Maybe you heard, but there was a lot of television this year. Here is a completely subjective list of shows that I really enjoyed, sprinkled with a couple of shows I really admired.
Loosely—so loosely—based on Steven Soderbergh’s movie of the same name, Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience follows law student Christine (Riley Keough) as she willingly became a high-end escort. I can’t say that I enjoyed watching this show, exactly, but I did find it fascinating. Christine is full of agency. She has chosen her profession and enjoys it: the money, the control, and yes, the sex. But she is also deeply alone and alienated. The result is a show that is arousing and sordid, a series that tears away the façade surrounding on-screen sex and makes plain that it will always serve male titillation but not necessarily only male titillation. It’s hot and it’s icky, a deeply unsettling series that wants to start an argument between your mind and your body that your mind can’t necessarily win.
The second season of the British import got a little darker than the first: Sharon and Rob, now married with children, have less time and more cruelty for each other than they did during the first season, when they were falling in love. But unlike almost every other comedy that takes on life’s serious stuff, Catastrophe was actually laugh-out-loud funny while doing so.
8. Queen Sugar
Ava DuVernay’s OWN series was the year’s great family drama. The travails of the Bordelon siblings were moving, thought-provoking, captivating, sometimes a little soapy, and deeply political. Black Lives Matter and the legacy of slavery, for example, both became central to the series’ plot. It’s a show that works as both politics and entertainment.
The great web series about a weed dealer and all his anthropologically precise New York clients made the jump to HBO and a half-hour run time with its soul intact. The new season was as precise, funny, skewering, and heartfelt as the webisodes that came before, sprinkled with a little added ambition, including a wonderful episode about the nature of love, told from the perspective of a dog.
6. Better Call Saul
In its second season, Better Call Saul continued to prove it is more than a Breaking Bad spin-off. Jimmy McGill, a lawyer con man trying to check his conning, may inevitably become Saul Goodman, but watching him struggle, and often fail, to stay on the right side of respectability is a stupendous moral tale.
Donald Glover’s show about a broke Ivy League dropout trying to manage his cousin Paper Boi’s (the great Brian Tyree Henry) burgeoning rap career, while being of some use to his daughter and on-again-off-again girlfriend Van (Zazie Beetz), had the most new things to say, and the most new ways of saying them, of any show this year. Unapologetically black, structurally adventurous, ideologically bold, unabashedly melancholy, occasionally very funny, this is the show I thought most about well after I was done watching it.
In its third season, Amazon’s traumedy about the Pfeffermans, still grappling with the heavy business of being themselves, was as good as ever. Even better was the season’s last scene, in which the maligned, aggravating Shelly Pfefferman (Judith Light) brought the house down with a transcendent interpretation of Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket,” a song you never knew had this much depth. To my mind, it’s the best scene of the year, a thrilling, moving display of actorly magic.
3. Halt and Catch Fire
Halt and Catch Fire started its third season with a jump in time and space: Early-’80s Dallas was left behind for mid-’80s Silicon Valley. Then two-thirds of the way through Season 3, the show jumped ahead again, into the ’90s. Halt and Catch Fire’s willingness to leap to the meaty part of tech history, where its protagonists always have an idea ahead of their time (laptops, chat rooms, eBay, web browsers, the internet itself), is part of the fun, but it never overshadows the real fun: the rich primary relationships among the four protagonists, all entangled in competition, misunderstanding, love, and grudging respect.
2. The Americans
As The Americans careens toward its end (it’s set to have two more seasons), things are getting really, really stressful for the Jenningses, the undercover Communist spies deeply ensconced in suburban Washington, D.C. The fourth season, in which the Jenningses were barely able to manage those who know too much about them—their daughter Paige’s pastor, Phillip’s “wife” Martha—was almost nauseatingly tense. Even so, the Jenningses keep working on becoming better people. Phillip joined Erhard Seminars Training, or EST; Elizabeth made—and betrayed—a real friend (Ruthie Ann Miles, giving one of the year’s best supporting performances); all of which makes the catastrophe looming before them that much more anxiety-producing.
This year made fools out of everyone who thought there was no more to know about O.J. Simpson. ESPN’s documentary O.J. Simpson: Made in America and FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson showed that a seemingly ’90s story was a timelessly American one. The People v. O.J. Simpson did this with revelatory performances from Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, and Courtney B. Vance, elucidating perspectives on the role of gender and race, and a nearly, but not quite, inappropriate sense of fun.