Yes, we’re living in a golden age of television — which makes the task of narrowing down my favorites of the last year especially difficult. (Plus, there are still quite a few highly regarded, much-recommended shows that are sitting in my DVR waiting to be watched.)
1. Olive Kitteridge (HBO) The heroine of this miniseries, brilliantly played by Frances McDormand, can best be described as a pill. She’s abrasive to her pharmacist husband, to her son, who visibly shrinks at her approach and flees as fast as he possibly can, and to just about everyone else who crosses her path. Director Lisa Cholodenko, working from Jane Anderson’s adaptation of the Elizabeth Strout novel, don’t try to soften her edges. Nor do they turn her into a shrewish caricature. She’s an uncompromising figure who only belatedly comes to realize the shortcomings of her worldview.
2. Getting On (HBO) The best comedy on TV is one that gets about as much respect as Obamacare on Fox News. Why is that? Well, the setting may be a sticking point for some viewers: the geriatric ward of a financially strapped hospital, portrayed with telling accuracy. And there’s the fact that virtually the entire cast is female, led by the great Laurie Metcalfe as a vain striver of a physician who’s more fixated on her dubious research into incontinence than on patient care. The ensemble also includes Alex Borstein (Lois on Family Guy!) and Niecy Nash (Deputy Raineesha from Reno 911!) as overworked nurses, and a host of memorable guest spots by the likes of Jean Smart and June Squibb (as a hilariously foul-mouthed bigot of a patient).
3. The Good Wife (CBS) The CBS mainstay has rediscovered its groove — and proved surprisingly nimble so late in its run. Rather than waiting until sweeps or a cliffhanger season finale, Josh Charles’ Will Gardner was killed off in March — a rare and genuine surprise in a medium where cast departures tend to be telegraphed well in advance. And the effect of Will’s departure seemed to liberate the show’s writers — shaking up the dynamics of the law firm in ways that are still playing out well into the sixth season. Plus, it’s not entirely clear that the show will continue to be a law-firm-set drama — the campaign of Julianna Margulies’ Alicia Florek for Illinois state’s attorney opens up a whole new set of options for where this drama might go. And it’s been delightful to see the flashbacks to first-season Alicia standing by her disgraced pol hubby — a stance that seems inconceivable for the Alicia we’ve come to know.
4. Broad City / Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central) Women continue to be the driving force behind some of the sharpest comedies on TV, and these two half-hours on Comedy Central offer complementary spins on contemporary life. Broad City is a more-or-less straightforward sitcom, with a millennial version of Mary and Rhoda trying to make it in the big city. Only it’s set in NYC, and Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer (the one with the shellfish allergy) are more likely to toss their cookies than their hat in the air. Schumer’s sketch show, meanwhile, manages to be both hilarious and incisively satirical: Witness her depiction of a military videogame where playing a female avatar leads not to battlefield glory but a barracks rape that top brass won’t prosecute.
5. The Americans (FX) Part historical drama, part spy thriller, part family series — entirely brilliant. In its second remarkable season, The Americans deepened its saga about two longtime KGB agents embedded in Reagan-era Washington, D.C. Perhaps the most interesting figure to emerge this season played only a cameo role in the pilot: Elizabeth and Phillip’s teenage daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor). She’s suspicious of her parents (like all teenagers), defying them by flirting with Christianity (not unlike Grace in The Good Wife), and a possible target of recruitment a la Jared, the ill-fated son of their colleagues.
6. Silicon Valley (HBO) The tech boom has long been ripe for dramatization, and it gets a savvy and sympathetic depiction in Silicon Valley. Yes, the hero coders hoping to strike it big with Pied Piper are a bunch of nerds — but unlike the guys on The Big Bang Theory, their antisocial awkwardness isn’t merely played for laughs. And the show is never more funny than when it reveals the shortcomings of technology: when Zach Woods’ Jonah gets stuck in a driverless car or when the late, great Christopher Evan Welch’s tech tycoon has an epic fail on an attempted holographic phone call.
7. Louie (FX) “Do you know the meanest thing you can say to a fat girl? ‘You’re not fat.'” Guest star Sarah Baker’s Riverside Park speech to Louie was the most brilliant commentary on body image in recent memory. (How is it that a not-exactly-svelte guy like Louie can still be considered a leading man, but he has to be goaded into even holding hands with a comparably proportioned woman with whom he hits it off conversationally and intellectually?) That wasn’t the only highlight of the season: After catching his daughter experimenting with weed, he spun off several clear-eyed flashback episodes about his days as a teenage stoner.
8. Homeland (Showtime) Label this one “most improved.” After a brilliant first season, the post-9/11 spy drama went quickly downhill. Thankfully, the problematic Manchurian ginger (Damian Lewis’ traitorous Nicholas Brody) is gone now. This season offered an intriguingly plotted, pointedly topical story that took CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) into the field in Pakistan, where her medically managed bipolar disorder was (mostly) sidelined for basic competence in the face of some very difficult circumstances. Homeland had everything we wanted from a modern espionage yarn: a stormed U.S. embassy, seduction of sources, traitors on both sides, crosses, double crosses, and only occasional bursts of classic jazz.
9. @Midnight (Comedy Central) So many late-night shows are guest-dependent. But not Chris Hardwick’s half-hour game show for punning comedians riffing on headlines of the day — or their modern equivalent, Vines and memes and trending YouTube clips. Besides, where else can I get my Ron Funches fix?
10. How to Get Away With Murder (ABC) The Paper Chase it ain’t. But darned if Shonda Rhimes’ new legal drama isn’t another hit of episodic crack as it juggles an ongoing murder mystery with the training of overly ambitious law students by a defense attorney-cum-professor (played by Viola Davis with utter confidence and flashes of wig-baring vulnerability). On the basis of the first nine twisty episodes, it’s also safe to say that this is one of the most structurally intricate series ever attempted. TV snobs would be talking more about the show’s technique and artifice — if it weren’t so much fun. (Or, one suspects, if it were on cable.)
Honorable mentions: Veep (HBO); Orange Is the New Black (Netflix); Please Like Me (Logo); Jane the Virgin (WB); Orphan Black (BBC America)