TV was once again, flooded with great shows in 2015, so it was far too hard to limit a top ten list to 10 shows. I ended up having to expand to 23, so here's the actual top ten, but with an added 13 shows that are all, believe me, just as good. That's how lucky we are to be living in this era for television.
1. THE AMERICANS S3
I couldn't forget about this show, even though it it aired last winter, and for good reason. The third season was the peak of the show's mastery of craft, suspense, and carefully plotted storylines for our two Russian plants, with the added bonus of finally revealing Philip (Mathew Rhys) and Elizabeth's (Keri Russell) identities to two major characters who've been kept in the dark from the beginning. Philip's second "wife" Martha, and teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor), the repercussions of which we won't know for some time. But it was such a perfect season, intricately exploring the effect of longterm relationships the spies must forge to do their jobs. Philip continues to break down while Elizabeth shows no signs of weakness- a rift is inevitable and I can't wait to see it happen.
2. OUTLANDER S1
This show has a passionate fanbase that already existed from the book series, but Ronald Moore managed to nail it in the TV medium as well. This is lush, lavish, unapologetically romantic and swoonworthy love story that spans the ages (literally), and for anyone who's already into this kind of thing, all I can say is, well, this is definitely the kind of thing you will be into. It's a violent, passionate, graphic, and gorgeous bodice ripper, well acted by the three main characters- Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies (a sadistic and horrifically evil villain who will haunt your nightmares). It'll make you want to go to Scotland, travel through time and ride horses with Jamie, the man of every woman's dreams, even if you don't quite know it yet. You will soon enough.
3. UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT S1
Tina Fey's new show took a bold premise (a 30 year old woman emerges after 15 years as the captive of an underground cult leader) and turned it into a bright, wacky comedy of all things. Seems like an impossible task, and you can see why it was taken to Netflix after NBC balked at it, but Fey and writing partner Robert Carlock pulled it off, launching Ellie Kemper's delightful Kimmy into a not quite realistic New York City as she tries to find a new life for herself. Fey's worlds are infused with heightened cartoon like characters delivering pop culture laden zingers, but the show never shied away from the twisted trauma and backstory of Kimmy's life, even as she tries to move on from it. Kind of miraculous in a way- this show is consistently hilarious, bright and sunny while at the same time dark, daring and feminist in its direct confrontation of rape/trauma survivors.
4. THE FLASH S1
Okay, so I really loved the first season of The Flash, and I feel I have to include it on this list, since I couldn't put it on last year's (it hadn't aired enough episodes), but I want to make it clear that this is the first season only. The second has also aired nine episodes at this time, and it kind of annoys me to say that I don't think it's as good as last year (though still good and I'm nowhere near dropping it, it could easily pick up in the second half), but that first season as a whole was everything that I wanted a superhero show to be- fun, funny, fast paced, a fantastic villain, heightened sci-fi concepts (time travel!), and most important of all, a heart of family at its center with really good (better than you'll ever see on the CW) actors who hook you onto the characters and make you want to watch through any bad episodes to come (the key for any network show to still pull me into it). Grant Gustin, Jesse L. Martin, Tom Cavanagh and Carlos Valdes especially make a unit that just sells every ridiculous comic book thing they're given to say and make it look easy and I now love these characters for who they are and will stick with this show for a long time to come. (Advice on one thing though- give your female characters meatier material to work with and it will make things even better! Just try it, ok? I love the guys, but do it for me please).
5. CATASTROPHE S1/S2
This show is streaming on Amazon, but it's actually from the BBC, and it's absolutely brilliant. Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan met on Twitter and co-wrote the series, about two single people who meet and embark on a hasty week long fling while he's on business in London, only to realize two months later that they're now having a baby. Despite barely knowing each other, Rob and Sharon decide to just as hastily move in together and raise the baby, leading to a premise that's essentially the basis for a grown up romantic comedy as the two move at a breakneck pace through all the stages of a new relationship. The show is actually much darker than I've described, because both Rob and Sharon's sense of humor is biting and blunt, leading them to yell at and laugh at each other in equal paces, and the brutal honesty through which they communicate every feeling is both hilarious and galling. The show's already had two seasons in the UK, but both are just six episodes long, so it's nothing to catch up. The funniest, most honest and unsentimental show of the year, and peppered with great and equally funny supporting characters as well- everyone should watch it.
6. TRANSPARENT S2
Jill Solloway's gender bending family dramedy is every bit as good this season as it was last, and if anything has grown even more brazenly ambitious, as Solloway has expanded the scope of the series to include season long flashbacks to 1930's Berlin, as the Pfefferman ancestors first began their dalliance with identity confusion. Jeffrey Tambor is just as terrific as Maura, who is now revealed to be just as narcissistic as the rest of her family, while the relationships between the characters are probed even deeper, giving Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker and Gaby Hoffman greater material to chew on as the adult Pfefferman kids explore who they really are and what they might really want for themselves even more. Judith Light is just as kooky as last year, while the supporting characters still shine as well, especially Kathryn Hahn as Rabbi Raquel, Melora Hardin as Sarah's spurned girlfriend Tammy and Cherry Jones as an uber feminist professor who catches Ally's eye. The show is still glorious in its messy, ambiguous look at damaged family members who unconditionally love each other in all their imperfections, while treating outsiders with less sympathy. I could watch it for hours on end.
7. SILICON VALLEY S2
Mike Judge's look at the tech industry remains just as clever, funny and perfectly acted as ever, and if there was ever a show which speaks to the comedic advantages of a fantastic ensemble, it's this one. Every major character, from ideal straight man Thomas Middleditch to scene stealer T.J. Miller, to sidekicks Zach Woods, Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani has a distinct, specific personality and gets multiple moments in every episode to crack you up with a simple look, line delivery or aside. This year's guest stars Suzanne Cryer and Chris Diamantopoulos stole several episodes as well, but the fun remains watching the guys pretty much do anything as they continually try and fail to launch their start-up. It's the kind of show whose humor you either "get" or don't, but for me it hits just about every time.
8. DEUTSCHLAND 83 S1
This old school undercover spy story is kind of a throwback series, which falls on the shoulders of young Jonas Nay, whose hapless hero tries the best he can in an impossible situation as he's forced into the position of a double agent for the Stasi and sent to West Berlin in 1983. His adventures there lead him all over the place to the sounds of a retro 80's soundtrack and the flat out fun of this series and the endearing appeal of Nay have me hoping against hope for another season. There may not be anything particularly innovative about this show, but the pace, suspense, period setting and character relationships made it one of the most intriguingly likable and exciting thrillers on TV this year. At eight episodes, the show's in German with English subtitles.
9. THE KNICK S2
Steven Soderbergh once again directed all ten episodes of the second season of The Knick, which made it one of the most uniquely cinematic visual and directorial achievements in television. But as everyone fawns over the aesthetic, I also fell in love with the characters, and think Jack Amiel and Michael Begler have written some of the most intriguing storylines and have been gifted with one of the best ensemble casts on TV as well. Andre Holland and Clive Owen led the doctors of the Knickerbocker hospital as they continued to make up early 20th century medical procedures which more often come across as gruesome butchering experiments gone wrong as they forge a path forward in surgery and medicinal treatment. No one knows yet if we'll be getting a third season, but it would be a shame to lose the show this soon, since I'd love to follow the characters forward into the 1900's.
10. FARGO S2
Noah Hawley managed to do this year what True Detective's Nic Pizzolatto could not, which was not only live up to the expectations of his successful first season, but top himself at that. Fargo was even better, even more creative, even more stylish and even more tightly plotted than ever this season, as Hawley took us back to the late 1970's and gave us a violent, mobster filled story of both despair and hope for humanity. The sprawling ensemble cast was filled to the tee with every role seemingly played by the ideal actor for the part, as Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson, Jean Smart, Bokeem Woodbine and Nick Offerman inhabited their roles, no matter how small, with utter dominance and feel for the special quirkiness that makes the Fargo dialogue sing. All ten episodes were perfection, with never a false note struck. A complete second season triumph.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: I should say that there is absolutely nothing on this HM list that could be skipped. Every one of them is essential viewing, so much so that it was painful to weed out a top ten, as it's been for most TV critics this year. It's an embarrassment of riches, so here's the rest of 'em.
11. The Returned S2- You never know if these existential, mystery type shows are going to stick the landing, but boy did this one pull it off. A powerful, emotional, levitational ending to a creepily effective French series.
12. Rectify S3- A return to the six episode season was no less powerful for this character study, as the mystery of Hannah's death was finally unraveled in further detail and stirring emotional impact.
13. The Affair S2- This show may be a guilty pleasure on some level, but is no less completely absorbing, well acted and attention grabbing, as the perspectives widened to include Helen's and Cole's memories, and we did end up getting an answer to the murder mystery engulfing our two adulterers. Totally addictive stuff.
14. Mr. Robot S1- One of the three shows carried by young male leads on my list (including The Flash and Deutschland 83), this Fight Club influenced techno thriller proved much more than that and boasts a mesmerizing lead performance in Rami Malek's haunting portrayal of a mentally ill hacker.
15. UnREAL S1- Lifetime's drama chronicling the behind the scenes goings on of a Bachelor type show brings antiheroines to the forefront in Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer's cutthroat producers who'll do anything for ratings and publicity.
16. Justified S6- FX's longrunning modern day Western wrapped up the saga of Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder with a fun, twisty final season and the year's best series finale (including the best final scene of any show on this list).
17. iZombie S1/S2- Now this one I do include the episodes from its currently airing second season, as Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero's zombie procedural is taking Justified's slot as the show with the best dialogue on TV (in my opinion). There's a lot of moving parts on this show in terms of plot, but with a terrific ensemble of actors delivering scores of witty zingers and biting commentary, it's worth watching every episode just to listen to it.
18. Jessica Jones S1- By far the best thing Marvel's ever produced for film or television, it takes some cues from past shows like Buffy and Veronica Mars, but with a singular focus on white male entitlement and the culture of rape and sexual violence, this noir-esque saga of taking back your power from those who victimize you is a powerful ode to feminist outrage, and gives us TV's best villain in David Tennant's sadistic and riveting Kilgrave.
19. Orange is the New Black S3- Not as good as the first two seasons, but still nothing to sneeze at, Netflix's prison dramedy is funnier this year and still aired some powerful storylines, including Taryn Manning's rape by a prison guard, that gave more fuel to a TV season engulfed by many themes of sexual assault against women.
20. Daredevil S1- Held the title for Marvel's best show until Jessica Jones premiered months later, but DD was still a dark, violent and totally satisfying superhero drama powered by stronger characters, emotions and a more memorable villain (Vincent D'Onofrio's Kingpin) than any of their films have been able to produce.
21. Parks and Recreation S7- Parks went out with a bang this year, retiring Leslie and the gang with a series of pitch perfect episodes that went out of its way to honor the characters we've loved for so long, each in their own specific way.
22. Casual S1- A new family dramedy that takes a unique premise (a grown brother and sister live together and raise her teenage daughter) and uses it to explore the sexual relationships of damaged people living in L.A. Funny and well cast, with Michaela Watkins and Tommy Dewey as the siblings exploring a dynamic rarely seen on TV.
23. Louie S5- Louis C.K. went back to basics this year with eight, stellar little episodes that combined his unique style of personal confession, outrageous comedy and dark humor. It was less ambitious than the directions he's gone in before, but funnier and far more satisfying overall. A perfect amalgamation of the show as a whole.