TV Top 10 of 2015: 'The Leftovers,' 'Fargo,' 'Mad Men' & more
From almost every angle, the idea that there will be over 400 original scripted comedies and dramas — many of them, particularly on the drama side, ranging from very good to great — airing in primetime this year, across the broadcast networks, cable, and streaming, is a high-class problem. The only people it really negatively affects are TV critics like yours truly, and even I'd rather people have far too many different viewing options than far too few.
Still, it's hard not to gnash my teeth a bit when December arrives, and top 10 season right along with it.
For the past week, I've been accepting ballots for this year's HitFix Television Critics Poll, which will be released tomorrow, and nearly every one of them arrived with an introduction saying something like, "This is harder than it's ever been to pick just 10," or, "I hate my list, even though I love all the shows on it, because I had to leave so many off." (Maybe we, like the Baseball Hall of Fame, need to start considering expanding the ballot past only 10 spots?) And that's more or less how I felt putting together my own ballot, which included my own overall top 10 for 2015, which you can enjoy in the video embedded above or the list below. I'm giddy that I get to review TV in a time that includes all of the shows on this list, even if several of them said their farewells in 2015, but I'm also really aggravated that I couldn't invent some additional numbers between 1 and 10 to include a "You're the Worst," or "Broad City," or "Veep," or "Show Me a Hero," or "BoJack Horseman." I'll be doing an Honorable Mentions list next week that features those shows and a bunch of others (even doing a Next 10 seems insufficient these days, so I'll be giving you at least 15 more). I could have made a list that just contained shows that debuted between January and April, or one starting only on Memorial Day, and there wouldn't be a clunker in the bunch. (One of the shows I selected won't even have its official debut until the end of this week, though I've seen all the season's episodes, the first of which sneak-previewed last week.)
If you still have last year's top 10 list memorized, you may not find this one incredibly surprising, as 7 of the 10 shows are the same, and an 8th has been a list fixture in year's past (including one year in the top spot) before finishing a bit outside the top 10 a year ago. But that's what happens when you have a trio of all-time great series saying farewell with style, and when a bunch of last year's best new shows found ways to be even bolder, crazier, and in many ways just plain better than they were in their debut seasons.
Like I said, 10 is an arbitrary, traditional number, and I like to think of these as just the first chunk of what'll be a nice top 25 or 30 by next week. But as I sweated over the list over the course of a few weeks — whittling down from a preliminary list of contenders that was around 50 shows long, none of them duds — these were ultimately the 10 I decided I would be most angry with myself for omitting.
10. "Rectify" (Sundance)Photo Credit: Sundance
"Rectify" downshifted from 10 episodes to only 6 for its third season, but as usual, nothing felt rushed for one of TV's quietest, most thoughtful, and just plain beautiful dramas. As Daniel Holden prepared to leave his hometown forever as part of a plea bargain, the series continued to find the small and powerful details in the lives of the people around him, and even managed to move the overall plot forward a lot despite the leisurely pace. An unconventional show, and a great one.
9. "Parks and Recreation" (NBC)Photo Credit: NBC
We said goodbye to some all-time TV classics this year, starting with "Parks and Recreation." The Amy Poehler comedy had seemingly lost a half-step in its advanced age, as even the best shows do, but its final season was more reminiscent of vintage "Parks" than any fan had a right to expect. It was funny, it was poignant, and it was joyful. Years from now, maybe after Chris Pratt has launched his 20th action movie franchise, people will look back at this wonderful series and ask how it wasn't a huge hit. But for those of us watching, we got more than a victory lap at the end, but a hilarious sprint.
8. "Master of None" (Netflix)Photo Credit: Netflix
A good chunk of the "Parks and Rec" gang, including co-star Aziz Ansari and writer Alan Yang, moved over to "Master of None," the year's best new series. This comedy was so deeply personal that Ansari cast his real parents to play his characters parents, told stories about being the pampered children of immigrants and how hard it is to get more than one Indian actor on a TV show, and showed a deep and abiding curiosity about the world around him. This was a knockout debut, and I can't wait to see what Ansari, Yang, and company do next.
7. "Review" (Comedy Central)Photo Credit: Comedy Central
In the first season of Review," the insane commitment of Andy Daly's Forrest MacNeil to his job as a "reviewer of life" led to the end of his marriage, the death in space of his father-in-law, a brief institutionalization, and a cocaine addiction, among other tragedies. Somehow, season 2 of this incredibly black comedy made things even worse for him, destroying lives, property, and even imaginary friends, and somehow always wringing enormous laughs out of the terrible, terrible things that Forrest can't stop himself from doing. It's one of the funniest shows on TV, and easily the scariest.
6. "Justified" (FX)Photo Credit: FX
"Justified" was another departing classic that recaptured its former glory on the way out the door. At its best, the series was both a great drama and a fun one, and this final season was both at once, featuring an array of colorful villains new and old, but also a commitment to seeing the story of Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder all the way to the end, no matter how bad things got between the cop and the crook who once dug coal together.
5. "Transparent" (Amazon)Photo Credit: Amazon
"Transparent" made clear that its great first season was no fluke within the space of its very first shot of season 2: a long, static take filled with information, comedy, and tragedy about the current state of the Pfefferman clan. It was intimate and knowing in a way that was true for the rest of the season, which debuts on Amazon on Friday. Though its main character is going through a gender transition, the series isn't just about trans issues, but about relationships in general, and all the problems that arise when you spend too much of your life not truly understanding who you and the people you care about truly are. Fortunately, the series itself, including an incredible cast led by Jeffrey Tambor, understands exactly what it is and how best to be about that.
4. "The Americans" (FX)Photo Credit: FX
No good ever seems to come from adult TV dramas incorporating teenage characters. Except, that is, when "The Americans" is doing it. In season 3, Holly Taylor's Paige found out her parents were KGB deep cover agents, and it only made the series tenser and more tragic. Taylor was great, and her TV parents Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys continued to be as well. The episode "Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?" not only had one of the year's best titles, but one of its most powerful sequences. Whether it's functioning as a spy thriller, a family drama, or an unexpected blend of the two, this remains one of the best-crafted and most entertaining shows you can find on your TV.
3. "Fargo" (FX)Photo Credit: FX
Season 2 of "Fargo" was basically everything we so badly wanted "True Detective" season 2 to be. Here was a crime anthology which came back with more characters, more storylines, and more overall ambition, but made everything work, with actors Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst, Bokeem Woodbine and so many more bringing these new figures to such vivid life, with an amazing visual language and soundtrack that perfectly suited the late '70s setting, and with the story and character arcs prioritizing fun even as they stayed true to who all these people are.
2. "Mad Men" (AMC)Photo Credit: AMC
Like last year, "Mad Men" returned with a few episodes that seemed weirdly like throat-clearing, even though the series finale was only weeks away. But then Don Draper's ad agency disintegrated, and in the process "Mad Men" reminded us all why it's one of the greatest dramas ever made, with a quartet of rich, funny, and deeply poignant concluding episodes that gave all the major characters a satisfying ending, even if only some of them were happy enough to drink a Coke to.
"The Leftovers" (HBO)Photo Credit: HBO
A year ago, I chose "The Leftovers" as the best show on TV more with my heart, which was deeply moved by nearly every moment, than my head, which could see that there were some clear flaws with how Damon Lindelof and company told stories set in a broken world where millions of people recently vanished without explanation. If the show could be that powerful even with room to grow, then imagine how amazing it became in season 2, which was more consistent, more focused, much better-plotted, and even more audacious than before in its commitment to putting its audience in the shoes of its characters. "International Assassin," where Kevin Garvey either went to Hell or just had one hell of a drug trip, was a miraculous hour of drama on every level. This was an easy call for the top spot a year ago, and even easier this time, now that "The Leftovers" has produced a season that measures up to the best of what the vintage HBO series were doing in the early part of this century.