Spencer Wright ’20 / Emertainment Monthly TV Staff Writer
2016 will be defined by many historical events, some of which will surely be divisive. But reflecting on the past year doesn’t always have to be glum, as television reached new creative heights this year. From new shows bursting onto the scene to returning favorites making creative improvements and achievements, these are the top 10 shows from 2016 that made history in the best possible way.
10: The Good Place
One of only two new shows that premiered in 2016 to be on this list, The Good Place is the bubbly younger sibling of comedic classic, Parks and Recreation. Created by Mike Schur– the man behind Parks – The Good Place immediately finds its footing and comedic voice, and takes off running. Within the first ten episodes of the series, the show accomplishes what some shows can’t in several seasons: the quirky and diverse cast of characters are developed to be relatable and sympathetic; the mythos of the unique plot is questioned and dissected; and themes of life, death, change, and the differences between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are graciously explored. The lightning-quick wit of the dialogue and sight gags are evidence of the superb quality of writing, and allows for displays of comedic genius from the talented ensemble cast. (Check out the full video review here!)
Saint: D’arcy Carden as Janet. As a Siri-like automaton, D’arcy Carden steals every scene she’s in with her hilarious animatronic reactions to human behavior, and embeds Janet with enough humor and touching sympathy to make viewers forget she’s just a robot. Thank you, Saint Carden.
9: House of Cards, Season 4
A corrupt politician and his conniving team of aides fight to infiltrate the American democratic system and retain his spot at the top of the food chain. Though it bears a disturbing resemblance to the 2016 Presidential election, this is actually the captivating plot of House of Cards’ fourth season. Following a third season that was dominated by slow pacing and angst in the place of sincere drama, the fourth season was extremely refreshing and revitalizing, as Frank and Claire unite to complete their villainous plot of American domination. As Claire’s personal past comes back to haunt her, multiple enemies ranging from reporters to past allies converge on Frank at once, and a terrorist group wreaks havoc on the Presidential election. House of Cards pushes each of its corrupt characters to their respective limits, hurtling the country and democratic process towards hysteria in the process. With a sense of intense anxiety cultivated throughout the entire season, the fourth season creates new complexities and conflicts and resolves them in morally-disturbing ways, thus returning the show to the enthralling greatness it was in earlier seasons.
Saint: Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood. Though it may seem redundant to credit Kevin Spacey as being an incredible actor, this season of House of Cards reaffirms his talent, as Spacey imbues Frank with more depth, venom, and malice than ever before, making Frank a truly terrifying villain. Thank you, Saint Spacey.
The aesthetic of throwback styles and late-20th century camp is a common trope in today’s artistic world, but never has it been done more successfully than Stranger Things. While the show excels at nostalgic and brooding aesthetics, the real magic of Stranger Things is the lovable assembly of characters, fronted by a group of incredible young actors, and the genuinely mystifying plot. Thanks to the brilliant writing and acting, viewers are quickly enamored with the show with an enthralling mystery surrounding the disappearance of a young boy and the appearance of a deadly monster of a different world, making the binge of the short first season easy and enjoyable. Though questions still abound after finishing the first season, they feel secondary to the arcs of the rich characters, a refreshing change of quality from typical shows of this genre. Stranger Things was a bona fide cultural phenomenon in 2016, and after finishing the first season, it’s clear to see why.
Saint: Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. Winona Ryder may be the talented veteran star of the show, it is Millie Bobby Brown as the haunted yet fragile young girl who steals Stranger Things, making audiences simultaneously feel protective and suspicious of her mysterious character. Thank you, Saint Brown.
7: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 2
2016 might not have been the best year for the character of Kimmy Schmidt, but it was certainly an incredible year for her show. In its second season, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt elevates the optimism, quirk, and rapid-fire wit while focusing on one incredible aspect: character growth. Titus, a breakout star in the first season, explores and actively pursues his dreams of being a star while adjusting to life with a boyfriend; Jacqueline leaves behind her life of luxury in the challenging pursuit of justice for her Native American heritage; Lillian questions if her days of activism are over; and Kimmy begins to unravel, unveiling how much the bunker truly affected her. Those examples may sound intense, but they are all handled with the usual absurdity of the first season, making this season a richer well of emotion. It is a stronger, deeper, and more thoughtful Kimmy Schmidt, all while retaining the hilarious antics audiences have come to love.
Saint: Carol Kane as Lillian Kaushtupper. In the 2nd Season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Carol Kane gets to showcase how serious Lillian is about her seemingly-zany modes of social activism, flexing not only her comedy chops but her muscles of empathy as well, as Kane makes it impossible not to admire and laugh at the “crazy old woman”. Thank you, Saint Kane.
6: Bates Motel, Season 4
Bates Motel has, since it began 3 years ago, been credited as an intriguing slow-burn thriller, focusing on build-up to the Psycho events the show is based on. In its fourth season, that build-up reaches its climax, transitioning the show from slow-burn thriller to blazing character drama. With Norman finally slipping into his persona of his Norma more frequently, Sheriff Romero’s relationship with Norma growing stronger, and Dylan’s leaving of his family to be with Emma, the show hurtles towards the finish line and pushes the boundaries of its disturbing characters to their limits. Most notably, Norman snaps in the fourth season, simultaneously horrifying and evoking sympathy from viewers who’ve watched the slow degradation of the tortured young man for years. This season is the payoff for years of intense character building, and it certainly pays well.
Saint: Freddie Highmore as Norman Bates. Though it is the moment the entire show has been building towards, viewers were still shocked and saddened to see how deep Norman fell into his psychopathy in Season 4 of Bates Motel, made all the more impactful by Freddie Highmore’s layered, tragic performance as the deeply confused and neglected psycho. Thank you, Saint Highmore.
5: How to Get Away with Murder, Season 3
In a show already defined by crazy twists, hook-ups, and deaths, it seemed impossible for How to Get Away with Murder to continue to surprise and captivate in its third season. The opposite prevailed, however, as the show escalated its intensity with a ghastly death and the development of nearly all of its characters. Crafting the season around the mystery of which main character perished in a blaze at Annalise’s home- tagged the “under the sheet” reveal- influenced a season rife with anxiety, as each episode gradually revealed one character who wasn’t dead. Most importantly, each character is given opportunities to grow in the midst of the drama-heavy season, making previously frustrating characters more sympathetic and understandable. Though the lives of Annalise and her unfortunate students continue to get worse in Season 3, viewers have only great things to rejoice over, as Murder soars to creative and narrative heights. (Watch the full video review here, or read the full written review here!)
Saint: Charlie Weber as Frank Delfino. Seemingly nothing more than a sexy beefcake, Charlie Weber allows audiences to see the true Frank in Season 3, and as Frank is forced to come to terms with his dark past and murderous present, Weber displays a riveting performance as a broken man who evokes both sympathy and fear from the characters and audiences. Thank you, Saint Weber.
4: The Americans, Season 4
Ask any fan of television and they will attest that it is beyond rare for a show to remain consistently exceptional across multiple seasons, essentially unheard of for a show to improve with each season. The Americans is the one rare example, as its fourth season propels its characters into the murkiest waters they’ve had to tread yet, resulting in a season packed with intensity, development, and drama. In Season 4, the Jennings are forced into their tightest corner yet, as their dangerous game of espionage reaches an intense climax from multiple points: Martha uncovers the truth about her husband, Paige grapples with the truth of her family’s background, and the Center makes deadly demands for the Jennings and Nina, still trapped in Russia. A saddening death, a gut-punching departure, and familial fighting are all trademarks of the fourth season, and with the continued, expert writing and acting that has defined The Americans for years, this climatic season feels genuine, well-earned, and above all, thrilling.
Saint: Alison Wright as Martha Hanson. While Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are the long under-appreciated stars of The Americans, it is Alison Wright as Martha who steals the show in Season 4, as Martha collapses under the truth of her husband’s life and is the most stinging evidence of how the Jennings’ work harms innocent people. Thank you, Saint Hanson.
3: Orphan Black, Season 4
Many TV staples are defined by the leading star of that show, quite a few of those shows are showcased in this very list. But no other show has that leading star playing, at any given moment, 6 different characters in one scene. This is the initial, awesome draw of Orphan Black, but in Season 4, audiences are reminded again that the show is so much more than the works of the supremely talented Tatiana Maslany. Returning to where the series began with the character of Beth, Orphan Black explores the depression and terrified anxiety that plagues the lives of the lovable clones, and begins to unravel some of the many mysteries that the show has been shrouded in since Season 1. Simultaneously fulfilling with the answering of puzzling questions, heartbreaking with the death of a family member, frustrating with the continued neglect of the clones’ needs by their creators, and mystifying with a dramatic cliffhanger leading into the final season next year, the fourth season of Orphan Black exemplified a character drama at its peak, reiterating that said character drama is especially successful when the marvelous Tatiana Maslany is playing all the characters.
Saint: Tatiana Maslany as Beth Childs. As stellar as the supporting cast of Orphan Black is, it truly is Tatiana Maslany’s show, and as such, it would be insane to overlook her performance as the ill-fated Beth in the fourth season, in which Maslany equips the previously-mysterious character with empathy, trauma, and eventual misery, making her demise all the more heartbreaking. Thank you, Saint Maslany.
2: Broad City, Season 3
The pop culture icon that is Broad City proved this year that in order to remain a cultural fixture, growth and change are a necessity. Not only did Broad City deliver on this in its third season, but talented stars Abbi and Ilana made it look easy, too. Adapting a more serialized format in Season 3, Broad City threw the titular broads further into the gutters of New York City, resulting in hilarious hijinks and surprisingly earnest character development. Though seemingly invincible in the first two seasons, Season 3 found Abbi at a crossroads in her romantic life, eventually hurting two people she deeply cares for, and found Ilana shedding her zany exterior to showcase genuine distraught following a surprise breakup. The lovable broads don’t stay down for long, and the season as a whole retains its tone of wild hilarity, but the moments of sincere development in the two leading ladies is what propels Broad City to the second spot on this list, and reaffirms its spot as today’s leading comedic cultural icon. “Yas Queen!” indeed.
Saint: Paul W. Downs as Trey Pucker. Similar to Tatiana Maslany, the leading ladies of Broad City are clear stars, but it is the goofball Trey, played by Paul W. Downs, that deserves recognition in Season 3, as Downs adds a layer of lovable earnesty to the foolish gym-junkie, proving to audiences that the broads of Broad City wouldn’t have the crazy misadventures they have if it weren’t for the quirky people in their lives. Thank you, Saint Downs.
1: Orange is the New Black, Season 4
How to explain the powerhouse fourth season of Orange is the New Black? Powerful. Impactful. Heart-wrenching. Glorious.With a gigantic ensemble cast of immensely talented women, a brilliant writing team, and a plot that revolves around achingly honest current events, Orange has been a trailblazer since its inception a few years ago. In the fourth season, Orange perfects all of these components with a riveting and intense new arc that pushes the inmates to the brink as the new wardens rise to corrupt power. This compelling arc allows for the development of virtually every single character- including the unpopular Piper!- and the reaffirmation of how horrific the Prison Industrial Complex is. Though this season spends an unfortunately low amount of time dedicated to fan-favorite characters Sophia, Gloria, and Flaca, it is easy to overlook with the gracious abundance of development of minor characters, such as Martiza and Blanca. It is a darker season for Orange, especially with the climatic death of a beloved main character and the shocking cliffhanger ending, but it is one that excels in every way imaginable for a TV show: absorbing plot and storylines, sincere and interesting character development, and phenomenal acting from all. In a word, the fourth season of OITNB is perfection.
Saint: Danielle Brooks as Taystee Jefferson. Often the comedic relief of the bleak season, Danielle Brooks is a true talent who infuses both clever humor and gut-wrenching fury and despair into her bubbly character as Taystee, along with the other talented ladies of Litchfield, experience the hopeless leadership of the new wardens and the deadly ramifications of their rule. Thank you, Saint Brooks.