Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The best TV of 2015, part 1

Illustration by Sarah Winifred Searle (swinsea.com)

In 2015, readymade and/or reductive ways of summarizing the year’s TV output cropped up as frequently and unexpectedly as new seasons of Netflix originals. Plummeting viewership foretold a true broadcast apocalypse, until Empire strode onto the scene, expanding its audience in every week of its first season. Season two brought diminished returns (in the ratings and the show’s mad-science approach to soap-opera plotting), though its continued popularity—combined with passionate responses to Black-ish, Fresh Off The Boat, Jane The Virgin, Transparent, Master Of None, and (sigh) Dr. Ken—signaled the TV audience’s interest in a broader range of storytelling perspectives. A few months later, FX CEO John Landgraf seemed to put the TV year in a nutshell, but his prediction of “peak TV in America” was the subject of so much initial handwringing and scrutinizing that the general public (and some of the critics Landgraf was addressing) twisted the notion of peak TV into a jokey hashtag in a matter of weeks.


Some of that response could’ve been knee-jerk defensiveness: Peak TV essentially destroys any TV analyst’s pretensions to comprehensiveness. Any one critic’s list of a year’s best television is bound to have some blindspots, but the members of a voting body (like the A.V. Club staffers and contributors responsible for the following list) can usually fill in one another’s gaps. 2015, however, might be a first in television history, in which no round-up of the year’s finest programming is guaranteed to be all-encompassing. Arguably, there’s a more interesting and less conventional “best TV of 2015” list to be compiled from the margins of A.V. Club contributors’ ballots and the upcoming AVQ&A about the stuff that didn’t make our top 40. But even if the following picks only represent a sliver of the TV that debuted across multiple platforms in the U.S. this year, there’s no arguing that these are the TV offerings that The A.V. Club loved the most as a critical mass. And enjoying something as a critical mass is what a populist art form like television is all about.

40. Marvel’s Daredevil (Netflix)


With the Marvel Cinematic Universe expanding into infinity, the idea of five series coming to Netflix on top of existing movies and TV shows could have been the bridge too far. Thankfully, the first of those series dispelled those worries almost immediately—or rather, artfully beat them into submission. As envisioned by Drew Goddard and Steven S. DeKnight, Daredevil was a taut and brutal affair that took advantage of its lower profile to tell a much darker and more involved story than anything the MCU’s big-screen efforts have tackled, setting events in a Hell’s Kitchen that was rendered a virtual no man’s land following The Avengers. Charlie Cox’s portrayal of Matt Murdock healed the damage done to the character by the disastrous Ben Affleck film, conveying his conviction and the toll of his crusade; and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk became the most fascinating villain in Marvel’s stable with his conception of himself as the story’s hero. While the plotting suffered at times, the show’s aesthetic and technical prowess was unimpeachable, and its second season—which will add Elektra and The Punisher to the mix—is poised to hit even harder. [Les Chappell]

Notable episodes: Cut Man,” “Stick,” “Nelson V. Murdock

39. Fresh Off The Boat (ABC)


Although solid in the short first season that aired during the first half of the year, Fresh Off The Boat has—like ABC’s similarly strong Black-ish—come into its own in its second season, operating with an almost absurd level of confidence. While anchored in season one by Constance Wu’s dynamic portrayal of Jessica Huang, this season the show just feels richer: Jessica’s friendship with neighbor Honey (Chelsey Crisp) has offered new insight into the character; Eddie’s friends have evolved into scene-stealing geniuses; Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen) have grown from one-line scene stealers into legitimate characters with their own inner lives; and the central family unit strikes that right balance of oddball and heartwarming. While the show will need to keep balancing an effort to broaden its appeals with its initial—and valuable—cultural specificity, there’s a sense this season in particular that there’s no limit to where the Huang Family and company can go before they reach “The End Of The Road.” [Myles McNutt]

Notable episodes:Pilot,” “So Chineez,” “Boy II Man

38. South Park (Comedy Central)


South Park has always been driven by controversy, whether it was the raunchy gross-out humor of its early years, or more recent seasons’ tendency to present a negative, false equivalency between two vocal sides of a hot topic—the classic “both sides are wrong” argument that tends to turn sharp satire into lazy, solution-less farce. Seasons 18 and 19, though, have been strangely refreshing. Last year’s semi-experimental approach to serialization and continuity was intriguing (even if the finale was a bit too messy); this year’s attempt at the same feels more confident and complete. More importantly, the season takes aim at a clear satirical target—a self-righteous contingency of straight, white dudes who bully political correctness for bro-points instead of promoting true social justice—while potently exploring gentrification, “tell it like it is” politicians, entitlement culture, and, most surprisingly, South Park’s own reputation (all with a bit of bizarre sci-fi goodness). For all its issues, South Park is taking a stand this season, ending with a crass commitment to perhaps change its approach (even if Stan admits how hard it will be), and encouraging its viewers to do the same. [Kevin Johnson]

Notable episodes:Where My Country Gone?,” “City Part Of Town,” “Naughty Ninjas


37. Bloodline (Netflix)


It’s not essential for a new series to stack its bench with the deepest roster of established and accomplished powerhouse actors it can find—but it doesn’t hurt. Netflix’s slow-burn exercise in family power struggles sure took its time explaining how things got to that first-episode bombshell—the explosive dispatching of a family member—but that’s because all the good stuff was happening in between the action. As a demonstration of top-notch acting, Bloodline can go toe-to-toe with any other show on this list, with Sissy Spacek, Kyle Chandler, Linda Cardellini, Norbert Leo Butz, and series standout Ben Mendelsohn giving note-perfect performances, and having the superb supporting cast rise to meet them. The Rayburns are that precious TV commodity—a recognizably human family, relatable and infuriating in equal measure. Like its sunny Florida Keys setting, the show made a strength of languid and easygoing vibes; but it never failed to remind you that all that heat is just waiting to throw off sparks and ignite a psychodrama blaze. [Alex McCown]

Notable episodes: Part 3,” “Part 6,” “Part 11

36. Please Like Me (Pivot)


For even savvy television viewers, the word “pivot” is more likely to evoke thoughts of Friends moving couches rather than a scrappy little cable channel. Noteworthiness may still be an upward climb, but the 2-year-old Pivot has staked interesting ground in the cable landscape by airing quirky foreign imports. The best of these is Australia’s Please Like Me, a coming-of-age comedy created by comedian Josh Thomas that follows twentysomething Josh’s life after he comes out to his friends and family. Smart, extremely funny, and full of heart, Please Like Me is committed to telling small, emotionally precise stories about the ways people’s lives intersect, exemplified in its stellar season three by Josh’s growing relationship with the formerly fragile Arnold (Keegan Joyce) and his frank and surprisingly poignant support of former girlfriend Claire (Caitlin Stasey) as she gets an abortion. No show better understands the inextricable link between tragedy and comedy, and the ways friends make both the best and worst of life better. [Carrie Raisler]

Notable episodes:Eggplant,” “Natural Spring Water,” “Pancakes With Faces

35. Bob’s Burgers (Fox)


Don’t let the preemptions fool you: Bob’s Burgers is still very much worth your time. Now just shy of 100 episodes, the series has established itself as one of Fox’s most winsome offerings. It’s a cheerfully surreal little show that’s also a heartwarming family comedy: The Belchers’ genuine affection for each other is never diluted by their madcap schemes and subsequent rifts. The key is in the elastic storytelling—which allows the Belcher parents and their offspring to scatter in every direction in pursuit of their (oft-thwarted) dreams—only to snap back into place and bring them all back together, usually at the show’s eponymous restaurant. But that’s not to say that the characters haven’t experienced discernible growth: Tina’s no longer quite so in thrall to Jimmy Jr. (or puberty), Bob’s less downtrodden, and Gene’s become a little more grounded. The stories are no less ridiculous, though, as evidenced by the freegan fashion and Santa-courting of the past year. [Danette Chavez]

Notable episodes: “The Runway Club,” “Hawk And Chick,” “Nice-capades”

34. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp (Netflix)


Considering what the cast members of Wet Hot American Summer achieved after they left Camp Firewood, it wasn’t surprising that First Day Of Camp proved a worthy prequel to the film. Still, it was fascinating to see the show manage to reunite said cast, but that really spoke to the amount of love everyone involved with WHAS has for the film. That love remains apparent in First Day Of Camp—along with the intelligent stupidity that marked David Wain and Michael Showalter’s sense of humor in the first place. The series doesn’t miss a beat in recapturing that comedic sensibility, whether it’s Elizabeth Banks pulling a Never Been Kissed, “serious actors” Jon Hamm and Chris Meloni in hand-to-hand combat, or H. Jon Benjamin transforming into a talking can of mixed vegetables. Compared to another Netflix continuation, Arrested Development, there’s never a question of whether First Day Of Camp’s execution is true to its predecessor—it is from the opening moments to the end, taking us “Higher And Higher.” [LaToya Ferguson]

Notable episodes:Campers Arrive,” “Electro/City,” “Day Is Done

33. Broad City (Comedy Central)


Thanks to the strong comic voices of co-creators and co-stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, Broad City’s marriage of the mundane and the surreal is seamless, because however far-fetched its action, the show’s emotional reality is sincere. An argument over a ruined dildo becomes an earnest, charged unpacking of sexual desires and hangups. The bulk aisle of Whole Foods becomes a wonderland where a doped-up Abbi frolics with Bingo Bronson, her favorite stuffed animal come to life. Ilana’s leisurely rollerblade through the park becomes a bacchanal where sap, bark, and body mingle. And all these transformations come about without abandoning the essential truth of the characters or the nature of the show. It’s filthy, it’s funny, it’s brash and audacious and at its heart, Broad City is deeply sweet in its unabashed celebration of female friendship. [Emily L. Stephens]

Notable episodes: “Knockoffs,” “The Matrix,” “Wisdom Teeth”

32. Banshee (Cinemax)


If there was an award for best use of escalating tension, Banshee would have it on lock. Banshee has always had brutal action sequences, fun performances, and a compellingly pulpy tone, but season three brought all of those elements to a whole new level by upping the emotional stakes to almost unbearable levels. For Lucas Hood (Antony Starr), his double life as a sheriff and a criminal is both a cover and a cancer, and this season, that cancer infects everything in his life with devastating effect. By taking all of its characters to their breaking points, Banshee proved that it was more than just a show with killer action sequences—but never forgot that those action sequences are still its heart and soul, especially when the result of that action rips the audience’s heart out. [Carrie Raisler]

Notable episodes:A Fixer Of Sorts,” “Tribal,” “We All Pay Eventually

31. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)


Crazy Ex-Girlfriend pulls off a remarkable feat: Making the delusions and insecurities of its characters into the stuff of movie-musical fantasy. Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s creation uses tunes by award-winning Fountains Of Wayne/“That Thing You Do!” songwriter Adam Schlessinger to help tell the story of Rebecca Bunch (Bloom), who impulsively moves to West Covina, California after running in to an ex (Vincent Rodriguez III) she’s idealized beyond reality. But the show’s brilliance lies in how it uses the musical element to depict the complicated inner lives of its characters: Depression can feel like a black-and-white French movie, a one-night-stand resembles a sleazy music video, and we all long for a romance that will sweep us off our feet like Astaire and Rogers (even if Rogers is settling for her Astaire). The supporting cast has plenty of stage experience (there’s even an evil Disney prince in Santino Fontana), which makes it somehow not crazy at all when Rebecca’s work friend lays into a torch song or her ex shows off some sweet dance moves. The surprising alchemy of these elements makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend entertaining on an entirely new TV level. [Gwen Ihnat]

Notable episodes:Josh Just Happens To Live Here!”, “I’m Going On A Date With Josh’s Friend!”, “I’m So Happy That Josh Is So Happy!


30. Veep (HBO)


The fourth season of Veep ended in June, mere days before Donald Trump announced his candidacy; the likes of Trump and Ben Carson quickly turned presidential politics into a three-ring circus, ensuring that HBO’s absurdist political satire looks even more prescient than usual. Having become president purely by accident, Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) must now convince the American people to elect her outright despite the usual verbal gaffes, poisonous office politics, and staff incompetence. Television’s current finest comedic ensemble (with Louis-Dreyfus joined by Tony Hale, Matt Walsh, Kevin Dunn, Anna Chlumksy, Reid Scott, and Sufe Bradshaw) gets an even bigger boost in season four with additions like Hugh Laurie as Selina’s overly beloved choice for veep and Sam Richardson as the Tweedledee to Simons’ Tweedledum. This is also the final season overseen by the Shakespeare of swearing, Armando Iannucci, whose “glossary of abuse” this year includes a memorable meltdown by Chlumsky’s Amy and a litany of insulting Jonah nicknames including “Hagrid’s Nutsack” and “Scrotum Pole.” The show will carry on without Iannucci, but here’s hoping he left several volumes of that glossary behind. [Scott Von Doviak]

Notable episodes:Data,” “Convention,” “Election Night

29. Silicon Valley (HBO)


The question going into the second season of Mike Judge’s coder comedy was how it would fare without its secret weapon: Christopher Evan Welch as venture capitalist and comic ninja Peter Gregory. It took two new characters to fill Welch’s role on the show (neither as funny as their predecessor) and an in-show funeral for Gregory, complete with a heartfelt tribute (pictures of Welch looking ridiculous), but Silicon Valley flourished in its sophomore year. The dramatic storytelling is a little tighter, the cliffhangers build tension throughout the season, and the already fantastic Thomas Middleditch is a little more controlled as the corporate cog turned sudden CEO at the center of the show. And, taking a lesson from the title gag of the first season finale, jokes develop throughout and across episodes. Silicon Valley isn’t quite one of HBO’s civilization series, but it’s a sharp, sad, hopeful look at how a good idea gives birth to a baby corporation in a crowded shark tank. It is a hilarious slacker comedy, first and foremost, but underestimate it at your own risk. [Brandon Nowalk]

Notable episodes: “Sand Hill Shuffle,” “Homicide,” “Binding Arbitration

28. The Jinx: The Life And Deaths Of Robert Durst (HBO)


Few lines on television in 2015 landed with the impact of the final words of The Jinx, where real estate heir and accused murderer Robert Durst appeared to ask and answer the same question the entire audience had: “What the hell did I do? Killed ’em all, of course.” But even without that apparent confession, The Jinx would still be a standout entry in the world of true crime. Director Andrew Jarecki’s narrative skills were on full display as he assembled decades worth of evidence and interviews, reconstructing the full horror of Durst’s multiple alleged crimes in an artful and concise manner. And with Durst himself participating in interviews, it was easy to see why suspicion never left him, his gravelly, disconnected voice and the near-complete deadness of eyes turning him instantly into one of the year’s most fascinating and unsettling figures. Part documentary, part character study, part crime procedural, The Jinx was an unflinching gaze into the abyss—one in which the abyss did more than just gaze back. [Les Chappell]

Notable episodes: “A Body In The Bay,” “The State Of Texas Vs. Robert Durst,” “What The Hell Did I Do?”


27. Halt And Catch Fire (AMC)


With the conclusion of Mad Men, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers’ ’80s-set tech industry drama fills a hole for meticulously designed, beautifully shot period TV on AMC. Halt And Catch Fire experienced dramatic growth in its second season by changing focus to spotlight the development of Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna Clark’s (Kerry Bishé) budding online gaming company, Mutiny, giving the series stronger ties to contemporary culture as it explores the early days of online community building. Davis and Bishé’s textured performances highlight the significant differences between the business partners while uniting them through a shared passion to make Mutiny succeed, and the writing does remarkable work drawing conflict from the intersection of their work and personal lives. The new status quos for Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) and Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) make them more compelling characters as the arrogant Joe is forced to work his way up from the bottom while Gordon struggles with a degenerative brain disease—but ultimately the show’s ascent into excellence is driven by the power of its female characters and performers. [Oliver Sava]

Notable episodes:SETI,” “The Way In, ” “Kali

26. The Flash (CW)


No current superhero TV show captures the energy and scope of superhero comics like The Flash. It doesn’t shy away from the campy, colorful roots of its lead hero, instead marrying them to the soapy elements that characterize the majority of The CW’s output, resulting in a series that has as much interpersonal drama as it does superhero spectacle. After a stellar first season, The Flash has just gotten bigger and better, drawing even more influence from comics as it incorporates multiple Earths into the plot, adding an extra Flash as well as a terrifying new speedster villain: Zoom. The series manages to make all these lofty superhero concepts accessible and palatable, and the story is anchored by rich, grounded performances, particularly Grant Gustin’s endearing, lovable Barry Allen, Jesse L. Martin’s incredulous, affectionate Joe West, and Tom Cavanagh’s remorseful Harrison Wells. The main attraction of this series is still the excitement the creators have for DC superheroes, best exemplified by a two-part crossover with Arrow that featured seven costumed crimefighters (including two reincarnated Egyptian hawk-people) taking down an immortal with a deadly grudge. [Oliver Sava]

Notable episodes: Grodd Lives,” “Enter Zoom,” “Legends Of Today”

25. Looking (HBO)


In the era of #PeakTV, it’s easy to see how a show as quietly unassuming as Looking can slip through the cracks. While the characters went through a lot this season, from Patrick’s tumultuous relationship with Kevin to the sudden death of Doris’ father, the series maintained its thoughtful, non-judgmental approach throughout, warmly welcoming viewers along on the journey rather than holding them hostage. It’s this balance of breezy tone with the show’s nuanced, deeply compelling character work that makes Looking special. Between Agustin facing the fears that come with dating an HIV-positive partner, Dom finally making his restaurant dreams a reality (for better or worse), and Patrick getting a very overdue haircut from Richie, this season focused on the baby steps of growth and the pains and pleasures that accompany them. Throw in gorgeous visuals, a fantastic soundtrack, and excellent performances from the entire ensemble, and Looking stands as a prime example of the kind of personal, unique television worth searching through the crowded listings to find. [Kate Kulzick]

Notable episodes: Looking For Truth,” “Looking For A Plot,” “Looking For Home”

24. Nathan For You (Comedy Central)


Nathan For You has often been called cringe comedy, and considering how much mileage Nathan Fielder gets from testing business owners’ politeness, that’s not an entirely false label. But the term also dismisses Fielder’s openness toward any reaction to his purposely unwieldy schemes (not just awkwardness), whether it’s a made-up workout plan becoming an Amazon bestseller or a windbreaker actually raising Holocaust awareness. In addition to these unintentional successes, season three of Nathan For You made the line between reality and elaborate trolling blurrier than ever. (Now that Fielder’s on the record about his recent divorce, could the tears prompted by an actress’ repeated “I love you”s be genuine?) Like “Smokers Allowed” (the deliberately mundane play he stages in the episode of the same name), this year’s Nathan For You didn’t just make for great television—it made for great performance art. [Dan Caffrey]

Notable episodes: “Horseback Riding/Man Zone,” “The Movement,” “Smokers Allowed”

23. Game Of Thrones (HBO)


Game Of Thrones’ fifth season may not have been its strongest—the debate about the show’s use of sexual violence rightfully rages on—but even this show’s weakest season is still better than other shows’ best. Nothing else on TV can so artfully embrace the epic scope that Game Of Thrones deals with weekly. This season, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff took the most liberties from George R.R. Martin’s source material, lapping A Song Of Ice And Fire (RIP at least one major character who’s yet to die on the page), while creating completely new plots in others. Characters completely changed their stations—Lena Headey gave a stripped down and bare performance as a ruined Cersei Lannister (from the shoulders up, at least), Sophie Turner’s Sansa Stark displayed an unexplored inner strength—opening Game Of Thrones to interesting new angles and themes. And, yet, even as the show was held up to more scrutiny than ever before, the finale and Jon Snow’s fate was all anyone could talk about. [Molly Eichel]

Notable episodes:Hardhome,” “Mother’s Mercy,” “The Gift

22. Steven Universe (Cartoon Network)


The year’s most adorable animated musical about planetary genocide, Steven Universe still wears its heart on its sleeve: musical numbers and hugs abound. But the shenanigans in Beach City have become the pivot point for something bigger. And we don’t mean the invasion from the Gem Homeworld: It’s the themes of family, consent, identity, the power of understanding, and the power of occasionally calling bullshit. Even better, the show makes sure we’re always in Steven’s shoes, so the world and its thickening mysteries have grown up around us. Steven Universe has often been praised as a kids’ show that’s secretly for adults, due to its sly edge, but this aspect of not quite knowing how bad things are is one of the most savvy portrayals of childhood on TV. By now Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl (and Steven!) are staring down a full-scale invasion—but so far, this standoff is being shaped not by its Magical Girl battles, but by instances of honesty and kindness. It’s just what you’d hope for from a show about the inherent subversiveness of being yourself. [Genevieve Valentine]

Notable episodes: “Maximum Capacity,” “Cry For Help,” “Catch And Release

21. Parks And Recreation (NBC)


Saying farewell to Pawnee, Indiana, was bound to be an emotional experience, but there was a time where it seemed like it wouldn’t be an essential one. Following Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) successful bid for a Pawnee City Council seat, Parks And Recreation seemed to lose its sense of purpose. The show drifted through lumpy fifth and sixth seasons—which weren’t without their highlights, like Leslie’s marriage to her nerdy stickler soulmate (Adam Scott as Ben Wyatt) and a merger with snobby Eagleton—before deploying a hell of a season-finale gambit: A time jump to the far-off future of 2017, where the Knope-Wyatts are parents to rambunctious triplets, Pawnee is a legitimately decent place to live, and a rift has formed between Leslie and her meat-coveting libertarian foil, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). In addition to saving the TV audience from another tiresome sitcom pregnancy, the Parks And Rec time jump refocused and re-energized the series, pitting its band of former workplace-proximity associates against tech-bro foes, all the while setting up hilarious-and-heartfelt supporting-player swan songs like a not-completely-drama-free wedding for Pearl Jam muse Donna Meagle (Retta) and a show-within-the-show saluting human puppy Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt). The happily-ever-after series finale might’ve smacked of wish-fulfillment—if the entire series hadn’t been about wish-fulfillment, an idealized portrait of civil servants overcoming their personal differences to make the world a better place. For six years and seven seasons (give or take), Parks And Recreation did just that. [Erik Adams]

Notable episodes: Leslie And Ron,” “Donna And Joe,” “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show”


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