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Best TV shows 2015: from Mad Men to Jessica Jones

Which show was the best of the year?

Compiling a year-end top TV list is always a humongous beast of a task, even when you watch as many shows as I do. But that was truer than ever in 2015.

There's so much out there! This year, there were more than 400 scripted dramas and comedies just in primetime. And when you add late-night, daytime, and reality programming, the number of series leaps well into the thousands upon thousands.

So when you see that the list below starts at 35, and then see that I've thrown in an additional 25 runners-up, know that I'm choosing only a small fraction of a fraction of the shows I wanted to include. (My initial list of programs to either consider or catch up on ran nearly 175 titles in total — and I never quite got to a few of them. Sorry, Penny Dreadful. Maybe next year.) While the number 10 is largely an arbitrary one, there is some value to conciseness, so I've also ranked everything. If you just want to know my top 10, you can scroll down to that point. And if your favorite show isn't on this list, I probably just didn't watch it.

On with the countdown.

35

Togetherness (HBO)

Togetherness

There are a lot of shows about relatively affluent white people struggling with the day-to-day realities of their existence and the trials of marriage. But if you're only going to watch one of them, consider making it this one.

Image credit: HBO

34

Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)

Orange Is the New Black

Netflix

I'm not entirely sure why everybody forgot about the electrifying prison drama earlier than usual this year. Yes, season three took some time to get going, but its back half — and particularly its finale — were as strong as the show has ever been.

Image credit: Netflix

33

Justified (FX)

Justified

After a catastrophic, messy fifth season, the rural noir ended on just the right note. Its series finale was a master class in drawing a violent story to a close without shedding any more blood, a graceful denouement about growth, change, and loss.

Image credit: FX

32

Bob's Burgers (Fox)

bobs burgers halloween 2

Football preemptions mean this animated family comedy airs far too erratically and infrequently; every new episode that pops up on Hulu is a special treat. It's finally showing its age (a little bit), but it's still routinely warm and hilarious.

Image credit: Fox

31

The Knick (Cinemax)

The Knick surgery Cinemax

The storytelling in this turn-of-the-century medical drama often leaves something to be desired, but the images director Steven Soderbergh cooks up always stick with me for days. Season two was deeper, darker, and much, much bloodier than season one. It's not for everyone, but it's relentlessly dedicated to its own dark vision.

Image credit: Cinemax

30

The Jinx (HBO)

The Jinx

Few fictional characters could offer the intrigue of real-life murder suspect Robert Durst. The quality of this six-episode documentary was overwhelmed both by hype and by questions surrounding its production. But it was still one of the year's eeriest potboilers.

Image credit: HBO

29

Hannibal (NBC)

Hannibal

This beloved series' low placement on this list is my first indication of how rough it was to even make a list this year. Suffice to say that in its final season (for now), Bryan Fuller's serial killer fantasia went for the throat — in terms of both gore and fantastical imagery.

Image credit: NBC

28

Rick and Morty (Adult Swim)

rick and morty

This wild sci-fi cartoon may be TV's most inventive show, disguising its surprisingly big heart beneath several layers of misanthropy, rage, and Twilight Zone–style cleverness. The episode featuring "Mr. Poopy Butthole" is one of the year's best. (Seriously.)

Image credit: adult swim

27

Catastrophe (Amazon)

Catastrophe

Amazon

Just six episodes but a serious contender for the year's funniest comedy, this British import looks on as two people approaching middle age realize they're about to have a baby. The twist? He's American, she's British, and the pregnancy was the result of a one-night stand.

Image credit: Amazon

26

Review (Comedy Central)

review comedy central

This is probably the best show in television history that you can accurately describe as "wildly funny but chock full of existential despair." Forrest MacNeil tackles the Sisyphean task of reviewing life — and ruins his own in the process.

Image credit: Comedy Central

25

Homeland (Showtime)

Carrie on Homeland. Showtime

This spy drama continues to quietly churn along in the TV background, but in season five it was the best it's been since season one. The series doubled down on its critiques of the American espionage complex, to queasily brilliant ends.

Image credit: Showtime

24

Jessica Jones (Netflix)

Jessica Jones is a great superhero show. Netflix

Could this superhero story about surviving trauma have been slightly more successful if it were, say, two episodes shorter? Sure. But everything that didn't feel like padding was so bold as to leave me slack-jawed, waiting for more. The series proves TV can do superheroes very well indeed.

Image credit: Netflix

23

Broad City (Comedy Central)

broad city smile

Even though the second season of this series was in some ways better than the first, the TV criticism community seems to have forgotten about it a bit. That's a shame, as it's still TV's best show about the weird wonders of female friendship.

Image credit: Comedy Central

22

Getting On (HBO)

HBO

How I wish somebody, somewhere, had recognized the existence of this beautiful, melancholy little comedy about life in an elder-care ward. At least HBO gave it a three-season run, which is more than its ratings should have allowed for.

Image credit: HBO

21

Jane the Virgin (The CW)

Jane the Virgin The CW

I spend half of every episode of Jane the Virgin fretting about how the wacky telenovela is going to fly off the rails, thanks to its many competing story elements. I should have faith. Showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman and her team always stick the landing.

Image credit: The CW

20

The 100 (The CW)

The cast of The 100 on the CW The CW

The 100 is perhaps the boldest sci-fi drama to grace the airwaves since Battlestar Galactica, taking big chances and making storytelling choices it can't easily walk back. Set in a post-apocalyptic future where humanity has abandoned an irradiated Earth for the stars, only to slowly recolonize, the CW series might seem like a teen drama, but it's deceiving you. It's really a compelling sequence of dramatic gut punches.

Image credit: The CW

19

Mom (CBS)

CBS

The "filmed in front of a live studio audience" sitcom has fallen on hard times in recent years, due to a long series of same-y shows written with the exact same setup-punchline rhythms. Mom — which traces the relationships of a working-class recovering addict and her tempestuous mother — succeeds thanks to its innovative, serialized storytelling structure and a weekly dose of bracing, ice-bucket-to-the-face realism.

Image credit: CBS

18

Black-ish (ABC)

Black-ish ABC

This ABC sitcom has learned all the best lessons from 1970s sitcom superproducer Norman Lear (of All in the Family fame). Each episode dissects some issue in the public eye — be it political (gun control) or personal (fathers' relationships with their children) — and turns it into raucous, rollicking hilarity. Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross are pitch perfect as the couple at the show's center.

Image credit: ABC

17

UnReal (Lifetime)

Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer star in UnReal

Lifetime

UnReal proves the antihero drama is alive and well as long as you can find a good enough twist. Featuring ingenious work from Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer, the dark, satirical soap follows the behind-the-scenes action at a Bachelor-style reality show. Appleby plays a woman who's terrific at manipulating other women into making great, exploitative TV — even as she fends off a nervous breakdown herself. She might be the best TV character of the year.

Image credit: Lifetime

16

Nathan for You (Comedy Central)

Nathan Fielder's under-the-radar series — part sketch show, part reality show spoof, and part celebration/condemnation of American ingenuity — seems to grow just a little wilder with every season. This year the comedian's stunts involved trying to improve a bar's fortunes by pretending it was a live theater experience so patrons could smoke, and taking over a man's life in order to improve it. There is literally nothing else like this show on TV.

Image credit: Comedy Central

15

Silicon Valley (HBO)

Thomas Middleditch and T.J. Miller in Silicon Valley

HBO

Season one of this satire was enjoyable; season two was a minor revelation. Co-creator Mike Judge (Office Space, among many others) and his team turned this tech-world comedy into a surprisingly tense dissection of the friendships among men and how weird, warped masculine codes infect every sphere of our lives — even those populated by "nerds." It comes complete with terrifically funny performances.

Image credit: HBO

14

Master of None (Netflix)

Dev auditions Netflix

Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang's examination of modern love, the dating game, and seemingly everything else broke away from Netflix's typical format of heavy serialization to offer up something much more episodic in nature. Ansari's character, Dev, spent each episode considering a single aspect of his life, and the filmmaking followed his muse. One episode might trace a relationship over one year, while another dove into the pre-immigration past of Dev's father. It felt like this show could do anything.

Image credit: Netflix

13

Mr. Robot (USA)

Mr. Robot

USA

By far the year's most talked-about new series was also one of its best, and one reason is that it felt like it actually took place in a world where the internet is as omnipresent as it is in our reality — something TV constantly struggles with. A young hacker grappling with mental illness tells the audience about the time he got wrapped up in a scheme to bring down the world's economy. It sounds like a Fight Club homage — and it is — but it's so much else, too, and it stars TV's best unreliable narrator.

Image credit: USA

12

Rectify (Sundance)

Aden Young as Daniel Holden in Rectify

Sundance

Even in this age of "peak TV," it still feels like certain shows are minor miracles for even existing. Chief among them is Rectify, a drama that seemingly nobody but TV critics watches, but one that unveils new, beautiful revelations about human behavior with every season. At this point, Rectify has moved far beyond its initial premise (a man gets out of prison after almost two decades on death row); what makes it remarkable is how it does so much else while still keeping that premise somewhere in its field of vision.

Image credit: Sundance

11

Fresh Off the Boat (ABC)

ABC

Network TV's best show is also TV's best traditional sitcom and a necessary corrective to the idea that family sitcoms are bland, boring, and cutesy. Fresh Off the Boat definitely features some cute kids, but it also features their parents, played by the incomparable Constance Wu and Randall Park, who have created the best conflict-free marriage on television since the heyday of Friday Night Lights. The series is also a great argument for the power of diversity in storytelling; it gains so much from being told from the point of view of immigrants and their American-born children.

Image credit: ABC

10

Fargo (FX)

Fargo

As the disastrous second season of True Detective showed, it's so easy for "anthological miniseries" (where every season tells a new story with new characters) to go very, very wrong. Fargo even made many of the same "mistakes" as True Detective in its second season, introducing a whole bunch of new characters and a much more complicated storyline. Yet the show was even better, growing well past the movie that gave it a title and inspiration and becoming a stark, beautiful crime story about the rise of corporate America, the limitations of Midwestern values, and extraterrestrial intelligence.

Image credit: FX

9

Show Me a Hero (HBO)

Show Me a Hero

HBO

Occasionally someone will grouse about how HBO has lost its edge, how it's too indebted to its biggest hits and less willing to greenlight artistically challenging work, let alone keep that artistically challenging work on the air. And, granted, Show Me a Hero is a six-episode miniseries, so it's not like it will be coming back for season two. But in every other respect, it's proof positive that HBO continues to broadcast some of TV's most invigorating, challenging stuff. The story of an angry, pitched battle over anti-housing discrimination laws, Hero takes a true story and finds inside of it the twinned anger and hope that have always driven American politics and maybe always will.

Image credit: HBO

8

Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)

Mutiny heads for California in the Halt and Catch Fire season finale.

AMC

My God, did I love this show like nothing else on TV this year! It wasn't perfect, but its emotional sweep, its character-based storytelling, and its willingness to push its core relationships to their breaking points were all unparalleled. Where season one, which was set amid the tech boom of the 1980s, struggled to find its feet, season two picked up from that first season's very promising finale to kick off a story about how the world of back then became the world of right now, with much of it revolving around the rise of a kind of proto-online community. The best period pieces resonate with the present day, and Halt and Catch Fire is among them.

Image credit: AMC

7

Manhattan (WGN America)

John Benjamin Hickey in Manhattan WGN America

Period pieces that resonate with the world right now, take two. Nobody's watching this little show about the Manhattan Project — to the degree that it might get canceled — and that's a huge shame. Its sprawling storytelling and large cast of characters feels like some weird combination of '90s workplace dramas like ER and the period detail of something like Mad Men. It's a hybrid, in other words, where atomic bombs can blow up, but in the background of somebody else's big character moment.

Image credit: WGN America

6

BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

BoJack Horseman goes to visit an old friend.

Netflix

Netflix's best show is an animated cartoon about a talking horse that, on some level, is also about learning to live with depression and anxiety. I realize that doesn't sound particularly funny, but BoJack is never strange for the sake of being strange, or sad for the sake of being sad. In some ways, it feels like the most emotionally honest show on television. But it's also a weird showbiz satire, an occasionally goofy Hollywood adventure, and the kind of show that can tackle big topics — like how rarely society pays attention to the stories of women, even when they're talking about serious topics like sexual assault — without reducing them to fodder for Very Special Episodes.

Image credit: Netflix

5

Mad Men (AMC)

Mad Men

The final seven episodes of Mad Men were as strong a stretch as the show ever produced — even if the early going frustrated some fans by not moving toward the conclusion quickly enough. This was a series that always marched to the beat of its own drum, and in ending Don Draper's story not with a masterful pitch but, instead, a revelation of peace and harmony, the show neatly tracked how the American '60s gave way to the American '70s. I could have followed these characters for another seven seasons — but I'm also glad we left them where we did.

Image credit: AMC

4

You're the Worst (FXX)

Gretchen on You're the Worst. FXX

Attempting to mash up one of the most realistic depictions of clinical depression in TV history with the sort of sardonic romantic comedy the series perfected in its first season shouldn't have worked. But in season two, You're the Worst showed that the fearlessness and sincerity with which it had always depicted its characters' emotional arcs could also apply to some of the very darkest emotions anyone can possibly feel. It was a less perfect show than it was in season one, but it was also a better one, diving further and further on the same breath, always leaving you terrified it might never come up for air.

Image credit: FXX

3

The Americans (FX)

The Americans

FX

The Americans is so good that having it in the third spot on my list feels a little low, honestly. In many ways, it feels like the great drama of our era, in the way that Breaking Bad and Mad Men marked the last few years of the 2000s. And in its third season, the Soviet spy series pushed for even tougher revelations and darker emotional twists, building to a moment when a crucial character learned of the two central characters' secret lives as spies — and nothing could ever be the same. Hopefully The Americans is several seasons from its endpoint, yet season three masterfully set up the series' endgame nonetheless.

Image credit: FX

2

The Leftovers (HBO)

Carrie Coon in The Leftovers. HBO

I don't entirely understand how this weird, mystical dive into the unknowability of life exists — much less how it's been renewed for season three, given its ratings — but season two proved that all of my faith in season one was very much founded. Moving the action from New York to Texas, the show continued to examine in great emotional detail the after-effects of a world where 2 percent of the population simply disappeared into thin air. But where season one was too suffused with depression for some, season two allowed for a better quality of light, while still accepting that life is a constant struggle, even if you can return from the dead (as one character did — twice).

Image credit: HBO

1

Transparent (Amazon)

For as much as I struggled with putting together this top 35 (and I was moving shows around right up until the very, very end), my number one was set in stone from the moment I saw it. Transparent is a story about one family that expands to become a series about America — both its promise and its reality. It keeps one unflinching eye on our present, while also looking backward to everywhere we've been in the past. It's about a woman finally living as herself after decades living as a man — but it's also about how, as humans, we're all constantly trying to live as our truest selves and how enormously difficult that is.

The second season set tons of plates spinning, to the degree that it was easy to worry some of them would fall, but the final four episodes brought everything home in beautiful, elegiac fashion. I don't know that there was a stronger one-two punch on TV than the final two episodes, and when I look back on the TV of 2015, I'm sure the season's final image (Maura, on a beach, looking out toward the water) will be the first thing that comes to mind. Beautiful, moving, and haunting, Transparent is an easy pick for best TV show of 2015.

Image credit: Amazon

Here are 25 more shows worth watching:

Chuck (Michael McKean) hides from his brother on Better Call Saul.

AMC

The year's embarrassment of TV riches continues with Adventure Time (Cartoon Network), Banshee (Cinemax), Bates Motel (A&E), Better Call Saul (AMC), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox), The Carmichael Show (NBC), Community (Yahoo! Screen), Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW), Deutschland 83 (Sundance), Doctor Who (BBC America), The Flash (The CW), Fortitude (Pivot), The Grinder (Fox), Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (BBC America), The Late Show With Stephen Colbert (CBS), Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO), Looking (HBO), Louie (FX), Parks and Recreation (NBC), Person of Interest (CBS), Please Like Me (Pivot), The Returned (Sundance), Steven Universe (Cartoon Network), Survivor's Remorse (Starz), and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix).

Image credit: AMC


Editor: Jen Trolio
Copy editor: Tanya Pai
Special thanks to: Everyone who talked me out of making this list 100 shows long

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