We watched a lot of television this year. So much so, that we launched a column devoted to it. With the birth of streaming content and the expansion of cable as well as their combined influence on the quality of standard network television, there are hardly enough free hours in a day to satiate our hunger for more.
It’s TV’s second golden age and we’re not mad.
Here is a partial list of what kept us glued to the tube (or streaming device) in 2015.
Like the ancient artifacts they seek, The Detectorists is a comedy you might miss if you’re not looking. Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones play men who spend their free time (and they do seem to have a lot of it) combing the English countryside with metal detectors. Written and directed by Crook, it dares to be quiet, odd and bittersweet. It may be about men in search of treasure, but what they’re really looking for — happiness, meaning, love — is even more elusive.
Grace and Frankie
They had me at organic yam lube. Actually, they had me the minute Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin appeared onscreen. Such towering legends could have been too big for the small screen and, to be honest, it did take a couple of episodes for them to find their rhythm. By the third episode, however, the whole series seemed to relax and believe in its own worth — just like the characters themselves. As for Fonda and Tomlin, they had picked on a sitcom their own size: funny, sexy, real and radical in its depiction of 70-something women looking forward to the next chapter of their lives instead of pining for the past
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Long relegated to the background in comedies such as The Office and Bridesmaids, Ellie Kemper takes the lead in this sitcom that’s co-produced by 30 Rock’s Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. Kemper plays a modern-day Mary Richards — a wide-eyed girl-next-door (er, make that bunker) who moves to the big city after being trapped underground with a doomsday cult. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt features a stellar supporting cast, including Tituss Burgess, Carol Kane and Jane Krakowski, but it is Kemper who is finally the star.
It’s amazing how funny a show can be when half the dialogue seems to consist of “brilliant,” but there you go. This British mockumentary about the inner non-workings of the BBC is a sequel of sorts to Twenty Twelve about the fictional London Olympics Deliverance Committee. (Alas, Twenty Twelve isn’t available on Netflix, but here’s hoping it will be soon.) Hugh Bonneville reprises his role as a director surrounded by chaos, a lot of which is stirred up by a publicist gone rogue, played by Jessica Hynes, who also reprises her role from Twenty Twelve. The writing is whip-smart and fast-paced, the subject matter is ridiculous but altogether believable, and the cast is, well, brilliant.
Plus: Ash vs Evil Dead (Starz), Downton Abbey (PBS), River (Netflix), Modern Family (ABC), Scandal (ABC), Suits (USA).
The YouTube series that caught Amy Poehler’s attention was a breakout hit when it debuted this year on Comedy Central. Created by and starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson as, essentially, themselves — single Jewish slackers whose lives revolve around sex, weed and Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons — nothing is taboo and anything goes as the hilarious besties navigate everyday life in the Big Apple. Bong and webcam not included.
I was woefully late to this party, but bingeing on five seasons at a rate of one episode per day (thank you, Amazon Prime) in 2015 made me an obsessive fan in no time. With the series’ final season premiering Jan. 3, I sip my tea (pinky up) and raise an eyebrow in solidarity with millions of other Cult of Downton mourners. From the Countess Dowager’s brilliant one-liners and Lady Mary’s purebred snobbery to the everlasting love between Anna and Mr. Bates despite constant tribulation, there is no such thing as too much drama where this British tour de force is concerned.
Though producers made us suffer through excruciatingly long breaks between seasons, even separating the final season into two parts, Mad Men will always be the gold standard for character-driven, haute television drama. What would become of anti-hero Don Draper was anyone’s guess but the final scene was pure redemptive gold. (Not to mention Peggy Olson’s iconic strut through the hall of McCann Erickson.) Goosebumps.
No one saw this coming: a well-written, well-acted drama on the network known for its maudlin biopics and After School Special production values? Behind the scenes of a reality dating program that mimics The Bachelor, two female producers use their wits, charm and cunning to manipulate the cast for ratings and, ultimately, industry clout. The tension exists where their threadbare morals get tangled up with their lust for power. Shiri Appleby (Roswell, Girls) and Constance Zimmer (Entourage) are perfectly cast as the conniving, two-faced producers who occasionally question their actions, but only long enough to knock back a whiskey and lick their wounds. Unsurprisingly, it was picked up for another season.
You may not have heard, but Twin Peaks and Lost had a baby fathered by M. Night Shyamalan (he directed the pilot and co-executive produced) and it’s pretty damn good. Adapted from a sci-fi book series, Matt Dillon is FBI big-wig Ethan Burke who finds himself thrust into a picturesque but isolated town that’s under constant surveillance. Using all his signature overacting muscles (with a face like that who really cares?) Dillon as Burke makes it his mission to solve the puzzle of Wayward Pines and deliver its denizens from their beautiful prison where detractors are publicly executed and children are secretly indoctrinated into the “First Generation.” A second season is coming next year.
Plus: Better Call Saul (AMC), Maron (IFC), Narcos (Netflix), South Park (Comedy Central), True Detective (HBO).
Marvel’s cinematic universe has left a lot of meat on the bone in terms of storytelling satisfaction, but where it fails, its television branch has succeeded. Daredevil, the tale of a blind attorney turned costumed martial arts vigilante breathes life into the superhero genre that is so often flat by building a world around its masked crusader. Vincent D’Onofrio’s portrayal of villain Wilson Fisk is disturbingly awesome. Oh, and the fight choreography is intense; a hallway fight scene pays homage to Korean revenge flick Old Boy.
They say that truth is often stranger than fiction, and in the odd life of multi-millionaire Robert Durst, the truth is only the beginning. This six-part investigative documentary delves into the macabre world of the infamous heir to a New York City real estate fortune and opens old wounds in long-cold murder cases that (spoiler alert) lead to a rather shocking finale with real-life consequences. This, along with the podcast Serial, has renewed the long-form documentary.
Mr. Robot is not only the most intriguing show of 2015 (it being on the USA Network is a mystery in and of itself), but it’s also a mirror reflecting our own failings as a society as evidenced by the inclusion of the audience as a character. Labeled a “hacker drama,” on the surface the show travels a familiar Fight Club-esque narrative (and its handling of hacking has been praised by the tech-community as legit), but the show is layered, giving humanity to the not-too-subtle “anonymous”-clone protagonists, not to mention its killer soundtrack.
Plus: Better Call Saul (FX), Louie (FX), Marvel’s Jessica Jones (Netflix), Moone Boy (Hulu), Rick and Morty (Adult Swim).
Set in a hospice hospital, the storyline relies on human depravity and desperation while somehow, without being overt, makes fun of all of our worst worries and fears. The best part about the show: Didi Ortley (Niecy Nash from Reno 911!) is a breath of fresh air. Worst part: This show does Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne) no favors.
A large random segment of the global population disappears into the air. The rest are left trying to figure out what the bleep happened. Totally bizarre in every way. Fairly hard to follow, but Liv Tyler and Justin Theroux are enough reason to watch.
Master of None
Aziz Ansari co-created it and stars in it. That’s all you need to know.
Nathan for You
Google “dumb Starbucks.” That’s the guy. That’s the show. Some say that whole show was staged. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Available on Hulu.
Labeled an American comedy series, but only if an American comedy involves a self-destructive, manipulative opiate addict working as a skilled and caring nurse who sometimes cares about her family. The main reason to watch: Edie Falco (Sopranos) is addicting.
Ray is more or less a sophisticated thug who makes problems disappear, and celebrities pay him well to sweep their miserable mistakes under the rug. But the tangled mess that is his family makes watching the show worthwhile. The premise might be boring, overdone, etc., but Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight are not.
Forrest McNeil (Andy Daly) takes real-life requests such as divorce, joining the mile-high club, murder (?!), completes them unbeknown to anyone in his life and reviews the experiences on a five-star scale. It’s as hilarious as it is tragic. Available on Hulu.
Tech junkies, engineers, programmers can rejoice. This show is for you. Also, probably a favorite among hipsters. But much of the population will probably find something redeeming about it as well.
Three 20-something telemarketers with wild and often absurd imaginations make the most out of the mundane. If you need a break from all the bad news in life, it’s the perfect show to watch. Available on Hulu.
Plus: Broad City (Comedy Central), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox), Casual (Hulu), Drunk History (Comedy Central), Fargo (FX), Inside Amy Shumer (Comedy Central), Last Man on Earth (Fox), Mindy Project (Hulu), Narcos (Netflix), Shameless (Showtime), South Park (Comedy Central), Transparent (Amazon), Web Therapy (Showtime).
Out of the Box is a biweekly column by VCReporter staff and contributors about television and streaming content.