Much like the interweaving two worlds of HBO’s Westworld, the ones who make the place and the place itself, 2016 advanced two visions of where television is heading. The year’s biggest populist debuts—Westworld, Stranger Things, and This Is Us, to name just three—borrowed frameworks and ideas from a host of familiar sources in a counterintuitive attempt to make something truly their own. Those three shows in particular seem to not-so-quietly want to be about every social injustice under the sun while also being a calculated entertainment, one that has no patience for the complexities of race, sexism, violence, nostalgia, fiscal well-being, and self-knowledge.
This is where the second vision comes in. Former web series like Insecure and High Maintenance found fascinating new pockets of story and behavior, given a bit more money to experiment with music, bigger names, and broader canvases, courtesy of HBO. The Girlfriend Experience allowed two sharp, unmerciful directors—Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz—to open up about the psychological undercurrents of female prostitution and gender roles in a strikingly nonjudgmental way. Shows like this, unafraid of contradictions and complicated scenarios, suggest the salad days of 1990s American independent film, where proven talents were given creative freedom and a little extra funding to further their idiosyncratic takes on the world at large.
Other shows on our list, from Easy to Horace and Pete, similarly fall under this rubric, but to lump them into just two groups—the cumbersome yet empty, and the small yet resonant—also works as a limitation. Where does one file the staggeringly funny and fearless Atlanta, Donald Glover’s hyper-relevant depiction of twentysomething livelihood in Georgia’s rap game? Did anyone think a series about a married team of Russian spies undermining the U.S. government would work, let alone become one of the greatest feats of modern political storytelling? Ten years ago, the pitch for Transparent would have likely caused network execs to hurry Jill Soloway out of the room. Hell, it probably still would at any place other than Amazon or Netflix.
As much as the big hits signal business as usual, television, like cinema, is still a wild frontier for people with big ideas and creative energy to spare, and 2016 revealed new characters and narrative landscapes that cumulatively push toward artistic expression and personal liberation. Chris Cabin
Orange Is the New Black
To say that the strongest season of Orange Is the New Black to date ended on an over-determined note would be an understatement. Many gears were set into motion so that the death of one of the show’s most beloved characters could reverberate with the frustrations that drive the Black Lives Matter movement, and the process was one that felt as if it had been workshopped to death. The series was more confident, less manipulative, when exposing its characters’ public hang-ups and private strengths—attributes these individuals deploy toward either virtuous or nefarious ends. It also bloomed in its depiction of Lori Petty’s Lolly, empathetically observing the dimensions of her mental illness. Indeed, Orange Is the New Black proved itself to be more sublime than ever when focused on the micro, intuitively recognizing that even the little joys that prison life can bring to an inmate are deceptive, as they too hinge on a relinquishing of power. Ed Gonzalez
After a night on the town, Yorkshire police sergeant Catherine Cawood’s (Sarah Lancashire) protégée, Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy), drunkenly confesses that she believes God is just the best in all of us, and Catherine has more good in her than anyone else she knows. That sweet yet messily realistic scene (soon after her confession, Ann vomits) is typical of this series, whose genius lies in illustrating what it means to be a good person without being the least bit preachy. The acts of mercy Catherine is constantly engaged in are resolutely, sometimes even comically secular, like that night of drinking, which she orchestrated for Ann’s sake after noticing that the younger woman needed “cheering up.” But they’re often also wrenchingly difficult, like her battle to protect the grandson she’s raising from his psychopathic father, whose many crimes include having driven Catherine’s daughter to suicide. Her actions are always rooted in a profound moral clarity and loving acceptance of human weakness that’s inspirational without a hint of mawkishness. Elise Nakhnikian
Branching out from her excellent Awkward Black Girl web series, Issa Rae’s opaquely self-reflexive comedy is also one of the most quietly curious depictions of a Los Angeles that exists far from the film and music industries. Rae’s character works for a youth-outreach nonprofit called We Got Y’All, but she has dreams of becoming a rapper. Issa’s frustration with her job and the indecision that plagues her romantic relationship make the show’s title more direct than playful. Made up of images that are at once poised yet slightly off-kilter in their framing, Insecure suggests that the feelings of uselessness that can often come from working for a singular social good at once fuel and obfuscate creative desire. It’s the surreal, lacerating, and often very funny happenings of the day that give Issa’s detonations of imagination and physical energy meaning, and what makes the pockets of West Coast experience that Rae captures feel so melancholic and universal. Cabin
The best laid plans of the Belchers often go awry. But Bob’s Burgers is fixated on the resourcefulness that’s possible even in conflict, an ethos handily articulated when Louise tells Gene, “When life gives you moldy melons, you make moldy melonade.” In one episode, Tina insulted a teacher just so she could get detention and crush on a boy, and in the next, Gene and Louise felt that sabotaging the annual school play was a sensible way of getting a half day before Thanksgiving. Disappointment naturally ensued, and yet the Belcher children emerged from the ruin of their failed expectations with a richer understanding of themselves and the world around them. This is a series that has you smile at Bob securing for his children a cuddle session with an albino polar bear, then disarms you with a corker of a gut-buster, as when Louise looks at the bear and says, “I changed my mind about having kids. I’m going to have one, and feed it to this bear, because I love him so much.” Throughout every episode of Bob’s Burgers, the sentimental and the anarchic walk gloriously hand in hand. Gonzalez
Jane the Virgin
Like its title character, sweet-natured, straight-shooting romance novelist wannabe Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), Jane the Virgin has a lot more going on than a casual observer is likely to give it credit for. That it has roots in Latin American culture is just one of many refreshing and distinctive things about a series that gleefully explores and explodes stereotypes about female sexuality. This season, Jane finally lost her virginity in a scene that was wonderfully anticlimactic, as she learned that having sex isn’t synonymous with having orgasms—and that the importance of a woman’s virginity may be a tad overrated. The college degree Jane is pursing this season in creative writing and her telenovela-star father’s (Jaime Camil) attempts to break through to an American audience provide more outlets for the show’s running dialogue on how to write an entertaining yet truthful story, which winkingly refers to the melodramatic elements—including drug lords, love triangles, and long-lost twins—that help make Jane the Virgin’s undidactic messages go down so easily. Nakhnikian