The year is almost at an end and that means one thing for people who write about movies and TV: it’s time for LISTS!!! Best of, Worst of, Most Bizarre, Most Disappointing, you name it and we’ll list it. We do this cuz we’re a bunch of opinionated assholes with too much time on our hands and a burning desire to rank everything based on some arbitrary standards we’ve made up. So here is my list of the ten best Television shows of 2015! This list is, of course, subjective so I heartily invite you to disagree (vehemently if you want to) and share your own list in the comments.
A BRIEF NOTE BEFORE WE BEGIN: Seeing as this is the internet, I thought it would be wise to mention a few beloved shows that didn’t quite make the cut for me this year. This is in a presumably futile attempt to prevent anyone from shouting “BUT WHAT ABOUT THIS SHOW?!” Please, before you yell, allow me to take a preemptive strike and answer that question. Game of Thrones didn’t make it cuz I found season 5 to be its sloppiest, most scattered season yet. I still enjoyed it but not nearly as much as previous years. Walking Dead didn’t make the cut because its most recent run of episodes was tedious to the point of madness. It hasn’t been this boring since that godforsaken farm. House of Cards didn’t make the cut cuz…LOL NO. That show is fun and all but it’s just a classier Scandal. And True Detective didn’t make the cut because it was the insipid fever dream of a neck-bearded film student who overdosed on Quaaludes after watching The Maltese Falcon and Chinatown back to back. Now, with those notes out of the way, on with the rankings!
Considering its competition (Arrow, The Flash, Smallville), it may seem like faint praise to label Daredevil the best superhero show of all time. It didn’t exactly have to do much, besides not be a cheap CW show aimed squarely at pimply teenagers, to achieve that title. What earns Marvel’s first foray into Netflix a spot on this list is not the fact that it managed to be the best superhero show ever, but that it managed to be a moving drama, a gritty noir thriller, and a solid superhero show all at the same time. A large part of its success was due to the terrific cast, with Vincent D’Nofrio’s complex and strangely sympathetic Wilson Fisk being the standout. Anyone complaining about the lack of interesting villains in the MCU was summarily silenced when Fisk made his quiet, menacing, and brutal nature known by decapitating a man via car door. That scene also firmly established that Marvel has no trouble going to some very dark places. It wasn’t all great though. Like most Netflix shows, it was too long and would have benefitted from a shorter season and tighter episodes. Still, Daredevil was a very exciting watch and did a tremendous job creating a fully realized world filled with compelling characters, instead of obnoxious in-jokes and tedious set-ups for future stories. Also, that fight scene.
*NOTE: I’m aware the internet disagrees with me on this seeing as the general consensus says that Jessica Jones was the better show. While I loved David Tenant’s terrifying portrayal of Kilgrave and appreciated the show’s willingness to talk about—albeit in the most blunt manner—important issues like abuse, rape, and PTSD, I found the execution sort of…clumsy. It addressed those issues with all the insight of a Buzzfeed article and needed even more trimming than Daredevil did. And the finale lacked a real catharsis. I know I’m in the minority here but there it is. I also thought Marvel did a better job creating a feminist hero in another show, which brings me to…
Breezier and lighter than Jessica Jones, Marvel’s Agent Carter nevertheless dealt with some of the same themes. There’s a main character constantly put down or undermined by the men around her, a strong emphasis on female friendships, and a tender, moving portrait of loss. The one thing it had that Jessica Jones didn’t? A sense of fun. Peggy and the bumbling Mr. Jarvis made for a delightfully mismatched pair. The witty banter between the two of them was just as amusing as the physical comedy James D’Arcy proved so adept at as the series went on. The 1940’s time period was used effectively, which gave the show a fun Rocketeer vibe that was sorely missing in the first Captain America movie. The show also layered in its feminist and social themes with a more subtle hand than Jessica Jones did (understand, I agree with every point Jessica Jones raises, but I don’t like being hammered over the head with any theme or idea no matter how much I agree with it). At the center of it all was Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter. It was a role that required her to be funny, smart, warm, tough, and broken, sometimes all in the same moment. Atwell never hit the wrong note. It’s a shame that Marvel’s strongest female characters are relegated to the small screen. The small screen does allow for more depth though and as a result, I care far more about Peggy Carter than anyone appearing in Captain America: Civil War.
Netflix’s dark, dysfunctional family drama took me completely by surprise. I wasn’t a fan of creators Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler, and Daniel Zelman’s previous show, Damages, so I didn’t have high hopes for this. Much to my delight, Bloodline wound up being an incredibly engrossing soap opera, featuring a terrific ensemble cast, a strong sense of place, taut direction and writing, and a mounting sense of dread that escalated until it exploded during one of the most intense, disturbing scenes of this or any year. This is a show MADE to be binge watched, with each episode ratcheting up the tension and mystery until you’re so hooked you can’t help but allow the next episode to play despite it being 4:00 in the morning. Ben Mendelsohn created a monster for the ages in the sinister, malicious Danny Rayburn and Kyle Chandler perfectly shed his nice guy image by portraying John Rayburn as a seemingly noble man who hides a very dark exterior. The only reason this show isn’t higher on the list is due to the dopey “gotcha” final moment that came out of nowhere and felt like a cheap ploy. Still, even a dumb twist like that couldn’t take away from the raw power of the series or from the brilliant performances by the entire cast. Let’s hope season 2 downplays that twist and realizes that John Rayburn should be the main threat now. After all, there are few things more dangerous or frightening than a man who does terrible things in the name of the greater good.
Twas the year for true crime with Serial capturing everyone’s attention and (most recently), Netflix’s Making a Murderer coming out of nowhere to shock the hell out of everybody. The Jinx was the best of the bunch for a few reasons: (1). It provided a showcase for one of the most bizarre characters to ever appear on the small screen, fictional or otherwise. Robert Durst is such a peculiar, squirmy little man. The kind of guy who puts you on edge even though you can’t take your eyes of him. (2). Director Andrew Jarecki gave this docudrama the intensity of a thriller and perfectly balanced re-creations with actual interviews. (3). It provided an answer to all of our questions in one of the most shocking, unbelievable moments ever caught on camera. It may not be enough to provide an answer in a court of law but we viewers felt satisfied (and deeply disturbed) by those final five words. They’ll stay with me forever.
Justified’s final season encapsulated everything that made the show great. For six years, we waited for the inevitable showdown between U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens and self-proclaimed ‘outlaw’, Boyd Crowder. When the moment finally came, we held our breath and waited for someone to get shot. It seemed like the only possible outcome. But showrunner Graham Yost subverted our expectations and gave us a conclusion that was bittersweet and touching instead of blood-soaked and pre-destined. It illustrated that Justified was never really a show about a modern cowboy shooting bad guys, but a witty crime drama about people struggling to escape from their past and rise above societal expectations. Boyd Crowder was never the villain; Harlan County was. Hell, the show’s unofficial theme song frequently reminded us that, “you’ll never leave Harlan alive”. So what a pleasant surprise it was for all three main characters to find a way out, for better or worse. The final scene between Raylan and Boyd was so touching because it fully understood both characters, where they came from, and where they’re going. In my mind, that scene is the first of many conversations between these two men. They may have been at each other’s throats for years but will always remember one thing first and foremost: ‘they dug coal together’. Rarely has four simple words summed up an entire history between two people with such clarity.
Better Call Saul
I had my doubts about this show prior to its airing but they all proved to be unfounded. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould made the wise decision to not even attempt to recreate Breaking Bad and instead gave us a wise, funny, and surprisingly moving human comedy. Bob Odenkirk proved himself to be as skilled a dramatic actor as he is a comedic one, which allowed him to transform the one-joke Saul Goodman into the tragi-comic figure of Jimmy McGill. Who would have thought his plight would be so affecting? Or that this spin-off would feature not one but two of the most devastating scenes of the year? There was Chuck’s (brilliantly played by Michael McKean) betrayal of Jimmy; an act that sends Jimmy down the dark path we know he’s headed towards. But before that, there was the revelations about Mike Ehrmantraut, the stoic hitman. We learned more about him in a single hour than we did in the entire series of Breaking Bad. If you didn’t shed more than a few tears when he broke down in front of his daughter-in-law, confessing his role in his son’s death, and culminating his speech with that heart-breaking sentence, “I broke my boy”, then I question whether or not you have a soul. Jonathan Banks and Bob Odenkirk were both terrific on Breaking Bad. They’re even better here.
Hannibal was my number one pick last year but its third (and sadly final) season didn’t quite live up to the nearly impossible standard set by the show’s exemplary second season. That’s not to say it was even remotely close to bad; it simply meandered a bit around the midseason point before rising from the ashes like…well…like a Great Red Dragon. The Red Dragon storyline from Thomas Harris’ novels has now been adapted to the screen three times and this was by far the most effective version. Richard Armitage somehow made the viscious Francis Dolarhyde even more terrifying and sympathetic than he’s ever been before. The show also remained the most visually stunning thing on TV with Bryan Fuller and his art department creating nightmare images that retain a sense of divine beauty. I was one of many people hoping against hope that it would somehow get renewed for a fourth season but then we got that cliff top ending and I said, “perfect”. The mid-season lull suggested that the show might be starting to run out of steam. So I think it’s best that Fuller and crew went out on top. And we should be grateful that a cookie cutter network like NBC actually let this dark, disturbing show run for even one season, let alone three.
Noah Hawley’s love-letter/tribute/continuation of the 1996 Coen Bros. film had an even stronger second season than its first. By using 1979 as the setting, he was able to comment on the future by reflecting on the past. This was a world of lost, downtrodden, good people bewildered by the violence around them and psychotic murderers all too eager for the world to catch up with their malicious deeds. The entire cast was strong but Kirsten Dunst and Bokeem Woodbine were easily the MVP’s. Dunst’s Peggy Bloomquist was quite a loon and more than a little sadistic but also a bit of a tragic figure. Society and her husband expected her to be the great American housewife and her rejection of that ideal was what led to her downfall. She did terrible things, yes, but as she said to Ted Danson’s well-meaning but naïve Sheriff, “you act like these things happen in a vaccum.” We like to believe that if we made a mistake or inadvertently committed a crime, we’d do the right thing instantly. But would that really be the case? How would we ever actually know until we got into that situation? Then there was Woodbine’s Mike Milligan, the world’s most charming and sinister mob enforcer. Woodbine delivered his lines in a sing-song manner that gave most of them a poetic quality whether he was waxing philosophical or being an intimidating monster. Fargo also continued to be the show most able to quickly put the viewer on edge. It’s very difficult to create a mounting sense of dread when nothing much is actually occurring on screen but Fargo always made it look easy.
*NOTE: Nic Pizzolato, pay attention to Fargo cuz this is how you do a second season of an anthology crime show.
Rectify is a hard sell. Whenever I try to get people to watch it, the conversation goes like this:
ME: You should watch Rectify.
ANY RANDOM FRIEND(ARF): Fuck is that?
ME: It’s a drama about this guy whose been on death row for twenty years. He gets out after the DNA evidence is overturned. It’s not clear if he’s innocent though; it’s just that the DNA evidence isn’t conclusive enough.
ARF: Oh cool! So is it like this brooding mystery as to whether he did it or not?
ME: No. The show doesn’t really care if he did it or not.
ARF: Oh. So what’s it about then?
ME: Well, it’s about him readjusting to life, his family, and a town that doesn’t want him around.
ARF: Cool! So do they like go after him with pitchforks?
ME: Not really. There’s a lot of resistance but it’s mostly just him and his family trying to figure out how they move on.
ARF: Huh. So are his family members all fucked up? On drugs? Sex addicts or something?
ME: No, they’re all pretty normal, bit self-destructive, but mostly they’re good, flawed people trying to make sense of their lives being overturned.
ARF: Ok. So WHAT THE HELL ACTUALLY HAPPENS IN THIS SHOW?
ME: Like I said, it’s about people, how they interact, how they slowly change for the better or for the worse, how they deal with loss, despair, hope. It’s great!
ARF: Whatever. You see Game of Thrones last week?
And so it goes. I wrote a previous post–that nobody read–about why this show is so great and I don’t feel like repeating myself. I’ll just say that Rectify is a miracle for its ability to make small, tiny moments seem so important and life-changing. It’s engrossing without being manipulative, sad without being maudlin, life-affirming without being sentimental, and hopeful without being sappy. Please watch it.
I found the first season of The Leftovers interesting yet extremely frustrating. There were several storylines that didn’t work at all (the question of whether or not Justin Theroux’s character was seeing imaginary people), some of the world building was blunt and obnoxious (NONE of the teenagers felt or sounded like actual teenagers), and the show was so drenched in despair and rage it could be exhausting. Nevertheless there were enough elements and characters —particularly Christopher Eccleston’s Matt Jamison and Carrie Coon’s Nora Durst—that did work that I was compelled to give the second season a shot. And boy oh boy, am I glad I did. I’ve never seen a show bounce back like this. Showrunners Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta ditched everything that didn’t work, doubled down on everything that did, and added in some even more intriguing ideas and characters. This was a series in full command of itself and what it wanted to achieve. It was sometimes hard to tell where the story was going but the writing, direction, and performances were so taut that I was never less than completely enthralled. There were and are many people who find the series too ambiguous and I must disagree. They’re missing the point. It doesn’t matter if a character went to purgatory or had a hallucination; the point is that it happened either way and then caused them to make a change. That’s a profound statement about healing and understanding in the face of absolute loss right there. Everyone processes grief differently and no method is more or less valid than the other if it helps someone to move on. Beyond that message, this was an extremely brave season of television that consistently took risks from beginning to end. It spent an entire episode in purgatory (maybe) and managed to make that feel exciting and comical instead of ponderous and pretentious. The finale was surprising, riveting, and managed to keep building momentum right up until the very last shot. Damon Lindelof proved that he’s way more than the guy who screwed up Lost; He’s the most challenging and ambitious writer on TV right now. HBO recently renewed the series for a third and final season. If you haven’t watched or gave up after season one, catch up. This show is going to be remembered as one of the greats.