There were 409 different scripted shows producing new episodes for television channels and streaming services in 2015, somehow an increase over the staggering 376 from 2014. It’s literally impossible for anyone to keep up with all, or even most, of it at this point, including critics whose job it is to do so. And quite of a lot of those shows were good. Some very good. I’m not sure if I would say any of these seasons is an all-time great, with none of them being in my top five of the past five years for example, but the amount of good shows is higher than ever.
The quantity of television shows doesn’t necessarily mean the increase in quantity of television is necessarily as dramatic. Ever since The Sopranos set an example of 13 episodes a season, shorter episode numbers have been increasingly common. Some content providers continue to stick with around 13 episodes per season for their shows, but others (including HBO and Amazon) have been increasingly setting the standard at 10 or even less. None of the shows I watched this year aired more than 16 episodes; in fact I’ve actually been semi-actively avoiding shows with more episodes because they’re a daunting time commitment if you haven’t been watching them from the beginning.
I decided to rank the shows that I’ve watched and make a list out of it, and then I realized that ranking television seasons was going to be nearly impossible. You can watch and compare several episodes in a day, or listen and rank a few music albums, but even with the short seasons of television even the perpetually unemployed can’t re-watch all the television shows they want to rank in a useful amount of time. So I was stuck trying to compare shows that I watched live throughout in the year and shows I binge watched throughout the year and… it didn’t work. Watching a show over ten weeks is a much different experience than watching the episodes one after another over a weekend (for example, I’m not sure if I didn’t like The Knick season 1 more than season 2 because it’s better or because I binged the first and watched the second as the episodes aired).
I compromised and set up the shows I’ve watched every episode aired this year of (less than 10% of what was available!) in four tiers that made vague sense and then listen them alphabetically. Also listed are the channels they premiered on (if applicable) and the streaming service their seasons are on or will be on sometime in 2016 (if applicable).
Better Call Saul (AMC, Netflix)
While Better Call Saul may never be Breaking Bad, it did have a better overall first season than its illustrious predecessor. Despite being more comedic than than Breaking Bad ended up being, the show manages to create a genuine emotional investment in the character we know we end up as Saul Goodman.
Fargo (FX, Hulu)
Like the first season, this year Fargo took full advantage of its limited series format to add and remove characters and plot elements without regard for needing them to continue in another season. It was more ambitious in scope than season one, with more quirky characters, more villains (including Mike Milligan and the Kitchen Brothers, which is an amazing name for a prog rock band), and more subplots. It impressively managed to make all of them seem like they belonged in the same series, give or take a UFO sighting or two.
Justified (FX, Amazon Prime)
After a disastrous fifth season, it was gratifying to see Justified turn itself around and go out with one of its best years. With its sharp dialog, surprising yet grounded plot twists, and a fascinating antagonistic relationship between former coal miners Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder, at its highest points the show was one of the most fun and entertaining on television.
The Americans (FX, Amazon Prime)
Suffering from a few too many plots that both take time away from major story lines and strains the credibility that the Jennings could do all of them while maintaining their cover as travel agents, the third season was a slight step down from the second. Most of this has to do with the fact that the fact that season two was exceptional, so it’s only in comparison to its predecessor that the excellent third season suffers. While the show can seem emotionally cold and is certainly very self-serious, it was still one of the most tense and thought-provoking shows airing this year.
In a television age where most new half-hour shows seem to be in a contest to see which can be heavier, more dramatic, and more important, Veep continues to be the best in the category by simply trying (and succeeding) to be the funniest. The only question is whether or not it can maintain its quality next season with the departure of creator Armando Iannucci.
The Next Ten
Marvel’s deal with Netflix allows them an outlet for their comics that don’t fit in with the clean, almost antiseptic look and feel of the MCU films and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. First up for this ambitious, five-show partnership was another try at adapting Daredevil after the forgettable movie attempt a dozen years ago. Luckily, this second try proved very successful, with some of the year’s best action sequences either on television or on film.
Game of Thrones (HBO)
It was definitely the weakest season of the show, with two subplots in particular (Dorne and, to a lesser extent, Winterfell) being particularly not up to par. Still, it’s a show that inspired me to read 1.7 million words worth of its source material, so even with its downturn I think it’s still pretty good.
Hannibal (NBC, Amazon Prime)
Like season two, the third season was split into two halves. The first half featured a European Adventure that resulted in the show disappearing so far up its own ass it wound up going all the way back through the entire digestive tract, while the second half was a stylish adaption of Red Dragon. The first half had its moments, but it wasn’t until the second half that the show was back to the level of quality of the excellent first two seasons.
Jessica Jones (Netflix)
While Daredevil was a better traditional superhero show, Jessica Jones was the better drama. Superpowers did play a part, but it was more the villain Kilgrave’s power to get people to do anything he said than Jessica’s super strength. Its quality storytelling on surviving abuse and compelling lead hero and villain outweighed the fact that the supporting characters (the ones that aren’t getting their own Netflix shows next year at least) were mostly weak and the show only had enough plot for ten episodes instead of thirteen.
Mad Men (AMC, Netflix)
Having three slow episode to start a season isn’t exactly abnormal for Mad Men, but is more noticeable when you only put out seven episodes in a year and its your last season. Still, the season picked up with “Time & Life” and managed to wrap up the series in a satisfying manner.
Mr. Robot (USA, Amazon Prime)
Yes, it liberally borrows from Fight Club with its anti-corporate speeches, a secret group dedicated to wiping out debts, and certain plot elements among other things. And the show’s staff is very aware of this (see the musical cue at the end of the penultimate episode). However, the season offered up enough twists and added enough depth to its main character to make it a quality thriller.
Parks and Recreation (NBC, Netflix/Hulu)
Two years past its prime, I figured that the sixth season finale was going to be the best send-off the show could hope for at that point and was actually disappointed it got renewed. Luckily, the time jump in the final season allowed the show to regain some of its lost creative spark, resulting in a funny and heartwarming (though bordering on saccharine in the finale) final season.
You can hardly fault its ambition. Having eight very different main protagonists spread across eight different locations must have been a nightmare to plan and shoot. And even if it took a while to get going and didn’t always make sense, its emotional high points cemented its status as one of the years most memorable, if not consistent, shows.
Silicon Valley (HBO)
It’s kind of weird that the second best comedy on television in 2015 wasn’t even the best comedy that aired on HBO during the hour following Game of Thrones. The show struggled a bit to replace Christopher Evan Welch, but everything else was more consistently funny than season one. I mean, there aren’t many shows on television doing hilarious episode-long running jokes about SWOT Analysis and Schrödinger’s cat.
The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime)
It was slow, had some questionable plot points, its lead characters were incredibly bland (but at least not insufferably annoying like the adult children in another prominent Amazon production), the season ended just as many of its more intriguing plot lines are getting going, and overall it was more interesting than it was good. Fortunately, the show made enough of the fascinating premise in its debut year to not feel like a completely missed opportunity.
Bojack Horseman (Netflix)
Doctor Who (BBC One/BBC America, Amazon Prime)
Show Me a Hero (HBO)
The Knick (Cinemax)
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
You’re the Worst (FXX, Hulu)
Other Shows Watched
Broadchurch (ITV/BBC America, Netflix), Community (Yahoo! Screen), Master of None (Netflix), Orange is the New Black (Netflix), Orphan Black (BBC America, Amazon Prime), Review (Comedy Central, Hulu), Sleepy Hollow (Fox, Hulu), The Strain (FX, Hulu), The Walking Dead (AMC, Netflix), W/ Bob and David (Netflix)