The 10 Best TV Dramas of 2016
Photo Credit: FX
TV is everything. We may go to the movies for the latest blockbusters, the moving dramas, the funniest comedies, or even the spectacle that we simply can’t get on television. But we always go home, and our favorite TV shows are always there at our disposal, now more than ever.
The era of Peak TV is nowhere near finished, even though there’s currently a record number of original series in production. We can thank or blame Netflix for a lot of that, but the trend started over a decade ago on basic cable with the emergence of FX, AMC, and others as viable alternatives to HBO and the major broadcast networks. There’s no going back to those TV dark ages, and the expansion has given us many stories that we would have otherwise been denied.
Could a two hour movie and its sequels give us the grand fantasy of Game of Thrones in all of its complexity? Would audiences have been drawn into the mysteries of Westworld without the unfolding narrative of its weekly episodes? And would the complex characters across the TV landscape resonate onscreen without the hours and hours we’ve spent watching them grow and develop? There’s always going to be a place for films, but television is the narrative that lets creators truly explore their creations at length. It’s not always a pretty picture, but the greatest dramas always leave us eager to see the next installment.
Even with On-Demand at our fingertips and a number of streaming services, it’s incredibly difficult keeping up with even the most popular TV shows, and there were probably a few that fell between the cracks. However, the beauty of television is that some of these series that didn’t find an audience the first time may be rediscovered again in the future. For now, we’re focusing on our annual list of the 10 Best Dramas on TV. This was a more difficult year to pin down, since over half of the shows on last year’s list either failed to repeat, didn’t air new episodes, or simply ended in 2015. As a result, it’s quite a different list this year.
Of course, all opinions are subjective. This list represents our choices, but we’re always looking to check out the next great TV drama. Feel free to share your choices in the comment section below!
10. THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY
Photo Credit: Ray Mickshaw/FX
In 2015, no one could have predicted that O.J. Simpson’s famous murder trial would become one of the best series of the year. Ryan Murphy isn’t exactly known for his subtle character portraits, and yet the first season of American Crime Story was unexpectedly gripping. Murphy and his collaborators managed to take all of the larger than life media personalities and humanize them. Even David Schwimmer’s Robert Kardashian was sympathetic, simply because he believably showed a more vulnerable side and some very easy to believe doubts about his client and friend.
There were so many great performances, but Sarah Paulson really stood out as Marcia Clark. And we can’t forget the strong turns by Sterling K. Brown, Courtney B. Vance, and even Cuba Gooding Jr. as O. J. Simpson himself. Gooding’s star has diminished in Hollywood over the last decade and a half. Hopefully this series reminded everyone of what he can do with the right material.
9. THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE
Photo Credit: Amazon Studios
The Man in the High Castle had a strong opening season, which was surpassed by the recently released second season. This year, the series introduced the title character and some of the questions that he represents, but the heart of the show was still with the core group of players from the year before. Alexa Davalos and Rupert Evans had particularly strong seasons as Juliana and Frank were driven in different directions. But Rufus Sewell’s Obergruppenführer John Smith is still one of the best villains on television. Smith is clearly a monster, and yet he is also refreshingly human. It’s almost as if the series dares the audience to feel sympathy for him at times before reminding us just who and what he really is.
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa also remained one of the series’ best assets for his quiet and thoughtful performance as Nobusuke Tagomi, a Japanese trade minister who dared to find his own path. This show is more than just an alternate world sci-fi tale. And at times, it’s hitting a little too close to home.
8. BERLIN STATION
Photo Credit: Epix
Berlin Station came out of nowhere, and it quickly rose to be among the best series of 2016. This was one of the first original series on Epix, and it’s been criminally ignored. Discovering this show was one of the greatest joys of the year, as it dived into the world of modern espionage with a little bit more realism than we’ve gotten on Homeland or 24. That’s not to say that it’s completely realistic with its occasional action, but it felt more grounded.
The series was particularly successful at using Richard Jenkins, Michelle Forbes, Leland Orser, and Tamlyn Tomita’s supporting characters and giving each of them an arc to play out over the season. But the real attraction was the cat-and-mouse game between Richard Armitage’s Daniel Miller and his frenemy, Hector DeJean (Rhys Ifans). That particular element may be missing from the upcoming season 2, but we’re looking forward to seeing where Berlin Station goes next.
Photo Credit: SundanceTV
Admittedly, we’re late to the party on Rectify. But that’s par for the course for this series. SundanceTV just doesn’t have the wide reach of other cable networks, but it did have the foresight to give Ray McKinnon’s series a home as it explored the ramifications of Daniel Holden (Aden Young) and his alleged crimes, while diving into the way it affected Daniel’s family and his hometown after his release from prison.
In only 30 episodes across four seasons, Rectify built up a fascinating cast of characters and a tightly controlled narrative that came to a satisfactory conclusion. That’s a rare feat, even in Peak TV!
6. STRANGER THINGS
Photo Credit: Netflix
Netflix executives have claimed that they knew Stranger Things would be a hit, but we doubt that they ever expected it to be the pop culture sensation that it became over the summer. The Duffer Brothers’ homage to all things ‘80s simply found a way to resonate with a wide audience and it featured some of the best child actors we’ve seen since Game of Thrones. We expect big things from Millie Bobby Brown and her co-stars.
Stranger Things also benefited from its short, eight-episode season, and the sense of discovery as new fans embraced the series. It’s going to be hard for the second season to top this one, but it’s something we’re looking forward to seeing in 2017.
Photo Credit: HBO
No show on TV had the hype that Westworld received in 2016. It was also reportedly a troubled production that faced delays and nearly missed this year altogether. Facing those odds, Westworld not only met its expectations, it exceeded them. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s collaborators created one of the most enticing new series of the year, and presented it in a mesmerizing way. It was so well done that it didn’t even matter if the internet quickly spoiled all of the show’s mysteries by correctly guessing where the show was going.
Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright may not have been the biggest names of Westworld’s all-star cast, but they gave the biggest performances as Maeve and Bernard. They were so good that they actually overshadowed Evan Rachel Wood and James Marsden, both of whom were also excellent this season. The slow descent of Jimmi Simpson’s William was also quite compelling, but Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris were in a class of their own. Westworld won’t be back until 2018, but it’s going to be missed next year. This may the Game of Thrones successor series that HBO has been so desperately looking for.
4. THE NIGHT OF
Photo Credit: HBO
When James Gandolfini died, his HBO comeback project, The Night Of, had to find someone to replace him. That would be intimidating for anyone. Yet John Turturro stepped into the role of attorney John Stone, and The Night Of was one of HBO’s triumphs of the year. Before audiences saw his turn in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Riz Ahmed headlined this series as Nasir Khan, a young man accused of a murder that even he wasn’t sure if he had committed or not.
While Stone’s attempts to defend Khan formed the heart of the series, The Night Of had its most unforgettable moments while tracking the transformation of Khan himself. It’s not clear if HBO is planning to revisit this series in the future, but if it’s just a single season miniseries then The Night Of will probably be remembered as a classic.
3. BETTER CALL SAUL
Photo Credit: AMC
Better Call Saul is not Breaking Bad. It could never be Breaking Bad. And yet, this series has re-contextualized Breaking Bad in a way that no one saw coming. Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman was the dark comic relief on Breaking Bad, but in this series, his earlier incarnation, Jimmy McGill is the heart of the show. Even as Jimmy, the future Saul has some of his darker impulses. However, Jimmy wears his heart on his sleeve in a way that Saul never could, which makes him infinitely more compelling. We know he can’t win, and yet Jimmy still earns our sympathy.
The second season gave Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut more of a spotlight, and that half of the show felt a lot more like its predecessor. More impressively, the series elevated Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler into a truly compelling lead in her own right, as she tried to navigate the chaos and destruction left in Jimmy’s wake. We also have to give a nod to Michael McKean as Charles “Chuck” McGill, Jr., one of the few villains on TV who doesn’t realize just what an a**hole he is to the people around him. Chuck lacks self awareness, but his unfolding vengeance against his brother has us eagerly awaiting the new season.
2. THE AMERICANS
Photo Credit: FX
The Americans was always a good series. But over the last few seasons, it’s become one of the greatest shows on television. It follows a pair of Russian spies, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), during the height of the Cold War…and makes them earn our sympathy! Not only that, it challenges the audience to still feel empathy for the Jennings even as we watch them commit murder and destroy lives in the name of their mother country.
This series mined a lot of drama out of Paige (Holly Taylor), the daughter of Elizabeth and Philip, who has become unwillingly involved in their double life. But the thing that elevated the fourth season was the absolutely ruthless way it resolved two of the series longest running subplots: the fate of Nina (Annet Mahendru) as a captive in Russia and the exposure of Martha (Alison Wright) as an initially unwitting spy for Philip and the KGB.
It’s only after four seasons that The Americans is finally getting some of the recognition that it’s due. The good news is that FX has already renewed the series for two more seasons to wrap up the show. Considering the show’s less than stellar ratings, that’s quite a gift for TV fans.
1. GAME OF THRONES
Photo Credit: HBO
Game of Thrones was the best TV drama of 2016. It’s also the reigning two-time Emmy award winner for outstanding drama, and it deserves to repeat again this year.
It’s all too easy to take this series for granted, and many critics do. But what this show has accomplished is nothing short of remarkable. This is television on a scale that we’ve never seen before, and not even Westworld comes close. Without a new novel by George R.R. Martin to light the way, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss still managed to outdo the earlier seasons in nearly every way. The Battle of the Bastards alone would have earned this show a place on this list, but the season finale was an even greater episode that set the stage for the final two seasons.
Even now, there are some television viewers who can’t see past the fantasy elements of Game of Thrones to recognize its extremely high quality. It’s their loss. But considering the extremely high ratings of this series, anyone who can’t enjoy it is definitely in the minority. All hail the King in the North!