The Top 10 TV Shows of 2015
I didn’t plan on making a TV Top 10 list this year. I was not trying to follow a great deal of TV in 2015, and given that I barely had time to review movies this year, I did not spend nearly as much time as I would have liked writing about television. But once December arrived, and I started thinking about year-end reminiscences, it hit me just how much good TV I had soaked up in 2015 without even trying, upwards of 20 or 30 shows I would call good or mostly great – and at that point, there was no holding back. I had to make a countdown.
And what a countdown this is. 2015 was such an incredibly rich year for television, with so many great shows coming from so many different corners, that this is easily one of the toughest Top 10 tasks I’ve ever set myself, for film or for television. Just getting the list down to 10 titles was maddening, and ranking it involved a lot of staring blankly at the screen, wondering how on earth I could compare all these incredible shows. I would say several of the series on this list had straight-up masterwork seasons, and I cannot count the number of times television left me reeling in 2015, left me dazed and pummeled and unable to do or think about anything else while I processed the emotions and ideas and aesthetics of what I saw on screen. 2015 was, as has been said many times, ‘Peak TV’ in America, with more scripted shows in production than ever before; and even then, it’s the sheer barrage of quality that hits hardest, that so many of that record number of shows could be so good, so powerful, so moving, in so many different ways.
So this is my Top 10 Shows of the year, but I couldn’t stop there, and once the countdown is finished, I have listed another 10 ‘Honorable Mentions,’ which you could consider as a rough #11 - #20. And I could have kept listing shows out from there, but then I would never have gotten this finished, which would break my heart, because celebrating the year in television that was 2015 seems kind of essential.
So without further ado, here are the Top 10 TV Shows of 2015 (and ten more Honorable Mentions), coming up after the jump…
Hear me out.
The point of a Top 10 list is not, in my mind, to attempt an empirical ranking of the absolute ‘best’ in any given category. That is A) impossible, B) presumptuous, and C) an invitation to the greatest possible amount of scorn and criticism, as trying to force something objective out of an inherently subjective process does nobody any good whatsoever. Top 10 lists are fun because they are an expression of the individual writer’s personality and taste, a statement of what works of art mattered most to them in a given year. I like both writing and reading Top 10 lists because they allow me to put the year in media in perspective for myself, and to get to know the writers I like just a little bit better.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that while there were certainly television shows outside of my Top 10 that are probably ‘better’ than CBS’ Supergirl, I could find no honest way of making a Top 10 TV shows of 2015 list without including it, because few movies, shows, or games these past twelve months brought me more joy and excitement than this clever, fun, beautifully earnest spin on the Superman mythos. As the DC Comics films division gears up to produce the most grim, colorless movies based on their brightest and silliest properties, Supergirl quickly proved to be a big breath of fresh air week-in and week-out, its commitment to crafting a world with a strong beating heart within a proudly cheesy atmosphere not only honoring the tonal dynamism comic books are capable of, but proving how utterly unnecessary it is to make characters like these ‘gritty’ or ‘dark’ in the first place. With its distinctive characters, deftly handled love triangle, and sharply realized workplace setting, Supergirl is plenty relatable without resorting to misery and angst, and with its themes of familial connection, dual identity, and strong feminist foundation, the show is plenty deep without drowning in misery.
It is also, above all else, fun. Ali Adler and Andrew Kreisberg have created a show with a pretty deep bench of good, interesting characters who have enjoyable, interesting chemistry with one another, and wrapped it all in a premise that ensures there are more than enough corners of this universe worth exploring on a weekly basis. Supergirl could honestly function pretty well if it were just a straight-up workplace sitcom, built on the friendly but combative chemistry between Kara and her media mogul boss Cat Grant (an outstanding Calista Flockhart, clearly having a ball in the roll), but the superheroics at the Department of Extraterrestrial Operations, where Kara gets to interact with adoptive sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) and mysterious leader Hank Henshaw (an insanely fun David Harewood, more alive here than I’ve ever seen him before) is pretty great as well. And if the show were just about Kara and her best friends/potential love interests Winn (Jeremy Jordan) and James Olsen (Mechad Brooks, giving us a great evolution of the well-known character), it would do pretty well at that too.
But Supergirl does all of this, and has time for some generally impressive network TV superheroics as well. The common link between all corners of the show is the fantastic work by star Melissa Benoist, who more or less instantly proved herself to be one of the best matches of character and performer in the modern age of superhero films. She can do so many things so very well, making Kara an intensely relatable character whether she’s out fighting supervillains, getting coffee for her boss, sharing time with her sister, or trying to navigate her feelings for Winn and Jimmy. Benoist has charisma and screen presence to share, and even when the weekly stories are thin, her work is so magnetic that it is impossible not to enjoy the proceedings. With Benoist in the lead, Supergirl surpasses any previous live-action incarnation of the Superman mythos for me, and it soars straight past a lot of other great modern superhero properties as well.
Above all else, Supergirl just feels fresh. It probably shouldn’t, or at least not this strongly, given that it is adhering to a lot of familiar superhero tropes and is exploring a mythology that is, at this point, more than well-trod. But you know what? Diversity really does mean something, and making a female-focused superhero property – and making it actively feminist, with the show considering the actual implications of having a female superhero in our modern world – makes Supergirl feel fresher and more genuine than the vast majority of comic-book content out there. And do I sort of feel the need to bang the drum for the show extra hard, given that it’s one of the only flag-bearers in mainstream media for expanding the definition of ‘superhero’ beyond the male? Sure, but I’m also happy to do so, because the series really is excellent, deserving of every ounce of praise I can muster. There have been ‘better’ shows this year, but few I found myself so excited to sit down and watch, each and every week. DC films better sit up and take notice, because if shows like Supergirl offer this much fun from the comfort of our living rooms, what need have we for big, brooding slices of misery on the big screen?
9. Better Call Saul
The best new series of 2015, AMC’s Better Call Saul built upon the historic foundation created by Breaking Bad and, to my mind, maybe even improved upon it. Built on the sort of moral and ethical dilemma I cannot say I’ve seen before – a man desperately trying to be good in a world that wants him to break bad – Better Call Saul cleverly inverts the premise of Breaking Bad, while also operating on a more intimate scale and with much greater focus than even its all-time great predecessor. Only time will ultimately tell whether or not Better Call Saul will match or improve on Breaking Bad as a whole, but it’s starting out on even stronger footing than the earlier series did, with Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould bringing every ounce of dramatic skill and creative ingenuity they honed over six years of Walter White to the story of Saul Goodman.
Or should I say Jimmy McGill? Either way, he’s played by Bob Odenkirk, and either way, Odenkirk turned out to be a pretty tremendous dramatic lead. One of my favorite things about Better Call Saul is its sense of focus, as Gilligan and Gould have largely broken with TV tradition, and even with the way they did things on Breaking Bad, in abandoning B- and C-plots in favor of an intense focus on Jimmy and his attempts to build a legitimate law business. The only real exception is the series’ sixth episode – the outstanding “Five-0,” an incredible origin story for Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut – and otherwise, the show leans almost completely on Odenkirk and Jimmy, to the point where Gilligan and Gould were perfectly willing to leave Mike in the parking booth for weeks on end, and even leave contracted series regular Michael Mando (Nacho) on the bench for 6 out of the season’s 10 episodes. And it’s not until one sees a show with this kind of iron focus that one realizes what so many other television series are lacking. Better Call Saul is constructed entirely around the needs of the story, and since it happens to be a great story, each week turned out to be something of a tour-de-force, especially in the second-half of the season when Jimmy’s attempts to do the right thing led to greater and greater personal tragedy.
And where Breaking Bad was something of a modern American Western, with big ideas and grand images and iconic villains, Better Call Saul quickly carved out a niche for itself by reveling in the mundane details of Jimmy McGill’s inherently less-flashy life. Trading in the RV, underground meth labs, and frequent trips to the New Mexico desert with courthouses, parking booths, and retirement homes, Better Call Saul is a show that revels in the mundane and the everyday. At its most flamboyant, a major setting is a home stripped of electricity, and on the sole occasion the show directly imitated Breaking Bad – taking Jimmy out to the desert in the second episode for a confrontation with one of the parent show’s original villains, Tuco Salamanca – it did so precisely to subvert, question, and play with our existing expectations. Where Breaking Bad was grand and broad, Better Call Saul is quiet and intimate, asking some very big questions about the human condition, but through a much narrower prism, focusing not on extravagant criminal activities, but on the day-to-day struggles Jimmy McGill encounters in his quest to simply be a good and decent man. The series rarely reached for the grand gesture, and was instead content to illustrate character and theme through small personal interactions on a decidedly grounded, palpably realistic scale. And while that’s more to my personal tastes, it’s hard to imagine any fan of Breaking Bad not falling for Better Call Saul, given how effortlessly that show’s sense of style and visual prowess transferred to the spin-off.
In fact, it only speaks to the incredible quality of television in 2015 that Better Call Saul wound up finishing on the lower end of this list, something I really could not imagine when this aired near the start of the year. Breaking Bad was one of my favorite shows throughout its run, and now its legacy continues in a show that is even more on my wavelength. If that isn’t a creative achievement worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.
8. Parks and Recreation
NBC’s Parks and Recreation was one of several all-time great shows to say farewell in 2015, and it was one of several to go out with one of its very best seasons. Parks and Rec never fell off a cliff the way its sister series The Office did, but its sixth season (2013-2014) was definitely its weakest since the first, still featuring many great performances and lots of big laughs and a great big heart, but with writing that felt increasingly tired as the characters reached plateaus it was hard to develop beyond. So this was probably the right time to end, but over the course of its final 13 episodes, it became awfully hard to fathom saying goodbye, as Parks and Recreation found itself completely reinvigorated by an ingenious three-year time jump and the proximity to a definitive conclusion.
Season 7 started a little bit slow, with an opening arc that pitted Leslie (Amy Poehler) and Ron (Nick Offerman) against each other in a story that felt slightly underdeveloped; but then we got to the season’s fourth episode, “Leslie and Ron,” an absolutely masterful two-hander between Poehler and Offerman, and with that one all-time great episode, we were off to the races, moving through a fun and exciting arc in which Leslie and friends found themselves trying to run tech company Gryzzl out of town, and then spending the back half of the season taking a Return of the King approach to ending, and simply telling a bunch of great stories about these characters evolving and moving on. Along the way, we were given several of the series’ best episodes, all leading up to “One Last Ride,” which stands tall among my favorite series finales of all time, a clever leap through the future that brought these characters and their stories to a close without making us feel as though we were missing out on anything. Like all good things, Parks and Recreation had to come to an end, but in this final year, it found a way to make its wonderful cast of characters eternal, and for that alone, this is an incredible achievement.
Here is one of several shows on this list, and in 2015 as a whole, that delivered a terrific and surprising debut season in 2014, one so creatively invigorating that it seemed hard to imagine where the show could go from there. The first season of Andy Daly’s black comedy about Forrest MacNeil, ‘reviewer of life,’ was plenty insane in its own right, involving a traumatic and unexpected divorce, armed robbery, a deathly trip to space, and a harrowing Eyes Wide Shut-style orgy. With an ending that seemed to give Forrest the happiest ending he could ever hope for, Review felt like it could have concluded right there, and existed as a classic one-and-done. How on earth could you top the manic heights of that inaugural season?
But Review did indeed come back for more, and its second season wasn’t just better in every way – richer in comedy, pathos, and especially horror – but also several magnitudes more extreme, opening with an episode in which Forrest was shot, spent half a year recovering, and then blackmailed his nurse-turned-girlfriend until she had a mental break, and only got crazier from there. Two houses were destroyed, many people died, Forrest spent months lost at sea in a rowboat, and it all climaxed with one of 2015’s two grand homages to Arthur Conan Doyle. Through it all, Review became perhaps the most singular, fascinating viewing experience of the year, turning into a virtual game of chicken with the viewer where every week, I thought for sure the show could not go to a place darker or more horrific than it had the week before, and every week, the show called my bluff and threw Forrest through some fresh, terrifying ringer. No other show this year (with the possible exception of Hannibal) felt quite so audacious, and as much time as I spent laughing at Review, I probably spent even more watching the show with my hand over my eyes and/or mouth, cringing to my core at just how far Daly and company were willing to go.
And yet none of this was lunacy for lunacy’s sake. Forrest MacNeil talks a lot about how he views his show as a sort of social and cultural mission, these ‘life reviews’ serving as documents for the good of mankind, and at least from the fictional remove at which Comedy Central’s Review exists, he has achieved just that. Forrest’s suffering was not merely hilarious, but rather terrifyingly profound, the ultimate deconstruction of the white male anti-hero archetype that has defined the cable drama since The Sopranos; and the more the show held Forrest accountable for his crimes, moving him further and further from the starting point of ‘lovable idiot’ to ‘dangerous, possibly psychotic sociopath,’ the series found wellsprings of depth and emotion that were wondrous to behold. The penultimate episode, in which Forrest goes to jail and imaginary friend Clovers suffers one of the most heart-wrenching on-screen deaths of 2015, was a miniature masterclass in comedy and drama alike.
And like a few other shows on this list, Review is a show that could have a future, but which I may prefer to see simply end here, because I cannot imagine them possibly topping this, and I cannot fathom how Daly and company could ever devise a better ending for this great series. But then, I was saying the same thing this time last year, and I am very happy to be proven wrong. If there is one thing I learned watching this season, when it comes to Review, all bets are off.
6. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
That the first season of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight was roundly outstanding – an equally funny and intelligent weekly investigation into issues from all around the world – was really no surprise. Oliver had been impressing all of us for years in his stand-up and on The Daily Show, and his stint as guest host during Jon Stewart’s 2013 leave of absence remains one of the most invigorated runs that show ever had. Last Week Tonight became appointment viewing from the moment it debuted, and few television hosts have ever tackled a new assignment with such a sheer amount of confidence and enthusiasm.
Here’s the surprising part, though – after a terrific debut year in 2014, where it seemed like Oliver and company had nowhere to go but up, they did just that, blowing past the incredibly high standard set in their first year to firmly establish Last Week Tonight as not only one of the best comedy programs on all of television, but as one of the best outlets for American journalism operating today. Oliver’s trip to Russia to interview Edward Snowden – the best and most effective piece yet created about Snowden’s leaks and American surveillance culture, and yes, I include the Oscar-winning Citizenfour in that ranking – was really only the tip of the iceberg. Stories about American territories, Canadian elections, FIFA scandals, seed faith, and a recurring series of reports on the United States legal system were every bit as educational and revelatory as they were funny, and since Oliver lands about a dozen knockout comedic punches each and every week, that really is saying something. Just listing all those notable stories Oliver and company reported on this year – which are only a small sliver of what they accomplished – and realizing that all of it arrived in one calendar year is sort of staggering. Oliver tends to keep a genial tone even when he’s outraged, which makes it easy to forget just how pummeling some of these stories were, how expertly Oliver and his team cut to the heart of the issues and, most importantly, put human faces to the cost of corruption and bureaucratic incompetence. Last Week Tonight is frequently one of the more heart-wrenching shows on television, and were it not for the comedic edge Oliver brings to each story, it’s likely the show would collapse under the weight of the incredibly heavy issues it goes after each and every week.
But the show is really damn funny, and at the end of the day, that tends to be what amazes me most about it. That Oliver and his writers can dive this deep into stories, can do so much reporting and assemble such good summaries of such weighty topics, while also being ludicrously silly in their choice of big, illustrative stunts and running gags, is what ultimately makes Last Week Tonight so unique in the television landscape. Oliver swings big with his comedy every week, whether in little recurring comic gestures like his “A country you think about so little, you didn’t even realize that’s not X” running geography gag, or in big climactic segments like his star-studded Infrastructure parody or crazy mascot-laden musical numbers. John Oliver may frequently stare into the darkest parts of humanity, but he does so with joy in his voice and a song in his heart, and that kind of unrelenting optimism in the face of life’s harsh truths is sort of inspiring to behold. Jon Stewart may be the modern model of a satirist helping us laugh our way through the pain, but at this point, John Oliver has far surpassed his mentor, and Last Week Tonight feels like the ultimate evolution of The Daily Show format where Oliver cut his teeth. That Last Week Tonight was riding so high in 2015 made it a lot easier to stomach the end of Stewart’s Daily Show, and at the end of the day, I don’t know if I can give any higher praise to what Oliver has accomplished.
If it wasn’t already set in stone, the third and likely final season of Bryan Fuller and company’s nightmarish fever dream firmly established Hannibal as the most experimental work to ever air on American network television, and probably on cable TV as well. This is, simply put, one of the most aesthetically rich, bold, and engaging TV series to ever exist, and in embracing its experimental qualities to their fullest, Hannibal soared to dizzying heights in its last, utterly triumphant outing.
And yes, it is worth noting up front that this approach absolutely was not for everyone, and the elliptical, sometimes barely narrative patterns of the season’s first half were alienating even to a large portion of the devoted fan-base. But if HBO’s The Wire was the Great American Novel for television, then I have always viewed Hannibal as the Great American Avant-Garde Film for television, its aesthetic being rooted in the rich lineage of American experimental cinema – the series often seemed to take as much from Stan Brakhage or Kenneth Anger as it did from original author Thomas Harris – and as some who just spent five years studying at CU Boulder, the Great American Avant-Garde Film School, I sort of went head-over-heels for Hannibal throwing itself full-on into visual and auditory madness.
Hannibal is simply my jam, and while it is almost certainly not in my best interests to admit this, I don’t think I met any series in 2015 on quite the same wavelength as Hannibal. Did this final season have its flaws? Sure, and I can definitely imagine a version of this season that maintained a tad more narrative coherency in its first half without sacrificing any of the aesthetic experimentation. But Hannibal is also, first and foremost, an experience, and there are no experiences on TV quite as all-consuming as Hannibal, its intoxicating visuals, operatic violence, alternatingly languid and rapid pace, and hellish nightmare soundscape (courtesy of the brilliant composer Brian Reitzell, who really outdid himself this year) creating an atmosphere one surrenders to and lives inside of more than one actively views and processes. Week-in and week-out, that experience is equal parts horrifying and magical, and there is simply nothing else like it in the mainstream media landscape.
And the thing is, Hannibal Season 3 is more narratively and especially thematically coherent than its detractors give it credit for, the extra-dreamy Italian chapters serving as the appropriately disorienting fallout from the seismic shifts at the end of Season 2, and the simultaneous reconstruction and deconstruction of Will Graham in the season’s climactic Red Dragon arc stemming organically from just how far the series ‘broke’ that character in the first half of the season. Hell, even if you couldn’t tolerate the literary pretensions and , I cannot imagine any fans of Thomas Harris’ works not falling head over heels for Hannibal’s adaptation of Red Dragon, a pitch-perfect contemporary reimagining of a great, great novel that put the 2.5 seasons of character foundation to good use, and put a fascinating postmodern spin on the story to boot. Richard Armitage gave the definitive portrayal of Francis Dolarhyde, slotting in nicely alongside Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen’s definitive Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins has nothing on Mads, as far as I’m concerned), and Bryan Fuller and Steven Lightfoot brought it all to such a spectacularly violent, poignant, and utterly fitting conclusion that, much as I love the series, I honestly hope it never gets revived. As a 3-season project, Hannibal feels every bit as ‘complete’ as it should, even if ‘complete’ means evocative and mysterious rather than perfectly clear or declarative.
Which is exactly as it should be. In its own wonderfully weird way, I think Hannibal very possibly went out with its greatest and most artistically significant season, and I cannot wait for the day when film schools discover this cult gem and point to it as one of the most miraculous meldings of the mainstream and the avant-garde in modern media history, picking apart not only every gorgeous and gross bit of visual symphony, but every inch of rich and terrifying Freudian subtext. Academia is going to have a field day with this series one day, and for those of us who were there from the beginning, it will not be a surprise. Hannibal was a masterpiece – from bloody beginning to bloodier end, the most pleasurable nightmare I’ve ever had.
There were definitely times, watching this great second season of FX’s Fargo, where I felt myself wondering if I had ever enjoyed anything quite this much. At its peak – which I would say was the sixth episode, “Rhinocerous,” which involved Bokeem Woodbine’s Mike Milligan reciting Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem while preparing for battle and included multiple outstanding monologues by Nick Offerman’s Karl Weathers, the Breakfast King of Loyola – Fargo was operating on a level so absurdly high it felt dizzying to watch.
Ultimately, there were a few other shows that mattered slightly more to me – and we’re at the point on this list where it’s all a matter of degrees – but Fargo had as close to perfect a season as any show on this list, and it is yet another entry that took an insane leap forward from an already great first season. And that great first season was already something of a miracle, given what lunacy it was for Noah Hawley to take the iconic Coen Brothers movie and turn it into an anthology series ever bit as weird, wild, and deeply felt as its cinematic forbearer. And in Season 2, Hawley and company displayed another bit of insanity in choosing to relocate the action to 1979, feature a vastly bigger ensemble, and tell a much more complex story, the kind of formula that would usually result in a muddled mess (*cough*True Detective*cough*), but instead allowed Fargo to soar higher than ever. If Season 1 was The Godfather, then Season 2 was The Godfather Part II, a bigger and more intricate story that deepened and enriched the already beautiful family foundation that is the basis for this story.
I suppose that would make Patrick Wilson the Robert DeNiro to Keith Carradine’s Marlon Brando, which is an absolutely fair comparison as far as I’m concerned, given that Wilson did the best work of his career as the stoic, noble, utterly compelling heart of this second season. And he was surrounded by nothing but greatness, as Fargo quickly revealed itself to have the best cast of 2015, with outstanding turns from Kristen Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Jean Smart, Ted Danson, Cristin Milioti, Bokeem Woodbine, Jeffrey Donovon, Rachel Keller, Nick Offerman, Kieran Culkin, and many others, all of whom did career best or near-career-best work bringing this impossibly rich crime saga to vivid, exuberant life.
With an endlessly invigorating sense of style and atmosphere – those songs! those sets! that hair! – Fargo managed to mix fun and pathos seamlessly, each episode offering big, dark laughs, edge-of-your-seat thrills, and a few punches to the gut for good measure. Hawley’s Fargo has long since become its own thing, and the biggest connection it has to the Coen Brothers at this point is a qualitative one, it blend of tones, technical expertise, and razor sharp writing proving every bit the match for those venerable masters of American cinema. This was a classic season, one I cannot wait to revisit many times over, and even if my Godfather comparison would be setting us up for disappointment with a potentially messy Part III, I trust Hawley and his team pretty implicitly when it comes to Fargo. Season 3 can’t come soon enough.
3. The Leftovers
The first season of HBO’s The Leftovers hit me about as hard any cable drama ever has, its unflinching look at loss in a fundamentally broken world proving to be the ultimate outlet for creator Damon Lindelof’s unique, wonderful blend of spirituality, existential wandering, and genre instincts. Yet with a new and improved theme song, a sharper sense of narrative and thematic focus, and a bold commitment to servicing individual perspectives within its vast and complex ensemble, The Leftovers returned for Season 2 every bit as powerful as it was throughout Season 1, and only proved to become increasingly profound and provocative over the course of its ten-episode run. Switching the setting, adding more characters, and increasing the overall narrative complexity managed to enhance the show’s already formidable emotional impact, the second season becoming such an expert masterclass in world-building that it often felt as if one could walk right into the TV and into the fictional town of Jarden. In that way, The Leftovers is science-fiction at its finest, but it is also quite a bit more than that, the fascinating blend of psychodrama, interpersonal intrigue, and family-based storytelling making for one of the most singular series to ever air on American television.
There are a whole lot of names I could throw out to praise when discussing this season, starting with lead director Mimi Leder, whose work on the season premiere and finale is perhaps the finest I saw all year outside of Rachel Talalay’s work on this year’s last two Doctor Who episodes. Every member of the ensemble proved to be a knockout, from series newcomers Regina King and Kevin Carroll to Season 1 MVPs Carrie Coon and Christopher Eccleston, all the way down to a never-better Liv Tyler, who was positively on fire as she embraced her character’s darkest qualities. And yet, the season’s renewed focus and shifting perspectives somehow served to make ostensible protagonist Justin Theroux even more of an anchor for the series than he was last year, and through the second season he took this role of a lifetime and ran for it. His work here is every bit on par with other cable greats like Jon Hamm or Brian Cranston, and with most of the old guard departed from the Best Actor lineup at the Emmys, Theroux should be the obvious choice to take their place (if we lived in a world where Emmy voters were aware of the existence of The Leftovers, of course).
Nearly every episode this year was a home-run, with the antepenultimate “International Assassin” standing out as the most Damon Lindelof-y thing Damon Lindelof has ever written, something I say as the highest form of praise. After finishing the show’s first season, I wrote on Twitter that there is no one working in television today I would like to have a conversation with more than Damon Lindelof – to talk about genre, about spirituality, about mysteries, about life, about loss, etc. I love the way he thinks, and I love that The Leftovers exists as a vehicle for him to put it all on the line. The highest praise I can give for Season 2, perhaps, is that in a way, watching the show feels like I’m already having that conversation, so personal and lacerating does every moment of it feel, so deep does it probe every idea it chases. Those last 25 minutes or so of the finale – which vacillate between exquisite comedy, deepest pathos, utter horror, and an utterly fulfilling climax of absolution and forgiveness – absolutely wrecked me, and while The Leftovers will be coming back for a third and final season, this is another show where, had this been the end, it would have felt perfect in every possible way. But at this point, it isn’t hard to keep the faith where The Leftovers is concerned, and I cannot wait to see that conversation continue next year.
2. Mad Men
I thought long and hard about where to rank Mad Men on this list, and it’s tough. This is very likely my favorite American drama series of all time. This final season was outstanding, every bit the conclusion Mad Men needed and viewers deserved. It’s also a small seven-episode batch that is tough to compare to something like Fargo or The Leftovers, which told a bigger, fuller story over the course of their 2015 seasons, and I could accept the argument that while Mad Men is a better show than either of them overall, both series, and perhaps several others, had ‘better’ 2015 runs.
But at the end of the day, the emotions I felt watching the final stretch of my favorite show were more all-encompassing even than the great Leftovers, the themes and ideas on display richer and more rewarding than most any other series. It is no coincidence that both Mad Men and my Number 1 show are the two series I covered in depth in 2015. I did not put them at #2 and #1 because I devoted so much time to them; rather, me being inspired to put so much time into them told me they had to be at #2 and #1. A small difference, perhaps, but a crucial one. I am a writer, and I am a critic, and when I love to write about or discuss something, that’s because it is truly special, truly means something fundamentally important to me. And Mad Men is nothing if not important.
This was a season of countless great moments – Pete shouting “The king ordered it!”, Peggy skating around the office while Roger played the organ, Betty facing death with her head held high, Don’s breakdown and confession to Peggy over the phone, Peggy finally expressing her love for Stan, etc. – but also one of immense cumulative power. It told an individual story for Don Draper that was compelling in its own right, with Don’s final wandering road trip, but also paid off on eight years of storytelling, ultimately revealing Don’s decade-long journey to be a deeply existential one, and ending on a point that was absolutely perfect in its beautiful, provocative ambiguity. Once again, the shortened 7-episode season did not allow for the full richness of ensemble character arcs in the way full-length seasons once allowed for; Don was the clear focus, and Peggy, Pete, Roger, Joan, and others had great individual moments and smaller, more resolution-based arcs than full season-long stories in and of themselves. That’s okay, ultimately, as the writing and performances remained sharp and insightful enough to make an immense impact.
Unlike some, I truly enjoyed every episode this season. Yes, it started off slowly. Yes, that’s how every Mad Men season started. Yes, there was that one Megan episode that lots of people disliked, apparently forgetting that Megan was a major part of this show for its entire second half, and unfortunately ignoring that her final story was actually a pretty good one. Mad Men built to greatness one last time this year, and when it arrived, it never stopped, those last four episodes standing as four of the best hours this great show ever produced, and thus ranking pretty high in the overall TV pantheon. “Lost Horizon” was probably my favorite from this year – maybe my favorite 2015 TV episode period, behind a couple entries from my #1 series – and if the series finale, “Person to Person,” started out feeling a little overly neat, it ended with a series of emotional blows and deeply-felt highs that were positively electric.
So yes, in the end, it is difficult to separate my overall feelings of Mad Men, the eight-year magnum opus, from Mad Men, the seven episodes that aired in 2015. But these were seven great episodes, making for a stunning and powerful final stretch, and in the end, there were few experiences that mattered more to me on television this year.
In fact, there was only one. And it could only ever be this one…
1. Doctor Who
Even after talking about every single episode of this ninth, masterful season on the podcast, I have been struggling mightily to figure out how best to sum up my thoughts on this one. And it comes down to the same thing I said about Mad Men. At the end of the day, I am a critic. I have been for eleven years now, and it means I process art by discussing it, on page or through voice, and the highest praise I can give Doctor Who is that this year, week-in and week-out, it was a show I felt I had to talk about. Not want to talk about. Not like to talk about. But had to talk about, on the podcast, with Sean, going into every detail and pouring over every thought, not just because the series was good, or interesting, or surprising – and it was indeed all those things and more – but because it was meaningful, and it impacted me personally, and it made me feel things I had trouble processing in the moment, and which stayed with me far past the point at which the credits rolled. Several of the shows on this list did that to me this year – but none so intensely as Doctor Who, which reached the full potential of its 52 years of storytelling in this one glorious, masterpiece season.
The sheer consistency of this year is a big part of it. Doctor Who has always had its ups and downs, but this year, it was more or less all ups, with “The Magician’s Apprentice,” “The Witch’s Familiar,” “Under the Lake,” “Before the Flood,” “The Girl Who Died,” “The Woman Who Lived,” “The Zygon Invasion,” “The Zygon Inversion,” “Face the Raven,” “Heaven Sent,” and “Hell Bent” each proving to be great episodes of television. Not just good, but great, each and every one of them, sometimes historically so. And that’s eleven out of twelve episodes, with the lone straggler, “Sleep No More,” merely being slightly-above-average, the kind of episode one would never single out as being ‘the weak one’ in any other season of Doctor Who. Every single week, Doctor Who threw down, its ambitions writ large and its execution largely flawless, and every week, I was positively stunned by the quality of television unfolding before my eyes.
And if that’s all it was, eleven great episodes of TV, Doctor Who would still be my number one, because that’s an insanely strong batting average most series, even some of the great ones on this list, cannot boast. But what made Doctor Who Series 9 so special was that it was so, so much more than the sum of its parts. Up until the end, it was arced rather subtly, but the arc was there, with a strange sort of midlife crisis for the Doctor and a restless enthusiasm from Clara drawing a fascinating, emotional bond between our two main characters, and adding weight to every individual story. And then, in those last three episodes, showrunner Steven Moffat started doing things that no Doctor Who writer had ever done before, and pushing his actors to places no Doctor Who performers had ever gone before, and this season revealed itself to be a simultaneously grand and intimate story about loss and transience and death, what it means to die and what it means to live with loss. All of which are questions that are frankly beyond the realm of human comprehension, but which Doctor Who can somehow reach for because it is miraculous, and because it has this specific cosmic perspective, and because after 52 years, with this particular cast and crew, it can reach for those stars and wrangle them down to earth.
“Heaven Sent” was the best episode of TV all year, full stop, and it frankly bests any film or video game or book or any other piece of narrative media I encountered in 2015. Bold and beautiful and utterly, powerfully heart-wrenching, it is one the great narrative allegories for loss I have ever seen, one of the most impactful stories about dealing with grief that has ever been told, and easily one of the all-time high-points for this venerable old series. But the subsequent finale, “Hell Bent,” came pretty damn close, and if you look at other high-points like “Face the Raven” and “The Girl Who Died” and “The Zygon Inversion,” you could easily start making a list of 2015’s best TV episodes that would not include a non-Doctor Who entry past #5.
And then there’s Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. What more can I say about them? These were far and away the two best performances of 2015, the greatest duet television or cinema had to offer this calendar year, and perhaps the best acting Doctor Who has ever been treated to. The entire season seemed like it was structured to present Capaldi with a fresh acting challenge each and every week, and he more than rose to the occasion every time, while Coleman firmly established herself as the show’s strong, beating heart. Their final duet together, in “Hell Bent,” is one of those cinematic memories I will always treasure, their on-screen relationship an utterly unique and absolutely profound joy to watch unfold.
So this year, Doctor Who had the best episode of TV. It had the two best performances. It had the best musical score in Murray Gold. In “Heaven Sent” and “Hell Bent,” it had by far the best direction, courtesty of Rachel Talalay. And it also boasted some of the best writing, effects, cinematography, and more. That is a whole lot of bests. Calling Doctor Who the best series of 2015 is not some sort of ‘heart over head’ decision. It’s not me being biased by my longtime fandom for the show. It’s not me preferring high science-fiction to intimate character drama (which is very rare for me). It’s me looking at the television landscape, seeing nearly endless greatness, and then seeing Doctor Who towering very tall above absolutely everything else. It’s the easiest decision I have ever had to make for a Top 10 list. This year, Doctor Who was completely, utterly, and absolutely superior, and I would not have it any other way.
The hardest show to leave off my list was HBO and Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx, an outstanding piece of documentary television that happened to end with what may be one of the most significant and shocking episodes in TV history. Going with my heart over my head elevated a few shows above this one to me, but as an artistic achievement, The Jinx is undoubtedly one of the year’s best.
The other particularly agonizing omission was Netflix’s Bojack Horseman, a brilliant, biting, quietly devastating look at longing, depression, and loneliness…with animated animals and a subplot involving J.D. Salinger creating a show called Hollywoo Celebrities: What do they know? Do they know anything? Let’s find out! Yeah. Bojack Horseman is either the funniest sad show of all time or the saddest funny show of all time, and that balance is fascinating and wonderful to behold.
I have tended to think FX’s The Americans is always a step away from true greatness, bogged down by too many unnecessary supporting characters and subplots, but the third season was the leanest and most effective by far, as the central dilemma – what to do about daughter Paige, whose growing sense of inquisitiveness and independence threatened her undercover Soviet parents’ identities and security – gave the entire season a devastating emotional spine that was impossible to look away from. Leads Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell were better than ever, and the rest of the cast found themselves elevated right alongside them. The season turned out to be rather structurally messy in the end, but it almost didn’t matter, so excellent was nearly every moment from beginning to end.
Community moved to Yahoo for its sixth and final season this year, and while very few people were watching, it rebounded from a disastrous fourth season and an up-and-down fifth season to deliver an excellent final lap that was vintage Community through-and-through. New cast members Paget Brewster and Keith David fit the series like a glove, while Joel McHale, Gillian Jacobs, Allison Brie, Danny Pudi, Ken Jeong, and Jim Rash all delivered some of their best work in the show’s history. If Community wasn’t quite as fresh and surprising in old age as it was when it was young, it was every bit as moving, and that counts for a lot when sending off a series this great.
Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a show I enjoyed so much, I’ve already seen the entire first season twice, and while I still think the series has some uneven elements and goes out with a messy closing arc, its terrific lead performance in Ellie Kemper and strong, goofy sense of voice courtesty creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock makes this a unique, joyous winner.
Comedy Central’s Broad City came back even better and funnier for its second season, with the third episode, “Wisdom Teeth” – in which Abby goes on the greatest drug-induced post-wisdom-tooth-surgery trip in sitcom history – standing particularly tall as my pick for the funniest half-hour of 2015.
Netflix and Marvel came out swinging with Daredevil early this year, an outstanding realization of one of Marvel’s darkest and most compelling characters, with a great lead performance by Charlie Cox and an ensemble that easily supported a sometimes bloated thirteen-episode run. In particular, I would put the series’ ninth episode, “Speak of the Devil,” right up there against the best of Marvel’s theatrical movies. Thrilling, stylish, and surprisingly poignant, Daredevil proved Marvel can conquer television just as easily as it can take over the cinematic box office.
HBO’s Game of Thrones delivered by far its weakest season to date this year, as it strayed far off of George R.R. Martin’s path and struggled to find ways to suitably replace what was lost. But it also gave us “Hardhome,” the single greatest episode of Game of Thrones to date and one of the highlights of 2015, and included series-best arcs for Kit Harrington’s Jon Snow and Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister. Not a great year for the series, but definitely worthy of an honorable mention.
Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer reached a point of cultural zeitgeist this year, and deservedly so. Rarely has a season of sketch comedy been this consistently creative, funny, and piercing. Schumer didn’t change the formula or do anything radically different with the series this year – although standout episode “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer,” an episode-length sketch in glorious black-and-white, was a delightful departure – but instead continued a steady arc of improving and honing her craft, to a point where the show reliably delivered big, fiercely intelligent laughs week-in and week-out.
And finally, I would be remiss to not mention The Daily Show with Jon Stewart one last time, because although Stewart had already been surpassed by protégée John Oliver, and although he sometimes seemed to be playing out the clock in those last few years, his final run of episodes was really something special, and there were more than a few occasions this year where Stewart was called upon to once again be the voice of reason, anger, and sadness in a world gone mad. And the series finale, a beautiful, pitch-perfect farewell to a TV legend who deserved every note of it, was one of the best hours of media to air anywhere this year. Stewart is hardly ‘gone,’ and his TV legacy obviously lives on in all the shows his spawned, but The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was a series of historic importance, and its farewell lived up to every inch of its incredible legacy.
Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.