See all of our Best TV of 2015 here.
2015 saw the end of three key works in the so-called Golden Age of Television, though they ended in very different ways. “Person to Person,” with its iconic “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” conclusion, ended Mad Men on a contentious and ultimately melancholic note, suggesting that even enlightenment would ultimately become a way to sell carbonated sugar water (even if the message of universal connection is meant sincerely). For Justified, FX’s terminally under-valued modern Western, the finale offered no certain course for Rayland Givens (Timothy Olyphant), underlining the series’ unwavering conception of the character as a cowboy in modern times: beloved yet alienated, attractive yet genuinely dangerous to be around, effective yet reckless, good-natured yet emotionally distanced. Finally there was Hannibal, arguably the best and certainly the most progressive of all three series, which ended in chaotic ruin: Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) and Will’s (Hugh Dancy) attraction and psychological similarities collided with the Red Dragon (Richard Armitage) in one final operatic, sanguine release.
All three of these shows left a tremendous legacy, to the point that at least the latter two are already being talked about being extended into major movies (for the record, both narrative and aesthetic worlds would make for great movies). Still, when thinking about the best TV of 2015, I find myself thinking about new shows, such as Mr. Robot and Master of None, more than those that continued on or came to their final conclusion this year, even considering the surpassingly superb new installments of The Knick, The Americans, and BoJack Horseman. More than any other series, though, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver continued to far surpass the towering expectations of its previous season, taking bold creative risks in each episode. It had everything from bringing soap opera characters back from the dead,to putting a smile on a refugee’s face, to getting Martin Starr, Seth Rogen, and Kathryn Hahn on board to underline the gambling schema thinly veiled by Draft Kings and Fan Duel.
For the record, here’s my top 20 TV series of 2015, ranked:
- Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
- Mr. Robot
- The Knick
- Master of None
- Mad Men
- The Americans
- Marvel’s Jessica Jones
- BoJack Horseman
- Broad City
- Marvel’s Daredevil
- Better Call Saul
- South Park
- Ash vs. Evil Dead
- Silicon Valley
- tie: Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer
It’s tempting to suggest that Last Week Tonight’s consistently thought-provoking second season did so well because of its similarities to The Daily Show under Jon Stewart, with an ample sprinkle of cursing and profanity added for flavor. As legendary as it was, the Stewart years of The Daily Show worked as a nightly corrective to popular reportage, as well as a reflection of the absurdity of modern news-network reasoning. In comparison, Last Week Tonight touches on far more intimate matters, or rather, dismantles seemingly strictly political notions by locating the humanistic fascination in subjects like prison re-entry, refugees, lack of qualified public defenders, bail bonds, television evangelism, sexual education, and so much more. That Oliver, along with his writing staff, took these issues apart at the hinges with a consistently untamed wit and an imaginative route to logic and collected, irrefutable information is, in some ways, just the cherry.
Aziz Ansari’s splendid, smart Master of None took a nearly opposite route to its bruised, blooming heart, starting with the intimate connections between denizens of New York City’s hippest neighborhoods and teasing out a distinct political fury in seemingly delicate, sensitive connections. It’s through Dev’s (Ansari) relationship with his parents, as well as his memorable encounter with his girlfriend’s grandmother, that he finds a conflicting, complex view of growing old, maybe even maturing, and Dev’s experiences on casting couches end up hitting at the challenging cores of racism and feminism. Ansari’s character is in a constant state of reevaluating his self-awareness, consistently admitting that he knows nothing about things he was once certain he had figured out, which puts him in sharp contrast with the exhilarating yet enraging Pfefferman clan in the beautiful, bold second season of Amazon’s Transparent. Where Master of None reflected the struggles in being aware of the blessings of youth and masculinity, Transparent explores the simultaneous fearlessness and foolishness inherent in being a progressive, seeing each character tapping into their unique sexuality and social thinking while also falling into a pattern of self-obsession and self-satisfaction.
The best comedies and dramas of this year, and past years as well, come from focus on quiet, graceful nuances of personality, attention to simple utterances, glances, gesticulations, and minute actions that speak volumes about character. Early on into Transparent’s second season, Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura hesitantly performs a sexual act with an ex. The face that the actor evinces in that sequence spoke volumes about the conflicted psychological and physical space that the character found herself in and, in a way, the actor’s own reaction to such a scenario. There were similar moments in The Knick, such as when Algernon is surprisingly reunited with his wife, or in the sensational fourth season of The Americans, wherein Holly Taylor, one of the most talented actresses currently on television, explored her character of Paige with quiet revelations. If the advances in storytelling on television in 2015 were marked by anything consistent, it was in a growing embrace of these purely visual expressionistic glimpses, which had long ago become crucial to the success of Mad Men, Justified and Hannibal.
These moments are often measured, key gasps of symbolism peppered amongst a more dialogue-based dramatic build, but this year also saw certain series more boldly indulging in wild, imaginative visions that shrug off the logic and reason of the human world in search of deeper, darker truths. The best example of this was in the second season of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, one of the streaming service’s best series to date, in which the worlds of man and animal are conflated in Hollywood, and where the bestial natures of humankind are often allowed and fostered in the name of monetary gain. The animation design remains remarkable, consistently inventive, and colorful in a particularly mindful way, but what makes BoJack such a consistently beguiling and brilliant watch is its melancholic considerations of fame and day-to-day existence. The series is not only interested in what it takes to be a good person when the cameras are off, but also focuses on an unhinged creature in need of constant attention and praise.
One could find a similar trip into the relevantly absurd in the latest season of South Park, still the most reliably thoughtful and unrestrained animated series on television. Trey Parker and Matt Stone continue to experiment not only with the boundaries of taste, but also elements of series structure. Adopting a series-long arc, rather than leaning more on singular episodes, the series never lost its edge and continued to challenge popular concepts of political correctness, shaming, self-obsession and self-satisfaction, and gentrification, while also commenting on Caitlyn Jenner, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, sponsored content, and Yelp. The longevity of South Park is directly tied to its creators’ constant need to question and rethink the narrative engine of the show while remaining tonally consistent and unerringly creative.
It’s this tendency to move forward, even when the outcomes are not always as fruitful, the denotes the most progressive shows on television, from Last Week Tonight and South Park to USA’s sublime Mr. Robot and Marvel’s Jessica Jones. These shows aren’t afraid of stylistic excess, nor do they insist on teasing out a central narrative revelation for an entire season in the hopes of covering up a lack of propulsive storytelling episode-to-episode (prime example: HBO’s fascinating but portentous The Leftovers). That may ultimately be a part of what makes shows like Mr. Robot, Daredevil, Better Call Saul, and Jessica Jones so enveloping, but these series don’t take such mysteries as permission to narrow the scope of their storytelling just to build-up an enigma.
Those four shows in particular are distinctly concerned with moment-to-moment action, vibrant symbolism, and myriad thematic concerns. In other words, they have the potential to grow in unexpected directions and reimagine their approach without losing what’s identified them before; an increasing number of shows focus on a singular, looming narrative concern so often they stall out, even before the pilot ends. They are, in essence, rigid in their approach, which is something that could never be said about Mad Men, Hannibal, Justified, or other now-classic series that have come to denote this exciting, generous age of television.