What if Cheers was more talky, and at times quite dark? At first blush, Louis CK’s self-distributed 10-episode “tragedy” (as he categorizes it) looks like another multi-cam sitcom set at a bar. But as a series of very real issues (e.g. mental illness, cancer) start driving the story of the titular cousins/watering hole co-owners, played by CK and Steve Buscemi, and you begin to sense you’re watching the equivalent of a stage play. With a cast that also included the estimable Alan Alda, Jessica Lange, Edie Falco and Laurie Metcalf (who earned an Emmy nod), this stealthy series dared you to keep watching, but ultimately rewarded you if you did.
9. THE NIGHT OF
Over the course of eight episodes, HBO’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it limited series turned into one of the year’s most compelling commentaries on prejudice within the court system — not to mention one heckuva murder mystery. One part The Wire, one part Serial and one part Making a Murderer, the series gave us a front-row seat to the devastating transformation of Naz, a young Pakistani man who is tried for a murder he may or may not have committed. Despite its much-needed moments of levity (Stone’s eczema problem! And his cat!), The Night Of never lost sight of its protagonist’s high stakes. As a result, we couldn’t look away — even when we really, really wanted to.
8. AMERICAN CRIME
Never one to shy away from hot-button topics, series creator John Ridley waded into particularly controversial waters in Season 2 of the ABC drama, which found high school outcast Taylor Blaine accusing classmate Eric Tanner of sexual assault at a party. Whereas American Crime’s first season was, at times, mercilessly bleak, its sophomore run served up a complex, unflinching portrayal of rape culture. It was infuriating. It was heartbreaking. It was hopeful. But the season was most memorable for the stunning, nuanced work of young actors Connor Jessup and Joey Pollari, who turned Taylor and Eric into so much more than victim and villain.
If a measure of a great drama is that it makes you think about it when it’s not on, HBO’s Westworld deserves every accolade thrown its way. Straight outta the (park) gate, the sci-fi drama built a world so complex and engrossing — with such attention to both visual and dialogue details — that you couldn’t help but keep turning it over in your mind after each week’s credits rolled. And those top-notch performances by Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Thandie Newton and Anthony Hopkins? We have our memories repeatedly wiped by a dark overlord die. Just like the robotic “hosts” that inhabit its central theme park, Westworld is a highly addictive puzzle that begs to be studied, taken apart, theorized about and ultimately (dare we hope?) solved.
6. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK
In its fourth (and best) season, Netflix’s prison dramedy soared to new dramatic heights. Tackling police brutality, mental illness, the corporatization of private prisons and celebrity privilege, Season 4 cast a wide storytelling net, but it captured plenty of amazing emotional truth along the way. It helps that OITNB boasts the deepest acting ensemble on TV, and though it’s hard to pick favorites, this season’s standouts included Kate Mulgrew as prison matriarch Red and Samira Wiley as Poussey, the sacrificial lamb in Litchfield’s ongoing fight for justice.
5. THIS IS US
We blame the Pearsons. If the family at the center of This Is Us wasn’t so believable, relatable and downright likable, NBC’s hit drama wouldn’t have the stranglehold it does on our emotional equilibrium. And yet we happily reach for the tissues each week! That’s thanks to a solid combination of talented actors on the rise and scripts that feel like they’re inspired by moments pulled straight out of our family photo albums. Watching Kate, Randall and Kevin — both as questioning children and struggling grown-ups — is a bittersweet affair that makes us laugh and sob, sometimes at the same time.
4. THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY
Is there anything left to say about the O.J. Simpson murder trial? Apparently, there is, because Ryan Murphy’s FX miniseries took a story we’ve all heard a hundred times and somehow turned it into riveting, top-notch television. It breathed new life into the Trial of the Century thanks to a masterful balance of campy courtroom melodrama and timely social commentary. Plus, the acting was superb, highlighted by a never-better Sarah Paulson, who took a national punchline in Marcia Clark and made her achingly sympathetic, showing us both Clark’s fragile vulnerability… and her steely resolve.
3. BATES MOTEL
In Season 4, the A&E drama delivered 10 near perfect episodes that delved deeper into Norman’s troubled mind while giving Norma a small taste of the happiness that had eluded her for much of her life. When their mostly separate storylines collided in inevitable tragedy, we were heartbroken; our investment in and sympathy for these two characters had us (foolishly) hoping that perhaps a different fate awaited them. And much of the credit belongs to Vera Farmiga and Freddy Highmore. As the titular mother and son, their knockout performances transcended the series’ Psycho source material. Simply put, it was crazy how good they were.
2. STRANGER THINGS
One of the summer’s most pleasant surprises, this Netflix original turned the pop culture conversation Upside-Down with an engaging and wonderfully “retro” tale about three boys in the 1980s whose investigation into a friend’s vanishing unearths a mystery — and a girl— the likes of which they never could have imagined. As Eleven, Millie Bobby Brown created an instantly iconic as well as endearing sci-fi heroine. Meanwhile, Winona Ryder’s turn as the missing boy’s panicked mother, who is at first written off as a grieving nutcase but winds up being a lead orchestrator of his possible rescue, alternately broke our hearts and then had us cheering.
1. GAME OF THRONES
Season 6 of HBO’s fantasy series taught us that even death doesn’t mean your quest for the Iron Throne is over. (Oh hi, Jon Snow!) And that quest got even bloodier, from the epic war-is-hell spectacle of “Battle of the Bastards” to Cersei’s icy vengeance in “The Winds of Winter.” Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss continue to shift the key players of Westeros around like chess pieces, but it’s the women who made the boldest moves this year, from the swashbuckling Arya to a newly assertive Sansa to the Mother of Dragons herself, Daenerys Targaryen, burning her enemies alive and setting sail for the ultimate battle to come.