While FX Networks CEO John Landgraf’s proclamation of “peak TV” earlier this year has been mocked ad nauseam, perhaps there is some truth to the thought that television—scripted, especially—is better than it has been at any other point in our collective lifetimes (a thought I personally find quite comforting, given my own obsession with the medium).
When I compiled the top ten new TV shows list of 2014, which would become the first in an annual tradition, I was able to narrow down the choices with relative ease. For the best new TV shows of 2015, however, I’ve found this hasn’t been the case: in fact, there are several television shows that, while quite enjoyable and worthy of praise in any other year, just couldn’t make the cut.
For instance, HBO’s comedy The Brink, NBC’s breakout hit Blindspot, Jennifer Beals drama Proof, and The Walking Dead prequel Fear the Walking Dead all occupied space on my DVR in 2015—as did Kurt Sutter’s The Bastard Executioner and USA’s Dig and TNT’s Public Morals; none of which, however, were quite good enough to make the top ten.
So what, then, fit the qualifications? Find out, without any further ado, just what made the list of ten best new TV shows of 2015 below.
10. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
There hasn’t been much interest on my part—since probably Seinfeld and Roseanne aired in the 90’s—in watching sitcoms. However, in 2015, Netflix knocked it out of the park with not one, but two, half-hour comedies that were undoubtedly some of the best entertainment of the year. Developed by Tina Fey & creative partner Robert Carlock, Unbreakable is the fantastically hilarious story of a former doomsday-cult hideaway that moves to New York after spending years, literally, underground. Kimmy Schmidt has more quotable lines than any movie that 2015 delivered, and the combination of 30 Rock vet Jane Krakowski, Tituss Burgess, and star Ellie Kemper makes for a sharp, memorable 13 episodes.
9. Wayward Pines
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when Fox announced that formerly-acclaimed director M. Night Shyamalan would helm a Twin Peaks-esque drama based on a series of books about a small town with a mysterious secret. Shyamalan, and Wayward Pines, delivered on the promise to wrap intrigue into a grounded, meaningful storyline; and also, to not leave us wondering just what the hell we had spent weeks watching. Pines‘ only real negative was the somewhat-convoluted ending, which reportedly was purposely varied by Fox in order to leave room for a coming season 2.
Netflix’s slow-crawl demonstration of a family embroiled in a power struggle amidst a long-kept secret might have taken the entire first season to expose what we already knew from the first episode—that someone was gon’ die—but the wait was sure as hell worth it. Bloodline may have had a storyline reminiscent to that of a soap opera, but the acting—including Sissy Spacek, Kyle Chandler, Norbert Butz, Linda Cardellini, and noted standout Ben Mendelsohn —and cinematography were impeccable, granting the streaming network yet another place on this year’s list.
Though rare for a network not named Netflix to make it to this list twice in the same year, Fox’s hip-hop megahit Empire is a no-brainer for any best new shows of 2015 collection. The Terrence Howard/Taraji P. Henderson vehicle actually gained more viewers week-over-week during its first season, a feat that basically never happens. The show has appeared to lose a little of its prowess (and direction) in its seemingly-rushed second season; but, no one can take away from the flashes of brilliance, in both plot and song, that Empire continues to deliver.
6. Master of None
Aziz Ansari’s acclaimed Netflix sitcom gives us a side of the star not seen on Parks & Rec; instead of the flashy, cocksure Tom Haverford, Master of None delivers a playful, “why-can’t-I-be-BFFs-with-this-guy” vibe while dipping its toe into serious topics like the struggles of first-generation immigrants or lack of Indian-Americans on television and in movies. Though this might seem like material not suited for a half-hour comedy, Master of None is probably one of the funniest shows you’ll watch on any network—streaming or otherwise.
Honorable Mention: The Jinx: The Life & Deaths of Robert Durst
OK, so The Jinx wasn’t technically a new TV show in 2015—but the HBO documentary did bring us one of the most chilling moments of the year. While I maintain that Durst’s “confession” as his mic remained hot (“What the hell did I do? Killed ’em all, of course.“) was little more than the alleged murderer’s projection of the audience’s reaction to his last interview, director Andrew Jarecki’s engrossing investigation & narrative into the multiple unsolved deaths surrounding Durst was some of the most compelling real-crime television in history.
5. Marvel’s Jessica Jones
I didn’t grow up reading comic books—nor do the Marvel Cinematic Universe films appeal to me much—but Netflix’s dark and emotionally-heavy tale of a former superhero turned whisky-chugging P.I. is one that shouldn’t be missed. Jessica Jones goes far beyond the traditional tale of good vs. evil, with the major villain, Kilgrave (played masterfully by David Tennant) seemingly uninterested with the clichéd “world domination” endgame—intent, instead, with the systematic mind-control, torture, and sexual exploitation of young women. Even if, like me, you haven’t simply adored Krysten Ritter since her short-lived role on Breaking Bad (or have a crush on her, whatever), there’s no denying she nails the powerful but often vulnerable titular character beautifully.
4. The Man in the High Castle
Given that one side of my family is Jewish, and that my grandfather fought in WWII, the challenges of getting into a television show that imagines an alternate reality where the Axis Powers won the Second World War were evident. However, The Man in the High Castle, Amazon Prime’s second major hit behind last year’s Transparent, is every bit as elegantly produced as it is uncomfortable to watch. Based on a short story by Phillip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle‘s first season is an alternative history lesson that is especially prescient in the times we live in today. As a movie, The Man in the High Castle would’ve likely made many critics’ top lists of the year—but, we would’ve have been deprived of the countless stories that are begging to be told in this version of America. As a series, High Castle delves deep into the personal, financial, and sociological struggles of Americans living under two different imperialistic regimes, who themselves are facing impending conflict within the ranks.
Narcos was a show tailor-made for the binge-watching habits of Netflix viewers. The “based on true events” retelling of the spread of the cocaine trade, led by Columbian kingpin Pablo Escobar, goes to great lengths to show the human side of both the cartel leaders & their families and the DEA agents & Columbian leaders, without casting either as the definitive heroes or villains. Narcos is brutal in its displays of violence & tragedy, but there’s never a point while watching when you feel it’s exaggerated beyond real-life happenings. Wagner Moura brings the emotional, almost-relatable quality to Escobar that he’s become known for since his rise to power, and the “Goodfellas”-esque narration is a call-back to classic gangster cinema—set in the barrios & jungles of Columbia, mind you; but with greed, guns, and drugs still center-stage.
2. Better Call Saul
Spin-offs aren’t all-that unusual—ask the folks behind Frasier or Family Matters or any of the CSI, NCIS, or Law & Order franchises—but giving a secondary character from arguably the best show of the 21st Century a lead in a show not nearly as dark as the original was, to say the least, a leap of faith. The genre-bending Better Call Saul—at times a lighthearted legal drama, at other times, a brilliant slapstick comedy—stands well outside the shadow initially cast upon it by Breaking Bad. In fact, though callbacks to Bad were evident from the first scene, Saul needs no nod (subtle or otherwise) to its successor: on its own, Better Call Saul is another stroke of brilliance from Bob Odenkirk and the creative team that brought us Walter White—the former making the latter’s presence unnecessary to make the story one of the best on television.
1. Mr. Robot
While the USA Network has cultivated some of my favorite lighter cable fare—Psych, Suits, and Burn Notice amongst the best—Mr. Robot still came from left field: more than just a procedural drama featuring a wide-eyed, mentally unstable-but-genius hacker and his band of international anarchists. Nothing in Mr. Robot exists in a box; every action taken by our star (Elliot, played by the incredible Rami Malek) or one of his fellow disenfranchised rebels leads to an explosive reaction. Creator Sam Esmail’s use of Malek’s internal narrative and flair for negative space sell us on Elliot’s paranoid delusions from the start, while leaving the audience questioning just what—if anything—in Mr. Robot exists outside of the imagination. Mr. Robot could be just as big a hit on Netflix, Prime, or any of the premium cable nets; but the fact that USA is letting Esmail get away with some of the content on this show is a testament to the turning-tide in basic cable television.