Though it’s tempting to burn 2016 in effigy, the bright spot this year was television. Where else could a weary nation - its throats raw from arguing and its fingers exhausted from trading social-media insults - collapse on the collective sofa and find such reprieve?
I’ve never had a more difficult time trying to narrow my yearly picks down to just 10. For as long as it lasts, here’s to “peak TV” and its seemingly limitless offerings.
1. “O.J.: Made in America” (ESPN) A remarkable work of research and synthesis, Ezra Edelman’s 7 1/2-hour documentary is a powerfully persuasive essay on the subject of justice in America as it pertains to race. After 20 years of throwing up our hands at the mere mention of the O.J. Simpson trial and verdict (whether in exasperation or exultation), Edelman’s masterful handling of fact and context was the best thing on TV this year, notable for its deliberate, almost haunting sense of calm in a culture consumed by injustice.
2. “Veep” (HBO) Five seasons in (and with a new showrunner, too) it was easy to assume that this viciously sharp political comedy wouldn’t be able to compete with 2016’s real-life freak show of a presidential campaign. But “Veep” went for broke, plunging Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her brief presidency into a full-blown electoral college crisis, which made for the show’s funniest and most poignant moments so far - and a true companion piece to the times we live in. For what it’s worth, I’m still with her. (Selina, that is.)
3. “The Americans” (FX) The pivotal fourth season of this Reagan-era drama about a married pair of Soviet spies living in Northern Virginia (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) seemed intent on leaving viewers with no fingernails left to bite. Now that the show officially has two seasons left (and has finally gained the attention of more viewers), the anxiety level can only get worse as the FBI gets closer and closer to discovering our anti-heroes. Special shout-out (and a care package of American peanut butter) to Alison Wright’s Martha Hanson, wherever they sent her.
4. “Transparent” (Amazon) The accolades for Jill Soloway’s flawless dramedy are mainly for the journey of its main character, Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), as she explores life as a woman. But Season 3 broadened “Transparent’s” ambitious themes of identity within the Pfefferman family, dating to Maura’s parents’ escape from the Holocaust. This is no longer just a show about being transgender. It is also a profound, beautifully told story about the American Jewish experience.
5. “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” (FX) Who would’ve believed a year ago that two of the best TV shows of 2016 would have been about the 1994-1995 O.J. Simpson trial? Not me. But “People v. O.J.” instantly overcame viewers’ appetite for Ryan Murphy-style camp (John Travolta as Robert Shapiro?) and instead delivered an addictive work of thoughtfully structured re-enactment - aided greatly, of course, by standout performances from Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown as prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, as well as Courtney B. Vance’s commanding take on defense attorney Johnnie Cochran.
6. “Atlanta” (FX) Donald Glover’s dreamlike dramedy has an experimental and laid-back vibe; it can be wildly tangential and seem never quite finished. In a predominantly black Atlanta suburb, we follow Earn (Glover) as he attempts to manage the burgeoning rap career of his cousin and help provide for the child he has with his on-again/off-again lover. “Atlanta” isn’t quite the sharply focused work of social commentary that some viewers may have expected, but it’s far more impressive as an intricate mural of a community.
7. “Quarry” (Cinemax) This violent and morally ambiguous 1970s crime drama seemed at first like so much else in cableville, but “Quarry” is so masterfully crafted - and so rich in characters and memorable scenes - that it deserved a whole lot more eyeballs and attention than it got. Logan Marshall-Green won me over as Mac, a Marine who returns from Vietnam to his home town of Memphis and winds up working as a hit man. “Quarry’s” eight episodes build out an absorbing story, rivetingly told. I’m eager to see more, but there hasn’t been a peep from Cinemax about a second season.
8. “The Night Of” (HBO) A worthy answer to the question of what a typical episode of a court procedural (such as “Law & Order”) would look like if things were slowed to the relative speed of the real world’s justice system, giving viewers a chance to ruminate not only on the trial process, but also the utterly human dimensions of a murder case seen from all sides. “The Night Of” displays a refreshing directness (no subtextual riddles to solve or philosophical clues to debate here) and a measured sense of suspense. Plus, terrific work from Riz Ahmed as the murder suspect, John Turturro as his discount attorney and Jeannie Berlin as the prosecutor.
9. “The Crown” (Netflix) Lavish and engrossing, Peter Morgan’s 10-episode introduction to the young life of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II (acting somewhat as a prequel to Morgan’s 2006 screenplay for “The Queen”) is an Anglophilic TV watcher’s dream come true - and a pretty expensive dream at that, to the tune of $5 million or more per episode. Claire Foy and Matt Smith are excellent as the newlywed royals, but they’re no match for John Lithgow’s brilliant and belligerent ride as Winston Churchill, a lion in winter if there ever was one.
10. “Billions”(Showtime) The ads for this show made it look like one more tedious exercise in the “greed-is-good” genre of Wall Street-based dramas, but “Billions” came loaded with surprises, including dialogue that was densely, elegantly packed. It doesn’t hurt that half of it was being performed with great, gravelly expertise by Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades, a U.S. attorney who is an Ahab obsessed with harpooning a hedge-fund billionaire named Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis). Maggie Siff provides a strong anchor as Chuck’s wife, Wendy, who also works as Bobby’s in-house executive-whisperer. “Billions” is worth catching up on in advance of the Season 2 premiere in February.
And another 10, in case you wondered what almost made the list:
“American Crime” (ABC); “Better Things” (FX); “Fleabag”(Amazon); “Game of Thrones” (HBO); “Good Girls Revolt” (Amazon); “Insecure”(HBO); “Silicon Valley” (HBO); “Stranger Things” (Netflix); “This Is Us” (NBC); and “Underground” (WGN America).