Bingeing Season: The Best TV Shows Of 2016 So Far
You have a lot to catch up on.
Goddamn northern hemisphere seasons. Not only must we suffer the indignity of shivering indoors while American Summer Internet is all novelty popsicles and festivals with lineups better than six straight years of Splendour, all our favourite shows go on hiatus. We won’t be blessed with the US Fall season for more than a month.
But never fear: this time is perfect to catch up on everything you’ve missed so far. Here’s our wrap of the best TV of 2016, including some under-the-radar gold. (We’re going to try to give recommendations on how you can access some of said gold but it can be difficult — this is Prisoner Island, after all, and they don’t make it easy. We are big fans of any method that supports the people who make the shit you like, so do your best to give them money.)
I hate the vast majority of musicals, including musical episodes of TV shows — I feel like the only Buffy fan who’s happy to skip past ‘Once More With Feeling’ on every second re-watch. So it should mean a lot when I tell you that the best show that wrapped its first season in 2016 was a multi-camera musical dramedy about mental illness and late-20s existential dissatisfaction starring a cast of scrappy Broadway regulars with the best animated, premise-establishing opening credits since The Nanny.
Rebecca Bunch (co-creator Rachel Bloom, who won a much-deserved Golden Globe for the role) is a New York lawyer sleepwalking her way through all the right decisions when she runs into Josh Chan, the guileless SoCal bro she dated for one whirlwind summer at theatre camp. She decides to throw her recent promotion to the wind to move to the strip mall paradise of ~West Covina, California~. (Which happens to be where Josh lives, but that’s not why she’s theeeerrrre…) Inching ever closer to a full-on breakdown, Rebecca’s brain peppers her new life with musical interludes.
Bloom and her co-stars are mostly Broadway stalwarts with killer pipes (and comic timing to match), but the show also has a strong pop strand in its DNA thanks to its musical director, Fountains of Wayne frontman Adam Schlesinger (who has written better songs than ‘Stacy’s Mom’, including the eponymous hit from That Thing You Do). Its feminism is worn on its Top 40-parodying sleeve, examining beauty standards, body image, female friendships and rivalries, and how much it actually sucks to have giant boobs.
Ultimately, the show is about the little fairy tales we tell ourselves as we resist the harsh realities of adulthood, and how clinging to the shiny imaginary versions of our lives can stop us from dealing with the problems, and the potential, right in front of us.
Can you watch now? Crazy Ex-Girlfriend screens on Eleven during its season run. It’s currently off-air.
If you’ve worked out how to get access to Hulu, you might have encountered this Jason Reitman-produced gem of a show, which is, in pretty much every episode, so perfect and funny and real that I get this irrational anger at it for being so good. A recently divorced mother and her teenage daughter move in with her shiftless startup-millionaire younger brother, and they all try to get laid and form connections and work out what the hell is going on with other people.
That’s the bones of it, but it’s the exquisite layers (sharp writing, wryly subversive sexual politics, and pitch-perfect acting) that make it what it is: sidesplitting in a way that tears your guts out at least once an episode and never goes for easy laughs or easy answers.
Can you watch now? Casual is exclusive to Hulu.
Full Frontal With Samantha Bee
Her former proving ground, The Daily Show, feels more toothless than Jon Stewart’s Mitch McConnell impression, but Samantha Bee brought the rage from day one of her new gig. With the fierce directness of a centaur with laser vision, she’s interspersed dick jokes about the presidential race with a matter-of-fact approach to putting the powers that be on blast over underserved issues like rape kits.
Like with Inside Amy Schumer’s first season, having a woman take on these issues with such an incisive mix of crassness and precision feels overdue, incisive, gleeful and necessary as fuck. John Oliver is all well and good, but this is what “nailing it” looks like.
Can you watch now? Full Frontal airs Tuesdays at 8pm on SBS2. You can catch up through SBS On Demand.
This unexpectedly huge, meme-spawning, aesthetically flawless pastiche has been the streaming phenomenon of the year so far. If it’s not your cup of tea, you’ll know straight away and you can get on with your life; if it is, you’ve probably already devoured the whole thing like a family-sized bag of Maltesers in an irresistible all-Sunday binge.
In the world of dense, emotionally ambiguous prestige drama, Stranger Things is straightforwardly archetypal and familiar in a subliminal sort of way; it’s as comforting as it is unsettling, like the imperfect flicker of a well-worn videotape. It captures that impossible feeling of watching an old favourite for the very first time.
Can you watch now? Stranger Things is available in full on Netflix.
As awkward and direct as ever, Lena Dunham’s opus came roaring back into form this season, showing most of the characters at their worst and the storytelling at its very best. With the most nakedly emotional and intensely funny writing since its first season, phenomenal highlights like The Marnie Episode and Hannah’s single-take Moth story in the finale meant that the show’s going into its sixth and final season with a renewed sense of who its people are, and what it wants to be.
Can you watch now? Girls airs on Foxtel’s Showcase during its season run. It’s currently off-air.
Jane The Virgin
The most emotionally intelligent show on TV also manages to be one of the most colourful, ridiculous, fourth-wall-breaking and gimmicky comedies going. The nimble balancing act the creative team began in the first season of Jane The Virgin was just about perfected in its second.
Recovering quickly from the massive cliffhanger in the previous season’s finale, the show has continued to maintain the excruciating allure of its central love triangle and the heightened fun and drama of its telenovela beats. It’s also still going boldly where few shows (even “serious” ones) have gone before when it comes to honest portrayals of pregnancy, post-childbirth concerns and single motherhood.
Gina Rodriguez earns that Golden Globe every second she’s on screen — sweet Jane could have been insufferably saintly in less capable hands, but Rodriguez makes her real.
Can you watch now? Jane The Virgin is available in full on Netflix.
Yes, really. In its fifth season, the best non-Happy Endings hangout sitcom of the decade got its groove back. An interlude where Megan Fox filled in during Zooey Deschanel’s maternity leave turned out to be the best thing the show has done in ages. The otherworldly hauteur of Fox’s ‘Hot New Girl’ mellowed into a strangely perfect bemused foil for Jake Johnson’s rumpled mania and Lamorne Morris’ incredibly specific, gleeful weirdness.
While the season felt uneven at times, and its aimless yet obvious re-centering of the Nick/Jess pairing might frustrate both shippers and cynics towards the end, the chemistry between the main cast members is still just fun as hell to watch — whether it’s Deschanel and Hannah Simone getting blazed and pondering the dreaminess of Gilbert Blythe, or the unexpectedly poignant return of the Douchebag Jar.
Can you watch now? New Girl airs on Eleven 8pm Thursdays. You can catch up via TenPlay now.
The Girlfriend Experience
This glacial, claustrophobic Soderbergh spinoff isn’t for everyone, but if you get sucked in, it’s mesmerising. The show is a sex-industry Mr Robot without the cynical whimsy and the unreliable narrator. Riley Keough’s chilly blankness, the unsettlingly voyeuristic framing, the ubiquitous grids and cages of glass surfaces and metal lines that overlaid almost every scene, its pity and fear of men’s desires, the addictive abruptness of each instalment: it’s dark and explicit and unflinching and a really terrifying way to spend a weekend afternoon.
Can you watch now? The Girlfriend Experience is available in full on Stan.
The Kettering Incident
Twin Peaks: Tasmania is yet to wrap up its first season, but its moody, elliptical movements towards a conclusion are fascinating to watch, and it’s not telegraphing its final reveal. It’s stylish — the camera takes beautiful advantage of its eerie coastal location — and specifically Australian — without that stilted, affected dialogue far too many local scripts still inexplicably suffer from — while taking all the right cues from Scandi noir. After the disappointment of Secret City, this quietly beautiful “Foxtel Original” is ready to play with the peak-TV big boys.
Can you watch now? The Kettering Incident airs 8.30pm Mondays on Foxtel Showcase. You can catch up via Foxtel Play.
Best relentless visual gags: Angie Tribeca. The star-studded parody series is the ultimate mindless hangover binge, and never lets even the most throwaway cop show cliche go past without making it incredibly, perfectly literal.
Best Britishness: The Night Manager. This flawlessly enunciated spy drama is all well and good — crisp dressing, crisper consonants — but it’s little things like Olivia Colman offering Tom Hiddleston a biscuit and not taking no for an answer that made it truly delightful.
Best crying: Grant Gustin on The Flash. Has the male star of a superhero show ever cried so much, and so appropriately? Gustin is charming as heck as cheery speedster Barry Allen, but even when the show is at its cheesiest and/or laziest, he can bring it home with some well-placed waterworks that never feel cheap or unearned. The cinematic DC universe could use a little of its small-screen counterpart’s emotional openness.
Best portrayal of PTSD: Outlander/Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. At opposite ends of the genre spectrum (and colour palette), two very different shows refused to take the easy way out with characters who have been through some serious shit. Neither Sam Heughan’s Jamie nor Ellie Kemper’s Kimmy were getting over their respective traumas in a hurry, and the way the effects lingered over their performances and relationships is a blueprint for writing and performing smarter, deeper character development.
Best pseudo-Sunnydale: Wynonna Earp. This underrated comic book adaptation has a smart-mouthed heroine with a special weapon, a sweetly kickass sisterly sidekick, a surly immortal love interest, a goody-two-shoes love interest with a secret, a small town setting with an unusual number of supernatural occurrences, a queer couple made for Tumblr-obsessing, and snarky one-liners for days. Which streaming service do we have to pester to get Canadian Zombie Badlands Buffy legally available here already?
Worst show I watched all the way through: Quantico. Such dumb, dumb plots. Such pretty, pretty people.
Best value streaming: Stan. Netflix is great for the Originals and Gilmore Girls but you really felt it when they found a way to block your VPN and you were stuck with the local version, didn’t you? Stan, meanwhile, fast-tracks shows like Better Call Saul, Transparent, UnReal, and iZombie (and has a surprisingly kickass film selection that ranges from Fellini to Wake In Fright to all three Sharknados). It really has Netflix beat on the bingeing back-catalogue too — from five seasons of Daria to enough British crime shows to make you OD on tea and dropped Gs. It’s the best mix of new, old and cult options on offer.
Caitlin Welsh is a freelance writer who tweets from @caitlin_welsh.