This article was originally published at Loser City on December 18, 2015.
TV in 2015 was wonderfully weird and eclectic, with basic cable taking up more of the critical conversation and Netflix continuing its ascent as a major player. Our favorite shows this year ran the gamut, from pop superheroics on the CW to the finales of long running faves like Mad Men to new entries from emerging greats like Fargo and You’re the Worst. It was hard to pick only ten great shows this year no matter how you cut it, and we look forward to hearing what else you think could have made the list…
While I watched the original Flash television series as a young boy, I never really developed an attachment to the character, despite having read superhero comics most of my life. Barry Allen, in particular, was the boringest blonde-haired, blue-eyed superhero of them all and the most remarkable thing he ever did was martyr himself in a crossover the year I was born. The star of CW’s The Flash is Barry Allen in name, but his personality is closer to Wally West or Peter Parker.
Put simply, the writing team and Grant Gustin made Barry Allen fun and thankfully not boring, in addition to giving supporting cast members multiple dimensions to their characters (though it took most of the first season for me to feel comfortable saying that about Iris West). As always, The Flash‘s villains are just as interesting as he is, if not more so. The Reverse Flash/Flash relationship is one of the most compelling protagonist/antagonist relationships on screen this side of Hannibal, while the season two villain — Zoom — seems like a genuinely terrifying creature.
More important than making Barry Allen fun, however, is making the show fun. The Flash is one of the only superhero adaptations in recent memory that has sincerely embraced the ridiculousness of superhero comics. Barry’s friend Cisco insists on naming the villains (Caitlin Snow is responsible for Peekaboo and Rainbow Raider, though), the second season introduces parallel Earths and alternate versions of established characters without skipping a beat, and the solution to damn near every problem is “run faster,” “believe in yourself,” or “believe in your friends.” The Flash is a candle in the grimdark DCU, and we are lucky to have it. – David Fairbanks
It is incredibly hard to explain Bojack Horseman to those who haven’t heard of it, which is a shame because it’s one of the most relatable shows on television. Yet how do you communicate this when the show demands a breakdown that starts with something like “so, this self-centered, alcoholic actor is a cartoon horse, but like, that’s normal, okay, and there’s people people, but a lot of people are animals”? It’s difficult to convey that this is both one of the funniest shows on television, boasting absolutely outstanding voice acting from the likes of Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Paul F. Tomkins, and Amy Sedaris, and also one of the darkest. It’s an animated series overflowing with wordplay and outrageous plots (example: J.D. Salinger as the showrunner of a reality TV competition entitledHollywoo Stars and Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things? Let’s Find Out!), but also constantly diving right into the hardest and most unsolvable struggles of being a person. If you can just convince someone to watch the pitch-perfect title sequence, though, you should have a shot at getting them to understand.
Bojack’s L.A. is colorful, outlandish, and deeply, almost impossibly sad, much like essentially all of the show’s characters, and the series is consistently unflinching yet artful when examining the myriad ways we all struggle to fill our emptinesses. Tumbling through joke after spot-on joke, the characters of Bojack consistently find new and unusual ways to hurt one another even as they try their hardest to form real connections. Marrying pathos and delightful absurdity, the second season of the show, dense with world-building details and sharp insights that demand repeat viewings, has pushed boundaries and started conversations while remaining abundantly watchable. – Kayleigh Hughes
The Leftovers was created in a lab to appeal specifically to me. Strong and interesting roles for actresses whom I adore? Check. Insane, twisty plot that makes me audibly shriek every ten minutes? Check. The three male characters with full frontal nudity all have incredible penises that have been seared into my brain for the rest of my life? Check check check.
In all seriousness, The Leftovers is quite possibly the best American drama on television right now because it isn’t afraid to go there. Every show on TV tries its best to “go there” each week because how else are people going to tweet about it, but The Leftovers truly operates on a different plane. No other show would open its season with a wordless overture about the plight of a cavewoman and then proceed to get crazier.
While Twin Peaks comparisons get thrown around a lot in today’s TV landscape, The Leftovers truly deserves such high regards because it expands every aspect of the David Lynch classic to new heights (I’m not saying The Leftovers is better than Twin peaks, don’t email me). But honestly, if the third and final season of The Leftovers sticks the landing, we may have to consider adding a second show to the “loss as explored through a surrealist dreamscape” canon of television. – Dylan Garsee
You’re the Worst
Usually when people are talking about the current television renaissance, they’re talking about dark, dramatic work like Breaking Bad or The Wire but honestly, I think the steady crop of incredible new comedies is more notable. You’re the Worst, in particular, has stood out from the pack, catching everyone by surprise with its fantastic first season and then becoming even more surprising with the dramatic elements it introduced in its second season.
At its heart, You’re the Worst has remained a show about two fucked up people refusing to believe they’ve fallen for each other—Jimmy (Chris Geere) is a surly British novelist who struggles to value people because that’s how he protects himself from being hurt, while Gretchen (Aya Cash) is a publicist who is more savvy than she thinks she is, but suffers from debilitating depression. The second season expertly explored that latter aspect of Gretchen’s personality, not treating it as a kooky trait played explicitly for laughs, but as the main arc of the season. Her depression is a test of the relationship that has developed between Jimmy and Gretchen and is less “fun” than the couple’s other problems. The show did all this without sacrificing any of its wit or frenetic pace and culminated in a finale that centered around a problem most people with depression have run into at some point or another: loved ones’ belief that it can simply be overcome if one is willing to exert the effort. IfYou’re the Worst continues to improve in its third season, it won’t just be one of the best comedies out there but also one of the best shows of the TV renaissance, period. – Morgan Davis
Master of None
Based on a superficial synopsis, Master of None should not be an exceptional television series, or even a notable one. It is yet another sitcom focusing on various twenty-something New Yorkers handling upper middle class problems and pressures. That hackneyed setup makes it all the more shocking as Master of None evolves from being a great comedy to something transcendent over the course of ten episodes. Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang take this too familiar setting in order to lure viewers to drop their defenses, then set about mining uncomfortable, unmentioned subjects for all of the laughs and drama they can muster in thirty minute segments.
There’s not a single lame duck episode in the initial ten episodes of Master of None, but its highs are as high or higher than anything on television in 2015. “Parents” taps into immigrant narratives and the struggle to separate yourself as an individual without becoming ungrateful. “Finale” is a truly heart-rending, honest take on the simple ways in which years of hard work and love in a relationship can crumble. Dev Shah’s experiences with heritage, commitment, racism, and so much more come with almost no sense of cynicism or anger. Instead, Master of None approaches all of these topics with a sense of empathy and humanity. It’s what makes this show’s unique characters and situations feel universal, and what allows it to evoke both laughter and tears in such quick succession. – Chase Magnett
When the fifth season trailer for HBO’s Girls was released in early December, The A.V. Club gave it the headline “Here’s the trailer for Girls season five, in case anyone’s still watching Girls.” Okay, then.
I’m still watching Girls, especially after the stellar fourth season Dunham and crew put out this year, wherein the show moved and grew in necessary ways that allowed it to stay vital and bold, while maintaining the absurdity and honesty it’s been known for since the start. Hannah starts the season headed off to Iowa’s lauded creative writing graduate program, a journey many folks worried would cripple a show defined so intensely by its location in New York City. Instead, Hannah’s short lived sojourn gave the sometimes cramped series much needed space to breathe–just another way Girlsevokes the actual claustrophobic intimacy of friendships between those in their mid-twenties–while also serving as a catalyst for a number of brutal plot and character developments that in many cases left viewers anxious to see what happened next–not a typical feeling for a show that normally utilizes a very loose plot structure to get to what it cares about more: interactions between its deeply specific and well-developed (and, according to, oh, a critic or two or three, deeply annoying) characters.
In addition to taking an unflinching and nuanced approach to issues like abortion, the act of finally closing the book on that first Big Love, and the fallout after the reveal of a parent’s lifelong secret, season four of Dunham’s Girls brought out series-high performances from Allison Williams, Adam Driver and Dunham herself and boasted some quietly beautiful art direction. Not to mention, of course, that the writing is still as weird, funny, and unafraid as ever. The characters of Girls may still care what others think of them, but the show itself is not about to start worrying about that anytime soon. – KH
Hannibal is over. It’s done. After three seasons of Bryan Fuller negotiating with Standards and Practices about just how much blood and sex he can get away with on network TV, NBC canned the series, citing poor ratings. In fairness to NBC, the last season of Hannibal is probably one of the least traditional episodic crime dramas that began life as a procedural.
The first half essentially ties up the majority of the loose ends from the first two seasons, including the pile of bodies left in Hannibal’s kitchen… and pantry… and on the doorstep, while also chasing Hannibal around Europe and filling in bits of his backstory with elements from the mythos that were more organ meat than offal. The second half of the season jumps forward in time three years to adequately set up Red Dragon and the distance between Will Graham, Hannibal Lecter, and Jack Crawford, borrowing more from Manhunter and the Red Dragon novel than the movie of the same name.
This isn’t the kind of structure that welcomes new viewers, and Fuller knew that going in. He chose to double down on everything that made fans fall in love with the series over the first two seasons, starting and ending the season with the love between Hannibal and Will Graham. The result is one of the most beautiful and impressionistic television shows I’ve seen, and while I’m sad to have seen it go, I couldn’t have imagined a more fitting ending. – DF
No other show has and no other show will end with an old man farting and confessing to multiple murders. That’s because The Jinx isn’t like other shows. God bless the True Crime renaissance we’re in right now because there’s something about fiction that can’t capture the true shock of a really well-crafted True Crime. For so long, the genre has been confined to Investigation Discovery, 48 Hours Mysteries, and episodes of 20/20 that aren’t about the dangers of Mexican knockoff botox treatments.
The Jinx was mana from God, a perfect amount of sustenance to keep us going to through the desert that is True Crime on television. Robert Durst is the perfect subject, not only because he doesn’t have eyelashes and looks like his skin is coming unglued from his skeleton, but everything about his backstory to his adjacency to multiple murders is truly stranger than fiction. Of course a person so rich and removed from society whose father made him watch his mother jump off a roof to her death as if it were a TV show would murder and disembody someone in Galveston.
But the real majesty of The Jinx is the last two episodes. The handwriting revelation and confrontation along with an ACTUAL FUCKING MURDER CONFESSION is the craziest thing to happen on TV this year. Hands down. Compounded with Robert Durst’s arrest the day before the finale shows that the madness of The Jinx couldn’t just be confined to our TV and leaked back into the real world. Step up your game, show runners. This is how you end your show. – DG
Mad Men is a show that started off with an impossible level of style, savvy, and intention and over the course of seven seasons only grew better, stranger, more beautiful, and more in love with the complex stories it strove to tell about a group of very remarkable and remarkably imperfect people. And viewers fell equally in love because it was all done so well, so thoughtfully and boldly. So many memories of this show–a drunken lawn-mower accident, a cigarette shared between mother and daughter, an accidental boyfriend-stabbing with a makeshift bayonet, a broken man filling his empty Manhattan penthouse with lawn furniture–are specific enough that we can look back on them as if they really happened in our own lives.
These final episodes were an excellent showcase for the incredible depth and breadth of talent thatMad Men has cultivated throughout its run, giving a number of characters very careful and considered, if not always positive, sendoffs as they and the world they inhabit marched boldly on into the 1970s. A gorgeously shot show well-known for its iconic and meaningful imagery, Mad Mendidn’t disappoint in this last season: Peggy Olson performing a poignant roller skate routine through the dark and empty offices of Sterling Cooper as Roger dolefully plays piano; Peggy, again, striding into McCann Erickson cigarette in mouth, shades on indoors, and The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wifein hand; a teenaged Sally Draper slowly scrubbing a dish as her mother, dying of lung cancer, sits at the kitchen table and smokes a cigarette because what does it matter now?; and, of course, Don Draper sitting cross-legged on a hill overlooking the California ocean, draped in a loose cotton button down, meditating with eyes closed and the only sublimely happy expression we’ve ever seen on his face. Mad Men stuck its landing, and capped off a 92-episode run in a way that made us wish for more, while acknowledging how right it felt to reach the end. – KH
The great True Detective vs Fargo wars are over and there is no doubting the winner. While True Detective sulked and mumbled its way through one of the most disappointing sophomore seasons in recent memory, Fargo not only lived up to the expectations set by its remarkable first season but blew them completely out of the water, turning FX into a true critical power player in the basic cable landscape.
The first season of Fargo subverted expectations by remixing the basic ingredients of its source material, keeping viewers of the original film in suspense from the moment its pilot ended on an extremely tragic note. But in season two, Fargo went weird, taking stylistic and thematic detours that were unexpected not because there was a source material to avoid mimicking anymore, but because they were completely unpredictable. Like so many mythological tragedies, Fargo season two prominently featured a war between opposing tribes that begins as a result of a totally random act. A small town butcher’s wife (Kirsten Dunst) runs over the weakest son of a Midwest crime patriarch as he flees a shake down gone horribly wrong, setting off the most explosive chain of events the region has ever known, ensuring that the fame she has always desired will come her way, but at greater cost than she could have ever predicted.
Though it featured many brooding men, from the occasionally naively heroic Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) to a surprisingly durable butcher (Jesse Plemons) to the various sons quarreling for control over that crime empire, Fargo carried on season one’s focus on dismantling classic notions of masculinity. The toughest, sharpest characters were mostly all women, whether it’s the Gerhardt crime matriarch played by Jean Smart or Betsy Solverson (Cristin Milioti), both figures who actively bypass bullshit at every turn and get to the heart of situations the men around them seem befuddled by. Even minor characters, like a butcher shop assistant with a budding obsession with Albert Camus, seemed to grasp the rules of the Fargo world better than the men, acknowledging the absurdity of violence. Granted, the show did not lack for violent badasses, like the silver tongued Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) or the vengeful Hanzee (Zahn McClarnon). But there were no real Lorne Malvos in season two, only various levels of victims and troubleshooters.
Beyond that, the second season of Fargo was simply more ambitious and bold in its aesthetics, drenching the show in a washed out ‘70s film palette and filled with unique tricks like a recurring split screen set-up that allowed simultaneously occurring plotlines to be directly mirrored. The first season of Fargo only needed to live up to the original film and prove its viability beyond the novelty of that, but the second season aimed higher, wanting to test the boundaries of television storytelling narratively and stylistically. And that’s why a mopey LA noir like True Detective never even stood a chance. – MD