Whichever precious metal you prefer to describe the age of television in which we are currently operating—gold, platinum, you name it—it's worth reflecting on the degree to which the quality of TV programming has caught up to its cultural magnitude.
For a long time, TV didn't need to be good to dominate our leisure time. It just had to be there, and on. Scholars and sociologists wrote alarmist books about its malignant influence. Intellectual types scoffed at its obvious lowness, gave it derisory nicknames like the boob tube and the idiot box.
And those people were right: TV did drag down standards of what was good, funny, dramatic, smart, true, and diverting. It did make us easier to control. It did pacify and numb us. It ruined politics. It warped laughter. It commodified emotion. But it was also free and seductive, and had a way of uniting—maybe not the populace as a people, but the stimuli we received.
But when cable and the internet came along, suddenly TV's essential shoddiness became a glaring deficiency. The same thing happened to movies, radio, CDs, magazines, and newspapers, all of which had to adapt to a more competitive environment.
None of them has done so as successfully as TV, which has dug deep into its own source and (with the help of astonishing sums of venture capital) come up with the means to make shows that deliver on the medium's seemingly limitless appeal. The conventional shape of narrative has expanded from 22 or 44, or even 90 minutes, to 6, 8, 10 hours. You get far longer stretches of time to live with the characters you love and hate, and to luxuriate in the suspense about what will become of them.
Some essential things about the form haven't changed at all.
It doesn't matter if you watch them on a laptop or a phone or a watch or over the shoulder of someone sitting next to you on a plane. It doesn't matter if you text or make dinner or do crunches the whole time you're meant to be watching, because there's always more.
But the fact that there's always more also compels you to keep up, or to consume it all at once. TV comes with you, aims toward you, seems designed specifically for your beguilement. That's why it's so much easier to find 12 consecutive hours to watch a whole season of a TV series than it is to budget 100 minutes to watch a film.
As with films, music, and media, the volume of available entertainment now outdistances the average human's appetite or even capacity to consume it by a seemingly infinite factor.
And as with those other mediums we have done year-end lists for—film, podcasts, records, books—there's no convincing case to be made for a canon (even if you have access to the numbers of people who watch shows on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, or whatever other streaming services have started up between the beginning of this paragraph and the end of this sentence).
All we can do is tell you what we liked best, the programs that managed to captivate us into squandering our minuscule ration of leisure time watching them, and trying to convince our friends to watch them, too. Maybe some of them will captivate you, too—at least until the New Year's crop of unmissable entertainment shows up. SEAN NELSON
Almazan Kitchen stands out in the genre of YouTube cooking shows that foreground the cooking process rather than the person doing the cooking. Because the absence of a person always makes them feel more present, much of the show's appeal involves gathering clues about the personality of the strange, nameless man behind the camera. He prepares every meal outside, sometimes in extreme conditions, and almost always by running streams—so he's kind of a Bear Grylls type. He uses a homemade knife the size and shape of half of a dinner plate, which is frankly just very cool. And, most intriguingly, he has a pet owl named Mr. Ramsay, which has been trained to move its head in circles as it follows the pestle grinding spices in the mortar. It's nature porn, survival porn, and food porn all in one cooking show. What else could you possibly want, besides just regular porn? RICH SMITH
Better Call Saul
It would be daft to simply argue that this spin-off is superior to the show that spawned it. Breaking Bad was a masterpiece of kinetic, comic-book-style storytelling in which the everyman hero's transformation into a supervillain took on increasingly horrific dimensions, while you found yourself simultaneously cheering his descent and rooting for his demise. Better Call Saul is something else entirely: a deliberately gradual examination of the forces that drive a gifted, likable loser to attempt to transcend the low expectations the world has for him, before ultimately giving in to them as a form of vengeance and self-sacrifice. The fact that Jimmy McGill's downfall takes place in the Breaking Bad universe, and the knowledge that the long story is leading inexorably to the saga of Walter White, lends the creators the ability to tantalize deep fans with the presence of Breaking Bad bad guys like Tuco and Hector Salamanca, and, even more thrillingly in season three, the great Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring. But the heft of Better Call Saul exists in the one-on-one relationships between Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk, fulfilling every morsel of Mr. Show's promise) and a series of his moral and ethical role models—his friend/colleague/romantic partner Kim (Rhea Seehorn, one of the most underrated actors on TV), his partner in increasingly serious crime Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks, who deserves his own spin-off, if not his own network), and his impossibly complicated bastard of a brother Chuck (Michael McKean), who emerges as the most fascinating and frustrating character of all, which is really, really saying something on this show. It would be nice to believe that character is destiny, and that it's easy to know when the decisions we face are right or wrong. Better Call Saul continues to demonstrate that the forces that compel bad guys to do bad things are systemic and complex enough that good and bad may not be such useful designations in 21st-century America. SEAN NELSON
Whether or not the fourth season of Charlie Brooker's sci-fi/horror/comedy anthology yielded a single episode as indelible as "San Junipero" or "White Christmas," the fact remains that six new episodes went up on December 29, and all six had been watched, digested, and argued over extensively before the ball dropped on New Year's Eve. In an age of paranoia, dislocation, and the increasing sense that we belong to our devices instead of vice versa, Black Mirror is essential viewing. Also, "USS Calister" is a spot-on indictment of the creepy, rageful inner life of toxic masculinity. And even when you start to feel like you can see the twist coming, the small moments throughout the series—Jimmi Simpson's impassioned recounting of watching his son's virtual torment in "Calister"; Rosemarie DeWitt's mounting compulsion to spy on her increasingly absent daughter's life in "Arkangel"; the lovers longing for each other while stuck with others in "Hang the DJ"; Andrea Riseborough's fatalistic resignation to mounting violence, paralleled by Shazia Akhand's terrified realization that her dedication to her work has put her whole family in danger in "Crocodile"—all lend the weirdly optimistic sense that humanity can't help but survive the future that seems to be swallowing us alive. Though they span vastly different styles and subjects, several of Brooker's latest episodes expand the dimensions of empathy to include the characters that populate our video games, our algorithm-based simulations, our holographic re-creations. He's not arguing these avatars are human, exactly (no more human than the characters in films or TV shows); he's more interested in our tendency to treat them in ways you could only treat humans if you were a true sociopath, or a character in a sci-fi/horror/comedy anthology. SEAN NELSON
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Though it seemed like hundreds at the time, there were probably only a dozen or so think pieces dedicated to the question of whether or not the latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm was, after a six-year span, still "relevant" or "appropriate" or otherwise in keeping with the times we live in, when cultural and personal sensitivities are at an all-time high (or low, depending on which culture and person you're talking about), and when laughter about that sensitivity has never been accompanied by a greater degree of political ramification. Not to mention the fact that laughing about the wrong thing can now get you not merely scolded but legitimately ostracized from polite society. The liberal world, in effect, has never had less sympathy than it does right now for an old white man with wealth beyond the dreams of avarice and absolutely no patience for other people's triggers. Luckily, Larry David's persona comes purpose-built for a world that shuns him, and the latest season was almost giddy with a sense of moral and ethical brinkmanship. Larry is an asshole, but the situations he engineers have a way of revealing the low-grade pettiness—the "self-" in self-righteousness—that fuels so many human interactions. He always ends up as the goat, and it's always because he's selfish and insensitive, but through the convolutions he skewers a lot of cant, and generates truly audacious laughs. SEAN NELSON
It's the oldest story in the hipster book: a plucky woman and her gay best friend. The city is New York. The woman (Julie Klausner) writes TV recaps for a living and has a devoted live-in boyfriend she ignores entirely because he's just not as fun as her snarky, tall, gay bestie who's a server in a cafe (Billy Eichner). The jokes about pop culture D-listers are fast and funny. The musical-theater references are numerous. The under-the-breath cracks about Kevin Spacey's creepiness now look prescient (they all predate the recent revelations), not to mention the jokes about Woody Allen. But at its core, the show is about the absolute thrill of finding someone else who's as clever as you are and hates all the same things. It's a shame the show wasn't renewed, but that's all the more reason to celebrate its brief, too-beautiful-for-this-world run. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
It confounds me that Easy isn't on every best-of list around. As in season 1, each episode of season 2 is self-contained: It's more like a short story than a novel, although the characters and story lines are lightly threaded together, and a character who is central to one episode might just show up in the next. Because each episode is its own complete story, you don't actually need to have seen the first season to enjoy the second (but you should watch the first season anyway because this shit is really fucking good). Featuring Dave Franco, Jane Adams, Marc Maron, Aubrey Plaza, Joe Lo Truglio, and many more, the acting is smoothly superb, but it is the writing that makes this show so damn good. Set in Chicago, Easy follows along as people confront or avoid their very real and very relatable problems. In one episode, a married couple opens their relationship and has to deal with the uneven excitement and dread about a major change; in another, a progressive neighborhood watch resorts to vigilante justice when a thief starts nabbing their Amazon packages. It's nuanced, complex, intimate, funny, and reaches far beyond the superficial. My only complaint? Eight episodes just aren't enough. KATIE HERZOG
Season two of The Expanse has 13 episodes. The last eight are so-so, but the first five are amazing. If you can ignore the creepiness of a middle-aged man's solar-system-wide pursuit a young woman he has never met, but whose image obsesses him (he spends many moments looking at it on his futuristic smartphone), then you will love the other aspects of this season's first five episodes, which in essence complete a movement that starts in the first season. The movement that begins with episode six, does not, however, look promising. Nevertheless, The Expanse is the best sci-fi TV show since Battlestar Galactica. CHARLES MUDEDE
Feud: Bette and Joan
This series was basically an excuse to watch two legendary contemporary actresses—Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon—ham it up by playing two legendary grandes dames of the golden age of cinema, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. The number of cigarettes smoked is impossible to track. The drinks are uncountable. The lines are often real utterances, so vindictive and clever and gut-churning you almost can't believe their veracity. In an industry dominated by male pigs, the revelation at the center of the show was how competition, a scarcity of roles, self-consciousness, beauty standards, and perceptions of talent helped these women terrorize each other. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
The Handmaid's Tale
In the show based on Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel of the same name, a militarized, totalitarian, Christianity-fueled regime has overthrown the US government and created a stratified society built on fanaticism and social classes. Women are brutally suppressed, and by law are not allowed to work, handle money, own property, or even read, while the few remaining fertile women are gathered up and forced to serve as "handmaids," submitting to ritualized rape and bearing the children of the ruling elite. I finished this Hulu series feeling a deep sense of dread and horror. Not because The Handmaid's Tale itself was particularly frightening but because this near future is just a little too close to the truth of where our current reality could go. It's for this reason that everyone must watch it. LEILANI POLK
I Love Dick
This series stars Kathryn Hahn as the wife of a Holocaust scholar who's been invited to a conference for intellectuals and artists in Marfa, Texas. At parties she's referred to as "the Holocaust wife." She has her own creative life as a filmmaker, but none of the men in her orbit take her seriously, including Kevin Bacon, who plays the famous artist Dick (evidently loosely based on art world superstar Donald Judd). The way the series both embodies and mocks progressive pretentions in the art world is brilliant. Creator Jill Soloway (adapting and transforming material from a novel by Chris Krauss) intercuts nervy, pornographic, uncategorizable snippets of actual pieces of contemporary video art into the episodes—like nothing you've ever seen on TV before. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
Issa Rae's well-regarded show (originally a web series picked up by HBO in 2016) deals with the black female experience in love, career, and general everyday living as told from the perspectives of two best friends: Issa (portrayed by Rae), who works at a nonprofit that helps middle-school students of color, and Molly (Yvonne Orji), an attorney trying to climb the career ladder. The writing is superb, and both the plotlines and the experiences of Issa and Molly (sometimes cringe-inducing, sometimes poignant) not only feel authentic but are inherently relatable, from the sexual reawakening of the newly single Issa that ultimately proves unfulfilling, to Molly's failed attempts to be seen as an equal (read: deserving of equal pay and opportunities) in her firm. LEILANI POLK
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Thank god for John Oliver. In the midst of this no good, very bad, nuclear disaster of a year, we had a reprieve for 30 all-too-brief minutes on Sunday nights as the British comedian and non-evil Steve Mnuchin look-alike did he best to save us all. In that respect, it may be too late, but Oliver did his best to bring to light the undercovered issues that we really should all be more pissed about, from coal-mine safety to local news consolidation. These topics may sound boring, but with Oliver as your teacher, they are not. Sure, Oliver's impeccably researched show has its gimmicks, but these are not of the typical late-night variety. Instead of lip-synch battles or slow jamming the news, Oliver bought air time on Fox and Friends, the idiot president's preferred source for "news" and self-congratulations, in the hopes the show's most famous viewer would learn a thing or two about sexual harassment, the health-care bill, clean coal, and even the nuclear triad. America would be a better place if we all watched Last Week Tonight, or even if just the president did. Someone, please turn all the White House TVs to HBO around 11 p.m. on Sunday nights, and then take away the remote. KATIE HERZOG
There was just so much to unpack in Damon Lindelof's moody, short-lived psychological thriller/apocalyptic drama. In the show, about 2 percent of the world's population inexplicably disappears (called the "sudden departure"), and the story is about how the people left behind, family and friends of the departed, are affected by it and dealing with it. (Most of them pretty terribly and in twisted ways.) The first season was so weird and dark and depressing, I almost abandoned The Leftovers all together, but curiosity propelled me to watch what turned into a rather intense and gripping second season. The final season of the series was goddamn extraordinary, unbelievably rich and nuanced, and left such a lasting impression, I thought about it for months afterward. The unexpected trajectory of the story lines and the stellar performances are both noteworthy, especially from Carrie Coon (whose character lost her entire nuclear family during the departure) and Justin Theroux (her romantic foil, possibly a madman, and definitely a reluctant Jesus figure/walking miracle who came back from death multiple times and is compelled to keep returning to the off-putting other side). But it wouldn't work so well on an emotional level without Max Richter's elegant, evocative classical music score and a soundtrack that cleverly taps (mostly) modern music to carry the mood and narratives along for each episode. LEILANI POLK
From track pants to Doc Martens to a serial abuser occupying the White House, the 1990s, for better or worse, are back. Not all of these emerging trends are welcome (see: platform sandals, undercuts, little buns perched on the top of your head like cabinet knobs), but there is one part of 1990s nostalgia worth welcoming: the real life American dramas, which have returned to us now on film and TV. First there was OJ (The People v. O.J. Simpson,), then Anita Hill (Confirmation), and now Manhunt, the story of the Unabomber and the men and women who spent years tracking him down. Available to binge on Netflix, Manhunt features movie stars Paul Bettany as Ted Kaczynski and Sam Worthington as the green, obsessive FBI agent Jim Fitzgerald who eventually brought him down—but not until he'd lost nearly everything himself. The capture of Kaczynski is a moment many of us remember well, but this harrowing retelling reveals the inside story of the hunt for the Unabomber—and what, or who, turned the brilliant, damaged Ted Kaczynski into a man who killed. KATIE HERZOG
Maria Bamford: Old Baby
Never have I laughed so hard while simultaneously wincing as when I viewed Old Baby. A form-busting comedy special that intersperses impromptu stand-up sets in unlikely places like bowling alleys and the comedian's front lawn with ostensibly stream-of-consciousness psychotherapy sessions and Robin Williams–esque interior monologues, this show is a uniquely uncomfortable cultural artifact. Seemingly stanching a breakdown throughout, Bamford relates her most intimate life experiences (mental illness, familial dysfunction, etc.) with lacerating honesty and in a panoply of voices, alchemizing harrowing details into pain-racked humor. How she can make unbearable pathos and ridiculous observations harmoniously coexist is one of the universe's great mysteries. DAVE SEGAL
The third season of Mr. Robot, a TV series about a crew of hackers that brings down a major corporation and starts a revolution they can't control or understand, basically made the second season irrelevant. If you watched and loved the show's first season, and have not got around to the second season, you can skip it and just watch the third season, which, like the first, has narrative motion. The second season is inert. It starts nowhere and goes nowhere. The penultimate episode of the third season, "S03 E08 · Eps3.7dont-delete-me.ko," is one of the best in the entire series. CHARLES MUDEDE
The first season of the black TBS comedy—which follows shallow millennial Dory (Alia Shawkat) as she "investigates" the mystery behind the disappearance of a college acquaintance, connecting the dots and often connecting dots that aren't there—read like one long shaggy dog joke that ended in an accidental murder. Season two finds Dory and her self-absorbed friends (who are all accessories to the crime) first attempting to cover it up with bumbling incompetence, and then trying to forget about it while the guilt manifests in each of them in different (and sometimes rather comical) ways. The twists and turns, quality subplots, and rather dramatic cliffhanger ending made this season leaps and bounds better than the last. Of course, that means you'll have to watch the first one in order to truly understand its context. LEILANI POLK
Frankie Shaw is my new favorite multitalent. She created, wrote, and stars in this new Showtime comedy as the eponymous lead character, Bridgette, a beautifully broken, dangerously impulsive woman trying to survive in Boston as a poor part-time actress and tutor, wannabe basketball star, and full-time single mom (you'd like to fuck). What makes this show work so well are the surprising relationships between Bridgette and her mother (played by a terribly accented Rosie O'Donnell), her baby's daddy (who she cares about but resents for his spotty dependability), his girlfriend (a surprising ally), her rich and overdemanding boss (Connie Britton), and all the men who cycle in and out of her life, many ending up on the receiving end of her attentions (like when she tries to have sex with a former flame while her kid is sleeping a foot away, only because she is obsessed with the size of her post-pregnancy vagina and needs input on its normalness, or when she meets a man on Craigslist who wants to pay her $300 just to look at her, and ends up grabbing her by the pussy while they're chatting casually at a department store food court). All of her character's random quirks (including a phase she goes through stuffing her underwear so it looks like she has a dick because it makes her feel confident and powerful) are odd yet charming, and her very real inner struggle—doing what's best for yourself versus doing what's best for your kid—paired with her penchant for making bad decisions drives the story along and makes for some rather unforgettable hilarity and an overall fantastic show. LEILANI POLK
Tom Hardy continues his uncontested reign as the most enthralling young actor currently alive in this seemingly underseen and enormously harrowing 19th-century potboiler about revenge, betrayal, pirates, slavers, patrimony, illicit sexual desire, conspiracy, capitalism, colonialism, and the human flaw that generates all these moral ills: ambition. Though there are plenty of people who might find it distasteful to deal with the dark themes that drive Taboo, the fact that they are all too present in the contemporary discourse is what makes the show, its violence, its refusal to overilluminate the gray areas between noble and indefensible, not merely troubling but downright enthralling. The eight-part series was created for the BBC, showed in the United States on FX, and has been renewed for a second season, which can't come a moment too soon. SEAN NELSON
The Vietnam War
Ken Burns and his codirector Lynn Novick have an instantly familiar style that ushered in the era of the documentary. With this 16-hour examination of America's most catastrophic political, military, and moral failure, they demonstrate why their significance transcends the merely aesthetic. In telling the story of American involvement in Vietnam—a saga that spanned decades and cost more than a million lives—Burns and Novick also tell the story of the bifurcation of this country that still prevails, four decades after the war ended. They also show that our sense that things have never been worse than they are right now could stand a fact-check against 1968. Most importantly, they enlist the men and women who fought against US troops, in both the regular army and the Viet Cong, to tell their stories, too. The film does not discriminate along ideological or national grounds; it doesn't try to tell you that "our" losses were somehow greater or more important than "theirs." Nor does it argue the reverse, the way some more radical American antiwar protesters did. No, the message of The Vietnam War, as it rolls though staggering violence, infuriating governmental deception, and heartbreaking revelation from the survivors, is that, in the fullness of time, division was an illusion. All the losses were ours. They still are. SEAN NELSON