I’m in the middle of an 11 day staycation. I have barely anything planned – just lots of open time to follow whatever whim I might have on a given day (before the kiddos are done with school and the more usual routine sets in). Though I have lots of good intentions to catch up with ALL THE READING, what I spend more time doing is catching up on ALL THE TELEVISION. Or rather “TELEVISION,” since it’s strange to me to call things that I watch via my iPhone or iPad “TV.” Seems we don’t have a new word yet…
Anyway, usually this time of year I take up a Top 20 Music list project, but I’ve been a little out of it on the music scene this year, and I don’t think anyone needs a list filled with Selena Gomez or Drake (though both made great music this year, I’m not kidding). But I have been totally on top of “television.” I am dedicated in my capacity to keep with all sorts of shows, even when I’m not on staycation. So I decided that this year, instead of my usual music list, I’ll offer a Top 10 “TV” list. All of these shows are ones I watched in 2015, even if their actual air/drop date was earlier. They are all brilliant, and you should watch them right away!
10. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Season 1)
Totally bizarre and unique premise, this Netflix original feels like constant improv from brilliant actors and writers freed to just be their brilliant selves. It’s a quirky, clever and comedic show that is actually dealing with the big themes of mortality, free will/choice, fate and the challenges of adulthood. Kimmy wants to “seize the day” but hasn’t been given the necessary tools or education for life as it actually is….can’t we all relate? The only reason it’s not higher on my list is due to my preference for dramas.
9. Empire (Season 1)
I hadn’t heard anything about this show before I found it on the “suggestions” of my DVR. I was immediately hooked by the charismatic acting – OMG Taraji P. Henson, I had no idea. But what kept me around was the story line of the African American hip hop artist struggling to come out and still find mainstream success. It doesn’t hurt that Jessie Smullott is so dreamy. The music is as good as any of the scripts (which are a little iffy actually), and actually do a good job of furthering the story in a lot of cases. Super fun, like candy. I think Season 1 is available On Demand – watch it, and then let’s have an Empire Karaoke! (Didn’t make it higher on the list because Season 2 is a little off-the-rails, but still fun!)
8. The Americans (Season 3)
I’m surprised more people don’t talk about this fascinating show about two undercover Russian KGB agents who have made a family in the US, set in the early 80s / Cold War prime time. Kerri Russell is brilliant and so emotionally available even while playing an often-emotionally inaccessible character . Matthew Rhys portrays the complex loyalty between country and family so well- it’s an incredible thing to watch a portrayal so believable that is actually about two relentless deceivers. Start from Season 1 if you can (I think it’s on Amazon Prime).
7. Mr. Robot (Season 1)
A discovery right at the end of 2015, this show about a hacker is high on this list especially because of the last few episodes, which contain a somewhat-commonly-used-but-still-very-effective twist. Rami Malek’s despondent stare at life’s general lameness captures that despair that exists in many of us, even if we are usually able to temper it with a more willing optimism or at least balanced pragmatism. The fact that his big dream is to free everyone in the world from debt viscerally reminds us how trapped so many of us are by something so commonly accepted as necessary for “the good life.” Comcast just released the full season On Demand, catch up before it returns so we can talk about it!
6. Orphan Black (Season 3)
My friend Chris had been telling me to watch this show for a couple years before I finally got hooked. I kept trying the first episode, and it felt too….I don’t know what – convoluted, complicated….I mean….clones? But then, perhaps ironically, the humanity of the different characters got to me – all so brilliantly portrayed by Tatiana Maslany. Though it’s a conspiracy/sci fi type show, as is often the case with these sorts, it’s at its heart a show about family and loyalty – to whom should you be loyal, and why? What makes a family, and who decides? Special shout out to Maria Doyle Kennedy who is gorgeous, especially this season’s peek into her rock star past. Swoon.
5. The Fall (Season 2)
Where Orphan Black is over the top, The Fall is restrained and bare. The story line isn’t very complicated or original, and the pace is unusually slow for a new show. But it’s because at the heart of this show you have two actors – Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan – who the directors and writers trust to just show up and be amazing, to complicate even while revealing, to attract even while repelling. And best of all, here’s a show that is theoretically about a violent misogynist, but is in reality about the powerful feminist who takes him down. Case in point – that incredible line from Stella: “the basic human form is female. Maleness is a kind of birth defect.” Chilling, terrifying, beautifully shot and directed, and stars Gillian Anderson (as aforementioned feminist badass) – what else can you want? Both seasons are on Netflix, and I have heard a third may be coming (but….about what??).
4. The Good Wife (Season 7)
Seven seasons in, even post-Will Gardner, I still love this show. Juliana Marguiles continues to deliver on a self-sacrificing/commanding, cold/emotionally-raw, clear-eyed/totally-lost portrayal of Alicia, the so-called “Good Wife.” I’m a sucker for hidden depth of emotions, covered up by the “I’ve got it all handled” facade- and that is Alicia in a nutshell. And Alan Cummings is just a constant delight as Eli, continually surprising with his depth and complex loyalties. I appreciate the ways this relatively mainstream and procedural show manages to deal with race, gender and political polarization on a regular basis – and will often have meaningful insight that complexifies rather than simplifies, humanizes rather than demonizes. I’m not sure where you can catch up on past seasons but the current season is on CBS.
3. Jessica Jones (Season 1)
I love everything about this show, though it is not for anyone triggered by violence or violence against women or rape-related storylines. (I should’ve said that for The Fall, though more obviously there.) I’ve been waiting for Krysten Ritter to get a successful show for a long time – she was so heartbreakingly beautiful in Breaking Bad and comically brilliant in The B in Apartment 23, it was just a matter of time. She doesn’t disappoint in this comic book fantasy about a superhero who doesn’t want to be a superhero. The storyline is dark, dark, dark, but the ride is fast and surprising and gloriously entertaining. Special bonus to see Mike Colter out of his drug-kingpin-role from The Good Wife and show up as the super-hottie Luke Cage.
2. Orange is the New Black (Season 3)
By now most people know about OITNB, as they should. Over it’s three seasons it’s become way more than a story about a privileged white girl who goes to prison, and now offers a rare portrayal of diverse women in community with other women, and even manages to address some of the issues with prisons today….for profit prisons, for example. Though Piper remains theoretically at the center, it’s those other non-Piper characters that keep this show high on my must-watch list: Nicky, Alex, Red, Daya, Taystee, Sophia, Gloria, Crazy Eyes…the backstories this season remained rich and complex and heartbreaking. I’m glad they got rid of Pornstache for the most part this season – and while doing so, managed to add some dimension to his character. Though I might say they should think about doing this for more of the guards, I won’t – because I don’t want them spending any time away from the women. Looking forward to season 4, which drops in April!
1. Transparent (Season 2)
Everything about this show is brilliant – the acting, the writing, the directing. It feels profoundly original, even though it’s pretty simply a (dysfunctional) family drama (with much dark humor throughout). The way they talk, the issues they bring up, the settings they go to, the ways the characters relate – it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen – except for: life, as it is and never gets portrayed. I love the Jewish stuff, the trans and gender identity stuff, and the sexual identity stuff. I love how selfish each of the characters is while simultaneously being such ill-formed selves – it brings compassion where there might otherwise be disdain. There is a fascinating ongoing parallel of trying to “become a person” between the theoretical “main character” Maura and the other characters; you have to wonder how much his inability to become his true self manifested in his children’s inability to become themselves. Every actor gives themselves to their characters and this world with such abandon, which is extra incredible because these are not great people, and this world is not always so pretty. I’m especially impressed this season with the generational trauma themes, and the questions it raises about how the memories of the Holocaust both personal and collective relate to the struggles and questions of today. What other show does this?? It’s beautiful, haunting, deep, painful, and worthy of your precious time. Watch it on Amazon Prime and let’s discuss!
A bunch of shows are on my second tier list – a few on the edge include The Newsroom (which I only watched last year – so much fun!), Looking (sad it ended!) and Girls (which I can’t say for sure I watched any in 2015, I think my HBO free preview ended in 2014). (Added after Sally reminded me: can’t believe I forgot to mention Grace & Frankie on Netflix, which I thoroughly enjoyed and can’t wait for the return…I also later remembered Mad Men – I watched the first half of the last season this year and loved its terrible tragedy as I have all the other seasons….). All are awesome in their own complicated unique ways. What didn’t make the list but that I watch regularly includes Scandal (just too uneven, and I cannot with Fitz), How to Get Away with Murder (it’s grown on me, but mostly it’s just all about Viola Davis and how she is the best ever), Nashville (same story, but Connie Britton), Pretty Little Liars (super fun but not in the same league as any of the above), House of Cards (which I just didn’t love as much this season but I will keep watching) and the Fosters (just so grateful for the portrayal of a queer multi-racial foster family, though it is a little high on the drama).
I would love to watch Fargo but can’t get access to the first season and I refuse to start at season 2….I haven’t done Game of Thrones and though I keep trying Downton Abby hasn’t got me yet.
What shows did I miss that you loved in 2015? Tell me, I still have a few days of staycation left….maybe they’ll make next year’s Top 10! 🙂