We entered the new Golden Era of television about a decade ago, with The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad widely considered the standard bearers for the medium. Over the past five years, the number of well-reviewed TV shows has increased exponentially, to the point where it is essentially impossible to watch every show worth watching.
The popular term for this state of affairs is “peak TV.” There are now more television series on the air (or streaming) than there are days in the year. And here’s the crazy thing: a shocking number of them are absolutely worth watching. For every Real Housewives of Wherever, there’s a Master of None.
Given this landscape, I can’t pretend to offer up a list of the best TV on the air right now. I haven’t seen the vast majority of what’s out there. All I can do is present the series that made a major impact on me over the past year.
I’ll start with Justified, which ended its run after a sixth season that ranks among its very best (second only to season two’s Mags Bennett arc, IMO). Of all the great TV I can recommend, this might be the show I’d offer up first to a friend looking for a new series to dive into. Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens is one of the best matches of actor and role I’ve ever encountered, and Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder is right there with him. Justified has a flawless sense of place, witty dialogue worthy of creator Elmore Leonard and a terrific ensemble cast of mostly unknowns. And the show stuck the landing, allowing Raylan and Boyd to go out on a poetic note worthy of their adversarial bromance.
Another show that signed off after a stellar run, Mad Men made the most of its victory lap. Jon Hamm finally won the Emmy he’s deserved for years after his Don Draper found hilltop redemption via Coca Cola. I will dearly miss the entire leading cast of this show — Don, Peggy, Joan, Pete and especially Roger — and the stubbornness and wit with which they brought the 60s to life.
Readers of this blog know I consider Breaking Bad the best TV show ever, and I was thrilled that its spin-off, Better Call Saul, was a worthy continuation of its world. Bob Odenkirk, who provided ample comic relief on Breaking Bad, proved to be just as effective a dramatic actor, bringing new levels of pathos and humanity to shady lawyer Saul Goodman. The show’s visual style and tight plotting were reminiscent of its sister show but Better Call Saul became something wonderful all on its own.
Other shows I enjoyed this year: Community, which had a renewed creative spirit after its move to Yahoo!; The Walking Dead, often frustrating and sometimes boring, but always able to deliver visceral thrills (and viscera); Louie, which continues, beautifully, going to odd and disturbing places; Survivor, the 30th season of which may have been its best ever; Game of Thrones, which has caught up with the books and become its own, separate epic work of art; and Silicon Valley, the funniest show on TV.
And that leaves the two best shows of 2015:
2. The Leftovers – As a Tom Perrota fan, I enjoyed the novel and found the series’ mostly faithful first season alternately depressing and enlightening. But Season Two, which picked up where the book left off and splintered into wonderful new directions, was truly brilliant. Show runner Damon Lindelof spun some of that old Lost magic, embracing the ambiguity and even nodding to his old show with a mind-blowing episode set in Purgatory (which, it turns out, looks a lot like an Embassy Suites). Regina King delivered career-best work as the mother of a missing teen while Carrie Coons matched her note for note. Justin Theroux should win all the awards for his go-for-broke performance. The Leftovers doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — who knows how or why the hell any of these crazy things are happening? — but it feels like the perfect show for these tense and uncertain times. It’s about knowing who to cling to in the face of an insane and uncertain world.
1. Fargo – My favorite show of 2015 was similarly about the importance of human connection in the face of an absurd and uncaring universe. Fargo‘s second season improved upon its solid first year in every way, moving the action back to the late 70s and telling a story briefly alluded to during the previous season. If Spotlight boasted the best ensemble cast on film, that honor belongs to Fargo on the small screen. Led by a never-better Patrick Wilson and featuring exceptional work from Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Ted Danson, Nick Offerman, Bokeem Woodbine, Jean Smart and Cristin Milioti (to name a few), this group brings to life a community of cops and criminals worthy of any Coen Brothers movie. Show runner Noah Hawley clearly loves the Coens, and he packs the show with subtle homages to their work (not just the namesake film but all of their movies) while making this story entirely his own. This season of Fargo had so much style, so many laughs, so much tension and so much heart. It was as perfect a television season as I’ve seen since the final stretch of Breaking Bad or the first year of Friday Night Lights (two shows which also featured Jesse Plemons — maybe he’s the key ingredient!). I don’t know if they can top this in Season Three, but I sure can’t wait to find out.