First up, as per usual, it’s important to note that year-end lists are essentially bullshit.
And yet, I wouldn’t write one if I actually believed that, even though what I find valuable about them may not be what others find valuable. To some, this is about objectively ranking shows and assigning one as the “best.” That has no worth as far as I’m concerned, since it drives pageviews and sparks outrage but really doesn’t do anything to celebrate the medium. And that’s part of what these lists are to me: A celebration, especially if it turns people onto shows they might not have heard of or haven’t gotten around to yet. If anything, those that didn’t make the top list may prove more useful to you than those that did.
But ultimate, I put these lists under the umbrella of “criticism as biography.” I don’t mean this is a navel-gazing exercise, but there’s no other way I can talk about my favorite shows of the year without explaining why they were my favorite. (Notice how I say “favorite” and not “best”? Not an accident.) And that goes beyond talking about the acting, writing, directing, and other onscreen components of these shows. Those are important and shouldn’t be overlooked. But how those elements actually affected me tells me a lot about what I value in my small-screen entertainment. And with Peak TV in full swing, it’s important to identify those qualities more than ever. It won’t instantly create a Netflix-like algorithm that will predict future shows I will enjoy, but it does provide a nice snapshot of this time and place of me as well as the medium.
If that sounds self-indulgent, feel free to ignore the list. That’s totally fine. But I’m trying be honest about how these shows made the list, and what came through loud and clear when collating the year’s programming was that I was intensely interested in what it means to be happy at this point in the 21st century, where the intersection of virtual and personal interactions occur, and what worth there still is in creating and fostering communities. Most of the shows on this list tackle one or more of these topics head-on, and I’m drawn to these shows precisely because I’m wrestling with those very same topics when I’m not watching TV. Few of these shows promote true answers to these problems. But their interrogation of them makes them funny, vital, heartwarming, and, at times, heartbreaking.
A few caveats:
- No, I didn’t “forget” any shows. So if you’re tempted to suggest that, resist that temptation.
- There’s no reason to not believe the inclusion/omission of anything, either. It’s entirely plausible that you liked something that I didn’t or vice versa. It’s totally within the realm of possibility. In short: You CAN even.
- If a show you like is not on this list, you are still allowed to like that show. Omission here does not retroactively remove your enjoyment of that show.
Today, I’m going to talk about the shows that didn’t make the cut. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about those that did. Forewarn: I didn’t do a Top 10 list: I just listed out shows that would have caused me physical pain to omit from that upper echelon. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Those shows are coming soon. Today, those that just missed the cut– the Honorable Mentions- which are listed below in alphabetical order.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX)
There are fewer shows that have such consistent quality as “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which at times makes it look like creating and crafting an ensemble comedy is the easiest thing in the world. It’s not easy, however. Why didn’t this make the final list? While there’s rarely an episode below a “B” grade, there aren’t too many above it, either: The show always provides reasons to watch, but never hits all cylinders at once. It’s an immensely enjoyable show that I keep waiting to make The Leap. After two and a half seasons, though, I think this is the show’s ceiling.
The Carmichael Show (NBC)
There’s no current ceiling on this surprising gem, but there’s also not enough content to truly put in in the top tier of 2015 TV. Still, this is a program that demonstrates the vitality of the multi-cam comedy and the importance of a multi-cultural cast on a network program. Nearly every episode took on a hot-button topic, but never felt preachy or judgmental. On top of that, nearly all members of the ensemble quickly got an opportunity to shine, taking stock characters and making them specific in only six episodes. I can’t wait to see more of this show next year.
As a “Saturday Night Live” fan, there was no way I wasn’t going to watch a program involved Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, and Bill Hader. But I was incredibly surprised to realize that this ostensible mockumentary show was at times equally silly, surreal, and even violent. Here’s a show that consistently swung for the fences, and while it didn’t always connect, when it DID (such as in “Kunuk Uncovered”), it provided a type of entertainment no other show could come close to replicating. The production detail alone demonstrates what a labor of love this was for all involved, but the show’s meaning lay in the disconnect between what we want to depict and what actually happens. We can frame stories as best we can, but what is onscreen speaks for itself.
South Park (Comedy Central)
A serialized season could have been an absolute disaster, not that Trey Parker and Matt Stone would have minded. Instead, what we got was a blisteringly relentless attack on cultural and sociological conformity, with the town’s desire to improve itself masking a horrifying move towards totalitarianism. The season-ending twist about the true meaning of the entire town takeover was absurdist but also completely logical within the show’s reality. Oh, and it was really goddamn funny too.
No show impressed me more. No show moved me this little. That contraction explains why I’m probably one of the few who will not have this on his/her main lists. Oh well. The show is technically brilliant and boasts delicious dialogue as well as heartstopping visuals. And yet, it all feels constructed in a way that keeps it at arm’s length for me. A late-season scene in which Nick Offerman and Cristin Milioti moved me deeply, which ironically pointed out how few times that had happened over the course of the season. Technical perfection is fine. But I’ll favor shows that are emotionally potent and technically sloppy any day of the week.
And hey, here’s one now! Don’t get me wrong: “The Flash” boats some pretty good popcorn storytelling, but really excels when it demonstrates how much strength can come from vulnerability. It’s the show’s secret weapon, most often taking the form of Grant Gustin and Jesse L. Martin breaking audiences’ hearts with their one-on-ones. While there are plenty of stretches in which the seams are clearly showing on this show, there’s so much fun and so much heart that I recommend it to nearly everyone I can.
Fresh Off The Boat (ABC)
Earlier, I lamented that “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” hasn’t made The Leap yet. Well, this show did between seasons one and two, although to be fair its first season wasn’t nearly as good as the first for “Brooklyn.” Still, there’s an amazing confidence on display this Fall on this show, which stays within very familiar ABC family comedy guidelines yet still brushes unique strokes within those parameters. Whether it’s the sight of a Taiwanese family singing Boyz II Men, an entire episode based on “birthday noodles,” or just seeing the unique, funny marital relationship between Constance Wu and Randall Park, this show constantly makes the familiar surprising. (To be fair, I might have included this show just for the Vine below. Luckily, the rest is pretty great too.)
Remember this show? It totally aired in 2015, I swear. Look, Season 5 was a garbage fire, and one of the worst seasons for one of the best shows ever. But it did put Ava into proper position to make this final season as nerve-jangling as possible. The season-long dance between her, Raylan, and Boyd had been percolating for six seasons, and its conclusion was consistently fantastic. When throwing in Sam Elliot seems like a distraction, you know you have good problems on your hands. I miss Harlan something fierce, and it burns in my mind’s eye as brightly as Boyd’s teeth glowing in the dark.
I’m a firm believer that knowing your limitations is an asset, not a liability. Not every record can be “Purple Rain,” and not every show can be…well, whatever you think the TV equivalent of “Purple Rain” is, I guess. My point is to say that while “Killjoys” was a low-budget show that seemingly looked like every other generic sci-fi program, it knew exactly the type of story it wanted to tell, the types of characters it wanted to inhabit this world, and just how to make claustrophobia work in the deep reaches of space. That goes a long damn way towards piquing my interest, and this show had more narrative scope, visceral violence, and hot boning than programs with five times its production budget. Sometimes less is indeed more.
Last Week Tonight (HBO)
It’s a bit easy to take this show for granted, especially after the lavish praise heaped upon it last year in its inaugural season. But this is also the only show on either list in which you could group episodes based on topic and use them as texts in a college-level political science class. Its repeated analysis on the intersection of politics, law, and criminal punishment should be required viewing for anyone with a television. Some repeated gags (such as its parody of for-profit churches) didn’t always work, but it’s also one of the few programs that truly connects American audiences with their role as global citizens.
Mad Men (AMC)
Other than Peggy rollerskating and Don’s final moment of “clarity,” I couldn’t remember much about this final season of “Mad Men” when I jotted it down on my initial list. Then I remembered the Mystery Diner Waitress and nearly took it off the list. But then I remembered the shattering final shot of “Time And Life,” the incredible grace notes afforded the oft-hated Betty, and the deliberate way the show broke Don Draper down without turning him into a “good” person. Does it matter if he created the Coke ad from a place of purity or cynicism? Why does it have to be one or the other? The not-so-secret secret about “Mad Men” was about how little things have really changed in the 45+ years since the end of the show, and the moments in which that small chasm revealed itself still make this one of the most potent shows of this century.