2016’s Ten Best Shows Prove “Peak TV” is a Euphemism for Artistic Freedom
The Ten Best TV Shows of 2016
10. Channel Zero: Candle Cove (Syfy)
9. Search Party (TBS)
8. Bojack Horseman (Netfiix)
7. O.J.: Made in America (ESPN)
6. Rectify (Sundance Channel)
5. The Americans (FX)
4. The Girlfriend Experience (Starz)
3. Steven Universe (Cartoon Network)
2. Atlanta (FX)
1. Horace and Pete (Independent)
I’ve opted to buck established Top Ten List trends and include my picks for the best TV of 2016 right there at the top. I do this for two reasons: one, to spare you the exercise of having to scroll quickly through a collection of capsule-blurbs that you don’t really want to read. Second, because I think that there’s a really interesting discussion to be had when one considers the best television of the year as a group rather than as individual entries.
Because the TV industry is in a curious and rapid state of evolution at the moment. Transition never really stops, so it can be hard to press pause and assess while living through change. But it also doesn’t take a time traveler to notice that the TV landscape has transformed in radical ways over the past decade, even over the past 12 months.
Most notably, it’s become clear that the so-called “Golden Age of Television” has officially ended. The winding down began years ago, but if one wanted to pinpoint the Golden Age’s definitive expiration date, May 17th, 2015 (when the Mad Men series finale aired), would look really nice on the tombstone. That’s because the “Golden Age” was almost entirely defined by shows like Mad Men — moody, eloquent dramas by and about tortured white men, aired on cable networks like HBO and AMC.
What that age has given way to is an artistic landscape that’s far less linear. The past few years have seen several key industry developments: the rise of a new generation of streaming platforms and a flood of smaller, niche cable channels entering the fray and spending billions to create their own robust slates of original programming. Meanwhile, the rise of streaming video has seen enterprising, diverse artists with distinct voices break through to mainstream success from outside the industry’s normal development channels (Issa Rae, Ben Sinclair & Katja Blichfeld, and Ilana Glazer & Abbi Jacobson, to name a few).
These changes have resulted, first, in a huge increase in the sheer amount of original content being produced. In 2015, FX CEO Jon Landgraf famously coined the term “peak TV” to define this new reality. His argument, frequently adopted and debated, is that we are now living in an era defined by an unnatural glut of content. That what television is experiencing is not a new normal, but rather a bubble. An arm’s race of content creation spurred on by big spends from aggressive streaming platforms and further enabled by cable channels spending more because they’re fearful of not keeping up. The problem, according to Landgraf, is that this bubble must inevitably burst. That such an increase in content is unnatural, unstable, and unsustainable.
I’m not sure I agree.
Look, I’m not an economics expert, but I do know film history pretty well. And this situation feels like a rerun of something I’ve seen before.
It’s widely agreed that the 1970s were a golden age for American cinema. That much like TV’s Golden Age of the ’00s, American film’s ’70s Golden Age was largely dominated by moody prestige pieces by, for, and about angsty white men. Just trade out Scorsese and Coppola for Milch and Chase. Still, the remarkable thing about film in the ’70s and TV in the ’00s was that a large mainstream audience actually engaged with challenging work. High(er) culture became pop culture for a fleeting moment.
But then the prestige films of the ’70s birthed the blockbusters of the ’80s. Bigger budgets brought more spectacle, Indiana Jones and Marty McFly replacing Michael Corleone and Travis Bickle. Soon, mainstream Hollywood was fun and flashy about all else, quickly a far cry from the challenging darker works of the previous decade. And from there? One can draw a straight line that leads from the emergence of the ’80s blockbuster right up to the massive, studio tentpoles that today dominate the commercial landscape and that have rendered Hollywood artistically stagnant for decades.
Now witness the evolution of “prestige television” in the 2010s, and tell me that it doesn’t closely resemble the birth of the blockbuster in the 1980s. Take the big-budget flagship shows that networks like AMC and HBO have thrown so much weight behind: Game of Thrones, Westworld, The Walking Dead, House of Cards, all of Ryan Murphy’s “American” shows. These shows are fun. These shows are massive, and massively entertaining. But let’s be real, they are all proudly, loudly dumb, a far cry from the more nuanced, ambiguous drama of just a few years ago. The quality of writing in Westworld’s best scene wouldn’t hold a candle to Deadwood’s worst. The Night Of might posture as a deep dive into institutional dysfunction, but it’s the fast food version of The Wire, and a glammed up, highly-watchable crime procedural.
Today’s most popular shows increasingly feel like the small-screen equivalents of the new studio tentpoles. They’re concerned primarily with complex plot mechanics, “shocking” twists, empty spectacle, and big battle set pieces. They are stuck in a growth cycle that equates bigger with better. And like film’s evolution from the ’80s to today, tentpole TV’s thirst to top itself will continue to propagate until we’ve arrived at the small-screen equivalent of the film franchises that dominate today’s multiplexes. HBO is currently begging George R.R. Martin for a Game of Thrones prequel series. The Walking Dead, its new spinoff series, and its Chris Hardwick hosted “after show” a perfect example of the zombie fugue state a franchise can occupy once it lives on unnaturally.
But I don’t think the future is uniformly bleak for daring entertainment on the small screen. Because something else happened in the 1980s: the birth of the independent film movement. It started small, nascent, quietly. But by the ’90s, there was suddenly a thriving scene that stood as an alternative to Hollywood fluff, and a ton of ambitious work being produced that reinvented the possibilities of American cinema in increasingly daring ways.
The independent film movement was made possible by technological developments that democratized production and distribution, and it served as a concerted artistic response to the empty blockbusterification of American filmmaking. Perhaps for the first time, an increasingly diverse group of artists were able to tell diverse stories, as studios no longer served the sole controllers of what got greenlit.
This should all sound familiar to anyone paying attention to the best stuff currently airing on TV. Because “peak television” has done more than just lead to an increase in how much is being produced. It’s led an increase in what is being produced and how diverse it is. And not just in terms of racial and gender diversity (though happily, fledgling advances have made on that front).
No, look beyond the tentpole shows at the major cable channels and you’ll discover work that is diverse in every sense of the word: in perspective, style, aesthetic, narrative construction, in vision, in subject matter, in budget level, even in development and production process.
Thanks to the disruption of broadcast television’s sole domination of the market, TV and streaming channels are being forced to make bolder chances.They’re investing more and more in distinctive voices rather than internally-developed retreads that feel like they were created by focus group. The huge-budget tentpole series are getting bigger and more predictable, but the smaller shows on the peripheries are getting more artistically ambitious, more diverse, more auteur-driven. These shows might not have the sprawl of the Golden Age; in fact, many of the best dramas of this decade, like Rectify, Hannibal, Enlightened and The Leftovers will only ever air a few dozen episodes through their entire runs. And that’s okay. Their relative size allows them the ability to take greater risks.
These days, the classic television genres — the 22-minute sitcom and the 44-minute drama — are still used as a rubric, but these distinctions feel artificial at best. In 2016, Post-Louis “comedies-in-name-only,” like Atlanta, Better Things, Baskets and You’re The Worst, continued to erode antiquated sitcom conventions in favor of something more personal. And meanwhile, dramas like The Girlfriend Experience and sitcoms like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend experimented with runtimes foreign to their supposed genres, a gamble that allows them to break down and reinvent long-standing tropes in creative new ways.
The Girlfriend Experience, a Starz drama adapted from Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film, is especially deserving of praise in this regard. The show, entirely written and directed by filmmakers Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, and produced like a seven-hour indie film, follows Christine (Riley Keough), a law student who immerses herself into the world of high-end prostitution. What starts as a seemingly straightforward thriller fractures as the team of Seimetz and Kerrigan increasingly favors atmosphere over plot, and the show evolves into a collection of evocative short stories reminiscent of the latter seasons of The Sopranos’ most daring episodes. The one constant throughout is Keough’s tightrope walk of a performance, which oscillates between clinical remove and empathetic vulnerability. Her Christine is the most complex and challenging female antihero I’ve ever seen on the small screen.
Seimetz and Kerrigan’s control over all elements of the show’s writing and direction is emblematic of a larger trend shared by many of the year’s best shows: the continued rise of the showrunner as auteur. Historically, television has been considered a writer’s medium, and indeed, even the prestige dramas of the ’00s were often more concerned with the written word than with distinctive visual storytelling. But this is beginning to erode as shows like Atlanta, Mr. Robot, and the downright surreal Sci-Fi anthology series Channel Zero (whose six-episode first season was directed by Craig Macneill) increasingly invest in directors with distinct visual styles, allow them to play and experiment episode-to-episode. I found myself tuning in each week to Atlanta not just to find out what would happen next in the plot, not just because I was attached to the characters. But rather to re-immerse myself in the distinctive atmosphere and emotional universe that Donald Glover and director Hiro Murai were building.
So many of 2016’s best shows were intimate in scope. The Sundance Channel’s Rectify cemented its legacy as one of the decade’s best dramas (and certainly its most restrained) in a graceful and quiet final season. It might be the first show I’ve ever seen in which the arc across the entire series feels both narratively ambitious and wholly true to real life, and certainly the first where one character’s decision to hand a phone to another character served as the emotional catharsis of four years of build-up. What’s so radical about Rectify’s arc, when taken as a whole, is that we leave the characters in distinctly different places from where they started, but at the same time no one has radically transformed or transcended (there is no “Bubs emerges from the basement” moment to be found here, as satisfying as it might have been). Instead, the characters on Rectify evolve in slow, subtle, hard-won ways. We leave them now feeling as if we’ve witnessed just one small step on a lifelong journey.
In 2016, smaller networks and streaming platforms took bold creative risks, placing trust in emerging auteurs to deliver them distinctive work. TBS’ Search Party, from Michael Showalter and filmmakers Charles Rogers and Sarah Violet-Bliss (Fort Tilden) is the best and most ambitious show the network has ever commissioned, its ten-episode first season a consistently hilarious, deadpan satire of hipster ennui dressed like a Raymond Chandler novel. Better still is the unexpected gut-punch of an ending the show builds towards, which feels more like the conclusion to a Paul Verhoeven film than to a first-season sitcom.
In even more unlikely network/auteur pairings, ESPN’s 30 For 30 series gave way to Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, one of the most compelling, expansive, and far-reaching documentaries of the decade. And meanwhile on Cartoon Network, Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe, the channel’s first-ever show by a female creator, grew into itself, and became shockingly progressive. You might not believe me when I tell you that this kids show about superhero crystal gems from outer-space is populated by the most complex, human characters on television, and that it consistently wrestles with issues of consent, sexuality, gender dysphoria, political tyranny and depression with stunning complexity. But yeah, if you’re not watching this show, you are missing out.
Meanwhile, back in more established waters, The Americans turned in its best season yet. At this point that show is the only throwback to the prestige dramas of the Golden Age that manages to fully reach their dramatic and emotional heights. The American’s most laudable achievement is its comfort in the slow-burn, and across five years now it has managed to build a tightly-plotted, emotionally resonant, and philosophically complex portrait of an American marriage.
Meanwhile, Bojack Horseman, the best series currently on Netflix, presents another throwback to the prestige dramas of the ’00s, albeit this one that recasts its lead from a tortured white guy to a tortured talking horse and takes the form of a surrealist cartoon rather than a plodding drama. Still, Bojack plumbs impressive levels of despair, and experiment with narrative form in increasingly ambitious ways. This season’s two best episodes were, (1) an essentially dialogue-free “silent episode” that took place underwater, and (2) a debauched drug bender that played like the cartoon equivalent of Requiem of a Dream.
But no television show bucked trends and trailblazed conventions as boldly and gracefully this year as Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete. The story of a century old, family-owned Brooklyn bar run by two brothers, the show is largely staged as a teleplay, and each week embarks on increasingly radical detours while still building towards a larger catharsis. One early episode is wholly given over to guest star Laurie Metcalf, who delivers an ambling but wrenching hour-long monologue about infidelity. A major character dies offscreen between the fourth and fifth episode. A rotating cast of characters populates the bar each episode, arguing about current events which, because the show was filmed and released essentially in real time, resonate with the urgency of the moment (no discussion of Trump this year has stuck with me more than Tom Noonan’s “milk and honey” speech in the show’s final episode). Ultimately, the show builds towards resonant tragedy. Casual viewers might miss how C.K.’s camera, resolutely static throughout most of the series, begins to pan and zoom and track in the final few episodes, albeit subtly and minimally. This tiny change feels like a boulder shifting, employed to punctuate momentary reprieves from centuries-old cycles of abuse.
But Horace and Pete is significant beyond the fact that is a masterpiece of episodic storytelling. It represents a major artistic milestone for the independent TV movement, and certainly stands as the most ambitious series to ever be made without network intervention. The show was produced entirely on CK’s dime and sold directly through his website (though it is now also available to stream on Hulu).
Obviously CK is in a financial position that few are, and is thus able to extricate himself fully from the bounds of the larger television industry. But his show is an extreme testament to what can be achieved in this dawning era of “Peak TV,” an era that has slowly but significantly shifted power away from the networks and into the hands of artists.