This post is the first in a week-long series on culture I’ve felt thankful for in 2015. These aren’t necessarily best-of lists or essays, just explanations of what made me feel something and what I’m glad exists.
For a critic, the current explosion of television can be an exhausting and daunting process. There would be no way to keep up with everything even if I weren’t also keeping an eye on movies, books and music (which I am), and even if I weren’t trying to catch up on shows I missed when I didn’t own a television (so help me, the early seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy” are fun). But it’s also freeing; if trying to be complete is hopeless, I might as well chase my passions. So here are the television developments that gave me the most pleasure in 2015:
1. The wild, angry media criticism of “UnREAL”: This Lifetime drama about Rachel (Shiri Appleby), a brilliant producer on a “Bachelor”-style reality show who hates what she does for a living but whose talents for emotional manipulation don’t really lend themselves to something else, upended the concept of what “Lifetime drama” actually means. And its scathing, sympathetic portrait of the people who work in the industry, including Rachel’s boss, Quinn (Constance Zimmer in one of the performances of the year), was a great long-form piece of criticism about the tropes and gender politics of the genre that Rachel and Quinn work in. If melodrama’s back, “UnREAL” is the genre whirring on all cylinders.
2. The forward-looking throwback of “The Carmichael Show”: The multicamera sitcom format gets a not-entirely-unfair rap as a dinosaur in the so-called Golden Age of Television, probably because it’s been paired with hacky racial humor in shows such as “Two Broke Girls” or old character tropes in series such as “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men.” So it was a delight to see what can happen when a multicamera show is matched with a more contemporary tone and content. “The Carmichael Show” tackled everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to healthy eating in the short run of its first season, creating a warm family dynamic among Jerrod (series creator Jerrod Carmichael), his girlfriend, Maxine (Amber Stevens West), and his parents, Cynthia (Loretta Devine) and Joe (David Alan Grier). I can’t wait until it comes back, laugh track and all.
3. The wonkiness of “Show Me a Hero”: I recognize that HBO would let David Simon do pretty much whatever he wants, but I’m still charmed that the network that airs “Game of Thrones” would air a six-episode miniseries about what it takes to pass an affordable-housing plan in a small city, and then what it takes to build and fill that housing. I wish “Show Me a Hero” had been longer — it would have been nice for the series to have given more space to the people who became residents of the Yonkers housing. But I’m delighted that it existed at all.
4. The emotional complexity of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”: No one’s watching the CW’s musical about Rebecca (Rachel Bloom), a not-entirely-mentally-healthy lawyer who quits her job and moves to West Covina, Calif., on a whim, which mostly consists of the fact that her ex-boyfriend, Josh (Vincent Rodriguez III), lives there. That’s a shame, because “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” does a nice job of leaning into difficult emotions, including Josh’s sympathy for Rebecca despite her bad behavior, Rebecca’s terror of her mother, and the frustration and attraction a bartender named Greg (Santino Fontana) feels for Rebecca, despite the awful way she often treats him.
5. The treatment of depression on “You’re the Worst”: Speaking of mental health, it’s been fascinating to watch “You’re the Worst,” one of the funniest shows on television in its debut year, pivot from being a wild and unexpectedly emotional comedy to a melancholy, sensitive depiction of clinical depression. Whether Gretchen (Aya Cash) is lashing out at her friends or getting obsessed with a seemingly perfect family, her descent into the wilds of her brain has been touching and compulsively, if painfully, watchable.
6. The tech-world pessimism of “Silicon Valley”: HBO’s tech-world comedy is as wonky and detailed as “Show Me a Hero” when it comes to funding rounds and compression algorithms. It’s as funny as anything else on television. And it’s got a nice, usefully deflationary melancholy to it as visionary Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) comes to recognize that just because he has a potentially industry-changing idea doesn’t mean that he can get a product off the ground or run a functional company.
7. The terrific second season of “Survivor’s Remorse”: Mike O’Malley’s NBA comedy has always had a stacked cast (RonReaco Lee, Jessie Usher, Erica Ash, Tichina Arnold, Mike Epps and my perpetual favorite Teyonah Parris); a frank take on race, money and family; and a strong, dark sense of humor. But in its second season, it took a flying leap toward the basket and shattered the backboard. The first episode this year, which centers on how to handle a potentially racist insult, will be on my Top 10 list unless something miraculous happens before Dec. 31. It’s worth the price of Starz.
8. The candy-colored terror of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”: I’ve been thinking a great deal about the role of very extreme abuse cases in some of the most indelible pop culture of the year, including the movie adaptation of the novel “Room” and Hanya Yanagihara’s door-stopper book “A Little Life.” But what distinguishes “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Tina Fey’s new series for Netflix, is the way it sidesteps the question of what happened to Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) in the bunker where she was held with other women, and focuses instead on the drama of her return to everyday life. Well, not quite everyday life: Manhattan.
9. The moral authority of “The Americans”: I’ve written odes to the way “The Americans” depicts Christianity and to its slyly conservative worldview. All of which is a way of saying that I am deeply appreciative of the Cold War drama’s attention to morality. It’s the very rare series — “Jane the Virgin” is one of the few others — genuinely concerned with what it means to be a good or righteous person (and to recognize that there’s a difference). Everything that happens in “The Americans” comes with a cost. Its characters may be deep-cover KGB agents, but the show is still deeply concerned with the state of their souls.
10. The gift of “Parks and Recreation”: Michael Schur’s optimistic comedy about an Indiana civil servant will probably always be one of my lodestar television shows. I love Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), the dedicated parks department employee who is a great friend and a total pest. I adore her relationship with Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott), a nerdy, anxious man who shares her dedication, and her best friendship with Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), her libertarian coworker and avatar of a certain vision of American manhood. I love Schur’s dedication to the idea that government matters, and the show’s vision of policymaking, which is every bit as granular and drawn out as David Simon’s in “Show Me a Hero.” I love Donna. I love Tom Haverford. And while saying goodbye to “Parks and Recreation” is as painful for me as bidding farewell to a certain mini horse was for Pawnee residents, I’m glad the show went out in a characteristically cheerful fashion.