Looking over my 2016 blog entries, I see that I hardly wrote about any series that are currently airing. I wrote nostalgia pieces: three about Knots Landing, three about classic Doctor Who. Early in the year, I penned an appreciation of Mike & Molly, which was wrapping up its six-season run (splendidly), and a farewell to The Flash and Arrow, which weren't wrapping up their runs, but which had driven me away. Was my ignoring the current crop of shows a mark of how little they were firing my imagination, or was I so overwhelmed by all the solid series airing that I didn't want to take time away to write them up? Was 2016 a good year or a bad one?
I'm still not sure.
Disappointing Returns: Gilmore Girls, Indian Summers, Poldark, Zoo
But as I attempt to figure it out, let's start with the series that disappointed, because there were an awful lot of them. Indian Summers and Poldark had both managed brilliant first series in 2015, edging close to soap opera without ever succumbing: Indian Summers by embracing the politics of the era as much as the personal drama; Poldark by holding to a brisk, no-nonsense directorial style that seemed at one with Poldark's own demeanor. In Series 2, they re-emerged as soaps, and both were thrown off-balance: Indian Summers by introducing -- and focusing so heavily on -- Alice's sadistic husband Charlie (Blake Ritson); Poldark via a series of stultifying fights between Poldark and Demelza and by reigniting the show's love triangle in a way that reflected badly on all three characters. Poldark so missed the mark that Luke Norris's Dr. Dwight Enys wound up assuming the mantle of romantic leading man.
Over at Elementary, John Noble, in a season-long stint as Sherlock's father, indulged in line readings that got slower and more slurred over time. After a while, it became painful to see Jonny Lee Miller start a scene with him -- nervy energy intact -- and within about four lines, watch Noble suck the life out of him. The series then teased the return of Natalie Dormer without delivering, and ushered in Season 5 with little of its customary vigor or momentum. Penny Dreadful, coming off a glorious second season, did one of those "let's split up the team" story-lines of which I've never been fond (including a lifeless excursion to the Wild West), barely reassembled the regulars in time for a battle, then basically threw in the towel. I had always thought of Penny Dreadful as an ensemble show, but articles I read after the finale revealed that creator John Logan had come to see it as a story about Eva Green's character, so the question apparently became "how many times can you put her through the wringer," and the answer, I suppose, was "three." And my guiltiest pleasure of 2015, Zoo, lost track of what made it so damned entertaining. It had featured five of the most ordinary people on the planet, rising to the challenge of combatting an animal population in revolt; because the characters were so penny-plain, they (and we) could be mesmerized by the simplest of attacks: a bear overturning a Parisian apartment; bats shutting down a research lab in Antarctica. In Season 2, the team became all but super-powered: cruising the planet in a stadium-sized plane, each member equally versed in combat, medicine and computer hacking. The CBS ads even started to refer to the team as "five scientists," disregarding backstory, misunderstanding the show's appeal.
As for Gilmore Girls, it was a four-part reunion -- and a return to the series for its creators, Daniel and Amy Sherman-Palladino -- that left me so dispirited that I penned a whole piece about it: where it went wrong, and why, and its eerie similarity to the current political climate.
DOA from the UK: Victoria, Class
Two new shows, both from the UK, stood out as "what not to do" primers. ITV's Victoria cast Jenna Coleman, fresh off Doctor Who, as the 19th-century British queen, in the years immediately following her ascendancy to the throne. Too bad so little of it had to do with the real life of Queen Victoria. 2016 was the year when politicians were no longer held accountable for the lies they told, as long as they said them with authority, and repeatedly, so I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when Victoria writer and creator Daisy Goodwin admitted that ITV had charged her with doing something to please the Downton Abbey crowd, and so, under the guise of a biography of Queen Victoria, she had created her own set of upstairs/downstairs story-lines. As interviewers pressed her about the actual plots, she confessed that while they weren't necessarily true, while the details surrounding the characters weren't entirely (or sometimes even remotely) accurate, she had in fact read a lot of the history of the period. The implication was that since she knew what was fictional, the audience shouldn't worry much about it. In real life, the young queen saw her Prime Minister Lord Melbourne as a father figure; in Victoria, it was a schoolgirl crush verging on womanly adoration, but the script nailed the key details -- you know, like that they knew other each -- so any further efforts at historical accuracy would probably have just gotten in the way. What's remarkable is that, basically starting with a clean slate, Goodwin still couldn't make the characters interesting; the rulers were just as dull as the servants. It was the bland leading the bland.
And over at BBC, with no Doctor Who this year (except a leaden Christmas special that served up showrunner Steven Moffat's worst script), we got YA author Patrick Ness's Class as compensation. It was set in the same school where the Doctor's granddaughter had briefly studied, and to which Doctor Who itself returns on occasion. Current Doctor Peter Capaldi was gracious enough to make an appearance in the first episode; beyond that, there were few similarities, and little to get excited about. Class was a tedious affair with actors who looked 30 playing teenagers: most of the characters so ill-defined that, after a while, they felt interchangeable. The girl who, in the pilot, was such a wallflower that she was doing the decorations for the school dance ended up, a few episodes later, shagging the school jock; the youngest, brainiest member of the troupe became a trained warrior in about six minutes, merely by asking one of her elders, "Teach me how to fight." Plotlines were insanely stagnant: in one episode, brainy warrior's dead father appeared and said "Take my hand," and thirty minutes later, she was still debating whether to take it. In the next episode, wallflower slut spent about twenty minutes not killing her errant father. The relationships boiled down to basics like "I love you more than you love me" and (the ever-popular one on superhero-type shows) "I love you, but I'm afraid of you." I haven't read any of Ness's novels, but surely he has more to say than that. Class was made available for streaming every Saturday morning on BBC Three; by week three, I found I was awaiting it with as much enthusiasm as I would a high-school homework assignment.
Strong Returns: Agent Carter, NCIS: Los Angeles, Legends of Tomorrow
So what shows returned strong?
Sophomore series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend fully found its footing, with an uncanny knack for reading its audience. The split between besties Rebecca and Paula (the ever-brilliant Rachel Bloom and Donna Lynne Champlin, currently the best double-act on TV) got resolved just before it overstayed its welcome (and with a moving reconciliation to boot), and just as we started to lament the loss of Santino Fontana, and his usefulness to the narrative, the appealing Scott Michael Foster arrived with the promise of shaking things up. Season 2 has already treated us to two endlessly rewatchable musical numbers: the season opener's spoof of abstract symbolism, "Love Kernels," and the third episode's delirious send-up of Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," with a gowned and bejeweled Bloom invoking a dozen tuxedoed professors to explain "The Math of Love Triangles." (Even if you're not a viewer, seek out those two numbers on YouTube.) NCIS: Los Angeles adjusted for Daniela Ruah's real-life pregnancy far better than last time: sidelining her in a way that still permitted interactions with the rest of the cast, and taking advantage of her absence to shuffle the team dynamics; with an eager Bar Paly returning for a few episodes, and both Eric and Nell getting their turns in the field, the series felt reinvigorated. Not bad for a show in its eighth season. And Ray Donovan showed that all it needed to return to form was to get rid of that God-awful Finney family; once they were eased off the canvas at the end of Season 3, the series snapped back to life, and head honcho David Hollander showed a flair for story-telling that had eluded him during his first season in charge.
Marvel's Agent Carter transplanted its leads from New York City to Los Angeles, and proved a heady mix of Hollywood hedonism and female empowerment. (You've got to love a show that understands that only in Tinseltown, where looks triumph over logic, could the villainess successfully hide a six-inch scar behind a peek-a-boo bang.) Season 2, with its trio of charismatic leads (Hayley Atwell, James D'Arcy and Enver Gjokaj, the latter finally stepping out of his sad-sack seclusion), was amiable without being arch, cheeky without being campy. And so of course it was cancelled. But taking its place as a solid superhero series was the much-improved Legends of Tomorrow, which came off an enervating first season (in which the ragtag team sailed through time in search of one dreary villain, who defeated them week after week) only to see its showrunners right every error in judgment during the summer hiatus. Some shrewd casting shake-ups tightened the dynamics (with the charismatic Caity Lotz repositioned as team leader), while a new, broader mission nicely varied the story-lines. I gave up on Arrow after Felicity's miracle cure (hot on the heels of its Holocaust homage); Flash lost me through one too many contrivances and world-saving pep talks. So it was a pleasant surprise when Legends returned, renewed and refurbished, to fill the comic-book void. Daredevil, too, was arguably stronger in Season 2; it didn't boast the bravura writing staff that enlivened Season 1, but the merciful absence of Vincent D'Onofrio (for most of the season anyway) made for less cringe-worthy moments. And Jon Bernthal was sensational; I was reminded why, during the first two seasons of The Walking Dead, I kept rooting for Shane.
The Year's Best
So let's dive right into my favorites of 2016, with completely random categories that mean something only to me.
Best Family Drama: The A Word (BBC One/Sundance). Morven Christie took time away from Grantchester, and she was a revelation. In Grantchester, as 1950's socialite and art historian Amanda Kendall, Christie is never less than wonderful (and in Series 2, became an almost tragic figure, as a bad marriage replaced her natural ebullience with empty regret), but as a lady of upper-class upbringing, she keeps her character's feelings carefully in check. In The A Word, set in the present-day Lake District, she's Alison Hughes, the mother of an autistic child wrestling as much with her own demons as with the proper rearing of her son, and her emotions keep bubbling to the surface. They bubble till they overflow. A nervous jumble of neuroses, fears and unreasonable expectations, Alison Hughes is a well-meaning mother, but she's also the worst kind: the kind who makes her child's accomplishments, or lack thereof, all about her. And to Christie's great credit, she's not afraid to let her character be awful. She doesn't ask for your understanding, but she makes Alison so desperately devoted to helping her son lead a "normal" life, and wears every disappointment so nakedly on her face, that you can't help but sympathize with her. Christie was paired with Lee Ingleby, giving -- like her -- an eye-opening performance, neatly distinct from his best-known role as Sergeant John Bacchus in George Gently, here an insightful rather than inciteful presence. But then, there was stellar work all around, from a cast that also boasted Christopher Eccleston, Greg McHugh, Vinette Robinson, Molly Wright and Max Vento. I can think of no greater praise than to say they truly felt like a family: the most compelling one of 2016.
Best Sci-Fi Drama: Humans (Channel 4/AMC). It was a very good year for sci-fi. HBO's Westworld was toweringly brilliant, even when episodes felt needlessly super-sized. Stranger Things was spiky, scary fun, with a knockout neurotic turn by Wynona Ryder. 11.22.63 was an engrossing adaptation of the Stephen King novel, with strong performances by James Franco and Sarah Cadon, and a solid adaptation by Bridget Carpenter that suffered only from the (legitimate) need to deviate from its source. And Ashley Pharoah's The Living and the Dead (practically buried alive by the BBC) was an original blend of horror, fantasy and sci-fi starring the ubiquitous (in 2016, at least) Colin Morgan. But Humans had them all beat, and yet what distinguished it most in Season 2 weren't the sci-fi elements: its look at AI servants ("synths," as they're called here, short for synthetics) introduced into a futuristic society. Instead of going bigger in its second season, as so many series do, Humans dug deeper, using the half-dozen synths who had gained "consciousness" (i.e., emotions) to explore the very meaning of being human. It let us experience again, through fresh eyes, all our first times: our first kiss, our first love, and our first heartbreak. The rush of taking risks and the anguish of loss and betrayal. The way we mask our pain, and the strength we find to face it. And the beauty of being part of something bigger. Season 2 juggled seven or eight plotlines, deftly; there wasn't a character that didn't seem crucial, or a performance that didn't seem vivid. And the set-piece at the end of the season, which basically blew up the world as we know it, was both invigorating and terrifying. I adored writers Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent from their first MI-5 script; it's wonderful seeing them emerge as a creative force to be reckoned with.
Best Crime Drama: The Night Manager was taut and atmospheric, although Tom Hiddleston was more believable as a wiseguy than a thug. Marcella was tart and compulsively watchable, even when her medical issues seemed more convenient than convincing. The Fall, sadly, took a dive in Season 3; the first two episodes promised to bring the series's subtext to the fore (the lead detective's sexual appetite -- and the power she wielded to satiate it -- being, in their own way, as disturbing as those of the serial killer she was hunting), but the season soon dissolved into a desert of talk, due to star/producer Gillian Anderson and new regular Krister Henriksson. (Both their characters spoke in deliberately languorous, dispassionate tones; it came to seem criminal that Jamie Dornan -- who often single-handedly sustained our interest -- continued to receive under-the-title billing.) With Unforgotten on hiatus, the best crime drama I saw in 2016 ended up being a 2013 miniseries that ITV brought back briefly for a return run: its three-part murder mystery The Ice-Cream Girls (based on the novel by Dorothy Koomson), which I had missed the first time around. Lovingly adapted by Kate Brooke and deftly directed by Dan Zeff, it charted the troubled reunion between two women who, seventeen years earlier, had been accused of stabbing their schoolteacher. While the drama played out in the present, the events of that summer unfolded in flashback. Both the young actresses (Georgina Campbell and Holli Dempsey) and their older counterparts (Lorraine Burroughs and Jodhi May) were well-matched, and Burroughs and May -- the former so fragile she always seemed seconds away from shattering, the latter so defeated she seemingly had nothing left to lose -- fully conveyed the tragedy of lives spent marginalized and promise left unfulfilled.
Best Soap: NBC's This Is Us. It goes under "best soap" and not "best family drama" because, make no mistake: this isn't us -- this isn't anyone. No family ever turned so many disasters into memorable catchphrases, pithy life-lessons or holiday traditions; no primetime drama ever sprang so many secrets, surprises and medical emergencies between commercial breaks. This Is Us featured the whiniest set of adult triplets imaginable: wah wah, I'm adopted; wah wah, I'm fat; wah wah, no one takes me seriously -- but then, the entire extended family was filled with the most loathsome set of characters ever to populate a soap. Logic dictates that when you're devising a drama, at least a few of the people should be likable; it takes guts to dream up a multi-generational family where, of the two admirable men, one is dying and the other is dead. But that doesn't means This Is Us didn't work. It did, consistently. Its downbeat design is key to its success. Its canvas is so overstuffed with insecurity, hurt, fear and disillusion that creator Dan Fogelman is able to turn enough of it around -- once it's all simmered, stewed, and more often than not, boiled over -- to serve up the steady promise of hope, companionship and redemption. This Is Us pulls something positive out of every worst-case scenario; it's Murphy's Law with a smiley face. The first ten episodes were beautifully structured and admirably played (with Milo Ventimiglia particularly strong, grounding it from the grave) -- and the only question is: can they sustain it, or like most soaps these days, will the audience start to tire even before the writers do, once the format becomes predictable?
Best Reality/Informational Programming: John Oliver, with his Last Week Tonight, became a force for good during a troubling election season. Adam Ruins Everything continued to expand its supporting cast and broaden its continuity without losing any of its impish humor or marvelous ability to educate as it entertains; its look at the criminal justice system managed to be as moving as it was deft and funny, and its examination of the myths of "going green" was a particular eye-opener. But nothing on TV this past year gave me, my husband, and our miniature schnauzer more pleasure than the series on Channel 4 with the most innocuously self-explanatory title: Coastal Walks With My Dog. It was a mere two episodes, cross-cutting between three sets of humans and their canine companions, each exploring a different section of England and Wales's rugged coastline. It could have been instantly forgettable, the most puerile of pitches, but it proved so refreshingly unpretentious that it offered up a three-pronged delight: an Animal Planet-style focus on some adorable pets and their loving relationships with their owners; a Travel Channel-worthy brochure of places that you might never visit in your lifetime, but could and should (and mixed in with the stunning vistas were histories of each area, and a look at its commerce, culture and more colorful inhabitants); and a Health & Lifestyle-type reminder of one of the simplest and most rewarding kinds of exercise: the perfect antidote for folks tiring of their treadmills, StairMasters and MaxiClimbers. It was entertainment at its purest -- and the perfect palate cleanser for a year rife with high-concept programming.
Best Comedy: CBS's Mike & Molly. Yes, of course, there were comedies in 2016 that were cheekier (Silicon Valley), brasher (Chewing Gum), savvier (Veep), more subversive (Lady Dynamite) and more down-to-earth (Mom). But how about funny? How about a show that didn't just impress you with a barrage of clever quips, but actually made you laugh. Out loud -- the way sitcoms used to. Mike & Molly returned for its final thirteen episodes in the spring of 2016, and thank heavens, Executive Producer Chuck Lorre didn't step in for the series finale to upend all that came before it (as he had done, disastrously, a year earlier on Two and a Half Men). Instead, its gifted showrunner, Al Higgins, simply took the show where it needed to go; Molly and Mike left the air as new parents, and Mike & Molly went out at the peak of its powers. Once Higgins assumed the reins at the top of Season 4, once they unleashed Melissa McCarthy (and broadening McCarthy's character allowed the supporting cast to deepen their own, as they no longer had to hit the laughs as hard), there wasn't a misfire, not an episode that didn't amuse. And nine times out of ten, the laughter came in waves, and when the waves cleared, there were tender moments that, happily, never devolved into "special" moments. The show dealt out equal doses of humor and heart. At its best, in those final years, Mike & Molly was funny and boisterous when it wanted to be, and warm and moving when it needed to be, with actors who could make those transitions seamless, who could go from raucous to reflective and back again -- and never more so than in the final story arc that took it to its touching conclusion. And the last episode? Hands down, best sitcom finale since Everybody Loves Raymond.
Best Drama (a three-way tie):
The year began and ended with two sumptuous period pieces -- BBC One's War and Peace and Netflix's The Crown -- but in terms of miniseries, nothing I saw came close to Stephen Poliakoff's Close to the Enemy (BBC Two, available in the U.S. via Amazon Prime/Acorn Media). There were times when I felt the story-telling a bit haphazard, when what I imagined as key relationships didn't seem to be having the intended impact; I should have trusted Poliakoff. Everything came together by the end; as a fan of his work, I found it exceeded even my high expectations. (I realized, after the fact, that any hesitations I had along the way stemmed from my expecting the characters, and the story-telling, to be more rigidly formulaic.) Close to the Enemy touched down in a well-trod period in British history -- the months following the end of World War II -- but touched it with fascinating political ambiguity, asking: when is it best to chase down war criminals, and when is it better to court them, for the information or expertise they might provide? Should the victors be seeking justice, retribution, or something else entirely? Everyone began the drama secure in their moral infallibility -- and no one more so than intelligence officer Captain Callum Ferguson (a lean and lithe Jim Sturgess), charged with convincing a captured jet-engine scientist to come work for the British. By the end, everyone was second-guessing their own actions -- before, during and after the war -- as they wrestled with a society in which friends and colleagues had become rivals and in which enemies made for uneasy allies. The cast was flawless, with old pros Alfred Molina and Lindsay Duncan anchoring it with warmth and gravitas, but also, in performances no less winning, August Diehl, Freddie Highmore, Charity Wakefield, Phoebe Fox, Charlotte Riley, Lucy Ward and Angela Bassett.
CBS's Madam Secretary made good on all the promise it had shown in 2015, when I wrote half an essay about it; the end of Season 2, and the start of Season 3, scored on both the foreign and the domestic fronts. And that cast! A year ago, if I'd been asked to list the standouts, I would have made note of not just the stars -- Tea Leoni (subtly commanding and amusingly withering, often in the same breath) and Tim Daly (a canny combination of strong, shrewd and soulful) -- but also Keith Carradine (POTUS) and Zeljko Ivanek (Chief of Staff). In 2016, all the featured players came into focus: the writers latched onto the traits that made them singular and special, and the actors seized every opportunity accorded them. The Secretary of State's staff -- Bebe Neuwirth, Sebastian Arcelus, Patina Miller, Geoffrey Arend and Erich Bergen -- were splendidly balanced by the trio of younger actors who played her children: Wallis Currie-Wood, Kathrine Herzer and Evan Roe. The kids were a particular revelation: defined so fully, with the variety of interests and temperaments typical of three-child families, that their story-lines felt almost self-generating. Extra mention to Roe, because he and the writers took a standard TV trope -- the rebellious teenage son -- and gave it new dimension. His defiance seemed not merely a result of his age, but his upbringing: awkwardly politicized by his parents' inability to leave their work at the office. If Madam Secretary felt a touch flatter than usual at the top of Season 3, it was through no fault of its own. It's simply that Barbara Hall and company had chosen (at the end of Season 2) to put the fall focus on a fictional U.S. Presidential election that -- as it turned out -- could never have been as outrageous or unnerving as the one that played out in the real world. (Hall wisely wrapped it up, neatly and efficiently, in the first episode of the New Year.) But it's still the best hour of drama that network TV has to offer.
Grantchester (ITV/PBS). I had some concerns at the top of Series 2; although it was wonderful having Reverend Sidney Chambers back on the screen, the first episode left me disoriented. But part of that disorientation, I soon realized, was that I didn't know the ground rules. Grantchester had arrived in 2014 as an original: part murder mystery, part character drama -- in proportions I'd never seen before, equally (and exquisitely) balanced. Series 1 had found Sidney still mired in memories of the Second World War: tortured and self-loathing, looking to others to deliver him from the darkness. I had presumed his wartime experiences would continue to haunt him; I hadn't realized that Series 2 would leave them behind and develop its own six-episode arc. But once I made the adjustment, I settled in quickly, because the new story-line was sensational. It turned out to be, in some ways, even more traumatic, because it involved the bond between Sidney and Geordie: it took on the relationship at the heart of the show. Grantchester in Series 2 took a hard look at its own protagonists, at its very premise, and dared to ask: would, in fact, a priest and a police detective become best mates in 1950's Cambridge? Or would their dissimilar views -- above all, on whether there are moral laws that override man-made ones -- doom any potential friendship? Sidney and Geordie reached an impasse through the season-long story of Gary Bell (heart-wrenchingly played by Sam Frenchum), a young man at the wrong place at the wrong time, sentenced to death for trying to help a friend. As Sidney defended him, consoled him and ultimately mourned him, he was forced to confront a world where authority and decency seem at odds, where vengeance too often masquerades as justice. James Norton continued to dominate -- and devastate -- and his physical assault of Geordie and verbal laceration of Amanda in the penultimate episode were particularly powerful. And it's a hallmark of how assured the series had become that it could recover from both -- without ever feeling pat or rushed -- by season's end.
Grantchester's second series asked: how do we maintain some semblance of morality in an immoral world? If we "go high," how high can we aim without risking not just disappointment, but desolation? And if disappointment and desolation do come, how do we keep them from breaking us? The real world was a horrifying place in 2016. South Sudan's civil war intensified. Terrorists struck in Nice, Istanbul, Cairo, and Orlando. Natural disasters in Taiwan, Indonesia, Italy and Haiti claimed thousands of lives. Russia hacked our Presidential election, and our leadership announced plans to overturn affordable health care. At year's end, Aleppo became (in the words of the U.N. human rights chief) "a slaughterhouse." And through it all we kept asking ourselves: how can we do better? How can we not merely raise our voices, but make a difference? And how do we avoid getting so lost in the injustice and immorality, the chaos and corruption, that we lose the best part of ourselves? Some of the best series in 2016 -- Madam Secretary, Grantchester, Humans, Close to the Enemy -- asked these questions at a time when we most needed to hear them, and offered scenarios that, while in no way holding them up as "solutions," at least gave us examples of how to stand firm, stand tall and stand for something.
2016 was, on reflection, a very good year for TV.