2015 in TV: Top 10 (5-1)
Feature by Louis Rabinowitz.
5. Better Call Saul
Coming off the back of Breaking Bad (which needs very little introduction), Better Call Saul had a huge challenge in trying to live up to that acclaimed show.
And while this was no Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul was a spin-off that was better than it had any right to be. Saul Goodman was a reasonably one-note comic relief character in Breaking Bad, so it was impressive to see this show craft a compelling character arc centred around the character’s ideological conflict, cleverly beginning back when Saul was Jimmy McGill, an all-around good guy and thoroughly ethical lawyer. Better Call Saul’s main triumph was the result of this arc – that Saul Goodman, who we all laughed at beforehand, became a textbook tragic character; the result of a perfectly good man’s fall into moral destitution and criminality, all because that was who everyone believed he was anyway. Anchoring all of this was Bob Odenkirk, whose previously displayed comedic skills were put to plenty of use here, but he varied his performance by imbuing this surprisingly likeable central figure with genuine pathos and sympathy. With a blackly comedic tone and a consistently engaging central arc, Better Call Saul managed to be a worthy, if not necessarily superior successor to Breaking Bad.
4. Mr Robot
A lot of TV aspires to be ‘relevant’, with pop culture references and the like to ground it in a very contemporary setting. No TV show was as relevant this year as Mr Robot, however, taking the ongoing debates about surveillance, hacking and the nature of capitalism and compellingly exploring them over the course of ten great episodes. This was a zeitgeist show – lightning in a bottle that aired at just the right time to provide a surprisingly fresh and radical perspective on extremely relevant issues. At times, this fresh perspective shifts into tedious preaching, but for the most part, this show felt like a shock to the system in the best of ways.
Meticulously plotted, there were a handful of unashamedly table-setting episodes here, but it still built and built, gathering momentum while providing a series of stunning twists, culminating in a development towards the end that shattered everything we knew about the reliability of the narrator. That narrator proved to be one of the most compelling lead characters this year – Elliot Alderson, a regular guy harbouring a deep-seated hatred of the entire construction of society and attempting to assuage his depression with a vicious morphine habit. Elliot was an extremely unconventional hero with, adding a layer of unpredictability to the show that most shows with a straightforwardly good-but-flawed lead simply lack – with a hero whose decisions could often not be second-guessed and whose narration was deeply unreliable, Mr Robot deftly managed to keep the viewer on its toes. Holding together Elliot’s potentially grating character is Rami Malek, who brings out the morality and goodness in Elliot while always emphasising his jittery, depressive and unpredictable nature in a thoroughly impressive breakout performance.
Mr Robot emerged as a shock summer hit, but it’s ending 2015 as a cult hit with critical acclaim and numerous awards nominations under its belt. Not bad for a show nobody had heard of six months ago.
3. The Flash
One of the very few shows that would have made it onto this list last year, The Flash has already become a TV mainstay, now well into its second season. A principle reason for this show’s popularity has always been its endearing commitment to pushing the boundaries of what delightfully stupid stuff from the comics can be done in live action, and season two has continued that with appearances of alternate dimensions, re-incarnating hawk-branded vigilantes and the briefest glimpse of a city populated entirely by intelligent gorillas. This show is just so fun, all the time, and that’s why it’s always an entertaining watch even when the dramatic parts aren’t so strong. It’s unashamedly light-hearted and wacky, but has become progressively better at including a darker side too, managing to put its heroes through the ringer while facing genuinely substantial physical and psychological challenges.
It’s great at capturing emotional broad strokes – big, sentimental moments of complete emotional transparency that land because of effective writing and surprisingly rock-solid acting. The Flash can’t capture the complex emotional nuance of some shows, and its themes are far more straightforward than most, but it’s terrific at portraying big, overpowering emotions in a genuinely affecting way. Most of all, though, it’s just a blast. We’ve had villain team-ups, a roster of speed powers that now includes time travel, running through objects, limited flight and lightning throwing, and at the heart, there’s a hero who just loves being a guy who can run really fast. It’s not high art, but it’s certainly the most entertaining superhero show around.
2. Doctor Who
Coming off the back of last year’s reinvention, this year’s season was potentially the strongest in a decade. Part of this was due to the move towards slightly more serialised storytelling, with two-parters aplenty and a couple of recurring characters throughout the season, which allowed the show to slow down, breathe, and really explore the concepts it had created, building effectively to an earned conclusion rather than hyperactively burning through plot and missing out on several important opportunities. It’s also because of the willingness to tackle more mature, meatier themes, such as the nature of grieving, fundamentalism and radicalisation… and erm, sleep dust monsters (not the show’s finest hour). Equally, Jenna Coleman’s final turn as Clara has to be highlighted, with the companion departing in a slow burning arc that mixed tragedy with triumph in equal measure, allowing Coleman to deliver her most nuanced and emotionally engaging performance yet.
The central reason for Series 9’s success, despite those other factors, is Peter Capaldi. The writers really ‘got’ his Doctor this year, softening him up and allowing Capaldi to joke about a little while maintaining the existential, darker edge of last year. Most of all, though, they gave him more to work with; terrific dialogues with villains, a stunning ten-minute monologue on the cyclical nature of war delivered with an incredible intensity and rawness, and the show’s masterpiece this year – a 55 minute episode with only Capaldi, which he carried with effortless charisma.
Doctor Who wasn’t perfect this year, but it really took it up a notch and became TV that had something to say, alongside all the fun monsters and increasingly great appearances from Maisie Williams. That supposed hiatus couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Writing this list, it was exceptionally difficult to rank these shows in order, with the rankings shifting a lot during writing. One position that was never in doubt, however, was first place, which was always going to be Fargo.
This was a season that ticked just about every box a prestige show needs to. There was one of the strongest ensemble casts on TV, encompassing a vast array of talented actors portraying excellently developed characters – from central figures like Patrick Wilson and Kirsten Dunst, who delivered two heavyweight performances as an all-American cop and a slightly loopy hairdresser, to colourful supporting figures like Bokeem Woodbine’s eloquent, charming enforcer Mike Milligan and Zahn McClarnon’s enigmatic blunt instrument, Hanzee. The direction was stunning, wringing every last drop out of that beautiful Midwestern scenery to add further emotion to proceedings. The dialogue was sharp, insightful and hilarious, from literary references to memorable one-liners. Furthermore, it was often a whole lot of fun – a lot of TV of this kind can be ponderous and pretentious, but Fargo never took itself too seriously with a throughline of off-beat, absurdist and quirky humour that ensured that this show worked as both an entertaining television and an admirable work of artistic value.
What really elevated season two was the way it expanded upon season one’s heightened world and hints of supernaturalism to deliver a series of genuinely unpredictable twists that shattered notions of what a conventional prestige drama should do. This was a twisty, engaging season that delivered a compelling serialised story without losing sight of the need to make memorable, distinctive individual instalments – if you enjoyed season one, but haven’t watched this season yet, you won’t regret it.
Supergirl (heavy-handed but admirable piece of bright, breezy superhero fun), Narcos (ludicrously entertaining semi-documentary), Agent Carter (stylish period spy caper).
So, that was my top ten of the year. Do you agree or disagree? What were your favourite or least favourite shows of the year? Leave a comment below!