This has been a very great year for television. Last year offered an embarrassment of riches, and this year, as if wanting to prove just how great our “Golden Age of Television” has gotten, offered even more shows working at the top of their game. And I don’t even watch every “great” show currently airing on TV. There are just too many. But of the few dozen shows I do watch, the following are my picks for the Top 10 TV Shows of 2015.
A few clarifying comments before I reveal the list. Disney XD’s Gravity Falls would be near the top of the list if I chose to include it, but its release schedule has been so erratic that I didn’t think it genuinely qualified as a 2015 TV show, considering it only aired about a third of its second season this calendar year and it won’t even finish its two-season run until early next year. It’s a great show that will sadly also be a short-lived one, but it doesn’t really fit on a list that demands some attempts at strict classification. Also, you’ll notice a few most talked about shows missing from my list. I do not watch The Americans, Rectify, or Transparent, so I have no opinions on them. I gave up on popular shows like Daredevil and Orange is the New Black midway through their seasons, so don’t expect to find those shows on my list.
As well, there are a few shows that I greatly admire but that didn’t quite make the cut for the Top 10 list or the Honourable Mentions. Ash vs. Evil Dead on Starz turned out to be a really fun continuation of the Evil Dead series, one that I didn’t know I wanted, but am now glad I have. Master of None surprised me a fair bit with its thematic complexity, especially considering I was ignorant of Aziz Ansari and his stand-up before watching it. And although the majority of the Internet has crowned the second season of True Detective a massive failure, I found it one of the year’s most fascinating shows, even though it’s not one of its best. Also, I am glad we got more W/ Bob and David, even though four episodes is too few to really show off their massive comedic talents.
But without further clarification, here are my Top 10 TV Shows of 2015.
1. Justified (FX) showrunner Graham Yost, Season 6
What It’s About: Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) moves back to his home of Harlan County, Kentucky, where he works to take down petty criminals and kingpins, including his childhood friend, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins).
Why It’s Good: Sometimes the best show on TV isn’t the one that’s trying the hardest to be the best. Justified’s sixth and final season didn’t win any awards. It showed up on some Best of 2015 lists, but fewer than it deserved. I wrote back in April that Justified represents the greatness of artistic modesty. It aimed to be a pleasurable show, one with crackling dialogue, fascinating characters, and tense altercations, and ended up being a great one in the process. Its final season is its best. As Raylan Givens finally set to take down Boyd Crowder, the themes and confrontations that had been building over the years came to a head. The result is a remarkable run of episodes, one that matches Mad Men’s fifth season and Breaking Bad’s fourth season in its ability to constantly surprise with its drama and amplify tension. The final episode “The Promise” is the most satisfying hour of television this year. We got the showdowns we were expecting, but they resulted in outcomes none of us saw coming. The final scene of the series, a quiet confessional between Raylan and Boyd, captures the heart of the entire show. It demonstrates the way Harlan County dominated this show’s atmosphere and character—how the long shadow of the past hung over these men’s heads—while also moving on, acknowledging what came before while looking to brighter pastures. This is a remarkable show and I hope people discover it in the years to come and learn to treasure it as I have.
2. BoJack Horseman (Netflix) showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Season 2
What It’s About: Washed-up sitcom star, BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett), deals with existential angst and self-hatred as he pitters away his life living in his oversized Los Angeles mansion.
Why It’s Good: For an animated sitcom about an alcoholic, misanthropic half-man-half-horse and his absurd life, BoJack Horseman does much more than merely provide edgy and topical humour like you’d expect from an Adult Swim-type of show. Its emotional complexity is astounding. Television is full of great comedies with a dramatic streak: Louie, Master of None, Rick and Morty, but none of these other shows manage to achieve the impact of BoJack Horseman. In the second season BoJack gets cast in his dream film, a biopic of Secretariat, and has to again learn the lesson that getting everything he wants won’t make him happy. Some of the show’s lessons about the shallow and soulless nature of Hollywoo(d) are not new, but the depths of sadness the show is willing to mine is. No show on television is more invested in the emotional happiness of its protagonist, or more devastated when he fails to achieve it. BoJack Horseman is a hilarious show, but it’s also a wise one, all while ostensibly being a sitcom about a half-man-half-horse.
3. The Leftovers (HBO) showrunner Damon Lindelof, Season 2
What It’s About: The inhabitants of a small New York town wrestle with loss three years after a Rapture-like event made two percent of the world’s population disappear, changing ordinary life forever.
Why It’s Good: Season two of The Leftovers honed the storytelling of its first season without losing any of its emotional boldness. It moved the geography from Mapleton, New York to Jarden, Texas, where none of the 10,000 inhabitants disappeared during the Sudden Departure, while expanding its cast to include the fascinating Murphy family. You’d think that changing the show’s location and expanding its already-sizeable ensemble would make the show run off the rails, but it didn’t. Instead it broadens the mythic quality of the show. It delves deeper into the psyche of its protagonist, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux)—possibly literally in the dreamy episode “International Assassin,” which played like a cross between Tony Soprano’s purgatory visit and the sideways world of Lost’s final season. It also heightens the emotional effect of the show. All in all, the second season of The Leftovers achieves the kind of philosophical profundity rarely found in popular television. If the show’s third season can match this one’s intensity and specificity, The Leftovers will go down as something special in the history of television.
4. Mad Men (AMC) showrunner Matthew Weiner, Season 7.5
What It’s About: Ad-man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) struggles to reinvent himself and hold his destructive personality together as he lives through the ever-changing cultural climate of the 1960s.
Why It’s Good: This was a great ending for one of the best shows ever. It also wasn’t what we were expecting. The beginning of this half-season had everyone uneasy with the show’s seeming unwillingness to build into closure. But as the show wound down, disintegrating both Don Draper and the ad agency he’d fought so hard to build, the slow build proved worth it. Don Draper not only had to finally face and embrace himself, but also to realize that growth is possible, if limited. Mad Men’s primary appeal was always the specificity of its evocation of a dazzling, troubling past. But its characters were also fantastic, and these final episodes gave them all ample opportunity to prove why there were so fascinating. Mad Men’s final episodes demonstrate why it’s one of the best television shows of all time, even if they never rival the best seasons of the show itself.
5. Hannibal (NBC) showrunner Bryan Fuller, Season 3
What It’s About: FBI criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) forms a working partnership with brilliant psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) in order to catch serial killers, without realizing that Lecter is a cannibal serial killer himself.
Why It’s Good: This final season of Hannibal doubled down on the art-porn of the show’s first two seasons. Leaving behind the notion that this was a procedural with European art-film influences, the show instead chose to outdo all those art film influences by becoming the boldest, most oblique—most pretentious, even—show on air. Every frame of Hannibal is a thing of beauty. Every exchange between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter is one to cherish. Hannibal is that rare show that would be a disaster if it weren’t calibrated so perfectly. Thankfully for us, it is. Hannibal is a show that should have never existed. It’s too artful, too obtuse, and too interested in dream logic instead of normal network TV storytelling. It’s truly art. I’m glad we got the three seasons of it we did.
6. Game of Thrones (HBO) showrunners David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, Season 5
What It’s About: The story of the fantasy realm of Westeros, where the great houses plot against each other in order to claim the Iron Throne that holds the Seven Kingdoms together.
Why It’s Good: Game of Thrones is a sadistic show. It’s also a great one. Like the novels it’s based on, it seems to enjoy the suffering of its characters and its audience. No torment is too much for these characters, nor can the viewer ever rest easy with the notion that his or her favourite character is safe from harm. This storytelling attitude makes me understand people who can no longer commit to the show. But I find the show exhilarating. It’s incredibly confident television, bold in its images and the shocking turns in its narrative. This fifth season justified the term “epic,” with a thrilling battle in the episode “Hardhome” that outdid any other action sequence on TV this year. The show may be emotionally exhausting to watch, but I am confident in the impulses of its creators and the direction it’s heading. This show is a rush.
7. Better Call Saul (AMC) showrunners Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould, Season 1
What It’s About: Con artist-turned criminal lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) works hard to show the world he can be a great counselor, even if everyone around him, including his reclusive brother (Michael McKean), think he’ll never escape the criminal history of his past.
Why It’s Good: Prequels are tricky—especially prequels to beloved cultural artifacts. Luckily, this prequel to Breaking Bad made all the right decisions, choosing to be something entirely different than its parent series, even while demonstrating many of its virtues. Better Call Saul is expertly shot, tensely edited, and elegantly constructed, just like Breaking Bad, but it’s also punchy and loose, optimistic even, in moments. In showing the backstory of the man who would become Saul Goodman, criminal lawyer, it explores someone we never expected to like or root for. Jimmy is a good man destined to be a bad one, and struggling against hope that he can be something more than what the world deems him to be. Better Call Saul is that rare prequel with the potential to match the series it spawned from.
8. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FXX) showrunners Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton & Charlie Day, Season 10
What It’s About: Five narcissistic assholes run a bar in Philadelphia, habitually ruining the lives of each other and everyone they encounter.
Why It’s Good: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is effortlessly the funniest show on air. Its characters are despicable, but ripe for hilarity. As it pushes every boundary of polite discourse, without ever excusing the atrocious behaviour of its protagonists, it becomes an incisive look at the assholes in our midst. But the tenth season also did more than merely deliver the exceptional laughs we’ve come to expect of the show. It poked and prodded the characters, peeling back a few of their obscene layers to see what made them tick and why they’re so awful. In series standout “The Gang Misses the Boat,” some of the characters even achieve emotionally complexity—not something I expected from a show that thrives off of musicals about rape and blackface recreations of Lethal Weapon. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia could be excused for never trying anything new. Its formula is perfect and guarantees hilarity. And yet Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, and Charlie Day continue to find new ways to surprise.
9. Show Me a Hero (HBO) showrunner David Simon, Season 1
What It’s About: In 1988, Yonkers, New York elected the youngest mayor in the United States, Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), who at 28, found himself in the midst of a heated battle over low income housing and desegregation in his small city.
Why It’s Good: This miniseries could’ve been so dry, but it isn’t. It could preach to the choir, but it doesn’t. It’s a primer on segregation, low-income housing, racism, bureaucratic finagling, and city law but it’s also personal and dramatic. Like he did with The Wire, David Simon boils down incredibly complex social issues into something that an ordinary TV viewer can understand, without losing the complexity of the issues themselves. Paul Haggis’s direction is his best work since In the Valley of Elah, nicely balancing between Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac is phenomenal here) struggling to do the right thing in a political landscape that thrives off doing the wrong thing, and the low-income residents who’ll benefit from his efforts, never using his camera to manipulate the audience into conclusions. Show Me a Hero is an illuminating television series.
10. Fargo (FX) showrunner Noah Hawley, Season 2
What It’s About: In 1979, ordinary Minnesotans, Peggy and Ed Blomqvist (Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons), find themselves in a pickle when they accidentally hit and kill a man with a car and hide the evidence, unwittingly instigating a gang war as well as the investigation of a dogged state trooper (Patrick Wilson).
Why It’s Good: Fargo’s second season tells a completely different story than its first, even if Patrick Wilson is playing a younger version of a character who showed up last year. Again Noah Hawley is demonstrating his remarkable narrative dexterity here, balancing between numerous threads and conflicts without making the show opaque. It’s a dense TV series, but it’s also thrilling and funny, with characters that make terrible choices for inexplicable but fascinating reasons. The Coen Brothers reference points are a nice bonus, but even more than the first, this season operates out from under their shadow. The show has mastered its own atmosphere and style of storytelling. It shares similarities to the Coens’ films but it’s not beholden to them. This is a thrilling, often artful show that respects the crime genre while transcending aspects of it.
The Next Five (In Alphabetical Order):
House of Cards (Netflix) showrunner Beau Willimon, Season 3
Louie (FX) showrunner Louis C.K., Season 5
New Girl (Fox) showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether), Season 4.5
Rick and Morty (Adult Swim) showrunners Justin Roiland & Dan Harmon, Season 2
Silicon Valley (HBO) showrunner Mike Judge, Season 2