20. Veep (HBO)
In the age of television media we’re in, where every behind the scenes move is tracked and analyzed by industry trades, showrunner changes are met with a lot of skepticism, particularly for shows with specific voices. Even if someone is hired from within a production, it can be hard to match a creator’s touch, but new Veep head David Mandel did a solid job in filling in for the show’s creator Armando Iannucci, who exited the political comedy before its fifth season. Mandel guided Veep through a fierce and funny presidential recount storyline that put Selina Meyer through the wringer, as her dreams of staying POTUS were gradually crushed through a combination of bureaucratic incompetence, shady political backbiting, and a team who can’t get out of their own way if they tried. Though some members of the supporting cast weren’t given as much to do this season, the combination of Julia Louis-Dreyfus putting on a dynamic, commanding performance and other characters being brought to the forefront made season five of Veep a resounding success.
Essential Episodes: “Mother”; “C**tgate”; “Kissing Your Sister”
19. Vikings (History)
In season four, History drama Vikings began to resemble dearly departed HBO drama Boardwalk Empire, in that its narrative began to sprawl when it needed to tighten. Most of the show’s many positives remained in full effect, from its celebration of its female characters to immaculately choreographed action sequences and an ability to turn on a dime when a story demands it, but the first half of Vikings season four felt spread a bit too thin and didn’t have a strong central character to keep things grounded. Ragnar’s once infamous love of travel and expanding his world beyond Kattegat began diminishing upon his return from France, making this period of Vikings somewhat transitional, in that the show built up Bjorn and aged up Ragnar’s other sons in order to highlight the incoming wave of men that want nothing more than to become the next Ragnar Lothbrok. While the show continues doing compelling, well-executed work, particularly when focusing on shield-maiden Lagertha’s rise to power, season four felt like a small step down.
Essential Episodes: “Promised”; “The Profit and the Loss”; “The Last Ship”
18. People of Earth (TBS)
When first exposed to the advertising campaign for TBS comedy People of Earth, I assumed it would be a slightly broader show that prioritized laughs and didn’t do as much emotional groundwork. How wrong I was, as People of Earth might be the most human comedy on cable television. The story of an alien abductee support group, the series is a compassionate, openhearted look at the aftermath of trauma and how one can find strength through shared experience with others. While the comedic aspect of the show certainly isn’t forgotten, given the eccentricities of the group members and the spotlight given to three species of aliens the group comes into contact with, it’s People of Earth‘s deft touch and ability to treat its characters seriously despite what they’ve been through, and how easy it would’ve been to satirize, that sets it apart from the rest.
Essential Episodes: “Acceptance”; “Significant Other”; “Last Day on Earth”
17. The Royals (E!)
With broadcast networks becoming more conservative and cable orienting toward prestige chasing, there isn’t much room left on the dial for the classic television soap, which makes the existence (and creative success) of E!’s The Royals all the more gratifying. A snarky, luxurious tale of paternity, power, and princesses, The Royals is pure escapism, all gorgeous outfits and blisteringly bitchy insults. The show does have depth, be it through its examination of the shackles of political duty or the difficulties of grieving in the public eye, and executes said depth with surprising aplomb, but the joy of The Royals lies within the pockets of humor it can exert among the madness and the impressively strong sibling bond that forms its inner core.
Essential Episodes: “Taint Not Thy Mind, nor Let Thy Soul Contrive Against Thy Mother”; “The Serpent That Did Sting Thy Father’s Life”; “Together With Remembrance of Ourselves”
16. Reign (The CW)
The greatest creative comeback of the calendar year might be The CW costume drama Reign, which rebounded from a slog of a second season and the wobbly beginning of season three to create its most thematically (and emotionally) resonant run ever. The demise of Prince Francis, impressively executed at the end of 2015 with a surprising fake out before a gut punch of a death scene, opened the show up to explore Mary’s story independent of her marriage and gave it the narrative shot in the arm that it needed. Mary was a more proactive character who had to scramble to figure out what losing Francis meant for her both personally and politically, thereby underlining the show’s treatise about the complications that arise from being a young woman in power, no matter the century. Couple this forward momentum from a shrewder, savvier Mary with the alternate universe look into what her life could/could’ve been through Queen Elizabeth and the bloodiest finale this side of Game of Thrones and you have a season that became leaner and meaner with a wide open world ready to explore.
Essential Episodes: “Safe Passage”; “Clans”; “Spiders in a Jar”
15. Black Sails (Starz)
As muscular and stout as ever, season three of Black Sails was a game of political chess with high production value. Through a number of breathtaking on-water battles and a storm whose mettle provides the backbone to the entire season, the Starz pirate drama further embraces its identity as the Deadwood of the 2010s through its narrative expansiveness, constantly shifting alliances, and violent power grabs. While Eleanor’s final revenge against Vane, for the death of her father and all the chaos he wrought in and around Nassau, was the most emotionally affecting moment of the season, watching former enemies Flint and Silver begrudgingly work together to defeat the British and Rackham get the chance to lead a ship of his own gave humanity and pathos to a show that can occasionally be bogged down by the minutiae of pirate democracy.
Essential Episodes: “XXII”; “XXVII”; “XXVIII”
14. Outcast (Cinemax)
Based on the comics of the same name by Robert Kirkman, Cinemax’s atmospheric Outcast is a smothering, spooky allegory of childhood PTSD and the impact that early trauma can have on adulthood. Anchored by a lived-in performance from Patrick Fugit, the series takes place in a small West Virginia town where demonic possessions have occurred, with Fugit’s character something of a conduit for the supernatural. At times a supernatural procedural, at times a slow burn family drama, Outcast is served well by its strong sense of place and keen eye for gripping cold opens, making it (mostly) able to overcome its tip toe-y plotting. This focus on an elegant execution of horror tropes and the unsettling terror that comes from the horrors one has lived through a stylish, intelligent variation of a familiar concept makes the show something that could be primed for a second season leap in quality.
Essential Episodes: “(I Remember) When She Loved Me”; “The Damage Done”; “This Little Light”
13. Greenleaf (OWN)
Set in and around a vaunted megachurch in Memphis, Tennessee, OWN’s Greenleaf, its first foray into prestige drama, is a soulful, critical thinking examination of the perils and power of religion. Respectful of the positive role religion can play in a person’s life yet unflinching when it comes to portraying the institutional downfalls, Greenleaf is a family drama wrapped in a workplace drama, as the family at the center of the series is in charge of running the church where much of the action takes place. It’s an intriguing entanglement, that of the Greenleaf family secrets and dysfunctions with the public face every member must wear, and one that propels the series forward through matters both financial and personal. While the series does do a solid job at integrating larger social issues into its narrative, be it the cross-section of homosexuality and religion or the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s at its best focusing on the waves prodigal daughter Grace makes upon her return to town and the struggles the family has in masking their sins behind the veil of faith.
Essential Episodes: “We Shall See Him as He Is”; “One Train May Hide Another”; “The Whole Book”
12. Devious Maids (Lifetime)
With the vibrant chemistry of its cast and a campy sense of humor it wore on its sleeve, Devious Maids was always one of the most entertaining shows on television. However, in its fourth season, the show kicked things up a notch by satirizing a Scientology-like cult and using it to kick start a mystery that centered on fame, sex, and family. Utilizing some appreciable unusual character combinations (e.g. Evelyn and Marisol, Zoila and Adrian, Genevieve and Rosie) and picking and choosing the moments to mine pathos, the show’s signature effervescence became even more valuable as cable networks continue into the darkness of antihero television, with season four a shining example of a show firing on all cylinders. Swirling together soap tropes (e.g. amnesia, paternity scares) into a subversive take on a domestic drama, Devious Maids managed to find a genuinely surprising conclusion to its fourth and final season and that was before the gutting final cliffhanger that will never be solved.
Essential Episodes: “The Maid Who Knew Too Much”; “Much Ado About Buffering”; “Grime and Punishment”
11. Channel Zero: Candle Cove (Syfy)
Viscerally disorienting, Syfy anthology Channel Zero is the most genuinely disturbing television show I’ve ever seen. A twisted tale of collective memory, the cyclical nature of childhood trauma, and the power of television set within a small Ohio community, the series was able to take a horror trope that doesn’t always land (murderous children) and add a lot of weight to it thanks to well-implemented flashbacks and a narrative unease that gave every episode an unpredictability that kept things fresh. Through the use of gorgeously macabre imagery used to punctuate periods of little dialogue, Channel Zero gave itself a visual distinctiveness that set itself apart from every horror show out there and forced you to pay attention, even with a deliberate pace that revealed the show’s narrative cards in an unorthodox way. Most impressively, this was a challenging, often rewarding piece of horror that gave me hope that the ceiling for the genre is much higher than had previously been indicated.
Essential Episodes: “You Have to Go Inside”; “A Strange Vessel”; “Guest of Honor”