As was true of my Best Dramas list, there’s only one show here from network television, and it’s not because I think sitcoms need premium-cable freedom to use naughty words to get laughs. Rather, it’s that both basic and premium cable keep on redefining what comedies can be these days, while the networks, with rare exceptions, are still trying to find the next Big Bang Theory. The list is alphabetical, because I really couldn’t say that the kind of laughs you get from John Oliver are “better” than those of, say, Broad City.
Atlanta (FX): If pressed, I’d say that this was my favorite TV show of 2016 in any category. Donald Glover’s creation — the story of a young man searching for a purpose in life, and trying at this point to manage a hip-hop performer on the verge of stardom — had everything: big laughs, small moments of great drama, tenderness, and toughness. Plus, it was one of the most beautifully filmed shows on television in any genre.
Better Things (FX): Pamela Adlon, working with Louis C.K., has created a new kind of single-mom-with-kids sitcom — moodier and more fraught, but never losing sight of its mission to keep the laughs coming. Playing a Los Angeles actor who does the breadwinning for three very challenging children, Adlon avoided cheap sarcasm and made a heartfelt show.
Broad City (Comedy Central): Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson boosted the slapstick quotient in their third season — getting trapped in a porta-potty and turning an art-gallery opening into an ink-spurting free-for-all. Both connected the stars to great comedy duos of the past (there’s a bit of Abbott and Costello in these gals) and distinguished them from current cool comedy acts who’d disdain a good pratfall. Which is not to say their verbal jokes aren’t excellent as well, but rather to remind you that these two have enormous range.
The Carmichael Show (NBC): The only network sitcom on my list is also one of the few network sitcoms to address current events in a strongly opinionated way. (Black-ish may be its only competition in this area.) Stand-up comic Jerrod Carmichael is already a smoother actor than, say, Jerry Seinfeld was two seasons into his series, and the episodes about the Bill Cosby scandal and Muslim next-door neighbors were both pointed and very funny.
Catastrophe (Amazon): Probably my favorite sitcom about marriage and parenthood right now, Catastrophe delved deeper in its second season, taking a time-jump of a couple of years to more firmly establish the relationship between the characters played by co-creators Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan. They really got into the exhaustion, exhilaration, stress, and absurdity of trying to raise a kid while trying to raise your game to meet your mate’s needs.
Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (TBS): The best political comedy of the year? It’s a close tie with John Oliver’s HBO show, I’d say. But Bee’s show had the added oomph of being hosted by a woman, operating in a field where the female gaze is appallingly lacking. Where Oliver retained a certain degree of British reserve even when he was royally cheesed off, Bee let loose with a lot of good, solid American rage; her show was consistently cathartic.
Insecure (HBO): Issa Rae revitalized the single-gal sitcom with this notably nuanced new show. Mixing solid comedy variations on dating disasters with unique takes on race relations (Issa’s interactions with her middle-school colleagues were squirmingly good), Insecure gave us a charming, fascinating new character — Rae’s fictional Issa was a complex woman. Special credit to Raphael Saadiq and Solange Knowles for the year’s best soundtrack.
Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO): To watch Oliver’s suffering as he plowed through the primary season was to share his pain and recognize how superior his pain was to ours. By which I mean, his ability to articulate just how awful the choices America faced, and how helpless he felt in the face of them, were ultimately inspiring. Plus, his deep dives into subjects such as the EU Brexit vote were both informative (no “fake news” disclaimers from him) and hilarious in a poignant way.
Search Party (TBS): One of the most pleasant surprises of the year was this eccentric yet sometimes quite moving satire of millennials, murder mysteries, and the true-crime genre. Alia Shawkat shed her Arrested Development persona with ease, slipping into the nervous, depressed, soulful skin of Dory, who fixates on the disappearance of a young woman to give her own aimless life new purpose.
Veep (HBO): Another great season of the Julia Louis-Dreyfus sitcom, made all the more impressive for the way producer David Mandel took over from creator Armando Iannucci and somehow managed to make the show even more profane, more biting, and ferociously funnier. I’m looking forward to the way Louis-Dreyfus and Mandel will make the Trump ascension a shadow theme in its next season.