One of the most notable things about this list is its omissions. So many good shows debuted, returned or continued good seasons this year that it’s difficult to keep up. I’ve surely left off one or two or three of your favorites off this list (and I will continue to spend every spare hour trying to finish — or start — seasons of shows I haven’t seen).
Even so, coming up with 20 entries for this list wasn’t difficult — I actually had to prune back my first attempt at a roster (and once again, my end-of-year lists will likely once again contain up to 60 TV series). For the first half of the year, though, here’s an alphabetical list of the programs that made the strongest impressions impressions on me.
One Day at a Time
In this era of random reboots and greedy IP grabs, here was a Netflix revival that got the DNA of the original right and then improved on that formula. Anchored by a great cast, “One Day” (pictured, above) told stories that were heartwarming but never overly sentimental, and it was consistently funny, poignant and wise.
Nothing is more American than a road trip, and this meditative Starz drama depicted one of the trippiest journeys to ever grace the small screen. A fantasia and a fever dream all at once, this adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel found both poetry and brutality in the cultures and belief systems that came together to create this strange dream called America.
Better Call Saul
Every year, the performances in this AMC drama grow richer and the character predicaments more complex, and this season was lent a special poignance by the unforgiving brother-vs-brother battle of Chuck versus Jimmy. This solidly crafted show continues to mine all it can from its core character’s shifty, striving backstory and from its dependably versatile cast.
This musically enhanced CW comedy contains more than its share of bittersweet drama, which isn’t surprising, given its lead character’s problems with denial, co-dependence and depression. Adding Scott Michael Foster as Nathaniel in the second half of the season was a brilliant move (he’s an excellent foil for Rebecca, with whom he has a lot in common), and the show’s witty, smart explorations of Rebecca’s ability to put obstacles in her own way continued to be singularly entertaining.
Dear White People
A bracing, thoughtful and funny Netflix series that created a series of character portraits that won’t soon be forgotten. Like many of the best half-hour shows, “Dear White People” pulled no punches on the social-commentary front, but it was always considered, self-aware and curious.
The series finale wasn’t great and seems even more frantic and out of sync in hindsight. That said, the final season of the HBO show contained some of “Girls” most accomplished storytelling and insightful moments, and that’s saying something, considering this groundbreaking show came out of the gate strong all those years (and all those thinkpieces) ago.
The Handmaid’s Tale
The quiet intensity of this show’s aesthetic, not to mention a string of stellar performances, made the world of Gilead frequently transfixing. Any adaptation of a work this well-known and beloved is bound to encounter a few bumps in the road (or disagreements about execution), but there’s little doubt that this was a smart, worthy endeavor, and one that finally put Hulu on the map in the realm of original drama series.
Into the Badlands
This action-oriented AMC series more than delivered on the promise of its 2015 debut in a wild, exciting and gorgeous second season. There are very few series that provide witty escapism, a feast for the eyes, brisk storytelling and roundhouse kicks. This post-apocalyptic delight did all that and more.
Jane the Virgin
How do you take a show that’s great and make it even better? You smartly weave in heartfelt and intelligent commentary about grief, growth, parenting and the therapeutic benefits of a superficial fling. “Jane’s” efficient, beautifully orchestrated combinations of form, function and emotion would perhaps be more jaw-dropping if we weren’t so used to them — but that’s not to say we should take the CW show for granted.
Not just another true-crime documentary, but a meditation on what it does to a community — and individuals within it — when those in power not only allow crimes to be committed but cover up and dismiss evidence of gross abuses. The power of Netflix’s “The Keepers” comes from the doggedness of its quiet but tenacious amateur investigators, and even more so from testimony of the survivors at its core.
This HBO show grew increasingly confident over its three-season run, and it was perfectly calibrated when it rolled into its third season. “The Leftovers” continually found ways to bring parables, metaphors and dreams to life, sometimes with imaginative and moving storytelling gambits, sometimes by simply training its cameras on the faces of its exceptional cast. This was an eight-episode run for the ages, topped by one of the all-time great series finales.
FX’s trippy superhero tale felt like a mash-up of “Quadrophenia” and an early Pink Floyd album. Dan Stevens’ empathic performance anchored a show that took a lot of flying leaps, many of which landed in strange but weirdly compelling places.
Mary Kills People
A sleeper that more people should seek out, this Lifetime drama followed the increasingly tricky balancing acts of a doctor who helped terminal patients end their lives. Was she doing it as an act of mercy or an assertion of power? The show wisely never answered that question definitively, but it supplied a lot of taut drama and even fizzy fun along the way.
Master of None
One of TV’s buzziest shows got even stronger in its second season, paying homage to cinematic legends while deepening the core characters and their relationships. It doesn’t hurt that in a world of bloated episodes, each installment of Netflix’s “Master of None” was crisp, concise and lasted just long enough.
A dark tale that avoided bleakness for something more ambiguous and true, Hulu’s “National Treasure” told the story of a beloved actor who was actually a sexual predator — or was he? Answers arrive by the end of the story, but not before the four-part drama told an incisive tale about the messed-up power dynamics that can exist within families — and within the allegedly glamorous entertainment industry.
Finally, we got the last three episodes of this delightfully demented Comedy Central show, which served as a meticulous parable about the dangers of going to extremes — a warning that has just a little bit of relevance to the times we’re living in. There were only three episodes in Forrest MacNeil’s swan song season, but they were perfect. Five out of five stars.
The accountability of the police to the communities they serve is a life or death issue, and Fox’s “Shots Fired” incorporated that truth into a complex narrative that resisted the creation of one-dimensional villains or superficial solutions. A very able cast did fine work in a drama that occasionally sprawled but frequently had smart things to say about how different kinds of power are used — and sometimes abused.
Each update — sorry, season — of this HBO show finds it honing its characters and tableaus even more sharply. Each season is a meticulously constructed device built to efficiently skewer various tech-world types without relying on bland caricatures. To be clear, some characters are caricatures, but they’re usually hilariously douchey, and ripe for the satirizing. Every time you think Silicon Valley will save us from some social, cultural or political ill, force yourself to watch this show; most likely you will laugh and nod your head while you secretly wonder if we’re all doomed.
There’s a heartening array of mainstream comedies on the broadcast networks that are willing to take on all kinds of hot-button topics, and NBC’s “Superstore” — which is never preachy or predictable — fits right into that category. Its array of characters has only gotten more amusing over time, and hanging over each deftly constructed relationship and believable aspiration is the thought that maybe, just maybe, the American dream already passed these workers by.
The Young Pope
Shows that feature walk-on — well, hop on — roles for kangaroos are just going to get more points than the average prestige drama. That’s just how it goes. In truth, very little about this HBO show was average. It was playfully serious, hilariously grave, surreally cynical and a feast for the eyes, and Jude Law embodied “The Young Pope’s” sly, serious mischievousness with impressive facility.
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