The Best TV Shows of 2016, Ranked

best tv shows of 2016
Shutterstock/Nina Gonzales/Thrillist
Shutterstock/Nina Gonzales/Thrillist

New year, new list of must-watch television. Here are the Best TV Shows of 2017.

The sheer number of TV shows produced each year is enough to make you sigh deeply as you sift through your streaming options on any given night. That's where our passionately curated Small Screened ranking comes in. We assessed shows all year long, and moved them up and down based on the episodes they aired during 2016 and when more shows arrived -- and in the case of 30 for 30: O.J.: Made in America, migrated to our Best Documentaries list. And like our companion lists for movies, documentaries, albums, and video games, this list includes just the very best of the best, the shows we recommend 100 percent.

younger best tv shows of 2016 sutton foster hilary duff
TV Land

36. Younger

Forget how high we ranked Game of Thrones for a minute: George R.R. Martin's greatest contribution to TV this year was on Younger. TV Land's book-industry send-up, starring the effervescent Sutton Foster as a middle-aged empty-nester pretending she's 26 to get a leg up in the media world, featured an uncanny cameo from "Crown of Kings" writer "Edward L.L. Moore" (Richard Masur) that would crack up the ghost of Ned Stark himself. Here's an analogy to sum up how much pure fun this show offers: Younger is to publishing as series creator Darren Star's earlier half-hour series Sex and the City is to New York: a frisky neon fantasy not at all grounded in reality.
Where to stream it:

braindead mary elizabeth winstead

35. BrainDead

When The Good Wife ended last spring, creators Robert and Michelle King jumped right into this CBS political drama about a Washington, D.C., resident (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who believes that superbugs are eating politicians' brains. It's more Scandal than The Walking Dead -- the brain-munchers are deployed to mock political inaction on Capitol Hill -- and you almost buy the science behind it. Tragically, the latter half of its title won out: CBS declined to renew the series for a second season.
Where to stream it: CBS All Access

the night manager amc tom hiddleston hugh laurie best tv shows of 2016

34. The Night Manager

Any movie adaptation of a John le Carré novel is worth your time (especially 2011's twisty Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). But TV networks would do well to note the success of this six-part BBC-AMC co-production based on the British author's 1993 book and give us more miniseries-length le Carré, stat. For now, we'll be content to rewatch Tom Hiddleston's handsome soldier turned hotel manager turned secret agent attempt to take down Hugh Laurie's sneakily malevolent arms dealer.
Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

catastrophe sharon horgan rob delaney

33. Catastrophe

The story of unlikely couple Rob (Rob Delaney) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan) takes a Season 2 time-jump to give us a frank look at all the challenges co-parenting entails. But no matter how foul-mouthed Rob and Sharon's banter is or how misguided their decisions, the characters' genuine affection for one another shines through.
Where to stream it: Amazon Prime

unbreakable kimmy schmidt ellie kemper tina fey
Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

32. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Season 1 of Netflix's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt had its flaws, but co-executive producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock didn't change things up too drastically for the sitcom's sophomore season. Which is fine by us. We do get to know Kimmy, the cult survivor thrown in the middle of NYC society after a decade in an underground bunker, a little better, and the series takes the time to plumb the depths of her damaged psyche. The important thing is that Kimmy manages to deliver as many belly laughs as it did last year.
Where to stream it: Netflix

pamela adlon sam better things

31. Better Things

Pamela Adlon worked with Louis C.K. on his namesake series, so C.K. makes a fitting collaborator on Adlon's own auteur-driven comedy. Playing working actress Sam, Adlon draws from her own experiences (single parenthood, a nutty British mother) to depict a devoted, smart-mouthed, sexually enlightened mother of three that everyone in Bad Moms wished they could be.
Where to stream it: FXNOW

the carmichael show

30. The Carmichael Show

In this NBC show's first two seasons, comedian Jerrod Carmichael has used the traditional multi-cam sitcom format to tackle topics that go unexplored on most shows: the Black Lives Matter movement, transgender issues, and more. The NBC comedy leans on its deeply funny characters to take aim at even more societal ills, but instead of feeling like an unwanted Facebook post from your crazy uncle, it's like a real conversation.
Where to stream it: Hulu (with NBC subscription), or purchase on Amazon or iTunes

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29. Ash vs. Evil Dead

With his huge arsenal of B movies and scene-stealing stints on ratings-grabbers like Burn Notice and Fargo, Bruce Campbell has amassed the kind of cult following typically associated with household names like Shatner, Stewart, and Fillion. And every season he spends revisiting his signature character, Ash Williams, on Starz's sequel series to the Evil Dead trilogy proves what so many already know: that Bruce is the hardest-working, best-looking, Detroit-born actor ever to reach cult status by replacing his own arm with a chain saw.
Where to stream it: Starz

netflix the crown

28. The Crown

Netflix certainly went to town with this lavish historical drama about Queen Elizabeth II. If Downton Abbey and Mad Men mated, then had a baby that grew up to be more boring than either of those shows yet also more classy, The Crown might be it. Suggestion: Binge it slowly.
Where to stream it: Netflix

jane the virgin gina rodriguez
The CW

27. Jane the Virgin

Yes, this CW series is ridiculous; it's a telenovela -- it's supposed to be over the top. But by tackling serious issues without moralizing and via bilingual storytelling, Jane is more than just a show about an accidentally artificially inseminated virgin who's raising a baby, managing a love triangle, and dealing with drug lords, secret twins, and a police department conspiracy. But ultimately, it's just plain fun.
Where to stream it: Five most recent episodes available on The CW's website; Season 2 episodes on Netflix

quarry, cinemax
Michele K. Short/Cinemax

26. Quarry

In this stealth Cinemax gem, a depressed and impressively mustached Vietnam War soldier (The Invitation's Logan Marshall-Green) returns home to Memphis and quickly finds himself indebted to a shrewd contract broker (Top of the Lake's Peter Mullan). These slowly unspooling eight episodes will pull you in with authentic '70s vibes, gorgeous cinematography, and quirky side characters, and send you off with a surprising finale that will stick with you.
Where to stream it: MAX GO

kiefer sutherland designated survivor

25. Designated Survivor

Never has large-scale terrorism been this fun. While most TV dramas have become increasingly skeptical, cynical, and at times downright maniacal about the office of the presidency, Designated Survivor clumsily pushes back against this trend, assigning the title of commander-in-chief to Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland doing his best normal-guy impression) in the wake of an attack. Kirkman is a CrossFit warrior in Warby Parker glasses who'd make Jack Bauer proud, rising to the office and staying loyal to his family at all costs. In an election year, it's the perfect dose of escapism from the headache-inducing news cycle.
Where to stream it: Hulu

transparent gaby hoffmann jay duplass amy landecker

24. Transparent

Jill Soloway's autobiographical series starring Jeffrey Tambor grew from a radical concept: tracking a newly out transgender woman's experience, and her family’s ability to cope with change. Season 3 delves deeper into its characters' spirituality and capacity for empathy, explores an array of complex sexual identities, and renders family dynamics among divorced parents and grown siblings with aching specificity.
Where to stream it: Amazon

crazy ex-girlfriend rachel bloom rebecca bunch
The CW

23. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Former YouTube sensation Rachel Bloom's CW musical comedy is quietly revolutionary, offering sharp yet subtle commentary about the way women treat each other and themselves and featuring one of the most diverse casts on TV. The series, now in its second season, expertly draws its rom-com antics from heroine Rebecca's compulsive behavior and past traumas, while also satirizing the genre via song-and-dance numbers worthy of Sondheim.
Where to stream it: Netflix

lady dynamite maria bamford netflix

22. Lady Dynamite

Maria Bamford's semi-autobiographical, surreal spin on mental illness in Hollywood shares obvious DNA with Arrested Development: Mitch Hurwitz and Pam Brady are executive producers; sight gags, wordplay, and mockery of Los Angeles idiocy abound; and it features countless comedy-world cameos, extended fantasy sequences, and genuine self-introspection. It'll take you a few episodes to wrap your head around what you're watching, but once you're hooked, you're hooked.
Where to stream it: Netflix

orange is the new black netflix piper taylor schilling

21. Orange Is the New Black

On the eve of Season 4's premiere, Netflix announced that it had renewed the fan-favorite series for an additional three seasons. How much more of this world is left to mine? fans wondered. Jenji Kohan & Co. proved there's still room to reinvent the format by pushing the show's world into our own. Litchfield's new regime constructed and broke down new obstacles in the prison-industrial complex, and set up a heartbreaking climax that felt ripped from 2016's dismal headlines.
Where to stream it: Netflix

wagner moura pablo escobar narcos

20. Narcos

Killing off your show's lead character is a daunting prospect -- even more so if viewers know it’s coming. When Eric Newman and José Padilha took over Narcos' reins for Season 2, they managed to orchestrate the demise of Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) with suspense and a sense of inevitability. It sure helped that the show cut down on Agent Murphy's incessant narrating from Season 1, and the contrast between splashy cartel schemes and small-scale depictions of those they affected served to ground an illicit drama in humanity.
Where to stream it: Netflix

channel zero, candle cove, syfy
Allen Fraser/Syfy

19. Channel Zero: Candle Cove

Based on a popular creepypasta story about a mysterious children's TV show that plants murderous thoughts in the minds of its young viewers, Candle Cove is essentially a Stranger Things that focuses primarily on the adults. The Syfy series is super-creepy, and its version of the Demogorgon is the nightmare-inducing Toothchild, an icky monster that feeds on the teeth of its entranced victims.
Where to stream it:

american horror story, roanoke, evan peters

18. American Horror Story: Roanoke

This is the best show on television that features a character that silently terrorizes terrible people while wearing a pig's head. The meta comedy-thriller also features a killer cast, arguably better, even, than the other Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk series appearing on this list, the great American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. But seriously, who the hell is Piggy-Man?
Where to stream it: FXNOW

black mirror, netflix, bryce dallas howard
Laurie Sparham/Netflix

17. Black Mirror

This haunting anthology series about the perils of modern technology arrived on Netflix (after two seasons airing in the UK) for its six-episode third season on the same day much of the US was debilitated by a Black Mirror-style hack. Brilliant.
Where to stream it: Netflix

the good place ted danson kristen bell

16. The Good Place

In this sneakily addictive afterlife comedy from Mike Schur (Parks and Recreation), Kristen Bell's deceased cretin Eleanor is erroneously given a berth in a heaven-esque afterworld. Once the high-concept show gets past establishing its characters and premise, you'll enjoy watching her do whatever she can to avoid being found out and sent to hell by her friendly neighborhood architect, Michael (Ted Danson). And by the time you get to the incredible season finale, it's clear you've been sent straight up to TV heaven.
Where to stream it:, Hulu

difficult people julie klausner billy eichner

15. Difficult People

Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner are mean-spirited and petty, and live by the "no hugging, no learning" Seinfeld-ian code, which makes them our favorite kind of platonic power couple. But with every exploitative adventure anchored by their best friendship, the jokes they make at the expense of others (interns, New Jerseyans, Method Man) seem downright sympathetic.
Where to stream it: Hulu

zach galifianakis chip baskets
Frank Ockenfels/FX

14. Baskets

In the golden age of television, there's little room for buffoonery. To spoof the oh-so-serious trend, and lament the art of idiocy, Zach Galifianakis and Louis C.K. created Baskets, which casts the former as a clown struggling in the California suburbs. Galifianakis' Chip Baskets is a dunce, and if it weren't for the harsh reality and morose filmmaking style employed in the series, he'd have us in stitches. But the FX show refuses to be that digestible. Pratfalls roll-jump into -- ta-da! -- existential dread. Wordplay gags loop from comical to manic to funny again. As Chip's mother, Louie Anderson parades around in a muumuu but plays the role entirely straight. Baskets is a breakthrough work of parody, heartbreaking, hilarious, and odd -- everything a portrait of a sad clown should be.
Where to stream it:Hulu

Veep, Selina Meyers, HBO

13. Veep

The fifth season of HBO's political satire pulled the television equivalent of Indiana Jones' idol grab. Gone was creator Armando Iannucci, off to pursue new projects; David Mandel (Curb Your Enthusiasm) took the reins, promising to maintain the vicious and often clueless air of Selina Meyer's presidency. What could feel like imitation amounted to Veep's most blistering season yet, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus bringing cutthroat insults to the election-recount game and the Richard-Jonah rivalry melting down into a lame-duck campaign of their own. Mandel has added dashes of Curb -- Mike (Matt Walsh) interviewing baby surrogates was maximum awkward -- but Season 5 was all about Veep out-Veep-ing itself. We're still cringing from the time Selina played her mother's death for a boost in poll numbers.
Where to stream it:HBO GO/HBO NOW and Amazon Prime

hbo insecure issa rae yvonne orji best tv shows of 2016

12. Insecure

After the success of her ultra-popular web series and memoir, "Awkward Black Girl" Issa Rae took her talents to HBO, where she created and starred in this comedy about love, careers, and friendship in LA. Whether she's rapping to herself in the bathroom or on stage at an open-mic night -- or absent from a scene entirely -- Rae packages the comedy inherent in all your social pitfalls into a delectably bingeable package.
Where to stream it: HBO GO/NOW

better call saul

11. Better Call Saul

Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould's drama is two-faced and tactical. The series can inch closer to its fateful origin, Breaking Bad, and indulge in cameos and references while still upping the ante of its own drama. Bob Odenkirk has mastered the art of serio-comedy, giving the tragic Jimmy McGill tics that still play wacky. It helps to have a powerful opposing force. In Season 2, Jimmy's relationship with his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) erupts into a Shakespearean showdown, scorching their worlds even more than Arizona's blazing sun.
Where to stream it: Season 1 is on Netflix; Season 2 is on (requires a cable subscription)

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10. The Night Of

Just when you thought you were true-crimed out, this adaptation of British miniseries Criminal Justice creeped its way on to HBO. The pilot opens with a grisly murder, introducing our assumed perp and the cast of detectives, lawyers, and family members, each with their own stake in the confounding case. Every episode walks the razor's edge between tension and melodrama, all while exploring the human collateral of a case fast-tracked to trial. We see Rikers Island inmates bend Nas (Riz Ahmed) from wide-eyed college student to shaven, thuggish drug-runner; the struggle for his dad's taxi partners to get their cab, their livelihood, back from police; and more of John Turturro's eczema-scabbed feet than we ever wanted or needed as John Stone, legal advocate for the downtrodden. The end product is immersive and quietly explosive, an edge-of-your-seat caper more tragic than it is bombastic -- as in the real world. Crime doesn't get truer than that.
Where to stream it: HBO GO or HBO NOW

alia shawkat search party best tv of 2016

9. Search Party

The last thing we thought we needed in 2016 was a millennial gumshoe show. TBS proved us wrong with this December surprise, starring Alia Shawkat, all grown up from her tween gig as Arrested Development's Maeby, as a 20-something drifter desperate to find meaning in the disappearance of a college acquaintance. With Bored to Death-esque rookie sleuth slip-ups and sly, self-aware performances from Shawkat and the rest of the cast, Search Party cracks the case.
Where to stream it:

the americans keri russell matthew rhys
Patrick Harbron/FX

8. The Americans

The art of spycraft is enigmatic and sexy -- but Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) are veterans who know that the deadliest weapon in their arsenal is trust. As such, this FX drama is rooted in interpersonal relationships, tracking the longest of long cons. Season 4 saw the teenage Paige (Holly Taylor) respond to the espionage career thrust upon her by birthright, and she learned to manage her pastor and his wife, now her "sources"; and Philip's secret fake wife Martha (Alison Wright) flexes her dramatic muscle as her storyline approaches potential resolution. The tension is tremendous, and there's not an ounce of narrative fat in any episode.
Where to stream it: This season's episodes on iTunes or Amazon Video

silicon valley thomas middleditch martin starr kumail nanjiani zach woods t.j. miller

7. Silicon Valley

Now that the plot exposition is out of the way, the Silicon Valley dudes can just goof off as their sharply drawn characters. The trials that Pied Piper endures are secondary to Gilfoyle's (Martin Starr) endless ribbing of co-engineer Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and every absurd word uttered by Jared (Zach Woods). Thanks to the cast and writers' faithful depictions, Silicon Valley doesn't need to feature pyrotechnics like a million-dollar Alcatraz party to skewer its titular culture -- though that sure helps.
Where to stream it: HBO GO and HBO NOW

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6. BoJack Horseman

Despite abundant goofy sight gags and dad-worthy puns, Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Lisa Hanawalt's cartoon animal sad-com is not an easy watch. Season 3 is its darkest one yet, which is no small feat for a show about a washed-up alcoholic actor and his depressive frenemies. BoJack leans into its existentialism, and with each season delves deeper into its characters' backstories to explore the pains of personal growth, or lack thereof, asking big questions: what happens when you achieve your dream, but you still feel empty? Season 3 begins with BoJack on the Oscar campaign trail, but circles back to 2007, around to Todd's and Princess Carolyn's respective romantic struggles, and proves success is a tenuous concept, no more tangible than the anthropomorphic animals parading across our screens.
Where to stream it: Netflix

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5. Game of Thrones

Season 6 went down in history as the year the show (mostly) outpaced George R.R. Martin's source text -- and the year the show treated its female characters as conquerors on par with their male counterparts. After that Jon Snow bait-and-switch, Sansa's crushing confrontation with Littlefinger, Hodor's tragic origin story, all of Bran's time-travel malarkey, and Lady Lyanna's eviscerating speech, GOT has shocked us at every turn, truly earning its eternal place in all your water-cooler conversations. The mega millions in production value are a mere afterthought.
Where to stream it:HBO GO and HBO NOW

stranger things netflix

4. Stranger Things

Who thought the 1980s would bring us this summer's sleeper TV hit? Netflix's campy mystery looks plenty familiar, and that's the point -- the nostalgia-baiting saga of small-town kids gone missing is anchored by the warm-fuzziest tropes of our childhood, from the banging '80s soundtrack to its close-knit friendships. Its eight tantalizing episodes (a short series by Netflix standards!) left so many cliffhangers to unpack, so we'll be sharpening our conspiracy theories till we get more news about Season 2.
Where to stream it: Netflix

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3. Atlanta

This is that rare TV species: a deeply funny show offering pointed social commentary, probing Georgia's racial climate in between chuckles. Whether it's casting a black actor as Justin Bieber, lambasting social media obsessives, or just making a freaking great rap song, creator and star Donald Glover's massive endeavor manages to feel effortless and capture a specific experience with wit and precision.
Where to stream it: FXNOW

people v oj simpson american crime story
Prashant Gupta/FX

2. American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson

FX's The People v. O.J. is a perfect time capsule from 20 years ago, made all the more prescient by how familiar each episode looked today. Building up from the Rodney King race riots through to the emergence of Court TV and that Earth-shattering verdict, Ryan Murphy's miniseries focused on the trial that defined '90s America could have failed spectacularly -- but he and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski did their research. Every performance, drawn from a well-publicized real-world analogue, was uncanny in its accuracy (though some were more believable than others, of course). Most important, ACS took the mass hysteria seriously, breaking the case of a generation down into bite-size beats. Combine that precise empathy with its formidable scope, and O.J. triumphs in our TV court.
Where to stream it: FXNOW 

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John P. Johnson/HBO

1. Westworld

Watching Westworld is not a spectator sport. From its murky timeline to its fully fleshed artificially intelligent robots, HBO's upgrade of the mediocre 1973 Michael Crichton movie requires intense theorizing and precise concentration. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy weren't content just to build an expensive foundation for the Western wish-fulfillment amusement park -- they jam-packed that breathtaking scenery and carefully plotted backstory with a killer castheady neurology, cheeky musical cues, and conspiracy theories to spare. If you look carefully behind all those diversions, Westworld offers subtle commentary on the nature of TV writing and production at a period recognized as the medium's peak, on a network known for its commitment to narrative prestige. It'll raise questions about the nature of consciousness you never knew you had.
Where to stream it: HBO GO and HBO NOW

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