O.J. Simpson did it. The football icon-turned-showbiz star-turned-prison inmate made the ultimate comeback in 2016.
Two decades after coverage of 1995’s “Trial of the Century” was a national obsession, O.J. burst into the spotlight once again — this time as the focal point in two of the year’s most compelling TV series.
The first was the best drama of 2016: The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
FX’s 10-part series — starring Cuba Gooding Jr. (as Simpson), Courtney B. Vance (defense attorney Johnnie Cochran) and scene-stealing Sarah Paulson (prosecutor Marcia Clark) — re-created every tent-pole moment from the trial with great performances and attention to detail.
Then came the documentary of the year: O.J.: Made in America.
ESPN’s binge-worthy five-night, 10-hour doc explored the O.J. mystique and examined larger cultural issues attached to the trial, such as race in America and our obsession with fame and celebrity.
We who lived every day of the trial in the 1990s vividly remember the outcome. The polarizing “not guilty” verdicts were heard around the world. Yet both programs recapped the story so expertly, and in decidedly different ways, that they kept us glued to the sets.
These were the two greatest creative accomplishments of a richly satisfying year in television. Let’s take a closer look back at the rest of 2016.
Something fresh (new in 2016)
The Night Of: HBO’s crime drama, starring John Turturro, gave us a gritty story told from multiple points of view: cops investigating a murder, opposing attorneys building their cases and the young suspect who must survive in prison while awaiting trial. It also turned us on to Riz Ahmed, a terrific actor.
This Is Us: The wonderful pilot, with its satisfying surprise ending, was a great way to introduce Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore and the gang. This NBC family and relationship dramedy has built a devoted following because it’s filling a void. There simply aren’t many shows like this anymore.
Angie Tribeca: Deadpan Rashida Jones, in the title role, unseated The Naked Gun’s Leslie Nielsen as the clown prince of cop-show spoofs. Actually, she’s the clown princess. This TBS gem is stuffed with laugh-out-loud one-liners and sight gags poking fun at CSI, Law & Order, Bones and more.
Westworld: Nothing was exactly as it seemed in HBO’s trippy series, set in a futuristic amusement park where tourists play make-believe in an Old West frontier town populated by androids. It became hard even to tell who was human. In an A-list cast, Thandie Newton and Jimmi Simpson were standout stars.
Grease Live!: NBC popularized the use of live musical versions of classic Broadway shows, but Fox mastered it with this high-energy production starring Julianne Hough and Aaron Tveit. When it comes to Grease, live TV and musical theater go together like “rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong.”
Good Behavior: What in the blue blazes happened to Lady Mary? Michelle Dockery, a Downton Abbey favorite, completely reinvented herself as an actress — portraying a thief, grifter, ex-con, addict, absentee mother, woman with regrets, and woman in pain in TNT’s steamy Southern thriller.
Stranger Things: Wynona Ryder stood out as a worried mom in this creepy Netflix series about 1980s nostalgia, a young boy’s disappearance, top-secret government experiments, terrifying supernatural forces and a strange little girl. The revived version of The X-Files should have been so unsettling.
Designated Survivor: ABC’s political conspiracy thriller, starring Kiefer Sutherland, is fantastical yet simultaneously very of-the-moment. Sutherland plays Tom Kirkman, a no-name Cabinet member who becomes president after a terror attack wipes out the U.S. Capitol during the State of the Union address.
BrainDead: This satirical thriller from CBS offered an interesting theory about why the government doesn’t work the way it should: Nasty insects are literally eating the brains of our public servants. That’s why the politicians in Washington are bug nuts. Can a fresh-faced Capitol Hill staffer save us all?
All the Way: Bryan Cranston reprised his Broadway role as President Lyndon B. Johnson in this HBO film. The story focused on LBJ’s wheeling-dealing efforts to create support for the Civil Rights Act. Anthony Mackie (as Martin Luther King Jr.) and Bradley Whitford (as Hubert Humphrey) also shined.
Atlanta (on FX); Mercy Street (PBS), 11.22.63 (Hulu), Gilmore Girls (Netflix), The Night Manager (AMC), Confirmation (HBO), Preacher (AMC), Roots (History), Hoff the Record (AXS TV), The Crown (Netflix).
Something familiar (returning favorites)
Saturday Night Live: Campaign parodies of Hillary Clinton (by Kate McKinnon), Donald Trump (Alec Baldwin) and Bernie Sanders (Larry David) made NBC’s aging late-night comedy relevant again.
The Americans: FX’s espionage thriller/family drama is still amazing. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys (as Russian spies in America) shined — and Holly Taylor (as their daughter) flexed her acting muscles.
Game of Thrones: HBO’s fantasy epic revealed the fate of Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and gave Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) lots of memorable moments to remain Sunday night appointment television.
Mr. Robot: USA’s paranoid thriller, featuring a gifted but delusional vigilante computer hacker (Rami Malek), got weirder in Season 2, beginning with Elliot trying to lead a computer-free analog life.
The Walking Dead: Season 6 of AMC’s zombie drama opened with a brutal killing (goodbye, Glenn) by bringing in the show’s baddest, most charismatic villain of all (Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan).
Black-ish: This has become ABC’s best family sitcom. It’s often hysterical, thanks to a great cast headed up by Anthony Anderson, and unafraid to address hot-button issues involving race in America.
UnREAL: A “real” reality show might not actually be like what we see in this Lifetime drama, but it’s fun to imagine that life on The Bachelor or Survivor or The Voice could be this chaotic and toxic.
American Crime: This ABC drama gave us a new story (traumatized high school boy accuses two fellow students of rape), but the same great core group of actors (Felicity Huffman and Lily Taylor shined).
The Big Bang Theory: In its 10th season, thanks to a combination of great jokes and an amazing cast, this CBS sitcom about a group of socially awkward brainiacs is still the funniest show on television.
The Flash/Arrow/Supergirl/Legends of Tomorrow: The CW’s lineup of DC Comics-inspired superhero shows hit its guilty-pleasure peak with a thoroughly satisfying crossover storyline.
2016 A&E Year in Review
Dec. 23: Movies and music
Dec. 25: Visual art, books
Saturday: Classical music