TV is now widely accepted as an artistic medium, and it even has some auteurs. This year saw the release of Public Morals, helmed by Edward Burns, and there was the maligned second season of True Detective, from egotistical ‘visionary’ Nic Pizzolato.
Sadly some excellent TV drama series ended this year. Justified came to a climactic close, and Mad Men finished on an esoteric note. Fortunately, however, there are plenty of new shows vying for our attention.
Here’s my top ten list of TV shows released in 2015:
1. The Last Man on Earth (FOX, 2015)
Set in 2022, The Last Man on Earth tells the story of Phil Miller, a family man and banker who finds himself in the unenviable position of being the last person left alive. Initially he enjoys his freedom, he does whatever he wants, and he travels the USA, Canada, and Mexico in search of other living beings.
The show doesn’t waste time explaining what happened to everyone else, instead it focuses on our slacker hero Phil as he makes bad choice after bad choice. Most post apocalyptic narratives tell stories of strong men and women who thrive in their brave new world – The Last Man on Earth considers the experiences of an idiot man child, prone to pettiness, thievery, and stupidity.
2. Narcos (NETFLIX, 2015)
Netflix released several excellent shows this year, as well as continuing Orange is the New Black, and Bojack Horseman. Narcos is the latest addition to its growing drama collection, and it’s an strong piece of TV.
Often slow burning, but with a propensity for violence, Narcos explores the life and legacy of Colombia’s most famous outlaw – Pablo Escobar. The tale considers both sides of the ‘War on Drugs’ with input from USA DEA agents, Colombian military personnel, and politicians too. It shows the systemic nature of the drug trade, and the impossibility of stopping it.
Shot with crisp colours, and deft stylistic touches, Narcos blends its documentary narrative approach with all of the requisite hallmarks of prestige TV.
3. Bloodline (NETFLIX, 2015)
Another compelling Netflix show, Bloodline stars Friday Night Lights’ Kyle Chandler as a small town sheriff with a tight knit family. Linda Cardellini (Freaks and Geeks) plays his sister, and Ben Mendelsohn (Slow West) plays his black sheep brother.
The narrative explores the legacy of actions committed in the past, and it focuses on the skeletons we all harbour and the moments where they resurface and come back to life.
It’s a haunting family drama, with an atmospheric soundtrack, and its collection of well known and highly skilled actors provides it with credentials. This is my favourite show released by Netflix, and its first season stands as a great example of the growing creative scope of the streaming service.
4. Wet Hot American Summer (NETFLIX, 2015)
Wet Hot American Summer is a prequel to the cult movie, and it stars nearly all of the original cast. It manages to capture the tone that made the film such a hit in the first place, and it revels in its bizarre humour, and even stranger set pieces.
The cast boasts appearances from John Hamm, Bradley Cooper, Janeane Garofalo, Amy Poehler, Lake Bell, and Jason Schwartzman. It’s worth watching the movie before watching its prequel – you’ll need some context to understand the TV version.
5. Aquarius (NBC, 2015)
Californication (finally) drew to an end last year, and David Duchovny ditched the jaded writer persona to embody an equally bitter police detective in Aquarius. NBC’s latest darling is a cop show set in the 1960s during Charlie Mansons ‘tenure’ as a cult leader.
Duchovny’s hard bitten old school detective is forced to go toe to toe with the emerging hippie sub culture, its drugs, and its new age perspective on reality. It’s a show that moves in surprising directions, and although initially it can be read as a reboot of The Following, Aquarius is a far better show.
It’s interesting to see Duchovny segue into an older character, one that befits his age, and Aquarius plays out with gritty violence, and excellent narrative choices.
6. The Brink (HBO, 2015)
It seems that HBO has slipped in recent years, and its latest shows aren’t as good as they have been in the past. Of course Game of Thrones is still received well, but the cable network hasn’t released anything on par with Oz, The Wire, Deadwood, or The Sopranos in some time.
The Brink isn’t the best show to come from HBO, but for a half hour comedy series it works better than most of its contemporaries. The show stars Jack Black and Tim Robbins in a narrative reminiscent of Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. In The Brink the world is run by idiots; politicians who exert little control or influence, and who seem destined to lead humanity to destruction via a nuclear war.
It’s funny, often clever, and The Brink spoofs contemporary political contexts (especially US interventionalist policies) through a satirical lens.
7. Mr Robot (USA Network, 2015)
We all know that the world isn’t fair, that wealth is distributed poorly, and that rich corporations operate in the interests of financial gain. People are starving and there’s more than enough resources to go around but the super rich hoard it all, and we get their scraps.
Mr Robot considers these themes, and in the post Occupy era, it provides a narrative that many young people can relate to. The story follows Elliot, a young man living in Manhattan who works for an online security company. He is skilled at his job but he has a secret – Elliot moonlights as a hacker with ‘pure’ intentions. He targets the rich and the powerful with vigilante justice.
But Elliot is also a paranoid figure, a man who struggles to define his place in the world, and reality is transient (and often transparent) to him. An almost mythical figure called Mr Robot (Christian Slater) appears to offer him guidance but his motives aren’t clear.
Mr Robot is a prescient tale that reflects our world and its problems. Elliot is a hero for our times – ostracised and lonely, but with the world at his fingertips thanks to digital technologies.
8. Better Call Saul (AMC, 2015)
When Breaking Bad ended it was hard to see what show could fill its shoes. Thankfully Vince Gilligan chose to remain in that world for a little longer and write Better Call Saul, a piece of dramatic TV that follows the story of Walter White’s eponymous lawyer.
The narrative takes place six years before Walt’s and Jessie’s flirtation with meth production, and the show has a distinctly filmic gaze. There’s a sad sort of tint to the narrative as we watch Saul flounder and grapple with his place in the world.
Better Call Saul is often comic, and it’s certainly a character driven piece. Bob Odenkirk is immediately likable as Saul, and Jonathan Banks is excellent as Mike Ehrmantraut, another familiar face for fans of Breaking Bad.
9. American Crime (ABC, 2015)
American Crime, led by show runner and writer John Ridley, is a compelling piece of narrative TV that considers the legacy of a violent crime. A white war veteran and his wife are attacked in their home and the suspect is a black man prompting racial tensions, and biased opinions.
Ridley is already a successful writer with credits including 12 Years a Slave, and he directed the Hendrix biopic All is by My Side. American Crime is a strong addition to his eclectic back catalogue, and the series considers similar themes to his other work.
What’s most interesting about the show is the way that people jump to conclusions, and just how quickly that can obfuscate the truth of what happened.
10. Togetherness (HBO, 2015)
I’ve been a big fan of the Duplass Brothers since their sophomore effort The Puffy Chair. Togetherness considers similar themes but through older eyes. The story follows married couple Brett and Michelle, who are falling out of love with each other, and their friend Alex, and Michelle’s sister Tina who move in with them.
It’s a story about middle age and about the insecurity that comes along with growing older. Choices have legacies and it’s easy to look back with regret, instead of anticipating the future. Togetherness is frequently uncomfortable, its characters are jaded and depressed, but they’re also there for each other.
It’s a gentle show, one that’s more reflective of Louie and Maron than traditional sit coms, and Togetherness is never idyllic, but it is honest. Mumblecore has grown up and its now on television.
What to Watch Next
That’s it, those are my top ten TV recommendations from 2015. But the year isn’t over yet so I’ll finish this article with some suggestions of what to look out for in the next few months.
The Bastard Executioner is Kurt Sutter’s (Sons of Anarchy) latest, and it’ll be released on September 15th. Expect lots of blood, gore, and violence, and (perhaps) the occasional well crafted piece of dialogue.
I’d also recommend catching up on season one of Gotham. The second season will be released on September 21st. Gotham had a promising opening series full of action, and well drawn characters. Hopefully season two will provide more of the same.
I recommend looking up Mozart in the Jungle, and Transparent too. Both shows were released through Amazon Studios and they contain convincing narratives with strong characters, and original story lines. They’re both returning for second seasons later this year.
Amazon plans to release its latest series, The Man in the High Castle, on November 20th, an adaptation of the classic Phil K. Dick novel of the same name.