The 10 best TV shows of 2016, ranked

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Donald Glover created and stars in FX’s “Atlanta.”
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Samantha Lee/Business Insider

With a finite number of hours in the day to watch television, you can feel there will never be enough time to watch everything that critics, social media, coworkers, friends, and family say we need to see.

It’s not just a feeling – there were an estimated 455 scripted TV programs in 2016. And you just can’t see them all.

To sit down and name the 10 best shows of the hundreds that aired and streamed this year is a herculean task. So for this list of 2016’s best shows, we reflected on all the well-written, superbly acted, and beautifully shot shows of the year – that we were able to check out – and added one more criterion to mix up the selections just a bit: Was it not only good, but surprisingly good?

That means shows that usually populate year-end lists like this – such as AMC’s “Better Call Saul,” FX’s “The Americans,” and HBO’s “Silicon Valley” – won’t appear here, as we expect them to be exemplary.

With that in mind, here are 2016’s 10 best TV shows:


10. “Mozart in the Jungle” (Amazon)

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Monica Bellucci, left, and Gael Garcia Bernal on “Mozart in the Jungle.”
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Amazon Studios

“Mozart in the Jungle,” a show about a New York classical music orchestra and was called “niche” when it debuted, has proven itself, season after season, to be about so much more.

Its newly released third season is no different. The orchestra has fallen apart, and its talented musicians have embarked on their own journeys.

Amid beautiful, international settings, we see just how broad this show can get. At the same time, it’s grounded in the comedy of bringing these lost souls back together to create beautiful music. Tremendous acting from Gael Garcia Bernal, Bernadette Peters, and Malcolm McDowell gives this series the extra edge.


9. “The Crown” (Netflix)

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Claire Foy and Matt Smith as Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Philip, on “The Crown.”
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Robert Viglasky/Netflix

A show about the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign may not appeal to everyone, but it makes her life, marriage, family obligations, and role in an evolving England feel unexpectedly intimate and grounded.


8. “The Night Of” (HBO)

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Riz Ahmed stars in HBO’s “The Night Of.”
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Barry Wetcher/HBO

An especially timely show as the American criminal justice system is itself on trial, “The Night Of” plots the arrest of Nasir (Riz Ahmed), a young Muslim man suspected of brutally murdering a young white woman after a night of sordid sex and drugs. It seems like an open-and-shut case, but an ambulance-chasing attorney, played by the talented John Turturro, has a gut instinct that there’s more to the story. The show plods along at a hypnotic pace as more information about the night in question, Nasir, and the victim comes to light.


7. “Insecure” (HBO)

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Issa Rae created and stars in HBO’s “Insecure.”
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HBO

Issa Rae brought the spirit of her hit YouTube series, “Awkward Black Girl,” to HBO’s “Insecure.” Created by Larry Wilmore, the comedy explores what it’s like to lack confidence in a world where you’re expected to be a strong, black woman. The results are pretty insightful, often funny, and many times heartbreaking.


6. “Baskets” (FX)

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Zach Galifianakis as Chip Baskets on the FX show “Baskets.”
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FX

“Baskets” is the hilarious story of a frustrated artist. But the artist is Zach Galifianakis’ Chip Baskets, and the art is being a clown – in the finest French sense.

Of course, there’s very little demand for that type of clown, and Chip is relegated to being a rodeo clown in his hometown of Bakersfield, California. Aside from the various challenges of that career, his eccentricities, and the harsh realities of Chip’s life, there’s a host of great supporting performances – most notably, Louie Anderson’s gender-bending turn as Chip’s caustic, disapproving, suburban mom.


5. “Stranger Things” (Netflix)

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“Stranger Things” stars, from left: Gaten Matarazzo, Winona Ryder, Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard, and Charlie Heaton.
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Netflix

There’s a surprise at every turn of the Duffer brothers’ sci-fi drama set in the ’80s. On top of the various movie references littered throughout the season, there are great performances from Winona Ryder and the young stars. This is perfect Netflix fare, as “Stranger Things” is infinitely binge-able.


4. “Westworld” (HBO)

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“Westworld” stars James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood.
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John P. Johnson/HBO

No one knew what to expect from HBO’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s 1973 film “Westworld.” HBO held the details of the series close to its vest, though leaks gave us an idea that it would push boundaries. In the end, it was a suspenseful ride in which the explorations of human fantasy and ambition extended beyond the park’s guests to their robotic hosts and the game-makers themselves.


3. “The People v. O.J. Simpson” (FX)

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Sterling K. Brown, left, and Cuba Gooding Jr. on FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson.”
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FX

With Ryan Murphy producing, there was a definite danger that FX’s exploration of the events of the O.J. Simpson murder trial could go way too campy. In the end, it maintained a measure of camp but held on to an emotional grounding that explored how fame, race, and gender shaped one of the biggest criminal cases in modern history – not to mention the series featured stirring performances by Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, and Courtney B. Vance.


2. “Game of Thrones” (HBO)

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Kit Harington on “Game of Thrones.”
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HBO

The sixth season of “Game of Thrones” was rife with challenges for executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. It was the first time the series would surpass George R.R. Martin’s novels. Plus, they would have to deal with continuing after the yearlong fan hysteria after the death of Jon Snow (Kit Harington).

But the producers proved they should be trusted with the beloved story of Westeros and the race to own its throne. The show is still the master of story twists, whether or not fans like them. And it’s still an amazing accomplishment of set structures, relationships, battles, humor, and mysticism. All of that made for masterful drama week after week.


1. “Atlanta” (FX)

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“Atlanta” stars, from left: Keith Stanfield, Donald Glover, and Brian Tyree Henry.
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FX

We’re hard-pressed to name a show that had a more perfect first-season debut than FX’s “Atlanta.” It was at once intensely personal, relevant, dark, optimistic, and shocking. Donald Glover threw the sitcom rule book away and created a journey that was unlike any other show on TV.

Deceptively, “Atlanta” was described as a sitcom about two cousins trying to break into the local music scene, but there were few episodes that actually dealt with that enterprise. Instead, our protagonists were shown just trying to overcome the travails of daily life, trudging through the muck of racial profiling, exposing the walls that keep marginalized people divided, and experiencing the never-ending financial pitfalls of just living – the things that keep amazing people from reaching their goals and make it seem that much more heroic that anyone achieves the American dream at all.