Top 20 Shows of 2015, Vol. 20: #1

At long last, my friends, the time has come to place the crown atop the head and a scepter in the hand of one lucky series.  You ready?

It might interest you to know that, while many other entries on this list caused significant deliberation on my part, this show’s place was a foregone conclusion. So, without further delay, the best series in my #top20in20 goes to…


#1: Fargo

Ya, you betcha this is the best series of 2015, don’tcha know? Brilliantly written, impeccably performed, and consistently unpredictable, Fargo absolutely blew me away.  While the labyrinthine plotting commanded my attention, I attribute the runaway success of this second season to the memorable characters Noah Hawley created, with Nick Offerman’s Carl and Bokeem Woodbine’s Mike Milligan standing out as all-time greats.  For a show that hinges on operatic depictions of violence, the attention to character — from the pitch-perfect dialogue to multidimensional treatments of even secondary players — becomes the show’s ultimate takeaway.  It also elevates Fargo to a level of storytelling reserved for the finest works of literature.

If you remember (and obvi you do because you have committed all my blog posts to your photographic memory duh), I also named Fargo the best series of 2014, but this second cycle managed — somehow –to improve on the first year in virtually every way, despite the fact that there were no discernible places where we detected the need for improvement in the first place. Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst as Ed and Peggy Blumquist serve as excellent centerpieces, while Patrick Wilson turns in maybe his finest performance as Lou Solverson, and I’ve never felt more endeared to Ted Danson as I did here.  These people, and so many more, ricochet off one another in surprising ways, which is yet another of Fargo‘s strengths: allowing the characters to dictate the direction of the plot.


But, lest you fear that the increasingly complicated and intersecting plot doesn’t leave time for the wonderfully weird diversions we saw in the first season, rest assured, Fargo still retains its strangeness: Bruce Campbell as Ronald Reagan, for instance, or those symbolically recurring UFOs, the meaning of which we could debate at length in future blog posts. Oddly enough, these fit in perfectly with the world the show creates.

The confidence Fargo exudes is infectious.  While season one acted like a jazz riff on the original film, with winks and nods to the source material peppered throughout, Hawley used all he’d learned from the outstanding first cycle to tell his very own crime story and, in so doing, has created a television masterclass.  Funny, moving, surprising, and completely satisfying, Fargo claimed my top spot because there’s not a single misstep or moment I would have changed.  It was, in short, the closest thing to television perfection we saw in all of 2015.  Ya, you betcha!


Thanks so much for sticking around for my little project here.  I hope you enjoyed!

Top 20 Shows of 2015, Vol. 19: #2

I never thought I would utter this sentence, but here it goes: I’m prepared to announce the television equivalent of Joe Biden. #tvpolitics That’s right!  The reveal of the second best series of 2015 has, at last, dawned, so get ready to have your mind blown.

And the silver medal goes to…


#2: Review

Television’s best kept secret (unless you know me personally, which means I have harangued you until you agreed to watch so I would go and take my crazy elsewhere), Andy Daly’s Review has perfected the serialized sketch show. He plays Forrest MacNeil, a critic doling out up to five stars for real-life experiences — suggested through viewer write-ins — rather than films or restaurants.  Last year, his dedication to his show ruined his life: when asked to review divorce, for instance, he divorced his wife — then ate a triumphant thirty pancakes.  But this year, we get even deeper inside Forrest’s head, and — in getting to know what makes him tick — we come to understand him as well as TV heavyweight characters like Walter White and Tony Soprano. Daly’s created one pathological dude here, and we should all be so, so thankful.


The deeper down the rabbit hole Forrest tumbles, the more darkly hilarious Review gets.  In the premiere episode, Forrest and his assistant A.J. Gibbs introduce a season two wrinkle: the veto.  In a moment of atypical reflection, Forrest reveals that there are some reviews even he should have the option to pass on, so when the veto gets its reveal in the premiere, we know it’s bound to pop up later in the season. To no one’s surprise, Forrest’s squandered vetoes force him to ultimately review “murder,” and we’re laughing hysterically at the depths this show and character will plumb.  What makes Review such a miracle is that it is both the darkest and funniest show on television, a near-impossible balancing act pulled off flawlessly.

Along the way, Forrest reviews, to outlandish and gut-busting effect, having the perfect body, leading a cult, giving something six stars, relinquishing decision-making to a Magic 8 Ball, curing homosexuality, getting embroiled in a conspiracy theory, living as a little person, and more.  All other comedies — network, cable, or otherwise — can and should take note of Review‘s massive accomplishment because, in my mind, no other sitcom is in the same league.  Transforming the very nature of television comedy? Five stars.


Tomorrow’s the big one, folks: numero uno!  My apologies for my bilingual diatribe, but I’m excited.  Sorry I’m not sorry!  See you tomorrow!

Top 20 Shows of 2015, Vol. 18: #3

Can you feel the anticipation crackling in the air?  That’s what happens when bronze medals are on the verge — nay, the precipice — of distribution.

Let me say that the three final shows that top this list are separated only by the slightest of margins, and those margins come down to my personal taste.  The quality of all three is, to my mind, unimpeachable, so you might quibble with my ordering here even more than before, but we’ll get through this.  I believe in the strength of our relationship, tbh.

Anyhow, here we go: the bronze medal winner of my #top20in20 list goes to…


#3: The Leftovers

Let me begin by saying that season one of this HBO series was not my favorite.  I appreciated what Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta were going for in their adaptation of Perrotta’s novel  — namely, a  riff on loss and the process of letting go — but the trail they blazed did not grab me.  It seemed self-indulgent in its intentional obtuseness, the symbolism evoking a sense of wtf-ery without any kind of payoff or falling flat in its clumsy execution (that damn bagel, for instance).  When the season ended, I did not intend to pick it up again.

I provide this context to convey to you how much the show’s second season improved over the first, and to assure you that I’ve never been happier to be wrong about a show than I am about The Leftovers.  Transplanting the cast to Miracle and pitting the Garveys against the Murphys gave us a narrative throughline we desperately needed.  But that’s not to say the plot momentum eclipsed the weird symbolism; instead, it gave it context and meaning while still managing to confound us initially (oh, hey there, dude slaughtering goats in family restaurants).  Even the season-opening cavewoman vignette linked to the season’s overarching themes.  I was equally entranced, confused, and excited by each episode — and, just like that, The Leftovers became appointment television and the series I had always hoped it would be.


There was so much to sink our teeth into this year, from the excellent acting by Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon, Ann Dowd, Regina King, Kevin Carroll, Christopher Eccleston, and the rest of the cast to the utter unpredictability of the unfolding story. Speaking of the latter, I would be remiss not to mention my single favorite episode of 2015: “International Assassin.” I refuse to spoil it here, but suffice it to say that I don’t think anyone watching could have predicted that, given the way the previous episode ended, the story would go where it did, but somehow what transpired made perfect sense. Such is the power of The Leftovers when it fires on all cylinders, which it did consistently for ten brilliant episodes.

If “International Assassin” marks my favorite episode of the year, then the season finale “I Live Here Now” captures my favorite scene of the year: Kevin Garvey’s emotionally fraught and off-key karaoke rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.”  Shot in extreme close-up to achieve a rawness and authenticity of emotion, this scene continues to haunt me.  If you didn’t choke up, then you — sir or madam — are heartless.  Theroux deserves an Emmy nod (actually, a win) for that three minutes alone.

I don’t think this season of The Leftovers will ever leave me.  It has, with its gut-punching pathos, mystical imagery, and haunting meditations on the power of loss, left an indelible mark.  These ten episodes challenged us, provoked us, and moved us in profound and unexpected ways as only the best art can hope to.


Silver coming up tomorrow!  Hurray!  Any thoughts?

Top 20 Shows of 2015, Vol. 17: #4

Remember this week on The Bachelor when Olivia went on a bizarre tirade about her ugly cankles and questionable toe knuckles like minutes after Ben announced that two dear family friends had died in a frigging plane crash?  (Btw that’s a trick question because of course you do.)  Seriously embarrassing stuff, right?

Once your personal “best of” list gets this close to the top, you’re likely to treat a dissenter much in the way Ben treated Olivia: with polite or, more likely, outright scorn.  Things get personal is my point.  Sure, we’re probably going to disagree, but maybe talk about your cankles a little bit from now, if you catch my drift.

I’m not sure about that analogy I just busted out, but any excuse to shoehorn in America’s finest television series is simply one I cannot pass up.  But seriously, Olivia’s a complete sociopath, right? #teamjubilee


#4: Transparent

Jill Soloway’s beautifully melancholic, wryly funny series suffered no sophomore slump.  In fact, Transparent exploited our familiarity with the Pfefferman clan to take these characters to new depths, whether that meant Sarah’s spinning out of control after pulling a surreptitious runaway bride or Ali’s coquettish relationship with UCLA professor Leslie.  But amidst the personal disasters that drive so much of the conflict, Josh’s newly minted role as Colton’s father and Raquel’s fiancee showed us new dimensions to that perennially frustrating character: some softened him, others confirmed our suspicions.

But Transparent does not deal in platitudes or soft truths.  Its characters are, by and large, a collection of hot messes doing their best to make sense of their lives, but in so doing, they stumble, they scar, and they disappoint.  Such is life, and the show’s pitch-perfect observation of the human condition makes it a revelatory series.


Much has, of course, been said about Jeffrey Tambor’s turn as Maura Pfefferman, and he carries that excellence into this second season unabated.  This year we find Maura — now that she has come out as trans to her family — struggling to find her place. We knew her cohabitation with ex-wife Shelly was doomed from the start, but seeing Maura branch out from the comfort of that routine makes for fascinating viewing.  My favorite moment — and one of the most telling for her character — occurs at the end of the second episode: Maura, initially uncomfortable out with her friends, finally casts her inhibitions aside and, staring into a mirror, dances alone to the pulsating music.  It’s beautiful and incredibly moving, the kind of small moment that Transparent can, time and time again, extrapolate into metaphor.

Gender and sexual identity lie at the heart of Transparent, but the specificity with which it depicts its characters’ struggles produces a true universality as it explores the very nature of identity to heart-breaking, gorgeous, and transcendent effect.  Do yourself a favor, and don’t miss it.


Tomorrow, I will crown the third place finisher with a bronze medal that I don’t have.  Trophy time, folks!  #top20in20

Top 20 Shows of 2015, Vol. 16: #5

Top five, baby!  This is serious business, ladies and gentlemen.  I don’t want to overstate it, but wars have been waged over the upper half of a quality top ten list, and the fate of humankind now sits firmly in my hands.  I don’t want this to change your opinion of me, but maybe you could just look down at your feet when I pass by?  That would be great.

Jk obviously because attention makes me uncomfortable. #truth Let’s do this thing!


#5: Game of Thrones

Oh, Westeros, you are one cruel mistress! And I say mistress because I think it’s time we all agreed that, contrary to the thoughts of many characters, women — or rather, one woman in particular — will inherit this earth. The continued empowerment of Daenerys Targaryen provides the storytelling throughline to which viewers can cling, especially given the show and source material’s habit of killing off beloved characters along the way (RIP Barristan Selmy). Plus, now that Tyrion Lannister stands beside the Mother of Dragons to provide council, there’s really no stopping her.  I couldn’t be more excited about the future of this show, can you tell? #tyrionneedstorideadragon

With the “fire” aspect covered, the “ice” side took huge strides forward this year, as well, particularly in the episode “Hardhome,” a ruthless battle against the White Walker army that proved how much we need those three cuddly dragons.  In my mind, this was one of the two best episodes of the year (the other belonging to an as-of-yet-unmentioned entry): directed to perfection, the choreography of chaos never looked so flawless.  In one episode, Benioff and Weiss reasserted their dominance of the television epic.  Heart-pounding and brutal, it was the show at its best.


Elsewhere, Thrones used its fifth season to perfect what it’s already done so well.  Namely, the excellent writing masterfully characterizes the Westerosi flora and fauna in surprising ways.  I never expected to feel as deeply for Cersei Lannister as I did this season, but how painful was it to watch her, imprisoned by the High Sparrow, licking water from a dungeon floor? Or, an episode later, witnessing her horrific Walk of Shame through the streets of King’s Landing?  Needless to say, I’ll never look at Cersei the same way again, and her character — not to mention Game of Thrones itself — is better for it.  So few shows reveal the dimensions and facets of its characters as well as this one, making for a more complex and challenging experience.

Surprise abounds this year, too.  Everyone from Braavos to Dragonstone has been yammering on about the death of Jon Snow at the hands of the Nights Watch brotherhood (as well as predicting the details of his likely resurrection), and with good reason.  The best of television surprises, but Game of Thrones is the only show on television unafraid to knock us completely off our axis and force us to redraw the lines of our expectations time and time again.  We might scream and cry in the moment, lamenting the sadistic mind of George R.R. Martin, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.  Television is a braver, more uncompromising place thanks to the ten incredible episodes per year that transport us to Westeros.


We’re scaling this list like Tormund Giantsbane scaling the Wall!  Stay tuned for number four tomorrow!  #top20in20

Top 20 Shows of 2015, Vol. 15: #6

Wait a minute, you didn’t think I forgot about our little arrangement, did you?  I know it’s after 9 pm on a Monday, and we’re halfway through an episode of The Bachelor that already included Chris Harrison in soccer shorts, but without priorities in life, where would we be?  Probably playing a soccer game overseen by Chris Harrison, actually…


#6: The Americans

Few shows manage to quicken your pulse while simultaneously engaging your intellect and judo-chopping you directly in the feels, but FX’s The Americans pulls off that balancing act with each and every episode.  Its third season might be its best yet as Jennings daughter Paige becomes increasingly savvy to Elizabeth and Phillip’s clandestine goings-on, culminating in one of the year’s ultimate OMG moments that guarantees to change everything moving forward.

In most cases, a spy drama would find itself relegated to “genre” television, but The Americans is no typical series.  The further we get into this thing, I’m damned certain it will take on the scope of a great Shakespearean tragedy.  For a show that dwells in morality’s grey area as often and with as much success, the impending tragedy is all but certain.  The tension, masterful  in its execution, is simply a matter of how long these Soviet spies can stave off that inevitability.


Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as the Jennings matriarch and patriarch deliver flawless performances.  It takes a true actor or actress to convince us of the level of deception required in order to make this show work, but Russell and Rhys accept that challenge and better it.  Their work has always been and continues to be balletic in every sense of the word: we don’t doubt for a second that they’re committed Soviet spies, nor do we question the familial ties tethering them to America.  Brilliant work.  Toss in great supporting work from Frank Langella as handler Gabriel, Noah Emmerich as tenacious FBI agent and Jennings neighbor Stan Beeman, and Alison Wright as the beleaguered wife of Phillip’s undercover identity “Clark,” and you have a cast difficult to beat.

The Americans proves that dramatic television need not pander to generate genuine thrills because it understands something so few shows do: it treats its central conceit as metaphor.  Sure, we’re interested in the notion of Soviet sleeper cells in 1980s America, but we stick around for the powerful meditations on family, loyalty, dedication, and identity.  It’s a parable, an allegory, and a testament to the power of character-driven storytelling.  For true TV lovers, it’s also must-watch television.


We’re about to crack the top five!  Come on back tomorrow to see the next entry in #top20in20.



Top 20 Shows of 2015, Vol. 14: #7

Seven is one good number, wouldn’t you say?  It’s the number of seasons of the all-time great Homicide: Life on the Street, the episode total of the chilling British science fiction series Black Mirror, and the number of  Jeff Probst voodoo dolls in Chris Harrison’s collection.  The number seven means a lot in the world of television is my point, and it’s the same right here in my fourteenth entry of #top20in20.

Saddle up!


#7: Justified

We saw many beloved series depart from our television screens for good in 2015, but none of them managed to compose a final run of episodes to match the outstanding final season of FX’s Justified.  We always knew that the story would, ultimately, come down to a stand-off between Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder.  However, what we didn’t anticipate — couldn’t have anticipated — was the way in which this arc played out over these last thirteen episodes.

Over the course of the show’s run, the characterizations of Raylan and Boyd ran parallel.  Take away Raylan’s Marshall’s badge and plop him amidst the Harlan Country criminal underground, and you wouldn’t be able to differentiate him from the likes of Boyd Crowder.  Sure, Justified isn’t the first show to suggest the good guy and his villainous counterpart are two sides of the same coin, but I’ve never seen it handled exactly like this.  Consistently excellent writing — smart and witty and filled with pathos — did more than tease us with these similarities; instead, it used this idea to construct its final season, and long-time viewers were rewarded with one of the greatest, and most surprising, series finales in the history of the medium.  I guarantee you didn’t — or couldn’t — guess how this thing would end, and that’s just as it should be.


When Justified was at its best, the witty barbs flew as fast and furiously as the bullets, and that certainly describes the seventh season.  From outlandish violence (that tussle in Micky’s trailer goes down as one of the most brutal action sequences the show ever staged) to lightning fast repartee (I could listen to Raylan insult Dewey Crow and Boone all day, not to mention Boyd’s overly verbose meanderings), Justified leaves a legacy as a thinking person’s western: that classic story of lawman versus outlaw elevated to the status of a great work of literature.


We’re closing in on the end now, wouldn’t you say?  I see you shiver with anticip…

Top 20 Shows of 2015, Vol. 13: #8

Traditionally, the eighth episode of any given season of either The Bachelorette or The Bachelor is a special one that brims with hide-behind-a-pillow awkwardness and eyebrow-arching judgement as we — the audience — receive the treat of visiting the four remaining contestants’ families.  In short, these episodes are an American institution, and if you think I’m wrong, then I advise you to consult with Chris Harrison, and he will echo my sentiment because he, too, is an American institution.  Like it or not, this dating franchise will emblematize our nation’s pop culture for years to come.  Best turn into the skid and embrace it. #sadtruth #thischrisharrisonlife

Let’s get on with it, shall we?


#8: Master of None

Aziz Ansari, we can all agree, is one funny dude.  From his standup specials to his stint as Randy in Funny People and Tom in Parks and Rec, we knew this guy could bring the funny.  But with Master of None, Ansari emerges as the next auteur of television; his writing positively bursts with insightful examinations of race, gender, and identity, couched inside a hilarious show that is also — oh sweet miracle of miracles — effortlessly diverse.  It’s also, hands down, the best show on Netflix.

Amongst so many stand-out episodes, I found it difficult to pick a favorite.  “Parents” becomes a fantastic rumination on the pre-immigration lives of the parents of Ansari’s Dev and Kelvin Yu’s Brian.  It also has the added bonus of introducing Ansari’s real-life father Shoukath as Dev’s dad, and that man is hilarious.  Meanwhile, “Indians on TV” examines the lack of diversity on television to hilarious and thought-provoking effect, while “Ladies and Gentlemen” illuminates the institutional misogyny plaguing modern women.  How could I choose a favorite amongst such a great collection of work?


Of course, the show isn’t strictly a platform for Ansari’s musings but also an equally adept and genuinely funny story of dating today.  Frank honesty and gut-busting comedy coalesce to create a series unlike any other you’ve seen.  The closest I can think of is Louis C.K.’s fantastic Louie, but even that comparison doesn’t align; while that show relishes its more sad-sack tone, a hopefulness pervades Master of None.  Sure, Ansari and co-creator Alan Yang know life out there ain’t perfect and can be downright unjust and cruel and rough, but in shedding light on some of these dour truths, an implicit optimism — for a more enlightened tomorrow — underpins it all.  In just a single, ten-episode season, Ansari seems to have his artistic vision and point of view firmly established, and television is much better for it.


See you tomorrow!  Bet you can’t guess what’s next! #desperatepleaforcomments

Top 20 Shows of 2015, Vol. 12: #9

Somebody pop the champers, because this marks my 100th blog post right here at!  That such an occasion falls in the midst of my #top20in20 project makes it even more special; I’m enjoying the hell out of this process and hope you are too.

So, I’ll return to my introductory bits for tomorrow’s posting, but let’s just have a private dance party to celebrate hitting the centennial.  Somebody cue the C+C Music Factory because I feel the Braverman Fever taking over!


#9: Better Call Saul

I can think of no higher compliment to pay this prequel series than to say that the excellent writing and compelling performances cast me under such a spell that I didn’t miss Breaking Bad for a single minute of its running time.  Trust me, no one was more surprised by that than I was.  I mean, let’s be real: we all loved Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman in the original show, but who amongst us didn’t approach the pilot episode with a healthy dose of trepidation?  Even the superfans in our midst must have wondered if we really needed to put Saul, a secondary and more comedic character, at the center of his own series.  Fortunately, the answer, it turns out, is absolutely, yes we did.

There’s something fascinating about watching the transformation of Jimmy McGill with the full knowledge of his ultimate destiny, and Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan use this ironic distance to tease our expectations.  The show constructs the perfect moral tightrope for Jimmy to walk: despite his best efforts to be good, the allure of the grift is too strong.  In my mind, the show can attribute its success to this because, through it, Saul generates its hook, its empathy, and its suspense.  Sure, it’s a lower-key level of intensity than that of its heart attack-inducing sister series, but this damn thing just grabs you and pulls you along, based solely on the construction of this central character’s moral dilemma.  It’s a masterclass, craftsmanship of the highest order.


Odenkirk nails it.  Jonathan Banks, returning as Mike Ehrmentraut, does the same.  But it’s Michael McKeen’s Chuck McGill — brother to Jimmy — surprising us most of all; it’s a powerhouse of a performance.  His emergence as the series’ “Big Bad” unfolds perfectly over the course of the season, handled with such assiduity and subtle nuance that the revelation lands like a kick to the chest because it feels both out-of-nowhere surprising and completely inevitable.  It’s a testament to the show’s understated brilliance.

Trust me, the guy who read AMC’s announcement of this show two years ago would have never expected Better Call Saul to become not only the best new dramatic series of 2015 but also one of the very best shows on all of television.  But, then again, the guy writing this now would have been an absolute fool not to include it here.


Tomorrow, we have a real treat of a blog post: a palindrome!  I know, right? I’m pumped, too!  #mathfacts

Top 20 Shows of 2015, Vol. 11: #10

You’ve been waiting patiently, I know.  But this is the motherload, officially beginning right now.  So long, numbers twenty through eleven: it’s time for the Big Leagues!  My top ten shows of 2015 begins right now…

#10: Parks and Recreation

One of the absolute best network comedies not just of the past decade but of all time, Parks and Rec signed off earlier in 2015 with a string of excellent episodes that balanced heart-warming feels and gut-busting comedy.  The likes of Leslie Knope, Ron Swanson, Ben Wyatt, Tom Haverford, Andy Dwyer, April Ludgate-Dwyer, Donna Meagle, and — yes, even — Jerry Gergich left indelible imprints on the television landscape, and this victory lap of  a season reminded us what made Parks and Rec so special: its affection for its characters.


In a post The Office world, comedy shifted in a more caustic direction, so — while I love both the British and American versions of that fantastic show —  Parks and Rec did something daring: it refused to condescend to or mock its characters.  Instead, it would present them as fully-formed human beings, replete with strengths and foibles, and challenge its audience not to fall in love with them.  And, for those of us taken by this wonderful menagerie of weirdos, fall in love we did.  Parks and Rec signed off as it signed on: with its trademark optimism and positivity worn very much on its sleeve.

And how about that doozy of a time-jumping finale that served each of our characters just as they should have been?  For me, the image I’ll take away from this episode and series is so emblematic of what I loved about this show: that look of peace that settles across Ron Swanson’s face as he paddles his canoe to the middle of Lake Pawnee.  Bliss, folks.  That’s what life should be, not just in the world of Pawnee but ours.  The unmitigated, unfiltered joy of just being.  And as far as comedy series go, that’s one hell of a legacy.


Stayed tuned for tomorrow’s 100th blog post, which happens to recap the ninth best show of 2015!  #top20in20