If my list of the best albums of the year revealed a troubling lack of ingenuity and excellence, then this list is the perfect tonic. 2016 has been a landmark year for TV. With behemoth’s like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead either winding down or losing focus, we are looking at a potential void to be filled on the small screen in the coming years. And boy were there some contenders to do just that in 2016.
Last year, I decided to include all TV shows, including those that were long established. To stop repeat inclusions, this list only includes new shows that came out in the last 12 months. Lets get down to business…
BBC’s Flowers is the brainchild of comedy writer Will Sharpe and features the better half of The Mighty Boosh in Julian Barratt alongside Olivia Colman and Sharpe himself. If you find a lot of comedy to be safe and uninspiring then Flowers is the show for you. With jet black humour combined with a love of the bizarre and an undercurrent of heartbreak, Flowers is not for the faint hearted. It is however, undoubtedly one of the most original British comedies in years.
For Fans Of: The League of Gentlemen, Black Books, Peep Show
9. The Night Of
Not enough people have seen the excellent BBC miniseries Criminal Justice but perhaps this HBO remake will draw more attention to the original show. Having said that, The Night Of is a brilliant adaptation in its own right. Riz Ahmed justifies his reputation as a rising star, Bill Camp is understated but brilliant and John Turturro is loads of fun as a scenery chewing lawyer in the vein of Saul Goodman.
While it was slightly over long and sometimes pushed the boundaries of believability, The Night Of was a chilling and compelling glimpse into the criminal justice system as a well as a fascinating character study.
For Fans Of: Making A Murderer, Criminal Justice, The Wire
8. The Night Manager
The BBC may come under fire (wrongly) for perceived political bias but it is still so valuable in terms of producing original, memorable and important art. The Night Manager was a stunning adaptation of John le Carré’s novel that managed to combine rip roaring action with laugh out loud comedy whilst still being sexy, stylish and original.
An all star cast featuring Hugh Laurie, Tom Hiddlestone and Olivia Colman (among others) sizzle and pop in the steamy scenes while also providing intense and brooding action. It is indicative of the quality of the Beeb’s output that this wasn’t even their best mini series this year.
For Fans Of: The Missing, Spooks, State of Play
Yet another flawless piece of art originating from the pen of horror maestro Stephen King, 11.22.63 is a classic ‘what if’ time travelling fable that sees James Franco attempting to prevent the assassination of JFK. Franco is always convincing as he tumbles further down the rabbit hole and Chris Cooper adds some gravitas to an already impressive cast.
It is so easy to succumb to silliness in the genre of fantasy but with JJ Abrams on board as executive producer and with an experienced cast, 11.22.63 goes down as one of the best new shows of 2016.
For Fans Of: The Man In The High Castle, Life On Mars, Fargo
The inclusion of HBO’s Vinyl may be a bone of contention for some as it received lukewarm reviews before being unceremoniously cancelled but I found Vinyl to be a mad stomp through the music scene of the 70’s. The Martin Scorsese produced show was a bit daft at times but crucially it was always fun and the excellent cast combined with the big money production values provided by HBO made for a solid combination.
Some people complained of misanthropic characters but as you will see with the rest of this list I wouldn’t personally say that is a negative…
For Fans Of: Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Better Call Saul
5. War & Peace
Russian literature from the 1860’s perhaps doesn’t scream mass appeal but the BBC adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic book was a surprise hit in the early part of the year. The third BBC production on this list not only featured a starry cast but also boasted beautiful scenery and imaginative direction to create a mini series that was almost flawless.
The cast compete with each other for top billing but Paul Dano and Adrian Edmondson particularly impressed in this compelling historical drama. Numerous story lines were brought together expertly by writer Jack Pulman in one of the years most classy productions.
For Fans Of: Bleak House, Downton Abbey, Sharpe
4. American Crime Story
A small screen adaptation of the astonishing OJ Simpson story was always likely to be controversial and, by extension, risky. Throw in the inclusion of a melting John Travolta and David ‘Red Ross’ Schwimmer and there was so much potential for this to go very badly wrong. This just made American Crime Story feel like even more of a success when it ended up being one of the most talked about shows of the year.
The eclectic cast did a brilliant job but it was the revolutionary script that made American Crime Story so important, turning a complicated landmark legal case into a commentary on the media’s attitude towards women, flaws in the juridical system and police violence against African Americans. In terms of pure entertainment, American Crime Story is perhaps the best TV show produced this year.
For Fans Of: Breaking Bad, Sopranos, The Night Of
There is no bigger indicator of how good a year it has been for television then the fact that Westworld was only the third best new TV show in 2016. Jonathan Nolan’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s book and film was the most intriguing show of the year as it managed to avoid revealing all its cards until the very end of its run.
Westworld once again proves that TV has now overtaken film on almost every level with the special effects being a match for anything produced in Hollywood this year. Effects alone aren’t enough however so it is handy that the stellar cast were always on form with Anthony Hopkins leading the way with an astonishing performance. I could happily watch Hopkins say ‘Bernard’ in his dulcet Welsh tones with that familiar twinkle in his eye for hours on end, so that combined with everything else Westworld had going for it, ensured an almost instant classic.
I spoke earlier about the void about to be left by the departing Game of Thrones. At the moment Westworld is the favourite to take that crown. Nearly 200 words and I haven’t even mentioned Thandie Newton or Ed Harris, both of whom are jaw dropping… If you haven’t watched Westworld yet, believe the hype. Go and watch it immediately. You won’t be disappointed.
For Fans Of: Rome, Game of Thrones, Firefly
2. Stranger Things
For all Westworld‘s plaudits, one show has dominated 2016 more than any other. Step forward Stranger Things. In this glorious 80’s pastiche, The Duffer Brothers have combined everything we loved about that golden age of cinema to produce something completely original, fresh and exciting.
I haven’t been so immersed in a TV show since the aforementioned Game of Thrones landed way back in 2011. Stranger Things captured a spark and the feel of my childhood in a way that nothing else ever has. But it is so much then just a tribute to a time gone by. At once spellbinding and heartbreaking whilst still being hilarious and quirky, Stranger Things feels like the Twin Peaks for my generation, only more accessible.
The soundtrack was perfect, the cast had as much fun as the audience and season 2 already feels like the most long awaited season of television in a very long time. Stranger Things is undoubtedly here to stay.
For my episode guide click here
For Fans Of: The X Files, Twin Peaks, The Twilight Zone
1. Horace & Pete
Louis CK ceased to be only a comedian and comedy actor years ago with the meta genius of his HBO show Louie. As well as branching out into serious acting, CK is a prolific writer and with Horace & Pete he has produced one of the most revolutionary TV shows in recent memory.
Everything about Horace & Pete transcends television as an art form to produce something that is years ahead of everything else out there. From the human story lines to the sparse sets, from the way it was released and funded to the ramshackle filming style and performances. I have never seen anything quite like Horace & Pete.
For too long, TV and film has been obsessed with the narrowly defined idea of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ but real life is much more morally ambiguous than that. Good people do bad things. Mistakes are made. People fuck up. Sometimes really badly. Horace & Pete exists to tell us that it’s ok to fuck up because we are all just trying to muddle through this life the best way we can.
Aside from the heart beating under the surface of this simple tale of two brothers running a dive bar in New York, there is also a commentary on relationships, mental health and poverty and Steve Buscemi delivers a career best performance with his heartbreaking turn as Pete.
I say this all the time but great art should make you feel. It should make you forget about your own life as you get lost in someone else’s for an hour or so. In Horace & Pete, Louis CK has done this in a way that nobody ever has before. When discussing the best TV shows of all time the same names always crop up. The Sopranos, The Wire, Band of Brothers etc etc. While I don’t necessarily agree with all those choices, I can firmly say that Horace & Pete deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. Quite simply one of the best television shows ever made.
For Fans Of: Everything. Just go watch it.
The Living and the Dead