The Best TV Shows of 2015 (According to Britt Hayes)
Not only was 2015 a great year for film, but it might have been a more consistently great year for television — so much so that it was impossibly difficult to choose just 10 shows from a list that began with about 15. As such, I want to give honorable mention to a few of the series that would have been included if this were a longer list: Tina Fey’s remarkable new Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the final (half?) season of Mad Men, the incomparably hilarious and relatable Broad City, the dizzying and dangerous journey of The Jinx, another delightful season of Orange Is the New Black, the final outing of Parks and Recreation and the reliably enthralling Game of Thrones. Oh, and Difficult People! How could I forget Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner’s wonderfully biting Hulu series? See. It was an excellent year.
You’ll find some of these on our own Kevin Fitzpatrick’s top 10 list, and while we have some overlap, these are very different lists — and I had the benefit of seeing Making a Murderer before crafting mine, which agitates him to no end.
Now that we’ve gotten these shout-outs out of the way, let’s get into the top 10 shows of 2015, as chosen by yours truly. Spoilers may follow, obviously.
10. Mr. Robot
The debut hour of Sam Esmail’s dark hacker thriller is impeccably confident, and the David Fincher comparisons are apt, though Mr. Robot is at least keenly aware of its homages to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Fight Club and The Social Network. But Esmail’s series is a beast all its own, and while its story of a hacker vigilante skirting the lines of reality and surreality pays service to the works of Fincher (with a dash of American Psycho thrown in for good measure), this is a wholly original and compelling work — and one that feels especially surprising on USA, a network best known for wearing out middle-aged procedural dramedies.
Rami Malek’s performance as Elliot is near-revelatory, as the actor uses his distinct facial topography (and those eyes) to express what cannot be expressed in mere words, a testament to the power of emotive, elusive storytelling. His expressions and Elliot’s precarious mental struggles feed Mr. Robot’s setting: a world where people are disconnected via a proliferation of technological connections, a world that would be dystopian were it not our reality.
Jill Soloway’s series entered its sophomore year at Amazon, achieving the impossible with a season that is somehow better than its predecessor. There isn’t a single episode in the ongoing drama of the Pfeffermans and their loved ones that doesn’t deliver a nuanced gut punch — the kind of deep, empathetic sorrow that creeps up in the periphery of your insides, slowly consuming you over the course of 20–30 minute installments. From pitiful Josh’s sad-yet-sweet attempts to cobble together a Frankenstein-esque family of his own to Sarah’s gorgeously sloppy and erratic life, each and every member of the Pfefferman family tree is trying to right some internal wrong that was seemingly seeded before they left the womb. With enigmatic flashbacks to 1933 Berlin and some of the most intensely sexual and brutally honest moments of intimacy on television (or streaming; it’s the new TV), Transparent is packed with the identifiable, be it in individual characters, moments or feelings — the latter of which it achieves with stunning ease.
Like USA and Mr. Robot, if you’d told me — ever — that I would love a series on Lifetime of all places, I never would have believed you. Set in the behind-the-scenes world of a Bachelor-esque reality show, UnREAL follows a bipolar and emotionally raw production assistant coping with a break-up and the demands of her superiors, including a series creator who is a testament to a fiercely complex and often depressing struggle for gender equality. Shiri Appleby leads UnREAL as Rachel Goldberg, a woman who returns to work following a very public and destructive mental breakdown. Appleby’s complicated performance as Rachel is visceral and heartbreaking, perhaps only slightly overshadowed by the phenomenal work of Constance Zimmer as Quinn, the show’s creator and showrunner. Not only does UnREAL relish in the flaws of its women, but it highlights the many ways in which we’re pigeon-holed and railroaded, idolized and spit upon in the same breath, and expected to confine ourselves to nebulous constructs haphazardly crafted by our male peers.
The relationship between Rachel and Quinn proved to be a real highlight of Season 1, with so much love and spite precariously intertwined that it can only be described as venomous affection, setting itself up for a second season that may very well outshine the first.
7. Making a Murderer
Netflix’s new true crime docu-series has earned obvious comparisons to The Jinx and the first season of Serial, and while those comparisons are somewhat apt (and have certainly generated additional publicity), Making a Murderer is a highly sophisticated, wholly separate piece. 10 years in the making, the new series centers on a miscarriage of justice so intense and baffling that the word “miscarriage” seems too soft. The 10-part series centers on Wisconsin resident Steven Avery, who was exonerated for a crime he didn’t commit and freed after serving 18 years in prison…only to find himself at the heart of a different, more gruesome crime and the complex web of deceit, manipulation, and alleged (though very believable) police and state corruption. Each episode increasingly challenges our belief in the criminal justice system — a belief that’s already been tested as DNA and crime scene technology has advanced over the last 30 years; an advance that’s warranted the creation of an entire law project devoted to freeing the wrongly imprisoned.
If you’re drawn to true crime narratives and stories of injustice (like the West Memphis Three), Making a Murderer will become an immediate binge-watch. But the series is far more than merely good or great — it’s necessary. Utilizing phone calls from the simple-minded Avery, the series elegantly creates a thematic, insightful and often startling thread in which a man who barely understands the dangerous complexity of the legal chess game at work knows only that what’s happening is incredibly wrong. Making a Murderer does what so many fictional narratives attempt to do by using its subject as a proxy for common sense; he may not be as intelligent as the system that’s effectively railroaded him twice-over, but the simplicity of his world view speaks to the obvious: this is not right.
Fargo’s second season tangentially connects to the first by taking us back to the ’70s and the mythologized Sioux Falls Massacre, with Patrick Wilson assuming the role of a young Lou Solverson. In keeping with the work of the Coen brothers and its preceding season, Fargo Season 2 is an existential dramatic and oft-darkly humorous series of escalating errors stemming from one simple but misguided action — an action that blossoms into a clusterf— of epic, criminal proportions. Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons are perfect as the good-natured and terminally adrift married couple at the heart of it all, but the real MVPs are Bokeem Woodbine’s suave, eloquent mob man with a penchant for literary references, and Jean Smart’s unflinching criminal matriarch, who serves to subvert gender stereotypes in an era when women were really emerging to establish their individual roles and dismantle the patriarchy.
Noah Hawley’s series isn’t interested in aping the Coens, but in artfully emulating their existential dark comedy and the skillful way they weave narrative threads to create an unbelievably effective piece. Plus, aliens.
5. The Knick
At a time when we’re all praising the cinematic qualities of the new wave of television drama, Steven Soderbergh has crafted the most cinematic series of the bunch, working as director, editor, producer and cinematographer — his immersive involvement rivaled only perhaps by Louis C.K. in the earliest seasons of Louie.
Picking up where Season 1 of The Knick left off, Season 2 finds Clive Owen’s dangerously, manically attractive and brilliant surgeon desperately searching for a cure to addiction — a cure that still does not exist today. There are few television villains as effectively smarmy as Gallinger, who devotes his spare time to the study of eugenics in a horrifically depressing attempt to rid the world of people like his own wife, and thus perhaps ensuring that the Gallingers of the world never have to marry such mentally stricken women, only to suffer the loss of a child (and the loss of their pretty wife’s teeth).
Imbued with the verve of the more daring, experimental cinema of the ’70s and enhanced by Cliff Martinez’s electric score, The Knick explores ideas of addiction, the clash between mental and physical medicine, and the discrepancy between surgeons who play it safe to maintain lives and those who take revolutionary risks and gamble on lives in order to save them. Its more grotesque, cringe-inducing qualities are merely an added bonus, set dressing to set your teeth on edge in a world where everything is a matter of life and (ego) death. Following a jaw-dropping, gruesome finale, it’s difficult to see how Soderbergh could stitch The Knick back together, an impossible mission I can’t wait to watch him accomplish.
4. You’re the Worst
The first season of You’re the Worst presented perhaps the most subversive rom-com in the history of subversive rom-coms, with its depiction of two relationship-phobic, deeply flawed people struggling to cope with their genuine feelings for one another in an age where our generation has increasingly negative feelings about dating. But the second season was transformative and revelatory, a sharp, unflinching and painfully honest (and woefully relatable) look at depression and how it affects those we care about most, a season about coping with a break-up and wandering around, lost and bruised and uncertain of our value. Aya Cash’s gutsy performance as Gretchen seeming hit its peak in Season 2's best episode, “LCD Soundsystem,” and yet she still managed to top herself in the escalating series of episodes that followed into the finale.
Cash and Gretchen may have been this season’s focus, but I’d be remiss not to praise Kether Donohue’s similarly ballsy performance as the tragically human and naive Lindsay, who evolved from a self-imposed hopeless case to a fearless woman who embraced her heartbroken lot in life only to find herself questioning her sloppily-earned reconciliation in the season finale with one simple, melancholy look. Or Desmin Borges’ Edgar, fighting his PTSD and co-dependency to establish normalcy with a kindred spirit, however awkward it might be. Or Collette Wolfe’s performance as his sweet and goofy and sometimes frustrated girlfriend — Wolfe is one of our most criminally undervalued actresses, and You’re the Worst is nothing short of heroic not only for utilizing her well, but for delivering a series that examines the poignant failings of life with such sharp insight and near-unnerving emotional accuracy…while still being one of the funniest shows on television.
3. The Leftovers
Like Transparent, HBO’s The Leftovers accomplished the difficult feat of somehow topping its freshman season. The location change in Season 2 seemed to signal a precarious reset, but Damon Lindelof’s series was more confident, bold and reliably shocking than ever, earning each and every punch in the gut along the way. The jarring but assured opening scene of Episode 1 set the table for a somber and ponderous — yet incredibly nerve-wracking — season that didn’t just twist the knife in, it dug around in there until it hit our most sensitive nerves.
Lindelof took major risks in Season 2, not only with the location change and keeping Ann Dowd around (can you blame him?), but with nightmare logic sequences set in Kevin Garvey’s personal limbo, drawing obvious comparisons to the dream episode of The Sopranos…if that dream sequence was set in the hotel from John Wick and written nby David Lynch. It seems that Lindelof learned a lot from his time on LOST — less is more, and the right kind of more can be good if it’s particularly surreal and not invested in explaining or making excuses for itself; that the journey is more valuable than the answers, and we don’t always need to know what’s behind the curtain.
The Leftovers examines humanity at its most frail, disparate and despairing with a near-meta-narrative of about the inherent nature of people and whether we’re truly good or truly bad — the truth lies in the many shades in between, that we are merely desperate: desperate for hope, desperate for faith, desperate for connections and to fill a bottomless void that refuses to be filled. By challenging its characters — rattling their faith and testing their resolve — The Leftovers challenges us to judge their choices, and that simple act of judgment in turn reflects who we are, what we believe and how we perceive humanity.
2. Jessica Jones
The second and first places on this list were a toss-up between the best new series of the year and the best series that ended this year. Marvel’s Jessica Jones is nothing short of an accomplishment: a brilliant, insightful character study in which the “superhero story” label feels reductive. Krysten Ritter’s gorgeously imperfect superhero-turned-private eye is simply the coolest. But Jessica Jones isn’t just a show about a super-powered woman battling a super-powered bad guy — it’s a series that examines rape culture, victimization, trauma and consent with David Tennant’s Kilgrave acting as the epitome of a privileged, entitled Men’s Rights Activist, using his terrible power to control women and effortlessly bend them to his will.
Kilgrave’s misguided, warped thinking makes him the perfect villain, one who truly believes that his acts of sexual assault are warranted and welcomed, that he can make someone love him by forcing them to yield. And yet, Jessica Jones also boasts the remarkable accomplishment of inspiring its audience to pity this little man, proving that you don’t need to agree with or support someone’s heinous acts (or even like them) in order to empathize with the pain they’ve endured. The series highlights the different ways different people process trauma — some use that experience to empathize with and help others, to prevent what happened to them from happening to anyone else; others nurture that trauma with rage and resentment, and come to believe that the only way to reject victimhood is to become a villain and oppress others.
As I wrote about recently, Jessica Jones not only passes the Bechdel test, but it almost inverts its basis with a primarily female cast, in which the men are supporting characters who rarely speak to each other, and when they do it’s almost always about a woman. It’s nothing short of stunning.
Those are the deeper, more elegant qualities, but Jessica Jones also earns a near-top spot on this list for its engaging action, its badass hero and her way-cool best friend, its effectively-structured storytelling that bucks the binge-watching formula (and yet it’s nearly impossible not to watch the entire season in one weekend), Jones’ genuine chemistry with fellow Marvel newcomer Luke Cage (who is a stone cold badass in his own right), and its riveting and impeccably thoughtful storytelling.
Gone too soon. Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novels elegantly combines both the written source material and elements of their film iterations, yielding a series as transformative as the Red Dragon himself. Season 1 of Hannibal sneakily fed viewers a diet of procedural, killer-of-the-week stories to get us hooked, opening our minds to the more elaborate and daring seasons to follow, each increasingly more stunning, heart-wrenching, gutsy and absolutely gorgeous than the last.
Season 3 divided itself in two out of necessity, at once a cat-and-mouse game in Italy, with all the experimental, Giallo-flavored trappings you could want, courtesy of director Vincenzo Natali — who is clearly as fond of The Duke of Burgundy as I am. The second half stripped itself of the surrealism in favor of a dark and gritty serial killer narrative, one that was so direct in its telling that it felt more bizarre and bold than anything the series had done yet.
And yet…with the benefit of having his series cut short, Fuller indulged in his most fearless story yet: that of the love between Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter and Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham, essentially vindicating an entire sub-culture of Tumblr users and their slash-fic fan-art. Has there ever been a moment that so explicitly invites you to shout “KISS HIM” than the final scene between Hannibal and Will in the series finale? Nope. It’s beautiful, it’s painful, it’s breathtaking and it’s everything you never knew you needed.
Mikkelsen clearly had a blast, particularly in the back half of Season 3, gleefully relishing in the sheer villainy of a Hannibal who finds the freedom to remove his figurative human-mask once he’s imprisoned. But there was nothing more rapturously wonderful than a freed Hannibal teaming up with Will to stop their common foe, and still nothing as wonderful as their dive off the cliff, wrapped in each other’s arms, free to embrace each other on a meaningful level that goes beyond mere homo-eroticism to something almost transcendent — free from the constraints of society and the stigma of binary perception. They just are…what they are.
Fuller may never get to make his Silence of the Lambs season (or film) with these guys, and although I was desperate for it when NBC announced Hannibal’s cancellation, that series finale was so immaculate that I almost can’t imagine what could possibly be greater.