Like many, I hold the popular contrarian opinion that writing in list form is lazy. Yet, it does have its uses especially around the end of the year (especially when you are about 6 weeks too late in writing your end-of-year roundup). To avoid being egregiously lazy in crafting a list, I’ll regale you with some general, overarching observations from my experience with television in 2015.
Most interesting to me was the absolute beating capitalism took on the small screen this year. While Mr. Robot‘s first season was the most outwardly hostile in their attempt to free society from the evils of the largest conglomerate in the country, they were not the only show to throw shade at the market economy. Fargo declared the era of the small business to be over and showed the soulless machinery of capitalism in the form of Mike Milligan’s promotion to a freshly minted office after risking his life and taking several; Silicon Valley continued to mock the world of tech startups and brought the world the joke that is Russ Hanneman, of “This guy fucks” fame; and Man in the High Castle showed us the (terrifying) realities of a world bereft of capitalism.
Conversely, the biggest winner of the year has to be history, or maybe I should say period dramas. This year brought us into so many different eras with such delightful accuracy. Deutschland 83 gave us an in-depth look at both sides of Germany in the height of the Cold War, while audiences continued to be offered a glimpse of America during the same period in FX’s wondrous The Americans (only reason this show does not appear on the list is I am still working my way through Season Two, so sorry to those folks!). In its Second Season, Fargo provided audiences a view of what the Midwest looked like in the 1970’s. FInally, Man in the High Castle offered audiences a glimpse at what the 1960’s could have looked like if World War II didn’t end up in the United State’s favor.
Another observation I find interesting while looking at the list below is the fact that 5 of the 10 shows listed premiered in 2015. It is truly remarkable to consider that in 2015, more than 400 original scripted shows aired on televisions and streaming services across the world (this number is almost double that of 2009). While “Peak TV” has been churning out more and more in the past few years, the amount of good new shows proves that networks and streaming services alike are not sacrificing quality for quantity.
You may be asking yourself right now why it is that you should care about my feelings on the best TV shows of last year. Who am I to judge? Well, the reason I started this site is primarily because I believe that I have a good eye for good television and I love to talk about it. So, without further ado, here were my top 10 shows of last year.
1) Mr. Robot, Season One (USA Network)
While some aspects Mr. Robot’s plot may be reused (e.g. overthrowing the all-powerful), this show felt like a total breathe of fresh air from literally the first line of the show. Opening with line “Hello Friend,” Eliot’s voice-over narration is immediately captivating and the view into the obviously disturbed mind of the show’s protagonist offers the audience something unique. This coupled with the show’s willingness to take major risks, like the fourth episode’s prolonged and truly strange dream sequence, is what sets it apart creatively from everything else on TV today.
With that being said, let me be clear: this show simply would not work without the virtuoso performance of Rami Malek. He has been a total revelation through the show’s first season, earning himself recognition at the Golden Globes and his first ever Critic’s Choice Award. Malek’s ability to portray the fear and instability that Eliot is experiencing is the engine that drives this show and has allowed it to reach the heights that it has.
Now that is not to say the rest of the cast is a bunch of slouches. Christian Slater has won both the Golden Globe and Critic’s Choice Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Television Drama. Martin Wallstrom thrills as the enigmatic Evil Corp Executive, Tyrell Wellick. Frankie Shaw’s limited run as Eliot’s drug-dealer girlfriend, Shayla, was terrific and although her character is far from likable, Portia Doubleday has been solid in her role as Eliot’s childhood friend Angela. And this cast is just as deep as it strong, turning in great performances on the peripheries from House of Card’s alum Michael Gill and the always dazzling BD Wong, who we will see more of in Season 2. Finally, the news that Grace Gummer (The Newsroom, American Horror Story), another of television’s young stars, is joining the Season 2 cast is truly exciting.
The news that showrunner Sam Esmail will be directing every episode of the second season illustrates his auteur passion and total commitment to the show. I cannot wait to see what brilliance he brings to the screen for the show’s Second Season.
2) Deutschland 83, Season One (SundanceTV)
Although it flew completely under the radar, Deutschland 83 delivered one of the most enjoyable seasons of television I have ever watched. I say this without equivocation, realizing full on that I have this show listed number two on my list. But, where Mr. Robot is not for everybody and can get pretty dark, Deutschland makes even the threat of nuclear warfare undeniably fun through a fantastic 80s soundtrack and quirky humor.
Deutschland was created as a German television program and is shot completely in German with English subtitle, which gives it a fantastic air of authenticity. It tells the story of a 24-year old East German soldier who is sent to West Germany as an undercover spy. From what I can tell, the cast is entirely comprised of actors who have spent all or the vast majority of their careers acting in German cinema, which makes their incredible performance that much more astonishing. Deutschland especially got a boost from a young core of actors. The lead of the show, Jonas Nay, perfectly delivers the necessary emotional depth in his role as the conflicted soldier-turned-spy Martin Rauch (who goes by the identity of Moritz Stamm for the majority of the show). Sonja Gerhardt and Lisa Tomashewsky knock the ball out of the park as Martin/Moritz’s dual love interests on either side of the wall, each symbolizing the stark differences between the East and the West. But for my money, the best performance goes to the young Ludwig Trepte who dazzles as the shows most troubled character, Alexander Edel. All of these performers have bright careers ahead of them, whether they leave Germany for Hollywood or not.
One of my favorite things about the show is it’s use of camera angles to build suspense. Often, in movies and TV shows, when someone is doing some form of sneaking, the camera angle will zoom out to show that person is being watched. In Deutschland, camera angles like this are used routinely. The thing that sets Deutschland apart, however, is that no one is ever there. The faded out camera angle is used as a technique to build suspense and help the audience sense the danger and fear that Martin/Moritz is experiencing while doing his best spy-impression.
The decision on a second season is still up in the air for Deutschland 83. The show creators, Anna and Joerg Winner, have said that they have plans for two additional seasons – Deutschland 86 and Deutschland 89 – and while the show was a hit in the States, airing on SundanceTV, the fate of the show remains with how it is received in its home country. What is clear, however, is that everyone should see this show, especially now that it has gotten much easier with the show streaming on Hulu as of February 1st.
3) Fargo, Season Two (FX)
It is a testament to how strong of a year in television it was that a show like Fargo can somehow drop all the way to third but here we are. But please, do not let its ranking fool you, Fargo’s second season was one of the best and most well rounded season of TV ever, from the way that it was shot, to the profound philosophies of the show, and everything in between.
Pound for pound, Fargo had the best cast, not only on TV, but in the whole film industry this year. That obviously starts with the two stars of the show, Patrick Wilson, who played the stoic yet complex State Trooper Lou Solverson, and Kirsten Dunst as Peggy Blumquist, a beautician who was “a bit touched.” These two absolutely dazzled every scene they were in but they don’t even begin to scratch the surface. Jesse Plemons continued his torrid streak and turned in a strong performance as the town butcher, who is a good man but a bit dim. Veterans Jean Smart and Ted Danson thrilled as the elder statesman (and stateswoman) of their respective families. Zahn McClarnon was downright menacing as the show’s darkest character, Hanzee, and Nick Offerman jumped off the screen every time he stepped foot in the picture. Yet, my favorite performance has to be that of Bokeem Woodbine, who played the captivatingly charismatic Mike Milligan. The amazing thing is that the list above doesn’t even come close to capturing all the brilliant performances this show had to offer. Credit goes to Noah Hawley who could not have done a better job with casting.
Yet, my favorite thing about the show was Noah Hawley’s incredible decision to focus his conclusion more on the overarching philosophical ideals of the show. The thrilling penultimate episode left the belief that the show would sprint to its conclusion, guns blazing. Yet, Hawley dealt with the danger early and even left some things unresolved, concentrating rather on the importance of communication and of doing your best to be your best, even if it does feel like you’re just continually pushing a boulder up a hill sometimes. Maybe, Hawley is trying to teach us all a lesson in our time of cynical politics and negativity that rather than action for action’s sake, the important thing is how we are to one another. If so, what a beautiful lesson it is.
4) You’re the Worst, Season Two (FXX)
It is not easy to get to people to buy into a show comprised of totally awful people but You’re the Worst has masterfully done just that. In its second season, this sitcom found the perfect blend of humor and sincerity. Chris Geere and Aya Cash star opposite each other as the self-obsessed British writer, Jimmy, and a self-destructive Los Angeles PR exec, Gretchen, who are in a relationship. The first season of the show was firing on all cylinders in terms of humor and does a great job of keeping each new episode fresh, while also working in great running jokes as any good sitcom does. Yet, the second season of the show took a giant leap forward with heavy-hitting issues and intense character development.
The show has deservedly earned a great deal of acclaim for the powerful way it depicts the effects of depression on Gretchen, as well as those around her. Aya Cash exhibits the emotional depth needed to play such a complex character. However, not enough credit has been given to newcomer Desmin Borges, whose performance is just as gripping in his role as Jimmy’s roommate Edgar, an Iraqi War veteran grappling with PTSD. These are tough issues to deal with and I give showrunner all the credit in the world for being brave enough to take them on and talented enough to depict in a way that is both fair and profound.
While it may not be obvious at first, You’re the Worst is the modern day heir apparent to Seinfeld. It is a show about deeply flawed characters that are totally frustrating to watch for much of the time. However, despite their defects you find yourself rooting for them and rising and falling on their every triumph and failure. You learn to laugh at their quirks and feel pride when you see them grow. This is not an easy thing to do but Stephen Falk makes it seem effortless and for that he deserves a ton of praise.
5) Silicon Valley, Season Two (HBO)
Admittedly, the off-beat and incredibly awkward humor of HBO’s Silicon Valley has a direct line to my funny bone and probably would have made this list regardless of its creative merit. The show easily could have contented itself with being one of the funniest shows on TV.However, in its second season Silicon Valley managed to take a major step forward. This is all the more impressive considering the tragic loss of Christopher Evan Welch and his hilariously captivating performance as the hyper-eccentric and hyper-awkward venture capitalist Peter Gregory.
Although I felt that the first season of the show was funnier (mostly due to one of the funniest scenes I have ever scene), dramatically the show really stepped up its game. Instead of being content to brush up with and occasionally poke fun at the tech industry, the Second Season saw Silicon Valley become a few blown satire of not just the people but the entire area. They introduced the ridiculous Russ Hanneman, the guy who brought TV to the internet and a symbol of the absurd nature of some of the people getting wealthy off the tech bubble. Showrunner Mike Judge also opened up the world that is Silicon Valley perfectly mocked aspects of the culture there.
Not to mention, Mike Judge is batting a perfect 1.000 on his casting choices and I have total faith that the addition of Stephen Tobolowsky will continue that streak. I cannot wait for this lovable group of the most awkward human beings you can ever encounter to get the band back together for Season 3 beginning in April (right after Game of Thrones).
6) Man in the High Castle, Season One (Amazon Prime)
As a huge history nerd, just the concept of Man in the High Castle peaked my interest. Based on the 1962 book of the same title by Phillip K. Dick, the story aims to show an alternate world in which the Axis Powers won World War II. Well, let me tell you, showrunner Frank Spotnitz has crafted a beautiful, albeit terrifying, world. Visually, the show offers a striking view of what the 1960’s could have looked like on either end of the continent, with Japanese culture and architecture melding with the styles of California and New York City being altered by the vast technological developments of Germany. The colors used in the filming truly make the show feel authentically from a former time period. In addition, the cast – highlighted by a group of relative unknowns Alexa Davalos, Luke Kleintank and Rupert Evans – all give performance that jump off the screen.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the show, by the end of the season it seemed as though characters were just going through the motions on repeat without much further plot exposition. The show would have benefited either from fewer episodes or further explanation of the secretive films that drove most of the action this season. With that being said, Man in the High Castle was an unquestionable success that offered complexity to historical figures you never thought possible. Color me amazed that a show was ever able to make me root for both Adolf Hitler and look at certain Nazis as the good guys.
7) Master of None, Season One (Netflix)
A show that has been almost unanimously billed as one of the most relatable television shows out there, Master of None took some getting used to for me. I agree that Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang did create a eerily relatable show for young adults that was at times funny and fabulously entertaining. However, outside of Ansari and Noel Wells, who played Dev’s primary love interest, I found the acting to be excruciatingly awkward at points. It is hard to really fault Ansari and Yang for this in their attempt at total authenticity, going so far as to cast Ansari’s parents in the show, but it would have better served with stronger performances on the periphery, especially in terms of Dev’s friends. At any rate, Aziz Ansari continued to speak directly to my funny bone and the show is a must-watch for young adults experiencing growing pains everywhere.
8) Jessica Jones, Season One (Netflix)
While I am not the least bit excited about the influx of Marvel & DC superhero movies and TV shows, Netflix’s Jessica Jones was a surprisingly enjoyable show. As a superhero show with a villain that goes by the name Kilgrave, the show did well to never take itself too seriously. The show probably would have benefitted from having a few less episodes in its first season as the latter half dragged on but was kept afloat by a strong cast. Krysten Ritter was a joy as the sarcastic, part-time private eye, part-time superhero, and full-time binge drinker. Mike Colter brought complexity to fellow super-hero Luke Cage (who will get his own season on Netflix later in 2016) and David Tennant of Barty Couch Jr. fame was a fantastic villain.
9) Shameless, Season Five (Showtime)
Shameless continued its run on Showtime with another strong season. Particularly enjoyable were the storylines showrunner John Wells crafter for the show’s up-and-coming stars Emma Kenney and Ethan Cutkosy, who respectively play Debbie and Carl Gallagher. In addition, the show maintained its ability to handle and portray mental illness and addiction with the complexity and depth necessary. While I have complained about the reliance of men in Fiona’s (played by the wonderful Emmy Rossum), Ian (Cameron Monaghan) and Mickey (Noel Fisher) once again were one of the best couples on TV. Season 6 sorely misses their dynamicism.
10) Game of Thrones, Season Five (HBO)
As a member of the “book reader” camp, I hesitated originally to include Game of Thrones on my list, especially since I hated much of decisions D.B. Weiss and David Benioff made in their deviations from canon. However, after the official news that The Winds of Winter will not be released prior to the 6th Season of the show, it is officially time for me to accept the book and the show as two totally distinct beasts. Thrones continues to get phenomenal performances from all spectrums of a gigantic cast and crew. What really pushed me to include this season on my list, however, was the masterful cinematography on one of the more breathtaking episodes of television that I have ever seen in “Hardhome.” Here’s to hoping that Season Six is enjoyable for show-watcher and book-reader alike and that Weiss and Benioff do not butcher George R.R. Martin’s masterpiece.
By Matt Atwell
Photo taken from http://www.avclub.com/tv/deutschland-83/