Every year, some clickbait-chasing doofus questions whether TV or film is the superior medium, ignoring that they’re entirely different from each other, good at different things and perfectly able to compliment each other. But what is undeniable is that in recent years, the quality of what we’re seeing on the small screen has become increasingly more exciting and sophisticated.
The idea of TV being a downgrade from cinema has long since dissipated, and barely a week goes by without the announcement or arrival of a television project from an acclaimed talent or featuring A-list stars. Even Woody Allen is getting in on the act. The new world of small screen entertainment means that the traditional TV season is becoming less important, with some of the most popular or acclaimed shows arriving in the once-rerun-heavy summer months.
But it’s still there, in part because of Emmy consideration (TV’s Oscars take place in September, honoring shows on a June-May calendar), and as a result, it’s at this time of year that we look back at our favorite TV shows of the year. The rules are simple: they have to have aired a complete season on U.S. TV (or a streaming service) in the past twelve months, and they have to be a theoretically continuing narrative series (we’ll address some of those that don’t fit in there at the end).
As ever, the competition has been stiff for the Best TV Shows Of The 2014/2015 Season, and the debate heated (the great “Bloodline” war of 2015 is still going on in Playlist HQ), although it’s notable that we were universally agreed on our top two picks, and their order. But we’ve finally narrowed down our list to 25, and below, you can find out what made it, and what will join “Parks & Recreation” (2010/2011), “Mad Men” (2011/2012), “Top Of The Lake” (2012/2013) and, last year, “True Detective” (2013/2014) in our hall of fame as the best show of the 2014/2015 season. Take a look, and let us know what your favorites have been in the comments.
By the end of April, Netflix statistics revealed that viewership for “Bloodline” was low, which left those who’ve seen the 13-episode-long first season more than a pinch disheartened. The creative trio of Glenn Kessler, Todd Kessler, and Daniel Zelman translated the non-linear narrative formula of their New York-based legal thriller “Damages” to a more intimate setting; digging at the core of a prominent family’s inner circle, and going to great lengths to prove that life in the Florida Keys is only sunnier on the outside. It plays out like a double-edged origin story of two brothers, with John Rayburn (Kyle Chandler) as the law-enforcing pillar of the community on one end, and his older brother Danny (Ben Mendelsohn) as the returned not-so-prodigal son who disturbs the peace on the other. While the overall result is not as good as some of the best stuff from “Damages,” the debut season is still packed with enough technical bravado, darkly twisted secrets, compelling sibling rivalry, and emotional verve to make one shake one’s head in quiet protest at the lack of attention the show got. It makes indelible use of an electric ensemble cast, feeding off the chemistry that percolates between all six members of the Rayburn clan; with Mendelsohn and Chandler leading the charge in spectacular fashion, and Linda Cardellini, Sam Shepard, Sissy Spacek and Norbert Leo Butz never too far behind. The more typical turns the show takes are easily forgiven thanks to the thematic heft the creators rely on as a way of tapping into sensitive familial bonds, turning out a unique and fascinating thriller in the process.
24. “House Of Cards”
It’s dubious reasoning to belief that artists pay too much attention to their critics. Negative criticism, valid or otherwise, often doesn’t help fuel creative self-esteem and one has to presume most of them are too busy and just surge forward. But after a very shark-jumping and suspension-of-disbelief breaking season two of “House Of Cards” — where the Vice President actually kills a reporter and then eventually hooks up in a threesome with his wife and lead security detail guard — creator Beau Willimon hired celebrated writer/director Tony Gilroy (“Michael Clayton”) as a consultant on the show. And to hear it from Willimon on a semi-recent “The Moment” podcast with Brian Koppelman, the showrunner intimated Gilroy was hired as a does-this-pass-the-smell-test safeguard, and also because he’s known for his fiercely blunt and frank criticisms of screenwriting when asked (Koppelman also advises to steel yourself up if you pass on work to Gilroy). And while there are a lot of talented writers on “House Of Cards,” Willimon included, we’d like to think one of the reasons the show rebounded so well from its dire season two is Gilroy’s narrative gatekeeping. Willimon even suggested that “House Of Cards” had to dial down a notch, focusing on President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright), the first lady, and might not be to all audiences’ taste. And again, perhaps this is why, with less sensationalistic plot twists to distract, “House Of Cards” once again became compelling and landed on its feet again. And aside from David Fincher’s work in the inaugural season, the ultimate third season ep, where Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) finally deals with Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) — crafted with taut, bruising intensity by James Foley (“Glengarry Glen Ross”) — might be its best-fashioned episode yet. So yes, a less flashy season, but a necessary one, that was better for it in the end.
“The Thing” meets “The Killing/Forbrydelsen” is such a neat summation of Sky Atlantic and Pivot’s drama that for the first few episodes it’s possible to be rather underwhelmed. Couple that with the glacial pace (funny ‘cos it’s set on a glacier!) and the deliberately moody, secretive atmosphere in which every single character has a shady past and/or a hidden agenda, and it’s a show that requires patience and, well, a little fortitude to get into. But the story of the fictional eponymous town in isolated Arctic Norway does gradually work into its own groove, allowing interpersonal dramas to unfold against the backdrop of a potentially supernatural threat. Even the variously twisted backstories start to make an uncanny kind of sense: this is a manufactured international community — people who have run literally to the ends of the earth to set up shop in one of the most inhospitable regions on earth — so of course they’re all a bit odd. Starring Sofie Gråbøl, a terrific Stanley Tucci, Richard Dormer, Sienna Guillory, Michael Gambon and Luke Treadaway amongst its fine ensemble, it also has a delightfully/disgustingly un-fainthearted approach to gore, and a gratifying instinct for killing off characters we’ve come to like at exactly the moment we might be getting a bit restless. Happily, it’s been picked up for a second season.
The problem with Channel 4 and Sundance’s underperforming “Babylon” was nothing to do with the show itself, it was expectations. Co-created by Danny Boyle with Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the “Peep Show” and “The Thick of It” credentials of the latter writers trailed every mention of the program in advance and set up an idea of it as a similar kind of acerbic satire that would do for the Metropolitan Police Force what Armando Iannucci’s show did for politics. But viewers coming to it from that angle were disappointed: the truth is that “Babylon”‘s satire is not so much delivered in witty, stinging dialogue (though there’s a fair bit of well-written quippery), as in drama that has the dial turned up a notch or two for heightened, and not always comic, effect. The subtlety of this approach made “Babylon” unlike anything else on TV and is doubtless why it never found much of an audience and still awaits news on a second series (which feels less likely with each passing week) — but it’s also exactly what made the show so interesting. Wading into topical waters involving police shootings, racism, surveillance, reality TV and spin within the British police system, it featured a welcome weekly showcase for Brit Marling as the TED Talk-ing PR hired to polish the institution’s image, as well as strong support from Bertie Carvel, James Nesbitt, Paterson Joseph and Daniel Kaluuya. If it never gets beyond a one-off (a second season is yet to be picked up), it can do so with its head high.
21. “Jane the Virgin”
Created by Jennie Snyder Urman, this fresh, funny remake of a Venezuelan telenovela owns its soapy roots — and transcends them. “Jane the Virgin” is entirely aware of how ridiculous its central premise is: Jane Gloriana Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez) is accidentally artificially inseminated when she goes for a pap smear and decides to keep the baby, whose father is a man she kissed five years ago. While “Jane the Virgin” resembles a fantasy in its over-the-top plot twists and the connections between its characters, the emotions are never less than genuine. Rodriguez leads a strong cast who fully commits, particularly Jaime Camil as her telenovela star father, and the actors are benefited by scripts that allow their characters to grow throughout the first season. While most heralded shows center on a male antihero, Jane is an inarguably good woman. She has flaws, but she cares about the people around her, and the show features the strongest female family relationships since “Gilmore Girls.” All that sincerity, coupled with the soapy drama, could feel overwhelming, but the show’s tone ably straddles the line between serious and silly, making it unlike anything else currently on TV. The scripts are smart, but “Jane the Virgin”’s secret weapon is Anthony Mendez as the show’s “Latin Lover” narrator. He adds to the experience with his humor and warmth, rather than demonstrating laziness on behalf of the writers’ room. The series represents a huge jump in quality for The CW, earning the network its first Golden Globe win ever for Rodriguez’s performance.
After a slightly slow start (which eventually paid off), the fourth season of “Girls” quickly turned into the most consistent and mature run of episodes that the show’s put together, and perhaps the best since the stellar debut season. The opening episode felt more like an epilogue to the previous finale, and taking Lena Dunham’s Hannah out of Brooklyn and placing her in the Iowa Writing Workshop never gelled, but the show quickly revealed that that was the point: Hannah might have the talent to be a professional writer, but she doesn’t have the temperament, and the character soon made the surprisingly self-aware decision to give up on her long-held dream and become a teacher. Putting her life in disarray signaled Dunham and co-showrunner Jenni Konner’s refusal to let the show carry along in its groove, and four seasons in, they also proved better at juggling their ensemble. Every existing character got meaty storylines (even Shoshanna, who’d been consistently underserved), and some strong new ones were introduced, most notably the terrific Gillian Jacobs as Mimi-Rose, Adam’s new girlfriend (points also for creating, in Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Desi, a character more loathsome than any incestuous child-murderer in “Game Of Thrones”). The shock of the new is long gone with “Girls,” and this show may not have episodes that reached the highs of say, the Patrick Wilson season two installment, but it’s grown and improved to a hugely impressive degree, and still remains appointment viewing.
19. “The Good Wife”
Following up a season that suddenly, five years in, had everyone not just noticing what a good show “The Good Wife” is, but actually talking about it, too (it made number 5 on last year’s list), was never going to be an easy task. And Season 6 does not quite scale those heights, indeed it loses focus for a few episodes mid-season as Alicia Florrick’s (Julianna Margulies) campaign for State’s Attorney takes over as the primary storyline — we watch for the lawyerin’, not the politics, dammit. But the deviations of those episodes only serve to bring more into focus what the rest (and remember, with 22 45 minute episodes, this is by some distance the most show of any on this list) does so well. Encompassing storylines whose thoughtfulness and often illuminating nature belie how directly they are spurred by topical events and issues (Ferguson, gun crime, gender and sexuality discrimination, copyright infringement and DRM, even an email hack similar to Sony’s are all explored), at its best “The Good Wife” is thoroughly engrossing, intelligent TV — pacy, character-driven and carefully plotted at the same time. There are other minor niggles, like how they seem to be overusing the dream sequence trope without ever really having found an elegant way of incorporating them, but in the main, we cannot help but love a season where oddball Elspeth Tascioni (Carrie Preston) finally gets together with oddball Josh Perotti (Kyle Maclachlan) to give a pretty sexy show its unexpectedly sexiest moment.
18. “Game of Thrones”
Another year, another season of George R.R. Martin‘s culturally seismic “Game of Thrones” punishes all who dare to hope. Except, this year more than ever, it feels almost inflammatory to call it “George R.R. Martin’s” because of the leaps of faith David Benioff and D.B. Weiss take from the books. Two major scenes that aren’t in the books, an early rape and a late human sacrifice, caused so much commotion due to how overtly dark and stomach-churning they are, that they turned some book-readers off from the show entirely. Indeed, Season 5 of ‘Thrones’ has grown disproportionately out of its own discomfort zone, as Benioff and Weiss grapple with Martin’s oversaturated Westeros and officially catch up to the books, with the very end of the season (if you don’t know what happens, you know nothing) being the last “OMGWTF?!” moment that readers were mentally prepared for. Everything that makes “Game of Thrones” such a powerhouse show is still intact in Season 5, but there’s a tinge of desperation in the way Benioff and Weiss push the buttons this time around, and the sense of too-much-too-quickly is stronger than ever (so much death in that last episode!) Still, the acting is stellar as always, and the technical achievement of bringing it all to life is as awe-inspiring for TV standards as ever. Some of the season’s highlights include Cersei (Lena Heady) getting a taste of what’s been coming to her since Season 1, the edge-of-your-seat battle in Episode 8’s “Hardhome,” and the meeting of two major fan-favorite characters in Dany (Emilia Clarke) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). Most exciting of all, though, is that for the first time since the show’s premiere, no one know what’s coming next. (Or, who’s coming back. He’s coming back, right? Right?!)
17. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
“Unbreakable! They alive, dammit! It’s a miracle!” The biggest pop culture stamp of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” might have come from its irresistible autotuned earworm theme tune. But miracle is about right, in a lot of ways. Creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock were coming off “30 Rock,” one of the greatest sitcoms ever, and facing difficult second album syndrome. They faced debuting on NBC, a network that is increasingly abandoning comedy, and had nothing to pair it with. And just to make their task more difficult, they’d written a show about an abused cult survivor trying to rebuild her life, hardly the most mainstream-friendly hook in the era where the premise of television’s biggest comedy is literally just the word ‘nerds.’ But it all worked out like a charm: Netflix picked up the show from the peacock, and when all thirteen episodes of ‘Kimmy Schmidt’ arrived, it was clear that Fey and Carlock hadn’t lost their touch. The heightened, mildly demented world of “30 Rock” is in place(we get a lost 30s musical called “Daddy’s Boy” and “Breaking Bad”’s Hank as a man who coaches gay actors on how to be straight), and the gag rate almost as high, but Ellie Kemper’s central performance, and Fey and Carlock’s compassion towards her, keeps the show away from being cartoonish. For a show that’s so gleefully silly, it proved to be surprisingly incisive and even moving about surviving and recovering from trauma (more on this here). It’s a miracle, indeed.
16. “You’re The Worst”
If the rom-com is dead, no one told FX, creator Stephen Falk (who came up through OITNB creator Jenji Kohan’s “Weeds,” a show we should probably be catching up on, between the two of them) and the cast and crew of “You’re The Worst,” the most refreshingly acerbic, deceptively sweet screen love story in quite a while. The premise is simple: Chris Geere’s Jimmy, an ex-pat British novelist, is the worst: a misanthropic, amoral, borderline alcoholic, foot-fetishist and compulsive masturbator. Aya Cash’s Gretchen is also the worst: a coke-snorting, rich-kid music publicist who doesn’t so much have intimacy issues as much as a straight up phobia. They hook up at a wedding from which they’ve both been ejected, and against both their best instincts and the horror of their friends, somehow fall into a relationship, despite both being deeply opposed to such a thing. More authentic than most at depicting love & sex in the Tinder age, where no one’s dating and everyone’s ‘hanging out’ (the great Onion headline of ‘Fuck-Buddy Becomes Fuck-Fiancé’ comes to mind), it’s sharply written and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, but in part thanks to the great performances by Geere and Cash, lets us see our anti-heroes as the vulnerable, damaged people they really are, and they prove far more rootable-for as a result. Add in a selection of ingenious supporting players, most notably Desmin Borges’ PTSD-suffering vet and Kether Donahue’s hottest-mess as their best pals, and we couldn’t be happier that an extended second season is landing in the fall.
15. “Silicon Valley”
It’s always lovely when a show shifts up a gear, and this year, the most improved comedy was easily “Silicon Valley.” It’s not that the first season of “Office Space” creator Mike Judge’s tech-world satire, about a young start-up trying to develop proprietary compression software in the face of competition from a Google-like Goliath of a rival, wasn’t strong: it was, very much so, and made our list last year. But bumped from eight episodes to ten, and having clearly listened to feedback from the first run, it came roaring back this spring, more confident, more rich and, frankly, even funnier. Aside from featuring one of the best comedic ensembles on television, with the likes of T.J. Miller, Thomas Middleditch, Kumail Nanjani, Zach Woods, Suzanne Cryer and Alice Wetterlund (the latter two a beneficiary of an increased commitment to integrating female characters, which has paid off in spades), it’s especially engaging in part because it’s so much better-plotted than most comedies. Judge and his team are almost farce-like in their ability to turn a situation on the dime, and keep enough drama in the mix to ensure that you’re invested in Pied Piper’s struggles, triumphs and disasters. “Halt & Catch Fire,” a more traditionally prestige-cable-drama take on the subject, might have picked up over time, but Judge’s excruciatingly funny take on the excesses and ins-and-outs of the Bay Area tech bubble is both more accurate and more enjoyable than its rival.
14. “Gravity Falls”
It’s frustrating to be a fan of “Gravity Falls.” In part because it seems that very few people have watched it. In part because it airs on the Disney Channel, not traditionally a home for top-notch television (at least for older viewers). And in part because despite solid ratings, Disney scheduled the series in such a haphazard, irregular way that even hardcore fans have no idea when to expect it (the first half of the second season began airing last August, two years after the first, and wrapped up in March). And yet it’s totally worth it: Alex Hirsch’s creation might be the best family animation since the golden age of “The Simpsons,” mixing wild invention, beautiful visuals, top-notch gags and real pathos, like a glorious mash-up of “The X-Files,” “Twin Peaks” and “Freaks & Geeks.” Following the adventures of the pine twins (Jason Ritter and Kristen Schaal), who spend their summer vacation in the paranormal-inflected town of the title with their great uncle (voiced by Hirsch himself). The second season has built on everything the first run did well and gotten even greater, with Mabel and Dipper’s encountering everything from a shape-shifting Thing-like creature and mini-golf gnomes, with Hirsch building in as fascinating and rich a mythology as any show since “Lost” (and recruiting a killer vocal cast that’s recently featured Nick Offerman, Neil Hamburger and Jillian Bell: J.K. Simmons joins when the show returns next month). But more than anything, it’s the acutely observed take on the awkwardness of growing up that makes it something to cherish.
To say Louis CK‘s landmark sitcom/confessional is uneven is both true and way off base: taken in terms of the traditional comedy, it’s very up-and-down (as in whether any particular episode is actually funny), but taken as an extraordinarily personal, often melancholically philosophical set of observations on white, male, middle aged pathos, it’s remarkably consistent (as in whether any particular episode even sets out to be funny). And this season sees Louis relax even further into that groove, frequently uncomfortable though it is, going over familiar territory in his on/off relationship with the fabulously spiky but also personally screwed up Pamela Adlon character, and his non-traditional but entirely loving approach to parenting, but also venturing into new arenas, especially during the two-parter ending that sees Louie out of his relatively successful routine in New York and touring, and which takes a very dark turn. Best of all, the comedian’s willingness to let everyone else win at his expense is indulged to the full here, as even snooty shop assistants, and insolently texting daughters get speeches of such accurate insight that their initially indefensible behavior is again revealed to be kind of his problem, not theirs. Special mention too to the episode in which the brilliant Michael Rapaport plays the obnoxious cop still hung up on Louie’s sister: in a season that did have its dud moments (“Bobby’s House” felt especially wheel-spinning), it’s among the single best episodes the show has ever put together.
12. “Parks & Recreation”
Most TV shows fade away rather than burn out: it’s rare to think of a long-running show that’s remained consistent for each one of its seasons, and rare still to think of a comedy whose final run may have been its strongest. But NBC’s “Parks & Recreation” followed in the footsteps of “30 Rock” by departing on a high note, with a seventh and final season that came close to, and may even have matched, the consistent brilliance of its third. Having felt a touch tired in places over the last few years, a decision to skip ahead into the future with thirteen episodes set in 2017, gave a new dramatic urgency and intrigue to the show (dividing Amy Poehler’s Leslie and Nick Offerman’s Ron led to a series highlight with the fourth episode, “Leslie & Ron”), while also providing plenty of fuel for some gloriously silly near-future jokes. The show wrapped up a macro-plot about a conflict with the Google-like Gryzzl halfway through, letting it focus the final episodes on an extended victory lap that gave virtually every figure from its Springfield-like supporting cast a proper goodbye, while still holding some surprises (Jon Hamm! Werner Herzog! Bill Murray!). And although the death of longtime writer Harris Wittels the week before the last episode aired, the finale was a masterclass in how to wrap up a show, with the love and empathy that ran through every aspect of the show shining through.
The Duplass Brothers are definitely having a moment, but haven’t they for years? Still, it seems like they are everywhere, with producing credits on a number of indies this year, and Jay starring in “Transparent” and “Manson Family Vacation.” But of all their collaborations this year, the HBO series “Togetherness,” starring Mark, might be the best. This series follows married couple Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) and their no-good, floundering best friend Alex (Steve Zissis) and sister Tina (Amanda Peet), respectively. What we come to discover is that Brett and Michelle are just as fucked up, if not more, than their wayward pals. While the entire cast is on the top of their game playing flawed, but relatable, characters (Lynskey is aces as the sexually frustrated housewife), the true find here is Zissis. Having appeared in several of the brothers’ early films, this is a true breakout role for him, and he shines as the hapless, frumpy Alex, a struggling actor, who is shaken out of his comfort zone by the terrible Tina. Peet displays true comedic chops as this caricature of a wild-child/almost cougar, but every character shows deep wells of sadness among the humor. It’s almost too rough to watch at times, but it pushes through the cringe-worthy moments to find the poignant ones, especially in episodes like “Kick the Can,” and “Party Time,” and that is what keeps you coming back for more. It’s not a show about good or likable people, but about real, and funny people.
10. “Better Call Saul”
The odds appeared to be against “Better Call Saul” from the off. AMC hadn’t had a new hit in a while, spin-offs rarely work, and it had to live up to “Breaking Bad,” probably the most widely acclaimed and beloved drama series since “The Sopranos.” But the moral of the story, as it often is, is that you shouldn’t bet against Walter White’s attorney, or as it turns out, the once small-time-grifter-turned-crusader-for-justice, Jimmy McGill. Focusing on the gleeful amorality of Saul, which had made Bob Odenkirk’s character a favorite with fans since he emerged on “Breaking Bad,” would have been the obvious choice for Vince Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould, but they smartly went in the opposite direction, showing Jimmy to have been, once, a fundamentally decent public defender caring for his brother (a revelatory Michael McKean), who believes he suffers from hypersensitivity to electromagnetic fields. The new show carries over much of the same aesthetics as its parent, and trod similar thematic territory in its examination of morality and what it takes for a good man to be pushed over the edge, but did so in a much more low-key way, rejecting heads-on-turtles and explosive shoot outs, for the most part, and proving all the better for it. “Better Call Saul” might not have been the “Breaking Bad” spin-off that fans wanted, but it was the one that they needed.
9. “The Leftovers”
Damon Lindelof gets a bad rap in many quarters, and sometimes deservedly so (to have one character meet their doom, as Charlize Theron does in “Prometheus,” by failing to run sideways and avoid a falling object, might be unfortunate, but to have a second suffer the same fate in “Tomorrowland” looks like carelessness), but the “Lost” mastermind reminded us why we loved him to begin with in “The Leftovers,” one of the boldest, most daring and most formula-defying dramas in recent memory. The set up, based on a novel by “Election” author Tom Perrotta — a world where a Rapture-like event has taken place, with 2% of the world’s population having randomly disappeared — seemed to be a mystery box show of the kind that many have been attempting since “Lost” proved so massive a decade ago. But Lindelof feigned left and then threw a curveball right: his latest opus had no intention of setting up mysteries, let alone answering them. Instead, it was an admirably unsoapy take on a world defined and crippled by grief. Executed with a terrific sense of scale and a deft command of tone (with the first two episodes, Peter Berg did his best work since “Friday Night Lights” and then some, while Michelle MacLaren and Carl Franklin also did excellent work), and featuring some incredibly rich performances (“Gone Girl” actress Carrie Coon being a particular standout), “The Leftovers” is a true original, like nothing on television before or, likely, since (let’s hope it keeps it up with a partly-rebooted second season).
8. “Mad Men”
How do you end a show like “Mad Men?” Seriously, this question must’ve kept showrunner Matthew Weiner up a few nights, but he’s only got himself to blame. Well, himself and the absurdly effective team he brought together in order to evoke an entire era in a stupendously seamless way. After seven seasons of witnessing the most intricately detailed existential dilemma of a single character ever put on television, the inner demons of super-suave ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) are finally quietened down. It’s true that the structure of splitting the seventh season into two halves felt a bit disjointed, making some of the more oddball choices feel even odder in the second half. Don’s visions of Bert (Robert Morse), that weird bonding session between Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) and Roger (John Slattery) in the office, and Don’s unspoken westward journey that finally brought him to his lowest point, were enough to raise a few eyebrows and make one exemplary television show end in ever-so-slightly-less pristine form. Weiner’s dedication to his world and to his characters, however, maintain “Mad Men” as one of the very best shows we’ve had this century so far. Not only did it come full circle on a variety of outstanding issues — Don’s alcoholism, his identity crisis, Peggy’s and Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) balance between their unsatisfactory private lives and chauvinistic work environments, etc. — but the last few episodes contained such bottled emotion (Hamm’s greatest work yet), and one devastating piece of news concerning Betty (January Jones), that it made “Game of Thrones” feel like “Days Of Our Lives” for a few hours. For a show about a generation, it’s fitting that it’ll take one full generational cycle to accept that “Mad Men” isn’t coming back next year.
7. “The Americans”
From the very beginning, FX’s “The Americans,” created by former CIA agent Joe Weisberg, has had perhaps the most inherently dramatic premise on television: in the early 1980s, two KGB sleepers in Washington D.C. discover their new neighbor is an FBI counterintelligence agent, just as their posed marriage of over a decade threatens to become a real one. It would have taken real ineptness not to be able to wring some kind of drama out of an idea like that, but fortunately, “The Americans” has been absolutely terrific from the start, and has only gotten better and better, its third season cementing its position as one of the absolute best dramas on television. Picking up from the doozy of a cliffhanger, with Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) instructed that the KGB want them to train their daughter as a potential asset, too, the show got darker and more painful than ever (exemplified in a shocking second episode that saw our ostensible heroes disposing of a body of an innocent woman), the midpoint of Philip Roth and John Le Carré. It’s as well-directed as anything on TV (small-screen veteran Thomas Schlamme’s been excelling himself recently), and as well-acted too, with Frank Langella and Julia Garner making enormously valuable additions to the new season, while the plotting proves breathless without ever going over the top. The show’s never gathered the following, or the column inches, of something like “Homeland,” but it proved again that it’s superior in every possible way this year.
As we wrote when the show was approaching its final episode in the spring, “Justified” hasn’t been considered among the top tier of cable dramas, the “Mad Mens” and “Breaking Bads” and even the “Boardwalk Empires,” presumably because it’s far too much fun. But hopefully over time, the sixth and final season of the show will help it reach the level to which it deserves to sit, because it was a gratifying reminder (particularly after the misfire of the fifth season) of the greatness of FX’s Elmore Leonard adaptation. The final arc promised the final showdown between Timothy Olyphant’s trigger-happy U.S. Marshall and the reptilian charisma of his criminal frenemy Boyd (Walton Goggins), but it delivered so much more, including a villain who could rival Margo Martindale’s Mags in the shape of Sam Elliott (horrifyingly mustache-less), the return of Kaitlyn Dever’s prodigiously talented kingpin-in-the-making, and colorful supporting characters played by the likes of Garret Dillahunt, Shea Whigham and Jeff Fahey, actors you were stunned to learn hadn’t appeared on the show years before. But ultimately, it continued to show all the things that “Justified” had always done well: labyrinthine-but-legible plotting, the most quotable dialogue on television (“If you wanted me to shoot you in the front, you shoulda run toward me,” Raylan tells one foe complaining about the unfairness of being hit in the back), surprisingly deep character study, and an outstanding sense of place. Leonard sadly passed back in 2013, but you sense he’d be as proud as hell of how “Justified” wrapped up.
5. “Orange is the New Black”
Already a fixture in our Best TV lists despite being a relative newcomer, and one on which the buzz tends to die down quickly due to its binge-friendly model, Season 3 of Netflix’s triumphant women’s prison comedy is a lighter, less tightly constructed affair than Season 2, but it’s still terrific. In fact, the move away from the rhythm of Season 2’s Big Bad structure (in which Lorraine Toussaint‘s Vee emerged as the show’s indelible villainess) may feel initially disappointing, but really it’s a heartening sign that ‘OINTB’ is not afraid to abandon that momentum-building but traditional structure and develop a more patchwork format, which its Netflix platform allows it to do in a way that shows that rely on weekly cliffhangers cannot. Because within the whole cloth woven out of season 3 are individual threads and storylines as good as anything that has come before, and in showcasing more of its deep, rich, broad ensemble, ‘OINTB’ plays to its unparalleled strength in terms of the diversity of its talent and its anti-sensationalist, compassionate approach to sexuality, racism, feminism and trans issues. And while it obviously continues to celebrate the wit, strength and individualism of its female cast, season 3 also showcases some of the show’s best-ever writing for men, with Healy (Michael J Harney) and Caputo (Nick Sandow) arguably undergoing even greater arcs and cycles of self-deception and revelation than Piper (Taylor Schilling), Gloria (Selenis Leyva), Poussey (Samira Wiley), Sophia (Laverne Cox), Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) et al. Plus: best-ever Chang (Lori Tan Chinn).
Season 3 of “Rectify” premieres on Sundance TV in early July, so it’s practically a whole year since we last visited Daniel (Aden Young), Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), Amantha (Abigail Spencer), Ted Jr (Clayne Crawford) and the rest. But that it’s here, so high on our list now, just shows what a truly lasting and nourishing sustain this quiet, beautiful slice of melancholic southern Gothic has. After an impressive first season that from the off established the thoughtful, often lyrical treatment of a plot that could have been pulped down into a far more obvious show along the lines of Sundance’s now-cancelled “Red Road,” the second season kicked it up a notch, delivering a slow-motion explosion which takes time to intelligently examine all the fallout, every piece of shrapnel. For the many who are not yet watching (and please start, as it’s the kind of show over which the shadow of potential cancellation looms large) Ray McKinnon‘s show tracks Daniel’s return to his hometown having served 19 years on Death Row for the rape and murder of his teenaged girlfriend, after his conviction is quashed without his innocence ever being fully established. But if Season 1 was Daniel emerging, blinking into the sun, Season 2 hit its stride as he does, developing subplots and supplemental characters, especially Ted Jr, and layering even more dread and wonder into the evocative mood. Both dramatic and dreamlike, “Rectify” is one of those shows that everyone not watching it now will kick themselves over when they discover it in future.
3. “Broad City”
Alongside “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Broad City” infiltrated the boys’ club of Comedy Central, making the network, surprisingly, a destination for some of the sharpest and best feminine and feminist comedy around. The series’ second season continued with what made the show such a hit in the first place: a mix of finely observed everyday urban absurdities mixed with a heavy dose of the surreal. High profile guest stars easily slid into Abbi and Ilana’s wacked out groove, happy to play in their very specific tone, including Seth Rogen, Alia Shawkat, Janeane Garofalo, David Wain, Amy Ryan, Bob Balaban, Kelly Ripa, and Susie Essman, possibly the best-cast TV mom of all time. Abbi and Ilana’s THC-soaked antics throughout the streets of the New York continued to get wilder, but never strayed from what made the first season (and the web series) so great — the fun randomness that happens on the streets of New York (this was captured perfectly in the season finale “St. Mark’s”). And while other shows about female friendships have left those core relationships behind in service of other stories (cough, “Girls,” cough), the dynamic chemistry between Abbi and Ilana remains the central focus. The show is constantly playing with the push/pull between the two, so you never know just who the wilder one might be. The series was an instant classic when it debuted and the second season only serves to cement that.
2. “The Knick”
Workaholic retiree Steven Soderbergh is constantly churning out dependable and exciting cinema, but on “The Knick” he appears reinvigorated and re-inspired in a tangible capacity. Firing on all cylinders, Soderbergh directed every episode of this brilliant and totally watchable turn of the century medical drama (which is really the opposite of E.R. set in 1900s New York). Featuring a contemporary and anachronistic synth score by Cliff Martinez, the show throbs with a cooly pulsing vitality and contemporaneous energy. Clive Owen has never been better as the drug-addicted lead surgeon, and the show boasts many excellent newfound acting discoveries (Andre Holland is outstanding and Juliet Rylance is also very good). But the star here is still Soderbergh and his bold formalism; its proof paid to the idea of auteur-driven TV (Soderbergh also acts as his own DP and edits every chapter). Each episode is a masterclass in mise en scene, blocking and camera placement — it’s also a beauty to behold the razor sharp decisions of what not to show and yet still understand everything — and a few eps in particular (“Get The Rope”) are embarrassingly good in the way it puts other filmmakers to shame. David Fincher once famously said there is really only two ways to shoot a scene, and one of them is wrong. “The Knick” feels like Soderbergh made the absolute correct decision every. damn. time.
A show about the gender identity and sexuality issues of a well-off, white, well-educated Jewish family living self-absorbed, modern lives in the metropolis of contemporary Los Angeles, feels rife with potential pitfalls and more or less begging for accusations of rarefaction. So it’s a good thing that that isn’t what Jill Soloway‘s “Transparent” is, though it encompasses all of those elements. Instead, “Transparent” is some form of slow-acting magic, building in ways you cannot see or comprehend to a picture of these specific people in these specific situations that is so piercingly humanist in its insights as to be utterly universal. Ostensibly an examination of the fallout when a retired academic (Jeffrey Tambor) and father of three adult children (Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, Gaby Hoffman) begins to live as a trans woman, really it’s an examination of the nature of family bonds across the divides of generation, sexuality and ideology, and what the changing nature of those bonds does to one’s sense of self. But seeing the essential battle between self-interest and the desire to understand/be understood play out between the Pfeffermans is not just brilliantly instructive and devastatingly profound, it’s bracingly, cathartically funny, too, embodied in performances of immense grace, spontaneity and wit from literally every member of the cast. Perfection, in the context of a TV program, is a meaningless concept when there are so many variables at play in the execution of the show and in the taste of the viewer, except then you watch Season 1 of “Transparent” and discover what it is to watch perfect television.
Special Mentions — Miniseries
We usually devote this list to episodic TV, as opposed to long-form miniseries shows, because it seems unfair to pitch shows that are battling for renewal, and for week-in, week-out viewership against the more self-contained, one-off “event” television. However this year yielded a few that we couldn’t let pass without mentioning: “Olive Kitteridge” is a masterful adaptation of the novel of the same name that gave the amply deserving Frances McDormand one of the best roles of her lifetime (as well as the great Richard Jenkins). “The Honorable Woman” was not quite as consistent but still featured a never-better Maggie Gyllenhaal, fielding possibly the sexiest British accent we’ve ever heard an American use, and an intelligent, brave if somewhat overtwisty plot about international diplomacy and trade in the Palestinian Territories. And finally, in the non-fiction realm, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Andrew Jarecki‘s “The Jinx,” a fascinating expose of the life and crimes of creepy billionaire Robert Durst that became just as compelling for the ethical and formal questions it raised about the nature of documentary as it did for the chilling and uncanny story it told.
Special Mentions — Variety & Sketch
Episodic aside, we also focus our annual list on narrative television: as much as we like “Chopped” or “Ru Paul’s Drag Race,” for instance, you get into a whole different kettle of fish once you start to talk about those. But we did want to spotlight a handful of non-narrative shows from the comedy arena, if only because we appear to be in something of a golden age. John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” on HBO proved the best possible showcase for the star, taking the “Daily Show” formula and going deeper with it. Anyone who suggests that satire can’t cause real change didn’t notice the impact that the Brit comedian had on Net Neutrality. Meanwhile, just in time for her movie debut, “Trainwreck,” “Inside Amy Schumer” kicked up a huge gear for its third season, with Schumer engaging more than ever with issues of gender politics and averaging out with at least one classic sketch an episode. “Key & Peele”s fourth run wasn’t as consistently strong, but was still pretty hilarious throughout. And finally, few but hardcore comedy nerds are watching IFC’s “Comedy Bang Bang,” but those who aren’t are missing out on one of the most adventurous and giddy-with-possibility-of-the-form comedies out there.
Honorable Mentions: As we said, a show has to finish airing its run of episodes before we consider it done for the TV year: that means that the wondrous “Hannibal” (which has placed highly the last few years), the much-improved “Halt & Catch Fire,” classy, silly horror “Penny Dreadful” and the tremendous “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” will be in the running for our list next year, rather than this time around. But watch them all, especially “Hannibal,” which needs all the help it can get right now. Also not qualifying, “True Detective” season two, which only just began.
What else? Well, traditionally our most controversial omission has tended to be “The Walking Dead,” which actually came closer to inclusion this year: the mega-popular zombie show actually decided to live up to its premise, though was still ultimately too inconsistent to make the final cut. This year, we also anticipate catching some heat over the lack of “Daredevil.” Some staffers liked the Netflix show very much, and it’s certainly better than Marvel stablemates “Agents Of SHIELD” and “Agent Carter,” but couldn’t find enough love to break through the stiff competition.
What else? Well, the biggest thing on TV this year was “Empire,” and it’s valuable for all the boundaries it’s breaking down, but no one was prepared to argue for it as more than a guilty pleasure soap, a “Dynasty” for 2015 (“Outlander” had a similar response). We were also a little disappointed in the second season of “Masters Of Sex,” and in the conclusion of “Boardwalk Empire,” while “The Comeback” is a titanic performance from Lisa Kudrow slightly in search of a show as good as she is (see also Tatiana Maslany and “Orphan Black”). “The Last Man On Earth” started strongly, and deserves praise as a hit network comedy that departs from formula as heavily as it does, but never felt even or consistent enough to break the list.
What did we like? “Fresh Off The Boat” and “Black-ish” both gave new spins to the family comedy genre in very effective ways (even if they didn’t quite reinvent the wheel), while “Bob’s Burgers” and “Archer” are still very strong, and “Brooklyn Nine Nine” was consistently good in its second season, too. “Community” rallied nicely for its Yahoo season, while “BoJack Horseman” brought Netflix into the animation game with a surprising degree of sadness. Amazon’s “Catastrophe” is their first essential non-“Transparent” show and very nearly made our list (“Bosch” and “Mozart In The Jungle” not so much), while Russell T Davies made a strong return with twin series “Cucumber” and “Banana.”
“Veep” continued to be wicked and acerbic in it’s 4th season, creator Armando Iannucci going out with a bang on what he has said will be his last season as creator and showrunner, while “Homeland” did improve without a character who’d become something of an albatross. “Manhattan” might be the most underrated, underseen drama on right now and was also a strong contender for the list, while those who’ve seen “Sense8” say that while it’s not exactly good, it’s also unfiltered Wachowski and has a certain amount to recommend it. We tend not to frequent the CW, “Jane The Virgin” aside, but “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “The 100” and “iZombie” seem to have their fans, as does “Bates Motel.”
And oh, “Looking,” you were too good for this world. The HBO series about gay life in San Francisco was cancelled after its second season (though they say a movie is in the works to wrap up loose ends), but it feels like it was never given a real chance. Andrew Haigh and Michael Lannan had such a light touch, managing to balance many different tones, creating a show that was sensitive and funny and moving. A slow burn, yes, but one hell of a burn if you stuck with it.
Anything else you think deserves mention? Highlight it below. — Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Nik Grozdanovic, Katie Walsh, Rodrigo Perez, Kimber Myers