From Catastrophe and Fleabag to High Maintenance and Insecure, The Atlantic’s writers and editors pick their favorite television shows of 2016. (For a deeper dive, there’s also a roundup of the year’s best TV episodes.)
It may be clichéd to say that a show is “like nothing else on TV,” but in Atlanta’s case, it’s true. When Donald Glover’s half-hour FX dramedy debuted in September, it immediately defined its own visual language (polished, meticulous), narrative style (loose, like a dream), and tone (seductive or somber, depending on the scene). The pilot feinted in the direction of a rags-to-riches hip-hop story before hitting viewers with a daisy chain of mesmerizing tangents. It delivered the year’s best experimental show-within-a-show episode (“B.A.N.”—sorry, Mr. Robot). It turned the city of Atlanta itself into a character, with its own idiosyncrasies and banalities. It went weird without cribbing from the Twin Peaks playbook—a deceptively tricky achievement—and gave pop culture the surreal gift of a Black Justin Bieber. It foregrounded the kinds of nuanced conversations and problems that almost never get airtime on prestige TV; relatedly, almost no white people appeared in front of the camera, with hilarious exceptions (“Juneteenth”). From start to finish, thanks to its vision and confidence, Atlanta had one of the best debut seasons in recent memory.
In its very first episodes, BoJack Horseman felt nearly indistinguishable from every other series out there about a washed-up, middle-aged celebrity. But by the middle of season one, the show’s shallow comedy turned out to be a false front. Under the kaleidoscopic animation and increasingly inventive animal puns lay a carbon-black cynicism about Hollywood, human beings, and love itself—a bleak outlook that only made the rare moments of beauty and hopefulness all the more blinding. Season three doubled down on many of the show’s serious themes (mental illness, substance abuse, grief, loneliness) while managing to be various shades of laugh-out-loud funny (vulgar, cerebral, juvenile, dark). With the help of a peerless vocal cast, this season also delivered some of BoJack’s, and 2016’s, best moments: an underwater silent film, the most unapologetically pro-choice abortion episode I’ve ever seen, and one of the year’s saddest deaths.