2016 might not have been the year the limited series arrived on our TV screens—or, to be precise, returned to them—but it was the year we learned the limited series was here to stay. Two of the the most-talked-about series of the year (The People v. O.J. Simpson and The Night Of) were self-contained, one-off crime dramas; a third, O.J.: Made in America, could win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature come February. The remaining seven titles on our list run the gamut from the futuristic (Black Mirror) to the historical (Roots), the alluring (London Spy) to the horrifying (Channel Zero), but the main takeaway, for us, was how competitive the field has become in the space of a few years. if you’re waiting for the trend to change, don’t hold your breath: In addition to the return of Fargo, 2017 features the debut of The Young Pope, Big Little Lies, Feud and many more.
When it comes to adapting Stephen King for television, the various attempts over the past 30-odd years could politely be characterized as “iffy.” Then, along came Hulu’s 11.22.63—based on King’s celebrated 2011 novel—to majorly screw with that quality curve. Developed as an eight-episode limited series by Friday Night Lights scribe Bridget Carpenter and produced by J.J. Abrams and King himself, 11.22.63 stars James Franco as Jake Epping, a recently divorced English teacher who learns that his friend, Al (Chris Cooper), has been attempting to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy via a time portal in the back of his diner. When Al is unable to continue the mission, Jake assumes the mantle and travels back to 1960, where he must spend the next three years meticulously plotting to hinder Lee Harvey Oswald’s world-changing murder, all while the forces of time throw obstacle after obstacle in his path. The series has been whittled down from King’s 800-plus page opus, and as a result, some of the plot elements feel a tad rushed, while others seem like little more than glorified filler. That said, the emotional core of the piece is present, especially with regard to Jake’s relationship with a beautiful young librarian (Sarah Gadon). What’s more, the narrative’s final stretch is as tense and suspenseful as anything on TV in 2016. Though calling 11.22.63 the “best Stephen King miniseries of all time“ might sound like a backhanded compliment, it’s a moving and honest-to-God enthralling bit of sci-fi wizardry. Mark Rozeman
Both Stranger Things and Preacher certainly have some horror elements, but Channel Zero was in no uncertain terms the greatest new horror show of 2016. Drawing inspiration from the Internet urban legends known as “creepypastas,” the anthology series assembled a deeply unsettling locale, featured solid performances (especially from Paul Schneider) and wove a steadily mounting tapestry of dread. I can’t stress enough how refreshing the format is—an hourlong horror drama that is seriously attempting to frighten, one that’s compressed into a mere six episodes, with the audience knowing in advance that they’ll get a real conclusion. The result, therefore, is almost like a prestige horror miniseries: It reminds one of nothing so much as Stephen King’s IT, with its simultaneous stories in different timelines and themes of horror built around the moments when childhood psyches are shattered.
It’s a series that featured one of the year’s best, genuinely frightening pilot episodes, which pulls its protagonist back into a web of small-town secrets and supernatural mystery, full of nightmare-inducing imagery and a persistent feeling of uneasy familiarity. Watching Channel Zero: Candle Cove is a bit like walking past the an abandoned house you were afraid of in your childhood, and then suddenly remembering the repressed story of the one time you ventured over the threshold and discovered the ghosts within. Here’s hoping that Season Two, The No-End House, can keep up the same visual flair and macabre atmosphere. Jim Vorel
Network: BBC America
Writer Tob Rob Smith and director Jakob Verbruggen’s unsung miniseries begins as a scintillating come on: Danny (Ben Whishaw), a slip-thin, strung out club kid, meets the hunky, mysterious Alex (Edward Holcroft, who wears a towel better than Zsa Zsa Gabor wore mink), and the two embark on a brief, lip-bitingly seductive affair. Were London Spy no more than this, kinky and conspiratorial, it might merely suggest the genre’s queerness; instead, the series pursues this thread to its logical conclusion, and rather brilliantly redefines espionage as an analogue to life in the closet. With Charlotte Rampling as Alex’s impossibly icy mother and the magnificent Jim Broadbent as an old queen who knows the score, London Spy not only re-imagines the “secret” in “secret agent”—it also pays homage to the longue durée of queer culture from the Lavender Scare to the AIDS crisis, a history in which sex and politics are as inextricable as Danny and Alex’s spent and sweaty limbs. Matt Brennan
Network: History Channel
The original Roots, which aired over eight consecutive nights on ABC in 1977, was event television, watched by nearly half of the population of the U.S. It’s a mighty legacy to live up to, let alone try to better, especially considering the glut of options available. But while it may have lacked for viewers and cultural dominance, the 2016 remake of Roots stayed true to the intent of the original: to keep this dark chapter of American history fresh in our minds. The blunt impact of this miniseries is strengthened by its modernization. New historical research is brought to bear on the story, and the depiction of the unconscionable treatment of the slaves isn’t ignored or stylized. The huge cast, including well-known names like Derek Luke, T.I. and Anna Paquin and rising stars like Malachi Kirby and Anika Noni Rose, shared the burden of this righteous task with honor, nuance, and the most raw emotion broadcast or streamed on screens in 2016. This is one for the ages. Robert Ham
John le Carre stories are usually morose or opaque as spies are seen either trapped in dark and cold worlds or dealing with the monotony that makes up most of their days (witness Gary Oldman’s slow, emotionless swim to fill the days of his “retirement” in the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). But not The Night Manager. In this miniseries, we have bona fide movie star Tom Hiddleston looking dashing in linen suits—or sometimes nothing at all—as he goes undercover in the world of yachts and fresh lobster salads to take down Hugh Laurie’s Dickie Roper, the worst man in the world—the type of person who learns of a sarin gas attack and thinks “business opportunity.”
But all the glitz and double crossing isn’t all that sells this production. Attention must also be given to the supporting cast. Tom Hollander’s Lance “Corky” Corkoran could have been your typical nefarious character who’s onto our hero, but instead he’s an addict in desperate need of Roper’s attention, which is all the more delicious. The fact that Olivia Coleman was very pregnant while shooting made the obsession that her character, agent Angela Burr, had with taking down Roper much more real and dangerous. Most impressive might be breakout star Elizabeth Debicki, who played the beautiful, if dead-eyed, Jed Marshall who knows she made a deal with the devil and doesn’t quite know how to get out of that web. Whitney Friedlander
While American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson certainly uses its highly dramatized portrayal of the trial of O.J. Simpson to muse on notions of celebrity, sexism in the workplace, and racial tensions in America, Ezra Edelman’s sprawling documentary O.J.: Made in America, released as both a 467-minute documentary and a five-part TV series, manages to do something even more special: take a case that’s arguably been oversaturated in the media for years and find new ways to present the issues at the heart of it. O.J.: Made in America isn’t cold and clinical, but rather ruthlessly efficient in its exorcising of the demons that led to the debacle that was the O.J. Simpson murder trial. It’s a documentary that feels remarkably, sadly poignant, as racial tensions hit yet another boiling point in America in 2016. That’s not accidental relevance though. Rather, O.J.: Made in America asserts that while these issues may be more visible than ever, they are in no way unique to our cultural moment. O.J.: Made in America is a complex, scathing examination of not just the O.J. Simpson trial, but of America’s violent past and its celebrity-crazed present. Kyle Fowle
Although the network isn’t without its faults, we still look to HBO to give us a sense of where the medium of television is headed—what types of stories we should tell, and at what pace. The Night Of works as one more answer to these questions, and suggests that audiences don’t always need a shocking, tweet-able end to a dramatic series. The murder mystery didn’t seem to end with a big win or a devastating tragedy for Naz (played by Riz Ahmed)—the story, rather, leans into and the unsettling feeling that the American justice system is nothing short of a failed experiment. Though the series is flawed (particularly concerning its presentation of the Muslim and black characters), it succeeds as proof that leading men are not only white, hyper-masculine, disturbed heroes. Naz as a vulnerable and (likely) innocent protagonist was a revelation, and his performance is one you’ll want to watch again. Shannon M. Houston
I love seeing shows by a theater company and watching the same actors take on new roles with each production: You witness their range and their ability to assume new identities. American Crime is a theater company brought to the small screen. And unlike American Horror Story, which is all flash and gore, American Crime is rooted in harsh realities. The series thrived in its second season with a timely story about the ricocheting repercussions of wealth and privilege. At a basketball party, Taylor (Connor Jessup) is sexually assaulted by the school’s star player, Eric (Joey Pollari). The school’s headmaster, Leslie Graham (Felicity Huffman), wants the story to go away. Basketball coach Dan Sullivan (Timothy Hutton) doesn’t want to believe his kids have done anything this egregious. Lily Taylor and Regina King are standouts as mothers who desperately wanted to help and protect their sons. The conclusion was deeply unsatisfying—Taylor and Eric’s fates remain frustratingly unclear. American Crime raised more questions than it had time to answer, but the series resonated in such a way that I’m still thinking about it all these months later. Amy Amatangelo
Since its very first episode, “National Anthem,” Black Mirror has blown our minds with its distinctive, often prophetic vision of the dangers that lurk behind our proliferating screens. Following the show’s move to Netflix this year, Black Mirror has not lost its darkly humorous vibe, but it has definitely turned into something bigger. With more freedom in terms of running time and a slightly more international feel, creator Charlie Brooker went all out in Season Three, packing in high-tension episodes à la “Shut Up and Dance,” some B-movie horror in “Play Test,” beautifully romantic notions in “San Junipero,” and, of course, the feature-length finale, “Hated in the Nation.” Although most of the season’s episodes were downright terrifying, Black Mirror wasn’t the scariest thing to happen this year—and that’s saying a lot. Roxanne Sancto
In a year defined by a certain queasy nostalgia for the 1990s, from Fuller House to the presidential election, FX’s dramatization of the decade’s signal spectacle came closest to capturing both zeitgeists at once: the one that made “the trial of the century” and the one that revived our obsession with it. Anchored by Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson as Johnnie Cochran and Marcia Clark, American Crime Story transforms the salaciousness of a tabloid-ready saga into a potent, surprisingly restrained treatment of “identity politics” in action, in which the seeds of our own fault lines—of race, of gender, of class—were sown in the aftermath of Reagan, the Cold War, and the L.A. riots. Most impressive of all, perhaps, the series manages to wring suspense from a twenty-year-old case that already unfurled on live television, becoming that now-rare artifact of an earlier cultural moment: appointment viewing. Matt Brennan