20. “Documentary Now!”
It’s a great time for weird side-project comedy, with A-list names taking relatively little money and absolute creative freedom to make something weird and brilliant. It’s impossible to imagine another time in history when Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig could make a played-straight Lifetime movie, for instance. Few took advantage of this oddball opportunity better than Bill Hader, Seth Myers, and Fred Armisen, whose “Documentary Now” was both hysterically funny and a loving tribute to non-fiction filmmaking. Introduced every week by the pleasingly straight-faced Helen Mirren, the IFC series was an anthology show, with six stand-alone episodes, each riffing on a popular documentary style, from turning “Grey Gardens” into a found-footage horror, to a soft-rock “Spinal Tap.” But it was never quite spoof, in part because the creative team found real pathos in their subject matter (particularly from Hader and Armisen’s performances in the unexpectedly moving “History Of The Eagles”-aping two-part finale, which somehow found new territory in the rockumentary parody genre), and in part because the direction, by Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono, was so meticulous in recreating the originals, going so far as to tracking down 90-year-old lenses for the “Nanook Of The North” tribute. There were funnier comedies this year, sure (though the VICE parody was hysterical), but few more loving.
19. “Mr. Robot”
Prior to 2015, USA Network wasn’t known for taking risks or serious dramas. Cookie-cutter shows like “Suits,” “White Collar,” and “Royal Pains” have tended to be sunny, crowd-pleasing series that are often closer to dramas than comedies only due to their 60-minute runtime. So the arrival of “Mr. Robot” last summer felt especially surprising. First-time showrunner Sam Esmail’s show is daring in practically every way, mostly in its counter-culture themes and antisocial anti-hero. The show centers on Elliott Alderson (Golden Globe nominee Rami Malek), a socially awkward vigilante hacker whose day job has him defending corporations who he attacks at night. Anti-heroes aren’t a rarity on TV, but Elliott isn’t your typical charming bad boy, and his unreliable narration gives “Mr. Robot” an enjoyably unsettling feeling bolstered by the eerie score from Mac Quayle. The first season’s big reveal didn’t shock everyone who watched and theorized, but it did ensure that obsessive viewing (and repeat viewing) paid off. This is a dark, paranoid thriller that challenges its audience and treats them as intelligent. It’s not a show to watch while casually browsing the internet, and not just because it will make you question your internet privacy. Instead, “Mr. Robot” requires your full attention and rewards it appropriately.
Three seasons in, this Sundance drama is the closest thing television has to poetry. And like poetry, “Rectify” is a show that isn’t for everyone, which is reflected in its sadly low ratings. Its critics — who are rarely actual critics, who almost universally adore the show —often slight it for being “slow,” but we prefer the word “contemplative.” Created by Ray McKinnon, the series centers on Daniel Holden (Aden Young), a man who has recently been freed after spending 20 years on death row for a crime that he may or may not have committed. Whether Daniel is guilty is only one of the questions the show raises, but it’s hardly the most important one. “Rectify” focuses on moments big and small, and Season 3’s best scenes vary widely: from Amantha (Abigail Spencer) sharing her complex, heartbreaking life story at a Thrifty Town management seminar to a gleeful chase to determine who gets to enjoy a fritter. As delightfully silly as the fritter scene is, it demonstrates the show’s dedication to small joys in the midst of larger sadness. The season finale finds the show upending its characters’ lives yet again, but our happiness comes from knowing that we get another season of this quiet, character-driven gem.
Critics have been dancing awkwardly on the grave of big-screen romantic comedies for years now, but while we’ve been writing think pieces, the genre has flourished on the small screen, particularly in the case of “Catastrophe.” Rather than being limited to two hours, the TV format allows the relationship to grow and evolve in a way that you can’t do in a shorter time frame. Here, a brief fling between Irish teacher Sharon (Sharon Horgan) and American ad man Rob (Rob Delaney) turns into something more when she discovers she’s pregnant. Rob and Sharon are a great couple, and their quick courtship is full of ups and downs that mirror real love at its best and worst. The show’s first season alternates between acid and sweetness, with honesty and humor being the only constants. We’ve snickered and cried in the same episode — and even the same scene. The chemistry between Rob and Sharon is palpable and sexy, and Delaney (mostly known for being awesome at Twitter prior to the show) feels like a real discovery. This British import is our favorite thing about Amazon Prime other than “Transparent” and free shipping on diapers and/or condoms, and that’s saying something (and our U.K. correspondent assures us that Season 2, which has already debuted over there, is just as good).
16. “Master Of None”
Aziz Ansari was always a funny, sometimes sweet presence on “Parks & Recreation” (which had a terrific final season this year too), but we wondered from afar about him carrying a show on his own: he’d built up such a specific persona, one that fared best when bouncing off others, that we needed to be convinced. But convinced we were: “Master Of None,” which Ansari starred in and co-created with ‘Parks’ veteran Alan Yang, was an utterly refreshing gem, and one of Netflix’s best shows to date. Structurally, the show, with Ansari playing a New York actor wrestling with adulthood, responsibility, and romance, fit the streaming structure better than most, following an over-arching plot but with very specific concerns in each episode, with an almost freeform, “Louie”-esque feel. Specific is a good word to describe the series’ virtues in general: from the wonderful second ep focusing on being the spoiled second-generation kids of immigrant families to the apartment-set penultimate episode, this felt personal in a way that television’s rarely able to be, Ansari taking his own experiences and making them feel universal. It was funny, often very much so, but had the confidence to not always be, and was gorgeously shot by directors including Lynn Shelton, James Ponsoldt, and Ansari himself. Maybe best of all, it feels like the show’s only just hitting its stride.