What makes a show worthy of being in a year-end Top 10 list? Is it a new/unique approach to a more generalized concept? Is it being distinct from a television landscape teetering toward 500 original productions? What about the capacity to appeal to a list maker’s individual experiences and speak in a language very few shows can communicate in? Crafting a Top 10 list is not only difficult because of the sheer volume of productions to sift through, there are so many factors to consider when deeming a show worthy of being among the best of the best of any given year. One can shift what they deem important and come up with 100 different variations of a Top 10, so a Top 10 is less a definitive statement of quality and more a treatise on what each individual list maker deems important in the television medium.
Therefore, within the confines of my personal year-end Top 10, you’ll see that there’s no real pattern. Different shows got here for different reasons and if you asked me to reorder this list, I could give you many Top 10s that would all be valid. This is just a snapshot of shows that I deeply connected with creatively and/or personally, shows that stood just a hair taller than everything else on my list. While the difference between a Top 10 show and something lower in the Top 25 is negligible, each of these shows has a legitimate claim to being in the upper echelon and all come highly recommended. And of course, this entire Top 25 isn’t me speaking of behalf of KSiteTV as a whole; this is just a fun way for me to honor some of the shows that stuck with me this year.
Before you begin scrolling to see what made it to #1, here’s a reminder of what #s 25-11 were.
10. Outsiders (WGN America)
WGN America drama Outsiders tells the story of the Farrells, an isolationist Kentucky family whose mountain home is threatened by the arrival of a coal company. A little bit Sons of Anarchy, a little bit Justified, and a little bit Discovery Channel, Outsiders is an insular, violent show with an intricate micro structure, as the Farrell family self-sustains and self-governs in ways unlike any family drama on television. It’s that specificity, that dedication to showcasing another culture without judgment, that instantly stands out; not only does the show do a beautifully credible job of building a town not unlike those I’ve grown up in and around my entire life, it treats the Farrells, defiant they may be, with the type of respect you don’t often see television give residents of the small town South. While the more macro aspects of the show, which highlight a career-best performance from Thomas M. Wright, simultaneously push the narrative forward and deepen our understanding of the society the Farrells avoid, it’s watching the Farrell power struggle that provides the backbone of the series.
Essential Episodes: “Demolition”; “Day Most Blessed”; “Long Live the Bren’in”
09. Man Seeking Woman (FXX)
Dating is a subject many a television show has either prominently featured or augmented itself around, but the way FXX comedy Man Seeking Woman portrays dating is wholly unique and superbly creative. The show takes concepts those who’ve been in and around romantic relationships know in the most literal sense, thereby providing a fairly low-key show about a 20-something struggling in the dating world with significant visual interest and a layer of unpredictability you don’t often see from comedies. Whether it be the horrors of drunk texting, a desire to be someone other than yourself, or a conflict with a friend over a shared romantic interest, Man Seeking Woman intelligently examines the minefield of insecurity and heartbreak we all must go through in order to find someone to love. And, in the case of season two, how even when we find someone we think we’re supposed to be with, sometimes things just aren’t meant to be.
Essential Episodes: “Scythe”; “Tinsel”; “Card”
08. Bob’s Burgers (FOX)
Very few shows on network television can hold themselves up creatively for an extended period, but Bob’s Burgers is no ordinary network show, as it’s still doing lovely, funny work into its seventh season. The show is the definition of quality comfort television, its commitment to small-scale storytelling with lots of heart and an appreciation for the unusual a beacon of hope in this terrible, terrible world we love in. The Belcher family’s love and acceptance of one another, no matter what, is both inspiring and fertile ground for storytelling, while the show’s visual style has only grown in recent seasons, as has its ability to narratively service every member of the family. In particular, the back half of season six and the first season seven output, already blooming with riffs on everything from The Producers to having the flu and secret admirers, has done a lot for middle child Gene, giving him the type of emotional complexity that didn’t seem possible earlier in the show’s life.
Essential Episodes: “The Gene and Courtney Show”; “Stand by Gene”; “The Quirkducers”
07. The Magicians (Syfy)
Based on the Lev Grossman novels, Syfy fantasy The Magicians was a happy surprise in 2016, as the show, one of the leaders in the network’s recent rebrand, managed to subvert many expectations of fantasy television. Giddily self-aware and never afraid to poke fun at its television trappings, it was simultaneously an ode to the positive role pop culture escapism can play in coping with depression and an allegory to the restlessness that comes with being in your mid-to-late 20s. It’s a show all about finally finding a place where you belong with people who understand and accept who you are, as well as the joy and personal fulfillment that comes from not feeling like a round peg in a square hole anymore. With gorgeous special effects helping to sell the scope of the show’s reach, The Magicians, in all its silly, snarky glory, managed to maintain a level of ambition throughout the course of its first 13 episodes that paid off handsomely by the end of the season, ambition that could easily give the show enough juice to take a major creative leap in season two.
Essential Episodes: “The World in the Walls”; “The Writing Room”; “Thirty-Nine Graves”
06. American Crime (ABC)
Though network television has trended toward safer projects the past couple seasons, there are still shows out there hoping to broaden the definition of what a show on network television is. One of those is acclaimed ABC anthology American Crime, whose grippingly sad second season chronicled an alleged rape of a teenage boy at a Midwestern private school. Loading up its color palette with grays and blues while tracking the impact that said allegations have on both the accused and accuser, American Crime season two was a nuanced, unflinching look at the bureaucratic quicksand and community shaming that can lead victims to avoid reporting, as well as the emotional and psychological ugliness that can lead someone to (and result from an) assault. Though a late season twist caused the show to stumble, it managed to pull it back together by the powerful finale, which demonstrated that it didn’t matter what happened in this specific case. The traumatic effects of sexual assault, and the immediate fallout therein, reverberate long after verdicts are read and court cases are settled.
Essential Episodes: “Season Two: Episode One”; “Season Two: Episode Two”; “Season Two: Episode Four”
05. Queen Sugar (OWN)
Masterful in weaving social issues into the tapestry of a thoughtful family drama, OWN’s Queen Sugar is a sumptuous, visually striking look at a New Orleans family facing an impasse. Following the death of their patriarch, siblings Charley, Nova, and Ralph Angel are tasked with running the family sugarcane farm by themselves, an opportunity that comes at the perfect time for all three but one that manages to reverberate throughout their family dynamic for the entire season. At times elegiac and deeply vulnerable, at others feeling like a warm embrace from the one you love, Queen Sugar focuses a lot of attention on the impact of death and the mess that can be left behind from an unexpected passing. It’s a messy, lived-in type of drama that thrives when the siblings are all in the same room and eschews rat-a-tat plotting for a languid, character-oriented storytelling approach. It’s this decision to keep the show more as a slice-of-life confection vs. a group of plot twists that makes Queen Sugar, in all its earthy wisdom, the family drama television needs right now.
Essential Episodes: “First Things First”; “Where With All”; “Give Us This Day”
04. Rectify (SundanceTV)
The fourth and final season of SundanceTV masterpiece Rectify is an achingly human look at the struggles that come with moving on from trauma and how trauma doesn’t just negatively impact the person who experiences it directly. With the poetic rhythm of its dialogue, a sense of eternal optimism, and an appreciation for the value of silence in narrative television, Rectify has never been a show concentrated on enormous plot progress; it’s all about the baby steps in life, the small victories that might not seem like much at the time but which add up to something profound if you keep your nose to the grindstone. Daniel Holden may never fully recover from his 19 years on Death Row, he may never find the sense of normalcy and comfort that those who haven’t been behind bars take for granted, but the fourth season of Rectify knows that any progress is good progress and that sometimes it’s just enough to not want to let yourself down.
Essential Episodes: “Physics”; “Happy Unburdening”; “All I’m Sayin'”
03. Quarry (Cinemax)
Visually rich with its washed out color palette and note perfect recreation of the early 1970s, Cinemax drama Quarry is an unsuspectingly poignant portrait of a former Marine who returns from battle to a world that left him behind. Anchored by an emotionally raw performance from Logan Marshall-Green, the series chronicles Green’s character Mac, left with a battered reputation and lingering case of PTSD, falling into the world of crime at the behest of mysterious boss The Broker. Quarry punctuates its periods of internalized stillness with bouts of blistering, expertly choreographed violence, a jarring and distinct contrast that the show very quickly figured out how to pull off with aplomb. It’s sort of the thinking man’s action series, a sometimes bloody and deceptively funny hit man drama that’s not content with littering the screen with bodies for the sake of it. Death has a meaning and significant lasting impact on Quarry and watching Mac descending further down the rabbit hole, only to pull himself back up, is the type of invigorating, meaningful television that can come from giving an under-the-radar show a shot.
Essential Episodes: “Seldom Realized”; “Coffee Blues”; “nước chảy đá mòn”
02. The Girlfriend Experience (Starz)
Cobbled together with steel and ice, Starz anthology The Girlfriend Experience is a show all about control. The story of shrewd, deliciously calculating Christine, a law student who begins working as an escort, the series, itself loosely based on the Steven Soderbergh film, isn’t one for exposition and never really lets you into its thought process. Instead, The Girlfriend Experience slowly trickles out the narrative breadcrumbs while primarily concerning itself with artifice and architecture, of the masks we all wear to please others and the value that comes with living for yourself. This is a show, housed in a hall of mirrors, where dialogue is less important than body language, where sex is a commodity used to attain personal fulfillment, and where someone may have leaked their own sex tape to effectively burn down their life so they can remake it the way they desire. Get on The Girlfriend Experience‘s wavelength and Christine’s journey to self-actualization is strangely empowering, particularly during the existential, admirably bold finale.
Essential Episodes: “Access”; “Blindsided”; “Home”
01. Looking (HBO)
Okay, technically HBO dramedy Looking is on here for its movie wrap up that aired in July, but I’m allowing it because the movie is a third season substitute (i.e. this isn’t me putting an unscripted show, late night show, or standalone TV movie among scripted series) and it was my favorite thing on television this year anyway.
Often misunderstood and unfairly asked to be all things to all people, Looking was a show that never forgot that it was about three gay best friends in San Francisco but never wallowed in the same tropes that we see from gay characters on television. The three main characters are neither Sexless Pixie Dream Boys, who exist primarily as vehicles to prop up a heterosexual character, nor are they hapless victims torn down by systematic homophobia and knuckle dragging gay bashers; they’ve all made it through the coming out process without dragging along childhood self-hatred and they exist in a world where being gay is neither fetishized nor demonized. For all that alone, Looking was immensely refreshing, but the show complemented its modern, urbane approach to portraying homosexuality with an understated, open-hearted romanticism that mirrored executive producer Andrew Haigh’s acclaimed Weekend. It was that hopefulness and sensitivity, combined with an eloquent examination of post-college, pre-middle age ennui, that helped make the show’s final go-around an intelligent, moving swan song for a little show that still had so much more to say.