Was 2015 the best TV year ever? It was, at least, the most TV year ever. There are more original shows every year. Choosing 10 shows annually, then, becomes a crueler and crueler process. As it should be. A list only means something to the extent that it leaves something off. It should hurt. But inevitably, any best TV show list will omit some of what was best about TV.
Mine leaves out some of 2015’s most adventurous and relevant series (“Mr. Robot,” “UnREAL,” “Empire”). It overlooks the farewell runs of some greats (“Mad Men,” “Justified,” “Parks and Recreation”). It disregards the year of musical desk chairs on late night. And it chucks out series (“Bob’s Burgers,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Fargo”) that I watch weekly with delight. This list is not about anything wrong with those shows; it’s about what’s right with these 10.
I didn’t rank my list. Art isn’t math, and I feel silly putting on my lab coat and declaring that this sitcom is precisely two Quality Units greater than that drama. There was an elite tier of shows – “The Americans,” “The Leftovers,” “Master of None” and “Transparent” – I knew immediately had to be on this list, but beyond that, these all play different but equally vital positions. Herewith, in alphabetical order, my fantasy team:
“The Americans” (FX): This Cold War thriller has made good use of the songs of Fleetwood Mac, and that’s fitting – it’s the TV equivalent of the album “Rumours,” a work of intimate, emotional warfare, at once brooding and torrid. As the Cold War entered its “Evil Empire” phase, the married Soviet plants Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) became more deeply ensnared in the battle between cause and conscience.
“black-ish” (ABC): Kenya Barris created a sitcom about an African-American father worried his kids were forgetting their racial history. He ended up with an essential series for a moment when racial history keeps repeating itself. Impeccably cast and written, full of heart but sharply satirical, “black-ish” revived the idea of the engaged network comedy.
“Halt and Catch Fire” (AMC): The 2014 debut season of this 1980s computer-business drama turned out to be mere beta testing. In its much superior sophomore year, the series evolved from an IBM-clone “Mad Men” to an origin story of the social Internet. The show smartly took the reins away from the antihero played by Lee Pace and gave them to Kerry Bishé and Mackenzie Davis, who were transfixing as early online-service pioneers who cracked open the beige box to find our connected future.
“The Jinx” (HBO): Reality gave the director Andrew Jarecki an antagonist for the ages in Robert A. Durst, the cold-eyed, batty millionaire arrested on murder charges on the weekend of this docu-series’ finale. The twists were gobsmacking – the incriminating “BEVERLEY” note, a seeming hot-mic confession in the closing seconds – and Jarecki’s storytelling was haunting, dogged yet empathetic. This year, true crime surpassed “True Detective.”
“The Leftovers” (HBO): Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta took a banality – bad things will happen, and you will never know why – and made it into art. Set after the random disappearance of 2 percent of the earth’s population, this series is less mystery than extended parable, a new Bible set among fanatics and nonbelievers. The relocated, rejuvenated second season felt both expansive and grounded, aided by seismic performances from Carrie Coon and Regina King.
“Master of None” (Netflix): 2015 was a year that TV opened the books to a wide variety of ethnic experiences and casting choices (see also “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Quantico”). “Master,” starring an appealing Aziz Ansari and created in part by him, benefited from this new openness and paid it forward, with a frankness about identity and a curiosity about other walks of life – all packaged in a hilarious, fresh millennial rom-com.
“Rectify” (SundanceTV): The story of a death-row parolee and his family takes its spiritual power not from preaching Christianity but from grappling with its ideals: forgiveness, penance, grace. In an era that favors brooding and bellowing antiheroes, Aden Young has given an understated and under-rewarded performance for three seasons as the enigmatic, damaged Daniel Holden.
“Review” (Comedy Central): You could make a strong year-end list just from this network’s array of voices – “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Broad City,” the swan song of “Key and Peele,” a reinvigorated “South Park.” But in its second season, “Review” elevated cringe comedy to poetry, as the TV “life reviewer” Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly) self-immolated in the name of obsession like an existential Wile E. Coyote.
“Transparent” (Amazon Prime): The splendid 2014 premiere focused on Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) and her late-life coming out as a transgender woman. Season 2, released Dec. 11, is more expansive – plumbing the identity quests of the Pfefferman clan and tracing the history of sexual-liberation movements – but every bit as gorgeous, gloriously messy and full of fractious, argumentative love.
“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (Netflix): Robert Carlock and Tina Fey’s unlikely oddball of a sitcom was made for NBC but saved by streaming. Lit by the human glow stick Ellie Kemper, ably assisted by Tituss Burgess and Carol Kane, it was a daring feat: a trauma-survival story played for dark comedy. Though 2015 was the year NBC’s fabled Thursday comedy block died, “Kimmy” proved that sophisticated, screwy comedy is still – to quote its theme song – alive, dammit.