Oh, True Detective, you broke my heart. My pick for the top TV show of 2014 fell just short of making my list of the best TV shows (so far) of 2015. I’m not hate-watching it like so many seem to be — I still love the intoxicating visuals, the moody music and the game-for-anything cast — but Nic Pizzolatto’s dialogue too often crosses that fine Spinal Tap line between clever (“That’s one off the bucket list: A Mexican standoff with actual Mexicans”) and stupid (“It’s like blue balls…in your heart”). Here are 10 other shows that stay on the right side of the line.
10. THE NIGHTLY SHOW WITH LARRY WILMORE
With Jon Stewart set to step down from The Daily Show (to be replaced by human question mark Trevor Noah) and with racially charged stories involving Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, and police brutality in the news every day, never have we needed a clear, strong comedic voice like Wilmore’s more than we do right now. He’s “keeping it 100” every night, with the aid of ace collaborators like Mike Yard, Ricky Velez, Shenaz Treasury, head writer Robin Thede and exec producer Rory Albanese.
Michael Connelly’s crime novels are brought to brilliant life in this Amazon drama starring the magnetic Titus Welliver as the titular LAPD cop. The spirit of The Wire is evoked not just by the presence of alums Jamie Hector (here on the right side of the law, as Bosch’s partner) and Lance Reddick (as the exquisitely named Deputy Chief Irvin Irving) but also by the writing of David Simon’s longtime cohort Eric Overmyer.
8. THE FALL
Nothing in Fifty Shades of Grey was sexier than star Jamie Dornan’s turn as a serial killer in this riveting Netflix thriller. And nothing in The X-Files or Hannibal has been scarier than Gillian Anderson’s chilling work as a Scotland Yard detective beset by personal demons and obsessed with tracking down the dark force who’s the flip side of her own psychological coin.
7. THE BRINK
Tim Robbins has been so good in serious settings (Mystic River, directing Dead Man Walking) for so long that it’s easy to forget how funny he was in Bull Durham and Bob Roberts. HBO’s uproarious new political farce channels the anarchic spirit of the latter, while throwing in a bit of Dr Strangelove, as Robbins’ hedonistic Secretary of State teams up with a stoner staffer (Jack Black, never better or subtler) to attempt to avert a nuclear crisis with Pakistan. The ensemble, including writer-actor Aasif Mandvi (as Black’s driver) and Carla Gugino (as Robbins’ openly adulterous wife) is simply amazing.
Just when you thought Julia-Louis Dreyfus’ D.C. satire couldn’t get sharper, it did, as Selina Meyer ascended to the Presidency, only to discover how lonely it really is at the top, especially as she had to lose some longtime staffers (like Anna Chlumsky’s Amy, who went down in hysterical flames) and distance herself from others (like Tony Hale’s hilariously needy Gary). The cast also benefited from the inspired additions of Sam Richardson (as dimly chipper underling Richard), Hugh Laurie (as the universally beloved new Veep who would be President) and, briefly, Patton Oswalt as the creepy senior staffer who so memorably cupped the balls of Timothy Simon’s Jonah.
5. THE JIM GAFFIGAN SHOW
The wildly popular comedian channels his own life as a food-loving father of five kids (who live with him and his wife in a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment) for a sitcom that can stand alongside The Dick Van Dyke Show as a laugh-out-loud depiction of what it’s like to try to balance family life with the business of being funny. Not only is Gaffigan a skilled actor, but he’s wisely surrounded himself with consummate pros like Ashley Williams (as his Laura Petry-esque wife), Michael Ian Black (as her tart, gay ex-boyfriend) and Adam Goldberg (who somehow makes his stand-up character’s self-loathing desperation seem deeply endearing).
Marc Maron recently had President Obama on his WTF podcast, but one can only hope such success won’t spoil the wonderfully miserable life he portrays on IFC’s sitcom. The current third season has been the show’s best, with standout guest turns from the recently deceased Alex Rocco (as an over-the-hill equivalent of his lovably sleazy agent Al Floss on the too-short-lived Jon Cryer sitcom The Famous Teddy Z) and Jerry Stahl, the former ALF scribe and crack/smack addict who wrote some of Maron’s darkest and funniest episodes this year.
Is there a better actress currently working on TV than Abigail Spencer? I don’t think so. In addition to her searing performance as Colin Farrell’s bitterly conflicted ex-wife on True Detective, she’s tearing up the screen in Season 3 of Sundance’s small-town drama as the sister of a former Death Row inmate (the haunting Aden Young). Just picked up for a fourth season, creator Ray McKinnon’s mesmerizing morality play grows deeper with each episode, sucking you in like quicksand.
There was no greater injustice in this year’s Emmy nominations than the lack of best guest acting nods for the masterful Sam Elliott and Mary Steenburgen as the Big Bads of the Elmore Leonard drama’s flawless final season. Just as deserving were stars Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, Joelle Carter and Nick Searcy. If you haven’t seen this wickedly fun and meticulously crafted show, start binge-watching it now and thank me later.
All hail Terrence Howard’s Lucious Lyon and Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie! The sizzling musical soap’s crossover-smash status represents a rare intersection of quality and popularity. This show is burning through plotlines like there’s no tomorrow, so it’s possible the phenom could fizzle, but for the time being, there’s no more pleasurable experience to be had on TV than reveling in the Machiavellian machinations of drug dealers-turned-record-company-execs Lucious and Cookie as they make love and war, sometimes simultaneously. You got that, Boo-Boo Kitty?
Currently Senior Articles Editor for Closer Weekly, Bruce Fretts has written for The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, Emmy Magazine, Fast Company, and Vulture.com. You can follow him on Twitter @brucefretts.