10. YOU’RE THE WORST (FXX)
FX’s anti-romcom about a pair of stunningly narcissistic hedonists unwittingly falling into a functional relationship was terrific straight off the bat. The entire first season was hilariously biting, surprisingly touching, and scathingly observant about the microscopic slights and inconveniences and terrors of dating in the dread Age Of The Millennial. But its second season started from the exact point at which most romcoms slap a “happily ever after” stamp on their characters and close the book forever, and launched into something altogether more complicated, less familiar, and seemingly-impossible to dramatize, with even more impressive results. It still had some problems with struggling to give its sidekick supporting characters storylines that were anywhere near as affecting, real, or funny as the central relationship; only a subplot about a staged rap feud manages to be consistently hilarious, although to be fair this isn’t the first time a scripted comedy has failed to mine genuine laughs from intentionally bad improv comedy.
But that’s only because that main storyline shines so brightly that it can’t help but takes some luster off everything around it. After some incredibly cute and romantic early episodes, Aya Cash’s Gretchen descended into clinical depression, and the show resolutely refused to “solve” the issue in any tidy fashion. It managed to drive this very real wedge in the relationship while walking an incredibly fine line of maintaining sympathy for Gretchen without either demonizing boyfriend Jimmy or making him a put-upon saint. The emotionally stunted nature of the protagonists means that the sorts of relationship hurdles that can feel nakedly contrived in more traditional romance stories come across as authentic, the threats posed by those hurdles feel very real (despite knowing that no relationship would essentially mean no show), and there is actual emotional resonance when they reach even the most basic, incremental markers of intimacy that most high school sweethearts navigate without much effort.
Every single episode of You’re The Worst has been in contention for the funniest half hour of television to air that week, but in the second season it also consistently threatened to be the most effective drama as well.
Defining Moment: Aya Cash’s too-good-for-the-Emmys performance as Gretchen fell to terrifyingly depressive depths in the season’s second half, in particular her delivery of the incredibly simple but loaded lines that close out the final two episodes.
– Al Schwartz
9. RICK AND MORTY (ADULT SWIM)
Everyone’s (okay, maybe just the people who watch the show) favorite sociopathic genius came back for a second season of high concept, low brow, but devilishly smart sci-fi shenanigans. Doc Brown and Marty McFly’s degenerate dopplegangers managed to find no shortage of new and mind-fucky adventures to get up to, but increasingly started dragging their hapless and dysfunctional mess of a family along for the ride. Along the way they fracture time and incur the wrath of 4th dimensional cops, attend the most shocking nuptial ceremony since the Red Wedding, meet and rekindle relationships with alien hive mind ex girlfriends, learn some lessons about human and non-human nature. They promptly forget about them, but not quite. They grow as characters, then revert. But not entirely. While he never quite becomes warm and cuddly, would the Rick of the first season care enough to lie to Morty about the candy bar being responsible for his killing spree in the episode about the purge planet?
Despite his protestations, Morty and Summer and Beth and even Jerry mean something to him now (well, maybe not Jerry). Through them he sees that his actions come with consequences, via a stealthy ongoing story going on behind each of this season’s adventures of the week. Beyond the subtly expanding mythology of a galactic empire and those that fight against it, it was the story of a life growing around someone whether he wants it or not (he does not), with all the responsibilities and relationships that entails. Rick doesn’t start off wanting a family. Throughout every zany adventure he doesn’t miss an opportunity to remind everyone how little he thinks and feels for them, but he is connecting despite himself. And when everyone’s back is against the wall, Rick’s actions and fate are surprisingly poignant.
There must be other animated shows that deal with the sci-fi concepts Rick and Morty dealt with this season – parallel dimensions, pocket universes, hive minds, alternate realities. There must be other shows that mine some sharp comedy from the stew of abandonment issues, inferiority complexes, old-fashioned sociopathy, codependent relationships, and plain exasperation with one’s family. Other shows that can manage actual character development amidst insane whirlwind plots and ever-shifting formats. But I can’t think of them right now, and I’m left with the conclusion that Rick and Morty is really in a class of its own. Far and away the best animated show right now and as worthy as anything of being among the year’s best.
Defining Moment: The increasingly dark and brutal attempts to “keep Summer safe” by Rick’s spaceship.
– Stelios Xenidis
8. ASH VS. THE EVIL DEAD (STARZ)
Comparatively, Ash vs. Evil Dead looks like the oddball on this list. Like its protagonist, the show is goofy, pig-headed, and clumsy as a one-handed lothario trying to score in a barroom bathroom, on top of being about 20 years late to the party. But one thing Ash has against these other primitive screwheads is its innate charm and, if we’re being totally honest, a sort of giddy appreciation for its simply existing. It’s a true sequel to the universe Sam Raimi has crafted, and with that comes lots of winking silliness and copious amounts of mostly practical gore.
Sure, the TV budget and constraints aren’t ideal for such a gleefully obscene franchise, but through that we’re getting an expansion to the world of The Evil Dead that a film just wouldn’t have time to explore. And what we’ve been given has been an endearing childish blast. Bruce Campbell continues to evolve the character of Ash in pleasingly comic ways, and this show is one of the best examples of his B-movie charisma.
When it comes to pure juvenile joy, Ash vs. Evil Dead is the standout of the year that has half a dozen superhero shows to compete with it directly. With plenty of modern appeal but respectful of its origins and the audience that has been there since the beginning, this is a show for the twelve-year-old horror nerd in us all. Hail to the king, baby.
Defining Moment: Ash flying through the air and attaching his chainsaw in the first episode. A better superhero moment than every season of Arrow.
– Drew Dietsch
7. MAD MEN (AMC)
Most of the dramas on this list are in part defined by the sense that characters could be offed at any time. For some, it’s their major claim to fame. And sure, in the last season of Mad Men, there was some tension over which cast members would get the axe (and it still managed to shock by being Betty of all people). But unlike those other shows, that wasn’t what it was about. The tension, the real fear driving this final run wasn’t who would die, but how badly they would live. How these deeply flawed, deeply human characters would fuck up again, make the wrong emotional choice, fall back on a familiar bad habit, or let their personal demons get the better of them. The show flirted as always with melodrama and heavy handed symbolism, but what kept it grounded was that it always felt honest. So while Don Draper reflected the withering soul of America in the 1960s, he was also a singular character that acted with varying levels of selfishness and introspection unlike just about anything else on TV.
And that’s why Don’s final flight from marriage, New York and advertising was so cathartic, because it felt honest. And it’s why his ultimate, off-screen return and apotheosis as the creator that iconic Coke commercial was so powerful, but felt equally honest. As much as he wants to change, he can’t stop being Don Draper anymore. Every other major character, from Peggy to Roger to Joan, had similarly defining arcs, and as the show ends and America braces itself for the seventies, we can take a moment to recognize how few shows have the balls to be quiet, the courage to be introspective, and the ambition to be more about ennui than mortality. There’s very little even trying to be this mature and intellectual on TV nowadays, and pretty much nothing quite as classy.
Defining Moment: Peggy enters Mckann Erickson like an ABSOLUTE FUCKING BOSS
– John Bernhard
6. THE AMERICANS (FX)
Even if you’re not up on (say it with a gravelly, super-serious voice) THE AMERICANS – and I imagine some of you are not because it isn’t water-coolered a whole lot – check out the possibly best-in-series episode “Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep”. Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip (Matthew Rhys) Jennings, the two Soviet KGB spies posing as apple pie lovin’ Americans, break into a repair facility to plant a listening device in a broke-down FBI robot…as you do. And are discovered. Or they think they maybe might could have been seen. They hear something at the very least. And when Elizabeth (interestingly, the more Alpha of the two) goes to investigate, she happens upon the elderly Betty, looking like Mrs. Claus but a smidgen less threatening. Betty reveals that she came to work on the books because she likes the quiet of the place at night. A cosmic WHOOPS, it turns out. What takes place between this stranger and our “hero” doesn’t end in a happy place, but demonstrates why this hard-edged, chilly show really is a must watch. Or at least it should be, if you lot would just water-cooler it a bit. I’ve thought about this scene so much throughout this year. The horror of it just really stayed with me.
This season, the overall plot hinged on the main characters’ teenage daughter, Paige, which is a red flag for just about any adult drama that isn’t Mad Men. But here it absolutely works, because it feels vital to the series’ main story instead of a mere distraction from it. It boils down to a simple but devastating conflict: Soviet intelligence wants Paige recruited as a kid spy. Problem is that though she suspects her parents aren’t what they seem, she doesn’t expect THIS. How could she, really? Phillip, who’s seen and done enough awful stuff in the name of his homeland (include packing the most traumatic suitcase in the history of luggage), doesn’t want his kid near any of it. Elizabeth, as more of a true believer, has always struggled with raising her children as Americans in order to maintain their cover. This is her chance to tell Paige about who she really is, and an opportunity to be finally reach and be understood by a daughter that she has never been able to be fully honest with and who is also at an age to naturally be pulling away from her mother…by falling in with a bunch of Born Again Christians that give her atheist parents fits. Also, there’s a bunch of cool Cold War spy stuff going on at all times. Come for the incredible acting, terrific suspense sequences and de-saturated look. Stay for the crazy wigs. If you are wig fan, get up on THE AMERICANS but now. The variety of wigs on display will please even the hardest-core wigophile. There’s a wig removal scene during this season that rivals some of the best horror scenes anywhere. (Yes, even PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION!) I hope I talked about wigs enough.
Defining Moment: Phillip pulls Elizabeth’s tooth, in the most horrifyingly intimate scene since your mom walked in on you that one time after hockey practice.
– Justin Waddell