Television

The Year in Television: 2015

As alternative platforms ascend, let's look at the best of what 'traditional' networks offered.

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"The Americans," FX

As Sherlock Holmes might have said if he were a network suit, the most significant TV development of 2015 was not a new show or genre, but the curious case of the dog that didn't get canceled. In recent years, by the first week of October, the Hollywood decks were already running red with blood of prime-time corpses.

Surely you (don't) remember Head Cases (Chris O'Donnell and Adam Goldberg as lawyers who partner up while doing time in a psychiatric hospital), gone after two episodes in 2005? Or The Beautiful Life: TBL, an Ashton Kutcher-produced ode to slutty young cokehead models, two episodes in 2009? Or Lone Star, with James Wolk as a Texas oilman with two wives, coincidentally also the number of the show's viewers and the number of episodes it would last in 2010?

This fall, however, prime-time TV has something close to a demilitarized zone. By mid-December, only two shows had been cancelled: Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris, NBC's "What were they thinking?" attempt to revive the long-dead variety show, and Wicked City, a creepily intense ABC cops-and-serial-killer that ran afoul of a new-found and doubtless short-lived critical burst of conscience over drama that depicts violence against women.

The shortage of quickie cancellations is not a signal that the 2015-16 TV season was a creative or financial bonanza. Actually, it was quite the opposite, without a single breakout hit among either audiences or critics.

Rather, the networks' live-and-let-live policy is a recognition of technological changes that are shaking the industry. For one thing, the nets now have so many platforms to feed—cable subsidiaries, digital sub-channels, their own streaming sites—that it no longer makes financial sense to quickly cancel a show and lose the substantial start-up investment. Instead, the networks reduce the number of episodes they've ordered (typically 13) by a third and count on repurposing to cut their losses. Several low-rated fall shows that would undoubtedly have been canceled in years past—some idiotic, like NBC's The Player and Truth Be Told; others, like ABC's Blood & Oil or Fox's Minority Report, the victims of bad marketing or even bad luck—instead got the trimmed-episode treatment. 

More fundamentally, in the age of the DVR, overnight Nielsen ratings have lost their ability to define winners and losers. A show can be a real-time flop and a time-shifted hit; the average ratings of Fox's slasher satire Scream Queens grew 53 percent over the three days after each episode aired. 

Yet that's not really good news for the television industry, at least in its current configuration, since nearly all those DVR viewers zap right past the commercials. That makes streaming services like Hulu, with their subscription fees and embedded commercials (that, though limited, cannot be zapped) increasingly important. And as the gaps between the screening of network shows and their release to streaming sites shrinks, cord-cutting has turned from a scary story TV executives tell themselves around the campfire to a measurable and accelerating phenomenon, with five million households departing the cable universe this year.

Where this all ends, nobody really knows. Will the networks leave their broadcast model behind, abandoning their local affiliates to the sort of cheapjack programming—local ladies' coffee klatches and old movies—that made up most of the TV day in the 1950s? Will the ranks of cable networks dwindle to a few news and live-sports channels, the only forms of programming that seem immune to time-shifting? Good questions all.

But meanwhile, even in a mediocre season and facing an uncertain future, TV continues in a programming Golden Age refutation of Bruce Springsteen's infamous whine about 57 channels and nothin' on. Here are my choices for the year's best:

10. (tie) The Big Bang Theory (CBS) and Aquarius (NBC). A seeming one-trick pony about the (admittedly hilarious) social dysfunction of a group of Cal Tech faculty nerds, Big Bang Theory has evolved into a show about growing up as its characters slowly but surely find their way in a world that's suspicious of their intellect and scornful of their Star Wars no-tears shampoo. About as far as you can go to the opposite end of the spectrum, Aquarius—a police procedural in which the target is the first nascent incarnation of the Manson Family—is a useful and chilling reminder of the totalitarian impulses at the heart of the 1960s counterculture. 

9. Episodes (Showtime). This sitcom about a pair of Serious Writers from the BBC whose show is hijacked by American television is TV's most scathingly funny self-examination ever. And with Matt LeBlanc playing a loutish version of himself, Episodes regularly does the unthinkable: trashes the iconography of Friends.

8. The SpymastersCIA in The Crosshairs (Showtime). A journalistic coup in which a dozen former CIA directors sat down for anything-but-softball questions about the agency's conduct of the war on terror, the documentary Spymasters is among the most searching and non-dogmatic examinations yet of the post-9/11 national security state.

7. Penny Dreadful (Showtime). An extraordinarily entertaining mash-up of the Goth legends of the waning days of Victorian England, this series has every blood-sucking, fang-growing, evil-spawning character you can think—a kind of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man for the literate.

6. The Good Wife (CBS). What started as a brittle portrait of a Hillary Clinton-style political wife forced to reinvent her life after her husband goes to prison in a hookers-for-favors scandal has grown into a startlingly acute disquisition on the insidious, one-step-at-a-time nature of political corruption and how it colors every governmental institution.

5. Better Call Saul (AMC). The conventional and usually correct wisdom that sequels (or, in this case, prequels) are the most contemptibly parasitic form of Hollywood life is getting a serious challenge from this origins drama about Saul Goodman, the ubersleaze lawyer in AMC's drug-kingpin drama Breaking Bad. In Breaking Bad, Goodman—played by comedian Bob Odenkirk—was a comic-relief bit player. In Better Call Saul, the laughs are still there, but hazed in a mist of pathos as a hustler trying to remake his life learns that the law game isn't so different from the three-card monte he played on street corners.

4. Public Morals (TNT). Producer-star Ed Burns' now-canceled look at the seamy, violent and enticing world of the NYPD vice squad in the 1960s, where policing is really a leviathan extortion racket in which the cops extract money, sexual favors and political clout from favored gamblers and hookers while administering broken noses and jail time to the rest.

3. Hell On Wheels (AMC) It launches its sixth and final season in early 2016, but there's still time to catch up with this transfixing tale of the construction of America's intercontinental railroad, a caustic look at the intersection of political power and corporate greed that also probes the issues of race, class and gender.

2. The Americans (FX) and 1. Homeland (Showtime). If this is the Golden Age of television, it's the Platinum Age of television spy dramas. These two shows offer very different, but equally compelling, looks at espionage without any of the James Bond glamor trappings.

The Americans stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as deep-cover Soviet moles, living in in the 'burbs of Reagan American with a couple of kids who have no idea that mom and dad's Founding Fathers are not Washington and Jefferson but Lenin and Stalin. The plots are interesting reboots of such 1980s hits as Star Wars weaponry and Afghanistan, but the emotional meat of the series is its examination of the fierce—and dangerous—domestic fault lines cracked open by undercover life.

Homeland is more producer Howard Gordon's apologia for the 9/11 revenge porn of his show 24. Taking a step back, he brilliantly cast Claire Danes as a bipolar CIA officer whose paranoia about al Qaeda moles could be dazzling intelligence work, or literal lunacy. The show's constant we-know-they-know-we-know ruminations capture the chess-like nature of counterintelligence in a way that bang-bang-obsessed Hollywood has rarely managed. Homeland's sobering genius is that it is fraught in equal measure with both security-state excesses and jihadi barbarism. And the most sobering element of all is that after five seasons, Homeland still has a clarion resonance that shows no sign of dimming.

NEXT: Trump Keeps Trashing the First Amendment, Yet the First Amendment Is the Only Thing Protecting Trump's Vile Outbursts

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  1. Where is Mr. Robot and Fargo?

    1. Fargo season 2 should be #1 on this list

    2. Mr. Robot is an unwatchable piece of awful filmmaking.

      Who cares what the themes are when the incompetent creator frames every shot using only the bottom 2/3s of the frame and places the actors on the wrong side when doing a dialogue cut.

      Yes, he’s doing on purpose, but so what?

      Bad filmmaking on purpose is possibly even worse than raw incompetence since there’s no chance for improvement.

      MR. Robot is also a flop and the questions about it are:

      1 – Why was it even made?

      2 – Why is USA so vested in pretending it’s not a big flop (which it is)?!

    3. Completely agree re Fargo. Mr Robot was a bit of a disappointment though.

    4. The promos for Mr. Robot looked so good, it was painful how disappointingly bad the actual show is.

  2. Hey, where are Man In The High Castle (amazon) and Sens8 (netflix)? How the hell are you gonna talk about 2015 television without bringing up the fact that online providers are producing quality content? That is the big story of 2015 for television.

    Also, both these shows have a libertarian theme.

    1. I think the point of this was looking at prime time tv and purposely avoiding the online only programming. But I gotta agree re online providers being the big “television” story of 2015.

  3. We could talk also of some series (and cartoons) who have overstayed their journey like the Simpsons and Girls.

    And I spotted a blog post about CHCH-TV, a tv station in Hamilton, Ontatio who was a CBC affiliate from its beginning in 1954 to 1961 and since then a independent station who had hit bankruptcy. http://www.drudgereport.com/

    1. Wrong link, the correct one is at http://blog.fagstein.com/2015/…..l-tv-died/ Sorry for the inconvience.

    2. Girls had already overstayed its welcome in minute five of its pilot. It is made and stars a rich heiress without the slightest hint of talent (but a big contact list and a bigger PR budget!)

      It is another great show showing why we are in the Dark Ages of Television.

      1. Girls is unwatchable. They showed a promo for the upcoming season during the Game of Thrones marathon yesterday, and even the promo, a 60 second highlight reel from 13 or so hours of programming, was terrible. A fat girl making bad, poorly-set-up jokes and then mugging for the camera.

  4. This article is a great example of how network PR is leading astray even the people who want to think critically.

    It is totally false to say that Nielsen ratings (or even just the overnights) are not defining hits any longer.

    They are.

    The fact the networks and studios are trying to sell us the idea they don’t need people watching their bad shows is just empty PR to hide the disastrous results they keep getting and the rejection by the public of their product.

    To wit: There isn’t a single show that’s a flop in the overnights that’s not a flop in the Live+3 (which is the one advertisers are paying for, not Live+7 or Live+365!)

    There isn’t a single show that went from “solid” to being a hit in Live+3.

    There also isn’t a single hit that became not a hit in Live+3.

    It may happen someday, but it hasn’t.

    Qualitatively, we are not in a Golden Age of television, but in a Dark Age where fake-edgy shows please nobody except critics.

    Your list is a great example.

    Except for Big Bang Theory which is still funny and relatively well-made (which makes it a masterpeice in today’s TV landscape!) all the other shows you mention are flops that audiences rightfully didn’t want to watch.

    If this were a Golden Age (another network PR meme by the way), there would be more that three scripted hits on TV today (yes 3! That’s NCIS, BBT and Walking Dead – there’s a few more solid shows like Empire and Blue Bloods and that’s it!)

    Some “Golden Age”…

    1. I like Episodes. It’s really funny, and there hasn’t been a single episode that wasn’t good.

  5. Jessica Jones was pretty good.

  6. Silicon Valley should be in place of Big Bang Theory

  7. Although it came to an end in 2015 Justified was awesome. I agree with the comment above about Jessica Jones. Gotham is also well done. Better Call Saul is every bit as good as Breaking Bad was. Homeland and The Americans are great. No mention of Downton Abbey. Lillyhammer is entertaining. Fargo is amazing.

  8. BBT is a steaming pile of dogshit that in WAY too many episodes hates its characters. That is all.

  9. In what may be a preview of things to come, NBC has put the first 3 episodes of Telenovella on Hulu, weeks before the actual broadcast premiere. I watched part of the first episode, and decided not to bother with the broadcast. Is it possible that Hulu is becoming a test market?

  10. I concur with BBT, otherwise this list is insane. Here’s another list from an alternate universe:

    Comedy:
    Fresh Off the Boat
    The Grinder
    Last Man Standing

    Drama:
    The Blacklist
    Blue Bloods
    Daredevil
    The Expanse
    Gotham
    Longmire
    Person of Interest

    Honorable Mention: The Man in the High Castle

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