If there is any downside to this era of "Peak TV," when more scripted series than ever are fighting for our attention, it's the difficulty in choosing the year's 10 best. So for 2016, I'm allowing myself the luxury of an honorable mention's list. Call it lazy, if you want. I call it an embarrassment of riches.
10. "Saturday Night Live" (NBC)
Forty-one years after its debut, this pioneer weekend late night variety franchise came back with a vengeance, due largely to the insanity of our presidential election. There was Larry David as cranky Bernie Sanders, Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton, Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump and McKinnon as spokesperson Kellyanne Conway. Each week audiences gathered in anticipation of that opening sketch (or were quick to find it online the next morning), followed by the inevitable critical response from @RealDonaldTrump himself. Host Dave Chappelle's powerful post-election monologue, and McKinnon's rendition of the late Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," only cemented the show's continuing value.
9. "The Crown" (Netflix)
Focusing on the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II, "The Crown" begins in 1947 as young Elizabeth (Claire Foy) starts down her path toward the throne. We witness her marriage to Philip (Matt Smith) as she prepares for life as a Navy wife, until her father, King George VI (Jared Harris), dies of lung cancer when she is just 25, bringing her destiny to bear. The stellar performances, writing, production and cinematography should serve "The Crown" well during the upcoming awards season.
8. "The Middle" (ABC)
Lost in the shower of accolades for "Modern Family" over the years, "The Middle" is another witty and worthy example of sitcom-style family dysfunction. Now in season eight, and never stagnant in character development, Axl (Charlie McDermott) is a college senior; eternally optimistic Sue (Eden Sher) has declared a major; and oddball youngster Brick (Atticus Shafer) is in high school and trying to fit in. Then, of course, there is Patricia Heaton and Neill Flynn at the center as blue-collar Frankie and Axl (Charlie McDermott), the Roseanne and Dan Conner of present day television. The added bonus is the occasional appearance of Brooke Shields as low-class neighbor Rita Glossner. Unlike most series, which lose steam creatively in later seasons, "The Middle" proves that existing under the radar may not necessarily be a bad thing.
Fun footnote: Former "Everybody Loves Raymond" star Patricia Heaton is the first actress in the history of television to find long-term success as both a wife and mother in two different comedies.
7. "Game of Thrones" (HBO)
With no shortage of buzz in this sixth—and potentially next-to-last—season, it is easy to comprehend why this sprawling fantasy drama is now the most Emmy-honored series in the history of television (with 38 trophies to-date, now one more than previous record holder "Frasier"). This season on "Game of Thrones," there was the resurrection of Jon Snow (Kit Harington); more power struggles, betrayals and odd incestuous relationships; and instantly memorable moments from nearly all the surviving characters.
6. Westworld" (HBO)
Heralded as a worthy successor to "Game of Thrones," the action on "Westworld," created by J.J. Abrams and based on Michael Crichton's cult favorite 1973 movie, takes place in a technologically advanced, Western-themed amusement park populated completely by synthetic androids dubbed "hosts." These hosts (Evan Rachel Wood, in particular, who plays Dolores) are there to fulfill every secret desire of the high-paying guests. Not for the faint of heart, characters are terrorized, assaulted and murdered, all within the first episode, and then there is the "Man in Black," played by Ed Harris, who is basically a serial killer within the park. Capitalizing on the theory that sex and violence-obsessed entertainment is synonymous with critical accolades, what sets "Westworld" apart is the analysis. We obsess about the true meaning of this virtual reality world, and we can't wait to see what lies ahead.
5. "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" (FX)
At first I was not all that impressed with the idea of yet another retelling of the "Trial of the Century," particularly on a network and from a series creator, Ryan Murphy, known for pushing the envelope. But "The People v. O.J. Simpson" did not just re-enact the events leading to the final verdict, it gave us an in-depth look at the minds of the prosecution and defense, both personally and professionally, enabling us to understand just how O.J. Simpson was found not guilty. While I could have done without the unnecessary appearance of those young and obnoxious Karsdashians, Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, Sterling K. Brown as Chris Darden and Courtney B. Vance as Johnny Cochran, amongst the remaining ensemble cast, are worthy of the honors bestowed upon them.
4. "Bates Motel" (A&E)
The core of this prequel to Alfred Hitchcock theatrical masterpiece "Psycho" was always the blending of complicated mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), and her troubled son, Norman (Freddie Highmore). And since Norman is still alive after his botched plan for them both to die together, his twisted path to becoming his mother is now in full swing. With musical great Rihanna exchanging her pipes for a trip to the infamous Bates Motel as Marion Crane, presumably in search of a new life with some stolen cash, it could very well be curtains in that expected brutal shower scene. Fasten your seatbelts for the upcoming final season.
3. "Atlanta" (FX)
Described as "'Twin Peaks' with rappers," this slice of life, part comedy and part drama, tells the tale of two cousins (Donald Glover and Brian Tyree Henry) as try to pull their families out of poverty by making it big in the Atlanta rap scene. Glover is Earn, a virtually homeless man who decides to leave his dead-end job when he discovers that his cousin Alfred (Henry) is an emerging rapper named Paper Boi. While funny at times, "Atlanta" is really about one man's desperation to improve his life and the life of his young daughter. And it is a desperation that rings painfully true for so many of us.
2. "Stranger Things" (Netflix)
Set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Ind., in the 1980s, "Stranger Things" stars Winona Ryder as Joyce Bears, a single mother who discovers her middle school son, Will (Noah Schnapp), is missing. Armed with a slingshot, Will's trio of friends—Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin)—set off on their bicycles to look for him, and along the way meet a telekinetic girl (Millie Brown) who aids in their search. Paying homage to films of the 1980s a la Stephen Spielberg and John Carpenter, with the look and feel of "E.T." in particular (only without the extraterrestrial), "Stranger Things" is a combination of both nostalgia and suspense, accentuated by one of the more appealing ensemble casts on television in 2016.
1. "This Is Us" (NBC)
The true definition of the blended TV family, this diverse character-driven ensemble drama, much like "thirtysomething" decades before, is ripe for water-cooler banter. Of course, it's not without its flaws, one being the obsessive focus on Kate's (Chrissy Metz) weight. And concluding the fall season just as Toby (Chris Sullivan) suddenly collapsed was yet another emotional tool to induce the tears. Still, in a sea of generic scripted crime solvers, "This Is Us" offers a fresh and inventive way to tell a story. Most important, it proves that the concept of an immediate hit, both critically and by the numbers, can still exist on a broadcast network.
"The Affair" (Showtime"), "The Americans" (FX), "Better Call Saul" (AMC), "Divorce" (HBO), "Fleabag" (Amazon), "Masters of None" (Netflix), "Mom" (CBS), "The Night Of" (HBO), "Survivor" (CBS) and "Veep" (HBO).