Emory experts pick the 20 best television shows of 2016
By Megan McRainey | Dec. 15, 2016
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The creative ferment of current television has never been more evident than over the past year. While stalwart favorites such as “The Americans,” “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards,” “Transparent” and “Veep” continue to flourish, new series (streaming, on networks, but most of all on cable) seem to appear almost weekly to enthrall audiences.
Here are the choices of Emory’s Department of Film and Media Studies faculty (Amy Aidman, Tanine Allison, Rob Barracano, Matthew H. Bernstein, Marc Bousquet, Michele Schreiber and Beretta Smith-Shomade), who are both scholars and fans.
30 for 30: OJ - Made in America (ESPN) and American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson (FX)
You think you know about the OJ Simpson case? Well, think again. With its more than seven-hour running time, “30 by 30” is an exhaustive exploration of the case’s racial context while “American Crime Story” offers an enlightening glimpse into the humanity of prosecutors Marsha Clark and Christopher Darden. Paulson is inspired as Clark and Episode #6: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” is one of the most entertaining and heartbreaking 40 minutes of television this year.
The Affair (Showtime)
The multi-perspective narrative of “The Affair” — centering on the titular affair between characters Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson) — has managed to evolve gracefully beyond its original premise to become a richly layered and nuanced glimpse into how subjectivity colors our perspective on the constricting and empowering nature of the ties that bind us to friends, lovers and family.
Earn, a fast-talking, conflicted Princeton dropout, returns to his hometown of Atlanta. Hearing that his cousin has scored a minor rap hit, Earn seeks to capitalize by becoming his manager. Surreal and unpredictable, “Atlanta” expands outward from this premise, becoming more surprising and sure-footed as the season progresses.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW)
Written by Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” is a zany comedy of errors with a side of “Glee.” Rachel Bloom plays a successful New York attorney who moves to small town California set on rekindling love with her long lost summer-camp crush. Frequent bursts into bizarre song and dance numbers add to the hilarity.
The Fall (BBC2/Netflix)
The third and most recent season of this BBC production is less action-driven than previous seasons but the brilliance of the performances of Jamie Dornan as seductive serial killer Paul Spector and Gillian Anderson as inscrutable detective Stella Gibson has never been on fuller display. Gibson is one of the smartest, sexiest, and most complicated female characters in television history.
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS)
The best new comedy news show features the host simply standing in front of a digital screen while she delivers hilarious rapid-fire critiques, especially of sexist American politicians and groups. Google her Harriet Tubman $20-bill monologue for a sample of her weekly brilliance.
God is back and living in Memphis, Tennessee! “Greenleaf,” the second dramatic series hosted on Oprah Winfrey’s network, chronicles the trials and tribulations of mega-church running family, the Greenleafs. Starring actor Lynn Whitfield as matriarch and church first lady, the story captures television’s continued foray into religious dramatic programming that includes series like “Big Love,” “Mary, Mary” and “The Preachers of LA” franchise.
Horace and Pete (Louis C.K.net/Hulu)
Brooklyn bar Horace and Pete’s has been in operation for one hundred years, always run by a Horace and a Pete. Louis C.K.’s self-distributed series is a theatrical, darkly comic meditation on family, and Laurie Metcalfe’s monologue in the third episode is the year’s best television performance.
Issa Rae’s hit web series, “Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl,” comes to television in this series. Co-created by Rae and veteran writer-producer Larry Wilmore, this HBO dramedy follows millennial Rae as a 30-something dealing with millennial-inflected issues: career uncertainty, girlfriends, and relationship drama in South Los Angeles. Following in the vein of HBO predecessors “Girls” and “Sex and the City,” the series is much more grounded, nuanced and culturally reflective of our national demography.
The Night Of (HBO)
This meditative thriller has already collected the "TV Program of the Year" award from the American Film Institute. No surprise that leads John Turturro and Riz Ahmed are competing with each other for the Golden Globe "Best Performance" nod.
Hollywood has been trying to make the graphic novel into a movie for 20 years. Hooray for Seth Rogen, who finally 300 pound gorilla-ed “Preacher” into production, not as a movie but as a series. Viewers will go to heaven and hell, see the dismembered hand of an angel and travel in a world where the least odd things are vampires. That world is Texas.
This cinematic, brooding hitman series is one of the season's best for viewers nostalgic for the music and film of the early 1970s.
Queen Sugar (OWN)
Nestled in the sumptuous farming land of St. Joseph Parish, Louisiana, “Queen Sugar” unravels the stories of land, history, family connection and secrets. Produced by Oprah Winfrey and Ava Duvernay (“Selma”), this show refashions Natalie Baszile’s first novel. The mostly newcomer cast forces audiences to grapple with and humanize the historic and contemporary sins of the nation while holding close the bonds of family.
The best cancelled show of the year, this is an overly rosy look at hijinks among a rock band's entourage.
Stranger Things (Netflix)
This is a tricky watch. It is tempting to give up on this mash up of late 20th-century horror when it starts to feel un-original, but if you ride that out, the series comes roaring back with a climax worth watching again and again. Winona Ryder, Matthew Modine and several others give terrific performances.
This Is Us (NBC)
“This Is Us” captures life’s vagaries in a compelling narrative bookended by family and memory. This drama series is told from the perspectives of 30-something triplet siblings and their parents. The narrative toggles between their growing up experiences and their current lives while asking serious questions about our life choices, the meanings of success and the way we view ourselves.
Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), age 70 and Jewish patriarch, is becoming Maura—transitioning from Dad to “MaPa.” An exquisite dramedy now in its third season, Jill Soloway’s “Transparent” continues to be a groundbreaking exploration of gender and sexual fluidity.
Ever wonder about the real drama behind the scenes of reality TV? Watch for the Emmys to recognize the show's writing and the second season of Constance Zimmer's career-defining performance as the show's driven, troubled executive producer.
Yes, HBO’s latest prestige series has killer robots, nudity, and graphic violence—all in a futuristic theme park simulating the Old West. But showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan (author of his brother’s “Memento” and “Interstellar”) also upend our conceptions of truth and reality, and question how we use media to fulfill our fantasies.
You're the Worst (FX)
This is the third season of the romantic comedy for viewers who despise romantic comedy. Depression and PTSD are no laughing matter, except when they really, really are.