17. “Babylon” Season 1
Sharp, timely and unrelenting, SundanceTV’s “Babylon” started 2015 off on the right foot. Starring Brit Marling as a PR executive working with the London police force to improve their image after some troubling recent events, co-creator Danny Boyle’s six-part series weighed storylines surrounding police misconduct and public outrage with proper gravity. Yet the show never shied away from its sportive tongue, creating an access point for vital discussion of uncomfortable issues. Many shows would like to have covered as much in 13 episodes as “Babylon” did in less than half that time, even if audiences wished it would’ve kept going for much, much longer.
16. “The Affair” Season 1
Capitalizing off of a commonality with the 2014 smash “True Detective” — which was ineligible for this list as Season 1 was part of the 2013-14 season and Season 2 premiered too late to qualify for the Emmys — “The Affair” rode its interrogation room-set, time-jumping mystery to a Golden Globes victory for Best Drama Series. While it’s not going to top our list of dramas, Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem’s adulterous thriller delivered top-notch performances to go along with its enticing summer romance. If Season 2 can deliver on the promises of Season 1, “The Affair” will be one to remember for years to come.
15. “Manhattan” Season 1
This little-seen underdog from the upstart underdog network WGN America kept slipping off our radar, so let us take this opportunity to acknowledge this impeccably made period drama, which lightly fictionalizes the real-life circumstances that led to the creation of the atom bomb — and the end of World War II. What could have been idealistic to the point of being jingoistic actually ended up much more of a paranoid thriller about trust and the truth of patriotism; “Manhattan” proved itself to have real grit.
14. “The Comeback” Season 2
The second season of Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King’s subversive comedy came back from a nine-year “hiatus” with even more to say about the current state of television, and the way ambition and fame can corrupt and destroy. It’s not a show for everyone — the humor moves erratically from pitch black to scatological to just plain mean — but for those who get invested in the world of the show, especially the fate of Valerie Cherish (Kudrow), Season 2 escalated and elevated the show’s premise to new heights of comedy and poignancy.
13. “Archer” Season 6
If at least one joke in every “Archer” episode doesn’t make you fall down laughing (because you can’t believe they got away with it), you’re not paying close enough attention. Most promising of all: while this year “Archer” returned to its traditional madcap spy adventure format, following the fifth season switch-up we came to know and love as “Archer Vice,” creator Adam Reed apparently got bored again. The glint in Sterling’s eye at the end of the Season 6 finale can only mean one thing: Anything goes.
12. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” Season 1
Going to Netflix might have been the best thing to ever happen to the comedy that NBC has said it had no ability to support last year (“due to our limitations at the moment,” was how NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt explained it to the New York Times). Rather than going unaired or swiftly jettisoned for “Voice” specials, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s off-kilter comedy about a cult survivor making a new life for herself in New York City was given the opportunity to shine all at once on Netflix, and its eclectic but charming ensemble blossomed as a result. When even the theme song is unforgettable, you know you’re dealing with something special.
11. “BoJack Horseman” Season 1
We’ve written a lot about how much “BoJack” improved over its first season, something that’s a true credit to its writing, which let the show become a real character study. So let’s take this moment to acknowledge that it also has may be one of the best animated voice casts working today. Yes, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Amy Poehler, Paul F. Tompkins, Aaron Paul, Stanley Tucci, Angelica Huston, Kristen Schaal, Patton Oswalt and Character Actress Margo Martindale — as herself — are more than well-known for their on-screen acting. But by and large they proved capable of finding the humanity of their characters with voice work alone (an accomplishment, given many of them weren’t playing humans).
10. “Togetherness” Season 1
What began as a grounded portrayal of a happy (if sedated) marriage slowly morphed into a warning sign for couples who could be taking each other for granted. Yet “Togetherness” never lost its connection with a reality made up of equal parts high and low along the way, making the HBO comedy a true joy to watch from beginning to end. Handled with care and commitment by two modern day master storytellers, Mark and Jay Duplass created a show built around love in its ever-changing forms. From early flutters of the heart to its fading desire with time, “Togetherness” never offered a conventional take; just a real one.
9. “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” Season 2
There’s little left to be said about the significance of John Oliver’s foray into entertaining news. It’s as vital as it is fun; as accustomed as its groundbreaking; as casually watchable as it is a call to action. Oliver has created the next level of news, grabbing the best elements from its predecessor, “The Daily Show,” and incorporating new aspects that make “Last Week” feel as fresh as anything on television. Between the HBO show’s social media campaigns to its online presence in general, John Oliver’s baby is growing up quickly. We can only expect more, even if we can’t imagine what he’ll do next.
After a devastating Season 3 — in more ways than one — “Homeland” followed the actions of its leading lady and fought back to prominence in Season 4. Basically starting over as a one-woman show, the Emmy-winning Showtime drama refocused its priorities and started asking the hard questions about a damaged but resilient Carrie Mathison. Can she be a good mother? Does she have a moral limit? Is her job worth the toll it takes on her life? Is her profession actually a positive for America? As the questions got more difficult, “Homeland” only got better, rewarding fans who stuck with the series, even after its darkest hour.
7. “The Comedians” Season 1
Here’s a good litmus test for how much you might have enjoyed FX’s “behind the scenes” look at what might happen if “Josh Gad” and “Billy Crystal” teamed up to make a sketch comedy series for “FX”: When you hear “1600 Penn,” what’s your immediate reaction?
A) That’s the street address for the White House.
B) Wasn’t that a TV show a couple of years ago?
C) Oh, sure, “1600 Penn”! Bill Pullman, Jenna Elfman, Josh Gad. NBC, 2012. Wow, that show bombed.
If your answer was “C,” then the occasionally savage, occasionally honest and oftentimes meta “The Comedians” was definitely right up your alley. Playing perhaps best for those who had intimate familiarity with the work of at least one of the show’s stars, “The Comedians” was one of many comedies revolving around the entertainment industry, but was also one of the most hilarious and exciting.
6. “The Americans” Season 3
Is this finally the year “The Americans” scores a major Primetime Emmys nod? Clearly, quality has never been the issue before, because lack of quality certainly isn’t an issue that affects the FX drama, long-regarded as one of the best shows on television. Season 3 saw the Jennings family facing challenges like never before, as Philip had to choose between family and country, Elizabeth made an one-sided decision about her daughter, and Paige grew up in a major way. Oh, and they shoved a body inside of a suitcase and lit a dude on fire with a rubber tire. “The Americans” has always been a show about family, though, and hopefully Emmys voters will see that more clearly after a deeply personal third season.
5. “Better Call Saul” Season 1
Disruption. If I had to use one word to sum up the brilliance behind “Better Call Saul’s” first season, it would just that. In a brave decision to dissuade audiences from expecting a “Breaking Bad” clone out of its prequel series, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould used grounded cinematography and a slow burn storyline to introduce their latest project. Much of the humor and character development remained, but the DNA was altered to fit the new central figure. And what a figure he was. As played by Bob Odenkirk, Jimmy McGill became an obvious choice to headline a series, oozing desperate charm through the mind of a man always looking for his next con. He could have been tailored to fit a thriller rather than a drama, but that wouldn’t have fit Jimmy’s four-button suits or the creators’ intricate plans. Thanks for that, guys. Truly.
4. “Veep” Season 4
Vicious, vivacious and very, very funny, Armando Iannucci’s last year at the wheel of the best satire around was one for the ages. Between Amy reaching a moral and professional breaking point (see above) to The Jonad Files (see the definition of “legend”), “Veep” continued to mix deft socio-political commentary with remarkably inventive (and offensive) humor. In many ways, the fourth season’s focus on Selina Meyer’s election run draws interesting parallels to the show’s Emmys quest for Outstanding Comedy Series. If there is an iota of justice in this world, the Julia Louis-Dreyfus-lead ensemble comedy will be the series to topple “Modern Family” from its tower atop the Emmys. Then again, that may go against the pessimistic message of “Veep,” making it all the more fitting for it to suffer — much like its leader — at the losers’ table. Selina may not deserve her higher office, but no one can say the same about her show.
3. “The Leftovers” Season 1
As television attracts an ever-widening array of stories, it’s important to honor the ones that strive for and achieve the lofty goal of being truly original; the ones that don’t fit into a preconceived mold or attempt to regulate themselves according to old standards. “The Leftovers,” with its big ideas, alt-universe setting, and heartbreakingly grounded characters, is the new standard for TV’s new era. Season 1 was unafraid to alienate some of its viewers as it dug into the repercussions of national crisis on both spiritual and practical levels. Damon Lindelof even incorporated pace-breaking standalone episodes for two characters, utilizing a cast immediately in touch with the goal of the series: to find the meaning in this messy world of ours, as individuals and families.
2. “Orange is the New Black” Season 2
The best thing that ever happened to “Orange is the New Black” is it deciding to slowly but surely shift Piper (Taylor Schilling) into just one of many women who make up the general population at Litchfield Prison. Schilling is more than deserving of a Lead Actress nod (yes, even in the more competitive drama category), and the show’s second season — which premiered during the eligibility period for this year’s Emmys — did begin with an entire episode focused on Schilling and Schilling alone. But the Season 2 finale predicted what was to come in Season 3: the transformation of the show into an ensemble piece, one that won the SAG ensemble performance award earlier in 2015, and one that only gets better every year.
1. “Mad Men” Season 7b
The billboards asked us to “Consider the End of An Era,” and that’s not really understating the case. Even if you leave “Mad Men’s” legacy out of this and just focus on the last seven episodes to be aired in 2015, they remain a pretty remarkable creative achievement. Building to a finale that somehow managed to find a way to be satisfying and sweet without over-explaining anything, each episode of Season 7b maintained the show’s excellent standards of quality. Individual creative decisions could be debated (for example, I would have liked seeing Don and Peggy have one more face-to-face scene together in the finale), but there’s a reason why it keeps reaching the top of our list. “Mad Men’s” pursuit of happiness wasn’t just great TV. It also, ultimately, made us happy.
[Editor’s Note: In a mistaken attempt to logically draw more attention to the recently-canceled “Hannibal,” its second season was included in the initial publishing of this list. Neither Season 2 or 3 are eligible for this year’s Emmys, as Season 3 started too late to qualify and Season 2 aired in the spring — not the summer — of 2014. We apologize for the error, but remain committed to guiding as many people as possible to an exquisite program like “Hannibal.”]