2016 proved to be as great a year for television as it was bad for just about everything else. While the world burns, it is at least nice to have so much great content to distract ourselves with. The growth of television year over year has been exponential since Netflix and Amazon brought the tech industry’s higher competition to the content ownership game. While 2017 promises to be even greater, and by an order of magnitude so, 2016 is at this time, perhaps, the greatest year for original content in television history. The days in which we passively watch shows that spark moderate interest in us are all but dead, as the landscape of content is flooded. In a year of so much great TV, a year in which it is now flat-out impossible to watch everything of merit that has come out, we at TVEnthusiast are here to present our picks for the best of TV in 2016. Will will post his picks later this week (edit: here they are!), until then, here are my picks.
Best Technical Production
Game of Thrones
Though many shows have upped their game, and budgets, none has yet come which can dethrone the king of high production values on television. Year after year, Game of Thrones‘ production has grown to increasingly absurd levels of extravagance. From CGI Dragons, to gorgeous real locations around the world, to a massive pitch battle on the scale of Braveheart, Game of Thrones has dwarfed every other production. Network-mate, and new series for 2016, Westworld, perhaps came closest to competing with Thrones, but at the end of the day, no show has even come close, at all, to dethroning the king. Of particular note this year was the fantastic 9th episode of the season, The Battle of the Bastards, which features a stunning battle between the forces of Jon Snow, and those of Ramsay Bolton. Not only did the episode have a satisfying conclusion, but was an utter masterpiece of action cinematography and choreography.
Best Artistic Production
While shows like Mr. Robot, Preacher, and technical production winner Game of Thrones have all had fantastic art direction this year, it is Stranger Things that truly blew me away. From its spot-on nostalgic trappings and its blink-and-you-miss-them nods to specific influences, to its distinct and memorable iconography, Stranger Things has, in eight episodes, made itself into one of the instantly recognizable masterpieces it pays homage to. Stranger Things has become less of a show honoring the 80’s, than it has an absolute classic from the 80’s, that we had never seen before. Some shots from the series first season were taken straight from the lenses of Stephen Spielberg classics like ET, and John Carpenter’s The Thing. Most memorable. though, is the way Winona Ryder’s character of Joyce uses lights to communicate with her son Will across dimensions. Now when I see Christmas lights, I only think of poor Will Byers, trapped in The Upside-down.
Rectify ended its run this year, still, as the best writing on television. What makes the writing of the series so clever is that it is absurdly poetic, and even at times flowery, yet it never takes you out of the story, which is impeccably grounded and humanly layered. Many of the strongest bits of writing this season dealt with Daniel finally disclosing, to a select few others, the traumas related to his time on death row. His inability to be strong for another in his friend’s final moments, his brutal rape, and even just the feeling of being so incredibly alone, with only the whispers coming through the walls to maintain his sanity. All of these moments are carefully reflected on in the final season of this surprisingly under-appreciated series. 1 scene which will stick with me from the season involved series protagonist Daniel describing the loneliness of death row isolation to the head of the halfway house he is staying in. “It”s like your ego begins to disintegrate into you,” he says, “you literally lose your sense of self.”
Aden Young as Daniel Holden – Rectify
Speaking of Rectify, I have to tip my hat to Aden Young, who continued to portray Daniel Holden as a man who was simultaneously the most intelligent, and most horrendously damaged, person in any room he entered. The subtle nuances between fear and anger, heartbreak and adoration, understanding and frustration. They all played out across Young’s face and in the timbre of his voice as he waxed philosophic. There were a lot of great performances on TV this year, but none as quietly heart-breaking as that of Aden Young in his turn as Daniel, in the final season of IFC’s criminally underrated series, Rectify. The scene in which he snaps in front of his co-occupants at his halfway house after suffering the indignity of his roommates masturbation, and the rape it reminds him of was powerful and tense.
Best Ensemble Cast
Of the performances that rivaled that of Aden Young in Rectify, most seemed to come from a single series. HBO’s Westworld faced a few structural problems in its second half, but the performances were never lacking. Sir Anthony Hopkins was brilliant as he straddled the line between a grandfatherly toy maker and a coldly precise man of science with an agenda to fulfill. Ed Harris was pitch perfect as a philanthropic man who found himself in cruelty. Jeffrey Wright was endearing as a man holding dear the fascination in his work, after great personal tragedy.
Thandie Newton was heart breaking as a world wearied woman struggling with the attachments of another life. Evan Rachel Wood was compelling as the unreliable forward momentum through the developing non-linear plot. Everyone was great, many at the top of their game, and considering the resumes of the cast, that alone is an impressive feat. The best scenes in the series are often simply conversations between characters portrayed by amazing Actors. In particular I adored a scene between Anthony Hopkins’ Robert Ford and Ed Harris’ Man in Black, 2 legendary Actors spitting thinly veiled venoms with every syllable spoken.
Sam Esmail – Mr. Robot
Another hard choice this year was making a pick between the many great working Showrunners this year. Ross and Matt Duffer broke onto the scene with the nostalgic masterpiece Stranger Things, while Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould continued to show us how a prequel is done right with Better Call Saul. That isn’t even yet mentioning the work of Game of Thrones’ Showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss, or Silicon Valley‘s Mike Judge and Alec Berg. Showrunners are becoming household names, and this year’s crop is hardly lacking in talent and ambition.
At the end of the day, though, nobody impressed me more than Mr. Robot Showrunner Sam Esmail. Not only did Esmail write most of the episodes of Mr. Robot‘s sophomore season, but he directed ALL of them. Effort isn’t everything, though, and Esmail deserves credit for the ambition and execution of a second season which had the unenviable position of following up the mostly self-contained and focused story of the series first season. Mission accomplished! Mr. Robot‘s second season was darker, smarter, and more challenging then the first, already amazing, season.
Eleven, as Portrayed by Millie Bobby Brown – Stranger Things
Millie Bobby Brown’s portrayal of Eleven was endearing, empowering, lovable, scary, and completely iconic. The Eggo-loving test subject of a partially rogue government agency kicked off the events of the series, chronologically speaking, when her powers were harnessed to make contact with an extra-dimensional being. In the chaos caused by a breach between dimensions, Eleven escapes the facility she had been kept in. The poor girl has trouble opening up, or even understanding basic societal norms of behavior, but is quickly embraced as a friend by Mike, and his group, when they go looking for their missing friend Will. Though she often fails at properly expressing herself, Eleven grows close to the boys, and becomes as protective of them as they are of her. There is no character that I rooted for harder than Eleven in 2016.
Ramsay Bolton, as Portrayed by Iwan Rheon – Game of Thrones
This was a hard choice for me. This year in television was home to a large number of vile evils to root against. Negan, from The Walking Dead, was a strong contender, as was Agents of SHIELD‘s Hive. Cottonmouth, Odin Quincannon, and anime character Gaku Yashiro were all in consideration as well. At the end of the day, however, I have to give the nod to Game of Thrones‘ absolutely psychotic Bastard of Bolton, Ramsay Snow, who is eventually legitimized as Ramsay Bolton. In the 6th season of HBO’s swords-and-sorcery epic, Ramsay murdered his father, his step-mother, his newborn baby brother, the wildling Osha, the Giant Wun Wun, and youngest Stark sibling, Rickon. Thankfully, he got what was coming to him when Sansa Stark arranged for a touching reunion with his starved hunting dogs. Ramsay’s worst offence this season was a toss-up between 2 cruel murders. His luring Jon Snow into the battlefield by placing Rickon’s life in the balance, only to kill Jon’s brother at the last minute was tactically sound, but heartlessly cold. The scene in which he fed his still living mother in law and baby brother to his hounds, however, was inhuman, especially considering he had already secured his own position of power, and they were no longer a threat.
Most Interesting Character
Cassidy, as Portrayed by Joe Gilgun – Preacher
I have loved Joe Gilgun as an Actor since his portrayal of Rudy Wade in Misfits. So I am pleased to, at least partially, honor him by naming his Preacher character, Cassidy, the most interesting television character of 2016. As a fun loving Irish Vampire who quickly befriends series protagonist Jesse Custer, Cassidy is played as a loyal friend, a source of comic relief, and, unexpectedly, a consummate badass. With all of those strengths, it is actually Gilgun’s performance in the role which should be honored for bringing life to the absurd character. Gilgun steals every scene he is in, which is saying something when his scenes involve hilariously bureaucratic angels, and a boy being sent to hell with a turn of phrase. Cassidy, the Irish Vampire, is my favorite part of the absurdist masterpiece that is Preacher, and my pick for the most interesting television character of 2016.
Best Action Scene or Fight
Game of Thrones – The Battle of the Bastards
I started making a list of nominees for this category, but it all just felt pointless. Simply put, NOTHING can top what Game of Thrones did with the pitch battle that makes up the majority of their season 6 episode, The Battle of the Bastards. Though not my favorite episode of the series, or even the season, the battle in Battle of the Bastards is unlike anything attempted before on TV, it is just too huge in scale. The closest contenders to the battle in the episode would only go towards some of HBO’s biggest wartime miniseries, Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Even then, Battle of the Bastards stands notably ahead.
The action taking place here is competitive with beloved films like Braveheart and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. All of this being said, the episode did have room for improvement, as hard choices had to be made, including the absence of Jon’s dire-wolf companion Ghost. Surprisingly, recent comments by Game of Thrones Actor John Bradley suggests that the shorter season 7 might just top this most epic of all TV battles. Until then, we will have to somehow stay content with the most amazing action scene to ever air on TV.
Not the Butt – Ash Vs. Evil Dead
Fans of Starz’ graphic horror comedy continuation of the classic The Evil Dead trilogy were greeted with a horrifically hilarious gross-out bit of physical comedy in the front half of the series second season. While searching for the Necronomicon, which Ruby hid in the body of a singular body, in a corpse filled morgue, Ash is attacked by the intestines of one such cadavar. After knocking Ash to the ground, and wrapping around his neck, the intestines begin to pull back from whence they came, and in doing so, pull poor “Ashy Slashy”, screaming “not the butt” in horrified desperation, right up where the sun don’t shine. Ash then has to fight for his life, with his face sticking out of the opened chest cavity of the corpse now wrapped around his head. Bonus points go to the prop masters of the series, for including a Prince Albert piercing, which provided that little extra touch of creepy cringe comedy.
Hold the Door – Game of Thrones
A lot of moments on television in 2016 brought tears of sorrow to my eyes, but enough about the presidential election. The saddest, most heart wrenching, scene of 2016 was undoubtedly the “Hold the Door” sequence from Game of Thrones. Hold the Door, as an episode, was ruthlessly engineered to draw water from even the coldest and driest of eyes, seemingly as a desperate measure to end the Southern California drought. I give a lot of the credit for the effectiveness of the scene to the episode’s director Jack Bender, who served as the primary Director for LOST, where he excelled at emotionally charged scenes involving a sudden twist.
To sum up the events of this scene, Bran is in a green vision with the 3 Eyed Raven, watching his father and uncle practicing swordsmanship, as a young Hodor (at this time known as Willis) watches on. During this vision, the tree, which they have been inhabiting since the end of season 4, is attacked by the Night’s King, and his army of the White Walkers. Meera and Hodor scramble to pull Bran’s unconscious body to safety. Meera calls out for Hodor to hold the door, which Bran overhears in his vision of the past. Somehow, Bran’s vision affects the past itself, as Meera’s command for Hodor to hold the door causes the young Willis to fall into a seizure, as he screams hold the door, over and over until it eventually comes out as Hodor. This is when Bran, and the audience, realize that this was the origin of Hodor’s inability to speak anything but the word Hodor, as the present Hodor dies holding the door closed so that Bran and Meera can escape. Absolutely soul crushing.
Most Tense Scene
Introducing Negan and Lucille – The Walking Dead
Several scenes involving The Beast from The Magicians were in consideration for this category, if only because I love the show, and wanted to give it a nod. I also considered much of the Black Mirror episode Shut Up and Dance, which was fantastically disturbing. In the end, though, I had to give it to the introduction of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s portrayal of The Walking Dead villain, Negan. Despite some later issues with the misuse of his character, his debut was a maddeningly tense scene, as Negan and his Saviors rounded up a healthy swath of Rick’s group.
Creepy whistling served as a prelude to the introduction of the most feared character in The Walking Dead history. Though fans were annoyed by the forced cliffhanger, Negan’s long scene in which he slowly chooses which member of Rick’s group to ruthlessly murder in front of them is tense as all hell. “I don’t want to kill you people, I want to make that clear from the get go. I want you to work for me.” says Negan shortly before brutally killing one of them “You can’t do that if you’re dead, now can you?” That is what Makes Negan so terrifying, not his murders, but his oppression, the way he forces those he traumatizes to work towards his benefit. It is kind of like a rape, a loss of agency, his victims want to kill him, but they cannot, they can only do as he pleases. The pay-off in the next season’s opening was more cruel than tragic, but it is hard to deny Negan’s introduction itself.
Most Shocking Scene
Elliot was in Prison – Mr. Robot
As I mentioned above in Saddest Scene, I probably would have given this honor to the Hold the Door scene as well, if not for my need to diversify the list. I also considered the surprisingly sudden death of a beloved character on Orange is the New Black, a scene that shaped the last couple episodes of the season. My pick, however, has to be the reveal that through the entire first half of Mr. Robot‘s second season, Elliot was earning his stripes as the best unreliable narrator on TV by withholding that he was actually in prison. It came out of nowhere and completely reshaped the way viewers looked at the first half of the season. Elliot’s actual current residence is revealed after Elliot converses with his old Therapist Krista, “Elliot, you know you haven’t been staying with your mother,” she asks, “right?” The prison walls come into focus and Elliot reveals to the audience that he kept the truth from them, and suddenly much of Elliot’s previous scenes suddenly make a lot more sense.
Most Satisfying Scene
Daenerys Leaves for Westeros – Game of Thrones
My nominees for this category were entirely made up of scenes from season 6 of Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones 6th season had some amazingly satisfying scenes, after all. Arya got a long put off revenge, and Sansa got her own well deserved revenge, both with pitch perfect execution. Hell, even Cersei, despite being such a hateable character, had a moment that satisfied fans, as she blew up the Sept of Balor, and a cult of fanatics with it. We haven’t even talked about all of the fan theory confirmations, notably R+L=J, the theory that states that Jon Snow is actually the child of Rhaegar Targaryen and Ned’s sister, Lyanna Stark. But the most satisfying scene of the season was much simpler, it came as Daenerys FINALLY left Meereen and Essos for Westeros. It took 6 seasons, but now, at last, all of the players are on the board.
Sometimes I feel that comedy is being left behind in the race to make the next great drama. How can that be, though, when so many great new comedies keep coming out. Perhaps it is that not all comedies are really funny anymore. Louis CK redefined the TV comedy with his FX series, Louie, by telling stories that traversed remarkably dark territory. It is a sort of meta comedy, in that the serious nature of it, as a comedy, becomes the comedy itself. Due to this it is often hard to think comedy is thriving when the show winning awards for best comedy, these days, is often Transparent, an often downright depressing show. That, however, is all the forefront of innovation in the category painting the perception of the genre.
There is still a lot of great, hilarious, and more traditional comedy out there, for those in need of a good guffaw. Some of the shows I considered this year included HBO’s hilarious Silicon Valley, and the 20th, and oddly serialized, season of South Park. In the end, however, I decided to reward TBS, who have been absolutely killing it in comedy in 2016. People of Earth, Angie Tribecca, Search Party, Wrecked, I enjoyed them all to varying degrees, but my series pick went to The Detour. The Detour is, essentially, National Lampoons Vacation, modernized, and restructured as a TV series. Something about that appeals to me so much more than I ever thought it would.
Mr. Robot, Stranger Things, Game of Thrones, The OA, I could go on and on for days on end. 2016 was a fantastic year for drama series. This year, I decided to focus on the word representing the category itself. As in, which series provided the greatest drama for me to partake in. While I absolutely loved this season of Game of Thrones, and I felt Mr. Robot did something stunning for a sophomore follow up, I feel that, to the depths of my soul, the best drama on TV in 2016 came from Sundance’s final season for their oft underappreciated series, Rectify. Closing its story with its 4th season, Rectify lived up to its name, as it depicted a collage of many wrongs, and then showed the steps taken, by people from all angles, to make things right.
It worked! Rectify‘s final season was bittersweet, poignant, and yet somehow hopeful in a way that was simultaneously poetically optimistic, and realistic in its acceptance of imperfect closure. Everything tied together in a loose and heavily creased bow that somehow became beautiful in its frailty. I loved the exploration of a brewing resentment between Daniel’s mother and step-father, that wasn’t structured for optimal conflict, but rather there to show the multifaceted complexity any relationship faces while holding true to the hopeful message the series closed with. I also really dug the overall theme of improving upon yourself by taking ownership of your flaws, traumas, and uncertainties, without letting them define you.
Best New Series
2016 was a huge step in the growth of quality television, an exponential turning point. 2016 is the moment in which everyone had to finally accept that it was flat out impossible to watch ALL of the great TV being made. While some saw this as a negative, I feel that TV has, at last, reached something akin to the omnipresence of literature and music. You don’t HAVE to watch ALL the great TV! We have reached a level of saturation which allows us to pick the kind of shows we want without compromising on the quality. This is a good thing, a very good thing. As such, my pick for best new series seems almost tailor mad to my interests.
Nostalgia from my childhood? Check! A coming of age story? Check! An element of the supernatural? Check! A healthy sense of adventure? Check! Direct homage to other things that I already love? Double check! Netflix’s Stranger Things checks all of my weak-spot boxes. I am not alone. Stranger Things became THE buzz show of the year. Adoration of the series seemed almost universal. This is largely due to the way in which Stranger Things used so many direct homages and references to the more iconic pop culture of the past, while creating a more than healthy supply of their own iconography. As a result, Stranger Things feels less like an homage to the 80s than it does like a series from the 80s that went unseen until 2016.
Though I didn’t give it the award for best Drama, as I wanted more diversity on my list, Mr. Robot was my favorite show of the year. After a fantastic, and laser focused, first season, many were concerned that the second season went a little too far in its surreal, non linear, and esoteric storytelling. I, on the other hand, loved it. Surreal, non linear, and esoteric storytelling is my jam, so to speak. Many of those same traits are why Hannibal won both Best Drama and Best Show in my rankings from last year, and, in many ways, I feel that Mr. Robot‘s sophomore season is filling the void left behind by Hannibal‘s unfortunate cancellation. Season 2 of Mr. Robot brought us a monumental twist related to Elliot’s use as an unreliable narrator, gorgeous imagery, and awesome, at times operatic, performances.
On top of that, the second season of this series greatly expanded upon the larger world outside of Elliot’s central story, which we had only glimpsed in the first season. The Dark Army came into sharper focus, the history of Evil Corp was explained, the FBI became a new player, and we even got a much more concrete understanding of Tyrell and Joanna Wellick. Every individual thing became more clear, and in doing so, the larger picture somehow became even more obfuscated and intriguing. While the first season of Mr. Robot was a tightly focused mission, the second season of Mr. Robot was the dissemination of Elliot’s season 1 victory, into a complex, and often unpredictable, cascade of consequences.
Special Category: Best Anime
Erased (Boku dake ga Inai Machi)
Every year we allow each staff member to choose their own category to highlight something they couldn’t highlight with the other categories. Last year, I decided to focus this category on anime. I watch a lot of anime, and I occasionally try and weave anime into the content we cover here on TVEnthusiast, as we do not yet have an Anime Enthusiast. Initially I planned to diverge from last years list by creating a different category, unrelated to anime. Before finalizing that decision I decided to take a look back at my top anime picks for the year, just in case. I am glad I did, as changing my special category away from anime would have meant ignoring the fantastic series Boku dake ga Inai Machi (AKA: Erased). Erased is, hands down, my top pick for best anime of 2016. I even included an episode of the series in a round of Advocates of Great Television for our 50th The Weekly Set podcast episode. The story of Erased is 1 part Groundhogs Day-esque time loop, 1 part change-the-past time travel suspense, 1 part detective story, and 97 parts awesome and thoughtful anime.
The story of Erased focuses on Satoru Fujinuma, who is frequently sent back in time a few minutes, immediately before a tragedy is about to occur. Aware that he has been pushed back, Satoru looks for something out of place, and acts quickly in order to prevent a tragedy. No explanation for this ability is given, nor is it needed, it is not the point of the story. We learn that Satoru’s hometown suffered a child-murdering serial killer back when he was a child himself. While out with his mother, Satoru ends up preventing a child from being abducted, and his mother notices something familiar about the would be abductor. The notice of Satoru’s mother, a former reporter, is picked up on by the attempted Abductor himself, who kills her in a way that frames Satoru. While running from the police, Satoru is suddenly sent back in time again, but this time all the way to his childhood, where he must now try to solve and prevent the murders of 3 children he knew growing up. The series is emotional, intelligent, constantly intriguing, and, in my personal opinion, the best anime of 2016.
What do think? Tell us in our comments, and stay tuned to TVEnthusiast for more coverage of all of your favorite shows. Lets have a great 2017!