There was a time where the summer was a wasteland for television, a void between which seasons began and ended–but in recent years summer months have become a hotspot for vibrant and powerful shows. 2015 may have seen the strongest slate yet.
5. “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”: Taking the mantle of comedic punditry after the departure of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, John Oliver wields his power like a seasoned veteran. With the resources of an HBO budget and the concentration on one episode a week, Oliver has been able to create effect change as often as he does comedy. From turning his show into a legal church to criticize the tax evasion practices of televangelists, to being cited in a recent court case on Puerto Rican law, Oliver’s brand of comedic investigative journalism is now unmatched.
4. “Show Me a Hero”: Written by David Simon and William F. Zorzi (“The Wire”) and directed by Paul Haggis (“Crash”), “Show Me a Hero” is a six-part miniseries that follows the city of Yonkers in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Oscar Isaac leads the stellar ensemble cast as former mayor Nick Wasicsko, who is enveloped in a citywide debate over public housing. Simon and Zorzi are perhaps the only writers who could portray the debate as not only engaging, but emblematic of racial tensions past and present. The political cast intersects with the cast of tenants. Simple relationships form an increasingly complex web, to the point where “Hero” could almost pass for a strange (but strong) sixth season of “The Wire.” While there are too many performances to mention, Isaac outshines them all, continuing to prove that he may just be the greatest actor of his age.
3. “Rick and Morty”: After blindsiding audiences and critics alike in its first season, this bizarre animated science fiction show had a lot to live up to. It certainly has. With the basic premise of being a horrifying “Back to the Future”-style spoof, “Rick and Morty” reconstructs sci-fi tropes to access something much more human. A hive-mind episode explores mutually destructive relationships. A recent episode mocked clip show montages with alien parasites, while also highlighting family dysfunction. An alien music competition gave its take on the history of religion. The list goes on.
The tension that drives every choice in the show is the duality between a total disregard for life and a desperate need to preserve it. Rick occupies the former end of the spectrum, and his grandson Morty the latter. This informs nearly all of the comedy, and it’s what elevates the show from the pack.
2. “Another Period”: There is nothing more satisfying in this world than Christina Hendricks playing a scheming maid. There are plenty of other reasons to watch this show, of course. “Another Period” is a brilliant nexus of “Downton Abbey”-style period pieces and reality show narcissism factories like “Meet the Kardashians.” Snoop Dogg provides the opening theme.
The show stars Ricki Lindhome (One half of “Garfunkel and Oats”) and Natasha Leggero, who, along with director Jeremy Konner, also serve as head writers. The duo are deranged sisters, Lindhome’s Beatrice is an emotionally stunted, incestuous youth, who may or may not be merely pretending that she’s an idiot. Leggero’s Lillian is the would-be social climber, constantly hungry for power, wealth, and any form of genuine human connection.
“Another Period” premieres with confidence and only gets bolder from there. It questions how much has changed in the past century, from sexism to racism to how deluded rich people spend their time. If you’ve ever wanted to see Hellen Keller get drunk on cocaine wine, this is the show for you. It delivers laugh after laugh with a lingering bite. Its jokes are elevated by its exceptional cast. Michael Ian Black and Paget Brewster kill it as the stoic butler and the morphine-addicted matriarch. And of course the aforementioned Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men”) proves that she should play villains until the end of time.
1 “BoJack Horseman”: When it first premiered, “BoJack” was one of Netflix’s most bizarre choices for an original show. Will Arnett voicing a washed out, depressed, animated alcoholic horse seems more like the product of a fever dream than an actual series. It danced between comedy and drama, and took nearly half a season to truly find its quadrupedal footing. But by that point the series raced forth in full confidence, exploring territory not easily found anywhere else.
Season two is nearly immaculate from start to finish. Its main cast (Amy Sedaris, Allison Brie, Aaron Paul, Paul F. Tompkins, Lisa Kudrow), is stronger. Its celebrity cameos are stronger (special points to Olivia Wilde, Daniel Radcliffe, and, of course, character actress Margo Martindale). The animation is stronger. The gags are stronger. The sadness is stronger. Everything is stronger. “BoJack” is a show where you’re never entirely sure how to feel, making you giggle while experiencing pervasive dread. It exploits the idea of a world of talking animals and humans for gags (a pair of vultures circles around a funeral home) and horror (where does meat come from?).
Above all else, “BoJack” is a show about depression. It is a comedy as much as it is a drama, and it accomplishes both brilliantly by having a breathtaking amount of honestly underneath all its cynicism. If “Rick and Morty” uses fantasy and “Another Period” uses the past as means to explore controversy, “BoJack” takes issues head on. Once season one has made us accept its bizarre world, season two can now play with it and take it to the extreme. By finding the human in the animal, “BoJack Horseman” may just be the best television of the year.