Tomorrow morning, Anthony Anderson and Lauren Graham will take to a podium in North Hollywood and announce at least of portion of the hefty list of Emmy nominees, celebrating (ostensibly) the best in television programming for the past year or so, doggedly sticking to model that pretends the traditional broadcast season running from September to May is still reflective of how this part of the entertainment field operates.
Around these here digital parts, it is tradition for me to weigh in with my highly compromised top ten in television on the eve of that announcement. I begin with an acknowledgement of fallibility because it is all but impossible to stay completely up to date with the full range of plausibly worth television these days, at least without jettisoning all other responsibilities and interests. I watch a lot, and I’ve done the best I can. Even still, I can probably make a list of the Top Ten Reportedly Great Television Programs I Wasn’t Able To Watch This Past Season that is as impressive an assemblage as my actual tally. (Okay, let’s try it. Without consulting any outside reference: Catastrophe, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Halt and Catch Fire, Lady Dynamite, The Leftovers, Master of None, Orange is the New Black, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Transparent, You’re the Worst. Yep, that was easy.) I like and stand by my group, but I make no claims at being truly and properly exhaustive in my prep.
There’s one more point worth noting: I follow the eligibility dates of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, so anything that debuted after the last day of May is not eligible. Check this space around this time next year for O.J.: Made in America and BrainDead.
Anyway, here goes.
#1 — Fargo, season 2 (FX). Noah Hawley’s riff on the work of Joel and Ethan Coen, mostly drawing on echoing inspiration but drawing a few wobbly lines right back to the source, was better than it had any right to be in its first season. In its second, it was out and out brilliant. Without dismissing its creative antecedents, it was strikingly its own wondrous beast, conveying a sprawling epic that intertwined Midwestern crime lord power struggles, decent citizens growing weary with the coarseness of society, and regular folks so far in over their heads that they can’t even see how rapidly the water is continuing to rise. The series was visually striking, narratively inventive, brutally funny, and fully engaged committed to reinvention within a set and solid framework. It also boasted incredibly strong acting across the entire cast, though the clear champion is Bokeem Woodbine, simultaneously coil spring tense and loosely relaxed as Mike Milligan.
#2 — Horace and Pete, season 1 (Louis CK.net). Of course this is what Louis CK does next. Why not? Partially inspired by a broadcast of a Mike Leigh play on British television in the nineteen-seventies, CK made a series that looks and feels like theater, right down to the rhythms and the pitch of the performances. Set in a Brooklyn bar that’s been the workplace of multiple generations of downtrodden souls, the show is beautifully written and insightfully staged, providing a splendid troupe of actors with uncommonly great material. In particular, Laurie Metcalf is given a stunning monologue and the room to deliver a performance for the ages.
#3 — The Americans, season 4 (FX). This was my choice for best series the past two years running. That it maintained its high quality in its fourth season and slipped down the rankings a bit offers testimony as to how damn good TV is these days. The thematic focus wasn’t quite as tight this year, but that hint of wooliness suited the progression of the Jennings clan as the stress of the parents’ shared patriotic mission took a greater toll than ever before. In particular, the multi-season trajectory of Elizabeth, played by Keri Russell, is reaching levels of astounding complexity.
#4 — Better Call Saul, season 2 (AMC). If Better Call Saul spent its first season spinning the unlikely miracle of standing as a prequel to Breaking Bad — in tone, temperament, and chronology — without getting needlessly weighted down by that gimmick, it spent the second season quietly, confidently transcending its origins. Even as it incorporated familiar elements and character of the series from which it spun, it decidedly stood within its own endlessly engrossing identity, thanks largely to expansion of the character Kim Wexler, played beautifully by Rhee Seehorn. That paving stones are being laid on the road to Walter White is increasingly, blessedly beside the point.
#5 — Veep, season 5 (HBO). This scabrous comedy not only weathered a showrunner change; it was rejuvenated by it. The reigning Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy champ, the bleak, brilliantly heartless political satire actually claimed its trophy for its weakest season. It was better this year, with ruthlessly intricate plotting, inspired manipulations of longstanding characters, and a willingness to make lead character Selina Meyer irredeemably awful, a choice likely driven by the obvious fearlessness star Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
#6 — Broad City, season 3 (Comedy Central). Perhaps less stridently audacious than before, Broad City remained a ferocious comic force. It opened the season with a split-screen rat-a-tat of deeply character-bound gags and barely let up in its energy with all that followed.
#7 — Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, season 1 (TBS). Where John Oliver took the Daily Show template and explorer how it could be used in the service of longform, investigative comedy, Samantha Bee stuck closer to the beats of her former TV home. Her innovation is to lace the presentation with an informed, aghast rage. Resonating with honesty, it’s the ideal comic approach to these mind-twisting political times.
#8 — Black-ish, season 2 (ABC). In its sophomore season, Kenya Barris’s creation took the first syllable as a guiding mandate to its storytelling. The justly lauded episode “Hope,” dealing directly with the sorts of police brutality concerns that drive the Black Lives Matter movement, was the apex, but it was only a more formalized version of the conversation about race and culture that the program engaged in all season long.
#9 — Brooklyn Nine-Nine, season 3 (Fox). Though a single-camera show dense with jokes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine prospers by embracing the most tried-and-true sitcom tactics, led by astute shuffling of distinctly drawn characters in novel groupings that exploit every last comic possibility.
#10 — Jessica Jones and Agent Carter, season 2 and season 1 (ABC and Netflix). As the Marvel movie machine fretfully equivocates over letting a female be the solo lead of a production, that’s about the only model that the television division gets right. Jessica Jones had a debut season that was harshly compelling rumination on what it is to be a survivor. For its somewhat unlikely second season, Agent Carter simply committed to telling a story that was fun and heartfelt, taking full advantage of its period trappings. With very different characters and performances, Krysten Ritter and Hayley Atwell invested their respective title roles with such abundant onscreen charisma that every performer that drifted into their orbits was the better for it.