Ranked: Every TV Show I Watched in 2015 – #40-#27

Check out #63-#41 here!

I’ve never done a best-of list before, and I suppose technically I’m not doing one now. In order to get around the pain of winnowing down a list I’ve decided to rank every TV show I’ve completed watching to date. I recommend everything on this list. In my opinion, it’s all worth watching or else I would’ve stopped watching it.

In retrospect I may have simply replaced the pain of narrowing down a list to a a top ten or twenty with the pain of writing a really damned long list. Anyways, here it goes:

40. Making a Murderer (Netflix)

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Ranking a true crime story is weird. It’s difficult to separate the story of the show from the story that happened in real life. Do you rank a documentary that happened to get access to an absolutely astonishing story higher than one that used every trick in the book to make a naturally uneventful story compelling? Do we blame or give credit to a documentary for constructing a narrative? What if that narrative runs counter to reality? Do we blame or give credit to a documentary for accurately reflecting reality, even if that’s less entertaining? What if it’s spectacularly produced, or extremely faithful to reality, or some other metric by which we might rate a documentary, but the documentary argues for a point we don’t agree with?

 

This is further complicated by a story like Making a Murderer or Serial in which the documentarians fairly explicitly seek to acquit a convicted murderer. When the show can have real world consequences as vast as 200,000 signees on petitions to release the person in question from prison, how much narrative license are we willing to grant the filmmakers?

 

As a result, any ranking I give Making a Murderer will tend to be provisional based on what happens to this case in the future. Finishing the series, one might be absolutely convinced that Stephen Avery is innocent of the crimes of which he’s been accused. However, there have been accusations that the show has left out key evidence that would have otherwise muddied the waters of the criminal conspiracy and framing narrative the show expertly constructed.

 

Before reading that I may have ranked the show higher, a problem fictional series don’t tend to run into. Roman Polanski may be a criminal, but that can’t make Rosemary’s Baby any less of a masterpiece. A documentary like this isn’t so cut and dry. The issue for me is that it’s clear that there was criminal conduct on the part of the police and well-documented incompetence on the part of Brenden Dassey’s defense team. That should be more than enough to make an interesting documentary series, but if the article above is true the filmmakers got a bit greedy. They wanted to simplify things, making the police into clear villains and Avery into a pure victim. Ironically, a more complex narrative with shades of grey to its morality would’ve made for a more mature, equally compelling series that would appear to have more accurately reflected reality.

39. Gravity Falls (Disney XD)

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Alex Hirsch’s sporadically airing tale of twins Dipper and Mabel’s summer visiting their great-uncle at his home/tourist trap is finally drawing to a close. The final episode will air in February. While these final episodes have leaned heavier and heavier on Gravity Falls’ increasingly dense mythology, what keeps me coming back is the show’s sheer hilarity. The joke-per-minute rate of this show is fantastic and it remains the second-best showcase for Kristin Schaal’s considerable voice talent (after Bob’s Burgers, of course).

38. Married (FX)

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This dramedy from Judd Apatow is part of a recent spate of shows that seem inspired more by independent cinema than previous sitcoms. This is evident in its visual style which is all handheld cameras, shallow depth-of-field, and washed out colors indicating that the show is attempting to show an unsentimental, gritty view of marriage; what life is actually like rather than the idealized version posted to Instagram. More than just deal with the tedious bits of maintaining a long-term relationship and raising kids, the Married even ventures into moments of existential melancholy.

None of which is to say that the show isn’t funny. It would be almost impossible for this stacked cast to NOT be funny, consisting of both old and new comedy heavy hitters including Judy Grier, Nat Faxon, Paul Reiser, Bret Gelman, John Hodgman, and Jenny Slate.

 

If there’s one bad thing to say about Married it’s that the show hews a bit closer to the traditional sitcom formula than some of its indie-inspired brethren, potentially causing some confusion as to whether the show is trying to be funnier than it is and failing or more interested in drama for the moment.

37. Review (Comedy Central)

It’s no secret that Andy Daly is a comedy god. The man has engineered entire multi-episode arcs of one of the most popular podcasts online (Comedy Bang Bang) with a suite of characters he merely improvised up in the moment. Strange that it took so long for TV to swoop in and try to make a profit off of him, but Comedy Central finally did with high-concept oddity Review.

 

Daly’s character Forrest MacNeil is the host of show-within-the-show Review, on which he reviews real-life experiences at the request of his (fictional) viewing audience. Forrest’s insane dedication to the show – carefully stoked by devilish producer Grant (James Urbaniak) – leads him to do (and rate) everything from eating an ice cream cone to using a glory hole. The trick that makes this show more than an entertaining trifle is that while the normal style for a show like this would be to treat every review as an individually packaged segment that’s unrelated to the larger whole of the show, Review is serialized. That means that every relationship Forrest ruins, every bridge he burns, every previous emotional and/or physical injury he suffers for his art becomes a continuing plot thread throughout the rest of the season and even show.

 

As a result, the show becomes an intense study of a character so blindingly afraid of making a decision for himself that he’s willing to turn responsibility for his actions over to an uncaring public. In Forrest’s eyes, anything he does in service of a review isn’t really his fault. He’s merely the vessel providing a service so that other people can better live their own lives. The show gives Daly’s character an excuse to do things he’d never admit to himself he secretly desires, and in turn forces him to do things he’s genuinely terrified of. This becomes an addiction, and like any addiction cycle it drives away every other good thing in his life until Review is all Forrest MacNeil has left. It’s a slow motion tragedy that’s impossible to look away from.

Oh, and it’s also really funny.

36. Key and Peele (Comedy Central)

Key and Peele is more than just the best traditional sketch show on TV, it raised the bar on what a sketch show could be. Not only did the show exemplify everything that the ideal sketch show should do: create memorable recurring characters, feature excellent verbal chemistry between its actors, entirely visual gags, refer to current events in a timeless way, and exemplify sketch writing structure in both short and long forms – this little Comedy Central show had the highest apparent production value of any sketch show I’ve ever seen! Every episode was a chameleon that could look like any other show on TV, Hollywood blockbuster, music video, or anything in between.

After five seasons, the titular creators have decided to go out on their own terms. While I hate to see them go I’m happy they went out on top, and hopefully this means we’ll se a revival season or two sooner rather than later. In the meantime they seem to be blowing up with guest spots on everything from Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp to Fargo, so that’s always nice.

35. Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories ([Adult Swim])

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Speaking of comedians putting together extremely polished work, anti-comedy duo Tim and Eric have finally gotten a budget. After producing cheap and intentionally terrible-looking shows ranging from Tom Goes to the Mayor to Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule, Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories looks like a million bucks. While previous shows often used their bad production quality as a way to create a sense of the uncanny in the viewer, Bedtime Stories uses a different tactic to produce the same effect. An anthology series, Bedtime Stories is like Black Mirror by way of David Lynch: absurdist stories that could seem funny on paper subtly tweaked until they become terrifying fever dreams. They’re deeply unsettling in a way that’s difficult to explain.

I can’t wait for the next episode.

34. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah (Comedy Central)

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Though Noah had an impossible act to follow the show itself has done a tremendous job taking the regime change as an opportunity to update the overall show’s style and format to fit better as part of a whole with The Nightly Show. The new correspondents work well with the new tone and the show’s pre-taped segments are sharp as ever.

33. Bloodline (Netflix)

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This show is a bit of a difficult convince people to watch because it doesn’t have a high concept or anything to really hook a potential audience member. The cast is terrific, featuring performances from Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), Sissy Spacek (Carrie), Linda Cardellini (Freaks & Geeks), Chloe Sevigny (American Horror Story), and Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff). However, the standout performance comes from relative unknown Ben Mendelsohn (Killing Them Softly) as Danny Rayburn.

 

The plot doesn’t help sell the thing, as it moves torturously slow and is difficult to describe without giving anything away. Danny Rayburn – smalltime criminal and black sheep of the well-respected Rayburn family – returns home to his family’s hotel & resort on the Florida Keys, kicking up all kinds of old family resentment involving both perceived and actual wrongs committed by and to Danny and the rest of the Rayburns, all of whom now work for the family business in one way or another. Bloodline may be slow-paced and without a quickly established central conflict, but if I had any complaint about the show it would actually be that they try to juice up the conflict too early with cheap flash forwards at the beginning of some episodes. I’d actually want it to be slower-paced and more unclear for longer!

 

On the other hand, the things this show does well are harder to explain. For example, it has a fantastic sense of place. I watched Bloodline as 2014’s brutal winter here in the midwest was just beginning to break, and it immediately transported me to the show’s tropical resort locale. You could almost feel yourself sweating through a linen shirt. I’d finish episodes feeling like I’d just come back from a vacation. The slow pace at which the plot is doled out is a feature, not a bug. And I must once again reiterate that Ben Mendelsohn is goddamned electric on this show.

 

Jeff Cannata on the /Film Podcast described Bloodline as “If Batman and the Joker were brothers,” and I guess that’s the best way to describe it. While Chandler gets a little more history and internal conflict than most Batmen, Mendelsohn gets that in addition to the license to chew scenery that comes with the best Joker performances.

32. Difficult People (Hulu)

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Julie Klausner follows in the tradition of Seinfeld and Louie before her in making a NYC-set show where she plays a lightly fictionalized, less successful version of herself. She’s a TV recapper and stand-up alongside Billy Eichner’s character, a stand-up/struggling actor/waiter. In their spare time – and their work time, to be fair – they enjoy making fun of everything and everyone around them.

It’s easy to read “Difficult People” as something along the lines of “Terrible People” and expect a much more cynical show than this is. Billy and Julie aren’t as cartoonishly awful as the gang on Always Sunny, nor are they as genuinely terrible people as Mark and Jez on Peep Show, for example. They’re just trying really hard and not making it and legitimately a little exhausted and bitter about that, their coping mechanism for all this is band together and lash out verbally. The title is pretty accurate: they’re not terrible, they’re difficult.

 

Come for the hyper-specific celebrity bashing, stay for the surprising amount of heart.

31. Game of Thrones (HBO)

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Look, you don’t need me to tell you to watch Game of Thrones. It pulls in massive ratings for HBO, it’s the most pirated show on the internet, and a legitimate cultural phenomenon. It’s one of the few shows since the fall of the monoculture that you can walk up to any average group of 20- or 30-somethings and start talking about Lannisters, Starks and whatnot, fully expecting everyone to understand what you’re talking about.

 

This was the season that Game of Thrones surpassed the books, plot-wise, and I couldn’t be happier. As someone who stopped reading the series because I DON’T CARE HOW DELICIOUS THE FOOD LOOKED, GEORGE! JUST GET ON WITH THE FREAKING STORY! I generally find the ways the show has amended story elements from the books to be improvements. Now that the writers are free to write the best show they possibly can within the general framework of the continuing plot provided by Martin I think the show has taken on a sense of anything-can-happen freedom that’s permeated even the portions of the story that have already been published. So if you’ve somehow missed it, now’s not a bad time to start watching.

30. Last Week Tonight (HBO)

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Tragically, this show appears to have all but killed John Oliver’s fantastic podcast The Bugle – which hasn’t had a full episode since May 2015. The highest possible compliment I can pay is that it was totally worth it.

The major difference between LWT and Oliver’s old stomping grounds at The Daily Show is that TDS gives over a third of its runtime to commercials and an interview segment. Last Week Tonight gives at least half of its runtime to an in-depth examination of a more evergreen topic, such as court fines. In a year where Anchorman director Adam McKay has received a lot of attention for using his comedy skills to shed light on a topic that would otherwise be so boring that the public would ignore its vast importance with The Big Short, we should acknowledge that Last Week Tonight has already perfected the technique.

29. Togetherness (HBO)

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This show from mumblecore darlings the Duplass brothers has the slightest of “high concept” premises: a married couple with a new baby allow both an old high school friend and the wife’s sister to crash at their place indefinitely. While that could easily spill out into a broad sitcom premise along the lines of Three’s Company or whatever, this lands significantly closer to the “drama” side of “dramedy”. Togetherness offers a fairly serious examination of the failures that have led aspiring actor Alex and former(-ish) party girl Tina to sleep on couches, as well as the stresses that might lead a functional married couple to seek the distraction of a few long-term houseguests. The writing and the acting from all four leads is phenomenal in its focus on the small details and the little moments of life that many other shows would either gloss over or exaggerate for comedic effect.

28. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

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While Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has been criticized for showing its network roots in a few of its early episodes, I can’t hold that against it because it would’ve been my favorite show on network TV. Ellie Kemper is perfectly cast as the girl who never lost her positivity in more than a decade held captive by the insane “Reverend” Richard Wayne Gary Wayne – in the best comedic performance Jon Hamm has yet had a chance to give. She’s able to convey both the arrested development of someone literally trapped in adolescence and the incredible personal growth that enduring that kind of hardship could cause. This is Tina Fey at her darkest, yet the humor is as sharp as the best seasons of 30 Rock – which is an enormous achievement.

27. Kroll Show (Comedy Central)

The second of Comedy Central’s two sketch comedies that were voluntarily ended by their creators in 2015 never quite broke through to mainstream success in the way that Key & Peele did. This may have been because K & P have a genius for the sketch format that Kroll doesn’t quite possess. Each sketch they produce is a singular little gem ready to be cut up and popped onto YouTube to a far wider audience than will ever sit down to watch an entire episode. Kroll, on the other hand, excels at character creation. This may have indirectly led him to try something far more ambitious. While other sketch shows commonly feature shows-within-a-show (Wayne’s World was a show within SNL, for example) Kroll Show was almost entirely composed of TV show parodies. However, Kroll doesn’t simply parody individual TV shows as much as he goes after the entire self-cannibalizing pop culture ecosystem. The shows that make up the sketches are based around the characters he creates, which are largely “real” people – i.e. an actor rather than the character the actor is playing, a singer, or a reality TV show star. This allows them to reappear on other “shows”. For example, long-running Kroll character Bobby Bottleservice started off on a Making the Band-style show, moved on to a dating show, followed by a Bachelor Pad-style show called Gigolo House, a Ghost Adventures knockoff, and finally a Real World/Road Rules-style game show spinoff called Gigolo H-O-R-S-E. In another plot line we follow a Drake/Justin Bieber-type character from his beginnings on a Degrassi knockoff, through the public’s discussion about him on YouTube, into his singing career via music videos and his co-hosting of an American Idol-style singing competition.

 

No show has done as much to parody the way the entire TMZ/Reality show celebrity culture eats itself, and before Kroll Show I would’ve doubted it was even possible to do. That’s innovation.

 

Check back soon for the final countdown!

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