12 television series that mattered in 2016
People watch TV for all sorts of reasons and absorb its impact in vastly different ways, John Doyle writes. He lists 12 series that mattered this year
In this year, of all years, trying to neatly summarize television is a fool's errand. Such was the sheer amount of drama, comedy and documentary from across so many platforms, that a best-of list is redundant. And then there is the startling fact that television played a vital role in the most extraordinary U.S. election in decades. Plus the often stunning spectacle that TV provided in coverage of the Rio Olympics, the Euro 16 soccer tournament and countless other and more local sports events. There is too much to remember.
But let's start with the assertion that in television, there was instance after instance of outstanding creative ambition. TV drama and comedy challenged traditional storytelling, upended accepted social norms, embodied inclusiveness and was a vehicle for anger, protest and regret. Sometimes it explained everything and sometimes it only laid confusion bare. Look at U.S. television and it seems hard to believe that the culture that created the subtlety of FX's Atlanta also elected Donald Trump as president. And yet, look at The Walking Dead as a parable and it is very easy to see from whence Trump came.
Thing is, people watch TV for all sorts of reasons and absorb its impact in vastly different ways. To some, the CBC comedy Kim's Convenience is an irritating example of Canadian TV showcasing a very specific, politically pointed story about an immigrant family. To others it is just a joyful, droll celebration of Toronto. Global's Private Eyes, with star Jason Priestley playing a hockey guy turned private eye, is simple-minded silliness to many viewers and not worth the time. And then some viewers adore the hoary old hockey jokes in it and think of it as great Canadian TV.
For some viewers, Netflix is one massive escape, a bonanza of content to binge on and forget what's happening in the world. To others it's a source of new, vital drama and comedy from around the world and a refreshing change from the normalcy of network TV.
If there were a category for general disappointment in television, Canadian TV would top the list. While there have been a handful of outstanding shows, the amount of TV made in Canada that is actually original and stirring is shockingly tiny.
A sterling example of unfulfilled promise is CBC's Shoot the Messenger. An expensively made drama, freely acknowledged as based on the dirt, drama and grime of Toronto's Rob Ford era, it was all empty-headed gloss and vacant breeziness. It got worse with each episode, miscast and unglued from anything approaching genuine drama. There is a grave problem with quality control in Canadian TV with such rich material mishandled and so much money and talent utterly wasted.
Meanwhile, there is so much virtuoso and gut-punching TV in the world it is difficult to keep track. Some of my counterparts in the U.S. media stretch their year-end lists to 30 or 40 shows and, reading them, it becomes clear that there are 10 or 12 shows of merit that haven't even been seen yet in Canada yet. Which means the new year will likely be better than the last. And there are so few arenas in which that statement carries the weight of plausibility. We live in a golden age of television, period, a time when television storytelling is far from ephemeral; instead it is substantial, retrievable and important to our understanding of this era. Herewith, 12 shows that mattered.
The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX)
Now almost universally acknowledged as the year's best series, it stands as a jaw-dropping example of contemporary television's sheer imaginative force. "Who the hell signs a suicide note with a happy face?" asked lawyer Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) about his client, O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.), and from there the lurid story took off. Unsettlingly camp and then unnervingly raw, it took viewers back inside the crime, the trial and all the reverberations. An instant classic and showpiece of tour-de-force TV storytelling, it condemned everyone involved and no one, asking its audience to dwell on the media circus it enjoyed back then and the race issues it ignored but would come back to haunt the United States.
The Walking Dead (AMC)
The post-apocalypse horror show marches on – and Rick Grimes and the gang may finally have met their match in Negan and the sadistic Saviors but each episode is must-see viewing for an insight into how humanity copes with danger, loss and the ever-fading hope that the idea of "community" is sustainable. The epitome of trashy, pulp storytelling with remarkable intellectual heft.
The Americans (FX)
The year's best continuing series, sublimely crafted as both family and political drama. It's an example of how some series, given time and space, get even better and more serious-minded. Essentially, it's about the resilience and resourcefulness of Russian spies in Washington during the Reagan years, but it is also about the essential tragedy of faith in a cause, any cause. It's also an acid reminder of Russia's long, intractable loathing of the United States and of a time when the American government had a real enmity aimed at all that emanated from Moscow. The sheer sadness of the situation of the main characters, played by Keri Russell and Mathew Rhys, holds a power that some viewers don't want to embrace or understand. It will never be a mass-market hit nor was it meant to be.
Rectify (Sundance Channel/Netflix)
Much the same applies here – a TV drama never reaching for mass-appeal themes. No TV series has ever been as viscerally humane and haunted about human nature. Basically, the story of a man who leaves prison and attempts to go back home; it goes around and around, brooding on the impossibility of home, forgiveness and renewal. Aden Young playing Daniel Holden, released from jail when his conviction for rape and murder is undermined by new evidence. Young has described his exquisitely drawn character as "very much a child being born" and that is profoundly true. This slow-burning drama about retribution, redemption, life, literature, family and forgiveness, is one of the masterpieces of our age.
This distinctive, important and wryly observational show quickly became a critic's favourite, mainly for its utter confidence in being both wry and funny and sometimes despairing. Series creator Donald Glover stars with Brian Tyree Henry as cousins who are trying to drag themselves and their families out of poverty in Georgia through hip-hop music, and the show is an existential observational comedy. It is about the America that both major candidates in the U.S. election ignored.
Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS, Comedy Network in Canada)
This critic took some time to grasp the importance of what Samantha Bee does. At first, the show seems awkwardly done – a ranting, motor-mouth Bee heaping articulate, zesty scorn on (mostly) Republican figures during the election. It seemed so unsubtle, unimaginative. Then the meaning kicked in – this is catharsis, safety-valve TV. It's a venue for venting anger, and viewers go away from it deeply satisfied. That's because the rage inside them has no other colourful outlet.
Stranger Things (Netflix)
This supernatural serial "tenderly evoked the fragility of familial love and the fear and exhilaration that can accompany growing up," said one critic. That's accurate. Determining that the show's main magic ingredient was nostalgia for 1980s pop culture isn't that helpful. It would never have had the impact and following it garnered if it was only anchored in nostalgia. It had charm and was precision-engineered as storytelling – a lesson to everyone in TV with a good idea but the inability to forge it.
A heck of a thing, in the context of the Canadian culture. A half-hour comedy, it's funny, mad, droll, childish and spiky. And thrillingly original, both Canadian in its bones and universal. Small-town and rural Canada is where it's set and what it's about. Not since Trailer Park Boys launched have we heard the flavourful, salty Canadian vernacular used with such aplomb and abandon. Most of Letterkenny – its origins are in a web-only series of shorts called Letterkenny Problems – cannot be reprinted in a newspaper. It's eff this and eff that, in the way that many people – the sort who use the term "city pants" – use the f-word, and worse, to punctuate conversation and give rhythm to it. It's wildly hilarious, too. A Canadian show breathtaking in its confident stride and ambition.
The Path (Hulu, Showcase in Canada)
This ambitious series concerns a cult of sorts, the Meyerist Movement, whose members refuse to see anything cultish about their lives, which are dedicated to high-minded social work – and their daily efforts to obey the force known as The Light. They see themselves as a family. It's strong, character-driven drama, skillfully written and sharp above all in its commentary on the emotional needs fulfilled by faiths and families of this kind. Frighteningly dark at times, and always thoughtful, it has Aaron Paul landing the best possible role post-Breaking Bad.
Better Call Saul (AMC)
The most welcome of series for me and many others. First and foremost, it is a lesson in storytelling technique. We live in an age of binge watching, an age of agitated expectation about the next jolt of nerve-tingling plot twists. We want it now. Not on a slow drip, not at a leisurely pace. Better Call Saul is a model of leisure. No jolts, no shocks. Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) was utterly compelling on Breaking Bad. A brazen, brave crook with few scruples and a talent for stating the obvious. Lovable as a seats-of-the-pants sleaze. As Jimmy McGill, Odenkirk is lovable, too, but he is a perambulating bag of hesitations and neuroses. And the core stories of American literature and folklore resonate throughout.
American Crime (ABC)
You could say it was about a high-school shooting. But American Crime's second season went headlong into so many provocative issues. There was rape, homosexuality, race, combined with instances of economic privilege, and then it dealt with bullying, and the noxious power of social media. Over all, it was rooted in the flaws in the American education system. Creator John Ridley required viewers to think on what was unfolding, not with instant reaction, but with room for careful consideration. It moved slowly and employed quiet conversations and silence – that most rare of things on network TV. An outstanding cast included Felicity Huffman, Regina King, Lili Taylor, Hope Davis, and at the centre was young Canadian Connor Jessup as its pivotal figure. Unforgettable.
Kim's Convenience (CBC)
A big step forward for our public broadcaster. Kim's Convenience is a killer comedy – a finely crafted sitcom with great charm and an absolute joy to watch. Derived from the acclaimed play by Ins Choi, it came with a lot of baggage. CBC describes it as the "funny, heartfelt story of the Kims, a Korean-Canadian family, running a convenience store in downtown Toronto." But the emphasis is on "funny," not "heartfelt." It's just funny, sharply written comedy with the right dollops of goofy interludes. Still uneven episode by episode, it has a comic jauntiness that is utterly enchanting.