As per tradition, the eve of the annual Emmy nominations announcement brings me to my own opinionated assertion of which program represent the best that the expansively defined medium of television has to offer. As always, I must offer the slight caveat that so much exists in this corner of the pop culture universe that I know I am likely missing some wondrous creation. (The household DVR is teetering on the brink of collapse due in large part to the accumulated episodes of well-loved series that await there.)
Still, I think this is ultimately a solid group of ten. I follow the eligibility timelines rules given to the Emmy voters, so specific seasons are noted for clarity’s sake.
#1 — Atlanta, season 2 (FX). Donald Glover’s ingenious series improbably got weirder, darker, funnier, and more insightful in its second season. Each episode was a discovery, forging a new path while remaining firmly tethered to everything that was previously established about the characters and the world in which they toil. Honestly, this could have topped the list for the “Teddy Perkins” episode alone.
#2 — The Americans, season 6 (FX). With characteristics stealth, subtlety, and emotional power, The Americans closed out its run in stellar fashion. At times, the tension was beautifully excruciating as the entire creative team came together to offer a master class in narrative storytelling. Keri Russell deserves to mentioned among the greats in any discussion of extended television acting feats.
#3 — Insecure, season 2 (HBO). Following a promising but uneven first season, Issa Rae’s creation became magnificent, delivering pathos and hilarity in equal measure. Her creative voice sharpened in the depiction of black women navigating romance, complicated friendships, and a working world that keeps changing the rules. Rae was an engaging presence in the first season, but she became a standout actress in the second.
#4 — The Good Place, season 2 (NBC). Michael Schur and his cohorts evidently never tire of painting themselves into seemingly impossible narrative corners. Luckily, they also never flag in flashing dazzling escape artist abilities. A comedy this high concept can get quickly worn down by the novelty of its very premise. The Good Place avoids that by existing in a constant state of reinvention.
#5 — GLOW, season 1 (Netflix). The creation of Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch could have used its depiction of the nineteen-eighties all women wrestling program as an easy route to comedy through mockery. Instead, they developed something smart, moving, and , yes, funny, largely because they so clearly afford dignity and purpose to every person onscreen. And Alison Brie is a true marvel as dissatisfied actress Ruth Wilder.
#6 — Better Things, season 2 (FX). Pamela Adlon’s autobiographical series is almost granular in its attention to detail, taking simple scenarios and spinning endless complexities out of them. Every last episode of the second season was directed by Adlon, and she showed great skill for letting the structure of the visuals layer emotion into scenes. The show is woolly, uncompromising, and bruisingly comic.
#7 — Barry, season 1 (HBO). The quick description of a hitman who starts to find his humanity when he stumbles into an acting class barely hints at the compounding cleverness of this series that is structured like a comedy, but is shaded by deep, dark instincts. Collaborating with HBO ringer Alec Berg, Bill Hader delivered a series that built to such a perfect season-ender that it felt finite and self-contained. The cable network still called for an encore.
#8 — Speechless, season 2 (ABC). This series about a working class family in which one member has cerebral palsy that keeps him confined to a wheelchair and relying on others to speak for him manages to reinvigorate a familiar sitcom template with its specificity. It’s honest about the challenges the family faces without giving up on spirited play and smart punchlines.
#9 — Stranger Things, season 2 (Netflix). The Duffer brothers’ homage to their genre favorites of the nineteen-eighties didn’t hold the same jolt of happy surprise in its second season, but it remained as compulsively consumable as Halloween candy.
#10 — “USS Callister,” Black Mirror episode (Netflix). If Netflix can cheat a little bit and pretend individual Black Mirror episodes are standalone TV movie for Emmy purposes, so can I. The first episode of the modern Twilight Zone‘s fourth season uses a vividly imagined Star Trek stand-in to explicate and the savage the toxicity of modern fan culture overly dominated by stunted men prone to vicious tantrums whenever they can’t get exactly what they want.