Halt and Catch Fire - S3
#1 with a bullet. "Yerba Buena" to "NeXT" is as good a streak that we've gotten since Mad Men S5's "Mystery Date" to "Lady Lazarus" (though Enlightened S2's "Higher Power" to "All I Ever Wanted" comes close). What was once dismissed as a pale imitation now becomes the real thing (sidenote: as if we needed more proof TV has yet to fully step out of Mad Men's shadow?). This is superlative, emotionally literate storytelling that feels right because it comes across as intuitive. Synapses firing, connections short-circuiting - this drama exploring the virtual intimacy of fraying relationships set against the 80's tech boom might also be said to be of our present moment.
O.J.: Made in America
A true masterwork and an American tragedy. Ezra Edelman's sobering, staggering saga ripples through different facets of American society - advertising, sports, celebrity scandal, domestic abuse, race relations, the legal system etc. Arguments have been made on both sides of the is-it-TV-or-is-it-film debate (I vote the former) - but it's worth noting that O.J.: Made in America is a fitting capper to multiple TV trends of 2015-6: the serialized true crime documentary (The Jinx, Making a Murderer), police brutality and Black Lives Matter (Black-ish, The Carmichael Show, Orange Is the New Black) and of course, the omnipresent antihero drama (no coincidence that it shares the same title as The Sopranos finale - antiheroic mythmaking turns into sociological examination of the larger societal mechanisms that enabled and abetted these criminals). In five hour-and-a-half long episodes, Edelman sketches out a weighty tragic arc for O.J. - complete with fatal flaw - before ending on a difficult, desperately imploring note. O.J.: Made in America has the heft to match its ambition. Essential.
Atlanta - S1
2016's best comedy - if only because this blend of comedy is so unexpected. Donald Glover's gonzo absurdist humor is inflected with a scrappy, lo-fi atmosphericism. The closest parallel approximating Atlanta's unpredictable, lived-in comic rhythms is from a different medium altogether - alternative rap and R&B. Standout satirical episodes like "B.A.N." suggest Glover may have learnt a thing or two from Harmon.
BoJack Horseman - S3
That BoJack Horseman cribs so many of its key moves from Mad Men is somewhat concerning, but it makes the show's excellence all the more laudable (for now, at least). Comedy for depressives. There's an inspired Nina Simone needledrop in the finale that is all the proof you need that Raphael Bob-Waksberg gets it.
The Americans - S4
After two consecutive years at #1, season 4 might be a slight step back for FX's flagship drama. The Martha arc is harrowing stuff, but the last few episodes before the season finale are more by-the-numbers as the story loses its story engine. Biological warfare works better theoretically as conceptual metaphor than dramatically as compelling story arc. Season 4 is wedged somewhat uncomfortably between the short-story standalones of Mad Men and the persistent plot momentum of late-Breaking Bad. Still, on an episodic level there are few shows which are more consistent, and showrunners Weisberg and Fields have a remarkable, uncanny facility with tone-management (as the pronounced existential dread of "Persona Non Grata" attests). On The Americans, the best scenes run deeper than the surface - there's a single scene of Mischa speaking to his grandfather that is so sensitively acted, so masterfully handled that you are left with a sense of the boy's entire adolescence of loss, neglect and privation.
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson - S1
Much like the media storm which surrounded the O.J. trial - the hype surrounding the season served to sandpaper over some of its weaker spots (episodes three and eight specifically), where the energy lulls and it becomes noticeable that the writers are padding out the source material. There's little denying the incendiary tone of the proceedings though, and it's a joy to see an ensemble of this caliber - Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown - methodically work their way through each scene, and elevate Murphy scene-chewing to gripping populist melodrama.
The Girlfriend Experience - S1
Equal parts opaque and oblique, The Girlfriend Experience exudes a cool fascination and distant remove, which gives it the measured appeal of a found art object. Riley Keough is magnetic as the callgirl-turned-enigmatic-cipher; she keeps you guessing. File this performance next to Isabelle Huppert's in Elle. This show feels like the natural next step from European high-art films.
Rectify - S4
Surpassingly beautiful and moving. Rectify asks searching questions such as: what does it mean to go through life when you experience things so much more intensely than most people? And what does it mean when you have to right an unconscionable wrong that can never be fixed? How do we forgive ourselves and others? For that, it deserves to be remembered.
Horace and Pete - S1
Trust Louis C.K. to reinvent the dramedy form with Louie, and then also make significant inroads into revamping the multi-cam sitcom. As the anti-Cheers, Horace and Pete features some of the darkest, most despairing, lacerating and gutting lows life has to offer, as well as the stark authenticity, rigor and brutal realism of naturalistic theatre. Because there's no laugh track, the silences linger. Was there anything as absorbing and attention-grabbing as Laurie Metcalf's monologue on TV this year? Other highlights (there are many): a heartbreaking speech from Tom Noonan; Amy Sedaris makes a surprise, welcome appearance - she's the physical embodiment of a ray of sunshine. Horace and Pete is the devastating dramedy on inherited trauma and generational strife that Transparent S2 wishes it was. Some significant flaws that cannot be dismissed: the political commentary is awful, and the show has an acridness that threatens to become too nasty and unpleasant at times. It demands pitiless commiseration.
Girls - S5
"The Panic in Central Park" is the episode to watch, but on the whole season 5 is easily the most consistent season of the show since its impressive first season. Lena Dunham might no longer be the same trenchant voice of a generation, but as the characters have matured the show proves itself capable of painting with a richer emotional palette. Has quite the lovely, evocative ending.
Halt and Catch Fire > O.J.: Made in America > The Americans > American Crime Story > The Girlfriend Experience > Rectify > Better Call Saul > Person of Interest > Game of Thrones > Bates Motel > Orange Is the New Black
Atlanta > BoJack Horseman > Horace and Pete > Girls > Fleabag > Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt > You're the Worst > Transparent > Veep