There's too much good TV—it's a complaint that's been the core theme of television thinkpieces all year long. There were a record 409 dramas, comedies and limited series this year alone (not counting unscripted shows or TV movies), and even the most vigilant and obsessive TV critic couldn't hope to watch them all.
This is the year that FX chief John Landgraf argued that “there is simply too much television...It is hard to find good shows...and I believe it’s impossible to maintain quality control." Ultimately, this seems like a good thing to me—sure, it redefines what constitutes a "hit" show, but it also means that more networks are taking chances on smaller, more personal shows, and a wider variety of voices and experiences. The base-level quality of television programming seems to have been raised—viewers expect more from a show than just a momentary distraction, and are treating TV as seriously as any other artistic medium in a way that never would have happened, outside of connoisseurs, as recently as 20 years ago.
From personal experience, TV shows have inspired much more interesting and provocative conversations among my friends than popular films or music at this point. And there is certainly no better way for people to push through the fog of channels and options than word-of-mouth, whether it's coworkers' recommendations, friends who force you to watch things, or critics' lists. In that spirit, I've put together a list of my favorite shows of the year (I've watched approximately 50-60 shows in 2015). Maybe you'll discover something you haven't heard of, maybe it'll inspire you to finally watch a show you've been putting off, maybe you'll have your own recommendations, or maybe you'll just want to argue in the comments section.
I didn't include any late night programs (Hi, SNL) or talk shows (otherwise, the essential Last Week Tonight would be in the comedy top 10), no reality shows, no web series, and no documentaries (The Jinx & Going Clear were both must-see TV, and I've heard great things from coworkers about Making Of A Murderer).
And of course, I can't watch everything. Here are my blind spots: among the many excellent programs I've seen cited by other critics, I haven't had time to watch Manhattan, Fresh Off The Boat, Empire, Jane The Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Getting On, The Returned, The 100, Togetherness, The Man In The High Castle, Narcos, or Show Me A Hero. I loved the first season of The Knick, but haven't gotten to watch season two yet. I haven't been able to get into Halt & Catch Fire, maybe because Lee Pace's eyebrows are just too aggressive for me. I've never seen an episode of The Good Wife, though from what I can tell, the most recent season hasn't been very good. And despite a deep appreciation for Maura Tierney and Dominic West, I've never been remotely interested in The Affair.
My four most disappointing shows of the year: the recent bifurcated season of Girls fell completely flat for me (and I was a big fan of the first two seasons, and about half of season three); The League ended its seven-year run with a giant thud, as if the improv formula that was the basic DNA of the show went completely sour; Masters Of Sex still has two movie star-level leads, but has lost track of what it is trying to say; and True Detective season two was an utter disaster and waste of Colin Farrell's mustache and bolo ties.
Some honorable mentions: Homeland season five was solid, even if it completely wasted the character of Peter Quinn; Community no longer felt like appointment-viewing, but went out with a surprisingly good (final?) season on Yahoo; The Walking Dead remains compelling and nihilistic TV (with the best makeup artistry on TV), but stumbled in the first half of season six with some serious narrative missteps (Hi Glenn); It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia remains dependably funny TEN seasons in, which is truly remarkable; The Last Man On Earth had the best, bleakest comedy pilot I've ever seen (I just wish the supporting characters lived up to the performances of Will Forte & Kristen Schaal); Inside Amy Schumer had a breakout year and included one of the boldest episodes of comedy I've seen ("12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer"); Silicon Valley took a big leap forward in season two; Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt carried the spirit of 30 Rock; and Andre Braugher makes me crack up every week with his line readings on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. He deserves all the supporting actor awards in the world.
One last note: I've only just binge-watched the first season of Sundance's incredible Rectify, and I have a strong feeling I'll end up regretting not including the recent third season on my list. Either way, I unequivocally recommend it—it's religiously curious, contemplative, mysterious, and utterly transfixing.
Here are the Dramas that moved and compelled me:
1. The Americans (Season 3): As every season has built off of the last, I feel more and more convinced that this is the spiritual successor to Breaking Bad. If you've tried to watch it and have stumbled on details of plot plausibility, you're missing the point: the emotional core of the show is agonizing and spectacular. Every glance between Elizabeth and Phillip contains multitudes. This was the best season yet, and I am positive that it will be topped as it marches towards the end.
2. Fargo (Season 2): The first season was very good, but this was the season the show stepped out of it's namesake's shadow and became something much more. There was no program that gave me more joy in every aspect of its production, from the acting of Kirsten Dunst to the splitscreen camerawork to the rollicking soundtrack to the poetic musings of Bokeem Woodbine. This is a show where every scene was a thrilling confrontation.
3. Mad Men (Season 7.2): The last season was filled with digressions and frustrations (Hi waitress whose name I've already forgotten, Megan's family drama), and it was also a perfect sendoff for one of the best shows of the last decade. Whether it was Peggy walking in slow motion with a cigarette dangling out of her mouth, Roger playing the organ, or Don smiling, there were images that will stick with me for a long time.
4. Hannibal (Season 3): Suffice to say, this show wasn't for everyone. But if you love your serial killer love stories with a tinge of completely batshit and pretentious cinematography, then the final season of Hannibal was the most exciting, perverse hour of TV. The second half in particular, the third filmic retelling of "Red Dragon," was perhaps the highpoint of the entire show.
5. Transparent (Season 2): Like a lot of people, I binge-watched the second season in two or three days. I felt even more frustrated with the narcissistic Pfefferman clan this year (poor Rabbi Raquel), but the narrative tightness, sibling bonding, Maura's journey, and concepts like "inherited trauma" have lingered with me in subtle ways.
6. Better Call Saul (Season 1): The spiritual sequel/prequel to Breaking Bad could have coasted on Bob Odenkirk's goofy, colorful title character, but instead decided to go much deeper. "I broke my boy" remains one of the most powerful moments on TV this year.
7. The Leftovers (Season 2): No show left me more depressed and devastated every week. Despite all the amazing actors (especially Carrie Coon and Regina King), I felt ready to give this show up on several occasions. Thankfully I stuck with it, and the last three episodes rewarded with a blast of humanity that has somehow made me want to rewatch the entire season again.
8. Justified (Season 6): This under-appreciated FX show ended its run with one of its best seasons, where the excellent new supporting cast (including Sam Elliott, Garret Dillahunt, and Mary Steenburgen) never got in the way of the central relationship: Raylon and Boyd were always two sides of the same coin, and despite the fact that Boyd was supposed to die in the pilot episode, their unlikely bond turned into the show's emotional anchor.
9. Mr. Robot (Season 1): Like a lot of people, I was skeptical that a show from the Burn Notice/White Collar/Royal Pains network could possibly be that nuanced. I am very happy to report I was totally wrong. If you like paranoid '70s dramas, post-Snowden intrigue or the collected works of Christian Slater, check this one out now.
10. Game Of Thrones (Season 5): This season of GoT had some serious flaws (especially everything involving Dorne and Ramsay Bolton), and probably is the second weakest overall season of the show. Having said that, it's still an addictive show I love dearly, and it gave us "Hardhome," one of my two or three favorite episodes of TV this year.
11 & 12. Daredevil/Jessica Jones (Season 1): Marvel finally figured out how to make great TV shows with complicated, charismatic lead characters. The lead villains were arguably even more nuanced than any of their cinematic ones. Daredevil had the best fight scene of the year in its second episode, and Jessica Jones was a bold commentary on the horrors of male entitlement.
13. UnREAL (Season 1): On paper, nothing about this appealed to me—I've never really watched reality shows, or any Lifetime programming. But a close friend forced me to watch this show with him, and I'm eternally grateful. It features the best duo in any show this year outside of Broad City and The Americans.
And here are my favorite Comedies:
1. Review (Season 2): How do you improve upon a perfect first season which ended in a perfectly satisfying manner? Season one of this Comedy Central gem was my favorite show last year, and I didn't know if it needed a second season. But from the first episode onwards, it proved me wrong—no show made me laugh-out-loud more than this one. R.I.P. Clovers. Long live Forrest MacNeil.
2. BoJack Horseman (Season 2): BoJack hit its stride in the second half of season one, when it pivoted from a Hollywood satire into a meditation on depression and self-sabotage. It was even more striking this season, as each main character struggled to break the cycle of depression, often with devastating results (see: "Escape From LA").
3. Rick and Morty (Season 2): The most manic, over-caffeinated sci-fi cartoon in history was (you guessed it) even better in season two. This year we got Tiny Rick, "Get Shwifty," time/space contradictions, and best of all, Mr. Poopybutthole in season highlight "Total Rickall."
4. You're The Worst (Season 2): This very enjoyable anti-RomCom embraced clinical depression this season in a big way...and still managed to remain funny and cynical. By the finale, it really leaned into the romance part in the least saccharine way imaginable.
5. Louie (Season 5): I feel like a lot of people slept on this season of Louis C.K.'s show, which means they missed out on the complicated development of C.K.'s relationship with longtime crush Pamela, as well as a nightmare dip into his unconscious.
6. Nathan For You (Season 3): Where does the real Nathan Fielder begin and the show one end? The lines between reality and staging got even more blurry this season, and high concepts seemed even, er, higher. Nathan tried to make a friend, staged an experimental theater show, started a cult, lived as another person, and manufactured a wildly popular line of jackets just to raise Holocaust awareness.
7. Catastrophe (Season 1): This was hands down the best new show of the year, and also the most romantic show of the year. It's messy and sweet and unsentimental, and above all else, painfully real at times.
8. Veep (Season 4): Armando Iannucci gave us one last hilarious season of high energy political nastiness, with two of the best episodes coming at the start ("East Wing") and end ("Testimony").
9. Broad City (Season 2): Whether they were getting stoned with Kelly Ripa, shopping at Whole Foods, or dancing naked in their apartment, the relationship between Abbi and Ilana remained a delight. "Knockoffs," which paired plots about underground handbags and pegging, was the best episode of the season.
10. Key & Peele (Season 5): The kings of sketch comedy went out on top with their final season. It's basically impossible to pick out highlights, but "A Capella" is one clip I've rewatched a few dozen times.
11. Master Of None (Season 1): It would have been a good show if Aziz Ansari had just translated his standup comedy into an ongoing series, but this show was way more ambitious in its scope. It turned out to be a perfect short story show, with ruminations on TV diversity, hook-up culture, and the sacrifices of parenting. The last two episodes were almost too raw for me, but "Old People" remains one of my favorite episodes of the year.
12. South Park (Season 19): Nineteen seasons in, and the show felt as vital this year as it did a decade ago. Adding continuity and season-long story arcs really revitalized what had started to become formula—I recommend binge-watching the whole season if you haven't watched the show in years.
13. Parks & Recreation (Season 7) It may not have reached the peaks of seasons two to four, but Parks went out on a high note with all the warmth fans came to cherish about this group of funny people.
What did you love to watch this year?