HARI SREENIVASAN: Now our series on some of the best work in arts and letters this year.
Jeffrey Brown looks back at a big year in television and video.
JEFFREY BROWN: A new golden age of television?
Well, these days, we talk more of peak television, and some wonder if there’s now simply too much TV, including too much really good and even great programming.
And it comes at us from all kinds of producers and platforms, over the air, cable, streaming. What’s a consumer to do? What’s a television critic to do?
We asked two of them to help us look at the best of 2016, Eric Deggans of NPR, and Alan Sepinwall the digital culture site UPROXX.
Welcome to both of you. Good luck in sorting this out for all of us.
JEFFREY BROWN: Eric, let me start with you.
Out of the hundreds of shows, we asked you to pick a few to just run through and tell us about just to kick this off.
ERIC DEGGANS, NPR: Sure.
I guess I’m a sucker for new programming. All of my top five are new shows this year, “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” “Daily Show” alum who has a potent new show about politics on TBS.
“This Is Us” on NBC, a wonderful new family drama that really breaks the boundaries of drama on television.
“People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” an amazing scripted retelling of the O.J. Simpson trial and verdict.
“O.J.: Made in America,” a five-part documentary film made by ESPN about O.J. Simpson as well, much more extensive than “American Crime Story.”
And “Atlanta” on FX, an amazing drama featuring three young men trying to make it in Atlanta’s rap scene.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we’re going to come back to that last one in more depth, but, first, Alan, your pick. Run through it for us.
ALAN SEPINWALL, UPROXX: All right.
So, like Eric, I really loved the two O.J. Shows and was kind of stunned that the TV event of the year wasn’t one, but two different retellings of the O.J. Simpson story, each focusing on different and exciting aspects of it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, who would have thought that, huh?
ALAN SEPINWALL: It’s not even like the 20th anniversary. It just happened. And it was wonderful.
There’s a great musical/comedy/drama/romance on the CW called “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” co-created by Rachel Bloom that’s delightful.
“Atlanta,” like Eric, I think Donald Glover did a marvelous entry into television.
And the best new show of the year and the best show of the year, as far as I was concerned, is “Horace and Pete,” which turned up on Louis C.K.’s Web site, of all places.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we’re going to come back to that one.
But, first, you both mentioned “Atlanta.” Let’s take a quick look at a clip from that.
This is the main character, Earn. He is managing his cousin, who is a local rapper.
Let’s look at that.
ACTOR: Hello, cousin. How are you today?
DONALD GLOVER: Listen, man, can you do me a huge favor and put $20 in my account, like for ASAP? Like, you got the help me out, man.
ACTOR: All right.
DONALD GLOVER: Really? Thanks, man. You’re saving my ass.
ACTOR: OK, man. Well, you know, I got to go now.
DONALD GLOVER: OK. Cool. So, what you guys doing right now? You dudes do that deal?
ACTOR: I do not know what you mean.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so, Eric, that’s the main character, who is played by Donald Glover, who is also the creator and writer of the series. What do you like so much about it?
ERIC DEGGANS: What I love about “Atlanta” is that it talks about a lot of different things without really talking about those things.
We see these three young brothers trying to make it in Atlanta. You saw Donald Glover’s Earn Marks, who is an aspiring rap manager. He wants to manage his cousin, who is an up-and-coming rapper. And they have an odd friend who is sort of like a black version of Kramer on “Seinfeld,” and very eccentric, and getting into all kinds of adventures.
And we see great stories involving race and class and difference told in a way where it’s just kind of presented to you, and, as a viewer, you have to decide how you feel about it.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Alan, you told us about the show “Horace and Pete.” It’s set in a dive bar in Brooklyn, I think.
And we’re going to look at a quick clip here to. This is a scene with Louis C.K. and Steve Buscemi.
LOUIS C.K.: I’m actually saying it’s because you’re so good at your job. That’s why I’m saying it.
It’s like a pyramid of rags, like you decided to put a pyramid of rags here. And you’re really good at closing. That’s why — you understand that that’s like a compliment? I’m saying you’re so good. Why is that like that? That’s all.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Alan, it’s part of this new distribution, right, Louis C.K. direct to his fans. Tell us a little bit about that.
ALAN SEPINWALL: I mean, the show arrived without warning. Just one Saturday at the end of January, Louis C.K. sent out an email saying, here’s my new show, “Horace and Pete.” Watch it here. I hope you like it.
He had somehow in secret filmed a show with Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Alan Alda, and Jessica Lange. Nobody knew about it. It just appeared out of the ether.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, part of this, what is going on, clearly, is so much great acting talent. And we asked the two of you to pick one performance out of the many.
Again, I understand how difficult this was.
But, Eric, you picked Sterling Brown, who appeared in two big series, the O.J. drama and the NBC hit “This Is Us.”
Let’s take a look at him. Here he is in the latter, “This Is Us,” in a Christmas scene.
STERLING BROWN: Hey. Did William ever mention Jesse?
ACTRESS: Not to me.
ACTRESS: I think it’s a boy at school.
STERLING BROWN: Whose?
ACTRESS: The one with two dads.
STERLING BROWN: What do you mean two dads?
ACTRESS: Dad, grandpa’s gay, or at least bi.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Eric, tell us about Sterling Brown.
ERIC DEGGANS: Well, what’s wonderful about Sterling, in “This Is Us,” he plays a character who was adopted into a white family, a black man raised in a white family.
And he’s been searching for his biological father. And he finds him and welcomes him into his home, to find out that he’s dying. And he had always thought that no one knew where his biological father was. But he found out that his adopted mother did know and had kept that from him for years.
There is a pivotal scene where they have a holiday dinner. The whole family is there. And he begins to react to this knowledge and starts crying. And that just shows you how real, how creative, how amazing this actor is.
And the fact that he appeared in both this show, which I think is the best drama on network television right now, and also appeared in “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” story, playing Chris Darden, the prosecutor, that’s an amazing achievement for an actor. And he did a great job in both roles.
JEFFREY BROWN: Alan, you picked Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the British comedy “Fleabag,” which is about a young woman negotiating love and relationships.
Let’s take a quick look at a clip from that.
PHOEBE WALLER-BRIDGE: You know that feeling when a guy you like sends you a text at 2:00 on a Tuesday night asking if he can come and find you, and then you open to the door to him like you have almost forgotten he’s coming over?
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Alan, tell us about this show.
ALAN SEPINWALL: Phoebe Waller-Bridge created “Fleabag.” She was adapting it from a play she had done.
She has this remarkably expressive face. And often the best parts of the show are just her turning to the camera and not even saying anything, just like widening her eyes slightly to let you know how her character is reacting to all of these crazy or degrading or downright tragic things that are happening to her.
And it starts off as mainly sort of a sex farce and becomes something much deeper and much sadder and much more profound. And she — I had never heard of her this. And now I’m going to want to see everything she does. She’s a major talent.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, just both of you, in our last minute here, I started off by talking about the renaissance or the peak television.
What do you see, broadly speaking, Eric, when you look at the quantity vs. quality? Where are we today?
ERIC DEGGANS: Well, what’s amazing about this moment is not only do we have a lot of quantity; we do have a lot of quality, because that quantity is coming from media outlets or TV outlets that are trying to build their brand by creating great television.
So, we have Hulu. We have Amazon. We have Netflix. We even have Crackle, a Web site that has Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars” about coffee, and now they’re doing scripted, original television.
JEFFREY BROWN: Alan, last question to you. That’s if you can find all those programs, right, and figure out what you want.
ALAN SEPINWALL: What’s amazing is, UPROXX, we do this television critics poll where we reach out to about 60 TV critics across the country, including Eric, and we ask them to name their 10 favorite shows of the year.
And I get the ballots back, and I haven’t even heard of some of these shows, and it’s my job to watch television. That’s how much great stuff is out there. It’s ridiculous.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right.
Alan Sepinwall, go back the watching, from UPROXX, and, Eric Deggans, thank you both very much.
HARI SREENIVASAN: On our Facebook page, you can find more of our TV critics’ recommendations.