There were a fair number of trends this year in Deadshirt’s TV lists. We like superheroes, we like drama and action, and we also tend to like shows we can binge watch in one sitting. But more than that, our contributors’ top picks revealed a common love of both larger than life action and conflict, and more intimate, complex characterization. It’s a golden age of television, with niche genres and prestige series finding homes both on networks and on streaming outlets, and there’s plenty to offer everyone.
— Joe Stando, TV editor
1. Better Call Saul (AMC)
Anyone who tells you they expected Better Call Saul to be this good is a goddamned liar. We all had our doubts from the moment it was announced, with the consensus being “I’ll watch it but I’m not expecting much,” and anyone who remembers otherwise is trying to revise history. Instead, we got one of the most compelling shows on television since the end of Breaking Bad itself.
Vince Gilligan took all the lessons he learned making five seasons of The Greatest Show On Television and hit the ground running. Better Call Saul paid tribute to everything that made Breaking Bad great without every once becoming a slave to it. While it feels unfair to judge a show this way, Breaking Bad casts such a large shadow that nobody expected anything to get out from under it.
Better Call Saul is the tragicomic story of a man who tries to do good and gets cut short from doing so at every turn. While Bob Odenkirk’s turn as the affable yet flawed and unlucky Jimmy McGill is the heart of the show, it’s the supporting cast that helps elevate this show to top shelf television. Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) is a great foil to Jimmy, and Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) is the person we all hated the most until we learned the truth of his actions. Mike (Jonathan Banks) reaches greater heights here than he ever did in Breaking Bad, including his own gut-wrenching origin story in “Five-O.” Michael McKean’s ill-but-brilliant Chuck was one of the most compelling characters of 2015, especially after (highlight for spoiler:) we learned of his betrayal–a moment that, when discussing the show with your friend, inevitably made you say, “he passed the bar!” aloud.
The pacing is impeccable–Gilligan and Gould know exactly when to ramp up the suspense to the speed of a predetermined car accident and exactly when to slow it down to the speed of an elderly woman riding a chair down the stairs. One episode would be heart-poundingly thrilling with the highest of stakes, while the next episode would be a smaller, more tragic story, and it always felt right.
Nothing about this should have worked. A weekly hourlong origin story about a comic relief character from an elite TV show makes no sense on paper. But it worked better than we could have imagined, and now we have Better Call Saul-– Deadshirt’s consensus pick for Best Show Of 2015.
— David Lebovitz
2. Master of None (Netflix)
There’s absolutely nothing new about a stand-up comedian making a thinly autobiographical vanity project that deftly tempers laughs with caustic observations about the complexity of life, but the general tone of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None makes the entire affair feel fresh in a way I wasn’t fully expecting. Sure, it’s definitely Diet Louie at times, indulging in experimentally cinematic asides and tangents that strengthen the show’s themes while diverting from the jokes, but Aziz presents a perspective that is at once refreshingly unique in the modern TV landscape while remaining middle of the road enough to be easily digestible. It doesn’t aim to be groundbreaking, prestige television. If there’s any ambition, it’s in the show’s dedication to diversity, itself more of a small step for man than the giant leap forward the industry so desperately needs. The show succeeds on the same merits that have kept Ansari’s stand-up career afloat–a specific brand of likability that is equally vulnerable and endearing. The best television comedies pass or fail on how much time you end up wanting to spend with these characters, and for all the show’s flaws, Master of None presents a set of people who are genuinely likable even for their foibles. The conclusion ends on a strong note, but there’s definitely more to explore, so hopefully we get another season, if for no other reason than to get more Lena Waithe on the screen.
— Dom Griffin
3. Jessica Jones (Netflix)
Netflix’s Jessica Jones begins with a smash, as the superpowered protagonist hurls an abusive client through her door. The show seldom lets up from there. Loosely based on the comic Alias by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, Jessica Jones stars the superb Krysten Ritter as a hardboiled, hard-drinking private eye who looks like she was born in her battered leather jacket. We sense that Jessica is tough even before we learn that she can, thanks to a classic Marvel origin, smash things really good. But inside Jessica is a deep psychological pain that’s festered ever since she escaped Kilgrave (played with parasitic glee by David Tennant), a mind-controlling monster who used his powers to rape her and force her to commit an unforgivable crime.
When describing Jessica Jones, it’s tempting to fall back on the clichés employed by critics who see superhero fiction as juvenile trash: “At last, superhero shows have grown up!” It does feel like the Marvel Cinematic Universe has turned a significant corner with Jessica Jones, but not because the show abandons costumes, is often shockingly violent, and embraces its heroine’s sexuality. The show feels heavy because it gives its subject matter serious weight, never flinching from Jessica’s struggles with PTSD or the horrors Kilgrave inflicts on others, all without ever feeling exploitative. As intense as Jessica Jones is, it’s also buoyed by scenes of wonderful tenderness and compassion—particularly the early moments of mutual discovery with Jessica’s lover and fellow super-being Luke Cage (Mike Colter, soon to get his own Netflix series) and Jessica rekindling her relationship with her foster sister, Trish Walker (Rachel Taylor). Released in the same year that gave us the overwrought Avengers: Age of Ultron and the disposable Ant-Man, Jessica Jones is further evidence that Netflix is the most intriguing corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
— Kayleigh Hearn
4. Review (Comedy Central)
Review is bizarre on every level. It’s a fake reality show about Forrest MacNeil, the world’s first Life Reviewer, who dives headlong into (also fake) viewer-requested experiences from “Eating 100 Pancakes” to “Road Rage” to “Being Hunted” with fierce professionalism. Forrest is dedicated to the integrity of his valuable work, and is willing to derail his entire life if that’s what it takes to properly understand and rate an experience. In the first two seasons of Review, Forrest gets shot, becomes racist, divorces his beloved wife, starts a cult, kills a guy, all at the request of his inquisitive, borderline villainous audience.
Review isn’t an emotionally complex comedy in the same vein of BoJack Horseman or Master of None, but it does screw with your feelings in its own sick way. Forrest is a very sympathetic character, though he shouldn’t be. We pity him because he’s a naive loser who’s continually put into humiliating and harmful situations. We shouldn’t because he does all of this by choice, because he came up with a set of rules and feels honor bound to follow, even when they lead him straight into hell. But his dedication to his invented code of Life Reviewing Ethics also seems to be an expression of some deeply troubling obsessive tendencies; Forrest is not a well man, so we go right back to feeling sorry for him again, all while delighting in his misery.
If Review‘s show-within-a-show was real, everyone watching should go to prison for what they put Forrest MacNeil through. Thankfully, it isn’t, so we get to safely enjoy punishing this poor schmuck.
— Dylan Roth
5. Fargo (FX)
After the first season of Fargo set up a world populated by deaf hitmen, spray-tan covered extortionists, and a renegade Billy Bob Thornton doing whatever he wants while waxing poetic about dragons; it was safe to say the show had become it’s own wonderful little slice of dark, “true crime” comedy.
The brilliance of the second season begins with it emerging from an offhanded comment by kick-ass grandpa Lou Solverson and ends with an extended critique of America, specifically the shift from post-Watergate/Vietnam towards Reagan, and the hollowness of his “We’re obviously the best country in the world, so let’s act like it” message (nailed by Bruce Campbell doing a spot-on Dutch; seriously, anything can happen on this show).
Fargo Season Two expanded itself, the ensemble, and the universe, literally, (BELIEVE ME WHEN I SAY ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN) to tell this story of messy Midwestern crime that’s a third The Godfather, a third cop/criminal cat-and-mouse, and a third politeness gone wrong.
At the center of it all is young Lou Solverson, played impeccably by Patrick Wilson in his best role to date, and his family that includes father-in-law Sherriff Hank Larson (white-bearded Ted Danson), and wife Betsey (TV’s cancer-stricken wife Cristin Miloti). This bunch of hunch-having law enforcers take on a stellar group of baddies/wrong-place-wrong-timers.
The baddies include the Fargo-based mom-and-pop crime syndicate the Gerhardt’s. After pop suffers a stroke mid-grinding-bones-into-bread speech, mom takes control of the business. Floyd, played by a career-best Jean Smart, steps in as the Wall Street-esqe; Kansas City mob decides the family needs to be wiped out. Unsurprisingly, her eldest son Dodd (Jeffrey Donovan) has protestations about his mother’s promotion and how to deal with these tough guys. Kansas City’s tough guys are brought to life by near emotionless Brad Garrett as a corporate lackey and the one-of-a-kind criminal Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine). Woodbine’s performance is absolutely magnetic. Whenever and wherever he shows up, two crimes are about to be perpetrated; his character’s actions and the theft of whatever scene he’s burst upon.
With all of this happening around them, working class butcher and hairdresser Ed and Peggy Blumquist (a heavier Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst), end up the target of all these opposing forces after the accidental killing and cover up of the youngest Gerhardt brother, who had just committed his own triple homicide.
The struggle of normal folk caught in between a terrible situation operates as a solid allegory for a disappearing middle class stuck between entities larger and more powerful than they could even imagine. Fargo portrays the demise of small business, the destruction of common workingmen, and, finally, the disappointment of corporate culture. The only ones coming out with any comfort at the end of the madness are the Solversons, who have to deal with their own problems of disease, loneliness, and uncertainty, but at least through it all, they’ll have each other. And that sweetness, the kind of sweetness that culminates with strong-silent type Sheriff Larson revealing he’s created his own universal language to stop all the world’s fighting, is what makes the show so special; just like Hank, it has good intentions.
— Tyler Austin
6. Daredevil (Netflix)
Daredevil marked a sea change for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Prior to this series, the franchise had only dabbled in television, to varying degrees of success. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was the tail that the films wagged, and while Agent Carter spun out of one of the more emotionally resonant films, but still remained a side story.
In Daredevil, the heroes and villains aren’t larger-than-life costumed adventurers whose footfalls crack concrete. Charlie Cox’s Matt Murdock and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk are flawed, vulnerable men, defined by their histories and emotional weakpoints. Compared to Iron Man or Red Skull, they’re almost Nolan-esque adaptations, rendering the comic book characters down to their core elements and presenting them as grounded humans.
The cinematography and design of the series itself is also a stark contrast to the bright, shiny Marvel movies, favoring tenement slums over high tech labs or Asgardian palaces. It’s a series that explores the real toll of living in an increasingly dangerous world of superhuman threats. Daredevil is trying to carve out a small oasis of order in a violent world, and he’ll resort to a heretofore unseen level of violence to do it. While the show’s action scenes have their highs (a one-take hallway fight that evokes everything from The Raid to Oldboy) and their lows (if there’s an opportunity to see bone, buddy, you’re gonna see the bone), it’s a uniformly more real, gripping level of combat and pain than we’ve seen in the universe.
While Daredevil has arguably already been surpassed by Jessica Jones, it did the heavy lifting of establishing a corner of the MCU in which these flawed, street-level heroes can exist. It’s not a perfect show, by any means, but it set a high bar both for Netflix’s contributions to the greater story and for Marvel television as a whole.
— Joe Stando
7. Rick and Morty (Adult Swim)
Ricky and Morty lives and dies on the comedic principal of logical extremes. On a weekly basis it attacks that premise with the persistence and fervor of an unhinged scientist desperate to prove his theory at all costs. That mad scientist exists in the form of co-creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon who, to the joy of audience members, consistently verify their gonzo hypothesis.
The best example of this would be this season’s sixth episode, “The Ricks Must be Crazy.” Rick, Morty, and Summer, who has become a welcome addition to more of the adventures this season, venture out for the best ice cream in the whole multiverse. The only problem? The battery on Rick’s vehicle dies. This is a common enough sitcom storyline, but for Rick and Morty it turns into a shrunken journey to the battery’s core where they get involved with the politics of a society that Rick created with no more purpose than to power his space car. Their journey devolves into essentially meeting the Rick of the battery’s society, who came to the same conclusion and built his own battery with it’s own society. You can see where this is going. Meanwhile, Summer waits inside on the alien planet in a car with the express direction to protect her. The car taking the direction with the understanding and directness of a Terminator ends up assaulting traffic cops physically and assaulting emotionally the SWAT cops called in response to the first beat down. Finally, just as Rick and Morty emerge from their adventure, Summer’s wraps up with a bow that’s so perfect I refuse to spoil it.
An average show would reign itself in where Rick and Morty hit their stride story-wise. The beauty of pushing these characters to the absolute limits of their psyches is that they’re pushing THESE characters to the absolute limits of their psyches.
The dynamic of Rick and Morty is one of the funniest on TV, bar none. The idea of a brilliant, crazy person running around with a put upon sidekick is nothing new, but transferring it onto a drunken grandfather and his goofy, awkward, sexually frustrated grandson adds an immeasurable amount of new dimensions to the relationship.
The setup of the show allows for equal parts high-concept science fiction, family comedy, and emotional complexity. The tumultuous marriage of Jerry and Beth also serves as an unending well of comedy. An episode centered on their intergalactic counseling demonstrates the same commitment to absurd extremes as anything else the show has done previously. By taking the relationships on the show as seriously as any other family drama, Rick and Morty earns the emotional beats it occasionally sucker punches the audience with and earns the catharsis the laughs at those moments bring. It’s that emotional heft and the dedication to the maximum amount of jokes that make this show so unbelievably watchable.
— Tyler Austin
8. Mad Men (AMC)
Mad Men ranks somewhere between “first love” and “guilty pleasure” for me. It’s a show I can never seem to remember the fuss over when I’m not watching, yet I can never tear myself away when it’s actually on. The final season, like the best eras of the show, was often a series of powerful images: Don connecting with lonely, equally broken waitress Diana, Peggy striding into the McCann offices, cigarette and erotic Japanese painting in tow, Pete Campbell and his wife, reunited, boarding a jet to their second chance at family. The set and costume design was as sumptuous as ever, but with an air of finality, present even before an apparition of Bert Cooper again appeared to Don on his cross country walkabout.
Mad Men ultimately ends where it begins: Don Draper reinvents himself yet again, promising that this time, this time, he’s mastered his vices and can set his life on cruise control. It’s a Sisyphean task, of course. Don Draper, like Mad Men itself, is a moment frozen in time, a celebration of excesses rather than a measured attempt to balance responsibility and pleasure. It’s what draws us in, and what will keep me coming back to the series for years to come.
— Joe Stando
9. Steven Universe (Cartoon Network)
I firmly believe Steven Universe is the best animated show on television right now, and the narrative complexity demonstrated by the episodes we saw in 2015 really cemented that opinion. The first season finale, “The Return”/”Jailbreak” dropped the bombshell that the stoic Garnet is the merged form of two hereto unseen gems named Ruby and Sapphire. Even ignoring that it’s very cool that a show on Cartoon Network features an explicit and positive gay relationship, this is one helluva reveal for a kids show.
While Steven Universe’s continuity has historically been subtle, Season Two trusted its audience with extended plotlines with serious heft. When Pearl lies to Steven and the gems in “Cry For Help”, the ramifications of the hurt she caused aren’t forgotten at the end of the episode, playing very directly into the following episode. Series creator Rebecca Sugar and company wisely pepper these ambitious arcs with cute done-in-one episodes like “Historical Friction”, “Sadie’s Song” and a delightfully weird crossover with Uncle Grampa. If you think “cartoons used to be better”, wise up and start watching Steven Universe.
— Max Robinson
10. The Flash (The CW)
The breathless, dorky way Grant Gustin exclaims “I am…THE FLASH!” in the opening narration to each episode is, in a nutshell, why this show is the best straight superhero show on television. While The CW’s other DC show, Arrow, tends to veer into dour self-seriousness, The Flash is the perfect blend of non-stop melodrama, winking humor, and super-powered craziness. The show’s second season is an unabashed love letter to the things that make the DC Universe so great: Earth 2! Evil alternate universe counterparts! GORILLA GRODD AND KING GOD-DAMN SHARK!
The CW has built the best ever live action comic book in The Flash, and there’s a really endearing earnestness to it. Case in point: the mid-season finale/Christmas special, which pits the Scarlet Speedster against nemeses Weather Wizard and The Trickster (Mark Hamill, having the time of his life) and ends with explosive Christmas presents sucked into an inter-dimensional portal. Gotham and Supergirl are excellent DC shows, but The Flash is the only one that makes me feel 12 years old, reading Crisis on Infinite Earths after school.
— Max Robinson