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The Top Ten TV Series of 2015

The Top Ten TV Series of 2015

1. “The Leftovers” (HBO) 

From the prehistoric to the Biblical, the “Jarden of Eden” to the river Styx, the second season of HBO’s bold drama is apocalyptic in the oldest sense of the term: a kind of revelation. Spinning the power and pain of last year’s “Guest” into ten wild, profound, humane episodes set in the long aftermath of the Sudden Departure, co-creators Damon Lindelof and Tom Perotta urged the series toward new emotional and aesthetic extremes, testing the limits of the art form to depict the depths of grief. The result, anchored by the performances of five extraordinary women—Amy Brenneman, Carrie Coon, Ann Dowd, Regina King, and Liv Tyler—was the creation of a strange, unsettling world poised on the border between the hellish and the divine, an unflagging effort to mimic the experience of loss using every tool in the medium’s arsenal. Brutal and beautiful in equal measure, it’s now clear that “Mad Men” has a worthy successor: “The Leftovers” is the best show on television. 

READ MORE: “The Anarchy of Influence: On ‘Fight Club,’ ‘Mr. Robot,’ and ‘The Leftovers’ (VIDEO)”

2. “Transparent” (Amazon)

Beginning with the Altmanesque opening minutes of its magnificent second season, a chaotic arrangement of kith and kin that mirrors the Pfeffermans’ own rough edges, Jill Soloway’s warm, touching, and terrifically funny “Transparent” squares space for its unhurried rhythms. Bounding from Weimar Germany to the present day, the series becomes so roomy in its treatment of history, family, and identity that the first season’s catalyst—Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), formerly Mort, comes out to her three adult children as a trans woman—now seems almost incidental; Soloway evinces interest in the politics of gender and sexuality, but only insofar as the subject illuminates her finely drawn characters. As lovingly crafted as an old photograph or home movie, “Transparent” is a tale of people still in the process of discovering who they are, and will be, a treatment of the specific with the weight of the universal.

3. “Mad Men” (AMC)

The final season of Matthew Weiner’s messy, ambivalent,
luminous microhistory of “the American Century” closes the circle on
the so-called Golden Age of Television by casting an eye toward the future. As
much an epilogue to the perfect “Waterloo” as an ending in its own
right, these seven episodes—with the same vivid style and rich storytelling
that defined the series from the start—recognize that the lived experience of
change, personal and historical, can often resemble stasis; if its last-act
montage seemed a sop to fans, its astonishing smash cut meted out one last
measure of doubt as to the characters’ futures. In this sense, “Mad
Men” appears to me neither cynical nor sentimental, but
realistic—understanding, at the risk of the viewer’s discomfort, that
“you, feeling something” is the same point of contact for artists and
advertisers alike. Over the course of its tremendous run, in
which it gradually emerged as one of the two or three finest series in the
history of television, “Mad Men” achieved the same feat as its finest
pitches, which was simultaneously to get us to buy into a fiction and to feel
something real. Bravo.

READ MORE: “Of Time & Life: How ‘Mad Men’ Remade Television”

4. “Looking

The second season of HBO’s dramedy transforms the halting brilliance
of the first into a permanent feature with a series of deft aesthetic coups.
From the rooftop of a San Francisco office building to the basement of a block
of luxury apartments, the series unfurls long takes and delicate compositions
in the service of its hazy, affecting testament of youth; critics may rail that
it’s “boring,” but “Looking” in fact develops an easygoing,
off-the-cuff vibe all too rare for television. By the time Patrick (Jonathan
Groff) returns to Richie (Raúl Castillo) in the lovely series finale, Michael
Lannan and stalwart writer/director Andrew Haigh’s portrait of gay life in
contemporary California achieves the emotional heft of a tone poem, lyrical and
surprisingly grand. 

5. “The
Americans” (FX)

In the series of dissolves that concludes its remarkable third season—a bleak, violent Cold War salvo defined by the crack of a corpse’s bones and the gasps of a dying woman—”The Americans” returns to the thicket of moral, familial, ideological, and marital conflicts that has made it one of television’s most consistently compelling series. Though Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ thrilling glimpse into the lives of Soviet spies posing as American travel agents in the early 1980s is resolutely unflashy, full of bad wigs and worse upholstery, it’s more stylish than it’s given credit for, and the aforementioned conclusion to “March 8, 1983” stitches the Jennings family firmly into the pitched battles of the time. At once intimate and worldly, sexy and scary, “The Americans,” with stunning performances from Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, Noah Emmerich, and the young Holly Taylor, remains committed to the notion that no country or conviction holds a monopoly on evil. The series’ only belief by this point is in the
omnipresence of doubt. 

READ MORE: “For the Love of God (or Country), Start Watching ‘The Americans'”

6. “BoJack
Horseman” (Netflix)

“Don’t sit so close to the TV, it’ll make you
cruel,” the young BoJack Horseman’s mother (Wendie Malick) says in the
second season of Netflix’s surprisingly moving farce, yet “BoJack
Horseman”—despite its wicked, knowing allusions to the medium’s past and
present—never fails to treat its stunted characters with care: the series is
obsessed with the small screen, but vicious it is not. Rather, as it holds a
magnifying glass to “Hollywoo,” an exaggerated version of Hollywood
populated by humans and anthropomorphized animals, the series constructs a
deeply empathic, heartbreaking portrait of its equine protagonist (Will Arnett)
as he launches the next stage of his career. It’s fantastically witty, of
course, down to the droll treatment of rape culture in thinly veiled Cosby
smackdown “Hank After Dark,” but here as elsewhere the black humor of
“BoJack Horseman” comes infinitesimally close to real life: a
portrait of the animals we become when the screen’s blue glare blinds us to the

READ MORE: “‘BoJack Horseman,’ ‘Rick and Morty,’ and Our Love/Hate Relationship with TV”

7. “The
Knick” (Cinemax)

In “The Knick,” no image appears out of place, no
frame registers as an attempt at simply “covering” pages in the
script: it is, without exaggeration, impeccable. Now, to its familiar bristle of formal innovations—as director,
cinematographer, and editor Steven Soderbergh and composer Cliff Martinez
plunge the viewer into history’s whirlpool—the second season of Cinemax’s
bloody, visceral period piece adds increasingly precise characterization and a
canny, complex understanding of Progressive Era politics. Approaching with new
vigor both the possibilities of the time and its most dangerous
limitations—and, by analogy, those of our own age, mixing technological
revolution and ideological revanchism—the series emerges as a form of aesthetic
and narrative immersion in the contingent choices from which history is made. 

READ MORE: “Why Steven Soderbergh’s ‘The Knick’ Is More Timely, and Better, Than Ever”   

8. “Please Like
Me” (Pivot)

Australian writer/creator/star Josh Thomas’ absurd and absurdly winsome comedy, combining off-kilter observations with director Matthew Saville’s colorful kitsch, is a far more convincing portrait of the “Millennial” affect than anything in Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” As Josh (Thomas), his boyfriend, Arnold (Keegan Joyce), and his friends Tom (Thomas Ward) and Claire (Caitlin Stasey) navigate situations both uncommon (killing a chicken) and all-too-real (STDs, unwanted pregnancies, mental illness), the series approaches the hard work of being comfortable in one’s own skin with a deft touch, never patronizing either the characters or the viewer. Whimsical, romantic, and seriously funny, it may be on a network you’ve never heard of, but it’s well worth the effort of searching out.      

READ MORE: “Fall’s Best TV Comedies, ‘Please Like Me’ and ‘Casual,’ Are a Sign of the Times”

9. “Hannibal

The bifurcated narrative of the series’ final season occasionally
fails to keep pace with its ferocious formalism, but that’s only because
“Hannibal” is the closest television’s come to what critics once
called “pure cinema.” From grotesque tableaux and kaleidoscopic
visions, the score’s industrial clink
and the dialogue’s incantatory poetry, Bryan Fuller and company create, as FBI
profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) says while in pursuit of Dr. Hannibal Lecter
(Mads Mikkelsen), “a Valentine written on a broken man.” A
nightmarish transposition of the horrific and the hedonistic, the ethical and
the aesthetical, “Hannibal” distinguishes the act of killing from the
act of understanding it by hewing at every turn to its own unforgettable credo:
“This is my design.”

READ MORE: “NBC’s Nightmarish ‘Hannibal’ Returns, and It’s a Daring Work of Art” 

10. “Casual

Despite the title card’s rather cringe-worthy conceit, that
the protagonists are in search of the “casual” relationships one
might find through an online dating site, Zander Lehmann and Jason Reitman’s
bittersweet comedy forges a lived-in, often surprising portrait of kinship as
both weapon and armor. As it eases into its eight-episode first season, lead
performers Tommy Dewey and Michaela Watkins develop a gently funny sibling chemistry
rooted in loyalty and love rather than rivalry. Indeed, by the time the stellar
finale arrives—a half hour of comic disaster that outclasses the vast majority
of recent entries in that venerable subgenre, the dysfunctional Thanksgiving
dinner—”Casual” fulfills the promise of the title in another sense
entirely. Relaxed and unguarded, with intertwined veins of pathos and dark
comedy, the series is a tender study in how we present ourselves for other
people’s approval—and find solace in those we don’t need to impress.   

READ MORE: “Fall’s Best TV Comedies, ‘Please Like Me’ and ‘Casual,’ Are a Sign of the Times”

Honorable Mentions: “Better Call Saul” (AMC); “Doll & Em
(HBO); “Empire” (FOX); “Homeland
(Showtime); “Inside Amy Schumer” (Comedy Central); “Last
Week Tonight with John Oliver” (HBO); “Master of None” (Netflix); “Mr.
” (USA); “Rectify” (SundanceTV); “Sense8” (Netflix); “Show Me a Hero” (HBO); “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
(Netflix); “Veep” (HBO); “Wolf
” (PBS); “You’re the Worst” (FXX)

READ MORE: “The Top Ten TV Episodes of 2015”    

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