In the year 2016, the gods of Content sought fit to bless the planet with a torrent of media, in the hopes of distracting us from the relentless deluge of misery that was 2016. There were more TV shows than we knew what to do with, as prestige television came at the viewing public from literally every angle. Of course, some of those shows didn’t quite stick the landing, but it’s the holiday season; everyone knows it’s the thought that counts! For every Westworld, there was a Vice Principals, and for every Search Party, there was an Angie Tribeca.
I did not watch everything this year (and will address that in a later article), but these are my 10 favourite TV shows that I watched to (some form of) completion in 2016. So, like I promised, here are numbers four to one!
The best Robert Kirkman-inspired horror TV show right now is not The Walking Dead— although, to be fair, The Walking Dead isn’t the best anything. Rather, fans of Kirkman’s work should check out Cinemax’s Outcast instead, a show about a guy who exorcises demons by punching them. Doesn’t that sound awful; another horror-comedy in the vein of Ash vs Evil Dead or Stan Against Evil, except with even less self-awareness?
Outcast is a lot smarter than that. In Outcast, violence is a curse, the result of untreated childhood abuse coming home to roost. Kyle Barnes is a broken, deeply sad man, serving as the strongest argument for trigger warnings I’ve ever seen in television. He was only able to escape the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother by literally fighting back, so when he sees the same pattern appear later in his life, he responds the only way he knows how. As the season progresses, as Kyle begins to process his anger, he starts addressing his demons without violence. He gets smarter. Patrick Fugit’s Kyle may be one of my favorite TV performances of the year, a man who has long since written off suicide as an option but doesn’t really know how else to move forward.
There’s also the matter of Kyle’s partner in crime, the Reverend John Anderson. As the demonic infestation continues to spread across their small West Virginia town, Anderson believes he is being tested by God— and, in a manner of speaking, he fails. Philip Glenister plays Anderson with a wild-eyed fervor, a man who believes he is the last best hope for Christianity in the face of real demons. That intensity only increases when he starts to believe the invaders might not be demons after all. It may not be the most layered performance of the year, but it makes up for that with raw honesty.
The show would be higher on the list were it not for a subplot about Kyle’s adopted sister that goes on for too long and feels a little overwritten, but Outcast is still a clever horror show with a hell of a hook for Season Two. Don’t sleep on this.
You would like Outcast if: you like atmospheric horror, if you’re interested in stories about religion in a small community, if you like The Exorcist.
Best Episode: This Little Light
3) SmackDown Live!/ Talking Smack
Look. Okay. Look. If you’re at all interested in high-emotion, character-driven, longform storytelling with an instantaneous feedback loop between audience and actor, you should check out WWE. More specifically, if you want all that but well-executed, you should be watching SmackDown Live! and its post-show promo-fest Talking Smack. Especially if you like some live stunts. Because there are plenty of those. I didn’t fall in love with pro wrestling this year just on its admittedly slim merits, I dove headfirst into this world because I had just graduated college and was thoroughly unemployed. I had a lot of time on my hands, and I am personally thankful that wrestling turned out to be legitimately good.
I had a conversation with Absolver developer Pierre at PlayStation Experience this year, where he classified pro wrestling as “I fuckin’ hate you and I’m gonna beat you up!” Look, he’s not wrong on a surface level, especially whenever the terminally dull Brock Lesnar is involved, but there can be a lot more to wrestling— something SmackDown Live! realized fairly quickly. Look at my beloved boy Heath Slater, a man completely forgotten during the WWE draft, who desperately needed to win the tag team championship so he could provide for his family. Or Carmella and Nikki Bella, where a hot new starlet coming up from NXT was overshadowed by the returning Superstar.
Or look at The Miz and Daniel Bryan. The Miz was Daniel Bryan’s “mentor” during Bryan’s NXT (WWE’s developmental reality show, now turned network exclusive third brand) days, and their relationship quickly turned sour, leading to Bryan’s first championship win coming at The Miz’s expense. Flash forward years later, and Bryan is retired due to injury and the General Manager of SmackDown Live!, where The Miz is a major player. Their rivalry intensified during a killer Talking Smack segment, and Bryan has been a thorn in Miz’s side ever since. In response, Miz has stolen Bryan’s signature moves, taunting the GM with his signature Yes! kicks, almost thumbing his nose at the fact that Bryan can’t wrestle any more. Plus, the addition of Bryan’s high-flying moves have made The Miz’s matches even more exciting, making the business of plot resolution that much better.
It’s a simple story executed well, thanks to almost seven years of character work, told both through microphone segments and in-ring work. SmackDown Live!’s quality storytelling may not be unique to wrestling fans, but it’s absolutely worth seeing if you’ve had any cursory interest in WWE. SmackDown Live! is some of the most fun I’ve ever had in front of a TV.
You would like SmackDown Live! if: you like having fun, if you think long-form storytelling is the best thing ever, if you want to feel a surprising amount of emotional investment in a referee counting to three.
Best Episode: October 5, 2016
Network: Smackdown Live!, USA/ Talking Smack, WWE Network
2) The Path
Oh boy I love stories about cults. I love them so much. Every time The Path gave viewers a glimpse into the Meyerist religion, especially though a kid’s book (if you want to make me love something, have a creepy kid’s book that also doubles as world-building), I drooled all over my couch. I had to buy like five new couches over the course of my time with The Path. This show has everything I need to be happy.
Thankfully, as a bonus, The Path is also one of the most compelling dramas on TV right now, which I am allowed to say because I haven’t actually seen The Americans. Each character on the show has a distinct motivation informed by their backstory, all of which define their reactions to an event that will change what they fundamentally believe. Any fictional show about religion will eventually throw a curveball into the mix, forcing characters to re-evaluate the core belief system that defines their entire lives. The Path forgoes the “eventually” part, instead starting with the curveball even before the religion has been properly established. New information is indirectly tied to raised stakes in a brilliant subversion of mystery show structure, which means that even background information and exposition feels important. It’s the kind of structural change you would only notice if you watch a lot of TV, but it’s a great move nonetheless.
The Path is a show about heightened emotion, belief, and doubt, handling each theme with the sort of aplomb we expect from the highest levels of prestige television, thanks to the capable hands of its three central cast members— Aaron Paul as Eddie Lane, Michelle Monaghan as Sarah, Eddie’s wife, and Hugh Dancy as Cal Roberts. Each has their own intimate reasons for joining Meyerism, and each reacts to the truth of their existence in their own time, with their respective talents on full display. If nothing else, the myth that Aaron Paul’s role in Breaking Bad was just a fluke should be well and truly shattered.
You would like The Path if: you find cults interesting, if you miss Aaron Paul or Hugh Dancy, if you’ve ever struggled with your relationship to family.
Best Episode: The Future
1) You’re the Worst
If any TV show deserves to be lauded for exceeding expectations, it would be You’re the Worst, a show marketed as “terrible people telling it like it is!!!”, hiding a deeply personal and often melancholic reality. You’re the Worst is the funniest show on television, partially because of its dedication to visual humor, but it’s often the realest show on television as well— and not because of any cracks about Los Angeles traffic or “the sweater people.” The show never shies away from how deeply, inescapably sad its protagonists really are, proving time and time again that central couple Jimmy and Gretchen would sabotage themselves rather than accept happiness. Because then, at least, they can believe they ended it on their terms, before they got in too deep.
You’re the Worst regularly comes back to that well, and each time it feels honest, since each time it comes hand-in-hand with a relationship milestone. In the show’s third season, the milestone in question is the most insidious one of all— complacency. Jimmy and Gretchen are a couple now, and when Jimmy’s hated father finally passes away, Gretchen has to help him as he begins to crumple under the weight of all his unsaid words, all while going through her own problems.
That’s just one arc— the show also focuses on three other couples, all with their own unique problems and vices. In particular, Edgar, the army vet living with Jimmy & the emotional heart of the show, finally gets a romantic arc that feels worthy of his character, also taking the wheel during a series-best episode with almost no jokes but plenty of emotional release. In its third season, You’re the Worst regularly gives time to its extended cast, giving them lives outside of Jimmy and Gretchen’s orbit, and the show is all the better for it. If you didn’t crack up during the bit with Vernon’s podcast, then we must run in very different circles.
Even with the increased emphasis on the full cast, this truly was Chris Greere’s year, much as last year belonged to Aya Cash’s spectacular turn as a clinically depressed Gretchen. Greere’s Jimmy has always been just dweeby enough to offset his biting cynicism, but Season 3 let Greere cut loose into the insecurities powering Jimmy’s wit, best seen during Jimmy’s father’s wake, a scene that has to be the funniest and saddest television funeral I’ve seen since Nathan For You buried a fruit fly. As a writer with a shitty dad and sisters whom I despise, I can absolutely relate.
Much like the two previous seasons, You’re the Worst’s season finale provides closure for the character’s arcs, to the point where I could see it working as a full-on series finale— such is the nature of this show’s incredibly tight character work. But we won’t have to go long without You’re the Worst, as the TV show will be back for another year of complaining about Los Angeles. If this past season has been any indication, this show has a very bright future. Also, could somebody please check on Killian?
You would like You’re the Worst if: you want to watch the best show of 2016, if you like romantic comedies that actually portray an honest relationship & are actually funny, if you live in Los Angeles, if you like Spaced.
Best Episode: (3-Way Tie) The Last Sunday Funday / The Only Thing that Helps / No Longer Just Us.