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20 Best TV Shows of 2015 So Far

From hip-hop soap operas to stoner comedies and spy dramas, it’s been a great half-year

david letterman and terrence howard

Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS; Chuck Hodes/FOX

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.

Bloodline

L to R: Ben Mendelsohn (Danny Rayburn) and Kyle Chandler (John Rayburn) in the Netflix Original Series BLOODLINE. Photo Credit: Saeed Adyani © 2014 Netflix, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Saeed Adyani

9

‘Bloodline’ (Netflix)

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.

Better Call Saul

Michael McKean as Chuck Thurber and Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill - Better Call Saul _ Season 1, Episode 8 - Photo Credit:Ursula Coyote/AMC

Ursula Coyote/AMC

8

‘Better Call Saul’ (AMC)

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.

Orange is the New Black

Netflix

7

‘Orange Is the New Black’ (Netflix)

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."

Empire

EMPIRE: Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard, L) encourages one of his musical acts NAME (guest star NAME, R) in the premiere episode of EMPIRE airing Wednesday, Jan. 7 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2014 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Chuck Hodes/FOX

6

‘Empire’ (Fox)

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."

david letterman

Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

5

‘Late Show With David Letterman’ (CBS)

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 DaveTom 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.

Mad Men

Jon Hamm as Don Draper - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

4

‘Mad Men’ (AMC)

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 Americans

THE AMERICANS -- "March 8, 1983" Episode 313 (Airs Wednesday, April 22, 10:00 PM e/p) Pictured: (l-r) Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. CR: Patrick Harbon/FX

Patrick Harbon/FX

3

‘The Americans’ (FX)

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.

Veep

(season 4, episode 4): Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

2

‘Veep’ (HBO)

"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.

Broad City

Abbi Jacobson (left) and Ilana Glazer in an episode from season 2 of Broad City. credit: Comedy Central via Rosenblatt, Michelle

Comedy Central

1

‘Broad City’ (Comedy Central)

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.

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