The best TV of 2015, part 2

The best TV of 2015, part 2

Illustration by Sarah Winifred Searle (swinsea.com)
Illustration by Sarah Winifred Searle (swinsea.com)

Yesterday, The A.V. Club began its survey of the year’s best television programming, counting down from No. 40 to No. 21. Today, we make our cases for the absolute best TV that 2015 had to offer, including fond farewells to old standbys, confident debuts from new favorites, and the latest efforts from ongoing shows that are just hitting (or continuing) their strides.

Contributors’ individual ballots can be found here.

20. Justified (FX)

It started out as a show about a lawman—a brusque cuss named Raylan Givens, more concerned with the broad strokes of justice than the fine print. By the end of six seasons, Justified had become an often-heartbreaking study of one hardscrabble Kentucky county, where poverty and pride mean that nearly everyone’s doing something illegal. Never an “antihero” per se, Raylan remained an unrepentant asshole from the start of the series to the end, even as he had a kid and formed semi-friendly relationships with his boss and co-workers. But he was also a Harlan boy, and after dancing around the meaning of that for five years, Justified’s final season completed the story it had been telling around the edges all along, about the angry kid who chose to insult his criminal jerk of a dad by putting on a badge, and about his two old friends—Boyd and Ava Crowder—who tried to make a stable-but-shady life for themselves in their crooked hometown, even as they were hounded by gangs and cops. As befits an Elmore Leonard adaptation, Justified ended with a few unexpected but satisfying twists; what mattered more was that showrunner Graham Yost honored what the characters had lived through, and gave his magnificent stars Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, and Joelle Carter one last chance to deliver some of the most flavorful dialogue on television. [Noel Murray]

Notable episodes: Fate’s Right Hand,” “The Hunt,” “The Promise

19. Marvel’s Jessica Jones (Netflix)

Krysten Ritter is an incredibly versatile actor, compelling in her short but memorable turn on Breaking Bad and then fiercely hilarious on the short-lived Don’t Trust The B---- In Apartment 23. And with Jessica Jones, she does her best work to date as the whiskey-slinging private investigator. Jessica has moments of intense strength (literally) and moments of intense vulnerability, and Ritter nails it all. And David Tennant is equally successful as the depraved Kilgrave. Despite his superpowers, he seems so real—his actions and words mirror the way abusers treat and speak to their victims in real life. (Kilgrave isn’t just a supervillain. He’s an abusive ex.) His evil masterplan isn’t some spectacular goal like taking over the world or destroying a government. He just goes through his life taking whatever he wants and raping and manipulating young women, and as a result, Kilgrave became the most terrifying supervillain Marvel has ever tackled. Jessica Jones works brilliantly with this part of the story, and the whole season explores abuser dynamics beyond just Kilgrave, making for very dark but very smart television that digs much deeper than a “hero versus villain” tale. Mike Colter and Rachael Taylor round out the cast with compelling performances, and Taylor’s Trish Walker becomes a breakout character—more than just a mere sidekick. [Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya]

Notable episodes: AKA The Sandwich Saved Me,” “AKA Sin Bin,” “AKA 1,000 Cuts”

18. Master Of None (Netflix)

Aziz Ansari’s playful, peculiar comic sensibility doesn’t seem to lend itself to a sitcom created in Ansari’s image, at least not as seamlessly as Louis CK’s acidic worldview ported to the show that lends Master Of None its basic template. But in expanding Ansari’s voice to sitcom-size, Master fleshes out the idea of who he is as a comedian and as a person, and he couldn’t be further from the swagger-obsessed Tom Haverford on Parks And Recreation. Ansari’s character Dev is an earnest, well-mannered actor in New York City just looking for a cool woman and the perfect plate of pasta, but Ansari elevates the low-concept log line by infusing the show with his singular perspective. “Parents,” which co-stars Ansari’s real-life mother and father as Dev’s family, flashes back to their immigration from India in one of the year’s most touching and unexpected episodes, while “Indians On TV” is a rare dissection of race from someone outside of America’s black-and-white binary. Both episodes feature conversations you’d never hear in any other show, but even when Master takes on broader subjects like the creeping inertia of long-term monogamy, it does so with ambitious structural experiments. The show is also the most cinematic and visually appealing sitcom of 2015, which feels like another outgrowth of Ansari’s point of view. With help from veteran Parks writer Alan Yang, Ansari turned his life into a comedy that shows up fully formed in a way sitcoms never do. To watch it is to see Ansari evolve from a casual acquaintance to a friend you wish you’d gotten to know sooner. [Joshua Alston]

Notable episodes:Parents,” “Indians On TV,” “Mornings

17. Rectify (Sundance)

The most meditative of crime dramas, Rectify, in its remarkable third season, manages to advance its mystery plot without sacrificing the minutely observed, resolutely human story that’s made this Sundance series one of the best shows on television. “The Future,” season three’s penultimate episode, sees J.D. Evermore’s conflicted but dogged Sheriff Carl Daggett make his boldest moves yet in getting to the bottom of the crime that sent series protagonist Daniel Holden (Aden Young) to death row; meanwhile, J. Smith-Cameron’s luminously devoted mother Janet finally makes plain the depth of faith she has in her tortured son. Young’s Daniel himself faces exile from sister Amantha’s (Abigail Spencer) apartment—and his hometown—with the same inscrutably wry stillness that’s made him Rectify’s riveting, enigmatic center throughout. In the final scene, Daniel and the people who’ve stuck by him through his incarceration and tumultuous release gather around the apartment-complex pool Daniel’s scrupulously been repainting on the final night before his banishment, drinking beer and embracing a last, stolen moment of improbable serenity before the world sweeps them back up in its implacable current. Such are the moments upon which Rectify is built. The season concludes with a rapturously warm and heartbreaking road trip for Janet and Daniel, but their poolside exchange in “The Future” is just as moving in its simplicity: “I wouldn’t mind seeing the ocean again, Mother.” “Why not.” [Dennis Perkins]

Notable episodes:Thrill Ride,” “Girl Jesus,” “The Source

16. Jane The Virgin (The CW)

Last season, Jane The Virgin emerged as one of the best new shows of the season (it came in at No. 17 last year on our 2014 list), with a fresh voice and a cast so affable it’s hard to pick a favorite (just kidding, it’s Jaime Camil’s Rogelio). But just like the telenovelas Jane The Virgin so expertly parodies, the plot could get increasingly complicated as the show moved on from its already high concept of a goody-two-shoes virgin (the divine Gina Rodriguez, who snagged a Golden Globe award for the role) who’s artificially inseminated by her rich former crush’s lovesick sister. So there was some trepidation after the excellent first season, especially with the addition of Jane and Rafael’s (Justin Baldoni) baby Mateo. But the second season has been just as strong as the first, expertly pulling in the cast of characters that exist within Jane’s orbit. Petra’s (Yael Grobglas) pregnancy scheme, for example, could have been a ridiculous swerve if it didn’t make sure that Petra stayed in Jane’s life for a reason that benefited the plot. Tonally, Jane The Virgin’s second season is also as sweet and funny as the first, possibly more so now that the impossibly cute Mateo is a living, breathing baby, and not just a specter that haunts Jane and all of her relationships. But none of this would work without Rodriguez, who remains an endearing center to the show, but is able to take on the news layers and complexities that come along with her new role as mom. [Molly Eichel]

Notable episodes:Chapter Twenty-Three,” “Chapter Twenty-Five,” “Chapter Twenty-Eight

15. Rick And Morty (Adult Swim)

At its best, science fiction uses the unlimited power of imagination to explore humanity’s strengths and weaknesses, constructing drama from the gap between who we are and who we can be. But the acerbic, hilarious Rick And Morty uses high-concept sci-fi rigmarole to explore the inherent chaos of humanity, and how trying to construct order within it is a fool’s errand. This season, creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon took the misadventures of our favorite alcoholic scientist and his nebbishy grandson (both played by Roiland) to new heights—the literal fracturing of time, battles with memory-manipulating parasites, exploits in universes within car batteries—but what remains constant is how traditional, Earth-bound ethics have no place in the infinite universe. While Rick operates on the assumption that the absurdity of the universe demands a callous, hedonistic approach to everything, Morty tries desperately to do “the right thing,” but the casual horrors of life with his grandfather force him to question everything he holds dear. This extends to Morty’s family too, as Beth (Sarah Chalke), Jerry (Chris Parnell), and Summer (Spencer Grammer) are compelled to examine their own fleeting existences by proxy. But as much as Rick And Morty illustrates the myriad conflicts that render life such a confounding mess, it also demonstrates how sacrifices small and large (okay, mostly large) can engender good will among those closest to you. Maybe it’s the most unlikely bonds that can transcend the disorder of modern life. [Vikram Murthi]

Notable episodes: “Total Rickall,” “The Ricks Must Be Crazy,” “The Wedding Squanchers

14. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

BoJack Horseman came out of nowhere in 2014, and knowing what to expect didn’t make its second season any less terrific. Its incisive Hollywoo(d) satire cut even deeper as it tackled institutional sexism, the ethics of eating meat, and the static nature of broadcast television. The absurdity ramped up gloriously with such highlights as a vision quest into a Thomas Kinkade painting, improv comedy as a stand-in for Scientology, and a J.D. Salinger-helmed game show called “Hollywoo Stars And Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things?? Let’s Find Out!” And it delved even further into the fears and regrets of its characters, as former sitcom star BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) found starring in his dream movie didn’t fix anything that was wrong with him, and Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris) and Diane (Alison Brie) grappled with professional and relationship crises. The entire cast—Arnett, Sedaris, Brie, Aaron Paul, Paul F. Tompkins—are doing some of the best work of their careers as they give these seemingly broad characters nuance, and season two had a terrifically eclectic guest star list with such highlights as Lisa Kudrow, Maria Bamford, Alan Arkin, Garry Marshall, and Liev Schreiber. BoJack was simultaneously 2015’s easiest and hardest character to root for as he took one step back for every two steps forward, and it’s a testament to BoJack Horseman that it balanced both sides of that tension as easily it balances the fact that BoJack is both man and horse. [Les Chappell]

Notable episodes: Hank After Dark,” “Let’s Find Out,” “Escape From L.A.

13. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)

Following up 30 Rock was undoubtedly an intimidating challenge, but Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt showed what Tina Fey and her creative partner Robert Carlock could accomplish unconstrained by network TV. (Though Kimmy’s first 13 episodes were produced for NBC, before Netflix swooped in and rescued the show from the underground bunker of the Peacock’s midseason schedule.) The story of this unbreakable heroine after her escape from a doomsday cult benefited from Fey’s razor-sharp dialogue and constant stream of bizarre non sequiturs, with the co-creator pulling double duty as one half of a notoriously ineffectual prosecution team. She also wisely drafted 30 Rock vets Jane Krakowski (as Kimmy’s vain employer) and Tituss Burgess (as Kimmy’s theatrically minded roommate), but it’s Ellie Kemper as the title character who anchors the show, with her unflagging and hypnotic mix of courage and optimism after a potentially life-ruining event. It’s impossible not to root for Kimmy Schmidt and her 15-years-too-late pop-culture references. Xan says what? Burn. [Gwen Ihnat]

Notable episodes:Kimmy Goes Outside!,” “Kimmy Rides A Bike!,” “Kimmy Makes Waffles!

12. Mr. Robot (USA)

At first it looks like Mr. Robot will be another USA procedural, darker but no less poppy than the channel’s relaxing hits. Every week Rami Malek’s skinny, bug-eyed hacker Elliot will right another wrong and learn another lesson in collateral damage or something. But soon enough it’s clear there are no stand-alones on Mr. Robot. There’s no compartmentalization. Everything comes back to you eventually. That guiding principle is what leads Elliot to not just one hacker team, led by Christian Slater’s title character, but an international anarchist alliance, and it’s what yields the season’s most powerful moments, among them a wallop that hurts more than it shocks because of the show’s unique formal approach. Direct address, handheld breaks, and decadent negative space sell Elliot’s paranoid fantasy the way fluidity of time and space sells Will Graham’s delusion on Hannibal. Mr. Robot has its psycho moments—how better for its disaffected youths (among them Suburgatory’s master of deadpan, Carly Chaikin) to picture late capitalism?—but the physical violence doesn’t hit nearly as hard as the psychological damage. Creator Sam Esmail originally conceived of the season as the first act of a feature, which intriguingly makes the overall picture sound more like Cosmopolis than Fight Club. As it stands, Mr. Robot has a hell of a climax to be just beginning. [Brandon Nowalk]

Notable episodes:eps1.0_hellofriend.mov,” “eps1.7_wh1ter0se.m4v,” “eps1.8_m1rr0r1ng.qt

11. Show Me A Hero (HBO)

David Simon’s Show Me A Hero opens with a civil rights victory that, although far from decisive, is significant nonetheless: A protracted legal battle culminating in an order for public housing, theoretically putting an end to segregation in ’80s Yonkers. But this perfectly reasonable, humane request is being made of a city that, despite being north of the Mason-Dixon line, is still deeply entrenched in racism—it’s just of the values-peddling, redlining variety. What follows is years of political chicanery (condensed into six hours) that thwart construction and end the careers of at least two Yonkers mayors. Although Simon’s miniseries certainly enlivens the tedium of city council proceedings and seemingly endless court appeals, it does so without sacrificing the nuances of the conflict. Director Paul Haggis alternates between illustrating the (willful) ignorance of the middle-class whites and the reluctant optimism of the disadvantaged minorities, and both sides get an ambassador. Although the loudest shots are fired within the city council’s chambers, Show Me A Hero features plenty of quiet moments that remind us what’s really at the center of this struggle: Everyone just wants a home, notes Oscar Isaac’s Nick Wasicsko, who inherits the imbroglio when he becomes the youngest mayor in the city’s history. As the interim champion of the people, Isaac plays Wasicsko with a mixture of boyish integrity and ambition, even as he’s trying to worm his way out of the agreement. Although history sidelined Wasicsko, its Isaac’s performance that grounds all the political posturing and civilian turmoil. [Danette Chavez]

Notable episodes: Hours two, three, and six

10. Review (Comedy Central)

Hollywood didn’t know how to harness Andy Daly’s formidable comedic talent until Review debuted in the spring of 2014, and the show’s two seasons have provided a brilliant showcase for it. No other show on Comedy Central—or TV, really—so perfectly threads the needle of bleak hilarity, as Daly’s “life reviewer” Forrest MacNeil destroys his life (and the lives of others) with his inexplicable devotion to his job. Season one set an impressive standard of insanity that season two gleefully topped, making MacNeil a cult leader, live life as a little person, try a glory hole, murder someone, be buried alive, and much more. It’s the kind of show that sneaks TV’s darkest throwaway joke into its opening credits, as a clip from MacNeil reviewing babysitting shows him walking through a field with police officers looking for a body. Review has so aggressively pursued outrageous experiences for MacNeil that it’s easy to wonder how a third season—which Comedy Central has, frustratingly, not yet announced—could match it. But the second season of Review proved that Daly and the show’s excellent writing staff are up to the challenge. What could they do with the confidence of a third season? [Kyle Ryan]

Notable episodes: Murder, Magic 8 Ball, Procrastination,” “Cult, Perfect Body,” “Falsely Accused, Sleep With Your Teacher, Little Person

9. UnREAL (Lifetime)

Let’s be honest: No one expected a show like this out of Lifetime. But anybody who listened to word of mouth caught on to one of the best hour-long stomach-punches of the year. A takedown of the reality-TV ouroboros, UnReal maintained a gleeful fixation on the sausage-making behind the scenes at a popular dating competition, even as it gave us a handful of women whose plight as contestants seemed like the abandoned amusement park in a horror movie. Creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro was a field producer on The Bachelor; in what’s surely an unrelated phenomenon, UnREAL condemns the process with a very specific bleakness. (A few episodes into the season, the Bachelor host Chris Harrison protested the show’s veracity—maybe a little too much.) But UnREAL’s biggest powerhouses are still producer Rachel and showrunner Quinn. These two pitch-black antiheroes aren’t just the show’s most effective story engine; they’re the sort of layered, almost unforgivable but deeply human performances even peak TV is just beginning to get the hang of. Shiri Appleby is a revelation as amoral disaster zone Rachel, and Constance Zimmer’s Quinn, a producer so amoral she makes Rachel look like Bambi, has the energy of a screwball dictator. They’re a perfectly parasitic symbiosis that grounds this show in its every dreadful moment and turns it into one of the year’s most nail-biting thrillers. Rachel’s consuming guilt makes UnREAL one of the year’s most heartbreaking dramas. And a season of complex narratives about how we create narratives? That makes it the most satisfying TV about TV on TV. [Genevieve Valentine]

Notable episodes: Return,” “Savior,” “Future

8. Transparent (Amazon)

A year after its breakout first season, Transparent remains a strikingly well-made television series, with vivid direction, strong performances, and writing that makes even the most frustrating Pfeffermans into people whose journeys we want to follow. But the show’s second season is most noteworthy for how it pushes its investigation of gender, sexuality, and queerness forward. If the first season was the story of the family coming to terms with Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), the second season is the story of Maura and her family coming to terms with both present and past struggles of those who fail to conform to societal norms. Jill Soloway and her writing staff resist the temptation to rehash the same conflicts as the year before, pushing deeper into the nuances of transgender identity and finding subtle yet significant challenges that Maura and those around her are facing on a daily basis. A season-long, magical realist journey into the past finds the series at its best: taking risks, taking identity seriously, and developing a complex connection between the issues at stake and the characters that carry the show forward. Transparent succeeds by understanding that those characters are not—and will never be—above the toxicity of society around them, and triumphs by exploring what happens when those same characters nonetheless choose to move forward with an open mind. The result is an increasingly rich queer narrative that cements the series’ place in both cultural and critical conversations. [Myles McNutt]

Notable episodes:Kina Hora,” “Man On The Land,” “Grey Green Brown & Copper”

7. Hannibal (NBC)

Appalling and appetizing in equal measure, insightful, and exquisitely filmed, Hannibal has always been transcendent television. But in its third season, showrunner Bryan Fuller’s grand fantasy transcends even itself. Thriving for two seasons as a lush, artful thriller with elements of the procedural, this year Hannibal emerged from its chrysalis as something richer, darker, and altogether more disturbing. It’s an operatic fairy tale, an expressionist horror reverie in which emotion, not plot, steers the story. Decamping to Europe with Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson) first seems to be in his thrall, but the interplay of power and plotting between them is more complex, and more dangerous, than that. The Red Dragon’s arc initially resembles earlier cases, but much of the investigation is elided because Francis Dolarhyde (Richard Armitage) is more than another rococo serial killer. The dark romance between Hannibal and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) is central to the series, and especially to the third season, and Dolarhyde’s body is the corpus where they consummate their peculiar passion in a horrifically intimate act of violence and love. Hannibal transforms its characters and itself with cruel finesse, and in doing so, it transforms its viewers’ expectations and desires. [Emily L. Stephens]

Notable episodes:Contorno,” “Dolce,” “The Wrath Of The Lamb

6. The Leftovers (HBO)

The second season of HBO’s harrowing drama began by throwing down the gauntlet at the feet of everyone who complained it was too oblique, too elliptical, too downright impenetrable to make for quality television. Rather than soften its approach, it doubled down, setting the first new scenes of its sophomore premiere back in caveman days, and refusing to explain why. The episode that followed was largely devoid of any of the characters fans knew or cared about, as if to say, “Oblique? You ain’t see nothin’ yet.” But for all the strange goings-on and allusive images seemingly too numerous to count, the show delivered one of the most ambitious and complex arcs of narrative television in recent memory, as it skillfully wove together strand after strand of ambiguous and portent-laden story—no skein too small—and then paid off every damn one. Episodes still varied between following single characters and roaming among the sprawling cast, but even more so than in season one, it all felt meticulously orchestrated, with nary a wasted scene or dropped plot. Damon Lindelof’s commitment to keeping even the most fantastical storylines grounded in the realm of possibility (such as the “Is this all just a near-death hallucination?” of season highlight “International Assassin”) keeps all the crazy tethered to the incredibly honest and human issue at the heart of the show: How any of us can go on living in a world that causes us this much pain. [Alex McCown]

Notable episodes: “Axis Mundi,” “No Room At The Inn,” “International Assassin”

5. You’re The Worst (FXX)

You’re The Worst debuted in the summer of 2014 to low expectations (of the FX comedies debuting that July, the now-canceled Married was the presumed “winner” of the pair) and came out of the year as one of TV’s best shows, new or otherwise. Showrunner Stephen Falk’s voice gave an entertainment factor to morally questionable characters without reaching “OMG” levels, and it provided a relatability to these same characters, despite how self-involved they could all be. Following a jump to sister network FXX, the question became one of whether the series could keep it up in its sophomore season—after all, romantic comedies tend to end as soon as the romantic leads get together, and season one ended with Jimmy and Gretchen moving in together, a sense of realization spreading across their faces. But not only was You’re The Worst able to replicate the magic of the first season, it was able to capitalize on it and create an even richer story about how one ends up being “the worst” in the first place. After beginning the season with the early question of whether or not Jimmy and Gretchen can work as a committed couple, You’re The Worst flipped the script to tell one of the most honest and compelling stories on television: Gretchen’s unending struggle with depression and Jimmy’s inability to “fix” it. The show serves as a reminder that a cable comedy with a darker, serious edge can still be funny—laughing through the tears was an essential part of watching season two. [LaToya Ferguson]

Notable episodes:Born Dead,” “There Is Not Currently A Problem,” “LCD Soundsystem

4. Better Call Saul (AMC)

Typically when a critic says a TV show is “still finding itself,” the comment is meant as a criticism. A show that doesn’t know itself is a show with a lot of loose ends, muddled characterizations, and narrative cul-de-sacs. That isn’t true of Better Call Saul, which takes the process of episodic self-actualization and turns it into a moving examination of identity, self-knowledge, and how hard it is to be a good man when everyone expects you to be bad. Spinning off from one of the best loved series of the past decade, Saul had big shoes to fill, and in its first couple of episodes, it didn’t shy away from referencing its past. Those references were a misnomer, however; the story of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and his struggle to go legit is too sprawling to fit comfortably inside the shadow of Breaking Bad. The first season spans multiple genres—gritty crime, sunny legal drama, slapstick comedy, family tragedy—and while the tonal shifts aren’t always comfortable, the energy generated by switching between them gives the season an exhilarating pull. At times it’s possible to feel the writers struggling to pull various threads together, and the effort of that makes it all the more satisfying when they succeed. With Odenkirk doing the best dramatic work of his career serving as a center, the show demonstrates what can happen when you take a creative team at the top of their game and let them improvise. [Zack Handlen]

Notable episodes: Five-O,” “Pimento,” “Marco

3. Fargo (FX)

Most of what Noah Hawley’s Fargo borrows from the Coen brothers is obvious: the arch tone, the odd inside joke, some winking music cues, and the sudden eruptions of violence. But Fargo’s more narratively and thematically complex second season subtly employed another core Coens tactic, turning a seemingly glib period piece into knowing cultural anthropology. In season two, the late 1970s isn’t just the setting, it’s the vibe. While telling another bloody, twisty Midwestern crime story, Hawley also captured the state of the nation immediately pre-Reagan, when the last vestiges of cosmic hippie weirdness and homespun Americana started to give way to big business and authoritarianism—all with the blessing of the ordinary citizens who were feeling overwhelmed by the creeping ugliness of the wider world. (Any similarities to life in 2015 is undoubtedly intentional.) The great trick of the TV Fargo is that it sneaks big ideas into tense, funny, entertaining hours of television, populated by memorable characters, played by the highly capable likes of Jean Smart, Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst, and Bokeem Woodbine. Throw in one genuinely decent hero (played by Patrick Wilson) and one marvelously hateable villain (Jeffrey Donovan), and this show becomes the rare cable drama that forgoes attenuated storytelling and moral ambiguity, and instead delivers episode after episode where a lot happens, and all of it matters. [Noel Murray]

Notable episodes: Rhinoceros,” “Loplop,” “The Castle

2. The Americans (FX)

The practice of concealing dead bodies in suitcases has been a television trope ever since Big Luggage devoured the corpse-disposal market once dominated by Persian rugs. But actually cramming a human being into a suitcase would be painstaking, sick-making work, and never before the incredible third season of The Americans has it been portrayed accordingly. For married KGB sleeper agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), such an activity passes for date night. But even for trained professionals working in tandem, configuring a rapidly stiffening body to Rollaboard dimensions is more than a notion, all snapping bones and contorted extremities. It takes time to do the process justice, and The Americans seems to have nothing but time on its hands, even as it ratchets the tension and suspense to excruciating levels.

Showrunners Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg understand that with a television show, as with a macabre packing party, it takes time to do the job right. Their careful, deliberate storytelling becomes more rewarding over time, setting the slow-burn spy drama apart from the many shows written to the immediate-gratification rhythms of social media. The Americans invests deeply in its characters, and despite the spycraft and close combat, the most riveting scenes usually involve people talking, doing their best to reason through impossible circumstances. The suitcase incident—which is amplified with startlingly effective sound design—would reduce lesser couples to rubble. Philip and Elizabeth are stronger than ever, not only because they share a mission to destroy America, but because they exist in a show where thoughtful communication is made paramount. [Joshua Alston]

Notable episodes:Walter Taffet,” “Stingers,” “Do Mail Robots Dream Of Electric Sheep?

1. Mad Men (AMC)

As evidenced by the previous two entries in this list, the 1960s didn’t end on December 31, 1969—the decade’s conflicts, innovations, and preoccupations spilled across the ensuing years, and we’re still working through them today. The passengers eventually disembark, but the carousel keeps spinning. The ’60s didn’t end on Mad Men, either: The second half of season seven may have been dubbed “The End Of An Era” (perfectly on-the-nose nomenclature for a show that was never afraid to mix bluntness with its many subtleties), but that had more to do with passages in the characters’ lives than it did to pages on the calendar. Taking one giant leap from the moon landing to the middle of 1970, Mad Men found the employees of Sterling Cooper & Partners adjusting to life with their new corporate overlords, a relinquishment of independence that Don Draper (Jon Hamm) fought all the way to the Pacific Coast.

The insincere pride Don projects when he first says the words “I’m Don Draper from McCann Erickson” was just one of the signs that 2015 would finally be Hamm’s year at the Emmys—ending a three-year Mad Men drought at the ceremony, and making sure the Television Academy threw at least one bone to one of the greatest dramatic ensembles in TV history. Hamm’s character wound up with the grandest exit, but the strengths of the full ensemble remained on display from “Severance” through “Person To Person”: Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) burned things down and started fresh; a teenaged Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) identified some ugly family traits, but was helpless against perpetuating them. Ceasing to punish themselves for failing to be Don, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) each strode confidently toward new frontiers.

The series finale set off minimal fireworks and paid zero notice to outlandish fan theories: Don wasn’t D.B. Cooper, Megan (Jessica Paré) wasn’t Sharon Tate. The one major death was slow, dignified, and left to occur off screen. But the ambiguity of its final seconds still managed to touch off heated debate, leaving viewers to connect the dots between a smiling Don and the utopian throngs gathered on a hilltop. The “End Of An Era” went out with the promise of “a new day, new ideas, a new you,” philosophies for a new age that, not so coincidentally, sound a lot like advertising copy. [Erik Adams]

Notable episodes:The Forecast,” “Lost Horizon,” “Person To Person”