It’s over! Praise whatever religious or scientific belief structure to which you subscribe.
In real life, the year of 2016 was a lot like a hurricane of dumpster fires falling out of the sky onto a giant birthday cake. But hey, it was another great year for TV, so let’s talk about that while Rome burns, shall we?
I should be clear, though; this is not a definitive list of the best TV from 2016. I may be Cultured Vultures’ Gandalf of television but I haven’t seen every show that’s debuted this year. What I can do is recommend each show on this list. For however much faith you ascribe to me. So if you’ve had a miserable holiday period, here’s a list you can explore from your couch alongside what’s left of the chocolate.
7. DIRK GENTLY
For its first two episodes, Dirk Gently is going to look like bottled anarchy. Each progressive scene for all appearances piles on one tangent after another. Just when you think you’re getting a handle on who’s who and what kind of story you’re watching, something unexplainably weird happens. Why are there a bunch of strange bald Germans looking for a kitten? Why is there a gang of punks trashing an apartment and sucking energy out of people?
Dirk Gently follows Todd Brotzman, a down on his luck hotel bellhop whose life is suddenly entangled with that of English PI Dirk Gently. There’s a bunch of bizarre murders, a sinister cult and a ‘holistic’ assassin who relies on intuition to know who she’s supposed to kill.
Everything has a point, though. While this isn’t quite as crisp as the short lived British adaptation of the Douglas Adams book series, there’s something near Pythonesque about it. Great writing from Max Landis and a surprisingly game cast made this an obvious late addition to best of year lists.
If TV shows got points for how many times they made you weep like a baby, Flowers would be top of the league. The Flowers family are an eccentric British unit who are all about presenting a brittle shell of stability. Truth is, Dad Maurice just tried to commit suicide and he can’t find the right way to tell his wife Deborah.
The result is a beautiful but desolate vision of a failing marriage and a collapsing family. Maurice just can’t find the words to explain why he feels the way he does about life. Deborah puts on a facade of middle class optimism all while struggling to understand her distant husband.
It’s tragic, grounded and even zany at times, but somehow it all works. It balances them all, challenging itself to fit them in to a rhythmically flowing story. If there’s one show from 2016 I’d recommend you watch, it’s this. It’ll take you less than three hours to binge the lot. If you’ve ever felt sadness in your whole life, you’ll find the emotional climax heartbreaking.
Oh BrainDead, you poor thing. America wasn’t ready for you. If more people had watched this zany political satire, perhaps the world wouldn’t be facing a tornado of shit right now.
BrainDead follows the adventures of Washington DC. staffer Laurel Healy who arrives just in time to witness a government shutdown. Democrats and Republicans are at loggerheads over politics stuff, but there’s something else going on. Elected officials are falling victim to mind controlling space bugs. The bugs have an agenda, and they’re making liberals and conservatives more extreme.
A neat thing about Braindead is how well the series builds its story into semi-regular crescendos of chaotic comedy. I don’t know another show this year that’s balanced subtle satire with moments of outright slapstick and farce. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is great in the lead role, while Tony Shalhoub is having a blast here as a Republican senator under the sway of the mind controlling space bugs.
Out of the gate, Lucifer had the swagger of a show here to stay. It knew it wanted to be a fun police procedural and no other show in 2016 did it so well. That it was also about the literal devil living in LA in the body of an ostentatious English dude didn’t seem to hurt. The fact said English dude could make even the most mundane sentence sound like he was delivering a slightly dirty joke wasn’t a problem either. It was pure fun, and its two leads had surprising chemistry.
That commitment to being fun and wry gave Lucifer the time it needed to burrow its supernatural story arc into our heads. Ostensibly, it’s a murder-of-the-week show. We’ve all seen plenty of those. But Lucifer can have fun with this formula while also giving us all that supernatural Devil stuff on the side. It’s worked so well that as 2017 begins, it’s already knee deep in its second season.
3. STRANGER THINGS
Small town 80s nostalgia meets Lovecraftian horror, and all through the eyes of a group of nerdy kids? That’s what Stranger Things boils down to. It doesn’t sound like a show with mass appeal, but Stranger Things managed to capture our collective imagination this year.
When their friend vanishes on his way home from a Dungeons and Dragons session, three twelve year old boys begin a fantastical adventure to find him. There’s a mysterious girl in the woods. She might have superpowers. And that’s not even mentioning the unspeakable thing that’s lurking near the government research base at the edge of town.
There’s something magical and inexplicable about Stranger Things. On the one hand, its themes and aesthetic are draped over a surprisingly conventional plot structure. But it transports you back to your adolescence and asks how you might fight the monster lurking in the dark.
2. WYNONNA EARP
For the longest time, Wynonna Earp was my show of the year. A premise that should have tanked in week one delivered the most feelgood, easy to watch show of the year. A story centred on Wyatt Earp’s modern day descendant and an army of demons could have been so much supernatural garbage. Instead, it was exceptional.
Because there’s a curse on the Earp family, it means every single criminal Wyatt killed keeps coming back to life to torment the town of Purgatory. Every heir to the Earp throne is tasked with sending all these demons back to hell. With a magic gun. The cast is great, in particular Melanie Scrofano as Wynonna and Tim Rozen as the magnificently mustached Doc Holiday.
Also, Wynonna Earp has the kind of fandom usually reserved for young adult movie franchises. It’s a level of passion that’s refreshing in an era of calculated cynicism, but just be sure to ship the right couples. I’m reliably informed by one fan that Earpers are a fandom with ‘no chill’, whatever that means. Know what you’re getting into, is what I’m saying.
No show in my entire life has had me on my feet pulling at my hair in amazement. Westworld’s season finale gets that accolade. It masks a complex story about what it means to be alive with cowboy hats, gunfights and a rabbit hole so deep you’ll fall in. It’s also my best show of 2016.
Cyborgs in an old west inspired theme park sounds like a 90s Bruce Willis movie. As a piece of TV, it sounded like a gimmick show which relied on over the top action and softcore levels of boobs to reel in an audience of idiots. Westworld was something more than that though. HBO wanted their next Game of Thrones. Not only did they get a ratings winner, they got a masterful slow burn of a story with acutely philosophical themes. It was a series about sentience. About self-awareness.
The quest for self-realisation made Meave, Dolores and Teddy some of the most compelling (and human) characters of the year. By the end, more than a few of us were transfixed by what was being revealed to us, and there’s not a lot of TV which can claim that.