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The Top New TV Shows of the Year
This year, viewers were introduced to a kidnapping victim finding life in New York City, a reality TV producer who exploits contestants' personal traumas, and the evasive Robert Durst. Find out which freshmen shows top TV Critic Melissa Maerz's list of must-see TV.
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10. Togetherness (HBO)
Togetherness is set in L.A., but it shows a more everyday side of Hollywood, one that’s populated by regular working people on the fringes of the entertainment industry. Created by Mark and Jay Duplass, two filmmakers who know that world personally, it follows Brett (Mark Duplass), a sound designer who lives with his sexually bored wife, Michelle (Melanie Lynskey); their two kids; Michelle’s party-rental-owner sister, Tina (Amanda Peet); and Brett’s struggling-actor friend, Alex (Steve Zissis). It’s a slower-paced, smaller-scale show about the sad reality of sticking it out in Hollywood into middle age, and it occasionally veers into weirder territory that would feel impossible outside California. But thanks to the chemistry between Peet and Zissis, it’s endlessly engrossing, with binge-watchable cliffhangers and witty but naturalistic dialogue that makes the whole thing a charming surprise: It’s that rare show about Hollywood that doesn’t feel ”Hollywood” at all.
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9. Difficult People (Hulu)
Difficult People is a comedian’s comedy. Executive-produced by Amy Poehler and Dave Becky (Louie), it was created by real-life funny person Julie Klausner, who stars with Billy Eichner (Billy on the Street) as they play fictionalized versions of themselves, alongside guests like Kate McKinnon and Rachel Dratch. “Julie” and “Billy” are two caustic New Yorkers who do stand-up about Katherine McPhee’s dogs, obsess over how much Twitter loves them (“Andy Richter fav’d me!”), and annoy everyone except each other. They might annoy you, too. They’re shrill, narcissistic, and a little too fond of punchlines about semi-obscure celebs. But at a time when the world is overrun with Twitter-infatuated part-time comedians, it’s hard to imagine a funnier, more devastatingly accurate portrait of fame-thirsty New Yorkers.
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8. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
There are so many things to love about this Technicolor tribute to a kidnapping victim (Ellie Kemper) who’s making a new life for herself in New York. There’s the fact that Tina Fey and Robert Carlock somehow took the serious subjects of sexual abuse and trauma and created a radically upbeat sitcom about a woman who’s a true survivor. There’s the fact that, as my fellow critic Jeff Jensen put it, the show is a “hypermodern That Girl and a rat-a-tat comic attack on mendacity in all quarters of pop life.” There are the hilariously absurd performances from Kemper, Tituss Burgess, and Jane Krakowski. But honestly? I would’ve watched the whole thing just for “Peenot Noir.”
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7. UnREAL (Lifetime)
For too long, strong female TV characters were basically just male characters in drag. But the anti-heroines on UnREAL actually acted like women — reprehensible women. They operated within unabashedly girlie space of a TV dating show. Their preferred form of violence was emotional, not physical. And their victims were often other women, despite their insistence that they supported the sisterhood. And the worse these characters behaved, the sharper the show’s commentary about the ruthless forms that internalized misogyny can take. When we first meet Rachel (Shiri Appleby), a reality TV producer who exploits contestants’ personal traumas for the Bachelor-like series Everlasting, she’s wearing a T-shirt that reads “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like,” and she sees no conflict between that statement and the fact that her job requires her to follow the mantra “Sluts get cut.” Rachel and her executive producer Quinn (Constance Zimmer) would be the Jesse Pinkman and Walter White of Everlasting, except they don’t have much control of their lives off set: Quinn is having an affair with her married boss, who refuses to leave his wife, and she and Rachel are both beholden to the network’s sexist male executives. So Rachel and Quinn seize power in the one way they can, by brutalizing the contestants in increasingly inventive ways. Maybe that’s bad for feminism — but it’s great for TV.
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6. Master of None (Netflix)
Created by Parks and Recreation alums Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, it’s the rare New York comedy that actually looks and sounds like New York, with smart-talking, average-looking black, white, and Asian characters who can’t afford penthouse apartments on their creative-person paychecks. It’s also the rare sitcom that explores real, relatable issues faced by youngish New Yorkers, like the guilt of being raised by immigrants who sacrificed everything, or what it’s like to be paralyzed by choice, whether you’re deciding to have kids or selecting one of 5 million tacos to order for lunch.
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5. Catastrophe (Amazon)
Who would’ve thought that such a practical rom-com could be so romantic? Rob (Rob Delaney) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan) hardly know each other when she gets pregnant, but they keep the baby because she’s a single fortysomething woman who might not get another chance. By removing the will-they-or-won’t-they question, the show gets to linger on everyday moments that make relationships more meaningful: the false starts, miscommunications, and tiny-but-significant kindnesses that create long-term love. Their story is freeing, not just because it’s a blow to the retrograde fantasy of Mr. Right, but because it proves that settling for Mr. Right Now can be even better.
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4. Better Call Saul (AMC)
If Breaking Bad was compulsively watchable because it showed a decent man evolving into a wicked one, this spin-off is the opposite: It’s the origin story of a corrupt lawyer (Bob Odenkirk) who truly wants to be good, but circumstances keep preventing him from making the right choices. That can be heartbreaking, as when Jimmy McGill is routinely rejected by the firm that employs him and the brother (Michael McKean) whom he loves. But it can also be thrilling, especially when Jimmy fast-talks his way out of one mess into another, getting you to admire him, pity him, and white-knuckle the couch — often all at the same time.
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3. Show Me a Hero (HBO)
Leave it to David Simon (The Wire) to take a dry subject like housing projects and make it thoroughly suspenseful. Based on a true story, the series follows Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) as he battles his community over affordable-housing units that will relocate many low-income minority tenants to white middle-class neighborhoods. Well acted, quickly paced, and genuinely moving, its complicated debates about race and class make for essential viewing. And as a character study, it’s an even more powerful tool for progress. Simon understands that viewers’ politics only change once they get to know the human beings behind the debate.
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2. The Jinx (HBO)
Sometimes the best mysteries can’t be solved, because solving them just creates more mysteries. That’s the case with this docuseries, which began as director Andrew Jarecki’s attempt to get inside the twisted mind of murder suspect Robert Durst — who delivered what sounded like a shocking admission of guilt in the finale — and ended up prompting bigger questions about the show itself. When was Jarecki obliged to alert authorities about this new evidence? Could Durst’s legal team actually use the finale to defend him? One thing was certain: Debating about The Jinx was almost as disturbingly addictive as watching it.
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1. Mr. Robot (USA)
Finally, a drama that truly understands hackers and doesn’t feature some tattooed geek spouting nonsense like, “Let’s steal the main-frame!” Led by Rami Malek in a chillingly detached performance as a vigilante for an Anonymous-like group called fsociety, Mr. Robot taps into the conversations that mattered in 2015: social justice, privacy versus transparency, the fractured identity between how we live online and who we are IRL. It’s radical both in its anti-bank message and its narrative structure, which allowed for twists that practically broke Twitter. And the fact that it aired on USA — a network known for fetishizing suits — makes it almost as revolutionary as fsociety.