Best of 2016: Here are this year's top 10 TV moments
I used to watch (and write about) a lot of television. But these days, I couldn't tell you the premiere date of any show not named Dancing With the Stars. Finding myself with less time to catch up on the daunting volume of TV now being produced, I don't have patience for shows that need four episodes to figure themselves out or series that make me feel sad or terrible or grossed out. (No, Game of Thrones, I will never love you.)
This era of "Peak TV" has come with a major caveat: With more TV being produced than ever before, there is more B- material out there. It could be the effect of streaming services: Shows that get lots of funding and little restrictions from companies like Netflix and Amazon tend to produce shaggier episodes and more aimless seasons. Like the opposite of when you force yourself to bring the smaller suitcase on a trip, and you realize you don't need six shirts for a three-day trip.
In this cluttered TV climate, what increasingly stands out to me are moments of television, not full seasons or even full episodes. This seems to be the way most people consume media now, in smaller bites; just think about your Facebook page the day after a major episode airs. When I think about this past year in TV, certain scenes, characters and plotlines stick out above the rest. Here are 10 television moments from 2016 I still can't get out of my head.
10. Every time John Stone tries to treat his eczema in 'The Night Of'
Reaction to this HBO miniseries was understandably mixed. In an era of big, loud TV, it dared to be quiet, always choosing to go small. A powerful comment on politics and race and political justice in 2016, The Night Of is a noir thriller composed almost entirely of detailed character moments woven together to create a deeply realized world. No character had more of these memorable tics than John Stone, played by John Turturro, who does so much with so little every time he's on screen. Nothing was so specifically pitched or so strangely satisfying as Stone's seemingly ancillary battle with eczema. Like a lot of things on this literary series, which is technically about a young Pakistani-American man accused of murder, Stone's foot ailment seemed to have nothing to do with the central action but symbolically spoke volumes. It also managed to be a hilarious reprieve from what could be a suffocatingly bleak show.
9. The twists in 'Pitch' and 'This Is Us'
One of these shows went on to become one of my favorites of the year; the other gets points for keeping Mark-Paul Gosselaar employed. Tonally, they’re pretty different, one a sprawling family dramedy aimed at your tear ducts and the other a jaunty sports drama. But they began in a similar way, with pilots that reveal major last-minute twists. This Is Us does it more effectively, I think, when we find out during one of the final scenes that part of the show is actually a flashback taking place 36 years prior to present day. It's a surprise that informs the story in a subtle but meaningful way, one that doesn't feel too showy. (And it explains Milo Ventimiglia's A+ mustache.) Pitch, on the other hand, seems reverse-engineered to shock its viewers, though not totally in a bad way. I will not soon forget the actual gasp I let out when I realized the main character's father was (spoiler) already dead, and the interactions we'd been seeing between him and her were all in her head. What a punch to the gut.
8. Everything about 'Grease Live'
I tried to pick one specific moment from Fox's broadcast of the live musical, but the "moment" is the whole thing, and the fact that it was such a seamless, energized hit. The production, directed by Hamilton director Tommy Kail and perfectly cast, is one of those things that's easy to take for granted. That is, until you see other live TV musicals and realize just how much can - and too often does - go wrong. I wrote more about why Grease Live was so successful here.
7. Adam and Jessa get together on 'Girls'
Lena Dunham's HBO half-hour, once a lighting rod for think pieces on the privileged millennial, seemed to shrug off the notoriety and relax into one of its best seasons this year. Every one of Season 5's episodes is memorable, something that cannot be said for the previous season, which even I, a female millennial, was constantly bored by. Girls took a lot of chances this year - Shoshanna goes to Japan, Hannah's dad comes out as gay - and nearly all of them paid off. The most explosive is the decision to put the show's two livewire characters, Adam and Jessa, in a relationship. From their first kiss at Marnie’s wedding in Episode 1 to their violent fight in the season finale, the courtship simultaneously felt completely organic and frighteningly wrong. It's a standout showcase of acting (it's no coincidence that Adam Driver, who plays Adam, and Jemima Kirke, who plays Jessa, are consistently the show's best actors) and writing that adds a dangerous dimension to a stellar season.
6. 'Atlanta' gives us black Justin Bieber
The first season of Donald Glover’s FX show defies easy description, and that’s what is likely to put it on many critics’ best-of lists this time of year. The half-hour series about Glover’s character, Earn, and his acquaintances in the rap world of Atlanta is at once a mumbly comedy, a social commentary on race, a realization of a black community very rarely seen on television, and a surreal exploration of everyday life. All of these things collide in the episode "Nobody Beats the Biebs," which is now famous for introducing a Justin Bieber played by a black actor (Austin Crute). That the show presents this race swap without any explicit comment - in the world of the show, Crute just IS Bieber - is what makes Atlanta so interesting. You never know what it’s going to do next.
5. Rebecca sings 'Heavy Boobs' on 'Crazy Ex-Girlfriend'
I could have chosen about 100 moments from this show, whose debut season spanned 2015 and 2016 (it returned for Season 2 on Oct. 21). CW’s musical dramedy from Rachel Bloom (who plays the titular girlfriend, Rebecca) and Aline Brosh McKenna is hands-down the thing I look forward to the most every week. It’s an unpredictable romp that has tackled everything from mental illness to abortion to feminism to sexuality - all while maintaining a tone that impossibly can go from fantastical to hyper-real in a beat. Oh, and there are multiple musical numbers per episode. Highly produced, laugh-out-loud funny, exquisitely executed musical numbers that explore the show’s knotty themes and stick with you long after the final note. I couldn't choose a favorite, but one of the best from this year has to be "Heavy Boobs," Rebecca’s ode to her large (and heavy) breasts. The context: She’s trying on bridesmaids dresses with a bunch of size 2’s, and needs to let the world know that not every woman can look good in the same type of dress (hello, strapless). It’s a perfect example of how the show addresses “issues” (in this case, unrealistic beauty standards) in a smart, ear-wormy way. And it drives home another great thing about Crazy: the fact that Bloom's body doesn't resemble many currently on television. And proudly so.
4. Nina dies on 'The Americans'
This moment in The Americans’ fourth season isn’t memorable because it’s pleasing. It’s horrible, and hard to watch, and a bummer for fans of Annet Mahendru’s warm and thoughtful take on Nina, a sympathetic Russian spy turned American spy turned back and forth again and again. But the moment is expertly made TV. A calculated and thought-out step on behalf of the writers to take one of the show’s original characters to her most logical conclusion, the scene in which Nina is shot in the back of the head by Russian prison guards is truly shocking. There is zero build-up. It just happens, much like it probably would in real life. Nothing about it feels cheap or unearned. And the more you think about it, the more it feels inevitable, a twist that gets more mileage out of a sympathetic character than another season of her presence likely would have.
3. The split-screen bathroom montage on 'Broad City'
This sequence that opens the series’ season 3 premiere “Two Chainz” is among the most brilliantly low-key and hysterical gags the show has ever done. It's a parade of split-screen shots of the two main characters, best friends Abbi and Ilana (played by show creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer), in their respective bathrooms over the course of a year, doing everything a millennial woman would do in such a space: singing, hooking up, plucking, wearing that dress that drove the Internet crazy. One of Glazer and Jacobson’s greatest talents on this show is ratcheting up the hilarity in any given scene until it bursts like an absurd pinata, and this moment feels like the most concise encapsulation of that.
2. Lorelai and Emily fight in 'Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life'
No, the Gilmore Girls revival A Year in the Life is not perfect. But its existence brought us a handful of moments I now can’t imagine the Gilmore canon without, like this epic, years-in-the-making fight between Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and her mother, Emily (Kelly Bishop), in the revival’s first episode, Winter. If the rest of the revival had been Kirk driving around in an Ooober, this scene would have made the whole thing worth it. An aggressive reminder of just how deftly the original Gilmore Girls was able to weave real, raw family drama into a supremely quirky show, the fight is a master class in acting and writing. (What Graham and Bishop are giving in this scene is so raw and deep it moves me to tears every single time, even though I know what’s coming.) Like most fights on Gilmore, it’s never quite clear whose side we’re supposed to be on, a real achievement in delicious moral ambiguity. It’s one of the top five scenes the show has ever produced.
1. Discovering Sterling K. Brown in 'The People v. O.J. Simpson'
When was the moment you realized Sterling K. Brown was becoming the breakout star of Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story? Was it when he first appeared on screen as attorney Christopher Darden and you felt you immediately knew this character? Or when he convincingly portrayed quiet strength and noble conviction just by standing there? Or effortlessly switched from flirting with Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark to passionately standing up to Courtney B. Vance’s Johnnie Cochran in the courtroom? Brown, who won an Emmy for the role, has since moved on to This Is Us, delivering another engaging performance that proves his Simpson one was no fluke. Though the FX series will likely be what we point to years from now as the moment we knew Brown was a star.