More than 450 scripted shows aired in 2016, continuing an era of “Peak TV” that shows no signs of slowing down. (That’s an increase of 46 new shows over the previous year, and nearly double the number of scripted shows in 2011.) And while there’s concern over quality control -- each network undoubtedly produces a few duds -- this season proved that there’s no shortage of standout performances, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.
Take, for example, the NBC breakout series This Is Us. Created by Crazy, Stupid, Love screenwriter Dan Fogelman, the family drama captivated audiences with its interconnected storylines and weekly revelations. And its outstanding (and tear-inducing) writing was elevated by its ensemble cast, led by Mandy Moore, Milo Ventimiglia and Sterling K. Brown, who could not be riding any higher at the moment.
Following an Emmy win for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Brown has been in high demand, landing roles in the upcoming Predator remake and Marvel’s Black Panther in addition to playing Randall Pearson on This Is Us. “It’s a wonderful position to be, in terms of people who are enthusiastic and wanting to work with you,” the actor tells ET. “For such a long time, you spend most of your time hoping and putting your best foot forward and maybe something will come along that will be a break. Now, I’ve had a couple of breaks.”
This Is Us not only transformed the careers of its lead stars (“I was waiting for the opportunity for [something like this], where someone would allow me to challenge myself and stretch in a way I didn’t know I was capable of,” Moore says), it is also a ratings hit. The show averaged 9.84 million viewers each week and its finale brought in 12.84 million viewers, helping to make NBC the most watched network of the season.
Also enjoying a ratings high is The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. After longtime host Jon Stewart stepped down in 2015, the late-night show seemed to struggle as Noah found his footing. But as the comedian found his rhythm, the viewers started tuning in. By May, The Daily Show recorded its most watched week ever.
Of course, the election of Donald Trump has helped, making late-night the place where most audiences tune in first to get the latest take on the new administration’s seemingly neverending news cycle. It even transformed what Billy Eichner could do with his sketch series, Billy on the Street. “To do a show that was purely centered around pop culture felt like we were avoiding what people were talking about. The election was the story. And the election still is the story, even all of these months later,” Eichner says of addressing the news cycle in season five.
While Noah enjoys the rapid pace (“I feel like I’m watching House of Cards every single day,” he says), it’s forced Homeland showrunner Alex Gansa to shift focus for the show’s sixth season. “We found ourselves in this sort of privileged position of being able to comment on what was actually happening contemporaneously in the world, and that felt energizing to us as storytellers,” he told The New York Times. But the change, he admits didn’t come until halfway through the season, forcing the show to do some gymnastics with its storylines and characters.
And for its star, Claire Danes, that meant adapting to what’s at hand. “The onus is on the writers to make the show as relevant and reflective of what’s happening as possible,” Danes says, explaining that it’s the actor’s responsibility to be flexible and responsive. “You just have to do it and pray that it’s working.”
The election not only shaped the Showtime series, it also added layers of resonance to The Handmaid’s Tale, starring Elisabeth Moss as a woman forced into servitude after a totalitarian, Christian fundamentalist government takes over the United States. The series iscertainly Hulu’s most ambitious original series yet, on par with Amazon and Netflix’s award-winning programs. Adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, the streaming network beat out FX to bring it to TV with Moss as the lead handmaid. Filmed in November, just as the election was taking place, the show suddenly became a horrific warning of what could come.
In addition to Moss, who will surely earn her first post-Mad Men Emmy nomination, Alexis Bledel makes an unexpected appearance as a handmaid that challenges the institution. The part wipes away any memory of her star-making role as Rory on Gilmore Girls and lets the actress stretch to new depths. “I knew that this was an amazing role, but I certainly couldn’t expect such wonderful reviews,” Bledel says in amazement of the reaction to the show, which she joined simply because of its “incredibly complex and rich storytelling.”
But for all the reaction and commentary to the politics unfolding off screen, TV was also at its best when it let viewers escape or made them laugh. Doing the latter was a pair of debuts, Insecure and Atlanta, from creators and stars Issa Rae and Donald Glover. The HBO comedy saw Rae finally transform her Internet star power into success on TV, while Atlanta ignored any conventions of traditional sitcoms to become the breakout comedy of the year. “The show was a fresh voice that showed what it’s really like to be black in a way that’s universal,” says Brian Tyree Henry, who is also enjoying breakout success as Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles on the FX comedy, as well as guest-starring role on This Is Us.
Letting audiences escape were Legion on FX and HBO’s Westworld and The Leftovers, which closed out its grief-stricken series with the best performances either of its stars, Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon, have ever delivered onscreen. As for Legion and Westworld, the two buzzy sci-fi series had audiences trying to pick apart the narrative as their twists and turns continued to dumbfound them (and its stars). For Dan Stevens, who plays David Haller on the FX creation from Noah Hawley, “not knowing” anything allowed him, as an actor, to just play with what was given to him.
And for Thandie Newton, a fiery standout as Maeve Millay in Westworld, filming the first season of the HBO adaptation of Michael Crichton’s 1973 film left her with newfound freedom. “I just felt liberated from my own doubt about self and power and my creative force,” she says. “I gave everything to Westworld and I was so thrilled with the result.” The result also earned her a Golden Globe nomination and some of the best reviews of her career.
In the current era of Peak TV it’s becoming increasingly hard to stand out, but that’s what these 15 potential nominees did. ET sat down with Billions breakout Asia Kate Dillon, who is challenging the Television Academy to think beyond gender norms, Transparent writer Our Lady J and the many stars mentioned above to discuss their standout performances of the season.
--Additional reporting by John Boone, Hillary Crosley Coker, Raymond Johnson, Philiana Ng and Elliott Smith