“Fargo” (FX) Translating (however loosely) the Coen brothers’ 1996 Oscar-winner into a TV series was risky as hell. But writer-creator Noah Hawley took the cold-blooded atmosphere of the film and spun it into a magnificently original and completely gripping rumination on crime and punishment starring some fantastic actors (the icy cool Billy Bob Thornton, the lovable Allison Tolman, the comically wretched Martin Freeman). Can’t wait for season two (with an entirely new cast and story)!
“True Detective” (HBO) This detective series shot through with hints of cosmic horror had its fans and its detractors. But what made it such a headline-grabber was its coal-black dissection of traditional buddy cop shows—taking viewers into a world where bad things happen, justice is an illusion and time is a flat circle. Like “Fargo,” season two will have an entirely new cast and story.
“Manhattan” (WGN) Would this behind-the-scenes look at the building of the atomic bomb still be in the Top 10 if it hadn’t been shot in (and centered on) New Mexico? Probably. While I can’t speak to the historical accuracy, I can say this is how to do high-stakes weekly TV drama without resorting to soap opera hysterics.
“Black Mirror” (Netflix) It took a while to get to America, but this speculative, “Twilight Zone”-esque anthology from England was worth the wait. It features some of the most frighteningly accurate, terrifyingly on-the-nose visions of our near future. (Spoiler alert: The future ain’t so bright.) Don’t try to binge-watch this thing without a heavy dose of antidepressants.
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (HBO) Not to take anything away from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” (which had a fantastic year) or “The Colbert Report” (R.I.P.). But John Oliver is doing political satire right over on HBO. Unlike his compatriots in comedy, he typically devotes an entire show to one single issue, making this one of the most thoughtful political discourses (funny or otherwise) on TV today.
“Transparent” (Amazon) Jeffrey Tambor (“Arrested Development”) continues to impress in this seriocomic look at a father who realizes (rather late in life) that he’s transgender. The show surrounds him with a dysfunctional family that’s even more confused about their own lives and nails its tone in a way that other shows would do well to emulate.
“Silicon Valley” (HBO) Juvenile? Absolutely. Confused about the role of women in technology? Yup, just like the real Silicon Valley. But Mike Judge’s hilariously raunchy look at today’s venture capital-filled world of technology speculation was the most authentically nerdy show of the year (unlike CBS’ “Scorpion”). The season-ending episode, “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency,” is one of the most elaborate penis jokes ever constructed—and a pitch-perfect examination of math geekery.
“The Knick” (Showtime) Steven Soderbergh’s unusual historical drama reads more like a lengthy art house drama than a TV series. That’s a compliment. Set in a turn-of-the-century hospital and concentrating on a brilliant but drug-addicted surgeon (the mesmerizing Clive Owen), this gritty show sports a no-holds-barred approach to the bloody details of early 1900s medicine (and society).
“Too Many Cooks” (Cartoon Network) Like a lot of people, I don’t know what to make of this bizarro, late-
“Rick and Morty” (Cartoon Network) Cartoons on TV continue to kick ass. Surviving the rocky end (and surprising revival) of “Community,” creator Dan Harmon turned his attentions to this wonderfully foul-mouthed take on the Back to the Future dynamic of the crazy scientist and the wide-eyed teenager. The sci-fi jokes are more unhinged than any Harmon has previously attempted, and the result is one of the rudest, funniest shows on TV.