Unlike pretty much everything else, science fiction and fantasy had a great 2016. There were so many great shows that we had a lot of contenders for our best list, and only a few for our worst, so we ended up with twice as many TV series to acclaim as disparage. After a fair amount of debate, here’s the best of the best and worst of the meh.
The 10 Best TV Shows of 2016
1) The Expanse
While there are buzzier shows on this list, there is nothing quite as satisfying as The Expanse, which is the truest Syfy’s been to its name in a long time. It started strong in the end of 2015, but ended even stronger in 2016. And while superheroes, dragons, and robots have been all over TV in the last few years, space has not found nearly as much success. The Expanse is a true space opera, and it’s a near-perfect example of the genre, with tight writing and compelling characters. For a show that has solar system-spanning danger and wonderfully realized characters, it’s hard to beat The Expanse.
2) Game of Thrones
After a lackluster season five, Game of Thrones season six not only proved that the show could rebound, it proved that show might even be better untethered from the source material. Season six reminded us how good its regular actors are, had epic action and true heartbreaking moments, and a finale that left us all wondering where it was headed next. For a show that had started to feel like an obligation, Game of Thrones season six reminded us why we’d all started watching in the first place.
You can call it the power of the HBO marketing machine or what happens when a ton of money is put in front of a camera, but Westworld became a phenomenon almost terrifyingly quickly. And while it was perhaps not as mysterious as everyone thought it might be, it was hard to not get caught up in the questions the show was asking. About halfway through, I started thinking everyone was a secret robot. I started thinking I was a secret robot. Anchored by performances ranging from the gigantic (Anthony Hopkins) to the devastatingly subtle (Jeffrey Wright), Westworld came to play and proved the years spent developing it weren’t a mistake.
4) Luke Cage
It’s possible that Luke Cage is Netflix and Marvel’s most dynamic show yet—to the point where the eponymous hero was almost the least interesting character they put up there. Simone Missick (Misty Night), Theo Rossi (Shades), Alfre Woodard (Mariah Dillard), Erik LaRay Harvey (Diamondback), and Mahershala Ali (Cottonmouth) all seemed to be in a competition to see who could steal the most scenes. And unlike Daredevil and Jessica Jones’ New York—which is almost hilariously divorced from actual New York—Luke Cage’s Harlem felt just like that neighborhood from a few universes over.
5) Steven Universe
Steven Universe is always good, but in 2016, it struck a great balance between the sort of fun and breezy slice of life adventure stuff and making big headways in its overarching story. Top that off with doing a ton of great character work—like Steven developing and coming into his own power set a bit more, the origins of Garnet, Pearl working through a lot of lingering stuff about her relationship with Rose Quartz, etc—and you’ve got an even better year than usual.
6) Stranger Things
The next time anyone wants to know what the difference between an homage and a ripoff is, point them to Stranger Things, a show that managed to call on ‘80s nostalgia while still being unique and creative. It’s doubly impressive when so much of this show’s success rested on the shoulders of a bunch of child actors, not traditionally the safest route to success. Stranger Things was the most binge-able show in a year stuffed with them.
7) The Good Place
The Good Place is so high concept that it almost shouldn’t work as a comedy—there’s a reason most successful sitcoms set themselves in bars, homes, offices, etc.—but it milks every bit of mileage out of the “perfect afterlife community” location. If you hit pause, there’s almost always a joke in the background of the show. While the comedy chops of Kristen Bell (who makes a casually awful character likable) and Ted Danson (a very weird and naive angel type) were never in doubt, D’Arcy Carden steals every scene as Janet, a very imperfect AI guide. It’s funny and thoughtful, and the best genre half-hour comedy in a long time.
8) Person of Interest
Before there was Westworld, there was Person of Interest. Jonathan Nolan’s last show ended its five-year run in 2016, and everyone went into those last 13 episodes knowing they were the last. The final showdown between Team Machine and Samaritan went through a number of twists and turns—“6,741″ standing out in that regard—but it ended in a way that felt shockingly organic. And somehow less tragically than we expected.
Supergirl made the transition to the CW this year and managed to distinguish itself as the best live-action comic book show on TV right now. On the one hand, Supergirl is unabashedly comic book-yy, and unafraid to be ridiculous. (ALIEN FIGHT CLUB.) On the other, Kara has spent this season learning some hard lessons about who she is and what prejudices she carries. Plus, the show has done one of the best coming out arcs we’ve ever seen.
10) Ash vs. Evil Dead
For most of its second season, Ash vs. Evil Dead was a joyful, gore-filled romp that ran blisteringly-fast through whatever demonic trope it felt like tackling that week. Premonitions? Sure. Possession? Why not. “It’s all a dream”? Oh yeah. TIME TRAVEL? You bet your ass Ash vs. Evil Dead is going to try out some time travel. The jokes and the blood come thick and fast in this show, and it’s more than enough to earn it a place on this list.
The Five Worst TV Shows
1) Sleepy Hollow
Why is Sleepy Hollow even getting a fourth season? This show went from one of the most surprisingly fun shows on TV in its first season to a complete mess in its second. By its third, everything we’d ever loved about the show had been stamped out of it, with prejudice. And once the show realized it was going to lose Nicole Beharie as Abbie Mills, and thus lose two of the shows only redeeming factors (Abbie as a character and Beharie’s chemistry with Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane), it should have just been canceled. At the very least it could have not killed off Abbie in such an insulting way.
This is a show that made the Antichrist boring. A show in constant search of a reason to exist that never found one. Its cancellation was a mercy.
3) American Horror Story: Roanoke
Every season of American Horror Story is a gorgeous train wreck from beginning to end. But Roanoke felt like even more of a train wreck than usual, starting with an aggravating ad campaign based entirely on the mystery of what the theme would be, moving to constant format changes, and ending on a weirdly conventional ending. Disaster all around.
4) Van Helsing
Nothing about this show works. The name is laughably bad, which would almost be forgivable if it were a camp-fest. But it is not. It’s a show trying to ride the Walking Dead, post-apocalyptic wave about two years too late. The titular character spent most of the pilot unconscious, and she was the lucky one.
5) Fear the Walking Dead
Speaking of riding The Walking Dead’s coattails—remember when this show was supposed to be a prequel exploring the zombie breakout? Neither does Fear the Walking Dead. It has no characters to care about or any villains to fear. Even the mildly interesting prequel premise has been wholly abandoned and not replaced with anything worth watching. We’ve already got concerns about the direction of The Walking Dead, we really don’t have any time to spare for a show that was never good.
Additional reporting by the rest of the io9 staff.