2015 was a weird year in television. We’re in a new Golden Age; everything is so good that it’s incredibly difficult to parse out the truly great—and I’ve never been more aware of it than now. I’ve looked to television with lethargy lately, with only a few bright sparks in between to remind me of the passion I have for it. I’ve even fallen behind on some of my favorites (I’m so sorry, Jane the Virgin, I’ll be caught up before the midseason premiere). Thinking of what I loved watching this past year, I struggled to put together this list. A couple recent shows came to mind easily enough, but what actually sparked my inspiration this year was Steven Universe, a Cartoon Network show that oozes love and acceptance of who you are and those around you. I watch at least one episode every single morning as I get ready for work, and it is the best possible way to start your day.
With that in mind, I put together a list of the top ten shows this year that made me happy, regardless of budget, critical praise, subject matter, or any other arbitrary grouping method. Beware, though—spoilers. P.S., no particular order, as always, except the number one spot. That one is truly number one.
-Mariana Zavala, TV Specialist
I’m so glad Veep is on this list (as if I didn’t specifically put it there) because I didn’t give it a chance for the longest time. If you’re like me and spent the first few seasons of this show ignorant of the pure joy that watching Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) struggle her way to the presidency while verbally eviscerating anyone and everyone around her brings, this is for you. Veep has an incomparable ensemble cast of characters and they work flawlessly off of each other, which is a difficult feat considering the whip-quick and nasty scripts that the show brings—and it would not be as successful without them. Like any comedy however, maybe even more so given the type of humor of Veep, it wouldn’t feel complete without a drop of seriousness every now and then, and this past season, Amy Brookheimer (Anna Chlumsky, who blows every single one of her costars away when given the chance) brought that moment in one of the best scenes the show has ever offered. Finally fed up with the incompetence of everyone around her (and unfortunately, Selina’s entire campaign), she explodes in a perfect rant that ends with the line: “You have achieved nothing apart from one thing. The fact that you are a woman means that we will have no more women presidents because we tried one, and she fucking sucked.” It’s perfect, and for that scene alone, Veep is on this list.
- The 100
This show is not just the best show on The CW, but it is actually a really good show in comparison to other networks too. Set in a post-nuclear event Earth, The 100 is (at first) about 100 kids sent down to see if Earth is safe to repopulate. They soon find out, however, that Earth is not as empty as they thought it had been left, and the show, at its core, is about how far people will go to survive, and whether the relationships that are forged in survival will last. There are five groups at play that dominate the conflict: the 100, the criminal kids sent to Earth; those on the space station who eventually join them; the Grounders, those who adapted to the radiation and survived to form battle-hungry tribes; the Mountain Men, who have survived the nuclear holocaust in a military bunker and have no defenses against the radiation outside; and finally the Reapers, who, like the similarly-named “Reavers “of Firely, are humans that have become corrupted by cannibalism. I came into this series late, drawn by the promise of a Latina in the main cast (Raven Reyes, played by Lindsey Morgan, who is an outstanding mechanic and one of the best elements of the show) and the revealed bisexuality of the main character, Clarke Griffin. Clarke Griffin is actually one of the main reasons The 100 is on this list. Her season two arc involved a fraught romantic entanglement with Lexa, the leader of the Grounders, and the most important decision of the show so far: the release of radiation into the military bunker, and as a consequence, the death of every single one of the Mountain Men, including innocent children. The 100 goes to incredibly dark places and does not shy away from dealing with the moral and emotional repercussions that each action brings. Next season (premiering in January) will revisit Clarke in the aftermath of her Mount Weather genocide, and that is easily one of my most anticipated story arcs of 2016.
This show somehow manages to be problematic because it’s trying so hard not to be problematic, and it’s so aggressively full of marginalized groups being the main characters that my overall opinion is that I love it. Sense8 has flaws, sure, and a couple well-intentioned but still so problematic moments (I still can’t decide how I feel about that orgy scene, I really can’t) but it’s also fun, fast-paced, and full of amazing characters. That’s where the true draw in this show is. The premise is interesting enough; eight people born in different parts of the world, brought together through a mental and emotional connection, and they’re called “sensates.” What makes it good, however, is getting to know each of the individual sensates, and watching them interact with and learn each other. There is a magical scene in episode four (the scene that cemented my love for this show) when Riley Blue (Icelandic, DJ, adorable) is listening to 4 Non-Blondes’ ‘What’s Up’, and by the end, all eight of them are singing along, together, in different parts of the world. I am incredibly weak for this scene. It is truly a perfect scene. Sense8 also brings us Nomi (sensate, trans woman, hacker, SAN FRANCISCAN) and her girlfriend Amanita (not-sensate, Black lesbian, FREEMA AGYEMAN). Nomi is the trans woman character we deserve. She’s smart, intuitive, strong, and she’s in one of the most supportive and wonderful relationships I have ever seen on a TV screen. Her storyline is also one of the saddest, as her mother is unable to accept Nomi’s identity and attempts to force her into a lobotomy. Sense8 does have a habit of relying on stereotypes to get the job done; we have Sun Bak, the South Korean businesswoman slash martial arts expert; and Capheus, the Kenyan desperately trying to get AIDS medicine for his mother. Still, despite these shortcomings, Sense8 still creates vivid and full characters, even the ones borne out of lazy archetypes, and it’s certainly worth watching. The entire first season is on Netflix right now, ready to binge.
The number one best thing about Daredevil is Rosario Dawson. The other number one best thing is Charlie Cox. The third number one best thing is—alright, everything about this show is the number one best thing about this show. Daredevil was the first of Netflix’s Marvel shows (which continued in November with Marvel’s Jessica Jones, which is also on this list), and it was the strongest possible start to a new set of stories within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For those who are unfamiliar with the character, Daredevil is the super-“hero” persona of Matt Murdock, blind and Catholic lawyer-cum-vigilante. As someone who grew up in the Catholic faith and also grew up a fan of comics, Daredevil brings one of the most interesting conversations about religion on the silver screen. Charlie Cox brings such a wonderful softness to Matt Murdock—and the contrast that arises from that as he’s driven to frustration and violence is delicious. The hero team is rounded out with Foggy Nelson, his best friend and law partner, and Karen Page, a victim who crusades for justice and becomes friends with Matt and Foggy in the process. They’re both so enjoyable to watch. Foggy (Elden Henson) is hilarious, loyal, and it’s clear that Matt was honestly lucky to find him, and luckier still that Foggy loves him. Karen (Deborah Ann Woll) is also a delight; she’s so fiery and determined, but it’s the way that she overcomes her fears and personal weaknesses that is the most rewarding to watch. Her confrontation with James Wesley (the right hand man to Wilson Fisk, the primary antagonist) is one of the most charged and tense scenes of the season, and Daredevil (in a similar move to The 100) does not leave the audience wanting in the aftermath. Daredevil is so good that it will actually be the first show I rewatch after writing this list, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should.
Master of None
The reason this show is on this list (okay, one of many important reasons) is that I cried huge, gasping, relieved tears during the final scene, when Dev is running through the airport and it’s revealed that no, he’s not going after Rachel (even though he loved her, and we loved her), he’s going after his dreams. He’s being selfish. He’s being good to himself. Master of None is so good because it finally delivers on the promise that so many of these mature, sarcastic, “real,” half-hour comedies that are so trendy now keep trying to push at us. There was always something missing though—most of these shows stayed pretty well within the margins that the entertainment industry has set for us, especially Girls. Master of None succeeds because it connects to a reality that most of us are actually living. Dev (played by Aziz Ansari) is an Indian-American man living in New York City and he only has one white friend, who is literally the Token White Friend (Ansari has called him that on occasion). His other friends include Denise, the hilarious Black lesbian who always tells it like it is, and Brian, who shares a cultural experience of immigrant parents with Dev (Brian’s family is from Taiwan) and struggles to reconcile that with the privileged life he’s always had in the United States. I use the word privilege specifically because Master of None takes no prisoners when it comes to social issues: they blatantly speak about the racism and various inequalities they face every day, and they do it in a way that’s funny and speaks to the experiences of a vast and underrepresented group of people. Master of None is for each and every one of us modern, vaguely lost and distant millennials in the audience that belongs to a marginalized identity. Queer folks and people of color can be disillusioned, trendy, hipster, whatever, too—we just experience it differently, because it’s layered with the repercussions of institutionalized oppression, and Master of None proves it’s possible to portray this within a compelling and funny TV show, and for that reason, it’s on this list.
I was full of questions while watching Mr. Robot. “Is this show actually good? Who the hell is Tyrell? Why is Tyrell watching that woman pee? Why is Rami Malek’s whole TV family white?” But I will say that never once while watching Mr. Robot did I ever reach for my phone, and that’s saying something. Plus, it’s giving Rami Malek the attention and credit he’s deserved since his turn as Pfc. Merriel ‘Snafu’ Shelton in The Pacific, Steven Spielberg’s second World War II HBO epic. I own the tin DVD box set. Mr. Robot is more or less about Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a hacker who suffers from social anxiety disorder, clinical depression, and paranoid delusions, and is drawn into an anarchist hacktivist group (fsociety) that is trying to eliminate all debt. On the whole, I’m not sure how much I cared about the overarching plot beyond needing answers to the questions I asked earlier, but the show is full of individual elements that each shine and make Mr. Robot worth watching. It seems redundant to wax poetic about Rami Malek’s acting (though I easily could) because that’s clear from the first scene. Whenever Rami Malek is on screen, you will be paying attention, and you will be mesmerized. Mr. Robot also, however, boasts incredible cinematography and a knack for framing shots—and it’s so seamless that it often goes unnoticed, until a shot lingers exactly where it should and reminds you that nothing on the screen in front of you is unintentional. Another standout is Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström, a higher-up in the company that fsociety is trying to take down. Tyrell is bisexual, Swedish, and has personally taken it upon himself to sleep with and/or murder anyone in his way, and he’s easily the most interesting character to watch after Elliot. In fact, it’s his fate I’m most interested in when the second season comes back next year, and that’s plenty of time for you to catch up.
As the show that inspired me to finally write this article, of course it deserves a spot on the list. Steven Universe, is about the life of the titular character, a kid who is half-human, half-gem (who are a race of humanoid aliens with gems that give them special powers). His own mother, a Crystal Gem named Rose Quartz, fell in love with a human man and gave up her physical form to give birth to Steven, entrusting him to Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl (who are her followers and friends). Steven Universe starts out much as you’d expect a children’s cartoon to develop: wacky adventures, Steven’s journey of self-discovery, the importance of relationships in your life, whether they be platonic, romantic, or familial. But Steven Universe goes a lot farther, gets a lot darker, and comes out on the other side as one of the most incredible shows I’ve ever seen, no matter the genre. There are pockets of despair; the Gems were originally sent to Earth to sterilize it, and Rose Quartz led a rebellion against her own people, reducing them to a shadow of their former selves. In fact, it turns out that the monsters they face are Gems themselves, but can no longer maintain a thinking, self-aware form (as evidenced by the appearance of Lapis Lazuli, who is currently holding another Gem prisoner underneath the ocean for the foreseeable…eternity). Pearl as well is a constant reminder of the undercurrent of loss throughout the show: she was in love with Rose Quartz, and she holds onto her memory without fail, no matter how much pain is causes her. But those elements only make the love and happiness in the show that much more apparent. Fusion, the ability of Gems to fuse into a larger and more powerful being, is a recurring theme, and in the first season it’s revealed that Garnet herself is a fusion. Ruby and Sapphire are Gems are so in love that they prefer to live as a fusion rather than alone, in one of the most heartwarming moments the show has to offer. Steven Universe is probably the cartoon show I’ve seen that is most reflective and relevant to my everyday life. It is chock-full of queerness and affirmation. Nobody is ever made to feel less-than because of who they are. Steven Universe teaches us to love unconditionally without forgetting to love ourselves, and that is why it’s on this list.
Please Like Me
Please Like Me is probably as far from Steven Universe as you can get, yet it’s on this list for the same reasons. Please Like Me is pretty dark at times; in the first episode, Josh’s girlfriend (Caitlin Stasey, who is also known for her work on Reign, and as an outspoken feminist) breaks up with him because he’s gay (he is), and his life gets progressively worse from there as the show progresses through the seasons. Josh’s mother attempts suicide and is institutionalized; his Aunty Peg dies; his stepmother cheats on his father while pregnant then leaves him; his (former) boyfriend refuses to sleep with him because he isn’t attracted to Josh sexually, his (current) boyfriend has a serious anxiety disorder and wants to sleep with other people—and Josh has to deal with all of his while being generally unambitious and impressively self-deprecating at every angle. It’s also hilarious. Please Like Me takes very real situations (one that many viewers, including me) can relate to, and leaves you with two choices: wallow and despair forever, or laugh about it. Please Like Me helps me to laugh when all I want to do is the former. Josh Thomas, the creator, writer, and star, has impeccable comedic sense, but he also knows that it isn’t always possible to laugh. Season three, the latest, has felt darker than previous seasons, and it’s harder to find the humor sometimes, but it’s done in a way that feels true and even necessary, and for that it is on this list.
Marvel’s Jessica Jones
(Content warnings: discussions of rape and abuse)
Marvel’s Jessica Jones just came out, and it’s a current critical darling. Despite the wealth of media attention (all of it well-deserved), I’m going to talk about it too. Jessica Jones is the show we’ve been waiting for: it offers an uncompromising look at PTSD, rape, sexism, harassment, and consent, and it takes no prisoners. Melissa Rosenberg is a powerhouse showrunner, and her agenda is felt all over this. Agenda is a heavy word, but all Rosenberg wants us to do is open our eyes and make us see, which is remarkable considering so much of what happens onscreen (save the truly impossible, aka the literal mind control—though it has a real-life counterpart in gaslighting, in which abusers make their victims question their own perception, memory, and sanity) actually happens every day. Krysten Ritter is Jessica Jones, superpowered human mess who got her abilities in an accident that killed her family, only to be taken in by the family of a child celebrity. This celebrity (Trish Walker, played by Rachael Taylor) ends up becoming her best friend in one of the most rewarding and prevailing friendships on TV this year. Already pretty emotionally scarred (she also saved Trish from her abusive mother), the series starts after Jessica has already had a go at being a hero, which ended in her abduction by Kilgrave, the series’ villain, who can use mind control. While under his control, Jessica was repeatedly raped and was also ordered to kill an innocent person, and the PTSD she suffers from is a direct result, and when he surfaces again, she is determined to bring him down for good. To single out only a few things to highlight in this show is incredibly difficult, but the repeated use of the phrase “smile” (reflecting again, the everyday harassment that women face), Kilgrave’s inability to accept that he is a rapist, and Rosenberg’s own comments and statements about the show are a few. A well-deserved criticism must be included as well, however. Aside from a cameo by Rosario Dawson (Claire Temple, a nurse and one of the best parts about Daredevil), the show is largely absent of any women of color, despite the setting in New York City. Looking forward to season two, that is my only request—that, and upping the noir elements.
Every Single Television Appearance Lin-Manuel Miranda Has Made This Year
The other week, JJ Abrams called Broadway composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda’s appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon the best television he’d seen in ten years, and I am inclined to agree. As an avid Broadway fan, I’ve been obsessing over Miranda’s new musical: Hamilton, a rap musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, cast entirely with actors of color (Miranda himself is Puerto-Rican, and I can’t think him enough for giving me a Latino hero in the Broadway community). The term lyrical genius has never been more appropriate than in use for Lin-Manuel Miranda, and he’s been freestyle rapping across our TV screens (including on 60 Minutes) for the few months or so, thanks to Hamilton, and to watch him talk about the show in ten- to hour-long segments is more compelling TV than almost anything I have seen this year. Miranda brings unadulterated joy to everything he does, and he’s taken the story of an old dead white guy, used a traditionally upper class venue, and made it accessible and relatable to the voices clamoring for attention in the United States: the minorities, the immigrants, the underprivileged and abused. Miranda is joyful, impassioned, and impossible to turn away from, and even if you’ve never heard of him, Hamilton, or Broadway, take five minutes out of your day to watch his Wheel of Freestyle with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots. If you’re not hooked by then, there’s no hope for you. Did I also mention he wrote the cantina music for Star Wars: The Force Awakens? As Alexander Hamilton himself (…as Lin-Manuel Miranda) pleads: do not throw away your shot.