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Jeff Jensen's Picks of the Year
From tearful farewells (so long, Don Draper) to heartwarming hellos (welcome, Rachel Bloom), find out what made EW TV Critic Jeff Jensen's top 10 list of shows to watch. Also, his top five picks for shows to avoid.
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BEST: 10. Rectify (SundanceTV)
Ray McKinnon’s visually poetic, meticulously examined character study of guilty conscience, cultural estrangement, and derailed lives reached new depths in a tighter season 3. The empathy that it generates is profound. Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), wrestling with her faith and identity; Teddy (Clayne Crawford), questioning his masculinity and character; Daniel (Aden Young), prepping for exile by painting a swimming pool (never has watching paint dry been more engrossing) and taking his mom (J. Smith-Cameron) on a road trip, one of 2015’s most soulful hours. Rectify is better than drama — it’s a spiritual ministry.
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BEST: 9. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)
In a year rich with new storytelling voices, Web sensation Rachel Bloom sang her way to the front of the chorus with her winningly prickly musical dramedy. Brazenly embracing and lampooning the problematic cliché of the title, Bloom gives us an evolving saga about one millennial’s messy wander toward “know thyself ” authenticity — a new-media madwoman to replace Hamm’s old-media madman. The tunes are subversive delights, from the viral “Sexy Getting Ready Song” to the impish twang of “I Love My Daughter (But Not in a Creepy Way).” If loving Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
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BEST: 8. Documentary Now (IFC)
And now for something completely different: Fred Armisen and Bill Hader breaking your heart playing wistful and weird mother-daughter recluses. Spoofing documentary classics and forms, the former Saturday Night Live costars pushed past simple parody to craft ingenious valentines to the medium of film and sharp satire about how “reality” is presented and how we represent and reveal ourselves on camera. Among gems, a masterpiece: “Gentle and Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee,” a melancholy jam about easy-listening rockers living with (and capitalizing on) a lightning strike of accidental brilliance.
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BEST: 7. Hannibal (NBC)
All hail Bryan Fuller’s sumptuously grotesque Hannibal — the redemption of reboot cannibalism and “Shocker!” sensationalism. The first half of the final season served up meaty nightmares about self-destructive obsession, enmeshment, and vengeance, sauced with op-art sex scenes, baroque violence, and formal audacity galore. The second half, a beautifully freaky reinvention of Red Dragon, pushed TV’s strangest ’ship — doomed psycho-seer Will (Hugh Dancy), damnable psycho aesthete Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen) — over a cliff in a locked embrace and into the abyss, a sublime concluding statement about the dead-end fascination with abomination.
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BEST: 6. Fargo (FX)
What Melissa Maerz says in the next gallery? Cosign. I just liked it a teensy bit less.
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BEST: 5. Mad Men (AMC)
Betty Francis (January Jones) ascending the stairs of her school with an armful of books and a body full of cancer. Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) strutting toward the future with a hangover hidden by shades and attitude. Don Draper (Jon Hamm), that noxious, failed phony, finding hope for renewal in a moment of Zen and fizzy inspiration. Maybe. His Mona Lisa smile haunts. Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men swan song was a surprising, sometimes challenging, bittersweet symphony about engaging the tumult of our times and internal lives with boldness and grace. It leaves a legacy of extraordinary episodic art-making and sets the standard for all wannabe great dramas.
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BEST: 4. Master of None (Netflix)
Hollywood wouldn’t think to cast Aziz Ansari as a rom-com leading man, so the Indian-American comedian and former Parks and Recreation supporting player made a star vehicle for himself. The result: a hilarious, wise, and sexy exploration of hooking up and falling in love in the age of Uber. With sharp takes on immigrant families, media representation, and (of course!) target-market horror flicks, the show furthered a movement of excellent sitcoms like black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, bringing to TV perspectives too long absent. Personal, universal, finely fashioned, Master of None was simply masterful.
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BEST: 3. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
A woman escapes a madman’s captivity, remakes her life, and gets justice. From anyone else, this is horror. From 30 Rock EPs Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, it’s a hypermodern That Girl and a rat-tat-tat comic attack on mendacity in all quarters of pop life. Humane vision and perfect casting, including Tituss Burgess and Jane Krakowski, grounded the flamboyant “Peeno Noir” irreverence with sincere heart. Ellie Kemper’s Kimmy was TV’s best screwball Supergirl — a blast of optimism, working out her cotton candy naïveté and “mole woman” trauma without surrendering her totally rad world-view. She was our anti–Mr. Robot — a redeemer to Elliot’s destroyer.
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BEST: 2. The Americans (FX)
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings — Soviet spooks in Reagan-era USA — provided a portrait of American life undermined by rotting identity... and in one wrenching moment, rotting teeth. Season 3 of this ironic Cold War drama produced DEFCON Level-1 tension by tracking the risky business of glasnost. A command to reveal themselves to their Christian daughter (Holly Taylor) and bind her to Communism destabilized loyal soldier Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and disillusioned Philip (Matthew Rys) and framed complex confrontations with themselves. Which was more riveting: Elizabeth rationalizing her moral character while talking a woman into poisoning herself? Philip, posing as a cigarette lobbyist, seducing a troubled teen fuming with self-loathing? Or Philip shedding another brilliant disguise to shatter fake wife Martha (Alison Wright)? The cast crushed every game-changing beat. So what if Emmy largely ignored them. To Siberia with her!
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BEST: 1. Mr. Robot (USA)
In 2015, TV’s best moved us to feeling, reflection, and tweeting by surveying the relationship between broken people and broken society. No show pushed my buttons more than Sam Esmail’s thriller about the moral compromises and systemic injustices of our times. Elliot — a misfit yearning for coherence and connection; a cog raging against the machine that owns him — rebooted the alienated hero to electrifying effect. Rami Malek, mesmerizing, kept us emotionally invested in a mystery that entertained even as it implicated us with “kingdom of bulls---” invective. Like the striking negative space aesthetic, Christian Slater’s walking, talking gadget-play transcended gimmickry by meaning many things: a buggy coping mechanism; a corrupt fantasy gone viral. Enthralling and resonant, Mr. Robot reminded us that revolution begins under the hoodie.
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WORST: 5. Heroes Reborn (NBC)
Once, the comic-book pastiche of Heroes was, for all its failings, actually unique. But with the airwaves now glutted with too many super-powered folk, Heroes Reborn was 2015’s most unnecessary revival. Worse were the clichés, incoherent plotting, and near-larcenous appropriation. Fade away, Heroes. You’re done.
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WORST: 4. Minority Report (FOX)
Fox’s extrapolation of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi classic into an ongoing storytelling franchise was a profoundly bland subversion of a distinctive cinematic statement. Despite pricey-looking production values, the show’s vision of the future scans small, unconvincing, and silly: The virtual-reality detective work looks like exhausting Dance Dance CSI. This is the future? Count me out.
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WORST: 3. Hand of God (Amazon)
Ron Perlman, Dana Delany, and a fine cast were wasted on 2015’s worst binge, a cynical treatment of faith and a soulless satire about justice, politics, and other big-issue stuff. When, oh, when will the antihero wallow end?
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WORST: 2.Truth Be Told (NBC)
We need shows that reflect our everyday struggles with race, privilege, and prejudice. Truth Be Told squandered the opportunity to be such a show with clunky, cheapening comedy. May its failure inspire better.
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WORST: 1. Wicked City (ABC)
A slick psycho and a sadistic single mom troll the Sunset Strip in the hair-metal ’80s killing women. ABC whacked Wicked City because viewers correctly rejected it for being headbangingly brainless or an insult to Billy Idol. Whatever the reason, good job, America.
To find out what made Melissa Maerz's list of 2015's best and worst shows, click to the next slide.