The number of original scripted shows on TV has more than doubled in the last six years. You would think that spreading the same talent over twice as many shows would have led to a lot more crappy TV, but it didn’t. Quite the opposite. This was arguably the best year of TV in history, with a mind-boggling 172 shows getting largely favorable reviews according to Metacritic, and one of the biggest reasons is a bumper crop of first-time showrunners. The creators of five of our favorite new shows are all first-timers, and it shows. Their characters and tones are like nothing you’ve ever seen, and they’ll all be back for second seasons in 2017.
1. COLLEEN BALLINGER, HATERS BACK OFF! (NETFLIX)
When I read last year that fictional “social-media influencer” Miranda Sings was getting a show on Netflix, I wrote it off. Netflix is going after millennials. Whatever. But Haters Back Off! got through to me, and thank God for that. Miranda Sings is a character and a devilishly good one. (I’ve watched Colleen Ballinger transform into her in this Tonight Show clip about a dozen times, and it always slays me.) The series is a Pee-wee’s Playhouse-like trip into the surreal that builds stakes and emotionality with restraint and patience, and the payoff is pure power. Season 2 cannot get here fast enough.
2. RHEA BUTCHER AND CAMERON ESPOSITO, TAKE MY WIFE (SEESO)
Just when you think Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have the streaming market cornered, along comes a conventionally unconventional romantic comedy on a streaming network that didn’t even exist a year ago. The conventional parts are the young central couple—comics Rhea Butcher and Cameron Esposito—plus the quirky supporting cast and the glass-half-full world you’ll want to move to. What’s unconventional is that there’s not a hint of “will they / won’t they.” They absolutely will. What drives the story is how they navigate being stand-up comics at different points in their careers. The fact that they’re a lesbian couple barely qualifies as unconventional, and they smartly treat it as backstory. The fact that they’re married in real life is just icing on the wedding cake. (Read our interview with Butcher and Esposito here.)
3. DONALD GLOVER, ATLANTA (FX)
Specificity is the soul of narrative, as John Hodgman says, and the specificity of Atlanta is a big part of why it was No. 1 on more critics’ lists than any other new show this year. Donald Glover, who costarred on Community and was a writer on 30 Rock, built Earn (Glover), Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and Van (Zazie Beetz) a city-sized playground and suffused it with supporting characters that aren’t quite surreal but aren’t quite normal either. There are scenes—like a man making a sandwich on a city bus and another drinking water out of a jailhouse toilet—that would play as whimsical or manic on other shows but in Atlanta are more atmospheric and off. Glover, like Spike Lee in Mo’ Better Blues or Woody Allen in Mighty Aphrodite, is a participatory auteur who doesn’t mind disappearing for stretches to create behind the camera.
4. JESSICA GOLDBERG, THE PATH (HULU)
Although the production elements arrive fully formed—meticulous art direction, bold cinematography and an immersively integrated score and sound design—Jessica Goldberg’s deep understanding of family dynamics is why this series is so emotionally resonant. “I started with two questions,” the former Parenthood writer-producer told Playboy.com when The Path premiered in March. “I wanted to explore taking a first-generation religion and see if it could make the transition to a second generation, and I wanted to explore a marriage in which the two people have a conflict about their beliefs.” Aaron Paul and Michelle Monaghan could read takeout menus to each other with power and conviction, but Goldberg builds layers of bonds—family, social, religious—for them to navigate.
5. JORDAN SHIPLEY AND JUSTIN SHIPLEY, WRECKED (TBS)
The most improbable showrunners of the year, no question about it, are brothers Jordan and Justin Shipley, who lived in Kansas and didn’t even work in TV when they wrote the Wrecked pilot. When TBS bought the script for their darkly comedic take on a grown-up Lord of the Flies, Jordan worked at Trader Joe’s and Justin was making educational videos. Wrecked has a manic energy and gets as much humor from a dead body as it does a masturbation joke. You come away from Season 1—a second season is in production now for a mid-2017 premiere—never ever wanting to be marooned on a tropical island but perversely giddy at the misfortunes of a group of people who were.