There was an unprecedented variety of excellent dramas this year… as well as an unprecedented amount of them. But with the range of tone, genre, casting, styles of writing and direction — this was truly a ripe year for drama, spreading across network, basic and premium cable, and streaming as well. Here are my picks for the best of them.
Fargo (FX): For its bravura storytelling, its beautiful direction, its exceptionally deep-talent cast, its wit, and its heart, Fargo in its second season is the drama to extol above all others this year. The satisfyingly complex “true” tale of crime, family, and crime families in the frigid Midwest, Fargo burst every week with vivid characterizations, zinger jokes, impeccable 70s music cues, and a rare sense of constant surprise.
Mr. Robot (USA): The year’s most stylistically adventurous drama presented each episode like a mini-movie — the most adventurous American kind, bending narrative form in the manner of directors such as Robert Altman and the Davids Lynch and Fincher. Creator Sam Esmail compelled us to follow his unreliable narrator, Rami Malek’s Elliot, down the darkest avenues of corporate behavior, presenting an anarchist fantasy that played like reality.
Justified (FX): What a great way to end a great run. Timothy Olyphant and Elmore Leonard-channeler Graham Yost brought the Raylan Givens saga to an end with a final season that brought the show back to its deepest roots: the fundamental feud between Raylan and Walton Goggins’ Boyd Crowder. This show, with its brilliant casting and snaking storylines, never got the award-love it deserved, but it stayed true to its code of tight-lipped excellence.
The Americans (FX): This was the season that tested the premise of The Americans — Russian spies living in 1980s suburbia — to its limits. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys’ Elizabeth and Philip Jennings were forced to come clean to daughter Paige (Holly Taylor), but they still have blood on their hands.
The Leftovers (HBO): In its second season, the rich drama about loss, grief, and the unities of various kinds of families increased its outreach, exploring more characters’ points of view while giving Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey and Carrie Coons’s Nora Durst more challenges than two people ought to be able to endure. That they did is a measure of this show’s belief in strength and endurance. HBO, renew The Leftovers now.
The Knick (Cinemax): This turn-of-the-century medical show commenced with harrowing scenes of its anti-hero, Clive Owen’s Dr. John Thackery trying to kick his addictions, and concluded with the show’s most shocking operation ever. In between, director-producer-cinematographer Steven Soderbergh continued to expand the series’ exploration of city politics, sexual politics, racial politics, and the belief systems of an ever-widening group of characters.
Homeland (Showtime): Anticipating headlines out of Syria and espionage in Germany, the current season of Homeland is more scary and more disciplined in its storytelling than at any previous time since the start of its first season, and Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin, and Miranda Otto as Berlin CIA station chief have given exceptional performances.
Rectify (Sundance TV): This beautiful drama, whose pace and quietness is unique on television, deepened the story of accused killer Daniel Holden (Aden Young), and his family’s ardent yet always-tested support of him. It’s a measure of how vividly all the principal characters are drawn by show creator Ray McKinnon that I’d watch a spin-off of any of them, especially Abigail Spencer’s flinty Amantha.
Empire (Fox): This fun-filled music-industry soap-opera worked as melodrama and as satire, with superb performances from Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard. Henson’s Cookie became such a pop-culture phenomenon, the show risked turning into a mere trend, but at its best, creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong ground the show in the firm grasp of family dynamics.
The Good Wife (CBS): Always willing to shake things up, show creators Robert and Michelle King decided to have Chris Noth’s Peter run for President, with all the campaign intrigue that entails, even as Julianna Margulies’ Alicia struck out on her own with a home-based law firm that turns up as least as much trouble as it does clients. Which is just the way we like The Good Wife.
Better Call Saul (AMC): Spin-offs from big-hit cultural markers are most often disappointments. But in extracting Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad, monkeying with the time-line, and giving him an eccentric brother (Michael McKean), Better Call Saul took on its own tone, its own rhythm, its own distinctive set of dramatic priorities that rendered it an engrossing, completely different creation than Bad.
Ray Donovan (Showtime): The third season gave Liev Shreiber’s strong-arm bag-man Ray a couple of flaky, dangerous new clients (guest stars Ian McShane and Katie Holmes) and frequently seemed on the verge of splitting into different shows-within-the-show: boxing drama, religious drama, a tale of abuse-survival. Yet the show ended up a unified whole, a strikingly original example of L.A. noir.
Marvel’s Jessica Jones (Netflix): She’s got super-strength, but Krysten Ritter’s title character is no spandex-bursting superhero. She’s a wily private eye coping with a lot of emotional damage, finding brief comfort in sex with Mike Colter’s Luke Cage, but that ends up just complicating her life even further. This was the year’s most satisfyingly complex new superhero drama. (Kudos to Supergirl, though, for capturing a slightly lighter side of feminist crime-fighting with great energy.)
Banshee (Cinemax): When I saw all the acclaim Netflix’s Daredevil was getting for its fight scenes, I thought, “Have these people not seen Banshee?” From its bare-knuckle brawls to its elaborately choreographed shoot-em-ups, this wonderfully weird saga of crime in Pennsylvania Amish country was the year’s most action-packed show.