When it comes to TV in 2016, one thing is for certain: There was a lot of it. The last few years have seen a steep increase in the number of programs being launched within a single calendar year, with no sign things are slowing down anytime soon. If the television output of broadcast networks, cable channels, and streaming services maintains the same pace, these year-end pieces will soon include shows that rolled over from one year to the next, like unused cellphone minutes, because there simply wasn’t enough time to watch them all, much less afford them thoughtful consideration once they’re over.
Thankfully, as television viewers, we’re not there yet. And while over 450 scripted programs is an extraordinary amount of TV to sift through (even for people who enjoy a mostly sedentary lifestyle), Screen Rant’s editors have (despite some inevitable gaps and blind spots) managed to come up with a handful of their favorites, shows that stood out to them for various reasons, or simply scratched a particular entertainment itch. As you’ll see, the shows that earned a spot on these favorites lists are maybe more varied than ever, with only a few genre shows like Westworld and Stranger Things popping up in more than one place. The obvious takeaway, then, is that it has become harder and harder for shows to stand out amongst the din of the ever-expanding television crowd, but there are still some shows that seem to approach consensus – at least in terms of favorite programs we watched in 2016.
Take a look at the Screen Rant Editorial Staff’s Top Five Favorite TV Shows of 2016:
1. Stranger Things
2. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
3. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
4. Dark Matter
5. Luke Cage
New shows captured our imaginations while some established series started to disappoint in 2016, especially in the realm of DC Comics adaptations from The CW network. I’ve all but written off the four DC TV Shows this season, and the same can be said for The Walking Dead and its boring spinoff series, but in its stead new series like Stranger Things and Dirk Gently picked up my attention while I caught up in other shows I missed in previous years (Vikings, Dark Matter). Game of Thrones was good enough this year and Westworld was cool but it slowly stumbled in half its episodes, leaving me hoping for a much improved followup season.
There’s no room to mention them here, but animated comedies are still must-watch TV (Archer, South Park, Mike Tyson Mysteries) while we all await Rick and Morty season 3, which was nowhere to be seen in 2016.
2. Stranger Things
4. Star Wars Rebels
5. The Night Of
Honorable Mentions: Legends of Tomorrow
Every year, I focus my favorite TV picks on new shows that left me excited for a second season as well as returning shows that, in one way or another, made significant changes (for the better) — and this year is no different. Anyone who knows my affection for smart, character-focused, science-fiction won’t be surprised to see Westworld on the top of this list — as HBO’s new series was, by far, the series that had me most immersed and invested (not to mention theorizing). Beautiful storytelling and a rich juxtaposition of classic western aesthetics, insightful reflections on human consciousness, and near-future sci-fi concepts made for a compelling mix. Similarly, the blend of 1980s nostalgia and eerie sci-fi horror in Stranger Things provided a charming (sometimes terrifying) riff on high concept adventure-horror comedies of the mid-80s. As funny as it is spooky, the Stranger Things premise and world was all the more relatable thanks to a charming and sincere cast — especially newcomers Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, and Caleb McLaughlin.
As an avid Doctor Who fan, I was excited for Class but was still pleasantly surprised by the final product. A great cast of teenage actors, portraying characters with authentic human problems, and inventive monster-of-the-week stories provided a smart Doctor Who spinoff that, to its credit, stands on its own (both in story and tone) from its parent series. After championing The Clone Wars for years, when much of Star Wars fandom had yet to embrace the series, I wasn’t immediately as taken with Rebels; however, 2016 was a big year for the series: it took risks, made significant changes, and began establishing sincere tethers to the larger Star Wars saga — culminating in a season 2 finale showdown that ranks among the best (and most emotional) scenes in the entire Star Wars canon. While the final product is still incredibly rough around the edges, I want to give credit where its due: after a genuinely bad first season, Legends of Tomorrow underwent a serious overhaul and, while the show wouldn’t be high on a “best” of 2016 TV list, The CW has positioned its Arrowverse-spinoff as a successful guilty-pleasure with me — a playful and entertaining opportunity to sightsee through time alongside a zany cast of B-list DC characters.
5. Black Mirror
I don’t know what we did to deserve Westworld, but I’m so glad that we did it. With an addictively cool atmosphere, fantastic soundtrack, and ideas that get stuck in your head long after the episode end, Westworld easily stole the top spot from Game of Thrones as my favorite HBO show this year — and that’s saying a lot, since Game of Thrones had a real return to form in season 6. The fantastically dark and funny Preacher comes in at a close second, with excellent performances from all involved — but Ruth Negga and Joseph Gilgun in particular.
This year I was also fortunate enough to watch the first season(s) of UnReal and Transparent right before the new seasons landed, which meant that my need to see more was fulfilled pretty quickly. Finally, Black Mirror came back for a few more great episodes, with ‘San Junipero’ as the clear standout.
1. Stranger Things
3. Star Wars Rebels
4. Marvel’s Luke Cage
5. Game of Thrones
Honorable Mentions: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Supergirl
Stranger Things accomplished what many 1980s cinema love letters past have strived to achieve, but not quite managed: to succeed as both a clever pastiche of ’80s tropes and an original creation that stands on its own two feet. Westworld similarly remixed a decades-old piece of storytelling and transformed it into something wholly its own: an intriguing puzzle box of a narrative that explores familiar sci-fi concepts from a fresh and relevant angle, infusing them with newfound life.
Star Wars Rebels continues to mature in its storytelling approach and explore aspects of the Star Wars mythology with greater depth than the live-action movies have time for, without losing its kid-friendly sense of fun in the process. Luke Cage proved to be yet another great Marvel/Netflix offering with its own unique personality (and some terrific villains), while Game of Thrones surpassing its source material might have been the best thing to happen to the show — making for one of the grisly medieval fantasy series’ most lively and engaging installments yet.
2. The Americans
4. Search Party
There’s a moment during Atlanta‘s premiere episode where Donald Glover’s Earnest ‘Earn’ Marks, trudging away at his go-nowhere job in the airport, is told by a potential customer to “f*** off.” Earn responds by saying, “I know, right?” — without missing a beat. Like everything else in the episode, the scene is pitch perfect, further demonstrating who Earn is and where he’s at in his life. But as Atlanta would prove time and time again over the course of its amazing first season, the scene is also an example of how lived-in and specific the characters and their setting was. Anyone who’s ever worked customer service before knows the powerlessness of that situation. Atlanta doesn’t try to underline it; instead Glover and director Hiro Murai let the moment speak for itself, knowing that it already spoke volumes. And the rest of the series followed suit.
That lived-in feeling carried through the rest of the 2016 TV shows that resonated with me. It was there in the incredible (and always reliable) tension-building of The Americans, as well as the gritty, sweat-soaked crime-drama of Cinemax’s brilliantly directed Quarry. And it was especially there in Amazon’s Fleabag, which took the notion of point of view to a tragically funny, fourth wall-breaking extreme. The biggest surprise this year, however, might be TBS’ funny look at self-obsessed twentysomethings in search of mystery and meaning in Search Party. Like everything else on the list, the show’s attention to a specific kind of detail is what makes it so memorable.
1. Black Sails
2. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
4. Star Wars Rebels
It should come as no surprise to listeners of the Total Geekall Podcast to see Black Sails top my list, having distinguished itself as much, much more than a dose of Starz action and adult content. With a first season that scratched the itch for some high seas politics and an intriguing cast of pirates, and a second that grew into a far more accomplished bit of storytelling, 2016 saw Sails transform into as captivating and rich a character drama as I’ve ever seen on television. Toby Stephens had led the initial charge as the terrifying ‘Captain Flint,’ but by season’s end, every major player had evolved into something unrecognizable to their first season selves. Just in time for the show’s final season.
When I wasn’t escaping to Nassau from the real world, there was no better, nor more consistent lens through which to view the world than HBO’s Last Week Tonight. The show had already proven itself to be something special, but as the stakes for the American election rose, so did the show’s level of discourse, satire, and passion. A different look at Washington came in the fifth season of Veep, finding renewed attitude under new leadership. And even if the current season of Star Wars Rebels hasn’t impressed me to the same degree, the final run of season 2 in early 2016 offered some of the most refreshing and inspired glimpses into the Star Wars universe in recent memory.
2. Stranger Things
4. Marvel’s Luke Cage
5. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Honorary Mentions: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Class, Agent Carter
During a year of television that prompted frank discussions about how shows portray and utilize rape, the lack of gender diversity both in front of and behind the camera, and the at-times overwhelming number of female characters being killed off, MTV’s Sweet/Vicious has been a breath of fresh air. Its premise — two college women team up to seek vigilante justice against rapists and perpetrators of sexual assault that have slipped through the cracks in the system — is equal parts superhero series, feminist commentary, and buddy comedy. Sweet/Vicious is a taste of what I hope television becomes in the coming years with more gender diversity — and proves once again that younger-skewing networks like MTV should not be overlooked based simply on their target audience.
Elsewhere, 2016 was a good year for superhero and genre TV: Netflix killed it with a massively entertaining summer hit in Stranger Things as well as the first season of Marvel’s Luke Cage; The CW managed to improve upon the first season of Supergirl (with help from Tyler Hoechlin’s brief appearance as Superman and Alex Danvers’ particularly moving coming out storyline) and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. welcomed Ghost Rider for a fun and compelling run of episodes.
1. Mr. Robot
4. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
It has been another year of me trying (and failing) to fill the hole Hannibal’s absence has left in my heart, but two shows have at least come close. In its second season, Mr. Robot was even more deliberately discomfiting than before; a season-long exercise in unreleased tension that put off many viewers, but left me in utter awe. No show this year was better constructed than the clever, gorgeous Preacher, which balanced its long game with lovable characters and a wicked sense of humor.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency maybe shouldn’t have worked, but did so wonderfully by virtue of the absolute manic delight that infuses every part of the show, from performances to score. On the comedy front, Donald Glover’s Atlanta is a singularly assured and odd series that is exemplified by Keith Stansfield’s marvelous Darius. And bringing things full circle, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, an excruciatingly funny personal essay brought to life, shares some surprising similarities with Mr. Robot through its lonely, unreliable fourth-wall breaking narrator.
We would like to say thank you to all of our readers and supporters who made 2016 so great.
- Take a look back at our picks from 2015: Screen Rant’s Top 5 Favorite TV Shows of 2015.
Feel free to let us know in the comments section what TV shows were your favorites in 2016.