The best TV shows we watched in 2015
Like the married KGB sleeper agents at the center of its narrative, FX's 1980s-set espionage drama The Americans operates with lethal precision. No scene — no matter how unremarkable it might initially seem — ends up feeling wasted or misplaced. The show sympathizes with its characters without glorifying or excusing them, unafraid to dig into the murky nuances and human cost of Cold War politics. The actors — stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, and supporting players like Noah Emmerich and Alison Wright — lend emotional truth to individuals buried so deep in layers of deception that even they aren't sure who they are anymore.
These strengths were on full display in the show's third season, its best yet. A stomach-churning, heart-rending portrait of a family fractured by secrets and doubt, this year's The Americans offered a master class in visual and aural storytelling, establishing character relationships through its use of space and creating tension with silence and stillness. What other show turns impromptu dentistry into an intimate sex scene, or a dial tone into a death rattle? Half a year later, I still can't shake the chills. —Amy Woolsey, contributing writer
Bloodline offers a depressingly realistic depiction of the modern American family. The Netflix series centers on the wealthy Rayburns, who own a beachside resort in the Florida Keys. When Danny — the black sheep of the family, played brilliantly by Ben Mendelsohn — returns home, secrets begin to bubble to the surface in uncomfortable ways. It's not the most original setup, but it's certainly one of the most relatable. No matter what your family life is like, I promise you: By the end of season one, you'll exhale and say, "Well, at least I'm not a Rayburn." –Chris O'Shea, contributing writer
I shy away from violence. I liked Chuck for its low body count and quit Scandal over the torture scenes. So why am I fascinated with Fargo, an impetuously gory dark comedy where villains regularly spill blood in inventive ways? The answer is that Fargo is a compellingly moral tale on the triumph of "Minnesota nice" over evil. Installments of the anthology are separated by decades — but each examines how regular people are capable of horrible deeds, and how all of us inevitably reap what we sow.
Fargo has established a strictly moral universe without ever making the show feel like a morality play. The protagonists are good without being preachy, and optimistic without being naïve. They plod toward the truth, confident that the risk involved is worth it, even as mayhem grows — and the discrete 10-episode format means every story resolves with unambiguous justice. Particularly compelling this season are Betsy Solverson (Cristin Milioti, playing a meatier variation on a mother dying before her time) and Bear Gerhardt (Angus Sampson), who alternates between gruff, worried father and callous killer in the blink of an eye. –Bonnie Kristian, contributing writer
2015 was the year Hannibal ate itself. The series, which offered a bold and arty remix of Thomas Harris' novels centered on Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, dropped all pretense of being a show about a genius criminal profiler (Hugh Dancy) trying to catch a genius killer (Mads Mikkelsen) and evolved into something much more surreal. With the confidence of an experimental art film, Hannibal repeatedly doubled over on itself, plunging viewers into a crawling Gothic nightmare spiral that largely abandoned both typical TV plotting and forward momentum in general.
But where some were put off by the molasses-slow pacing and sometimes incomprehensible dialogue of Hannibal's third season, I was riveted. Within the context of any given episode, the series could be unsettling, hilarious, campy, gory, and bracingly psychological — but never predictable. The production design, visual design, and costuming were impeccable, making Hannibal the most gorgeous show that aired on television in 2015 by an enormous margin.
I was crushed when I heard Hannibal had been cancelled — until I saw the show's final episode, which takes the exceedingly twisted central relationship to its logical conclusion. Showrunner Bryan Fuller has expressed interest in reviving the series in some form someday. But until then, I'm content to let Hannibal rest on an ending that was, in a word, beautiful. –Scott Meslow, TV critic
Jane the Virgin
Jane the Virgin delivers surprising twists, unexpected parallels, and heart-wrenching moments, tied together with the sultry narration of Anthony Mendez as the Latin Lover Voice. The show juggles stories of immigration woes, parental hurdles, and romantic tribulations without ever feeling weighted down, preachy, or cloying. The performances are terrific, making the struggles of new mother Jane (Gina Rodriguez) and her family and friends vivid and specific. In Rogelio, the vainglorious soap opera star played by Jaime Camil, the show lets its breakout character be at once a vibrant caricature and a complex human being. Every episode of Jane the Virgin takes full advantage of what television, at its best, can do. –Mark Lieberman, contributing writer
At some point, incomprehensible loss is something we'll all need to deal with, and no other show captures that pain better than The Leftovers, which chronicles the aftermath of the sudden disappearance of two percent of the Earth's population. I loved the show's polarizing first season, which debuted last year, but Damon Lindelof and novelist Tom Perrotta upped the ante with their ambitious, challenging second season. In a kind of reboot, The Leftovers moved the action from upstate New York to Jarden, Texas — a town where no one disappeared.
The Leftovers is both unpredictable and great. The second season began with a long, wordless, allegorical scene of a woman who cares for her baby in a prehistoric world. The audacious episode "International Assassin" took place entirely in a nightmarish vision of purgatory. Characters suffer in ways they can barely fathom, and the audience might share that confusion — but Lindelof and Perrotta clearly know what they're doing. Some moments and gestures have the emotional power of an opera, while others are carefully observed and instantly relatable. If most television is meant to serve as a distraction from our everyday lives, The Leftovers has the audacity and imagination to wake us up. -Alan Zilberman, contributing writer
The Man in the High Castle
The year is 1962, and the Axis has just triumphed in World War II. Japan and Germany have divided America down the middle.
This alternate-history Amazon TV series is based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, but also builds on its source material. Dick's characters were not always sympathetic or three-dimensional, but the show rounds out each, including a Nazi played by Rufus Sewell with layers and motives beyond propelling the plot. The visuals, too, are impressive, giving us a retro-future world that is neither an over-the-top parody nor a bath in period nostalgia.
Most importantly, this adaptation feels more politically relevant than ever, depicting an America run by its own id. That's what truly good science fiction does — shows us who we are, not where we're going. –Chris Lites, contributing writer
Master of None
With Master of None, comedian Aziz Ansari created the show millennials never knew they needed. Ansari does triple duty as creator-writer-star. His protagonist, Dev, is a struggling actor who lives in New York with a clique of mostly unmarried twenty- and thirty-something friends — a herd of endearingly childish sort-of grown-ups.
Despite its overall lightheartedness, Master of None is thematically adventurous, touching on race, sexism, relationships, the American immigrant experience, and the modern dilemma of choice. More than anything, I was charmed by the believable pace and style of the show's dialogue. While it comes across a little too zippy to be perfectly realistic at times, there's something about the chatter between Dev and Co. that captures how urban millennials talk — a real accomplishment on something so many shows try, and fail, to get right. –Sally Gao, editorial intern
Marvel's Jessica Jones
Though Netflix's Jessica Jones has its roots in Marvel Comics, Krysten Ritter's Jessica prefers a superhero costume of ripped jeans, a leather jacket, and a scowl over the traditional spandex garb. The show's premise and tone are appropriately gritty: As a hard-drinking P.I. with super strength and crippling PTSD, Jessica is hell-bent on getting revenge on her former tormentor Kilgrave (David Tennant), the chillingly charismatic villain whose powers allow him to control the actions of anybody he comes into contact with.
While a detective story on its surface, Jessica Jones also functions as a brutally honest meditation on what it's like to survive a traumatic event. Though Jessica is often haunted by flashbacks to the time she spent under Kilgrave's will, her personality is never reduced to or defined by her trauma. That she's able to fight back — and, crucially, make mistakes — as she takes on one of the most existentially terrifying villains on television makes for one of the most gripping, unsettling, and groundbreaking shows you'll watch all year. –Samantha Rollins, news editor
The Mindy Project
Being dumped by Fox was the best thing to happen to The Mindy Project. Following its season four debut on Hulu this year, Mindy Kaling's rom-com has been alight with jokes that are edgier (a Taliban joke plays surprisingly well) and quirkier (Mindy's brush with fashion fame: A camel toe in corduroy shorts lands her in Cosmopolitan's fashion fail section) than ever. But some of the strongest jokes are those with heart. We meet Mindy's parents for the first time and her mom boasts that Mindy gets her intelligence from her father — a professor whose "office hours are poorly attended because he teaches it right the first time."
The fourth season has been hilarious, sweet, and romantic, but across the first 13 episodes, the show gains considerable depth as Mindy and Danny navigate parenthood and demanding jobs. By the mid-season finale, Mindy is forced to consider whether she can really have it all. It takes courage to force a sitcom to measure up to reality, and Kaling has done it with wit and aplomb, rewriting the cliched romantic-comedy script to suit a new generation of independent ladies that are trying to walk that same tightrope. –Lauren Hansen, executive editor of multimedia
No word better sums up Mr. Robot than "unexpected." The fact that an anti-corporation, dark-as-ink drama found a home on USA was unexpected. The fact that it found more tension in stillness than action was unexpected. The fact that it was about computer hacking but somehow not cheesy was unexpected.
But most unexpected of all was how avid TV watchers — including those who do it for a living — could never properly predict any episode's destination. Sam Esmail originally wrote Mr. Robot as a film, and doesn't seem the least bit interested in following familiar television tropes. Add in a stellar cast and some of the most interesting visuals on TV, and the resulting product is the best thing on television. –Travis Andrews, contributing writer
Orange is the New Black
After an unfortunate sophomore slump, season three was make or break for the Netflix series Orange Is The New Black. Thankfully, creator Jenji Kohan delivered.
From its continued exploration of the disenfranchisement of women to the unbelievably brilliant used panty storyline, the show challenged the assumptions society makes of us and that we make of ourselves. Sophia seeks to emulate the same manufactured version of idealized femininity that Piper exploits, even as we learn it once led a newly immigrated Chang into the very life of crime that landed her in prison in the first place. Big Boo schools us on the importance of legalized abortion, just as the new prison owners strip the inmates of their dignity. In turn, we learn how and why Pennsatucky never learned a sense of self-worth in the first place. Orange is the New Black explores our need to be accepted, our addictions, the role of religion in our character, and the differences between love and comfort. –Stephanie Cangro, contributing writer
Parks & Recreation
One of the many things that made Parks and Rec so irresistibly charming over its seven seasons was a willingness to confront failure without descending into cynicism. Leslie Knope was impeached during her city council tenure. Tom Haverford's business, Entertainment 720, could only be called a massive waste of money. But instead of giving up, both went on to do much bigger things, with Tom quite literally writing the book on turning failures into success. The show's creators used the final season to let its ensemble characters celebrate big and small wins in their own lives. But it also got braver and more experimental, jumping around chronologically and setting one episode entirely within Johnny Karate, a children's TV show hosted by Chris Pratt's Andy Dwyer. Parks and Rec won't win any big awards for its final season, but it will remain near and dear in the hearts of its fans. –Stephanie Talmadge, digital production assistant
Rick and Morty
"Subtle" may not be the first word that comes to mind when describing a cartoon about the inter-dimensional adventures of an elderly alcoholic super-genius and his intellectually average grandson, but Rick and Morty is anything but heavy-handed. Fantasy and sci-fi stories often construct their invented worlds within the context of the real one. Rick and Morty steals this template in order to subvert it: In a multiverse of infinite space and time, where giant testicle monsters populate whole planets and feminism has actually taken hold in some places, it's Earth that looks messed up in comparison. And as Rick introduces his family to wonders beyond their wildest imaginings, they simply project the same mundane human concerns that preoccupied them before. -Roxie Pell, editorial intern