In the realm of problems that aren’t really problems, “too much good TV” is the one that consumes our nights (and our DVRs). Because there was so much to choose from, what was a 25-show list last year and a 25-show list when we started our rankings for 2016 has now ballooned up to 30. With over 400 scripted television series across the last 12 months, we wouldn’t have struggled to fill an even longer list, as you’ll see from the also-rans at the end. And this is all in an off year for past favorites “Fargo,” “The Leftovers,” “Master Of None” “Marvel’s Jessica Jones,” and “Rick And Morty.”
What’s most surprising about this year is the dominance of comedies, even as we as a culture struggle to agree on exactly what makes a comedy. Hourlong shows like The CW’s “Jane The Virgin” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” often pack in more than double the laughs of their 30-minute counterparts, while no one would classify the half-hour episodes of “The Girlfriend Experience” alongside “Silicon Valley.” Even though “Atlanta” is a comedy at heart, its voice sets it apart from everything else in the genre.
Our much-discussed favorite shows are below, ranked in an order that would’ve caused blows were we fighting men and women (or in the same zip code). With this many great series, we couldn’t include every show that we watched and loved, so let us know in the comments which shows would’ve made your list. Some mild spoilers below.
30. “The Night Manager”
Based on a John le Carré novel, this BBC/AMC miniseries wasn’t subject to the type of scrutiny given to intricate puzzlers like “Westworld” and “Mr. Robot.” Instead, while “The Night Manager” has substance and the pedigree to earn the attention of premium TV viewers, its spy story scratches the itch for well-made, pleasurable shows with its gorgeous international settings, a suave performance from Tom Hiddleston and an enjoyably villainous one from the always-on Hugh Laurie. Looking at Hiddleston and those beautiful locales would have been enough for most viewers, but the plot is fascinating as well: Hiddleston’s Jonathan Pine is a current hotel manager and ex-soldier recruited by Angela Burr (Olivia Colman, gender swapped from the source material) to infiltrate Laurie’s arms dealer’s operation. “The Night Manager” serves as one of several 2016 small-screen showcases for international treasure Colman, along with “Fleabag” and “Flowers,” but we’d be remiss if we didn’t call special attention to Tom Hollander’s Corky, who’s oily and desperate and utterly compelling. The spy drama also earns points for opting for a short, satisfying narrative that wraps up in just six episodes, leaving the audience wanting more. —Kimber Myers
29. “Lady Dynamite”
In good comedy, laughter and sadness sit alongside each other, but it takes great comedy to show that they both originate from the very same place. Fans of veteran comic Maria Bamford‘s querulous, quavery persona were already aware that her disarmingly girlish exterior was deceptive, concealing a steely streak of self-awareness so withering it often verges on the surreal. But that deception was fully unmasked, and reveled in, in her heavily autobiographical, incredibly revealing, legitimately bonkers “Lady Dynamite,” which stars Bamford and is co-created by “Arrested Development” maven Mitch Hurwitz and “South Park” alum Pam Brady. The show is almost alarmingly inventive, split into different timelines, peppered with a weirdly eclectic slate of cameos (Mira Sorvino, Jenny Slate, Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Missi Pyle and not one but two Supermen in Dean Cain and Brandon Routh), and ripping the merciless hell out of Bamford’s showbiz career and the down-in-the-mouth anti-glamour of her everyday lifestyle. But what makes it more valuable still is that above and beyond the struggling-comic schtick, which has become a familiar staple of cable comedy, Bamford’s show offers an uncompromised and unromanticized portrait of her struggles with mental illness. Transcending the insider jokes and showbiz satire of many of contemporary shows, it’s a brilliantly spiky showcase that is never afraid to go rawer, truer, weirder and funnier. —Jessica Kiang
28. “The Crown”
What do guns, blood, high-octane action, head-spinning plot twists and parlor-trick drama techniques have in common? None of them play any big parts in “The Crown,” and television in 2016 has been all the better for it. The same team that brought us “The Queen” now zeroes in on the early life of Queen Elizabeth (beautifully portrayed by Claire Foy) as she juggles the unimaginable responsibilities of her royal position with being, well, human. With a husband feeling snubbed, a younger sister throwing fits of jealousy, the ghost of her late father looming over her, and her bouts with traditionalist misogyny as the most powerful woman in her country, Elizabeth has her work cut out for her, and creator Peter Morgan smartly never resorts to engineered dramatics to keep the show alive. The production that breathtakingly transports you back to the mid-20th century (at a regal $135 million, it’s Netflix’ most expensive show evah) and John Lithgow as a cranky, eternally endearing Winston Churchill would have been more than enough to sustain it, but the way it ever-so-slightly toys with melodrama while keeping aristocratic conflicts feeling organic and down-to-earth does a capital job alone. Add to that a brilliant script and refined performances all around, and “The Crown” always ends up winning. Naturally. —Nikola Grozdanovic
27. “London Spy”
Finding a new take on the spy genre is a tricky thing, given how many examples we’ve seen over the years, and how easy it is for a new take to feel familiar. But “London Spy” did it with real aplomb. Penned by “Child 44” author Tom Rob Smith, and directed impressively by Jakob Verbruggen (who just replaced Cary Fukunaga on “The Alienist,” and is clearly set for similarly big things), it sees London club kid Danny (Ben Whishaw, getting to do more espionage than in “Spectre,” where he basically hid in a cupboard) fall in love with a young man (Edward Holcroft) who is murdered, and then turns out to be a spy. The non-heteronormative love story at its center was refreshing enough, but it’s in the tone of the show, which melds genuinely well-plotted thrills with an artsy, woozy, melancholy tone, that it really feels like it’s breaking new ground. With a tremendous and expansive supporting cast as well — Charlotte Rampling, Adrian Lester, Jim Broadbent and Mark Gatiss being among the highlights — its pleasures run deep. Here’s hoping for a second run at some point. —Oliver Lyttelton
26. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”
On paper there’s no reason why this series ever should have survived past its premiere. A dark musical comedy about a woman going through a mental breakdown, there’s enough going on in the series makeup to end up being more mess than success. Against all odds however, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” ended up being one of the best series on television and certainly one of the most addicting. Rather than losing steam in its sophomore season, the show has only grown in its scope, with catchy tunes and a leading performance by Rachel Bloom that manages to beautifully stray the line of manic, vulnerable and warm. With season two focusing more on Rebecca’s friendships and work, there’s room to believe that the show will take us on greater emotional rides this year. —Ally Johnson