What a year for TV so far — the first half of 2015 has already given us a motherlode of great screen moments. So here's a breakdown of this year's best shows so far. Some are deserved hits, some are acclaimed artistic achievements, some are totally slept-on gems still ripe for discovery. There are brash rookies and crafty veterans. There are larger-than-life characters, from Cookie to Louie, Dany to Taystee. This year's prime television treasures come from all over the map: stoner comedies, hip-hop soap operas, wigs-and-stockings period dramas, sci-fi spoofs, superheroes, killers, geeks and jailbirds and dragons and spies. It's time to do the Peggy Olson hangover strut down the hallways of 2015.
The brilliance of this adaptation of Hilary Mantel's historical bestsellers is that it's strictly for the hardcore — Wolf Hall concedes absolutely nothing to people who don't get instant nipple-wood for BBC-spawned costume psychodramas. If you don't already have fierce opinions about the court politics of King Henry VIII, don't even bother — honey pie, you're not safe here. Mark Rylance lives it up in the dirty 1530s as Sir Thomas Cromwell, the self-invented game-of-thrones schemer who pulls the strings in King Henry's England. But Claire Foy steals the show as Anne Boleyn, the treacherously seductive Joan to Sir Thomas' Don Draper.
Week after week, atrocity after atrocity, Oliver continues to bring it, proving that when it comes to noticing really fucking obvious truths about America, it helps to not be American. As a rumpled Brit outsider, he can get away with being brutally honest in a way that most of our commentators can't match, just because it's trickier for us not to lose our tempers over these things. Oliver never crosses the line into moral hectoring, which is a harder feat than it looks, even when he's schmoozing with Edward Snowden or mocking the internet as a misogyny superhighway. Preach on: "If you're thinking, 'Well, come on, that doesn't seem like that big a problem' — well, congratulations on your white penis. Because if you have one of those, you probably have a very different experience of the internet."
Paul Feig's first TV show since Freaks and Geeks, except it's on a much lower moral plane, with a starship of American idiots lost in the cosmos. Other Space takes place in 2105, after the devastating war between the U.S. and Switzerland. The Cruiser's crew is on a mission to map the universe, or something, though the only food that's survived the journey is a year's supply of fudge and nobody wants to be there: "I've spent 90 per cent of my life in a mucus pod, but this still feels like a waste of my time." I love how cheap and grubby it is — oddly evocative of the long-lost 1970s sitcom flop Quark, starring Richard Benjamin as an interstellar garbage collector. Best find: Conor Leslie as the ship's computer Natasha. Best gag: the alien who can only communicate with humans via Matthew McConaughey quotes.
Archer had it all this season: jet-set espionage adventures to family dysfunction; the best "sister's wedding" episode of all time to the best "everybody gets stuck in an elevator" bottle episode of all time; and Christian Slater, an extremely welcome boomerang from last year's "Archer Vice" experiment. (It foreshadows his excellent new Mr. Robot as well as the fact that he gave the only half-decent performance in Hot Tub Time Machine 2. The McConaugh-ssaince was fun — now bring on the Slater-ssaince!) "How, either in this universe or any of its infinite parallels, could I possibly embarrass you?" "By dressing like a maitre d' on a dinner cruise for gay Republicans?" "That's a thing?"
The most film noir of the Marvel superheroes finally gets a screen treatment worthy of his legend. By day, he's Matt Murdock, idealistic (and blind) defense attorney in Hell's Kitchen; by night, he fights crime as the hooded Man Without Fear. Daredevil pulls off the elusive achievement of appealing to both hardcore fans and total dilettantes. As Daredevil, Charlie Cox remains opaque behind his shades, banishing Affleck-in-spandex memories for good, with help from Deborah Ann Woll and Rosario Dawson. And has Vincent D'Onofrio ever been more terrifying? Doubt it.
At first it was easy to mistrust the instant binge appeal of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, since the new Tina Fey/Robert Carlock creation naturally fed the world's massive 30 Rock craving — it's the TV equivalent of buying a Stewart Copeland solo album because you're sad the Police broke up. But it really holds up over time, like Kimmy herself. Ellie Kemper is touchingly vulnerable as a refugee from Indiana just beginning her adult life after 15 years locked in an underground bunker, by an insane preacher who (brilliantly) turns out to be Jon Hamm. (Why exactly did anyone think a sitcom premise this out-there would fly on NBC?) She steps into the real world with "very distinct scream lines" and curiosity about what Hanson have been up to lately. And she gets crazy lucky with her ace support system — Tituss Burgess, Jane Krakowski and Carol Freaking Kane.
Louie specializes in momentary flare-ups — the motorcycle crash, the Parker Posey romance, the Miami bromance — although every Louis C.K. fan would pick a different flare-up as his peak. (My money's on Miami, which isn't as famous as some of the other Louie storylines, but for me remains the one that lives up to every ambition the man has ever claimed.) Last season was his post-funny experiment, ditching any kind of comedy for quizzical introspective mini-dramas. So this is his post-post-funny season, not so much going back to laughs as anxiously tiptoeing around them. When that twentysomething in the kitchenware store informs Louie how obsolete he is in the new world — "We're the future and you don't belong in it, because we're beyond you" — all he can do is agree.
This sorely underrated loser-core comedy finds the spiritual link between Wayne's World and Breaking Bad — which I'm not sure anyone else was really looking for. Alex Anfanger and Lenny Jacobson are two twenty-something slob brothers who live in their mom's basement in Florida, making their crummy YouTube videos, dreaming that they're the next Quentin Tarantinos. But when their parents start charging rent, the dudes stumble into a crime spree that turns into their hilariously awful action flick Monkey Largo, starring Rico the killer chimp. The best use of Ben Stiller since Zoolander. The best use of Cuba Gooding Jr. since his Oscar speech. The best use of Michael Madsen since Vengeance Unlimited.
I have no idea who's dead at this point, and there's no purpose even guessing, since you can't trust Game of Thrones not to move the goalposts. (Fact: If you throw someone off the roof and they die, then you jump off the same roof but you don't die, that is cheating. Ask Galileo.) This season was a mixed bag — it had its moments, almost all involving Tyrion, Daenerys or Arya, but it got bogged down in pompous subplots and ineptly dramatized misogyny. (Regardless of whether you think GoT's creative team should be depicting sexual violence, they've repeatedly demonstrated that they're incompetent at it.) It got to the point where I actively enjoyed the dippy lust-in-the-dust Dorne scenes because at least they were camp — I'll take "You want a good girl, but you need a bad pussy" over "The dwarf lives until we find a cock merchant" any day. Save us, Arya.
A huge leap forward for an already excellent comedy: "I don't know about you people, but I don't want to live in a world where somebody else makes the world a better place better than we do." The tech-geek world's start-up culture has been satirized mercilessly ever since it began — some of the jokes here could come right from the Nineties Mr. Show sketch where David Cross plays the mogul who invented the delete button. ("That's a lot of mistakes, or as I like to call them, ‘opportunity-stakes.'") But Silicon Valley feels fresh because it's about a timeless vibe of twenty-something desperation, where mannish boys veer between total arrogance ("We're walking in there with three-foot cocks covered in Elvis dust!") and humiliating defeat — the kind when you go begging for favors from people you've called a "shit-ridden anal wasteland" or a "choad-gargling fuck toilet."
A documentary horror show like no other, investigating the strange career of alleged murderer Robert Durst. He's one of the most fascinatingly brazen liars in TV history, with so many nervous twitches and blinks you can't be 100 per cent sure he isn't kidding. In the bizarre climax, he heads off to the men's room mid-interview, not noticing that his mike is still on, and mutters, "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course." Oh. America's new least favorite Durst opens up all kinds of questions about the documentary's complicity — and the viewer's.
And now for a TV family that makes Robert Durst's seem relatively together. You know when the family's patriarch is Sam Shepard — the guy who wrote Buried Child — there is going to be some blood on the floor. The Rayburns own a posh hotel in the Florida Keys, but their sibling/parental hostilities boil over when the prodigal son of the family, Ben Mendehlson, drifts back to town. The binge-watching model doesn't quite work for Bloodline, just because the suspense takes time to build — it works better when you stretch it out.
Welcome to this year's "What the hell went right?" story. Better Call Saul was so much better than it had to be, and so much better than expected — a comic desert noir that didn't depend at all on Breaking Bad for context or drama. Bob Odenkirk is a virtuoso when it comes to sweating — that man's pores are as eloquent as tiny little violins, with each drop of despair-scented perspiration another piece of Jimmy McGill's transformation from corrupt small-time lawyer to slightly-less-broke corrupt small-time lawyer. And the "Five-O" episode was a showcase for another Breaking Bad character everybody always wanted more of: Jonathan Banks' glowering tough guy Mike Erhmantraut. We already know where these two crooks are going to end up, but it's still painful seeing how they get there.
Prison etiquette tip #1: When you are visiting someone in jail, please do not taunt them with anecdotes about the excellent Phish show you just saw. ("Second row! I could practically smell Trey Anastasio's B.O.!") Prison etiquette tip #2: Don't be Piper, because ugh, although she's slightly more bearable with Laura Prepon back around. Orange Is the New Black remains a marvel: so many stories to tell, and so many unstoppable actresses to tell them. Characters we thought we already knew and loved take on new dimensions, as in Poussey's deeply moving response to Crazy Eyes' erotic saga, The Time Hump Chronicles. Boo gets the funniest bon mot, reviewing the prison food: "If you took a shit, then your shit took a shit and became mayor of Detroit, it still wouldn't come close to the shittiness of that food." But Taystee gets the most moving line: "I done seen enough dead to know alive."
All hail Cookie, the most fearsome piece of work to appear on the screen this year. Nobody can rock a leopardskin-print minidress and matching fedora like Taraji P. Henson, or deliver bits of wisdom like, "You want Cookie's nookie? Then ditch the bitch." Empire was a surprise ratings blockbuster, getting bigger every week, because it deserved no less — an old-school pulp-TV melodrama with a terrific flair for pop (gangsters! Family! Hip-hop!) and a nose for the distinct aroma of cheese. You're never more than 40 or 50 seconds away from the next preposterous plot twist, probably involving Judd Nelson. Let Cookie have the last word: "The streets ain't for everyone. That's why they made sidewalks."
Talk about a killer endgame. During the final weeks of David Letterman's reign, he was actually giving a shit, as if he suddenly needed to remind us all (and himself) why he mattered in the first place. Every night was a trip — Bill Murray popping out of a cake, Tina Fey modeling Spanx, George Clooney handcuffing himself to Dave, Tom Waits and Cher and Bob Dylan. Plus Steve Martin declaring, "Your extensive plastic surgery was a necessity and a mistake." After years of nobody paying attention to this franchise, not even Dave, it was a bracing climax.
The final minutes of the last show summed it all up: The Foo Fighters playing "Everlong" over an astonishingly elaborate, emotionally powerful six-minute montage of Letterman moments. It was all anyone could talk about for days, because it was a crash course in how he transformed American culture — he made his late-night chat show a refuge for the weirdest and wildest, without pretending to be weird or wild himself. The man made you notice the all-American freakery around you, sending you back to your daylight world with fresh eyes, appreciating all the Larry "Bud" Melmans and Andy Kaufmans and Sandra Bernhards in your everyday life. Good night and thanks, Dave.
The final mini-season held some of Mad Men's greatest moments: Don Draper drives into the desert, Bowie's "Space Oddity" blasting on the radio. Peggy learns some important life lessons during her Vermouth-and-roller-skates picnic with Roger. The Borges-like construction of the final yoga scene. And most of all, Peggy strutting down the hallway with her shades and cigarette, mastering the art of the glamorously trashed entrance. Which, admittedly, is the only life lesson Roger would be qualified to teach. (The final season also had some of the series' most disastrous gaffes — isn't it already weird to remember that godawful "Don gives Megan a check for a million dollars" episode? Well, as he once told Peggy, "I guess when you try to forget something, you have to forget everything.")
The aftermath: Don goes back to NYC and does the Coke ad. Sally hitch-hikes to the West Coast but falls on hard times. Then fate takes a hand: after a tragic 1981 explosion at a Portland strip club, the hospital staff gets her mixed up with one of the other victims, a young dancer named Courtney "Love" Harrison. Sally adopts the dead girl's identity and pursues a new career path, just like her dad. In the photo for her 1994 album Live Through This, she poses with a Coke can, giving a hidden shout-out to her old man.
Someday you will ache like she aches.
The best drama on TV right now — I mean, what's close? Whatever it is, it's probably not that close. And so much of it comes down to the Yaz episode. Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) are Soviet spies in 1982, posing as ordinary American parents. He aches to make an emotional connection with his troubled teen daughter, so he gives her the synth-pop classic Upstairs at Eric's. (Because you want to give her something real! You want to give her a Yaz record!) But then he hears that same album in a very, very wrong place, and it confronts him with the truth — he's cursed to live out all the loneliness, guilt and sorrow he hears in the music, and he's betraying his daughter in ways he never dreamed. A typical masterstroke from The Americans — it uses Eighties period detail (from EST sessions to Love's Baby Soft to the fact that we once had a Christian Left in this country) to flesh out an elemental tale of family life as one long exercise in deception and espionage. Like the song says: Don't make a sound, just move out.
"I'm used to dealing with angry, aggressive, dysfunctional men — i.e., men." Welcome to the Oval Office, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Now that Selina Meyers has bumbled into the Presidency, she is officially "the worst thing to happen to this country since food in buckets, and maybe slavery." But the further Veep ventures from mere political satire, the funnier it gets — at this point, it's only about D.C. insofar as D.C. is where the horriblest of horrible people happen to work. Profoundly nihilistic, spewing venom so fast it makes other comedies look a little snoozy, constantly throwing more characters into the mix yet always raising its game as a result, the show keeps buzzing with betrayals ("I'm telling the Nazis that she's hiding in the attic" is the new "throwing her under the bus") and inventive profanity ("Why would you do that the fuck for?"). And, of course, Patton Oswalt grabbing the testes of the eminently loathsome Jonah, a.k.a. Johnny Titballs.
It's 2015 and all pop culture aspires to the condition of Broad City. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer live large in the big city, with nothing to show for their nothing lives except that they've got each other — and that's a lot, pegging all our hearts with a strap-on called friendship. They're more Laverne & Chong than Cheech & Shirley; they're Absolutely Fabulous with twice the fabulous and none of the absolutely; they're more fun than a day at Whole Foods on wisdom-teeth drugs.
Virtually nothing happens on the show beyond these two broads talking shit, like when they muse about their funerals: Abbi wants everyone to go to Six Flags ("you can even Weekend at Bernie's me") while Ilana has other ideas ("I want everyone I've ever hooked up with to jerk off together"). But nothing can shake their adoration of each other, even if all the rest of the planet sees is a couple of crazy women who drop Yoo-Hoo bottles on the floor. Half-assed about the things that don't matter, ingenious about the things that do — Broad City is worth rewatching all year long.