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The Top Ten TV Episodes of 2015

The Top Ten TV Episodes of 2015

1. “12 Angry Men
Inside Amy Schumer

“Inside Amy Schumer” (Comedy Central)

In the midst of a banner year, one that included a summer
box-office smash (“Trainwreck”) and an HBO special (“Amy Schumer
Live at the Apollo”), the full arsenal of Schumer’s lacerating comic
talents is on display in this episode-length treatment of Sidney
Lumet’s courthouse classic. Dismantling the culture’s patriarchal double
standards with dildo jokes and riotously funny character work—including superb
guest performances from Jeff Goldblum, Paul Giamatti, and John Hawkes (in the
role originated by Henry Fonda)—”12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer”
registers as an artistic analogue to the political activism by which women in
Hollywood demanded meatier roles, more behind-the-camera opportunities, and
equal pay in 2015, culminating in a federal investigation and a New York Times
Magazine cover story. What may be most remarkable about the 19-minute sketch,
though, is how skillfully co-directors Schumer and Ryan McFaul mimic the film’s
claustrophobic, black-and-white aesthetic. After all, the flagrant sexism
“12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer” depicts, as its namesake well knows, is less satire than social realism.

2. “Person to Person”
Mad Men” (AMC)

The series finale of “Mad Men” features both an optimistic montage of the characters
entering a new era in their lives—Roger (John Slattery) married to Marie Calvet
(Julia Ormond); Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) and Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) in love; Joan (Christina Hendricks) pursuing a
new career; Sally (Kiernan Shipka) caring for Betty (January Jones) in her last
days—and a powerful suggestion that there’s no escaping the past, only making
amends with it. “Move forward,” Don (Jon Hamm), still desperate to slough off
his former selves, tells Stephanie (Caity Lotz) at one point. “Oh,
Dick,” she replies, “I don’t think you’re right about that.” Even the “perfect harmony” of Don’s yogic calm, of the Coca-Cola ad that plays out the series, is necessarily temporary: his blissed-out vision of human connection—like Peggy’s
more nostalgic one, in last year’s stunning “Waterloo”—is not, or not only, a form of profit-taking, but also,
perhaps, a metaphor for the halting, striving, strangely hopeful pursuits of
happiness that keep us moving forward, despite the knowledge that the horizon
we’re chasing will never be caught.

READ MORE: “Of Time & Life: How ‘Mad Men’ Remade Television”

3. “LCD
Soundsystem”

“You’re the Worst” (FXX)

The culmination of the series’ brilliant long con, this
melancholy, dreamlike half hour sets Gretchen (the excellent Aya Cash) reeling,
the rage of “There Is Not Currently a Problem” dissipating into
sorrow. Her close encounter with a film restorer (Justin Kirk) and his wife
(Tara Summers)—and, by extension, with at least one of the lives she might have
lived—is but the most assured interlude in the FXX comedy’s sophomore season,
one that transformed, midstream, into a deft and surprising examination of
clinical depression. By the time Kirk’s character expresses his own
dissatisfaction to Gretchen near episode’s end, “LCD Soundsystem,”
without recourse to aphorism, emerges as a wise and troubling portrait of the
disconnect between who we are and who we hoped we’d be. “You guys are
great,” she says, attempting to reverse the terms of the series’ title,
but he demurs. “Are we?”

READ MORE: “The
Brilliant Long Con of ‘You’re the Worst'”

4. “No Room at
the Inn”

The Leftovers” (HBO)

Among several examples of the HBO drama’s emergence as one of the most wildly inventive shows on television—including recent entries “International Assassin” and “Ten Thirteen”—”No Room at the Inn” seems to me the most apt selection. A fine companion to last season’s “Two Boats and a Helicopter,” which first showed the series’ mettle, its wrenching treatment of the Book of Job features the sublime Christopher Eccleston’s ne’er-do-well former reverend, Matt Jamison, in yet another desperate struggle with the void. Here, though, from the unsettling repetition of the interminable opening sequence to the news of his catatonic wife Mary’s (Janel Moloney) not-so-immaculate conception, the hallucinatory images blur the line between the sacred and the insane. As brutal and poetic as the Old Testament itself, “No Room at the Inn” questions, as Job does, the existence of God—and then, unlike the Bible, withholds the answer.  

READ MORE: “The Anarchy of Influence: On ‘Fight Club,’ ‘Mr. Robot,’ and ‘The Leftovers’ (VIDEO)”

5. “Alive in
Tucson”

The Last Man on Earth” (FOX)

Before it betrayed its premise with a flotilla of wan supporting characters—and, worse still, transformed its ostensible hero, Phil Miller (Will Forte), into a one-dimensional, sex-obsessed cad—”The Last Man on Earth” brilliantly reimagined the near-extinction of the human race as a form of outsized slapstick. Appointing an abandoned desert McMansion with priceless paintings and Oscar statuettes and “bowling” with lamps, aquariums, and souped-up cars, Phil at first revels in the lawlessness, but in the end the episode’s real genius is its undercurrent of despair. Before the appearance of Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal) stops Phil’s suicide attempt in its tracks, this “story of a man with a brothel of a home and a pool filled with human excrement” crackles with dark energy, holding out the promise of a far more imaginative series than “The Last Man on Earth” turned out to be.    

READ MORE: “In Fantastic New Comedies ‘Last Man on Earth’ and ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,’ First Tragedy, Then Farce”

6. “Do Mail
Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?”

The Americans” (FX)

In this small, black-hearted masterpiece, flinty ideologue Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell)—a Soviet agent posing as an American wife and mother during the late Cold War—confronts the most formidable challenge to her political allegiance in three seasons of FX’s bleak and brilliant spy drama. As her husband, Philip (Matthew Rhys), plants a listening device on one of the FBI counterintelligence division’s titular mail robots, Elizabeth converses with her unexpected captive, Betty (the extraordinary Lois Smith), discovering in the process that the Americans she’s spent her life fighting are not so very different from herself. By the time the former schoolteacher comes to understand she won’t survive the night, it’s Elizabeth whose commitment to her cause seems shaken. “You think doing this to me,” as Betty asks, “will make the world a better place?” 


READ MORE: “For the Love of God (or Country), Start Watching ‘The Americans'” 

7A. “Sit-In”

Girls” (HBO)

“Sit-In” snatched back my flagging interest in
“Girls” by stripping away all the narrative detritus of this season’s
excursion to Iowa and reviving the vein of honest emotion that has defined the
series at its best. As Hannah (Lena Dunham) hides in her former bedroom,
attempting to process the end of her relationship with Adam (Adam Driver), her
friends come one by one to coax her out, and each conversation—funny,
combative, rambling, loving—suggests the balance of stasis and change that
defines the transition between entering your twenties and nearing their end.

READ MORE: “How ‘Girls’ Became the Most Frustrating Show on Television”

7B. “Kick the
Can”

Togetherness (HBO)

Fine, I cheated—there are actually 11 episodes on this list. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t include this lovely entry from the first season of HBO’s “Togetherness,” in which Michelle Pierson (the terrific Melanie Lynskey), married and approaching middle age in East L.A., challenges an unpleasant group of millennial hipsters to the
titular field game. As she and her fellow thirtysomethings shotgun PBR and caper through the park, “Kick the Can” crystallizes the series’ notion that the
experience of adulthood is far more complicated than our younger selves could
have imagined. It’s the season’s most buoyant episode, as clean and bright
as the hills above the city, for it tempers every frustration with the
recognition that the midlife crisis, in whatever form, is just that—in the
middle of life, and not the end.

     
READ MORE: “The Weird, Wonderful ‘Togetherness,’ HBO’s Newest Modern Family”

 8. “The
Future”

Rectify” (SundanceTV)

It’s oddly fitting, I suppose, that an austere, graceful series, one focused on a crime committed twenty years ago, should produce an episode of such warmth—and even optimism—as “The Future”: “Rectify” is, if nothing else, a fable in which the moral remains unwritten. At the conclusion of its third season, in which exonerated death-row inmate Daniel Holden (Aden Young) accepts banishment from Georgia in return for a chance to begin anew, “The Future” is built from the same prayerful power, the same rough-hewn stillness, as the series itself, but it’s so open-hearted it suggests whole host of possibilities to come. As Daniel’s mother, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), drives him into exile, the final sequence registers as a profound step toward the redemption we all seek, and as one of the finest stretches of pure emotional resonance to appear on screen this year.

READ MORE: “The ‘Radical Belief’ of Sundance Channel’s Extraordinary ‘Rectify'”

9. “Nashville”

Master of None” (Netflix)

Aziz Ansari’s new series is, in essence, the most recent challenge to the sitcom form, indebted to “Louie” (FX), among others. But its finest episode, “Nashville,” reminded me most of early Woody Allen—talky and offbeat, with an attention to the particular rhythms of a romance just beginning to bloom. As Dev (Ansari) and Rachel (Noël Wells) fly off to Nashville for an unorthodox first date, the beautifully detailed construction of “Nashville” is amplified by its distance from the world “Master of None” usually inhabits. Away from the series’ main plot, such as it is, the characters’ anxious humor segues into easy rapport, and the effect is disarming. If it were a feature film, “Nashville” would be the year’s finest romantic comedy, but as a single installment in a wide-ranging, tremendously funny debut, it may be even more impressive: its deft change of gears is potent evidence of Ansari’s florid imagination.

10. “Pilot”
Empire” (FOX) 

Directed by series co-creator Lee Daniels with his usual eye
for excess, the pilot episode of FOX’s hip-hop melodrama is audaciously,
unapologetically alive, reveling in every salacious detail of the internecine struggle
to control Empire Enterprises. In fact, it’s hard to believe the smash hit
debuted all the way back in January: its introduction to irrepressible
matriarch Cookie Lyon (the inspired Taraji P. Henson), sauntering through her
son’s apartment in a white fur coat, is as fresh now as the day it aired, an
instant classic of gleeful, politically incorrect camp.

READ MORE: “How ‘Empire’ Beat the Sophomore Slump” 

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