2015: Favorite 30 TV Shows

Artwork: K.E.T.

Welcome to Screen Week! Join us as we explore the films and TV shows that kept us staring at screens. More from this series


It seems funny — Girls-level funny, not Nathan for You-level funny — to have a television list as a prelude to a film list in 2015. Yes, the Star Wars reboot has already made more money than any piece of media ever. Sure, indie directors like Joel Potrykus and Nathan Silver are still taking risks that are unheard of in the TV format. But in our daily lives, most of us have always spent more time in our living rooms than in a theater. TV intertwines with our everyday lives — adjusting itself to our post-work schedules, our spaces of domesticity — while movies, instead, offer a respite from them.

For a long time, it seemed like common sense that the kind of criticism we do here at Tiny Mix Tapes was best suited for the more clear-cut spatial, temporal, and social boundaries of the big screen’s discrete filmic texts. But the caliber and diversity of shows on our list of favorite TV from 2015 — our first year-end TV list! — suggests that our reticence to delve into television probably had more to do with our embarrassment at how much time we spent on the couch than our embarrassment at the state of TV.

The recent technological and (de)regulatory changes in how television gets into our homes might be the most impactful shift to what kinds of stories we watch, and what formal qualities they take on, since sound was paired with film in the late 1920s. The oft-discussed golden age of television we’re living in could also be called the death of television — or at least the death of most of what has historically defined TV as TV — and it’s this constant, repeating self-destruction that’s making the medium so vibrant. Season-length storytelling arcs — the foundation of prestige dramas like The Sopranos that made snobs like me start thinking TV was important — were rare not that long ago, and it’s hard to imagine our list without them (Better Call Saul, Halt and Catch Fire, The Americans, Mad Men).

But our list doesn’t just highlight the refinement of prestige dramas through stunning, auteurist direction (The Knick, Hannibal) or through doing that one thing that’s always been so difficult for TV: absolutely nailing an ending (Mad Men). It also makes the case that the dominance of the “serious drama” genre (that itself ushered in this new age of TV) is already fading, or at least learning to share the spotlight.

We were overwhelmed this year by quality TV’s proliferation of new forms and genres: cartoons for adults (Rick and Morty, Bojack Horseman), romcoms that deftly handled mental illness (You’re the Worst) and black comedies that were more day-glo than dark (Unbreakable), multi-show universes (Daredevil and Jessica Jones, not to mention Better Call Saul maintaining continuity with Breaking Bad). Perhaps most surprisingly, TV in 2015 educated us, making heart-wrenching, detailed cases for IRL policy reform that somehow pulled off the unheard of trick of swapping didacticism for entertainment value (Making a Murderer, Show Me a Hero).

All of this is to say: as TV shows became more complex and better looking a few years ago, we — like a lot of people — called them “cinematic.” Television in 2015 — especially our #1 pick — suggests that we might, someday soon, start calling good movies “televisual.”


30

Veep

Created by: Armando Iannucci

[HBO]

What kingdoms are there left to conquer once you’ve secured the highest office imaginable? As always, in Selina Meyer’s case, the real question isn’t actually about what more you can achieve, but what you can do to broadcast your falsified image as an achiever. With the Meyer Administration in full swing this season, Veep pulled a 180° turn, shifting our ensemble’s pressure away from constantly covering up Selina’s PR blunders and toward ensuring that no other candidates usurp her questionably gained throne in the upcoming election. Especially with the introduction of good-willed senator Tom James (played pitch-perfect by Hugh Laurie), the entire cast was put under a magnifying glass this season, being held accountable for their never-ending sliminess rather than remaining caught in D.C.’s soulless echo chamber. Although showrunner/mastermind Armando Iannucci will be bowing out for the foreseeable future, with season 4 of Veep, he left us with his most bare caricature of the political scum elite yet: guilty, weak, paranoid, and of course clueless.

29

Girls

Created by: Lena Dunham

[HBO]

The recent news that Girls would be coming to an end in another two seasons was uncommonly shocking to hear. Have we even been on a trajectory this whole time? What exactly have any of us learned? Setting a start and end point on something as ineffable as your youth seems unthinkable, but maybe it’s because our lives and memories never really had a firm first moment to begin with. First, there was nothing, and now you’re 25. Suddenly, here was Hannah completely cut off from her life in the city, chasing some antiquated career goal at a school she hated, while Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa all chased their own failing dreams of companionship and fulfillment. Two seasons is a healthy distance to go, but there it is on the horizon, like the big 3-0, the end of days where your confusion is expected rather than a matter of public concern. If Lena Dunham inflicted anything upon us this season (besides that tongue-piercing scene, easily the most uncomfortable 40 seconds of television I’ve ever sat through), it was the feeling of the slow decline, the view of the peak from the other side. But it came with the realization that perhaps there is another summit waiting for us, one we can’t see, one even more thrilling and humbling than we’re even capable of understanding yet.

28

Catastrophe

Created by: Rob Delaney & Sharon Horgan

[Amazon/Channel 4]

Most on-screen romances are about falling in love. Catastrophe, the incredibly sharp comedy that had its American debut on Amazon Prime, is all about the ever-after part. The series is about Rob (Rob Delaney) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan), strangers who meet in London and embark on a week-long fuck fest. Sharon later tells Rob that she’s pregnant, so he decides to upend his life in the United States and start a family. In only six short episodes, Catastrophe uncovers poignant, ugly truths about relationship, maturity, adulthood, and above all parenting. The humor is mostly wry but occasionally gut-busting: in particular, I love how one character describes the resentment he feels toward his wife for having seen her vagina during child birth. But what makes it a great show is not its comedy, but its drama. The arguments and heartbreak are deeply effective, which makes it all the more rewarding to see just how Rob and Sharon might make it.

27

Fargo

Created by: Noah Hawley

[FX]

Naïve arrogance and stoic resolution. “It’s just a flyin’ saucer, Ed.” Bodies stack up around the characters of Fargo, and they carry on like nothing’s wrong. Maybe that’s the best you can do: when death is staring you in the face, you try to ignore it. Rye Gerhardt, Simone Gerhardt, Ed Blomquist, Peggy Blomquist, Mike Milligan, Betsy Solverson, and on: Is there a character on this show not touched by death in some manner, either actual or spiritual? Fargo is most often a meditation on the absurdity of the mundane, but it’s also about how a single step in the wrong direction can have immediate and brutal consequences. Life is heavy like that. Sometimes Fargo feels like The Turin Horse with comic relief. That Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus” comes up in passing between two characters feels completely natural — not for the characters themselves, but for us sitting outside of the action. We already know this is the same show where Gus Grimly’s neighbor from season 1 told him a parable about a wealthy man slitting his own throat in a bathtub over feeling incapable of positively impacting the world. But we also know it’s the kind of show where Ronald Reagan can sidle up to you in the restroom for an awkward piss.

26

The Leftovers

Created by: Damon Lindelof & Tom Perrotta

[HBO]

Season 2 of HBO’s The Leftovers only relates to the book through repeat characters, as not very much of the novel’s storyline is portrayed after season 1. Outside of the series’ enthralling soundtrack, season 2 forgets about the gravity of losing one-third of Earth’s population to *evaporation* by washing it all over in the victimless town of Miracle, where nobody vanished on October 14, 2011. Instead, season 2 focuses on the slowly deteriorating and increasingly terrorized Americana of post-disaster US. Adding a missing-persons sleuth, male characters disemboweling themselves (naturally), and females patiently gaining the upper hand of every situation, season 2 of HBO’s The Leftovers presents the perfect flow from “No fucking way” to “No fucking way?” But legitimately. And without mercy. I cried the last four episodes straight. It was heavy.

25

Hannibal

Created by: Bryan Fuller

[NBC]

Disassociation, violation, revelation. This is the arc many of Hannibal’s major characters followed, at the behest and the ineffable control of the men pulling the strings (Mads Mikkelsen’s Lecter, showrunner Bryan Fuller). Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) lost half of his brain and everything he loves, but then found a more philosophically compelling, morally seductive reason to be. Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhavernas) fell for a serial killer who tried to murder her and emerged crippled, heavily styled, and queered, devoted to the only woman whose taste for vengeance was greater than hers. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson), who knew better, made herself a prisoner to him, concocting her own final meal in his image. Once an audacious procedural, long stretches of Hannibal’s final season were rapturously untethered to time, content to trace the melting identities of its characters through sites of trauma and back out into grotesquely playful schemes and mindfucks. Few shows have made such an emphatic case for the primacy of aesthetics. Once Hannibal developed into one of the most aurally and visually stunning works on television, the show became a farrago. Beauty was both subject and method, and the only way to survive Hannibal was to submit to him and submit to it.

24

Transparent

Created by: Jill Soloway

[Amazon]

In Hebrew, the name Maura can be translated as the female conjugation for teacher. And while Maura Pfefferman is still learning how to navigate the world as a woman in season 2 of Transparent, she (by way of creator and suspected lamed vavnik Jill Soloway) provided a seemingly endless supply of teachable moments for her children, friends, and ex-wife — and for those of us in the audience, too. But even as the show became soapier — not to mention, more acclaimed and therefore more scrutinized — it kept its distance from the intersectionalist’s soapbox, choosing instead to focus on the ways that ideologies keep us divided, sometimes irreconcilably, but without losing focus on the inherent humanity of its characters, who are all trapped in nettlesome cycles of identity politics, regardless of their chosen gender expressions. Even more than in season 1, Transparent remained committed to a practically Talmudic style of discourse, fearlessly confronting ideological fallacies, sagaciously answering questions with questions, and expertly avoiding foregone (narrative) conclusions. And so while Transparent wasn’t necessarily the best TV show of 2015, it was definitely the most Jewish; Baruch Hashem for that.

23

Broad City

Created by: Ilana Glazer & Abbi Jacobson

[Comedy Central]

Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson, quieter in the first season compared to Ilana Glazer’s instantly bubbly character, was the MVP in season 2 — from her Vicodin-fueled trip around Whole Foods and the glorious revelation of her secret persona to her night with Kelly Ripa and a bottle of moonshine. While these moments highlighted Jacobson’s skills to carry a scene without her counterpart, Broad City was at its strongest when its two leading ladies took on the town together. The duo’s uninhibited BFF dynamic recharged tired tropes of twenty-somethings struggling through millennial self-absorption on television. Down with Hannah and Marnie’s contrived wriggling to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” on Girls, up with Abbi and Ilana under a blanket, eating pizza on the sidewalk, sharing their accomplishments and goals for the future (Ilana: “I want to gradually lower my dosage of anti-depressants, and I want to join Ancestry.com.” Abbi: “I finally masturbated above the covers without my eyes being closed. That was a really big journal entry.”). Also, Glazer and Alia Shawkat sniffed each other like dogs and basically Lady-and-the-Tramped a cannoli this season. Perfection.

22

Jessica Jones

Created by: Melissa Rosenberg

[Netflix]

It would seem anything worth saying about the dark entrails of Jessica Jones has been covered en masse. So let me offer an overlooked thread to a show worth a million headlines: weakness. Where brother-in-arms Daredevil discussed vulnerability as a strength and a testament toward initiating change, Jessica Jones was weighed down and burdened by her powers, feeling as if she owes the world for her gifts. Jessica Jones’s weaknesses were numerous, not to mention her past with Kilgrave’s mind manipulation. Trish Walker’s weakness for family not only sucked her into the Kilgrave vortex, but left her exposed to Will Simpson’s rages and her own mother’s abusiveness. Jeri’s killer instinct was in fact her greatest weakness, costing her more than she ever gained as a high-powered attorney. Kilgrave is a victim to vanity and desire; so enamored and engrossed in Jones that he is in essence controlled by what passes for romance. Simpson is a soldier, always weak to manipulation from superiors. But Luke Cage, despite his superpowers, is the weakest of all: vain, impulsive, and unforgiving. Yet Jessica Jones makes no attempt to cure these characters of these weaknesses, to have them overcome them like Matt Murdock, Karen Page, and Foggy Nelson. Those weaknesses are not strengths, but rather a lifetime sentence, a reminder that what doesn’t kill them now may eventually kill them.

21

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Created by: John Oliver

[HBO]

Throughout the first season of Last Week Tonight in 2014, it was obvious that John Oliver and his crew were still trying to put the pieces together for what the show could and should be, while still scoring amazing hit points with deep dives into net neutrality, the militarization of the US police force, and the terror that the LGBT community faces in Uganda. There were no such growing pains this past season, as the show hit its stride and never looked back. Oliver and co. circled around some sizable and unnerving concerns facing the world — with particular interest in the vast prison-industrial complex in the US — but they always injected their reporting with humanity and plenty of wry (and often bawdy) wit. They even found time to send their host to Russia for a sitdown with Edward Snowden, the poster child for the Wikileaks age. Alongside Larry Wilmore’s potent work on The Nightly Show, Last Week Tonight has given a new lease on life to news-driven, sociopolitical comedy. Praise be unto Megareverend John Oliver and all who sail with him.

Welcome to Screen Week! Join us as we explore the films and TV shows that kept us staring at screens. More from this series


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