The abundance of quality shows in 2015 can be demonstrated in a variety of ways, but perhaps none better than the fact that for a number of the year’s best programs, there’s a near-twin, spiritual or otherwise, that can go with it.
Given that, rather than just name best shows, consider this the TV Highlights of 2015, Pairs Edition, singling out two or more programs that, in wading through “best” candidates, logically went together. As a bonus, doubling up on shows is one way of escaping the tyranny of limiting annual selections to just 10 or 12.
Before anyone starts lamenting oversights (an inevitability, in these situations), let the record show that nothing naturally paired up with two favorites: “Game of Thrones” – which is unrivaled in terms of its scope – or the final season of “Justified.” It’s worth noting, too, that there were some logical pairs where one warranted inclusion (such as Starz’s “Survivor’s Remorse”) and the other (HBO’s “Ballers”) didn’t. So in no particular order:
“Better Call Saul” (AMC), “Fargo” (FX): Both programs overcame a truly daunting challenge: Capturing the tone of a much-admired predecessor in prequel form, providing at best a tangential connection to the original. “Saul,” admittedly, started slowly before finding its groove, while “Fargo” – looking even better thanks to the misfire that was “True Detective,” Season 2 – demonstrated that showrunner Noah Hawley is no one-trick pony.
“UnReal” (Lifetime), “Mr. Robot” (USA): Although the bond here might look more tenuous than most, these two serialized dramas – which premiered three weeks apart – were the unexpected one-two punch of the summer. Each featured a damaged protagonist and ballsy narrative twists, while at times uncomfortably echoing reality. Moreover, both reflected a welcome step up in class from networks that have been reasonably successful in the drama game but normally aren’t associated with this level of quality.
David Letterman (CBS), Jon Stewart (Comedy Central) farewell episodes: Two late-night TV titans signed off in 2015, leaving the field on their own terms. And the final episodes delivered an outpouring of class, emotion and good feelings that one seldom finds even in the best primetime dramas.
“The Affair,” “Masters of Sex” (Showtime): In a sense, each of these Showtime dramas used sex as the come-on to lure viewers in, but then developed into rich, fascinating character studies, anchored by complicated extramarital relationships.
“Transparent” (Amazon), “Rectify” (SundanceTV): Perhaps no two series move slower, and say more, than Amazon’s half-hour about a transgender woman (Jeffrey Tambor, in the role of a lifetime) and a released death-row inmate (Aden Young, in a role he’ll likely spend a lifetime trying to top) and their families. Bittersweet, understated and highly specific to their respective groups, these little-seen shows begin with the protagonists’ stories, then extend beyond that to all those within their orbits. They’re also a reminder of the liberating aspects of being able to cater to a discerning niche audience.
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Jane the Virgin” (CW): The hour-long comedy is a relatively new form, but both of these CW series conjured warmth and laughs around their 20-something female protagonists, each wrestling with romance – and occasionally bursting out in song.
“The Flash” (CW), “Supergirl” (CBS): Even a few years ago, the idea of TV producing one series about a costume-clad hero with this level of special effects and fidelity to the spirit (if not the letter) of the comics would have been unthinkable. That producer Greg Berlanti and his crew managed to do it twice – and find leads as appealing as Grant Gustin and Melissa Benoist, respectively – looks like a job worthy of you know who.
“Show Me a Hero” (HBO), “Narcos” (Netflix): David Simon’s HBO miniseries and Netflix’s crime drama about drug dealer Pablo Escobar explored fact-based stories in spare, engrossing ways. And while both are decades old, the issues they tackled – public housing and big-city race relations; and the roots of the drug war, respectively – seem incredibly relevant to matters being debated and litigated today.
“The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” (HBO), “Making a Murderer” (Netflix): Truth be told, the idea that everyone was going to start doing longform documentaries, inspired in part by the podcast “Serial,” provoked initial skepticism. How many true stories are really worthy of that kind of commitment? Well, at least two, based on HBO’s news-making dissection of Durst – the most unlikely of 72-year-old TV “stars” – and Netflix’s 10-hour, decade-in-the-making unspooling of the strange case of Steven Avery, who was exonerated of one crime after 18 years in prison, only to be accused of another.
“Vikings” (History), “The Last Kingdom” (BBC America): In perhaps the ultimate testimonial to TV’s depth this year, there were actually two first-rate series about the Vikings invading Europe. History’s show actually might have delivered its best work yet in an action-packed third season, while “Last Kingdom” – from the producers of “Downton Abbey” – quickly established its own complementary charms, with the Anglo-Saxons seeking to thwart the Danish invaders, and a nobleman’s child raised by the barbarians caught in the middle.
“I Am Cait” (E!), “I Am Jazz” (TLC), “Becoming Us” (ABC Family): None of these reality programs – dealing with different phases and facets of transgender life – would have qualified on its own. Yet coupled with Caitlyn Jenner’s Diane Sawyer interview, they demonstrated the medium’s enduring power to educate and, in this case, change the conversation about the transgender community in a fundamental way.
“Wolf Hall,” “Poldark,” “Indian Summers” (PBS). Masterpiece’s hunt for another period drama is unlikely to replicate the lightning in a bottle that the network caught — at least in terms of cultural footprints — with “Downton Abbey.” But based on this trio of top-notch productions, it’s been great fun watching them try.