Nick’s Top Ten TV Shows of 2016

30th December 2016

It’s the end of a year, and long-time followers of my online spurtings will know that this can mean only one thing: Top Ten TV Shows! All the usual disclaimers apply – this is my opinion, not meant as any kind of objective measure of quality. If I rank your favourite lower than you think it deserves, I agree to disagree before the argument even starts.

If you want to read the previous installments (mostly on my own website), you can find the links below:

  • 2015!
  • 2014!
  • 2013!
  • 2012! (On The Digital Fix, where I was TV editor at the time, so could definitely get away with presenting my own opinion as that of the whole website.)

Since it’s my fifth year doing this, I’ve now got enough back data to comment on trends and stats as well as actually talking about the shows! Oh, and yes, we also did a podcast special where we listed our favourite TV and films of the year, but because I restricted that chart to stuff we covered for the show, there is some difference here.

Right, let’s get into it.

#10 – Luke Cage

lukecageOr Marvel’s Luke Cage, if you like that sort of thing.

I get the feeling other people will be ranking this higher than me – it is definitely a good slice of TV, a beautifully shot show with a lot of great acting, both doing its business within the Marvel megaverse and telling a story in its own right. And that’s before we even get into its cultural importance as a mainstream superhero series focusing on a black lead and largely black cast, and one that explicitly engages with a wider black culture.

However, the latter half of the season went a bit out of my interests at times. If Luke Cage remained as great as the first seven episodes, it would probably be fighting it out among the top five. But five or six episodes of slightly blah backstory-wrangling with a dull villain leaves it here. Still very good though.

Stats Corner: Lands three spaces lower than Marvel/Netflix stablemate Daredevil managed last year, even though it might be a better show overall. It certainly wins out over the second season of Daredevil, but I’ll get to that. It definitely doesn’t top Jessica Jones, which was #1 in 2015. Luke Cage is the only Marvel show in this top ten, but not the only superhero one.

#9 – Stranger Things

stranger-things-titlesAs we’ve discussed many times on the podcast, I haven’t seen many of the classic eighties movies that make up a lot of my generation’s primary cultural touchstones. I vaguely remember watching ET as a young child, but couldn’t tell you much about it.

All of which might explain why Stranger Things was fun and enjoyable, but didn’t quite blow me away as much as it has others. Still, even without those comparisons, the fundamental charm and character-driven fun of this retro-fantasy makes it hard to resist. It also gives us Netflix finally making a show that doesn’t stretch six or seven episodes of plot out to thirteen. Stranger Things could maybe have lost an episode and become even tighter, but all told, I think they used the space well.

Stats Corner: Last year’s top ten had three Netflix shows on it. This one might have even more.

#8 – Orphan Black

orphanblackI’ve always enjoyed this conspiracy/clone drama quite a bit, and not just because I love the Spider-Man Clone Saga. The characters are the main hook here, along with frankly mindblowing acting by Tatiana Maslany portraying almost all of them. This year’s Orphan Black suffered from not enough Helena and a forgettable temp villain (no sir I do not care about Evie Cho), but that’s probably because next season is the final one and there was a lot to set up.

Considering I’ve been worrying this show would vanish up its own arse ever since it began, the news that it’s managed another coherent year and is finishing in the next one is music to my ears. If they collapse all their dominoes and manage a great, memorable conclusion, Orphan Black could claw itself further up the 2017 chart. Or it might produce the self-indulgent wankarama I’ve always feared. Let’s see!

Stats Corner: Since it debuted in 2013, Orphan Black started at #7, skipped 2014, came back to #6 last year, and now #8. You can’t say it isn’t broadly consistent.

#7 – Flash/Arrow/Supergirl

flash-vs-arrowOkay, we’re getting into just-for-me territory now. As I’ve said on the podcast and in last year’s top ten, I enjoy these shows a lot because they really bring back the sensation of reading decentish superhero comics. The banter, the overwrought emotions, the team-ups and gleeful silliness, all climaxing in the recent four-way crossover. Ridiculous, but mostly in a good way. As Gary Lactus of the excellent SILENCE! podcast replied when I posted about them on Twitter, they are “well comics”.

Are they actually better than the three shows below them and most other things I watched this year? Probably not, but they just stir something in me. Special mention to Supergirl for finally hooking me in with its second season, by slightly decheesifying the dialogue and moving the focus to fighting anti-alien racism, rather than last year’s nothingy plot about escaped alien prisoners.

And, conversely, special anti-mention to Legends of Tomorrow, which I’m definitely only watching because I follow the other shows and have a lingering affection for some actors/characters. That is not on this list. It’s just kinda bland, lacking the spark of genuine feeling and gung-ho enthusiasm that lets me engage with the others.

Stats Corner: Flash and Arrow (without Supergirl) did feature at #9 on last year’s list, so they’ve made a jump up here. One day the whole house of cards may fall – if comics are anything to go by, when they start doing crossovers every five minutes and cease to be fun. But it hasn’t happened yet.

#6 – Preacher

preacher-trioIt’s possible this also rides high based on my personal biases, but I really enjoyed Preacher. Did I absolutely love the comic as a teenager? Absolutely. Is original co-creator Garth Ennis one of my favourite writers and hugely influential on me? Yup. Do I feel a deep sadness due to the recent far-too-young death of series artist Steve Dillon? Indeed.

Still, this series captured the aesthetic of the series, the dark humour and grim violence, the characters had a life to them and Joseph Gilgun is amazing. I mean, he’s amazing in everything, but he’s also absolutely top casting as Cassidy. There’s definitely a long stretch in the middle where not much happens and if I hadn’t enjoyed the look and feel so much, I may have got bored. But I’m there with it, and the season definitely ended at a point that could tee it up for an even better second year. Let’s see where it lands next time.

Stats Corner: This is the last comic book (superhero or otherwise) adaptation you’ll see on this year’s list. Gasp.

#5 – Black Mirror

black-mirrorBack onto Netflix now, with the third season of Charlie Brooker’s grim sci-fi anthology Black Mirror. This seems a bit marmite for TV critics/reviewers/commentators – you either think it was great drama or overdone pretentious wank. I liked it quite a lot.

It’s not perfect, probably an inevitable outcome of the anthology format – some episodes are what I’d call “a bit Black Mirror” – e.g. built entirely around a somewhat smug twist. However, when it works – and three or four of these episodes really full-on nailed it – it’s great, carefully characterised drama. Brooker finally finds a good middle ground between his cynical tendencies and genuine hopefulness.

It’s possible to over-interpret Black Mirror – I don’t think it’s a meaningful treatise on the direction of humanity, and the tendency to advertise/discuss it in those terms is probably responsible for a lot of the recent backlash. But as a well-written grim sci-fi anthology, now with a much bigger budget to realise its bleak visions, it’s really strong.

Stats Corner: Never appeared on the chart before – based on a check of Wikipedia, the second series was eligible in 2012, but since I found that quite patchy, it’s not a surprise that it missed out.

#4 – Brooklyn Nine Nine

b99_s3_group_hires1I’m not following many sitcoms currently airing, and that’s a shame. I do like a good one. However, I’ve stayed with Brooklyn Nine Nine as it’s gone from strength to strength. The first season was pretty great, and subsequent years consolidated that quality (mostly by ditching the slightly off-feeling Charles/Rosa obsession storyline).

Due to tedious US/UK airing delays, I haven’t seen the start of season 4, but I watched the whole of the third season this year and it was excellent. They handled a long-running will-they-won’t-they plotline pretty deftly, Andre Braugher’s hilarious Captain Holt remains excellent, but every character in the ensemble is funny and important.

And it’s an example of a good comedy which manages to be funny without needing every character to despise each other, which is an impressive trick. (See also: Parks and Recreation.) Although now Peep Show’s finished, I’m also getting a bit nostalgic for a good new sitcom about people stuck together and hating it. Recommendations welcome!

Stats Corner: Started at #5 in 2014, then disappeared from the 2015 chart, for reasons I’m attributing to a brainfart. Or maybe UK Channel 4 always showing it January to May made it slip my mind.

#3 – Game of Thrones

game-of-thrones-season-6-poster_1280.0d11After a couple of seasons which, ultimately, were very much the slack middle of the Game of Thrones story, it really picked back up this year. Considering everyone’s spent the last two or three years talking about the TV show overtaking George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire books in terms of “Oh shit the sky might fall!”, it’s all the more impressive that their first year beyond the books has actually reinvigorated the series a bit.

Is this due to a newfound freedom, or will the books also speed up considerably in the next one? We’ll find out in a decade or so when The Winds Of Winter finally comes out, but anyway, this was a great year of Thrones. A few slow-ish plotlines, especially towards the start, but the last few episodes of this run were a thrilling downhill run, pulling together characters and storylines from the last few years into a glorious mass of momentum. The finale this year ranks among my favourite single episodes of anything in 2016, and I’m newly up for the final two seasons. Good to be back all the way on-board with this.

Stats Corner: Weirdly not in the 2012 chart, then from #3 to #4 to #8 in subsequent ones, before finally returning to #3 this year. Full circle. I like that.

#2 – Westworld

westworldAs I spoke about a little in that Review Of The Year podcast that you may or may not have yet listened to, I felt a gentle keening yearn for something a bit new and different in 2016. Nothing against the shows and franchises I already follow – as you’ve seen, they make up a lot of this chart – but sometimes I just want to venture a little more into the unknown.

This might explain the success of Black Mirror in this year’s list and also of Westworld, a huge, luscious, expensive premium drama that takes place in a Western-themed theme park of the future, populated by robots indistinguishable from living people. The series digs into the mysteries behind the park’s creation, as well as, inevitably, questions about the real differences between humans and robot ‘hosts’.

It’s ambitious, weird, logical, maybe a little slow in the first half, but makes up for it in the second with a series of impressive reveals, building up to a finale which seems to have polarised people a little, but I thought was pretty excellent. As a work of ambitious, enormous sci-fi realised at huge expense, it’s great and I wish there was a bit more like it. (And yes, I know it’s not a complete true original as it’s based on an old movie but I’ll take what I can get.)

Stats Corner: Well, it’s #2 this year. I’m not entirely sure how a second year would do.

#1 – Orange Is The New Black

orange-new-black-season-4-trailer

Way back in the mists of 2014, I watched both the first two seasons of Orange Is The New Black and declared it to be easily my favourite show of the year. Then it disappeared from these lists in 2015, because I didn’t get round to watching the third season. Well, I saw it at the start of 2016 and… it was fine. Decent. Fun. A few great moments, but would probably have dropped to the bottom half of that year’s chart. And based on a scan of the web, people seemed to broadly agree with me.

Well, either the writers were listening to those complaints, or seasons three and four were part of a two-year masterplan, because this year’s OITNB season was amazing. After letting the strings around the characters’ necks hang loose for a little bit, a wee calm before the storm maybe, season four yanked them tight and choked the drama out. It was brutal as hell from the very first episode, with each glum twist smacking into the next, leading to an ending that felt as depressing as it did inevitable.

Like many Netflix shows, maybe it could’ve been a fraction shorter, but I honestly don’t know what you’d cut. Excellent stuff and restores this show to its old place as the jewel in the crown of current Premium Telly. No idea what’ll happen next year, but I’ll definitely be watching (because I imagine we’ll cover it in the podcast).

Stats Corner: Shit, I’ve pre-empted this bit in the text above.

Honourable Mentions

the-return-of-doctor-mysterio-promo-cast-imagePast readers will note this is the first Top Ten TV not to feature Doctor Who – previously, it went from #6 to #8 to #7 to #4. Its absence isn’t due to a precipitous drop in quality, but because it only released one episode in 2016, the reliably broad and OTT Christmas special. I enjoyed it, in the usual silly way, but – even as a big fan – not enough to justify ranking it over the ten entries above. Still looking forward to series 10.

As ever, I try not to let this part run on. Last Week Tonight just slips out of the chart after two glorious years, because although  John Oliver had some great moments this year, mostly centred around the terrifying US election, he’s become somewhat part of the backdrop – a problem which I think he acknowledged a little in his final episode of the year. Better Call Saul season two, although reliably good, hit a similar problem of not quite blowing my mind enough.

Daredevil season two started off with four excellent episodes introducing the Punisher. Those were a highlight of the whole Marvel/Netflix project and if the rest of the season had been as good as them, it would be somewhere in the top five. Sadly, it dithered off into a fairly blah storyline about The Hand. (Boring in the comics, boring on TV!)

parks-and-recreation-h-1920x1080Lastly, not eligible as it didn’t air in 2016, I spent the last few months of the year finally crunching through Parks and Recreation properly now the final season is up on UK Amazon Prime. As of this typing, we’re into the second half of the penultimate season, and it is an excellent experience. Funny, uplifting, weird, filled with great characters and (usefully in this crap year) genuinely inspiring about the worth of public service. The concept/characters maybe starting to feel a bit exhausted by season six, but knowing it’s ending soon, I’m excited to see how they wrap it up. Good times.

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Moderate Fantasy Violence © Nick Bryan & Alastair JR Ball 2016