2015 was a fantastic year for television, to the extent that as I was crafting this list, shows which I had automatically assumed would have made my top ten did not. Wolf Hall, Penny Dreadful, Wayward Pines, Sense8, Daredevil, Bloodline, Jessica Jones, The Knick, Halt and Catch Fire and Fear the Walking Dead were all excellent consistently but are sadly missing from my top ten. Any year where established programs such as House of Cards and True Detective (both of which I enjoyed) do not even come close to my favourites serves to further exemplify the abundance of quality TV of late. From the list compiled, I have noticed there is a lack of comedy so I thought I would take the time before I begin the rundown to mention some lighter television I thought was note worthy this year like W Bob and David, Silicon Valley, Man Seeking Woman, Louie and Girls. Also I would like to note the return to form of Ryan Murphy, who after the two duds of American Horror Story: Coven and Freakshow, returned to form with not one but two entertaining seasons of American Horror Story: Hotel and the new Scream Queens. Also would like to give a mention to Abi Morgan’s BBC drama River for having one of the best season finales of the year.
Without further ado, below are my top ten shows of 2015.
- Narcos Season 1
Narcos is a serialized take on drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) and the Medellín Cartel, told through the eyes of DEA agents Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) and Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal). Essentially a ten-hour long movie, Narcos is reminiscent of classic gangster and crime films such as Goodfellas, through its narration and flashy editing techniques. It also has connections to films such as Mesrine, Romanzo Criminale or Once Upon a Time in America in the way it uses the genre conventions of a gangster film in order to tell a story which documents the turbulent times of an entire nation. Narcos‘ greatest strength is its use of montage and stock footage. Directors Jose Padilha, Guillermo Navarro, Andi Baiz and Fernando Coimbra construct visual sequences, accompanied to the narration of DEA agent Steve Murphy, that provide, in one minute doses, a mini-lesson on the history of drug smuggling in Columbia. This hyper-editing provides a nice counter balance to the cinema-verite style in which scenes are shot and the unshowy performance at its centre by Moura. He does not turn Pablo Escobar into a sympathetic, larger than life figure. Moura highlights the intelligence and above all, ruthlessness of Escobar in a very compelling way. All this adds up to a show which is violent, epic and exciting. Narcos does not subvert the genre conventions of a gangster film but instead embraces them, creating a show with plenty of style and substance.
- Hannibal Season 3
In its final season before it was cancelled by NBC, Hannibal took the leap from solid entertainment into true greatness. The show ditched its tired case of the week format as it moved into Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and Will Graham’s (Hugh Dancy) pre-existing mythology. In season three, instead of a crime procedural, we were treated to two of Thomas Harris’ novels beautifully condensed by series creator Bryan Fuller, with the help of a stellar cast and roster of directors. Hannibal benefitted strongly from a shift in focus to its female characters – a triple threat in the form of Caroline Dhavernas, Katherine Isabelle and Gillian Anderson. “We are not making television. We are making a pretentious art film from the 80s.” – Fuller stated before season three premiered. Anyone who has seen even a glimpse of Hannibal’s art design is aware of this. The show’s visuals are unlike anything else on television as evident by the gorgeous black and white introduction to season opener Antipasto or the kaleidoscopic sex scene between Alana Bloom and Margot Verger. While season three started slow, the fifth episode, Contorno, ended with one of the most kinetic action scenes of the year. Tony Scott was cited by Fuller as being a huge influence on this season. Although that sounds surprising at first, it actually makes sense once one realises how much fight sequences were present throughout the season, particular the latter half with serial killer Francis “The Great Dragon” Dollarhyde (Richard Armitrage) being portrayed as muscular, agile and an intensely physical presence. Unlike most shows cancelled prematurely, Hannibal wraps up its third season with an ending which I can’t imagine being any more perfect.
8. London Spy Season 1
Ben Whishaw has had a hell of a year. He racked up roles in many of major releases such as Spectre, The Lobster, Suffragette, The Danish Girl and In the Heart of the Sea. However he was finally given his time to shine as a lead in BBC’s five-part spy thriller created by Child 44 author Tom Rob Smith. Whishaw plays Danny, a gay ordinary man who falls in love with the mysterious Alex. However, after his partner’s suspicious death, Danny learns Alex was living a double life as a spy. With the help of his best friend, Scottie (Jim Broadbent, captivating), Danny attempts to discover the reason for his lover’s murder. Jakob Verbruggen (who directed all five episodes) proved during the first season of serial killer drama The Fall that he was gifted at creating an ambiance of menace and unease. His style of utilising surveillance footage and dark, moody settings fits in perfectly with Smith’s script which deals with the secrecy and hidden intricacies of the world of spying. Often episodes are just five long scenes but one hardly realises this when the dialogue and the circumstances are so palpably unsettling and creepy. London Spy’s love story, with its unflinching view of homosexuality and graphic sex, may be too much for certain viewers but sex has been always linked to espionage as evident by James Bond or the work of John Le Carre. While the finale is not wholly satisfying as its Bourne-esque ending clashes badly with the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or even Mr. Robot vibes of the show up until that point, London Spy was thrilling, shocking and deserves praise.
7. Show Me a Hero Miniseries
Rarely do shows boast so much talent both on screen and off – written by David Simon (The Wire, Treme) and William F. Zorsi (story editor for seasons 4 and 5 of The Wire), all six episodes directed by Paul Haggis (Crash) with a cast that includes Oscar Isaac, Winona Ryder, Bob Balaban, Catherine Keener, Jim Belushi, Jon Bernthal and Alfred Molina. The show is based upon the true story of a white middle-class neighborhood’s resistance to a federally mandated, scattered-site, public housing development in Yonkers, New York, and how these tensions affected the city as a whole – leading to mass demonstrations, death threats, bombings and suicide. Simon’s great talent, as evident by The Wire, is the way he portrays big, city and country-wide issues through the stories of individual people. By focusing in Show Me a Hero on multiple characters affected by the same event from all walks of life, whether it be upper class, lower class, working class or law enforcement, city government and journalists, Simon and Zorsi accurately depict the chaos of a city driven by fear of integration between races. This subject matter in the wrong hands and with the wrong actors could be dull and uninteresting. However with Isaac in the lead role of Yonkers mayor Nick Wasicsko, even the most boring legislation law becomes engaging. In the earlier episodes, Isaac injects his character with an infectious sense of bravado and confidence which one can’t help but root for. However, as the title of the show comes from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy” Wasicsko is ultimately a tragic figure. In the final episode even the most hardened person can’t help but sympathise with Isaac’s performance of a man downtrodden by the world.
6. The Affair Season 2
Season two of The Affair benefitted immensely by tweaking its previously established format. In its first season, writer Noah (Dominic West) and waitress Allison (Ruth Wilson) began an extra-marital affair over the course of a summer in Montauk. Each episode cut back and forth from his and her perspectives, complete with minor story-telling differences a la Rashomon. Meanwhile, a present-day narrative found them both recounting their stories to a police officer investigating a potential murder. Its sophomore season now gives voice to both Alison’s ex-husband Cole (Joshua Jackson) and Noah’s ex-wife Helen (Maura Tierney) as a method of further exploring the effects an affair has on those involved. Maura Tierney is incredible in the role of Helen, managing to make one wonder why she was side-lined in the first season. Noah continues to straddle the line between likeable and reckless in a way which feels utterly compelling, a credit to both the writers and Dominic West’s strong performance. Despite having four character perspectives as well as the previously mentioned present day crime narrative, the show never feels confusing and is sharp in its psychological exploration of its characters.