Cult Fix’s Best TV of 2016 (15-11)
Feature by Louis Rabinowitz.
There’s never been as much on TV as there is right now. As streaming services and channels hop aboard the original series bandwagon and up their levels of content in a landscape that’s getting ever more competitive, the number of shows out there has swollen to 500 in the US alone, and it’s just getting bigger. In amidst the onrush of new content, though, some shows have reached some incredible new heights of storytelling and innovation, from the delicate balance of comedy and tragedy in shows like BoJack Horseman and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the cerebral inventiveness of shows like Westworld and Black Mirror and the ever-improving superheroics of shows like Supergirl and Luke Cage, making for a year in which television has never been more exciting to keep up with. With so much choice out there, narrowing it down to the very best is nigh-on impossible… but disregarding that, here is Cult Fix’s top fifteen shows of 2016.
15. Luke Cage
Considering how stellar Marvel’s Netflix shows have been, Luke Cage had a tough challenge on its hands from the get-go in living up to the efforts of Daredevil and Jessica Jones. And, granted, this was probably the weakest first season of the three.
Still, Luke Cage is on this list for a reason. Especially in its first seven episodes, Luke Cage developed something rare in an ever-so-slightly homogenous superhero landscape: a voice that was interesting, complex and unlike any of its counterparts. This was a show plugged into rich themes of community and legacy, preoccupied consistently with the impact of its stories upon its wider setting, and aware of the historical context of heroes and legends that Luke finds himself forced to hold up and continue. It made smart, quietly subversive usage of its imagery of a Luke, termed a ‘bulletproof black man’ by the creators, calmly striding through storms of bullets with an effortless sense of confidence in his own mission. It used music in a way no other superhero property, bar Guardians of the Galaxy, could rival, developing its own soulful and introspective feel through shrewdly chosen music and the odd live performance.
Also, it had one hell of a cast from the steely Mike Colter to the chilling Mahershala Ali, proving that the key to a good story often just lies in hiring actors who can bring power and pathos to even the most rudimentary scripts. It’s true that not all of this was the case all the way through – some of the back half fell into generic superhero territory as it pivoted into a snoozy revenge plot, but even then, every episode had a bit of the individual spark and thoughtfulness that propelled the first half into the upper echelon of superhero TV. Rough around the edges, this was a show bursting with potential that it only partially managed to enact, which is why the promise of season two with a longer development time is so promising.
How do you sum up a show like Preacher? Perhaps the best thing would be to skip plot specifics, and just to call it what it is: the weirdest show on television by a country mile. That means weird in every sense – brilliantly weird with moments of inspired creativity that no other show could possibly match, typically weird with a gallery of eccentric characters with their own idiosyncrasies like every small town drama, and sometimes just confusingly weird, with stories that slump forward and loop back on themselves and imagery that would probably have been better if it were left to the imagination. Put it this way, though – in such an overloaded landscape filled with generic focus-grouped mediocrity, Preacher’s utterly unique brand of unpredictable weirdness was something to cherish. It’s one of the very few shows where every episode will have a moment that takes every viewer, even the savviest comics-reader and Reddit theorist by baffled surprise, and the limitless possibilities in the structure it’s set up by the end of the season make it a hugely intriguing prospect in the long-term.
13. The Good Place
So much focus is put on the dark and gritty dramas being churned out that it’s sometimes hard to forget that some of TV’s most exciting work is being done in comedy. Comedy is all about a looser feel and lowered stakes, and that creates a broader canvas for creators that’s had some really exciting results this year. A great example of that is The Good Place, which premiered on NBC this autumn. This show, set within a pastel-coloured afterlife, crams dozens weird and wonderful ideas into each of its unfortunately short 20-minute episodes, sketching out its delightfully odd depiction of the afterlife in such detail it’s downright impressive that it manages to maintain a pacy and interesting narrative about a ‘thoroughly mediocre’ woman who ended up in the Good Place through an administrative error. The Good Place is so much fun, helped by a pair of terrific comedic performances by leads Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, and so utterly original that it’ll almost certainly be cancelled by the end of the season.
Humans had the unfortunate luck this year of being held till autumn, which meant that it found itself premiering in the shadow of another show about artificial intelligence and the meaning of consciousness that could explore those themes with a flashier cast and shinier production values (but more on that show up the list). Yet in season two, it’s carved out a niche for itself as a warm and engrossing character drama first, and a cerebral sci-fi second. Make no mistake, season two has still found plenty of room for thought-provoking ruminations on the nature of consciousness and the meaning of the self, but it’s done so in a way that’s… well, human, focused on how these questions affect both humans and Synths alike, and how they deal with that emotionally. It’s wrapped its themes around a gallery of characters who are multi-faceted and genuinely worth rooting for, ensuring that this is that rare show that continues to put out sci-fi that’s incredibly accessible, yet heady and cerebral.
11. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
And speaking of weird, inventive comedy, here’s a show that works despite every indication that it shouldn’t. Kimmy Schmidt managed to somehow craft a premise that seemed better suited to a gritty drama into genuinely hilarious, ever-so-slightly depressing comedy in season one, and it only built upon that in this year’s second season. The show couldn’t work without Ellie Kemper’s shining lead performance that maintains Kimmy’s indefatigable enthusiasm while keeping a keen eye on the sadness that lies beneath her optimistic surface, but season two managed to broaden out far beyond her story, servicing one of TV’s most diverse and likeable ensembles with stories that delved deep into issues of class, race, sexuality and politics at a solid rate of about 100 jokes per hour. Beyond the seemingly alienating presence, this is one of the deepest and yet most purely funny comedies around, and it’s only improving as it heads into next year’s third season.
Continued tomorrow with 10-6.