25. RuPaul’s Drag Race
Season: 8; All Stars, 2.
Most Valuable Player (MVP): As this is the sole reality program on our list, let’s cut Drag Race a break and divide this award into two categories: judge and contestant. For the latter, the clear standout is Katya Zamolodchikova, a season seven competitor (and eventual Miss Congeniality) who came back to absolutely dominate the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars. Did she win the crown? No, and it doesn’t matter. In and out of drag, this queen is the funniest bitch on television.
As for the other? As my friend Neal likes to say every time RuPaul Charles walks the runway, “G.O.A.T.” As the Heidi Klum, Tim Gunn, and Tyra Banks of Drag Race, Mama Ru is irresistible. His one-liners are no small part of what makes this the most subversive show on the air, but Charles is also largely responsible for the show’s massive … heart. And now he’s got an Emmy to back that up.
Strongest Episode: While season eight had its fair share of terrific entries — episode eight, “RuPaul’s Book Ball,” is particularly strong — 2016 was all about All Stars 2. Nearly every episode was a gem, but “Revenge of the Queens” raced forward from a moment so thrilling and fun it actually lives up to the frequent Drag Race epithet “the face-crack of the century.” As Phi Phi O’Hara let loose a volley of petty jibes about eliminated contestants, something not dissimilar to the Jaws theme crept in. The whole world cried, “girl, SHUT UP,” and with that, a dressing-room mirror suddenly became a window behind which all those eliminated contestants were standing. It was the kind of moment reality television is supposed to be about, but rarely is, and it set up one of the series’ strongest outings to date, culminating in a thrilling lip-sync and a truly satisfying elimination. Praise Rihanna, this was a good one.
Analysis: Reality television is a tricky thing. It can be addictive but also sort of poisonous, a guilty pleasure that’s often long on the guilt and short on the other thing. On the other hand, some of the best reality television shows can’t rival the water-cooler, pass-the-popcorn moments of their more tawdry brethren. And then there’s RuPaul’s Drag Race. LOGO’s flagship series satirizes the genre in which it excels, week in and week out. It’s always, always in on the joke, with largely quick-witted contestants who know the games they’re playing, both in the competition and for the camera. It’s gleefully subversive, creating seemingly innocuous mini-challenges that involve lip-syncing through glory holes or mini-golfing with low-hanging ball sacs. And then there’s that format, in which contestants tackle one task or another before stomping down the runway and, if they’re particularly unlucky, having to lip sync for their lives.
If that was all RuPaul’s Drag Race was, it would still be a national goddamn treasure. But while it’s busy doing all that fun, GIF-able stuff, it’s also quietly telling stories we don’t often get to see on screen. These people transform themselves with paint and glue, all while revealing things about the lives they’ve led. Homophobic families, the high suicide rate among young LGBTQ people, struggles with drug addiction, shame, fear, pride, and love — these are all regular topics. Yes, this is a show where Roxxy Andrews ripped off her wig to reveal another wig, but it’s also a show where two contestants have come out as transgender on camera, where a young man joyfully urged the world to celebrate life before revealing he’s HIV-positive, and where queens who’ve been fighting the good fight for decades get the chance to offer wisdom and warmth to kids from small towns who are terrified of being seen. Oh, this is a pleasure, all right, but not for one second is it guilty.
24. Ash Vs. Evil Dead
MVP: It’s impossible to ignore the physical comedy and vintage wit of Bruce Campbell, but there’s also no denying the up-and-coming presence of co-star Dana DeLorenzo. As the machine gun-toting and eternally swearing Kelly Maxwell, DeLorenzo gives Campbell a run for his boomstick, and this season she became the heroine the franchise deserves.
Strongest Episode: “Trapped Inside” resurrects Ash’s sister Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), aka the Deadite who started it all, and the siblings’ highly anticipated rematch is nostalgia at its finest. The two go toe to toe in their childhood home, trading venomous barbs as the Romeo Void’s new wave hit “Never Say Never” blasts nearby. It’s very cool horror.
Analysis: Ash Vs. Evil Dead came back harder, faster, and funnier in its second season. Bringing Ash and the Ghost Beaters back to his Michigan hometown was a smart move by former showrunner Craig DiGregorio, a creative decision that allowed the narrative to breathe in a more central location, especially following last season’s road trippin’ adventures. What could have been a disaster — expanding Ash’s backstory and the Evil Dead mythology — wound up being a saving grace for the series, evolving not only our titular hero but his sidekicks in Pablo, Kelly, and Ruby.
While Joel Tobeck’s big baddie Baal was a major letdown, DiGregorio and his team kept things refreshing by twisting genre conventions each episode, tossing our heroes into haunted hospitals, demolition derbies, icky morgues, and much, much more. Once again, the show’s soundtrack proved to be one of the best on television, ranging from iconic (Journey, Cutting Crew) to weird (Napoleon XIV, Roy Rogers) to downright ridiculous (Limp Bizkit). It’s just a shame the whole thing ended in a behind-the-scenes shakeup with DiGregorio exiting stage left. Sigh, here’s hoping it’ll lead to a groovy third season.
MVP: Like another female-fronted comedy a bit higher on this list, Insecure’s MVP is also a co-creator (the other is Larry Wilmore — R.I.P, The Nightly Show), and as with that other entry, that would be the case even if she weren’t running the show. Issa Rae proved she was a comedic powerhouse with her web series The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl. With Insecure, she doubles down, also finding plenty of opportunities to display some compelling dramatic chops. She’s great when she’s pouring her heart out. She’s great when she’s shutting someone down — co-workers, her boyfriend (Jay Ellis), her best friend (Yvonne Orji), anyone really — and she’s great when she’s holding a mic, strolling through “Broken Pussy”. Insecure’s inaugural season wasn’t a perfect one, but Rae was never anything but terrific.
Strongest Episode: That’d be the season finale, “Broken as Fuck”. An entry that’s easy on the lightheartedness that made the opening episodes such a delight, episode writer Rae makes up for it by dealing with two broken relationships in devastating fashion. It also underlines the single most important connection the show has: the friendship between Molly (Orji) and Issa, which though filled with complications is even more filled with love and fierce loyalty. Their 2 a.m. drive near the episode’s end is one of the season’s strongest scenes, a well-acted beauty that’s biting and tender and just about perfect. In a largely heartbreaking finale, it’s this one moment of sweetness that hits hardest.
Analysis: God, what a breath of fresh air. We’re mercifully living in a time where there’s no shortage of terrific shows fronted, if not run, by women, including a few that rival Insecure in terms of thoughtfulness (again, see later on this list). Still, rarely has a show felt so familiar and so simultaneously new; the awkwardness of leaving your 20s and realizing you haven’t got shit figured out has been done, but never quite in this way, and rarely with such a strong perspective. Issa doesn’t simply have to contend with the strangeness and occasional miseries of being alive while not being super great at it. She also has to contend with being a black woman, right down to the perpetual faux-wokeness of her co-workers and all their secret white people meetings and white people texts. Is it any wonder she’s got so many, ahem, insecurities?
To mistake Insecure as HBO’s attempt at inclusivity would do both the show and yourself a major disservice, however. This is the kind of thoughtful, character-driven work that the network does best (when it’s not flying around on dragons, anyway), a fully-rounded portrait of a complex woman who’s far from perfect but nearly always endearing. Rae’s surrounded by terrific performers, Orji in particular, and as a frank look at friendship, sex, love, and trying desperately to be a goddamn grownup, Insecure can’t be beat. If you want to support female artists of color, watch it. If all you want is good television, the advice remains exactly the same.
22. Red Oaks
MVP: This ensemble dramedy thrives from a number of unexpected performances, and this season found each character confronted with deeper and more compromising conflicts, especially Paul Reiser’s lovable dickhead Doug Getty. The win, however, goes to Richard Kind, who continues to be The World’s Lamest Dad, oozing with tragic pathos and charming nuance. His drunken karaoke performance of “Rhinestone Cowboy” in season highlight “The Bris” single-handedly wins him the title.
Strongest Episode: “Paris” comes close, if only for its fish-out-of-water storyline between David (Craig Roberts) and Skye (Alexandra Socha), but that choice isn’t exactly fair to the rest of the cast. No, the best true-to-form episode is “Independence Day”, the spiritual sequel to last season’s “Fourth of July” that not only finds everyone going through the motions but introduces John Hodgman’s sympathetic video production manager, Travis. The guy worships Shivers for Christ’s sake; he rules.
Analysis: More people need to be watching Red Oaks. It’s a crime this show isn’t trending, and that could arguably be due to Amazon’s lack of marketing. Executive producers Steven Soderbergh and David Gordon Green have something incredibly special on their hands: an exercise in ’80s nostalgia that feels less like a parody and more like a lived-in medium for ultra-rich characters. Veteran icons like Reiser, Kind, Jennifer Gray, and Gina Gershon are all serving up their finest work to date alongside a promising cast of up-and-comers that includes Roberts, Socha, Oliver Cooper, and Ennis Esmer.
Even better, the show looks fantastic. In addition to Green, filmmakers Amy Heckerling, Hal Hartley, and Greg Araki return to knock out one heartwarming episode after another, treating each chapter like a short indie film. This isn’t a standard emulation of John Hughes or Cameron Crowe; no, this is a far more natural portrait of the time period, brimming with the subtle filmmaking that Green tends to trademark. It’s addicting, too, fueled by a delightful soundtrack of deep cuts and a sense of time that speaks to the verisimilitude of creators Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs. Get there.
21. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Season: 2 currently, though we got half of the first season in 2016, too.
Network: The CW
MVP: Well, it’s Rachel Bloom … but there’s a ‘but.’ Last year’s Golden Globe winner deserves every inch of the buzz she’s getting for her performance as Rebecca Bunch, and even more for her work as a showrunner. But, she’s got someone hot on her heels, and that person is definitely the current season’s MVP. Bloom’s best foil is Paula Proctor (Donna Lynne Champlin), who became something of a second lead when season two kicked off. Champlin’s grounded, emotionally rich work is easy to overlook because she’s just so damn funny, but her careful handling of Paula’s second-season arc has made her not one of the best performers on the show, but one of the best performers on television. And oh, yeah, she’s a singer who can blow the doors off the whole damn place. She blew the doors off my TV, and TVs don’t even have doors. Put plainly, this show belongs to these two women, and while the show’s writers may have separated them, I won’t. I just fucking won’t.
Strongest Episode: This is a close one. “That Text Was Not Meant for Josh!” was the first season’s standout, managing the nifty trick of being the single most affecting outing in its early run while also being the funniest. (It also includes “You Stupid Bitch”, which is exhibit one in why Bloom getting snubbed by the Emmys is absurd.) Still, this has to go to “When Will Josh and His Friend Leave Me Alone?”, an episode with no shortage of similarities to “Text”. Like its predecessor, it pushes Rebecca to a breaking point that’s both upsetting and deeply funny. Both episodes have catchy tunes that belie the really messed-up stuff going on in reality (“Textmergency” and “We Tapped That Ass”). What sets the latter episode apart is an abortion storyline, one handled simply, frankly, and utterly without drama. In a year of bullshit, it was defiantly simple, refreshingly responsible, and political by the sheer fact that politics had not one damn thing to do with it.
Analysis: Apologies to Damien Chazelle, but 2016’s best musical was a television show. Bloom and co-creator Aline Brosh McKenna made something that’s tough to believe even exists, a musical that uses the trappings of romantic comedy to tell a story about mental illness in a culture that tells us to define our happiness and success by our romantic relationships. Sure, there’s some romance, too, but nearly all the people on this show have no business being in serious relationships (excluding Darryl and White Josh, of course). They bounce around, smacking into each other in ways that sometimes lead to sex but more often lead to self-discovery on a good day and some very questionable choices on a bad one. It defies everything we expect of a female-fronted television show, and that would be a great accomplishment, even if it weren’t a musical.
Of course, it’s also fucking hilarious. Somehow, a network long associated with teen-oriented fluff has given us anal sex jokes in the form of extended parking metaphors, allusions to licorice-based erotic asphyxiation, an entire song about the perils of having heavy boobs, a “Partition” send-up that includes the lyric “please don’t be a murderer,” and some of the best episode tags in the business (“I left my wife for a prostitute!”). Bloom and Brosh McKenna have one of the best writing teams around — music nerd tip, that staff includes Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, who writes much of the music with Bloom and Jack Dolgen — and together they’ve created comedic TV gold. Come for the substance and stay for the dirty jokes or vice versa. Your pick. Either way, you won’t be disappointed — though Rebecca Bunch almost certainly will be.