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Melissa Maerz's Picks of the Year
It was a year of highs and lows: From the surprise of streaming sites delivering knock-out hits to the disappointment of a fan favorite, check out what made EW TV Critic Melissa Maerz's list of the top 10 shows to watch and the top five picks to avoid.
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BEST: 10. 'Empire – Season 1' (FOX)
Back in January, the idea that Empire would be a hit was both astonishing and unsurprising. As a hip-hop musical with a predominantly black cast, it didn’t look like anything else on TV. But its over-the-top plot twists (semi-incestuous hookups!) rivaled the best ’80s soaps, the music was impossible to get out of your head (drip drop!), and Taraji P. Henson’s performance as Cookie Lyon was so fierce, she earned every spot on her leopard-print jumpsuit. The show has gone off the rails a bit during season 2, but for one happy moment, when “serious shows” still hoarded all the critical praise, Empire reminded us that great drama could also just be good fun.
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BEST: 9. 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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BEST: 8. 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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BEST: 7. Silicon Valley (HBO)
Start-up culture makes for an easy target, so it’s fortunate that Silicon Valley offers something deeper than endless geek jokes. (Though, to be fair, those geek jokes are hilarious.) At its core, it has always been an evergreen comedy about failing your way to the top, and this season it was hard to tell which was more satisfying: watching Pied Piper’s hyperintelligent nerds outsmart the competition by negging the same venture-capital firms they should be flattering, or knowing that karma would bite them eventually, forcing them to beg forgiveness from the exec they called “a chode-gargling f--- toilet.”
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BEST: 6. 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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BEST: 5. 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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BEST: 4. 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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BEST: 3. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
Yes, it’s a cartoon about a horse who used to be a sitcom star. Don’t hold that against it. By taking the form of a brightly colored Hollywood satire populated by animals, this dark comedy got away with moments so wrenching, they might’ve felt like overkill on a live-action show. BoJack is a brutal critique of an industry that’s hyperfocused on bringing happiness to fans at the expense of those entertaining them. (One episode captures the double bind that the Bill Cosby scandal put women in.) But it’s also an insightful series about what prevents anyone, famous or not, from being fulfilled. And seeing these fuzzy creatures suffer the same hopelessness as the rest of us only makes it more affecting.
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BEST: 2. 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.
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BEST: 1. Fargo (FX)
When was the last time a drama about small-town America felt so epic? Fargo is an expertly cast, thrillingly plotted crime story about a Midwest that’s so insular, a simple hairdresser (Kirsten Dunst), a female Mob boss (Jean Smart), a Native American vet (Zahn McClarnon), and an Afroed enforcer (Bokeem Woodbine) get mixed up in one another’s business. But there’s something deeper going on, too. Set in the late 1970s, when Native Americans, African-Americans, and women were demanding more freedom and soldiers were returning from Vietnam, it explores the turmoil of a changing nation and questions why violence that’s heroic during wartime is considered evil in ordinary life. Add in a noble sheriff (Patrick Wilson) who’s investigating brutal murders, and Fargo isn’t just one of TV’s bloodiest series — it’s also the most moral one.
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WORST: 5. The Leisure Class (HBO)
Director Jason Mann was such an entitled jerk on Project Greenlight, waxing pretentious about the importance of film versus digital, no one would’ve expected to see his film about a madcap night on a Connecticut estate fail on a plot level so basic, it earned a zero-percent review on Rotten Tomatoes.
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WORST: 4. Wicked City (ABC)
Within the first 10 minutes of this serial-killer thriller, a woman is stabbed to death while performing a porny sex act, kicking off an hour of dumb, violent fun that forgets the “fun” part. No wonder it was fall TV’s only canceled new show.
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WORST: 3. Truth Be Told (NBC)
Is a white dude allowed to use the N-word? Does Chinese food taste better if it’s served by a woman with a fake Asian accent? This is what passes for provocative discussion on this clueless sitcom about two best friends — one white, one black — who supposedly talk openly about race.
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WORST: 2.Dr. Ken (ABC)
How sad that Ken Jeong, everyone’s favorite naked gangster from The Hangover and a genuinely funny guy, created this groan-worthy sitcom about a physician who makes fun of hemorrhoids and raps his diagnoses. Jeong used to be a doctor in real life. He gave that up for this?
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WORST: 1. True Detective (HBO)
The hard-boiled detective-show clichés. The hammy dialogue. The inability to differentiate one troubled alcoholic cop from the next. When you approach a critically adored show with high hopes, only to find yourself hate-watching the second season, it feels like blue balls in your heart.
To find out what made Jeff Jensen's list of 2015's best and worst shows, click to the next slide.