1. “Jane the Virgin”
Simply put, “Jane the Virgin” has it all. It’s the most compulsively watchable show of the year, with deftly executed plot twists and breakneck pacing. In the style of Mexican telenovelas, there are juicy secrets, lies and betrayal. Where the typical show would wait until a season finale to reveal the truth, “Jane the Virgin” plays its cards early and efficiently, cutting out needless wheel-spinning. One of the most refreshing aspects of the show is the characters’ willingness to admit their feelings and work through their conflicts maturely. It’s refreshing, too, to see such an expertly balanced love triangle, with co-stars Michael (Brett Dier, “Ravenswood”) and Rafael (Justin Baldoni, “Everwood”) equally appealing in both Jane’s (Gina Rodriguez, “The Bold and Beautiful”) and the audience’s eyes.
The greatest strength of “Jane the Virgin” is its ability to marry its strong sense of humor with genuine sweetness and emotion. Practically every episode is a tearjerker, but practically every episode has at least a few guaranteed laughs. Whether you judge the show as a comedy or a drama, 2015 saw “Jane the Virgin” at the top of its field.
— Benjamin Rosenstock
2. “Master of None”
No one had quite the breakout this year like comedian Aziz Ansari (“Parks and Recreation”). Any fan of Ansari’s standup knows that he loves to talk about modern issues, whether it’s the growing omnipresence of technology or the underlying insanity of monogamy. With his new 10-episode Netflix series “Master of None,” Ansari further infuses insight and depth within his topical humor by giving viewers a refreshing take on the coming-of-age narrative. In an age where hyperconnectivity and ambition reign over the average millennial, Ansari captures the deep-seated anxiety and excitement that comes with life’s unpredictability. Not only is the show endlessly funny, beautifully filmed and well-acted, but “Master of None” also works on multiple levels. It charms as a witty romantic comedy, thrives as a thought-provoking commentary on race and gender and gives a poignant portrayal of a man uncertain of what he wants in life.
— Sam Rosenberg
3. “Marvel’s Jessica Jones”
Plot-driven and emotionally powerful, “Marvel’s Jessica Jones” makes us believe that superheroes are people too. Private investigator Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter, “Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23”) puts her superhuman strength aside as she struggles to move on from her past. The Netflix show, based on the Brian Michael Bendis comic series, explores common dynamics of power and manipulation within the context of a supernatural world. Among other outstanding accomplishments, the Marvel series captures the all-consuming psychological manipulation of sexual assault without ever showing the abuse on screen. Instead, the show focuses on developing complicated characters to drive the 13-episode arc forward. Unapologetic, witty and inarguably flawed, Jessica brilliantly exhibits a raw vulnerability often lost in flashy dramas, and is able to tell a moving story while sporting a single pair of faded jeans and downing countless bottles of whiskey.
— Danielle Yacobson
4. “Mr. Robot”
“Hello friend,” Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek, “Short Term 12”) says, introducing the viewer to the world of “Mr. Robot,” a haunting mirror of today. Unexpectedly hosted by USA Network, Sam Esmail’s (“Comet”) “Mr. Robot” draws from the crises and worries surrounding technology to explore loneliness and uncertainty in a time of constant connection and information.
Anchoring the show with a powerhouse performance, Malek captures the disturbed figure of Elliot, a hacker that simultaneously knows so much and so little about himself and those surrounding him, including the enigmatic title character devilishly played by Christian Slater (“Breaking In”). Wracked by social anxiety, addiction and hallucinations, Elliot becomes the unreliable narrator of a series that begins as a techno-thriller and spirals into a dark, twisted odyssey of personal identity in modern times.
In an era where people project carefully constructed identities online and corporations wave an invisible hand of influence over every aspect of everyday life, “Mr. Robot” challenges viewers to look through the shadows of ambiguity, peel back the layers of deception and dig through all the bullshit that makes up society to reveal the insanity behind it all and ask the question: What is real?
— Matthew Barnauskas
After a remarkable inaugural season, “Fargo” had to answer questions about whether lightning could strike twice. Much like “True Detective,” expectations were high for its sophomore effort. However, unlike the HBO limited series, “Fargo” was able to pull off a second season that improved upon the first. The series told a story which had a higher degree of difficulty, featuring a full-on gang war among the Gerhardt crime family, which runs the Fargo and Kansas City crime syndicate. This intersected with the story of Ed Blumquist (Jesse Plemons, “Breaking Bad”) and his wife Peggy (Kirsten Dunst, “Spider-Man”), who accidentally run over the youngest Gerhardt son with her car. What’s truly remarkable about this season is how it brings the disparate stories together, and has everything click. The season builds the individual pieces into a whole that is as tense as it is quirky. There’s an extraordinary juxtaposition between the “Minnesota Nice” tone and the brutal violence of the gang war. It’s as horribly gruesome as it is hysterically funny. (Only “Fargo” could insert a UFO into a scene and have it actually make thematic sense.)
Meanwhile, the show’s cinematography remained top-notch, as it again made good use of the snowy landscapes. An expanded ensemble features magnificent performances from Patrick Wilson (“The Conjuring”), Jeffrey Donovan (“Burn Notice”) and Jean Smart (“Frasier), each of whom look like they’re having a great time playing tough characters. This year, “Fargo” showed that it could do something unexpected in its second season: bring even the most contrasting elements together into something better than its first.
— Alex Intner
6. “Orange is the New Black”
The highly anticipated third season of “Orange is the New Black” brought a new set of unexpected twists, backstories and comical and endearing subplots that underpin the series by adding a unique flavor to the overarching plot. Like previous seasons, the precarious balance between comic relief and poignant storytelling succeeds in its eccentricity. Its supporting characters continue to come out of the woodwork through flashbacks, allowing their individuality and vulnerability to shine. In the third season, the inhumane treatment of the inmates by Litchfield’s new business-minded corporate managers renders the deputies powerless in making decisions that affect the day-to-day lives of the women. However, the show illustrates how through small acts of defiance and creativity, the women take some of their power and individuality back. Netflix’s binge-worthy season has no lack of hilarious, uncomfortable and touching moments that continue to weave together an unconventional and moving story.
— Shir Avinadav
2015 was the year of representation in mass media and pop culture: women of color lauded on TV, the gender pay gap discussed in Hollywood, Caitlyn Jenner celebrated in the news, a show about a transgender protagonist sweeping awards season.
“Transparent” ’s pilot season was groundbreaking modern television. The sophomore season, though, illustrates how coming out is only step one in a life-long journey. Maura Pfefferman’s (Jeffrey Tambor, “Arrested Development”) bravery sheds light on her family members’ own sexual and self-discovery. These secondary characters, particularly Maura’s ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light, “Ugly Betty”) and her daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffmann, “Wild”), add depth to Maura’s story.
Showrunner Jill Soloway (“Six Feet Under”) isn’t afraid to bring humor to a controversial subject, creating a kind of satire of society’s treatment of gender fluidity. She constructs characters who are every bit detestable and a story that is uncomfortable, but through the mess, there is authenticity. Though it would have been nice to see a transgender actor portray a transgender lead, Tambor tackles the role of Maura with utmost sensitivity, but also with a fervor the character deserves.
Getting Amazon Prime is worth it for the sole purpose of following Maura’s journey. The entertainment industry has a long way to go with equal representation, but it’s making small strides.
— Karen Hua
8. “BoJack Horseman”
The sophomore season of Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman” flew under the radar last summer, making less of an initial critical splash than darlings “Orange is the New Black” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” But after a few weeks (more than enough time to binge “BoJack” ’s 24 episodes), thinkpieces and reviews for this animated comedy about a depressed, alcoholic horse outlined something brilliant behind its odd premise.
“BoJack” did social criticism like no other, tackling issues of celebrity malaise, toxic fan culture and patriarchal media with an acid-tongued strike. One of the season’s highlights, “Hank After Dark,” berated the celebrity culture that brushes sexual assault accusations under the rug — idealistic writer Diane Nguyen was no match for a Bill Cosby-esque TV darling and the unproven “allegations” that might tarnish his reputation. Other episodes expose BoJack’s own tragic, self-destructive tendencies, Diane’s depression in the wake of her languid marriage and cannibalism among anthropomorphic animals. This stuff doesn’t sound funny, but it is. “BoJack” ’s mix of dark subject matter and absurdist humor converged into brilliant TV satire.
— Chloe Gilke
9. “Mad Men”
Somewhere in between its first and last season, “Mad Men” became a touchstone for good television — in terms of cinematography, writing, acting and design — as well as another show to join the likes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in terms of scholarly analysis. Though the final season dipped slightly here and there in continuity and ratings, and tied up a few loose ends that didn’t quite match, it merits a spot on our list. The finale had some controversial content — many of the last scenes between Don Draper and other major characters happened over the phone, somehow Peggy and Stan ended up in each other’s arms and why does Pete get to live happily ever after? — but the true ending has joined the likes of “The Sopranos” and “Lost” in the cinematic line-up of the most interesting (read: hotly debated) series finales of all time.
“Mad Men” is on our list not only because it’s a great show, but because the camera cut away from Don Draper’s final smile to one of the most iconic American advertisements of all time — “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” — in one of the best television moments in recent history.
— Sophia Kaufman
10. “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”
2015 may go down as the year Netflix took over. I’m not just talking about “Netflix and chill” hype, but rather the pure gold that our beloved streaming site has dug up. One character was literally unearthed this year: Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper, “Bridesmaids”), star of Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Created by Tina Fey (“30 Rock”), the 13-episode series follows Kimmy, a 20-something woman who was held captive in an underground bunker for 15 years by a doomsday cult leader. Now, after Kimmy and her fellow “mole women” are rescued, Kimmy is on a journey to create a new life in New York City. Kimmy’s unwavering optimism and Crayola-colored outfits float the show, as each episode pops like a diary entry: “Kimmy Goes Outside!” and “Kimmy Gets a Job!” Living with a Broadway-wannabe roommate, Titus (actual Broadway performer Tituss Burgess) and working as an assistant for an Upper East Side trophy wife, Jacqueline (Jane Krakowski, also “30 Rock”), Kimmy’s Big Apple adventure is the most entertaining one yet.
— Hailey Middlebrook