“Mr. Robot” (USA)—With just its pilot episode, this out-of-nowhere masterpiece earned a place alongside modern TV classics like “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men.” Amazingly, the tightly plotted series about a mentally unstable computer hacker (the “where has he been all our lives?” Rami Malek) recruited by anarchist revolutionaries, got better, twistier and more intense as the season went on. No show this year had more mind-bending surprises. Credit writer-creator Sam Esmail for gifting us with this new obsession.
“Better Call Saul” (AMC)—It’s not an easy thing following up a fan fave like “Breaking Bad,” but this slow-burn comedy drama clicked together like a Rubik’s Cube by the end of its first, all-too-brief season. Watching “Slippin” Jimmy McGill (the increasingly great Bob Odenkirk) evolve into Saul Goodman was as mesmerizing as a slo-mo trainwreck. Seeing Chuck McGill (Michael McKean)’s flip-of-the-switch transformation from comic relief to cold-hearted villain was shocking and sad. And Jonathan Banks just plain deserves an Emmy for being Jonathan Banks.
“Daredevil”/“Jessica Jones” (Netflix) Of course we’re all suffering from superhero fatigue at this point. How could we not, given the number of comic book-based movies and TV shows out there? But this one-two punch from Marvel Studios and Netflix is the perfect antidote, showing just how much depth and range remain to be explored in the genre. More than the usual costumed punch-’em-ups, these shows explored some of the heavy-duty drama lurking behind those masks. “Daredevil” gave us appropriately hard-hitting action and a memorable villain in Byronic gangster Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio). Exciting as that was, “Jessica Jones” one-upped it with a thoughtful, shockingly serious “post-superhero” tale of PTSD and survival featuring a reeeeally creepy bad guy (David Tennant’s mind-controlling stalker Kilgrave).
“Fargo” (FX)—So many great shows attempt to follow up on their greatness by simply repeating everything they did right in the first go-around—which, more often than not, results in tedium (cough“True Detective”cough). Last season FX’s “Fargo” dumped everything from the Coen brothers’ inspiration of a film—except the look and feel. Appropriately enough the show’s second season dumped everything from the first season—actors, plots, setting—to spin a bloodthirsty, blackly comic tale of depraved minds and criminal turf wars in the chilly Upper Midwest. I can’t wait to see (and couldn’t possibly guess) what they’ll do with season three.
“Parks and Recreation” (NBC)—Yes, we had another big sendoff this TV season, with AMC’s “Mad Men” offering an impactful ending to the lives of Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Roger Sterling and the rest. But NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” may have given audiences the greatest, most heartfelt finale in TV history. Star Amy Poehler and creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur basically spent the entire final season giving their beloved—and after seven seasons, perfectly developed—characters every happy ending they deserved. Since 2009 this show has done the impossible—make us believe that government can actually accomplish great things, so long as the people behind it are decent, respectful, conscientious human beings first and politicians a distant second.
Also great this year: “BoJack Horseman” (Netflix), “Documentary Now!” (IFC), “Mad Men” (AMC), “The Man in the High Castle” (Amazon), “Master of None” (Netflix).