I hope all of you have a safe and happy New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, and may 2017 bring you an abundance of laughter, love, peace, good health, and everything that makes you happiest.
I apologize for the delay in posting my Best of 2016 lists; I needed to take some time instead to write something in honor of Carrie Fisher, a personal hero of mine. But the delay just means you get three lists in one on this last day of 2016!
For as difficult as parts of this year have been, I think we can all agree that it was a great year for television. In a world where it felt like sexism was given a frighteningly public platform, we were given shows, episodes, and moments that brought fierce, complex female characters to the forefront. In a stressful year, we were given plenty of things to laugh about, but there were also plenty of cathartic moments to cry over, too.
As the television landscape continued to broaden and deepen, it became more difficult than ever to narrow down these lists, which is a problem I am more than happy to have. These are my choices for the best TV had to offer this year (in addition to my picks for Best Performances and Best Relationships, which I shared earlier), but I want to know yours, too! Don’t forget to add your picks in the comments and to check out the lists made by TVexamined and MGcircles for more end-of-2016 fun!
1. Secret Santa exchange (Girl Meets World: “Girl Meets a Christmas Maya”)
Sometimes you just want to feel good when you watch television, and no moment this year made me feel better than this gift exchange between the core group of friends on Girl Meets World. Each gift represented the kind of deep, sincere understanding and appreciation that makes the relationships on this show so special. From Smackle’s gift of the broken clock and reminder to Maya that her friends know how hard she’s working to fix herself to Zay’s gift of the re-written etiquette book that made Smackle feel loved for exactly who she is, this was one of those moments that made you feel hopeful for the future. In a year that made many of us confront the reality that the world can be an unkind place, this was a reminder of the importance of kindness and friendship just when we needed it most.
2. Claire and Jamie say goodbye (Outlander: “Dragonfly in Amber”)
Claire and Jamie’s love story has always been epic, but this scene took it to an entirely new level of emotional power. The chemistry between Caitriona Balfe and Sam Hueghan was sparking during this scene with a ferocity I’ll never forget, an intensity and total believability (even in the face of the fantastical element of time travel) that set this scene apart from any other love scene that aired in 2016. I dare you to watch Hueghan deliver his line, “Lord, ye gave me a rare woman, and God, I loved her well” without swooning and crying at the same time. (I’ve tried; it’s physically impossible.)
3. “Hallelujah” (Saturday Night Live: “Dave Chappelle, A Tribe Called Quest”)
Kate McKinnon is a gift that none of us are worthy of, and if you need proof of that, watch this moment again. It was the perfect blending of character and actor; you could feel her singing as both Hillary and Kate, which made it even more cathartic to watch. For those of us left shocked and saddened by the results of this year’s presidential election (and the loss of the genius Leonard Cohen), this was the cathartic moment we so desperately needed. “Hallelujah” is one of my favorite songs ever written, and this only made me love it more. I still can’t watch it without crying through McKinnon’s stunning vocals on the last verse (“And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah…”) and her impassioned, emotional plea to do as both she and Hillary would want and never give up fighting for what we believe in. When I need to feel both emotional and empowered, this is still the moment I turn to.
4. “Magic is real.” (Once Upon a Time: “An Untold Story”)
A popular meme when it comes to television shows is to isolate an image or a scene and say, “That’s it. That’s the show.” In this case, Henry’s speech about believing in magic really was the essence of the show boiled down into one moment. The entire ethos of Once Upon a Time can be summed up by what Henry said in that impassioned moment of belief: Magic is real, but it’s only real when we allow ourselves to believe in it. There is power in believing, and good things happen when you allow yourself to believe that they’re possible. It was such a beautifully sincere, hopeful moment that flies in the face of the cynicism and darkness that can feel so omnipresent in the media today. As such, it did exactly what Once Upon a Time has always done so well: It filled us with hope, it called us to look for the magic around us, and it reminded us that it’s never to late to start believing again.
5. Lorelai tells Emily a memory of her father (Gilmore Girls: a Year in the Life: “Fall”)
The Gilmore Girls revival had its share of memorable moments, but none carried the kind of emotional weight that this one did. It felt like the culmination of decades of character development for Lorelai, who was finally able to say something nice about her father and do something purely for the purpose of making her mother happy. It was a moment of emotional release everyone—from the audience to the characters themselves—had been waiting years for, and it was worth the wait. Lauren Graham has never been better than she was in that scene, showing a kind of vulnerability that is rare for Lorelai at all times but especially with her mother. And Kelly Bishop’s reactions on the other end of the phone were the icing on this perfectly cathartic cake.
6. Ginny gives the speech (Pitch: “Don’t Say It”)
“I don’t need a man to rescue me.” If there was ever a moment to yell, “Amen!” at the TV, it was this moment. The entire season built to this moment of Ginny being the one to give the motivational speech instead of Mike, to fight her own battles, to save herself. It was a perfect parallel to the show’s pilot episode, with Mike giving her a speech, and it showed us how much this character has grown to become confident in her place on her team and in history. Pitch is the story of a woman coming into her own and learning that she has the power to control her own life; she doesn’t need a father, brother, boyfriend, or well-meaning teammate to show her the way—she can find it herself. This is Ginny Baker’s story, and this moment perfect encapsulated what a powerful story that is.
7. Marcia reveals her new haircut (The People vs. O.J. Simpson: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”)
I have never felt the kind of intense emotional response on behalf of a person I have never met that I felt for Marcia Clark in this scene. I didn’t just feel sad for her; I felt angry for her. I felt a burning sense of righteous indignation on behalf of a woman who faced these struggles 20 years ago, and if that isn’t a sign of a scene’s emotional power, then I don’t know what is. This scene is The People vs. O.J. in microcosm: It took a moment that was laughed about at the time, and, by putting us in the shoes of the people who lived it, made us see it in a new light. It made us reconsider the sexist attitudes that affected the case and the life of this woman who was just trying to do her job. And it made us appreciate the beauty of her relationship with Chris Darden, whose supportive response written on the legal pad made me cry because it represented a brief moment of warmth and humanity in the middle of such a horrible display of sexism.
8. The training montage (Brooklyn Nine-Nine: “Bureau”)
Whenever I need to laugh, just thinking about this montage does the trick. Whether it was Jake trying to do a pull-up with Terry’s help (Andy Samberg’s total commitment to his screaming cracks me up every time.), Rosa showing off her flexibility, or Gina coaching Holt through Sex and the City training, each character in this group got a chance to shine. It was a perfect twist on the traditional “training montage” scenes in police movies and television shows, and it was done in the unique way only this show could do it. (I will never stop laughing at Holt saying “Steve is nothing.” or Jake’s extended “Pro-ba-bly.”)
9. Peggy and Daniel kiss (Agent Carter: “Hollywood Ending”)
Is there anything sweeter than a perfect first kiss? (I’ll give you a hint: The answer starts with “n” and ends with “o.”) This was a classic kiss straight out of an old movie, with the flirty banter before it, the passionate moment of connection, and the sweet, sweeping musical choice at the end. It was such an important moment for Peggy, choosing to grab on to the source of her happiness with both hands (and both lips) instead of running away from it out of fear of losing it. For Daniel, it was a moment in which all those comments about her never choosing him because he wasn’t Captain America faded away and he was finally given the chance to be with the woman of his dreams. And for the audience, it was a moment of pure joy two seasons in the making, the perfect “Hollywood Ending” for this couple.
10. Jessica leaves and Harvey and Donna face the future (Suits: “P.S.L.”)
Jessica Pearson has always been one of my professional inspirations, but I have never admired her more than I did in the moment she chose to walk away from the firm she built because it was crushing her spirit and making her lose sight of the woman she once was and wanted to become again. Jessica chose happiness despite walking into an uncertain future, and it was the perfect send-off for this character and the woman who brought her to life. I was sad to see Gina Torres go, but I was thrilled that they wrote her such a beautiful farewell. And the “shipper” in me loved this moment for one more reason: It brought Harvey and Donna closer together. The shot of them holding hands and staring off into the future together (Harvey choosing to have her by his side, not wanting to be alone anymore) was one of the most iconic single shots in all of 2016.
1. “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” (The People vs. O.J. Simpson)
It felt like The People Vs. O.J. Simpson was written around this episode; it took everything the show was trying to do each week—humanize larger-than-life figures, highlight the mindsets that affected both the outcome of the trial and the way the case itself was tried, depict the media circus surrounding the case, and make us care deeply about each person involved—and distilled those themes and objectives into one stunning hour focused on the sexism Marcia Clark faced every day. In doing so, it took a woman who was often the butt of jokes and the subject of tabloid fodder and made us feel every bit of anger, humiliation, sadness, and shame that boiled over in her during the trial. Through Sarah Paulson’s expressive eyes, we were given a look at the world around Marcia Clark, and, for the most part, it was not a kind world. But there were some moments of genuine kindness and connection in the middle of the storm—mostly coming from Chris Darden (and the incomparable Sterling K. Brown). For as blindingly angry as I felt watching Judge Ito make snide comments about her hair or watching men comment on her period and its affect on her professional abilities, I was filled with warmth watching the scenes with Darden and Clark dancing and holding hands in silent support,reminding me that kindness is still within reach, even in the toughest times.
2. “Chloramphenicol” (The Americans)
I know that most people have chosen “The Magic of David Copperfield V” as this show’s best episode of the season, and I can’t argue with that choice. However, for what it’s worth, I found “Chloramphenicol” to be more moving and a better jumping-off point for analysis and discussion. It featured the most shocking yet meaningful death on television this year, one of the few deaths that felt like it mattered beyond its shock value. It also featured some of the best acting in a season marked by amazing performances—from Holly Taylor’s work in Paige’s opening phone call to Alison Wright’s masterful dinner conversation and the gut-wrenching work done by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys throughout. Their scene in the bathroom, with Elizabeth telling Philip what to do if she dies—and Philip not wanting to imagine the possibility—was one of the most affecting scenes of 2016, and it’s one I have watched countless times trying to unpack all of it. If we’re measuring the brilliance of an episode by how many times I’ve replayed it, then this is truly one of the greats.
3. “Wear It” (Pitch)
If you want an example of why Pitch is so important, look no further than this episode. It featured one of the most heartbreakingly realistic panic attacks and emotional breakdowns I’ve ever seen on television, and that was all because of the fearless vulnerability Kylie Bunbury brought to it. What made this episode so special was the importance it placed on Ginny’s mental health. The scene in which the Padres officials and Ginny’s team offered support for her in her time of crisis was so rare to see and so beautiful to behold. Ginny’s mental health was given the same priority as her physical health, and it was treated with same care and concern as a shoulder injury or physical conditioning. There will come a day when that’s not a revolutionary way to portray mental health, but for the moment, it still is. And when it’s handled in such a meaningful, inspiring way, it should be celebrated.
4. “Hope” (black-ish)
Balancing comedy, sincere emotion, and social commentary is not easy, but “Hope” was the perfect blending of all three. The black-ish writers tapped into a story only they could tell, and they told it with sharp insight and real depth. They took a complex issue and showed discussions and debates happening in living rooms across America about racial injustice, police brutality, and questions about how far America has come and how far it still has to go. I’ll never forget Dre’s monologue about the myriad of emotions he felt as he watched the Obamas on Inauguration Day; it was a stunning moment that only happens when great writing and a heartfelt performance come together.
5. “Bureau” (Brooklyn Nine-Nine)
“Let’s break into the FBI.” From that hilarious exchange through the training montage that followed and the shocking cliffhanger ending, this was the most engaging episode of my favorite comedy of 2016. Its plot was tight, its jokes were strong, and its storylines allowed so many members of the show’s fantastic ensemble to shine.
6. “Fall” (Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life)
The entire Gilmore Girls revival built up to the events of “Fall,” and that episode was the show at its best—at turns funny and deeply felt. Character arcs reached new heights, events we all hoped for came to fruition, classic moments in the show’s past were honored, and stories came full circle in truly surprising ways. A list of the episode’s highlights could go on for days: Lorelai’s phone call to Emily about Richard, Logan’s last look at Rory, Luke telling Lorelai all the reasons they should stay together, the wedding…It was the culmination of nearly a decade of waiting, and it was worth the wait. (No matter what you feel about those last four words…)
7. “Dragonfly in Amber” (Outlander)
This season finale was filled with time traveling, old and new romances, huge battles, and major revelations. But what stuck with me was the deep sense of love that ran through it: love between a mother and daughter, a husband and wife, and a father and the daughter he knew he’d never meet. It played like a film, cementing Outlander as one of the most cinematic shows on television today, and its performances were just as strong as any you’d find in an Oscar-contending movie (especially the heartbreaking work done by Caitriona Balfe).
8. “Girl Meets I Do” (Girl Meets World)
Girl Meets World is a story about the past and the present coming together in beautiful ways, and there was no better example of this than the wedding of Shawn and Katy. For those of us who loved the characters of Boy Meets World, this was the culmination of years of searching and hoping for Shawn, the boy who never felt like anyone would choose to stick around. And for those of us who also love the characters of Girl Meets World, this episode was the start of something special for Maya, the girl who never felt like anyone would choose to stick around. These two kindred spirits found a family with each other (and with Katy), and this episode put that family in the spotlight. It allowed both characters—the grown man and the young girl—to take the leap of faith they needed to believe that they could have something lasting and lovely. And it made everyone watching cry like babies in the process.
9. “Career Days” (This Is Us)
“Career Days” put Randall’s relationship with Jack at the center of the story, and, in doing so, it gave both characters even more depth. Randall’s struggle with being different defined him for so much of his life, and this episode was devoted to his realization—both in the past and present—that it was okay if he was different; what mattered was that he was happy. And in both cases, he had a support system by his side. In the past, he had his father, and the scene featuring Jack comforting young Randall was one of the most powerful scenes the show has aired yet. In the present, he has his wife, the other half of one of the best marriages on television.
10. “Chapter Forty-Seven” (Jane the Virgin)
We all knew the episode in which Jane lost her titular virginity would be something special, but little did we know it would be special because of how imperfect that moment was. The show treated the moment with honesty, and that made it all the more memorable. Aiming for realism—both in the actual act itself and in Jane’s reaction it afterward—allowed Gina Rodriguez to do what she does best: make us feel for Jane. And when things finally went right, the joy and relief both Jane and Michael experienced felt truly earned. Who knew bad sex could be so good for a show, or that good sex could feel so celebratory for a TV audience?
1. The People vs. O.J. Simpson
This show surprised me in the best possible way. I went into it expecting to find it campy and clichéd, but I was stunned by its intelligent storytelling, complex characterizations, and career-defining performances. Every episode was its own miniature work of analytical art, peeling back the layers on one figure or one part of the trial to reveal the myriad of societal and personal factors driving the action. It made a case that everyone remembers feel fresh, and it did this by making those who participated in it feel like real people instead of caricatures or stereotypes. This show made the “Case of the Century” feel intensely personal, and the emotional reactions it provoked in me were stronger than those elicited by any other show I watched this year.
2. The Americans
If any show rivaled The People vs. O.J. Simpson for the intensity of the emotions I felt while watching, it was this one. While The People vs. O.J. makes the case for the miniseries as the most compelling method of television storytelling, The Americans shows that long-form storytelling is still unparalleled when done well. This year, the show took storylines that had been simmering for seasons and brought them to a boil, cutting its cast almost in half and breaking all our hearts in the process by allowing each exit to have a true emotional impact not just on the audience but on the characters. Its plotting was tighter than ever before, and that allowed the emotional beats to come faster and carry more weight. As Philip and Elizabeth have become more vulnerable, the show has become even stronger. This year, the show focused on the importance of closeness perhaps more than ever before, and the result was a season that had more moments of profound emotion and more showcase scenes for its incredible cast than ever before.
The world needs Pitch. Ginny Baker is presented to us in all her complicated, strong, vulnerable, independent, struggling, fierce, exhausted beauty; she is allowed to be so much more than just one thing, and, as such, the audience is reminded that women are so much more than just one thing. She is good at her job but not perfect at it; she has friends (female friends! male friends!) but still feels lonely sometimes; she doesn’t need a man to rescue her but isn’t shown as weak for developing romantic feelings for a man who thinks she is truly something special. That kind of realistic complexity is rare to see on television, but it’s not all that made the show work. Its first season featured an outstanding supporting cast, a plethora of well-developed relationships, and one of the best “Will they or won’t they?” dynamics currently on television.
4. Girl Meets World
If you want to feel better about the state of the world, watch this show. The way it highlights the beauty of friendship, encourages open discussions about emotions, teaches young women to love themselves, and reinforces the importance of having an open mind is something rarely found on television shows for adults, let alone shows for young adults and children. Its cast of young actors is one of the most charming ensembles on television regardless of age, and the genuine warmth that has developed between all of them makes each episode a delight. Whether tackling first loves or family secrets, acceptance or abandonment, the show approaches each story it tells with heart and humor, appealing to a much wider audience than it would seem at first glance. And if you’re looking to add even more “feels” to your TV diet, no show makes me cry harder or more frequently than this one.
5. This Is Us
How is it possible for a freshman show to be this well plotted and have this many compelling relationships? It starts with strong writing and ends with great casting. The pilot episode’s twist got many of us hooked, but what’s kept us there is the sincerity in its storytelling both in the past and the present plots. And that sincerity is all because of its brilliant ensemble—from the talented child actors who make the flashbacks resonate with realistic emotions to the famous names (Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Sterling K. Brown) who have brought true depth to their roles, making each connection that the show is built on feel honest.
6. Brooklyn Nine-Nine
The “Nine-Nine” was still my TV happy place in 2016. The show ventured into new territory with its overarching Pimento/Figgis/Greg and Larry storyline, and it paid off with new depth for old favorites (Rosa especially benefitted from this year’s storytelling.) and some interesting police plots to go along with its typically strong humor. This was the year of Holt describing Sex and the City, Boyle’s pronunciation of “Nikolaj,” and “Boost my bottom!” And if you like a little heart to go along with your humor, the continued progression of Jake and Amy’s relationship, as well as plenty of moments of squad bonding, more than fit the bill.
7. Agent Carter
The cancellation of Agent Carter was the saddest TV decision made in 2016, but the show was great while it lasted. Its second season was even better than its first, adding new layers to Peggy, new characters to love (ANA JARVIS!) and fear (Whitney Frost in all her brilliantly deranged glory), and new romances to tug at our heartstrings. Through it all, though, the show never lost sight of Peggy and what she means to so many fans; her self-sufficiency, intelligence, inherent kindness, and moral compass made her a character for the ages and made her story one of the best on television this year.
8. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee
Those of us who found ourselves angry with the dialogue surrounding and the ultimate result of the 2016 presidential election needed a voice, and Samantha Bee was that voice. She managed to shine a light on the absurdity of what was happening in American politics with a biting sense of humor that resonated with so many of us, especially ardent feminists. She reminded us to never stop speaking out, to never be complacent with what was happening, and to never forget that “#Trumpcantread.” She was the outspoken Nasty Woman we needed this year.
9. The Good Place
This show had the most creative concept of the year, and what was most impressive is that it didn’t stumble in its execution of such a challenging idea (creating an entire afterlife universe with its own rules). The show’s attention to detail is amazing, and there is always some new pun or sight gag to find. Helping to bring this concept to life are a truly talented cast, including Ted Danson, whose hilarious work as Michael just missed the cut for my favorite performances this year, and Kristen Bell, who manages to make Eleanor just horrible enough to be funny and just likable enough that we root for her. In the end, though, what really makes this show work is Mike Schur’s trademark undercurrent of goodness, which has been shown in really lovely ways already by Eleanor’s development into someone who wants to be a better person and in her heartwarming relationship with Chidi.
10. The Crown
This was by far the most visually stunning show to air in 2016. The costumes, the sets, and the cinematography created a feast for the eyes unlike anything I’ve ever seen on television before. But that’s not the only reason why it made the cut; it’s a fascinating look at power, prestige, and life in the public eye—all shown through the eyes of a woman learning what it means to be queen just before the rise of the feminist movement. Claire Foy is a revelation as Queen Elizabeth, and Matt Smith is so much more than just the Doctor now, thanks to his nuanced work as her husband Philip.
Honorable Mention: O.J.: Made in America
This multipart documentary is more of film than a TV show (It’s being screened for Oscar contention instead of Emmy contention.), but I couldn’t go without mentioning it. It’s the perfect partner for The People vs. O.J. Simpson, giving a broader look at the racial divisions, social climate, and celebrity culture that made the verdict in the case possible, while also chronicling Simpson’s downfall after that verdict. It both fascinated me while it was on and haunted me long after it was done, which is exactly what a good piece of documentary filmmaking should do.