I’ve never had a more difficult time trying to narrow my yearly picks down to just 10. For as long as it lasts, here’s to “peak TV” and its seemingly limitless offerings.
1. “O.J.: Made in America” (ESPN) A remarkable work of research and synthesis, Ezra Edelman’s 7 1/2-hour documentary is a powerfully persuasive essay on the subject of justice in America as it pertains to race. After 20 years of throwing up our hands at the mere mention of the O.J. Simpson trial and verdict (whether in exasperation or exultation), Edelman’s masterful handling of fact and context was the best thing on TV this year, notable for its deliberate, almost haunting sense of calm in a culture consumed by injustice.
2. “Veep” (HBO) Five seasons in (and with a new showrunner, too) it was easy to assume that this viciously sharp political comedy wouldn’t be able to compete with 2016’s real-life freak show of a presidential campaign. But “Veep” went for broke, plunging Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her brief presidency into a full-blown electoral college crisis, which made for the show’s funniest and most poignant moments so far – and a true companion piece to the times we live in.
3. “The Americans” (FX) The pivotal fourth season of this Reagan-era drama about a married pair of Soviet spies living in Northern Virginia (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) seemed intent on leaving viewers with no fingernails left to bite. Now that the show officially has two seasons left (and has finally gained the attention of more viewers), the anxiety level can only get worse as the FBI gets closer and closer to discovering our anti-heroes.
4. “Transparent” (Amazon) The accolades for Jill Soloway’s flawless dramedy are mainly for the journey of its main character, Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), as she explores life as a woman. But Season 3 broadened “Transparent’s” ambitious themes of identity within the Pfefferman family, dating to Maura’s parents’ escape from the Holocaust. This is no longer just a show about being transgender. It is also a profound, beautifully told story about the American Jewish experience.
5. “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” (FX) Who would’ve believed a year ago that two of the best TV shows of 2016 would have been about the 1994-1995 O.J. Simpson trial? Not me. But “People v. O.J.” instantly overcame viewers’ appetite for Ryan Murphy-style camp (John Travolta as Robert Shapiro?) and instead delivered an addictive work of thoughtfully structured re-enactment.
6. “Atlanta” (FX) Donald Glover’s dreamlike dramedy has an experimental and laid-back vibe; it can be wildly tangential and seem never quite finished. In a predominantly black Atlanta suburb, we follow Earn (Glover) as he attempts to manage the burgeoning rap career of his cousin and help provide for the child he has with his on-again/off-again lover. “Atlanta” isn’t quite the sharply focused work of social commentary that some viewers may have expected, but it’s far more impressive as an intricate mural of a community.
7. “Quarry” (Cinemax) This violent and morally ambiguous 1970s crime drama seemed at first like so much else in cableville, but “Quarry” is so masterfully crafted – and so rich in characters and memorable scenes – that it deserved a whole lot more eyeballs and attention than it got. Logan Marshall-Green won me over as Mac, a Marine who returns from Vietnam to his home town of Memphis and winds up working as a hit man. “Quarry’s” eight episodes build out an absorbing story, rivetingly told.
8. “The Night Of” (HBO) A worthy answer to the question of what a typical episode of a court procedural (such as “Law & Order”) would look like if things were slowed to the relative speed of the real world’s justice system, giving viewers a chance to ruminate not only on the trial process, but also the utterly human dimensions of a murder case seen from all sides. “The Night Of” displays a refreshing directness (no subtextual riddles to solve or philosophical clues to debate here) and a measured sense of suspense.
9. “The Crown” (Netflix) Lavish and engrossing, Peter Morgan’s 10-episode introduction to the young life of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II (acting somewhat as a prequel to Morgan’s 2006 screenplay for “The Queen”) is an Anglophilic TV watcher’s dream come true. Claire Foy and Matt Smith are excellent as the newlywed royals, but they’re no match for John Lithgow’s brilliant and belligerent ride as Winston Churchill, a lion in winter if there ever was one.
10. “Billions”(Showtime) The ads for this show made it look like one more tedious exercise in the “greed-is-good” genre of Wall Street-based dramas, but “Billions” came loaded with surprises, including dialogue that was densely, elegantly packed. It doesn’t hurt that half of it was being performed with great, gravelly expertise by Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades, a U.S. attorney who is an Ahab obsessed with harpooning a hedge-fund billionaire named Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis). Maggie Siff provides a strong anchor as Chuck’s wife, Wendy, who also works as Bobby’s in-house executive-whisperer.
Hank StueverThe Washington Post