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Empire has already definitively decreed what we consider the best TV shows ever. But, as we enter the home stretch of 2016, we thought it a fine time to cast our eyes back and evaluate the state of the year's small screen output. Here, then, are the very best TV shows to have lit up our living rooms over the past twelve months.
25. Gilmore Girls
After nine years away from our screens, we wondered what would be in store for Lauren Graham’s Lorelei, Alexis Bledel’s Rory and the assorted family, friends, loved ones and lunatics of Stars Hollow. Fortunately, with the return of series creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino, the four TV movie-length episodes set over a year in the women’s’ lives delivered a lot of what you’d want from the series. Snappy, funny dialogue, caring, sharing and all manner of pop culture references (they did not throw away their shot at referencing Hamilton, more than once). If the extended length occasionally highlighted some of the personal faults of Rory, the warm feelings more than made up for it. And as for the last four words… They can’t leave it there, can they?
24. The Crown
Peter Morgan – he of The Queen and The Audience – is the brain behind Netflix’s gleefully scurrilous costume soap opera. Other channels may have to tread carefully with Buckingham Palace, but there are no such strictures on the streaming platform. What the Royal Family make of the result is anyone’s guess… Beginning with a character vomiting into a toilet bowl on the morning of Elizabeth II (Claire Foy)’s marriage to dastardly foreigner Prince Philip (Matt Smith), this is not a show that shy about breaking the perceptions of what a royal costume drama should be. Netflix seemed confident about their £100m gamble: the second season was commissioned and in production before the first had even been released. The enthusiastic response now that it’s out there has proven that confidence fully justified.
23. Silicon Valley
The first season may have had the biggest laughs and the second more highs (but bigger lows), the third batch of episodes for Mike Judge’s scathingly funny start-up comedy brought some fresh misadventures for our luckless crew of socially awkward, endlessly petty programmers. With (moderate) early success has come new problems, not least for Thomas Middleditch’s nervy Richard, ousted from his own creation like a character on Game Of Thrones. Great as always this year were T.J. Miller’s Erlich Bachman, Martin Starr’s nihilistic, needling Gilfoyle and Kumail Nanjiani’s forever frustrated Dinesh. Top marks also for finding space for Stephen Tobolowski, which allowed Miller to claim improv rant of the year while calling out the new Pied Piper CEO’s old man qualities. You can watch the outtakes here.
22. Happy Valley
Don’t be fooled by the CBeebies–esque title: Happy Valley is strictly for grown-ups. And, truth be told, it isn’t exactly happy. But what it lacks in cheerfulness, it more than makes up for in quality. What could be a run-of-the-mill teatime procedural is in fact a gripping, surprising, and frequently shocking crime drama, elevated by Sally Wainwright’s ferocious scripts and Sarah Lancashire’s devastating lead turn. We can but hope it continues to be this grim oop north, if it continues to be churn out telly of this calibre.
21. Broad City
A show that’s spawned a thousand gifs. Mentees of Amy Poehler, Glazer and Abbi Jacobson play heightened versions of their Jewish-American selves – think of it as Girls’ funnier, kookier cousin – as work-shy Ilana and the slightly anxious Abbi try to get by in New York City. This season’s highlights include the pitfalls of Airbnb and a hilarious run-in with Hillary Clinton. If you don’t yet say “YAS QUEEN” like Ilana Glazer – well, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
20. BoJack Horseman
Didn’t think Netflix’s best animated effort (and one of the best ‘toons period) could get much darker and yet still stay funny? BoJack Horseman begged to differ. As our hero’s (in the loosest sense of the word) world changed for both good and ill – the awards horse race was a prime target this year – the creative team, led by Raphael Bob-Waksberg found new depths to plumb for the hard-partying lead, voiced as always with gravelly charm by Will Arnett. But even that ace card wasn’t played by the season’s best episode, a surreal, sometimes serene comedy of errors set beneath the ocean, with physical comedy to the fore that never felt like a gimmick and kept other plot lines spinning despite the almost total lack of dialogue.
Spending the best part of a decade flirting with both the TV and film elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Dominic Cooper finally got to step up to the plate proper as DC’s Jesse Custer. Playing the titular man of God, things go awry for Jesse when he’s possessed by an otherworldly entity. After a storming pilot, the show took a little while to get going, but thanks to a trio of incredibly confident performances (Joe Gilgun’s Irish vampire Cassidy stole the show) and its carefree attitude (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are part of the creative team), Preacher won’t be losing fans any time soon.
18. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Somehow finding the funny side of kidnapping, Tina Fey’s quirky sitcom began in earnest last year – but in its second season, Kimmy really found her feet. Fey’s razor-sharp writing flits nimbly and confidently between goofy surrealism and painful subject matters; here, the belly laughs come with a point to make. And the joke density is so thick, it practically requires an immediate re-watch. Which also helps to catch the many wonderful cameos: Lisa Kudrow! Amy Sedaris! Anna Camp! Ice-T! David Cross! Jeff Goldblum!
17. The Walking Dead
One name dominated the sixth season of television’s goriest show: Negan. It's hard to remember the last time a villain was teased so aggressively, all building up to a fantastically tense finale, which played out like a nightmarish ‘70s thriller. Who exactly did Negan kill? When the answer was revealed in October it was more horrifying than anyone had imagined and resulted in one of the most harrowing hours of television in memory. You may have been horrified, you may have been disgusted and you may well have vowed never to watch the show again but its effectiveness cannot be denied.
In case you've somehow remained oblivious, Lena Dunham’s comedy drama (which can boast Judd Apatow among its exec producers) is a vaguely autobiographical encounter with the lives of four young New York women: Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke and Zosia Mamet. The initial premise was Dunham’s being cut off by her parents and having to survive in the big city alone, building a new ad-hoc support network around herself, but it has since grown into a cultural phenomenon as well as a millennial feminist touchstone. This year's fifth season saw Jessa and Shoshanna get more of the show's emotional punch, setting it all up for Girls' sixth and final Season in 2017.
Detective Harry Bosch does not, as you might first expect, specialise in solving home appliance-based crimes as part of an elaborate and lucrative product placement scheme. Rather, he's a hard-bitten don't-play-by-the-rules cop in the LAPD, of the kind only found in police dramas. Adapted from the novels by Michael Connelly, this slick slice of LA neo-noir unfolds slowly and coolly, like a book, and demands patience that only a streaming binge can provide. Titus Welliver's face is his warrant in each and every episode of a sophomore Season every inch as good as the first.
14. The Fall
A sort of BBC answer to all those high-quality Scando crime dramas like The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge, The Fall follows Gillian Anderson as DSI Stella Gibson, on the trail of serial killer Jamie Dornan. Criticised in some quarters for its violence – particularly against women – it’s often not an easy watch. It was also cleary never envisaged as carrying on after its first season, making the follow-ups seem somewhat forced. But despite that, this third (and final?) outing is a fascinating, if slow-burning, character study of killer Paul Specter, suffering retrograde amnesia after a near fatal shooting. Incidentally, the title comes from T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men and neatly sums up the show’s dark philosophy: “Between the idea and the reality, Between the motion and the act falls the shadow…”
13. The Missing
A curio inasmuch as it’s a British-American co-production set in Europe, The Missing’s two seasons so far star Tchéky Karyo as a detective investigating vanished children. In series one, we’re on the case of a disappeared boy as it’s reopened eight years on from the initial event. And in series two, a girl apparently reappears after 11 years, claiming she’s been held captive with another abductee. But Karyo isn’t convinced she’s who she says she is. The show has met with near universal critical acclaim for its affecting performances and haunting tension: even more in its second batch of episodes than its first (avoiding the Broadchurch stumble). But while there are hints of a continuation in the final episode to date, there’s been no confirmation of a third season so far.
2016 felt like the year in which real-life politics overtook fictional satirical politics in the absurdity stakes. HBO’s Veep came as some comfort, then. Now through its fifth season, Armando Iannucci may have left the show he created, but Veep remains as furiously fast and fantastically foul-mouthed a farce as it ever was, with one of the most capable ensemble casts working in comedy today. In a year where the US and the UK both went to the polls, it felt as vital a piece of catharsis as ever.
You might have seen Phoebe Waller-Bridge crop up in films such as The Iron Lady or on shows including Broadchurch, but drawing from her playwriting background, she delivered one of the year’s most unexpected, delightful and devastating surprises. Adapting her stage work for TV, Waller-Bridge stars as the title character (we never learn her actual name), who is less looking for love in all the wrong places and more crashing through life like a boozed-up berserker. But there’s something much deeper, much more heartfelt and painful lurking here, and by the time you’ve seen it all, your emotions may be wrung out more than an old sponge. It’s a huge achievement, and bolstered by a fantastic supporting cast including Olivia Colman, Hugh Dennis and Sian Clifford.
10. Black Mirror
Charlie Brooker’s jet-black anthology series has been creeping audiences out for three seasons now (plus a special). One of the great joys of the speculative portmanteau is not knowing what’s coming next: each episode is a self-contained yarn, making the only real joins between the episodes thematic ones. Brooker sums up the ethos as being about the side effects of technology, where technology is perceived as being like a drug. “This area – between delight and discomfort – is where Black Mirror is set,” he explained. “The 'black mirror' of the title is the one you'll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone…”
9. Peaky Blinders
The best thing to come out of Birmingham since Jasper Carrott’s Golden Balls, Steven Knight’s blinding gangster drama continues to bring cinematic standards to the humble setting of a Thursday evening slot on BBC Two. (It's not often that A-listers like Cillian Murphy have to compete with Don’t Tell The Bride). The third series saw a welcome return of Tom Hardy and his Kray-like accent, plus new addition Paddy Considine – as the most terrifying priest since Father Jack Hackett – adding an extra layer of acting heavyweightery.
8. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
The first season in FX’s crime anthology (expect it to continue just like American Horror Story) charted the infamous 1994 murder trial, bursting at the seams with bravura performances from Sarah Paulson’s tenacious district attorney Marcia Clark, to David Schwimmer’s BFF Robert Kardashian, by way of Cuba Gooding Jr.’s titular football star. Considering 99% of viewers knew where it was headed, the show’s ability to remain nail-bitingly tense whilst never forgetting the memory of those at its heart makes it an absolute (albeit at times very difficult) must-watch.
7. The Americans
In the shadow of the nuclear-powered (and threatened) 1980s, Matthew Rhys' Philip and Keri Russell's Elizabeth Jennings are Russian sleeper agents living a seemingly normal life in suburbia. ‘Seemingly’ being the operative word, as they also smuggle information, develop sources and kill anyone who gets in their way. The merging of family and spy craft is a potent combination, helped by the fact that the emotional fallout of the couples' actions are never skimmed over. Add in some powerhouse recurring cast members (Margo Martindale, Frank Langella) and you've got a hell of a show that just kept getting better in its fourth season.
6. Line Of Duty
If you enjoy TV shows that keep you nervously chewing off fingernails or having to restrain yourself from talking back to the TV while insanely taught police action happens in front of you, then Line Of Duty was the series you should have been watching this year. Adrian Dunbar, Martin Compston, Vicky McClure and the rest pull you in with their performances, effectively wrangled by creator Jed Mercurio. It feels relevant while never forgetting to be thrilling. Like more honest cop than some of its characters, Duty does the work and doesn't cheat when it counts.
HBO (and Sky Atlantic) know that “Valar morghulis” ("all men must die", in case you don’t speak High Valyrian) applies to TV shows too, so it must be happy to see Westworld ride in as a buzzy, complicated and beautifully shot potential replacement for when its biggest gun (Game Of Thrones) heads into the sunset. The show, based — well, the concept and setting at least — on Michael Crichton’s 1973 techno-fear thriller of a theme park loaded with robots that starts to go badly wrong, the story here evolves into a meditation of human consciousness, ethics and what depths humans can plumb when given free rein. But it’s not the lofty, chilly drama some have accused it of being: you will root for the “hosts” to find their place in the world, and when you have people such as Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood and Jeffrey Wright in the cast, even exposition becomes worth hearing.
4. The Night Manager
Viewed by many as Tom Hiddleston’s Bond audition, David Farr’s adaptation of the John Le Carré novel has so much more to offer – like Olivia Colman brandishing a gun, for instance. The BBC miniseries saw Hiddleston play ex-soldier Jonathan Pine, recruited by Colman’s gender-flipped Burr to infiltrate the arms trade. Hugh Laurie gives great bad guy as Roper, but it’s Elizabeth Debicki who really left a mark as his long-suffering trophy girlfriend, Jed. Explosive and full of twists and turns, this is an incredibly worthy addition to the Le Carré canon.
3. Stranger Things
Another under-the-radar Netflix success, Stranger Things slipped onto the streaming platform with a neon-tinged bang. When young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) mysteriously vanishes, his bike-riding best friends pal up with the telekinetic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) to get to the crux of their town’s supernatural secrets. A love letter to ‘80s cinema and Stephen King (which sees Winona Ryder racking up quite the electricity bill as Will’s desperate mother, Joyce), we won’t blame you for devouring its eight episodes in one eager sitting.
2. The Night Of
An American remake of Peter Moffat’s BBC drama Criminal Justice, The Night Of comes filtered through the not inconsiderable minds of Richard Price and Steve Zaillian. The night in question remains one of sex, drugs and violence, with Riz Ahmed the apparent killer who remembers nothing of the brutal murder he’s supposed to have committed. The ever-reliable John Turturro is the lawyer representing him. Part procedural, part prison drama and part courtroom grandstand, its eight tense HBO episodes were over far too quickly. Zaillian has said that this was always conceived as a standalone series; that a second season is possible but not confirmed; and that if it happens it will forge its own path rather than continuing to adapt the BBC original.
1. Game Of Thrones
Winter finally came to Westeros this year – and Seven hells, what a season. After last year’s slow-build, the latest run of HBO’s fantasy hit found a renewed sense of purpose and vigour, bolstered by booming budgets and fever-pitch buzz. In such an eventful ten hours, it's hard to pick a highlight: the Hodor reveal was heartbreakingly constructed; the finale had more deaths than a Riverlands wedding reception; the Battle of the Bastards rivals any cinematic battle; and frankly the whole thing boasts such rich attention-to-detail, such clever long-game plotting and such richly textured characters that very little recently seen on the big or small screen even comes close. We can only pray to the Seven that the final two seasons delivers the payoff this show deserves.