John Landgraf, the president of FX Networks, recently proposed the theory that we are rapidly approaching “Peak TV.” According to Landgraf, the “Golden Age of Television” bubble is about to burst: the universe of TV programming has expanded so far, he says, that both talent and viewers are spread dangerously thin. “There is,” Landgraf said, “simply too much television.”
I don’t know if Landgraf’s jeremiad will turn out to be true, but I know it feels true, at least to this part-time critic. Even if I did this full-time, I doubt there would be sufficient hours in a year to keep abreast of everything. Forget about covering all the shows I’d like to cover: I can’t even watch all the shows I’d like to watch.
Thankfully, there’s no hurry. The best part about being a television junkie in the 21st century is that the shows aren’t going anywhere. Long forgotten are the days when TV was a fleeting and disposable medium: everything is available forever, at the touch of a button, and nobody has to “miss” anything anymore. I think those of us who write about television are slowly changing our models and mindsets to accommodate this truth: TV shows are becoming more like novels on a shelf, and what we get from them—and what we write about them—will be every bit as valid if we tackle them weeks or months or years after they were released. (I don’t think I enjoyed Breaking Bad any less because I started watching it after it had aired in its entirety, and I hope people still thought there was value in my writing about it.)
All of which is just a long-winded disclaimer for this post, and a partial explanation for why I’m not calling it “The Best Shows of 2015.” I know it’s a harmless convention—and I gave into that convention last year—but I just can’t do it with a clear conscience. I’m painfully aware that I didn’t come close to watching everything good this year. I haven’t, for example, seen more than a few episodes each of The Americans, Justified, The Knick, Mr. Robot, or The Leftovers. I haven’t seen any episodes of Rectify, Narcos, or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Hell, I haven’t even caught up with the latest seasons of shows I know I like, like Jane the Virgin, Bojack Horseman, and Transparent. (Really, what the hell have I been doing with my time?)
So, I’m not even going to pretend this is a “best of” list. This is just a list of my favorite shows in 2015, for what it’s worth. And I’m also departing from convention in refusing to rank them. There are about fifteen shows on this list that I just thoroughly enjoyed, in very different moods and for very different reasons. There are five or six shows on this list that I think are in a class all by themselves—collectively serving as the current vanguard of television as an art form—but even those I’d find impossible to pit against each other in any sort of hypothetical death-match. (But, to preserve some mild suspense, I’ll name what I think those “best of the best” shows are at the end of the post—by which point most of them will be glaringly obvious).
Here, then, is a gloriously subjective list of the 20 best experiences with television I had this year, in boring alphabetical order.
Last year, Sarah Treme and Hagai Levi’s The Affair (Showtime) felt like a bold formal experiment, using the alternating points of view of illicit lovers Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson) to expand television’s ability to capture subjective experience. But The Affair‘s sophomore season proves that the narrative gimmick is not the only thing—or even the most important thing—that this show has going for it. This year, Treme and Levi wisely broadened the experience by including the perspectives of Noah and Alison’s scorned spouses Helen (Maura Tierney) and Cole (Joshua Jackson), a move that perfectly aligned with an intentional darkening of how we viewed the two lead characters. These are four tremendous actors working at the heights of their games, and the narrative structure succeeds in making these characters fully, infuriatingly human in a way few shows can match. I continue to regret the melodramatic murder mystery around which Treme and Levi felt it necessary to anchor their time-jumping, viewpoint alternating experiment, but that’s a minor complaint. Big moments may occasionally clunk, but the beauty of The Affair is in the small moments that no other show would even notice: it has some of television’s smartest, most subtly perceptive insights about people, teased brilliantly and fearlessly to the surface by four award-worthy performances.
Gloriously fun, and quietly revolutionary, Agent Carter (ABC) was an early blast of fresh air when it took over the time-slot of the hiatusing (and—as it turns out—vastly inferior) Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in January. The eight-episode first season saw Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell)—first introduced to the Marvel Universe in the Captain America movies—navigating the male-dominated world of counter-espionage in the years after the Second World War. Carter’s experience becomes both a clever play on the superhero trope—as she effectively lives a secret identity as “just a girl”—and a heightened metaphor for the experience of many women who found themselves expected to give up their working lives when the boys came back from war. In a genre that frustratingly struggles to include any decent representation of women, Agent Carter—the show and the character—is a model of feminist power, doing everything the boys can do but with more fun, more brains, more compassion, and more class. “I know my value,” Carter says, in the first season finale, and, fortunately, so do Marvel and ABC: after a tense period on the bubble, and a full-press campaign on the part of addicted fans, Agent Carter was renewed for a second season, debuting this January.
Created and written by its stars Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, Catastrophe is a brutally frank, wickedly funny, deeply endearing gem that Amazon has wisely imported from the U.K.’s Channel 4. The story of an Irish woman and an American man who discover they’re going to be parents after a brief, no-strings-attached fling, Catastrophe starts out like a charming, profanely honest comedy. That in itself would be enough to recommend it, but, by the end of its short, six-episode first season, Catastrophe has become so much more. Almost without our noticing it, Horgan and Delaney have developed these characters, deepened this relationship, and raised the dramatic stakes to the point where we care far more than we realized. The final episode lands like a blow, and leaves us wanting more. (That more is coming: Season Two has already aired in the U.K., and should reach our digital shores this spring.)
I confess, I worried that the Netflix “street level” superhero shows would be the redheaded stepchildren of the Marvel Universe. Any doubts I had, however, were quickly beaten into whimpering submission by the inaugural entry, Daredevil. Executive producer Drew Goddard takes a mature and patient approach to the material, centering it more firmly in reality than any other Marvel production, and keeping the story firmly anchored on character, not plot. Charlie Cox gives a strong, restrained performance as blind-attorney-turned-masked-vigilante Matt Murdock, and Vincent D’Onofrio is absolutely mesmerizing as Wilson Fisk, the nascent Kingpin of Crime. Those hoping for comic-book action were not disappointed: in place of shiny special effects we got beautifully choreographed fight scenes—raw, realistic, and punishing—that were among the best I’ve ever seen. But Daredevil—along with its sister show, which you’ll find further down my list—proves more convincingly than any Marvel production that comic book properties can be used to explore adult, morally ambiguous themes. It wasn’t just one of the best “superhero” dramas of the year: it was one of the best dramas of the year, full-stop.
I’ve had a bit of a falling out with Steven Moffat’s version of Doctor Who over the last couple of seasons, and I somewhat spitefully left it off my list last year. But what I’ve realized lately is that my frequent disappointment with Doctor Who is part of the cost of doing business, for this is a show that continually courts disaster in the pursuit of brilliance. There is no other show on television that has the built-in challenges this show has—mostly reinventing itself every episode, and completely reinventing itself every few years—and there are few other shows with the sheer audacity. Doctor Who swings for the fences with every single episode, trying to do something that has never been done before in one or more of its 17 available genres. If it falls on its ass more times than it connects, we still have to admire the ambition, and celebrate the surprisingly frequent home-runs. Many fans thought this season—the second with the brilliant Peter Capaldi in the role—was the best since the show returned in 2005. I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far—I had my issues—but it was a season with only one true stinker, and a more consistent run of strong stories than we’ve seen in a while. The best thing about this season, however, was that—with the sad departure of companion Jenna Coleman, and the return of the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey—Moffat finally completed the five-year reconstruction project I’ve called the “Moffat Masterplan.” He’s cleared the decks for the show to reinvent itself yet again next season, this time as something more closely resembling the classic series from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. On Doctor Who, the one constant is change, and I’m excited to see where we’re going next.
Proving that its first season was neither pastiche nor fluke, Noah Hawley’s Fargo became a stronger, tighter, more confident show in its sophomore year. Season Two’s characters—cops, robbers, and those caught between—were slightly less amusing and dynamic than those in Season One, but they were also more human-sized and real. Patrick Wilson, Jesse Plemmons, Kirsten Dunst, Ted Danson, Bokeem Woodbine, and a veritable smorgasborg of fantastic character actors created a tragic comedy of errors that was deeper, not broader, than its predecessor. And Hawley’s storytelling made a quantum leap this season: where Season One sometimes meandered frustratingly like the proverbial shaggy dog, Season Two kept its foot solidly on the accelerator throughout its tense, taut ten episodes. This is a show in which the entire production team is firing on all cylinders: it has smart writing, flawless acting, inventive direction, and some of the most beautiful cinematography on television.
It ain’t highbrow, it ain’t deep, but Lord Almighty, how much do I love The Flash? Superheroes have taken over popular culture in recent years, for better and for worse, but no one is doing as faithful an adaptation of the comic books I grew up on than Greg Berlanti and his team on The Flash. Common wisdom has always been that things that work in the comics can’t possibly be taken seriously on-screen—witness the many liberties that even the Marvel movies have taken with their source material—but The Flash is absolutely determined to prove that theory wrong. Much of the thrill of The Flash comes from witnessing the sheer audacity with which the show tackles demanding comic-book tropes like time-travel and alternate worlds, or the way it brazenly introduces villains like Captain Cold, the Weather Wizard, and the giant, telepathic gorilla Grodd. The show gets away with all of that through a tone that is wonderfully light (but never self-mocking); a breakneck storytelling pace worthy of its hero; and by locating the drama in likable, emotionally engaging characters. Fun, fearless, and surprisingly affecting, The Flash is an addictive wonder.
I watched nothing all year as compellingly weird as Simon Donald’s Fortitude, a Sky Atlantic (U.K) production that aired in the states on the cable channel Pivot. And I don’t expect to watch anything as evocative and unsettling until Season 2 arrives in 2016. Set in a tiny multi-national community in the Arctic Circle, Fortitude begins as a small-town murder mystery, and evolves—at times slowly and subtly, at other times in shocking leaps—into something altogether stranger and more complicated. Featuring a host of familiar actors—including Stanley Tucci, Michael Gambon, Christopher Eccleston, and Jessica Raine—and a broader cast of fascinating, less familiar faces, Fortitude is a slow-burn, character-based horror story set in a breathtakingly inhospitable location. It’s a show that begs for comparative descriptions—it’s a little bit Twin Peaks, a little bit The X-Files, a little bit The Thing—but with a stunning artistic eye and a pitch-black sensibility that is wholly unique. (It’s like a fantastically insane B-movie, but made with the intelligence, patience, and care of a snooty art-house film.) Fortitude is also the first show I’ve watched in a long time where I felt I not only couldn’t predict what was going to happen, I couldn’t even predict what kind of show it was going to become. (Now that’s exciting.)
GAME OF THRONES
I just finished reading TV critic Alan Sepinwall‘s wonderful book The Revolution was Televised, a comprehensive, insightful, compellingly readable account of the shows that changed television forever over the last fifteen years or so. I highly recommend the book, in which Sepinwall hits almost all of my sweet spots—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad, et cetera—but when I closed it I lamented a chapter that wasn’t there: the one I wish he’d written about HBO’s Game of Thrones. I am increasingly convinced that the genre trappings of Thrones leads critics to slightly undervalue the thematically rich, multi-layered, deeply humane triumph David Benioff and D.B. Weiss continue to put on-screen year after year. This year’s fifth season was a make-it-or-break-it one: having almost completely exhausted the published source material available, Benioff and Weiss ventured off George R.R. Martin’s map for the first time, finding themselves in the unprecedented position of telling a master storyteller’s tale before he could tell it himself. It was not an unbumpy departure: several subplots suffered from an increasingly panicked tempo, and at least one major plot development—the rape of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner)—drew deserved criticism and controversy from many circles (including mine). But Game of Thrones also delivered heart-stopping action and heart-breaking performances this season, and did it all while continuing to smartly explore the show’s core themes of class, gender, power, and empathy. (The season’s most action-packed and violent episode—”Hardhome“—was also, somewhat miraculously, the best expression of its fundamentally compassionate mission-statement.) I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: television doesn’t get any better than this.
HALT AND CATCH FIRE
I watched the first few episodes of Halt and Catch Fire (AMC) last year, and decided its considerable strengths (a great cast, an interesting premise, a stylish period aesthetic) were not quite enough to overcome its more considerable flaws (an improbably insufferable main character, some terribly clunky dialogue, and an inflated sense of its own importance). This year, I scarcely dared believe the rumors that the show had managed a major course correction, but it did: between its first season and its second, creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers obviously…well, halted, and figured out how to make the show catch fire. The best decision they made was to largely take the narrative away from its two male leads, Joe (Lee Pace) and Gordon (Scoot McNairy), and turn it over to the much stronger female characters: punk programmer Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and her new business partner Donna (Kerry Bishé). The Jobs/Wozniak, Mad Men-Lite dynamic of the first season’s quest to build a better computer had felt derivative and phony, but the second season found both fresh ground and a much-needed thematic heart. These two strong, very different women discovered that computers could be used to form communities, and in the process forged a new kind of family themselves. I still have some hesitations about the storytelling—the show is still a little too reliant on plot twists, rather than trusting its characters—but Halt and Catch Fire earned my Most Improved Award, and—more importantly—a third season.
Farewell, Hannibal, we hardly knew ye. It is hard to feel too sad about the cancellation of Bryan Fuller’s gorgeous, grotesque series, because the true surprise is that anything like it ever made it to network TV in the first place, let alone lasted three seasons. Simultaneously philosophical treatise, Grand Guignol horror show, visual tone poem, and the sweetest, most unconventional love story on television, Hannibal was a feast for nearly every sense, served up by a visionary creator and two of the best actors on television (Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy). Those of us who doubted there was anything new to do with Thomas Harris’s over-adapted characters were consistently proven wrong by Fuller’s sumptuous style, and more by his surprisingly successful—and perversely romantic—plumbing of their emotional depths. Sometimes frustrating, often absurd, occasionally revolting, Hannibal was never less than fascinating. It’s unlikely we’ll see anything like it on network television again.
Jessica Jones (Netflix) is the only show on this list I’m not caught up with—because I’m still in the process of reviewing it—but I’ve seen enough to feel certain it’s going to be one of my favorite shows of the year. As the titular “gifted” private eye—dealing with post-traumatic stress and the worst abusive ex-boyfriend of all time (David Tennant)—Krysten Ritter is giving a stunning, layered, fantastically misanthropic performance, aided by strong supporting turns from Rachael Taylor, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Mike Colter, among others. I’ve seen complaints that Jessica Jones doesn’t have enough story to fill out its twelve episode run, and perhaps that is true. (I’m only about halfway through my viewing.) But, from what I’ve seen so far, the story is not the point. Even less of a traditional superhero tale than Daredevil, and with a slightly more aggressive feminist agenda than Agent Carter, Jessica Jones is a dark, mature, wonderfully nuanced character study clothed in the trappings of a noir detective story. Don’t let the humble, rundown aesthetics and the sparse, practical special effects fool you: this is perhaps the most ambitious superhero story attempted on-screen yet, attempting to do what only the best in the genre have done: use superhuman situations to tell a genuinely human story.
Director Andrew Jarecki’s first feature film was the critically panned, little-seen film All Good Things, a fictionalized dramatization of the disappearance of real-estate heir Robert Durst’s first wife. Jarecki could never have suspected that this failed film would lead the real Robert Durst to reach out to him, and allow Jarecki to capture the lightning in a bottle that is The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. A planned documentary feature that turned into a six-episode HBO miniseries, The Jinx documents the bizarre crimes—some petty, some horrific—that seem to have surrounded Durst all his life. The result is a stranger-than-fiction study of murder, wealth, privilege, and a disastrously ineffective criminal justice system that would be hysterically funny if it weren’t also tragic. The real fascination of The Jinx, however, is the combination of a monstrous ego, a desperate need for attention, and a total absence of morality that led Durst himself to be so cheerily cooperative in this damning endeavor. Friendly, soft-spoken, and with the coal-black eyes of the Devil himself, Robert Durst emerged as the most terrifyingly fascinating character—real or fictional—of the year. (And if the entire six-episode series had been constructed for the sole purpose of delivering its staggering final punchline, it would have been worth it.)
Many comedians have followed in the footsteps of Louis C.K. and created free-form vehicles for themselves—Aziz Ansari’s solid but slightly overrated Master of None is just the latest example—but there is only one Louie. This year, C.K. offered a truncated season—only eight half-hour episodes—but four hours of Louie contain more genuine humor, insight, and pathos than most shows manage in their entire runs. Transitioning effortlessly between crude poop-jokes, surrealistic dream sequences, and brutally realistic relationship drama, this season of Louie explored gender dynamics, police brutality, the death of childhood, and—a core theme for C.K.—the demands and limits of empathy. Always funny, frequently surprising, and painfully authentic even at its most surreal, Louie is the half-hour comedy as high art. (The show is currently on unspecified hiatus, as C.K. has announced the need to recharge his creative batteries. This season showed no signs of those batteries running low, but C.K.’s commitment to not putting out anything but his best work is itself an indicator of why Louie is in a class by itself.)
Since the final episode aired in May, I’ve rewatched the entire run of Mad Men, and I’m more convinced than ever that Matthew Weiner’s long-form exploration of the American Dream might just be the best television drama of all time. The final seven episodes that aired in 2015 may not have constituted it’s most consistently entertaining run. (I never did manage to care about that waitress Don Draper [Jon Hamm] became so obsessed with.) But even that isn’t saying much: now that the full series is complete, it’s clear that Mad Men’s only real competition was itself. I’d be hard pressed to think of another show that has stayed so true to its vision, or succeeded so brilliantly in telling one long, thematically rich story. This is the series scholars will still be discussing and analyzing fifty years from now, but it never felt like homework: funny, entertaining, moving, a visual delight, and boasting the best ensemble in television, Mad Men was never less than great TV, even as it proved TV could be as rewarding as great literature.
If we’re speaking of great acting ensembles, the conversation is incomplete without mentioning Tatiana Maslany…and Tatiana Maslany…and Tatiana Maslany. Admittedly, the third season of John Fawcett and Graeme Manson’s clone-drama Orphan Black did not completely work for me. (The major subplot about male clones—played by the talented-but-not-on-the-same-level-as-Maslany Ari Millen—never seemed to go anywhere satisfying, and never found as much to say about masculinity as a show so concerned with gender politics might have done.) But Orphan Black’s parts are infinitely greater than the sum of its whole: its sometimes unwieldy and undisciplined plot is primarily an engine for generating amazing character moments that would not be possible on any other show. The way Maslany plays multiple characters is impressive; the way she actually imbues each of them with depth and soul is remarkable; the way this predominantly one-woman show is able to be one of TV’s best and most touching depictions of family is nothing short of brilliant.
SHOW ME A HERO
David Simon, creator of The Wire, is television’s preeminent sociologist, expert at examining the social dynamics of communities. Simon believes that television drama can play as diagnostic a role in our culture as journalism, and it is this obsession that makes Show Me a Hero, his latest HBO miniseries, such an important piece of work. Ostensibly, it’s the story of the rise and fall of Nick Wasicsko (an excellent Oscar Isaac), the embattled Yonkers, NY mayor who reluctantly oversaw the desegregation of the city’s public housing in the late 1980s. (The title comes from an F. Scott Fitzgerald line: “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.”) But Simon’s shows are not individual character studies: the real main character of Show Me a Hero is Yonkers itself, which serves as a microcosm for the racial divide in America as politicians, lawyers, city planners, and activist community members fight over the soul of the city. If Simon fails to do justice to all players in the fight—the black characters and communities are sympathetically but shallowly depicted, for example—Show Me a Hero is nevertheless timely and vital in post-Ferguson America. Housing is not a sexy topic for TV drama, but Show Me a Hero rightly recognizes it as one of the most vital issues facing our nation, intelligently exposing both the institutional policies and the entrenched racism that lead to inequality.
My much-smarter wife, The Unenthusiastic Critic, has been a longtime fan of Steven Universe (Cartoon Network), Rebecca Sugar’s coming-of-age story about a young boy being raised by three magical alien women. I had watched a couple of the series’ short, 12ish-minute episodes previously, and thought it cute, clever, and endearing. But it wasn’t until I gave in to my wife’s repeated urgings, and watched the entire series, that I realized what an amazing show Steven Universe really is. First, the world-building is staggering: the simple animation and whimsical humor could fool you, but, over the course of the series, Sugar rolls out an incredibly sophisticated and intriguing premise that I’d match against the best of more supposedly “adult” sci-fi shows. More important, however, is the stunning character work. Though only glimpsed in dribs and drabs—through the not-always understanding eyes of a sweet-natured child—the deep, complex emotional subtext in Steven Universe is heartfelt and haunting. Charming, fun, and as funny as anything on television, Steven Universe is nevertheless doing deeply profound things with issues of gender, sexuality, consent, loss, jealousy, loneliness, and—above all—love. This is not disposable children’s television: this is as wise and wonderful a show—for all ages—as I watched all year.
Yes, let’s all get over our surprise that one of the best dramas on television is on the Lifetime network: UnReal—from creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro—really is that good. Set behind the scenes of a fictional Bachelor-style reality series, UnReal offers all of the manipulative drama of reality television, while intelligently exploring the cynicism, ugliness, and emotional desperation beneath the surface. I had some issues with a few of the more ludicrous plot twists—which sometimes felt as manufactured as those in the reality shows UnReal criticizes—but more often Noxon and Shapiro managed to find authentic emotional moments that hit hard and true. And UnReal also gave us two of the best, most gloriously complex female anti-heroes on television in conflicted producer Rachel (a staggeringly good Shiri Appleby) and her more unapologetically ruthless mentor Quinn (Constance Zimmer). Television is replete with male relationships of this kind—like Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad, to name just one example—but the often twisted, occasionally touching friendship between these two strong women could make UnReal something very special indeed.
YOU’RE THE WORST
Last year, Stephen Falk’s acerbic comedy You’re the Worst (FXX) sneaked onto my “Best of the Year” list. This year—if I were ranking shows—it would have shot to the top with a bullet. An unconventional love story between two damaged people who don’t dare believe in love, You’re the Worst ended its first season with Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) reluctantly moving in together, both knowing the relationship was unlikely to work. Falk could easily have milked the show’s brutally honest sexual humor and its can-they-or-can’t-they relationship comedy for another two or three seasons; instead, in his second season, he took a brave and breathlessly thrilling dive into deeper waters. Geere and the supporting cast—particularly force-of-nature Kether Donohue—were excellent as always, but this season belongs to Cash, whose character Gretchen embodied the most honest and heart-wrenching depiction of depression that I’ve seen on television. In confronting this barely committed, gleefully misanthropic couple with serious issues, Falk boldly raised the stakes of his stealth love story, and confirmed my suspicions that You’re the Worst is a great and powerful drama disguised—convincingly—as an hysterically funny comedy.
I should probably mention a few honorable mentions. The best thing I watched (of the things that just missed my list) was probably Wolf Hall (BBC/PBS), a slow but magnificent adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell (the brilliant Mark Rylance). I continue to enjoy Sarah Lancashire’s series Last Tango in Halifax, the third season of which is now on Netflix. I got a little impatient with the plot of Bloodline (Netflix), but it features some of the absolute best acting I saw all season, particularly from Ben Mendelsohn, who gives one of those why-isn’t-this-guy-a-major-star? performances. I liked the Channel 4/BBC America sci-fi series Humans a lot. I liked Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle way more than I was expecting to.
And now, just to end on a bit of competition and controversy, I’ll split my non-ranked entries into two categories. I recommend all of these shows, of course, but five of them stand out: they are not only great TV, but are actually doing things that show how TV can be greater.
The Rest of the Best: The Affair, Agent Carter, Catastrophe, Daredevil, Doctor Who, Fargo, The Flash, Fortitude, Halt and Catch Fire, Hannibal, Jessica Jones, The Jinx, Orphan Black, Show Me a Hero, UnReal
Your own opinions—concurrent, discordant, disbelieving, and vitriolic—are welcome in the comments.