Television Tops 2016: Paul Asay’s Year-End Picks

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Bacteria and today’s television landscape have a lot in common. Like bacteria, television shows seem to be multiplying at a dizzying rate: Networks and streaming agencies gave viewers 409 scripted shows in the 2015-16 season, more than double the number we saw just six years ago, and even more are on track for this year. Pundits call the age “Peak TV,” and no one—not even reviewers whose job it is to watch television—can see it all.

Also like bacteria, some of what we do see isn’t very good for us. Sometimes it can even make us a little sick. But not everything on the tube is harmful. In between Game of Thrones and American Horror Story, I came across programs this year that were interesting, enjoyable and not completely burdened by difficult content.

This is not to say that the shows that follow are as clean as a bottle of bleach. Rare indeed is the series that doesn’t come with a few caveats and content concerns. But to my eye, here were five shows that feel, at least, worthy of discussion. Take a look-see and see if you agree.

bizaardvarkBizaardvark (Disney): The Mouse House’s newest sitcom/star factory stars the funny, talented duo of Olivia Rodrigo and Madison Hu. The two play Paige and Frankie, respectively, producing their own online variety show for the Internet behemoth Vuuugle and hanging out with a wacky cast of fellow online stars: Dude Perfect wannabe Dirk, beauty consultant Amelia and pint-size wheeler-dealer Bernie. The show is not perfect: It dabbles at times in some bathroom humor. But Disney does try to keep its shows age-appropriate, and Rodrigo and Hu’s likeability goes a long way. While meant for kids, Bizaardvark might just be a show that parents can smile and even laugh at on occasion, too.

blackishblack-ish (ABC): Remember my caveat that none of the shows on this list are perfect? This might pertain especially to this lauded ABC sitcom. There’s plenty to take issue with here, from the show’s sometimes sex-centric gags to some of the questionable parenting we see in play. And yet. For all those issues, black-ish is one of television’s sharpest, funniest and most insightful comedies, one that gives us a loving mother and father raising their children to the best (or mostly the best) of their abilities. It’s not afraid of tackling big issues like racism and religion with a fearless, funny grace. And it’s not unheard of to see the Johnsons gather around the dinner table and bow their heads in prayer. Yes, this show is far from perfect. But the strengths it brings are worth acknowledging.

born-this-wayBorn This Way (A&E): Who says reality shows are terrible? Well, I do sometimes. But they can also provide among television’s most redemptive, heart-warming moments. Born This Way features a cadre of young adults with Down syndrome just … living their lives. They apply for jobs. They go to college. They watch movies and hang out together and fall in love, the normal cadence that makes up most of our lives, too. While the people we meet don’t always adhere to Plugged In-approved ethics—sex can be an uncomfortable topic of conversation—Born This Way humanizes people we all too often avoid. In a world where we can often feel a little slimy after watching a television show, this is a rare program that can actually inspire us to be a little bit better.

designated-survivorDesignated Survivor (ABC): Tom Kirkman never wanted to be president. But when terrorists blow up the Capitol Building during the State of the Union address, the lowly Secretary of Housing Urban Development—the government’s “designated survivor” in the case of just such a cataclysm—becomes POTUS anyway. He’s forced to deal with rebellious governors, duplicitous generals and, oh yeah, whoever bombed the Capitol in the first place. Launched during our incredibly fractious and all-too-real election season, Designated Survivor feels surprisingly escapist, despite its grim setup. We’re given a president (Kiefer Sutherland of 24 fame) who aims to be more statesman than politician—an honest, forthright chap trying to make his way through the Washington swamp. He wants what’s best for the country, and most of the people we meet seem to want that, too. Sure there are intrigues and dastardly plots. Yes, the show sometimes can sometimes take a turn to the tawdry (such as an ongoing subplot about whether teen Leo Kirkman is really Tom’s son). But this is a series that seeks to wave the flag a little—that we’re a better country than we sometimes believe or act.

gaffiganThe Jim Gaffigan Show (TV Land): Alas, comedian Jim Gaffigan’s titular program is gone now, lasting just two tidy years (though you can still stream it on Hulu). But the Catholic funnyman’s program wasn’t canned because of poor ratings. Gaffigan and his wife left the show—based on their life in new York raising five children—to better raise their five children. It was, in some ways, a fitting (if premature) end to one of the funniest and most family-affirming sitcoms on television, one in which Gaffigan often referenced his own Catholic faith (while giving it a good-natured ribbing, too). While the show could sometimes stray into territory that’d have parents covering their kids’ ears, Gaffigan—known as one of America’s best “clean” comedians—was far more likely to make fans laugh than wince.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous 9 months ago

Posted by First Comment Guy


I used to watch Supergirl. Every Monday after college I would plop down on the living room couch and enjoy a good hour of clean, superhero fun. It was a nice way to end the work day with some fun.


Sadly, I can't support the show anymore because of how one of the main characters has come out as gay.


I've seen one episode of Bizaardvark, and it rivals the Joel Shumacher Batman movies in how cheesy and over the top it is!


Designated Survivor looks interesting; maybe I'll check it out sometime.

Lexi Rivera 9 months ago
I love Timeless and was half expecting it to be on this list! It's really good with little bad in it (although I haven't seen every episode yet) 
charitysplace 9 months ago
I enjoyed "The Crown" on Netflix despite its handful of flaws (most of which were in the first two episodes) -- some of my friends found it super boring, though. :P

I don't watch much television anymore. Got rid of my cable awhile ago, can't get a strong signal for TV channels, so I stream now -- and often, I find it's not worth the effort.
Mama2eight 9 months ago
I think you need to meet and get to know some people with Down syndrome.  When you look in their eyes and see your friends and not Down syndrome or disability, you have arrived!  You too will have been changed for the better, like parents and family of people with Down syndrome.  We all need improvement....  I'm not picking on anybody.  Just offering a way to get a fresh perspective.

Thank you for the review.  I don't watch TV, but I might look up the program to see what it's about.
Anonymous 9 months ago
I'm sort of surprised with your review Jim Gaffigan show.  Most every show being currently produced for TV Land is pretty awful and not family friendly.  Jim's show is no exception.  There is a gay character and the last time I watched it, which may have been the season finale, Jim "portrayed" his father and I lost count of how many times he took the Lord's name in vain.  Very offensive to me
Anonymous 9 months ago
By CbinJ
I've only seen two of the shows on this list. Blackish, which beyond the problems you mentioned also promotes racialism and other left wing ideas. So, that's out. I have also seen The Jim Gaffigan Show. It's crass and a bit liberal, but the content doesn't render it unwatchable. What does render it unawatchable is cringe-worthy acting, bad writing, and general unfunniness. I don't see anything else on this list that really interests me. I'm sticking with my tried and true shows for now: Once Upon a Time and The Middle among a few others.
By CbinJ
Anonymous 9 months ago
I loved watching Once Upon A Time. The way they rewrote the stories of our favorite Disney characters was just wonderful. However, me and my family stopped watching it about a year ago. We believed that it had gotten a little crazy not to mention they started promoting some rather immoral lifestyles.
Anonymous 9 months ago
By CbinJ
I was really distraught when I heard they were going to introduce a "gay couple", but so far that was relegated to one episode that I skipped and it hasn't been mentioned since. Obviously, Once has it's problems. I'm especially disappointed that Hook and Emma are cohabiting. But since Hook has died three times now...storywise they have have sort have lived their marriage vows as opposed to taken them in the traditional way. Honestly, I think a lot of moral missteps of OUAT, specifically, come down to bad writing/ bad planning (TV politics) (for example the Robin-Zelena-Regina issue) as opposed to rebellious or anti-social attitudes on the part of the show runners. In my opinion, Season 6, so far, has been cleaner than the past 1 1/2 Seasons--it's still a lot of drama though. Of course, media discernment is about deciding what you are willing to put up with. So far, Once hasn't crossed my threshold. And there's a really good companion podcast for the show that is hosted by a conservative Christian, so that helps me navigate it, too.
By CbinJ
Anonymous 9 months ago
Well that's good to know. Though even before some of the show's more recent problems I've kinda lost interest. Still, I loved the flashbacks, fairy tale elements and how they would reference Disney and even Lost for that matter.

Though ironically enough I actually watched OUAT before Lost.
Andrew Gilbertson 9 months ago
It's frustrating, because not only is this a prevalent trend in shows (Supergirl, which was my favorite show on TV in season 1, has gotten heavily political and placed more of a spotlight on a gay relationship than on Supergirl herself, it seems, this season)... but also the recognition that this is the world we live in. We're probably not going to GET any shows from here on out that don't introduce 'alternative lifestyles' into the mix. The new Star Trek will be (one of several reasons that- following 30 years of practically eating and breathing Star Trek, this is the firs tone I plan to skip), I'm sure it's only a matter of time for Star Wars, the major superhero franchises- and of course, sitcoms and hour-dramas have been headed that way for the last decade.

It's either the end of TV watching (going back to favorites on DVD and streaming and dwelling there for the rest of our lives), hopping form show to show and getting invested, only to drop them in frustration when they inevitably 'fall' into the new cultural norm that is considered mandatory and laudable... or finding a way to live with that content, to stick with shows where that portrayal doesn't outweigh the enjoyment or conflict with our conviction.

Honestly, I haven't found a solution yet. I vacillate; giving up some shows, holding on to others I suspect I should give up, glossing over the flaws in others (like Once) that are glossable. I suspect I'll be looking for a solution for some time- as will we all with biblical convictions- but this is our world now, and the issue is only going to grow. So sooner or later, we do have to figure out how we're going to answer it and move forward.
Anonymous 8 months ago
By CbinJ
I'm with you. Everything you said is spot on. To be honest, after graduating from the Disney Channel, I mostly just listen to conservative/ religious podcasts and talk radio for entertainment. I'm a bit of politics/ news nerd, so it suits me just fine.) Also, I've bought some older shows on box sets...I'm 24, but I like that older stuff. Obviously, it's new to me in some ways. I think the broader solution, though, is more people of conviction need to start making TV shows. Quality TV shows--not 19 Kids & Counting or 7th Heaven of The Bible Series Continued. I often think about how awesome Once would have been if it were made by people with Biblical convictions. All of that rich mythology could have been used in an allegorical tale of epic proportions instead of wasted in a sloppy fairy tale soap opera it's become. It's easier said than done--Christians getting work in Hollywood--but the Church should be going into every space and influencing culture.

Just a note: I'm not into Star Wars, but I have heard rumors they are going to start including alternative lifestyles.

This comment didn't get past the censors the first or second time for some reason.
By CbinJ
Andrew Gilbertson 9 months ago
Yeah, it kind of lost my wife and I during the illogic and massive plot-holes of the camelot arc (and the tendency toward soap-opera-ism and repetitiveness in the writing). And the eye-rolling inclusion of alternative lifestyles (because all cultures, time periods, and realms in media must match the current morality and beliefs of the prevalent contemporary culture) definitely did not help in that regard, and between separated-Rumplestiltskin having an affair and Hook and Emma far more clearly living together and engaging in premarital sex, that's gotten thornier.

But I must admit that I can't give it up completely; I still follow it during lunch breaks at work. :-)   I want to see what happens to the characters, and I hold out the perpetual (if probably naive) hope that it will improve.

Plus, Faran Tahir as Captain Nemo with the classic Disney design. I am a sucker for that Nautilus...  ;-)
Anonymous 9 months ago
By CbinJ
To watch Once you have to a high tolerance for plot canyons. I'm sort of a super-fan in that I can reason my way through a lot of the plot holes, but it has gotten pretty hard even for someone like me to thread some of the retroactive continuity together. Even beyond that alternative relationship bit, I have found it annoying when post-modern outlooks (like feminism for example) are forced into these classic stories/ romances. 

I forgot about Rumple's affair, though to be fair, I think everyone (media discerner or otherwise) has attempted to block that out of their memory. That whole thing was just gross. With regards to Hook/Emma, I did really enjoy rooting for those two until they started living together--it a shame they had to go there.

Indeed, it's a hard show to quit. Even so, if the alternative relationship was going to be a regular part of the show--I would have quit. (I did quit until I realized it wasn't.) So far...it's moved along. And what gives me a little bit of hope that things aren't going to get worse, possibly even a bit better, Once isn't lasting much longer. It's an aging show with shrinking ratings. One more season max. And in that time, I'm sure Hook's gonna make an honest woman out of Emma (or the other way around knowing this show), eventually--it is a Disney fairy tale show afterall ;)

The Captain Nemo flashbacks were good, I really wish he could come back in another episode. That Nautilus set was one of the coolest sets in a while. I wish they would've done a few more of those literary character/ steam punk episodes--I really liked those and liked them much more than the later eps this half. :) 
By CbinJ
bobed 9 months ago
I'm not so keen to agree with your choice of Blackish. From what I've seen, it's a foul show.
Ann11 9 months ago
As a parent of a special needs child, please don't use the term "stricken" with Down Syndrome.  These amazing people are living with Down Syndrome, not "stricken" with it like it was a deadly disease.  
AsayPaul 9 months ago
Ann11, all fixed. Thanks.
Anonymous 9 months ago
Paul, it's still showing with the original wording for me, even after clearing my cache and on my phone.
AsayPaul 9 months ago
The blog is on a bit of a delayed publishing cycle. It should be correct within an hour.
Anonymous 9 months ago
Posted by Peggy Carter

My family and I have recently started watching "The Flash" on Netflix and I'm pretty impressed so far. It's almost completely clean and even has positive messages! That being said, I agree that's it's harder and harder to find clean shows - let alone movies - to watch.
Anonymous 9 months ago
By CbinJ
I was thinking about starting The Flash. I had a few hesitations though, I've heard it starts featuring sexual content the further it goes along (I may be mistaken). Given the content in Arrow and Supergirl, I just wonder if I can trust The Flash to keep it clean and politic.
By CbinJ
Anonymous 9 months ago
Posted by Peggy Carter

Haha, I actually feel pretty sheepish now!!! The first few episodes were great...so clean and Barry was such a hero...but I'm beginning to believe you're right after previewing several of the next ones. So sad that a show with that much potential has to have junk :/
Anonymous 9 months ago
By CbinJ
That's the problem with TV, you never know what they are going to throw at you. I actually prefer a TV show just put everything on the table in the first few episodes rather than a show that lures in family audiences only so they can be disappointed. Like I said above, Once Upon a Time did that, though they kind of backed off again. On the other hand, I watched Downton Abbey and I've watched Sherlock. But I knew from the pilot episodes what the the specific content problems were going to be and I was able to make an informed decision on whether to engage or not with the series. It's too bad they couldn't keep The Flash clean because it really could have been. The culture's obsession with sex permeates everything. 
By CbinJ
Anonymous 9 months ago
Posted by Peggy Carter

My family watches Sherlock occasionally, and with the exception of language, it almost seems cleaner (content-wise) than the Flash! 
Anonymous 9 months ago
By CbinJ
It does get a bit morbid though. There's this flippant way they deal with life that bothers me. And there is constant affirmation of homosexuality--at least in the first season. It is a compelling show with slick visuals and great acting. And I don't like crime dramas because of the grittiness and  violence, but Sherlock reminds me of Agent Carter in it's restraint.
By CbinJ
Andrew Gilbertson 9 months ago
(As a post-script, sincere apologies if I've forgotten anything from those earlier seasons in my recommendation! I know too-well the 'parents syndrome'- when you talk something up because you've forgotten a significant negative scene or bit of explicit content... which inevitably comes on, to your chagrined and belated remembrance, just as a parent walks into the room.)  ;-)