1. “THE SOUP”
Sure, it’s just a basic cable clip show of snarky jokes about TV’s dopiest programs. Yet by policing the low standards of lowest common denominator viewing (and the cynical corporate interests that never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public), “The Soup” is (or, sorry…was) as much of a staple in my household as more celebrated dearly departeds like “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report.” Host Joel McHale put his own distinctive stamp on what used to be called “Talk Soup”, making his version must-watch viewing each week — and he and his plucky repertory company (including Mankini, Lou the wonder pooch, and a recurring stable of guest stars like Paul Feig and the cast of McHale’s other cancelled show, “Community”) will be sorely missed in the years ahead. So, yeah, it’s my top show of the year, if only to call attention to its departure (as well as my pet conspiracy theory that somehow the vile Kardashians must surely have been involved in its demise).
2. “ANOTHER PERIOD”
You don’t have to hate (or even especially dislike) “Downton Abbey” to love this scathing American quasi-parody, which basically sticks Julian Fellowes’s upper class fantasy of early 20th century upstairs/downstairs harmony in a wood chipper. Instead, “Another Period”‘s stars and creators Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome savagely (and hilariously) depict the fin de siècle aristocracy of Newport, Rhode Island as monstrously entitled cretins who treat their servants like animals, while the reality show format nods to the noveau riche idiocies of the Trump/”Real Housewives” era.
Wildly inventive and entirely unpredictable, the second season of FX’s lollapalooza went even further with its kitchen sink approach to creative experimentation and once again managed to pull off the seemingly impossible feat of capturing “that Coen Brothers feeling” week after week. And while fair arguments can be made about whether individual elements went too far over the top (an overly mannered soliloquy here, an intergalactic deus ex machina there), the aching humanity of characters like Kirsten Dunst’s delusionally actualized striver, Cristin Milioti’s level-headed, cancer-stricken housewife, and her grizzled salt-of-the-earth father (a career-best Ted Danson) firmly grounded all the chaos in a solid bedrock of humanity.
4. “GAME OF THRONES”
Even compulsively watchable shows falter if their characters and/or plotlines never evolve (I’m looking at you, “Walking Dead”), whereas the strength of “Thrones” is the vitality of a series that never stops moving forward into uncharted territory. And while Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch may not be everyone’s (or anyone’s) favorite characters, they were nevertheless at the center of one of the fantasy epic’s most breathtaking episodes (the undead battle of “Hardhome”), just as some of the season’s most unpleasant and controversial moments (“Shame! Shame!”) were also among its most memorable.
5. “MAD MEN”
I’d grown increasingly frustrated with Don Draper’s intractable awfulness and the inconsistent plotting and character arcs of this beloved style porn staple over the years, but it’s hard to stay mad at a show with characters as great as John Slattery’s rascally Roger Sterling and (especially) Elisabeth Moss’s luminous Peggy Olsen, whose surreal roller ballet, badass hungover arrival at McCann Erickson, and somewhat rushed though no less delightful embrace of my fondest “Steggy” ‘shipper dreams were all indelible moments of the 2015 TV landscape.
6. “THE NIGHTLY SHOW”
As much as I miss “The Colbert Report” (and dig how “The Late Show” is basically just a slightly less pointed hour-long version), I’m glad to have Larry Wilmore as my nightly fake news correspondent — partly because I’m just not feeling Trevor Noah, but mostly because a dryly funny, yet seriously outraged (and, crucially, non-white) perspective is so refreshing and necessary in the current political climate of Black Lives Matter protests and casually racist presidential candidates.
7. “AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: WALT DISNEY”
A fascinating portrait of the wonderful, terrible world of Walt Disney and the way the visionary mogul shaped and embodied some of the best and worst traits of the American character. As always, PBS’s consistently excellent docu-series provided both context and insight in this fast-paced, particularly fascinating two-part warts-and-all profile.
8. “BROAD CITY”
Plain and simple, the broads of “Broad City” (Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson) put a goofy smile on my face more consistently than just about any other comic or comedy team on TV. Whether rampaging through Whole Foods with a hallucinatory blue monster companion, attending a dog wedding, or hunting bargains in an underground bazaar with Susie Essman, the show’s cheery youthful energy is nearly enough to make New York City seem cool again.
9. “THE RETURNED”
I can’t think of another show this humorless that I like quite as much, yet somehow the Sundance Channel/Canal+’s tale of small town residents dealing with the return of their deceased relatives manages to pull off its silky tone of endless ennui. Partly that’s because the French are experts at existential dread, although the show’s engrossingly mysterious (yet never frustrating) mythology and uniformly talented cast have a lot to do with it, too.
Like the Duplass Brothers’ mumblecore indie films, their HBO series “Togetherness” scores thanks to its deadpan wit and a laser focus on the idiosyncrasies of overeducated, neurotic, yet basically decent characters weathering the mundane triumphs and tragedies of everyday life. The chemistry between Steve Zissis’s bitter sad sack and Amanda Peet’s brittle aging beauty is especially sharp, while Mark Duplass and Melanie Lynskey score with a distinctive portrayal of marital malaise.
Honorable Mention: The Jon Stewart and David Letterman farewells, “Looking”, “Louie”, “Parks and Recreation”, “Real Time with Bill Maher”, “Better Call Saul”, “The Jinx”, “Brooklyn 99”, “Turn”, “Key & Peele”, “Inside Amy Schumer”, “Silicon Valley”, “Late Night With Stephen Colbert”, “Survivor Cambodia”, “The Wiz Live”
The Show That Taught Me the Meaning of “Hate Watch”: “Girls”, Season 4
A better yet more exasperating distaff version of “Entourage”, where everything always seems to work out for its central quartet of New York strivers no matter how odiously they behave, and nobody ever learns a goddamn thing (except maybe Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna, who — along with Alex Karpovsky’s cranky young man, Ray, are the only reasons I keep watching).
Worst Show of 2015: “True Detective”, Season Two
Season one wasn’t perfect, but it’s hard to imagine how season two could have been worse. I bailed about three-quarters of the way through the first episode, then eventually came back just to heckle this incoherent, self-important trainwreck of a crime thriller. Three quick notes for “True Detective” auteur, Nic Pizzolatto: (1) unless you’re French, removing all traces of humor doesn’t make a show deeper or more important, it just makes it funny in a different way, (2) there’s a difference between complex and confusing, and (3) dramatic elements only work if they’re actually well executed. Better luck next time (if there is a next time).