Television As Art: The Best TV of 2015

I am a begrudging uber fan of Bret Easton Ellis. I have read all of his books. I know all of his essays. I Love his podcast. Nine times out of 10, his contrarian opinions are dead ringers for my own. I too I find this PC #loveme culture to be depressing and dangerous (how much progress can we expect to have or how much can we learn if we are all so afraid of saying anything offensive that we stay completely silent on everything?). But Ellis’s opinion that TV will always pale in comparison to cinema, merely due to aesthetics, I simply cannot get behind. Yes, TV is often budgeted smaller than film. But any film not starring Iron Man these days is also painfully budgeted. There have only been a handful of 2-hour films in 2015 that I can honestly say that I loved (might write about those later). While Ellis says he finds himself still leaning towards cinema because television is a writer’s medium and film a director’s medium, I pose the possibility that television might be working better these days exactly because of that. Perhaps television simply allows the screen presentation to be closest to its writer’s conception?

I understand that we still have some promising movies on the horizon (The Hateful 8, The Big Short, the Revenant), but at the time of this writing, television is killing cinema in storytelling; find one film that was better written than this most recent season of Fargo; and aesthetics; can Ellis really argue that anything looked better than the lush grotesque world of Hannibal? I feel comfortable saying that television is right now the most important art form in our culture. No other medium is uniting high and low culture in such an entertaining manner. No other medium is inspiring this level of obsessive fandom. Mad Men theorists have replaced Blade Runner theorists. Television just works differently because it is so sprawling. Now that networks have realized smart storytelling can still be profitable, the sky is the limit. It’s almost crazy that it took this long to figure out. Why wouldn’t a 10-hour story work better than a two-hour movie? It’s wonderful to get to know these characters, to REALLY know them. When James Gandolfini died, my friend Tony Soprano died with him. I really felt sadness. No other art form inspires that level of obsession from me. Sometimes I feel like a fraud art critic because I watch and obsess over so much TV, but then I realize, EVERYONE does.

1. Hannibal Season 3

While it was hard to narrow down this list; it wasn’t hard to pick my clear favorite show of 2015. Hannibal was the best show of 2015. And while I must admit some bias in that I re-capped the entire season for Forbes and had great fun doing so, I don’t think I’m alone in this opinion. As wildly experimental and visually adventurous as the first two seasons of this excellent show were, they remained rooted in something of a psychedelic macabre procedural format. With Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham chasing down Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter to Florence in season 3, the show completely broke type and elevated itself to one of the great contemporary stories. Essentially broken down into two mini-series, the chase for Hannibal in Italy followed by a re-imagining of the legendary Red Dragon plotline, it was fascinating to watch this show jump from plot to plot while keeping the heart of the series intact. That heart was the alluring, potent, and powerful vaguely homoerotic relationship between Hannibal and Will. Hannibal was a romance at its core, and after puddles of blood and piles of bone, it ended with that romance symbolically consummated with Will and Hannibal’s savagely beautiful cutting down of the Red Dragon Francis Dolarrhyde (Richard Armitage). Hannibal tells Will, “This is all I ever wanted for you,” to which Will responds, “It’s beautiful,” and it truly was, as Will takes Hannibal in his embrace and takes the both of them over a cliff as original music from Siouxsie Sioux plays over the credits. Hannibal was about finding one’s true self and with the help of a friend and embracing it, societal standards be damned. Sublime. If Hannibal is indeed over, I can’t wait to see what showrunner Bryan Fuller does next, hopefully on a more auteur nurturing network (like HBO or AMC or FX) than the ratings hungry NBC had the ability to be.

2. Mr. Robot Season 1

How did it take this long for a series to come forth that directly addresses the two primary contemporary American fears: digital culture and the financial crisis? Mr. Show, birthed from the mostly dismal USA network, brought immediate credos to its network in the arena of high concept story-driven prestige television. The story of Rami Malek (the endearingly Arperger’s-y Elliot Alderson), a hacker working for a cyber security firm, who joins Mr. Robot (Christian Slater, or is he?) as they plan on taking on the bank Malek is paid to protect and rid the world of its digital debt. The show plays on our fears that our entire economy, and in turn out entire culture, is predicated on a mirage. Digital currency is fake (a fugazi, a fugazziii, it’s a woozy, it’s fairy dust, it isn’t real), and yet out entire worlds revolve around the number that appears on our computer screens when we log in to our bank account websites. Mr. Robot is a hero to the 99 percent (all of us would nearly be better off without debt, no?) and a terrifying villain to the 1 percent (all of whom we owe money to). All of that is true, but it was also just a magnificent story with a magnificent visual aesthetic. Modern New York has never looked starker; the pillar of western civilization is still just a digital wasteland. While I certainly sympathize with filmmakers like Tarantino and Vince Gilligan and their commitments to shooting on film, Mr. Robot makes a remarkable case for shooting digital. You can’t talk Mr. Robot too much without spoiling information; so if you haven’t seen it just get on Hulu now.

3. Banshee Season 3

Plenty of TV shows have sought to elevate what TV drama is capable of doing, but no show other than Banshee has elevated what cinematic action is capable of doing. Cinemax’s Banshee is the best action in any medium, ever. I mean that. Applying modern choreography and cinematography to John Woo’s “Gun-Fu” aesthetic allows this show to provide visceral excitement like none other on TV. With all the many accurate cultural concerns that surround television and its lacking in quality roles for women and minorities, Banshee has those roles in spades. There are bad to the bone female cops and assassins. There is an unflinchingly loyal black bartender/boxer/father figure. There is an Asian cross-dressing assassin/hacker/thief. There are Native American protagonists AND antagonists. Its lead villain and sometimes anti-hero Kai Proctor (a magnetic Ulrich Thompsen) is fucking Amish for chrissakes (well, the character is not the actor). While all the characters are comic book cartoonish, so is the show. With all the blood and broken bones and explosions, the show still makes time for remarkable character development. It’s great, and everyone sleeps. Catch up before its fourth and final season hits the air next month.

4. Halt and Catch Fire Season 2

I enjoyed Halt and Catch Fire’s premiere season, but it was clear that something was sorely missing. It felt like the series was failing to see what made it interesting. The last thing anyone needed to see was another anti-hero driven prestige drama. There is simply no way to surpass the majestic heights hit by Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White. And while Joe Macmillan (Lee Pace) was sufficiently tortured and mysterious, that formula had already been used to dazzling effect on AMC’s other hallmark series Mad Men and Breaking Bad. You can’t just make your anti-hero pansexual and expect the audience to be transfixed. That’s why season 2, which shifted its focus to its complex, brilliant, and ethereally beautiful female leads Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé), was such a remarkable leap forward for the series. While the show didn’t completely abandon Macmillan and Clark’s husband Gordon (Scoot Macnairy), it relegated its male characters to romantic foil plot lines. Cameron and Donna, forming one of television’s most complex and truth ringing representations of friendship, fought the odds and started a renegade online gaming company, Mutiny. While a narrative look at the tech world of the 1980s was exciting enough to watch, it is more fascinating watching these un-relatably brilliant characters being plunged into relatable episodes of human drama: romantic entanglements, depression, mental illness, inconsolable loneliness. AMC should be given a stand up applause for giving this show its deserved third season. The network as of right now is without another critically acclaimed hallmark drama series, but with the reliable stream of money brought in by the Walking Dead, the network has the ability to give smart shows like this some breathing room.

5. Mad Men Final Season

The Sopranos is my favorite thing ever created, but I’d be lying if I said that the ending didn’t initially disappoint me. I’ve since come to admire it as an appropriately bold artistic decision, but Matthew Weiner’s ending for Mad Men surpassed it and perhaps surpassed all other series’ endings. Watching Don Draper achieve self-acceptance through enlightenment and coming up with that iconic Coca-Cola add was beautiful, poignant, and perfectly summed up everything that the series was about. Mad Men consistently questioned the validity of the ideal American dream through its protagonist Don Draper, a man who had perfectly carved himself out a piece of that American dream only to destroy it through loneliness and hedonism time and time again. Can products replace happiness? Probably not, but by accepting the culture that we live in is the only way we can really achieve a sense of peace. Drink the Kool-Aid, drink the gin, and let the fog roll in. Weiner gave all of our beloved characters satisfying conclusions: Peggy becomes the boss lady and finds love, Pete decides he doesn’t need to fuck everything and gets Trudy back, Roger finds love with Marie Draper and become an international rich guy. All the characters find their piece of the American dream and bask in it. It’s so much easier than questioning.

6. The Americans Season 3

The Americans, ostensibly a show about Soviet spies living as American citizens, is the best portrayal of marriage on television. Over the first couple seasons, Phillip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) Jennings saw their arranged marriage evolve into a real marriage. But by season 3, their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) realizes whom her parents, raising the stakes of the marriage considerably. What’s fascinating about this show is that even the characters’ true personas, as in Phillip and Elizabeth, are called into question. They are constructs of some kind, even if the tenderness shared between them is real. The show has also started raising ideological discrepancies between the two, with Elizabeth an unfailing Soviet loyalist and Phillip an increasingly self-disgusted depressive, his last loyalty being to Elizabeth and Elizabeth only. The show’s muted colors and atmosphere replace big budget action sequences, and yet season by season the show delivers nail biting tension.

7. The Leftovers Season 2

From the beginning of Damon Lindeof’s depressive supernatural drama The Leftovers’s (based on the Tom Perrota novel of the same name) second season, in which a pre-historic woman is bitten by a snake and survives to keep her baby alive, it was clear that the show had figured itself out. The first season of the show held promise, but was too marred in ultra-bleak saturation for it to let its heart shine through. Season 2 was a triumph. The show moved to the town of Jarden, Texas, a supposedly mystical town in which no members of the town’s population have departed. This season could warrant entire course studies (and no one wrote better about it than Matt Zollez Seitz), so I’m going to talk about the season’s 8th episode, International Assassin (an episode that alone could warrant a course study). Our show’s crying faced, skinny jeaned hero Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) has killed himself in efforts to rid himself of the specter of Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), who after killing herself in front of Kevin has haunted him throughout the second season. The episode signifies the massive questions that the show asks; most importantly, what is it to be a human being? Though Patti was a wholly un-sympathetic ghoul throughout most of the show, Kevin must kill her three times: as the ghoul, as an innocent and abused child, and as a complete human being. To kill her, he had to understand her, and to understand her he had to love her. To watch this show is to confront all that makes us humane. To understand that behind every affectation of behavior is a world of experience and in most cases, pain. Please give us a season 3, HBO. THIS is your strongest series.

8. Jane the Virgin Seasons 1 and 2

Friends of mine are consistently shocked when I espouse on the virtues of this show. Then I tell them to at least give it a try. This show is shockingly smart, self-referential, well acted, and fucking hilarious! At first glance it seems like a ridiculous show with a dumb premise (virgin gets knocked up), but soon you find that the show is actually both a celebration and a parody of the telenovelas that routinely churn out these types of ludicrous plotlines (in fact it’s a VERY loose adaptation of Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen). There is nothing else like it on TV, and the only thing it kind of reminds me of are those magnificent first three seasons of Arrested Development. Where as the Bluths were creating a hyper self-referential culture mildly poking fun at family sit-coms, Jane the Virgin is doing the same thing for telenovelas. You could probably jump in at any point in this show and laugh, but watching from the beginning allows you to become hip to the show’s superbly well-written joke culture. These actors seem to really be having fun with the material. Jamie Camil as Rogelio de la Vega, Jane’s insecure, narcissistic, eccentric, pretty boy, long lost biological father, is infectious in his enthusiasm for being a caricature. And if someone told me I could marry Gina Rodriguez (Jane) right now, without ever knowing her, I’d go buy a ring.

9. Fargo Season 2

With season 1 of Fargo, Noah Hawley effectively told a very Coen Brothers-esque story in the Coens-created world of Fargo. There was the hapless and incompetent crime spree of Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), a stand-in for William H. Macy’s character in the film. There was the Frances McDormand-ringing Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman). He even threw in an Anton Chigurh-like, supreme evil demon in the form of Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton). Season 2 has kept the Coens references intact. There is still hapless crime spreeing with the Blumqvist couple (Jesse Plemons and a remarkably unhinged Kirsten Dunst). But he has also done something that the Coens have never really sought to achieve: telling a wide-reaching epic crime tale (you could argue they did so in Miller’s Crossing, but that film still felt comparatively small). However reductive it may be to call season 2 of Fargo Coens meets Scorsese, it’s not all that inaccurate. There is the stylized brutal violence. There are small time characters with big time aspirations. There are troves of major characters killed off. Ultimately, I think season 2 surpassed its predecessor, in that it is a season I want to watch again, immediately. Props to FX for giving this show the money it needs to work; its multiple shoot-outs are the best action TV has seen not on the aforementioned ‘Banshee.’

10. Jessica Jones Season 1

You are about to start seeing some major Netflix love, and they are undoubtedly the best “network” around right now. Though network staples like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards have gotten weaker with seasons, they introduced an amazing 10 new shows this year, made even more amazing by the fact that even the worst of them are still kind of good. Cary Fukunaga even used the network to release his poetically brutal film Beast of No Nation, one of the best of the year sans question. So yeah, “Netflix and chill” has never been as tempting a pickup line as it is now. It took me four episodes to lock into Jessica Jones. When the show gets going, it soars. Never has comic material felt so adult. Kristyen Ritter's performance as the supernaturally strong Jessica is pained and sexy and magnetic, and it holds the greatest comic villain of all time in Killgrave (David Tennant). Ultron is a goddamn animated machine voiced by James Spader. Killgrave is a suave British man who is a mind controlling and victim-blaming rapist. Jessica Jones poses the idea that however convenient some kind of superpower would be, we still wouldn’t be able to escape our human problems. Jessica is damaged, but she’s courageous enough to take on her damage. The show is hopeful while still being supremely dark.

11. You're the Worst Season 2

Stephen Falk’s Los Angeles-set tale of millennial narcissistic love is the most important comedy on TV. Following asshole novelist Jimmy (Chris Geere) and mean streaked publicist Gretchen (Aya Cash) as they fall in love with each other in spite of themselves is resonant in ways that few shows are. How many of us have fallen in love when we expected to fall in love? That isn’t how it works. The show’s second season added real stakes to the relationship with the revelation of Gretchen’s crippling manic depression and Jimmy’s misguided attempts to save her from the disorder. Mental illness has never really been portrayed in as real a way on TV, and anyone that has loved someone that has suffered in this kind of way might have trouble getting through the season’s later episodes. No other show has ever hit me on such a deep emotional level while still making me laugh all the time. Despite its dismal ratings, FX has given the go-ahead for season 3. God bless that fucking network!

12. Broad City Season 2

Broad City’s second season featured four of its funniest episodes ever opening it, and then six or so less funny episodes. That being said, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobsen are still telling the funniest stories on TV by a wide margin. More than that, no other show is accurately portraying what it means to be young and living in New York these days like these girls do. Are they getting by? Do they pay rent? We don’t know, but we know that a lot of us aren’t getting by in any stretch of the imagination. But the city still remains a pretty intoxicating and stupid fun place to be, so we stay. The only thing there really is to worry about is turning 30, by which point I hope Broad City will still be telling these rip-roaringly funny episodes.

13. The Knick Season 2

Stephen Soderbergh’s work on The Knick speaks to my aesthetics-oriented mind. The show, shot digitally, is gorgeous. The sets, re-creating early 20th Century Manhattan, are incredibly realized. Even on its sunniest of days, the show looks muted, harsh, cold. It shouldn’t look any different. The series captures what it feels like to live in a city where anyone not filthy with old money can’t expect to live past age 40. You can feel the desperation in each of Soderbergh’s athletic camera angles and on the faces of its remarkable cast. It is also about obsession, making it the perfect pseudo career-reviving role for the wonderful actor that is Clive Owen. As Dr. John Thackery, Owen exudes a man that is both kept alive and internally destroyed by obsession. Season 2 starts with Owen kicking both heroin and cocaine after leaving an institution that used heroin to treat cocaine addiction. He stays clean for a bit, only to realize that if he uses cocaine and heroin together he can counteract and accentuate the effects of both drugs, allowing him to both dive back into his groundbreaking surgical research and undoubtedly feel pretty groovy. Thackery becomes obsessed with the idea that if addiction is a disease, it can be cured by the modern medicine that he is helping forge. This hopeful self-deception keeps him going for a time. In that time he is also able to cure Syphilis, making a case for the merits of obsession. That’s the point, The Knick never passes judgement on characters, it allows them to make mistakes and rectify those mistakes, or not. No other period piece feels this contemporary.

14. Master of None Season 1

For some reason, I have had multiple run-ins with Aziz Ansari, and my opinion has changed about him time and time again. The first time I met him was after winning tickets to see him perform standup on Cape Cod by answering Parks and Rec trivia correctly on a local radio station. Aziz popped into to a townie bar the night before, and drunk, I freaked out and approached him. He was, well, quite cold. Though I loved him on Human Giant and early seasons of Parcs and Rec, my opinion of his comedy lessened as it did with him as a person. But I was shocked by how good Master of None was, revealing an Aziz that finally feels at peace with his success and being in his own skin. The show’s artistry lies in the mundane. By merely putting a handsome Asian actor in the stud role usually reserved for a white guy, he reveals so much of what is wrong with Hollywood casting. I know I shouldn’t feel surprised, and yet I do all the same. Whether Aziz knew this or not writing, I have no way to tell, but he seems far too intelligent a writer and a person to be completely ignorant to the impact this show would have. Two weeks ago, I ran into Aziz again on the subway when I happened to be listening to him speak about the show with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast. I told Aziz I was doing so, and congrats on the show. This time he greeted my reception with a warm smile and a, “Thanks man, so glad you like it.” Success isn’t an easy thing to get used to, but Aziz has definitely entered into the mature phase of his career.

15. Narcos Season 1

Narcos has problems, including but not limited to its thinly drawn out lead Boyd Holbrook as DEA Agent Steve Murphy and its stretches in tedium. But it still feels like something of a triumph for a narrative television show. The story of Pablo Escobar is massive and let’s face it, fucking crazy. Narcos was able to tell this story, have it make sense, and still keep it a lean 10 episodes. Its showrunner, Brazillian filmmaker José Padilha, could teach all of Hollywood something about editing. The show is sequenced like a music video, with short scenes rolling into one another in strong and linear manner. The Escobar has been attempted on film before, but it needed 10 hours to really flesh out the mania of this whole episode in history. We also need to praise Wagner Moura’s portrayal of Escobar. Though the actor physically resembles the drug lord, that’s hardly all that made him fit for the part. Moura captures Escobar’s unflinching charisma and magnetic self-confidence, as well as his unbridled menace, paranoia, and psychopathy. This is not a sympathetic portrayal; it is more in line with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s depiction of Escobar as a manic monster in his brilliant work of non-fiction, News of a Kidnapping. And yet, he still feels very human. I am very curious what they will do with future seasons of this show, as season 1 takes us from Escobar’s smuggler origins to the burning of his house by American and Columbian forces. That’s almost 20 years of story in 10 episodes. Escobar was only alive another year following that episode, and yet this show presumably has many episodes left. Can they make this transition?

Honorable Mentions

If I was judging shows merely by central performances, Bloodline would make list through the sheer virtuosity of Ben Mendelsohn, whose Danny Rabourn elicited sympathy and disgust in equal measures. But the show’s occasional preposterous dialog and horrible ending kept it off my favorites. Daredevil, despite some noticeable stupidity, did well at setting up this gritty and adult Marvel world Netflix hopes to make magic out of. Though I left it off due to being non-fiction, HBO’s The Jinx was surely one of the most fascinating things on television this year, culminating with serial murderer and all-around creepy fucking guy Robert Durst incriminating himself while mic’d up in a bathroom and muttering evil shit to himself. The Good Wife has finally started to weaken in quality, mainly due to unforeseen circumstances like Julianna Margulies (Alicia Florrick) and Archie Panjabi (Kalinda Shwarma) refusing to work together. It has rebounded in its seventh season though, and remains far and away one of the best things on primetime network television. Marc Maron is one of my personal heroes, and while I enjoyed the third season of his titular AMC series, it felt like a down step from his brilliant second season. Also, Louis CK’s Louie, which for four years has been a perennial favorite of mine, also seemed to be running out of material. Now that Louis is one of Hollywood’s most powerful comedians, perhaps he is running out of the existential dread that made Louie a bonafide Nietzsche-ian dread fest, but with laughs. I also really like The Affair, even if I’m aware it’s not a totally stellar show. Must be the sex.

Text by Adam Lehrer