The Best TV Dramas of 2016

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Photo: AMC
Photo: AMC

I’m dividing my TV best list into two: dramas and (posting tomorrow) comedies, which means that, in this age of Too Much (Quality) TV, my 10 best is really a 20 best, and I still have notes on some 15 other shows that could have made the cut. In other words, TV year-end lists are currently a challenge to find ways of cram in all the stuff you like. Year-end lists are fun to compile and read — I like to read other people’s lists, to see where our tastes coincide or diverge. For the first time, I’ve decided to put my list in alphabetical order, because it was impossible to decide which of these excellent shows demanded to be first or last.

The Americans (FX): The tale of Russian spies operating out of suburban America dug deeper into the emotional strains and rifts that living duplicitous lives can create. The show also now looks freshly relevant, given that the present-day accusations of Russian influence on the past election can be seen to have parallels to The Americans’ espionage plotting.

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Better Call Saul (AMC): I loved the escalation in tension between Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy and Michael McKean’s Chuck, brothers with deep bonds that are frayed by emotional razors. In its depiction of corporate life as both ruthless and soulless, Better Call Saul is easily the best workplace satire since Joseph Heller’s 1974 novel, Something Happened.

Luke Cage (Netflix): The CW and producer Greg Berlanti have made DC Comics heroes fun to watch. This Marvel Comics adaptation via Netflix and producer Cheo Hodari Coker digs a little deeper. Luke Cage pays off on the fantasy of invulnerability and super-strength even as the title-role performance by Mike Colter shows us how vulnerable and wounded the character can be.

The Night Of (HBO): This eight-part series from writer Richard Price and director Steve Zaillian (based on a British show) was a tough little law-and-order saga with superb performances by Riz Ahmed as the accused, John Turturro as his itchy defense lawyer, and Bill Camp as a cop schlumping into retirement while making one final effort to do the right thing. This production also helped HBO fill the void that was left in its fine-crime-drama slot after the first season of True Detective.

Related: Ken Tucker’s Picks for the 10 Best TV Comedies of 2016

O.J.: Made in America (ESPN): I know, I know: This is a documentary, not fictionalized drama, but come on, was there a more dramatic piece of television that aired all year (excluding the presidential election, of course)? Seizing on a story we thought we knew, Made in America opened out to take in late-20th-century race relations, black pop culture, and white privilege.

Photo: FX
Photo: FX

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX): I never thought producer Ryan Murphy — so often a trickster and a prankster — would pull off an engrossing fact-based, fiction-laced production that rang true for nearly every second of its length. Yes, even when John Travolta was camping it up as Robert Shapiro. The amazing performances by Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, and Courtney B. Vance were among the year’s strongest.

Quarry (Cinemax): The year’s most underrated — or perhaps just under-the-radar — drama is this finely detailed Southern noir set in the 1970s, about a Vietnam vet who becomes a reluctant hit man. Taking a pulp-novel series written by Max Allan Collins, Greg Yaitanes — who directed all eight first-season episodes — has created a visually mesmerizing thriller that recalls the heyday of ’70s crime films with political underpinnings, such as Karel Reisz’s Who’ll Stop the Rain. I’m hoping there’s a second season.

Ray Donovan (Showtime): The fourth season of the Liev Schreiber crime saga was pleasingly hard-boiled, and tightly focused on Ray’s job as a Hollywood fixer, which is always the sweet spot of this series. It handled the problems of Ray’s fantastically neurotic family with firm control as well.

Photo: Sundance TV
Photo: Sundance TV

Rectify (Sundance): Writer-producer Ray McKinnon’s gorgeous story of crime, punishment, and family in Georgia is one of the greatest recent achievements in television. As it draws to a close, you can see that all four seasons cohere like a good, meaty novel. Few TV dramas have ever done more with silences and quiet moments.

This Is Us (NBC): There’s still something a bit gimmicky and sure-enough manipulative about the time jumps in this Dan Fogelman-created drama, but the purity of the show’s intentions — to suggest how complex and ever-changing our relationships are — pushed This Is Us past my reservations. A terrific ensemble cast (my favorite TV couple this year is Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson’s Randall and Beth) helps make the show one of the few bright spots in network TV.

Related: Yahoo TV’s Complete Best of 2016 Coverage