Happy New Year, everyone! I was enjoying a much-needed vacation and now that I am back, it’s time to talk about my favorite shows of last year. My contenders for this list turned into a monster that grew entirely out of control. There was a lot of TV made in 2015, as was been noted, and there was a lot of it that was good. I love the transition to a greater quantity of TV that will appeal to a smaller number of people. Not every show can or should be Empire but all have the ability to resonate deeply with people and that is what this list is to me. These are the 10 shows that resonated with me the most in 2015 (and another 15 honorable mentions just because I love TV and want to see it celebrated).
Parks and Recreation All anyone really wants from a final season of a show is for it to honor the investment they have put into it. That means different things to different people and looks a little different for character-based vs. mythology-based shows, but it all boils down to us wanting the things we love to end strongly, if they have to end at all. I would have happily watched another several seasons of Parks and Recreation but since that wasn’t an option, I can’t have chosen a better final season. It was everything I could have asked for as it closed this chapter of the story for these characters while allowing me to see a future in which they are all still close. It made me laugh, it made me cry, and it gave me even more of Leslie Knope to be inspired by and that’s really the show in a nutshell. It was a show that made me feel good and believe that people can and want to do good for others and be rewarded for that goodness. It was a show about friendship and the joy that comes from watching your friends succeed. It was a show about believing in yourself and never giving up on your dreams. It was a special show and I’m glad it got the ending it deserved.
The Americans What a brilliantly crafted season. It was gripping and tense from start to finish all while allowing for some quiet moments of intimacy and grounding that prevented things from feeling oppressively bleak. This show isn’t a typical spy show, it’s a character study about faith and allegiances and family. This season highlighted the similarities between Paige and Elizabeth and the wholehearted way they embrace their beliefs and how those beliefs help to provide a structure to their lives. Elizabeth may not understand why Paige believes what she does but the underlying desire to be a part of something greater is the same for both of them. Philip, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same grounding faith as his wife and daughter and he was adrift for much of the season, caught between trying to be a loyal agent and the man he wants to believe himself to be. Seeing the growing divide between Philip and Elizabeth was painful to watch but Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell continue to be captivating screen partners and the work Holly Taylor and Alison Wright did as Paige and Martha was simply incredible. Taylor and Wright in particular took two characters who could have been stereotypes and far less fleshed out and made them into characters we want to root for and protect from the life the KGB thrust upon them.
Jane the Virgin This is one of the best crafted shows on the air right now. The writing is sharp, clever, and incredibly self-aware all while also being funny and emotional. The care that goes into crafting this show and balancing its numerous elements is evident in every scene and I will never think it gets enough credit for the wonderful job it is doing. It is easy for many to dismiss the quality of the show because it doesn’t doesn’t hit the various markers of “prestige TV” but those who do are doing themselves a disservice. Shows don’t have to be dark or constantly serious in order to be well-made. They can be full of warmth and love and joy and be every bit as good as anything else on the air if a person is willing to put down their preconceived notions of what the show is and instead embrace the amount of respect and love everyone associated with this show has for its telenovela roots and how they have played with its genre to create something wholly their own. I love these characters, so I’m already inclined to enjoy the show but at least once an episode, something will happen that makes me pause and marvel at how well-done the show is. Anyone who is a fan of high quality TV should check this show out and enjoy what this incredible cast and crew has to offer.
Penny Dreadful I liked the first season of Penny Dreadful. In season two, I fell in love. In order for us to feel the full strength of both the light and the dark sides of humanity and life, we need both. While not everything can be sunny and bright at all times, things are not an unending pit of despair for us either. Even in the darkest of times, there is light to be found when we come together with others and allow them to bolster us in times of struggle. That’s what Penny Dreadful excelled at this season. It found the moments of light, often in Vanessa’s kindness toward others, and basked in them. It was still a dark season but it never felt excessively so because of the contrasting moments. This is a hard balance to find, as it’s often hard to find the beauty within the bleakness. But whether it was Ethan and Vanessa’s intuitive understanding and acceptance of the other, Vanessa befriending a lonely Caliban, or Vanessa teasing Victor while helping him choose clothes, these are the moments that will stay with me and that made Vanessa’s choice to reject the offer of a normal life (with the price of being forever tied to the devil) that much more effective and heart-wrenching.
The 100 This was my best discovery of 2015. I am pretty sure this show was made for me. It puts its characters into incredibly difficult situations with very real consequences and the growth those situations bring out in these characters is among the best I’ve seen in my years of watching TV. These characters go through so much growth and change but none of it feels forced or contrived. Who they are now makes sense with where they have been and what they have gone through. The moral questions the show raises about the qualities of a leader, the discrepancy between who a person is and who they need to be to survive, and when it is acceptable to sacrifice some people to save others are all given the weight and complexity they should. Prior to watching, I had heard the show referred to as “Battlestar Galactica, Jr.” and it lives up to the title (not praise I give lightly). The situations given are every bit as complex, it just features a younger main cast. These characters are so fully formed and will make you hurt because good things can be few and far between on the show but the relationships they form and the community they build offer enough hope that they will make through the darkness.
Rectify This is a beautiful, slow-moving exploration of identity, faith and family and I am both grateful for and amazed by its existence. This season had the most prominent plot arc of the show to date, as the investigation into the murder of Hanna Dean found a new suspect, but even in the plot, the show never lost sight of the characters and their individual journeys. When Daniel was released from prison, he simultaneously radically changed the lives of his family and put them into a sort of stasis as they froze their lives to adapt to him. This season, with his impending banishment, each member of his family (except for slightly-forgotten Jared) was forced to realize the impact of the choices they made while Daniel was with them as Daniel similarly struggled to find a purpose that would carry him through to his life away from Paulie and his family. As is often the case with this show, the smaller moments continued to be the most affecting as we are allowed to feel Daniel’s isolation, Tawney’s aimlessness, Teddy’s confusion and acceptance, Amantha’s resignation and Janet’s determination and regret. The emotional journeys these characters undergo has always been the priority of this show, far more than anything related to the Hanna Dean case, and this show is all the better for it.
Hannibal It took a few seasons but this is the year I finally connected with what Hannibal was trying to do. The artsy Italy-based half season was a visual masterpiece and brought these characters circling around each other, drawn in by Hannibal’s gravity, until it eventually lead to his capture. The Red Dragon arc was more straight-forward but the brilliant performance by Richard Armitage and the physicality he brought to the role made the story completely gripping. It brought Will back to the FBI, a Will who had desperately tried to move on from the hold Hannibal had over his life. But his respite from Hannibal couldn’t last. He may have found a family and a house full of dogs to bring him back to some semblance of normalcy but once again, he became a pawn and participant in Hannibal’s game. From the look to the sound to the writing and the acting, it was a stunning work of art in every way, in equal measures touching and chilling. Right or wrong, through everything that occurred, this was Hannibal and Will’s story about the life they created together. It has always been the two of them and they found their ending the only way they would have chosen – with each other.
Playing House This warm and hilarious show could not have worked without its leads and creators, Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair. The natural chemistry and ease they bring to their off-screen partnership is rare and translates so well to television. We believe that Emma and Maggie have the kind of friendship that makes one person drop everything to be with their pregnant friend in a time of need because Parham and St. Clair make us feel it with everything they do. This show celebrates female friendship and the bond between best friends. It celebrates the rich history that two people share when they have grown up together, through all the ups and downs of life. It is a celebration of platonic love and the way it can be just as strong a foundation for a happy life as romantic love can be. This show understands the idea that sometimes marriages or relationships that seem solid sometimes end because they just aren’t quite right for the people involved. And sometimes marriages that end in betrayal can find the two people coming back together as friends that still genuinely care for the other. It is a more realistic approach to life and relationships and it is one built on a deep respect for the varying roles people have in our lives. This show is grounded by emotion and love and it makes it feel incredibly relatable, even when the situations look nothing like our own lives.
You’re the Worst I don’t think any other show caused me as much emotional pain as this one did in 2015. The back half of this season was risky. It didn’t remove the comedy but instead placed it alongside the crushing nothingness that Gretchen was experiencing. The result was a show that was still funny, even when interacting and acknowledging Gretchen’s depression, but it was also intensely emotional. My heart ached for both Gretchen and Jimmy because neither of them was fully right or wrong for most of the season. They were two people who didn’t have the emotional vocabulary to ask for or provide what was most needed and it hurt to see them fall apart as a result. To some extent, I can understand the complaints about this season. I certainly didn’t feel good after watching this show some weeks. But I think the impact of what they were able to achieve and the quiet victories this show managed to achieve as a result of the risk were far more meaningful than the ability to simply laugh at these kind of terrible people. This show took an issue that lots of individuals in relationships struggle with and brought it to light in a way I’ve never seen on TV. It showed a woman in the middle of a terrible depressive episode and asked us to understand where she was coming from and why she was acting the way she was. It showed a man who genuinely cared about that woman struggle to accept that there was no easy fix for her depression. It’s hard to watch someone you love hurt that way and have nothing concrete to offer besides the promise to be there and support them. But this season, You’re the Worst showed us that it understood that it was possible and that depression doesn’t make a person unlovable or worse, unworthy of love. It is a part of them that has to be worked with but it doesn’t diminish their value. It was powerful and moving in a way that was unlike anything else I saw this year and I can never sing its praises enough.
sense8 This is one of those shows that really shows the divide between story and plot. The plot of this show is nothing new. It’s about a group of people with superhuman abilities that is being hunted by a shadowy organization looking to silence them. It is an idea that has been explored in some form over and over again in this genre and sense8 does a fine job with it but that’s not what makes this show interesting. This show exists within the story. That story is all about the beauty that exists when we open ourselves up fully and share ourselves with another person. It’s about the intimacy that exists when we can be exactly who we are and be understood and accepted. The scenes where the sensates share abilities are fun to watch and I love them a lot. But they don’t compare to the smaller moments that show two of the sensates opening up to each other and sharing their lives. These small moments are full of wonder and understanding and beauty and it is these moments that make the show what it is. These are the moments that take the show from being a decently interesting sci-fi story about people with a unique set of abilities to a show that stays with you and moves you.
Honorable Mentions: Broad City, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Call the Midwife, Catastrophe, Fresh Off the Boat, Galavant, Getting On, Jessica Jones, Looking, Master of None, Once Upon a Time, The Carmichael Show, The Flash, The Mindy Project, Transparent