The Best TV of 2015
2015 was an epic year for broadcast mediums. Australia finally got our turn with streaming services as Netflix arrived on our shores. We saw the final seasons of some pretty big TV heavy-hitters and we saw the first seasons of some new and ground-breaking shows. We also hit what some critics have been referring to as peak TV with a record breaking volume of scripted series being produced. Everyone was getting into the TV business this year, not only broadcast and cable networks but streaming services and smaller internet distributors starting to pump out original content. The sheer volume of quality shows became intensely overwhelming.
There is a heap of quality stuff that hasn't even made my top list and that's not because I didn't think it was good but rather there was just too much quality TV.
There was the excitingly ambitious debut of MR ROBOT, the stellar second season of SILICON VALLEY, or the brutally brilliant comedy of Andy Daly in REVIEW. Marvel and Netflix did some fascinating work with JESSICA JONES, Netflix also reignited WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER with notable levels of success. Steven Soderbergh quietly kept doing brilliant work with his iconoclastic series THE KNICK. Aziz Ansarai created one of the funniest shows of the year in MASTER OF NONE while Louis CK gave us a really really exceptional season of LOUIE. There were fascinating formal experiments in shows like YOUR THE WORST, BLOODLINE, DOCUMENTARY NOW, MAN SEEKING WOMAN.
I could keep going but you get the idea. It's been an overwhelmingly good year for television in 2015. Possibly one of the best, most creatively innovative years we have ever seen. Is this volume of TV sustainable? I don't know, but we can certainly indulge in it while we have the chance.
13: WAYWARD PINES
After despising the first episode and giving up on the series I began to hear a bit of noise as the season progressed. What initially seemed like a generic bastard child of Twin Peaks and Lost, actually swiftly became something very very different as the story progressed.
It didn't exactly get better but it did burn through plot at such an insane pace that it turned into a perfect trashy treat. Using up the narrative of three books in the space of ten episodes, Wayward Pines turned into that bizarro show that you explain to friends and they think you are making it up.
Featuring class turns from Toby Jones and Melissa Leo, this is A-grade junk television that should be your number one summer binge watch.
The Wachowski's Netflix series was undoubtedly the most wildly inconsistent thing I saw all year. Numerous moments in individual episodes were inarguably terrible in every way, several sub-plots were defiantly uninteresting and long stretches in many episodes were deadly dull. The story was often mildly confusing and you could sense the filmmakers struggling with finding a coherent visual grammar to depict such a complex central conceit.
Having said all of that, there were probably half a dozen moments across this first season – either montages or individual set pieces – that were pure brilliance and unlike anything I had ever seen on TV. When this series clicked it was truly awesome to behold from a sublime montage hilariously set to the 90s song 'What's Going On' to a moment late in the season where we witness a bizarre montage showing all 8 characters experiencing simultaneous flashbacks to the moment of their births. This is an insane series that failed more than it succeeded but it could really become something special in its second season.
11: SHOW ME A HERO
David Simon is undoubtedly one of the most interesting, and politically active American writers working on television today. With Show Me A Hero we see him indulge all the traits he previously exploited but with an almost pitch perfect degree of success. Anchored by a magnificent Oscar Isaac performance (the face of 2015!), this 6 part mini-series told the story of a local councilman in Yonkers trying to get a public housing block approved in the late 1980s. It sounds as dry as stories come but Simon and his co-writer have managed to turn this into a furiously gripping, ethically complex, and magnificently paced look at how politics, civil liberties and simply doing the right thing can all sometimes clash head on.
I've had problems with Simon's storytelling style in the past but here everything seems to click beautifully from the blindingly obvious parallel narratives to the preachy left-leaning politics. This is humane and sympathetic storytelling that isn't subtle but is beautifully effective. A fantastic (and weird) supporting cast all turn in top level work too.
This show has been on fire in season two. It's been a joy to watch a series so completely find its own voice and run with it. I was hot and cold on season one as I thought it had some structural problems as well as a tendency to lean too hard on its meta references to Coen brothers films. Season two certainly still has traces of all those problems but it's paced brilliantly, every performance has been pitch perfect and creator Noah Hawley has managed to avoid any mid season lull.
The aesthetic of the show has been constantly exciting too – from its increasingly clever use of split screens to its fascinatingly jarring musical choices.
The only reason this season ultimately fell to the bottom of my top ten is that the final episodes again dropped the ball. Hawley struggles to wrap up his seasons satisfyingly and this season really missed the mark trying to emulate that classic 'everything means nothing' style of Coen Bros climax. Hugely disappointing cap to an entertaining season of television.
Another final season of a long running series that absolutely nailed the perfect ending, Justified brought in some wonderful new characters and gave us a conclusion that was unexpected and perfectly in tune with Elmore Leonard's narrative tone.
After the terrible previous season the series entirely redeemed itself by bringing us a grand Sam Elliot performance and having Walton Goggins go full villain as the story concluded on a beautifully tender note. Couldn't have wanted a more appropriate final season of a series that has been a low-key pleasure for years.
8: THE JINX
This true crime documentary series completely reframed what modern non-fiction storytelling on television could be. Apart from the fact that Robert Durst turned out to be the creepiest television presence in 2015 – and I count Hannibal in that statement – this series is so ethically murky you could argue for months about whether director Andrew Jarecki did something journalistically important or whether he exploited a real series of murders for his own lurid melodramatic purposes. To be honest, the series is both things, often at the same time.
Concluding with one of the most horrifically revealing televisual moments of 2015, The Jinx also mashed up several different documentary styles from active investigative journalism to disturbingly stylized dramatic reconstructions. Jarecki took a form that Errol Morris pioneered many years ago and pushed it into a new, uncomfortable and confronting space that made for riveting television.
Season three of Hannibal contained some of the most aesthetically experimental television I have ever seen. It was astounding that this season of television was even allowed to exist as we were offered a bizarrely bifurcated narrative with the first half of the season following Hannibal on his cannibalistic European adventures and the second half of the season acting as a mini-series adaptation of Thomas Harris' Red Dragon novel.
The second half of the season was a little disappointing after the amazing formal innovation of the first half but the final episode gave us a perfect ending that turned into a series finale as the show was cancelled. I wasn't especially upset with the series' cancellation as it was coming close to the end of its novelty but we must thank the television gods that we got three seasons of a show this intense and insane.
6: BETTER CALL SAUL
Vince Gilligan upended expectations by simultaneously giving us a sequel to Breaking Bad and something entirely unlike Breaking Bad. Better Call Saul was the most confident, boldly minimal, and iconoclastic premiere season of 2015. As the ten episodes progressed and we discovered we were watching a grand tragedy, the languid 70s style pacing led into a bitter-sweet climactic punchline that was heart-wrenching to watch.
Playing out like an inversion of the Breaking Bad 'good guy turns bad' arc, Better Call Saul became increasingly difficult to watch as we witnessed a truly nice guy get constantly beaten down by everyone around him. I'm nervous going into season two, not because I don't think it will be brilliant, but because I sense this character arc is going to be a tragic thing to watch.
5: NATHAN FOR YOU
I've always loved the surreal absurdity of this show but season three took its concept to a new level. The show sets itself up as a parody of self help infotainment with middle-of-the-road business guru Nathan Fielder helping small businesses improve their performance with often incredibly bizarre ideas.
This season expanded that small, funny idea into a series of conceptual performance art stunts that were frequently jaw dropping to behold from a plan to help a moving company get free labor by turning the act of moving furniture into a workout craze that people pay for to his elaborate attempt to scam the Best Buy Price Match policy. But the transcendental highlight of the season was the plan to help a bar generate new patrons by attracting smoking customers and letting them smoke inside due to a loophole in the law. Smoking inside is allowed if it is part of a theatrical performance so what if an entire bar was turned into an improvised theatrical performance? This was only the beginning of a scheme that went so far down a postmodern rabbit hole that it became one of the most exciting and original things I saw all year.
4: RICK AND MORTY
This was simply a near perfect season of television with a ridiculous volume of creative energy in every single episode. Apart from one or two missteps (the 'get schwifty' episode was a major embarrassment), this collection of episodes was a constant parade of classics, twisting well known science fiction concepts into novel absurdist scenarios.
Co-creator Dan Harmon is an incredibly clever storyteller and this season of Rick & Morty resembled his second season of Community in the way that his shows begin to quickly verge into self-aware self-parody. Harmon tends burn bright and fast through his stories and this season of Rick and Morty may have pushed the conceptual framework of the series to its limit.
I hope to be proven wrong with a season three that is even better and the beautiful closing stretch of this season set to a Nine Inch Nails track definitely promised something new in the future.
3: THE AMERICANS
The Americans has always been hovering quietly as one of the best shows on TV but this season executed some genuinely amazing narrative pivots. When this season finished earlier this year I was sure I had seen the best show of the year and it's amazing that it only got to third on my list.
This season finally delivered on some narrative implications that were promised from the beginning of the series and it did so with such an exciting resolved confidence. One plotline involving a character going undercover, essentially as a pedophile, beginning a relationship with the teenage daughter of a government operative, was executed in a brutally unexpected, unsensationalistic and emotionally devastating way.
This is a dark and challenging series but it's also one of the most rewarding and richly written series airing today.
2: MAD MEN
What a beautiful final stretch of episodes. Matthew Weiner generated one of the best television endings to a long running series I have ever seen.
Every character received a genuinely satisfying conclusion and the evolution of Don Draper's journey was a magnificent summation of all the concerns the series ever had. It concluded on a beautiful final moment which some have frustratingly misinterpreted as cynical.
The character of Don Draper was always a cipher for America itself. As we learnt in the first season, the Don Draper we initially met wasn't even the real Don Draper. He was a construct. The ideal 1950s businessman and as the 1960s progressed we saw that ideal 1950s character become more and more out of touch with the shifting cultural norms. The final season really became a story of the death of 'Don Draper' and the creation of a new cipher – a new America that was born from the tumultuous fires of the 1960s. The way the show ended perfectly encapsulated that cultural transition and concluded with the birth of a new 'Don Draper'.
1: THE LEFTOVERS
The second season of THE LEFTOVERS has immediately become one of my favorite seasons of television of all time. I adored the ten episodes of this season. After burning through the entirety of Tom Perotta's source novel in the first season (a season I greatly enjoyed despite an overwhelming monotonal bleakness) producer Damon Lindelof was freed up to really let loose in this intricately constructed world. We ended up with as close to a perfectly designed and executed season of modern television as I have ever seen.
There were emotional gut punches, twists I never saw coming, call backs to earlier moments in the season that were entirely unexpected and whole episodes that turned the form of what the show could achieve completely on its head. This is insanely bold, insanely brave television storytelling at its finest exploring themes of grief, loss and religion in extraordinarily satisfying ways.
Don't jump into season two cold though. Push through the first season. It's worth it.