[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]
There are many labels which people use to describe the current era of television. The Golden Age of TV. Too Much TV. Peak TV. Jeremy, Turn Off the Stupid TV. More attention is being paid to the genre than ever before, in part because there’s simply so much to pay attention to.
There certainly are a great many shows on television today. But are there many great shows? It’s a question that’s become prevalent in some viewing circles, and only grows more common with every dozen or so new series that premiere each month. Has the quantity of current home entertainment outstripped quality?
Well, it’s hard to say, in part because the sheer volume of current television (409 scripted shows aired in 2015, almost double the number from 2010) makes it impossible for even the most dedicated critics to watch and analyze everything. That’s a thought which kept popping into my head with every show I watched this year (which seems like a lot until you consider it relative to the amount that currently exists), and it’s what will forever keep me from making a truly objective analysis of the TV year. From what I have seen, it’s certainly not the worst year, qualitatively speaking, in recent memory – that honor belongs to the rather lackluster 2012 – but it was a step down from last year’s impressive onslaught of fascinating television.
That doesn’t mean the quantity has necessarily crippled quality, of course – I watched many great shows this year, to the point that I don’t feel too bad about missing the rest. Sure, I could have devoted some extra time for Halt and Catch Fire or Blackish, or maybe given a second chance to Mr. Robot. Heck, apart from a few Last Week Tonight clips, I didn’t watch anything on premium cable, and I’m told that non-True Detective premium cable was pretty great this year. But I’m happy with the great shows I did watch, and I’m more than happy to share those shows with you now.
Without further ado, here are 25 televised reasons that 2015 didn’t entirely suck.
25) Empire – If I were listing the most culturally influential shows of the year, Empire would be all the way at the top. It’s incredible to think that a series that didn’t even exist before 2015 has become such a TV juggernaut, adored by the public and honored by the media. Even more incredible is that the show itself isn’t completely disposable. Sure, it’s loud and overbearing and shamelessly exploitative of the hip-hop genre, but the first season was a blast of enjoyably fresh air, combining a fast pace with eye-opening plot twists and some spectacular musical numbers. Such momentum cannot be sustained forever, and even Season Two has already shown signs of wheel-spinning and story fatigue. But there’s enough greatness in Empire‘s first 22 episodes to warrant it a tip of the hat.
24) It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – No series in its tenth season should look as healthy as Always Sunny did. Returning to the air after over a year’s absence, the gang’s first double-digit season didn’t have my expectations set all that high, especially since the last season or two had shown signs of long-running fatigue. Yet the laughs I got from Season Ten were some of the strongest this show’s ever given me – particularly in the innovative “Charlie Work” and the ingenious “The Gang Goes on Family Fight”. It’s anyone’s guess as to how much longer Sunny will remain on the air, but after a season like this, I won’t be wishing it away anytime soon.
23) Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – Rescued by Netflix from NBC’s now-dead comedy block, Tina Fey’s follow-up to 30 Rock is just as fresh and funny as its predecessor. A terrific Ellie Kemper (Erin from The Office) leads a talented comedic cast as she attempts to renavigate her life in a world she’s been out of touch with for the last 15 years, to increasingly hilarious effect. With a bright and sunny lead, innovative creative comedy setpieces (my favorite: the “Daddy’s Boy” sketch), and an infectiously catchy theme song, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt represents a, uh, uh, you know, a… fascinating transition for Fey and her peers.
22) Gravity Falls – In years past, Gravity Falls has been referred to as “the best children’s show on television”. It’s a solid mark of honor, to be sure, but one that keeps the show from being taken seriously by most TV scholars. This year, however, the show stepped up its game, adding new dimension to its characters and environment and proving that the writers have had much of the story planned from Day One. The one-two punch of “Not What He Seems” and “A Tale of Two Stans” was among the most satisfying things on television this year, firmly elevating this show above the label of mere children’s fare. The series finale wont air till sometime in 2016 (curse you, screwy Disney Channel schedule!), but what the show delivered this year more than compensates.
21) Daredevil – There were plenty of things that didn’t work about Marvel’s first Netflix series: The uneven balance between carving out episodic stories while executing a 13-hour arc, the overdose of supporting character deaths, and the fizzler of the finale, not to mention all the gratuitous blood and gore. But for every step back, the show took two steps forward: Creating a compelling and complex hero and an equally complex and formidable villain, interweaving terrific flashbacks between the action sequences, corralling a terrific cast (led by Charlie Cox and Vincent D’onofrio), and featuring some of the most gorgeous staging and cinematography on the small screen. In the end, the pros outweigh enough of the cons to grant the series a lower-tier spot on this list.
20) Bob’s Burgers – Bob’s Burgers is currently in its sixth season (and has already been renewed for two more), and by this point, there’s not a whole lot I can think of to explain why the show is as great as it is, or why it continues to sustain that level of greatness five years after its debut. The show continues to be just as fresh and funny as always, with 2015 highlights including “The Oeder Games”, “Li’l Hard Dad”, “Nice-Capades”, and “Late Afternoon in the Garden of Bob and Louise”. If you don’t watch Bob’s Burgers, it’ll be difficult for me to explain precisely why those episodes are so good. But if you do watch the series, chances are you chuckled even as I simply mentioned those episode titles. Which is testament to why the comedy on this show resonates so very well.
19) Orange is the New Black – The widely acclaimed prison dramedy settled into something of a comfort zone in its third season, losing some of the intense narrative drive that made the first two great while still providing enough character work to classify it as “really good”. Highlights included the development of characters like Caputo and Pennsatucky, the deepening of the security guards, and the complete lack of Larry. Sore spots included some of the increasingly barrel-bottom-scraping flashbacks, which missed as often as they hit, as well as Piper’s over-the-top underwear-smuggling ring, Bennett’s abrupt departure, and Black Cindy’s tonally indifferent religious conversion. Still, despite its flaws, it’s hard to dislike a season that gives each of over thirty different characters their moment in the sun, and makes many of those moments emotionally satisfying.
18) Agent Carter – The surprisingly strong miniseries-turned-ongoing show spun off Hayley Atwell’s title character (of the first Captain America film) into her own show with incredibly fun results. Making good use of its 1940s period setting, as well as the retrograde escapist tone that its sister show, Agents of SHIELD, sometimes struggles to maintain, Carter delivered an engrossing eight-part story filled with intrigue, espionage, and more than enough terrific action. The supporting cast (which includes James D’Arcy, Chad Michael Murray, and an underused Enver Gjokaj) did good work, but it was Atwell who kept the series grounded and eminently watchable with her forceful and confident performance.
17) Rick and Morty – The typical cartoon trend is to start with a simple premise and, slowly but surely, dial lit up to eleven. Rick and Morty has no use for this trend – it starts each episode at eleven, and by the time the story wraps, it’s dialed things up to somewhere around ninety-two. When the show is firing on all cylinders (as in “Total Rickall” or “The Wedding Squanchers”), it crafts a world bound by no conceivable logic but its own, as madly ambitious as any other series on the air. When it falters (as in “Interdimensional Cable 2”), it devolve into a thanklessly self-indulgent parody of thanklessly self-indulgent parodies. Though by no means consistent, Rick and Morty is held afloat by the strong relationship between its two leads, as well as its willingness to go in directions too crazy for most of television to acknowledge the existence of.
16) Rectify – Slow, silent, and never simple. In its six-episode third season, Rectify continues to evoke the emotions of the quiet and enigmatic Daniel Holden without ever exploiting them. That this show could make a compelling season arc out of its main character painting a pool is testament to how much care is put into each of the show’s emotional moments. Some of the non-emotional material is less compelling – the murder storyline, while essential to the series, is not terribly interesting on its own, and only underscores the show’s lack of plot advancement elsewhere. But the atmosphere and performances – particularly that of the greatly underappreciated Aden Young – more than compensates.
15) Justified – Several great shows breathed their last in 2015. Among them was Justified, FX’s modern-day Western that deftly combined complex characters with highly enjoyable storytelling. The sixth and final season of the series was one of its best, as Raylan Givens’ moral high-ground philosophy was put more to the test than ever, and his rivalry with Boyd Crowder reached its epic conclusion. A plethora of great character actors – some from earlier seasons, others filling brand-new roles – sustained a wide and crackling supporting cast, keeping the story busy without overcomplicating it. A few longueurs in the season’s first half were more than compensated for by a thrilling conclusion, which stuck the landing and sent Justified out with a literal and figurative bang.
14) Jessica Jones – The best comic-book series of the year, Jessica Jones took the genre to newer and greater heights, forcing its titular heroine into dark and unsettling places while still providing a compensating dose of dry humor to keep things in check. Krysten Ritter hit every note as the emotionally scarred Jessica, and David Tennant matched her perfectly as the formidable Kilgrave, carrying a story that made us rethink the very notion of a “superhero”. Though the season ran out of steam near the end, as the writers were forced to pad time until the finale, Jessica Jones is a more-than-welcome addition into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and only leaves me more excited for the upcoming Luke Cage.
13) You’re the Worst – When FX’s deconstructive romantic comedy concluded its first season, I feared that the series would grow formulaic in its second, subverting romantic cliché after romantic cliché while curbing the importance of character and story development. But unexpectedly, You’re the Worst grew even darker in its second season, taking Jimmy and Gretchen’s relationship into more twisted places that remained true to their characters, even if it led to some pretty uncomfortable storylines. Comedy or no, “LCD Soundsystem” was one of the most daring experimental episodes I’ve seen all year, a sign that this series has no fears of holding back. And I don’t suppose you’re reading this, Emmys, but Aya Cash fully deserves your love.
12) Better Call Saul – The spinoff that nobody wanted became the success that nobody expected. It was certainly no small feat to attempt to broaden the world of Breaking Bad – Gilligan and co. were practically inviting negative comparisons – yet Better Call Saul has proven to be a surprisingly well-told and effective origin for everyone’s favorite sleazy lawyer. Bob Odenkirk inhabits the role of a struggling Jimmy McGill (the soon-to-be Saul) with even more gusto that he did on the original series, and Jonathan Banks delivers a more mesmerizing performance than ever as the formidable Mike Ehrmentraut. Only time will tell if Better Call Saul will be a worthy successor to Breaking Bad, but thus far, it hasn’t missed a step in its attempts.
11) Review – “Watching Review: Five stars!” That was my reaction after finishing the second season of Comedy Central’s incredibly dark, incredibly funny show about the dangers of reviewing “life itself”. Andy Daly continues to generate fine work as Forrest McNeil, a man who simply doesn’t understand when to say no, and Season Two (after a slow start) took his character to even greater extremes than before. Watching Forrest get shot with an arrow, or getting buried alive, or even just spending some time alone in a rowboat can lead to some enormously uncomfortable situations – yet his utter commitment to his work makes them simply hilarious to watch.
10) Manhattan – As of this writing, Manhattan has only recently completed its second season, and I’m not yet certain if it will get a third. My fingers remain firmly crossed, though, as this is not only one of the most well-written shows currently on the air, but one of the most stylish and subversive as well. What initially appeared to be a cross between a soap opera and a science lesson, set against the 1940s backdrop of the Manhattan Project, has become so much more as it peels back the husk of human morality and juggles intriguing themes about loyalty and betrayal. Though it’s fought for two seasons to attract viewers, Manhattan deserves a longer life and a stronger fanbase – it’s simply too good to get lost in the shuffle.
9) Bojack Horseman – In its first season, Netflix’s animated comedy showed aspirations of being more than a simple skewering of Hollywood tropes and ideals. Those aspirations were fully realized in the second season, which became a surprisingly deep and effective look at the destructive nature of midlife crises and depression. Although much of the humor remains fully in-the-moment (one of many traits the series shares with its obvious predecessor, The Larry Sanders Show), comedy is no longer Bojack‘s chief concern. The series has proven surprisingly adept at developing all its major characters, including formerly unsympathetic Mr. Peanutbutter and obvious Jesse Pinkman-takeoff Todd. But it’s Bojack who remains the heart of the series – despite being a cartoon horse, he’s as human as any other character on TV.
8) The Americans – There are times when The Americans seems to pride itself on frustrating its viewers – it constantly holds off answers, baits numerous traps that are never sprung, and rarely puts much stock in satisfying conclusions. But this model can produce wonders of suspense in storytelling, as it did in the brilliant second season, as well as in the (admittedly slightly less brilliant) third. When the series does provide us with something substantial – in “Stingers”, for instance – it feels organic and earned, as though the writers have their conclusions well-mapped in advance. And when it doesn’t – the last few episodes of the season went perhaps a little too far in terms of audience-baiting – that only leaves us more excited to see where the series goes next.
7) Master of None – Many critics have declared Master of None the best comedy of the year. I didn’t think quite that highly of it – as you’ll see, a couple of comedies that aired back in the winter still have it beat – but it was certainly as innovative and ambitious as any other sitcom I saw this year. Aziz Ansari has crafted a character so driven and open-minded to the world around him that you can’t help but love him – nor can you help but hurt when his plans fall short. Sweet, funny, eye-opening, and never preachy, Master of None is a perfect commentary on the pros and cons of politically correct millennial culture, one that forces its viewers to think while still making them feel good enough to laugh.
6) Mad Men – The first two or three episodes of Mad Men‘s final stretch contained many of the problems that had come to irritate me in the show’s later seasons, and I feared that this once-great series would end on a whimper. Such was not the case, however – the last four episodes sent Mad Men out in style, providing satisfying closure for most of its characters (Betty’s storyline wrapped up with a particularly surprising amount of heartfelt emotion) and bringing Don Draper’s arc to an intriguing close. The final moments of the series were perfectly in tune with what Mad Men had always strived and often succeeded at being – nostalgic, ambiguous, and a perfect commentary on how commercialism can define our emotions.
5) Parks and Recreation – Another great series to wrap up a terrific seven-season run, Parks and Rec could have easily settled for a standard enjoyable season (as it had for its last couple of years), and I would have been perfectly happy. Instead, the show went out with one of its very best seasons, reminding us why we had fallen in love with Leslie and Ron and company all those years ago. Although the series finale aired all the way back in February, it still resonates in my mind as one of the most marvelous episodes I’ve seen on TV this year. That finale, and that final season, represent the series in a nutshell: It was sweet, it was hilarious, it was vibrant, it was tear-jerking – it was Parks and Recreation, and I won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.
4) Broad City – The funniest comedy on television grew even funnier in its sophomore season, as Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer took the basic tropes of a straightforward sitcom and took them to greater extremes than had ever been seen before. The New York City they portray is strange, uncomfortable, and bizarre – yet it’s also achingly real, adding a great dimension of “truth in humor” to the proceedings. And the scripts provide a near-endless barrage of laughs, whether they come from Abbi getting high on painkillers or Ilana meeting her doppelganger (Alia Shawkat). It’s not easy to make a sitcom fresh and original in this day and age, but Broad City succeeds admirably.
3) Jane the Virgin – There are few television achievements more singularly impressive than Jane the Virgin. Featuring plotline after increasingly crazy plotline, this show should by all rights collapse under its own weight, or at the very least feel like a nonsensical mess. But the series makes every last move with confidence and self-assurance, inviting viewers to place their complete trust in a show which, at any given moment, will feature kidnappings, conspiracies, adultery, and murderous drug lords. And all the while, the series deftly avoids the traps of the typical soap-opera genre, paying tribute to the telenovela format even as it mocks it, and subverting Hispanic stereotypes all the while. And the cast – particularly the outstanding Gina Rodriguez and Jaime Camil – doesn’t hurt one bit.
2) Fargo – The first season of Fargo was already impressive – not only did it capture the tone of the Coen Brothers’ beloved 1996 film, but it carved out an engrossing story on its own from start to finish. The second season, amazingly, took the series to an even greater level, turning the clock back to 1979 and providing a storyline that spanned several viewpoints and numerous memorable characters. The humor was black, but alarmingly funny, striking just the right balance in the show’s strange yet wonderful world. And the cast was pure gold from stem to stern, with Kirsten Dunst a standout as a woman who takes entirely too much into her own hands. For ten episodes, the second season of Fargo was tremendously good entertainment, and it’s a shame that we’ll need to wait over a year to see the third.
1) UnREAL – Picking the best show of 2015 was a difficult decision, not least because there were so many criteria I could use to measure series quality. I could have gone with my serious, dramatic depth-loving side and picked Fargo, or I could have chosen to judge by the fun factor and picked Jane the Virgin. Ultimately, though, my heart and mind settled on a series that was essentially a perfect blend of dark, dramatic depth and lightweight fun.
Coming almost entirely out of nowhere, UnREAL aired its 10-episode first season this past summer on the much-ridiculed Lifetime Channel and single-handedly redefined the network. In exploring the behind-the-scenes world of reality television, the series exposed a dark side of humanity ripe for exploration, filtered through the eyes of two excellent female antiheroes. Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer hit every right note with their portrayals of reality show producers who find themselves at odds with their coworkers, each other, and even themselves in wondering how to balance what’s right with what’s marketable. Marti Noxon and her writing team crafted a tense, incredibly entertaining story that was by equal turns shocking, moving, and hilarious. No cliché was too healthy for UnREAL to beat upon; no character too innocent to be corrupted. An unlikely hit that proved the style and innovation of present-day television like no other series on the air, UnREAL delivered an outstanding premiere season, and was, quite simply, the best show of 2015.
Agents of SHIELD, Another Period, Arrow, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, iZombie, The Man in the High Castle, Supergirl