I don’t know that I have much to say other than I watched a lot of TV in 2016, most of it was damn good, and increasingly this is because we are finally getting black TV that is for, by and about us.
So without wasting any more of your time, here are the 20 shows that I think are the best TV had to offer this year.
20. The Magicians – For my money, this show worked almost entirely because of Arjun Gupta as Penny.
19. Suits – The show finally made Mike pay for his crime and turned out its best season since season two.
18. Survivor’s Remorse – This show gets deeper and more slyly profound every season.
17. Fresh Off The Boat – Constance Wu, Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen kept me in stitches.
16. UnReal – Season two was messier than season one, but it was also much more ambitious and a beautiful, brilliant indictment of white liberalism’s limited ability to address race.
15. Insecure – One of the finest first seasons of a comedy in years and the best depiction of friendship on TV.
14. The Carmichael Show – Somehow, this show manages to not feel like work despite always being about something important.
13. Luke Cage – A perfectly cast show that found a way to make Luke Cage relevant in the 21st century.
12. The Good Place – High concept, lots of laughter. You can’t really ever go wrong with Kristen Bell.
11. Pitch – Smart, fun and filled with fascinating characters that make baseball compelling.
And the 10 best TV shows of the year…
10. American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson
It’s quite an accomplishment to tell the story of the most famous modern American court case in history and find a way to make it surprising and entertaining. But American Crime Story did it. And a big reason for that is that the show wisely decided to just tell the story through the characters at the center rather than try to impose a point of view on historical events. That objectivity allows everyone to become more than who we thought they were. It’s so good that even the obviously miscast Cuba Gooding Jr. and John Travolta don’t drag the entire series down.
9. Bates Motel
In this penultimate season, Bates Motel made good on its premise and finally showed Norman Bates’ rapid descent into madness. At every turn, Freddie Highmore rose to the challenge. He stepped into the center, took control of the show and never let go. It is a testament to everyone involved that you hope things don’t turn out the way you know that they will.
This darkly comic show managed to avoid melodrama at every stage and present something that felt like a tonal companion to Six Feet Under. What could have been a salacious expose of modern takes on Black religion turned out to be, smartly, a family drama set against the backdrop of the modern Black church. That distinction was critical to the show’s success. Plus – it gave two of our finest Black male character actors, Keith David and Gregory Alan Williams, their best roles ever.
7. Stranger Things
Stranger Things captured that pre-teen moment in your life when your best friends are your entire world, such that you would go up against shadowy government figures and a terrifying monster to get them back. But it’s really the sly updates to the 80s film template – including a young female character and a young black male character in key roles, for instance – that made this a pleasure to watch.
Finally, a slave story that tells a story about slaves who tried to escape bondage. We know from history this happened frequently, but this is rarely a story we tell. Underground takes it a step further and tells the story using the visual language of a heist film. Importantly, the style never gets in the way of the story. The little ways the show interrogated the archetypes we have come to associate with slavery are what made the show really work. And that’s why the hero of the first season turns out to be the head house slave left behind (played to perfection by Amirah Vann).
5. This Is Us
So much of diversity in TV is about plopping a non-White actor into a role that was written White (again – no such thing as raceless roles) and then acting as if that wouldn’t change anything in the story. Here the story is about what it means that this loving family has an adopted Black son. It colors (pun intended) every other story in the show without superceding or obscuring what’s most important to the other characters or how we are supposed to experience them as individuals. Kevin is who Kevin is because he had a Black brother who got more attention than he did. This Is Us is the first show of its kind to do this as well as it has and that’s been such a joy to watch. It doesn’t hurt that the ensemble has not a single weak link.
The funniest show on television by a very wide margin, Black-ish does a fantastic job of mining laughs from the class and generational divisions in Black families. It’s perfectly cast and performed, week in and week out. And, most importantly, it understands that you find the universal in the specific. This is a Black show. Its view of the world is Black and its characterization is shot through with Black culture.
3. Jane The Virgin
As far as I’m concerned, Jane the Virgin has never produced a bad episode. And that’s astonishing because of the multiple tones and styles, and the sheer size of the cast. But I think the show is able to balance everything because it treats every element of the show with care and sophistication. The telenovela elements are never just stylistic or tossed in haphazardly and the drama is always played straight and honest. It’s a clear-eyed focus and confidence that no other show on TV has or sustains with this level of consistent, buoyant quality.
2. American Crime
I didn’t like the first season of American Crime. I thought it was didactic and insincere. But with the second season, John Ridley figured out how to make a show that told a great story with important, relevant themes instead of a show that was trying to teach you something important about America. It’s also the only show in the last few years to treat rape – male rape, in this case – with sensitivity and clarity. And in Connor Jessup and Joey Pollari, the show had two young actors who bodied nearly every other performance on television this year.
1. Queen Sugar
I was not prepared for how good Queen Sugar was going to be. I read the book and wasn’t sure how it would translate to a TV show at all. But I should have known that Ava DuVernay would figure it out. This is a show that introduces its female lead (the powerful Rutina Wesley) waking up from a night of passion with a White man and then proceeds to show just how committed she is to Black people. This is a show where it introduces it’s second female lead (the flawless Dawn-Lyen Gardner) as the most put-together sister in the world and then breaks her world down around her. This is a show that introduces its male lead (the astonishing Kofi Siriboe) in a scene where he commits a crime and then proceeds over the course of the pilot to layer into him tremendous amounts of vulnerability. Queen Sugar knows what you think you want to see in a Black family drama and then proceeds to give you something else entirely: what you actually need to see. It’s the best TV show of the year and, yes, part of that is because it’s a singular event that we have never gotten before.