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Television's Most Essential Viewing in 2015

By The Pajiba Staff | Guides | December 29, 2015 |

By The Pajiba Staff | Guides | December 29, 2015 |

Normally we devote this space to the year’s best television seasons, but we decided this year to go beyond that generic list and compile a list of the most essential shows of the year. That is to say, while many of them were also the best series of television in 2015, they were also the ones most necessary.

We’re in the midst of PEAK TV; there are too many options for most viewers to keep up with. Good television is all around us. These are the shows, however, that should be your highest priority: The series that were talked about the most; that influenced and shifted the television landscape; these are the shows that may form the basis of the next generation of television shows. They’re not just the best; they’re also the most important.

Daredevil — Much like movies, superhero television shows have been having a bit of a renaissance in the last few years. Yet it wasn’t until Netflix released the first season of Daredevil that we realized that superhero TV can be more than the wide-eyed, glossy and cheesy fun of The Flash or Arrow or even Agents of SHIELD (all shows that take themselves seriously, but not too seriously). Instead, Daredevil forfeits any semblance of heroic hijinks in favor of a gritty, unflinching realism, with a street-level hero trying to find his way amid a world where gods and monsters roam the earth. Daredevil features a deeply conflicted protagonist (Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock) with a wonderful, charmingly close-knit group of friends and allies, who face off against an enemy unlike any we’ve seen before. While Cox is the star of the show, Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk all-too-often stole the series with his unique portrayal of a villain beset by anxiety and fear, a hulking, socially maladjusted genius whose fury and capacity for violence is as intense as his devotion to the select few that he will allow himself to love (and in turn to love him). It humanized both heroes and villains in ways we’ve never seen before, taking so much of the Hollywood and glamour out of them and making them real and human. Netflix would continue that trend with its excellent second offering, Jessica Jones, but it was Daredevil that set the tone and brought forth something special, something unlike any hero-based entertainment we’d ever seen. Honorable mentions should go to the smaller, but beautifully portrayed supporting cast, including Vondie Curtis-Hall, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, and perhaps most notably Rosario Dawson and the absolutely terrific Toby Leonard Moore. Daredevil showed how seriously Marvel and Netflix were taking their endeavor, and it should be a sign that we’re in for an extended period of deeply satisfying superhero television. — TK

You’re the Worst — The second season of You’re the Worst was remarkable for a number of reasons. Not the least of which, obviously, is the fact that it gave us what was perhaps the most honest portrayal of clinical depression we’ve probably ever seen in a TV comedy, maybe on television period. Spending a few episodes watching what seemed to be a mystery unfold— where was Gretchen going at night??— was intriguing, but that mystery was abruptly solved when we learned that Gretchen was simply leaving her home to cry in a car every night. So instead of a mystery, we spent a season watching a woman struggling to have any connection to herself and those around her. The show took a gamble on us that we would want to watch that— that we’d watch a woman’s pain and how that pain manifested in blankness— and it paid off.

And that trust is the second, and maybe main reason why this season was so extraordinary. How often have we seen a show shift so dramatically between seasons? Sure there were those season where Weeds stopped being a comedy, and that point that Agents of SHIELD started being good, but between seasons 1 and 2, YTW did a near 180 in both tone and content and it did so deliberately. Many of us spent much of this season seeing that it was different, and appreciating that, but still feeling that it was the inferior season. Jimmy and Gretchen, along with Lindsay and Edgar and hell, even Paul and Vernon and Becca, were all branching out in ways that were maybe too realistic to compete with season one’s compact, pithy, linear, ostensibly sitcomish perfection. But as we watched Gretchen spiral, and as every other character explored themselves in such intimate depth, it became clear that while this season may not have been the same kind of show as the season one we fell in love with, it was something personal, and dark, and important. FXX trusted Stephen Falk, and Falk trusted us, in ways that are honestly shocking for a television show. The show itself, as well as the characters in it, are on a journey, one that we are being invited to watch. And some of that journey is beautiful and some of it flounders a bit, but it’s all a gift. — Vivian Kane


Leftovers — The first season of The Leftovers was divisive. Some saw haunting genius, the best and quietest moments of Lost in a whole new and somehow tinier world courtesy of Tom Perrotta’s excellent novel of the same name. But others felt differently, seeing the show as maudlin, overdramatic or dull. Whatever side you fell on, one thing was clear: having exhausted its original source, season two would have to be completely different. And it was. Even among the first season’s most ardent defenders, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t feel season two was immensely superior. Not merely an improvement, but an outstanding second chapter that built off its predecessor in the best ways. Season two took the tone and darkness of the series, its strongest assets, and used them as an anchor for an expanded story with tremendous characters, quietly explosive performances (good god, Regina King, how do you not have a mantle full of Oscars by now?) and much higher stakes. This near-perfect season of television was one of the medium’s best offerings this year. We hope its season three swan song lives up to it. — Courtney Enlow

Catastrophe — This was the goddamned surprise of 2015. “A small BBC comedy show with writing handled by the two leads” has been the genesis for so many of my favorite productions, but the more reviews leaked from the UK the more I built up a weaponized skepticism. Sharon Horgan had struck gold once before with Pulling but American twitter-fame man Rob Delaney has never been widely regarded for his performance abilities. His bombing on late night TV is a constant point of contention between those who covet his career and those who believe he is embodying the anti-comedy ideal. So it was such a stunning delight when the American release of the series on Amazon Prime produced a limited TV run of an honest indie rom-com so universal and grounded it must have given the Duplass brothers indie-boners. This story of a One Week Stand that accidentally spawns a spawn leads to one of the most realistic yet hyper-realized fucknopanic scenarios of the modern age. The work of the co-leads also co-writing yields a cross-Atlantic comedy coup d’état where the American player keeps speaking-up in a manner that only Americans with a need to impress employ, while the British lead speaks down in a manner that Brits have come to understand that we fuckboi Yanks require. I’ve spent most of 2015 jacking-off over You’re The Worst, but in six tightly-constructed episodes, Catastrophe arranges an equally impressive modern reflection upon what form “love” takes. We get to delight in two people taking the piss out of each other and then, in the final episode, you can find my favorite representation of that moment where two hilarious people hit the catch between their mechanization and simply self-destruct. The six episode first season is an incomparable delight balanced out by the paralyzing fear that this show is so dark it might actually kill the baby. What I’m saying is watch it now, nerds. — Brock Wilbur

Mad Men — This year saw a lot of great seasons of TV, but few — if any — will have as lasting an influence on pop culture as Mad Men, which aired its finale in May. Matthew Weiner’s drama is one of the most tightly plotted, expertly acted, beautifully designed and emotionally intelligent TV series of the past several decades, if not of all time. Much has been written on its culture significance; hell, Don Draper’s suit and fedora, along with other props and costumes from the show, are headed to The Smithsonian. A similar exhibit of items from the series, including notes by Weiner and a recreation of his writer’s room, had an extended run at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York just this summer. (I went. I took pictures of everything, including the sets of Don’s office and the Draper kitchen, when the guards weren’t looking. I can die happy.) How much bigger of a This Matters stamp do you need? Allow me to quote myself from my write-up of the Season Seven: Part 2 premiere in April: “What started as a stylized look at life in 1960s America, delivered in a manner that sometimes winked at the viewer a little too hard, has turned into a poignant look at life in general. Weiner’s story has always been simple, and human: It’s about the search for absolution. It’s about the struggle to not only love and be loved but to understand how one is even worthy of love given their flaws, big or small.” It’s an understatement to say you’re missing out on great television if you skip Mad Men. Yes, it is Important. It’s also damn entertaining. And if you can’t get behind anything else, get behind the fact that it brought us Peggy Olson, the Patron Saint of Workplace Badassery. — Sarah Carlson


SNL 40 — Celebrating legacies in real time can be a dangerous proposition. Ask Penn State University or whoever decided to give a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bill Cosby. Even when the honoree keeps a relatively cadaver-free closet, there’s still the problem of how best to praise someone — or in Saturday Night Live’s case, an institution — still out there grinding. SNL40 somehow managed to strike a perfect balance between reverence and pomp during its three-hour anniversary special in February. Sentimental without being cloying; nostalgic while still keeping one foot planted in the present, SNL40 reminded generations of viewers why, even as it’s become a shadow of its former glory, SNL remains the most venerated comedy show in television history. Forget the legends who performed onstage. Look at who showed up at 30 Rock in tuxes just to witness the event live. Lorne Michaels will be in a casket the next time all those people will be in the same room. Let that sink in for a second. SNL40 may not be the best or even the most entertaining program this year. It was certainly the most important. — Brian Byrd

WWE NXT — It’s a good time to be a wrestling fan. To express a love for an ‘alternative’ brand of wrestling that’s still owned by the company thinks eating burritos and pooping in a Mexican guy’s car is a cool, funny, and good guy thing to do is about as punk rock as a Blink 182 tattoo, but damn it check my age again because I guess this is growing up on our very first date. Also, a joke that ties Blink 182 into wrestling. I got nothing, though. It’s been a long holiday week, so help me out in the comments.

It’s insane that within a company so insanely regressive and socially and narratively backwards, there exists a show that within a few short years has incredible female wrestlers not only stealing the show week after week, but headlining those shows, as well. Women like the MLP:Friendship is Magic of wrestling, Bayley, or alignment shifting Sasha Banks are characters that I’d approve of having a child watch and look up to.

Beyond that, people of color are getting their fair shake, as well. It’s embarrassing how recently in the WWE Asian wrestlers were all still being billed as ‘from Japan’ and did ‘kamikaze karate’ moves … or were straight up dubbed. Now, performers like Hideo Itami and Asuka just get to be their badass selves, with the freedom to develop as performers without an 80 year old white man explaining to them how to be Japanese for an American television audience.

These accolades are fantastic, but they are the icing on the cake to this: NXT is just a great wrestling show. The storylines are compelling, the characters are fun, and the action in the ring is fantastic. The only stressful thing about watching the show that’s defining the future of the world’s greatest sport is wondering if someone is going to pull the rug and take it away. — Joe Starr

UnrealUnReal is a show that, from my personal experience of raving about it this summer, very few people have heard of. But it was nevertheless an important show for two reasons. First, coupled with the out-of-nowhere Deadly Adoption (Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig) “Lifetime movie,” the show signified Lifetime’s coming out party. It may not yet be a player in the prestige television landscape, but it wants to be. And it came out strong and hard with UnReal, which was also an important show because it dared to step into the male antihero realm and say that women can do it too. You can have a serious drama with complex women who try to do good things but who have bent moral compasses which also cause them to do terrible things. Set in the manipulative world of a reality The Bachelor-like reality show, UnReal is dark and funny and compulsive. There is nothing like it on TV right now and while it may not have been my favorite show of the year, it’s definitely the one I can’t wait to dive back into next season. Find it, stream it, and love it. And welcome Lifetime and women to big boy’s table. — Seth Freilich

The Jinx — There are a lot of “true crime” shows on television, but nothing like The Jinx. Overall the series played out almost like a horror movie, where you knew the perpetrator all along, and watched with increasing fear that that this man with his smug smile, easy excuses, and dead eyes would walk off into the world again. And then the last two episodes happened, and we saw a murderer caught right in front of us. It’s unlikely we’ll ever seen anything like The Jinx again, as most murderers are not as intelligent, wealthy, and absurdly cocky as Robert Durst. But we’ll definitely be talking about the moment we knew he was guilty and the moment we knew he’d get caught for a long time. Maybe long enough to see him actually convicted of at least one of his crimes. — Genevieve Burgess

Making a Murderer — A late entry to the year, the Netflix series plays savvy counterpart to The Jinx, where a man could get away with murder because of his wealth, whereas in How to Make a Murderer, a man was convicted because of his lack of wealth. It’s one thing to know and understand the wealth disparity in the United States, but to see how it wheedles itself into the bedrock foundations of our nation is dispiriting, to say the least. How to Make a Murderer may be the most important series of the year, not for the mystery at the root of it — did Steven Avery murder Teresa Halbach or was he framed? — but for highlighting the egregious flaws in the American justice system, most notably this: If you are poor, you have lost the presumption of innocence. — Dustin Rowles

The Daily Show — If ten years from now people aren’t still talking about The Daily Show, I will 1) Weep for our nation and 2) Swiftly begin reminding everyone of just how funny the show was. Not because the 2015 season was one of the funniest shows on TV (although it is in the running), but because its funniness serves to highlight the most absurd fact of our political landscape in the first decade and a half of this millennium: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was the best news show on air during its run.

During his infamous/ supremely kick-ass appearance on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004, Stewart begged, literally begged, its hosts to regain their journalistic integrity. To hold their interviewees’ feet to the fire. To stop being a part of the political machines which were, and are, robbing the media of its ability to act as political watchdogs. They responded that he should be doing the news media’s job despite his point that “the show that leads into [him] is puppets making prank phone calls.” They refused to accepted the responsibility with which their profession had tasked them. So Stewart decided, “Fuck it, I’ll do your job too.”

Even more impressive is that Stewart’s final season hadn’t lost any of that fire. After setting up media ass kicking franchises all over the fake news landscape, TDS still managed to go out on top. What the 2015 season of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart should be most remembered for isn’t just the ability to make actual news actually funny. It should be remembered for holding onto journalistic integrity at a time when people were quickly abandoning it. Journalists were becoming jokers so Stewart taught jokers how to do the news. If in ten years the news is still a joke, we’ll all know who to thank for that. — Emily Chambers

Hannibal — Nestled at or near the top of the year’s best of lists sits Hannibal, a standout entry not only because of superb actors (Mads Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy, Gillian Anderson, Laurence Fishburne) at the top of their game, its sumptuous, breathtaking production values, daringly delicious (and delightfully entendre-d) dialogue and a tendency to push every possible envelope, but also because this particular series aired on a broadcast network (NBC, no less). Bryan Fuller and Mads Mikkelsen’s take on a well-known film and book character blasted through every preconceived notion both audience and critics might have held onto, flipping Harris and Hopkins’ old hat on its (oft-removed) ear. Wickedly fun and equally horrifying, Hannibal continued to challenge every sense as our instincts struggled against the gorgeous crime scene tableaus, impossibly beautiful and violent murders and the simultaneously terrible and appetizing tables a dapper cannibal set. With impossible to ignore homoerotic overtones playing as background to the hordes of Tumblrers’ fantasies, Fuller created an incredible stage worthy of any premium cable or streaming outlet, and has clearly provided the inspiration for other showrunners to break perceived boundaries; if only NBC fully recognized the trail Hannibal blazed, it might have found the way to escape its own network binds. And If you somehow missed this phenomenal final season, go back and breathe in the full experience of a masterfully made series that remains without equal. — Cindy Davis


Steven Universe — Season two of this pioneering Cartoon Network series began in the aftermath of a world-threatening extraterrestrial event. Sure, Steven and the Crystal Gems fended off the baddies. But with a massive smoldering spaceship crashed on the shores of Beach City, the show’s pint-sized superhero had to address an even more perplexing challenge: how to share all this with his best friend Connie. Steven spends an entire episode debating (sometimes in song) how he can let loved ones into his world when he now understands how filled with danger it is. And over the course of season two, Steven Universe didn’t let up with these kind of interpersonal challenges, most compelling of which was the Sardonyx/fusion arc (explored in detail here). This cartoon show has been teaching kids about personal boundaries, consent, trust and intimacy in a way that’s digestible and accessible, and through characters who are often female, sometimes LGBT and always presented with depth and compassion. Plus, it even went where even (Legend of Korra creators didn’t dare tread, presenting a lesbian kiss between two devoted and developed partners. It’s remarkably progressive in a way that doesn’t sensationalize its politics. These are just the Gems, just Steven’s family and friends. Love is love. And love wins, making for a show rewarding for adults and worthy of the upcoming generation.

Consider the catchy song numbers gravy. — Kristy Puchko

Better Call Saul — Spin-offs can have it simultaneously very easy, and incredibly tough. Riffing on an established universe, and the familiarity and built-in potential audience that this brings, means that a spin-off doesn’t always have to work that hard for success to be forthcoming. But if they’re spinning of off something really special and fervently beloved — and Breaking Bad was nothing if not both of those things — they can have a very tough time indeed. Forging a separate identity; telling a worthwhile story; not making people just yearn for the mother-show instead — it’s almost impossible for a spin-off to pull off all of this.

Against all odds, Better Call Saul did everything right; from the flash forward at the very start, to Jimmy’s immortal line — ‘I know what stopped me. It’s never stopping me again’ — in episode ten, this was a complete overhaul of what a spin-off could artistically achieve. Jimmy McGill’s Albuquerque-set journey shared some DNA with Walter White’s, but it struck out in a different direction altogether, and by the end we were left begging for more. There have been great and important TV spin-offs before, but before 2015 there had never been anything like Better Call Saul. It may even be the case that in ten or fifteen years’ time, the names more often on our lips won’t be Jesse Pinkman and Walter White, but Saul Goodman and Jimmy McGill. — Petr Knava

Fargo — The beauty of Fargo Season Two, outside of a stunning visual portrayal of 1979, was right out of the standard Coen Brothers playbook. Define the extremes and let the normal folk suffer for our amusement between them. In what is ultimately a commentary on the rise of corporations and the end of small timers, Noah Hawley cements himself as one of the most provocative, skilled and influential people in television. — Lord Castelton


Mr. RobotBetter Call Saul, The Leftovers, and Fargo may have been marginally better dramas in 2015, but each of those series were separated from the reality going on around us. Mr. Robot took one part Fight Club, one part American Psycho and a heavy dose of our contemporary social and political landscape and channeled them through the Occupy Wall Street movement and the hacktivist group Anonymous to create the most relevant series of the year. It was entertaining; it was mindhole blowing; and it acted as a televisual time capsule of 2015. — Dustin Rowles

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.