TV’s golden age continues with “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” “The Americans” and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” among the year’s best shows.
What can I say about a year in which HBO’s “Game of Thrones” isn’t on my Top 10 list? When Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and “Stranger Things,” HBO’s “The Night Of” and AMC’s “The Night Manager” — all shows I loved — didn’t quite make the cut?
That it has been a very good year.
For entertainment TV, at least.
After the top three, my show rankings are arbitrary, but it’s no coincidence that my favorites all look back at other challenging times. We’ve never needed perspective more.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” (FX)
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Entertaining, infuriating and educational, Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Jeffrey Toobin’s 1996 book, “The Run of His Life,” set the tone for a TV year in which both race and the criminal justice system loomed large.
With extraordinary performances by Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance, the 10-episode season reached back more than 20 years to provide context for a verdict that had long divided Americans.
This was essential viewing, as was its unofficial companion piece, ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America.” Watch it: Coming to Netflix in 2017.
“The Americans” (FX)
Worrying about the Russians seemed so last century when this 1980s-set drama about Soviet sleeper agents premiered in 2013.
In its fourth season, spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) continued to lie to everyone but the viewers, making us more complicit than ever in the evil they do for what they perceive — not always delusionally — as the greater good. Come for the crazy wigs and the heart-in-your-mouth moments, stay for the truths laid bare by two of TV’s most relatable liars. Watch it: Seasons 1-3 on Amazon Prime Video. Season 4 available for purchase on multiple services, including Amazon and iTunes.
“The Crown” (Netflix)
The international streaming service’s ability to throw big money at producers makes it Goliath to PBS’ David, and I know many were disappointed that a show so perfectly suited to fans of “Downton Abbey” wasn’t on public television. But the first season of Peter Morgan’s drama about Queen Elizabeth II, set against the backdrop of postwar Britain, showed the money was at least well-spent.
Starring Claire Foy (“Wolf Hall”) as the young monarch and Matt Smith (“Doctor Who”) as Prince Philip and featuring John Lithgow as Winston Churchill, “The Crown” mixed history, romance and gender politics and turned the now 90-year-old queen into one of the year’s most intriguing TV characters. Watch it: Netflix.
It has been a terrific year for half-hour shows that pack more punch than most hourlong dramas, and TV was better for having shows like FX’s “Better Things,” Amazon’s “One Mississippi” and “Fleabag,” and Starz’s “Survivor’s Remorse.”
“Atlanta,” which starred its creator, Donald Glover (“Community”) as a Princeton dropout and young father trying to launch his rapper cousin (Brian Tyree Henry, “Boardwalk Empire”) into a career that could sustain both their families, stood out for Glover’s singular vision.
Achingly real and wryly funny as a slice-of-life comedy, it also pivoted into media criticism in an episode that included on-point parodies of commercials aimed at African-American viewers. Watch it: On Demand, FXnetworks.com, FXNow app.
Even if the series finale hadn’t proved as nearly perfect as the four seasons it capped, the story of Daniel Holden (Aden Young) would rank as one of TV’s best. Freed but not quite free after 19 years on Georgia’s death row, Daniel spent much of this season separated from family members whose lives already had been shaped more by his absence than his presence.
The story, fortunately, didn’t leave them behind. “Rectify” wasn’t just about justice and injustice: It was the kind of clear-eyed, full-hearted look at small-town America we haven’t seen since “Friday Night Lights.” Watch it: Seasons 1-3, Netflix. Season 4 On Demand, SundanceTV.com, SundanceTV app.
As thrilled as I am that ABC is including people with disabilities in the push for sitcom diversity that’s brought us great shows like “black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” it wouldn’t mean much if this show about a teenager with cerebral palsy and his family weren’t funny.
Micah Fowler, whose character, J.J., speaks through others, including his aide, Kenneth (Cedric Yarbrough), has comic chops, and the competition between J.J.’s control-freak mother, Maya (Minnie Driver), and Kenneth works as a running gag. The fun surprise has been John Ross Bowie (“The Big Bang Theory”), whose off-center approach to sitcom fatherhood reminds me of Bryan Cranston’s Hal on “Malcolm in the Middle.” Watch it: On Demand, ABC.go.com, ABC app.
“Better Call Saul” (AMC)
In an era when time-shifting has made avoiding spoilers an obsession, this “Breaking Bad” prequel starring Bob Odenkirk as the future Saul Goodman continues to demonstrate that knowing how a story ends — even if it’s in a Cinnabon in Omaha — doesn’t have to spoil the still-hopeful present. Watch it: Season 1 on Netflix. Season 2 available on DVD and Blu-ray and for paid streaming.
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (HBO)
In the craziest of election years, Oliver’s hilariously informative weekly show managed to dig deep into genuine issues, from Guantánamo Bay to pyramid schemes. I also loved TBS’ “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” and only wish I could see what Bee might do with HBO-level resources (and no commercials). Watch it: New episodes of “Last Week Tonight” resume Feb. 12.
“American Crime” (ABC)
The second season of John Ridley’s anthology drama proved the power of television to challenge stereotypes, as several members of the cast, including Regina King, Felicity Huffman, Elvis Nolasco and Timothy Hutton returned in roles very different from the ones they played in the first.
That Nolasco, who had played a sad, drugged-out murder suspect in the first season, became a high-school principal in the second was a reminder of how versatile good actors are — and how much casting matters. Watch it: Seasons 1 and 2 are on Netflix.
“You’re The Worst” (FX)
A romantic comedy for people who know how hard happily-ever-after can be, “You’re the Worst” stars Aya Cash and Chris Geere as Gretchen and Jimmy, who belong together only because no one else would put up with them and who are surrounded by people who are in no better shape than they are. Finding the comedy in depression, PTSD and the loss of a parent isn’t as easy as this show makes it look, but it’s worth the effort. Watch it: Season 3 On Demand, FXnetworks. com, FXNow app. Seasons 1 and 2 on Hulu.