There have been maybe two films this year that have impressed me enough to make my year-end list. Not so with television. What should you be catching up on this summer?
First, a few ground rules: only shows that have completed their runs were eligible, so no Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, or Halt and Catch Fire (seriously!), or Deutschland 83 (check it out on Sundance TV!), or True Detective… yet. Time will tell if any of those shows crash the list in December. I also reserve the right to change my mind later about anything mentioned here. Truth be told, this post primarily gives me an opportunity to throw bones to good shows that won’t make the final list, when emotions and memories will have faded.
I could have doubled the size of this list and still not captured the breadth of quality television just in the last six months. But instead I settled on nine, with an addendum at the bottom for a couple of series that I just haven’t seen yet, but whose inclusion you would nevertheless demand. We should also just assume that John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight is here in perpetuity, like the moon. Or the sun. Pick your celestial body.
So without further ado, and in alphabetical order, let’s begin:
The Americans (FX)
This is currently in pole position for Best Show of 2015, so it’s only fitting that it goes first: The Americans‘ third season was its finest yet, adding twisty new layers to the ongoing saga of the Jennings family, coldly reflecting the permafrost of its native Washington, DC. It dove into thorny moral questions and yanked out ambiguous answers, like Philip extracting Elizabeth’s busted tooth. The cast has a deep bench — all the performances are powerhouses, and that now includes the brilliant Holly Taylor as teenager Paige, who stumbles into her parents’ illicit world and handles it with a maturity beyond her years. It’s a difficult show to watch, but not to love.
Better Call Saul (AMC)
As I wrote upon the end of its first season, Better Call Saul has turned out to be a rare beast: a prequel series that sheds fascinating new light on its subjects without undoing the hard-won affection for what came before. Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill — he’s not Saul, not yet — is a tragic figure, a man who can’t escape the expectations that others (particularly his brother) have put on him, and whose efforts to take the honorable path seem to be thwarted by a cosmic force that has other uses for him. There’s shockingly little fan service here: Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould appeared to retrofit their “breezy, comic series” into a leaner, meaner one as it was unfolding before our eyes.
I never expected to love this show, but I do, and you should, too. It gets the mix exactly right for a superhero show: grounded characters, a slow-drip mythology, firecracker action setpieces (that hallway scene!), and an instantly indelible villain. Charlie Cox is great as Murdock, of course, but much of the praise deservedly goes to Vincent D’Onofrio as the titanic Wilson Fisk: polished marble on the outside, but a soft core within, and the kind of curious speech pattern that Twitter can’t get enough of. It’s a refreshingly small-scale crime saga, but just the first piece of a larger world that Marvel and Netflix are building. And it’s FUN.
Despite all the controversy, hand-wringing, and thinkpieces that this season of Game of Thrones has unleashed, it remains one of TV’s premiere experiences. I’ve written well over 25,000 words on this show in 2015 alone, so I’ll let this be for now. It’s enough to say that I will continue to defend this thrilling, complex, lushly-detailed show… and that change is coming, on the Winds of Winter.
Last Man on Earth (FOX)
Though it lost its way a bit in the middle, the promising debut season of Last Man on Earth was weird, wonderful, and the kind of thing it didn’t seem like network TV was still capable of. It took its clever setup in the pilot — Co-Creator Will Forte as Phil, the lone survivor of the apocalypse — and up-ended it more or less on a weekly basis, churning through an absurd amount of story in an effort to make Phil as miserable as possible. Forte not only dives into Phil’s neuroses and residual awfulness the same way he dives into a margarita pool, but makes keen observations about suburban life, and the gossamer-thin strands that hold society together.
Mad Men (AMC)
The final (half-)season of Mad Men defied expectations from the very beginning, as Matthew Weiner was committed to finishing out the story of Don Draper on his terms, not by following the “rules of storytelling” or giving the people what they want. The result was a polarizing handful of episodes and a baffling finale that I nevertheless loved: it doesn’t matter if Don wrote that Coke ad. The important thing is that he found peace, however fleeting it will be. But even prior to that, as other characters made their curtain calls (Roger’s organ, Betty’s prognosis, Peggy’s strut), we were reminded how human Mad Men was, and how irreplaceable it will be.
Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Another series that ended this Spring was my beloved Parks, and it ended beautifully, with a final string of heartwarming episodes and a thoroughly satisfying finale that teased out dream epilogues for Leslie Knope and the gang. Season 7 was as reliably warm, witty, and as incisive with its social commentary as ever; it played with form (the “Johnny Karate” episode!) and with its near-future setting, but never lost sight of what we had come to love about these characters over the years. Not everything on TV has to be depressing, you know. Sometimes you just want to watch Gerry Gergich float away in a hot-air balloon.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
All hail Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, who have bestowed upon us another delightful, whip-smart series in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. As I wrote after I binged it, it’s already off to a more consistent start than 30 Rock was at its inception, and has potential as limitless as Kimmy herself — squeezing a million incisive jokes out of a “one-joke premise.” the theme song is irresistible, a winning Ellie Kemper is in the role she was born to play, and Titus Andromedon is the best new character of the year, full stop. (You’ll never think of Pinot Noir the same way again.) There might be a few kinks to work out, but doubt these geniuses at your own risk.
Is Veep my favorite show on TV? Veep is my favorite show on TV. It hits all of my pleasure centers like absolutely nothing else: it has the funniest, most acidic dialogue anywhere, sensational cast chemistry (I could write whole paragraphs about Anna Chlumsky, Timothy Simons, and Sam Richardson), and skewers Beltway culture better than House of Cards or Scandal could even imagine. It depicts our houses of government not as Machiavellian schemers, or even as idealistic do-gooders (shout-out to Aaron Sorkin’s impossible dream), but as a clown car rolling downhill at top speed while its occupants try to shove one another beneath the tires. The more they scramble, and improbably succeed through failure, the more painfully funny it becomes.
Also acknowledged: Justified, Silicon Valley
I have not watched either of these shows, but I hear they’re fantastic, and it’d be remiss not to include them. Caleb Saenz wrote a great eulogy for Justified earlier this year, and Nathan James has a piece on Silicon Valley forthcoming.
What’s on your list? Yell at me in the comments.