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


20

Daredevil

Created by: Drew Goddard

[Netflix]

In 2015, Netflix both entered and dominated the superhero genre. What many big-budget major studio productions seem to have forgotten (or never even knew in the first place) is that superhero origin stories are interesting and compelling insofar as they explore the internal psychological turmoil and the moral dilemmas of the protagonists dealing with their strange and unusual powers. An origin story should not serve as a mere backdrop for overdrawn action sequences two thirds into a film. Daredevil’s skillfully-constructed, stripped-down narrative gets right what makes superhero comics so fascinating by focusing on the human aspect of the characters and their challenges (especially from what is possibly the best rendition of Kingpin, with a larger-than-life performance from Vincent D’Onofrio). Moreover, the down-to-earth topic of real estate speculation comes as a refreshing change from galactic battles and billionaire superheroes. Yes, it’s good times for comic book aficionados: 2015 also saw the release of Jessica Jones (from the relatively unknown and very adult-orientated comic Alias), and in 2016, we expect to see Daredevil season 2 (with an appearance by The Punisher), Iron Fist, and Luke Cage, with Netflix further expanding their roster of gritty, morally-flawed superheroes micro-managing the fuck out of Hell’s Kitchen.

19

Looking

Created by: Michael Lannan

[HBO]

For two seasons, Andrew Haigh and Michael Lannan’s Looking held a mirror up to contemporary twenty-something lifestyle. Self-centered, self-deprecating, and hot as hell, the characters of Looking made bad jokes, they made good jokes — they made mistakes. But it was the consistent quality of the writing, direction, and performances that elevated the show above similar dramas focused on trendy adults doing trendy things in a trendy city. It wasn’t always easy to watch, but it was always enjoyable. Season 2’s highlights included a cringe-inducing Halloween toast, a cumshot to the eye, a haircut that stood for more than a haircut, and perhaps the most inspired soundtrack selection on TV. Despite a great first season and an even better second that widened the narrative scope and delved deeper into characterization, Looking was cancelled following the second season’s finale. But perhaps that’s fitting — we never deserved Looking. As a viewing public, we took Looking’s devotion and honesty for granted, and it will forever be the one that got away.

18

Louie

Created by: Louis C.K.

[FX]

What could’ve just been another stand-up vanity project or life-meets-art cringe comedy has shown itself to be a thoughtful, harrowing, and (we dare say) life-affirming work of art. There continues to be more unresolved issues than revelations and more downs than ups, but there is also a resilient joie de vivre humming underneath every frustrated-to-apoplectic interaction. More than the lifestyle of a comic, these are stories of varying sizes about pushing through life when one is flooded with vivid yearning and fresh vexation at nearly every turn. Also, much like fellow 2015-stand out High Maintenance, there’s a refreshingly patient, warmly detailed care taken with mundane activity (like watching Louie make fried chicken). After five seasons of relentless narrative self-flagellation and vitriolic rant-based allegory, Louie somehow continues to be a freewheeling, yet endearingly signature staple. And with the slightest hint (perhaps the most staticy anti-romance ever) of requite from the extraordinarily capricious Pamela, a hilariously random toilet-related death, and the actually terrifying “Awful Being” in episode 5, this season showed no signs of inspirational fatigue. Rather than sulk about the hiatus, we’d do well to revisit and savor the spoils of his quietly heroic efforts thus far.

17

Inside Amy Schumer

Created by: Amy Schumer

[Comedy Central]

When one of Amy Schumer’s characters took a break from her multiple jobs to make squid ink paella for her freeloading beatboxing boyfriend, a friend told her, “You’re better than this.” “No I’m not,” she smiled, and kicked the friend out. Another character dragged her male co-workers to a strip club and ended up volunteering to bury a dead stripper just to prove she was “cool with it.” In 2015, the writing on Inside Amy Schumer took a quantum leap and grabbed the white light torch of zeitgeist TV comedy; while it was less formally daring than benchmark-setters like Tim & Eric or Portlandia, it took the novel tack of directing its satire not so much at perpetrators but at painfully relatable, willing victims desperate for love and approval. Amy herself played these victims, essentially putting her stories in first person and saying “This is me, this is us.” Meanwhile real-life Amy gave few fucks about her weight and owned her real-person sexuality in all its well-meaning, messy vulnerability and confusion, proud that she could always catch a D.

16

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Created by: Tina Fey & Robert Carlock

[Netflix]

With Tina Fey’s move from network to Netflix, the comedy got deeper and stranger. The show countered the usual cult survivor narratives of triumph or tragedy with its bizarre blend of sarcasm and sunny charm, finding new ways to celebrate the magic and grime of New York. It turns out that Ellie Kemper’s Kimmy Schmidt, a doomsday cult escapee who lived for years in an underground bunker, was perfectly suited to life in the Big Apple. Bright and perky in her day-glo wardrobe, she was resourceful with small spaces, unfazed by (pizza) rats, and able to find true friendship with a random roommate. It was occasionally tone-deaf (Jane Krakowski’s Native American origin story?), unevenly brilliant, and all the more interesting for it. And it gave us two super catchy songs, the auto-tune viral video remix theme and Titus Andromedon’s Peeno Noirrrrr! We hope there’s more of this kind of silly, freaky comedy in season 2.

15

The Americans

Created by: Joe Weisberg

[FX]

Increasingly, nontraditional platforms (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon) are releasing full seasons of TV shows at once, employing techniques to maximize the addictive potential of bingewatching (mainly because they’re selling subscriptions, not ads). Shows on traditional and cable networks, attempting to cash in on some of that addictive viewer behavior, craft progressively more insane cliffhanger endings, hoping that kind of cheap trick will sustain viewer interest for six full days before the next episode drops. That kind of unrepentant cliffhangerism tends to leave a bad taste in our mouth, so it was fitting that a throwback to a bygone era would also so thoroughly capture the excitement and sustained tautness of television that had to put in the work to actually capture your attention from week to week. The Americans has been quietly but steadily building a seemingly impossible amount of tension into every episode since its debut in January 2013. Beyond its sensational premise and undeniably virtuosic performances, what draws us so steadfastly to this series is the phenomenal way it manages to maintain such a compelling story inside a unifying and impossible premise over multiple seasons. With its most recent, season 3, Joe Weisberg and company drew us into a complex and evolving web of deeply flawed human relationships whose complexity and tension were maintained even amidst some pretty big reveals. After all, how often is it that a show that’s made such a big deal about keeping certain characters in the dark can seamlessly move on into even more intriguing stories after the lights come on? We’re waiting to see what they do next, because we’re almost positive it’s going to be even more intense.

14

You’re The Worst

Created by: Stephen Falk

[FX]

What kind of show is You’re The Worst? How exactly do you classify its all-too-human façade? Unceasingly crass and unpredictably heartfelt, it’s a sitcom built with spectacular new parts, one that does everything a sitcom tries to avoid — and it succeeds in bounds, thanks to its pitch-perfect casting; clever, revealing cinematography; and some of the smartest and funniest dialogue of the year. Like its title, it’s a bit of everything: mean, funny, familiar, maybe a little honest, maybe a little too revealing. In season 2, a few seconds of film linger on Aya Cash’s fading smile to belie a real depression, and a quick shift in Chris Geere’s boyish charm undermines every joke he tells. These are real, messed up, albeit hilarious people, revealed at the strangest moments. Shitty Jimmy is a funny thing to say, but it’s never as funny as when Jimmy’s dad is saying it, you know? On this show, safe punchlines become honest insults; the rudest shit mends your friendships hilariously; and the hanging foam sword of “I’m gonna leave you anyway” starts to look like a real weapon. I keep laughing, with small breaks for sadness. Maybe we’ve got nothing to lose, which is a good thing. Maybe it’s because we all lose no matter what, which is a bad thing. Status quo is underwhelmed. But sometimes there are mini helicopters, Kether Donohue saying “rando,” and friends who bankroll your financial domination fetish. So life’s fine. Vernon, ya BURNT.

13

Making a Murderer

Directors: Moira Demos & Laura Ricciardi

[Netflix]

As an individual unit of entertainment, the gritty entanglements of Making a Murderer is a hardbound exposé of a crumbling Wisconsin justice system and the people affected by its ignorance, starring Steven Avery. Although shot like a documentary, it immediately places its pot in the corner of Avery, exonerated rapist whose rise to fame came after 18 years spent as a scapegoat for a crime he didn’t commit. In the macro, Making a Murderer is a must-watch for anyone who believes the justice system is infallible. Through Avery’s complicated familial history, the series attacks our society’s willingness to accept the word of authority at face value without facts. How it does this is completely Hollywood smoke and mirrors: lecherous villains, turncoat kin, inept law officers, and continuous pie-faced justice that’s as heart-on-sleeve as The Good Wife but without the morality and neatly wrapped life lesson. Turns out that Bunim and Murray knew that reality was always stranger than fiction, but Making a Murderer is a real scare. Whether Avery is a murderer is hardly the question these 10 episodes pose; it’s how much are we willing to give up to enjoy the illusion of safety in our own communities.

12

Mr. Robot

Created by: Sam Esmail

[USA]

Nothing about Mr. Robot should work. From its thinly veiled repurposing of Fight Club’s anti-corporate psychodrama right down to its parent network, this whole enterprise seemed destined for mediocrity. Rami Malek’s hacker prodigy Elliot should have been another basic cable procedural protagonist dusted with enough neurodivergence to give him an edge, but not enough to tarnish his suitability as a receptacle for our wish-fulfillment. But Elliot’s pain was too real, his loneliness too complete, his paranoia too all-encompassing. Through his quiet vulnerability, Malek pulled us into Elliot’s headspace from the very first scene, and there we remained, if only because the idea of abandoning him in a world so hopelessly off its moorings would have felt like an act of cruelty. Showrunner Sam Esmail has created a place where detours into Lynchian surrealism can exist alongside devastating character moments and edge-of-your-seat heists, all framed in shots that are so glaringly, purposefully askew that they practically shriek the wrongness of the universe these characters inhabit. In a television environment where “shocking” twists have become de rigueur, Mr. Robot felt like a space where truly anything could happen. Welcome to year zero. There’s no excuse for television to ever be the same again.

11

True Detective

Created by: Nic Pizzolatto

[HBO]

True Detective season 1 was already over for several months before I even considered watching it. Hype was still high and sweaty, inducing some hardline nihilists into heat strokes at its moving finale. At first, I was put off by how generic I imagined a show called True Detective could be, given how easily our collective consciousness is captivated by true crime shit. Turns out I couldn’t be more off base; this show’s a beast, and season 2 was of a vastly different mutation. Where season 1 was brooding and philosophical, season 2 was overtly political and hard as steel. When taken together, though, like a Venn Diagram made up of black, polarized lenses, what shined through was that Truth part. But True Detective’s villainous forces (which possessed corrupt law enforcement, blissfully ignorant citizens, and a society that buries it blemishes so deep that they fester) obscured truth for a desperate chance at longevity, even if that meant living on in a cycle of suffering. Perhaps that’s what burned so many people about True Detective: how close it took you into society’s raging fires. That’s where it left me, and that’s where I write about its truly immersive power.

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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