Yesterday, I published my favorite shows that JUST missed the cut for today’s follow-up entry. These aren’t the best shows of the year. They are simply my favorite fifteen. It’s a dirty little secret that every list is constructed exactly this same way, but I figured I’d at least be honest about my approach.
As a reminder, here are a few caveats about this full list of programs…
- 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.
Without further delay, here are my favorite shows of the year. I will list them out below in alphabetical order, until I get to my top three programs in 2015. Those were the only ones I felt comfortable ranking in any way, shape, or form.
The 100 (The CW)
Look, I don’t know if this show can keep up its almost impeccable streak of creating genuine stakes in which no good option exists for overcoming them. But for now, few shows on any network are as good as this at presenting aching choice after aching choice and logically building character through those choices. It’s Drama 101, and yet far too many shows fail this core class. The stakes on this show are constantly high because “The 100” constantly demonstrates its willingness to kill off characters and shake up the status quo at a moment’s notice if the story requires it. A show about survival in which everyone survives wouldn’t be much of a show at all. I’m hoping Season 3 starts to show as many wins as losses, otherwise the show might dissolve into torture porn. But for now, hot damn does this show have some of the biggest narrative balls on TV.
The Americans (FX)
Here’s a show that gets incrementally better each year, and usually improves within each season as well. This year, the cumulative effects of the past two seasons started to really come home: In season three, everyone assumed everyone else knew more than they did, when the truth was everyone was equally in the dark. That was true of the political as well as the personal, in which the show’s spies are equally murky on what makes their opponents and loved ones tick. That mix of international intrigue and heartbreaking familial loss reached its apex in “Do Mail Robots Dream Of Electric Sheep?”, an ironically amusing episode title for a devastating analysis of loss.
In just six episodes, “Catastrophe” depicted one of the best small-screen romances of the calendar year. It’s so good at depicting the relationship between protagonists Rob and Sharon that it makes almost all rom-com clichés roughly (and instantly) 80% more odorous. Equally silly, sexy, profane, and heartbreaking, this is one of the few shows I can recommending binging: There’s a momentum that leads up to one of the more amazing season finale scenes I can remember, one that is surprising yet in retrospect utterly inevitable. How good was it? Just remembering it pushed this show from the Honorable Mentions to the final cut.
This show should not work. And yet it works so effortlessly well at times that it feels like a magic trick. I put this show on my year-end list last year after only a handful of episodes, and it’s somehow only gotten better. Yet, the telenovela hook lends to some grandiose storylines, but “Jane” excels at depicting the small wins and losses that make up the lives of those watching. At its heart is a beautiful, multigenerational story about three amazing women who provide strength for each other while one is temporarily weak. You can romantically ‘ship all the TV characters you want, but I just want the Villanueva women to continue to nourish and support one another. That makes them smile, and me cry.
The Leftovers (HBO)
How did a show whose first season I couldn’t even finish end up here? By constructing solid episode after solid episode. By offering up wonder instead of answers. But having one of the most unexpected and unexpectedly funny soundtracks on any show. But mostly, it’s here because it showed a way through the pain it inflicted upon its characters towards something approximating hope. I don’t mind shows that are dark. I do mind shows in which light isn’t permitted. The second season of “The Leftovers” ended in horrific violence and seemingly inescapable chaos, but its core characters were also more capable than ever of rebuilding their own lives. The 2% are never coming back, but those left behind might actually have a chance.
Mr. Robot (USA)
For the title cards alone, this nasty little show might have made the Honorable Mentions. Luckily, there’s a lot more going here, which pushes it to the top group. Ostensibly a show about hackers, “Mr. Robot” was really about the insanity of 21st-century life. In Elliot, we had a protagonist who constantly wondered why the rest of the world couldn’t see things as they truly are. Well, doesn’t that sound like…a lot of people you know? Maybe it even describes yourself! It’s not hard to draw a line between Eliot’s incredulity about EvilCorp and, say, a voter’s confusion over the popularity of certain current Presidential candidates, or a citizen’s confusion over the current state of gun laws in light of perpetual violence. “Mr. Robot” serves all of these anxieties and packages them into a tight, tense, unreliable narrative that has more to say about our current world than we’d like to acknowledge. It’s not nihilistic, but it is realistic: At what point does speaking the truth make you look crazy? The fear of blowback is omnipresent, but the show’s characters suggest the effort is still worth it.
Parks and Recreation (NBC)
No show should be this good in its last season. No show should go out on such a high note after three consecutive hit-and-miss seasons. And yet, nothing about “Parks” really goes along with who TV “should” be made. So it makes a sort of sense that the last season of the show (burned off by a network that couldn’t push it out the door fast enough) turned into a distillation and celebration of all its running themes: community, friendship, and collaboration. Nothing sexy here, just warm, friendly, funny, gut-punching civility. The fact that this show probably had its worst finale ever (if you count all the times the show wrote season finales like series finales, unaware if it would be renewed) didn’t detract from its overall greatness. “Parks” was about the hard work that goes into making small changes, and how those changes have ripple effects we can’t possible imagine. I can’t think of a much better lesson for a show to impart.
Penny Dreadful (Showtime)
I’ve said in the past that “Scandal” isn’t soap opera so much as straight-up opera. That’s also true of “Penny Dreadful,” but this show matches its characters emotional grandiosity with some of the best production values anywhere. Everything feeds into everything else: the camerawork, character work, and psychological investigation into “otherness” feeds into a total package that is simultaneously sumptuous and poisoned. Eva Green rightly receives a lot of the accolades here, but special attention should also be paid to Josh Hartnett, Billy Piper, Reeve Carney, and Rory Kinnear, all of whom helped contribute to what might be the best ensemble on television. This show isn’t for everyone, but if it connects, it overwhelms.
There’s no better example of “less is more” than this show, both in terms of episodes and episodic content. We’re in an era of TV in which even ten episodes can feel like a padded season (which, to be frank, season two of this show slightly was), and in which episodes themselves are often treated as interchangeable entities. Yet here’s a show that made every moment of every episode count, and then made those episodes themselves count. I always felt like I had gone on a small, heartbreaking, but complete journey from the start of each episode through its end, and the compounding effect led to one of the more beautiful pieces of small-screen storytelling anywhere in 2015.
I don’t expect this on a lot of year-end lists, not because I’m a snob who can discern what no one else can, but rather because it feels like it aired three years ago at this point. Yay Peak TV! I didn’t think I needed another show about suburban Caucasian angst. But what makes this show stand apart from other naval-gazing analysis of privileged problems lies in its specific tone and point of view. There’s no better example of this than its fifth episode, “Kick The Can,” which was both the fulcrum around which the season swung but also a lovely slice of life unto itself. By the end of the season, the relationship I had been rooting for became the one I suddenly dreaded. To do that that in the course of eight half-hour episodes is pretty remarkable, and demonstrates just how subtle, smart, and emotionally engaging this show is.
When Lifetime gets a show in my year-end list, you know that there are literally no rules for where great TV can emerge. Snobbish to say? Sure. But it’s also true. “UnREAL” wasn’t about “The Bachelor” anymore than “Battlestar: Galactica” was about space: Both use familiar conceits to weave provocative stories. In this case, creators Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertude Shapiro used the seemingly innocuous setting to talk about mental illness, sexism, and the power of media to shape, contort, and distort reality for those in front of and behind the camera. Those working for and on the show-within-a-show “Everlasting,” see their lives in the context of a prefabricated storyline. The artifice of both is called into question time and time again as central characters Quinn and Rachel try to get ahead without losing their souls. What “UnREAL” sneakily examines is just how many times these two see the right choice, and make the other one anyways. These were two of the best characters on TV, and I can’t wait to see them weave into each others’ orbits again.
If practice makes perfect, then in a few seasons “Veep” might be the best show on TV, period. Each season has seen measurable improvement across the board, to the point where it feels almost effortless. Of course, that’s not the case, and this fourth season was both rigorous in terms of its storytelling and almost relentless in its joke-to-minute ratio. Not only were there seemingly dozens of jokes per minutes, but almost all of them were really, really funny. “The Jonad Files” gets all the YouTube views, but that’s just a small sliver of what this show accomplished on a weekly basis. The fact that reality seems to be making “Veep” less far-fetched than ever is slightly disconcerting, to say the least. But as a TV show, there’s almost no denying that “Veep” is the best pound-for-pound comedy on the air.
And now, the top three…
In just ten half-hour episodes, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang constructed a show that was simultaneously a rom-com, an immigrant tale, a Hollywood satire, and a feminist manifesto. It did so while being light on its feet and treating each episode like a mosaic tile that ultimate produced a coherent worldview about what it’s like to live at this precise moment in time. It did so many things well that I often just watched while shaking my head at the screen. Peak TV should in theory offer up new points of view, but all too often we see more of the same. Well, I didn’t see anything else like “Master Of None” this year, which only made the lack of these types of original voices that much more egregious by contrast.
2) Bojack Horseman (Netflix)
“You know, sometimes I think I was born with a leak, and any goodness I started with just slowly spilled out of me and now it’s all gone.” That’s an actual line spoken by an animated horse on one of the more devastating mixes of comedy and drama on any show this century. This is a confident show that absolutely knows what it wants to say and knows how to build a world simultaneously absurd yet incredibly grounded. It’s a show in which J.D. Salinger is a game show producer, and yet the game show that he produces unleashes pent-up character anger two seasons in the making. And yet, there’s unexpected hope to be found here, especially in the final sequence of the season, which moved me more than probably anything else on TV this year. This show isn’t for everyone, and that’s fine. But holy crap this hit me like a ton of bricks, and took me on one of the more unexpected emotional journeys in 2015.
1) Review (Comedy Central)
I loved the first season of this show, and didn’t want a second one. No way they had more to say, I thought. No way they could top the first. Well, as per usual, I’m an idiot. This was an all-time pantheon season, one that is meticulously crafted but always feels in the moment like a passenger bus going 120 MPH with no brakes heading toward’s a children’s hospital. In Forrest MacNeil, Andy Daly has crafted one of the great TV antiheroes, one as toxic as Walter White but almost more dangerous for his seeming innocuousness. “Review” is a show about the intense desire to matter, and how insecurity can often reign havoc on you (if you’re lucky) and those you love (if they are unlucky enough to be in your arrogant orbit). The true genius of this second season was the way in which it made us as complicit as Forrest for these atrocities: What does it say about those sending in these reviews to Forrest? Are they any less complicit for asking him to straight up murder someone as he is for attempting to do so? As we increasingly live our lives through apps that disconnect us, is Forrest the inevitable result of a Machiavellian host or a desensitized audience unwilling to take responsibility for the pain it heaps upon those craving approval? It’s a dark question, but also one of the most important any show asked this year.