A legal thriller in the tradition of The Verdict and The Insider.
Let's get right to it: I've been covering television for fifteen years and nothing compares to what I've seen in the last twelve months. Nothing. Yes, the stories of Peak TV have been overblown, mostly because we need to stop comparing television to film and recognize them as distinct mediums with their own flaws and strengths, but the sheer quantity of programs worth watching is downright overwhelming.
Purely from a statistical standpoint: There are shows that I loved, that I watched every episode of, that didn't make my top 30 below. There are shows in my runner-ups that would have EASILY been in my top ten just a couple years ago. And my 11-20 of this year would have been an incredible 1-10 of a decade ago. There's also notable reason for hope. Netflix was close-but-not-quite for most of its original progamming run and then ended the year with a trio of shows that I believe will help define them over the next few years ("Marvel's Jessica Jones," "Master of None" and "Making a Murderer"). Amazon, USA, Cinemax, Hulu, IFC—they're all relatively new players in the quality programming game and starting to hit home runs. Much has been made of HBO and Showtime stealing viewers from network television, but now they're being pilfered from everywhere. And about that network television decline: Comedy on network TV has been pretty strong over the last year (and #31-40, if they were below, would probably include "The Middle," "The Last Man on Earth," and the resurgent "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"), but drama, despite the fun that is "Empire," has left network TV for cable and not looked back as it's grown in strength. With all this variation across the 50 best shows on TV, but the MVPs of 2015 had to be AMC and FX, the two networks taking the most risks and seeing the most creative rewards.
Runner-ups: "Black-ish," "Casual," "Game of Thrones," "Inside Amy Schumer," "The Jinx," "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," "Louie," "Marvel's Jessica Jones," "Mr. Robot" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt"
20. "Documentary Now!" (IFC)
19. "Justified" (FX)
18. "Making a Murderer" (NETFLIX)
17. "Silicon Valley" (HBO)
16. "Parks and Recreation" (NBC)
15. "Bob's Burgers" (FOX)
14. "Togetherness" (HBO)
13. "The Knick" (CINEMAX)
12. "Transparent" (AMAZON)
11. "Show Me a Hero" (HBO)
10. "Master of None" (NETFLIX)
"Long term relationships are tough. You can't just expect a big, roaring fire right away, right? You know, you can't put the big logs in first. You start with the small stuff. Kindling, alright? Then you add that, *then* you put in the big logs and *then* you have a roaring fire. And that's a good relationship. But be careful, sometimes kindling is hard to find, you know? Good wood. So, don't take it for granted." — Episode 1.10, "Finale," 11.6.15
Netflix made headlines all year with a near-constant barrage of original programming. I feel like I was reviewing one of their shows every two weeks or so. And a lot of them were fun, worthwhile offerings, like "Bloodline," "Marvel's Daredevil" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." However, it wasn't until the end of the year that the network really proved that it can play with the big boys as they unleashed the excellent "Marvel's Jessica Jones" and "Making a Murderer," completing the trifecta with this hysterical, insightful, brilliant dramedy about identity and relationships in 2015. Even though I was a big fan of his work on "Parks and Recreation," I wouldn't have guessed that Aziz Ansari was building up to a program with this degree of difficulty. It starts off a little rocky, but what I love about "Master of None" is how it is almost constantly defying expectations. When you think it's a show about relationships, it turns into a commentary on race. When you think it's a show about casual sex, it becomes startlingly romantic. In the end, that's kind of what it's about: Life is unpredictable. Enjoy the ride.
9. "The Leftovers" (HBO)
"Let's face it Kevin. There are people who try to commit suicide for attention and then there are people who really wanna f*ckin' die. Like me and you." — Episode 2.4, "Orange Sticker," 10.25.15
I was on-again, off-again with the first season of "The Leftovers," a show that felt so overloaded with ideas that it was weighed down with them: more concept than execution. The program redefined itself in season two, jettisoning some cast and switching locations, and delivered something absolutely mesmerizing. Yes, season two is still sometimes more about theme than character, but I didn't mind it this season. The writing and performances seemed more confident; the thematic exploration woven into the characters instead of laid on top of them. Very few shows, and I'm even including the ones on this list, had the power to really transport the viewer in 2015, to present them with a world that felt fully-realized and characters who existed within it both before and after the episode. With "The Leftovers," we really felt like we were dropping in on these people for an hour, and they would go on after we left. That's a rarity in television. I'm still unpacking what season two was "about" but it's a season I want to watch again, and I can't wait to see where the show goes in its third and final season.
8. "Veep" (HBO)
"I have bitten my tongue so long, it looks like a dog's cushion. But no more! You have made it impossible to do this job. You have two settings—no decision and bad decision. I wouldn't let you run a bath without having the Coast Guard and the fire department standing by, but yet here you are running America. You are the worst thing that has happened to this country since food in buckets and maybe slavery! I've had enough. I'm gone." — Episode 4.5, "Convention," 5.10.15
The fourth season of HBO's "Veep" was also the program's best, finally giving some of the underrated supporting players their best arcs to date (Anna Chlumsky, Matt Walsh) while continuing to highlight the increasing oddity of the modern political landscape. Given the 2016 election and its larger-than-life players, "Veep" is starting to look downright tame in comparison. Most of all, "Veep" continues to be a platform for one of the best comedic actresses of all time, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. If you're ever wondering what "comic timing" means, watch an episode of "Veep." Watch how engaged Louis-Dreyfus is in every scene, never just waiting for her punchline, but landing it with just the right energy and timing. She never jumps a line or misses a beat. And, like with the teammates of an all-star in sports, everyone around her has improved by being on the court with her.
7. "Hannibal" (NBC)
"Hannibal's not God. He wouldn't have any fun being God. Defying God, that's his idea of a good time. There's nothing he'd love more than to see this roof collapse mid-Mass, choirs singing ... he would just love it, and he thinks God would love it, too." — Episode 3.2, "Primavera," 6.11.15
There were times near the end of the Mason Verger arc of this tragically final season of "Hannibal" that the show's self-indulgence verged (no pun intended) a bit too close to parody for me, but it never lost me altogether and Bryan Fuller brought it back with the final arc of the season. Should that be the final arc of all time? I still don't think so. If shows like "The X-Files" and "Full House" can come back in 2016, I refuse to believe we've seen the last of this iteraton of Hannibal the Cannibal. Even if we have, it's something of a TV miracle that we got what we did. There's never been anything on network TV like this deeply cinematic series, a show that took a plot-driven concept like a serial killer and the man who becomes obsessed with him and turned it into a commentary on identity, evil, and human need. Much has been made of the film's violence and darkness (and those really are anomalies on network TV), but it's the show's thematic depth that makes it a true Network TV Black Swan as much as anything. It is one of the best chronicles of the truly thin line between good and evil that's ever been presented in any form. I can't believe it's gone. I kind of don't.
6. "The Americans" (FX)
"We're getting her ready to find out who we really are; who she really is and that's going to break everything open, will change everything, but it's going to take time." — Episode 3.1, "EST Men," 1.28.15
As you can tell by reading this list, I love it when a show surprises me, such as when a show about Russian spies in the '80s becomes the best family drama on TV. The third season of FX's riveting drama used the potential indoctrination of Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor) into the "family business" to capture not the unique nature of these people's lives but the commonality. Most parents reach a point, several points actually, in which they disagree on the best path for their child. Watching Philip struggle with how to protect his daughter from a life that his wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell) fully supports allowed Matthew Rhys to give one of the best and most underrated peformances of the year. The writers of "The Americans" are also some of the most subtle on television. The way they wove narratives about organized religion and even self-help groups like EST into the season commented brilliantly on our need for community, leadership and common cause. Spy or parishioner: we're more alike than we think.
5. "Halt and Catch Fire" (AMC)
"The hardest thing in life is to get knocked down and to get back up constantly, but we do it because we love it and we know that deep down, if it's the right idea, it could be bigger than all of us." — Episode 2.7, "Working for the Clampdown," 7.13.15
Television and film would like us to believe that success is driven by infallible ambition and undeniable brilliance. AMC's bafflingly underrated drama is one of the best programs ever at capturing the human fallibilities that go into into carving your own path in business and life, including blind competitiveness, crippling insecurity and overwhelming doubt. The second season of "Halt and Catch Fire" took the historically intriguing set-up of the first and realized that this show's greatest asset was its characters and the people who play them. As Joe (Lee Pace) tried to temper his near-consistent dissatisfaction with "normal" life by settling down and getting married, the focus of the program switched to its incredibly strong female characters: Donna (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron (Mackenzie Davis), two women trying to build an empire in a typically male world. Meanwhile, Toby Huss delivered the most underrated supporting performance of the year as John Bosworth, a man who finds his life unstable long after he thought he had it all figured out. The characters of "Halt and Catch Fire" are some of the most well-rounded on TV and the arc of the program feels like it comes from them instead of pushing them to fit a narrative. In many ways, the show reminds me of "Mad Men" in that way.
4. "You're the Worst" (FXX)
"You need to stop. It's like you have amnesia. Every day you think things are going to be different and I'll just be happy. Well, maybe you can understand this: I feel nothing. About anything. Dogs, candy, old Blondie records, nachos, you, us, nothing. So for the last time ... please GO." — Episode 2.11, "A Rapidly Mutating Virus," 11.18.15
Stephen Falk pulled a fast one with the second season of his comedy hit by turning it into something entirely unexpected: an illumination of clinical depression. I know, sounds like a laught riot, right? And yet what I find so remarkable about the second season of "You're the Worst" is not that the writers and cast were game for "getting serious" but that the show never lost its comedic edge at the same time. Even as it looked like Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen's (Aya Cash) relationship would collapse under the weight of her depression and his flirtation with another, the show was consistently funny, often thanks to its underrated supporting cast (including Desmin Borges and Kether Donohue). At its core, "You're the Worst" is a story of love and friendship, of people who are there for each other but can't really verbalize the way they feel. It is a masterful comedy about how our actions often say what we cannot, from Gretchen's fascination with another couple in the brilliant "LCD Soundsystem" (the best half-hour episode of TV this year) to Edgar's constant need for companionship. The end of the season hit me with the emotional force of this year's great dramas as I realized what the entire year has been about: two people faced with the challenges that either break a couple or lead them to love.
3. "Better Call Saul" (AMC)
"I know you. I know what you were, what you are. People don't change. You're Slippin' Jimmy. And Slippin' Jimmy I can handle just fine. But Slippin' Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun. The law is sacred! If you abuse that power, people get hurt. This is not a game. You have to know on some level, I know you know I'm right. You know I'm right." — Episode 1.9, "Pimento," 3.30.15
If "Breaking Bad" was about a man constantly inching closer to evil, the first season of "Better Call Saul" is about a man fighting against how easy it can be to break bad. Over and over again, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) is presented with opportunities to "do the wrong thing." He could revert to his "Slippin' Jimmy" ways. He could take money that doesn't belong to him. He could sell someone out to protect himself. He could stop caring for a brother who he learns doesn't really care for him. Over and over again, Jimmy tries to be "Better." Vince Gilligan and his team of incredible writers didn't just give us a prequel to "Breaking Bad," they presented a program that stands completely on its own, arguably even more thematically dense and accomplished in its first season that "Bad" was at this point. With the top two shows on this list not airing in '16, it's the presumptive favorite to be the best show on TV next year.
2. "Mad Men" (AMC)
"You spend your whole life thinking you're not getting it, people aren't giving it to you. Then you realize they're trying. And you don't even know what it is. I had a dream I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off. And I know everybody's out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling and they're happy to see you. But maybe they don't look right at you and maybe they don't pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off." — Episode 7.14, "Person to Person," 5.17.15
Talk about sticking the landing. The final half of the final season of Matthew Weiner's drama delivered in every way, giving us closure without tidy resolution. Taking a bit of David Chase's ambiguity, Weiner gave viewers an ending that allowed for interpretation. Was it cynical to chart Don Draper's search for self as an arc that leads him back to Madison Avenue? I can see that argument, but I choose to believe that there's actually something optimistic about the idea that Don discovered he didn't need to discard what he did best to be a better person. The final few episodes of "Mad Men" were a stunning balancing act in which we felt satisfied with where the show was ending but not manipulated into pat conclusions. That's not that easy to do: to make viewers feel like these lives go on after the closing credits in a way that puts an ellipsis more than a period on the most influential show of its era but still leaves us satisfied. Until December, it was my #1 show of 2015, and it just barely lost to ...
1. "Fargo" (FX)
"Your husband, he said he was gonna protect his family no matter what. And I acted like I didn't understand, but I do. It's the rock we all push—men. We call it our burden, but it's really our privilege." — Episode 2.10, "Palindrome," 12.14.15
I watched every episode of the second season of "Fargo" three times and the third time never once failed to provide something new that I didn't catch the first two viewings. That's how dense Noah Hawley's creation was this year, a television program as rich as a novel in its themes, characters and world creation. So much has been written about the second season of "Fargo" that I'm really just adding kindling to a burning fire at this point, but let me throw a bit more. The ensemble. Not only was there not a weak player in it, but it felt like new actors would come into the spotlight every week. While Patrick Wilson and Kirsten Dunst were arguably the most consistent from first episode to last, Jean Smart, Jeffrey Donovan, Ted Danson, and Nick Offerman all had their "Emmy Clip" moments. And Bokeem Woodbine delivered one of the most unique, memorable performances of the year. Thematically, "Fargo" was as dense as anything on TV, really carving its own path from the Coen creation that inspired it to comment on family, violence and Midwestern dissatisfaction. Hawley could have built on the success of season one by offering something similar, but instead of going the same route, he carved a new one. Like the best TV of 2015, he did something that felt both influenced by what came before but carved its own path at the same time. The best of Peak TV doesn't replicate what came before it, but builds on it. And there's no sign of construction slowing in 2016.
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