For critics, Top 10 lists are a fraught business. We take our unruly, subjective feelings about a year of television and groom them into something that looks mathematical and objective. Mad Men gets compared to Broad City gets compared to Scandal gets compared to Louie, and out of this thunderdome of needless competition, a bogus order emerges.
In the past, I have avoided the mental quagmire that is top-tenning—what is better, Mad Men or Broad City? And does your answer stay the same if you are evaluating acting, writing, ambition, laughter, pleasure, and/or inspired use of a dildo?—by heeding only one criteria: my enjoyment.
But Peak TV has made a hash out of even this coping strategy. There were too many shows I enjoyed this year to have any real clarity—and I didn’t even watch all the shows! (Please read the rest of this parenthetical with the speed and monotone of the guy explaining side-effects in a pharmaceutical commercial: This list was assembled by a critic who has not seen Sense8, Deutschland 83, The Great British Bake Off, Survivor’s Remorse, Review, Bloodline, the second season of BoJack Horseman, the second season of Manhattan, or Cucumber/Banana, among others. Self-awareness of her taste and love of subtitles leads her to believe the only one of these shows with a realistic shot at the Top 10 would have been Deutschland 83, but she is probably underestimating BoJack and Review, though she won’t feel bad about it until sometime next year, when she watches them in advance of their third seasons.)
There were so many shows I enjoyed this year that I easily could have had a top 17. But I understand that inflexible cut-off points are part of the fun of list-reading, if not of list-making. So, Master of None, I am sorry, I really loved you but I sent you into the thunderdome with UnReal, and you got rolled. Also adored but not present in my top 10: Last Man on Earth, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Hindsight, Jessica Jones, Justified and numerous other long-running shows I discounted because I have a bias toward the new. And now, without further throat-clearing, hand-wringing, or apologies, my 2015 TV beloveds.
UnReal reimagined the antihero as a merciless, feminist empath hard at work manipulating people behind the scenes of a Bachelor-type reality show. Created by women, starring women, airing on a channel for women, and riffing on a format watched by women, UnReal proved ambition can flourish in any setting.
Jill Soloway’s series follows the Pfeffermans as they process their patriarch’s coming-out as Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), a transgender woman, and their own relentless narcissism. Maura’s children, Sarah (Amy Landecker), Josh (Jay Duplass) and Ali (Gaby Hoffman), compete to be most blithely self-involved, but they do so in believable and heartbreaking ways. Watching them can hurt, but it feels real.
In Nathan Fielder’s reality-slash-prank show, Fielder attempts to help struggling small business with Amelia Bedelia–esque strategies that hilariously exploit the dark side of capitalism and good manners.
The third season of FX’s drama about Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), Russian spies in deep cover as an average American couple, was as psychologically and viscerally thrilling as ever.* The season circled around one of the rare aspects of the Jennings’ lives that’s not an act: parenthood. They revealed their true identities to their daughter Paige and made every effort to help her understand them—but turned out to have raised a true American anyway.
Consistency is overrated. Now well into its second season, any given episode may not be as good as it could be. But when Empire is on its level, nothing is as brash, fun, or free-wheeling as this delicious melodrama about the dysfunctional Lyons clan. Or try this alternate explanation: Cookie.
5. The Jinx
Whatever you make of the show’s ethics, the climax of Andrew Jarecki’s documentary series about long-suspected murderer Robert Durst is the craziest, strangest, burpiest, and most chilling thing I have ever seen on television.
The CW’s lovely and clever take on the telenovela had a wonderful first season, but it’s sitting in this spot for its second. Jane had her newborn son (after being accidentally artificially inseminated), and give or take an outlandish baby kidnapping, the show got surprisingly real about early motherhood—like realer than any fictional show I’ve ever seen. It dove into the lack of sleep, the focus on breast-feeding, the impossibility of finding time to shower, all without sacrificing its tone, its energy, or its cheeky narration.
An American (Rob Delaney) and a Brit (Sharon Horgan) meet, have lots of sex, part, get pregnant, and try to make a go of it in this raunchy, dirty, honest and hilarious—like really, really funny—new comedy. Bonus: It is only six episodes, so after you binge watch it, you won’t even feel that gross.
2. Mr. Robot
Sam Esmail’s super stylish, twisty, and twisted new drama about an alienated and angry young hacker is fresh and urgent.
In its vastly improved second season, AMC’s period tech show Halt and Catch Fire re-imagined itself as a winning, intelligent tale of women in the workplace. Insightful about tech, ambition, marriage, friendship, and gender, it was a blast to watch (in no small part because of an adorable, if short-lived, very ’80s romance). Like a video game, each episode is a level, featuring some near-impossible task, heroically completed, until a last-minute twist reveals another obstacle ahead.
Disclosure: The Americans was created by Joe Weisberg, brother of The Slate Group’s editor-in-chief, Jacob Weisberg.
Correction, Dec. 10, 2015: This article originally misspelled Matthew Rhys’ first name. (Return.)