From Master of None and Black-ish to The Leftovers and Mr. Robot, The Atlantic’s writers and editors pick their favorite TV shows of 2015. (For those seeking a lengthier list, there’s also a roundup of the year’s best TV episodes.)
Some shows have certain inevitable plot developments baked into their central premise. When one of those developments arrives finally, it can be anticlimactic—or it can be a moment of transcendence that allows the show to become freer and scarier and more profound. The latter was the case in The Americans’ third season, when the spy couple at the center of the action were outed to … well, no spoilers. Suffice to say, the emotional landscape of the story suddenly shifted in scenes that weren’t overly dramatic, that were attentive to the sophisticated inner workings of all the characters involved, and that triggered a journey rich with tension and catharsis. Most surprising was the role of religion. The wild card throughout the season ended up being God, as perhaps on some level it always has been.
I wrote about Fargo early in the season, and everything I said then still holds. Showrunner Noah Hawley’s second outing was a triumph from start to finish: stylish, witty, inventive, and at times almost painfully suspenseful. His skill in juggling disparate elements was frankly astonishing: gruesome murders, UFOs, Bruce Campbell as Ronald Reagan, and countless nods to the Coen brothers’ oeuvre. (In later episodes, there were lovely homages to Miller’s Crossing and Raising Arizona.) My one early quibble about the show—regarding a moderately mystifying character played by Kirsten Dunst—was very satisfyingly clarified. And the rest of the cast was uniformly terrific, in particular Patrick Wilson, who gave perhaps the best performance of his career to date. Am I eagerly anticipating season three? You betcha.
Halt and Catch Fire
In its first season, Halt and Catch Fire was a frustratingly flawed retelling of the burgeoning computer industry in the early ’80s. This year, it refocused on its two female leads (played by Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé) running a computer gaming startup and their inadvertent creation of instant messaging, and became the smartest show of the year. A relevant and surprisingly gripping tale of connectivity and insurgent entrepreneurship in an industry slowly beginning to tilt against independence, Halt and Catch Fire was a thriller one moment, a comedy the next, and a soapy romance a minute after that. It nailed it all, and yet it remains 2015’s most criminally under-watched show.
The pantheon of what we might call “weird television” contains some truly remarkable feats of creativity—Rover the menacing balloon in The Prisoner; the black oil in The X Files; Smarf. Now, thanks to The Leftovers, we can add purgatorial karaoke, a smoking cult, and the demon Azazel to the list. The second season of HBO’s post-Rapture drama had the same unscaled ambition and existential questions of the first, but it also seemed to incorporate a lot more self-awareness and humor, leading up to an entire episode where the show’s dead hero ran around an upscale hotel in the guise of an international assassin, then pushed the spirit of the woman who’d been plaguing him into a well; after which she told him the story of her appearance on Jeopardy! and died. It’s eccentric, often cruel, mind-boggling, and deeply unsettling, but it’s the most ambitious drama on television at the moment, and to my mind, the most well executed, from stellar direction to flawless acting to visuals. To the news that a third and final season is coming, I can only say, “Amen.”
In the four months or so when I was proselytizing Mr. Robot to anyone who’d listen, I didn’t really know how to describe it. Cyberthriller? Family drama? Hacker drama? Redemption story? Morality play? The first season of Sam Esmail’s stunning TV series for USA managed to meld several genres together while somehow transcending it all. The debut season followed the troubled hacker Elliot Alderson (played by the brilliant Rami Malek) as he got mixed up in an Anonymous-like collective in an effort to bring down a Google/Enron-like conglomerate. The show effortlessly embodied its contradictions: nostalgic yet futuristic, cynical yet idealistic, emotional yet stoic, dark yet vibrant. While Elliot suffered severe identity issues, the show always knew exactly what it was doing (even if the audience didn’t). Not since Breaking Bad had a series so fully seized my imagination with its artistry, confidence, originality, and a captivating (anti)hero. Season two can’t get here soon enough.
It’s the show that, before this year, I didn’t know I needed: a fiction about the fiction that purports to be “reality.” Lifetime’s dark satire of reality TV (well: “reality,” and now, given streaming, “TV”) is also a systematic takedown of The Bachelor and of, really, the romance industrial complex writ large. It’s a show about romance that is decidedly unromantic. But it’s also engaging drama, cleverly written and subtly acted and accomplishing a meaning-and-message interplay that can only be described as “literary.” Co-created by a former Bachelor producer, UnREAL does, charmingly and compellingly, what satire does best: It takes the conventions of the format it mocks and uses them against its subject.
Honorable mentions: Better Call Saul, Jessica Jones, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and Transparent.
There is no funnier show than this. It’s tempting to argue that the sweetly asymmetrical relationship between Abby and Alana, the celebration of total female liberation, or the skewering of 2015 social hangups are what make Broad City great—and certainly, that’s all part of it. But the main thing is that Broad City does what all great comedy does, which is surprise. It finds comically rich situations—Manhattan banker cruises, gay dog weddings, coat-check rooms—and then creates sub-situations, wormholes from real-world absurdities into psychedelic, imaginative absurdities. Whoa, you’re shacking up with your dream crush—and, uh, whoa, he’s into what? Whoa, you’re hanging out with Kelly Rippa—and, uh, whoa, she’s into WHAT?
Master of None
“Oh, wow, that’s so true” is, I’ll admit, an extremely boring reaction to have to a TV show. But I caught myself saying it—in my head and also, occasionally and embarrassingly, aloud—many, many times while bingeing Master of None. The Netflix show, a fictionalized follow-up to its creator and star Aziz Ansari’s sociology-focused book, Modern Romance, is, yes, a jack-of-all-trades kind of deal: It’s a rom-com and a buddy comedy and a family drama and a cultural critique and a mumblecore-esque exploration of life in one’s early 30s. But! Contra its title, the show manages to be, yes, a masterful execution of all of those things. As it tells the story of Dev and his family and friends and love life and career, it also explores topics—racial representation in Hollywood, cultural discomfort with aging, Millennial anxieties about marriage and children-having, the immigrant experience overall, the second-generation-immigrant experience in particular—that might have been plucked from a college syllabus, and that perhaps as a result are discussed only rarely in sitcoms. Master of None, however, brings its sociology to life with empathy and hilarity and also, Ansari being Ansari, wonderfully impish charm.
Black-ish, in many ways, is one of the more formulaic sitcoms on TV when it comes to conceit: It’s about a loving and well-off family, the dad is a lovable goofball, the mom rolls her eyes a lot, the kids fall into various categories of cool, smart, popular, and happy-go-lucky. But what makes it exceptional is how it tackles cultural issues in a deceptively casual way, never sacrificing humor for the sake of didacticism. In the 10 episodes of season two that have aired this year, the show’s explored guns, religion, health, class, and the n-word, but it’s done so with irreverence and honesty, making it clear that these are issues that TV comedy can and should engage with. “We are driven by what this family’s story would actually be,” its creator Kenya Barris told The New York Times in October. “[We’re] continuing to tell the stories that this family would experience, in a comedic fashion.” The characters might be recognizable as sitcom tropes, but the wit and originality of the show make it feel truly fresh.
Orange Is the New Black
Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black shifted pace in season three after an arch-villain-driven story arc to focus more intently on characters’ interpersonal relationships and dynamics. A series of shorter subplots—Crazy Eyes’s fantasy erotica, Nikki’s heroin stash, Norma’s cult, and most notably, Piper’s fetish-feeding used-panty business—allowed the show to spend more time watching how prison life sparked creativity amongst Litchfield’s inmates in a way that remained riveting despite the season’s slower pace. And the season’s gorgeous final scene, where the women walk out of the prison and into the lake, was the show’s most poignant expression of humanity yet.
Rick and Morty
Funny plus smart can too often equal mean. Rick and Morty, an animated sci-fi sitcom about the antics of a genius mad scientist and his grandson, isn’t immune to playing up its darker, nastier side. But its creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon round out that package with goofiness, self-awareness, and a deep capacity to understand its characters’ pain. In other words, barely buried underneath the chaos and sarcasm, is a whole lot of—as my colleague David Sims pointed out—heart. Add that to some of the most inventive plots you can think of (a remote control that lets you watch TV from an infinite number of realities, alien parasites that replicate by forcing their hosts to recall false memories, a rip in the space-time continuum that plays out on 16 split-screens), and you have one of the year’s hands-down best and bravest comedies.
You’re the Worst
If I told you a saucy half-hour comedy had embarked on a dramatic season-long storytelling arc about clinical depression and managed to remain funny throughout, you might not believe it. But the proof is in You’re the Worst’s second season, which saddled the show’s acidic central characters with some scary human emotions to deal with, and got laughs out of the ensuing mistakes. Creator Stephen Falk’s effort to tell a funny, personal story about depression without blunting the terrible impact it can have was admirable on its own, but You’re the Worst is also just the most genuinely winning rom-com on TV in years. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll feel incredibly frustrated, and you’ll cheer at the last episode, which concludes with just a perfect exchange of dialogue.
Honorable mentions: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Bojack Horseman, Inside Amy Schumer, and Key and Peele.