Top 20 TV shows of 2015
James R | On 30, Dec 2015
TV is everywhere these days. It’s on the bus on your phone. It’s on the toilet as you watch on your tablet. It’s on YouTube, Vimeo, Amazon, Netflix. And, yes, sometimes it’s on more traditional channels too. Picking the best of the bunch from 2015, then, is a trickier task than before: there are so many shows and so many places to choose from.
Counting up the votes of several of our writers, we’ve assembled a list of favourites that covers everything from short-form web series and Netflix shows to Amazon originals and BBC iPlayer exclusives. These are the top 20 TV shows of 2015:
20. Clangers (CBBC)
“This is the Earth, our home…” begins Michael Palin at the start of each episode of Clangers. “A tiny, wet planet, lost and alone.”
It’s not the introduction that older viewers will be used to, but in a year where The Thunderbirds was given a CGI makeover by ITV, the Beeb’s reboot of the Clangers couldn’t be more faithful to the original.
“An idea is always worth having. You just have to know what it’s for,” says Palin, in one of his many charming narrations. His avuncular tones are the perfect fit for The Clanger’s reassuring voice-over, which rejoices in the small details of our creatures’ lives. CGI animation is used, from spinning washing lines and glowing backdrops to sequences floating in space, but there is a focus on the tangible objects that anchor the stop-motion visuals. The result is something that feels as timeless as ever, because it doesn’t alter what made the Clangers special in the first place: its ability to present imagination as the most natural thing in the universe. Cute and comfortingly familiar, Clangers proves you don’t need explosions and fast-paced scripts to entertain young audiences – a warm-hearted reminder that remakes aren’t always a bad thing and that, as Palin says, maybe we’re not so alone after all.
19. Humans (Channel 4)
Channel 4 may have cancelled Utopia, but it hit back hard with this dark series set in a near future where Synths are the latest must-have gadget: a helping hand around the home. From Gemma Chan’s blank-faced turn as android Anita to Katherine Parkinson as a frustrated mother, the show expertly raises questions about the boundary between man and machine, trust and freedom, love and logic. Parallels of past trauma, forgotten memories and the notion of family all come into play with impressive precision, while the production design is as top-notch as the cast. The result is a provocative piece of small-screen sci-fi. Things are left open-ended, as the broadcaster’s renewal of the series for a second season gives away, but in the best possible way.
18. Community (Sony TV UK)
Dan Harmon’s comedy has given fans a roller coaster couple of years, between cancellations, renewals, firings and re-hirings. This year marked the moment that he finally got to deliver on his promise of six seasons and a movie with a series released straight to Yahoo’s VOD platform in the US. In the UK, Sony chose the far less adventurous platform of its own satellite channel, but the 13-episode run still gave us the laughs we’ve come to expect from the programme – not to mention the perfect excuse to catch up with Seasons 1 to 5 on Netflix UK and Amazon Prime Video.
17. Better Call Saul (Netflix)
AMC’s prequel to Vince Gilligan’s hit series Breaking Bad never quite lived up to the original, but proved a marvellous showcase for Bob Odenkirk, as he reprised his role as Jimmy McGill (soon to be Saul Goodman). Darkly comic, with a stellar supporting turn by Jonathan Banks as enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut, the show’s blend of bleak wit, a familiar criminal underworld and the gentle tragedy of a man trying to do the right thing makes Better Call Saul much more than a mere spin-off.
16. Fargo: Season 2 (Channel 4)
“You just watch. This thing’s only getting bigger.”
The worry for most surrounding the second season of Noah Hawley’s acclaimed Fargo adaptation is much the same worry as the first time around: can it live up to the previous Fargo? Following the story of Molly Solverson’s father, Lou (played by Patrick Wilson), as he gravitates towards an odd triple murder, Season 2 does the best that could be expected. Between its wicked humour, offbeat violence and stellar cast, this show is still uniquely unpredictable, well acted and boasts sound design that rivals Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal.
15. Wolf Hall (BBC)
You’ve either read it or you haven’t. Or, perhaps more likely, you’ve started to read it and never quite managed to finish. But Hilary Mantel’s novel makes for beautifully gripping television, as we follow Thomas Cromwell’s rising power in the court of Henry VIII. Adapted by Peter Straughan, you would expect the result to be clunky, heavy on the exposition, light on the nuance, but Straughan plays things as slowly as he can get away with, while still cutting through Mantel’s prose at a pace. Peter Kosminsky shoots events like it’s modern day Washington, relying on handheld cameras to capture things quickly. Screws tighten and plots are laid, but quietly – a tone led by the marvellous Mark Rylance, whose silent presence is subtler, yet more intimidating, than Frank Underwood. Lit using natural sources, the end product may leave some straining to see, but the shadows only add to the intrigue. It’s like watching A Man for All Seasons shot by Michael Mann.
14. Rick & Morty (FOX)
Wubba lubba dub dub! Adult Swim’s Rick & Morty finally arrived on UK screens this autumn, introducing us to Dan Harmon – him again – and Justin Roiland’s warped creation. The animated series follows an alcoholic genius scientist called Rick Sanchez, who rocks up on his daughter Beth’s doorstep and takes his grandson Morty Smith on adventures to different planets and dimensions via portals and his flying car-cum-spaceship. With Harmon’s usual mix of humour and heart, endlessly quotable lines, colourful characters and creative movie spoofs? This is one of the finest animated sitcoms on television at the moment, and a must for fans of Futurama, Adventure Time and Doctor Who.
13. Daredevil (Netflix)
Marvel’s first in a string of series with Netflix proved that the MCU held even more promise on the small screen than the big. Following Charlie Cox as Matt Murdoch (blind lawyer by day, vigilante at night) and boasting a terrifying Vincent D’Onofrio as its villain, the show felt more like a crime drama than a traditional piece of caped crusading – and all the better for it.
12. Mad Men: The Final Season (Sky Atlantic)
Don Draper and co. bid farewell the only way they know how: with class. Allowing every character’s story to play out naturally, while also comfortably resolving each, showrunner Matthew Weiner weaves closure into every one of these final episodes. After 92 chapters, broadcast over eight years, Weiner has – with apparent ease and unique style – crafted characters that have taken relatability to the point of emotional reliance.
11. Inside No. 9 (BBC)
How do you improve upon perfection? Add Sheridan Smith. That was the secret to the stand-out episode of Inside No. 9’s masterful second season. Inside No. 9’s strength is that Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton understand how to boil down a tale to its essential form and tell it without over-complicating matters – a finely honed approach that makes the funny hysterical, the sad moving and the scary terrifying. Teetering along the line between horror and comedy, these impeccably crafted vignettes are simply sublime TV. The anthology format may deliver entertainment in bite-sized morsels, but they are ones to savour.
10. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
After 30 Rock, Tina Fey had a lot to live up to with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – and she certainly succeeded. And then some. Ellie Kemper (The Office) stars as Kimmy, a positive, naive young woman in the middle of America’s greatest skyscraper collection, New York, after being rescued from a Doomsday cult. While her fellow captives travel back to Indiana, Kimmy wants to break out now she has escaped, and with new landlord Lillian (Carol Kane) and roommate Titus (Tituss Burgess), she’s going to have a new, happier life. It’s this constant, breezy hope that keeps the show going when it gets into some really silly places, places that would see many protagonists take a breather to work out what is going on. With a plethora of great jokes in every episode – a second Spider-Man musical – and many, many quotable lines, this is an endlessly surprising showcase for Kemper. This is her role, her show, and she more than takes up the mantle. Unbreakable? Yes. Unbeatable? Maybe. Unbelievably entertaining? Darn tootin’.
9. Doctor Who: Season 9 (BBC)
How do you follow Matt Smith and David Tennant as the UK’s favourite Time Lord? Peter Capaldi more than makes the TARDIS his own with his second run behind the console, continuing to take the show to darker places than before, while still finding time for Tom Baker-like grins. From guitar-shredding set pieces to Timey Wimey twists, not to mention a bravura one-man episode, Capaldi’s Doctor has rarely been better. The secret to Season 9’s success, though, continues to be Clara Oswald, as Jenna Coleman’s companion is given a moving, emotionally satisfying send-off.
8. My Jihad (BBC iPlayer)
After a pilot as one of BBC iPlayer’s Original Drama Shorts in 2014, My Jihad returns as a miniseries of three 15-minute films exclusively on the Beeb’s catch-up service. The first outing introduced us to Fahmida (Anjli Mohindra) and Nazir (Hamza Jeetooa), two single Muslims who crossed paths at an unsuccessful speed-dating night. “It’s hard to imagine how that could’ve gone worse,” Nazir joked, during a chance meeting on a bus. “Your flies could have been undone,” Fahmida retorted.
We pick things up one month later, as they prepare to go on their first official date. The first thing we see Nazir do? Check his trousers. It’s that attention to detail that makes My Jihad so sublime. This is a universal exploration of love in modern Britain that packs in twice as much warmth and wit as most 30-minute shows do in a whole season.
7. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (BBC)
“Why is magic no longer done in England?” That’s the question asked by Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The year is 1806 and magic is only considered theoretically by men who sit at tables and talk of times past. They don’t have even a book with spells in it. When word arrives of a practising magician, then, the society are both sceptical and scared. But it soon transpires that Mr. Norrell (a magnificent Eddie Marsan) is every bit a practical magician, a discovery that sets in flow a chain of extraordinary events, especially when another magician, Jonathan Strange (the charmingly clueless Bertie Carvel), shows up. Extraordinary is a word at the heart of Susanna Clarke’s original novel: with its detailed alternate history of England, it won fans by grounding the supernatural within the natural. This new TV version, excellently adapted by Peter Harness, shares that same understanding that the extraordinary cannot exist without the ordinary. The CGI that is present stems out of physical objects on set, whether that’s a bowl of liquid, a mirror or a beach. Hands get dirty more than they are waved in the air. So when things come to life, or gallop across water, they’re all the more spectacular for it. An enchanting achievement.
6. The Leftovers: Season 2 (Sky Atlantic)
Over the course of a bumpy first season, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s show (about a world where 2 per cent of the population mysteriously disappeared) emerged as powerful study of grief and forgiveness. But the relocation of events to Texas, to a turn where nobody vanished at all, turns out to be exactly what the series needed to find its philosophical mojo: Season 2 is a stunning – and stunningly consistent – examination of loss, faith and despair, as the impeccable cast (notably Christopher Eccleston’s devoted priest) and beautifully complex scripts combine to make the kind of TV that you can talk about for hours afterwards. You suspect those conversations will still be happening in 10 years’ time.
5. The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime Video)
If Transparent put Amazon’s original shows on the map, The Man in the High Castle carves out a whole country for the streaming site, which more than rivals Netflix with its ambitious, addictive story-telling. The show, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, shows us what it would be like if the Axis Powers won World War II, with Japan ruling the Pacific half of the US and the Reich ruling the Atlantic. Produced by Ridley Scott and created by The X-Files’ Frank Spotnitz, the world-building is astonishingly effective, providing spades of exposition without characters saying a word. The cast, meanwhile, are engagingly enigmatic, as resistance fighters attempt to smuggle banned newsreels across the border – and Rufus Sewell’s SS officer, John Smith, hunts them down. Able to make us feel sympathy with either side, this is a provocative and daring study of indoctrination, propaganda and national identity. What would the world be like if the Nazis won World War II? The show’s brilliance isn’t that it asks the question, but that it provides such a chillingly convincing answer.
4. Catastrophe (Channel 4)
“Sorry I called your mum a haemorrhoid.”
How do you follow up the first season of a romantic sitcom that managed the tricky task of being funny, rude, sweet and brazenly honest? Keep going. Season 2 of Catastrophe continues the tale of Rob and Sharon as they do just that, despite the addition of another obstacle: a baby. She’s feeling down and put-upon. He’s putting up with her mother and can’t even pronounce their child’s name. It sounds so familiar on paper, but Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan make it caustically fresh on screen. thanks to a non-stop series of arguments and romantic apologies that tackle such minute issues that they become as absurdly funny as they are recognisable. If the couple’s writing is sharp, their tongues are even more so: Rob and Sharon’s chemistry is at once natural and abrasive. If Season 1’s raunchy banter emphasised the pair’s charm, Season 2 highlights their ingenuity for insults. Wonderfully mature yet perpetually childish, the result is a perfectly judged tribute to the beauty of commitment in all its ugliness.
3. Transparent (Amazon Prime Video)
A little over a year ago, Amazon released Transparent, a show about a father who comes out as a mother to his children. We declared it the best TV series of 2014, a ground-breaking piece of television, both on-screen and off. Now, with two Golden Globes under its belt, Transparent returns for a second season. How do you follow up the best show of last year? Get even better.
Jill Soloway’s first season, which saw Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura navigate the initial steps of being a woman, was a provocative, uplifting story about someone accepting who they were. That acceptance had a knock-on effect for the other members of the Pfefferman family, each one starting their own journey of self-discovery. If Season 1’s strength was in the power of the self, though, Season 2 expands Transparent’s scope to explore how people are defined in relation to others. This is an endlessly nuanced drama that understands family and history are the same thing. The emotional baggage just keeps getting passed down.
2. Marvel’s Agent Carter (FOX)
The word “spin-off” doesn’t always conjure up the most positive image, but Agent Carter turns out to be exactly what the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed: a female hero. Following Hayley Atwell’s Peggy as she works in New York’s Strategic Scientific Reserve, she is soon tasked with a secret mission: helping Howard Stark to clear his name, after he’s framed for supplying US weapons to the biggest foreign bidder. The only tougher challenge? Getting her blocky colleagues to take her seriously. Between Atwell’s forthright lead, James D’Arcy’s debonair supporting turn as Stark’s butler, Jarvis, and a steady stream of cases to solve, the result is bright and breezy entertainment that isn’t afraid to have fun. Bringing a welcome female presence to the comic book table, Agent Carter isn’t just a top-notch spin-off: it’s an essential companion to the rest of Marvel’s male-driven output.
1. Marvel’s Jessica Jones (Netflix)
Netflix and Marvel outdid themselves with this second collaboration, which steps even further away from the MCU than Daredevil for a tale about a private detective trying to make a living in New York. Krysten Ritter is wonderfully acerbic as the bitter gumshoe, a hero whose heroic days are behind her: her unnatural strength and her ability to jump several stories high aren’t the driving force behind her actions, they’re last resorts utilised only when every other option has run out.
Jones gives Marvel space to explore something so rarely confronted in such depth: consequence. In that sense, Jessica Jones plays almost as a post-script here, as she’s made to feel the after-effects of her own powers, her brief stint as a self-proclaimed superhero, and her traumatic shared history with the show’s main villain, Kilgrave (David Tennant), who can control people’s minds. Most significantly, we become witness to her struggles with PTSD, the phantasmal lingering of Kilgrave’s abuse. Such direct evocation of the very frightening reality of abusive relationships marks one of the darkest places the MCU has journeyed emotionally, and though it may not be the most nuanced of explorations, there’s still something undoubtedly powerful in a super-powered woman repeating the idea that the consequences of abuse are never the victim’s fault.
The following TV series released in the UK during 2015 were also rated highly by our writers:
Mike Judge’s sitcom about start-ups is a warm and witty peak inside the world of tech.
USA Network’s cyber thriller – available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video – is that rare thing: a TV show that understands how computers work as well as it presses its audience’s buttons. The result is as tightly structured as it is thrillingly modern.
Last Man on Earth
A post-apocalyptic comedy? Will Forte’s series about, well, the last man on earth, is heartwarmingly witty and refreshingly different.
This stoned ride through two friends’ lives in New York finally arrived in the UK this year, more than a year after its US premiere. It was worth the wait.
John Logan’s mash-up of classic characters from horror literature is as spooky and atmospheric as it is wonderfully unpredictable. Eva Green and Timothy Dalton’s moustache are worth tuning in for alone.
This charming web series on YouTube teaches a wonderful message through gentle humour and subtle visual effects: being a hero isn’t that super after all.
The CW’s superhero series is arguably better than ever, as its fourth season finds more consistent form after an uneven Season 3.
The CW’s other superhero show continues to impress with its light tone, likeable ensemble cast and expanding mythology.
BoJack Horseman: Season 2
More drugs, booze and equine action abound in the second run of Netflix’s original adult animation about a washed-up celebrity horse. Funny, moving and intelligent, it has the potential to be the best animated comedy since The Simpsons in its prime.
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp
Netflix reunites the cast of cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer for a prequel – despite the fact that the actors are now 14 years older.