After revealing my 10 best series of the year yesterday, it’s time to spotlight the new kids on the block: those freshman shows that immediately broke out of an oversaturated field and established themselves as essential TV viewing.
There are so many overwhelming television choices—the 450-some scripted series that aired this year is more than double the number from 2009—that my initial reaction to any new series announcement is more dread than excitement. How am I ever going to fit yet another show into my overpacked schedule?
But when it comes to the 10 shows on this list, I couldn’t have been happier to make the time. In an era of “peak TV,” where it is harder than ever to break through the clutter and connect with audiences, these shows emerged fully-formed, and are already holding their own with the finest in broadcast, cable and streaming.
First, an important distinction: I define “new shows” as ongoing series, and not miniseries or other limited series. That’s why a few 2016 debuts from yesterday’s top 10 list, including the two O.J. Simpson miniseries and Horace and Pete (creator/star Louis C.K. has said that story is finished), are absent from the list below.
So clear out some DVR space and set aside some holiday binge time for these worthy freshman series.
10. Insecure (HBO)
When Issa Rae’s comedy debuted in October, it was overshadowed by the hype around Sarah Jessica Parker’s return to HBO the same night, in Divorce. But while that show struggled to find its footing, its time slot companion had no such difficulty. A fresh look at African-American women, Insecure established Rae as a comic force to be reckoned with, and its first season offered an even more confident HBO comedy debut from a creator/star than Lena Dunham’s Girls arrival, just four years earlier.
9. One Mississippi (Amazon)
Amazon has quietly built itself a very formidable comedy bench (including Transparent, Catastrophe, Red Oaks and another promising new comedy, Fleabag), which was strengthened by this semi-autobiographical entry, starring Tig Notaro as an L.A. radio host recovering from a double mastectomy who heads home to Mississippi to see her dying mother. It’s a perfect vehicle for Notaro, who seamlessly transitions her poignant standup persona to anchor this moving, contemplative series.
8. Pitch (Fox)
Broadcast networks need to make more ambitious swings like Pitch, which looked at the first female baseball player (Kylie Bunbury) to break into Major League Baseball. But like Friday Night Lights before it, the show is about much more than on-field athletics. With a breakthrough performance from Kylie Bunbury and a revelatory turn from an almost-unrecognizable Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Pitch was a bright spot in a mediocre fall for the broadcasters. Its 10-episode first season has already wrapped, and while ratings were low, here’s hoping that Fox keeps it on the team for Season 2.
7. The Crown (Netflix)
Netflix hasn’t been shy about pouring obscene amounts of money into its original series, but few of them have made such good use of those funds as this lavish, intricate look at Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) as she begins her reign. Created by Peter Morgan (who knows his way around British royalty, after writing projects like the 1997 Helen Mirren film, The Queen), it’s informative and riveting, even for those of us who aren’t royal buffs. If you’re suffering from Downton Abbey withdrawal, this is the show for you.
6. Stranger Things (Netflix)
The deluge of Netflix originals this year has been dizzying (with even more expected in 2017), but I can’t complain if that means we get this delightful homage to my favorite pop culture touchstones of the ’80s, including Stephen King, E.T., The Goonies and the films of John Carpenter. Stranger Things was such an unexpected summer sensation that I worry Season 2 could end up crushed by the heightened expectations, but no matter what happens next with Eleven and the cast (poor Barb!), the Duffer Brothers hit all the right nostalgic notes in Season 1.
5. Baskets (FX)
There’s no way that Baskets should work. This quirky comedy—about a Paris-trained clown (Zach Galifianakis) who is stuck working for a rodeo in Bakersfield, Calif.—isn’t for everybody (even the brand partnerships, with Costco and Arby’s, are a bit off-kilter), but what a treat it became for those of us who stuck with the series through its surreal first season. While casting Louie Anderson as Galifianakis’ mother initially seemed like a silly stunt, Anderson turned the role into one of the year’s most affecting performances.
4. Better Things (FX)
FX’s freshman comedy streak continued with this new series from Pamela Adlon, a frequent Louis C.K. collaborator, which provided the dark comedy jolt we’ve been missing since C.K. put Louie on hiatus last year. An always-surprising, frank look at middle age, parenthood and dating, Better Things is elevated by a compelling turn from Adlon, who makes the most of her moment in the spotlight.
3. This Is Us (NBC)
It’s hard enough to create a pilot that breaks out among the glut of fall newbies, but it’s another thing entirely to deliver on that pilot’s promise week after week. That Dan Fogelman (also the co-creator of Pitch; he’s having a very good fall) was able to do both, while also increasing his audiences each week, is a testament to the brilliance of his premise and tightly-knit cast. Each week, the time-jumping drama—about an unlikely pair of triplets and their parents—keeps finding new ways to make us laugh, and cry. Even better, it proves that broadcast can still launch big hits without A-list stars or existing IP (intellectual property).
2. Full Frontal with Samantha Bee (TBS)
The biggest risks can result in the biggest rewards, as Samatha Bee discovered when she left the friendly, comfortable confines of The Daily Show to launch her own program for TBS, which at the time was in the middle of a risky rebrand. To say that it paid off is an understatement, as Bee delivered the most innovative, insightful and hilarious show in late-night, combining the best elements of her The Daily Show work (including some peerless field pieces) while breathing new life into a stagnant genre. With President-elect Trump about to enter the White House, we’ll need her caustic, comedic insights more than ever.
1. Atlanta (FX)
It's no accident that most of the shows on this list were anchored by a powerful POV from a visionary showrunner/star, and no one was more successful at brilliantly juggling their on- and offscreen duties than Donald Glover. His eloquent look at Atlanta’s hip-hop scene, and the people struggling to make their mark in it, was endlessly inventive and intoxicating. In a year filled with fearless creators debuting their impressively audacious programs, it was the most spectacular creation of all.
These new freshman shows, each of which came very close to making the list, have also been entertaining me from the get-go: Designated Survivor (ABC), Fleabag (Amazon), The Good Place (NBC), Speechless (ABC) and Triumph’s Election Watch 2016 (Hulu). These are also worth catching up with going into the new year.
On Thursday, we’ll shift to the other end of the TV spectrum, looking at the most disappointing shows of 2016.