Goodness gracious it was a wonderful year for television, the past six months especially. A bunch of beloved series came to a close (Justified, Mad Men, Parenthood, Hannibal), a couple of promising newer ones blasted into the stratosphere (Fargo, The Leftovers), and there was no dearth of quality debuts (Mr. Robot, Better Call Saul). So much good stuff that we had to declare a tie for the top spot.

Seasons that have gotten raves that we’re waiting for the holidays to binge on are You’re the Worst, The Americans, Bojack Horseman, and Jane the Virgin, so they weren’t included below. But here’s our best shot at rounding up what we most enjoyed on television in 2015. Major thanks go to HE, EKR, BJ, LB, and JD for helping out.


12. Master of None. There was plenty of more polished viewing this year, but few series were as relevant as Aziz Ansari’s Master of None for Netflix, basically a dramatization of the excellent Modern Romance book the comedian co-authored with sociologist Eric Klinenberg (who’ll be speaking in NYC!). Aziz has a lot to say about the anxiety and entitlement, loneliness and expectation, at the heart of modern cosmopolitan life. In fact, you’re going to roll your eyes but the portrait he paints bears an alarming resemblance to the one Francis Fukuyama laid out at the end of his famous 1989 essay “The End of History”:

“The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.”

Add some punchy monologues about the immigrant experience and sprinkle some adorkable-ness on top, and you have Master of None’s diagnosis of our cultural moment. Too bad the pilot drops the ball.


11. South Park. “You can’t say excitement without saying SodoSopa,” and you can’t expect Season 19 of South Park to be any less crude or confrontational than its predecessors. South Park has always wrestled with the “little-l laws” of American life, and Season 19 is no different. The town’s elementary school hires a “PC Principle,” styled in the polo shirts and sunglasses of a frat-bro, to bully the town out of bullying. Randy Marsh lobbies for a Whole Foods to legitimize South Park’s identity as a “real progressive town”; and Reality strikes despite the town’s best efforts to create “safe spaces” for all. Each episode delivers a self-contained nugget of timely satire, but the season’s relentless focus on outrage culture and political correctness really stands out.


10. Mr. Robot. This Fight Club-inspired thriller had more than a few discerning viewers surprising themselves by tuning in to the USA Network. They did so because Mr. Robot is a supremely fresh take on the unstable-yet-brilliant hacker archetype, the story of Elliott Alderson and his quest to take down a sinister conglomerate. Sounds corny perhaps, but the production elevates it to something else—from the cinematography to the casting (which includes a refurbished Christian Slater) to the plotting. All the techno-babble is window dressing for a rich cocktail of intrigue, ambition, and cynicism in which God complexes get filtered through an admirably low anthropology. The main chord the series strikes, however, is that of loneliness, the way technology isolates us from others, how the yearning for connection and the fear of vulnerability feed off one another. Some great father-son dynamics in there as well.


9. Girls. It’s obnoxious when people refer to an album or film as “transitional”–it’s usually code for “mediocre”–but no adjective fits the latest season of HBO’s best dramedy better. Transitional but delightful, as the principal ensemble was dragged, kicking and screaming, into adulthood. Lena’s writing just keeps getting sharper, and the Iowa sojourn beat campus pundits to the punch by a solid six months (“Trigger Warning” was a highlight), demonstrating once again Dunham’s fearlessness in cutting through nonsense, especially her own. And while the Marni-Desi subplot got a little old, their “emotionally complex” songs were about as funny as anything I saw this year. Major props go to Becky Ann Baker, too, for her amazing work in what may be the series riskiest episode to date, “Tad & Loreen & Avi & Shanaz”.


8. Review. It was high time that the “miserable/oblivious middle-aged white guy making everyone cringe” comedy genre got its own name. “Sadcom” is the shorthand that critics have settled on for how we refer to Louie, BoJack Horseman, Alan Partridge, and even Rev, and it’s apt. No one wrung more laughs or discomfort out of a rock-bottom anthropology this year than Andrew Daly’s Forrest Macneil, a white-collar Kenny Powers whose reviews of “life experiences” took him into even darker and more self-defeating territory than last year’s debut season did. Which is really saying something. Bright-eyed and unscrupulous to the max (fair warning), Macneil has yet to meet a predicament he can’t make worse–or that criticism can’t make worse–and the resulting destruction is as saddening as it is ridiculous. Of course, Forrest’s devastating lack of wisdom and awareness doubles not only as a commentary on the sorry state of American men, but a biting indictment of a culture more fixated on rating life than living it. Indeed, Review takes aim at an audience hellbent on trading in real connection and meaning for cheap facsimiles thereof. So there’s some serious criticism underlying this deconstruction of criticism. Also, Daly is as hilarious a performer as they come. I challenge anyone to think of the magic 8-ball the same way again.

Hannibal - Season 3

7. Hannibal. You have to hand it to Bryan Fuller. Faced with cancellation, the creators of Hannibal double-downed on the show’s artiness, producing something so poetic and singular that could one could scarcely imagine it being broadcast, let alone renewed. But the airwaves will be a poorer place without Will Graham and co. Sumptuous to the point of decadence, the third season hardly payed deference to plot, opting instead to indulge more deeply in its terrifying psychological landscapes, and the end result was as rich as the food Dr. Lector likes to serve. Meaning, I’m not sure how much more of the Will-Hannibal mind games I could take. But maybe that was the point. Also, Richard Armitrage’s portrayal of Francis Dolarhyde made a haunting addition to the Harris canon.


6. Rick and Morty. Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s screwball sci-fi romp remained the giddiest 25 minutes of television in its sophomore year, nearly equaling the heights of its initial season. Each episode swings for the fences, taking its premise three steps further than any sober writing team would risk. The marital counseling subplot in “Big Trouble in Little Sanchez” stands out for its outrageously inspired portrayal of co-dependence, and the free-for-all at the end of “Total Rickall” has to be watched to be believed. Yet amid all the glorious inanity, the show somehow dug deeper into its emotional well, ending on a note of undeniable pathos.

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5. Mad Men. 2015 was the year of the strong finish, Mad Men’s superb finale being one of many that dared to end on a redemptive note, bidding farewell to its many characters with both respect and charm. We were wrong to doubt Weiner, it turns out. The first half of the season wobbled a bit, but the concluding run nailed every step. And the grace-fable of the penultimate episode belongs in every Christian educator’s back pocket. For more commentary on what it all meant, click here. Suffice it to say, I pray for a Leonard for us all. That and a coca-cola.


4. Rectify. What Eric and Tammy Taylor (Friday Night Lights) did for portrayals of married couples on TV, Rectify‘s Janet Talbot (J. Smith-Cameron) does for mothers. This 3rd season found our protagonist (Daniel Holden) on the verge of being completely exonerated of the rape-murder charge that had him on death row for 19 years, before being released on a “DNA technicality”. The ensuing months of “freedom” have been a perhaps bleaker prison for Daniel than death row solitude ever was. As a free man, he tries to find his way in his small South Georgia hometown that mostly still thinks he’s guilty. Even though full exoneration is at hand, Daniel faces the reality of having to move away from the mother and sister that have been so supportive for so long. The absolute graciousness with which Daniel’s mother, sister, and landlord love him through this otherwise unbearable journey is staggering. The NY Times went so far as to claim that the story “takes its spiritual power not from preaching Christianity but from grappling with its ideals: forgiveness, penance, grace.”


3. Better Call Saul. Another unexpected triumph, this prequel to Breaking Bad took that show’s comic relief and crafted a series of perfectly-executed morality plays to showcase the titular character’s depth. It shouldn’t have worked half as well as it does, especially since there’s no romance, hardly any action or intrigue, and the setting is drab as can be (strip malls, nursing homes, parking lots). Kudos go to Vince Gilligan and co for gambling on Bob Odenkirk’s acting ability, which turns out to be substantial. His “Slippin’ Jimmy” is a lovable scammer, resourceful and silver-tongued yet too softhearted to ever truly succeed–a real gem of a character, in other words, a master of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. And the McGill brothers’ complicated co-dependency is one of the more interesting sibling relationships to emerge on the small screen in some time.

All that without mentioning dear old Mike Ehrmantraut! “Five-O” gave our favorite fixer a backstory of operatic proportions. “I broke my boy” may be the line of the year. If they keep this up, “spinoff” won’t be a dirty word much longer.


1B. At what point does a television series become a serialized film? It’s a question worth asking about the second season of Fargo, pretty much a flawless ten hours of TV. Showrunner Noah Hawley and his stellar cast blew the doors off their award-winning rookie year with a tale of “good” men and “bad” women caught up in turf war gone terribly wrong. Every quirk is perfectly placed, every character singularly drawn, every bit of artistic daring (split screens!) woven into the narrative with breathtaking confidence. While they don’t skimp on philosophical heft–at all–the layers of meaning never wrangle attention away from the story itself, or even force a single reading. Instead, we get Camus wrestling with Midwestern decency, New Age hoo-ha playing off disintegrating patriarchy, jingo-ism being leveraged for the corporatization of everything. We see various -isms criminalizing their targets, and deified UFOs reigning passively over the whole shebang. Yet somehow, despite the wanton violence, the universe maintains a certain warmth–the promise of love and communication that co-exists alongside the rank confusion and cancer, maybe even cast in higher relief by it. More a visual novel, really, than a television series or serialized film.

If anyone can beat the ladies of The Leftovers at Emmy time, it’s Kirsten Dunst ,whose Peggy Blomquist mined the intersection of desperation, cluelessness, and derangement with aplomb. And Bookeem Woodbine’s Mike Milligan is a villain the Coen Brothers can be very proud of. Too bad he’s stuck in an office now…


1A. While not the most “successful” show of 2015 by a long shot, The Leftovers is without a doubt the most ambitious, and one that doesn’t just give LOST-creator Damon Lindelof a new lease on life, but also promises to bring a brand new (read: bigger) following after it goes gangbusters at the Emmys. Season 2 was mind-bending, quick-hitting, and undeniably supernatural. At the same time, what continues to make the show work is its ability to skate the line between the world we can explain and the world we can’t. The Leftovers, when described, could sound like a plot made more compelling by bigger and bigger shark jumps. Comatose pregnancies, afterlife journeys, rivers emptying, birds living underground, teenagers vanishing. These are the kinds of things that happen in fantasy novels, or the Old Testament.

What makes the difference, though, is the cast of characters–Kevin Garvey, Nora Durst, Patti Levin, Meg Abbott–and the very real ways they suffer. I mean, John Murphy! What we have in The Leftovers is a textbook on post-trauma psychology. People trying to forget, people trying to remember, people trying to prepare or manipulate or numb…If it weren’t for these very real ways these people navigate the mysterious fates they’re navigating, the show would cease to be interesting. As Lindelof said, when he chose to do this project with FNL creator Peter Berg, “I wanted to make a family show.” It won’t be for every FNL fan, to be sure, but it is fascinating that, amidst these unexplainable occurrences, we find ourselves in these stories–like characters in the Bible–trying to get by in a world that might demand something akin to the absurdity of faith.

Highlights of the season: “International Assassin” is the most jam-packed episode of the year in television. 2) “Lens,” though, takes the cake as best episode for yours truly. 3) Liv Tyler herself didn’t know how great a villain she could be. 4) While the magic-non-magic distinction is there for a reason, if there’s a moment where Lindelof’s God-bias shows through, it is in favoring the outcome (and visions) of Matt Jamison. Mary is pregnant, and awake, after all!


Four Best Single Episodes (of Shows Not Mentioned Above)

4. “May God Bless and Keep You Always”, Parenthood. Easy to forget that The Bravermans signed off this past January. The final season may have been a bit of a bust, but Jason Katims and crew had enough juice in the tank to wring some closing tears out of those of us who had invested five years in the clan. The Joel-Julia reconciliation may have been a foregone conclusion, but the execution was beautiful. We compiled a full rundown of the gracenotes back when it aired.

3. “Kimmy Rides a Bike!”, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Probably as close as I ever want someone to come to filming a Mockingbird post. The series itself was fun, but Tina really hit one out of the park in this episode, a perfect combination of plot, humor, and, well, preaching. Read Carl’s take here.

2. “Hardhome”, Game of Thrones. The single most exciting hour of television this year, so good that it unfortunately highlighted the problems with the rest of the season (Dorne…). I can’t remember watching an episode of television twice in a row in a long time.

1. “The Promise”, Justified. While Justified never quite recovered from its second season apex (and the spice that Mags Bennett added to the mix), it never jumped the shark either. Even if their schemes were a bit convoluted, Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen made for charismatic baddies, and the dialogue kept up its Elmore Leonard-inspired quippiness the whole way through the series. The heart of the show, though, was always the relationship between Raylan and Boyd, and it shone until the very end, delivering the televised gracenote of the year. Seriously–when it comes to law and grace on the small screen, it doesn’t get any better than the final ten minutes of this finale.


Honorable Mention: Veep’s “Testimony”. Armando will be missed!

Stray Categories

Best Cooking Show: The Great British Bake-Off. Contra Billy Bragg, it would seem that Englishness is alive and well, thank God. The only thing more delightful than the contestants in this show are the judges, who never waver in their decorum or precision. The terminology is pretty rich too (a “sheet bake” anyone?). Reality TV at its best.

Best Mini-Series: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The BBC went big for this adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s 2005 epic tale of 19th century magic and manners, and the ambition paid dividends. Bertie Carvel’s turn as Jonathan Strange was, well, magical. With Adam Smallbone on the bench, the series gets bonus points for the most sympathetic clergyperson on the small screen.

Pleasant Surprises: Ash vs. Evil Dead, which against all odds nearly recaptures the brilliance of the source material (Bruce Campbell for president!), and Jessica Jones, a Marvel franchise that takes seriously the challenges of PTSD, alcoholism, and loss. What?

Most Overrated: Daredevil, House of Cards, Homeland, Bloodline

Genuinely Clever Kids Show: Henry Danger

BBC Notables: Peaky Blinders. You think 90s Baltimore is gritty? Try 1920s Birmingham (England), where this top-drawer crime drama is set. The perfect antidote to sanitized Downton. Riveting work from Cillian Murphy, too. Of course, there’s also Rev, whose third and possibly final season aired in 2014. Had the Liam Neeson episode hit in 2015, it would’ve been right at the top of our list.