It's nothing new to proclaim that we had some pretty great television in 2016—FX Networks Research counted 455 scripted series this year, so some of them have to be good. But what stood out the most this year are the trends and storylines that make me optimistic for the discussions that will potentially take place in 2017.
Like all good art, television functions within the larger world of culture and politics. Rather than existing in a vacuum, it often responds to the outside world, even sometimes dictating its outlook—even on issues that first rose to prominence 22 years ago. The most culturally relevant show in 2016 was about a 1994 murder case: American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, which revisited and recreated the murder (and subsequent trial) of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
What was notable about the series wasn't its sensationalism—just compare it (and ESPN's 30 for 30's unofficial counterpart O.J. Made in America) to the endless parade of cruel and gross JonBenét Ramsey programming that aired this year—but how it took this specific, significant cultural moment and successfully framed it within the context of 2016. It did so without sacrificing the narrative, instead letting us know that the applicable themes are still prevalent.
The entire series is fantastic—possibly my favorite of the year, even—but there are two episodes in particular that stand out. The fifth episode lays it out in the title: "The Race Card." The series deftly weaves in racism throughout, but "The Race Card" really narrows in on how race helped to shape the trial, for better or worse. It's a knockout from the cold open on, as Johnnie Cochran follows the rules (remain polite, narrate actions, don't make sudden moves) when pulled over by a white police officer. but still getting handcuffed in front of his daughters. Knowing that Cochran obviously survives the encounter doesn't stop viewers from holding their breath, since we're all too familiar with how these "routine" police stops go in real life. From there, the episode dives into the politics of the N-word, the insecurities of affirmative action, and so much more that remains and will continue to remain relevant.
The next episode, "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia," went all-in on gender politics, steering away from the trial and focusing on Marcia Clark. The episode cast her in a lose-lose position—a position she was very much in for the duration of the trial as her gender was repeatedly harped on. Her love life and motherhood was brought up in court, nude photos were leaked to tabloids, and a cashier joked about her tampon purchases ("Guess the defense is in for one hell of a week"). The People v. O.J. Simpson took a murder case and flipped it into a rumination on the various shitty ways women are treated—especially if they're in the spotlight, and whether they want to be a celebrity or not. (That cashier only said what he said to Marcia because he felt that he knew her due to watching her and seeing her photos on the newsstand). It's about Marcia Clark, yes, but it's also about the invasiveness and scrutiny that women continue to face every day—and the show made sure that we keep talking about those topics throughout its run and after it ended.
That's what made The People v. O.J. Simpson so powerful to me: I couldn't stop thinking about the show, writing about it, and talking about it to my closest friends and bar strangers. I didn't want to just talk about what was on screen—I wanted to talk about the book behind it, the devastating themes, and the smart, entertaining ways in which it discussed race and gender while often remaining fun as hell to watch. I want to keep talking about it.
And The People v. O.J. Simpson wasn't the only series this year that made me feel like that. There were a ton of shows—new and old—that similarly approached mental illness, including BoJack Horseman, Lady Dynamite, You're The Worst, and The Magicians. One of the ways to survive mental illness is to normalize it, understand that it's a common thing, and to make others understand that, too—and what's more commonly loved than television? This year, we saw an animated horse and a child star tackle clinical depression and the perils of addiction; a beloved comedian use her bipolar disorder as a driving force for a fantastic Netflix sitcom; a military veteran—a group that television often forgets— deal with and seek out help for his PTSD; and a twentysomething budding magician learn that even literal magic isn't a cure.
The Carmichael Show dedicated a fantastic half-hour to exploring depression with its strong family matriarch Cynthia, breaking down the stigma of going to therapy (You're The Worst addressed this as well). Better Things and American Housewife featured child characters who have obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Broad City had Ilana packing her anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds next to her vibrator. Even The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's endlessly optimistic Kimmy had post-traumatic stress disorder—which Empire also touched on after Jamal was shot. Every step that TV takes to destigmatize and just talk about mental illness is another step closer to the rest of the world following suit.
There are other aspects of this year's best television that make me optimistic for what the medium can and should continue to do next year. Behind the scenes, television took small but major steps to actively promote diversity instead of just talking about it: Atlanta has an all-black writers room and Queen Sugar hired all women directors (the next season of Jessica Jones will follow suit). Onscreen, Fresh Off the Boat and Superstore were sitcoms that found both humor and importance in the conversation surrounding immigration—Superstore, in particular, featured TV's first undocumented Filipino immigrant character—with jokes that added to storylines and avoided offensive territory. Jane the Virgin had a casual abortion storyline this year, and BoJack Horseman had a whole abortion-themed song/music video that I can't get out of my head.
Black-ish aired "Hope," which centered on police brutality but also actually articulated how, for black people watching the inauguration, joy turned to fear for Obama's life. A later episode, "Being Bow-Racial," not only featured a biracial character acknowledging being biracial but also talking about it, trying to understand what it means and how it's affected her life, and sorting out the complexities that make her who she is.
The list goes on: Sweet/Vicious centered on a rape survivor, depicting the daily devastation of living with trauma and giving us some hope in the form of beating down campus rapists. Fleabag depicted a woman who was completely unapologetic and with full agency over her own life—a real person, instead of just a "cool girl." Seeso's must-watch gem Take My Wife featured real-life married couple/comedians Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher, following their lives and careers together and proving that you can make a hilarious queer show without awkwardly writing around sexuality, fetishizing two women in bed or, you know, killing off all the lesbians.
These shows—and more!—all handed us notable and admirable examples of how television should continue to grow, build, and change in 2017. That's the mark of what made these series so great—they all pushed forward the conversations that we're going to need to carry on into the next.
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