by Brian Surber
Last week I gave you my list for the best comedies of 2016. This week we look at the longer, more serious, and less fun side of TV: the drama. Admittedly, I watch less dramas than comedies, so this was shorter list to choose from, but this was generally a great year for the TV drama. 6 new shows made my list while a returning show that would’ve been in the top 5 last year dropped off entirely. Before season 3 of Fargo blows our minds next year let’s look back at the year that was in drama.
Before we begin, as I said before, I watch less dramas than I do comedies so before you all jump down my throat I understand I should watch or continue watching the following: The Americans, Transparent (which I deem a drama), O.J.: Made in America, American Crime, Outlander, Better Call Saul, Mr. Robot, The Crown, etc.
Once again the rules are pretty simple: We play by my rules. I have to be up to date to have a show qualify for my top 10 (sorry Mr. Robot, Luke Cage, and Westworld). I’m deeming Orange is the New Black a drama for one basic reason (to beef up my drama list). And Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life is being deemed a drama as well (I’d argue the show is about the drama of the human life where comedy can be mined).
Please comment if you don’t agree with my list (which I can’t imagine happening, but, okay) or if you do and enjoy!
How to Get Away with Murder
10. Pitch (FOX) Pitch is a show that could have seemed so average, so corny, so ham-fisted. And yet we were given a respectfully crafted and intelligent show that, despite having the full endorsement of the MLB, was wildly underseen. Kylie Bunbury is lightning on screen as the first female major league baseball player. She radiates passion and carries the burden of presenting a possible radical reality with grace by not shying away from the hardships that are sure to come with the position. The show isn’t without its faults (too many jokes fall flat), but it’s rooted in a present reality focusing not on THE first female ballplayer but THIS first female ballplayer. Mark-Paul Gosselaar is Emmy-worthy as the veteran and while their eventual romantic relationship feels forced, both Bunbury and Gosselaar do what they can to ground their characters. Full of fascinating insider baseball dealings, strong performances, and an honest sense of drama; Pitch was the most pleasant surprise of the fall TV season.
9. Daredevil (Netflix)Season 2 of Daredevil was bound to be a disappointment (I don’t think anybody was expecting that 1st season). So while this season wasn’t as fresh as other superhero shows (Jessica Jones is a masterpiece), the second season of Netflix’s first superhero son certainly upped the ante emotionally and viscerally. The actions scenes are first rate, Charlie Cox continues to turn in good work, but what makes this season’s drop-off less disappointing is its new cast members. I’m admittedly not the biggest Jon Bernthal fan, but his Punisher was a large presence this season. His Man of Pain is shown as a man of restraint and fire. A man so broken that all is can do is break. A bit big at times, Bernthal mostly played The Punisher underneath so when the violence exploded we all felt the blast. The greatest addition to Daredevil came from Elodie Yung’s Electra. A worthy romantic adversary to Matt Murdock and Daredevil alike, Yung was simply electric onscreen. And she brought the first character in Netflix’s Marvel universe whose spin-off would be most welcome.
8. The Affair (Showtime)I have an odd relationship with The Affair. The first season was a great achievement, telling a small story about big emotions with the pacing and structure of a grand novel. The second season was a mixed bag; keeping the structure of the first season while playing with its timeline and exploring emotions with less interesting stakes. 5 episodes into Season 3, The Affair seems to be taking its time. Introducing two promising new characters (Joanna Gleason’s Yvonne and Brendan Fraser’s Gunther) but slowly exploring its new space (Season 3 takes place three years after Season 2) creates an odd predicament of a show. But its to the writers’ and actors’ credit that The Affair has never felt less than compelling. Noah, and his endlessly douche-y persona; Allison, and her endlessly terrible choices; Helen, and her endless need for excitement and meaning; and Cole and his endless devotion to one thing at the expense of another. Could The Affair get on with it? Sure. Is this a show that is forgettable shortly after it ends? You could say that. But for the life of me, when these people talk in whatever charming East coast town they’re in, I listen. And I love it.
7. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life (Netflix)Being an enormous fan of the original series (Thanks Neflix!!), I was incredibly excited about a return to Stars Hollow. The entire cast, ASP, this terrible election; everything was in place for a welcome return to a universe I frequently describe as being inside a warm baked cookie. And while the limited series wasn’t everything I wanted it to be (Why are they mean? Are we supposed to be okay with infidelity? Why didn’t Tom have anything to do?) it was a warm welcome indeed. Plus the last episode, “Fall,” was pretty damn perfect. Lauren Graham was phenomenal as always and Kelly Bishop deserves an Emmy now please. Like any trip home, there’s bound to be some unwanted conflict, some seemingly idiotic choices, some truly puzzling moments. But you’re always glad you went. I’m so glad we went back to Gilmore Girls and, because they’re like family, I am looking forward to going back. Just not too soon.
6. Stranger Things (Netflix)The little Netflix show that could was the one every one was talking about toward the end of the summer, and for good reason. Not only is the show joyously rooted in generational nostalgia (simultaneously harkening back to films of that era so those of us who didn’t grow up then can get all warm and fuzzy, too), it immediately displayed an understanding of its characters and its focus. With confidence to spare, The Duffer Brothers crafted a show that was thrilling, funny, scary, sweet, and suitable for younger viewers. But the standout of this stellar freshman season is the cast, specifically the kids. These kids absolutely get these characters. What a joy to behold watching real kids play real kids. The friendships, the wonder, the tension, the loyalty, the laughs, it’s all real. And it’s all because of these actors and writers who gave us quite a thrill ride this year.
5. Roots (History)Going into Roots last May I knew very little. We’ve all heard of Kunta Kinte, sure. But I hadn’t seen the original 1977 miniseries and the idea of a remaking it seemed silly (as most do); timely, sure, but a little silly. But, man, did this pack a punch. The expansive story, traveling through the generations allowed each main character a proper arc and time to explore it. The stellar cast– Malachi Kirby, Anika Noni Rose, and Rege-Jean Page are the special standouts. The production design provided a familiar and distinct look throughout the years in America and a lush portrait of West Africa during the opening segments, plus the powerful script. This was a brilliant, compelling, and vital 8 hours of television that was gripping in its scope and the expanding inclusiveness of its message. Did we need another version of Roots? Probably not. But this is the version to make. As clearly relevant as it was 39 years ago, Roots remains important, empowered, and impressive television.
4. Game of Thrones (HBO)I give this show a lot of shit sometimes. I nitpick and point things out that really don’t mean much. I occasionally have some good points and actually want to bring up some fatal flaws of the show. But most of the time I like to annoy Noah. But this season of Game of Thrones was some bombastic shit. Not everything worked (guys, I really didn’t like that play) but the stuff that did WORKED. “Battle of the Bastards” gave us one of the greatest fight sequences ever put to any screen big or small, there were some truly unexpected twists, and things are finally moving toward something. This was the best season of Game of Thrones and if they only have two left then it’s just the right time to be hitting their stride.
3. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)The best under-the-radar show on TV gave us its most politically conscious, deeply depressing, and emotionally complex season yet. The fact that Orange is the New Black can continue to push itself and us, the viewer, after four years and 724 characters is nothing short of miraculous. So daring in its storytelling and honest in its portrayal of complicated women it’s no wonder it’s been renewed for season 5, 6, and 7. This season challenged our preconceived notions of these characters and this prison, bringing forth a reality that was all too real. Life is everything all at once: pain, love, anger, passion, violence, laughs, fear, joy. And this year, maybe even more so than every year before it, so was Orange is the New Black.
2. The Night Of (HBO)During the course of its brief 8 episode run, The Night Of seemed to be biting off more than it could chew (don’t even get me started on The Kiss). But when this show hit, it really hit. The first episode, “The Beach,” is a masterclass in create elevating tension. The pace is so deliberate, delicate, and pieces are put in place so carefully that when they climax toward the end of the episode it is mesmerizingly tense television. Each performance is catered to these characters’ lonely needs and desires. And each actor shows incredible concentration and restraint concerning these characters’ motivations. The cinematography is beautiful, giving dead space to the mystery surrounding the entire show. And the finale episode carries no comfortable answers as we judge our judicial system from every aspect. The Night Of was the most bleak, atmospheric drama on television this year.
1. The People v. O.J. Simpson:
American Crime Story (FX)
Admittedly not a huge fan of Ryan Murphy, The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, simply blew me away. The attention to detail, the renewed cultural relevance, the astonishing performances, and the uncanny ability to provide genuine tension in a situation whose conclusion is possibly the most well known in modern history. The People v O.J. Simpson was just as must-watch television as the trial that inspired it. Expanding on the personalities we already know as more than the media coverage allowed gives the show not only a fresh perspective but almost an immediacy. These were real people, some who had an impossible, thankless job, being put through the ringer. And so many years later, because of this masterful examination, we see these people, media coverage, and ourselves in a new light.
There we have it, the best of TV. Or TV I watched. Just in time for the new year! You are welcome to comment if the mood should strike!