Skip to main content

In AMC’s series Better Call Saul, Jimmy/Saul, played by Bob Odenkirk, is stymied in a key ambition to reinvent himself.Ursula Coyote/AMC

It's not a matter of too much TV. It's a matter of where to start.

At the end of 2015, an excellent year in television, it is instructive to look back. Way back.

Imagine this – a decade ago the buzz in American TV was about The Apprentice, as Donald Trump swaggered onto NBC's schedule and, it seemed, revitalized the reality-TV genre with his booming voice and blatant egotism. The phrase "You're fired!" was everywhere. For 15 weeks, The Apprentice was the hottest thing. Then The Apprentice was mocked in the Fox series My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss.

Trump is back on TV and in the news, but the discussion of television isn't about his rinky-dink TV series. Now we look at the cornucopia of smart comedies and dramas from a multitude of platforms and it's hard to keep up. Be grateful, people. Don't complain.

The recent Golden Globe nominations in the TV categories gave some sense of how rich we are in first-rate content. Two slightly off-the radar shows given attention by yours truly were honoured – Outlander and Flesh and Bone. Two fine series off the radar because of so much other, attention-getting excellence.

While we enjoy a continuing Golden Age of TV – some call it the Platinum Age now – there has been a shift. The conclusion of Mad Men this year pointed to it. With the end of the series there concluded an era in which major dramas dwelt on large themes of American life and recent history in a resonant, memorable and profoundly serious manner.

Now, there is still great seriousness and ambition to challenge preconceived ideas but it is done on a smaller scale.

Mr. Robot, an intricate, challenging series, headed into territories of profound unease about technology and dabbled in subversive storytelling, but it remained essentially miniaturist, more focused on character than society. Both Outlander and Flesh and Bone are love stories about female strength. Fine though they are, they have pocket-sized ambitions.

In Canadian TV, ambitions remained even more modest. The year began with the heavily hyped Schitt's Creek, a show I initially despised, and one that took ages to find its comic footing. X Company began strong, then wobbled into format-fixed war-thriller fare. While it's nice to see corners of Canadian history illuminated, X Company is a very slight show.

The Book of Negroes, too, was powerful but uneven. We have yet to see a truly magnificent Canadian drama that is a sustained examination of universal themes with sociological depth. Orphan Black, though admired, is essentially a one-woman show enmeshed in chaotic storytelling.

Given the cornucopia, any year-end roundup is bound to be limited. And it would be wrong to dismiss broadcast, network television. Even while aiming to appeal to the widest possible audience, network TV can surprise with its quality and vision. ABC's American Crime was stunningly good, genuinely contemplative about race and violence in the U.S. culture. And the comedies Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat exhibited great skill in teasing out original humour from off-centre material.

A fine and fruitful year then, with so many shows of striking, trenchant originality and depth that a top-10 list does not do it justice. But, herewith, an attempted summation by way of a list.

10 Shows That Really Mattered

Mad Men (AMC)

Its eloquent ending underlined its greatness over many seasons. Mad Men staked out a special place in television – dealing with the essential rhythms of American life. It was literary in its focus on the frontier, both personal and historic. It was about commerce, family, self-actualization, sex and disillusion. The conclusion, in which Don Draper dreamed up a great ad for Coca-Cola, had the perfect pitch of wry cynicism about the lives that were so lovingly curated for so long.

Better Call Saul (AMC)

With its gravity and wit, perhaps the greatest series now airing and on the cusp of becoming the inheritor of Breaking Bad's greatness that it was meant to be. Our anti-hero Jimmy/Saul (marvellously brought to life by Bob Odenkirk) is stymied in a key ambition – to reinvent himself. This links him (and Mad Men's Don Draper) to one of the overriding themes in American literature and cultural experience. That theme is that every American is entitled to the near-religious experience of rebirth and transcendence of the shackles of the past.

Fargo (FX/FX Canada)

While the anthology format showed near-collapse in the second season of True Detective and the two most recent seasons of the self-indulgent American Horror Story, Fargo got it right. Set in 1979 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Luverne, Minnesota, season two carved a remarkable drama from the bones of the original Coen brothers movie. Again, it dwelt upon greed and banal selfishness; evil entering a small town unnoticed but then exploding. The astonishing shifts in tone felt natural and the performances were exceptional. Season two lacked a core, female moral anchor but the overall achievement was truly outstanding.

The Americans (FX/FX Canada)

It's a disgracefully underappreciated series, this one about Russian spies in Washington in the 1980s. Yet it keeps getting better. It combines thriller elements with a deep sense of the pain that is part of spying – the endless lies, the duplicity that unfolds even inside family and the nagging sense that all the effort for a cause might be futile. On The Americans, the dead do not come back to haunt the living. Instead the living must face the consequences of their actions, ceaselessly. It's about marriage, politics and the politics of being American.

Keeping Canada Alive (CBC)

The most revelatory program about our country in years. A look at how Canada's health-care system works, without punditry or arguments about funding, it was both frightening and uplifting. A six-part factual series, it was shot in 24 cities across 10 provinces and one territory in a single 24-hour period last May. The resulting footage, brilliantly woven together, contained unforgettable vignettes and moving fully formed stories. The skill in its execution was outstanding, another indication that what we do very well here is make high-grade social-exploration TV that might start out as reality-TV but goes much, much deeper.

The Romeo Section (CBC)

Chris Haddock's return to CBC with this series was welcome. The expertly crafted and deftly engrossing cerebral thriller was John le Carré-esque in its depiction of spies under pressure. Less dark and less densely plotted than Haddock's Intelligence or Da Vinci's Inquest, it was serious-minded about ethical decisions, and the vanity and ego of the powerful. One felt it never reached its full potential and suffered from limitations wrought by budget but its toughness of mind and raw depiction of the underbelly of civil society made it stand out like a beacon in Canadian TV.

Narcos (Netflix)

On one level, it is a gripping thriller about a pair of DEA agents out to bring down the Colombian cocaine king Pablo Escobar (marvellously played by Wagner Moura) in the 1980s. Thus, gun battles, intrigue and cocaine-fuelled craziness. But on another level, it is politically sharp, subversive and a serious cautionary tale about the useless war on drugs that plays out in so many places all the time. Executive producer José Padilha, one of Brazil's most influential filmmakers and intellectuals, made Narcos both a grabby thriller and a doleful but searing story about power and corruption. A masterpiece.

Master of None (Netflix)

Aziz Ansari shifted TV comedy sideways and forward with this, a coming-of-age epic about Dev (Ansari), a 30-year-old first-generation American who is superficial and knows it. He wants out of that superficiality, but finds it's a long and winding road. The road, in the series, is filled with both mature humour and deft insights into family relationships, love and an American culture that feeds off immaturity.

Show Me a Hero (HBO)

An exquisite companion piece to The Wire, David Simon's six-hour drama was about public housing in New York. But in that it achieved the status of epic narrative, a tragedy anchored in timeless themes of hubris and overreach, and specifically what ails contemporary, today's-news America. Unfussy and plain in many ways, it illustrated how difficult it is to bring change, especially if change is for the common good.

River (Netflix)

Arriving late in the year, this BBC drama is both exquisite and a clever reinvention of the British cop thriller. A veteran detective suffers from guilt after his long-time partner is killed, and he hallucinates. The dead partner is now his ghost-partner. A short summary cannot do justice to it. Written by Abi Morgan, who also wrote The Hour and the movies The Iron Lady and Suffragette, River is drenched in Nordic noir-ish gloom and is less a murder mystery than a contemplation of a humane man dealing with loss and terrible grief. It is melancholy itself. Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard as Detective Inspector John River performed what is perhaps the finest acting performance of the year.