftery

18 of 20 Ali Goldstein/TBS

18. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee

Full Frontal launched in February at exactly the right time, smack dab into the most bizarre election season ever, giving Samantha Bee ample ammunition to unleash her singular fiery, furious voice. She's mad as hell and she's not going to take it anymore. Whether it was discussing rape kit backlogs or eulogizing the GOP, Bee nailed it time and time again. Her ability to articulate what many felt -- especially raging against sexism and bias literally unlike any (male) host before her -- in scathing, hilarious takedowns confirmed that the new king of late night is a Queen Bee. -- Joyce Eng

19 of 20 ABC

19. American Crime

John Ridley did it again with his ABC anthology series, wrenching our guts with the story of a teenage boy, Taylor Blaine (Connor Jessup) who is sexually assaulted by another young man on a basketball team. As the aftermath of the assault played out, the entire town falls apart. You'll be hooked by the shocking, tear-jerking chain of events and mesmerized by Ridley's stable of stellar actors including Felicity Huffman, Lili Taylor, Timothy Hutton and Regina King, who won an Emmy for the second year in a row for her work on the series. -- Malcolm Venable

20 of 20 HBO

20. Veep

Veep is one of the most consistent successes on television, but even compared to its own impressive body of work, the show's fifth season was something special. The loss of Selina's (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) mother gave us an important look at the relationship that shaped her into the distinctively challenging woman she is today, and Catherine's documentary and relationship with Marjorie provided incredible payoff for the dozens of jokes made at Catherine's expense over the show's run. For a comedy that star's one of the most foul-mouthed characters on TV, Veep's storytelling this year was nothing short of elegant. -- Sadie Gennis