Given how much time we spend writing about TV, I thought it was only right to reflect on what I like watching on TV.
I’ve realized that like many of our readers, I rarely watch linear TV or even ad-supported TV. I say rarely, because I do watch the occasional Nets or Mets game live as well as the news during major events like election night or natural disasters.
And while I know I am far from alone on that, I also know that I’m far from the majority: most people still come home, turn on the TV and watch whatever the broadcast networks are serving up that night. It’s a behavior that is changing, but live viewing is still dominant, especially with an older demographic.
That said, we’re still watching, even if it’s a few days or weeks or months later, and here’s what I’m watching, a purely personal and subjective list.
First, two shows that stood out head and shoulders above all the rest. If you haven’t seen either of these, you now have something to do over the holiday break.
1. The Leftovers (HBO)
The final season of The Leftovers, the HBO series based on Tom Perrotta’s excellent novel of the same name, may be the best season of television ever. They took risks, like having an entire episode devoted to Mark Linn Baker and the cast of 80s cult hit Perfect Strangers. And they did it all without ever veering into “Look How Clever We Are” territory: everything always felt organic, even when you didn’t understand what was happening or why. You trusted that it would all eventually make sense … and eventually, it did. Even the ending.
2. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
BoJack never ceases to astound me with its brilliance. The animated series about an anthropomorphic horse who was the star of a cheesy 90s sitcom may be, as many have noted, the most touching portrayal of depression ever seen on TV. The care that’s taken in making sure all parts of BoJack’s anthropomorphic “Hollywoo” make sense is pure genius, though the highlight of this season has to be the 11th episode “Time’s Arrow” that deals with BoJack’s mother’s dementia: animation gives it a resonance and texture that no other medium could.
And now, all the rest, still quite a respectable lot.
3. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
This adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel of a dystopian future works for all the reasons you’ve heard and is further proof of the notion that spreading an idea out to an eight- or ten-episode season can actually improve things as it fills in the gaps that a movie would have had to leave out. Elizabeth Moss is brilliant in the title role, Ann Dowd (who also appears in The Leftovers) is a gem, but the real kudos goes to the art direction and set design for creating the sense of foreboding and grayness that hangs over every episode.
4. Game Of Thrones (HBO)
The television adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s alternate medieval universe is as good as it’s ever been. Game of Thrones tends to get overlooked in a lot of Top Ten lists because it’s so consistent we forget how incredibly awesome it is. But this season was on fleek as the kids said last year. The battle scenes with the Night King and Cersei’s machinations stand out, though the real prize goes to the reveal of the Zombie Dragon.
5. Narcos (Netflix)
While House of Cards and Transparent are losing their lead characters to the Pervnado, Narcos lost its lead to narrative flow: Pablo Escobar is dead when we get to Season 3, but Narcos managed to make us care about the takedown of “Los Caballeros de Cali,” a foursome who were in many ways more complex and more interesting than Escobar. While it could have felt like a spinoff or a sequel, the third season felt like a logical extension of seasons one and two, no easy feat to pull off.
6. Orange Is The New Black (Netflix)
This season focused on the aftermath of the prison riot, packing the entire story into just three chronological days. The series continues to deliver however, keeping the backstories (my favorite parts) strong, while moving the narrative forward and shifting the focus from Piper to Taystee (Danielle Brooks) who was most definitely robbed of an Emmy this year.
7. Stranger Things (Netflix)
An 80s-themed horror show, with just enough comedy in it to keep things from being too creepy. Season 2 was every bit as strong as Season 1 (except maybe the episode with Eleven and the Chicago punks) and it was hard to not do that thing where you stay up til 2AM just to see what happens next. Which is as resounding an endorsement for a series as any.
8. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon)
A late arrival (it was released the end of November) this story of a Joan Rivers-esque comedian in the late 1950s gets points for the incredible job it does with costuming and set design, one-upping Mad Men and then some in its Midcentury fabulousness. While the scripts, by Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino can be over the top and soapy at times in that elbow-in-the-ribs “see how clever we are!” way, there’s enough good dialog and realistic drama to make up for it. (Mostly.)
9. Transparent (Amazon)
The Pfeffermans went to Israel this season (cleverly played by various locations throughout southern California) and while trans is the hook that draws people in, its overwhelming Jewy-ness is at the heart of Transparent’s appeal. This is the first TV show that offers an accurate reflection of the lives of contemporary upper middle Jews. You might not always like the Pfeffermans but if you’re from that world, you know people just like them. The only blight on this season was creator Jill Soloway’s heavy-handed attempts to insert politics and history lessons into a show that works best when it’s apolitical and just observing. The hectoring stood out like a sore thumb amidst an otherwise very well done season.
10. Red Oaks (Amazon)
This sleeper of a comedy hit, set at a Jewish country club in northern New Jersey in the 1980s really hit its stride in its final season this year. With episodes directed by 80s indie legends Hal Hartley and Amy Heckerling and featuring the acting talents of Paul Reiser, Jennifer Grey and Richard Kind, the scripts managed to transcend the winking nostalgia of the first two seasons, creating fully fleshed out characters (well, most of them) the audience could actually begin to care about.
UPDATE: Season 4 of Peaky Blinders (Netflix) was released after I wrote this, but would definitely have wound up somewhere on this list (I’m only a few episodes in.) The tale of the Shelby family of gangsters in Birmingham, England in the 1920s has great storytelling and great performances interwoven with Nick Cave music and some minor magic realism in the fight scenes.
Mr. Robot (USA)
The Americans (FX)
Sneaky Pete (Amazon)
The Man In The High Castle (Amazon)
The Crown (Netflix)