At least in one fashion, we’re living in an age of vast wealth. Some call it “the golden age of television.” Others choose to call it “peak television.” Personally, I find myself often calling it “too much television,” because there’s just so much to watch. Perhaps this is because of all the streaming options (I’m so thankful Netflix, Amazon, HBOGo, and Hulu are all a part of my life), but also because more than ever before, networks like TBS are starting to take their TV programming seriously. We have unprecedented depth of TV options.
Within that depth, so much of it is from known quantities; we know what we’re getting. HBO gave us a drama with known Hollywood greatness in Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, and Jeffrey Wright. It continued to give us Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the essential political satire. We got Ted Danson and Kristen Bell back on our televisions. It’s a different layer of joy, though, when we don’t quite realize we’re about to get it; when our small screen makes us feel things when we don’t necessarily expect it. Let’s not forget: we didn’t know who Adam Driver was until we met him on Girls. 
We found out about shows. We learned people’s names. And we got new favorites (and keep in mind, I’m only human; this list is fluid as I continue to catch up on the plethora of television greatness that 2016 had to offer). Without further ado, and with respect to the Julia’s, the Anthony’s, and the Evan Rachel’s of the world, here are a few of 2016’s greatest TV breakouts:

Riz Ahmed

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This is Riz Ahmed’s world, we’re all just living in it. John Turturro may have been the draw when HBO’s summer mystery The Night Of kicked off—and he was brilliant, no question—but by the end of the miniseries’s eight episode run, it was evident that there was another name that we’ll be hearing for a long time: Riz, who play’s the series’ central character, Naz, with a compelling depth: we care about him deeply, but a part of us also isn’t quite sure. Also appearing in Jason Bourne, Netflix’s new series The OA, and putting out a rap album with Heems as The Swet Shop Boys, Ahmed just stepped onto his biggest platform too: a key and memorable role in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It’s just the beginning for Ahmed, and we can’t wait to see what’s going to follow.

 

Everyone on Atlanta

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With all respect to Donald Glover—and, really, all, respect to the year that guy has had—his new series, Atlanta, was brilliant for many reasons, but most importantly it was the character depth. We knew that Glover’s de-facto lead in music manager Earn would be well done, but the tremendous work from LaKeith Stanfield as a Kramer-adjacent wildcard in Darius, Brian Tyree Henry as hopeful-breakout rapper Paper Boi, and Zazie Beetz as Earn’s on-again, off-again girlfriend was unexpected and wholly appreciated. Glover’s move to take full episodes that sidelined himself, and instead spotlighted Beetz’s character Van, and Tyree Henry’s Paper Boi/Alfred, add to the charm—and unexpectedness—of what may have been 2016’s most defining show.

 

Sterling K. Brown

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Imagine how hard it must be to stand out in a cast alongside John Travolta, Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding Jr., Nathan Lane, David Schwimmer, and an absolute dynamo of a performance from Courtney B. Vance (among many others). And then imagine standing out, in that same cast, with the most understated performance and character of all of those. Because Sterling K. Brown, winner of an Emmy already for his role as prosecutor Christopher Darden in The People Vs. O.J. Simpson did just that, absolutely shining in his time on screen, bouncing beautifully off of both Paulson and Vance. Darden was understated, flawed, and heroic; a sympathetic, and totally multi-dimensional portrayal of very much a real person. Brown’s year didn’t stop there, as he jumped right into another key role on another hit show, currently putting his talents to use on NBC’s This is Us; Sterling K. Brown is the truth.

 

Issa Rae

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Following in the footsteps of Abbi and Ilana from Broad City, Issa Rae turned the success of her web series (Awkward Black Girl on YouTube) into a grand success on premium cable, launching Insecure on HBO. Rae is an endless well of charisma, shifting moods, convincingly, whenever the scenario may call for it. It’s a joy to watch her play off of her numerous co-stars, and the show’s music is expertly selected. As the co-creator and producer of Insecure, Rae has a ton of creative control on her series—much like Lena Dunham does with her own series, Girls, which will be finishing up its five-year run this spring—we can only hope that Insecure sees a similar long and prosperous run. 

 

John Reynolds

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TBS’s Search Party, all things considered, may be the biggest surprise of the year. A 10-episode mystery, blending in elements of ‘conspiracy’ like True Detective, films like Gone Girl, and smashing them against a dry, sardonic, comedic backdrop, Search Party may be the easiest—and most enjoyable—binge of 2016. The cast all do fantastic jobs—John Early and Meredith Hagner shine in their own right, and Alia Shawkat, proven, of course, in Arrested Development, holds the whole thing together as the lead. But the standout role is John Reynolds as Drew, the boyfriend of Shawkat’s character Dory. He brings this sort of awkward, old-school spirit to it, in a way combining the goofy, cringy but lovable energy of a Jason Segel, combining it with something of a throwback Dan Aykroyd vibe. Reynolds also played a small role in Stranger Things, appearing in each of its eight episodes. Speaking of which…


Everyone on Stranger Things

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Pretty obvious at this point, but Netflix’s Stranger Things, from The Duffer Brothers, absolutely owned 2016. Only eight episodes long, and capturing numerous homages and all the pastiches of the 80s Steven Spielberg/Stephen King aesthetic, the only ones we really knew what we were getting from coming in were the goddess Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine—and they both delivered. But the unknowns were what carried this thing: the quartet of kids—Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, and, of course, Millie Bobbie Brown—captured the sense of awe that we all aspire to recapture. Natalia Byer, Charlie Heaton, and Joe Keery were the perfect trio of teen awkwardness, angst, and occasional douchebaggery. And David Harbour… man. Chief Hopper seems like he’s going to be just a lazy Chief Wiggum-type when we first meet him, but he turns out to be the richest character of this whole damn thing. ‘Coffee and Contemplation,’ dude. That says it all.

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