the-best-tv-of-2015

The Best TV of 2015

Female leads, streaming TV, robots and zombies? 2015 may go down as the year when the much-anticipated but rarely actualized changes in TV actually started to happen, as the best TV of 2015 offers an embarrassment of riches.

TV Show: AGENT CARTER

Network: ABC

Cast: Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Chad Michael Murray

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Agent Carter
Agent Carter

Marvel’s Agent Carter ignites the post-World War II origin story of S.H.I.E.L.D. While Agent Carter offers viewers a nice bit of Captain America-style nostalgia, it, most importantly, gives them a regular dose of brassy, brash, beautiful, and British Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell), along with her dapper confident and companion, Mr. Jarvis (James D’Arcy). Unlike other recent Marvel properties, Carter is neither dark nor broken. The focus on Carter’s life, and her often off-book exploits, kindle intrigue that is more intimate than the team dynamic flowing through Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. The series also makes a statement about 1940s sexism, as male colleagues refuse to recognize her as the smartest person in the room — unless Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) is around: to his credit, he sees her as the second smartest person in the room. Traditional spy exploits with a hint of the extraterrestrial make Agent Carter a unique viewing experience, and Atwell makes it a pleasure. — Daniel Rasmus

 

TV Show: BETTER CALL SAUL

Network: AMC

Cast: Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn

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Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul

Splicing a character from a hit TV show and using them as a foundation for a new series seems like an obvious strategy. It rarely works out. For every Rhoda or Frasier, there’s a Beverly Hills Buntz and a Gloria. Vince Gilligan bucked the odds creating a series based on Breaking Bad‘s shyster lawyer, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk): Better Call Saul. The show has many of the parts that made Breaking Bad great; perhaps most importantly, the show features two anti-hero leads: Jimmy McGill, a.k.a. Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks). The essence of each story is a man who’s much more talented at being bad than good. It seemed impossible that Gilligan could improve upon Breaking Bad, but in the first season, Jimmy and Mike are equal to Walter and Jessie. Better Call Saul is one of TV’s best new shows. — Anthony Merino

 

TV Show: BROADCHURCH

Network: ITV

Cast: Olivia Colman, David Tennant, Jodie Whittaker

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Broadchurch
Broadchurch

To put it bluntly, the first season of British crime drama Broadchurch (which aired in 2013 and was remade into the lesser American adaption Gracepoint in 2014) was a masterpiece. Led by incredible performances from David Tennant and Olivia Colman, the traumatic investigation into the murder of 11-year-old Danny Latimer (Oskar McNamara) was as poetic as it was brutal, with exquisite examinations into the hearts and minds of its characters, stunningly somber direction, and some of the best writing television has ever had. From its first moments to its last, this initial sequence was utterly riveting and touching. Naturally, expectations were insurmountable for this year’s continuation; at least that’s what many fans thought. Miraculously, the second series managed to equal, if not surpass, its predecessor. Focusing on two main plots — SPOILER the distressing trial of Joseph Miller (Matthew Gravelle) and the circumstances surrounding the Sandbrook murder case hinted at in series one — this entry proved to be even more unpredictable, emotional, and gripping because we knew who these characters were and what they’d been through, allowing us to be even more enveloped in their fates, be they happy or harrowing. That distinction, coupled with the continued excellence in terms of writing, acting, and direction, ensured that this season, like its precursor, was nothing less than beautifully tragic art. — Jordan Blum

 

TV Show: BROAD CITY

Network: Comedy Central

Cast: Abbi Jacobson, Ilana Glazer, Hannibal Buress

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Broad City
Broad City

Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s crass, absurdist ode to female friendship emerged as one of 2015’s most consistently surprising and heartfelt comedies. Broad City made waves when it debuted last year for the infectious chemistry between its leading ladies, and its frank depiction of their stoner antics. But Broad City is more than just a gender-swapped Judd Apatow comedy — the beating heart of this sitcom has always been the joyful celebration of these two imperfect women. The show widened its scope and increasingly spotlighted its side characters in its confident second season, with hilarious results. Hannibal Burress is a particular highlight as Ilana’s long-suffering, deadpan dentist friend with benefits. Whether it’s meeting the elusive, diamond-loving Val in “Hashtag FOMO” or dealing with the fallout of loss and the perils of pegging in “Knockoffs”, the women of Broad City faced every challenge in their surreal version of New York with the power of sisterhood, and a shit-ton of marijuana. Talk about #friendship goals. — Natasha Gatian

 

TV Show: THE CARMICHAEL SHOW

Network: NBC

Cast: Jerrod Carmichael, Amber Stevens West, LilRel Howery

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The Carmichael Show
The Carmichael Show

NBC’s The Carmichael Show is from the millennial mind of comedian Jerrod Carmichael. With just six episodes in Season 1, the half-hour show has already covered a huge amount of controversial ground without devolving into classic black stereotypes or traditional sitcom tropes. Jerrod and his girlfriend, Maxine (Amber Stevens West), face modern issues with Generation Y attitude: should they have a gun in the house, should they celebrate a birthday or skip it for a Black Lives Matters protest, should they teach their parents to eat healthier food, should they go to church, and so on. Jerrod’s parents, played by David Alan Grier and Loretta Devine (two absolute institutions in the black acting community) steal the show, as they always do. Not only worth watching, but worthy of water cooler conversation at work the day after. — Megan Volpert

 

TV Show: CHEF’S TABLE

Network: Netflix

Cast: Dan Barber, Massimo Bottura, Bill Buford

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Chef’s Table
Chef’s Table

Chef’s Table is the anti-cooking show. Rather than focus on recipes, the Netflix original series treats the chefs like auteurs, and persuasively argues that their personal lives influence their craft. Their meals aren’t to be devoured; they’re to be deified. The first season of the series features six accomplished chefs from around the world, including Italy’s controversial postmodernist Massimo Bottura and the US’s farm-to-table pioneer Dan Barber. My favorite is Argentinian master Francis Mallmann, whose use of Patagonian fire is presented as a spiritual experience. Like the great transcendentalists before him, Mallmann finds purpose in nature, and has no patience for the conventions of society. Another stand-out is kaiseki chef Niki Nakayama, a Japanese-American who candidly reflects on the difficulties of being a woman in a male dominated industry. Chef’s Table is an essential series about the importance of individual expression. With luck, it will pressure the Food Network to spice up its programming schedule. — Jon Lisi

 

TV Show: DOCTOR WHO

Network: BBC

Cast: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman

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Doctor Who
Doctor Who

In Steven Moffat, the BBC found a show runner who understands that Doctor Who is really the story of the companion’s journey, and her influence on the Doctor, not the other way around. Series nine found the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and doe-eyed companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) squaring off with the Doctor’s arch-frenemy, The Master, played with manic relish by Michelle Gomez. We also find the Doctor effectively engaged with his other existential nemesis, Davros (Julian Bleach), the creator of the dreaded Daleks. The action is swift and off-kilter, with plots that often twist the mind as much as they play with emotions. Clara Oswald recovers from the loss of love-interest Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson), and ultimately, helps the Doctor recover from her. Viewers will find Oswald the counterweight to Capaldi’s impetuous incarnation. Regular guest star Maisie Williams, the Doctor-made immortal Ashildr/Me, a sometime companion, challenges the Doctor with a historical perspective nearly as profound as his own. — Daniel Rasmus

Empire and more…

TV Show: EMPIRE

Network: Fox

Cast: Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, Bryshere Y. Gray

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Empire
Empire

Empire is an exceptional show in more ways than one. The Lee Daniels/Danny Strong musical drama debuted in early 2015, steadily securing incredible ratings and critical acclaim as it altered the landscape of popular American culture. Wasting no time, Empire returned later this year with its second season, putting it in the awkward position of having set incredibly high audience expectations, and then attempting to immediately to surpass them. Empire is the rags-to-riches story of Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), in their attempts to get off the streets by launching Lucious’s rap career. The narrative is high melodrama at its most vicious, courting (both implicitly and sometimes rather unabashedly) comparison both to Shakespearean and Greek tragedy. However, the genius of the show was to anchor the rather ludicrous week-to-week turns of fortune within those aspects of the American Dream that are both eternal and, sadly, quite timely: the exploitation of Black Americans and the desire of the underclass to secure better futures for their kids. Empire is at turns both thrilling and campy, entertaining and eye-rollingly self-indulgent, and as is to be expected, it has deeply divided both critical and popular audiences. It’s either for you or it isn’t, but one thing is beyond dispute: Empire is satisfying TV. — Desirae Embree

 

TV Show: FARGO

Network: FX

Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Wilson, Jesse Plemons

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Fargo
Fargo

Somehow, the (arguably) best show of 2014 didn’t even make PopMatters’ Best TV of 2014, which is something we should probably collectively apologize for. Fargo‘s second season’s an entirely different story featuring an almost completely new cast, but it’s lost little of the thrilling tension, drama, and dark humor that characterized the first. Taking us back to 1979, season two tells the story of a criminal turf war between the Fargo-based Gerhardt clan and the corporation-like Kansas City crew trying to take over the territory. Caught in between are the Solverson and Larsson families, with state trooper Lou (Patrick Wilson) and county sheriff Hank (Ted Danson) trying to navigate the situation when the war spreads to their tiny Minnesota town. Also caught up in the mess are local butcher Ed Blumquist (Jesse Plemons) and his wife, Peggy (Kirsten Dunst), who early on made the signature bad decision that every iteration of Fargo so far has turned on. The story eventually came down to the Sioux Falls massacre that a much older Lou described in season one as “madness” and “animal”. That episode, the season’s penultimate, was filled with a sense of impending doom and tension despite the audience knowing its general outcome. Fargo, out of all the recent one-season anthology series (American Horror Story, True Detective), is the show that has really mastered the form, telling a complete, thrilling story in 10 episodes while managing to remain true to the original film’s “dark deeds, warm heart” outlook. — Chris Conaton

 

TV Show: GRAVITY FALLS

Network: Disney Channel

Cast: Jason Ritter, Alex Hirsch, Kristin Schaal

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Gravity Falls
Gravity Falls

Alex Hirsch’s animated series has been a wonderful amalgam of genres since it premiered in 2012. It’s a wacky supernatural comedy, an X-Files for kids, a Scooby-Doo with real monsters, a serialized Disney Channel answer to Lost (except with a full plan), and above all, a show that puts its characters first. The 12-year-old twins Dipper (Jason Ritter) and Mabel (Kristen Schaal) have spent the summer (or 40 episodes) in tiny Gravity Falls, Oregon, with their weird great-uncle Stan (Alex Hirsch), and encountered all manner of creatures along the way. Through it all, the twins have matured and figured out what’s really important in their lives without ever falling into typical sitcom and kids’ cartoon squabbling. As the show prepares to air its series finale (delayed indefinitely, as ever, by Disney’s bizarre scheduling, a force as mysterious as any on the actual show), it’s bringing together all of its long-running plotlines without ever losing its sharp sense of humor or its firm grasp of characterization. — Chris Conaton

 

TV Show: THE GOOD WIFE

Network: CBS

Cast: Julianna Margulies, Matt Czurhry, Alan Cumming

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The Good Wife
The Good Wife

Seven seasons into the series, and if nothing else, The Good Wife proved in 2015 that when it wants to be, it’s still one of the best dramas on television. The maturation of Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) has been exquisitely complex and deliciously unpredictable for nearly a decade now, but through the course of the past 12 months especially, the series’ lead protagonist has experienced yet another public humiliation and started yet another law firm … and that doesn’t even include her investigator issues, her husband’s presidential run, and, of course, that earth-shattering secret revealed during the current run’s midseason finale. It’s hard enough to make compelling, smart television consistently; it’s a nearly unprecedented victory of evolution and commitment to be able to do it this long. Creators Robert and Michelle King should be proud. And we, as viewers, should be thankful. — Colin McGuire

 

TV Show: HANNIBAL

Network: NBC

Cast: Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, Caroline Dhavernas

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Hannibal
Hannibal

Series creator Bryan Fuller knew his critical and audience-beloved series Hannibal was living on borrowed time since the end of season one. Sensing the end, he indulged in every bit of cinematography, violence, and food porn excess he could muster in season three, beginning with a half-season arc that took place in Florence. The first half of season three was at many times preposterous, and certainly over-the-top, as well as heavy on heady, lengthy speeches about guilt, death, and revenge. All of this would have been an unmitigated train wreck of pretension had it not been for arguably the best acting ensemble on current network television, namely Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen, Laurence Fishburne, Gillian Anderson, and Raul Esparza. If the first half of season three threatened to go off the rails, the second half was a spring-tight reinterpretation of the Red Dragon story arc. Despite two film adaptations of Thomas Harris’ thriller, Fuller and team delivered a rich, new interpretation. Richard Armitage was a physical embodiment of conflicted terror as Francis Dolarhyde and, in a just Emmy universe, Rutina Wesley would already be etched in for the Outstanding Guest Actress award. And let’s talk about that finale. Fuller wanted it to serve as both a final statement — and possibly an open door — in one of the most twisted, yet oddly affecting, bromances on television. If this is the final statement in the Fuller-created Hannibal universe, it serves as one of the best series finales in recent memory. But here’s hoping for another chapter. — Sean McCarthy

 

TV Show: HINTERLAND

Network: S4C

Cast: Richard Harrington, Mali Harries, Alex Harries

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Hinterland
Hinterland

Hinterland, S4C’s bilingual detective series, returned to our screens with the harrowing Holiday special “Untitled”. The feature length episode, set against the coastal lowlands and hunched mountain ranges of Ceredigion, eschewed the niceties of plot, relying instead on grainy shots of West Wales’ austere landscape, and the tragic back-story of brooding anti-hero DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) to build suspense. The first series had seen the “lonely cowboy” return to Wales after a decade serving with the London Met, but it was no happy homecoming; Harrington plays Mathias in the same manner that Bogart played doomed gangster Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936): all gnarled, internalized rage. As emotionally zipped up as his trademark waxed jacket, Mathias has the potential to be one of television’s most memorable cops, if writer/director Ed Thomas continues to drip-feed us his nuanced character development in such an uncompromisingly noir way. — Kevin McGrath

 

TV Show: HUMANS

Network: AMC

Cast: Gemma Chan, Katherine Parkinson, Lucy Carless

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Humans
Humans

Adapted from the acclaimed Swedish sci-fi drama Real Humans, Humans is like a modern day I, Robot, Blade Runner, or Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence where the focus is split between a hunt for anthropomorphic “synths” that appear to have some form of sentience — always resulting in a desire to live freely — and the family life of the Hawkins, as they adjust to living with Anita (Gemma Chan), their attractive new robot servant. Gemma Chan’s fantastic portrayal of Anita (and then Mia — the subconscious personality within Anita) is easily comparable to Alicia Vikander’s performance as Ava in this year’s Ex_Machina, whereby the interactors (both within the story and ourselves) can never be sure if the robots are simply reflecting, or subversively endorsing, all of our hidden desires and insecurities. Mileage varies with some of the supporting storylines, but they are all populated with interesting characters. For example, William Hurt’s Dr. Millican presents one of the most unforgettably affecting bonds between a human and an AI that I’ve ever seen. — Carl Wilson

iZombie and more…

TV Show: iZOMBIE

Network: CW

Cast: Rose McIver, Malcolm Goodwin, Rahul Kohli

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iZombie
iZombie

iZombie had a great second half of its first season, and this season, it’s continued that momentum and been consistently excellent. Although its premise may have initially seemed too high concept to really work in any grounded way, the series has managed to imbue a great deal of depth into the characters and their circumstances, unbelievable though they may be. The series shines in its ability to balance the light and dark of its themes, exploring love, death, betrayal, and loyalty in equal parts. As the show has continued to expand its universe to include larger arcs that span seasons and reveal more about zombie-ism in general, the mystery-of-the-week remains a constant, often clever and amusing. Well-written and acted, iZombie charms and amuses in unexpected ways, always entertaining in its lightness and even in its bleakness. — J. M. Suarez

 

TV Show: JESSICA JONES

Network: Netflix

Cast: Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, David Tennant

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Jessica Jones
Jessica Jones

In the absence of a leading woman in the Marvel movies, comic fans were pleased this year to receive a worthy follow-up to acclaimed Netflix show Daredevil with Jessica Jones, featuring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most complex, least-heroic superhero. Armed only with her super strength, investigative prowess, and impenetrable liver, Jessica Jones proved to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most grounded property as Jessica (Krysten Ritter) punches, drinks, and curses her way through New York City in her quest to track down the illusive and sinister Kilgrave (David Tennant), arguably Marvel’s creepiest villain yet. With a storyline touching on themes as dark and resonant as sexual abuse, trauma, and obsession, Jessica Jones shook up the usual Marvel superhero formula by constructing a show not only demonstrating a disturbed, struggling protagonist, but showing the hero’s journey from the female gaze. Here’s hoping for season two. — Matthew Fay

 

TV Show: THE JINX: THE LIFE AND DEATHS OF ROBERT DURST

Network: HBO

Cast: Robert Durst, Andrew Jarecki, Gary Napoli

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The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

Andrew Jarecki’s six-part documentary series is built around an interview with the reclusive Robert Durst. Durst lived a life of privilege, but was involved with three murders in his lifetime, including the disappearance (and suspected death) of his wife in the early 1980s, and the unsolved murder of a longtime friend in 2000. He also admitted to killing his neighbor in 2001 in Galveston, Texas, but was found not guilty because he acted in self-defense. The series takes the viewer through each of these deaths, as well as the speculation about the degree of Durst’s involvement in each. But Jarecki also lets Durst tell his story and defend himself. Despite appearing to be a sociopath with cold, dead eyes, Durst is also an affable and engaging speaker who manages to cast doubt on the official versions of the stories while admitting some of it looks very bad for him. The show takes a turn in its final two episodes, though, when Jarecki and his team appear to uncover new evidence. The tension as Jarecki tries to nail down the once again elusive Durst for a second interview without letting on that they have a surprise for him is palpable, and the final result is jaw dropping. — Chris Conaton

 

TV Show: JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORELL

Network: BBC1

Cast: Bertie Cavell, Eddie Marsan, Marc Warren

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Adapting Susanna Clarke’s novel, which Neil Gaiman called “unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years”, into a seven-part series was always going to require resourcefulness, but the final product is absolutely mesmerizing, with an exquisitely gothic baroque style, dark satirical humor, and sweeping narrative that represents British television at its most imaginative and compelling. In an alternate history set amidst the Napoleonic wars at the outset of the 19th century, magic’s no longer practiced in England. It’s seen as disreputable and ungentlemanly, but equally, modern “magicians” have forgotten how to access it. When studious and serious Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) briefly colludes with the otherworldly Gentleman (Marc Warren), dead people are brought back from the beyond; the kingdom of Lost Hope is discovered behind mirrors; and the only other practicing magician in England, the effervescent and perpetually curious Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), can help to understand the doomsday prophecy of the returning Raven King. If that doesn’t tick boxes, then maybe you’re too respectable for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. — Carl Wilson

 

TV Show: JUSTIFIED

Network: FX

Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Nick Searcy, Joelle Carter

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Justified
Justified

By the time Justified hung up its cowboy hat, the audience finally got its two biggest burning questions answered about the show: who is Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), and who is Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) deep down? As much as Justified splurged on a bountiful supporting cast of characters in its six-season run, the show never forgot to keep the primary spotlight on where US Marshall Givens, the show’s slightly-jagged moral compass, and Crowder, the show’s charismatic main crook, would end up slotting themselves in Harlan’s tapestry of heroes and villains. Even with fascinating new characters joining the fray — strong notices go to season six players Sam Elliott (the stern, spine-tingling criminal Avery Markham), Mary Steenburgen (the hardened black widow Katherine Hale), Jeff Fahey (Ava Crowder’s gruff uncle Zachariah), and Jonathan Tucker (Markham’s sly sidekick Boon, one of the show’s most bombastic henchmen and personalities) — Justified never forgot to give Olyphant and Goggins the season’s biggest moments. For one last time, the two actors got to remind audiences that they embodied two of the richest television characters of the decade. Add in the typical sterling work from the regular cast (Joelle Carter’s long-suffering Ava Crowder and Nick Searcy’s Raylan-wrangling Chief Deputy Marshall Art Mullen stand out) and the series’ rat-a-tat writing and pacing, and you’ve got yourself a final season that would make Raylan Givens’ original creator, the now-deceased writing legend Elmore Leonard, proud. — Cory Woodruff

 

TV Show: THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN

Network: CBS

Cast: David Letterman, Paul Shaffer, Alan Kalter

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The Late Show With David Letterman
The Late Show With David Letterman

When Letterman decided to hang it up in April after three decades as part man/part desk, a generation of fans mourned. After all, they grew up learning a new comic language and satire and form of discourse from Dave. It was easy to take for granted his nightly presence as one of the most consistently entertaining wisecracks in television history. He left without much of a fuss: no star-packed tribute extravaganza, no tears, no tuxedos. It was more or less just a regular show, perfect for a guy who never cared for showbiz schmooze in the first place. What stung was that Letterman went out as witty and as intelligent and as quick as ever, and, during the final run, it was clear that he regretted his decision to leave. But it was too late, even as his guests begged him to reconsider. On one of the final episodes, Adam Sandler sang an original song for Dave, speaking for legions of Dave loyalists: “When you say goodbye and take your final drive, in your Ferrari full of stolen office supplies/And we watch you go with eyes full of tears/I hope the cops pull you over and drag you back here for 30 more years”. — Steve Leftridge

 

TV Show: THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT

Network: CBS

Cast: Stephen Colbert, Jonathan Batiste, Stay Human

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The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

The blogosphere compared Stephen Colbert’s late night show to his legendary predecessor for about a week, but that’s all it took for Colbert to make the Ed Sullivan Theater his own unique comic-genius playground. And he jam-packed it with a dizzying amount of rapid-fire entertainment: standup comedy, still best-in-the-biz Colbert Report-style political poleaxing, hilarious recurring bits (“Stephen’s Big Furry Hat”, “Big Questions with Even Bigger Stars”, “Midnight Confessions”, and “The Hungry For Power Games”), rollicking celebrity interviews, and the best musical variety on late-night TV. Colbert booked guests previously off limits on late-night couches — from startup biz whizzes to award-winning novelists to video-game designers to podcasters — and featured exclusive, adventurous musical acts, from a duet between cellist Yo-Yo Ma and ballerina Misty Copeland, to a Halloween appearance by Satanic metal band Ghost. All told, the new Late Show is too intelligent, and perhaps too political, to win the ratings war with the Jimmys, but with Colbert’s peerlessly talented handling of consistently excellent material, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert lands more comedy than any other show even attempts. — Steve Leftridge

The Leftovers and more…

TV Show: THE LEFTOVERS

Network: HBO

Cast: Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston

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The Leftovers
The Leftovers

I was all in on HBO’s The Leftovers from the beginning, but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t frustrated by its often despondent first season. Damon Lindelof’s vision, adapted from the novel by Tom Perrotta, was intricate and at times beautiful, but was also a tough watch. This season didn’t dispel will all of these characteristics, but it did shed a new, and brighter light on the world in which two percent of the population abruptly disappeared. The addition of the Murphy’s and the change in location from New York to Miracle, Texas, were brilliant narrative decisions but The Leftovers second season might be most remarkable for its ability to allow Lindelof to take chances found nowhere else on television — which is saying something, considering the amount of scripted dramas available right now. Loss, redemption, and hope were all on display on The Leftovers this year, making it one of the best and most daring shows of 2015. — Sean Fennell

 

TV Show: MAD MEN

Network: AMC

Cast: Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery

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Mad Men
Mad Men

Mad Men‘s final episodes reconnect with the principal characters in the spring of 1970 and illuminate, over the next six months, life-altering events. With one glaring exception — Betty’s (January Jones) incurable lung cancer — the silver screen’s farewell is upbeat: Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Trudy (Alison Brie) reconcile, Roger (John Slattery) and Marie (Julia Ormond) tie the knot, Joan (Christina Hendricks) starts her own company, Peggy (Elisabeth Olsen) and Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) realize they love one another. But happy endings occur only after considerable pain, and no one learns this better than Don Draper (John Hamm). Shaken by the death of a former flame, and obsessed with an elusive woman he thinks he knows, Don chases ghosts, zigzagging the country until he arrives at a Buddhist retreat in California. There, in the series finale, he hits rock bottom before seeing the light and hatching a bold idea: the iconic Coke commercial that he will pitch to his colleagues at McCann Erickson. Capping off the show’s entire run, Jon Hamm finally won, after seven previous nominations, the Emmy Award for outstanding lead actor in a drama series. — Guy Raffa

 

TV Show: THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE

Network: Amazon

Cast: Alexa Davalos, Rupert Evans, Luke Kleintank

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The Man in the High Castle
The Man in the High Castle

Philip K. Dick wrote The Man in the High Castle, a 1962 story that details a post World War II America, an America that lost the war, and what living in America looks like under Axis control. Amazon has re-imagined Dick’s dated vision with a beautifully detailed and well-acted thriller. At the center of the story is a film that details a future where America did not lose the war. Copies of the film are hunted down by the Nazis, and those involved in plots to preserve it are persecuted and killed. While the hunt for the film drives the plot, it’s the deft reimagining of America that’s the real draw here. The irony that the fist of the Reich is named John Smith, and that the technological advances that are part of America’s post-war heritage have been co-opted by the Nazi’s and Imperial Japan, is chilling. — Daniel Rasmus

 

TV Show: MAN SEEKING WOMAN

Network: FXX

Cast: Jay Baruchel, Eric Andre, Britt Lower

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Man Seeking Woman
Man Seeking Woman

We’ve encountered the premise of Man Seeking Woman before. Josh (Jay Baruchel), an unsuccessful 20-something, is dumped by his longtime girlfriend Maggie (Maya Erskine) for a much older, better-looking man. Josh is heartbroken, and with the help of his best friend Mike (Eric André), tries to get back in the dating game. The premise may be familiar, but the execution is fresh. Every fantasy and fear that Josh has about dating is visually represented in hilarious and heartbreaking fashion. For example, in the episode “Traib”, Josh struggles to text a girl, and the series transports him to a Pentagon-like room, in which he and a bunch of analysts attempt to concoct the perfect message. In the episode “Stain”, Josh and Mike attend a wedding in hell, literally, because weddings often feel like hell for single people. These creative flourishes make Man Seeking Woman the most original comedy on television since Louie. — Jon Lisi

 

TV Show: MASTER OF NONE

Network: NETFLIX

Cast: Aziz Ansari, Noel Wells, Lena Waithe

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Master of None
Master of None

In a year that included a blood-soaked adios from Hannibal, and rapturous acclaim for the shady antics on Better Call Saul, it’s surprising that one of the best shows of 2015 is a sitcom. Aziz Ansari’s heartfelt new Netflix show Master of None transcends the clichés of New York Millennial quirk to deliver a smartly observed comedy alive with fully formed, effortlessly diverse characters. At once sharp and tender, questioning but sincere, Ansari’s comedic voice gets a chance to shine in a new format as he expands ideas about relationships, gender, and the immigrant experience familiar from his standup and recent book Modern Romance. Featuring an effervescent breakout performance from Noël Wells and a charming turn from Ansari’s real-life parents, Master of None is a love letter to modern life in all its ridiculous complexity. The show explores thorny issues in a way that (mostly) avoids the soapbox, mining cathartic comedy from the uncertainty of young adulthood. — Natasha Gatian

 

TV Show: MR ROBOT

Network: USA

Cast: Rami Malek, Portia Doubleday, Christian Slater

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Mr Robot
Mr Robot

It’s easy to spin Mr. Robot as a redemption story, at least on a macro level. The USA network, after a decade of easygoing, mostly lighthearted dramas (e.g., Psych, Burn Notice, to name two of the best), decided to get serious and serialized, and succeeded wildly. Christian Slater, after headlining four absolute television bombs in a row, takes a supporting role and finally gets it right. But really, Mr. Robot was all about creator Sam Esmail and star Rami Malek. If you recognized Malek at all, it was probably as the pharaoh in the Night at the Museum movies. Esmail, for his part, literally seemed to come out of nowhere to present us with a show that was fully formed from its amazing thriller of a pilot. Malek plays Elliot, a socially maladjusted hacker who spends his days working cyber security, and his nights dispensing justice to creeps via the Internet. He’s soon recruited into the mysterious underground collective fsociety, whose goal it is to bring down the omnipresent E Corp, and take the power away from the super-wealthy. We’ve all seen the socially awkward hacker character before, but Elliot is unique. He’s an unrepentant drug addict, both quietly and openly hostile to other people, and not at all sure of his sanity. He tells the viewing audience upfront that he’s an unreliable narrator, and admits he’s probably crazy to be talking to us, an unseen third party who doesn’t exist in his world. The show then goes on to use that unreliability like a weapon against us, drawing us into the story while keeping us off balance. This is where Slater’s suspicious Mr. Robot character enters the picture as the leader of fsociety. It all builds to a huge climax as fsociety prepares to take down E Corp in the season finale … and then Esmail throws the audience for a loop yet again, leaving us dangling on his hook for season two. — Chris Conaton

 

TV Show: ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK

Network: Netflix

Cast: Taylor Schilling, Danielle Brooks, Taryn Manning

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Orange Is the New Black
Orange is the New Black

By this time, Orange is the New Black has established itself as a series eager to explore the complexities of women and their relationships, and the third season is no different. Loosely tied by the theme of mothers and daughters, this season tackles the messiness of those relationships, both in and out of Litchfield Penitentiary. What the series excels at is presenting the complicated emotions and motivations of these women in ways both heartbreaking and amusing, and that balance is key to the series’ success. It can offer a scene of real violence or sadness, and then shift to the very funny fan-fiction subplot, a season highlight, with ease. But when it’s especially great is when it can build in one direction and then veer off in the other seamlessly, as it did with Cindy’s (Adrienne C. Moore) conversion to Judaism, equal parts hilarious and moving. Orange is the New Black continues to mine territory that has often received short shrift, and it always does so with humor and thoughtfulness. — J. M. Suarez

Playing House and more…

TV Show: PLAYING HOUSE

Network: USA

Cast: Lennon Parham, Jessica St. Clair, Keegan-Michael Key

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Playing House
Playing House

The second season of USA’s brilliant, yet criminally underwatched Playing House is the most unapologetically celebratory show about female friendship in a long time. Its leads, Emma (Jessica St. Clair) and Maggie (Lennon Parham), call to mind Lucy and Ethel and Laverne and Shirley in their unwavering support for one another, coupled with with a propensity for shenanigans and hare-brained schemes. Real-life best friends St. Clair and Parham understand the shorthand that exists after years of friendship. They reference past experiences, share inside jokes, and finish each other’s sentences in ways that always feel genuine and relatable. An outstanding supporting cast, including Keegan-Michael Key, Zach Woods, Brad Morris, and Jane Krakowski, as well as a slew of excellent guest stars, rounds out the series. Playing House is a gem — it’s hilarious and moving, silly and self-deprecating — but above all it’s a tribute to friendship. — J. M. Suarez

 

TV Show: READY FOR THIS

Network: ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company)

Cast: Majeda Beatty, Liam Talty, Madeleine Madden

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Ready For This
Ready For This

Ready For This makes a strong case for being the best young adult TV show of 2015. Focusing on a cast of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander characters — Ava (Majeda Beatty), Dylan (Liam Talty), Lily (Leonie Whyman), Zoe (Madeleine Madden), and Levi (Aaron L. McGrath) — the series has broken new ground in its portrayal of the problems faced by these communities in contemporary Australia, while retaining a fresh and lighthearted feel. This is especially significant in a cultural context in which the majority of the media representation that young Aboriginal people are exposed to tends to be in terms of negative stereotypes of either lawlessness or addiction. Setting itself apart as a nuanced and engaging exploration of young, urban culture that remains connected with traditional community belief and practices, and with its original handling of queer, gender, and class issues, Ready For This has already established itself as one of the best new series of its genre. — Rukmini Pande

 

TV Show: RECTIFY

Network: Sundance TV

Cast: Aden Young, Abigail Spencer, J. Smith Cameron

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Rectify
Rectify

Rectify continues to be the best drama series on television that only a few people watch. As expected, showrunner Ray McKinnon takes his time to tell the story. He focuses on the quiet moments that are memorable if only because the characters live like real people, and their lives on a day-to-day basis aren’t riveting. The third season offers fewer episodes, but they’re all excellent. Daniel Holden (Aden Young) remains a mystery, but he gradually starts to make sense of himself. His sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) is still angry at the world, but she slowly moves closer to acceptance. His mother Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) continues to be the protector, but she increasingly realizes that she must give her adult son the space to grow. Redemption doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years for human beings to transform. Rectify‘s about that painful process, and it’s been a pleasure to watch these characters develop on their own terms. — Jon Lisi

 

TV Show: RIVER MONSTERS

Network: ANIMAL PLANET

Cast: Jeremy Wade

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River Monsters
River Monsters

I’ve always hated TV; it’s a vicious way to sell soap. (I didn’t even own one until I got married.) While I usually turn it off after my wife goes to bed, one night I found “River Monsters”, a show about a compact, grey-haired British guy (Jeremy Wade) with intense blue eyes who flies around the world fishing in fresh water for mysterious killer fish. There’s none of the jaw-dropping cinematography you get on the nature channels; instead, you get really low-budget reenactments of people eating fish in muddy water. Jeremy Wade figures out what kind of fish it is, and goes fishing. He talks about lures and bait and line-weight, he wades, he paddles, he swims, he boats. In the end, he usually gets the fish. (They’re scary looking!) After your third vodka-soda-lime, that’s entertainment. — William Gibson

 

TV Show: UNPLANNED AMERICA

Network: Netflix

Cast: Pawel Jarecki, Tim ‘Gonzo’ Ryan, Nick Maher

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Unplanned America
Unplanned America

Unplanned America‘s premise is reality TV distilled to its most basic elements. Three Australian friends set out on a cross-country US road trip with nothing but a camera and a desire to explore America’s weirdest subcultures. The show has everything that one wants from mindless entertainment: foreign takes on local culture, sensationalism, and a visual style that, despite our rational faculties, still makes us think we’re watching objective reporting. However, the pleasures that Unplanned America ends up offering are far from mindless. Rather, they’re mindful both of reality TV’s ability to encourage empathy, and of the desire of contemporary audiences to feel connected to the world around them. Whether or UFO chasers, Juggalos or activists, the show allows marginalized Americans to talk about those experiences and desires that all of us have in common: the glories and disappointments of our culture, the sadness of injustice, the joy of community. The result is a humanization not only of the rather sordid “reality TV” genre but also of those who consume it. — Desirae Embree

 

TV Show: UNREAL

Network: Lifetime

Cast: Shiri Appleby, Constance Zimmer, Craig Bierko

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UnREAL
UnREAL

A series that embraces all the soapy elements that make the behind-the-scenes goings on of a The Bachelor-type show, UnREAL also plays with and eschews stereotypes about women competing for a man. At the heart of Lifetime’s smart and unflinching look at the manipulations and irresponsibility of these dating reality shows, is a story of complicated, thorny female friendship. The relationship between Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and Rachel (Shiri Appleby) is messy and involved, and it’s the show’s embracing of that complexity that makes UnREAL more than a guilty pleasure or a campy send up, particularly as they’re both often unlikable. The women vying for the affections of Everlasting‘s bachelor, Adam (Freddie Stroma), are frequently troubled and vulnerable, making them more than the stereotypes they embody on screen, and revealing just how fake and produced the show ultimately is — ‘unreal’.

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