PEAK TV! PEAK TV!
There have been no shortage of articles in 2015 about the phenomenon known as “Peak TV,” or the monstrous, Mariana-deep surfeit of original programming on the airwaves. The president of FX Networks himself, John Landgraf, sent critics reeling with stats showing that there would be more than four hundred scripted series available by year’s end. Four hundred! Whether that kind of growth is sustainable, and what it has actually done to program quality (as smaller networks fight for fewer resources) are both open questions. But for me, your humble TV watcher, it presents a problem when it comes to the annual end-of-year list. Even without including series I just haven’t gotten around to, like Hannibal, Justified, You’re the Worst, Transparent, Bojack Horseman, The Leftovers, Silicon Valley, Rick and Morty, and on and on and on, my “short list” still included 25 different series. So I made some hard choices, and a lot of really great shows are only going to get a token acknowledgement, like:
- Show Me A Hero: An outstanding, thought-provoking miniseries, with another fantastic performance from the reliable Oscar Isaac. Hard to imagine that a new work from The Wire‘s David Simon wouldn’t make my top ten, but there you go.
- Master of None: I loved this show! I loved its essay-style format; I loved the chemistry of its leads, (creator) Aziz Ansari and Noel Wells; I loved the sharpness of the writing and how it found a fresh, often moving take on the second-generation immigrant experience. I’d put “Mornings” up there among the best episodes of anything, all year.
- Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: I covered this magical miniseries every week and I thought it would be a sure thing to make this list. It wasn’t. So close.
- Rectify: As I wrote after its finale, this quiet, odd duck of a series is among the most spiritually-minded on television, but the family at its center is among the most relatably human.
- Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s new whirring joke machine gave us one of the year’s great characters in Titus Andromedon, and the most ear-wormy theme song.
- Manhattan: Its second season is even better than its first, and that cracked my top ten last year. I just haven’t had time to write about it, but I’m loving just about every decision it’s made, from the cautious partnership of Winter and Isaacs, to how it’s brought Meeks to center stage (figuratively and literally, in Los Alamos’s production of The Mikado). Superb drama.
- The Last Kingdom: another show I just haven’t gotten around to covering, this Dark Ages-set BBC America series could have been more Thrones-lite, but instead we got character-centered storytelling with gorgeous locations and earthy humor. It had a better year than Vikings, at any rate.
- Project Greenlight: highly addictive reality television. The mediocre independent film at its center, The Leisure Class, was never going to be as entertaining as the storm of personalities clashing behind the scenes. Skeletal director Jason Mann got to write his own script, hand-pick his cast, and shoot on expensive film, passive-aggressively sniping with producer Effie Brown all the way. It was a joy to watch them flail.
- Deutschland 83: this German-language series on SundanceTV makes a nice counter-point to The Americans; Jonas Nay shines as young East German spy sent across enemy lines at the height of the Cold War. It isn’t perfect, but it strikes a great tone.
- The Flash: as our Brian Schroeder has written extensively, it’s enormous fun and has only gotten better. But there was only room for one superhero show.
Those are the honorable mentions. On to the winners:
10. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Best Episode: “Heaven is a Place“
The award for “biggest turnaround” goes to Halt, which was gifted an undeserved second season and went and made the most of it. Instead of remaining another sad story about another sad antihero whose computer will never be as good as the ones we’ve already heard of, the series re-programmed itself, shifting its focus to the ragtag game startup Mutiny — and much better characters in Donna and Cameron. Free from the weight of its own self-importance, Halt got looser, funnier, took more chances, and simply became a better show. In a big year for strong females on TV and in cinema, it’s easy to overlook this low-rated drama. If you do, you’re missing out.
9. Parks and Recreation (NBC)
Best episode: “One Last Ride“
There was no more moving hour of television in 2015 than Parks‘s series finale, which cleverly lept into the future (and sometimes the far future) to reveal the fates of our favorite Pawneeans. But throughout the show’s final beautiful season, it was firing on all cylinders: “Leslie and Ron” brought one of the all-time great screen friendships full circle; the “Johnny Karate” bottle episode was a risky move that worked like gangbusters; “Pie-Mary” turned the absurd Men’s Rights movement into a piñata. Most importantly, no matter how many silly gags it wrung out of its near-future setting, Parks stayed true to its characters and to itself. Farewell.
8. Better Call Saul (AMC)
Best Episode: “Pimento”
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. It’s not fan service: Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould appeared to retrofit their “breezy, comic series” into a leaner, meaner one as it was unfolding before our eyes.
7. Jessica Jones/Daredevil (Netflix)
Best Episodes: “AKA WWJD” / “Speak of the Devil”
Okay, I know this one’s a bit of a cheat. Since Jessica Jones and Matt Murdock will be joining forces eventually, I figured I could go ahead and include them as joint pieces of Marvel’s TV universe. Honestly, I just couldn’t choose. Either one, depending on who you ask, is the best superhero show on TV. The high-wire fight choreography of Daredevil, or Jones‘s hauntingly magnetic title character? The tangled underworld web of the former, or the more introspective, Noir-soaked latter? Daredevil‘s direction, or Jones‘s writing? Vincent D’Onofrio’s Fisk, or David Tennant’s Kilgrave? Daredevil had the higher highs, but Jessica Jones was the better show. I think.
6. Mad Men (AMC)
Best Episode: “Person to Person“
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.
5. Game of Thrones (HBO)
Best Episode: “Hardhome“
This is the season that won the Emmy, yet many would say it was Game of Thrones‘s worst. It gave us the Sand Snakes, and Sansa’s rape, and Stannis’s daughter screaming. But it also gave us “Hardhome,” my favorite episode of television in all of 2015, and that has to count for something. Despite all the controversy, hand-wringing, and thinkpieces that Season 5 Game of Thrones unleashed, it remains one of TV’s premiere experiences. I’ve written well over 25,000 words on it this year alone, and I will continue to defend this thrilling, complex, lushly-detailed show, no matter how indefensible its choices. Don’t act like you don’t want to see how it ends.
4. Veep (HBO)
Best Episode: “Convention”
Veep hits all of my pleasure centers like nothing else: it has the funniest, most acidic dialogue anywhere, sensational cast chemistry (I could write paragraphs about Anna Chlumsky, Timothy Simons, and Sam Richardson), and skewers Beltway culture better than House of Cards could even imagine. It depicts our houses of government not as Machiavellian schemers, or even as idealistic do-gooders (shout-out to Parks), 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.
3. Fargo (FX)
Best Episode: “Rhinoceros“
The season finale has yet to air as of this writing, but I feel pretty good about placing it here. Fargo oozes confidence in every scene; Noah Hawley’s story is constructed with a watchmaker’s precision (unlike last season, there’s not a single “throwaway” subplot), and the period style makes it all go down easy. Split-screens, a groovy soundtrack, and an eclectic cast (hosannas to Bokeem Woodbine, Jeffrey Donovan, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson and the incomparable Nick Offerman) all combine in crazily entertaining fashion. It zaps True Detective with a cattle prod and buries it in the Minnesota snow.
2. Mr. Robot (USA)
Best Episode: “wh1ter0se.m4v”
By far 2015’s biggest surprise, the fearless and brilliant Mr. Robot landed firmly in the zeitgeist from its premiere and set up a residence. This was the show that had people breathlessly tweeting at each other all summer — “ARE YOU WATCHING MR. ROBOT?” No, what’s that? A hacker show on USA? No thanks. But the more people tuned in, the more people became obsessed, drawn in by its twisty storytelling and strikingly unique visual style as much as by Rami Malek’s saucer-sized eyeballs. I may never understand just how first-time showrunner Sam Esmail willed his uncompromising vision into existence, but I’m so glad he did.
1. The Americans (FX)
Best Episode: “Stingers“
The Americans‘ third season was its finest yet, adding new layers of intrigue 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, as remarkable for its down-to-earth spyycraft as its portrayal of marriage. And, at long last, it’s unquestionably the best show on television.
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