The 20 best TV shows of 2016

In a gruelling year, TV was never better...

2016 was a year when most of us were glued to our TV screens, looking on, depending on your political beliefs, in horror or delight as things took a turn in ways very few people predicted.

Despite the myriad deaths of some of the stars who burned brightest, regardless of election results that were dogged by misinformation and lies, one of the good things about 2016 was that the platinum age of television we are currently enjoying. It stretched right across the 12 months of 2016, and shows no sign of stopping soon.

Prestige dramas from the US continue to dominate the best of list, with a few comedies, following the in vogue style of not being particularly funny, punctuating the list.

It was also a year in which Irish television proved itself robust when facing the ever-changing media landscape. RTÉ’s lavish costume drama Rebellion, set during the Easter Rising, may have struggled and succumbed to some rather toothless plotting, but it showed that the national broadcaster has at least got some ambition to go head to head with the world when it comes to scripted TV shows.

TV3 has quietly become a serious player; its gamble of launching its own soap opera (Red Rock) after UTV Ireland poached away Coronation Street and Emmerdale paid off in dividends, with UTV Ireland soon to wind up operations as we know them, Red Rock sold to the BBC, and the British ratings winners back where they were two years ago.

RTÉ Two continues to face challenges, its youthful audience dwindling and not tuning into its Reality Bites docuseries, regardless of how well made some of the programmes are and the number of column inches and social media posts they generate.

When compiling an end of year list, there’s also the caveat of late-in-the-game releases. See last December’s Making a Murderer, released globally on Netflix after most ‘Best Of’ charticles had already been put to bed. As such, that rules Steve Avery’s jaw-dropping story out of this year’s list, a fate that looks set to be matched by The OA, the new sci-fi series that the global streaming giant has dropped out of nowhere on December 16th. That's also the issue with Amazon's Video Prime service only just arriving in Ireland in December.

The other excuse for why your own favourites didn’t make the list can most likely be chalked down to it remaining unseen. With more TV than ever before, the cracks through which quality shows slip are wider than ever.

20: Westworld

HBO's would-be heir to the Game of Thrones crown kicked off with a first season so ponderously dull and navel-gazing that all of the violence and background sexual encounters mostly went unnoticed. The series looks fantastic and ended on a high, but like the mythical maze it spent so long working up towards, it just had a few too many pointless twists.

Still, Thandie Newton as Maeve is the show's stand-out star, chewing scenery and delivering Westworld's best (but also only) funny lines as a character who, frankly, seems to have been plucked from Westeros and lost in Westworld. 

19: South Park

Matt Stone and Trey Parker show no sign of having lost the searingly satirical touch that has made South Park the most daring animated TV show currently on the air. It's worth taking a moment to compare where The Simpsons was by the time animation's first family had reached their 20th season versus South Park, which fearlessly rips shreds out of everything we know about American culture, pop and political.

Having changed things up last year by shifting to a season-long arc, this year's run followed the US election to a grim end and terrifying beginning - President Herbert Garrison. 

18: Atlanta

Donald Glover is the renaissance man James Franco wishes he was, a multi-talented actor, writer, director, and rapper. The freshman episode of his comedic look at Atlanta's music scene arrived with the kind of brash confidence and perfect rhythm it takes most shows an entire season to find.

The writing is fresh, authentic, and funny; the performances universally excellent, and the material shows a deft understanding of the difficulties of pursuing creative passions when confronting the realities of adult responsibilities. 

17: Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

Many things don't quite work in the four feature-length episodes of the Gilmore Girls revival that Netflix unleashed on the world in November - that Stars Hollow: The Musical scene, for instance. But, when at its best, A Year in the Life showed a perfect understanding of what its fans wanted. See, as an example of some of the finest TV acting of the year, the epic fight between Lorelai and Emily after Richard's funeral, a stinging reminder that for all the talk of Gilmore Girls' fast-paced pop-culture riffing, its greatest strength has always been how the writing and cast realise its bruising family brawls. 

16: Black Mirror

While not quite the profound piece of technophobic entertainment some of its fans want to believe it is, the anthology series returned for a new run of standalone episodes on Netflix this year with several intriguing premises.

With bigger names attached across direction and performers than ever before, Charlie Brooker delivered the show's most shocking twist yet with San Junipero, an hour-long love story that asks some difficult questions, but which shows technology in the most positive - and neon-tinged - light the show ever has.

15: Orange is the New Black

The best season of Netflix's undervalued look at the American prison system to date, OITNB fully shakes off all of the issues that riled fans up at the beginning and reshapes the narrative into a daring, funny, sexy, and quietly powerful look at womanhood today.

From the only possible outcome of Piper's self-aggrandising belief that she was someone not to mess with, through to shifting balance of power between the inmates and prison guards, this season delivered on all counts. The cast, arguably the most ethnically and physically diverse of any television show today, continues to make life at Litchfield essential viewing, while the show delivered one of its most brutally sad departures ever, reminding us that it isn't afraid to kill its darlings.  

14: Insecure

A perfect companion piece to Atlanta, Issa Rae's HBO comedy ultimately breaks down to a fantastic portrait of female friendship in south Los Angeles. Rae plays Issa Dee, a smart and funny young woman in a stagnant relationship, looking for professional satisfaction in her non-profit job, but too content to coast in both. Yvonne Orji plays her friend Molly, whose career has taken off, but who navigates the miseries of the modern dating culture with growing disdain.

Far more interesting than the 'It's like a black Girls' label applied to it early on, instead the show comes across as one that would never purport to being 'the voice of a generation', but one that understands what that generation wants to voice.

13: Great British Bake Off

It's a bit unfortunate that this year's batch of bakers, the last to be seen on the show's original home of the BBC, were somewhat eclipsed by the altogether more entertaining shit storm of behind-the-scenes dealings that saw Love Productions take the money and run.

Granted, the baking was arguably never better than before, but the cast of contestants failed to whip up the same level of piqued interest as 2015's show. Instead, the defection to Channel 4 by Paul Hollywood (while Mary, Mel and Sue have opted to hitch their rides to something as yet unannounced) became one of the biggest stories of the year, and made the finale of the seventh season one of the most watched TV shows of the year. 

12: Game of Thrones

While it did build up to one of the most breathtaking finales the show has ever had, a lot of what preceded it seemed to indulge some of the worst aspects of the show's storytelling.

Certainly, we all could have done with a bit less of Arya learning to be nameless, and the revelation of Hodor's name is perhaps not the epic piece of narrative plot twist that should have the script writing team slapping themselves on the back.

A solid set of ten episodes, this season got some of the expository heavy lifting done, moving the remaining players around the board and towards the places we needed them to be in the gear up to the big finale that's no more than 15 episodes away. Still though, Cersei's wine sip is almost enough in and of itself to merit a place in any list of the year's best TV moments.

11: Keeping Ireland Alive: The Health Service in a Day

Perhaps one of the biggest projects ever to be tackled by Irish television, this ambitious RTÉ docu-series saw 75 camera crews attempting to capture a look at the Irish health service, warts and all.

With locations all over the country, examining everything from bionic surgical enhancements to a choir for people with dementia, this bold report on the health of the nation on a day in May proved to be incredibly moving, frequently awe-inspiring, and an honest reminder that Irish TV excels the most when telling the real stories of real people. 

10: Bojack Horseman

While Bojack Horseman's plot lines don't deviate too far from what could be expected in any other show about a washed-up actor trying to rebuild his career while struggling with the misery of millions of dollars in the bank, what separates the Netflix animated comedy from everything else is how satisfyingly nuanced it is.

The characters - depressed, ambitious, and hungry for adoration - are, for want of a better phrase, so well drawn and rounded that it is impossible not to empathise with what is essentially a talking horse with addiction issues. There's a seam of surrealism winding through this satire of Hollywood, rebranded as Hollywoo in the show; a place where human beings and anthropomorphic animals co-exist, each as selfish as the other. 

9: Veep

In a year when American politics became so bizarre as to make Julia Louis-Dreyfus's President Selina Meyer seem like a safe pair of hands, Veep pulled off something quite unexpected; not only did the show manage the loss of its Scottish creator Armando Iannucci, it also moved the plot along to a place where viewers really have no idea what to expect when it returns next year.

Blisteringly funny, with scathing one-liners and insults that you'll wish you could produce the next time you're in a fight, 2016 is the year that shows that the making-it-up-as-they-go-along President is probably far truer to life than any of us would like to know.

8: The Americans

Is The Americans the most underrated show on television? Almost certainly, but at least its fourth season proved a breakout one, with its two stars finally getting nominations for acting awards at the Emmys and Golden Globes.

The tale of two embedded KGB spies in 1980s Washington DC, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell lead a cast of thrilling and heartbreaking performances, with almost every single character constantly treading moral lines in the dangerous game of intelligence and counter-intelligence. Making brilliant use of its time period, peppering the storyline with obvious and forgotten pop culture ephemera, The Americans packs a serious punch, with its plot twists leaving you out for the cold.

7: American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson

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It's probably safe to say that nobody expected the writers of Agent Cody Banks would go on to craft this brilliantly pulpy look at the trial of the century. Ryan Murphy delivered lightning in a bottle here, capturing a perfect tone in this look at Simpson's murder trial and exoneration, with Sarah Paulson's career-defining turn as prosecutor Marcia Clark the best female performance of the year.

With the audience knowing what the ultimate outcome of the trial would be, that the show somehow manages to get more entertaining with each and every episode is a testament to its writing and acting, a perfect combination of casting and direction. Here's hoping they can pull it off again with seasons two and three, covering Hurricane Katrina and the Gianni Versace murder respectively. 

6: Stranger Things

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Surely the buzziest TV show of 2016, the Duffer Brothers were rejected by 15 other networks before Netflix finally gave them the go-ahead to make this tribute to 1980s Spielberg movies. The story of three boys on the hunt for their missing friend, the show finds its heart in Eleven, a mysterious and mostly mute girl who turns up and gets things moving, literally.

It became an overnight hit, with fans worldwide falling in love with the show's gorgeous design, its haunting theme song, and the online rallying cries of justice for the much-maligned Barb. The pitch-perfect homage to things that go bump in the night proved that nostalgia-tapping shows about wise-mouth kids could be a massive hit with adults everywhere.

5: Gogglebox Ireland

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An extremely rare instance of a British show crossing the Irish Sea and not only being good, but arguably better than what came before it. No, seriously. The producers of Gogglebox Ireland have done an incredibly good job at casting the show, finding several households of immediately likable TV viewers, a never-ending supply of leather couches, and loads of dogs.

Opening the series with the bongs of the Angelus, the selection of television programmes watched has been pitch perfect, from classic movies to the delightul shade thrown by TV3 to RTÉ's daytime offering Maura & Daithi. A show like Gogglebox lives and dies on how watchable its households are, and the ones who have invited us into their homes come across as generous, quick witted, and painfully honest in their appraisal of TV entertainment, offering perhaps the widest-reaching look at the Irish middle class.

4: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

While the elevator pitch of a TV musical about a woman dealing with mental health issues might put off most viewers, Rachel Bloom's brilliant TV show is a revelation. In Rebecca Bunch, a high-powered and miserable New York lawyer who throws it all away to follow her one-time boyfriend to California, without his invitation, the show presents viewers with a lead character who keeps it altogether by being smart, ambitious, conniving, selfish, and occasionally honest with herself.

The songs, pastiches of music styles and Broadway classics, are incredibly catchy and funny, with the cast more than capable of carrying the material above and beyond. When Bloom claimed the Golden Globe last February for 'Best Actress in a TV Comedy', few on this side of the Atlantic had even heard of the show, but anyone who takes the time to watch its first episode, one of the best TV pilots of recent years, should probably set aside enough evenings to binge through the rest of it.

3: Fleabag

The most frustrating thing about Phoebe Waller-Bridge's six-part adaptation of her own award-winning one-woman show is how few people saw it. Starting out on BBC Three, no longer available in Ireland, it quietly graduated to BBC Two, failing to garner much attention until well into its run, when the opportunity to catch up on what had been missed was extended only to those happy enough to look the other way when it comes to online piracy.

Waller-Bridge stars as Fleabag, a London café owner navigating the modern world of sex, family, and grief, breaking the fourth wall to speak to the viewer, even if only with a raise of an eyebrow that says more than most shows can with a line of dialogue. While it may not be the most laugh-out-loud comedy you'll come across on TV, the jokes it does land hit with such force that you're unlikely to forget them any time soon.

2: RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars

Yes, this is the era of prestige television, but that isn't just a label for dramas and dramas masquerading as comedies. Reality TV has also never been better, and this is it at its absolute best. Ostensibly, the second season of All Stars was just an exercise in fan wish fulfillment, reuniting some of the biggest names of the show's past, but it is impossible to not be utterly slayed by the drama and joy to be had watching a bunch of gay men dressing up as women and competing to be named the best drag queen of the kingdom. Or should that be queendom?

Regardless, the show might be a hard sell to those who've not seen it, but understand that if you live for reality competition television shows, this elevates them to the fiercest level of competition fun you've ever seen, and if you hate reality competition television shows, this skewers all of their tropes and silliness in cutting and bitchy ways. 

1: Planet Earth II

Was there a moment in scripted entertainment, whether on television or at the movies, more thrilling than the iguana chase scene in the first episode of the BBC's brilliant nature series? As a single moment from the series, it encapsulates everything so brilliant about Planet Earth, showcasing astonishing film footage, life or death stakes, and the kind of editing that ties it all together in ways that allow the viewers to follow with their hearts in their mouths.

Coming 10 years after the show's initial run, David Attenborough's narration continues his tenure as the voice of nature, an omniscient and earnestly fair commentator on the cruel indifference of nature and the quirky genius of evolution. Scored by Howard Zimmer's original music, the footage took four years to capture, but makes the most of advances in technology to explore every corner of the world in exquisite detail.   

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