Tiffany’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2016

I have said it before and I will say it again: TV critics have really had a tough year — first, to keep up with all the TV shows currently airing; and two, trying to whittle down their “Top 10” lists to just ten.  I have seen a lot of creative lists out there as some try dividing up their “Top 10” lists into categories, like a list for just broadcast TV shows and another list for cable TV shows and another list for digital/online TV shows; others have simply separated out into categories of drama for one list, comedy for another list, and animation for a separate list — and so on.  A top TV critic for The Hollywood Reporter had no less that 38 cable and 13 network entries on his “Top 10” list for a total of 51 top TV shows.  So 2016 (like 2015) has been a tough year and critics are struggling to find ways to expand their “Top 10.”  I am no less challenged.  It has been agonizing and difficult to try to determine which TV shows warranted a slot on my “Top 10” list this year.  It is a struggle I have faced for many years as a TV critic; but it also something that yields interesting results.  It makes me realize what shows I am truly enjoying and why I spend time with them.

In an era of over 400 original, scripted TV dramas in 2016, no one can truly watch all the TV shows available.  I made a determined effort to try, but even I could only wrangle about 250+ TV shows last year — and that is likely about 100 more shows than other TV critics even attempted.  So, in an effort to provide full disclosure, I did not watch all the TV shows in 2016.

Of the 250+ shows I did watch, I have done my best to weigh each on a fair scale to select which earned a spot in my “Top 10” list and the following reflects that criteria:

– fearless storytelling
– highly entertaining
– consistency
– water-cooler factor
– clearly ascertainable “hero” and “heart”
– strong female characters

To briefly explain, “fearlessness” in storytelling means a willingness to tackle the topic or subject of their story head-on with no regrets.

“Highly entertaining” is pretty self-explanatory — the viewing audience must enjoy watching the show and are not just enduring it.

“Consistency” means that each episode must stand on its own. Lots of TV shows have one or two great episodes and then fall-off the creative-cliff the rest of the season.  So maintaining the momentum of a strong, well-written season is crucial as well.

The “water-cooler” factor is also essential.  People must be talking about the show.  It must be part of the zeitgeist and inspiring passion in those who watch.

There had to be a clear “hero” and a reason to care about the characters — the “heart.”  There are simply too many shows that forget we want to root for someone and we want to care about the characters.

And this year, I added one final bit of criteria: the show had to offer strong female-empowered roles.  This should be a given in any TV show, but now more than ever, this criteria needs to be spelled out and recognized as crucial to any top TV show.

So that is my criteria.  It actually sets a high bar and it made it a bit easier to see which TV shows truly earned a spot on my “Top 10” list for 2016 — and here is which TV shows made it:

Tiffany’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2016:

Rectify (Sundance)
Westworld (HBO)
12 Monkeys (Syfy)
The Good Wife (CBS)
Bates Motel (A&E)
The Americans (FX)
Orphan Black (BBC America)
Stranger Things (Netflix)
Better Call Saul (AMC)
Downton Abbey (PBS)

Because it helps to know what shows were strong contenders for the “Top 10,” here are the runners-up that deserved to be given shout-outs for their pure entertainability in 2016 (in no particular order):

Timeless (NBC)
Lucifer (Fox)
iZombie (CW)
11.22.63 (Hulu)
Mozart In The Jungle (Amazon)
Supergirl (CW)
Black Sails (Starz)
Good Behavior (TNT)
Sweet Vicious (MTV)
Dark Matter (Syfy)
Pitch (Fox)
Killjoys (Syfy)
Poldark (PBS)
Wynonna Earp (Syfy)
The Flash (CW)
The Magicians (Syfy)
Younger (TVland)
Banshee (Cinemax)
Teen Wolf (MTV)
The Originals (CW)
Schitt’s Creek (Pop)
The Royals (E!)
Longmire (Netflix)
This Is Us (NBC)
Arrow (CW)
Daredevil (Netflix)
Jane The Virgin (CW)
The Man In The High Castle (Amazon)
Containment (CW)
Mr. Robot (USA)
Lethal Weapon (Fox)

In case you are interested in a bit more explanation, here are a few more reasons my “Top 10” warranted recognition for their achievements in 2016:

Rectify (Sundance)

After its final scened aired, I posted on Twitter:  “Sundance’s RECTIFY ended magnificently. Pure art. Such a joy and privilege to watch.” These are the words every TV show should strive to be described as the credits roll for the final time.  Sundance’s roll of the dice on a risky drama focusing on the reentry of a man released from prison and the ripple effects on his family and community was inspired — and ultimately a masterful work of art. With brilliantly constructed and luminously portrayed characters and incredibly strong writing to back it up, each episode was gripping and each season more riveting than the last.  For its final season, RECTIFY not only set a high bar, it blew the bar out of the water. RECTIFY was a study in the nuances and minutes that make-up the dynamics between people caught up in a living nightmare and their steadfast determination to make the best of it, to hold their heads high and find a way to love each other (and themselves) through all of it. The story enthralled and tugged at the heart every chance it got.  Its painful tale ended up making all of us who watched it feel more connected to humanity — even when it felt like it was crumbling around us in the world we currently live in.  The lives of Daniel, Amanthe, Teddy, Tawney, Jared, John, Janet and Ted Sr. left marvelous imprints on our souls. It was a gift to share a portion of their journey with them. So I give a big heartfelt “Thank You!” to all those who brought RECTIFY to our television screens.  RECTIFY was fearless and we loved it for that.

Westworld (HBO)

A close second was HBO’s extraordinary new series WESTWORLD, which was enthralling, mesmerizing, and downright sinfully delicious to watch. It felt like an amalgamation of all the most sumptuous desserts in the world. Hats off to the remarkable folks who took their time to make such a layered science fiction show that caught our attention with a single fly crawling across an eye and took us down a rabbit hole of mysteries upon mysteries and we loved every second of it.  It also made us feel astoundingly connected and sympathetic to the plight and existence of robots.  We discovered what it felt like to fall in love with and be seduced by artificial intelligence and why our empathy for them will one day perhaps be our very undoing.  WESTWORLD was not only brilliant and clever, it was exquisite to watch.  Each of the actors pulled back subtle layers and offered finely nuanced performances that it was impossible to tell who were the humans and who were the hosts and even more conflicting was finding ourselves rooting for the hosts to prevail.  The show smartly offered mysteries, bread-crumbs and clues, but it was the unmasking of each character and showing the internal ethical conflicts that we all must ask and face within ourselves was truly addictive. I found myself counting the days between episodes and that is in itself a remarkable feat.  Bravo.

12 Monkeys (Syfy)

For the second year in a row, Syfy’s 12 MONKEYS has earned a top spot on my list.  Astoundingly, it found a way to carve out another piece of my heart in its second season.  I just love how 12 MONKEYS constantly challenges me to reevaluate my view of each of its characters as they risk their lives and very fate of the fabric of time. Addictive, smart, compelling and jaw-dropping in all the right ways, the tapestry of story and characters that 12 MONKEYS weaves is worthy of entry in my television museum of visual art.  12 MONKEYS also offered some of the strongest female-empowering roles seen any where on television.  The show brought its female characters to the forefront in its second season and made them as badass and as heroic as any of their male counterparts.  The show may be about saving the human race from a viral outbreak and later from those who have master race issues, but it emphasized that in the process how women were just as integral as men in that endeavor.  Knowing who were the heroes and who were the villains is always murky in 12 MONKEYS, but it always rewarded fans and viewers for their trust in the belief that heroes are made even from the most self-interested and hardened of hearts and that redemption is a journey for everyone.  12 MONKEYS also remembered to have fun along the way.  After all, drama peppered with humor tastes all that much more tantalizing.  It also had fun with time-travel and what good would a time-travel show be without a bit of fun and games across the timelines?  Like its first season, 12 MONKEYS was fearless, confident, joyous, heart-breaking and heart-warming in equal measure, and a treat to watch every single second.  I was awed and thrilled watching it.

The Good Wife (CBS)

Controversial to the end, CBS’ legal drama THE GOOD WIFE was never looking to provide answers to the dense and thorny political/legal conundrums that it posed.  It was always about “poking the bear” and seeing what reaction it provoked.  As hair-raising and hair-pullingly frustrating as it may have been, THE GOOD WIFE was always great television.  It introduced deeply flawed characters who tried their best to earn a foothold strong enough to withstand the next wave of dirt and legal entanglements thrown at them.  Even at its weakest moment, the writing and character portrayals easily swam circles around 99% of the rest of shows on television.  And to this day, I am haunted to this day by the characters and stories THE GOOD WIFE introduced.  After all, don’t we all wonder a bit more about who may be listening in on our conversations and who might be watching us from the cameras embedded in our computers and smart phones? Not to mention that I stubbornly want to believe that Chumhum exists out there somewhere.  THE GOOD WIFE captivated in how closely it mirrored the society we live in.  It pulled its stories and legal quandaries right out go the breaking news of today. It also eerily echoed our fears on how the political and legal systems can be manipulated with such ease.  It was a prophetic foreshadowing of the world we all now face. I miss THE GOOD WIFE and I feel its loss every Sunday night.

Bates Motel (A&E)

Another repeat entry on my Top 10 list, A&E’s BATES MOTEL is chilling in its portrayal of the making of a serial killer and the effects on every person surrounding him.  We always knew that Norma Bates’ days were numbered, but it was still shocking and devastating when she was killed.  The rise of Norman Bates has been a complicated and conflicted journey.  Simply due to the gentle nature of Freddie Highmore, we allowed ourselves to forget what we have always knew:  his character Norman Bates is a killer.  Cloaked by superb writing and masterful performances, BATES MOTEL lured viewers into a sense of serenity and we were all the more surprised when the beast within Norman was unleashed. I have described it this way before, but BATES MOTEL is like watching the predator and the prey caught in a spiderweb — and yet we are too riveted to look away. With one final dance and season ahead, it shall be no less enthralling seeing where it all ends.

The Americans (FX)

No matter how many times I remind myself that the Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are Russian spies, I cannot stop rooting for them.  That is how deeply THE AMERICANS has embedded itself in my heart.  And yet, it is not that the Jennings made us love them and root for them, but rather that FX’s THE AMERICANS made us actually believe in them and their cause.  I find myself deeply conflicted by this every time I watch the show.  But the sheer addictiveness overcomes any qualms — and the difficult and slippery slope that Martha found herself standing upon last season felt all that more painful and agonizing once we realized how easy it is to be seduced into betraying our county.  Scintillating performances combined with strong writing makes THE AMERICANS one of the strongest dramas on television.

Orphan Black (BBC America)

The raw and mesmerizing work of Tatiana Maslany is awesome to behold.  She is a chameleon and ORPHAN BLACK gives her the perfect canvas in which to bring her rich and thrilling performances to life on screen.  In every episode, the viewer  forgets that they are watching a single person bring all those characters to life — for we love each of them ferociously as if they were our own siblings.  From Sarah to Beth to Alison to Cosima to Helena to Rachel to another dozen clones which Tatiana embodies, each feels distinct and real.  That is the audaciousness of ORPHAN BLACK.  Then beyond its rich characters, ORPHAN BLACK also dares to offer a complex mystery with multi-factions vying for control of the clones and their unique technology and physiology.  It squarely confronts the question of whether clones are autonomous or can be owned and viewed as property.  Even more cleverly, ORPHAN BLACK makes you believe cloning humans is actually possible, which is another trademark of great TV show: it makes their world so real that you forget that it actually does not exist.

Stranger Things (Netflix)

The biggest viewing sensation this year was Netflix’s STRANGER THINGS, and everywhere you went everyone was talking about it.  With little fanfare and publicity, STRANGER THINGS was released and within days it was all the rage.  In fact, it dominated social media and personal conversations for months.  Beyond its sheer water-coolerness, STRANGER THINGS is a damn fine tale of young adulthood and resourcefulness in the face of opposition.  It also offered an additive tale of a girl with special abilities and a monster that snatches kids into a mysterious dark world.  The combination was delightfully whipped up into a story about unlikely heroes conquering their fears and saving their friends and family from untold horrors. It felt empowering and majestic and it was as every bit cheer-worthy as we needed as the world we live in feels  a bit darker and desperate every day.  It also left us feeling like there was so much more to be explored and we are anxious awaiting what that next adventure will be.

Better Call Saul (AMC)

Another surprising entry on this list, it was impossible to ignore the dark and dire world of BETTER CALL SAUL that wraps itself up in a snuggly blanket of warmth.  The slow but inevitable transformation of Jimmy McGill into his alter-ego persona of Saul Goodman is fascinating.  As portrayed by Bob Odenkirk, we feel his internal struggle to be a better man for the woman he loves and the irresistible pull of the world and identity he craves to set free.  The deft writing and strong performances bring a layer of joyous glee that runs as an undercurrent through the show.  It is as if BETTER CALL SAUL is winking and nudging the viewer into believing that there is a fun-loving and impish side to the criminal side of life.  Only in television could this be true, but we are happy to believe it all the same just because Jimmy makes it feel so good to be “bad.”  Hat tip for that sleight of hand!

Downton Abbey (PBS)

Throughout its long run, DOWNTON ABBEY has reigned as a genteel monarch in fine television.  It ended an a spectacularly wonderful note and will be remembered for making us believe in our bones that the Granthams and their delightful array of servants actually existed.  Knowing that its characters deserved a good, strong series ending secured its spot on this list.  Not every show knows how to end its tale well, yet like everything else it did, DOWNTON ABBEY knew how and when to end its incredible  story.  Always cognizant of blazing a path of female empowerment in the midst of one of this world’s most rigid male-dominant societies, DOWNTON ABBEY did not hesitate to give female characters ample room to stretch and grow and exert their power.  It also did so gracefully.  It should be a reminder that power is inherent and only needs a spark to set it ablaze.  DOWNTON ABBEY was a rich feast for the eyes and food for the soul.  It reminded us how the bonds of family and friendship can be more powerful than any weapon and can crush any affront against it.  I am grateful for the gift of the story and characters it introduced.  It’s legacy will be to be remembered for generations and to be remembered well.


Each and every one of the shows that made it on my “Top 10” list earned its spot.  I could rave about each for pages and still never be done.  I recommend that if you are not watching these shows that you take the time and watch.  The same goes for the “runner-up” and “honorable mention” shows.

One last note: there are hundreds of other worthy and delightful and fantastic TV shows on television right now.  Just because they are not mentioned here doesn’t mean each of those is not worthy of your time.  I happily watched the 250+ TV shows that I watched in 2016 and am looking forward to seeing where each of those go in 2017 — as well as embracing nearly 100 more new shows debuting in the next 12 months.

This is a rich and rewarding time to be a TV viewer and critic.  Embrace it all.  Savor it all.  And have a wonderful time.  I do.

P.S.  As a point of reference, here are my Top 10 TV Shows of 2015

12 Monkeys (Syfy)
Madam Secretary (CBS)
Justified (FX)
Limitless (CBS)
UnREAL (Lifetime)
The Americans (FX)
Black Sails (Starz)
Bates Motel (A&E)
The 100 (CW)
Daredevil (Netflix)