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This year turned out to be a challenging one for couch potatoes. In 2015, the “more programming, more problems” state of television held just as true for viewers as it did for network executives; there was simply too much to watch. But this annum of Peak TV has delivered some very high peaks indeed.
Here are the ten shows I’m celebrating the most this year.
10. Scandal (ABC) — Shonda Rhimes’s flagship series became must-see TV again through its ultra-cynical deconstruction of politics as soul-sucking pageantry. The White House soap also offered some of the best feminist analysis anywhere on female ambition. Its weekly explorations of how women in the public eye are picked apart by the media and mass opinion have been systematic and unflaggingly compassionate. And yet the spring episode that centered on the police shooting of a young black man might be the season highlight for the Kerry Washington–led drama, a vital political fairy tale as cathartic as it was intelligently outraged.
9. Survivor’s Remorse (Starz) — If it were on HBO or FX, this glossy but ambitious comedy about an African-American family that moves from Boston’s down-and-out Dorchester neighborhood into the Atlanta sports elite would be the only thing anybody would ever talk about. Instead, Mike O’Malley’s saga of a family whose dynamics get compellingly distorted when one of their own makes it big in the NBA — and the show’s sharp and raunchy discussions of race, class, and sexuality — remains, in its second year, an unfairly buried gem.
8. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix) — What other show can tackle issues as weighty as serial rape, suicidal depression, and prison privatization with the gravity they deserve while maintaining a sunny, sassy brio? Jenji Kohan’s singular dramedy kept its political conscience while continuing to plumb new depths in the lives and souls of the inmates at Litchfield Penitentiary, culminating in the finale’s unforgettable surprise baptism/lake party.
7. Another Period (Comedy Central) — Freshman series rarely come out of the gate as confident and hilarious as this spiky, soapy satire of Downton Abbey and other period dramas. A crackerjack comedy ensemble makes the most of series creators/stars Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome’s obvious wealth of research. Arguably better than the fresh, original jokes — including a fantastic gag at Helen Keller’s expense — is the show’s guiding principle of skewering any and every romanticization of the past.
6. Mad Men (AMC) — Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) swan song turned out to be an idealistic Coke jingle — a work of exploitative genius by the ultimate adman. Matthew Weiner secured his place in the TV hall of fame with this exquisite final season, which mined both quietly harrowing and thrillingly hopeful moments for its exhausted characters. In the drama’s lasting images, Don greets the Seventies with meditative intent while Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) walks into her bright future with oversized sunglasses, saying everything she needs to say with the très chic cigarette dangling out of her well-fuck-you-too lips.
5. Broad City (Comedy Central) — Ilana’s (Ilana Glazer) overheated excitement about her BFF Abbi’s (Abbi Jacobson) upcoming pegging date is how I feel about Broad City — except mine isn’t taking place at my grandmother’s shiva. Glazer, Jacobson, and MVP co-star Hannibal Buress feel like the future of comedy, and the sidesplitting second season was as joyful and freewheeling as Ilana’s cloud of curls.
4. Last Week Tonight (HBO) — Amid the frequently inane (if not insane) 24-hour news cycle, John Oliver’s comedy newsmagazine stands out for its measured, thorough, and uproarious takes on critical issues like the European migrant crisis, mental health in the United States, and mandatory sentencing in our legal system. Oliver deserves to be saluted for making America a smarter, funnier place.
3. Jane the Virgin (The CW) — Sweet, silly, thoughtful, and empathetic, the meta-telenovela Jane the Virgin is a tonally flawless fantasy that gracefully subverts rom-com tropes while addressing serious topics like undocumented immigration and early motherhood. Showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman has created a nonstop comedy machine with so much heart you sometimes feel yours might burst in response.
2. Catastrophe (Amazon) — Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan’s breezy, sexy, hysterical, and all-too-brief debut season of Catastrophe vindicates the rom-com and then some. Centered on a pair of strangers expecting a child together after a marathon bout of vacation sex (oops), it’s the kind of romance that’ll make you fall back in love with love — all while never losing sight of its characters’ practicalities or emotional groundedness.
1. Transparent (Amazon) — Not since Mad Men has a TV series announced with such aching brilliance that you are watching art that will stand the test of time. With its debut season, Jill Soloway’s half-hour drama made history by being the first show with a transgender protagonist, and its sophomore year proves no less ambitious, interweaving the tragically selfish exploits of the Pfefferman clan with an intergenerational story line dating back to interwar Berlin that knits together the histories of Jewish and queer persecution. There’s simply nothing else like it on TV — or anywhere else.