As per tradition (see below), the eve of the Emmy Award nominations brings me to my own humble assertion of the best of the past year in television, using the same traditional network season timespan that the awards-giving body still prefers. As usual, plenty of caveats apply. I’m pretty well-viewed when it comes to television, but there are plenty of acclaimed series that I don’t watch. Someday, when I finally catch up on some of them, I might regret that I posted these lists without, say, Mad Men on the tally (I should’ve celebrated Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake a couple years ago, for instance). For now, though, these are the series — and one mini-series — that, for me, represent the best in television this past year.
#1 — The Americans, season 3 (FX). I don’t well up with outrage at the more indefensible choices and omissions of the Emmys the same way I do with the Academy Awards (Boyhood missing out on Best Picture is going to sting for a while), so when the hands down best current series on television is probably ignored tomorrow, it will elicit a mere shrug from me. The series build on the prior year’s novelistic solidity with a immersive consideration of the fragility of trust within families, in all their permutations. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys continue their exceptionally nuances portrayals of undercover spies, and special praise is needed for Holly Taylor as their daughter, Paige. So much of the season hinges on her ability to play a teen whose already uncertain sense of identity keeps taking blows that she could never see coming.
#2 — Olive Kitteridge, mini-series (HBO). Adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge provides a careful dissection a certain American life: small, modest, wearying, but deceptively rich with meaning. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko as the follow-up to her very strong The Kids Are Right, the mini-series plays out like the kind of movie for adults that Hollywood studios have all but entirely discarded by now. Frances McDormand is precise and fierce in the title role, and Richard Jenkins finds pathos without pity in her browbeaten, pathologically hopeful husband.
#3 — Broad City, season 2 (Comedy Central). Brash and brilliant, Broad City is simultaneously the most fearless and forthright show on television, capturing the challenge of living through one’s twenties with a bounty of spiritual energy and a dearth of prospects. The friendship between Ilana and Abbi (played by series co-creators Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson) is depicted with affection, understanding, and commitment to truthfulness over contrived conflict. I don’t know that I’ve ever before seen a character quite like Ilana, and Glazer plays her with just the right level of unkempt jubilation.
#4 — Silicon Valley, season 2 (HBO). What started in its first season as funny, withering satire of the flash fire success within the tech economy maintained that comic core while expanding to encompass a broader statement on the volatility of the American Dream. More than anything else, the series offered a master class on season-long plotting, as the fortunes of Pied Piper, the start-up headed by Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), pinwheeled around in ways that were drastic yet always grounded in some detail that had been artfully introduced earlier. The performance by Zach Woods, as chipper sad sack Jared, was one of the comic feats of the year.
#5 — Better Call Saul, season 1 (AMC). From week to week, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s unlikely prequel to Breaking Bad seemed almost miraculous, standing as a clear spiritual cousin to its predecessor and yet establishing its own tone of bleak comedy and existential fretting, dazzling in its balancing act audacity. In depicting the gradual transformation of Slippin’ Jimmy into Saul Goodman (in name, anyway, he’s not even there yet by the end of the first season), Bob Odenkirk touches of previously unseen reserves of acting inspiration, in a way not all that dissimilar to the expansion of skill Bryan Cranston displayed in playing Walter White. Maybe most impressively, Better Call Saul is clearly connected to Breaking Bad without being beholden to it.
#6 — Louie, season 5 (FX). After the divisive fourth season, Louis C.K. reverted his series to be closer to the loose, skit-like first year. It remained funny, challenging, and loopily cynical, albeit lacking the streaks of brilliance that have characterized the best of the series. If this represents Louis starting on the downslope of its existence, at least it remains charged with vitality. C.K.’s questing point of view remains solidly, blessedly in place.
#7 — Togetherness, season 1 (HBO). Watching this series co-created by Mark and Jay Duplass (along with Steve Zissis, who plays forlorn struggling actor Alex on the show), I quickly settled into the conviction that the sibling creators had finally found the ideal platform for their shaggy, piercingly intimate sensibility. They’re allowed to stretch and ponder all they want. The result is endearing and rueful, while also allowing for a caustic truthfulness, the later quality contributing mightily to the simple closing moments of the season finale standing as a piece of television that was riveting in its almost unbearable tension.
#8 — The Last Man on Earth, season 1 (Fox). The inaugural season of Will Forte’s oddball comedy plays like an escalating dare. The creative team not only needs to keep finding fresh twists in a storyline seeming rigged with a hundred dead ends, but they do it with a lead character (Phil Miller, played by Forte) that is compelled to make terrible, virtually irredeemable choices. It’s admittedly difficult to imagine this show sustaining. For now, though, it’s impressively unapologetic in its sharp mocking of human misery.
#9 — Orphan Black, season 3 (BBC America). This is all about Tatiana Maslany, who makes what must be exhausting look effortless in portraying an array of clones, each sharply distinctive and all focused on the sanctity of their sisterhood as nefarious forces swirl around them. I’ll admit the mounting intrigue of the overarching plot has the most minor impact on me. On the other hand, the magic act of Maslany — more than once this season, I found myself jarred in remembering mid-episode that it was one actress in all these different roles — is persistently astonishing.
#10 — Brooklyn Nine-Nine, season 2 (Fox). The wizardry of Andre Braugher as Captain Raymond Holt could dominate decisively enough to make this police workplace comedy completely lopsided. Instead, the cast has gelled into one of the best ensembles on television, a lineup of ringers that recalls the top-to-bottom excellence of co-creator Mike Schur’s Parks and Recreation. Gifted with joyfully crack writing, any combination of actors yielded moments worth treasuring.