The 10 best TV shows of 2016, ranked

Samantha Lee/Business InsiderDonald Glover created and stars on FX’s ‘Atlanta.’

With a finite number of hours in the day to watch television, one can feel there will never be enough time to watch everything the critics, social media, our coworkers, friends, and family say we
need to see.

It’s not just a feeling. We now know it for a fact: There were an estimated 455 scripted TV programs in 2016. And you just can’t see them all.

To sit down and name the 10 best shows of the hundreds that aired and streamed this year is a herculean task. So for this list of 2016’s best shows, we reflected on all the well-written, superbly acted, and beautifully shot shows of the year (that we were able to check out) and added one more criterion to mix up the selections just a bit: Was it not only good, but surprisingly so?

That means shows that usually populate year-end lists like this — such as AMC’s “Better Call Saul,” FX’s “The Americans,” and HBO’s “Silicon Valley” — won’t appear here as we expect them to be exemplary.

With that in mind, here are 2016’s 10 best TV shows:

10. 'Mozart in the Jungle' (Amazon)

Amazon Studios
Monica Bellucci, left, and Gael Garcia Bernal on 'Mozart in the Jungle.'

'Mozart in the Jungle,' a show about a New York classical music orchestra that was called 'niche' when it first debuted, has proven itself season after season to be about so much more. Its newly released third season is no different. The orchestra has fallen apart and its talented musicians have embarked on their own personal journeys. Amid beautiful international settings, we see just how broad this show can get. At the same time, it's grounded in the comedy of bringing these lost souls back together to create beautiful music. Tremendous acting from Gael Garcia Bernal, Bernadette Peters, and Malcolm McDowell give this series the extra edge.

9. 'The Crown' (Netflix)

Robert Viglasky/Netflix
Claire Foy and Matt Smith as Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Philip, on 'The Crown.'

A show about the early years of Queen Elizabeth's reign may not appeal to everyone, but it really brings an unexpected intimate and grounded feel to her life, her marriage, her family obligations, and her role in an evolving England.

8. 'The Night Of' (HBO)

Barry Wetcher/HBO
Riz Ahmed stars on HBO's 'The Night Of.'

An especially timely show as the American criminal justice system is itself on trial, 'The Night Of' plots the arrest of Nasir (Riz Ahmed), a young Muslim man suspected of brutally murdering a young white woman after a night of sordid sex and drugs. It seems like an open-and-shut case, but an ambulance-chasing attorney, played by the talented John Turturro, has a gut instinct that there's more to the story. The show plods slowly at a hypnotic pace as more information about the night in question, Nasir, and the victim comes to the light.

7. 'Insecure' (HBO)

Issa Rae cocreated and stars on HBO's 'Insecure.'

Issa Rae brought the spirit of her hit YouTube series, 'Awkward Black Girl,' to HBO's 'Insecure.' Cocreated by Larry Wilmore, the comedy explores what it's like to lack confidence in a world where you're expected to be a strong, black woman. The results are pretty insightful, often funny, and many times heartbreaking.

6. 'Baskets' (FX)

Zach Galifianakis as Chip Baskets on the FX show 'Baskets.'

'Baskets' is the hilarious story of a frustrated artist. But the artist is Zach Galifianakis' Chip Baskets and the art is being a clown -- in the finest French sense. Of course, there's very little demand for that type of clown and Chip is relegated to being a rodeo clown in his hometown of Bakersfield, California. Aside from the various challenges of that career, his eccentricities, and the harsh realities that life bring Chip, there's a host of great supporting performances -- most notably, Louie Anderson's gender-bending turn as Chip's caustic, disapproving suburban mum.

5. 'Stranger Things' (Netflix)

'Stranger Things' stars, from left, Gaten Matarazzo, Winona Ryder, Caleb McLaughlin, Finn Wolfhard, and Charlie Heaton.

There's a surprise at every turn of the Duffer brothers' '80s-set sci-fi drama. On top of the various movie references littered throughout the season, there are great performances from Winona Ryder and the young stars. This is perfect Netflix fare, as 'Stranger Things' is infinitely bingeable.

4. 'Westworld' (HBO)

John P. Johnson/HBO
'Westworld' stars James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood.

No one knew what to expect from HBO's adaptation of Michael Crichton's 1973 film, 'Westworld.' HBO held the details of the series close to its vest, though leaks gave us an idea that it would definitely push boundaries. In the end, it was a suspenseful ride in which the explorations of human fantasy and ambition extended beyond the park's guests to their robotic hosts, and the game-makers themselves.

3. 'The People v. O.J. Simpson' (FX)

Sterling K. Brown, left, and Cuba Gooding Jr. on FX's 'The People V. O.J. Simpson.'

With Ryan Murphy producing, there was a definite danger that FX's exploration of the events of the O.J. Simpson murder trial could go way too campy. In the end, it maintained a measure of camp but still held on to an emotional grounding that explored how fame, race, and gender shaped one of the biggest criminal cases in modern history. Not to mention the series' stirring performances by Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, and Courtney B. Vance.

2. 'Game of Thrones' (HBO)

Kit Harington on 'Game of Thrones.'

The sixth season of 'Game of Thrones' was rife with challenges for executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. It was the first time the series would surpass George R.R. Martin's novels. Plus, they would have to deal with continuing after the yearlong fan hysteria following the death of Jon Snow (Kit Harington).

But the producers definitely proved they should be trusted with the beloved story of Westeros and the race to own its throne. The show is still the master of story twists -- whether fans like them or not. And it's still an amazing accomplishment of set structures, relationships, battles, humour, and mysticism. All of that made for masterful drama, week after week.

1. 'Atlanta' (FX)

'Atlanta' stars, from left, Keith Stanfield, Donald Glover, and Brian Tyree Henry.

We're hard-pressed to name a show that had a more perfect first-season debut than FX's 'Atlanta.' It was at once intensely personal, relevant, dark, optimistic, and shocking. Donald Glover threw the sitcom rulebook away and created a journey that was unique and unlike any other show on TV.

Deceptively, 'Atlanta' was described as a sitcom about two cousins trying to break into the local music scene, but there were very few episodes that actually dealt with that enterprise. Instead, our protagonists were shown just trying to overcome the travails of daily life, trudging through the muck of racial profiling, exposing the walls that keep marginalized people divided, and the never-ending financial pitfalls of just living. They're all the things that keep amazing people from reaching their goals, making it all seem that much more heroic that anyone achieves the American dream at all.

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