Baltimore City Paper

Top Ten Television Shows of 2016

1. "Stranger Things" (Netflix)

There are the obvious precedents for this story about a bunch of kids in ’80s Midwest who stumble upon an alternate universe after their friend goes missing ("The X-Files," early Stephen King, "E.T.") and there is the less canonical stuff that the show latches onto atmosphere-wise ("Wolfen," "Innerspace," one-offs found in old issues of "Epic Illustrated," "Maniac Mansion" for the NES). "Stranger Things" doesn’t indulge nostalgia, it uses nostalgia—the way "Drive" or Amy Winehouse used it—to get at the melancholy of things changing. It’s a collage of high-stakes sci-fi, coming of age melodrama, and adolescent ennui both familiar but with contemporary twists: a fundamental distrust of government that resonates differently and even more nefariously with Trump coming into office; less a post-Watergate rage at parents than a profound sort of disappointment that millennials totally feel; and in the iconic character of Eleven, a flawed, no bullshit hero and a pulpy evaluation of gender roles and sly illustration of the ways in which gender is not real, but prescripted. (Brandon Soderberg)

2. "Atlanta" (FX)

Trying to zero in on what made Donald Glover’s weekly dose of fascinating humor this fall so unique is like trying to juggle water. Was it the way the series wandered into holding cells and bougie black McMansions unafraid to satirize either? (Yes.) Was it Brian Tyree Henry’s breakout performance as Paper Boi, the weed dealer who might be an underground rapper about to catch a break? (Yes.) Was it the way the show handled the on/off relationship between Glover’s trying-to-figure-something-out Earn and Zazie Beetz’ Vanessa, the school teacher with whom he has a daughter? (Yes.) Was it because Keith Stanfield’s Darius is the greatest TV character since “Angel’s” Lorne? (Yes.) The list goes on, but when you start tallying the items altogether what emerges is a portrait of lives in America that television has never deigned to portray all their comic, cosmic humanity. (Bret McCabe)

3. "Luke Cage" (Netflix)

Superman’s been around since the 1930s, but what has he done for you lately? Luke Cage is the kind of superhero who would have rung doorbells for Joshua Harris and kept the Bell Foundry open, a superhero whose archnemesis is more like the overlapping structural injustices of late capitalism than a mob boss raised by penguins or a Holocaust survivor with the mutant power to command metal. The Netflix series is tightly-written, with comic book-like economy and humor, great music and Harlem atmospherics, and performances of real gravitas. Alfre Woodard is peerless, Rosario Dawson is Rosario, and, at last, 2016 was the year of Mahershala Ali. And Mike Colter emits an almost old-fashioned decency as Luke Cage that feels out of step with the ass-slapping Avengers and the recent grim iteration of Batman, that complex white savior. The territory of Marvel’s universe has expanded in welcome, surprising directions; you know Jidenna’s not showing up in Gotham City. (Andrew Holter)

4. "Black Mirror" (Netflix)

After only three short seasons, the very title “Black Mirror” has gained metaphorical shorthand status alongside “Rashomon” and “The Twilight Zone,” and no wonder. As we wrestle with the way technology changes and twists us, Charlie Brooker’s brainchild beams us glimpses of how that’s working out for us. Season opener “Nosedive” savaged the warping effects of social-media approval-grubbing, while “Men Against Fire” shoved our noses in the ugliness and insidiousness of othering. Dystopia is a series specialty, but Brooker and his collaborators provided less fraught pleasures, too, not least 2016’s best ugly-cry hour in the star-crossed romance of “San Junipero.” Black Mirror offers bright hope for the future of narrative television, if not much hope for anything else. (Lee Gardner)

5. "Westworld" (HBO)

HBO’s long-delayed series about a Yul Brynner-less cowboy robot theme park asked some important questions in its first season. Are “Westworld’s” robotic “hosts” truly sentient? Is free will actually possible for human and artificial intelligence alike or are we cursed to follow our respective internal programs? Most importantly: Do the robots poop? Showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy don’t offer any easy answers, opting for a slow ride exploration of the artificial and its inhabitants. Built on a foundation of clever long game plotting and a strong cast (including standout performances from Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, and that one McPoyle brother from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), “Westworld” takes a little while to get to the fireworks factory but once it gets there, they light that shit up. (Max Robinson)

6. "Fleabag" (BBC Three/Amazon)

Take the masturbating-to-Obama bit. It’s easy to point to it as the kind of scene that makes British series “Fleabag” so drink-spittingly hilarious, but it’s hard to explain why (at least in 150 words). The humor emerges from the characters, from a wised-up sense of how people think and behave (and how those two things don’t typically agree), and from the stream of side-eye glances and fourth-wall-breaking asides staccato-ed by the title heroine (Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who adapted her own one-woman play for the six half-hour episodes). And just when “Fleabag” starts to seem just a sharp take on a type—the overconfident underachieving urban young woman, unlucky in love but still enthusiastic about sex—the supporting characters surprise you by having stories of their own, or the dramatic arc lurking under the surface reaches up and smacks you in the mouth. (LG)

7. "Better Call Saul" (AMC)

While “Breaking Bad” was essentially one long journey into a white man couching his quest for personal greatness in perverted provider self mythology, “Better Call Saul” offers up a fantastic alternative to Walter White, in Jimmy McGill, the ur-Saul Goodman. Jimmy understands something fundamental about America especially in the post-factual landscape of 2016—that it’s an irascibly crooked nation founded on a con. As Common once said on ‘The Food’: “He’s tryna stay straight, the streets is bending him.” Slippin’ Jimmy has the acumen to be an amazing lawyer, but can’t help crossing that line past legitimacy. Not because he’s lazy, but because he sees how the world really works and can’t deny his aptitude for succeeding within that atmosphere of perpetual deception. If you’re a “Breaking Bad” die-hard, there’s still plenty of desert-set, drug dealing intrigue, but a con-man narrative disguised as a legal procedural is the show this world needs now. (Dominic Griffin)

8. "Chewing Gum" (E4)

Moments in “Chewing Gum” make you cringe. Here’s how the whole thing begins: The protagonist, Tracey (Michaela Coel), is a lustful virgin who plans to finally seduce her gay boyfriend. The night of, her best friend gives her a horrifying makeover inspired by Beyonce that leaves her looking like Eddie Murphy in “Vampire in Brooklyn.” It’s a bit cliché at this point—the awkward dark-skinned black girl—but Coel is so funny that the use of the trope is forgiven. After the seduction plan ends in disaster, Tracey finds her new love interest—a moody white boy poet—and the real shenanigans begin. Set in a British housing project, there’s an amusing diversity in the characters that makes the show all the more feel-good and silly. (Nia Hampton)

9. "Underground" (WGN)

"Underground," executive produced by singer John Legend, walks a wobbly line—part soapy drama, and part bad-ass and incredibly graphic slave rebellion tale. It also mixes music of the period with the likes of Kanye West (given what we know now, that he is in some way or another a fan of Trump,an awkward choice) and the Weeknd. The soapy parts seemed designed to help the show appeal to a broader (read: white) audience, but, it was refreshing to see a show that was focused on black people being active participants in history and taking steps to free themselves as opposed to silent, passive victims. The next season, which starts in March, promises a bad ass, axe-swinging Harriet Tubman. We’ll be watching. (Lisa Snowden-McCray)

10. "The Exorcist" (Fox)

Essentially, a serialized sequel of sorts to the original 1973 movie, "The Exorcist" nails the atmosphere with muted colors and the same overall sense of dread that made the original William Friedkin film so creepy. This time around, Angela Rance and her family are plagued by a demon inhabiting one of their daughters. A devout Catholic, Rance implores local priest, Father Tomas Ortega who's dealing with his own, more exterior demons, to help cleanse her daugher. To go into further detail will spoil the whole series but beyond the usual demon possession, "The Exorcist" takes on organ harvesting and the root of evil in the Catholic Church. (J.M. Giordano)