Even defining “sitcom” these days is no easy task. Can a web series be a sitcom? Can an hour-long dramedy? Can a half-hour series that isn’t that funny? For our purposes, the sitcom is still a descendant of the classic form, no matter the ongoing transformation of the TV landscape: After all, the keen satire of BoJack Horseman is as indebted to the families of TGIF as the gentler humor of black-ish is to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. No matter their differences of subject or style, however, Paste’s 10 Best Sitcoms of 2016 share at least one thing in common: an abiding belief that one of the medium’s oldest genres can be as relevant as ever.
Like the show’s fiercely overprotective mother, Maya DiMeo (Minnie Driver), Speechless thrives because it refuses to treat JJ (Micah Fowler) as anything less than a fully realized person. JJ, who is confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak, isn’t a character to be pitied. He’s a teen experiencing the joy and sorrow that comes with a first crush, learning how to navigate the high school social scene, and sparring with his parents over his independence. By giving JJ equal treatment and screen time, Speechless achieves what no other show has been able to do: JJ’s disability might be a facet of his character, but it’s not the defining one. And did I mention the show is hilarious? Speechless effortlessly avoids any cloying, “very special episode” mentality. The always charming Driver is a force to be reckoned with, and as JJ’s aide, Kenneth, Cedric Yarbrough is the uproarious voice of reason in JJ’s wacky household. Fowler is terrific, as are Mason Cook and Kyla Kenedy, who play his siblings. We laugh with, but never at, the DiMeo family. Amy Amatangelo
To prepare to write up Catastrophe as one of the year’s best comedies, I re-watched the Season Two finale, which finds Sharon (Sharon Horgan) and Rob (Rob Delaney), now the parents of Frankie and Muireann, separating; Rob’s friend Dave (Daniel Lapaine) overdosing; and Sharon having a (possible?) one-night stand that she doesn’t remember. A friend in a life-threatening coma and the morning-after pill? Hilarious, right? That’s the genius of Catastrophe: It finds humor in its achingly honest portrayal of life, marriage and parenting. It’s in this same episode that I laughed out loud when Rob says to Sharon, “Frankie wants to show you the poop that he just did. Before you say ‘no,’ it’s pretty amazing.” When I had my first child, I couldn’t get over how much time I spent talking to my husband about poop (honestly it’s the truth about parenting that no one tells you.) Needless to say, this show gets me. And even if it doesn’t get you in the same way, I guarantee you it will make you laugh. Amy Amatangelo
Some of the best sitcoms in history are about bad people. M.A.S.H., Seinfeld, Arrested Development: It’d be hard to argue that the majority of their characters aren’t self-involved, intolerant or downright assholes. It’s far, far too early to enter The Good Place into any such pantheon, but it’s relevant in pinning down why the latest comedy from Michael Schur (The Office, Parks & Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) feels simultaneously so cozy and so adventurous.
Fitting into a middle ground of sensibilities between occupational comedies like NewsRadio and the sly navel-gazing of Dead Like Me, The Good Place is the rare show that’s completely upfront about its main character’s flaws, creating a moral playground that tests Eleanor’s worst impulses at every turn. Played by Kristen Bell at her most unbridled, she’s a vain, impish character—the type of person who’ll swipe someone’s coffee without a second thought, then wonder why the universe is plotting against her. She’s a perfect straight woman in an afterlife surrounded by only the purest of heart, but the show doesn’t hold it against her. If anything, following in the grand tradition of sitcoms, the show knows that we’re all bad people at one time or another. Michael Snydel
Now in its third season, Kenya Barris’ lovingly crafted portrait of an affluent black family in modern Los Angeles is no longer hamstrung by its title—or by the concern that its politics might reflect the uncertainty of the final syllable. From “Hope,” which dealt so gracefully with police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement, to “Being Bow-racial,” a showcase for the supreme comic talents of Emmy nominee Tracee Ellis Ross, the series has matured into a sitcom worthy of its forebears: Like The Jeffersons or Good Times (the subject of a terrific homage in the Season Two finale), black-ish is unafraid to set the thorniest aspects of race and class in America alongside its sunny sense of humor, reflecting the nation back to itself with nuance and conviction to which its competitors can only aspire. Matt Brennan
Bob’s Burgers, from creator Loren Bouchard, runs the risk of being shoehorned into the middle ground between its brethren: The Simpsons, now more American institution than mere TV program, and Family Guy, the rat-a-tat gag factory devised by Seth MacFarlane. That it nonetheless manages to carve out a distinctive identity—with the Belchers goofily surviving crisis after crisis at the titular diner through a heady brew of whip-smart puns, witty musical numbers, gross-out humor, and real, true kinship—is only surprising if you’ve never seen it. Once you have, its warm, sentimental streak, so deftly balanced with its zanier elements, is impossible to miss: As Bob (H. Jon Benjamin) says in the Season Two finale, reading a review of the titular diner, “We did did have a rather unique and strangely inspiring experience while we were there. This shabby little dive seems to hold a special spot in the dingy town’s heart.” Matt Brennan
Good comedy pushes boundaries, but great comedy skewers them. That’s exactly what Tina Fey has done with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—the story of a young woman trapped underground by a doomsday cult leader for more than a decade, and now attempting to piece her life back together in New York City. That shouldn’t sound like a funny premise, but Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) is sunny and resourceful— not to mention endearingly unaware of her outdated slang. Then again, her upbeat attitude may be hiding some serious post-kidnapping trauma, which Season Two delves into with more enthusiasm, courtesy of Fey, who plays Kimmy’s Jekyll-and-Hyde-ing drunk therapist. And then we have Lillian (Carol Kane), Kimmy’s landlady, who fights on the front lines against New York’s rising gentrification, and Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess), Kimmy’s flouncy, self-involved roommate, who’s convinced he was a Japanese geisha in a past life. And the fact that he beautifully revives her onstage and manages not to offend a single Japanese audience member (on the show, that is—the Internet is another story) forces us to reckon with society’s penchant for knee-jerk outrage. That’s Fey’s humor for you—and no one is exempt. Rachel Brodsky
The Last Man on Earth is a weird show. Now in its third season, the comedy continues to explore its central premise: What if you survived the apocalypse, but with an annoying guy who just won’t stop talking and a bunch of other people you might not necessarily choose as friends? The comedy isn’t afraid to take bold risks, from killing off characters (because you can’t learn how to perform an appendectomy from reading a book) to constantly changing its set (everyone now resides in a huge self-sustaining office building). At the heart of the series is Will Forte’s Tandy (a.k.a. Phil Miller), a man whose optimism flies in the face of his circumstances. The series seamlessly adds new people (I’m already quite attached to Kenneth Choi’s Lewis) and delights in glorious inside jokes (Betty finally got her revenge on Don Draper). But The Last Man on Earth never loses sight of the harsh realities these characters face. They’ve lost their loved ones. They have no access to fresh food. They are faced with repopulating society. Any character could die. Right now, I’m worried about how childbirth is going to work out for Carol (Kristen Schaal) and Erica (Cleopatra Coleman). I never quite know what The Last Man on Earth will do next. But I look forward to finding out. Amy Amatangelo
One of the greatest things about Silicon Valley is that its down-on-your-luck, absurdist humor fits in so well with what I imagine the real Silicon Valley tech landscape to be. One day everyone likes you (except in Silicon Valley, “you” means “your product”), and the next you’re being sued and filing for bankruptcy. (Also: “everyone” may only consist of your fellow geeks in the tech echo chamber.) Mike Judge’s hysterical ensemble has been attempting to navigate the relentlessly competitive Valley for three seasons now, simultaneously capturing and calling out the Bay Area’s obsession with “Making the World a Better Place.” To that end, Silicon Valley does a marvelous job of catching the Smartest Guys in the Room with their pants down, whether it’s giving Big Head (Josh Brener) millions of dollars in severance, only to have him let Erlich (T.J. Miller) flush it down the toilet via an unsuccessful “incubator,” Richard (Thomas Middleditch) sarcastically suggesting that they build a pointless “box” and it becoming a reality, or Gavin Belson hiring back a bunch of programmers he forgot he had fired. It all proves the show’s larger point: Tech genius does not always translate to good business. Rachel Brodsky
Months after the end of its fifth season, Veep turns out to have been more prophetic than any major news source: Election snafus lead to rare scrutiny of our government’s labyrinthine rules, while details like the pronunciation of “Nevada” make the experience re-watching more than a bit eerie. The political anger and black cynicism infesting the hearts of Veep’s pathetic, petty characters are as raw and incisive as when the series began. It’s hard for TV shows this mean to stay lively—especially comedies—but Veep surges profanely forward with its mix of well-written plot schemes and timely episodic antics that feel more and more like if Parks and Recreation could have a whole joke about ball cancer. Its formal experimentation (an in-character documentary showing earlier footage from a different perspective) is the perfect dabble in a new direction, though with the current state of the nation Veep shouldn’t have any trouble rubbing hilarious salt in the country’s wounds. Jacob Oller
With its third season, Netflix’s BoJack Horseman once again proves itself to be not only the streaming network’s crowning achievement, but also an incisive satire of Hollywoo(d) culture and perhaps the most achingly human work to feature primarily anthropomorphized animals since Animal Farm. It’s a series that manages to balance gut-busting hilarity with devastatingly bleakness—frequently in the same episode and sometimes in the same scene. The season opens with the titular BoJack having completed his dream project, Secretariat, and at a new high in his career. This being BoJack, however, a spiral into neurotic self-destruction is never far behind. Perhaps most notable is how creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and company use the season to experiment with more form-breaking installments, including an extended flashback entry, a bottle episode, one told from the perspective of the show’s “villains” and the mostly silent mini-masterpiece “Fish Out of Water.” Likewise, the series continues its legacy of recruiting top voice talent. Personal favorites include Jeffrey Wright as Mr. Cuddlywhiskers, an uber- pretentious, feline TV writer, and Jessica Biel as a hilariously self-absorbed version of herself. While it remains to be seen whether the series can keep its creative streak going, BoJack has already secured itself a firm place in TV history. Mark Rozeman