Disclaimer: I only rank shows that I watch and I’m not a TV critic. Also, there are some spoilers. Read at your own risk…
1. The Americans
The first season of The Americans was good but not memorable enough to make last year’s list; the second season, although it aired in the spring, never left my head. The story arc was broader and it dug deeper. Every character, even the children, who in a lesser series would just be bratty teenagers, had more of a role, and the themes of marriage and parenting were stronger while maintaining their subtlety. The Americans is also the first show I’ve watched that successfully portrays a compelling female anti-hero without attempting to make her overly sympathetic. The season two finale set up a great story for season 3, and, if the writing remains strong, this next season could be even better.
2. The Middle
The Middle continues to bring me so much joy, even in its 6th season. I cry at almost every episode (it’s like the sitcom equivalent to Parenthood) because the characters and situations are so hilarious yet familiar and real. My favorite character has always been Sue, who is now navigating the college admissions process and confronting the reality of both her family’s finances and her own limitations, but through it all she remains the overly optimistic Sue. The highlight of the year was the season 5 finale in Disney World, where through some mishaps the family receives an expensive suite for the night free of charge. After freaking out over every amenity, they oversleep because they’ve never slept in sheets so soft.
3. Parks and Recreation
This year stood out because of Ben’s ingenious Cones of Dunshire game, which began as a pet project but found its way to the lounges of many a tech start-up. Leslie also had a choice to make: Her dream job or raising her family in her beloved Pawnee. Needless to say, Leslie found a way to have both. Parks and Rec can feel too lived-in at this point with everyone settling into the lives they want, so it’s probably for the best that this next season will be the last. It will still be hard to say goodbye.
4. The Mindy Project
Not only did Mindy and Danny get together this year but they stayed together. No small feat for a sitcom based on the romantic comedy genre. From Danny and Mindy’s kiss on the plane to their trip to the top of the Empire State Building, their courtship and coming together was both hilarious and sweet. Their relationship, while funny, also dealt with topics not usually dealt with in the traditional sitcom. But it’s not all about their relationship. The most recent episode had Danny giving Mindy a professional recommendation instead of a ring, and overall this season has done well balancing Mindy’s professional journey with her relationship with Danny (and his Ma). The supporting characters have also had good storylines as the office environment has gelled. I still miss Mindy’s friends from season one, but I’m okay exchanging them for a tighter show.
I skipped over season 3 (I’ll go back), but season 4 was not like the first 2 seasons. There was some continuity from episode to episode, and if something didn’t make sense it was actually addressed. Louie has generally been a series of vignettes with very few constants, and this season’s new consistency made it more like a regular TV show. The episodes still had the familiar absurdities, though, and it was nice to see some longer stories being told. The smaller stories can pack a big punch, however, and those tended to be my favorites in the season. I also liked that the kids had more to do, as they’ve been two of the show’s few consistent characters.
6. Once Upon a Time
Once Upon a Time really hit its stride this year. I loved the second half of last season with the Wicked Witch, and while I’ve never seen Frozen, those characters were a welcome addition to the show. What I love most about this show is that it focuses on complex women as it plays with genres (“fairy tales” and “Disney”) in which complicated female characters aren’t usually the focus. Women caring about each other is at the center of most of the storylines, even when it’s a love story or fighting the “big bad.” It was fun to see Emma and Hook’s relationship heat up and solidify this year, as well as see Regina embrace her complexity, and it was also nice to see a female superhero who is my age (late 20s/early 30s) instead of teenager or, at most, early 20s, proving that you can come into your powers at any time.
7. Jane the Virgin
I had heard good buzz about this show, and the buzz was right. It’s the perfect blend of comedy, family drama, and telenovela the likes of which have not been on TV since Ugly Betty. The plot may seem a little far fetched–an early 20-something is accidentally artificially inseminated–but the show knows it’s a telenovela (complete with voiceover), and it all works. Few shows deal with the virginity of non-teenagers, and the show keeps those moments honest–like when Jane holds off on sex before marriage even though she’s already pregnant and when she has to tell her new boyfriend that she’s a virgin and waiting. The relationship between Jane and her mom (who had Jane at 16) is rich and heartfelt, a perfect balance to the humor that comes from the other crazy characters, most notably Jane’s recently discovered father, a narcissistic telenovela star.
My favorite aspect of Transparent is how Jewish the family and, therefor, the show is. Yes, the show is about an older man transitioning and the fluidity of the gender and sexuality of those around him (including his family members), but it’s just as rare to see on a show a female rabbi being pursued by a secular young Jewish man, a 13-year-old performing (really performing) her Bat Mitzvah portion, and a Shabbat dinner. The characters can often be awful people, but when they come together as a family they’re quite compelling.
The third season of Girls was an improvement on season two and maybe even better than season one. I continued to enjoy all the characters with the exception of Jessa, who was often insufferable, and each character did a good amount of growing up. I especially loved the beach house dance and the episode in which Hannah’s grandmother died. So many of the episodes were like short stories, but the longer arc of Hannah and Adam’s relationship was also compelling and believable. I’m intrigued to see how they’ll handle the next season with Hannah in graduate school.
10. Mad Men
Mad Men might be higher on the list had they shown a full season this year. Not much happened in this half-season aside from Don working his way back into his job, but I still love the show and characters, especially Sally, Peggy, and Joan. It’s hard to believe the series is almost at the end.
A shout out to Selfie, a show as good as any first-season sitcom could possibly be. It was cancelled after airing a handful of episodes just as it was getting good. Luckily, Hulu aired all 13 episodes, but that’s all we’ll get. Karen Gillan as Eliza and John Cho (the first Asian-American romantic lead in a sitcom) as Henry were a perfect pair in this modern adaptation of My Fair Lady, and it was fun to see David Harewood in a comedic role after Homeland, playing the CEO of a pharmaceutical company. All the supporting characters were great, but Da ‘Vine Joy Randolph was a stand-out as the company’s receptionist and friend to Eliza. Yes, all these actors and writers will move on to new, maybe even better material, but there will never be another Selfie.
Other Shows I Watch(ed):
Raising Hope (RIP)
The Carrie Diaries (RIP)
TV on DVD/Streaming I Watched This Year
WKRP in Cincinnati season 1