Thursday, December 31, 2015

My 20 Favorite Television Shows of 2015

90% of every best TV of the year feature makes some mention of "Peak TV," a term coined by FX president John Landgraf to explain the current overabundance of not just television shows, but quality television shows.  Even I've introduced at least three of my pieces this year by talking about this concept.  It's an annoying term, especially given its ubiquity, but it's also useful to describe today's landscape.  For obsessive completionists like myself, there's just too much TV.  The total number of shows I watched regularly in 2015 was a whopping 125, spread across 36 different networks.  Trust me, it's as exhausting as it sounds.

But this so-called state of Peak TV has also led to an interesting niche-ification of television.  Just a decade ago, there were 10 or 15 shows that almost everyone could agree upon as "the best shows on television."  And they usually boiled down to only a couple types of shows.  Now, great TV comes in all shapes and sizes.  So if you don't like that show all the critics are currently obsessing over, there are 50 more for you to try out.

For example, I don't like Bojack Horseman very much.  Critics are in love with it and think that it's an honest depiction of depression, when I find all of its emotional beats to be extremely hollow.  Season two of Transparent, which has a 93 on Metacritic, was a bit of a mess if you ask me.  Fargo, the show everyone won't shut up about being the best thing they've seen on television in a long time?  Kind of overrated!  And even still, there is an endless supply of shows that I loved, as you'll see from my list.  What a time to be alive.

The rules: Shows are considered for this list based on the episodes they aired in 2015.  This is a pretty plain and simple rule for cable dramas, where full seasons usually air within a single calendar year.  However, it gets slightly messy when considering network shows, which usually air the first half of their season in the fall and the second half starting January of the next year.  So something like, say, Fresh Off the Boat would be judged based on the second half of its first season (which aired at the beginning of the year) and the first half of its second season (which started in the fall of this year).  As for what constitutes a TV show, anything that airs on, you know, a TV station counts.  But shows that air exclusively on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon count too.  Okay, everything clear now?  Good, let's get this list started...

Honorable Mentions (25-21)
Rick and Morty (Adult Swim) is not only one of the craziest comedies, it also contains some of the most ingenious sci-fi concepts I've ever seen.  It didn't take the leap I expected it to, but season two of The Knick (Cinemax) gave us more Soderbergh realness, which is all we can ask for.  You're the Worst (FXX) took a huge creative risk in its second season with Gretchen's depression arc, but it totally paid off.  Though it got a little too rape-y this year, Outlander (Starz) is still incredibly engrossing, and features a superb lead performance from Catriona Balfe.  It took me a little longer than everybody else to be convinced of Master of None's (Netflix) greatness, but the show's debut season blossoms into something special by the end.

20. Manhattan (WGN)

If season one of WGN's underseen and underrated Manhattan was about building the atomic bomb, then season two was about these characters living with the fact that they've created the most powerful weapon known to man.  The main theme of the year was moral responsibility, not just in the larger sense of building something that could wipe out an entire city, but it also seeped into every tiny crack of the show.  And the writing felt more skillful and assured as they played with large time jumps, sidelining the first season's main character, and deepening the supporting cast.  Whether a third season will happen is still a mystery, but thankfully the season ended on a note that could serve as a series finale.  Let's hope for another season though -- Manhattan's mushroom cloud is still expanding.

Highlight Episodes
1. Jupiter (Season 2 Episode 10)
2. Brooklyn (Season 2 Episode 9)
3. The World of Tomorrow (Season 2 Episode 5)

19. Getting On (HBO)

For the last three years, one of the great tragicomedies of the era has been flying under the radar, on HBO of all places.  (That's how you know #PeakTV is real.)  Getting On, which is set at a hospital's elderly extended care wing and follows the petty and barely competent people who work there, is a unique gem.  In a landscape full of quick and violent deaths, Getting On is one of the few shows that acknowledges the way death more often crawls up to you slowly.  And in the third and final season it got introspective, meditating on its own death with the impending closure of the ward the main characters work in.  That sense of finality led to some of the funniest, most humane moments in the show's history.  In the end, we may all go out with a whimper, but Getting On sure didn't.

Highlight Episodes
1. Am I Still Me? (Season 3 Episode 4)
2. Reduced to Eating Boiled Magazines and Book Paste (Season 3 Episode 6)
3. No, I Don't Want a Fucking Smiley Face (Season 3 Episode 3)

18. Review (Comedy Central)

Last year I wrote that Review was a show about escalation, one of the essential tenets of comedy.  By the end of season one, things had deteriorated so far in Forrest Macneil's life that it didn't seem like things could go any further down the drain.  Season two proved that, well...they can.  Forrest's unflappable desire to review the life events that his viewers send him inquiries about has led him down some dark and traumatic paths, like developing a drug addiction, divorcing his wife, and getting lost at sea.  Even requests that sound harmless can be sinister.  But for as dark as the show got this year, it never lost sight of being a comedy.  Review features some uproarious segments, and this season had the likes of "Glory Hole" and "Perfect Body."  All of this works because of Andy Daly's undeniable talent.  In his hands, Forrest is at once endearing, pitiful and kind of awful, but that's what makes him so compelling.

Highlight Episodes
1. Murder; Magic 8 Ball; Procrastination (Season 2 Episode 8)
2. Falsely Accused; Sleep With Your Teacher; Little Person (Season 2 Episode 3)
3. Conspiracy Theory (Season 2 Episode 10)

17. The Leftovers (HBO)

I was a pretty big skeptic of The Leftovers in its first season.  Damon Lindelof's follow-up to Lost and adaptation of Tom Perotta's acclaimed novel soared in episodes like "Guest" and "Two Boats and a Helicopter." Still, it was frustrating more often than not, confusing relentless bleakness for profundity.  Season two, however, turned me into a true believer.  It was stranger, more poetic, and most of all, better.  Lindelof accomplished this chiefly by going back to his strengths, morphing the show into a series of interlocking short stories that built upon each other and pushed the larger story forward.  It also allowed for greater experimentation -- "International Assassin," the nearly inscrutable cavewoman cold open, etc. -- which is another one of Lindelof's strong suits.  I love shows that feel like the creator is doing whatever they want, without any care for whether people will enjoy it, and no show fits that description better than The Leftovers.

Highlight Episodes
1. International Assassin (Season 2 Episode 8)
2. Off Ramp (Season 2 Episode 3)
3. Lens (Season 2 Episode 5)

16. Hannibal (NBC)

After threatening to do so in its first two seasons, Hannibal disappeared up its own butt this year.  Bryan Fuller followed up the bloodbath that ended season two with a stretch of episodes in the beginning of the third season that felt like everything the show's haters always accuse it of being.  Though they were perhaps more visually arresting and strange than ever, those episodes were also full of muted philosophical dialogue, elliptical storytelling, and languorous pacing.  But in true Hannibal fashion, the show traveled so far up into itself that it came out of the other end, as grotesque and beautiful as one of its titular character's tableau murders.  The Red Dragon arc in the second half snapped the series into focus with a tense thriller story.  Though the straightforward narrative may not compare to the Grand Guignol operatics of the show's second season, it still maintained its idiosyncratic style.  If this truly is the last time we'll see Hannibal, it was a satisfying end for TV's most gruesome, shocking, and gorgeous series.

Highlight Episodes
1. The Great Red Dragon (Season 3 Episode 8)
2. The Wrath of the Lamb (Season 3 Episode 13)
3. Dolce (Season 3 Episode 6)

Additional Reading
-What's going on with Hannibal this season?

15. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)

There has been an abundance of great sophomore seasons this year, but none of them were as surprising as Halt and Catch Fire's second season.  The show's first season was frustrating, and made doubly disappointing by the fact that it was clear there was a great series buried down there somewhere.  Well they found it this year, mostly by shifting the balance from the male characters to the women.  Focusing on Donna and Cameron's efforts to upstart Mutiny gave an electrifying energy to a previously inert show.  It also allowed Halt to showcase the talents of Kerry Bishe and Mackenzie Davis, the former of whom is giving one of the very best performances on television.  Halt and Catch Fire has the thematic and storytelling ambition of a prestige drama, but like the best of its ilk, it has a welcome sense of fun and flair.

Highlight Episodes
1. 10Broad36 (Season 2 Episode 6)
2. Heaven is a Place (Season 2 Episode 10)
3. Kali (Season 2 Episode 9)

Additional Reading
-How Halt and Catch Fire became one of TV's most fun shows

14. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (Netflix)

Making a Wet Hot American Summer series 15 years after the film but set three months before it is an idea that sounds absolutely ridiculous and absolutely brilliant at the same time.  And yes, the 8-episode miniseries gets laughs from the fact that these teenage characters are now being played by actors in their mid 40s, but most of the comedy comes from genuinely good writing.  Nobody mixes silliness with surprise heart better than David Wain, and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp finds him at his most goofy and endearing.  The best way to watch this series is in one sitting, that way the endless callbacks and serialized jokes have the most impact.  And there's some real momentum to this too -- the musical episode and the fight with Camp Tigerclaw are some of the most climactic moments I've seen in a comedy all year.  Wet Hot American Summer is a very special film to comedy nerds, and First Day of Camp adds to that legacy instead of tarnishing it.

Highlight Episodes
1. Electro/City (Episode 6)
2. Day is Done (Episode 8)
3. Dinner (Episode 5)

13. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)

The CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is nearly impossible to pin down in a single paragraph blurb.  It's a zany comedy, a musical, and an honest exploration of anxiety and depression all wrapped together in weekly hour-long packages.  The tonal whiplash you got from reading that sentence is an accurate representation of the show's manic energy, which is what makes watching every episode so exhilarating.  That also means that the show can be a mess, but Crazy Ex makes a compelling case that great TV doesn't have to work 100% of the time, because the elements that do work are more than enough to cover up the imperfections.  This is one of the most joyous, therapeutic, weirdest shows on right now.  I love it so much.

Highlight Episodes
1. Josh and I Are Good People! (Season 1 Episode 5)
2. I Hope Josh Comes to My Party! (Season 1 Episode 3)
3. Josh Just Happens to Live Here! (Season 1 Episode 1)

Additional Reading
-Pilot Talk 2015: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

12. Unreal (Lifetime)

If we're talking about the biggest surprises of 2015, then Unreal has to be at the top of the list.  After all, it airs on Lifetime and is about the behind-the-scenes workings of a Bachelor-esque reality show, two things that are enough to make even the most open-minded TV buffs skeptical.  But we should have known to trust Marti Noxon (of Buffy fame) to subvert our expectations and deliver a compelling product.  Unreal's first season was exciting and easily digestible in the way that the reality shows it's emulating can be.  What made it rise above even that, however, was the incisiveness with which it commented upon the twisted ideas that hold these shows up, all while implicating the viewer for allowing it to perpetuate.  Don't let biases stop you from watching this dark, funny, and thrilling gem of a show.

Highlight Episodes
1. Return (Season 1 Episode 1)
2. Savior (Season 1 Episode 7)
3. Relapse (Season 1 Episode 2)

Additional Reading
-Pilot Talk 2015: Unreal
-Love, happiness, and the beautiful lie of Unreal

11. The 100 (The CW)

Since Battlestar Galactica ended six years ago, there have been many shows that have tried to emulate it on a superficial level, but the only one that has truly embodied the spirit of that modern sci-fi classic is The 100, whose scorching second season concluded in the beginning of the year.  People may not realize it because it's on The CW and half of the cast consists of teen characters, but the show's punishing consequences and moral ambiguity reminds me of BSG more than anything else.  On last year's list, I mentioned the way the show fleshes out its characters through the tough decisions they're forced to make.  This year, the writers upped the ante even more, and the reason why it never feels like shock for shock's sake is because it's always driving the characters forward.  That's what the show has been about since the beginning, constantly chugging the plot and characters along.  The 100 didn't show any signs of slowing down this year and I pray it doesn't in 2016 either.

Highlight Episodes
1. Coup de Grace (Season 2 Episode 11)
2. Blood Must Have Blood, Part One (Season 2 Episode 15)
3. Resurrection (Season 2 Episode 13)

Additional Reading
-The 100 proves that season 1 wasn't a fluke

10. The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (HBO)

At the center of the The Jinx is an old story, of Robert Durst and his possible involvement in the disappearance of his wife in 1982.  But it came back around in documentary form at the perfect time, a few months after the conclusion of the first season of the Serial podcast, when America's desire for true crime stories reached a fever pitch.  Having been behind another unbelievable crime story, the brilliant Capturing the Friedmans, director Andrew Jarecki knows his way around these things, and makes an already compelling story even more riveting simply from the way he constructs it.  The Jinx is not just a tale about an unsolved crime, but also one about privilege, about the way wealth spreads and rots, about a fallen son.  For six weeks it felt like everybody was talking about this.  It was not just a TV show, it was an interactive experience, especially in the week leading up to the finale.  And that's what made the ride so worthwhile.  By the time it ended on its astonishing final scene, it was like the whole world collectively gasped.

Highlight Episodes
1. Chapter 6: What the Hell Did I Do?
2. Chapter 4: The State of Texas vs. Robert Durst
3. Chapter 5: Family Values

9. My Mad Fat Diary (UK: E4)

2015 feels like the Year of Mental Illness.  Lots of digital ink has been spilled over shows like Bojack Horseman, You're the Worst, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and the fearlessness with which they dive into their main characters' mental illness.  Well across the pond, My Mad Fat Diary has been doing it for the last three years, perhaps better than all of them.  The show came to a close with a three-episode final season that brought Rae's struggles with her weight, self-harm, and self-doubt to a moving and satisfying climax.  Like its first two seasons, the final season was not afraid to get extremely dark, but it ultimately was about the power of love, the value of undying friendships, and how adolescence can be the greatest conduit for personal growth.

Additional Reading
-My Mad Fat Diary ended on a marvelous high note

8. Show Me a Hero (HBO)

If David Simon stopped making TV after The Wire, he would have contributed enough to the world.  But since then he's been on a relentless pace of creating dramas, from Generation Kill, to Treme, and now Show Me a Hero, a six-part miniseries about the tensions that rose up in Yonkers over public housing in the late 80s.  Like Simon's previous work, Hero uses its premise as a way to dive deeply into a city and the institutions that hold it up.  This all makes the miniseries sound like a six-hour civics lesson, but leave it up to David Simon to make it absolutely fascinating.  The show gives a snapshot of all of these people at different levels of Yonkers and imbues them with enough character that we feel deeply about how the verdict over the housing issues will effect them.  At the center of it all is a fantastic performance from the now-ubiquitous Oscar Isaac, who really gets to the heart of why mayor Nick Wasicsko was such a magnetic and ultimately tragic figure.  If Simon can keep making television this good, let's hope he never stops.

7. Please Like Me (Pivot)

The "hangout show" is a double-edged sword.  When done poorly, it can be aimless and lacking in bite.  But when it's done well, it's one of my favorite types of TV.  Please Like Me, the Australian dramedy whose third season aired this year, is pretty much the perfect hangout show.  Creator/star Josh Thomas is one of the best writers of banter out there, and it's such a delight to see him, Tom, Claire, and the rest of the gang bounce off of each other on a weekly basis.  Season three locked in to this particular skill set, with many of its episodes involving the characters being holed up together in one location.  What makes this such a valuable show is that is not weightless like many other hangout shows.  The series has never been afraid of tackling serious issues, and this year continued that trend, featuring storylines about Hannah's self abuse, Claire getting an abortion, Arnold's continued anxiety issues; and it executed all of them beautifully.  Please Like Me was great from the beginning (it was one of my honorable mentions last year), but season three somehow found another gear to what was already one of the funniest, warmest, most beautifully directed shows.

Highlight Episodes
1. Pancakes with Faces (Season 3 Episode 6)
2. Christmas Trifle (Season 3 Episode 10)
3. Natural Spring Water (Season 3 Episode 4)

6. Justified (FX)

Justified is the most underrated drama of the decade, no doubt.  It seems like it never gets talked about enough in the critical community, despite the fact that it boasts some of the liveliest dialogue on television, an endless supply of vivid characters, and a setting that feels lived-in and detailed.  After its lone misstep season last year, Graham Yost and his team of writers snapped back on track for a rollicking final season.  Harlan, Kentucky has always had a deep sense of history, and it added to the mythic quality of season six, which often felt like it was trapping its characters into the same old ghost stories that have been haunting the region for ages.  When a show is coming to an end, it's hard for it to not get indulgent in servicing the fans, especially for a show as wildly entertaining as Justified is.  But for as much as this year gave the people so much to be happy about -- a Raylan and Boyd showdown, Officer Bob antics, the return of Kaitlyn Dever as Loretta McCreedy -- the reason why it was so satisfying is because it never went too far.  The final season of Justified was both what we wanted and what we needed.

Highlight Episodes
1. Burned (Season 6 Episode 9)
2. Fugitive Number One (Season 6 Episode 11)
3. Dark as a Dungeon (Season 6 Episode 8)

5. The Americans (FX)

It's a testament to the power of "#PeakTV" that The Americans only ended up at number five, because when it aired back in the beginning of the year, it felt like the show would be nearly impossible to beat.  This year, showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg delivered just as much excellence as they did in the show's breakthrough second season, and they made it look easy.  But the truth is that The Americans has such a high degree of difficulty, maybe the highest of all television shows.  The way it balances plot and character, servicing the byzantine spy stories with the elegant dance that is Philip and Elizabeth's marriage, is a marvel to watch.  The season juggled so many plotlines: Philip's unsettling relationship with the underaged Kimmy, Paige's burgeoning suspicions about her parents, EST, Philip's estranged son overseas, Martha and the mail robot.  It almost felt like too much.  Luckily, Fields and Weisberg know exactly what they're doing.  The structure of season three is such a towering giant and they handled it with an unparalleled level of precision and control.

Highlight Episodes
1. Open House (Season 3 Episode 3)
2. Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep? (Season 3 Episode 9)
3. Divestment (Season 3 Episode 8)

Additional Reading
-Breaking down last night's brilliantly directed episode of The Americans

4. Broad City (Comedy Central)

There are only a handful of comedy seasons from this decade that I would consider truly legendary: Parks and Recreation season three, Community season two, maybe Louie season two if you think that's a comedy, pretty much any season of Nathan For You.  Well, this year Broad City's second season has more than earned that distinction too.  The first season was a very impressive debut (it ended at number 18 on last year's list), but season two took such a remarkable leap forward.  In 2015, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer's wonderful creation was funnier, weirder, and more confident.  The run from "Wisdom Teeth" to "The Matrix" alone is enough to solidify this season's placement in the comedy pantheon.  I just can't get enough of the bizarre adventures of Abbi and Ilana, and their navigation through the show's nutso vision of New York.

Highlight Episodes
1. Wisdom Teeth (Season 2 Episode 3)
2. Knockoffs (Season 2 Episode 4)
3. Kirk Steele (Season 2 Episode 8)

3. Rectify (SundanceTV)

By Rectify standards, the show absolutely burned through plot this year.  After a 10-episode second season, season three was about half as long, but progressed the mystery of what happened on the night that landed Daniel Holden on death row almost 20 years ago way further than anybody expected.  Yet Rectify never feels like a plot-heavy show.  No, it has always been more interested in the state of these characters' souls than it is in the facts of their circumstances.  And in that respect, the series was better than ever.  These six episodes dug deeper into not just Daniel, but characters like Amantha and Teddy as well.  It's the kind of show where the seventh most important character is richer and deeper than most series' protagonists.  That investment in their lives is what makes every episode, but especially the season finale, so moving and special.  Rectify is the most grounded show on television, and yet it feels magical at the same time.

Highlight Episodes
1. The Source (Episode 3 Episode 6)
2. The Future (Season 3 Episode 5)
3. Sown With Salt (Season 3 Episode 3)

2. Nathan For You (Comedy Central)

Sometimes it feels like the world doesn't deserve to have Nathan For You.  Part comedy, part social experiment, part business advice parody; this show is a jaw-dropping tour-de-force.  It's one of those series where you just marvel at the ideas it's able to come up with, and then it only builds from there.  And season three somehow remained surprising -- it may be even better than the first two seasons, which were already pantheon-level.  This year gave us Smokers Allowed, the soundproof child box, Nathan walking a tightrope between buildings in order to become a "national hero," and that's only the beginning.  But as always, the surprise pathos is what really makes the show a modern masterpiece.  Nathan the character has always been using these segments where he helps struggling business owners as a means of connection, and season three amped up this theme in hilarious and heartbreaking ways.  We may not deserve Nathan For You, but thank god we have it.

Highlight Episodes
1. The Hero (Season 3 Episode 8)
2. Smokers Allowed (Season 3 Episode 5)
3. Horseback Riding/Man Zone (Season 3 Episode 2)

1. Mad Men (AMC)

Literally, it ended with a smile and an ad.  Figuratively, it ended with a wink and a prayer.  The ending of Mad Men, AMC's staggering 60s drama, was deeply hopeful and cynical all at once.  In its final seven episodes, the show was as massive as it ever was, a kaleidoscope of emotions and ideas.  There's a void in the TV landscape that will be left in its absence.  That's because no other show was operating at the level Matt Weiner and company were this year.  Heck, no show was operating at that level for any of the eight years this series existed.  Mad Men was one of this generation's richest dramas, mining a deep American sadness and the need for connection through the refracted lens of advertising.  It was also one of the funniest comedies, generating unexpected laughs from its perfectly sketched characters, razor-sharp dialogue, and dark ironic bent.  That's why those final moments were so perfect: because Mad Men was everything. It will be missed.

Highlight Episodes
1. Time & Life (Season 7 Episode 11)
2. Person to Person (Season 7 Episode 14)
3. The Milk & Honey Route (Season 7 Episode 13)

Additional Reading
-Some pre-finale thoughts on Mad Men's final stretch

Well, that wraps things up for my best shows of 2015 list.  I love reading other lists, so feel free to share yours in the comments.  Or if you want to share your thoughts on my list, then you can do that too!  To see a complete inventory of all the TV I watched this year (with even more rankings), CLICK HERE.


  1. Ten Favortite Shows of 2015 (That I've seen, which I feel the need to say given I missed out on both this year's The Americans and Justified)

    1. Rick and Morty
    2. Broad City
    3. Fortitude
    4. Mad Men
    5. Show Me a Hero
    6. The Last Man on Earth
    7. Transparent
    8. The Leftovers
    9. UnREAL
    10. Nathan For You

    I'm happy to see someone else is as stunned by Broad City's second season. I've read so many times on Best TV lists this year how critics forgot about Broad City to explain why one of TV's best shows got such a low placement on their list (if placed at all), which was disappointing since this season was even better than the highly acclaimed first one. I also agree Fargo is kind of overrated. It seems like a show made to cater to TV critics.

    1. I think one of the biggest flaws of the TV critic community is that they get a little too enamored with whatever shiny new thing is being waved in their faces and they tend to sometimes forget about the older, often better things. I think that's what happened with Broad City -- it's no longer a new and shiny thing so it got forgotten when list time came around. Which is a shame because, like you said, season two was phenomenal.

      I think you're right about Fargo being made to cater to TV critics. The way they completely ate it up was so strange and a little off-putting. I mean, I liked the show but I just couldn't see what they were seeing.

      I always like to see a list with some choices that you don't see on many others, so I love the Fortitude choice. The first season left me a little cold, but the moments that worked, really worked. And I'm excited to see what season 2 will bring.


  2. I definitely agree with the shiny conundrum. It's part of why I feel Fortitude was barely seen on End of the Year lists (if at all, I haven't found one), not that it would have been a much more popular choice. It also extends to the issue with Netflix, as their new shows can hit critics any time of the year, while a returning streaming show is more likely to be consumed when it airs if you've seen the first one so you can join the chat around it. This I think was Orange is the New Black's problem. It had a lesser season I believe than the first two, but I don't think so much it'd fall off the lists like it did. It just became popular to the point it became of the moment. I'm curious the find out if Transparent follows the same path in its third season, although if it keeps with uploading them near the very end of the year it'll probably avoid it.

  3. Finally finished my Best of 2015 List: