By its nature, one of the defining aspects of TV is that it’s always on, always available. But in “Peak TV,” it seems that not only is it always on, there’s always something available that’s worth watching. That doesn’t mean the dregs of TV aren’t worse than they’ve ever been or that pretty much everything seems to be on Sunday with nothing else on for days at a time;I guess DVR and streaming services can fill that gap. That’s a lot of words to say that if you’re favorite show isn’t on here, just assume I haven’t seen it (or, as with Mad Men, The Knick, or Jane the Virgin, am too far behind).
Note: This is for the calendar year (from January 1 to December 31, 2015).
The 25 Best Shows
1. Fargo, FX- The most creatively exciting drama that’s aired on American TV, Fargo‘s second season was far more ambitious than it’s first. Noah Hawley took much of the late-70’s zeitgeist (from Reagan to UFO’s), motifs and themes from the Coen brothers filmography, and put them in a blender (or wood chipper) to explore the American history of “the west,” the corporation, the family, existential debates about duty and death, and more. It topped this list last year, but while this season was a bit slower to get going, exceeded it in every way; it may be the finest season of any TV drama we’ve seen so far.
2. Rectify, Sundance- On the surface there’s not too much that looks immediately different about Rectify, but it’s one of the more important shows on TV because of the patience it has in its storytelling and the charity it has for most of its characters (the two are interrelated). In this season, the events of the first two seasons payoff in bittersweet and deeply moving ways. I found myself tearing up (ok, crying) during nearly every episode, a feat no other season of a TV show has ever accomplished.
3. Bojack Horseman, Netflix- Sure it features talking animals and is full of puns, but this alternately hilarious and heartbreaking animated dramedy explores depression and addiction better than any other show on TV.
4. Better Call Saul, AMC- BCS was sold as the comedic counterpart to Breaking Bad, but that pitch ignores how comedic the latter was and downplayed how dramatic the former would be. Gilligan hasn’t lost a step, and rather than feeling like an indulgent trip back to the ABQ, he’s using this show to continue to explore, revisit, and challenge the central moral question of both shows.
5. Mr Robot, USA- Formally this might be the most interesting show on TV, a cutting-edge tech thriller and psychological drama where external paranoia and inequality corresponds to internal uncertainty and instability.
6. The Americans, FX- Confession: I might have this too far down on the list since it’s been almost a year since it was on.
7. The Leftovers, HBO- For its second season, the show moved locales, tweaked its tone, and attempted an ambitious, multi-focal storyline. And while it wasn’t as focused as the first season, was occasionally frustrating, and chose some music that was too on-the-nose, the second season of The Leftovers stuck the landing and ended up being an unforgettable, wrenching emotional and spiritual experience.
8.Nathan for You, Comedy Central- What might at first appear to be a spoof of reality shows, or a prank, is instead part performance art, part character study, part psychological exercise, and part social experiment. Plenty of times it can be the most painful show to watch on TV, but it’s also the funniest.
9. Community, Yahoo- Community has survived all kinds of crises which would have destroyed lesser shows, and somehow came out stronger because of them. Adding characters never works on TV, but Frankie and Elroy were inspired and the final season was the show’s best since it’s classic 3rd season (RIP Yahoo TV).
10. The Jinx, HBO
11. Show Me A Hero, HBO
12. Inside Amy Schumer, Comedy Central
13. Rick and Morty, Adult Swim
14. Veep, HBO
15. Narcos, Netflix
16. Jessica Jones, Netflix
17. Hannibal, NBC
18. Silicon Valley, HBO
19. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix
20. Last Week Tonight, HBO
21. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Netflix
22. Homeland, Showtime
23. Master of None, Netflix
24. The Last Man on Earth, Fox- The show may have turned into the least reliably titled entertainment product since The Neverending Story (no word if Lionel Hutz is on the case), and while it started off inspired, it hit a rough patch in the middle of season 1, but has found strong footing in season 2.
25. Fresh Off the Boat, ABC- They didn’t quite know what they had last year, but the show is now the most consistent, traditional-ish sitcom on TV in part by embracing a bit of 30 Rockesque wackiness while still remaining grounded in suburban 90’s reality. It doesn’t show off its nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, rather uses it cleverly as points of entry into exploring relationships of family and identity.
- Review, Comedy Central
- Louie, FX
- Gravity Falls, Disney XD
Two comedic edutainment shows you should be watching: Adam Ruins Everything, TruTv and Drunk History, Comedy Central
Cutest Kids Show: We Bare Bears
Most promising show that just debuted this month: The Expanse, Syfy
Show that provided a thankless public service and will be sorely missed: The Soup, E!
The 50 Best Episodes and Specials (limit two per show)
- 12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer, Inside Amy Schumer: Sketches are hard to sustain. We’ve all seen a fun premise on SNL quickly become tiresome in a matter of minutes. Here, Schumer attempted something with an insane degree of difficulty: turning a sketch into a full-22 minute episode is a risky move, but attempting a spot-on parody of a classic, 60 year-old movie? And it worked. A hilarious response to criticism of Schumer’s show and herself.
- I Live Here Now, The Leftovers: Damon Lindelof has a rough track record with payoffs (Lost, Prometheus; by now it feels required to mention that in any article about him). The Leftovers tried to probably do too much with too many characters this season, and it seemed impossible that it would come to a satisfying conclusion. Add to that the possibility of the show not being renewed for a third season required this to also stand-in as a de-facto series finale. Somehow it all works, and works gracefully, as the spiritual journeys of several characters reach satisfying conclusions. If any moment best conveys the unique tone and brilliance of this season of The Leftovers it’s Kevin’s purgatorial karaoke rendition of “Homeward Bound.” It’s awkward, kind of silly, and devastating; that scene alone should work as Justin Thereox’s Emmy submission tape.
- The Gift of the Magi, FargoThere were so many great moments on Fargo this season but Rye meeting Noreen, the Camus reading teen butcher shop attendant, who might be my favorite character on TV, while trying to kill Ed is somehow incredibly tense, sweet, funny, and tragic all at the same time.
- Charlie Work, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Featuring an all-time great comedic performance by Charlie Day, and an “unbroken” second-act long take this was ISASIP’s manic, misanthropy at its best.
- Wedding Videography, Community: This might be the finest non-high-concept episode of the entire series.
- Hard Home, Game of Thrones: This season of GoT was awful in multiple senses of the word; with inexplicably lazy writing, head-scratching dead-ends, and horrible acts of rape and violence (even more so than usual). But this was a flat-out masterpiece of television and the best episode of the entire series.
- Alive in Tucson, The Last Man on Earth: TV is (or at least it was traditionally) a social medium, and its programs have either simulated that (talk shows, game shows) or modeled sociality (every sitcom ever). The revolutionary aspect of this first episode of TLMOE is that it’s consists of one, lone, socially dysfunctional, post-apocalyptic survivor. An exceptional showcase for Will Forte, the episode is equally funny, pathetic, and exciting.
- Jeff Ross Roasts Criminals: Live from Brazos County Jail: More than a comedy special, this turned into a surprisingly moving look into American’s mass incarceration problem. Comedy relies on power dynamics, and here Ross’ roast comedy has a liberating, angry, soulful foundation.
- Stingers, The Americans: There are levels of violence at play in The Americans. Some are tense, time-sensitive, and explosive. Others slow, simmering, internal “cold wars.” Many (most?) prestige dramas have short-changed its child characters, but Paige is crucial to any semblance of moral center of The Americans and her arc is moving, honest, and precarious.
- Five-0, Better Call Saul- This episode felt like the moment that BCS came into its own as it transitions, in a rather exceptional way, from Saul to Mike’s sad backstory.
- Loplop, Fargo
- Totall Rickall, Rick and Morty: At its best, Rick and Morty is just as good of a sci-fi series as it is a comedy series, and here we have a compelling sci-fi “whodunnit” featuring a menagerie of some of the most insane, Rickdiculous characters ever put on screen.
- Out to Sea, Bojack Horseman: Bojack‘s season finale beautifully brought together a number of strands and motifs from throughout the season. What if I told you that the most surprisingly moving moment on TV this season involved a jogging Bononbos monkey? Well, it did.
- eps1.0hellofriend.mov, Mr Robot: “Like nothing you’ve seen before” is kind of an annoying blurb that shows up in movie ads, but this tense pilot was not just an introduction to the world of Mr. Robot but also to the unique visual language the show uses.
- Untitled, Louie
- The Hero, Nathan For You
- Family Values, The Jinx
- Testimony, Veep
- Conspiracy Theory, Review
- The Last One Forever and Ever (for real this time), Aqua Teen Hunger Force Forever! I had no idea I wanted an emotionally satisfying finale to this influential, but pointless, series about an anthropomorphic fast foot combo meal but I got one. Seriously, this is one of the best series finales* I’ve seen (*there was another, direct-to-internet finale that was the insane and bloody finale that this wasn’t).
- Antipasto, Hannibal
- Adult Content, Silicon Valley
- eps1.7wh1ter0se.m4v, Mr. Robot
- Dimebag, The Americans
- Nacho, Better Call Saul
- Stakes, Adventure Time
- Axis Mundi, The Leftovers-The Leftovers came right of the gate letting us know that it wants to be the most difficult series on TV with a long, silent, introductory parable.
- AKA Sin Bin, Jessica Jones
- The Wiz! Live-The first two NBC live musicals were desperate ratings stunts that turned into must-hate-watch twitter events. The Wiz! denied us of such fun, but instead turned out to be a joyous, surprisingly moving, and nearly flawless live musical performance.
- The Source, Rectify
- A False Glimmer, Homeland
- The Johnny Karate Super Show, Parks & Recreation
- Lil’ Buddy, Clarence
- The Movement, Nathan For You
- Old People, Master of None
- The Four Falls of Buffalo, 30 for 30
- Boy II Man, Fresh off the Boat
- Kimmy Rides a Bike, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
- Good Morning Orlando, Fresh Off the Boat:Louis becomes an accidental local celebrity, and the show uses that premise to make a meta-critique of the show itself, and the challenges that face minority comedians.
- Windbreaker City, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
- Tornado, Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories: The most cinematic thing Tim and Eric have done on TV, and one of the most disturbing. A ridiculous premise turns into a heartwarming rom-com with a dark ending.
- Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television, Community
- Terra Incognita, Person of Interest: Person of Interest straddles the interesting line between broad weekly procedural and complicated cable drama more than any other network show (which is why CBS doesn’t seem to know what to do with it) and this episode is a great example of that.
- Puffless, The Simpsons-Aside from 1 or 2 clunkers, this season has been the best season of The Simpsons in years and this has been the highlight so far (though the emotional Boyhood parody was also really quite good).
- Mornings, Master of None
- Electro City, Wet Hot American Summer First Day of Camp
- Josh Just Happens to Live Here!, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend:When it’s not singing the show feels a bit too familiar, but CEG’s musical numbers, by the talented Rachel Bloom (from many clever internet videos) and co-written by Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, were some of the highlights of the 2015 TV season.
- Gayle Makin’ Bob Sled, Bob’s Burgers: Bob’s Burgers might be the most fun-to-look-at animated series in terms of it’s style, but this one was particularly well-directed.
- B/ill, Veep
- Heaven Sent, Doctor Who