As I mentioned in my top 10, there were simply too many shows to keep up with. So here are the honorable mentions for the year, which includes the finest hours of many merely very good shows, as well as some one-offs I enjoyed quite a bit.
John Mulaney: The Comeback Kid
After his sitcom crashed and burned, John Mulaney could have gotten bitter. Instead, he took the experience (along with buying a house and other adult responsibilities) and turned it into this magnificent special, which touches on his admiration for Bill Clinton (aka President Buddy Garrity) and his love of the 1993 adaptation of The Fugitive.
Grace and Frankie – “The Elevator”
Just about the time I was ready to write this show off (it’s fine, but entirely inessential), I was dumbstruck by just how much of a knockout this bottle episode was. While stuck in an elevator, the two couples flashback to the first time Sol and Robert tried to admit their affair, which was interrupted by Robert and Grace’s daughter going into labor. The story reveals a big bundle of regret and gratitude the four share because of their unique situation. Now if only the rest of the show would have followed suit.
House of Cards – “Chapter 32”
As always, House of Cards is on the cusp of greatness. But there are usually two to three filler episodes, or a wildly unnecessary subplot. In some ways Season Three was the best the show has done, which shows the world Frank has built crumbling all around him. This episode might be the best the show has done, too. During a trip to Russia, Frank has to negotiate with the Putin-esque Petrov for the release of a gay U.S. citizen being held for violating morality laws. Claire tries to negotiate with the prisoner, who refuses to apologize for his sexual orientation. It’s a no-win situation, which leads to a suicide and the first major fracture in the Underwood marriage.
Inside Amy Schumer – “12 Angry Men Inside Amy Schumer”
In some ways, Schumer’s well-deserved fame may be her undoing. She was already brashly funny. We don’t need to hear every story about her being seated next to some famous person. But when she’s focused on her witty, provocative comedy, she’s second to none. This parody of 12 Angry Men – right down to the black-and-white photography and switchblade reveal – is simply genius. The 12 dudes are there to determine if Schumer is “hot enough” to have her own TV show. It seems absurd, even though it’s not that far removed from reality, as network executives make petty decisions like this all the time.
Key & Peele – “The End”
While Seasons Four and Five weren’t quite as sharp as the previous three, no one was doing sketch comedy as well or as consistently as this duo. Their finale goes all out, concluding a joke that started in the very first episode, and including “Negrotown,” which might be their greatest sketch together and the perfect distillation of their ethos: laughing in the face real-life horror.
Louie – “Sleepover”
In this abbreviated season of Louie, there was plenty to love. But “Sleepover” was my favorite because it touched on so many different things, including maturity, regret and processing art. Plus, it also reveals a horror worse than being a single parent: having to chaperone a sleepover for a bunch of seventh-graders.
The Mindy Project – “The Parent Trap”
Season Four’s jump to Hulu was a creative boon for The Mindy Project. It introduced new characters (including a brother-sister duo from Atlanta) and new challenges (a struggling fertility practice), as well as the birth of Leo. But more than ever, the show focused on making extremely difficult choices that can’t be put off. In this penultimate episode, Mindy and Danny nearly split up – which still might happen when the show returns in January – because they simply can’t agree if they should have another baby and Mindy should stay home to raise them. It’s a hell of an issue, and one that will take some time to resolve. Not every show can make a sharp left into the dramatic, but Mindy has handled it with Kaling’s usual clumsy grace.
Modern Family – “The Day We Almost Died”
I have only seen a handful of episodes of Modern Family this year, but as I’ve often said, when this show is firing on all cylinders, few comedies are better. In this structurally daring (for them) episode, a nearly catastrophic car accident causes all the characters to re-evaluate their decisions. It’s a B-12 shot of heart that this show needs from time to time. But it also found time to have Cam lust after Phil, which will never not be funny.
Orange is the New Black – “A Tittin’ and a Hairin’”
Given the dark turn the show took this season – and a lackluster finale – I had to bump this show down to my honorable mentions. My, how the tables have turned. In Season One, Piper was our heroine and Pennsatucky was the bitch-in-chief. Now, with her own underwear empire, Piper is ruthless and cold, and Pennsatucky is the character who gets our sympathy. Flashbacks reveal a pattern of abuse from both men and women in her family, and how her crushing inability to speak up for her true feelings has led them to take advantage of her time and again. It’s heartbreaking.
Togetherness – “Kick the Can”
While this HBO show didn’t quite live up to its full potential, it built a solid foundation for Season Two. This episode was the most freewheeling of any of the first season, as a game of Kick the Can against a bunch of hipsters has dire emotional consequences for our foursome. All the actors are fantastic, but guest star John Ortiz as David has the most crucial role. He has no idea how much his kindness and enthusiasm is affecting Michelle (Melanie Lynskey). This show deserves major props for being much more subtle in how affairs happen, all while making it frequently funny.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention The Honorable Woman, which aired on the BBC and Sundance in 2014. My wife and I devoured the show in the last few days of 2014 and finished up on New Year’s Day 2015. Simply put, there was no show I got more excited about finishing than this one. And with all the great shows out, that’s saying something.