As 2016 comes to a close, it’s easy to be negative. Heck, it’s probably even reasonable to be negative. But for eternal optimists like me, who enjoy finding the bright side of life, looking back at the year that was represents a chance to find some good in that dumpster truck pileup of crap that was 2016. I want to find a metaphorical diamond in the roughly 30 gallons of despair, if you will.
Where do I look for good in a year of seemingly relentless bad? Where I always go when reality gets the better of me: TV, of course! Even as the world struggled around it, 2016 was actually a pretty fantastic year for TV. So now, in an attempt to look at the bright side of 2016, I present my annual list of favorite TV episodes from the year.
GROUND RULES: The episode must have originally aired in the United States during 2016, 1 episode is allowed per show, two-parters (EX: Finale Part 1/Finale Part 2) are counted as one.
DISCLAIMER: I am human, there’s no way for me to watch every episode of TV that came out this year. This isn’t a list of the definitive best episodes of TV released this year, or even the best shows, this is just one man’s opinion on what he liked most from the year in TV. So if your favorite show isn’t on here, that’s why. Unless that show is named The Big Bang Theory, in which case, you’re the worst and stop reading this now.
Now that we got that all cleared up, without further ado, I present my 10 favorite episodes of television from 2016.
Episodes are listed in no particular order.
Who doesn’t love a good sports movie?
They’re predictable, trite and cheesy as can be, but when everything clicks it’s hard to find a genre that can compete with sports films. An underdog team coming from nowhere to win the championship, the scrawny nobody challenging the undefeated belt-holder, a last second hail-mary to win it all. It doesn’t get much better than that, right? From Rocky to Hoosiers to Miracle to The Sandlot, some of the best movies of all time are corny, cheesy, predictable sports films.
As easy as the sports movie formula is to predict, it’s incredibly tricky one to replicate. Every sports movie is a small misstep away from having audiences rolling their eyes at the corny, cheesy, predictability of it all. More so than any other genre, sports films are often a zero sum game: Either the movie is great, or it’s a cringe inducing mess, with little-to-no in between.
Donald Trump was a joke, and a pretty funny one at that.
A year and a half ago, a country, along with a fleet of comedians, laughed as a reality TV star famous for racism, sexism, and firing B-list celebrities announced his candidacy for the highest political office in the United States. We laughed about his tiny hands, we laughed about his crazy hair, we laughed about his taco bowls, and we laughed about his racism, homophobia and misogyny. The whole thing seemed too absurd to be real, and laughter appeared to be the appropriate response. It felt like Donald Trump’s candidacy was a gift from the political comedy gods, sent for our amusement during a tedious election cycle with a seemingly predetermined result. But once the laughter finally quieted down, a greater truth revealed itself: Not everyone was laughing. Now, a year and a half later, a racist, homophobic, misogynist, former reality TV star is next in line for the Presidency, while comedians and audiences alike are left wondering how they let a joke get this far out of hand.
Hollywood is obsessed with the past. Whether it be reboots, remakes, reimaginings, or regurgitations, the biggest trend in blockbuster filmmaking is to dust up old properties and revamp them for the present. Essentially, movie studios are cashing in on the public’s nostalgia for the stories they grew up with. Just this year alone, audiences have seen new iterations of Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Jungle Book, Tarzan, Independence Day, Star Trek, and Alice In Wonderland, just to name a few. While some elitist pop-culture snobs like myself might complain about the lack originality in blockbuster filmmaking these days, there is very little reason for Hollywood to change this philosophy. Financially, existing franchises and properties are more reliable bets for box office success. Additionally, funding truly new and unique ideas is a risk no matter the scale, and making an original big-budget blockbuster is an even bigger one. So, if movie executives are choosing between green-lighting a $120 million reboot of a story they know people love or an equally expensive original film with no established audience, it’s easy to understand why the original ideas are losing out.
But what if these two seemingly opposite ideas could be merged? What if we could combine the built-in audiences of stories past, with the originality of stories future? Wouldn’t that be, to complete the “Christmas Carol” metaphor, the perfect way to create stories present?
It’s easy to be skeptical of the idea, after all it’s admittedly a bit outlandish, but stick with me for a couple paragraphs, I’ve seen Stranger Things come true.
Sitcoms are simple. I know that sounds kind of odd coming from someone who has written a frankly embarrassing amount of articles analyzing the medium, but they really are. A group of people, either a family or friends/coworkers who function as a sort of family, gets themselves caught in a situation and hilarity ensues (Hence the name, situation comedy). Storytelling wise, a sitcom is as formulaic and simplistic as they come.
Over the years, people have tinkered with the formula. The most revolutionary innovation being the introduction of serialized stories, or plots that last longer than one episode. The basic sitcom formula necessitates that all conflicts and plots should be wrapped up in a neat little bow by the end of each episode. Early innovators like Cheers changed the game by telling stories that played out over entire seasons. Those stories weren’t that complex or hard to follow, most of the time they were just standard romantic comedy plots (Boy meets girl, boy likes girl, girl likes boy, they don’t get together for what seems like forever, you know how TV romance works).
But the saga of Sam and Diane paved the way for TV comedies to tell more complex stories than ever before. Though that might sound like a good thing, it has become a double edged sword. Some writers are compelled to tell stories that are too complex and lose the comedy (Remember The Comedians?), while others go all-in on one serialized story that doesn’t connect with viewers (Still lookin’ at you, The Comedians). The other side of the coin, however, is TV’s best comedy: HBO’s Silicon Valley
Have you ever felt like a movie was made just for you? That every frame on the screen, every line of dialogue, every note of the soundtrack, was carefully crafted and curated just because someone, somewhere, knew you were out there to see it. Admittedly, it’s a pretty absurd, idealist notion. Hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of people work tirelessly on creating these films, the idea that all of their hard work is all for one person is insane, and people who subscribed to it are even crazier.
Maybe that’s the magic of film. The idea that an operation on such a massive scale can produce something so personal to so many people is a miracle in and of itself. Or, maybe the magic lies within film’s ability to make you forget that there even was an operation to begin with. I don’t quite know, exactly. It’s a Pandora’s box of questions that no one has really nailed down an answer to.
Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking about this relationship, between a film and a single viewer, a lot recently. It all started on a foggy Sunday morning last month when I watched Chris Evans’ directorial debut Before We Go instead of engaging in my regularly scheduled productivity.
Anyone who knows me, or has access to my Netflix history, knows that I love sitcoms. The warmth and enduring appeal of the format has made it a TV staple, and regular resident of my Netflix queue, practically since both technologies were invented. While the format has evolved slightly over time, unlike a lot of pop culture, the sitcom is a genre heavily resistant to change, and that’s not an accident.
Ideally, when someone turns on a traditional sitcom, it should feel like they are going home. The characters on screen should feel like family to viewers, and that connection and relationship between the characters on the screen and the people at home will keep audiences coming back week after week. That formula, one of the most lucrative in TV history, isn’t very conducive to change.
Why not? Well, the heart any sitcom’s appeal is familiarity. Audiences, for the most part, want to know what to expect when they turn on a show. If they don’t, you lose the connection that brings people back week after week. At the same time, most people don’t like watching a show that’s a carbon copy of something they’ve already seen before. So, the underlying question is, how do you create a show unique enough to stand on its own but familiar enough to not scare away audiences?
For new shows, this balancing act is tricky to say the least. Tens of series fail every year at striking this balance. Two that haven’t though are a pair of NBC comedies: Superstore and The Carmichael Show. These young shows navigate the line between innovation and familiarity outstandingly well, and have become two of my favorite TV comedies in the process.