In a word, 2016 can probably be best described as tumultuous. The endless celebrity deaths, social unrest and injustice and the presidential election, have made this a year that many would like to soon forget. However if there was one bright spot this year, it was courtesy of the overabundance of melanin that dominated our TV screens.
Black people absolutely put their stamp on television in 2016, from comedies and dramas to action and musicals. We were everywhere this year with a variety of representations that highlighted the black experience. So to commemorate just how lit the year in TV was for “us,” check out this list of the best TV shows that made their debut in 2016!
1. Atlanta (FX): Created, written and starring the wonderfully funny Donald Glover (or Childish Gambino if you prefer), this series is simultaneously funny, poignant and socially conscious. Glover (starring as slacker Earn Marks) helms the project from his experiences growing up in Atlanta, making everything feel personal and realistic. The subtle nuances of Atlanta — such as the timing of a joke, the look one character gives another or the deadpan responses to a situation — are just a few of the instances why sharp and clever writing is important to the show’s success.
Glover operates the show with a bravery not often seen on TV where black people are the focus, especially as it relates to the social commentary often weaved into the storylines. Atlanta was promptly renewed for season 2 amid critical and ratings success and ended the year with a handful of Golden Globe and NAACP Image Award nominations.
2. Insecure (HBO): For those who know that a lot of the best talent lives on the Internet, Issa Rae isn’t some overnight success story. Her die-hard fans (myself included) fell in love with her five years ago when she blessed us with the wonderful Awkward Black Girl, the hit YouTube series that acts as the basis for her current runaway hit Insecure on HBO. If you want a show that tackles the struggles of millennials, bonds between girlfriends, frankness about sex, relationship role reversal and absolutely hilarious writing, then Insecure is definitely the show for you. Aside from the #BlackGirlMagic on display in front of and behind the camera (Rae is the star, creator and executive producer), it’s one of the best shows of the year — and certainly one of the funniest. This explains the Golden Globe and NAACP Image Award nominations it received, along with a second season renewal.
3. Queen Sugar (OWN): From creator and executive producer Ava DuVernay, Queen Sugar was one of the most anticipated new shows of the year and it definitely did not disappoint when it finally hit television screens to collective praise. Once you get past just how beautiful the show looks in terms of cinematography, you begin to appreciate that the dynamics of the Bordelon family at the show’s core are relatable to many. Queen Sugar does an excellent job of showcasing the various layers that make up a family unit. The performances all-around are top-notch and inspiring, the entire cast gives it their all and you see just how committed they are to their performances all throughout the season. Certain scenes are extremely powerful without a word even being said, while others are full of dialogue that you can’t help but remember. While the Golden Globes may have been asleep this year in terms of not nominating the show, it still managed to garner some of the highest ratings in the history of OWN network and a guaranteed second season.
4. The Get Down (Netflix): The Get Down has the distinction of being the most expensive Netflix original series ever (a whopping $10 million per episode) and once you get a glimpse of the first episode you can certainly see why. Created by Baz Luhrmann and executive-produced by hip hop legend Nas, this musical drama series traces the origins of the hip-hop scene in South Bronx in 1977. The cast is made up of mostly talented newcomers, including a remarkable Justice Smith and Shameik Moore, while Jaden Smith turns in a memorable performance as the artistic, free-spirit Dizee. The first season of The Get Down is divided into two parts, the first section was released in August 2016 and the second half is set for spring 2017. The music, set design, cinematography, costumes and (most importantly) the acting is some of the best that a Netflix series has produced thus far. Here’s hoping that the ballooning production costs don’t hinder the show from having a second season.
5. Greenleaf (OWN): If you live for a juicy melodrama about a rich and powerful family steeped in the church, you couldn’t ask for a better TV representation than Greenleaf. Executive-produced by Oprah Winfrey and bringing her back to television for the first time in almost 20 years as an actress, the show is also created by Craig Wright and centers on the powerful Greenleaf family and their mega-church empire. The secrets and skeletons spill out in abundance almost every episode and it’s more than enough to keep viewers salivating for more. Lies, murder, extortion, sexual assault, cheating and closeted homosexuality are just a handful of the issues that Greenleaf tackled in its first season. Season two has already been announced largely due to the massive ratings the show received, so expect to see more of Lynn Whitfield and the rest of the Greenleafs in 2017.
6. Underground (WGN): When it was initially announced that there would be a series centered on slaves navigating the Underground Railroad, many were hesitant to embrace a show that featured black people as slaves…again. However, all that changed after the first episode of WGN’s Underground Instead of the somber, downtrodden image of slavery that audiences are used to seeing onscreen, this show gives the slavery subject matter humor, adventure, bravery and heart. Jurnee Smollett-Bell is a force to be reckoned with in her role as Rosalee, a member of the Macon 7. Since John Legend acts as an executive producer, the modern music selection of the series may throw some people off at first, but ends up making sense and gives the show its own identity. The second season is currently filming and is set to debut in March of 2017.
7. Luke Cage (Netflix): It’s no secret that when it comes to superheroes, black people are definitely under-represented. This is exactly why Netflix’s Luke Cage was met with such enthusiasm, it didn’t hurt that the show was also one of the best TV shows of the year. Based on the Marvel Comics character, Luke Cage is about an ex-con who discovers he has super powers and uses them to fight crime. The amount of melanin on display in this show is simply fantastic, including Mike Colter in the title role and also Alfre Woodard, Rosario Dawson and Mahershala Ali. Audiences quickly praised the acting, writing, setting and music in the show and it was given the green light for a second season in December 2016. For everyone who had visions of the perfect black superhero, Luke Cage delivered in every way.
8. Saints & Sinners (Bounce TV): Debuting at the beginning of 2016, Bounce TV’s Saints & Sinners was the first show this year about a wealthy and powerful black family set inside a mega-church, with Greenleaf following months later. While both shows offer up basically the same plot, setting and themes, only one had the ultimate promo machine of Oprah Winfrey behind it. However that is why Saints & Sinners should be applauded, the show had massive ratings despite being on a much smaller network with a lot less promotion. Not only was it the highest rated show in the history of Bounce TV, it also features a very talented cast that includes Vanessa Bell Calloway, Clifton Powell, Christian Keyes and Keith Robinson. The show was quickly renewed for a second season, which is currently filming and set for an early 2017 release date.
9. Chewing Gum (Netflix): This charming British import was the underdog of 2016 TV season. Originally airing on British television in fall 2015, Netflix bought the rights to air the comedy series on its streaming platform in fall 2016 to rave reviews. Created, written and starring Michaela Coel, Chewing Gum is irreverent, bold, vulgar and ridiculously funny. Coel is an absolute delight as sheltered 24-year-old virgin Tracey Gordon, who is determined to lose her virginity at any cost and shed her deeply religious upbringing in the process. Chewing Gum was such a hit overseas that it garnered a 2016 BAFTA Award nomination for Best Scripted Comedy. It has already been renewed for season two in the UK’s E4 network and it will likely air on Netflix here in the States sometime after.
What was your favorite new show of 2016? Let us know!
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