Honorable Mention: “The Comedians”
Though we had the Billy Crystal and Josh Gad-starring FX comedy on our mid-year list of best shows — not just new shows, but best shows — the forces that be saw fit to cancel the low-rated, meta takedown of Hollywood. Because this list is designed to introduce fans to new shows they can catch up on now and keep watching in the new year, we couldn’t include it in the official Top 10. In terms of new seasons debuting in 2015, though, “The Comedians” was easily one of the finest of them all. It’s just no longer a new series. Rest in peace, guys.
10. “The Grinder”
The trick to making self-aware comedy is that you actually have to be self-aware. Not only do you have to be on point with whatever you’re mocking — in this case, celebrity in its many forms for “The Grinder” — but you have to know how you’re being perceived when doing so as each new episode rolls out. In the hands of a new showrunner (former “Comedians” EP Ben Wexler) “The Grinder” has pivoted smoothly through its first nine episodes, throwing in key new ingredients to keep things fresh, just before you expected it was about to fall into the network TV trap: a fixed, familiar formula. Even though each episode opens the same way — with a clip from an old “Grinder” episode — “The Grinder” is always delivering the unexpected with a knowing wink and a charming smile.
This strange sci-fi character drama by the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski is at times a little messy, but it’s so rich with love for its characters and for humanity in general that we just didn’t have the heart to let it go unrecognized. The thing about love is that it helps you overlook someone’s flaws in favor of the good stuff. The good stuff in “Sense8’s” case — committed performances, a bonkers-interesting premise, a groundbreaking level of diversity and some sequences that serve as cinematic feats, both action and otherwise — make it more than worthy.
8. “Fresh Off the Boat”
ABC’s sitcom already feels like a veteran network presence, partly because it premiered in February and is now halfway through its second season. But Nahnatchka Khan’s ’90s period comedy hit the ground running and never looked back. Why would it? Randall Park and Constance Wu head a cast pulsing with chemistry and every script so far has balanced on-point, topical content with hilarious nostalgic callbacks — often in the same half-hour. With “Modern Family” wearing out its welcome, “Fresh Off the Boat” is taking up the slack and then some for the broadcast network most devoted to family comedy.
What, exactly, can Mark and Jay Duplass not do well? Heck, not even well — great. Between their growing library of indie films as directors, producers, writers and actors, form-challenging TV shows like “Transparent” and “The League,” and now this personal, insightful and utterly honest HBO dramedy, the Duplass Brothers are living contradictions to “all work and no play.” These two are the opposite of “dull boys,” and the first season of “Togetherness” is among their best work ever. Chronicling the lives of 30-something parents, siblings and friends, Season 1 tackled the tough questions many people don’t want to even ask — for fear of being far too real — but somehow the show always felt optimistic. The truths may shock you, but the warm embrace makes it all okay again.
Since we first saw the pilot for Sarah Gertrude Shapiro and Marti Noxon’s teardown of reality television, we’ve been hooked. Lifetime’s most successful effort yet to ascend beyond movie-of-the-week tropes features an outstanding cast and no fear when it comes to taking chances — one mid-season plot twist was dark on a level “Breaking Bad” would find disturbing. Most importantly, for a show devoted to depicting how easily love can be a manipulation, it is something of a love story. Just not the love story you think.
5. “Better Call Saul”
What’s clear after the first season of “Better Call Saul,” Vince Gilligan’s spin-off companion to “Breaking Bad,” is that it’s not much of a spin-off to “Breaking Bad.” Yes, it borrows a main character, shares a good chunk of its DNA and in the beginning relies on a pre-existing story, but “Better Call Saul” established itself as a standalone series from the moment it began. Steady, largely traditional framings and a deliberately slower pace gave Slippin’ Jimmy’s journey a distinct feeling from its predecessor. But more than that, it was two commanding performances from Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean and the heartfelt central twist between them that made us sit up and pay attention to a series we’ll never think of as “Breaking Bad’s” little brother. Bring on Season 2.
4. “Jessica Jones”
It seems like with every day that passes, there’s another story about how “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” changed someone’s life. We’ve written a lot already about how well the show captures issues of trauma and how the show’s feminist undercurrents don’t undercut its crackerjack plotting. So let’s just take this as an opportunity to quote “BoJack Horseman” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg (a professed “Jessica Jones” fan), from a recent Indiewire interview: “This whole idea of too much TV, I think is really gross. Because I feel like it’s mostly white men who are saying it. And it’s like, ‘Yeah, man, there’s too much TV for you, but by nature of there being so much TV, there are other voices being represented.’ Isn’t that a wonderful thing?” It is, Mr. Bob-Waksberg. It really is. And “Jessica Jones” is just one example of why.
3. “Mr. Robot”
When we look back at 2015, it may stand out as the year when television really embraced cinematic flavor, and “Mr. Robot” may be the crowning jewel of that achievement. (Yes, “The Knick” Season 1 happened in 2014, but c’mon, be cool, y’all.) Creator Sam Esmail took his talented cast, including the captivating Rami Malek, on a journey through paranoia and self-delusion that also just so happened to be one of the best-filmed shows on the air this year. The only thing keeping this show from ascending to the highest of heights is the fact that there’s more than one plot twist which might feel overly familiar and/or predictable. But once you get past that, “Mr. Robot” was a real highlight of the year.
Perhaps the best aspect of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is that it’s not “30 Rock.” There are undoubtedly similarities in style (those cutaways!) and dialogue (“Black, gay and old? I’m not even going to know which box to check on the hate crime form.”), but Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s follow-up to their so-many-awards-winning NBC comedy is incredibly sharp and strictly focused on its main character. This is the story of a woman who’s gone through a traumatic ordeal, and the writers don’t shy away from how scarring that’s been. Yet, in truly astounding fashion, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” still manages to be one of the flat-out funniest comedies on TV. And not in a “Oh, there’s only a few laughs, but when they come they’re really, really funny” kind of way, the way many dramedies are these days. (Note: That statement could apply to “Transparent” and “The Leftovers,” to neither show’s detriment.) “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” isn’t just “30 Rock” without Jack Donaghy: It’s those same brilliant minds proving they’re still in top form by tackling an entirely new story — and owning every second of it.
1. “Master of None”
Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s personal and artisanal comedy of life was the rare new series that explodes onto the scene in such a strong, self-assured fashion that you can’t question any of its confidence. The way the adventures of Dev (Ansari) and his friends and family unfolded over the first season made it feel like the sort of thing a person should savor. We tried — and failed — to do so, but the detail packed into every episode made it worthy of such a thing.
This is the fourth Netflix series on this list, which we’re definitely conscious of. But it speaks to just how strong a year the streaming platform had, thanks to the way it championed unique voices. We might have put four Netflix shows on one list, but you can’t say they have all that much in common, beyond how you might watch.
Tomorrow: Indiewire’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2015.