Every year, it gets harder to pick a Top 10. More shows are available on more streaming and cable outlets, and many of them are excellent. Here are the 10 or so shows that gave me the most pleasure in 2015, and not one of them is from a broadcast network. Here, too, is a second list of honorable mentions – including stalwarts such as “Mad Men” and “The Good Wife” – that isn’t too shabby.
As always, let me know what I got right, what I got wrong, and what I missed.
1. “Fargo,” FX
It’s hard to imagine a more entertaining tale of murder and mayhem in the Midwest than we got in season 2 of this anthology series. The 1979 setting was amusing and, when Ronald Reagan showed up, spoke to how the country was about to turn cold and corporate. The acting was extraordinary, both by the good guys (Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson) and, especially, the bad guys (Jean Smart, Jeffrey Donovan, Bokeem Woodbine). And the couple caught in between – Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst – were endlessly fun to watch, so innocent and so guilty. I laughed, I cried, I thought about existentialism, I hid my eyes when a detached finger rolled across the floor of Bud’s Meats. I thought about America, violence, and the redemptive gift of a well-written TV series.
2. “Master of None,” Netflix
I did not see this coming. Based on Aziz Ansari’s turn as the ever-hustling Tom Haverford on “Parks and Recreation,” I assumed his 10-episode comedy series would be brash and jokey. Instead, Ansari delivered his own “Louie” or “Girls,” playing an Indian-American actor in New York looking for love, meaning, and jobs in which he doesn’t have to put on a hokey Indian accent. The episodes are romantic, funny, insightful, and moving. “Master of None” also explored aging and generational gaps with a lot of heart and soul. I immediately wanted more.
3. “The Knick,” Cinemax
The miracle of this series, which is directed and shot by Steven Soderbergh, is that it transports the viewer to the turn of the 20th century – really, and not fakely. What I mean is that most period dramas – particularly those of the “Downton Abbey” persuasion – remake the past into something gorgeous and aspirational. “The Knick” instead gives us the uncomfortable truths about life in New York back then, with all its grime, racism, illness, and poverty. In Soderbergh’s hands, the city feels a little bit like “Deadwood,” and in Clive Owen’s hands, drug-addicted surgeon John Thackery behaves like a cowboy. In season 2, the show found an engaging storytelling groove that extended to all the members of the ensemble.
4. “The Americans,” FX
Season 3 of this extraordinary drama about Russian spies in the 1980s suburbs of D.C. was the strongest so far. Partly, that was due to the way it played off America’s contemporary tensions with Russia, as our support of Afghan rebels in the 1980s figured into the story line. And partly – mostly – the season triumphed thanks to its emotionally rich portrait of the politics of family life. It was fascinating to watch Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, played with intensity by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, battle over whether to tell daughter Paige who they truly are – fascinating and universal.
Anchored by Jeffrey Tambor’s magnificent performance as Maura, the titular trans parent, this series returned with a killer season about gender, sexuality, family, and genetic history. The three adult Pfefferman children – played without a hint of self-consciousness by Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, and Gaby Hoffman – were as irritating as ever, but redeemed by their hunger for experimentation and their desire to evolve. This is a show very much of its time, as ever-broader cultural definitions about identity leave us dazed, confused, and slouching toward realization.
6. Comedy Central’s Twofer: “Broad City” and “Inside Amy Schumer”
It’s a great moment for women in comedy, and these two shows were further proof of that. “Broad City,” from Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, gave us a stoner, slacker version of Lucy and Ethel, Mary and Rhoda, and Laverne and Shirley. These hysterical ladies – who’ll feature an appearance by Hillary Clinton next season – rejected TV’s standard female stereotypes to portray a pair of wonderfully original characters. Meanwhile, Amy Schumer took those same female stereotypes – women who define themselves by what men think of them – and submitted them to fierce satire. Her “Inside Amy Schumer” flourished this year, not least of all thanks to an episode-long black-and-white spoof of the film “12 Angry Men” in which 12 angry – and absurd – men debate whether or not Schumer is hot enough to be on TV.
7. “The Affair,” Showtime
After a swoony, unsatisfying first season, this drama came into its own, offering us a cleverly curated set of puzzle pieces – different points of view and time frames – to fit together into a semblance of the truth. The increased attention on Maura Tierney’s Helen was a game-changer; great character, great actress. And the half-episode set in a therapist’s office was both revelatory and a sweet callback to “In Treatment,” which was from the same producers. It helped us better understand why Dominic West’s Noah is so unerringly selfish.
8. Indie Movie TV: HBO’s “Togetherness” and Amazon’s “Catastrophe”
TV has become home to a number of low-key, semi-dramatic relationship comedies, thanks to cable and streaming outlets that don’t need a joke a minute to grab viewers. “Togetherness” from the Duplass brothers was a bittersweet portrait of two relationships, one struggling to survive and the other unable to begin. Amanda Peet and Steve Zissis brought great emotional honesty to their performances. “Catastrophe,” starring Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, was about the start of a relationship, thanks to an unexpected pregnancy after a hookup. It was a little like “Knocked Up” for adults and set in London, and the cast, including some fine supporting performances, was remarkably likable.
9. “Show Me a Hero,” HBO
David Simon, he of “The Wire” and “Treme,” took on a dry local topic – 200 units of public housing in 1980s Yonkers, N.Y. – and transformed it into a compelling and engaging fact-based drama about a man torn apart by political dysfunction. As councilman and then mayor Nick Wasicsko, Oscar Isaac was heartbreaking, caught between justice and small-mindedness. Simon’s ability to take us on journeys into the heart of national darkness is matched only by his ability to inspire compassion and understanding in viewers.
10. “Man Seeking Woman,” FXX
This highly surreal and experimental show about the search for love wasn’t for everyone, but it was totally for me. I think of it as what director David Cronenberg might make if he ever decided to do a sitcom in the manner of his film of William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch.” Created by “Saturday Night Live” writer Simon Rich and produced by Lorne Michaels, it follows Jay Baruchel’s everyman through dates in New York that become all-encompassing hallucinations. Metaphors become literal, as Josh’s anxiety-induced projections — his ex’s new boyfriend is Hitler, any date other than his ex-girlfriend is a troll, his confusion over how to text a woman is a national crisis — become his realities. Try it, you might like it.
“The Man in the High Castle,” Amazon
The acting leaves something to be desired, but the challenging story, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, is deeply rewarding. What if the Axis had won World War II and America was run by the Nazis and the Japanese?
“Mad Men,” AMC
The final run of episodes of Matthew Weiner’s landmark series were just exactly perfect. And the last moments of the finale left us with a comic, wise, and unforgettable image.
The show’s best season saw Hannah growing up and coming out of her narcissistic haze. After years of laughing at her, it was a treat to start feeling some respect for her.
“Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” HBO
His informed, fierce rants about politics and modern life have become an essential coping mechanism for fans.
“Wolf Hall,” PBS
This quiet, intimately filmed gem, based on the Henry VIII novels by Hilary Mantel, was filled with indelible performances, most notably by Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell.
“The Good Wife,” CBS
In season 7, this show continues to satisfy, with timely and clever plots of the week and riveting mind games between Margo Martindale’s Ruth and Alan Cumming’s Eli.
This sci-fi drama from the Wachowskis was ambitious and occasionally breathtaking, if flawed, as it revealed the psychic overlap among eight individuals around the world.