Welcome to the Screen Scholars year-end countdown of the tops in TV and movies for 2015, a year defined by an abundance of choices. While as learned of a television expert as James Wolcott claimed Peak TV is too much TV, we feel it’s all in how you use it, and we’re here for you with our suggestions for what’s good in the vast
wasteland that is the modern world of TV. Season ones dominate the list, but there are also a couple shows which went out on the highest of notes. Stay tuned here for the next ten titles tomorrow.
30. Casual [Hulu]
We got another does of social commentary about the dating world via the show Casual. You know times are hard when the developer of a dating app can’t even get his own algorithm to give him a match. Luckily, Alex is not totally alone. Thanks to his sister Valerie’s recent divorce, he has her and her teenage daughter Laura as roomies. They can all commiserate with each other on how insane dating is — no matter where you are in life. It’s just as challenging for someone getting back into the game after being married as it is for the lifelong bachelor.Try being a hormonal teen with a crush on her teacher, that’s no walk in the park either. The lines of right and wrong def get blurred here on many levels and the characters are not particularly nice people, but it still kept us coming back week after week.
29. Difficult People [Hulu]
Creator Julie Klausner and her iconic screamer pal Billy Eichner play the titular leads of Difficult People, and to say that’s not a stretch from type for either is the highest compliment I can pay this brilliantly nihilistic Hulu comedy. The pair play slightly less successful exaggerations of themselves as their pop culture insults both keep them employed and get them into classic jams. They’re a pair of brattier, and even less apologetic, Larry Davids, and as with Larry (or at least Curb Your Enthusiasm’s version of Larry), it’s even funnier and more poignant when the world around them goes even madder, as when Billy’s new boyfriend is turned off when Billy makes a valiant attempt to be a “participator,” a trait Billy vociferously had hated in the boyfriend; or when he subsequently meets idol Martin Short, who saw his participation and lays hilariously, if cruelly, into his lack of talent as a comedian. Extra random points go to James Adomian as Kasner’s effetely stoic, but sweetly loving, steady.
28. Key & Peele [Comedy Central]
This year on Key & Peele, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele lampooned Outkast (who were still on hiatus at the time), Gremlins 2, Nazis, Ray Parker Jr., along with resurrecting many of its regular characters. Key & Peele made the irrelevant timely, and the uncomfortable hilarious. This year the show made its pop culture mark when Luther appeared at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Now that the shows has ended, we’re left with Portlandia’s Nina and Lance where Andre and Meegan used to be, and it’s just not the same. Key & Peele filled the void that was left when Chapelle’s Show ended; not simply in Black sketch comedy, but for incisive, political, satirical, hilarious sketch comedy with the power to reach many and facilitate a cultural change.
-Katherine M. Hill
27. Better Call Saul [AMC]
As potential spin-off fodder, Bob Odenkirk’s slick-talking, comic-relief of a shyster lawyer, Saul Goodman, though a scene-stealing character on Breaking Bad, would not likely be high up on the list. Yet Vince Gilligan was once again more prescient than the lot of us, so here we are in the land of Better Call Saul, and what a strange, wonderful world it is. While not locked in time — it opens as Saul has sullenly followed through on his post-BB Nebraska Cinnabon exile — most of the action of BCS takes place long before Walter White started cooking his signature blue meth. Saul is simply James McGill, a small-time public defender kinda, sorta trying desperately to go straight, and escape both the shadow of his once-successful brother Chuck (Michael McKean) and his past as Chicago’s “Slippin’ Jimmy.” It doesn’t always go well (although sometimes it almost does). McGill has yet to develop Saul’s slick sheen; he still earnestly feels something akin to passion as he defends an array of obvious criminals and helpless victims, trying to set the table for his own firm — an event we know will never happen. Most shocking of all is how heartbreaking it is to watch James McGill genuinely try during his in between days — after his life as con-man Jimmy, but before he became true con-artist Saul Goodman.
– Jason Thurston
26. How To Get Away With Murder [ABC]
Shondaland has expanded and this time it’s a classic whodunnit tale with an less classic heroine leading the way. If you ever wanted a kick-ass, stealthy, someone-you-love-to-hate lead, look no further than Annalise Keating. Law Professor by day and by-any-means-necessary lawyer by night she offers her top students real world experience by interning for her firm. Little did they know it would mean becoming an accomplice to murder. Who can you trust if you can’t trust each other? They don’t have the pleasure of finding out.
25. Man Seeking Woman [FXX]
Man Seeking Woman plants eternally neurotic Josh (Jay Baruchel in 2015’s most on-the-nose casting) in a hyper-surreal world. When Josh’s girlfriend Maggie dumps him in the opening scene, instantly he’s surrounded by a Charlie Brown-esque personal rainstorm, complete with downpouring cats and dogs. From there, his sister Liz (Britt Lower) sets him up with an actual bridge troll, he meets Maggie’s new boyfriend, Hitler (as in Hitler Hitler), and is rewarded with a call from Obama when he earns a date with a woman on the subway — all in the first episode. Subsequent adventures find Josh opting to be surgically attached to a date, becoming jealous of a rival made entirely of penises, and attending a destination wedding in actual Hell, complete with wisecracking demons. In the most ambitious episode of the season, the tables are turned on his seemingly uber-together single sis (“partner is just around the corner”), as she gets dumped, rained upon, ridiculed by a tea party of married toddlers, and dates an actual robot. It’s all quite silly, yet works as creator Simon Rich imbues these characters with enough depth that you are quickly invested in their rises and falls, however ridiculous.
24. Marvel’s Jessica Jones [Netflix]
While Marvel’s been everywhere these past few years, they’ve really knocked it out of the park when they roll out their C-List warriors. Featured in the “Alias” book series since 2001, Jessica Jones is the second of the upcoming Defenders team to be unveiled (following Daredevil) and features a particularly dark superhero. Jessica is an alcoholic miles away from comfortable in her own skin. Oddly unique about Jones is that there is no specificity or gimmick to her powers; she’s merely leagues stronger and more capable than the average human. But there are limits to her power, as exploited by Season One villain Kilgrave (Purple Man in print) — a mind-control whiz (played to charmingly creepster perfection by David Tennant) whose thrall she has only recently escaped when we meet her. They battle in a soul-sucked (and apparently alien-battered) NYC, a landscape which makes Gotham look positively Metropolitan-esque, while she tries to protect her friends. Of particular note here is love interest Luke Cage (next up for his own series in April), as a brooding bartender with indestructible skin, brought to life by Mike Colter with all of the charisma of The Good Wife’s Lemond Bishop, minus the ruthlessness.
23. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver [HBO]
On Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show sign-off, John Oliver lightly roasted his one-time boss with the observation “when something’s important, it’s worth taking the time to discuss it in depth. I’m talking 15, 18, 20 minutes, otherwise what are you really doing?” This should adequately drive home the notion that it was indeed good timing (and our good fortune) that the Brit who subbed so tremendously in Stewart’s chair in Summer 2013 was unavailable by the time the latter chose to take his leave. In 2015, Oliver kept his knack for finding double-digit minutes of humor in deeper, grander topics, without sacrificing the silliness that allows for characters like Jeff the Diseased Lung. During Season Two, Oliver turned his dark adapting eye to everything from big-ticket items like transgender rights and televangelism to seemingly mundane topics ranging from infrastructure repair to municipal violations. He created a mega-church who took in actual donations, engaged in a PSA-battle in Trinidad with a disgraced FIFA official, and earned a rare interview in Russia with fugitive Edward Snowden (a stunningly even-handed discussion to boot). Most importantly, Oliver stirred discussion of vital, and often overlooked, concerns both in the U.S. and abroad, and avoided heavy-handedness while keeping up an astounding level of hilarity. Well done indeed, John, and we choke down a pint of Bud Lime in your honor.
22. Fresh Off the Boat [ABC]
Fresh Off the Boat premiered strong and has grown daring and confident with its second season. Premiering last February, and drawing the ire of Eddie Huang, the sitcom quickly veered from its source material, catering to the ABC audience, and yet…Fresh Off the Boat is significantly better than ABC’s other sitcoms: Modern Family, The Goldbergs, The Middle, Dr. Ken, and Last Man Standing lack the heart and the comedy delivered weekly by the Huangs (and in no small part because of the enormous talent of its cast). 2015 saw not only the first Asian family in 20 years, but the first good family sitcom in a long, long time.
-Katherine M. Hill
21. Being Mary Jane [MTV]
Mary Jane Paul embodies the modern day woman to the fullest: she is financially-savvy, independent and successful in her career. She is way too powerful to be defined by a relationship, but that doesn’t mean she still doesn’t want one. What will it is take for this “it” girl to have her happily ever after? This season was tumultuous as we watched her grieve her best friend’s death, kick the love of the life to the curb and say goodbye to her bestie next door. But now with only herself to lean on we’ll see what the next season has in store.
– Navani Otero