Making lists of favorite things is a fool’s errand, and no medium makes me more foolish than television. I watch too much of it, and keeping up with it has become more impossible by the day with programming expanding to platforms that aren’t even technically “television.”
So how do I possibly isolate the 10 best shows on television? There is no equation. There is only feeling. First I separated my love of great shows from great performances on shows that don’t deserve them. (Tatiana Maslany on Orphan Black and Viola Davis on How to Get Away with Murder, I’m looking at you!) I told myself that standout episodes do not necessarily a great show make. (See: “Flo,” Girls’ best episode in seasons.) I bid adieu to shows that literally only I liked (RIP Selfie.) And I crossed from my list the buzzy shows that everyone loved, but I unapologetically don’t really get. (Sorry, True Detective and Louie.)
My numbers 11-20 would make a wonderful Top 10 themselves, but they didn’t quite crack my Top 10 this year. Ask me in an hour and any of these might make my Top 10. I really loved watching these shows. This is like Sophie’s Choice but with Duggar-type numbers.
In no particular order, 11-20 are: Game of Thrones, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Veep, Parks and Recreation, The Flash, Fargo, Masters of Sex, Mad Men, The Comeback, and New Girl.
No looking back! On to the Top 10!
10. Getting On– I get funny looks when I try to explain to people that one of the funniest, most heartwarming shows on television takes place in hospice care. The least promoted of all the HBO shows features amazing performances by Laurie Metcalf, Alex Borstein, and Niecy Nash as overworked doctors and nurses struggling to keep order amidst the chaos of day-to-day life and death. It’s high comedy borne of exhaustion and despair.
9. Gay Shows (Looking and Please Like Me)- Hey, I’m cheating! I’m putting two shows in this slot and forcing them together because of their gay themes. My list, my rules. Looking had a shaky start but grew into a lovely, well-observed view of the lives of gay men in San Francisco at various stages of life and love. The quiet episode that follows two of the characters on a day-long date was revolutionary in its simplicity. Please Like Me is a coming of age story from Australia that tells the story of arrested development and mental illness in a moody, charming way. Both shows tell intimate stories of characters who long for love and acceptance and just happen to be gay. (Quick shout-out to How to Get Away with Murder for adding an opportunistic, thrill-seeking bitch of a gay who seduces evidence from unsuspecting victims using his sexuality.)
8. Sherlock– I slept on this show until being convinced to watch the first episode sometime a year ago. I binge-watched the first two seasons in a weekend and was chomping at the bit for Season 3 which ran on PBS in early 2014. No one needed a new Sherlock adaptation, but Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman somehow make this one a necessary watch. Their very close friendship became even more complicated this year with a wedding, an emotional best man speech, and several characters rising from the dead. It’s so good, you’ll overlook the implausibility of that last part.
7. Jane the Virgin– It’s a title that begs you to change the channel, but once you give this delightful confection a chance, there’s no turning back. Sweet without being cloying, the show tells the story of a young woman who accidentally becomes pregnant through a mix-up at the OBGYN in the style of a telenovela. There’s a love triangle, a couple murders, sex scandals, and the return of the Miami Vice color palate. Most charming of all is Gina Rodriguez as Jane who anchors the wackiness with heart. Bonus: this is the best looking ensemble on television. Just when you think they’ve hit capacity on wildly good-looking people, another one arrives.
6. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver– This rapid-fire news program could have been just another of the late night satire news shows, but John Oliver takes a deeper dive into stories that the traditional media might miss. Oliver wears his righteous indignation on his sleeve and encourages people at home to feel what he’s feeling. It helps that his breathless, hilariously British delivery makes it feel like someone has come to audit ridiculousness from all around the world. Also: salmon cannon.
5. Comedy Central– Hey, I’m cheating again! I’m squeezing in a bunch of shows here because this was the year that Comedy Central lived up to its name and actually became the place to find good…comedy. Nathan for You brought awkward comedy to new heights. Or lows, depending on how you feel about it. Review was a sad, grotesque meditation on our obligation to work and a satire of a ratings-obsessed world featuring the year’s best performance in comedy by Andy Daly. Inside Amy Schumer is television’s best sketch show. It’s a smart show that’s at once unafraid of feminism and vagina jokes. And Comedy Central’s crown jewel this year was Broad City, the brash tale of two lady-stoners whose friendship takes them on adventures. They’re immature, irresponsible, and hedonistic but somehow come off as the most loveable pair on television.
4. Orange is the New Black– The show continued playing to the strengths of what made its first season such a success – taking a peek at the lives, past and present, of the ladies of Litchfield Prison. This season treated Piper as slightly less central a character and revealed the emotional cores of some of last season’s background characters. (It was especially great to see the stories of Morello and Poussey.) The second season was more ambitious and empathetic and just as addictive as the first. The complicated lives of women touched on everything from race relations to sexuality to sociopaths to cancer. The stories of the inmates converge around mid-season in such a way that makes it nearly impossible to press ‘stop’ as Netflix queues up the next episode.
3. Transparent– The title is a bit on the nose because a parent comes out as trans, you see. That’s just the beginning though. The show is the highly specific, lived-in, story of the Pfefferman clan, but it’s also the story of fluidity and connection in life. The parents are smothering and manipulative, and the children are selfish and myopic, but no one feels inauthentic. Transparent proves that characters don’t all have to be likable for a show to be enjoyable and moving. The show also succeeds in showing the LGBT community not as a monolith but as multitudes, 50 shades of gay, if you will, using the punny title of the show as inspiration.
2. You’re the Worst– This raunchy show came out of nowhere for me. I’m not even sure when I fell in love with the cast of characters who pride themselves on being horrible people. Jimmy and Gretchen are awful people and don’t pretend to be otherwise. They’re also perfect for each other, even though they resist when their once purely sexual relationship turns into something more. And the same is true of the show, starting off as something we’re not sure about and blossoming into something heartwarming and wonderful. Their friends are also awful and perfect and so much better than sidekick cliches. One Sunday Funday and Kate Bush karaoke performance later, and I was smitten with the gang that took over where the crew from Happy Endings left off.
1. The Good Wife– So far Season 6 of The Good Wife hasn’t been as great as Season 5. No matter. It is still the best show on television. At once a family drama, a legal procedural, and a political potboiler, the show can boast the best writing and performances around. At times it’s funnier than most television comedies. The show is anything but predictable and course corrects when it makes a rare misstep. It attracts the best guest actors on television. It’s the uncommon show that’s been able to sustain excellence (mostly) over six seasons. Last winter it sprung the best kept secret on us. It’s addictive. When I tell people to start watching the show, they disappear for days and text to thank me when they come up for air. That it airs on a network rather than on a prestige cable channel is just one of the many twists it throws our way. The Good Wife is currently television’s best show.