Here’s my list of the best shows of the year, with short explanations.
1. “The Americans” (FX)
The story of Russian spies in 1980s America has only gotten better. In season four, the cast continued to go from strength to strength, led by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. In recent years, “The Americans” has become accidentally timely, with US suspicions toward Putin’s Russia. But “The Americans” writers remained focused on the fine points of character drama.
2. “The Night Of” (HBO)
I’d written off the procedural format as creatively DOA. Then along came “The Night Of,” which expanded and humanized the prototypical New York crime story, taking us inside the families of the accused and his lawyer. At the same time, the show stepped back, David Simon-like, to expose the deep flaws in the American justice system. The acting was aces all around.
3. “The Crown” (Netflix)
Part of me feels as though I should be cynical about British costume dramas. But hell, Peter Morgan’s “The Crown” did it just right. It was a fascinating look into the backstage lives and burdens of decades of royal figures, with Claire Foy’s sensible Queen Elizabeth as the through line.
4. “Black Mirror” (Netflix)
The six episodes of season three of this “Twilight Zone”-like anthology series are uneven, but they all share an invigorating, and bracing, forecast of where we’re heading. They aren’t about “the future,” that vague dystopian concept; they’re about the day after tomorrow, when smartphones and video games are out of control.
5. “Game of Thrones” (HBO)
This season felt different as the story careened ahead of the book series. The cast began to shrink, the players for the endgame became clearer, and the story encompassed both epic battle moves and, with much-needed warmth, redeemingly intimate moments.
6. “Fleabag” (Amazon)
This is a painful, wry six-episode look at how grief manifests in some people. Fleabag is our broken heroine, a sad clown with a raunchy sense of humor. Played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who also wrote the show, she’s a brave, lonely soul trying not to fall apart by doing all the wrong things.
7. “Atlanta” (FX)
With this series, created by its star, Donald Glover, TV storytelling moved a step further away from using conventional narrative signposts and a step closer to portraying the random but related experiences of everyday life. Glover is Earn, a guy trying to pull his life together.
8. “Westworld” (HBO)
This cerebral sci-fi drama was as much a brain-teasing puzzle as a TV show. In the process of figuring it all out you were pushed to ponder big questions about artificial intelligence. You were also pushed to think about the nature of free will and undergo an existential crisis. Good times!
9. “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” (TBS)
Through the strange turns of the election, Samantha Bee was our tour guide and absurdist commentator. She voiced the sanest, angriest weekly takes on the American political conversation, sexism, and the declining importance of facts.
10. “High Maintenance” (HBO)
An adaptation of a Web series, this formally inventive show follows a pot dealer around New York City. But it doesn’t traffick in madcap weed adventures, instead exploring the lives of the people buying. Ultimately, it’s a group portrait of the city. My favorite self-standing episode: “The Great Gatsby,” about an urban dog with an unhappy owner.
The Almost List
“Insecure” (HBO), “Veep” (HBO), “Better Things” (FX), “Lady Dynamite” (Netflix), “The Girlfriend Experience” (Starz), “American Crime” (ABC), “Love” (Netflix), “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” (HBO), “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” (FX), “Better Call Saul” (AMC), “Horace and Pete” (Hulu), “Happy Valley” (Netflix), “Difficult People” (Hulu), “Orange Is the New Black” (Netflix)
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.