So far in our extensive look at the best of 2015, we’ve been focused mostly on movies. And rightly so: this is predominately a movie site. But it’s also a little misleading when it comes to our viewing habits, because we don’t know if you’ve noticed, but narrative TV has been really terrific for at least a decade.
2015 might be the crest of new wave of television. Not only are the traditional networks cranking out shows, but cable, streaming services, and even unlikely sources that few would have looked to for scripted series a couple years ago are all putting out not just good TV, but great TV.
Traditionally, we’ve discussed our favorite TV shows of the year in the summer, at the end of the traditional network TV season. But with the network season becoming increasingly meaningless (only one show from our list is on one of the Big 5 networks), we decided to run down our 25 favorites of the calendar year at the end of 2015.
You can find our picks below, and it should be said, we had a tough time narrowing down our choices. If we missed your favorite, you can sing its virtues in the comments section. Oh, and some spoilers are ahead.
25. “Marvel’s Jessica Jones”
Marvel’s first Netflix series, “Daredevil” (released earlier this year in the format’s patented binge-able model) was promising, if somewhat rough-around-the-edges. It re-contextualized the preexisting Marvel Cinematic Universe, making it smaller, grittier, more violent, and more intimate. But it was somewhat wobbly on the storytelling front, and felt like a minor inroad instead of a reinvention. Who could have guessed that the reinvention would come in the form of Marvel’s second Netflix series, “Jessica Jones”? The pilot was screened, to rapturous delight, at New York Comic Con, and it just got better from there: Jessica (played, brilliantly, by Krysten Ritter) is a hardened private eye who used to be a superhero. Based on a relatively obscure, adults-only comic book, the series took bold risks in terms of both form (it’s far sexier and more violent than anything else with the Marvel brand) and content (things like post-traumatic stress disorder, abortion, child abuse, and rape are freely discussed, and with an insight that benefits from coming from a female showrunner, Melissa Rosenberg). But it’s never a bummer, thanks to the lively performances (David Tennant’s baddie is terrific, at once terrifying and pathetic) and utter commitment of everyone involved.
Season 3 of Netflix‘s triumphant women’s prison dramedy was a lighter, less tightly constructed affair than Season 2, but it’s still utterly 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 initially feel disappointing, but really it’s a heartening sign that “Orange Is The New Black” 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. Within the whole cloth woven out of Season 3 are individual threads and story lines 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. 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, Poussey, Sophia, Pennsatucky, et al.
23. “Better Call Saul”
The odds appeared to be against “Better Call Saul” from the off. Spin-offs rarely work, and it had to live up to “Breaking Bad,” probably the most widely acclaimed drama 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 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). 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.
22. “Mad Men”
Matthew Weiner’s ad-world period drama was, within only a few years, enshrined as one of the solid-gold classics of the new era of TV, which meant that everyone spent a few years nervously wondering if the creator would be able to stick the landing. It’s perhaps true to say that the last run of “Mad Men” — the second half of its seventh season — was perhaps not the very most satisfying of the show’s history. In part, it’s because of the nature of that split, which made the final episodes feel like an extended victory lap rather than a whole season. But not-quite top-form “Mad Men” is still astonishingly good television, and the show ended on an utterly fitting note. Weiner never particularly cared about making you happy, or following anyone’s rules but his own, and the show always felt closer to great American literature than to great American TV. And the final hours we spent with the characters, from the sad fate of Betty to the perfect closing moments with Don going from meditative peace to (presumably) buying the world a Coke, paid that off. “Mad Men,” we raise a lunchtime Manhattan or five to you.
This was the year where that desperate feeling that we all have of having too much small-screen entertainment to choose from got a name put to it, with FX’s John Landgraf popularizing the term ‘Peak TV.’ With 400 scripted shows airing, you couldn’t possibly watch everything, and one of the biggest victims of this was “Manhattan,” an absolutely terrific show that goes virtually unwatched on the obscure WGN America network. But if you’re looking for something to binge over Christmas, we highly recommend Sam Shaw’s show, which built on a strong first run with an absolutely stellar second season that ended this week. Focusing on the (fictionalized) development of the nuclear weapon in Los Alamos in the mid 1940s, it’s a sort of blend of “Mad Men” and “The Americans,” meshing finely honed period drama with gripping thriller elements, and an absolute ton of soulfulness. Shaw and his team had upended the status quo at the end of the first season, and their fascinating medley of scientists (John Benjamin Hickey’s troubled project leader, Olivia Williams as his wife, Ashley Zukerman as the ambitious protege, Katja Herbers as female scientist Helen, Christopher Denham as the treacherous Jim Meeks, and Michael Chernus as the tragic Fritz, were highlights of a top-notch cast) ended up embroiled in one of the most carefully plotted, cumulatively devastating, impeccably made seasons of TV in recent memory.