10. Hannibal (NBC)
This engrossing transmutation of Lecter pulp into TV serial dared to depict pop cult’s loony romance with evil as a literal doomed one. Hugh Dancy’s Will tried to beat Mads Mikkelsen’s cannibal at his own game—and wound up gutted by his adversary. Along the twisted path, the show explored themes of transcendence and transgression in intimacy, religion, art, and dining. The audacity of the subject matter was matched by the inventiveness of its presentation. Hannibal is like the roasted bird Will and Lecter swallowed during their last supper, ”a rare but debauched delicacy.”
9. The Good Wife (CBS)
The Good Wife continued its resurgence, tracking Florrick/Agos’ rebellion and spinning clashes with Lockhart/Gardner into complex, cheer-for-all-sides warfare, while Will’s (Josh Charles) death yielded examinations of grief that avoided clichés and assuagements. This season’s been telling a slow-burn story about the cost of relativism and limits of progressivism: Cary (Matt Czuchry) facing the consequences of representing a drug lord; Florrick/Agos diversifying; and Alicia (Julianna Margulies) venturing into politics without getting her soul dirty. Emmy, please watch closely.
8. Game of Thrones (HBO)
After four seasons of hero-decapitating, wedding-massacring, small boy-defenestrating suspense, you’d think Game of Thrones couldn’t shock us anymore. But with Joffrey’s poisoning, the Red Viper’s eye-gouging, and Tywin’s death atop the, uh, ”throne,” there were more opportunities than ever to yell ”WHAT?!” at the TV. What’s surprising, then, is that the most talked-about scenes weren’t the out-of-nowhere deaths, but the scenes that made us care fiercely about the living. Cersei’s rape might’ve been a showrunner blunder, but it inspired more thoughtful debates about consent than you’ll find on most college campuses. And Tyrion’s courtroom lampooning of the hypocrites in the Red Keep was deeply satisfying. He wasn’t just defending himself—he was speaking for all of us.
6. Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central)
”Humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to.” George Saunders wrote that, but Schumer lived it this season. Her sketch about how tough it is to prosecute a military rape in a videogame (and, by implication, in real life) hit home so hard it hurt. Vignettes about women who enable one another’s binge eating and the male fantasy of ”A Chick Who Can Hang” were spot-on. Even a sketch about a cartoon meerkat made an impact: In that bit, Comedy Central allowed the uncensored use of a slang term for ”vagina.” Whether or not you think that’s a win for feminism, it’s definitely a victory for comedy.
5. Louie (FX)
Critics often laud Louis C.K. as an experimentalist who breaks the rules of the half-hour comedy. But this season he proved that he’s just as visionary when he skews more traditional, whether writing a multi-episode story arc or going broad with an ep about weight. ”So Did the Fat Lady” not only skewered our preoccupation with body image, it also pointed out that C.K. is a chubby guy who’s still viewed as sexy. Dissecting his own privilege has become his forte. ”None of you guys are special or magical,” a friend tells him. ”Some of you are luckier, and some of you work harder than others.” Maybe that’s why C.K. is so popular: The higher he ranks on lists like this, the more eager he is to examine how he got there.
4. Please Like Me (Pivot)
This Australian comedy is the perfect coming-of-age story for people who’ll never grow up. And that’s still true in its wickedly funny second season, which finds 26-year-old Josh (Josh Thomas) and his friends working through post-collegiate angst by drawing tattoos on a baby and cracking jokes about maxi pads. But when Josh’s mom (Debra Lawrance) lands back in the psychiatric hospital, it also becomes a surprisingly thought-provoking drama about mental illness. The episode where Josh confronts his mother about her suicide attempt features a particularly gutting conversation about depression. By the end of it, she’s laughing and crying at the same time. You will be too.
3. Fargo (FX)
American Horror Story may have reinvented the anthology format, and True Detective may have burnished its allure, but it was Fargo that worked it to near perfection. Writer Noah Hawley appropriated the setting, wit, and worldview of the Coen brothers’ 1996 classic to create his own response to an era of trendy Breaking Bad. Solverson (Allison Tolman) is a policewoman of sound mind, big heart, and fearless regard for a culture lousy with demented, desperate, dumb men like Billy Bob Thornton’s trickster devil, Martin Freeman’s significance-starved schemer, and Colin Hanks’ knight-errant. TV needs more of her, and fewer of them, and that was Fargo‘s point, don’tchaknow.
2. Rectify (SundanceTV)
The long goodbye to the antihero era has been fixated on redemption. Sons of Anarchy was cynical about it. Mad Men, surprisingly hopeful. Searching the hazy in-between is Rectify, a drama about a liberated death-row convict bewildered by his freedom. Creator Ray McKinnon elevated his plaintive saga in season 2 by delving more deeply into a lost soul and those damaged by his brokenness as they pursued flawed strategies for reclamation and repair; and by remaining committed to truth-finding, patient pacing, and careful straddling of naturalism and subjectivity. Rectify, a spiritual drama most humane, exemplifies the best qualities of the redemptive process not in its story but in the telling.
1. Transparent (Amazon)
Yes, it’s a drama about three adult siblings (Amy Landecker, Gaby Hoffmann, and Jay Duplass) who have a trans parent (Jeffrey Tambor as Maura, formerly Mort). But that’s not the only reason this show from Jill Soloway feels so groundbreaking. Maybe it’s that Maura’s identity is the most solid one in the family, considering that her kids are still figuring out who they are. Or maybe it’s that Transparent challenges the idea that great drama needs heroes or antiheroes: Every character is both at once, making you love them one moment and hate them the next. The show also offers sharp observations about the strange intimacy of siblings, the reinvent-yourself culture of Los Angeles, and the hard-to-admit fact that our parents’ sexuality plays a formative role in our own. But its most powerful message is that Maura’s experience is so ordinary, because no one’s self-image matches the way others see them, whether they’re trans or not.
And if Melissa and Doc could have squeezed in one more TV show apiece, they would have chosen?
Critics' Choice Bonus Picks
Doll & Em
This comedy about an actress (Emily Mortimer) who hires her oldest friend (Dolly Wells) as her assistant was the best depiction of the dark, competitive, mutually undermining underbelly of female friendship on TV.
Doc Jensen chose…
Jane the Virgin
It is important for you to know…that Jane the Virgin is muy bien. Its virtues are as paradoxical as its pregnant-virgin premise: funny and full of feeling, wickedly ironic and wonderfully sincere. Gina Rodriguez is the season’s best breakout.