Our TV Critic Counts Down his 15 Favorite TV Shows of 2015
There was a time when the movie was considered the epitome of pop culture entertainment. At the cinema you could find comedy, action, romance, intriguing characters, and the most creative minds in America. While there is still all of the above in movies today, television is quickly stealing the popular artistic prestige that movies has enjoyed since snatching it from the musical theatre six decades ago.
That being typed, this is a list of my favorite shows of the year; not the most award-worthy, perhaps not even the best, but simply the shows that I enjoyed watching, on one level or another, in 2015. Obviously, no human being has enough hours in a day to watch all of the entertaining television on networks, cable, and streaming sites, so there will undoubtedly be shows that I simply don't watch, and therefore didn't include, that deserve to be recognized.
I have never watched MAD MEN, I have never watched THE WALKING DEAD, I have never watched EMPIRE, I haven't watched all of TRANSPARENT. However, my list of my favorite 15 shows of 2015 has a little bit of everything; character-driven dramas, side-splitting comedies, and series powerful enough to redefine what the genre is capable of.
Check out my list below, and feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below, or on Twitter (@BWWMatt).
No. 15 UNDATEABLE LIVE! on NBC
UNDATEABLE is a fun, frothy show that doesn't take itself too seriously. By moving the sitcom to a live format for its entire third season, the show has found an energy and joy that it was missing previously. Very little happens in any given episode, and most of the jokes are made at the expense of the stars' real-life careers, but if you are in on the joke, very few shows are funnier week-to-week.
No. 14 HOMELAND on Showtime
I've had my issues with recent seasons of HOMELAND, but in the fifth season that wrapped earlier this month, the show got back to basics. While it still had its share of twists and turns, it was far more grounded in reality, and didn't get too bogged down with Carrie's mental instability. Instead, it told a complicated, but plausible story about the men and women trying to defend the world against terrorism. And it still has Mandy Patinkin, so it's a win all around.
No. 13 HANNIBAL on NBC
I've written before that HANNIBAL is one of the most audaciously artistic shows in network television history. The gorgeous, but disturbing visuals that Bryan Fuller treated us to for three seasons were like nothing you've ever seen before. While I will take some swings at NBC later in the list, HANNIBAL had no business running three seasons. The ratings likely didn't even warrant a second season, but the network realized that what this show was doing was special. While the third and final season focused too much of its early episodes on the titular killer, ignoring his friend/muse/victim/partner/foe Will Graham, ultimately, it gave all of us "Fannibals" a satisfying end to a unbelievably gory ride.
No. 12 MARVEL'S DAREDEVIL on Netflix
With its first streaming specific series, Marvel effectively removed the lingering memory of the disappointing film adaptation of its blind superhero Daredevil. This kung-fu inspired series, the first of Netflix's DEFENDERS series, showed that the company behind IRON MAN, THOR, and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY was capable of doing something gritty and small, but still incredibly impactful. Something that it did even better later in the season (and higher up on the list).
No. 11 FARGO on FX
Undoubtedly, this will be the pick that gets the most people mad at me. I enjoyed Season 2 of FARGO, but not nearly as much as I did Season 1. There were moments and episodes that I thought were brilliant, and, in a vacuum, likely deserved to be much higher. However, the show fell victim to the same ambitious fate that TRUE DETECTIVE did, looking to greatly expand the canvas after a phenomenal first season. TRUE DETECTIVE crashed and burned creating one of the biggest artistic train wrecks of the season, while FARGO turned out a thoroughly enjoyable 10 episodes that unfortunately just left me wishing for more Lester Nygaard and Lorne Malvo.
No. 10 BLOODLINE on Netflix
This dark, family drama set in the sweltering Florida Keys was an unassuming hit for Netflix when it was released early in 2015. With some of the best performances of the year, the series had a distinctly Southern Gothic feel with alcoholism, family secrets, and jealousy driving an otherwise tight-knit family to unimaginable acts.
Headlined by Kyle Chandler in his post-FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS return to TV, the true star was Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, who played Chandler's older brother Danny Rayburn. The rest of the cast is made up of stage and screen legends, including Pulitzer Prize winner Sam Shepard, Academy Award winner Sissy Spacek, two-time Tony winners Norbert Leo Butz and Katie Finneran, Jacinda Barrett, Chloë Sevigny, and Broadway's Steven Pasquale.
With Season 2 scheduled to begin streaming in 2016, this would be a perfect time to binge-watch this gorgeous, powerful series; especially if you've had enough comfort and joy for the holiday season already.
No. 9 THE AMERICANS on FX
The longest running entry in my Top 15, THE AMERICANS is about two Soviet spies living in 1980s America. While there is plenty of espionage, intrigue, and thrills (and lots and lots of wigs), at its heart, the show is about a marriage. Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings are two people who see the world, their family, and their obligations, much differently, but in their own dysfunctional ways, love and need each other desperately.
In Season 3, which aired early in 2015, their daughter Paige continued to challenge her parents, bringing to life questions of honesty, loyalty, and faith, things that are never comfortable to discuss when your life is built on lies. Season 4 premieres in March and will surely dive into issues of betrayal and allegiance set up in the Season 3 finale.
The cast is led by the outstanding Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, and features strong supporting performances by Holly Taylor as Paige, Noah Emmerich as Stan Beeman, the Jennings' FBI agent next door neighbor, Annet Mahendru as a KGB agent turned FBI informant, and Richard Thomas as Stan's supervisor. The show also often features numerous guest and recurring stars with theatre backgrounds; Frank Langella, Margo Martindale, Kelly AuCoin, Karen Pittman, and more.
In earlier seasons, this show would have been towards, or even at, the top of my list, and while the strength of new and sophomore series has pushed it down a bit this year, that does not undermine its enduring brilliance.
No. 8 MR. ROBOT on USA
Perhaps the most buzzed-about show of the year, MR. ROBOT was a trippy look into the mind of an unstable hacker anarchist hell-bent on leveling the financial playing field. Showrunner Sam Esmail created a world in which nothing was what it seemed, prompting the online intelligentsia to speculate about what was going on. Was it a case of Tyler Durden syndrome? Was the entire thing the delusions of an unbalanced character à la ST. ELSEWHERE?
Despite all of the theories, Esmail and his remarkably talented cast were able to make the eventual reveals both logical and unforeseen; expected, yet satisfying. After one of the best dramatic pilots in recent memory, the season hit a wall for me about a third of the way through; seemingly spending more time diving deep into the main character's neuroses than telling a coherent story. However, as the puzzle started to be pieced together, it was clear that there was no wall, just a beautifully designed foundation.
Remi Malek will certainly be the break-out star of the show as Elliot Alderson, the anti-social, clinically depressed hacker. His performance is frenetic, but restrained, conveying most of his emotions via his unusually large and expressive eyes and lethargic narrations. The show also features fantastic performances by Christian Slater, Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday, and Martin Wallström. I would give you descriptions of their characters, but in the off chance that you haven't watched the first season, I don't want to spoil anything; you'll thank me later.
As with nearly all shows filmed on the east coast these days, MR. ROBOT employs a stable of Broadway alums including Brian Stokes Mitchell, B.D. Wong, and Ron Cephas Jones; a theatre star in his own right, and the father of HAMILTON's Jasmine Cephas Jones.
No. 7 THE GRINDER on FOX
As we have discussed many times on our podcast "Some Like it Pop," I tend to spend most of my TV viewing time on dramas, consciously ignoring the genre's great comedies, while my co-host Jennifer McHugh loves all things silly. So, when she recommended that I start watching the new Rob Lowe/Fred Savage sitcom THE GRINDER, I was a little apprehensive. Silly is fine, but I prefer to spend my TV time on something more substantive, something that has a more consistent narrative thread.
Well, as loath as I am to admit it, Jenn was right. This show is completely goofy, but the performances are all both hilarious and honest. Rob Lowe plays an actor known for playing a beloved TV lawyer, who gives up his glamorous career to work alongside his father and brother, who are both actual small-town lawyers in Iowa. The relationship between Dean (Lowe) and Stewart Sanderson (Savage) is one of the best on TV. Dean bounces between naïve and delusional, but is always earnestly well-meaning. Stew is the long-suffering second fiddle in the family who, despite loving his brother, can't imagine why everyone is falling all over themselves to feed Dean's whims.
Also in the cast are an against type William Devane as father Sanderson; the dryly perfect Mary Elizabeth Ellis as Debbie, Stew's wife; the hysterical Natalie Morales (not the one from THE TODAY SHOW), as a new associate who has no interest in Dean's ridiculousness; and Hana Hayes and Connor Kalopsis as Stew and Debbie's kids, who steal nearly every episode.
Despite the fact that my black heart has not known laughter since the Clinton administration, I love this show, so for normal people who laugh on a regular basis, this is a no doubter.
No. 6 IZOMBIE on The CW
When I binge-watched the first season of IZOMBIE over the summer in preparation for Season 2, I really didn't know what I was getting into. I knew that it was roughly based on a DC Comic book, and that it was created by Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright, who collaborated on VERONICA MARS, one of my favorite shows ever. Beyond that, I knew little of star Rose McIver or much beyond the basic premise. A promising med student was turned into a zombie, and to satiate her need for brains, she took a job as a morgue assistant, where she used the side effects of her brain-eating to solve murders.
The premise is absurd, but the writers and cast fully embrace the absurdity. McIver's zombie character is named, I kid you not, Liv Moore. And her honorable, altruistic ex-fiancé is named Major Lilywhite. They understand that this show isn't the height of prestige television, but it is a fun distraction that hits all of my pop culture wants.
In fact, while I think the show plays like a cross between VERONICA MARS and the gone-too-soon Fox drama TRU CALLING, I actually see connections to the best weekly performance on TV, Tatiana Maslany on ORPHAN BLACK. In this BBC America show, Maslany has played over a dozen different characters, each with incredible precision and specificity. While McIver isn't asked to do as much as Maslany is on a weekly basis, when Liv eats a brain, she takes on parts of the person's personality, allowing her to play delightfully eccentric characters each episode. She's been a degenerate gambler, a "real housewife," a hitman, and more; each one as entertaining as the next.
Like THE AMERICANS, this show is in its third season, and shows no signs of slowing down creatively. The routinely heartbreaking RECTIFY centers on Daniel Holden, a man in his mid-30s who has spent the last 20 years of his life on Death Row for raping and murdering his high school girlfriend. When DNA evidence overturns his conviction, but doesn't fully exonerate him, Daniel is released and has to learn how to live in a world much different than the one he knew before.
Played by the incredible Aden Young, Daniel is awkward yet charismatic, naïve yet insightful, and as compelling of a protagonist as you will find on TV. As Daniel attempts to navigate his small, Georgia hometown with the specter of his past, and a retrial, hanging over his head, Abigail Spencer delivers a gorgeous performance as his determined sister Amantha, and Tony-nominee J. Smith-Cameron plays his mother Janet, trying to keep all the plates of their lives spinning.
This show is so striking because it is like nothing else on TV. Rarely will you see another show allow so much storytelling and character development to happen in silence; whether it is a wide shot of a character looking over a Georgia forest, or two characters sitting across a table not speaking, but saying everything that needs to be said.
The rest of the cast is equally impactful; Bruce McKinnon plays Janet's constantly put-upon husband, Ted Sr., Adelaide Clemens plays their religious, but conflicted daughter-in-law, and Clayne Crawford plays Ted Jr., Daniel's step-brother and rival.
One of the things that I love about this show the most is that as they are able to peel back more layers of these characters, the more real and sympathetic they become. For the first two seasons, Ted Jr. was an arrogant, unlikeable jerk, but when his world comes crashing down in Season 3, you see the insecurity that led him to that point, making him suddenly endearing.
The first three seasons of RECTIFY only total 22 episodes, so do yourself a favor and catch up before Season 4 debuts in Summer 2016.
No. 4 UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT on Netflix
Everything that you need to know about the current state of NBC Primetime Programming is contained in the fact that they originally ordered Tina Fey and Robert Carlock's UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT to series, only to reverse their decision at the 11th Hour. Instead, the 30 ROCK pair took the show to Netflix where it became the best new sitcom of the year.
This goofy comedy centers on the eponymous Kimmy Schmidt, played by the adorable Ellie Kemper, who after 15 years of living in an underground bunker, convinced by a cult leader that the world had ended, is rescued and moves to New York. Completely out of touch with the real world, Kimmy relies on her new friends, roommate Tituss (played fabulously by Broadway's Tituss Burgess), landlord Lillian (Emmy-winner and Broadway regular Carol Kane), and boss Jacqueline (Tony and Olivier-winner Jane Krakowski) to help her through a day-to-day life that she is completely ill-equipped to handle.
KIMMY SCHMIDT is gleefully silly and includes some phenomenal appearances by Fey, Jon Hamm, Tony-winners James Monroe Iglehart, Martin Short, and Christine Ebersole, Broadway's Sara Chase, and many more. Season 2 debuts this spring, so binge-watch KIMMY SCHMIDT now, and you will never look at Pinot Noir the same way again.
No. 3 MARVEL'S JESSICA JONES on Netflix
Often we think of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the colorful, funny fare that we know from THE AVENGERS, but this year, after the strength of DAREDEVIL, Netflix unveiled its best cinematic product yet in JESSICA JONES. Under the guidance of creator and showrunner Melissa Rosenberg, Krysten Ritter delivered a performance that was breathtaking in its power and vulnerability.
Jessica Jones possesses superhuman strength and the ability to jump so high that she might as well be flying. However, after failing as a costumed superhero, she resorts to being a hard-drinking private investigator that would make Humphrey Bogart look like an amateur gumshoe. However, there is so much more to Jessica than booze and sarcasm. She is a deeply scarred woman dealing with the post-traumatic stress of being effectively kidnapped and repeatedly raped for a year by a mysterious man known as Kilgrave.
Kilgrave has the ability to control people's minds, rendering Jessica's strength useless. After believing him dead for a year, Kilgrave reemerges looking to win back the love that Jessica never willfully gave. While she tries to prevent Kilgrave from wreaking anymore havoc, Jessica must contend with the fear and pain of her past.
What makes JESSICA JONES so different from other Marvel shows and films, including DAREDEVIL, is that instead of the disaster and destruction being on grand and epic scales, it is singular, it is soule-crushingly personal. The fact that Marvel effectively did an entire season of television about rape culture and a woman's consent is breathtaking.
Superhero shows don't get Emmy nominations, but Ritter is thoroughly deserving of one. Likewise, David Tennant, DOCTOR WHO's Tenth Doctor, plays a wonderfully disturbing villain as Kilgrave. Mike Colter plays Jessica's love-interest Luke Cage, and will be the star of Netflix's third MARVEL'S DEFENDERS' series. Rachael Taylor, Erin Moriarty, and Eka Darville are all also fantastic as those closest to Jessica.
No. 2 JANE THE VIRGIN on The CW
I think it is safe to say that no show has made me as happy as JANE THE VIRGIN has since GILMORE GIRLS and THE WEST WING went off the air. It is silly, it is soapy, but it is also deeply touching and profound.
Structured like a traditional telenovela, the show focuses on the life of Miami college student Jane Villanueva (Golden Globe winner Gina Rodriguez) who is accidentally artificially inseminated and becomes pregnant. I won't even attempt to unpack all of the twists and turns of the show's first season and a half, but Jane winds up in a love triangle with her detective boyfriend Michael and her unborn child's hotel-owning biological father, Rafael. There are also storylines involving an international drug-dealer, Rafael's scheming estranged wife Patra, and Jane's father, whom she has never met when the series begins.
Despite all of the melodramatic twists and turns, the show centers on the utterly lovely relationship between Jane, her mother Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), and her abuela Alba (Ivonne Coll). These three incredibly strong Latina women form a beautiful family, despite each of them having their own flaws. When Jane's father is revealed to be telenovela icon Rogelio de la Vega, the family gets a bit wackier, but even more loving.
Despite all of the humor and hijinks, the show also deals with serious issues like faith, abortion, and illegal immigration as well, but it never comes off as preachy or distracting. Everything on the show is handled with the utmost compassion and honesty, so much so that is nearly impossible not to fall in love with the entire bizarre extended Villanueva clan.
Whether you are #TeamMichael or #TeamRafael, there is no denying that JANE THE VIRGIN is the type of feel-good show that is easy to root for.
No. 1 THE LEFTOVERS on HBO
The first season of Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta's THE LEFTOVERS was one of the most divisive in recent memory. Some hailed it as an honest look at grief and trauma in post-9/11 America, while others dismissed it as "grief porn."
However, the re-tooled second season has received nearly unanimous critical acclaim. While still refusing to answer the questions behind the show's central mysteries, Lindelof and Perrotta expanded what worked in the first season, and abandoned what did not. The show still focuses on how people are dealing with the unexplained, sudden disappearance of 2% of the world's population, however, there is far less focus on the debilitating despair that the event caused.
In the first season, the best shows were bottle episodes that focused on the lives of individual characters before and after the Departure. These episodes saw Carrie Coon's Nora going to a work conference and her reverend brother Matt (Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston) fighting to keep his church.
While a whole season of bottle episodes would lead to little narrative development, what the writers did was to have each episode focus on the perspective of one or two characters, allowing us to see the bizarre goings on from their unique vantage points. The show also relocated from Mapleton, New York to Jarden, Texas, a town believed to have been spared from the Departure.
The cast is simply second to none. Led by Justin Theroux, the show also features spectacular performances from Amy Brenneman, Coon, Kevin Carroll, Regina King, Ann Dowd, Eccleston, Margaret Qualley, Chris Zylka, Liv Tyler, and more.
With Christian allegories abounding, THE LEFTOVERS continues to find ways to get under your skin, to make you think, to make you feel far more than any show should, even if the feelings that it evokes are often unwanted and uncomfortable.
What do you think of my favorite shows of the year? Were any of your favorites left off my list? Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt. If you want to follow along with my "366 in 366" articles, you can check out #BWW366in366 on Twitter. Also, make sure to follow @BWWTVWorld on Twitter for all of the biggest news from the world of TV and movies.