There might be reasons for a person to write off “UnREAL,” but once you start to watch, you end up hooked on the behind-the-scenes drama of life on the set of a show that might bear just the slightest resemblance to “The Bachelor.” Thanks to a magnetic cast, including Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, and some incredibly savvy scripting, “UnREAL” was a show that stuck with us all year long, proving its ability to compete in television’s most competitive year yet. Props to Lifetime, by the way, for its impressive support of this delightfully addictive yet brutal series. Can’t wait for Season 2.
9. “Marvel’s Jessica Jones”
Indiewire’s TV team agrees on a fair number of topics, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not one of them. Liz thoroughly enjoys the film and TV offerings that come out every few months, but most of them make Ben actively angry. Ergo, if they can agree that a Marvel series like “Jessica Jones” is pretty special, that’s a big deal. While a part of the same world that “The Avengers” and “Daredevil” occupy, “Jessica Jones” is very much its own tale, and an important one, making the story of a woman fighting to reclaim her power beyond her own superpowers one that has had seismic impact on the concept of what it means to tell stories of trauma on television. We may not see more of Jessica Jones on Netflix until 2017, but fingers crossed the wait isn’t that long.
8. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
We’ve written so, so much about how great “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is this year. Let’s let someone else talk about it — specifically, series star Ellie Kemper. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is the concept creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock came up with when NBC Universal asked them if they had any ideas for a show starring the “Office” veteran. And according to Kemper during a roundtable interview at the January 2015 TCA Press Tour, when she first heard the premise, “I thought, ‘No, no, no. They’re joking, right? That’s a comedy?’ But, of course, what makes the show a comedy is it does not take what happened to Kimmy lightly. It’s a horrific thing that happened. But it is more about what happens after that, and how you survive something like that.” Kimmy Schmidt’s tale of survival shouldn’t be as funny as it is, but that’s just part of the show’s genius.
7. “The Americans”
Consistently thrilling and surprising, Joseph Weisberg and Joel Fields’ FX period drama never fails to engage with the tough questions. And Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) never faced a more difficult proposition with more lasting repercussions than when they were backed into a corner by their oldest child, Paige (Holly Taylor). Demanding to know their most protected secret, Paige was an integral element to Season 3 and the build-up to their conversation was tantalizing, terrifying and, most importantly, fulfilling. “The Americans” continues to be a family drama disguised as spy thriller, and never was the former more present than this year. The Jennings family put thought and care into a vital, controversial discussion that still caught them off guard, and Weisberg and Fields wisely structured the season so we could see the dangerous consequences of the Cold War couple’s choice. Season 4 can’t come soon enough.
6. “Master of None”
A focused and thoughtful first offering from creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, “Master of None” Season 1 was all about discussions. Whether it was finding the truth in friendly, everyday conversations or opening a dialogue for the viewer to discover their own truths, each episode dug into affairs both familiar and distinct with a fresh perspective. The directorial team (including James Ponsoldt, Lynn Shelton, co-star Eric Wareheim and Ansari himself) worked hard to capture the lush urban environments surrounding a group of actors who settle nicely into the unique rhythms in the dialogue. Formally sharp and intellectually engaged, “Master of None” has already proven itself among TV’s elite offerings.
5. “BoJack Horseman”
Last year, when “BoJack Horseman” cracked our Top 10 list with the final slot, we said the animated Netflix original “grows deeper and richer” as it goes along. As you can see by its Top 5 placement this year, the trend continued in a big way during Season 2. Raphael Bob-Waksberg pushed his series into darker territory without alienating comedy fans, remaining true to his characters while they developed to fascinating new levels. In a year with a slew of dramas vying to be the deepest, most intellectually stimulating scripted series, it’s “BoJack Horseman” that featured the most profound lines — and some of the funniest.
Watching “Veep” is like watching Michael Jordan (a very good basketball player, children). It’s not so much that it’s so damn good, but that it’s so damn good that it makes perfectly honed improv-style comedy look easy. As headed up by showrunner Armando Iannucci, “Veep’s” fourth season was another wonderfully executed descent into the absurdity of American politics. Watching Selina Meyers (Julie Louis-Dreyfus) get everything she ever wanted, and learn just how little that would actually fix, would have been tough going were it not so hilarious. Hail to the Veep, now and forever.
3. “You’re the Worst”
One of the best by-products of the golden age of television is that so-called taboos are starting to fall by the wayside. Racism, sexuality and other controversial topics formerly thought too challenging or off-putting for mainstream TV are being thoroughly explored by a number of programs, but it wasn’t until this season of “You’re the Worst” that one of the world’s most challenging and misrepresented illnesses got its due from a TV show that actually knew how to depict and discuss the disorder. Gretchen’s slowly unveiled, methodical and persistent struggle with depression was put into the context of not just relationships, but day-to-day life. Watching her friends, family and boyfriend react to her shutdown was key in illustrating how to and how not to handle an issue many of us may face without even realizing it. Meanwhile, pushing Gretchen toward help after giving her a microphone to properly describe her struggle — a struggle too common to too many people — paid due time and attention to the issue. Oh, and while this may not be as important in the grand scheme of things, showrunner and creator Stephen Falk made sure that each episode was side-splittingly funny, keeping his show miles away from feeling like an after school special. A comedy on FXX might not be how everyone should learn about coping with depression, but it’s how a lot of people will — and “You’re the Worst” deserves serious props for going there.
2. “Mad Men”
One of modern television’s most landmark series may have only aired seven episodes in 2015, but it never compromised its passion for its characters and never shirked its commitment to not just depicting an era, but creating a tone unlike anything else. To the end, “Mad Men” was the gold standard for how period dramas take on the 1960s and how to keep us guessing and wondering until the very end. Every season was a cultural moment, a fact that was easy to overstate in the show’s immediate wake. But it was also fantastic television, rich with characters we’ll never forget.
1. “The Leftovers”
What’s left to be said about “The Leftovers”? After more than a few interviews, more than a few podcasts, weekly episode reviews, lists and daily coverage, Indiewire has been beating the drum for this ambitious, outstanding and wildly inventive HBO drama with a rhythm that would quicken any pulse. Seeing it at the top of our list should thus come as no surprise, but not because you, our dear readers, are aware of our obsession. Its status as the best TV series of 2015 should be without question because you, too, have seen Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s magnificent achievement and know it to be true. The only question left for a series with so many unanswered ones is whether or not it can top itself in Season 3. It’s a tall order, but we think everyone involved in this towering achievement is up to the task.
Check out the next page for our TV Critic and Editor’s personal addendums to the list.
…And Five More, From TV Critic Ben Travers
Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s long-running Comedy Central series is almost too inventive for its own good. We take it for granted sometimes, entrusting that the Colorado kids are brilliantly satirizing topical content week in and week out, even if we only see a clip or read a headline. That’s not right, and luckily there are some passionate fans out there trying to remind people to tune in or start streaming. If you’ve missed a few seasons, this year — Season 19 — is a good place to start, as the citizens of South Park confront the bullying tactics of P.C. culture. Oh, and did I mention it’s serialized? Yeah, it is, and this ongoing story only makes the individual half-hours all the more powerful.
A beautifully told story from start to finish, Jill Soloway’s second season with the Pfefferman family was time better utilized than last year. Using flashbacks to not only put the family’s actions in context but historically frame the trans movement, Soloway also worked harder to find the empathy within her broken characters, all of whom are struggling to discover their true selves in the midst of their patriarch’s open transition. Jeffrey Tambor is simply stunning yet again, and the rest of this able and exciting cast upped their game accordingly. Personally, I found Kathryn Hahn’s rabbi to be the most fascinating of the lot and perhaps the most compelling supporting performance, but with such plentiful choices, viewers will find their own favorites.
Gorgeous even in its most grotesque scenarios, “Hannibal” was a unique feast for fans and exemplary horror for all. At its best, Bryan Fuller’s gruesome adaptation explored the psychological temptations of hunter and prey, subtly reversing the roles as fascination turned to desire and then back again. Stars Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy became their characters on screen, playing an undeniable romance from every angle (bar one) and inching their way into the psyches of those watching. Just like Hannibal and Will, we all became entranced with what we saw — even when it became dangerous to get so close. Just as no one thought another actor could take over for Anthony Hopkins after “The Silence of the Lambs,” it’s equally hard to imagine any other version of Hannibal Lecter after Mikkelsen (and Will Graham after Dancy). Both characters have seen more than a few iterations, but the actors — and “Hannibal” itself — left their stamp on the franchise with authority.
While in the sixth season of “Archer,” it may appear like the ex-ISIS crew is back to their old tricks after a year of smuggling drugs, creator Adam Reed carefully infused his latest cocktail with a few delicious twists. “Vision Quest” is a bottle episode that can’t be topped. “Achub Y Morfilod” incorporates the inventive spirit one would expect from a story inspired by “a rousing tale from Matthew Rys” (who co-stars). Even the long-gestating love-hate relationship between Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) and Lana (Aisha Tyler) picks a side. But what really makes Season 6 an admirable follow-up to “Archer Vice” is the finale, in which an animated comedy spoofing a series with a lead character who never dies actually asks its main character to address his own mortality — a question that’s oddly satisfying and entirely justified. Whatever the future holds for this regularly surprising series, no one should look back on what came after “Vice” as anything but a good thing.
“Grace and Frankie”
Okay, I’ve heard all the arguments against Netflix’s dramedy from “Friends” co-creator Marta Kauffman (“It feels like an old sitcom without the laugh track, but with the gaps where laughs are expected”), starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen, Sam Waterson and a whole bunch of younger people (“…who don’t belong! Get them outta there!”). Guess what? I don’t care. As true as those accusations may be, there’s some potent thematic material in here, and a show examining the difficulties involved with aging is frighteningly rare and relatable. Plus, the core four absolutely kill it, creating a number of moving, funny and introspective scenes you’ll remember until you’re Grace’s age.
…And Five More, From TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller
“Better Call Saul”
Maybe we know where Jimmy McGill is going, but that doesn’t make his journey any less interesting. Deliberately paced and dense with character development, “Better Call Saul” wasn’t a show of explosions. But it achieved a near-impossible challenge — living up to the legacy of “Breaking Bad,” while also finding its own unique voice — and also brought us some of our favorite television moments of the year. If your heart didn’t break watching Chuck and Jimmy in Episode 9, “Pimento,” then you might not have a heart to break.
“Fargo” Season 2 might have lacked the same dramatic oomph of Season 1, but its nuanced portrait of humanity kept us watching, eyes wide. An all-star cast operating at the height of their abilities, working with scripts rich with humor and nuance, was must-watch TV week after week. There might have been a lack of twists on the level of, say, Season 1’s Martin Freeman telling his lovely wife to “put your hood up — I’d hate for your pretty face to freeze,” but it was still captivating. Also, there were flying saucers. Can’t complain about that.
This is exactly the sort of show that never would have gotten a chance 10 years ago and exactly the sort of show that makes the current television landscape so exciting to observe. What’s especially exciting is the fact that creator Sam Esmail is set to direct every episode next season, meaning that the hacker drama’s commitment to high-stakes weirdness will only grow. That means we’re in for a ride equal to those last few episodes of 2015. Given the way things wrapped up at the end of Season 1, this show has a commitment to crazy from which you can’t look away.
“Orange Is the New Black”
The best thing you can ever say about a TV show is that it gets better every year. And while “Orange is the New Black” Season 3 didn’t make the official IW list this time, it still means an awful lot to me as a platform for telling so many different and interesting stories. Sometimes, the storytelling digs into hard-to-watch territory (especially when it came to Pennsatucky’s (Taryn Manning) story, which included maybe some of the most explicit rape scenes seen on TV this year). But with each season, new characters get a new chance to shine while others only get deeper and better developed.
We still have one episode left to watch in Season 2, but “The Affair” was one of our favorite rides of the year, surprising us week after week. And not just by regularly experimenting with its established format, but by keeping its central mystery as captivating as the interpersonal drama between its stars. Co-creator Sarah Treem says they began the series with at least three seasons of story plotted out. I can’t wait to see what’s coming next.