Top 10 TV Shows of 2015

Last August, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf stated during the Television Critics Association press tour that in the current media landscape, “there is simply too much television.”

Indeed, it seems with each passing year, there are more and more options for viewing that go beyond the traditional broadcast networks, or even basic and premium cable. Nearly every streaming service has now dipped into original programming and “cord cutting” mean viewers are finding new ways to watch, whether it’s on Hulu Plus or ala carte network sites like HBO Now.

One thing that hasn’t change from recent years is the level of quality programming, which only increased in 2015. Since I’m writing a top 10 TV shows column, I obviously watch too much of the medium, but even I can’t keep up with all of the great shows out there (I’ll hopefully finish watching USA’s “Mr. Robot” at some point).

More than ever, the best programming has veered away from the broadcast networks. I only included two series from the Big Four networks (ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC) and they’re both sitcoms. The simple truth is the programming on broadcast networks is dictated by advertising profits, while cable and streaming programming is dictated by creative quality. Here are some of the best offerings from 2015.

Better Call Saul (AMC)

“Breaking Bad” is one of the greatest television shows of all time, so it would make sense for AMC to want to spinoff one of its characters into its own show. The weakest season of “Breaking Bad” is probably the first, but with “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan at the helm, “Better Call Saul” doesn’t need any time to build momentum like its predecessor. Set up as a prequel several years before the events of “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” opens with Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) still known by his real name, Jimmy McGill, working as a public defender in Albuquerque and slowly begin his descent into the criminal underworld. Odenkirk was a source of comic relief in “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” is therefore a much more comedic endeavor as Jimmy to integrate himself into the legal world while trying to maintain the legitimacy we know he’ll ultimately disregard.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX)

“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” started as a starring vehicle for “Saturday Night Live” alum Andy Samberg, but it’s developed into one of TV’s best ensemble sitcoms. Depicting the events of a Brooklyn NYPD precinct, Samberg’s Jake Peralta is joined by the stoic homosexual Captain Holt (Andre Braugher), best friend Charles Boyle (Joe LoTruglio) and uptight Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero), among many, many others. The third season opened with Jake and Amy finally embarking on a romantic relationship, but that development hasn’t dominated the narrative. Among the season’s best moments have been a Christmas episode that’s a pitch-perfect send up of “Die Hard” or Jake and fellow detective Rosa competing to solve a case with a pair of visiting Swedish detectives.

Fargo (FX)

The first season of “Fargo” was one of the most unlikely success stories of 2014. A televised adaption of the celebrated 1996 film, “Fargo” sounded like a disaster, but the first season somehow managed to maintain the spirit of the film, while creating its own unique world in the snowy northern Midwest. Lightning in a bottle could be achieved once, but a second season at the same level seemed even more implausible. Wrong again. Travelling back nearly 30 years to depict a set of deadly events from 1979 alluded to in the first season by Keith Carradine’s Lou Solverson, father of protagonist Detective Molly Solverson, the second season finds Lou, now played by Patrick Wilson, investigating a triple homicide in Minnesota with his father-in-law Hank (Ted Danson) that has ripple effects on the Gerhardts, a local crime family, the Kansas City mafia and a young married couple with VERY bad judgement played by Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons. The second season of “Fargo” is even better than the first at creating an original vision and builds to a shocking conclusion worthy of the shaken description an elderly Lou gives it in the first installment.

The Leftovers (HBO)

If ever there was a television show that just isn’t for everybody, it’s “The Leftovers.” It began as a series about the survivors of “the departure,” a rapture-like occurence that caused the disappearance of two percent of the world’s population and how they cope with the feelings of grief and loss after such an event. The second season starts with a clean slate, relocating Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) and most of the other main characters to Miracle, a small town in Texas now known worldwide for having zero departures. The new season also introduces the Murphys, a seemingly normal African-American living next door to Kevin and Nora with a lot of secrets. Nearly every episode of the season is a contained piece focusing on one or two of the main characters that manages to be equal parts compelling and absolutely insane in its audacity. For a lot of people, I’d imagine “The Leftovers” is just too dark or confusing to make for an enjoyable experience, but they’re missing out. No other series on TV takes as many chances (and pays them off as well) as “The Leftovers.”

Mad Men (AMC)

It’s only been eight months since its series finale, but, man, do I miss “Mad Men.” I wrote at length about the final season of the 1960s-set drama here each week last spring, but looking back on the final seven episodes, and in particular the final moments of the finale, it’s even more apparent “Mad Men” stuck the landing. The romantic in me would have liked to have a seen a happy ending where ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) returned from his trek across America to be there for his kids now that their mother and his ex-wife, Betty (January Jones) is dying from lung cancer, but “Mad Men” was never a series about Don’s journey toward becoming a better person, but his journey toward becoming at peace with himself. He appears to have done that in the series finale’s final moments, as he meditates on the Big Sur cliff with a slight smirk and a smash cut to the famous Coca-Cola “Hilltop” television commercial, indicating Don returned to McCann Erickson and created the iconic ad. Even before Don taught the world to sing in perfect harmony, the final seven episodes featured what will go down as some of the series’ most memorable moments, from Peggy  roller skating and Roger playing the organ while drunk on Vermoth in the abandoned Sterling Cooper & Partners offices to Pete suckerpunching the pompous headmaster at his daughter’s preschool . “Mad Men” ended the same way it began, as one of the best shows on television.

Master of None (Netflix)

It was quite a year for Aziz Ansari. He opened the year appearing in the final season of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” (which appears one spot down on this list), published “Modern Romance,” a best-selling book about dating in the digital age and closed 2015 by helming Netflix’s “Master of None.” Through his book and his stand-up act, Ansari has shown a fascination with the social habits of young adults and “Master of None” takes many elements of his real life while also touching on universal truths for single thirtysomethings. Ansari plays Dev, an underemployed actor in New York City navigating his professional and personal life. A season-long arc deals with his romantic relationship with Rachel (Noel Wells), but episodes also deal with his relationship with his parents (played by Ansari’s real non-actor parents), his friends and his co-workers. “Master of None” owes a lot in structure and tone to FX’s “Louie” but it has its own clear voice that is equal parts funny and relatable.

Parks and Recreation (NBC)

Ansari’s other starring vehicle was in the final season of “Parks and Recreation” as we said goodbye to the residents of Pawnee, Indiana. Jumping ahead three years to 2017, the show was able to bypass Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope dealing with pregnancy and focus on the professional happenings in City Hall. The final season allowed for final appearances from fan favorite guest stars like Tammy II (Megan Mullally), Councilman Jamm (Jon Glaser) and Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) among many, many others, and wasn’t afraid to take chances in its final season, like structuring an entire episode as an installment  of Andy’s (Chris Pratt) children’s show, “The Johnny  Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show.” The final episode revealed the fates of all the main characters and offered a satisfying conclusion to one of the best sitcoms of its era.

Show Me a Hero (HBO)

If you missed this six-episode miniseries from “The Wire” creator David Simon, you weren’t alone. Ratings were miniscule and  the plot description doesn’t exactly sound like riveting viewing. Oscar Isaac stars as real-life politician Nick Wasicsko, a Yonkers, N.Y. city councilman in the late 1980s who is elected mayor amidst resistance from the white community to public housing development in the city.   Isaac, who isn’t going to stay underrated for much longer, is absolutely fantastic as Wasicsko, an everyman struggling to find a balance between doing the right thing and maintaining his political status. The miniseries also takes time to broaden it’s view beyond Wasicsko to the other city council members, citizens opposed to the public housing and the impoverished individuals who will benefit from the housing. With a soundtrack punctuated by Bruce Springsteen deep cuts, “Show Me a Hero,” like all of Simon’s work, isn’t casual viewing, but it rewards the effort and builds to an appropriately devastating conclusion.

Veep (HBO)

Now that we’re in the middle of the absolute farce posing as the presidential election cycle, “Veep” seems less like a satire and more like a documentary about Washington politics. After three seasons depicting the ineptitude of Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her equally hopeless staff, Meyer rose to the Oval Office in the fourth season. It was a new dynamic that could’ve failed miserably, but instead “Veep” finds new ways to mine humor as President Meyer and the staff’s stupidity now has real consequences.  The season’s penultimate episode, where the entire staff is forced to give testimony regarded a data breach, is possibly the series’ funniest yet, as they are finally called to task for their activity. The season ends with the state of Meyers’ presidency in flux, but regardless of the outcome, “Veep” will likely continue to expertly skewer the American political scene.

You’re the Worst (FXX)

Good romantic comedies are difficult to pull off, but even tougher to achieve is an effective dark romantic comedy where the subjects are pretty awful people most of the time. Somehow “You’re the Worst” made it work in the first season and was just as good in the second. After finally deciding to try to be together in a real relationship at the end of the first season, Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash) avoid intimacy in their new dynamic by overindulging in drugs and alcohol every night.  Meanwhile, Jimmy’s military vet roommate Edgar (Desmin Borges) joins an improv troupe and begins dating his instructor, while Gretchen’s brash best friend Lindsay (Kether Donohue) attempts to readjust to single life after separating from her husband. The most affecting part of the season though is the show’s depiction of Gretchen’s battle with clinincal depression, which like most of the series, doesn’t sounds very funny on paper, but somehow the series manages to take its characters seriously while also being completely hilarious.
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