05. The Night Of
MVP: In theory, this should be a hard task, what with all the memorable moments featuring Riz Ahmed, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Bill Camp, but there’s really no argument when you have John Turturro on the bill. Filling in for the late James Gandolfini, Turturro brings light to a very dark and bleak story as the ambulance-chasing lawyer John Stone. Of course, it also helps that he’s the series’ most interesting character, a lonely soul suffering from a miserable case of eczema while also trying to connect with his disappointed son. For eight straight episodes, Stone gives us so much to love: his street-smart wisdom, his tortured relationship with a grieving feline, and his ensuing aggravation toward one jerkstore pharmacist.
Strongest Episode: Opening chapter “The Beach” sets everything into motion with painstakingly economical storytelling, merging multiple arcs into a simmering crime story — it feels like a short film. But few hours of television this year were as anxious and thrilling as mid-season stunner “The Season of the Witch”. It’s director Steven Zaillian’s savviest moment behind the camera — and also the typewriter, alongside co-creator Richard Price — as he ably shifts between the episode’s burning threads, from Naz’s big beatdown against Calvin to Stone and Chandra’s curious alliance to Box’s comprehensive map of the evolving crime scene. There’s also a major revelation that leads to a dicey alleyway chase with Stone in pursuit.
Analysis: Prestige television isn’t something that’s alien to HBO; they more or less invented it. Although the network has been struggling to find a proper follow-up to Game of Thrones — and no, Westworld is sadly not the answer (neither was Vinyl) — they’ve never failed at offering game-changing programming. Their excellent 2015 mini-series Show Me a Hero quietly suggested that feature-length films might not be able to compete with episodic television by delivering arguably the greatest drama that year. The Night Of confirmed that theory this past summer by taking an ill-fated, overused genre — the tawdry, mundane procedural — and wrenching it into the most riveting, sobering, and unpredictable narrative of the year.
Films rarely have that power, namely because they don’t have the time to be so patient. Zaillian and Price capitalized on that freedom by never wasting a minute in all eight episodes, flooding the proceedings with the kind of small, juicy details that might otherwise be seen as distracting red herrings on the silver screen. There’s an assured sense of place and purpose for every character, both major and minor. (Who didn’t love Chip Zein’s lovable pathologist, Dr. Katz? C’mon.) And while a few threads lead to a few questionable turns — ahem, Chandra’s fate didn’t sit too well with the online jury — they never compromise the story. If anything, they embellish the show’s humanity because, really, we all fuck up and we’re all often judged for it.
Ultimately, that’s the most terrifying takeaway of The Night Of.
04. Halt and Catch Fire
MVP: Halt and Catch Fire circles around four protagonists whose significant character flaws are intrinsic to their being, but season three sets up Mackenzie Davis’ Cameron to be the most sympathetic of all of them. After a move to California finds her company becoming less and less the vision she had for it, Cameron remains true to herself in her most important decisions, even if that comes across as immature, stubborn, or short-sighted to the outside world. In a world set in technology, Cameron is the artist that is sick of compromising, and Davis’ portrayal of her earns the audience’s desire to see her become happy above all else.
Best Episode: Aside from The Wire, it’s hard to think of another TV show that continually reinvented itself like Halt and Catch Fire has. That’s what made the transition from the climax of its eighth episode, “You Are Not Safe”, to its two-part season finale such a pitch-perfect flex of its narrative command. After Ryan’s suicide and the failure of Mutiny’s IPO, everything about the show seemed to be ending, but the season concluded with a hard reset. In “NIM” and “NeXT”, Donna and Gordon are divorced, Cameron is living in China and working for Atari, and Joe seemingly wants to make everything from the past right. It functions like the band getting back together (to, you know, CREATE THE INTERNET), and left the audience salivating for a fourth and final season.
Analysis: Halt is definitively niche, with AMC continuing to renew it despite its low viewership. No matter how loud its devoted audience sings its praises, it hasn’t caught on with Emmy voters or mainstream culture. Still, the fact that season three was its strongest yet and resulted in a much-deserved fourth and final run has to be viewed as a success not just for the program or the network, but for the kind of storytelling that only seems possible in this particularly fruitful time for television.
The world of Halt is familiar yet foreign, where the rise of personal computers in the ’80s is fictionalized and turned into a character-driven drama. It’s effective not because of the time (the ’80s) or the place (the computer industry of Texas and California), but because of the people that it introduces us to. Throughout the first two seasons, the story flipped from seeing Joe and Gordon as the business heads to Donna and Cameron being in charge, but by the end of this season, it was clear that all four planets would need to figure out how to orbit together to reach a satisfying conclusion. The stories evolve naturally from the characters we get to know, and whether it is romance, friendship, work, or just a silly game with lighters, Halt gives audiences the emotional payoffs they deserve.
MVP: Donald Glover will be the one getting most of the well-deserved love as performances go, but the arguable true center of Atlanta is Brian Tyree Henry’s Paper Boi. A late thirtysomething who’s getting his big break a lot later in life than most of his peers, Paper Boi’s deadpan wandering through the increasingly insane world of hip-hop and its surrounding satellite cultures makes for some of the season’s best material.
Strongest Episode: Every episode of Atlanta’s debut manages its own unique, standalone tone even as (no matter what you’ve been told) every episode fits within a cohesive, artfully told whole. Because of this, picking just one episode that stands out is a tough proposition; “B.A.N.” and “Value” and “Juneteenth” and “The Jacket” could all have a case made for them. But our choice lies with “The Club”, the show’s best half-hour distillation of all its primary interests: the trio’s ongoing exhaustion with the performative aspects of rap culture, the closed ecosystems of Atlanta, the constant reminders that someone is always making more money than you, and the truth that most of the time, people are just trying to blow off some steam in between fits of getting by.
Analysis: Atlanta is already becoming one of those TV shows that every pop culture writer pushes on everybody they know and for good reason. Donald Glover’s brainchild is a remarkable work right out of the gate, one of the more fully-formed TV shows released in the past few years. The assurance and artistic confidence of it are almost intimidating, and yet it’s one of the better slice-of-life stories that cable television has managed to date. And for all of the laurels about its artistry, on a much simpler level, it’s also just the funniest show on television right now.
Atlanta finds its characters in the minutiae of their everyday lives, whether in Darius (Keith Stanfield) making a philosophical point with his gun range targets or Earn (Glover) spending an entire day scrambling around the city in hopes of finding a key that’ll let him go home to the kind of home that you wouldn’t expect of an up-and-coming rapper’s manager. Yet in Atlanta’s odd, sometimes fully surreal universe, nothing is entirely as it seems.
02. Broad City
Network: Comedy Central
MVP: There’s no way to split apart the powerful relationship of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, the interlocking yin and yang of millenial mania. To pick one or the other of the dynamic duo would be sacrilege, so perhaps then Hillary Clinton (who makes an appearance in the hilarious “2016”) can stand as the icon of power symbolizing their friendship.
Strongest Episode: The sitcom as art form frequently struggles with change, especially one as bombastic, sincerely surreal, and grand as Broad City. But there’s always been an emotional core behind the cartoonish sexuality and scatalogical humor, as seen in extreme closeup on “Burning Bridges”. After going through intense change, Ilana’s wild, carefree smile falls, revealing raw heart and real, complex feelings. Abbi faces a lot of change in the episode, too, the stakes of her decisions ringing out above the wacky shenanigans. It’s a tear-schmearer, something you might not have expected from Broad City.
Analysis: While the end of the year saw a frustrating defeat for a powerful woman, this show felt incredibly of the moment and needed in its celebration of unique, flawed yet powerful, relatable yet surreal women and their friendship. From sex to relationships to menstruation to churrons (a culinary combination of a churro and a macaron, of course), the show excelled in subtle emotional moments as much as it did slapstick insanity. These episodes went to heightened extremes, pushing even further than the already excellent first two seasons, and yet Abbi and Ilana still felt like real, relatable people, the kind of friends that everyone needs, as crazy as they might be — a real testament to the duo’s acting and writing.
The supporting cast stood tall as well — Hannibal Burres’ Lincoln stole his fair share of scenes with laconic delivery and perfect timing, and there was raw, clinging depth to John Gemberling’s Bevers — but as Abbi and Ilana fly off to Israel at the end of the season, it’s clear that the two can be surrounded by any cast of characters and pull out and accentuate the hilarious little details that drive us all. Yas, Queens!
01. Stranger Things
MVP: Credit it to general cuteness, Spielbergian nostalgia, or the fatigue of watching horror kids always getting possessed, but it was Stranger Things’ central group of scamps that stole the show. Like the Spielberg, King, and Dante protagonists of yore, Mike, Dustin, Lucas, Will, and Eleven transcended precociousness with their curiosity, ingenuity, and warmth. To choose one feels like a fool’s errand. Would you single out one of the Explorers? One of the Monster Squad? One of the Losers’ Club? Horror doesn’t need any more creepy kids. Horror needs kids like this. Kids like this remind us that kids believe in ways adults don’t. There’s magic there.
Strongest Episode: “The Body” stands out for being the moment when Stranger Things asserted itself as something more than a summation of its influences. Here, the kids began investigating the supernatural underpinnings of Will’s disappearance in earnest; Joyce caught a brief glimpse of whatever world Will is trapped in; Nancy sees the monster in Barb’s final photo; and Hooper, chillingly, discovers that Will’s body is hollow inside. It’s an episode of discovery, the moment all the mysteries begin unfurling their myriad tendrils. It’s the moment when we realized just how special Stranger Things really was.
Analysis: Let’s all take a step back: Try to remember a world without Barb thinkpieces, Finn Wolfhard cover songs, and viral videos of Millie Bobby Brown sneezing or whatever. Let’s remember Stranger Things as a TV show and not an event. Let’s remember the first time we saw the opening credits, the way its hollow, drifting letters coasted on a chorus of frantic synths, triggering synapses in our brains that hadn’t glowed in decades. Let’s remember how Mike’s basement and Dustin’s hat and all of their bikes conjured up a world we all instantly recognized, even if it never quite existed. Yes, shallow as it may sound, a big part of Stranger Things’ achievement is in how it summoned the spirit of the suburban ‘80s, or at least a version of it that checked all the right boxes.
But it wasn’t just an aesthetic thing. This wasn’t a Buzzfeed list made manifest. Nobody was wearing pastels. At its best, Stranger Things felt like a reaffirmation, a course correction for genre fare that sought to make a place for curiosity and imagination, to create a new gateway for kids and adults alike. Modern horror doesn’t need to rely on one-upmanship of American Horror Story or the cruelty of The Walking Dead or the slick sadism of Hannibal. There’s a reason it captured the zeitgeist in the way it did. There’s a reason we obsessed over Barb and Steve and Dustin — it was fun. In a year when we really needed it, Stranger Things found a way to make fear fun again.