The Golden Age of television doesn’t seem to be losing steam. In fact, the era of captivating TV has crossed over to streaming services which stepped up their presence in 2015; many of the year’s best shows were provided by sites like Netflix. These days their appeal doesn’t come solely from our ability to binge watch a season, but from the content itself. Cable TV offered a few outstanding new series; however, in a year of stories about struggling actors, New York City and social issues, streaming was king.
5. The Muppets (NBC)
As a disclaimer, The Muppets have always held a special place in my heart. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and Muppet Treasure Island (1996) were childhood staples that imaginatively retold classic stories with lovable characters. When Jason Segel helped rekindle interest in the property with The Muppets (2011), the positive response it received meant a new Muppets show probably wasn’t far behind. The love and nostalgia I have for these may bias me toward the show, but the series nevertheless stands on its own merit.
The first season of The Muppets premiered last fall with Miss Piggy as the host of her own late-night talk show, Fozzie Bear as a stand-up comedian and Kermit as the showrunner, with everyone else working in various positions on the set. Through this narrative framing, the show has the freedom to bring on a guest stars (e.g. Nick Offerman, Mindy Kaling and Josh Groban) every week without it feeling forced. These guests are linked to each episode’s narrative. The best examples of this are when Ed Helm and the Muppets go out for karaoke (“Pig Out”) and Christina Applegate’s appearance that centers around her rivalry with Miss Piggy (“Bear Left Then Bear Write”).
The show is also not afraid to sk adult in its humor and dialogue. Gender fluidity, bisexuality and transgender topics have all come up on the show. Where other shows tend to use controversy for cheap laughs, The Muppets furthers the dialogue on these pertinent topics.
If you haven’t seen it already, head over to ABC to catch up and enjoy your favorite childhood entertainment from a new perspective.
4. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
The standout comedy show of the year is Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Creators Robert Carlock and Tina Fey created an enduring series about Kimmy (played by an earnest Ellie Kemper), a simple country girl who found herself caught up in a cult at a young age. The show picks up just after her rescue and follows her as she explores the bustling metropolis of New York City. She moves in with Titus Andromedon (Tituss Burgess) who is, perhaps, the best character in the show. Titus is a typical struggling actor whose status as a black gay thespian offers some of the show’s most salient commentary. In a stint working at a horror-themed restaurant, he finds that he gets treated better wearing a werewolf costume than he does as a black man. The joke is a poignant remark given the discussions about racism in the United States in 2015.
There’s a rarely an unfunny episode or a joke that doesn’t land in Schmidt. But more than that, the show is inspiring. Kimmy overcomes her lack of real world know-how in every episode with uncompromising positivity. And while most people don’t know what it is like to be trapped in an underground bunker for most of their adolescence, Kimmy’s struggles with love, work and family are universal themes. Watching Kimmy tackle these issues I often thought to myself, “If she can survive the bunker, then what’s my excuse?”
Aside from a few questionable jokes at the cost of the Amerindian and African-American communities, the show generally hits that Parks and Rec vibe of upbeat, progressive thought. Kimmy’s charisma and her adjustment to not only city life but adult responsibilities makes this show one of the best newcomers of the year. Bonus: the theme song will also get stuck in your head forever.
Tied for 2. Daredevil (Netflix)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is everywhere these days. Whether it’s at the cinema where we get at least two MCU films a year, on cable (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and Agent Carter) or on Netflix, Marvel has become inescapable. Fortunately, both of Marvel’s streaming series are phenomenal; it was difficult to choose whether Daredevil or Jessica Jones should take the number two spot on my list. Both shows are gritty, dark and dramatic—the opposite of their cinema counterparts. While a common thread of dry humor connects all parts of the MCU, the characters in the Netflix series make their jokes to deflect pain.
In Daredevil, newly minted attorney Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) and his best friend Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) open a law firm. The two quickly learn that in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, the law isn’t always enough to keep innocent people safe—or to put criminals away. Murdock decides to secretly operate outside the law, leading to the genesis of the hero Daredevil. A major antagonist begins to emerge in both Murdock’s day job and on the city streets in Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio), a criminal mastermind whose vision for the city clashes with Murdock’s.
Fisk is one of the best villains ever written. He’s a complex character with a backstory that makes you question if he is really a bad man. He only wants to make Hell’s Kitchen a good place, much like Matt, but his means are the problem. Fisk is also coded as autistic, which adds to his uniqueness.
From the stunning cinematography to one of the most mesmerizing title sequences I’ve seen, Daredevil is easily the best looking show of the year. But like leading man Charlie Cox, the show is more than just a pretty face. Dynamic fight sequences and intense questions about morality and religion are rife throughout. The best fight scene comes in “Cut Man,” where one long take follows Matt as he infiltrates Russian mob hangout. The always-fluid camera work never blinks or looks away as Matt’s exhaustion grows and his injuries worsen. But beyond its technical prowess, the scene is important because it shows Matt is human, contrasting him with many of the big screen heroes and villains in the MCU. Matt isn’t some alien god or hulking beast; he’s just a person trying his best to protect other people. This is a theme consistent in both Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
Tied for 2. Jessica Jones (Netflix)
Jessica Jones burst onto the scene by complicating and reinvigorating not only superhero shows, but dramatic television altogether. It refreshes the antihero trope, dives into every angle of abuse and its effects, introduces one of the scariest villains in TV history, and allows Krysten Ritter to show her acting range.
Jessica Jones (Ritter) is a former superhero turned P.I. attempting to deal with a past trauma that manifests as PTSD. (Side note: She also lives in Hell’s Kitchen along with Matt Murdock while Spider-Man patrols all of Manhattan. How many superheroes does this city need?) Phenomenal writing allows every plot and subplot to handle sensitive topics like abuse. Everyone in the show experiences trauma on some level and handles it in their own way. There is nuance to these ideas; for example, Jessica Jones never allows victim blaming and neither does the show. This is a tricky road to walk, but instead of throwing in the towel, the series has helped kickstart an open and honest conversation about abuse and its effects. For that alone, it deserves to be on this list.
Ritter gives a rousing performance as Jessica struggles with her past as a superhero, with antagonist Kilgrave (David Tennant) and with her natural desire to want to help people. Jessica is not a natural hero like Matt Murdock; for the most part, she just wants to be left alone to run her P.I. agency. Until this show I was sick of antiheroes, but Jessica Jones importantly demonstrated that male antiheroes have dominated big and small screen fiction. It was the male antihero that was becoming tired. Jessica is closed-off and a hard-ass but she is also funny and caring. She is a fleshed-out lead who shows that being a “strong female character” doesn’t mean you can’t have moments of weakness.
David Tennant is wonderful as the terrifyingly self-involved Kilgrave because Tennant is not afraid to come off as whiny or utterly ridiculous as he demands that the world—and Jessica—bend to his will. Like Fisk, he has a sad backstory, but his actions are much harder to excuse. He is the epitome straight white male privilege—a man who rampages when he doesn’t get what he wants because life has always provided him with opportunity and favoritism.
Jessica Jones forces you to think about how much we excuse behavior or explain it away. It begins with a story about mind control and ends with a conversation about responsibility. Indeed, the show’s brilliance is in how it transcends its superhero/supervillain narrative to let larger issues to shine through.
1. Master of None (Netflix)
Master of None is hands-down the best show of the year. Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s brainchild centers on a 30-year-old struggling actor living in New York. The plot sounds trite but Ansari manages to transform the cliché into a highly intelligent show that takes on issues of representation in the media, sexism, respect for parents, and the pursuit of happiness. A good majority of these issues come directly from Ansari’s stand-up itself, which doesn’t always work (looking at you, Mulaney). Ansari makes the transition well, taking his stand-up material and working it into a series that further explores his perspective on life.
Similar to Louie, the show presents these topics in a highly unapologetic manner through Ansari and Yang’s witty dialogue and deeply explorative narrative. While dry humor generally keeps things light, Ansari isn’t afraid to let the serious moments sink in. The episode “Ladies and Gentlemen” puts on full display how men often don’t see the sexism women face simply because they don’t live it and even suggests how we might actually address the problem.
In “Indians on TV,” Ansari offers a thought-provoking, full-on finger-pointing examination at how TV and film deals with ethnicity. Ansari and Yang do not shy away from these issues and instead force us to take a deep look at ourselves and how we may be contributing to the problem. Yet my personal favorite episode is “Mornings.” Without giving too much away, it realistically portrays how relationships change and develop using the morning routine/daily life of a couple.
Master of None is one of those shows that makes it necessary to go and get a Netflix subscription. How else are you going to get your mitts on the best new show of the year?