Friday, February 5, 2016
The 10 Best TV Shows of 2015: Dragons, Witches, and Redheads
10. Show Me a Hero (HBO, Season 1). David Simon's shows have always cut against formula, but they've also focused on headline-friendly topics (the drug war, the race war, the Iraq war). Yet with the six-part miniseries Show Me a Hero, it's almost as if he's trolling his audience. A six-part miniseries about the desegregation of low-income housing in 1980s Yonkers, New York, it's the kind of esoteric material that seems to defy conventional dramatic storytelling. Yet Simon, with an assist from director Paul Haggis, improbably makes this true story not just compelling but powerful. The show's ambitions are large, covering everything from the intransigence of city politics to the entrenchment of racial prejudice, but Simon grounds it in recognizably human characters. This makes Show Me a Hero less a political drama that a series about people battered by politics. And while Nick Wasicsko, the champion of the show's title, is the mayor of Yonkers, he's also just a man—hopeful, ambitious, decent, flawed, and ultimately broken. He is believably all of these things because he's played by Oscar Isaac, who delivers a magnificent and heart-breaking performance as the show's tragic figure. There are many characters in Show Me a Hero, and Simon gives each of them an impressive sense of individuality, so we never feel like we're watching archetypes. But while Show Me a Hero makes a number of important points about how we live now, its lasting image is that of Wasicsko seated in his house, tears streaking down his face as the sun streams cruelly through a nearby window. In moments such as this—and in so many others—Isaac bares the soul of this broken civic leader, a man filled with hope and wracked with pain. The series' title is the first clause in a two-line quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald. After watching this beautiful, devastating show, you will not need me to fill in the second part.
9. Jessica Jones (Netflix, Season 1). Is Jessica Jones a superhero show? I suppose so; it's based on a Marvel comic, after all, and its heroine does possess extraordinary physical abilities. But beyond that, this show is as interested in Superman as it is in Freud's treatise on the superego. A gritty, hard-boiled noir, Jessica Jones uses the superhero genre as scaffolding for a much more complex story, one brimming with intrigue and mystery. Krysten Ritter is tremendous as Jessica, a tough-talking, booze-swilling private detective with lots of anger and little patience. If Jessica Jones had just followed its electric central character around, watching her slug perps and slam whiskey, it still would have been enjoyable. But the show is more ambitious than that, and it delivers a riveting central story in which Jessica squares off against Kilgrave (David Tennant, exceptionally cast), a carefree sociopath who can bend people to his will just by speaking to them. That might sound silly, but Jessica Jones explores its premise with exquisite intelligence, resulting in an exhilarating thriller that's gratifyingly unpredictable. It's a heart-pounding show that also makes room for touching character moments, all revolving around Jessica's inherent self-loathing. Whether examining Jessica's steadfast loyalty to friend Trish (Rachael Taylor), her grudging sympathy for neighbor Malcolm (Eka Darville), or her tentative romance with local bartender Luke Cage (Mike Colter), Jessica Jones creates a remarkably flawed heroine, one who's only enhanced by Ritter's ferociously fragile performance. Jessica may technically be a superhero—the jury's still out—but Ritter makes her a human one. And like its title character, Jessica Jones is a complex animal: wiry and tough, with a sharp tongue but a beating heart.
8. Justified (FX, Season 6; last year: 9 out of 50). It's easy to mistake Justified's consistency for complacency. The show hasn't changed all that much from its electrifying opening scene six years ago, when marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, in a career-defining performance) nonchalantly gunned down a fugitive in broad daylight. Since then, Raylan has remained the fastest, most arrogant gun in Kentucky, dispensing cold justice with his unnerving combination of legal authority and flinty lethality. His particular foes have changed, but Raylan is the same bull-headed lawman he always was, and Justified is no less enthralling for it. But this show isn't built entirely on Raylan's effortless charisma; it's also founded on his charged relationship with his chief antagonist, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). Armed with the show's stylized dialogue that pays homage to its literary inspiration (crime-fiction legend Elmore Leonard), Raylan and Boyd are constantly circling one another, and Justified is never better than when these frenemies are trading cutting insults and false compliments. Still, while the series has never needed to alter its mesmerizing mood, it receives a boost from going through its final season, when the stakes are raised substantially. The sense of finality also helps the show figure out what to do with Ava Crowder (Joelle Carter), Boyd's fiancé, even as it continues to incrementally dig into the mythical shadings of Raylan's gun-slinging persona. (The arrival of Sam Elliott as the season's big bad also pays dividends, because, you know, Sam Elliott.) As a result, Justified's last go-round feels more potent than its typical arc, even if it's mostly just cranking through the same awesome elements—the bursts of violence, the shifty plotting, the monumental swagger, that delectable dialogue—that made it so damn appealing in the first place. That makes this sixth season both an apex and an elegy, a fitting farewell for a show that never faltered. "I gotta admit," Raylan says to Boyd during one of their typically freighted tête-à-têtes, "there's a small part of me that's gonna miss this when it's over." Raylan may be a solitary gunman, but in that sentiment, he is certainly not alone.
7. Penny Dreadful (Showtime, Season 2; last year: 12). Penny Dreadful's lush first season felt rapturous, but it was also a little silly, a hokey premise elevated by superlative craft and terrific acting. Its follow-up is as resplendent as ever—the Gothic atmosphere on this show is marvelously foreboding—but it now feels like a real dramatic series, with gravity and weight. That isn't to suggest that Penny Dreadful is no longer fun; on the contrary, this show is still wickedly entertaining, with nerve-racking set pieces and macabre laughs. But the storyline is no longer exaggerated, instead relying on steady pacing and strong characters. It also introduces a superior villain, a casually vicious witch who's played with evident relish by Peaky Blinders' Helen McCrory and who, in a stunning scene in the season premiere, sings merrily to herself while bathing in a tub full of blood. That's the kind of bone-chilling image that makes Penny Dreadful so hypnotic, but it's hardly the only one, and the series generously apportions its showstopping moments across its talented cast. Josh Hartnett's Ethan Chandler gains greater depth this season, while Billie Piper's transformation into the Bride of Frankenstein proves an enormous success, especially once she teams up with Reeve Carney's Dorian Gray. (Bonus points for the inspired casting of Patti LuPone as a stony sorceress.) But while Penny Dreadful's entire ensemble is able and committed, the show still belongs to Eva Green as Vanessa Ives, a woman haunted by her past and terrified of her future (and herself). With a cut-glass voice and a face that registers every tremor of emotion, Green is the show's fulcrum, a figure of monstrous power who is also its achingly human center. Good thing, too. For a series so invested in exploring the depths of Hell, Penny Dreadful is wise to have a flame that burns so bright.
6. The Leftovers (HBO, Season 2; last year: 13). The second season of The Leftovers opens with a wordless nine-minute sequence set in prehistoric times, in which a woman painfully gives birth, then dies after being bitten by a snake. What does it mean? What does it matter? But that's not quite fair. It's too easy to accept this show's craziness as a mere barrier to entry, a test of faith designed to weed out literal-minded viewers too impatient to embrace its challenges. The Leftovers is a fascinating series, but not just because it refuses to walk in a straight line. It's great because it houses its pointed philosophical questions—Why are we here? What is family?—inside a powder keg, an invigorating and relentlessly entertaining show that throbs with energy and intensity. That was largely true in Season 1 as well, but it's far more forceful here, especially with showrunner Damon Lindelof choosing to focus each episode on an individual character. It's a smart storytelling technique that allows the show to simultaneously broaden its scope—the central cast is quite large, especially with the Murphy family now in the fold—and deepen its intimacy; every hour affords us the opportunity to get to know specific people, and to truly understand the impact the Sudden Departure (when two percent of the world's population instantly disappeared) has had on them. That results in a riveting episode like "Lens", which further delves into the heartache afflicting Carrie Coon's flailing bereaved mother, or "Ten Thirteen," a bruising hour that impossibly transforms Liv Tyler—Liv Tyler!— into an inscrutable, terrifying fanatic. The Leftovers is a metaphysically wonky show, but while it revolves around the Sudden Departure, it isn't really about that cataclysmic, inexplicable event. Instead, it's ardently devoted to digging into the age-old question of what it means to be human. Oddly, it reminds me of the marriage proposal from High Fidelity, in which John Cusack confesses that he hadn't considered whether Iben Hjejle might say yes, because he "thought asking was the important part". After a protracted battle, The Leftovers gained clearance for one more season, but it's foolish to expect Lindelof to provide closure, to definitively answer the series' massive questions. But the show has already done the important part; it's asked those questions, and it's done so in stimulating, captivating ways. So I'll just echo Hjejle and respond: You've asked. Thank you.
5. You're the Worst (FXX, Season 2; last year: 14). I didn't see this coming. Look, You're the Worst is a hilarious show—the toxic chemistry between Chris Geere's Jimmy and Aya Cash's Gretchen generates multiple laugh-aloud moments every episode, and supporting players Kether Donohue and Brandon Mychal Smith are riots with legs. (You haven't experienced comedy until you've heard Donohue casually slip "shot a condom full of piping hot semen into my vaj" into her list of things she's done lately.) It's also a deceptively sweet show, with Geere and Cash's outward hostility masking their underlying tenderness for one another. (In one brilliant episode, they become alarmed that they're behaving too much like a couple, so they vow not to check up on one another, only to spend the entire day texting each other about how they're not checking in. It's adorable.) I knew all this already. But I never expected You're the Worst to do what it does halfway through its second season, when it shifts into overdrive and becomes a powerful, poignant study of depression. Most shows about mental illness are either treacly or ill-informed, packaging pseudo-insights into tidily digestible packages. But when Gretchen reveals that she suffers from depression, You're the Worst treats the issue honestly without ever succumbing to theatrics. Gretchen doesn't turn into a hysterical maniac, she just struggles to process her emotions, hating herself for it the entire time. And Jimmy, revealing both the hugeness of his heart and the soft spots in his brain, tries desperately to "fix" her, which has the inevitable effect of pouring kerosene on a lit match. What's truly amazing is that the seriousness of this subplot never detracts from the show's comedy; if anything, the series is somehow funnier when it's sensitively exploring Gretchen's illness. (Cue Smith's character trying to comfort Gretchen by comparing her to famously depressed writers: "David Foster Wallace, Hemingway, Spalding Gray, 'Boner' from Growing Pains... What!? Seriously, all of them??") That's why You're the Worst can't properly be classified as a comedy or a drama—it's too messy and heartfelt and funny and true to accept such a banal categorization. This is an enormously daring show that also features fake rap beefs, crazy Halloween parties, and jokes about jizz. So don't worry, Jimmy: You don't need to fix a thing.
4. Game of Thrones (HBO, Season 5; last year: 7). To those who feel Game of Thrones is just too much—too violent, too ambitious, too sprawling, too sexist, too dark—well, to you, I answer with this:
Holy hell, this show is amazing. It shouldn't be possible to cram this much material—the action, the comedy, the opulence, the political intrigue, the dragons—into 10 episodes. But here we are, and Game of Thrones, as ungainly and overstuffed as it should feel, keeps getting better with every season. It's the obsessive attention to detail that makes the difference. The series takes after its fantastic opening title sequence, which is now hopscotching to more exotic locations than ever but still takes the painstaking time to add lovely flourishes to differentiate every spot. Game of Thrones takes the same elaborate care with its innumerable subplots and countless characters, adding meticulous depth and shading to every one, from the treachery at The Wall to the uprising at King's Landing to the skullduggery at Dorne. The result is a show that, as massive as it may be, never feels overextended or ragged. That's crucial, because it continues to burn through George R.R. Martin's pages at a rapid rate (book readers should be excited for Season 6, when the showrunners will be writing on a blank slate), and it would be easy for the series to sacrifice specificity in the service of exposition. But Game of Thrones is too precise and demanding to tolerate laziness; it's a brilliantly plotted, stupendously well-written show that also happens to feature some breathtaking sequences. Speaking of which, the show's set pieces are—what's the technical term?—fucking incredible. Fight scenes splatter the lens with blood but are still scrupulously choreographed, while the production design and visual effects are immaculate. Every episode features a handful of legitimately thrilling moments, but the final act of "The Dance of Dragons"—which begins with frenzied gladiatorial combat and ends with, well, see above—is the greatest thing the series has ever done. It also epitomizes the show's revolutionary spirit, the way it's challenging accepted notions of what television can do. Most series operate comfortably within the medium's established framework. Game of Thrones is burning TV to the ground.
3. Fargo (FX, Season 2; last year: 2). Speaking of challenging the medium, Fargo may technically air on television, but it's scarcely a TV show at all. It isn't a movie, either. I suppose you could call it an anthology series, given that it retains its high-level creators but changes up its casts and storylines from one season to the next. (Other programs, such as True Detective and American Horror Story, have adopted a similar approach, albeit with less success.) What's gratifying about this is that Fargo feels both open-ended and self-contained. Rebooting each new season (sadly, the third won't air until 2017) liberates the series, granting it the perpetual opportunity to tell fresh stories. (It also gives it greater odds of landing major stars, as they only need to commit to a handful of episodes.) But those individual stories come with a beginning, middle, and end, and that's where Fargo truly excels. There is a welcome sense of finality to this show, a recognition that, despite existing within the fluctuating landscape of television, it has entirely completed its purpose.
Of course, that would be meaningless if it were bad, but Season 2 of Fargo is very, very good. A bracing amalgam of dark humor and stark drama, it's a crime story of the highest order, replete with righteous cops, reprobate killers, and a bevy of helpless souls caught in the crossfire. The show's execution remains superb, continuously trotting out new formal maneuvers (split-screen, sudden flashback) without ever coming off as gimmicky. But it's the characters who really land, highlighting their flawed, sticky humanity and how it's compromised by society's ever-present greed and venality. The entire cast is excellent, but the two standouts are Bokeem Woodbine as a smooth-talking underling (and oh, what dialogue!) and a revelatory Kirsten Dunst as a hairdresser with unrealized dreams.
There's a meta moment in this season's ninth episode when a narrator (Martin Freeman, one of the stars of Season 1) reads from a book called "The History of True Crime in the Mid West", as though he isn't telling a fictional tale but is simply recounting past bloody events. That's cutesy, but it's also tantalizing, suggesting that Noah Hawley could keep telling these stories and they'd never grow stale. And this season of Fargo is so electric, so persuasively conveyed, it's liable to disorient you, so that as soon as it's over, you're likely to sprint to the nearest library, desperate to crack open the next chapter in that book.
2. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix, Season 3; last year: 15). Given that it's a series about prison life, you'd think Orange Is the New Black would feel constrained, even trapped. Its primary location never changes, its characters wear the same clothes, and there's no realistic possibility of escape. Even its structure—a regular toggling from present-day events in Litchfield Prison to flashbacks of a particular character—sounds schematic. So how is it that, three seasons in, this extraordinary, mutable show remains so fresh, so exciting? Part of it lies in the series' incremental expansion of scale. Where Season 1 focused primarily on Taylor Schilling's Piper Chapman (Jenji Kohan's self-described Trojan horse), Season 2 gradually shifted her to the background, focusing instead on the institutional rot infecting the penal system. Season 3 hardly has a focal point at all, and I mean that in the best possible way. At this point, Orange Is the New Black almost feels like a cultural anthropologist, flittering from one cell to the next, looking for new stories to discover. (It isn't even just the inmates; Nick Sandow's Joe Caputo, a sort of mini-warden, receives his own moving arc this season.)
But while Orange Is the New Black may no longer be about any one person, it is decidedly about people, and therein lies the series' greatest strength. When it's uncovering systemic abuses, this show can feel livid, but when it's tenderly exploring its characters, it is intensely empathetic. It is remarkable that, with each new episode, Orange Is the New Black can reveal new, hidden truths about someone ensnared within Litchfield's grasp, fleshing out the details of her predicament without ever falling victim to schmaltz or melodrama. In this, the show routinely dispenses startling developments involving so-called minor characters that feel entirely earned. Who could have predicted Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) would receive one of this season's sweetest storylines involving her conversion to Judaism? Who could possibly have envisioned, following Season 1, that Taryn Manning's Pennsatucky and Lea DeLaria's Big Boo would join forces as one of television's greatest comedy duos? Hell, who could have imagined Piper, once the show's innocent naïf, transforming herself into the next Walter White? These are all beautifully surprising stories, but while the show is unpredictable, it is in no way random. It is instead a cohesive study of an entire ecosystem, funny and touching and lovely. These inmates may not be going anywhere, but while Orange Is the New Black is literally static, it is, at the same time, so full of life.
1. The Americans (FX, Season 3; last year: 1). Honestly, I didn't want to rank The Americans in my top slot for the second consecutive year, but sometimes, the TV gods leave you no choice. Not to imply that Season 3 simply recycles the tropes of its predecessor—on the contrary. Where Season 2 of The Americans was taut and streamlined, this season is far more erratic, with herky-jerky subplots and a distinct lack of smoothness. That is by design. The Americans is a kickass spy show—some of its set pieces are indecently suspenseful—but it's never really been about espionage, or the Cold War, or even national loyalty. It's about marriage and family, and just how complicated and messy those things can be. That's why the fissures in the union between Elizabeth (Keri Russell, still on fire) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys, perpetually unappreciated) are less visible than they were in Season 1, but they're still there, quietly cracking and widening beneath the surface. But that percolating strain is just one aspect of the roiling emotional warfare taking place on The Americans. It's certainly less visible than Elizabeth and Phillip's conflict with their daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor, heartbreaking), a slow-burning tension that simmers all season before finally exploding in "Stingers". That episode is the best hour this series has ever produced, which says something about its level of nuance; in a show loaded with so many memorable moments, its centerpiece is three people sitting at a table, quietly talking.
But oh, are there moments. Season 3 of The Americans may be uncommonly deliberate in its pacing—and incomparably generous in its character development—but it still delivers the goods, big-time. A tooth pulled without anesthesia. A fresh corpse snapped into pieces on its way into a suitcase. A slow-speed car chase that lasts 20 agonizing minutes. A flaming tire wrapped around a screaming husk of a man. A kidnapping scored by Fleetwood Mac. An assisted suicide that's really a murder. A horrible lesson in sex. A wig slowly being removed, the tinkling of pins audible on the soundtrack. These are all magnificent scenes, the stuff of superior entertainment, but what truly elevates them is how they tie back to Phillip and Elizabeth's marriage. They both risk death every day, but why? Elizabeth does it for her country; Phillip does it for his family. Are they still compatible? And can Paige, born in the land of the free (and recently baptized), accept her parents for who they are, or will she be torn apart by her own conflicted loyalties?
These are questions yet to be answered. But just because Season 3 concludes with unfinished business—and what a conclusion, with a masterfully edited final scene that expertly choreographs the headspaces of the show's three major players—doesn't mean it's incomplete. This season may reject resolution, but its carefully controlled chaos is still forceful, at times overpowering. In declining to cater to conventionally satisfying story beats, The Americans is in its own way deeply satisfying. In resisting resolution, it is irresistible. And in fearlessly probing the emotional currents that buffet its grief-stricken, painfully human lovers, it becomes worthy of our love.
And for completeness, here's the full list of the Manifesto's rankings of every TV show of 2015:
1. The Americans (FX, Season 3; last year: 1)
2. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix, Season 3; last year: 15)
3. Fargo (FX, Season 2; last year: 2)
4. Game of Thrones (HBO, Season 5; last year: 7)
5. You're the Worst (FXX, Season 2; last year: 14)
6. The Leftovers (HBO, Season 2; last year: 13)
7. Penny Dreadful (Showtime, Season 2; last year: 12)
8. Justified (FX, Season 6; last year: 9)
9. Jessica Jones (Netflix, Season 1)
10. Show Me a Hero (HBO, Season 1)
11. Mad Men (AMC, Season 7.5; last year: 5)
12. Mr. Robot (USA, Season 1)
13. Master of None (Netflix, Season 1)
14. Hannibal (NBC, Season 3; last year: 8)
15. Transparent (Amazon, Season 2; last year: 23)
16. The Knick (Cinemax, Season 2; last year: 11)
17. Better Call Saul (AMC, Season 1)
18. Man Seeking Woman (FXX, Season 1)
19. Sense8 (Netflix, Season 1)
20. Orphan Black (BBC America, Season 3; last year: 3)
21. Veep (HBO, Season 4; last year: 19)
22. Masters of Sex (Showtime, Season 3; last year: 4)
23. Silicon Valley (HBO, Season 2; last year: 31)
24. The Returned (Sundance TV/Canal+, Season 2)
25. Banshee (Cinemax, Season 3; last year: 28)
26. The Affair (Showtime, Season 2; last year: 10)
27. Deutschland 83 (Sundance TV, Season 1)
28. The Walking Dead (AMC, Seasons 5.5 and 6.0; last year: 17)
29. Homeland (Showtime, Season 5; last year: 35)
30. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC, Season 2)
31. Wolf Hall (BBC, Season 1)
32. Rectify (Sundance TV, Season 3)
33. Supergirl (CBS, Season 1.0)
34. Catastrophe (Amazon/Channel 4, Season 1)
35. Narcos (Netflix, Season 1)
36. Ash vs. Evil Dead (Starz, Season 1)
37. Daredevil (Netflix, Season 1)
38. Getting On (HBO, Season 3; last year: 40)
39. Agent Carter (ABC, Season 1)
40. Girls (HBO, Season 4; last year: 22)
41. Looking (HBO, Season 2; last year: 39)
42. The Man in the High Castle (Amazon, Season 1)
43. Wayward Pines (Fox, Season 1)
44. Red Oaks (Amazon, Season 1)
45. True Detective (HBO, Season 2; last year: 16)
46. Outlander (Starz, Season 1.5; last year: 38)
47. Fear the Walking Dead (AMC, Season 1)
48. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC, Seasons 2.5 and 3.0, last year: 36)
49. Togetherness (HBO, Season 1)
50. House of Cards (Netflix, Season 3; last year: 33)
51. Married (FX, Season 2; last year: 34)
52. Grimm (NBC, Seasons 4.5 and 5.0; last year: 41)
53. Blunt Talk (Starz, Season 1)
54. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix, Season 1)
55. Last Week Tonight (HBO, Season 2)
56. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (Netflix, Season 1)
57. Downton Abbey (BBC, Season 5; last year: 42)
58. House of Lies (Showtime, Season 4; last year: 37)
59. Louie (FX, Season 5; last year: 30)
60. Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll (FXX, Season 1)
61. The League (FXX, Season 7; last year: 50)
62. Falling Skies (TNT, Season 5; last year: 43)