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25 Best TV Shows of 2015

From female superheroines to cyberpunk hackers, the year’s small-screen highpoints

Best TV of 2015

What an insanely abundant year for TV. There was so much to feast on in 2015 — the year America finally recognized the severity of our Peak TV glut — but these shows were the peakiest of the peaks. Punk hackers. Leopard-print-loving hip-hop divas. Sleazy politicians, sci-fi cartoon trippers and bad-girl noir detectives. Spies, drug dealers and cannibals. And that's just a typical episode of Empire.

Here's to a year where TV reached history-making creative heights — and here's to more in 2016.

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23

‘Halt and Catch Fire’ (AMC)

A boom year for second seasons, at least for dramas that did not involve Colin Farrell in a Sweaty Sensitive Cop mustache. Halt and Catch Fire was already a perfectly captivating yarn about computer pioneers on Texas' Silicon Prairie in the early pre-Mac 1980s. But it really took off the second time around, as Mackenzie Davis' punk girl Cameron came to the center of the story, taking over Mutiny and trying to strike gold at the dawn of the Internet, turning the tiniest tech details into geeks-keep-swinging dramatic twists. 

20 Best TV Shows of 2015

Brittany Falussy

22

‘Rick & Morty’ (Adult Swim)

The Justin Roiland/Dan Harmon animated mind-warp centers around the world's crankiest mad scientist and his simple-minded twit of a grandson — a twisted version of Doc Brown and Marty McFly, or Sherman and Dr. Peabody. Rick takes Morty tripping through alternate timelines and exotic galaxies. (The one I need to revisit is wherever they have the full movie of Last Will and Testi-Meow: Weekend at Dead Cat Lady's House II.) But the alien zone they never quite find is the place that holds the secret of how families stay together, despite all the misery they put each other through. Like its soulmate, the equally dark BoJack Horseman, Rick and Morty is an absurdist doodle that nonetheless gallops into extremely bleak emotional territory. And along the way, we get Rick's special brand of grandfatherly wisdom: "Being nice is something stupid people do to hedge their bets."

20 Best TV Shows of 2015

Brittany Falussy

21

‘Bloodline’ (Netflix)

And you thought your family was screwed up. The Netflix drama is so compellingly dark, it's virtually impossible to consume via the binge-watch rhythm — each episode requires a few days of recovery time. A rich Southern family runs a hotel business in the Florida Keys (with Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacey at the top) until the prodigal son Ben Mendelsohn returns to town. Cue the dark secrets and suspense. But with Mendelsohn at the center — in one of the year's most magnetic performances — Bloodline makes all those sun-kissed beaches and splashing waves look like the most miserable landscape on earth. 

20 Best TV Shows of 2015

Brittany Falussy

20

‘Game of Thrones’ (HBO)

Early this season, there was a moment where a horrible man gave his child a sincerely loving, unexpected hug, and I thought, "Hey, I didn't see that coming. A moment of nuance!" Then a few seconds later, I realized, "Oh wait, that hug was just there to make it shocking when he tortures her to death, probably three or four episodes from now?" (Five, actually). And that's the quandary the HBO show finds itself in: It's hard to to be surprising when all these evil betrayals are so on brand. (Since the creative minds behind GoT have demonstrated time and again how inept they are at staging sexual violence, they should be gently but firmly dissuaded from any delusion that they possess the artistry to handle this complex subject matter — because as they've conclusively proven, they don't.) More than ever, it was the three big fan-fave characters — Tyrion, Daenerys, Arya — who carried the show, especially the long-awaited meeting between the Imp and the Mother of Dragons. Here's to next year, especially since this story has unanswered questions like Jon Snow has knife wounds.

Louie; Season 5

LOUIE: Season 5, Episode 1: "Pot Luck" (Airs Thursday, April 9, 10:30 pm e/p). Pictured: Louis C.K. as Louie. CR: KC Bailey/FX

KC Bailey/FX

19

‘Louie’ (FX)

Best moment: The young woman at the kitchenware store who confronts Louis C.K. and taps into all his mid-life anxieties, telling him, "We're the future and you don't belong in it. Because we're beyond you." Sad but true: There's no way this store is still open. Her rent has already doubled. She's realized by now she doesn't "own" a store, just a bunch of cool spatulas she won't be able to unload fast enough to afford the retail space. By the time she's 30, she'll be as bitter as Louie and maybe even as funny. Can we get a sitcom about her?

20 Best TV Shows of 2015

Brittany Falussy

18

‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’ (Netflix)

It might seem daft to compare this reunion event to Brian Wilson finally completing Smile in 2004, but First Day of Camp is that kind of achievement — a crazy idea that seemed doomed to disappoint, an embarrassing nostalgia trip, except against all odds it turns out to be the real thing. David Wain and Michael Showalter got the whole Camp Firewood band back together—even the ones who've gone supernova famous since the original 2001 movie, like Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks and Paul Rudd. And everybody is freaking overjoyed to be there, which gives emotional resonance to even the stupidest jokes, especially the climax where the campers battle Reagan's invading troops with Frisbees, kickballs and rock & roll. And I love this pep talk from Amy Poehler's Susie: "Now you get back up onstage, you beautiful broken son of a bitch, and you dance like your life depends on it. Because it does."

20 Best TV Shows of 2015

Brittany Falussy

17

‘The Leftovers’ (HBO)

The first season was a somber portrait of a grieving town after two per cent of the world's population mysteriously disappears. I admired it, felt vague relief when it ended, found the memory so depressing I had zero interest in the second chapter — and, in fact, completely ignored it for weeks. So it's a welcome surprise that Season Two turned out to be a riskier, nuttier, less reverent and infinitely livelier story. Justin Theroux's Sensitive Sweaty Cop moves to a small town in Texas to start a new life, but finds that grief follows him around like a bloodhound. The stranger it got (that afterlife-as-1970s-spy-thriller episode!), the more emotionally accurate it felt. 

20 Best TV Shows of 2015

Brittany Falussy

16

‘Jessica Jones’ (Netflix)

It's easy to forget Jessica Jones is officially a superhero, because she's so noir to the bone — a black-leather hard-boiled detective in Hell's Kitchen, into rough sex and poison whiskey, staring down her traumatic past with a cold eye. She carries her memories of abuse the way Bogart's Sam Spade carried his memories of World War One (or how Bogart's Dixon Steele carried WWII), as a permanent burn only a chump pretends not to resent. And speaking of superpowers, Krysten Ritter — the unsung B you weren't supposed to trust in Apartment 23 — goes so deep here, we can only hope she has more Jones in her.

20 Best TV Shows of 2015

Brittany Falussy

15

‘Silicon Valley’ (HBO)

"What's got two thumbs and three commas? This guy." Silicon Valley is never less than enjoyable when it's about five guys trying to strike it rich — but most of the time, it's about five guys trying to be good at something, which is different and harder to make funny. The already-excellent tech comedy took a big step up this season, especially when their Pied Piper livestream captures a man falling off a cliff and screaming for help; for these geeks, the human tragedy is proof that they built something that works. "This guy's gonna drink his own piss? That's too good." As Kumail Najiani's Dinesh explains in the heat of the crisis, "I can always find another job, but look at us. Doing this. It's intoxicating. Don't act like it's not magical. It is." And he's getting sentimental about streaming video of a man drinking his own urine. With its monomaniacal focus on the highs and lows of work addiction, it really resembles Mad Men more than it does than any other comedy around.

20 Best TV Shows of 2015

Brittany Falussy

14

‘Hannibal’ (NBC)

In retrospect, it was always vaguely psychotic this show ever made it to NBC in the first place. I'm sure somebody along the chain of command decided that was a fit. The shocking thing about Bryan Fuller's Hannibal wasn't so much the violence, which many of us had to watch through our fingers, but the lushness of the killer-aesthete's well-appointed abodes, the comfiness of his furniture, the finicky attention to detail in his culinary-cannibal lifestyle. Mads Mikkelsen has the predatory focus of any Top Chef contestant who ever made it past the first Quickfire. The third and final course was the most disturbing, with Hannibal living la dolce vita in Florence with Gillian Anderson, lecturing about Dante (he ate an Italian professor for dinner and stole his identity, a shrewd move in today's academic job market) en route to his deadly rendezvous with Hugh Dancey's Will and Laurence Fishburne's Jack. Nice new Siouxsie song in the finale, too. Ciao, Hannibal.

20 Best TV Shows of 2015

Brittany Falussy

13

‘Orange Is the New Black’ (Netflix)

The women's-prison ensemble story has expanded to the point where Piper, originally the main jailbird, has become dead weight; nobody would argue that an early parole for her would hurt the show. But that's a tribute to the abundance of unforgettable characters in Litchfield Penitentiary — with so many unforgettable actresses seizing the chance to tell their stories. Orange had star turns from Uzo Aduba's Crazy Eyes (who wrote her erotic sci-fi saga, The Time Hump Chronicles) as well as Samira Wiley's Poussey, Kimiko Glenn's Soso, Lea Dalaria's Boo and Kate Mulgrew's Red, who ponders marriage and divorce: "I owe my younger self 23 years of wild sex with multiple partners, but I'll settle for my name back." And Danielle Brooks' Taystee really zoomed to the top of my favorite-inmate list this season, especially when prisoners are trying to revive a comatose Soso. Taystee just says, "I done seen enough dead to know alive."

20 Best TV Shows of 2015

Brittany Falussy

12

‘You’re The Worst’ (FX)

"Let me tell you how relationships work: You cheat, and then she cheats, and then one day you wake up and he's gone, none of your stuff works, and you're having crabby puffs with some British guy." You're the Worst is the rawest of TV rom-coms, with Aya Cash's Gretchen and Chris Geere's Jimmy as a couple-or-whatever who share "I don't do feelings" as a way of life. (They've got sexual PTSD, which stands for previously taken or sucked dicks.) So they can't understand why having sex gets so messy — almost as if they're falling in love or some dumb stuff like that. Steven Falk's cult hit hits even harder in its second season, as these two find out each other's dirtiest secrets. Gretchen's "side bitch" sneaks out to cry alone in her car; Jimmy prefers to have wet dreams about Janis Joplin in the shower: "Yeah, Janis was a no-go. Pivoted to Grace Slick at the last second, so it wasn't a total waste." Feed your head.

20 Best TV Shows of 2015

Brittany Falussy

11

‘Bojack Horseman’ (Netflix)

Everybody's favorite cartoon horse who happens to be a self-loathing sitcom star and horrible-ish person, BoJack spent this season struggling for his big comeback role in the biopic of his hero Secretariat, a project that, like everything else, turns out to be a crushing disappointment. Raphael Bob-Waksberg's animated brainchild just keeps getting more inventive and more emotionally hardcore, as BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett) tries to make something of his life, with a little help from his feline ex Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), his human crush Diane (Alison Brie) and her dog husband Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), as well as the mysterious bearded runner dude who offers advice in that powerhouse final scene. Keep running up that hill, BoJack.

John Oliver Tonight

Eric Liebowitz/HBO

10

‘Last Week Tonight With John Oliver’ (HBO)

It definitely says something about our insane times that the only TV journalist anyone can still trust is this joker. As a Brit outsider, Oliver can get away with laughing at the powers that be instead of sucking up to them, going for in-depth investigative satire rather than bite-size cliches. Week after week, he makes everybody else in the TV-news puppet show look like the cowering toadies they are. Oliver was at his absolute best ranting after the Paris attacks: "If you're in a war of culture and lifestyle with France, good fucking luck, because go ahead, bring your bankrupt ideology. They'll bring Jean-Paul Sartre, Edith Piaf, fine wine, Gaulois cigarettes, Camus, Camembert, madeleines, macarons, Marcel Proust and the fucking croquembouche. You just brought a philosophy of rigorous self-abnegation to a pastry fight, my friend. You are fucked."

20 Best TV Shows of 2015

Brittany Falussy

9

‘Better Call Saul’ (AMC)

Nobody had any lofty expectations for this: Saul Goodman, the sleazebag lawyer from Breaking Bad, gets his own spin-off prequel. Who could have predicted it would turn out this great? It stands on its own as a comic desert noir — Bob Odenkirk fills every scene with the dank odor of a small-time shyster's flop sweat, doing his little All That Jazz "It's showtime, folks!" psych-up routine in the courthouse bathroom mirror. And Jonathan Banks has never been more terrifying, especially in the standout episode "Five-O," as tough guy Mike Ehrmantraut makes his bones. What more could Odenkirk fans ask from 2015? Oh wait … he also got back down with David Cross for Netflix's four-episode Mr. Show reunion. Now that's a year.