According to FX Networks and FX Productions CEO John Landgraf, the number of scripted series on linear and digital platforms could reach 450 by the end of this calendar year, with 500 a possibility for next year. That number has grown so robust due to established platforms bolstering already full rosters and newer outlets getting into the scripted rat race, but no matter how we got here or who is causing viewers to bear the most weight, the fact remains that television in 2016 was simultaneously overwhelming in volume and invigorating in quality, an all-you-can-eat buffet of varied genres, tones, and subject matter that had a little something for everyone.
Which makes compiling a top 25 list and calling those the “best” shows of the year is foolhardy. There’s no way anyone can watch everything and there’s not a huge gap in quality at the top of the TV food chain, so what’s really separating, say #8 from #18 on anyone’s list? But conventional wisdom be damned, I decided to parse through the (ungodly amount of) shows that I watch and figure out what was the best of the best and what was worth recommending to other people. There was no one factor that went into choosing these shows in particular and ordering them the way that I did. The only commonality between every selection is that they had something about them that stood out, whether it be a distinct voice, a particularly powerful performance, or an elegant, resonant execution, among other positives that ended up being singled out. Found within the confines of these 25 slots are shows about religion, divorce, power, magic, love, sex, family, and the self; there are promising freshmen and veterans who’ve held up better than most. There are shows from huge networks with seemingly unlimited marketing budgets and there are shows from smaller networks who rely on word of mouth and critical acclaim. In short, this list is, for better or worse, television in 2016.
And, of course, this list doesn’t speak for KSiteTV as a whole. It’s just a fun way of honoring shows that stuck with me this year. Once you read through #11, head over to the top 10 list to see what I thought was the best of the best of the year.
25. The Path (Hulu)
Hulu’s first foray into the world of original scripted drama, The Path is a journey into the innerworkings of a new age spiritualist movement whose sinister underpinnings and cult-like hold over its members grows by the episode. Anchored by a fantastically unsettling performance from Hugh Dancy, as well as typically resonant work from Aaron Paul and Michelle Monaghan, the series, with its deliberate pacing and eerie stillness, examines the role that faith can play post-trauma and how the vulnerability that one feels at their lowest point is all about searching for a sense of community. With its strong sense of pace and one of the best written teenage boys on television in Heath Ledger-esque Hawk, who reaches the age where he can continue in the movement or opt out, The Path is all about the why in terms of religion and tries to understand the root of all devotion – an admirable task that, by the end of its first season, the show seems capable of answering.
Essential Episodes: “Breaking and Entering”; “The Shore”; “The Miracle”
24. Salem (WGN America)
Kinetic in its kookiness and brazen in its ballsiness, WGN America drama Salem is a show that knowingly and fully embraces what it is. This is off-kilter historical fan fiction filtered through the lens of modern feminism, a show built around a coven of strong female characters whose self-actualization happens to involve rats, ancient trees, and a burning desire for filicide. Most impressive about Salem is that it feels like an atmosphere where literally anything can happen and that type of narrative danger, that willingness to throw things at the audience and shape them to where they make sense is a hell of a skill that makes for enthralling, endlessly entertaining television. Unfortunately, the show was recently cancelled, leaving the current season as the last we’ll get to see of Mary Sibley and company, but there are still four episodes left to find out whether the show that put WGN America on the map can defeat the Devil himself once and for all.
Essential Episodes: “The Reckoning”; “Night’s Black Agents”; “The Witch is Back”
23. The Real O’Neals (ABC)
Though attitudes toward gay marriage have substantially improved over the past 15 years, and though television’s representation of those in the LGBT community has generally gotten better, the fact remains that very rare is the show built around an LGBT character that tells LGBT stories. Therefore, the most astonishing thing about The Real O’Neals is the fact that it’s doing such specific, incisive work within the confines of the ABC family comedy structure; not only is this a show catalyzed by a teenager who comes out of the closet, it’s centered around an out gay teen who feels no self-hatred and who has a positive relationship with God. No other show on television approaches homosexuality the way that ever-hopeful The Real O’Neals does and in an environment where gay shows have a short leash attached to them or where gay leads are often marginalized on their own show, the fact that we have something this intelligent reaching those who might not be used to being spoken to is nothing short of a miracle.
Essential Episodes: “The Real Grandma”; “The Real Prom”; “The Real Match”
22. Divorce (HBO)
Sometimes sour and often uncomfortable, HBO dramedy Divorce chronicles the dissolution of a marriage in every gory detail. From cheating to financial impropriety, from custody squabbling to a failed bid at counseling, viewers are the fly on the wall of a beautiful Westchester home as corporate headhunter Frances and Wall-Street-turned-contractor Robert lock horns. Wisely, the story follows both throughout its first season, thereby painting their relationship as a complex organism comprised of two flawed individuals vs. something that was undone by one or the other solely. With memorable supporting turns from Molly Shannon and Tracy Letts, as well as sensitive, thoughtful work from Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church, quietly desperate Divorce eventually evolves into a sensitive portrayal of two people wanting to make the most out of their lives while they still have the chance.
Essential Episodes: “Counseling”; “Christmas”; “Detente”
21. Odd Mom Out (Bravo)
The second season of Bravo comedy Odd Mom Out managed to keep its very cynical heart pumping while slowly and subtly expanding the world it satirizes. With Upper East Side black sheep Jill Weber chasing professional fulfillment for the first time since becoming a mother and aspiring fashionista Brooke contemplating whether she should take back her cheating husband, Odd Mom Out pushed its characters into interesting emotional territory this season without sacrificing the funny, as the show adorned the narrative work it did with the type of dry one-liners and lightning fast pop culture references it perfected in season one. That type of energy makes Odd Mom Out a breezy, immensely fun immersion into an outsized world that we must navigate alongside Jill, a world that has been changed by events in the surprising season finale. Watching what Odd Mom Out becomes going forward would’ve been interesting enough motivation to keep tuned in, but with one of the most underrated performances on TV in Abby Elliott’s Brooke in tow, Odd Mom Out remains a must watch.
Essential Episodes: “Hamming It Up”; “Crushed”; “The Hamptons”