Just 10 shows? In my conversations with readers this year, I heard their increasing worries about drowning in choices – the number of good, worthwhile shows long ago exceeded the number of hours we have to watch them. As such, people keep asking me for “permission” to give up on a show that may be getting lots of buzz but just isn’t pressing the right button. I’m all about letting go of shows you aren’t feeling.
I decided to use that rule as my surest test for this list: Is it a show that I couldn’t wait to see the next episode of? Then it’s probably on this list.
Without further ado (because who has time for ado?) …
1. “The Affair” (Showtime)
Intriguing in its first season and hauntingly perfect this year, this drama is about the ripple effects of marital infidelity, only now it’s not just about Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson). The narrative has expanded to include the story as seen from the points of view of Alison’s husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson) and Noah’s wife, Helen (Maura Tierney) – and everyone involved is giving a first-class performance, including the show’s supporting players. “The Affair” is a provocative, almost philosophical study of the nature of truth (nobody’s versions quite match up), but not in a maddeningly opaque way. When I watch “The Affair,” I not only feel entertained, I feel respected – not a single second of the viewer’s time is wasted.
2. “The Americans” (FX)
Knocked to No. 2 by “The Affair” – but a very, very close second. Season 3 of this complex, underappreciated nail-biter about Soviet spies living in Northern Virginia brought its characters closer to a breaking point, as Philip and Elizabeth (played with unerring strength by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) struggled with the fact that their teenage daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) is completely onto them. Also memorable: Lois Smith’s heartbreaking one-episode turn as a bookkeeper who picked the wrong night to work late.
3. “Game of Thrones” (HBO)
Aside from full-grown dragons and humiliating walks of shame, this was a crucial season for the hit series, as it began to diverge from George R.R. Martin’s novels. (Martin, as most everyone knows, is under pressure to finish another, but the TV show can’t wait around.) I never read the books, so it makes no difference to me; I remain in awe of how many ways “Game of Thrones” works as an epic piece of entertainment for both the casual viewer and the full-on obsessive fan.
4. “Master of None”(Netflix)
As co-creator, co-writer and star, Aziz Ansari delivered an endearing first season of this comedy, which on paper sounds like another exercise in the self-absorbed angst of a slackadaisical New Yorker. Instead, Ansari took viewers on a 10-episode walk through a lot of big subjects – modern relationships, gender equality, race relations, what it’s like to be the child of immigrants – while keeping things remarkably chill and sharply funny. What “Louie” did for Gen-X cynicism at midlife, “Master of None” does for millennial freneticism running smack up against the reality of turning 30.
5. “Fargo” (FX)
Dazzled by Season 1, fans of the show were excited to see what creator Noah Hawley would do with a late-1970s setting – but who would have guessed it would peripherally involve close encounters with UFOs and a Bruce Campbell cameo as Ronald Reagan on the campaign stump? Hawley and company proved with Season 1 that a “Fargo” TV series could be a worthy companion piece to the Coen brothers’ 1996 film classic. Now, with Season 2, “Fargo” stands on its own, adding layers to this cold-blooded Midwestern crime saga. This is another show where everything’s just exactly right – the plot, the writing, the characters and, yes, the body count. “Fargo” just keeps outdoing itself.
6. “Wolf Hall” (PBS)
Fictionalized drama can sometimes be so masterfully conceived and performed that it threatens to supplant the actual historical narrative on which it is based – and that’s saying something since “Wolf Hall,” drawn from two of Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning novels of the Tudors, revisits the oft-portrayed reign of Henry VIII. Mark Rylance was unforgettable as Thomas Cromwell in this meticulously told, suspenseful miniseries. I also admired “Wolf Hall’s” darkness – and I mean that literally: At last the 16th century seemed lit as it should be, by candles.
7. “Supergirl” (CBS)
Sure, it’s mostly just another slice of superhero cheese, but it’s a fine cheese, made even better by a winning performance from Melissa Benoist as Kara Danvers, the office assistant who decides to let her Krypton flag fly as the nation’s newest cape-wearing superperson. After a pitch-perfect pilot episode that aired in late October, the series hasn’t lost much momentum. I also like how it turns millennial insecurities about career and destiny into legitimate reasons to soar with confidence.
8. “Empire” (Fox) and “UnREAL” (Lifetime)
Sure, I’m cheating a little by putting two shows in one slot, but “Empire” and “UnREAL” are similarly shining examples of how a TV show can become a surprising cultural vanguard. Both shows are also utterly absurd, but that’s what makes them fun to watch. In “Empire,” which chronicles the ridiculous levels of spite and loyalty coursing through a family that runs a hip-hop record label, there’s a curious permissiveness to explore and debate caricatures and race. Likewise, “UnREAL” invites multiple analyses of how “Bachelor”-style reality shows denigrate not only the people who are in them, but the people who make them – while neatly, subtly raising the issue of complicity in the viewer who watches them. I love it when TV shows both derail and launch a flurry of PhD dissertations across the land.
9. “Show Me a Hero” (HBO)
Yes, it sounds like quite the indulgence to give creator David Simon (with Paul Haggis directing) a six-hour miniseries to tell the story of a squabble over public housing in Yonkers, New York, that took place more than 25 years ago. But it was totally worth it, not just for Oscar Isaac’s amazing performance as the city’s naive young mayor (and an ensemble cast of women who played the parts of public housing residents), but for the quietly impressive way that “Show Me a Hero” proved relevant to the bitter conversations we’re having today about race, neighborhoods and open hearts.
10. “American Crime” (ABC)
After so many years on the “Law and Order” loop, TV is in desperate need of a new – and more nuanced – way to dramatize the criminal justice system. The superb first season of John Ridley’s”American Crime,” which starred Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton as the bitterly divorced parents of a murder victim, was an unsparing journey into grief, anger and vengeance, which then fanned out into the subjects of race, prejudice and recompense. By the standards of TV dramas, the ending might be viewed as unsatisfying, but that also seemed to be the message here: Who ever leaves a courthouse fully satisfied?
Other shows that almost made this list:
“Catastrophe” and the second season of “Transparent” (both on Amazon); the final seven episodes of “Mad Men” (AMC); the current, surprisingly streamlined season of “Homeland” (Showtime); “Better Call Saul” (AMC); “Getting On,” “Looking,” “Silicon Valley” and “Veep”(HBO); “Bloodline” (Netflix); “Home Fires” (PBS).
And: “Casual” (Hulu); “The Strain” (FX); the quietly beautiful docuseries “The Last Alaskans” (Animal Planet); and the finally-there’s-a-winner season of “American Ninja Warrior” (NBC). I also enjoyed most of “The Muppets” reboot (ABC) and “Aquarius”(NBC), and I kinda-sorta came around to Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
Finally, if you’re looking for “The Leftovers,” someone ate them – and died.