Television! The original moving picture-centric method of in-home entertainment. The boob tube has gone through significant changes over the past few years, earning some long-fought-for respect and gifting the world with the kind of bold and original programming that doesn’t always find its way to the big screen. Alternative networks, from Netflix to paid premium channels like HBO, continued to flex their creative muscles, and the result has so far been a new, if not golden, at least silver age of television.
Of note: this year’s list is a combination of returning shows that exhibited some extra achievement and newbie series that display significant promise. It’s not perfect – no list is, after all – but it serves to illuminate the shows that, for various reasons, were truly the best of the year. From series approaching the end of their runs to recent debuts that have already impressed us, it’s a massively mixed bag, but the quality is consistent. These are the shows you should be watching.
14. How To Get Away With Murder
The unique joy of getting to see Viola Davis on a weekly basis cannot be overstated – the fact that we get to see her acting with the confines of another soapy, salacious Shonda Rhimes joint is just the cherry on top of an already fluffy sundae. Rhimes is a brand unto herself, but she’s not afraid to mix things up in service to a good story. Case in point: HTGAWM’s flitting and flipping handle on timelines. The show routinely zips back and forth between past and present, but it’s always easy to follow and it significantly adds to the show’s copious twists and turns. It may be a guilty pleasure, but damn, it’s a good one.
13. The Leftovers
Speaking of guilty! HBO’s latest dramatic series is the opposite of guilty pleasure – mainly, because there’s not much pleasure involved here – but there’s something to be said for the oppressive quality heaped on its audience week by week. This isn’t the kind of thing you want to binge-watch, and there’s a strange freedom to that. Why not get bad to watching things week by week? Why not spend seven days considering the last episode? Moreover, why not cast Carrie Coon in everything? The series will reportedly mix things up in its second season – shuffling cast members and most likely changing locations – a tantalizing promise we can’t wait to see.
Lena Dunham’s HBO series gets markedly better every single season and, in its third, the show refused to back down from copious amounts of snarking and criticism. Dunham’s Hannah has always struggled to become the person she was meant to be, even as it’s long been clear that said person might not be so great. Hannah got dirtier and wilder during this third season – but she also got a lot more honest. Elsewhere, the rest of the Girls girls similarly tried striking out on their own with limited results. For anyone who still thinks Girls is aspirational, go ahead and revisit this season. Would you want to live this way?
11. Jane the Virgin
Something new! An Americanized version of the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen, this charming CW series combines unexpected laughs and heart into one pretty irresistible package. Star Gina Rodriguez has long brought copious amounts of sweetness to whatever she does – this is an It Girl with actual chops and charm to spare – and Jane the Virgin gives her an outlet to spread the joy all over the television-watching world.
10. The Flash
The CW has steadily built themselves a very respectable little comic book cottage industry, one that wisely uses crossover events and merging timelines to expand out on existing superhero properties. Marvel might get all the big screen kudos for their Cinematic Universe, but the CW is doing damn fine work here. The Flash is a fine example of that, a funny and smart superhero show that is packed with charming characters and real wonder. When it crosses over with the network’s Arrow, the crowd goes wild – and they should (especially when other small screen TV series like Gotham, which is terrible, get all the glory).
9. The Americans
At some point during the FX’s spy serial’s second season, the Keri Russell- and Matthew Rhys-starring drama became true must-see television. Its soapy storyline – they’re Russians spies! in America! it’s the Cold War! – became a bigger exploration of identity, especially as it applies to one’s country and the intricacies of the human heart. Russell and Rhys both consistently turn in solid performances, and their chemistry and confusion is palpable. It’s not too late to catch up on this one.
Amazon’s steady toe-dipping into the world of scripted television finally paid off with the release of their Jeffrey Tambor-starring Transparent. A funny, strange, dark and ultimately daring look at identity and family relations, Jill Soloway’s series has steadily built up realistic and relatable characters, while offering commentary on gender issues that just might have the power to truly direct and build conversations. The series has already been picked up for a second season, and we can’t wait to see where it goes next.
7. The Late Show With David Letterman
David Letterman may be leaving us next year, but instead of being sad that the beloved late night host is signing off for good, fans should be happy that the announcement of his departure has significantly lightened up both the host and his show. Letterman has been at his best over the last few months, seemingly rededicated to both his prodigious interviewing skills and having fun with the guests he really cherishes. Look no further than his interviews with the cast of Guardians of the Galaxy, a film that Letterman appeared to truly love, so much that it kept him fueled for interview after interview. That sense of joy has been lax over the past few years, but now that there’s an end in sight, Letterman is doing his best work again.
6. The Comeback
The Lisa Kudrow-starring gem finally returned after whole years off – talk about a comeback! sorry! – and while the initial beats seemed to be kind of the same (Kudrow’s dim-witted but mostly well-meaning Valerie Cherish attempts to take Hollywood…uh, again), this season has steadily expanded outward into something very new. In a word, it’s sad. In two words, it’s fucking sad. Emotionally complex and still bitingly funny, The Comeback still has two more episodes to go, and we have no idea how this thing will end, with laughter, or with more tears.
5. Mad Men
The beloved AMC’s series split second season offered up everything that makes the show so great, from twists and turns to upheavals and unhingements. Jumping ahead a few months from the sixth season was a wise choice, allowing its audience to still feel connected and rooted to characters who are increasingly more confused in their own lives. The dueling nature of the firm’s two offices – the ever-busy New York location and its dismal and flaccid Los Angeles outpost – perfectly reflected ol’ Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) own split personality, one that looks to be inching ever closer to peeking out. Perhaps for good.
4. Game of Thrones
Three words: The Purple Wedding. In its fourth season, Game of Thrones has given its audience so much that its long desired, from the death of Joffrey to the escape of Sansa to the rise of Daenerys but, as ever, it’s all come at a tremendous price. Families are still torn apart, the Wall is in shambles, and the who knows what the hell is going to happen to the Stark children, but the HBO series’ ambition and scope drives it ever onwards, giving both dedicated readers and TV-only fans still more to scream (and, let’s be real, applaud) over. It just keep getting better.
3. Last Week Tonight
John Oliver is a gift to the world, and his bold and brash take on humor and the news has suddenly made him the tube’s most important talking head. Oliver doesn’t balk at taking on big stories and attacking them with fervor and wit, and the result has been a smart, snappy news show.
Who knew that a series about murder could be so weirdly charming and deeply funny? Packaged up inside a creepy, crawly crime series, Fargo is also sweet, amusing, and satisfying. Allison Tolman’s Molly Solverson is the best new female TV character of the year – and damn, we’re going to miss her – and she easily redefined what being a lead can be (and, honestly, what it should be). You don’t have to be haunted anti-hero to tell a dark story, you can be a hard worker with a heart of gold. That might be the most refreshing lesson we learned all year.
1. True Detective
HBO’s game-changer might have not ended the way its audience wanted it too – honestly, yes, we were expecting something a bit more twisted – but taken as a whole, there was no other series that consumed its audience so completely. Stellar acting from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson marked this baby as one to watch early on, but its ever-shifting, skin-crawling tale of murder, mayhem and magic kept everyone eating it up, week by week. Time is a flat circle, and we can’t wait to see it spin out in a second season.
What was your favorite television program this year?