Top New Television Shows of 2016
Happy New Year! So, for the past two years, this weblog has basically been dead, or (at best) some kind of shambling ghoul-esque state of not so much passing on as passing on and on and on and on …
Clearly, the days of me finding the time to list and minireview every new TV show I watch are long gone. But I still watch exuberant amounts of the stuff, so here is a little write-up of my favourite three new 2016 shows, as well as my wife’s picks (as she watches the vast majority of them with me). I’ll try to name-drop other new shows that I think are worth checking out as I go, ’cause, well, why not.
Third best spot is my toughest pick this year with a lot of good candidates, but I’ll (as I so often do) let myself be ruled by my gut desire to promote Paul F. Tompkins-y goodness wherever it rears its stupendous moustache, and pick Bajillion Dollar Propertie$.
A partially improvised comedy series about a ridiculously larger than life group of realtors (and their even more insane neverending barrage of lunatic clients), this show both makes use of and mocks the many staples of the ‘The Apprentice’-esque type reality television show. The cast is hilarious, and while a lot of the jokes get too inane or ludicrous to quite tickle my funny bone, the deliveries are amazing. And many jokes of course do hit home, increasingly many, I would like to note, as the show goes on. Look out in particular for a later addition to the show known as Todd the janitor, who is always an utter delight.
I should perhaps mention that this pick is perhaps a bit dodgy, because the show had the nerve to air both its first and its second season this year, and would never have made my top three list on the merits of its first one alone. It takes it three or four episodes to hit its stride, and with such short seasons, it really took two full runs for me to know I had moved beyond ‘sure, it’s kind of funny’ territory.
Its main competition this year for me were Angie Tribeca (which also managed to dump two seasons in a single calendar year, but which perhaps had its strongest run in the first set rather than the second) and Stan Against Evil, both of which are somehow equally (or probably more) zany and insane as Bajillion Dollar Propertie$. But for all the charisma of the two leads, Stan is not polished or consistently funny enough, and Tribeca, for all its impressively crafted dialogue and cop show trope ridicule, doesn’t manage to charm me the way the cast of Bajillion does. By all means, though — if you like your comedy a bit more outside the box than the typical network sitcom, all three are well worth checking out. While I’m name-dropping crazier-than-average 2016 comedies, Son of Zorn is also worth a peek, as it has perhaps the most out there premise of all of them, if a somewhat more inside the box family sitcom execution.
For my second favourite show of the year, I’m ending up with The Expanse. Technically a 2015 show, sure, but who would ever put it on 2015-lists when the pilot had barely aired before the year was over. So in fairness I’m considering it a 2016 one for the purposes of this list. And boy, this show packs everything. Space ships, check. Murder mystery, check. Multiple location political intrigue, check. There’s even some survival zombie stuff (a trope I’m admittedly fairly tired of). It can be a bit of a slow burn, but it is well worth it.
The novels have been on my reading list for quite some time, and now they’ve jumped pretty close to the top.
That said, perhaps science fiction isn’t your thing. I do have some other 2016 dramas in the same general tonal vein that I’d love to recommend. Frontier is a short and sweet period action drama about the North American fur trade and the monopoly of the Hudson Bay Company. For a period drama, a genre often plagued with a ponderously slow first few episodes, it has really good pacing from the get-go. Furthermore, it has already been renewed for a second season. If you want something more contemporary, Chance is an excellent psychological thriller with the ever-amazing Hugh Laurie in the title role (though strangely enough, he’s not the series’ scene stealer!). And if corporate intrigue is your thing, Billions has some amazing little twists and turns, and honestly, if ‘battle of wills between Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti’ doesn’t sell you in and of itself, then why am I even pitching this to you. Speaking of less than ethical business practices, do also check out StartUp, which has a lot of great performances (amongst others Martin Freeman playing a chillingly ice-cold-but-fraying federal agent) and a relatively fresh plot. The pilot has a laughably high amount of sex scenes, but I promise you, you don’t have to suffer through that many again for the rest of the season combined. And the show is really well worth it.
Finally, if you’re sick to death of drama characters who spell everything out and where you understand their every decision, try Jude Law’s The Young Pope. That show is weird. But usually not in the way you expect. Even after the season was over, I wasn’t quite clear on what was going on. Maybe a slightly less hearty recommendation than those other ones, but … if you like dramas that require you to think and pay attention and maybe have conflicting feelings about virtually everything that happens on screen (and for it all to be set in gorgeous Vatican scenery), this should not remain obscure. So I’m mentioning it anyway.
My first pick is also my wife’s first pick, so I’ll save that one for last. Building the tension and all that.
My wife’s third pick is one I’m happy I get to spend some time selling, as it’d likely have been my own fourth spot if I made one: Preacher. (For the record, her potential fourth spots were Angie Tribeca and The Expanse, which I’ve already pitched above.)
Now, it’s been ten years since I read the graphic novels. At the time, my impression was positive, but unenthused. My wife has not read them at all (though is now perhaps rather likely to, as she loved the series). As far as I’m concerned, though, this adaptation has knocked it out of the park. The first season is more of a prequel (though is also adapting elements from the first volume of the comic series), so it still remains to be seen how they handle the overindulgences and over-reliances of the grotesque and its ever diminishing shock value that were at the root of most of my issues with the source material. But for now, I’m loving it. While the season was airing, every new episode was a highlight of that week for us. So, for the uninitiated, what’s it about? Well, small time crook Jesse has returned to the small town of Ratwater where his late father used to be the preacher, and is trying to take his father’s place. He’s not having much success, and his long-time girlfriend showing up to try to rouse his bad boy antics back up doesn’t help matters. Nor does an Irish vampire who sort of charmingly stumbles into his life (and no, this isn’t a vampire show). The show plays as a mundane drama at first, and only slowly over the course of the season lets focus slide over to the more supernatural elements. It works — there’s action, there’s drama, there’s humour, there’s grotesque horror (though not so much that it loses its impact on me), and there’s even some philosophy if you want to look for it.
Speaking of quirky dramas (albeit one that has absolutely nothing tonally in common with Preacher), Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is a delight. Doesn’t quite suck you in like the shows that have actually made our lists, but it’s funny, clever, charming and (unsurprisingly, considering it is — very loosely — based on a Douglas Adams property) somewhat Whovian. I’m lead to understand the previous adaptation from a few years back was much more faithful to the novels, but if you can view the series as a zany romp in its own right, Dirk Gently is hereby warmly recommended, even if it didn’t quite make either of our lists.
My wife’s second place pick is a great thriller miniseries called The Night Manager, starring the ever-wonderful Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie (putting Mr Laurie in this blog post with two thrillers this year, and the only actor to be name-dropped twice). Intense and captivating.
I personally tend to favour longer-running stuff over miniseries (the way I would a novel over a short story) as my personal preferences pick character development and long, complicated arcs over the elegance and emotional punch of a short, intense ride. So while excellent, this would not have made my list. I’m glad she put it on hers, though, because it’s truly worth the watch.
Finally, the big winner. Yeah, I know you know. Everyone knows. We’ve not yet seen Stranger Things, the other immense breakout hit of the year, but that caveat aside, the pick has to be Westworld. That show had the best first season I’ve seen since … I don’t even know. Probably something amazing like Deadwood or Battlestar Galactica or thereabouts. I saw most of the twists coming, and didn’t mind (they’re that satisfying), and there were still a half-dozen I didn’t see coming until right before the reveal (they’re that many). This (like most shows I really like, let us be honest) is a series that requires you to sit up and pay attention every moment that passes. But it is more than that. It is beautiful (and horrifying) both visually, thematically and even musically. My wife’s been playing the score on Spotify nearly daily for two months now.
I’ve no idea if the second season can ever live up to what they’ve put out this year. Violent delights have violent ends, and all. But even if it’s just half as good, it’ll be among the best shows next year, too, for sure.
What are you still reading this for? Go (re-)watch Westworld.
For the record, these are the new 2016 shows we’ve seen (or at least checked out) this year that I didn’t already mention in the post. Some of them are decent, some quite good, a few a little underwhelming, but none of them quite made the lists and are just mentioned now so you have some basis for what I’ve been comparing the winners against:
The Chronicles of Shannara, Colony, The Good Place, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Marvel’s Luke Cage, Of Kings and Prophets, Timeless.
And these are the new series that I haven’t yet seen but would like to and hopefully soon will: Goliath, The Magicians, Mercy Street, The Night Of, The Path, Stranger Things, The Tick, Van Helsing.