All best-of lists are ultimately subjective expressions of a critic’s taste. Nowhere is this more obvious, however, than in TV, where the sheer volume of material means nobody’s watching, let alone loving, the same things. Just look at the breakdown on this year’s Hitfix Critics’ Poll!
Because of this, and because so many top 10 lists have come out already, I’ve left off some undeniably great shows that, for whatever reason, simply didn’t resonate with me — or, in the interest of full disclosure, that I simply didn’t get to. (If you’re reading a roundup like this one, though, you don’t need me to tell you Fargo and The Americans are well worth catching up on.) The good news is that this still leaves us with a stellar lineup of genre-defying, binge-inducing television. Peak TV may be upon us, but until we reach saturation point, that just means that there’s more than enough great art to go around. So without further ado, here’s the best television of the year…in alphabetical order. We’re not insane.
It took time for both Bojack itself to find its groove and viewers to adjust to the idea of a washed-up cartoon horse as television’s most compelling example of soul-crushing ennui. That learning curve was done by the end of season one, though, allowing season two to sink in as the wise, silly gut-punch it is. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and designer Lisa Hanawalt have created a universe that’s both visually and comedically its own, albeit with a jaded, selfish antihero to carry the torch now that Don Draper’s gone. Remember: When you’re wearing rose-colored glasses, the red flags just look like flags.
After a spate of them last fall that quickly fizzled out, romantic comedies finally found their footing on TV this year. With due respect to Master of None and You’re the Worst, two shows that missed this list by the narrowest of margins, none did so better than Catastrophe, a show designed by co-creators and co-stars Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney to turn television’s open-ended nature into an advantage rather than an obstacle. The Rob and Sharon onscreen, who decide to pursue a relationship after a straight week of casual sex results in Sharon’s pregnancy, keep ironing out their relationship well after the meet-cute. The Rob and Sharon offscreen, meanwhile, spare their characters the cluelessness of most other rom-com heroes, resulting in a story that doesn’t insult either its players or its audience.
Between Crazy Ex and Jane the Virgin, with whom it de facto shares this spot, CW might as well rename their Monday nights “It’s not what it sounds like, we promise!”. Rachel Bloom’s hourlong musical comedy about a high-powered corporate lawyer projecting all her unhappiness onto a long-lost high school boyfriend is somehow pitch-black, screwball, a little romantic, and a little wrenching, a tonal balancing act matched only by… Jane the Virgin. Yes, the title is ironic; yes, this is the most nuanced portrait of mental illness (and Jewish mothers, and the unglamorous parts of Southern California) on air. And it’s less than ten episodes old.
For its swan song, the most unlikely show on NBC dropped all pretenses of being anything but a romance; not quite a sexual one, though there are plenty of overtones, but a spiritual one. Hannibal Lecter spent three seasons persuading radical empath Will Graham they’re two sides of the same twisted coin — and so did the show, through hallucinatory, disturbing imagery that shared more with European art films than any serial killer procedural. With one final, indelible image I won’t spoil here, both of them succeeded.
Either The Leftovers finally got its act together in season two or the rest of the world finally got on board. To my mind, it was a little of both: as the cast slowly but surely migrated to the Departure-spared holy ground of Jarden, Texas, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s meditation on grief, trauma, and spirituality somehow retained the ambiguity that gives the show its particular ambience while crafting a more linear storyline. The end result? A show where the sudden disappearance of three girls has an all-too-human explanation, but the protagonist still travels to the Underworld… twice.
Controversial endings are, ultimately, iconic ones. True to the Sopranos in its DNA, Mad Men gave us one for the ages: Don returning, offscreen, from the spiritual Eden of California to turn his enlightenment into the best soft drink commercial ever made. To some, it was a final, depressing victory for the forces of capitalism over individual growth; to others, it was the ultimate proof that Don’s self-knowledge and his ability to tap into the American psyche are inextricably linked. Whatever you think, Matt Weiner’s ability to make Dick Whitman’s journey both an obvious allegory for the American dream, as hollow as it is enduring, and a specific character study remained dead-on ’til the very end.
Rick and Morty
No television — hell, not much art, period — combines the limitless imagination of childhood with the hard-won cynicism of adulthood quite like Rick and Morty. In its second season on Adult Swim, the collaboration between reflexively meta comedy cult leader Dan Harmon and animation veteran Justin Roiland mostly avoided repeating themselves, opting instead for a deep dive into the psychology of Rick Sanchez, the bizarro Doc Brown to Morty’s “kid with an old Jewish comedy writer’s name.” The result is the exploration of the hidden costs of genius that Steve Jobs was trying to be, helped along by hive mind group sex, a clip show from hell, and a surprise appearance by Werner Herzog.
Full disclosure: Hari Nef, the latest cast member in the Pfefferman family saga, is a close personal friend. But the Weimar-era flashbacks in which she acts, as effortlessly integrated as they are into the show, aren’t all that make Transparent‘s second season an improvement on the (excellent) first. Jill Soloway’s masterpiece deepens its characters’ explorations of sex and sexuality even further, tracking both Maura’s first tentative steps into dating as an out trans woman to Ali’s crush on an Eileen Myles-esque poet — mirroring, it turns out, Soloway’s own — to Sarah’s burgeoning interest in S&M. The Pfeffermans’ blinding self-absorption and claustrophobic intimacy has never felt more fully realized, nor its observations about human failings more acute.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Sharpen your pitchforks, people — here’s the very hottest take in my arsenal: as great as Marvel’s Jessica Jones is, I find this particular Netflix show a more compelling exploration of trauma. Combined with Ellie Kemper’s chipper-yet-steely performance as the indefatigable title character, Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s writing cuts the acid of 30 Rock with something that’s somehow sweeter and heavier. Kimmy’s journey from imprisoned cult member to independent New Yorker is all the more compelling for how the show lets us forget the gravity what she’s been through, only to blindside us with some of its sharpest, and best, lines.
The freshman outing of Lifetime’s — proving nobody’s willing to stay on the sidelines in the current prestige TV arms race — scripted show about a reality show was far from perfect. A crucial plot point, that the Bachelor-esque Everlasting edited and aired episodes while it was filming, required a massive suspension of disbelief, and a character’s suicide felt like jumping the shark just a few episodes in. But the idea of a reality show producer just as good at manipulating people as she is conflicted about it, propelled by the sadomasochistic dynamic she shares with her domineering boss, is compelling enough to override those doubts. UnREAL feels as risky and new as anything on TV, and as unflinching a look at America’s dark underbelly as any antihero drama before it.