TheWrap asked reviewers Mark Peikert and Amber Dowling to each choose the 10 best TV shows of 2015. The lists they turned in reveal a year for TV that saw great work across broadcast, cable and streaming; in drama and comedy; in series and miniseries; and in new shows and returning favorites.
Mark Peikert writes: Oh, 2015. The year when people began to complain that there was just too much TV, as if there’s anything else in life worth paying attention to. Why should I have brunch with friends when I could be hanging out with the gang on “You’re the Worst”? Why go on a date when there will never be a better date than the one in the “Nashville” episode of “Master of None”? This year found a lot of shows going big with premises and concepts; some of them worked and some of them didn’t, but the former were marked by one thing: Despite the concept of time travel or differing perspectives or period setting, the show worked because the writing was brilliant.
10. “Fresh Off the Boat” / “The Goldbergs” / “Black-ish” (ABC) Sure, it’s cheating to list these three as one. But all three ABC comedies prove that the family sitcom didn’t die when “Modern Family” withered into a caricature of itself. Despite the various hooks and time periods, these three prove that all a sitcom needs to be great is a stellar cast and crisp writing.
9. “The Americans” (FX) What more do fans of this FX drama about Soviet spies in Reagan-era D.C. need to say? That it’s smart without being daunting? That Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell have totally redefined themselves as actors on it? That every episode ratchets up suspense to an almost unbearable degree? If you’re not watching, ask yourself this: Why do you hate great TV?
8. “Review” (Comedy Central) Sometimes the pitch can detract from the execution. The pitch for “Review”: A man reviews life experiences for other people. The execution? A dark ride through luck, chance, and self-destruction. Andy Daly is the saddest comedian this side of Buster Keaton, and the supporting cast and guest stars–Jessica St. Clair, James Urbaniak, Lennon Parham, among them–made the second season a wild, discomfiting ride.
7. “Casual” (Hulu) What initially seems like a well-done dysfunctional family comedy gets weirder, darker, and oh-so-Freudian by the end of its stellar first season on Hulu. Stars Michaela Watkins, Tommy Dewey, and Tara Lynne Barr all have an easy rapport that can turn on a knife’s edge–much like that of a real family. Albeit with a little more one-step-removed incest.
6. “Hindsight” (VH1) Yeah, it’s the VH1 show about traveling back to the 1990s. But “Hindsight” was so much more! Maybe more people held back from watching because we live in a nostalgia-obsessed culture, and Emily Fox’s dramedy was very much about the dangers of clinging to the past as her time-traveling heroine Becca (Laura Ramsey) rethought all of her life choices–and tried to change the past by clinging to her ill-fated friendship with best friend Lolly (a luminous Sarah Goldberg). But this was one of the most moving series of the year, and featured one of the all-time best TV friendships. Too bad it was cancelled.
5. “Transparent” (Amazon) For anyone who was underwhelmed by the oblivious selfishness of the Pfeffermans during the first season of Amazon Prime’s breakout series, you’re in luck: The second season finds everyone dealing with the consequences of their actions, to heartbreaking and hilarious results.
4. “The Affair” (Showtime) The best thing Showtime’s series could have done for its second season was to involve Maura Tierney more–and it paid off with a Golden Globe nomination for her. Now the story has broadened its focus from just the titular affair between Dominic West‘s writer and Ruth Wilson‘s waitress to look at intimacy, long-term marriage, the betrayal of a loved one, parenthood, and sex. Come for the latter; stay for the quiet devastation that each episode wreaks.
3. “UnReal” (Lifetime) This year we learned not to judge a series by its network, and nothing drove the point home like Lifetime’s acid love letter to reality dating series and the producers behind them. Constance Zimmer finally found the role of her career as hard-charging producer Quinn, a modern-day Diana Christensen who delights in the powers of sociopathic manipulation that her protégé Rachel (Shiri Appleby) displays to keep the show a buzzy success. Of course there’s fallout, and of course there are unworthy men — but this is as much a series about the unlikely bond between two women as it is a send-up of love on the first take.
2. Master of None (Netflix) The romcom is dead. Long live the romcom! Anyone even thinking about making a half hour series about love should take a few hours to watch Aziz Ansari‘s gorgeous Netflix series about modern 30somethings, a big city, and the L word, because he’s just as good at dissecting them as he is at presenting the idealized moments and scenes that keep us all secretly believing in the power of romance.
1. You’re the Worst (FX) The best of the year, hands down. Creator Stephen Falk took his toxic characters from Season 1 and put them through hell — only for them to come out bonded closer than ever and only slightly less toxic. The most audacious series of2015 found one of its major characters spending half the season in a catatonic funk, while the others furiously tap danced around her. And yet there was never a missed comedic beat thanks to TV’s best quartet: Chris Geere, Aya Cash, Kether Donohue, and Desmin Borges. If you don’t watch, you’re only adding fuel to the fire that it’s for Cool Kids only. Which we’re fine with, you Sweater Person, you.
Amber Dowling writes: With so many high caliber entries in 2015 (and plenty more we’d like to forget about), it was a tough year to narrow down just 10 of 300-plus television series vying for our attention. While the anthology series, as re-popularized by Ryan Murphy‘s “American Horror Story,” continued to be all the rage, there were also some solid seasons from the fantastical realms and the true-to-life dramas derived from historical figures or issues in today’s pop culture. Comedies were perhaps on the wane, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some sharp, funny attempts out there that snuck in relevant social commentary along the way. It all added up to one of the toughest years to be a critic yet, especially if it means leaving the likes of “Mad Men,” “The Americans” and “The Leftovers” off the final list.
10. “UnReal” (Lifetime) This inside look at the making of a reality show is dark, disturbing and utterly addictive. Shiry Appleby as the unwilling producer/talent handler who is entirely too good at her job for her messed up morals is the beating heart, while Constance Zimmer as executive producer Quinn is the epitome of all that’s wrong in the world of reality television. Just when you think it can’t get any darker, they go for the jugular.
9. “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” (HBO) The tale of this alleged serial killer, as captured by filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, caused uproar during the final episode when Durst actually confessed in the washroom, not realizing he was still mic’d up. Regardless of whether you believe Jarecki kept that tidbit a secret from authorities in order to further himself, the entire project was television’s answer to the podcast “Serial.” The unfettered access did not disappoint, and finally allowed a resolution to these deaths that authorities could not achieve on their own decades earlier.
8. “Mr. Robot” (USA) Before Christian Slater signed on to become the title character, he was in danger of becoming a show-killer, thanks to several one-season flops. This tale of a young computer programmer with social anxiety disorder (played by Rami Malek) quickly changed all that when it took critics and audiences by surprise. A sleeper hit of the year, the show’s dark undertones and addictive storyline were a pleasant surprise to many.
7. “Narcos” (Netflix) It’s asking a lot of an audience to stay invested in a television series with subtitles, but when it comes to the story of Colombian drug king Pablo Escobar, it’s a shame there aren’t more. Wagner Moura‘s portrayal of the failed political leader and bully is nothing short of brilliant and complex; it stands up to any great mafia story of our time–on the big screen or small.
6. “Master of None” (Netflix) Coming off the one-dimensional character of Tom Haverford on “Parks and Recreation,” Aziz Ansari had a tall order to fill when he decided to write, produce and star in his own series. Yet like Louis C.K. and Larry David before him, he managed to change the game by telling his unique story in a universally interesting and funny way, capturing audiences and acclaim along the way with tales of family, relationships, dating and culture.
5. “Better Call Saul” (AMC) Of all the “Breaking Bad” characters, Saul Goodman seemed the least likely to deserve his own spinoff. Yet somehow, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould managed to capture the jaw-dropping cinematography and intense drama of the original show, while presenting the entirely unique story of Jimmy McGill as though Walter White never existed. It was a tall order with incredibly high expectations from the outset, yet it has managed to surpass those at every turn.
4. “Transparent” (Amazon) Building on the foundation of a solid first season, this Amazon original managed to extend far beyond the complex issues of a trans woman that were presented at the outset, twisting and turning the characters involved into an unlikeable yet sympathetic mess. It’s not often you know who to root for on this series, but you also can’t stop watching the train wreck to see what they’re going to throw at you next.
3. “Outlander” (Starz) Sure, there was an inherent fan base already present when this show bowed thanks to Diana Gabaldon‘s beloved characters and books. But Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies breathed new life into a strong and compelling cable series that showcases what a true heroine looks like. It’s no wonder the critical acclaim followed, making household names of three previously unknown actors.
2. “Game of Thrones” (HBO) Whether your felt tricked by the season-ending reveal that Jon Snow (Kit Harington) might not return for another year or not, that bloody snow became one of the most talked-about moments of the television season. In a show where your favorite character could be killed off at any given moment, that’s a high feat to accomplish. The jury’s out on whether viewers will be this passionate when the show returns, however.
1. “Fargo” (FX) Allison Tolman, Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman made the first season of the FX series such an incredible breakout hit; it seemed ridiculous to even try and duplicate the success with an entirely new cast of characters. Yet somehow Noah Hawley did the impossible and created a prequel that captured the Coen Brother’s tone perfectly, all while setting up a new and compelling story that positively surpassed the first.