In this era of so-called Peak TV, the tally of scripted series aired in 2016 is closing in on 500. No wonder it’s so hard to pick the best 2 percent of the crop. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t pleased to salute our 10 particular favorites.
Here’s our honor roll:
“The A Word” (Sundance).
Loving parents Alison and Paul tell themselves (and everyone else) that there’s nothing wrong with Joe, their 5-year-old son. But evidence mounts. And then the unavoidable truth: Joe is on the autism spectrum. This bittersweet six-episode drama (with a second season announced) deals with a child growing up in rural England whose striking differences from other kids ignite the question: What constitutes “normal” and what becomes of those who don’t meet that standard? A beautiful story, a terrific cast and a spectacular performance by young Max Vento, who plays Joe, makes “The A Word” a unique exploration of a family as loyal as it is in turmoil.
It takes a sure hand to craft a series that blends a pair of young musical strivers from a downtrodden urban neighborhood — while keeping the series touching, relatable and funny. In an age of TV comedy that takes refuge in either irony, absurdity, outrageousness or mawkishness, creator-star-writer Donald Glover has pulled off a minor miracle with this gritty little show that blazes its own path, strewn with setbacks yet powered by hope. A fresh take on the hip-hop world, “Atlanta” never strikes a false note.
Chuck Rhoades, the powerful and perverse U.S. Attorney, is in a cage match with hedge-fund titan Bobby Axelrod. The result is a delicious drama of two Alpha Males butting heads: Rhoades (played by Paul Giamatti) wants to prosecute Axelrod for financial fraud, while the smooth, ever-calculating Axelrod (Damian Lewis) dares him to try. Adding to the spice is a third corner of this triangle: Rhoades’ wife and Axe’s trusted adviser (played by Maggie Siff) who, in confronting her divided loyalties, is as tough as either man. The result is a wealth of intrigue.
“Black Mirror” (Netflix).
Six new episodes on the Netflix site have supplemented seven hours of this nervous-making anthology previously aired by British television. The brainchild of British writer-producer-mischief-maker Charlie Brooker, this series defies clear definition other than to say (a) it deals with technology’s sly cultural inroads, (b) it packs the mind-expanding punch of a latter-day “Twilight Zone,” and (c) it reflects a certain, um, Brooker-esque brand of mordant humor. Every hour is different from the others while each, in its own way, is likely to leave you startled and disturbed. It should come with a warning: “Not To Be Missed, But Proceed with Caution.”
“Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” (TBS).
With her show teeing up for a second season in early 2017, the time is past to celebrate “Full Frontal” as an issues-and-comedy series hosted by (go figure!) a woman. So let’s just celebrate Samantha Bee, who, now even more than during her dozen years as a “Daily Show” correspondent, stays true to her name: nimble and armed with a satirical sting for her deserving targets. She’s a bold champion of women’s interests, which are largely overlooked in political humor. But guys are welcome, too. They might learn something and have a laugh, along with getting stung now and then.
“Making a Murderer” (Netflix).
To be technical, this 10-part docuseries landed on the Netflix site in mid-December 2015. But early buzz spiked into a roar in the new year. Filmed over a decade, it tells the riveting, true-life story of Steven Avery, who is first seen in 2003 returning home to Wisconsin’s rural Manitowoc County after 18 years’ imprisonment for sexual assault. After his exoneration, Avery was a free man for just two years. He was then arrested for another crime — this time, a grisly rape and murder. So was his teenage nephew. Are they guilty or being railroaded? It’s an arresting thriller of mini-victories and major setbacks in a halting but dogged pursuit of justice.
“The Night Of” (HBO).
This dark and irresistible murder mystery stars John Turturro as near-bottom-feeding lawyer John Stone who stumbles on a righteous case: Naz, a Pakistani-American college student implicated as the killer of an alluring young woman who, after a chance encounter with him one Friday night, brought him to her bedroom. Never mind if Naz did the crime (viewers don’t find out until the end) — the legal system is stacked against him at every turn, and through the lengthy, often dismaying process, Stone fights on his behalf. Though a scripted drama, “The Night Of” is part of a new breed of law-and-order storytelling that also spawned “Making a Murderer” as well as “O.J.: Made in America.”
“O.J.: Made in America” (ESPN).
Arriving two decades after O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder charges for the death of his ex-wife and her friend, this five-part documentary series covers those ghastly slayings and the so-called Trial of the Century in you-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet detail. But it goes even further, framing Simpson’s life and career against the racial turmoil and Civil Rights struggle from which he was largely insulated by the warm embrace of celebrity and the white mainstream. Packed with never-before-seen footage, unreported details and never-heard insights, it’s a project that might have been dismissed as a true-crime rehash. Instead, it’s not only illuminating but often jaw-dropping.
“This Is Us” (NBC).
It isn’t often that a scripted TV series can be credited with being “humanistic” ‘ at least, not a show you can sit through without grinding your teeth. And yet this gentle ensemble drama is pulling it off, and viewers are loving it. Here is that rare series that is neither aspirational nor derisive in how its characters are portrayed, but instead reflects its viewers at their most goodwilled and, well, humanistic. The intersecting sets of everyday characters are depicted by a cast including Mandy Moore, Milo Ventimiglia and Sterling K. Brown in a display of middle-class diversity that serves as a welcome rebuttal to this polarized age. Come to think of it, maybe “This Is Us” shows us what to aspire to, after all.
This odyssey is simultaneously set in an imagined sci-fi future and the reimagined Old West in the form of an epic theme park where lifelike robots indulge every appetite of paying guests. What measure of depravity does this unleash in the humans who treat themselves to this dude ranch gone wild? And what measure of upheaval is triggered when the robots rebel? The series’ visuals — both its western splendor and its futuristic labs _ are spellbinding and seemingly as boundless as its thematic sprawl. Its ensemble (which includes Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright) populates an anything-goes getaway with aplomb and shock value: Who — or what — are the heroes here?