“Do you think anyone’s still out there, still sending out shows?” – Mad Max: Fury Road
2015 was not only the year it became possible for me to make a Top Ten TV list, but the year it became a necessity.
People have been talking about the golden age of television ever since Mad Men and Breaking Bad dominated the drama racket with two gripping portraits of dangerously flawed masculinity. To be honest, I didn’t fully buy it back then. I had my staples, to be certain, but I still felt the small-screen offerings that truly transcended their episodic tendencies to become something not just cinematic, but poignantly so, few and far between.
Netflix has almost single-handedly changed that forever. In the rise of streaming, filmmakers have started to realize the unique ambition and scope they achieve in the realm of television. We have blockbuster works of both daunting craft (Game of Thrones) and clinical, cold-hearted necessity (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). We have mainstream comedies, disarming genre spectacles and exceptional indie filmmaking, all in the once thematically stifling climate of television.
Realizing we live in an era where television has become just as much of a cinematic necessity as film, needless to say, has been a difficult process. There have been several shows I’ve been desperate to catch up with (The Americans, BoJack Horseman, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Fargo, The Leftovers and Silicon Valley, just to name a few – but since each show requires a massive time commitment, it’s hard to find the time to catch up. I worry I may never become engrossed in The Sopranos or The Wire because they’re both “before our time”, and thus not given the spotlight that today’s culture of immediacy fosters.
All that said, this morning I watched the first three episodes of Channel 4’s British unplanned pregnancy comedy Catastrophe and couldn’t help getting cold feet about the list I was about to publish. Couldn’t I push it back a few days and possibly have another truly exceptional series to praise? I could, but it wouldn’t feel totally true to the experiences I had, and didn’t have, in 2015. Today is a whole other year, with new challenges and opportunities on the horizon, as well as continuances of older journeys.
So having clarified how incomplete my year has been, I should note I can’t state highly enough how complete and satisfying my year of television felt. But I’ll try to, so here’s a rundown of the series’ I saw this past year that didn’t quite make my list, followed by my top ten television series’ of 2015.
Special Mentions: 2015 TV Report Card
Agent Carter – “It’s so feminist,” said my comic-loving, feminist ally brother of Marvel’s Hayley Atwell centered spin-off, long before Jessica Jones legitimately showed the boys how it’s done. It’s typically caramelized, by-the-book Marvel installation, but with more adorable period design qualities and woman-centered determination than any of Marvel’s sleeker, platinum bolted efforts. (Best Episode: Snafu)
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – Talking of which! I found no series in 2015 quite as grotesque or triggering as Marvel’s wannabe spy series, toying and tormenting its characters with sadistic relish and leaving us traumatized for the fate of characters too thinly sketched to care about, but too handsome or pretty to be entirely detached from. (Best Episode: abstain)
Daredevil – A substantial step forward from their network TV offerings, Marvel’s Daredevil crafted a darker, stylistically acute, morally complex path away from the sanitized safety of their Cinematic Universe. Vincent d’Onofrio’s camped up villainy was a stretch, but the build-up of action is absorbing and organic. (Best Episode: Cut Man)
Faking It – Call it a guilty pleasure. Call its inexperienced approach of LGBTQ concepts uninformed, but this pasty white MTV series delighted me this year, not simply for its sincerely cornball sense of humor, but for its heart-torn depiction of fluid and concrete sexuality. It’s playing a typical “will they, won’t they” long game, but the twists along the way feel rooted in aching frustration with the characters’ own uncertainty. Anyway, this show is kinda dim, but I kinda adore it. (Best Episode: Nuclear Prom)
Game of Thrones – The HBO fantasy waded deeper than ever into dark, contorted, controversial waters this year and, in one off-key instance of punishment, perhaps a bridge too far. If these moments appear as justifiable cause for divorce, thrilling, terrifying and thematically heightened episodes like “Hardhome” remind us of the benefits of this masochistic relationship. (Best Episode: Hardhome)
Girls – Lena Dunham’s HBO saga of white female 20-s0methingness seems to alternate between disarmingly honest seasons and frustratingly contrived seasons. That bodes well for Season 5, then, since Girls‘ fourth season displayed as little confidence in its decisions as its characters. Stagnancy is not a good look for a show that’s richest when moving cautiously forward. (Best Episode: Ask Me My Name)
How to Get Away With Murder – Give me weekly doses of Viola Davis and I’m guaranteed to tune in. Admittedly this law procedural took time to come into its enticing roundabout structure and its archetypal characters, but Season Two built to a tense, gripping mid-season finale where everyone’s guilt is so brutally intertwined that they’re destined to spiral further downwards to stay tied reluctantly together. (Best Episode: What Did We Do?)
Inside Amy Schumer – Her big-screen transition, Trainwreck, was a financial hit, but a critical bust. Not encumbered by studio demands, Amy Schumer continues to smartly grill our crude modern gender and appearance trappings to riotous, brilliant effect. Her 12 Angry Men remake is a genius work of cinematic mimicry and playful subversion. (Best Episode: 12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer)
iZombie – I breezed through one and a half seasons of this in two days, much thanks to its enticingly playful premise. Liv’s life is fantastically upended by becoming a zombie, taking on the qualities of the people whose brains she eats. That’s most of the fun of the show, which slow rolls some of its character arcs and keeps trying to engender interest in Liv’s handsomely sculpted, but door-nail dull ex-fiance. (Best Episode: Dead Rat, Live Rat, Brown Rat, White Rat)
Jessica Jones – 2015 was the year Netflix saved Marvel from cultural irrelevance, scarcely more so than with Jessica Jones. That Melissa Rosenberg can come back from writing The Twilight Saga with a hyper-feminist noir about the consequences of unrestricted male desire and entitlement should speak to how disarming a surprise it was from Marvel of all entities. There are no typical “strong women” in this series whose strength comes without damage or dimension. Every character is deeply flawed or wounded, making this the most emotionally complex shows of 2015. (Best Episode: AKA 1,000 Cuts)
Key & Peele – I’m not sure anything on this sometimes riotous, other times wheel-spinning sketch series quite matches the potent hilarity of their live Anger Translation presentation, but it was reliably amusing and progressive in its final season. (Best Episode: Y’all Ready for This?)
The Knick – The degree of stylistic and period control Steven Soderbergh displayed over this musty 1920s hospital drama has been completely captivating, in spite the heavy-handed hindrances of plot and dialogue. It feels apt that this show was made incendiary by its instruments, not its diagnoses. I’m excited to see what improbable paths this series seeks in its enticing, uncertain future, hopefully under another auteurist visionary. (Best Episode: Williams and Walker)
Louie – This may be a case of comedic tastes shifting, but while prior seasons of Louis C.K.’s morose comic memoir delighted me, its fourth season felt like frustrating wheel-spinning, driving the same ideas on middle-aged male loneliness as Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, but without the same dissecting critical eye. (Best Episode: Pot Luck)
Show Me A Hero – David Simon’s engrossing, intimately detailed dramatization of the housing crisis in late 80s Yonkers feels inevitably hindered by the blunt, often televisual direction of Paul Haggis. That’s a small reservation, though, as it’s still packed with dense, soulful performances, gathering not momentum, but devastating political regression amidst a period of progress. Direction notwithstanding, Simon’s voice is as clear, concise and carefully crushing as ever, and Oscar Isaac and Winona Ryder deliver exciting performances in the ensemble.
Transparent – I feel deeply torn up about season two of Jill Solloway’s bitter family dramedy, if only because its premiere episode, “Kina Hora”, may be the year’s single best episode of television. A hysterical horror show of a wedding, it most vividly, yet economically captures the themes of the whole season. It’s a shame, I’m deeply aggrieved to say, that the season sort of falls apart in its last three episodes, right at the moment it should be more piercing and resonant than ever. When Andrea Arnold signs on to direct an hour of television, you expect something less formally reigned in than this, but the writing also loses its focus telling stories which feel secondary to the wayward, at times contrived, paths of its characters. For its first half, though, it’s magical, potent and hilarious. It just falters with the follow-through. (Best episode: Kina Hora)
True Detective – Wait, I watched this? Out of the side of my eye, I guess I did. Without the tonal guidance of Cary Fukunaga and D.P. Adam Arkapaw, though, Nic Pizzolatto’s indulgences send the show teetering into camp, and not the confident kind that Twin Peaks deals in. (Best Episode: Maybe Tomorrow)
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp – Guilt-ridden confession: I’ve never seen David Wain’s original, apparent classic Wet Hot American Summer. Purists may tell me I’m experiencing the saga wrong, but I found Wain’s series intensely funny, to a near incapacitating degree. It plays with genre cliches while slyly poking fun at them, embracing its offbeat style, and gifted with the richest comedic ensemble on television, courtesy of sweet nostalgia. Listen to Jon Hamm try to politely explain his way out of a glaring plot whole and you’ll chuckle at every questionable cinematic plot hole (lookin’ at you Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) for all time.
10 TV Shows of 2015
10. Steven Universe
Several animated series found their footing in 2015, most of them dealing dark existential themes like Rick and Morty and BoJack Horseman. While both those were hilarious and brilliant, I found the simpler, kid-friendly pleasures of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe to somehow be even more radical. The series used its 37 episodes in 2015 to examine themes of sexuality, trans-identity, queer relationships, consent and, most recently, blind societal prejudice, all tackled with sweetness, sincerity, understanding and adorably innocent humor. The degree of vivid, patient character development packed into each slender, 11 minute episode is staggering, so I feel comfortably certain that I’ll never consider this show a childish favorite. It’s among the most groundbreaking cultural achievements of 2015. (Best Episode: We Need to Talk)
9. Parks and Recreation
In the midst of NYFF, beleaguered and unable to fight any film or TV show’s advances when in proximity, I fell hard and fast in love with Parks and Recreation. In zooming recklessly forward to its final season, I may have missed out on the precious act of falling carefully in love with these characters over time. I feared a situation like The Office, where the lack of drama threw it into dilution. The opposite happened for Parks and Recreation. This series understood that strong character development doesn’t involved repeated defeats, but the struggles and compromises that come with living successful, happy and supportive lives. When two characters get married, the show doesn’t play a paltry will-they, won’t-they. They did, and that’s it. There are more important goals to achieve, and there’s endless joy and humor in bringing us around to them. Its finale ensures our characters will live long and happy lives, even if they can’t possibly conceive how much. We do, and they will. (Best Episode: Save JJ’s)
8. Broad City
Most shows on this list are brilliant for the ideas they tackle head-on. Broad City is exceptional because it stumbles affably and organically into them. Their season premiere is ostensibly about Abbi and Ilana buying an air conditioner, but it becomes about women holding themselves to the same standards regarding sexual activity as men. “Coat Check” is about the girls finding their dream soulmates, only to find them too eerily similar to them to be exciting or challenging. This show only forwards any overarching “plot” when Abbi takes a hallucinatory, sour-mouthed drug trip with a giant stuffed bunny. Abbi and Ilana only move forward with their lives and grow when ridiculous, fever-dream mistakes give them reason to. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are totally comfortable taking their sweet time bringing their fictional avatars to greater maturity, and aren’t about to sacrifice immaturity to do it. (Best Episode: Coat Check)
7. Orange is the New Black
Infection starts taking root in the third season of Jenji Kohan’s darker-than-ever prison comedy. As season two saw the show’s ensemble of characters adapting and committing to their bruised, beaten environment, season three saw that environment turning for the worst due to detached institutional manipulations. Characters’ lives become less fulfilling, and in the unnerving cases of Nicky and Sophia, despairingly isolated. It’s often hysterical, as always, rarely more so than when Piper preaches to a convocation of inmates on the need for their blessed, stench-stained panties, or during Red’s vocal rebellion against the cafeteria switching to low-grade processed portions (Thanks for supplying my shining twitter moment of 2015!). Still, it was a bleak, trying, paranoid year at Litchfield Penitentiary, where some characters broke barriers, other reinforced them, and everyone left at the end found a brief sweet escape. With our hearts torn, I wonder cautiously what traumas and freedoms await them in 2016. (Best Episode: Trust No Bitch)
6. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
“A monkey took my cell-phone and she never gave it back. That’s right! The monkey was a woman! Women can be anything these days.” That’s just one example of the rapid-fire, progressive absurdity bursting irrepressibly from the first season of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The duo were certainly riding high on the comic fumes of 30 Rock, but with their latest series they’ve started using ultra-bright satire to dismantle high-end social structures, rather than cynically reinforce them. It’s not just the sharp-shooting precision of the dialogue, but the spirited, explosive perseverance of its characters and the carefully color-coded costume & production design that make this the most infectiously, delightfully watchable series of 2015. (Best Episode: Kimmy Goes Outside)
As much as Bryan Fuller and his devoted fans have raged against the dying of the (murky, blood-tinged) light, Hannibal was perhaps destined to be the last sacrifice of the pre-streaming television era. Already actively disturbing and vulnerability testing, Fuller practically sealed his show’s fate in its last season by committing to his experimental style and structure. Some long devotees were lost, but I found myself utterly fascinated by the show’s thick, musty theatricality, unparalleled production design fetishism, and how Fuller made his deliciously queer subtext overtly foregrounded. Like Gore Verbinski seizing the opportunity of At World’s End to tell the Pirates of the Caribbean story he always dreamed of, this is the rich, sensual, terrifying vision Fuller has been building in his memory palace for three years. It’s finally aged perfectly. (Best Episode: Dolce)
4. Master of None
Recently separated from his Parks and Recreation family, Aziz Ansari has seized his newfound creative freedom and zeal with both hands to tell stories about his own family, biological and chosen. Those who watched his stand-up special, Live at Madison Square Garden, will be already familiar with his fascinated ruminations on family, race, gender, age and relationships. What will surprise most, though, is the breathtaking formal command and structural subversion. From the title card “Master of None Presents”, it’s clear Ansari, along with directors James Ponsoldt, Eric Wareheim and Lynn Shelton, are crafting cinematic modules, rather than episodic digressions. From the casually sweet & hilarious “Plan B”, to the subtly traumatizing “Parents”, to the unconventionally sexy “The Other Man”, to the bliss stroked romance of “Nashville”, to the engrossing formal excursion of “Mornings”. That rundown was nauseatingly extended and still doesn’t touch all the full extent of Ansari’s Woody Allen-esq. portrait of modern day 20-somethingness. (Best Episode: Nashville)
J. Michael Staczinski and Andy & Lana Wachowski’s extraordinarily sensuous sci-fi series Sense8 is much more than the sum of its genre parts and experiences for me. It’s a show that weaves its characters’ diverse and distinct personal lives together with greater rhythm and intent than any of the cinematically listless TV series populating network television. It’s bursting with racial, religious, ethnic, gender and sexual diversity, making the beautiful, progressive notion that empathy for those in wildly different life situations is not merely a condition, but a necessity of life and survival. It’s arousing in ways wildly sexual, visceral and emotional. On top of all that, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen my exact demographic represented by someone of my exact demographic. “You’ll feel anger and joy and pain… pleasure, without any reason”, Naveen Andrews’ literal spiritual guide tells a character towards the start. By the end of its first season, I have plenty of reasons for the massive emotional release I found in my favorite new series of 2015. (Best Episode: What’s Going On?)
2. Mad Men
Mad Men has been an inevitability in my adult life that will be hard to shake. Since starting college in 2010, I’ve always appreciated how gorgeously and always unpredictably Matthew Weiner’s period drama engaged my cinematic imagination. Its final half-season may not have been to most meaty, appetizing morsel the show’s ever given us, but it sees the characters face the inequities and dissatisfaction with a social order that was once moving too fast, yet now can’t rush in soon enough. It’s the end of a golden age, regardless of the death, abuse and sacrifices they’ve endured during that time. What the final episodes do is re-contextualize the first six and a half season as an engrossing, distended dream. These are the last moments of life-affirming melodrama we see, and perhaps the last they’ll have before facing the frustrating grind of their lives again. As a crucial, deeply moving piece of a grander puzzle, it’s an immensely satisfying conclusion that’ll forever lead us cyclically back through this odyssey, one of the greatest cinematic opus’ of all time. (Best Episode: Person to Person)
What a damn exceptional year Andrew Haigh has been having? In a couple days I’ll sing the praises of his big-screen achievement this year, but that shouldn’t remotely diminish the colossal power of his collaboration on Michael Lannan’s gay San Francisco comedy Looking. I admit to being pleased, but skeptical of the show’s awkward, inconsistent first season. From the first woodland-set moments, season two is a totally confident beast, assembling the wreckage of last season in ways morally and sexually transfixing. Season two is a dream, and its characters are struggling to reconcile the compromised pleasures of their lives with the moral reality of them. In its nerve-shaking finale we see Patrick, our naive, wandering conduit, try to reconcile his emotion-driven decisions with his neuroses and uncertainties, literally unable to escape the sleek, flourescent halls of his suddenly claustrophobic relationship. This season moves in such intuitive, sensitive ways, following its senses in search of happiness, not in another place, but this place. Not for another hour, but this hour. (Best Episode: Looking for a Plot)