It wasn’t just a great year for new shows: Many returning programs turned out excellent seasons in 2015 as well. Here are twenty that are worth singling out.
By the way, all of the returning programs on my overall Top 20 of 2015 should be thought of as additional entries on this list, but for space reasons, those 13 shows are not mentioned here. In any event, if you need input on what to watch or catch up on this holiday season, check out the comedies and dramas mentioned below, look for more suggestions in my Top 20 and check out my Best New Shows roster.
“Banshee,” Cinemax: This underrated drama is of the most consistently taut and entertaining program on TV, and this year, “Banshee’s” terrific take on a film and TV standard, the big-money heist, contained more invention, excitement and gleeful filmmaking than many big-budget movies.
“Broad City,” Comedy Central: Very few TV shows depict female friendship at all, let alone well, but this gem is on a mission to correct that imbalance. “Broad City’s” wildly infectious energy, inventive spirit and “anything goes” attitude is invigorating: When your spirit is flagging, re-watch “Knockoffs” and glory in this moment again and again.
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” Fox: This delightful comedy came into its own in the last half of its first season, and the second season has only solidified its strengths. The entire ensemble is versatile and wonderfully entertaining, and the show still has no trouble finding fruitful character combinations and storylines.
“Doctor Who,” BBC America: I didn’t expect a lot from this season, truth be told, because the last few seasons have been so maddeningly inconsistent and irritatingly slapdash. But this disciplined and generally well-executed season has been a welcome surprise, and it’s been enjoyable to see Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi — who are excellent individually and also share a spiky chemistry — find new notes to play.
“The Flash,” CW: I can’t say I’m fond of the way in which the setup for “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” has been interfering with this show’s storytelling in season two, but “The Flash” is still a generally a lot of fun, and its tear-jerking season one finale was damn near perfect. Also, what other show had characters tussle with man-shark? Your move, AMC.
“Game of Thrones,” HBO: By this stage in its history, “Game of Thrones” is almost more known for the hot takes about it and the fan irritation it generates than for what’s happening onscreen. And there are eminently understandable reasons for the periodic controversies, because (without getting into specifics about various “GoT”-related hot-button issues) there are simply times when a show this smart should know better. Still, when it’s firing on all cylinders, whether in poignant and spectacularly acted character moments or in epic battles like “Hardhome,” it’s one of the most transfixing shows on TV.
“The Good Wife,” CBS: I thought I was having an out of body experience when this show depicted Howard and Jackie out on a date. What was I watching? Why? What “Good Wife” fan ever wanted to see that? The show’s fondness for characters and dynamics that long ago reached their sell-by date remains a bug (and I fear it’s about to mishandle Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s exit as badly as it handled the goodbyes of Matthew Goode and Archie Panjabi, arrrghhgghh). And yet, there are a lot of elements to that prompt me to tune in every week: When it’s working, few shows provide more enjoyable conflict between complicated adults who like their jobs, Juliana Margulies’ performance is still wonderfully nuanced and Cush Jumbo has been a terrific addition to the cast. Also Margo Martingale and Alan Cumming trying to out-shade each other is worth the price of admission (i.e., Howard Lyman scenes).
“Girls,” HBO: Season four may well have been the most consistent and affecting season of the show which, like its characters, reached a new level of maturity. It showed the core characters in bittersweet and thoughtful modes as they grew up and attempted to rectify some of their earlier mistakes. It was also, as usual, laugh out loud funny at times.
“Halt and Catch Fire,” AMC: What fun. AMC easily could have kicked this show to the curb, given its anemic ratings and lack of first-season critical buzz. But “Halt” found its mojo in season two — in part by focusing more intently on its swell female characters — and I couldn’t be more excited to see what the gang gets up to in the Silicon Valley of the mid-‘80s.
“The Knick,” Cinemax: From my review of the show’s second season: “‘The Knick’ has what tamer period dramas lack: A spark of life and sense of danger.” The cast is great and the stories trundle along capably, but what gives this show its oomph is the consistently inventive curiosity of director/maestro Steven Soderbergh.
“Manhattan,” WGN America: A handsome and thoughtful series about the costs of hubris and intellectual ambition during wartime, “Manhattan” may be one of those shows that tends to get lost in the shuffle of Peak TV, but it’s worth seeking out, especially its stronger second season.
“New Girl,” Fox: I have nothing new to say about this reliably well-executed comedy, except that I continue to enjoy it every single week.
“Justified,” FX: Talk about going out on a high note. Few shows in their final seasons have demonstrated as much offhand brilliance while also appearing to have a pretty great time. Too many dramas these days don’t get that humor, deployed expertly, only adds heft to thematic ambition, and “Justified’s” storytelling discipline was also a major virtue (a lot of shows run 10 to 30 minutes longer than the typical “Justified” episode — and those other shows are demonstrably lesser endeavors). There aren’t many shows that mix great acting, crafty storytelling and an unfussy devotion to entertainment with such virtuosity; this one will be sorely missed.
“Outlander,” Starz: Within the context of sturdy forms we are familiar with — “period piece,” “epic romance,” “historical adventure” — this show explores ideas about power, domination, repression and violation with admirable honesty and, in certain episodes, with effective and laudable intensity. The funny thing is, despite its use of those forms, “Outlander” doesn’t traffic in cliches; the show has consistently demonstrated its desire to upend and expose them. “Outlander” is radical in a lot of ways — in the way it’s treated female sexuality, in the casual way in which it’s incorporated male genitalia, in the way it’s depicted bodies in all kinds of situations. “Outlander” is one of the few shows around with truly consistent curiosity about how physically intimate relationships actually work, and even though they were in a different key, the last few episodes of Season 1 were no different. They delved deeply into a theme that “Outlander” has long been concerned with: They were ultimately about consent and why it matters. Scotland and England, Jamie and Claire, Jamie and Jack: Who will rule whom, and with an iron fist or a freely offered hand? How can independence be expressed when the default setup of the era — for couples, for nations — is usually a limited, oppressive construct? Though the show meanders from time to time, it consistently returns to this idea: Obedience can be obtained via any number of methods, but coerced “allegiance” is no substitute for considered assent that is respectfully — or, better yet, enthusiastically — offered.
“Parks and Recreation,” NBC: This show’s final season could have been a lax victory lap, but it wasn’t. “Parks and Rec” stayed heartfelt, funny, sweet and tremendously endearing right until the end. “Leslie and Ron” was a classic episode, and “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show” is another guaranteed pick-me-up, if you happen to need one. I miss these goofballs.
“Penny Dreadful,” Showtime: This Gothic horror series had a variable second season, and the central conflict with the character played by the great Helen McCrory petered out a bit diffidently, but as Genevieve Valentine noted, “The Nightcomers,” was not just an incredible showcase for guest star Patti LuPone and star Eva Green, it was one of the greatest origin stories ever seen on TV. There’s also a Billie Piper monologue late in the season that is by far the best thing the actress has ever done.
“The Returned,” Sundance: Two years in, I still don’t necessarily know what this show is about or what is happening half the time. Is “The Returned” a meditation on grief and loss, or a parable about both the power and danger of community? Is it about zombies? Is it about a natural world that is deeply out of balance and quietly wreaking vengeance on the unlucky humans in its path? Why do French zombies get to smoke? What is it about Victor that makes him so creepy? I still don’t know, but I don’t care. In less sure hands, this spare drama’s lack of “answers” would grate, but “The Returned” has always been upfront about its desire to ask questions and plumb the more mysterious reaches of the human soul. This is the rare serialized drama that doesn’t care about “mythology”: It tries — and succeeds — in evoking the timeless quality of myths.
“Review,” Comedy Central: Forrest MacNeil is either a monster or a victim — or an unholy combination of both. Maybe this comparison is a stretch, but he reminds me of “Hannibal’s” Will Graham — but instead of Hannibal Lector whispering in his ear, Forrest has his own desire for relevance and attention continually leading him spectacularly astray. It’s so hard to explain the appeal of this hilarious tragicomedy, except to say that it made the murder of an imaginary friend actually seem poignant — and very funny. Somehow creator Andy Daly and his merry band of subversives made an even better version of “Review” this season, which hardly seemed possible after its shockingly good first season. The show, Daly and fantastic cast member James Urbaniak all get five stars.
“Silicon Valley,” HBO: This year, HBO’s terrific satire of startup culture consistently delivered on the promise of its first season, and it was quite rewarding to spend more time with the motley fools at Pied Piper, not to mention all the nerds, tech bros and basic billionaires who crossed their paths. The show is full of memorable characters, but T.J. Miller’s Erlich Bachman is truly a gift.
“Survivor’s Remorse,” Starz: I’m a latecomer to this show — I recently binged both seasons in a few days, and I can highly recommend that experience, even if, like me, you have zero interest in sports. This nimble half-hour, which tells the story a young basketball star’s rise to wealth and fame, is deftly entertaining, funny and droll, which allows it to sneak in some skillfully explored ideas about authenticity, responsibility and trying to your retain integrity in a fame-hungry world. “Survivor’s Remorse” is part family sitcom and part tart rom-com, and it features one of the best supporting casts in the game. RonReaco Lee’s deadpan reactions never fail to land beautifully, Erica Ash’s M-Chuck is a wildly entertaining ball of fire, and Tichina Arnold finds any number of ways to give dimension and depth to the watchful and exacting Cassie, the family matriarch. Real talk, though: Mike Epps’ Uncle Julius is the best thing about “Survivor’s Remorse.” Always laid back and loyal, sometimes high and consistently as funny as hell, Uncle Julius is just the best.