Staff Picks: The Best TV Shows of 2016

2016 was a good year for television. Strong seasons of some of our returning favorites and well as an excellent batch of new series on Netflix and cable. Even a few broadcast shows stand out. Sure, some shows couldn’t live up to past greatness, and a few got the ax, but 2016 has laid the foundation for an equally good 2017.

To commemorate the year in television, we’ve compiled a list of five shows. Many shows entered, but like the College Football Playoff, only a few came out on top.

However, before we begin, a few Honorable Mentions. Think of it as our non-Playoff Bowl games.

  • Daredevil

  • Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

  • Designated Survivor

These series didn’t make the cut, but their quality is apparent, as shown by the votes they received.

Now on to the Best TV Shows of 2016, as chosen by our staff.

5. Game of Thrones

Can you imagine if there was a movie that was anywhere near as good as Game of Thrones was this year? It would be the next big thing. It would be getting its own Cinematic Universe with spin-offs and team-ups and every once in a while a slightly riskier, but in reality not that risky, solo film. It would also be a heavy contender for a clean Oscar sweep. But alas, no big budget movie was in the same weight class as Game of Thrones Season 6.

Now I will be the first to admit that Season 5 left me feeling like the series may never really be able to deliver like it did in the early seasons. Arya was selling oysters. Daenerys was doing the Essosi equivalent of puttering around the house in a bathrobe. And then there was Dorne. In preparation for this piece, I was forced to remember all the bad acting, lousy fight choreography, and general pointlessness that took place in Season 5 Dorne. And while “Hardhome” was pretty amazing, one good episode does not a season make.

But ho boy, was Season 6 not only a welcome return to form but perhaps the most eventful season of Game of Thrones so far. If you don’t believe me, here is a list of everything that happened in “The Winds of Winter,” the season finale. [SPOILERS]

  • Cersei blows up the Sept of Baelor, killing most of the Tyrells and the High Sparrow

  • Tommen jumps out of a window, killing himself and leaving a vacancy on the Iron Throne

  • Arya lands in Westeros and gets revenge of Walder Frey

  • Sam arrives in Oldtown to become a Meister

  • Jon becomes the King in the North

  • Cersei becomes Queen of Westeros

  • Bran sees Jon’s birth at the Tower of Joy, confirming fan theories that Jon is a Targaryen

  • Winter arrives

  • Daenerys and her army set sail for Westeros

And that was ONE EPISODE!

Season 6 was filled everything that makes Game of Thrones amazing. “Battle of the Bastards” gave us cinema quality action. “Home” brought the medieval politics with Balon Greyjoy getting thrown from a bridge and Roose Bolton getting literally stabbed in the back. (Although I hear Roose Bolton was actually poisoned by his enemies. Who knows for sure?) And you can’t talk about Season 6 without bringing up the brutality that was “The Door.” That kind of raw emotional storytelling hasn’t really been present on the show since “The Rains of Castamere” all the way back in Season 3.

Even though something a bit stranger may have been my favorite show of 2016, Game of Thrones is the show I am most excited for in 2017. The events of Season 6 set up so many interesting conflicts that need resolving. The power in Westeros has shifted chaotically. A foreign army, led by someone who is finally ready to rule, is about to clash with the new queen. And on top of all that, an ancient hostile force is ready to descend on the entire continent, threatening the very existence of all the characters we know and love. Characters with incredibly complex motives and histories are going to be meeting for the first time and will either form alliances or destroy each other. It will be intense, thrilling, and certainly heartbreaking.

Season 6 proved that there will be no more messing around on Game of Thrones. The late Stannis Baratheon said it best. “We go forward. Only forward.”

Matt Kelly

4. Better Call Saul

Breaking Bad is a pretty tough act to follow. Vince Gilligan’s intense, gripping show about one man’s rise and fall as an unlikely drug kingpin is one of the all-time greats, the sort of show we’ll still be talking about decades later. So a prequel spin-off, even one centered around the fan favorite sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, was never a guaranteed success. It had to be just as engaging, just as layered, and just as thematically rich to even have a chance. Even with show creator Vince Gilligan and writer Peter Gould returning from Breaking Bad to helm things, that was a tall order. So one could be forgiven for being pretty surprised when Better Call Saul ended up delivering.

The show’s first season started slow, but pretty quickly found its footing. The head-on collision between Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) made for a stellar ending, one that could conceivably have served as a series finale. Not so with this one. The show, newly confident, has clearly settled in for the long haul, going in for a deep dive on Jimmy’s struggle to be good when his every instinct is to be bad. It’s the same kind of tragically inevitable descent that anchored Breaking Bad yet approached from a very different angle with a very different character. Jimmy’s earnest desire to do right, winningly portrayed in a career-(re)defining performance by Odenkirk, is a sharp contrast to Walter White’s steely determination even as they follow the same basic path. And even knowing how it will all end up for Jimmy, as we can see in the sparse but wonderfully bleak snapshots of his future in hiding in Omaha, the show really invests you in the journey.

And even more than last season, this one ended with a bang. His brother’s deceptions finally revealed, Jimmy and Chuck’s love-hate feuding served as a compelling arc that brought out the worst in both brothers. Just when Jimmy’s manipulations seem to have won him the day, one last incredibly dirty trick upends everything and sets the stage for a dynamite Season 3. And let’s not forget Mike Erhmantraut (Jonathan Banks), our two-for-the-price-of-one fan favorite getting an origin story. Mike’s slowly increasing involvement in Albuquerque’s underworld, though almost entirely separate from Jimmy’s story, was both hilarious and fascinating, and with strong hints at the return of a certain Gustavo Fring, next season promises more of the same. Familiar yet entirely unique, Better Call Saul has not only met but exceeded the high expectations placed on it by its storied predecessor and taken its rightful place as one of the most compelling shows on TV. Whether you’re a Breaking Bad diehard or you’ve never seen a single episode, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

Chris Diggins

3. Westworld

What to say about Westworld that hasn’t already been said? It’s the next big thing for HBO, obviously comparable to Game of Thrones. They’re certainly similar when you compare the viewers’ interest in theories and the lore of the respective universes. But Westworld has a layer to its characters that separates it from Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones focuses primarily on the political elite and the military of Westeros and Essos, Westworld’s characters are divided between upper class and lower class, except it’s manufacturers versus the products themselves.

From the get-go, Westworld has done a great job of endearing us to these individuals, even though their behavior is predetermined. The innocent and caring Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), for example, draws sympathy from us as the life she though she knew unravels around her. Her emotional journey makes the finale’s last few minutes so horrible yet freeing to watch. Of course, there are a handful of heartbreaking moments throughout the season. The existential questions the hosts face are truly frightening, a living nightmare even. In a lot of ways, Westworld serves as a spiritual sequel to Inception, which is appropriate, considering executive producer Jonathan Nolan is Christopher Nolan’s brother.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the MVP of Westworld’s first season, Anthony Hopkins. Hopkin’s Dr. Ford reminds of his Academy Award winning performance as Hannibal Lector, to be sure. Both have a penchant for mind games and command the scenes they’re in. But unlike his snake-like Lecter, Ford always shrouds his true intentions. I have a feeling there’s more to his final play during the finale than we know. It’s frustrating to think we have to wait until 2018 to find out, but I’m sure Ford himself would say you can’t rush perfection.

Oh, yeah, and people usually forget about this, but the western stuff itself is pretty rad. When it comes to aesthetics (cinematography, costumes music, etc.) HBO delivers in spades.

Aaron Sarnecky

2. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

It’s been over 20 years since a jury found O.J. Simpson not guilty of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman, but if 2016 proved anything, it’s that we haven’t forgotten the drama surrounding the infamous trial. While Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America provided historical context, Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson gave us the drama.

Murphy isn’t always good at following through on the storylines his shows set up (see literally any series he’s ever created), but the Trial of the Century actually happened and being forced to stick to history gave People v. O.J. structure and direction. Each episode explored a different aspect of the case–from the Bronco chase to the jurors themselves–dramatizing a story we already knew and making it seem somehow both unexpected and inevitable. However, perhaps the series’ most remarkable feat was the way it used the pre-fame Kardashian family to make a larger point about the trial’s long-term impact. While many dismissed the Kardashian appearances as shameless and unnecessary, their presence is the show’s clearest statement of all: the O.J. trial is in part responsible for the rise of reality television.

Still, thought-provoking and sharp as the series’ writing is, it succeeds because of the actors who portrayed it. While Cuba Gooding Jr. is never quite able to capture Simpson’s particular magnetism, every other actor is in top form. Casting like John Travolta as Bob Shapiro and David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian seems like an absurd stunt, but they were two of the series’ biggest surprises. Where Travolta gave Shapiro an arrogance that bordered on megalomania, Schwimmer gave Kardashian pathos, bringing a touch of tragedy to one man’s slow realization that he may not know his friends as well as he thinks. Like the man he portrayed, Courtney B. Vance stole every scene as Simpson’s defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran and Sterling K. Brown as prosecutor Christopher Darden brought depth—not to mention being one half of this year’s most oddly compelling screen romance. The other half was, of course, played by Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clarke. Paulson has done great work with Murphy in the past and this is perhaps her best. She took a figure who much of America had dismissed as incompetent or unlikable during the trial and reframed her as the flawed, hard-working, unfairly maligned woman we all should have seen her as in the first place.

Marisa Carpico

1. Stranger Things

Stranger Things is the essence of the “word of mouth” phenomenon that took place in the pop culture sphere of 2016. This show had modest promotion prior to its premiere, but nothing compared to the ever-present marketing of Netflix stalwarts like House of Cards, and Orange Is the New Black, or newcomers like Luke Cage. However, thanks to social media, and crazy positive word of mouth it was Stranger Things that was not only the most relevant of the shows Netflix released in 2016 — it was (probably) its most beloved of all-time.

The reason The Duffer Brothers series resonated with so many people was its ability to blend nostalgia and creativity. The series brought in a ton of influence from the ’80s whether it be the works of Stephen King, The Goonies, and even E.T. Those influences were very apparent but never once did they feel stifling or heavy handed. The nostalgia of these pop culture hallmarks combined with the 1980s setting (which also done in an organic and sometimes subtle manner) only bolstered the absolute left turn the series took with its journey into “the upside down.” This weird, and wild world was brilliantly crafted both visually and narratively. Unlike, The OA this alternate plan of being is told in a clear and cogent manner.

And the performances. My sweet baby lord, the performances. Obviously Millie Bobby Brown (Eleven) and Gaten Matarazzo (Dustin) were the ones everyone loved — but we can’t sleep on Winona Ryder, David Harbour, and Matthew Modine along with Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard, and Finn Wolfhard either. Everyone in this series was perfect.

On a personal note, I literally subscribed to Netflix in order to watch this series, and I watched the entire run in under 24 hours. That’s how good it is.

Bill Bodkin

Here’s the breakdown of the individual lists submitted by the staff.

Justin Matchick: 5. The Americans, 4. Better Call Saul, 3. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, 2. Atlanta, 1. O.J.: Made in America

Matt Taylor: 5. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story 4. Stranger Things, 3. American Crime, 2. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, 1. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Alfred Mannarino: 5. Daredevil, 4. Game of Thrones, 3. Better Call Saul, 2. The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, 1. Stranger Things

Matt Gilbert: 5. Bojack Horseman, 4. Game of Thrones, 3. The Night Of, 2. Westworld, 1. Stranger Things

Laura Dengrove: 5. Black Mirror, 4. Stranger Things, 3. Better Call Saul, 2. Daredevil, 1. The People v. O.J. American Crime Story

Keeyahtay Lewis: 5. Billions, 4. Ballers, 3. Game of Thrones, 2. Daredevil, 1. Stranger Things.

M.J. Rawls: 5. Insecure, 4. Westworld, 3. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crimes Story, 2. Stranger Things, 1. Black Mirror

Marisa Carpico: 5. Stranger Things, 4. Lemonade, 3. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, 2. O.J.: Made in America, 1. The People v. O.J. American Crime Story

Ryan Demarco: 5. The Night Of, 4. Better Call Saul, 3. Daredevil, 2. Stranger Things, 1. Westworld.

Liz Dircks: 5. Stranger Things, 4. Orphan Black, 3. Game of Thrones, 2. The Magicians, 1. Westworld

Jennifer Amato: 5. This Is Us, 4. Wahlburgers, 3. The Voice, 2. Blue Bloods, 1. Chicago Fire.

Matthew Haviland: 5. Better Call Saul, 4. Transparent, 3. The Americans, 2. Rectify, 1. Horace and Pete

Josh Sarnecky: 5. Voltron: Legendary Defender, 4. DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, 3. Designated Survivor, 2. Bloodline, 1. Stranger Things

Marley Ghizzone: 5. Madame Secretary, 4. Designated Survivor, 3. The Good Place, 2. Bob’s Burgers, 1. Brooklyn 99

Chris Diggins: 5. Fleabag, 4. Better Call Saul, 3. BoJack Horseman, 2. You’re the Worst, 1. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Allison Lips: 5. The Great Outdoors, 4. Late Night with Seth Meyers, 3. Transparent, 2. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, 1. Good Girls Revolt

Daniel Cohen: 5. Gotham, 4. Westworld, 3. Better Call Saul, 2. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, 1. Stranger Things

Matt Kelly: 5. The Good Place, 4. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, 3. Daredevil, 2. Game of Thrones, 1. Stranger Things

Bill Bodkin: 5. Lucha Underground, 4. The People v. O.J. Simpson, 3. Westworld, 2. Game of Thrones, 1. Stranger Things

Aaron Sarnecky: 5. Designated Survivor, 4. Westworld, 3. Game of Thrones, 2. Stranger Things, 1. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Founded in September 2009, The Pop Break is a digital pop culture magazine that covers film, music, television, video games, books and comics books and professional wrestling.