The 13 Best New Shows of 2016: From The People Vs. OJ to Atlanta to Vice Principals and More!
Television keeps getting crazier and crazier. It seems as if every year we're talking about how it's the best year of TV yet. We certainly made such pronouncements last year, and at least in terms of new shows, 2016 gave its competition another run for its money. More than in previous years, it feels like a lot of shows on our list below were fully formed early on. It didn't matter if it was a sitcom, a drama or something completely different, shows on this list were so compelling so quickly that you're likely going to see a lot of them top overall best of 2016 lists, not just lists of new shows.
And considering that 2016 saw a record 455 scripted series, new shows simply don't have the luxury any more of those early growing pains anymore, not with so many other distractions across so many other networks and streaming services. With that in mind, we've designed a list of 13 shows that premiered in 2016 that are absolutely must-watch.
Note - Remember that thing about 455 scripted shows airing in 2016? Year, a lot of those were new shows, and I'm only just one guy, so there's actually a pretty long list of shows that I didn't get around to even sampling that could very well have made this list. Those shows are, among others, The Path, This Is US, Quarry, Outcast, The Crown, 11.22.63, Fleabag, Insecure, Preacher, The Get Down, and Horace & Pete. For some that might be a top ten list of best new shows all on its own, but like I said, I'm only one guy, and I recognize that I could very well enjoy all those show enough to put them on such a list. Nevertheless, we press on with our bet new shows of 2016!
13. Lethal Weapon - Fox
You've probably seen no shortage of think pieces about how we have an over abundance of unnecessary TV shows based on movies. And if I'm being honest, Lethal Weapon is pretty unnecessary based on those standards. How do you live up to one of the defining buddy cop franchises? Or even those ridiculous sequels from It's Always Sunny? Well, Lethal Weapon the TV show kind of does none of that. It's Lethal Weapon in name and in the fact that it stars a black cop and a white cop who reluctantly team up only. But that's sort of okay, because the show is pretty damn entertaining. Fox goes all out for the action and chase scenes, and the chemistry of the leads (Daman Wayans and Clayne Crawford) is as palpable as that between Danny Glover and Mel Gibson (at least on the scale of a network TV show). The main reason Lethal Weapon makes it on this list is because it never loses sight of what it's supposed to be; it's almost always fun, and that's exactly what I want out of a network procedural.
12. Love - Netflix
If it weren't for the last couple of episode of its first season, Love could have quite possibly been a lot higher on this list. For much of its ten-episode run, I believed its tagline; that it was supposed to be a "down-to-earth" take on dating. I believed its main characters; the nerdy-yet-relatable Gus (Paul Rust) and the troubled-yet-appealing Mickey (Gillian Jacobs). It worked well under such a conceit of a down-to-earth romcom but still working within the rules of the genre. But just like most movies that come out of the Judd Apatow camp, the idea of trying to convince us that what we're watching is different from what we're used to in the genre is nothing more than a distraction or, at best, a gimmick. By the end of the first season, it very much feels like a romcom, and to make matters worse, the show manages to make both main characters completely unlikeable, possibly even hateable. Maybe that's kind of the point, but it didn't make that latter part of the season any more enjoyable. Still, I have to say that much of the first season had me enthralled and I am down for more.
11. Stranger Things - Netflix
Here's the thing about Stranger Things. It's like 99% hype. I don't want to burst anyone's bubble, because it's still a good show and I have no problem including it on this list, but it's a scientific fact that the main reason you like it is because of the nostalgia. There isn't really anything wrong with that, especially considering it's finely-crafted nostalgia, but let's call a spade a spade here. That quality just doesn't match the hype level reached over the summer when the show became a surprise hit. But like I said, it's good nonetheless, and I admire its willingness to go places and not be afraid of what it is. Its creators, the Duffer Brothers, made an 80s style Spielberg movie in a 2016 landscape where that works best as a TV show on Netflix. The balance of nostalgia and production values works just enough to allow it to rise above some of the schlock that likes to pass itself as nostalgia porn these days. But listen, let's calm down about Stranger Things already, because it doesn't even compete with some of these other shows.
10. The Night Manager - AMC
The Night Manager is finely crafted spy miniseries. It has some of the best acting of the year (namely from the megastars that it managed to attract; Hugh Laurie and Thomas Hiddleston), and it's a fantastic audition take for both Hiddleston and Laurie to be the next James Bond and Bond Villain, respectively, but I feel like I've never had more to say about it than that. That being said, it's definitely worth a watch.
9. Luke Cage - Netflix
So far this list has felt kind of strange to me. Last year most of the top 5 was Netflix shows, in fact two of those were Marvel dramas. This year Netdlix has double the content but, spoiler alert, it won't crack the top 10 past this point. That's not to say I didn't enjoy Love or Stranger Things or other shows they had to offer, it's just odd that cable and even the networks managed to step up their game this year. But maybe it's diminishing returns. Take Luke Cage. If I'm being objective, it's probably just as good as the first seasons of Daredevil or Jessica Jones. I was just as excited for it going in, binged it just as quickly and I liked it a fair bit. It even suffered from many of the same problems the other two shows have, mainly the fact that it's probably 2 or 3 episodes too long and has some pacing issues. But it felt like more of the same, when what we should be expecting from these Marvel Netflix shows is four distinct styles of superhero dramas that will eventually sync up for The Defenders. Luke Cage had some phenomenal moments, and was pretty good overall, but it wasn't enough for it to place higher, and I'm not sure if that's because of the show itself or the fact that it's number three of four in a list of somewhat similar interconnected shows. Luke Cage still manages to pull off impressive feats considering all of that. Mike Colter is great, Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard play great villains, Rosario Dawson gets her meatiest role yet and the show feels arguably like the most comic book-y of the three. There's more to like than to hate in Luke Cage, I just don't feel like much of it was enough to love.
8. Designated Survivor - ABC
I'm not going to sit here and lie to you. Designated Survivor is a ridiculous show. The premise, the network TV level of acting, the constant barrage of twists that probably make M. Night Shyamalan and Damon Lindelof jealous. Yet even though it may occasionally strain credulity in that regard, the show has an almost impeccable balance between being a 24 style of show, full of twists and turns and high-octane action and intrigue, and a The West Wing style of show that's more thoughful. The latter style of show is more optimistic about the political process, as evidenced by the main character, Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland), thrust into this job he never fathomed having as the president of the United States after nearly the entire government is taken out in a terrorist attack. Kirkman is forced to be the kind of President Bartlett character The West Wing idealized, faced with seemingly insurmountable odds and a nation to constantly reassure. On the other hand, Sutherland is well-versed on the other kind of show DS often is, because he played 24's iconic Jack Bauer for well over a decade, sparking a genre of TV that made Designated Survivor possible in the first place. Those Jack Bauer moments come out every once in a while, not only when a seemingly ludicrous twist manifests itself every time a new layer of the conspiracy unfurls, but also whenever Kiefer unleashes his inner Jack and yells "damnit" or "sonofabitch" or "thank you" at someone. As someone who factors both 24 and The West Wing among his favorite shows, I can appreciate that, and recognize its place on the TV landscape.
7. Baskets - FX
Outside of maybe Stranger Things, Baskets was probably the show that came the most out of nowhere this year. An oddball dramedy about a sad clown starring Zach Galifianakis isn't exactly something I wouldn't expect from that comedian, it's the fact that it winds up being so much more than that logline that makes it so special. It's not just Galifianakis putzing around in clown makeup for ten episodes. In fact the show gets most of that out of the way in the premiere, before it takes a deep dive into concepts like happiness and depression, somehow managing to be even less accessible than that premise that probably turned off a great deal of people in the first place. What makes it even more surprising than that is how it extends beyond Galifianakis' tour-de-force as the titular Chip Baskets (as well as his twin brother Dale). The best character on the show is Christine Baskets, Chip and Dale's mom played by Louie Anderson, a performance so amazing it not only overcomes the fact that it's 90s comedian Louie Anderson playing a woman in a mumu, but it landed Anderson a much-deserved Emmy. And let's not forget Martha, Chip's monotone insurance agent/chauffeur who takes a lot of shit from the show's other characters and inexplicably wears a cast on her arm in every episode. Or Eddie, the owner of the rodeo where Chip works that very clearly isn't even actor. Or Penelope, Chip's French wife who married him for a green card and who may or may not actually care for him. Baskets manages to build a well-defined world out of that ridiculous logline, all while managing to stay very much weird and inaccessible.
6. The Good Place - NBC
In the year of fully-formed new shows, there's an argument to be made about The Good Place being the most fully-formed from its very first episode. The top 5 shows ahead are ostensibly "better", but consider the fact that all those shows have had full seasons to air, while The Good Place took a midseason break after episode 9 and still managed to advance its plot pretty far along. That's brave for such a high concept show that we went into with questions about sustainability. In case you've missed it, The Good Place is a show about the afterlife; basically heaven, where the best people go and get matched up with their soulmates and get to do obnoxious things that they love for the rest of their lives. The only problem is that the main character, Eleanor (Kristen Bell), doesn't belong there. It's unclear if she's a bad person, but she doesn't feel as if she belongs in The Bad Place, and she's at least a good enough liar to pass off as a good person, at least until she's discovered before the midseason break.
But I'm not only rewarding The Good Place for being confident in its first nine episodes. It's also quite hilarious, thanks to the vision of its creator Mike Schur (Parks & Rec) as well as a great cast of both well-known actors like Bell and the incomparable Ted Danson as the naive and infallible creator of this afterlife, as well as relative unknowns that round out the cast with characters that are among the best of the year, like the afterlife's living Wikipedia Janet or Eleanor's fellow non-Good Place intruder Jianyu. Plus of all the sitcoms on this list, or frankly of most that aired in 2016 at all, The Good Place probably has the most jokes-per-minute of any of them. All of this, need I remind you, accomplished over just half a season.
5. Vice Principals - HBO
In many ways I feel as if this list encompasses not only what's great about the state of TV right now, but where TV could be going in the years to come. This list feels pretty well-rounded between sitcoms and dramas, miniseries and ongoing shows, the increasingly impressive and growing budgets of big-time cable and streaming dramas, even the new limited-series approach where the cast and plot changes every year. But there's nothing on this list that I arguably want more of than what Vice Principals is. And what Vice Principals is is ostensibly what was once an idea for a movie that recognized it would work better as a short-run TV show. We went into Danny McBride and Jody Hill's latest offering knowing it would only last two seasons, and left convinced that this is what made it work. Sure it's a shame that after season two, it'll be over, but it also means that creators like Danny McBride can keep creating ideas like this without being limited by other the constraints of a movie or the demands of a show that needs to last many seasons.
In any case, that's only a concept. The show still needs to be good, and Vice Principals is definitely that. The premise is simple, it's a show about two vice principals (McBride and Walton Goggins) competing against one another for the main gig at a school after their boss retires. They soon have to team up to take down the replacement principal, in what quickly and continuously escalates to newer and crazier heights. This show has the balls to go places, impressive and hilarious places. Goggins' character, Lee Russell, is amazing, delivering some of the best and most specific insults you'll hear out of any show, often at the expense of his Korean mother-in-law, or McBride's Neal Gamby, or viciously towards the new principal, Belinda Brown. The insults, the crazy set pieces, and the finality of it all make Vince Principals a great show and something I hope more creators have the gall to try and do in the future.
4. The Night Of - HBO
The Night Of is probably the most damning portrayal of the post-9/11 American criminal justice system. In procedural fashion, it shows us the downfall of a Pakistani-American family, specifically that family's son, Naz (Riz Ahmed), who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when a girl he has a drug-laden one-night-stand with winds up murdered right next to him. Naz goes to through the system, a system which puts his relatively poor family at a disadvantage (even more so than you'd imagine they would be as brown people living in New York after 9/11, now a family with a kid whom the public is more than willing to paint as a murderer as well). In the cruelest of irony, Naz winds up committing more crimes while in the system than he did when he was out of it. We find out that he's not necessarily the cleanest, nicest buy in school that we thought he might be, we find out that he's troubled, even, but New York's unforgiving criminal system only makes things worse for him, because it's a system that exposes him to really bad people like Michael K. Williams Freddy, a guy who's murdered so many times he doesn't care how many more offenses get added to his record so long as he's comfortable on the inside.
Another one of The Night Of's great, unique characters is John Turturro's John Stone, the lawyer that takes up Naz's case when no one else would, similarly to Naz's case in a right time, right place scenario. John is essentially a sad sack, riddled with eczema and impotence and cat allergies and barely scraping by, but obsessed with helping Naz even though he has no business taking up that case. John Stone is not only an incredibly compelling character, he's a microcosm of what New York is, which fits right in with the idea that this show is supposed to be a timepiece about American crime and justice in the 21st century. Even more impressive is that they pulled off this character, considering it passed through the arms of James Gandolfini before he passed away and then Robert De Niro, two actors who are absolutely nothing like John Turturro.
3. Atlanta - FX
Atlanta is the next evolution of the genre that Louis C.K. created with Louie. Not strictly a comedy, autobiographical or otherwise, these kinds of shows have become a platform for auteurs to innovate and share what is truly art in a visual medium, as pretentious as that may sound. Donald Glover gets this, and unlike C.K., who had to scrape by for several seasons on minimal budgets as he was innovating a whole new genre of television, he has the support of FX visionary John Landgraf, who encourages the kind of weirdness that comes with this sort of thing.
The way Glover runs with the freedom he's given is by making Atlanta about pretty much everyone except for himself. His character, Earn, is ancillary most of the time. If it's not about his cousin, fledgling rapper Paper Boi, his friend Darius or his on-again off-again girlfriend and mother to his child Van, it's about the city of Atlanta. And, again, I know that sounds pretentious, but the end result is anything but. Glover manages to make it feel down-to-earth and real even when the show takes stabs at absurdity, like when an entire episode is a fake black talk show (complete with fake commercials that could easily double as Chappelle Show sketches). Stuff like that makes Atlanta brave and completely original even though it's totally a follow-up to something that Louis C.K. has already paved the way form.
2. Westworld - HBO
Westworld is a proof of concept. It's HBO's attempt to show us that Game of Thrones was not a mere fluke. That high production values and big time actors can give us the equivalent to a movie blockbuster on the small screen. It's probably save to say that the experiment worked. Not only was the first season of Westworld fantastic, but it was a both a critical and commercial success, with more people watching it than the early seasons of GOT, an impressive feat at a time of waning TV ratings.
But no one should really be all that surprised. Not only did the show have A-list caliber actors in the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jefffey Wright, James Marsden, Jimmi Simpson and Ed Harris, among many others, and a built-in premise from the Michael Crighton movie it's based on (a western theme park where robot hosts slowly and methodically grow murderously out of control), it also had the brain trust of Jonathan Nolan and his wife Lisa Joy allowing that old but admittedly ahead of its time concept from the 70s to be thrust forward into the 21st century. In the 70s robots were a cool sci-fi concept. Now artificial intelligence is a real thing that we should probably be frightened of, and Nolan and Joy frame that alongside modern concerns like any good science fiction story should. In many ways, Westworld is an extension of ideas that Nolan was only able to toy with during his time on Person of Interest. Now he can run with them, and do so with a gigantic budget and huge A-list actors and the attention of the world.
Season 1, which, by the way, ends on a brilliant master stroke of storytelling which subverts traditional narratives and what we've come to expect from how TV stories are presented to us through the use of multiple time frames and character perspectives and expert use of unreliable narratives, is only the beginning of what this show has to offer, and Westworld is already one of our favorite shows on TV.
1. The People Vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story - FX
For all the fully-formed sitcoms and high budget dramas TV introduced us to this year, and even for the vast majority of existing shows out there, nothing gave me more pure unadulterated joy than The People Vs. O.J. Simpson. It was realistic, ridiculous, over the top and grounded all at the same time. It recreated events than anyone who was self-aware 20 years ago would still have etched into their brains, yet made those events feel new, innovative and massively entertaining. It even used those events to ask legitimate questions about race and even sexism that still haven't been solved 20 years after they were prevalent in O.J.'s case.
And what's crazy is that now, nearly a year after The People Vs. O.J. aired, I'm still mystified over how they managed to pull it off. This is a show that had no right to be anywhere near as good as it was, yet every week I found myself excited for what new aspect of the case the show would tackle, for the grandstanding and Emmy reel-padding the ridiculously stacked cast would be doing this week in whatever probably fake monologue the writers had cooked up for them. The show was even undermined by co-creator Ryan Murphy every chance he got. There's a point in the finale where he does a rack zoom on a cake, and it's somehow terrible and amazing at the same time.
I suppose it's a line that the show toes. A line that allows it to be serious when it needs to be, but also over-the-top and self aware the rest of the time. What other show can have a pitch-perfect Marcia Cross portrayal for the ages on the part of Sarah Paulson, an amazing Chris Darden portrayal from from Sterling K. Brown, yet also comical portrayals of the likes of Robert Kardashian, Robert Shapiro and even OJ himself from David Schwimmer, John Travolta and Cuba Gooding Jr., respectively. Then Courtney B. Vance in arguably the greatest master stroke of casting and acting of all time as Johnnie Cochran. These actors portray real-life people but make them their own, make them larger-than-life as they very well should be, all while the show gives us everything we've ever wanted from them and this situation which ostensibly shaped the 90s.
American Crime Story is not only the best new show of the year, it's the best thing that aired on TV in 2016, and I'm still not sure how they managed to pull that off.