Tim Goodman: The Best TV of 2015

7:55 AM 12/15/2015

by Tim Goodman

From HBO's 'The Leftovers' and critical darling 'Fargo' to Netflix's breakout hit 'Master of None,' THR's chief TV critic ranks 46 superior shows that made an impression this year.

Courtesy of FX; CW; Netflix

The nature of making lists is tricky business. I’ve already said multiple times that it’s ludicrous to stick to outdated modalities and devise a list of the year’s best TV consisting of a mere 10 choices when roughly 400 scripted series were on the air and we are, and remain, in the Platinum Age of Television.

This isn’t about minimalism or tradition — it’s about rewarding excellence. But how many do you include? I tried to keep the reasoning simple: Although I was cognizant of the swelling number of shows, I also was aware that even with a list of 46, I'd still be omitting a large number of high-quality shows — as many as 15 that might have made it any other year (and some have in the past).

We’re living in amazing times when it comes to quality television. So no apologies for the length of this list. It actually started out as two lists — one for drama and one for comedy — and while I found mixing them significantly harder, I feel it reflects a truer evaluation.

I have a separate list for broadcast networks because, just as I’ve noted in years past, the playing field simply isn’t level — but the strong work being done in that medium needs to be acknowledged as well. Finally, this thought: The length of this list and the fact that it could be significantly longer makes me happy.

There’s an unbelievable, historic amount of wonderful television out there; giving due credit for making the very best of it brings a lot more joy to a critic than dismantling all the mediocre — or worse — fare in the world.

  1. 1
    46

    Fargo

    FX

    Courtesy of FX

    Well, this is a deal. Fargo was my No. 1 in 2014 as well. Creator Noah Hawley worked a miracle last season (almost no one thought it was a good idea to make a TV series out of the Coen Brothers movie), and you could argue that this triumphant, exultant sophomore effort was thus even harder to pull off. That clashing Fargo tonality — violence and comedy — is insanely difficult to get right. Thrilling, weird, fearless, supremely entertaining – Fargo had it all. Again.

  2. 2
    46

    The Leftovers

    HBO

    Van Redin/HBO

    I loved the despair, confusion and weighty existentialism of last season and the trippy ambitiousness that moved the series forward (and increased its critical acclaim) this season.

  3. 3
    46

    Mad Men

    AMC

    AMC

    Speaking of existentialism, this is the show that soaked in it for seven seasons and closed out the longest and thus arguably greatest run of any of the handful of dramas in the discussion for "best ever." Creator Matt Weiner almost gleefully steered these last episodes in the direction that pleased him most, even if it perplexed some viewers. For everyone else, well, Don on the bus bench, Don behind the wheel of the racing car and Don finding his Zen moment — those are images to savor. 

  4. 4
    46

    The Americans

    FX

    Jeffrey Neira

    Dear loving but inquisitive daughter: We’re not who you think we are. Signed, your parents. A disappointing season finale couldn’t dull what it was like to witness Philip and Elizabeth Jennings grapple with the consequences of decisions they made ages ago. It was as emotionally painful as folding a dead body into a suitcase. But possibly worse — and what it will mean going forward is more daunting.

  5. 5
    46

    Louie

    FX

    KC Bailey/FX

    So we’ve just come to expect Louis C.K. to deliver genius every season — and then shrug when he does? Louie might have had its best seasons early on (and that’s saying something) but reaction seems weirdly muted (and now the show will take an extended break). Nevertheless, Louie remained jarringly original, a bespoke gem.

  6. 6
    46

    Mr. Robot

    USA Network

    Christopher Saunders/USA Network

    A visual master class and an acting tour-de-force from star Rami Malek highlighted Sam Esmail’s out-of-nowhere, completely unexpected summer hit. Excellent, tricky television — the kind you want to experience again for more clues or just to watch the visual composition.

  7. 7
    46

    Transparent

    Amazon

    Courtesy of Amazon

    Season two came late in the year — and rocked the rankings (again). Emotionally deft, subtler than it seems, funny and real — Jill Soloway’s intimate family portrait is no fluke. Another superb combination of excellent writing, acting and directing made to seem easy.

  8. 8
    46

    Rectify

    Sundance

    Curtis Baker/SundanceTV

    The quiet resonance of this series (yet another rife with existentialism) has been its hallmark. This season’s meditation on change and uncertainty shuffled slowly through the brain, and left its mark.

  9. 9
    46

    Veep

    HBO

    HBO

    This is the heavyweight champion of straight-up funny comedy. No hugs, no real feelings. Just searing, spot-on, merry mockery.

  10. 10
    46

    UnREAL

    Lifetime

    Photo by James Dittiger/Lifetime

    Arguably the second most surprising new series after Mr. Robot, UnREAL put Lifetime in the prestige game with its viciously funny but also thoughtfully dramatic look at a Bachelor-like bit of TV fakery. "You get cash bonuses for nudity, 911 calls, cat fights — alright, have a good show everybody." Who saw this coming? Nobody. It added to that feeling of 2015 being filled with ceaseless can’t-miss quality from all angles.

  11. 11
    46

    Orange Is the New Black

    Netflix

    Photofest

    Jenji Kohan still clearly has lots of stories to tell and season three proved exactly how to service a large and talented ensemble cast, plus balance the emotionally powerful moments with the humor that gurgles underneath constantly.

  12. 12
    46

    Jane the Virgin

    The CW

    Patrick Wymore/The CW

    Creator Jennie Snyder Urman deserves enormous credit for balancing the tonal ricochets on this series, which are in many ways as equally challenging as Fargo. This is the only broadcast network series on this list because it so deftly handles comedy, drama, spoofery and sweetness, which is pretty damned rare, and with 22 episodes per season, impressive. From Gina Rodriguez’s wow factor to Jaime Camil’s nimble range to integral narrator Anthony Mendez and beyond, this is also a formidable cast.

  13. 13
    46

    The Jinx

    HBO

    Courtesy of HBO

    Arguably the most riveting non-fiction event (that felt like fiction) on television, The Jinx provided gasp out-loud moments and was the visual equivalent of Serial in setting the hook with viewers. Excellent.

  14. 14
    46

    Silicon Valley

    HBO

    Frank Masi/HBO

    The satire of Silicon Valley, the tech industry and the people who work there is so spot-on and searing that it’s almost sad. The good news is that you’re too busy dying with laughter to worry about your fellow man. Along with Veep, HBO is killing it consistently with comedy. This cast is flawless, too.

  15. 15
    46

    You're the Worst

    FX

    Courtesy of Photofest

    Stephen Falk took one of television’s rising star comedies that reveled in its own debauchery and in the second season, made it shockingly touching while losing none of its razor edge. Daring, daunting and very impressive.

  16. 16
    46

    Review

    Comedy Central

    Jesse Grant/Comedy Central

    If you don’t know that Andy Daly is a genius, then you need to watch this show. It’s like, ahem, eating ice cream while being kicked in the balls. I unreservedly give this a "six star rating."

  17. 17
    46

    Master of None

    Netflix

    KC BAILEY/NETFLIX

    This was such an impressive Louie-like expansion of Aziz Ansari’s creativity — organic, simple, original and surprising. Again, shows like this make you happy about the continued surge in creative television.

  18. 18
    46

    Catastrophe

    Amazon

    Another of those out-of-nowhere sensations that seemed to put an exclamation mark on 2015. Creators, writers and stars Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan are naturals who made this darkly funny, sexy rom-com feel effortlessly assured while giving off that rag-tag improvisational feel. Note: That’s not easy at all.

  19. 19
    46

    Casual

    Hulu

    Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

    Creator-writer Zander Lehmann and Jason Reitman took familiar themes of dating, coming of age and hard-fought personal change and managed to make them seem new and original and important — to both make fun of and embrace. Another example of streaming services making big waves in scripted.

  20. 20
    46

    Game of Thrones

    HBO

    Courtesy of HBO

    While the series can sometimes struggle under the weight of its immense story and cast, when it breaks free it captivates like few other shows — precisely because of its expansive worldview.

  21. 21
    46

    Orphan Black

    BBC America

    Courtesy of BBC America

    Still as fun, twisty and entertaining as ever (and, yep, still giving Tatiana Maslany the material that makes her so exceptional), this series about clones keeps growing creatively.

  22. 22
    46

    Narcos

    Netflix

    Netflix

    Even with so much already on film and the page about Pablo Escobar, this series dove deeper into the details of the story, and it was impossible to take your eyes off of Wagner Moura while doing it.

  23. 23
    46

    The Knick

    Cinemax

    Courtesy of Mary Cybulski/Cinemax

    Visually stunning thanks to Steven Soderbergh and still willing, through the writing, to punch you repeatedly in the gut, this is the last great hospital drama on television. It's full of standout performances, but Andre Holland and Clive Owen are particularly excellent.

  24. 24
    46

    Sense8

    Netflix

    Murray Close/Netflix

    Its ambition was often confusing but never less than addictively different than anything else. A wonderfully varied, socially progressive, binge-necessary show that rewarded those early episode struggles with a satisfying wrap-up. A shot-on-location eye-orgy of images that might not be for everybody but I’m happy it lives on. 

  25. 25
    46

    It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

    FX

    Courtesy of FX Networks

    Ten seasons and still kicking your ass seven ways to Sunday. This is the ultimate mic-drop comedy that fearlessly gets it done every season, awards accolades be damned.

  26. 26
    46

    Justified

    FX

    Prashant Gupta

    Series finales are hard, period. But Justified managed to have one of its finest seasons on the way out and it was rewarding to fans because it never forgot the tenets of Elmore Leonard and the fact that good characters matter.

  27. 27
    46

    Moone Boy

    Hulu

    Courtesy of Sky 1

    In its first season, this was my No. 1 comedy. Still crushing hard on Chris O’Dowd’s wonderful, sweet and painfully hilarious coming of age story in season three. Search out this little gem. Not enough people have. Don’t forget your jumper.

  28. 28
    46

    Jessica Jones

    Netflix

    Michael Gaydos/Marvel Entertainment

    Maybe because it was grittier and more grounded than Daredevil, I really loved this Marvel series which featured tremendous, dark-tinged verve from Krysten Ritter and David Tennant.

  29. 29
    46

    Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

    Netflix

    This first season was simultaneously an indictment of NBC for giving up on the show before it aired (fearing it couldn’t properly launch it) and affirmation that Tina Fey still has it (duh) and star Ellie Kemper really has it. And, yep, credit Netflix with seizing an opportunity and really running with it.

  30. 30
    46

    Better Call Saul

    AMC

    Ursula Coyote/AMC

    Speaking of better, well, this Breaking Bad prequel was probably better than anyone had a right to imagine (since such projects are fraught with peril). Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan gave Bob Odenkirk a way to deep-dive on Saul Goodman’s character. While not out-of-the-gates great like Breaking Bad, it was very good and should be even better next season.

  31. 31
    46

    Penny Dreadful

    Showtime

    Showtime

    This creatively dynamic spin on horror is arguably Showtime’s best series and Eva Green redefines what fearless means for an actor. She’s all in — as you should be.

  32. 32
    46

    Humans

    AMC

    Des Willie/Kudos

    This co-production with Channel 4 and Kudos gave AMC another strong piece of its programming puzzle, as British writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley explored artificial intelligence, robots, the meaning of life, etc. And Gemma Chan gave a restrained but warmly emotional performance in the lead, with excellent actors throughout the cast. Sometimes it’s equally important to be excited to watch a show, not just admire it for its quality.

  33. 33
    46

    Homeland

    Showtime

    Courtesy of Showtime

    While season four was Homeland stumbling back to respectability after, well, being horrible, season five has been a full-on comeback. It’s thrilling, fun to watch and politically current. With barely a misstep (Carrie and her meds — sigh), it’s nice to see a real salvation of this series.

  34. 34
    46

    Red Oaks

    Amazon

    Courtesy of Amazon

    It probably got lost in not only Amazon’s own output but the landslide of the Too Much TV world, yet this ‘80s-set comedy took the well-worn notion that you’ve-gotta-grow-up-sometime and fleshed it out with excellent writing and surprising depth, without ever losing the laughs.

  35. 35
    46

    The Man In the High Castle

    Amazon

    David Berg/Amazon Studios

    High-concept, low-gloss and a real visual treat, this series of the "unfilmable" Philip K. Dick story about the United States losing World War II to Nazi German and Imperial Japan was a mind-trip of alternative history.

  36. 36
    46

    Halt and Catch Fire

    AMC

    AMC

    Was this the comeback of the year? An acclaimed but flawed (and probably too slow) first season put this excellently-titled tech drama in jeopardy for season two – and then delivered an energetic revamp filled with solid writing, gutsy acting and a story that was visionary. Well done and congrats on the third season renewal.

  37. 37
    46

    Outlander

    Starz

    Starz

    It might not have the currency of Game of Thrones, but you could make an argument that Outlander out-performed its fantasy rival much of this past season. Credit Starz with finding success all over the map with its shows — a strategy I thought couldn’t be pulled off. Outlander is likely to grow even more when new viewers eventually find it (as they should).

  38. 38
    46

    Archer

    FX

    Don’t sleep on television’s best animated series. Archer (and certainly voice actor H. Jon Benjamin) can’t be stopped.

  39. 39
    46

    Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll

    FX

    Patrick Harbron/FX

    Denis Leary delivered an underappreciated but note-perfect look at music, aging and family in a show that got better with each episode. There’s more to mine here and if you let this one get lost in the slush pile, have a revisit.

  40. 40
    46

    Shameless

    Showtime

    Cliff Lipson/SHOWTIME

    I’m as guilty as anyone at taking Shameless for granted — for temporarily falling out of love with its downcast gutter hustle (and a few ill-advised quirks). But then I returned to it and wonder why I left. It’s hard to sustain any audience in this current TV landscape, so there’s no shame in dipping out. But a great show lets you know why you followed it in the first place.

  41. 41
    46

    Manhattan

    WGN America

    Courtesy of WGN America

    You wonder if this series will ever get the audience it deserves, residing as it does on a channel a lot of people don’t know if they even get and competing with, well, boundless other high-end dramas. But Sam Shaw’s exploration of the atom bomb (and America and what it all meant) is worth your investment, growing creatively as it did in this second season.

  42. 42
    46

    Wolf Hall

    PBS

    Courtesy of PBS

    Well, if we’re going to talk about being neglected, perhaps PBS (outside of Downton Abbey, which hasn’t made this list in a few seasons) with its ongoing under-the-radar quality, should be the poster channel. But this miniseries seemed to galvanize an audience and featured an array of top-tier acting performances.

  43. 43
    46

    Show Me A Hero

    HBO

    Paul Schiraldi/HBO

    Another miniseries that probably looked like an eat-your-vegetables David Simon foray into city council politics, this was instead a tragedy of hope. What an incredible performance from Oscar Isaac, who found a way to take a real-life story about idealism and find the heartache in it all going sideways.

  44. 44
    46

    Bloodline

    Netflix

    Saeed Ayani/Netflix

    Family secrets (and demons) spill out (albeit a little too slowly) and cause all hell to eventually break loose. An all-star cast included outstanding work from Ben Mendelsohn and Kyle Chandler. In many ways the confusion of Sense8 was easier to handle but this churning story couldn’t be ignored either.

  45. 45
    46

    Fortitude

    Pivot

    Courtesy of Pivot

    Last year it was Manhattan and this year it’s Fortitude that wins my Poster Series of Helplessness in this insanely competitive landscape. Here you’ve got a fantastically offbeat drama (shot in Iceland) and set in "Arctic Norway" where the cold does very, very strange things to people, with splendid performances from Stanley Tucci, Christopher Eccleston, Michael Gambon and Richard Dormer (among others) — and yet you have to wonder who the hell saw it? If you make a pretty great and magnetically weird series and put it out in the world with nary an anecdotal acknowledgement, does it really exist? It does; go find it.

  46. 46
    46

    Togetherness

    HBO

    Melissa Moseley

    Yes it could have been some kind of too-late nod to symmetry to stop this list at 45, but I truly loved Togetherness because, like many of my other favorites on this list (there’s a reason they are here), it took familiar issues (in this case marriage, career and personal ennui) and turned them into something small, unpredictable and intriguing. I appreciated that and enjoyed watching Mark and Jay Duplass and Steve Zissis work that quiet magic.

comments powered by Disqus