At the midway point of the year, we recently took a look at our favorite movies of 2016 so far. But unless you’re a total big-screen, 35mm purist, your favorite movies of the year only tell part of the story of your viewing —these days, the cultural conversation around quality filmed entertainment revolves just as much around TV.
Indeed, the era of peak TV continues, and barely a week goes by without a new show debuting on networks, cable channels or streaming services that demands attention. If you thought that the end of “Breaking Bad” or “Mad Men” meant that great TV was going to dry up, you were wrong, because there’s more of it than ever.
There’s a ton of heavy-hitters, both new and returning, to come (click here to read our Summer TV Preview), and we know you probably don’t need more TV recommendations, but it nevertheless seems like a good time to pick out the cream of the crop of 2016 so far. Below, you’ll find our favorite shows across the first six months of 2016 —including some that haven’t quite finished their run yet, but excluding a few that have only just started, including “Preacher,” “Outcast” and season 2 of “UnREAL” (those are all off to great starts, so look for them on our year-end list).
Take a look at our picks below and let us know what you’ve been bingeing of late in the comments. Some mild spoilers are ahead.
Probably the show on this list you’re the least likely to have seen (it’s on NBC’s online-only streaming spin-off Seeso, though it originally aired on Channel 4 in the U.K.), “Flowers” is a dark, distinctive treat that you should check out posthaste. Written and directed by the prodigiously gifted Will Sharpe (who broke out in the U.K. with the acclaimed film “Black Pond” a few years ago), it’s the tale of a run-down family in the British countryside: clinically depressed children’s book author Julian Barratt, his lovelorn wife Olivia Colman, would-be inventor Daniel Rigby and his twin Sophia DiMartino. The show is visually sumptuous (which is a relative rarity for a comedy) and comes across like the midpoint of “The Addams Family” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and similarly mixes tones and even form, equal parts traditional sitcom and Bergmanish tragedy. Its provocations sometimes feel a little bullheaded —Sharpe himself plays a caricatured Japanese character that seems to be actively courting controversy just because— but it isn’t like anything else on TV, and its cast, particularly the excellent Barratt and Colman, are tremendous.
24. “Jane the Virgin”
Saying this CW show is one of the best things on broadcast television seems like damning it with faint praise, but that’s how special “Jane the Virgin” is. It’s a drama that has educated viewers about immigration reform and the Bechdel test without feeling didactic, but it has no problem devoting ample time to Jane’s father Rogelio de la Vega (Jaime Camil) and his love for the color lavender. Season two finds Jane (Gina Rodriguez) acclimating to motherhood, rekindling her romance with Michael (Brett Dier) and going to school for creative writing, with plenty of telenovela-worthy events threatening to derail her normal life. Somehow successfully mixing sleep training and senior theses with long-lost twins and hostage situations, episode after episode of the show finds the perfect tone that keeps the audience entirely invested in Jane’s story. Rodriguez is worthy of her first-year Golden Globe win, and Camil’s performance is comic genius, but “Jane the Virgin” has a deep bench of actors who create characters to care about —Yael Grobglas playing Jane’s sometimes romantic rival Petra gets an expanded storyline in season two, while a special shoutout goes to Anthony Mendez, the series’ narrator who is as much a character as Rogelio.
23. The Last Panthers”
With gritty European dramas like “Borgen” and “The Killing” winning more fans over time, their influence has increasingly been felt —not just in remakes like “The Bridge,” but also in shows like “Mr. Robot” that borrow a certain mood and actors. But “The Last Panthers,” a French/U.K./U.S. co-production, might be the most effective hybrid of English-language drama and European sensibilities so far. Based on the real-life Pink Panther gang and penned by busiest-writer-alive Jack Thorne with the help of journalist Jerome Pierrat, it’s a multi-stranded look at a country-hopping Balkan gang of jewel thieves, the French cop tracking them (Tahar Rahim) and the insurance operatives (Samantha Morton and John Hurt) trying to recover the loot. It’s dense and ambitious stuff, strikingly directed by Johan Renck (“Bloodline”) and scored by Clark (with David Bowie’s “Blackstar” as the theme tune), and though it’s not the easiest six hours of TV you’ll watch this year, it might be some of the most rewarding (and makes a misfire like Netflix’s “Marseille” all the more disappointing).
WGN might be better known for “WWE Superstars” and infinite reruns of “How I Met Your Mother,” but recently, the network has made some tentative inroads into original programming, with “Manhattan” and “Salem,” which were followed in January 2016 by “Outsiders.” But the best yet is probably March/April’s “Underground,” a slave-rebellion period melodrama that strikes a convincing balance between modern prestige programming and old-school basic-cable soap operatics. Unencumbered by grandiose representational aims (“12 Years a Slave” it ain’t), “Underground” is free to pursue wildly improbable, historically dubious twists and turns, full of romance, betrayal and tragedy, delivering a highly entertaining, addictive watch. But it’s elevated by the quality photography and by the commitment of its cast, led by “Friday Night Lights” actress Jurnee Smollet-Bell and Aldis Hodge (MC Ren in “Straight Outta Compton“). Christopher Meloni, Clarke Peters and ‘Buffy”s Marc Blucas show up in support, while Amirah Vann is arguably the show’s breakout as the devious house slave who will stop at nothing to secure a better life for her children. The highest praise we can give is that we instantly went from wondering if this sort of Harriet-Tubman-Goes-To Downton-Abbey approach could work to wondering why on earth no one had done it before.
21. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”
With an oft-misconstrued title, a lack of recognizable actors and inclusion of multiple musical numbers per episode, this is a show that shouldn’t have worked. Star and co-creator Rachel Bloom was most famous for her music videos on YouTube (like a raunchy ode to Ray Bradbury), and the pilot she worked on with Aline Brosh McKenna for Showtime was shut down before making the transition to The CW. But what emerged last fall presented a unique voice with the bonus of offerings like “The Sexy Getting Ready Song” jazzing up each episode. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” begins with the grand gesture that usually comes in the third act of a rom-com as Bloom’s Rebecca Bunch follows her summer camp ex-boyfriend Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) from her native New York to West Covina, California, but this isn’t a fairy tale. Instead, Rebecca’s actions threaten to make her the villain of her own story, even as Bloom herself is entirely admirable. The show is often over the top: not just through its elaborate musical numbers, but in the emotions felt by the whole gang. Yet it still feels authentic and utterly delightful.