Cult Fix’s Best TV of 2016 (10-6)
Feature by Louis Rabinowitz.
10. Mr. Robot
Mr. Robot is an unusual show. Every episode, I expect greatness, and have to look for it instead, really hard. It holds back answers to its mysteries for aeons – there are some mysteries from season one that, going into season three, are still completely unclear. Its story meanders so intensely that it’s safe to say that about 80% of its screen-time can be chalked up as delaying tactics. Sometimes, just to prove it can, it’ll just stop caring about whether things make sense, and offer up a scene that’s completely incomprehensible from any perspective, then ending with the promise of a mystery to be solved about why the scene was completely incomprehensible.
Yet I can’t not appreciate this show, for all of the downward turn in quality that’s evident from the superlative opening season. Season two was made right in the onrush of awards love and mainstream success of season one, and you can tell the validation that the creator feels in every frame. It goes big and brash and weird in everything it does, throwing mainstream appeal right out of the window. Sometimes, as explained above, that ends in incomprehensibly weird failure. Sometimes, though, it ends in genius, and it ends far too frequently in genius to ever count the show out.
Season two had gloriously weird structural experiments like a 20-minute segment that served as an eerie parody of 90s family sitcoms. It often ditched its main character for side adventures with supporting characters who became vastly more interesting and dynamic. And when the show regained its focus and began to sprint forward, it was hard not to get swept along in the frenzied momentum of it all as events spiralled towards a chaotic and unpredictable end.
Mr Robot season two was a strange, problematic season of TV, full of dead ends and circular stories, but it was hard to take your eyes off it, as capable as it was of moments of creative genius that no other show can match.
9. Person of Interest
Person of Interest might sound like a dull CBS procedural, and may have started off conforming to that stereotype, but it blossomed in time into one of the most underrated sci-fi dramas around, exploring the implications of both benevolent and malicious artificial intelligence through some increasingly creative scenarios. Unfortunately, it hit its final season this year, squished into a burn-off schedule by a network that killed it with fire once it became interesting, and it managed to craft one hell of a send-off. It’s the rare network show that’s inventive and freewheeling on a miniature budget, working together smart and innovative ideas while delivering gut punch after gut punch as it became clear that the creators would happily murder any of the cast, at any time, in any way. For all the invention and tragedy, though, POI‘s last stand managed to be one of the most profound and hopeful endings I’ve ever seen on a show, even as it casually continued to kill off its main cast right up until the end. Person of Interest was too clever and too original to work on a network exclusively populated by has-been comedy stars in low-concept sitcoms where they have to learn to be dads, but it went out swinging. It has now been replaced in its timeslot by NCIS: New Orleans. Life is tough sometimes.
If you’re a fan of comic-book TV, 2016 couldn’t have been a better year. You have Marvel’s ongoing Netflix juggernaut, ABC’s Marvel spy dramas (including the dearly departed Agent Carter), Fox’s pair of oddball DC Comics outliers in Gotham and Lucifer and the CW’s DC universe that swelled to four shows as of this autumn. There’s never been more choice in that regard. One show, however stood out amongst the flock this year: Supergirl. After a promising but rickety first run of episodes in 2015, it worked out the kinks in 2016 and really soared. Supergirl works because it’s unashamedly optimistic – its hero loves saving people, and the city populace often end up standing up and performing their own acts of heroism because they’re all really great people at heart. In a lot of ways, it’s the perfect show for the current political climate, offering a stirring rebuke to all the division and ugliness that’s dominated 2016 in its diverse cast (one of this year’s highlights involved a key character coming out) and thoughtful exploration of immigrant perspectives through the old, but ceaselessly effective ‘aliens = foreigners’ sci-fi metaphor. Oh, and it’s also just a whole lot of fun – take the incredibly enjoyable Flash crossover that offered the perfect, sunny antidote to Batman v Superman in the very same week that movie came out, or the two appearances from Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman, a staunchly classical interpretation of the character who exudes the same selflessness and enjoyment of his powers as Supergirl herself. Supergirl is a joyful, fun show, but it’s also defiantly progressive in its outlook and determined to use its genre trappings to provide a positive, sometimes even inspiring alternative to a real world that looks grimmer and more backwards in comparison to the idealistic world of National City.
7. Stranger Things
Funny to think about it, but there was a time when Stranger Things was just another show. Its marketing was pretty sparing, the pre-release buzz mostly just focused around Winona Ryder’s high-profile return to acting, and it was, on the whole, hard to pick it out from the increasing tidal wave of upcoming original content on Netflix. Now, of course, it’s a brand in of itself. The word ‘Barb’ is now universally recognised shorthand. Eggo waffles have received a new burst of popularity. People name their kids ‘Eleven’.
It’s kind of comforting that below the monolithic hype and incessant memes, Stranger Things is just a really solid story with excellent production values and a fantastic cast. It’s uncomplicated meat-and-potatoes sci-fi that offers simple pleasures that the TV landscape could learn a lot from. For one, it’s paced perfectly, leaving the bloat of every other Netflix original behind for a lean, mean eight hours that never lets up, packing in solely the stories it needs and packing major plot developments each and every episode to ensure that the series can be enjoyed slowly, one by one, rather than in a rushed binge. For two, it has the best cast of child actors you’ll ever meet, who form such a likeable and believable friendship group that you’ll forget why you ever hated child actors in the third place, to say nothing of the excellent performances from Winona Ryder and David Harbour as the conflicted adults who just happen to be a few steps behind the intrepid kids. And for three, it’s that rare mystery show that answers all its questions and keeps its mythology nice and constrained. The idea of TV seasons as extended movies has often led to shapeless and meandering storytelling, yet here we have a show that really does function as a satisfying, close-ended eight-hour movie. Season two, instead of being a necessity to complete the story, is a nice, luxurious sequel that gives us more time to spend with the characters. Stranger Things isn’t dazzling, but it’s dependable, consistent and entertaining comfort food TV that’s pleasingly unpretentious about its goals.
6. Game of Thrones
After four punchy seasons, last year’s fifth season of GOT seemed to suggest a few cracks in the ship, as the story began to meander and rely upon empty and exploitative shock value to mark time until the next delayed plot development. Finally, though, with Game of Thrones setting the end-game set for 2018, season six finally abandoned the forward-looking slow-burn and began to pay things off while gradually narrowing down the cast to the big hitters. That led to a whole slew of iconic, rewarding pay-offs that worked as legitimately rewarding drama as well as moments of punch-the-air catharsis (the Battle of the Bastards), open-mouthed shock (Cersei’s rise to power) and probably a few tears (Hodor). Season six kept up the sprawling, interweaving action that’s always been GOT‘s trademark, but it really lifted into being one of the strongest runs yet by telling new kinds of stories – one where the good guys won occasionally, where the outcomes actually satisfied instead of just eliciting shock. While fellow cable mega-hit The Walking Dead becomes flabbier and repetitive in its old age, GOT is as fresh-faced as ever, surging into its final two shortened seasons with plenty of momentum.
Concludes tomorrow with 5-1.