I don’t care for the December tradition of compiling “best-of” lists, particularly when it comes to television. From a nit-picky standpoint, it’s ridiculous to suggest that anyone in the age of Too Much Effing TV can definitively declare which shows, performances or episodes are “the best.” The year 2016 saw 455 scripted original series airing across broadcast, cable, and streaming services in the US. That doesn’t take into account unscripted series or the Norwegian teen drama without subtitles that everyone on Twitter is suddenly obsessed with (how are you not watching Skam?)
But my larger objection is that top ten or twelve or twenty-one lists tend to produce a summary of the year-in-television as a list of highs determined largely by critical consensus. That isn’t to say that top ten lists have no room for personal favorites or biases. While most of the lists compiled include Atlanta, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Speechless and The People vs. O.J.Simpson: American Crime Story somewhere in their top ten, judgements I agree with, plenty of entries have the air of personal attachment.
That people don’t just watch the shows critics tell them to watch is not really news. Anyone comparing the slavish praise and tiny ratings for The Americans and Rectify can tell you that. Instead, as I was reminded while spending this past holiday quarantined in my apartment, feverish and curled around my laptop watching an oddball assortment of shows I had seen before (Pushing Daisies, Shameless, Friends, Good Behavior), what is so appealing about television is the intimate relationship it develops with our individual daily life. A real “best of” television list would act more like an emotional map of the critic’s year, acknowledging that sometimes the “best” show for the night is the procedural with Dr. Watson in minimalist dresses.
Some days you want comfort, some days you want to be challenged, some days you want something on in the background, some days you want to cry and you’ve already watched that Kodak short film ten times, some days you want to be very, very angry (thanks CNN!), some days you want to watch melodramatic teens break-up to feel better about your own romantic choices. Television finds its way into our homes and serves all of those functions. We see actors age and plots advance over a matter of days and weeks, even while binge watching. Recurring seasons and multiple episodes mean that television takes root in the timeline of our life in the way that other entertainment doesn’t.
That people don’t just like the shows critics tell them to like is not really news.
So in the place of a list of my critically-approved top fifteen shows, I offer instead a fever-inspired, incomplete and biased list of the year’s highs and lows in television.
High: Gilmore Girls: A Year In the Life, the Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls, had plenty of serious flaws (several of which could have been eliminated with some judicious editing). But it succeeded at the only thing it really needed to do — making us feel like we were watching the same characters from the original show, just ten years later. Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino drops back in on Emily, Lorelei and Rory Gilmore in lives that feel consistent with what we already know about them. Every upcoming revival and reboot needs to learn this lesson.
Dear @GilmoreGirls fans,
We're back tomorrow because of you, and I couldn't be more thankful. Hope you enjoy.
— Lauren Graham (@thelaurengraham) November 24, 2016
Low: So much focus on “realistic” “gritty” comedy has created a class of comedies that trick you into watching them by being funny in their first season and then become really depressing dramas about how people are incapable of change. The recently concluded third season of You’re the Worst is a perfect example, with all of the main and supporting characters being depressed for multiple episodes at a time.
High: That being said, You’re the Worst joined Jane the Virgin, BoJack Horseman and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in airing nuanced, funny, and matter-of-fact episodes in which wildly different women got abortions without any judgement, last minute miscarriages or sudden out-of-character desires for children.
High: Ava DuVernay hired only women directors for the first season of OWN’s Queen Sugar. Melissa Rosenberg, executive producer and showrunner for Jessica Jones, has announced that the second season will be directed entirely by women. President of FX John Landgraf was confronted by Variety over the fact that 88% of all episodes on the network were directed by white men. A year later, 51% of the episode directors at FX and FXX are women or diverse hires. It’s almost like these are fixable problems.
High: The female showrunners of One Mississipi (Tig Notaro and Diablo Cody) and Sweet/Vicious (Jennifer Kaytin Robinson) have created complex, unique and wildly different shows about survivors of rape and sexual assault.
Low: HBO’s new president of programming Casey Bloys totally doesn’t understand all the fuss about the exploitation of sexual violence against women on his network’s shows.
Low: Andre Braugher still doesn’t have an Emmy or a Golden Globe for playing Captain Raymond Holt on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Come on.
High: Shows like Shameless, Faking It, Sense8 and Difficult People featured transgender characters played by transgender actors, hopefully marking the end of cisgender actors being cast to play transgender roles.
High: John Cho has been cast as a debonair con artist in the upcoming USA show Connoisseur (a word that my computer informs me I have no idea how to spell correctly). Since Connoisseur won’t premiere until sometime next year, that means that Cho will be missing from a regular series role on television for almost three years since the unfortunate cancellation of Selfie. Although if all my letters to Netflix about making a second season of Selfie pay off, he may be starring in two series next year. #StarringJohnCho
High: Tyler Hoechlin’s portrayal of Superman on The CW’s Supergirl. Optimistic and fun as Superman, endearingly geeky as Clark Kent and happy to play second-fiddle to the star of the show. If only Zack Snyder’s Superman were as fun to watch.
Low: There was this whole traumatic election thing I’m still working through. It was a mistake to start watching cable news.
So there you go. No prescriptive list of the best shows on television, just the end of another year.
Happy New Year!
Although if you aren’t watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Veep, Atlanta, Insecure, Speechless, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, The People vs. O.J.Simpson: American Crime Story, iZombie, Stranger Things, BoJack Horseman, Fleabag, Jane the Virgin, Black Mirror, Looking: The Movie and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend you really are missing out.
Liz’s List What to Watch/Follow/Listen to/Read
Watch George Michael rehearse a tribute to Freddy Mercury with Queen in front of David Bowie.
Listen to WBEZ’s 3-part podcast series Making Oprah, in which Oprah Winfrey, as well as producers, staffers and TV executives detail the behind-the-scenes process of making The Oprah Winfrey Show, from the tenuous early days through the show’s final season.
Read Colin Stokes’s article in The New Yorker on how Arnold Lobel’s children series Frog and Toad was a celebration of same-sex love.