The Best TV Shows of 2015

You may have heard the term “peak TV” tossed around this year. There certainly is a lot of it; some outlets have run top 20 or top 40 lists of the best shows of the year, and still managed to leave off plenty of great stuff. We here at like watching TV, but we also like respecting your time. So we tried to winnow our group list down to ten. Then, when that didn’t really work, we went for twelve – thirteen with an unbreakable tie. This, to us, feels manageable. You can catch up on these thirteen shows and feel like you’ve gotten up to speed with the best the medium has to offer. In fact, we emphatically insist that you do so right as soon as you finish this list. Let’s go!

A Baker’s Dozen of the Best TV Shows of 2015

(tie) 12. Daredevil

Netflix, Season One

While it’s not Ben Affleck’s fault, Daredevil’s last foray into live action is a prime example of the difficulties of writing for this particular superhero. In the wrong hands, he’s a low-rent Batman (except more violent and less interesting). This isn’t a problem with his new Netflix show, where Matt Murdock’s battle against injustice both in the courtroom and the streets of Hell’s Kitchen is treated as a complex organized crime yarn about the evils of gentrification first and a superhero story second. Fans may have been serviced with references to the comics, but never to the detriment of the story.

Most of the cast and guest stars do good work, but Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance as Wilton Fisk steals the show. This sympathetic portrayal with a focus on his love life moves Fisk from Daredevil’s traditional antagonist to his twisted reflection, wanting the same things for Hell’s Kitchen as Murdoch but using diametrically opposed methods to get it. It’s what allowed me to recommend this show to my dad, which is the highest praise I can give it.

See also: So you finished watching Daredevil, now what? – Rob

(tie) 12. The Americans

FX, Season Three

The Americans has a bunch of great elements, but the thing that sets it apart is the way it distills, in studying two Soviet spies, the ordinary pains and fears of adult life. The 1980s setting provides a gold mine of nostalgic/horrifying references (Frusen Gladje!) for viewers of a certain age. The performances, especially Keri Russell’s, are among the best on TV. It has chase scenes, fight scenes, and sex scenes, and even shocking moments of at-home emergency dentistry or a guy getting executed by having a truck tire lowered onto him and then lit on fire.
And all that sounds like an unlikely mix for a regular Joe/Josephine to relate to, but underneath all the circumstances these spies are in a familiar situation. They find themselves adults with a marriage, kids, and jobs they might once have been passionate about. The things they do sometimes trouble them (especially Philip). Elizabeth’s mother is dying. And then their handlers request, with growing firmness, that they begin to prepare their daughter to take up the spying lifestyle, and it drives a wedge between them. Having to decide what is best for their daughter differs from deciding what they can endure for themselves, but where Elizabeth sees a chance to bring her daughter into the world she inhabits, Philip remembers all the awful things they’ve had to go through, and beneath their arguments the old questions sit: Are the things we’ve done justified? Are we good people? – Michael

11. You’re the Worst

FXX, Season Two

I admit: I haven’t seen all of the first season of You’re the Worst. I actually haven’t seen all of the second season, either, because Fox is kind of a dick about On Demand and streaming stuff. But I’m here to tell you it doesn’t really matter, because You’re the Worst grabbed me late, late at night, waiting for my wife to give birth, when I caught the end of the episode “There Is Not Currently a Problem,” in which Gretchen (Aya Cash) blows up at her friends and reveals her simmering battle with depression, and was struck by its emotional rawness, even only knowing the characters on a cursory level. I was hooked in time to catch “LCD Soundsystem” two weeks later – the best episode of TV I’ve seen since Mad Men signed off for the year and Girls for the reason. The rest of the season has been quite good, too, and Marisa has already written about why “LCD Soundsystem” is so structurally special. But that single episode was also so funny, sad, rueful, and frightening about growing up, settling in, changing lives, changing circumstances, and life in general that I may have instantly given You’re the Worst a lifetime pass. I’ve heard some fans prefer the first season because it was funnier. But I watch a lot of funny shows. I don’t watch anything, currently, capable of an episode like “LCD Soundsystem.” – Jesse

10. Silicon Valley

HBO, Season Two

This is to let you know that the blurb for Silicon Valley will no longer be written by a human. The blurb will be written by our new blurb algorithm. That algorithm will compile all the things written in the most liked, most favorite, most tweeted, most shared items from other blurbs, and regurgitate them to you. It will send you email while you sleep. It will send you texts while you are eating lunch.

That algorithm will add images of retargeted advertisements of things you were just looking at into the side bar, so that you think to yourself, “wait, did I remember to buy that?” And then you go off and buy that so that the algorithm makes us money. The algorithm lives to make money.

The algorithm will also suggest articles on other sites about children celebrities and wardrobe mishaps and men getting mauled by condors. These are articles you will click on but feel ashamed to read. They will be listicles.

This is the world we live in, and this is why Silicon Valley is on this list: Our daily routines are engineered by people squeezing fractions of a cent out of our clicks. While the business press get enamored with tales of young billionaires selling banner ads, Silicon Valley serves as the necessary satirical counterpoint. – Ben

9. Better Call Saul

AMC, Season One

Loyal viewers of Breaking Bad had every right to be dubious when this spin-off prequel was announced. Crooked lawyer Saul Goodman was something of a fan favorite since his first appearance in season two, based in no small part on Bob Odenkirk’s singular meld of snake oil and sweat. But was he really a character who could sustain his own series? Originally conceived as a half-hour show some speculated that it could take a case of the week format. Or worse, merely serve as a long-form wink for BB diehards. And while the seams of those plans occasionally show in the first few episodes by the time the series was digging into the dark last days Mike Ehrmentraut, another fan favorite ported over from BB, spent on the Philly police force, Saul proved itself to be something much more wily and heartbreaking than anyone could have hoped.
Better Call Saul
It turns out Saul, known here by his birth name Jimmy McGill, has a soul. A put-upon public defender trying to stand outside the shadow of his brilliant but afflicted older brother Chuck (played by a marvelously cast against type Michael McKean,) Jimmy is a natural Sisyphean hero. He’s also got a reputation as a grifter he’s desperate to shake. But there are people in his life who care about him, and it’s their absence from the Bad universe that makes watching Saul a tense and poignant viewing experience for those who know where its titular character ends up. It’s not without laughs, certainly; like its predecessor it knows how to wring dark humor from situations both painful and absurd. Indeed that’s where the art of Vince Gilligan’s series really lies: in the balance. Between comedy and tragedy. Brightness and seediness. The anticipation for the other shoe to drop and the dread of what will follow. If this stellar first season is any indication it’s going to be an incredible ride. – Sara

8. Girls

HBO, Season Four

Only one show on this list is older than Girls, which speaks to both the sense of ADD novelty that can sometimes drive “peak TV” and perhaps some lingering impatience with the HBO comedy series that can go four seasons and counting on characters in their mid-twenties not quite growing up. But the craft of Lena Dunham’s divisive show remains as sophisticated and delightful as anything on TV, and few shows have such a knack for producing at least a couple of standout episodes — not story arcs, not great WTF moments, not cliffhangers, but honest-to-god episodes — every year. This year’s highlight was “Sit-In,” in which Hannah (Dunham) returns from grad school early, finds that her apparently-ex has shacked up with someone else, and then refuses to leave the apartment they used to share for 24 hours. But it didn’t all build to one terrifically staged break-up; the show also visited writing workshops, art galleries, political campaigns, and awkward parental revelations with its trademark visceral humor and “unlikable” (which is to say utterly believable) characters intact. – Jesse

7. Fargo

FX, Season Two

A dark shadow haunts Fargo’s second season. Its characters move through their quiet, midwestern lives at the end of the 1970s, and are only dimly aware that something terrible is hovering over them, waiting to suddenly descend and destroy everything they’ve so carefully assembled. I’m talking of course, about the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The season begins with us literally waiting for Reagan, as an actor and a crew member on a fictional film called “Massacre at Sioux Falls” make awkward smalltalk while the wait for Ronald the actor to have his arrows put in so they can begin filming. That film links the impending Reagan 80s with the other shadow that’s hanging over this season: we know something very bad is going to go down at Sioux Falls. We know this because in season one, Keith Carradine’s Lou Solverson mentions something terrible that he saw in 1979, saying to that season’s Big Bad, “I’d call it animal, except animals only kill for food. This was… Sioux Falls. Ever been?” No, says Lorne Malvo, he has not. But is he lying? What happened in Sioux Falls in 1979, and was season one’s resident devil somehow to blame?

I won’t spoil the answers to any of those questions, except to say that Fargo’s second season trades the first’s obsession with gods and devils and demons as metaphors for the evil that men can do for a more period-appropriate one: aliens and UFOs. Where season one was about evil, season two was about, well evil, sure, but also about strangeness, about inscrutability. Characters who behave in confusing ways and frustrate us by refusing to offer any kind of explanation. The absolute capriciousness of a thing like cancer. Bodies and bodies that pile up after a simple car accident caused by some mysterious lights in the sky.

This is some dark stuff, which is why it’s important to mention how much fun this season of Fargo is. Last year, in my write-up of season one, I said that confidence was the signature element of this show. At the time, I called making the show in the first place and casting Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele as FBI agents a mark of that confidence. I didn’t know the half of it. Season two lets loose with stylistic flourishes that shouldn’t work: frequent split screens, overt references to every Coen Brothers movie, hallucinatory self-help gurus, the sudden emergence of a previously unheard narrator, and, of course, the season-long refusal to stop mentioning UFOs. Every single one of them lands, and makes the viewing experience of Fargo season two a series of (to reuse another phrase I rolled out for season one) delightful surprises.
As always, the cast is uniformly excellent. I already expected good things from Patrick Wilson, Jesse Plemons, and Nick Offerman, and they deliver. Kirsten Dunst runs away with most of her scenes, delivering a performance that suddenly made me remember that she was in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and reminded me that I should really see Melancholia. My favorite surprise was Bokeem Woodbine, as Kansas City hitman Mike Milligan, and seemingly the only black man in a series of very, very white states. Every note of his performance is marked by the need to put on an act for the people around him, so much so that he essentially sounds like Dave Chappelle when he ventriloquizes a white man. But then, very occasionally, he drops the act for a second, and retroactively layers all of his preceding scenes with menace.

There’s so much else that I love about this season that I don’t want to talk about, because I would hate to rob viewers of what has become my default facial expression while watching Fargo: a big, shocked grin. – Craig

6. Broad City

Comedy Central, Season Two

When I watched the first season of Broad City, it was a breath of fresh air, albeit air that reeks of Penn Station sushi and is inhaled from a bong. I was nervous about the second season—could the Fung Wah bus jokes sustain us through another season? When Ilana hired a gaggle of interns in episode 2, I knew that everything would be fine, since that episode showed Ilana at her funniest. Another favorite of mine is the picaresque episode about a dog wedding in Prospect Park; it’s hysterically funny and great satire that uncomfortably holds a mirror to the face of privileged Brooklyn. Even though real adults say, “I don’t get that show—they’re just high all the time,” I’m excited to watch Season 3 and continue to live vicariously through the hijinks of Abbi and Ilana. – Lorraina

5. Mr. Robot

USA, Season One

To appreciate Mr. Robot, you must accept that sometimes two contradictory statements can be true at the same time. Mr. Robot is strange and stylized; Mr. Robot is genuine and heartfelt. Mr. Robot makes a sincere point about consumerism and corporations; Mr. Robot is a show on the USA Network. And perhaps most difficult: Mr. Robot seems a lot like Fight Club; Mr. Robot is the most original show to air on TV this year.

From the very beginning, the show is shot in such a visually interesting way (in New York locations, with a seeming disregard for how TV shows are “supposed” to look, from the credits onward) and written so intelligently (never going for the cheap or easy, and even making an effort to show hacking that actually makes sense to anyone who knows something about computers) that in the first couple of episodes you’re willing to forgive it for seeming like an elaborate homage to the earlier film and book. It helps that Rami Malek, as the narrator and main character, is such a compellingly odd figure, and that he’s surrounded by a cast that’s also slightly off and slightly (or extremely) sinister. None of them feel overdone or stock; all of them feel bizarrely, unpredictably alive.
And, it turns out, the larger plot of the show only seems like an homage. I spent the first half a dozen episodes waiting for the obvious shoe to drop, which meant I was completely unprepared when a different pair of shoes entirely fell out of the sky and landed on my head. It’s a brilliant first season, strange and wild. However season two ends up resolving (or not resolving) the many loose ends left by the the first-season finale (where is Tyrell? what did Elliot do while blacked out? what the hell is up with BD Wong?), it’s still an amazing accomplishment. Mr. Robot broke out of the mold to confidently tell a story that, like its protagonist, lives outside the conventions and rules of the usual world. – Maggie

4. Master of None

Netflix, Season One

Master of None is the change it wants to be in the world. The 10-episode Netflix sitcom, created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, doesn’t just mount episodes that lament traditional sitcoms’ reluctance to cast two people of color as leads—its main friend group is made up of mostly people of color, not all of whom are straight, and throws in a token white guy. When it focuses an episode on the idea that women get a raw deal in life, especially professionally—and, yes, it did focus an episode on the idea that women get a raw deal!—it has a woman, namely the awesome Lynn Shelton, direct the episode. (That one is titled “Ladies and Gentlemen,” and it’s my favorite of the series, and not just because there’s a sing-along to Toto’s “Africa.” And by “sing-along,” I mean that I sang along.)

Of course, none of that would matter if it wasn’t funny. Thankfully, it is. It’s not the most hilarious show, saturated with mile-a-minute gags of a series like 30 Rock. But it definitely inspires smiles, chuckles, and the cathartic kind of laugh you do when someone makes a spot-on observation about something you’ve experienced in your life, but never really thought about. To say the show is relatable sounds pat, but the best thing about it is that it is extremely down-to-Earth. There are rarely cartoonish, “comic relief” side-characters,and nobody is really a villain. Bad things happen, but they are normal bad things, and the characters can always seem to find the humor in a grim situation and move on, even when that something grim is as entrenched and unsolvable as the gender wage gap. Yikes, that sounds dire, but did I mention the Toto? —Marisa

3. Jessica Jones

Netflix, Season One

Despite the fact that Daredevil established that Netflix’s “Defenders” series of shows would have a level of craft and creative freedom not necessarily enjoyed by their cinematic big brothers the Avengers, I was worried about Jessica Jones. Based on one of my favorite comics, Alias by Brian Michael Bendis, Jessica is maybe the least well-known character to lead a Marvel project since the abysmal, low-budget Man-Thing. I had already seen another great Bendis comic, Powers, make an unsuccessful transition to the small screen this year. Jessica Jones, then, was a big gamble. And it paid off.

By translating Alias into a smart and adult-oriented Netflix series, Marvel made something rarely seen on television: a show about women and their relationships with each other. Krysten Ritter plays Jessica Jones perfectly as a super-powered PI with an edge and a past. She’s a drunk full of sardonic humor, but not without empathy and altruism under her sarcastic surface. While her worldview is understandably misanthropic, her friendship with Trish Walker (Man-Thing star [!] Rachael Taylor) and romance with Luke Cage (Michael Colter) keep Jessica grounded and relatable. That type of nuance and depth stretches to all the characters in the show. Jessica’s junkie neighbor Malcolm and her high-powered attorney/employer Jeryn (played by an impressively steely Carrie-Anne Moss) get their own full character arcs. Even David Tennant’s convincingly scary psychopath Kilgrave gets a relatable backstory while making him no less a monster. While I wish Jessica Jones spent more time doing detective work, this adaptation also functions as a powerful metaphor for trauma and abuse. – Rob

2. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Netflix, Season One

Probably at least 94.3% of why I like this show is Tituss Burgess. His timing and delivery is so spot-on and Titus Andromedon’s absurdity-providing B plots are the best upon best. An uprising of off-brand Disney character actors? Peeno noir? That scene where he’s filming outside of the strip club using his ringtone as score? All genius. I could not hear any talk of the Entourage movie without thinking of him. Tituss forever. – Hailey

OK, I have to poke in here for a moment. Burgess has been rightfully praised for his excellent work on Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s brilliant survivor comedy, but sometimes, I think, this has come at the expense of Kimmy herself, Ellie Kemper. The mode of most of the great single-camera comedies of the past decade or so has been the killer ensemble (even with a star like Fey or Steve Carell at the center); Kemper certainly did some time pitching in over on The Office. Kimmy Schmidt has a great variety of characters, but when the show’s favorite joke sources (namely, characters who are comically, increasingly ridiculously incompetent at their jobs) sometimes grow repetitive and the supporting characters outlandish, Ellie Kemper is there both grounding and elevating her material. It’s one of the most outright winning performances I’ve seen on a sitcom, especially on one as consistently hilarious as this. – Jesse

1. Mad Men

AMC, Season Seven (continued)

All four of the writers who gave Mad Men their number one slot weighed in on their choice.

As with last year’s #1 TV pick, Mad Men has been so thoroughly digested by the internet and the media that it already may feel like old news. And for all of the think-piece attention it received earlier this year, it failed to parlay a weird AMC mandated split-season into an increase of viewership the way its network stablemate Breaking Bad did two years ago. But while 2015 was indeed full of brilliant new television (and terrific work by returning favorites), Mad Men still managed to end its run in exactly the same way it spent the previous eight years: as the best show on television.

Without the genre trappings of nearly every other show in this Golden Age of Television Drama, it can be hard to talk about Mad Men‘s many virtues without making it sound like homework. It’s so quiet! It’s so subtle! It’s so attuned to the emotional reality of its characters! It’s so full of mundane detail! And it was all of those things, but of course it was also frequently hilarious, moving, sexy, and thrilling in its own way.

Picking up from last year’s “Waterloo,” in which Don had pulled off yet another last minute miracle and saved his job by finally surrendering his (and his company’s) independence to the monolithic McCann-Erickson, the last seven episodes almost immediately replace this feeling of victory with a heavy sense of impending closure. Granted peace and comfort and security, Don (and the show itself) is left to contend only with the sense that he has nothing else left to do, that he’s outlived his real utility or vitality. And the show actually makes that feeling of “what could possibly come next?” a focus of the storytelling, with a creeping feeling of decay as Don’s life disappears bit by bit (the furniture, the apartment, the office, the car, the suit).

While Don travels the country scraping his life down to see if there’s anything else inside, Peggy is left to weather the huge changes he set in motion before disappearing. She has that moving phone call with Stan in the finale, but the true mark of what a great character she is and how far she’s come (and one of the best moments on television all year) is in “Lost Horizon” as she walks down that hallway to take her place at McCann on her own terms.

And look how much I’ve already written without getting to the great curtain calls for characters like Duck Phillips, Johnny Mathis, Lou Avery (what a great final line!), and Glenn Bishop, or the very emotional developments for Betty or Joan (heartbreaking and infuriating, respectively). Or the marvelous, maddening ambiguity of those final moments, as funny and challenging as the iconic ending of The Sopranos, but also perfectly specific to Mad Men. It’s hard to tell how a show like this will live on in the culture, but everyone involved should at least feel satisfied that they created something beautiful and true.

I put Mad Men in my top slot this year despite being one of the people that was underwhelmed by what Nathaniel called the “maddening ambiguity” of the ending. I realized, though, that any ending to the show would feel like a letdown, because Mad Men was not ever going to be about conclusions. What was most important to the show was the characters themselves, not necessarily what happened to them. So, it didn’t entirely matter whether or not Don ended up returning to his dog-eat-dog advertising world or not — saying goodbye at all is the real bummer.

It’s a bit difficult for me to put into words, now that it’s all over, just how much Mad Men meant to me. It’s not just because it was stunningly beautiful or methodically structured in that way writers love or because Roger Sterling reminded me, mostly from his sense of humor, of my father. It allowed me to write my novel, when I thought that no one would care (and, admittedly, they still might not.) It made me ponder all the stories that my elders kept to themselves, of being alive in such a time. And it made me think about what it meant to devote yourself to something beyond necessary obligations, and the costs of doing so. Don Draper was an ad man to the end and whether his final vision was meant to convey optimism or the deepest cynicism is a matter I won’t debate here. All I know is that I’m grateful to the show for its myriad figures of femininity, from Peggy and Joan to Betty and Sally to the much maligned Megan, and many of Don’s other mistresses. While the ultimate antihero might leave behind little more than a Coke slogan it’s the women that surround him that will endure in my memory, and keep me returning to the show in years to come.

I only started watching Mad Men sometime last year, but it worked its way into my heart so, so quickly, with its short-story-like marriage stories and dark, dry humor (and, oh yeah, plus all that advertising stuff). I can’t claim the longtime devotion that Nathaniel and Sara can, and there may have been a recency effect in my ranking it number one for the year, plus a make-up effect for all those years I didn’t watch, plus a confusion effect because I watched over half the episodes they ever made in the weeks leading up to the final seven. But I think even on their own, those final seven have more than enough “wow” for a year of TV: Betty going up those goddamned stairs, for one. Peggy walking into her new office with a cigarette, for another. And Don Draper reaching out to both of them on the phone, desperate for human connection.

You guys, I think Mad Men has spoiled me for TV forever. What do I do?