1. Grantchester: When ITV's Grantchester first aired in 2014, I called it the year's best show. It returns next month, and there's no reason to think that Series 2 won't top my list again. Grantchester is an original: part murder mystery, part character drama -- but in proportions I've never seen before, equally (and exquisitely) balanced. Each episode a mere 45 minutes, each one offering up a new case as it pushes the ongoing story-lines forward -- but the continuing plots never feel slight, and the detective work never feels slighted. The supporting cast is uniformly strong, but the show's success rests largely on star James Norton's sturdy shoulders. I've seen Norton in a half-dozen roles now (most recently as Prince Andrei in War and Peace), and he's never failed to impress, but Sidney Chambers plays to all his strengths. He's a vicar in 1953 England, still mired in memories of the war: tortured and self-loathing, looking to others to deliver him from the darkness. Yet he's also the ideal father confessor: open-faced, reassuring, nonjudgmental -- except when it comes to himself, and then he's unforgiving. "I'm supposed to be setting an example," Sidney bemoans in one episode, when his fondness for whiskey and weakness for woman have led him to another indiscretion -- and yet his empathy for others, and his sincere belief in the lessons he preaches, make him refreshingly human, and genuinely heroic. Crime-solving comes easy to Sidney Chambers; it's life that's hard to master. And as played by Norton, a warm and expressive actor whose features seem sculpted for the small screen, you see someone fully suited to sharing God's plan, even as he searches for his own answers. Norton makes Sidney Chambers a memorable and refreshingly complex hero, but his performance aside, the most remarkable thing about Grantchester -- remarkable for any show challenging convention and redefining the genre -- is how assured it is in its execution. There were no missteps in Series 1. Writer Daisy Coulam has precious few credits to her resume, but she's a talent to watch, just as Grantchester is a show to cherish.
2. Marvel's Agent Carter: The best of the current comic-book adaptations, and, of course, the only one in grave danger of cancellation. So if it might not be picked up, what makes its two seasons worth investing in? Because it's a "superhero show" done right: one devoid of missteps, that only continues to improve. It strands its formidable secret agent Peggy Carter in a period dedicated to the disempowerment of women: the years following World War II, when men returned from battle to reclaim their old jobs and women were once again relegated to second-rate status. In Season 1, the show plays as a bit of a polemic; by Season 2, it lets go of the anger and simply offers itself as an antidote to the pervasive chauvinism -- serving up some of the strongest female characters to grace the small screen. Agent Carter eschews the kind of plot contrivances that started to take down The Flash barely months after it got started; it avoids the dour sameness that has set in on Arrow. Admirably earnest as it carries out its season-long missions, it's also delightfully playful: amiable without being arch, cheeky without being campy. It's got a trio of charismatic leads -- Hayley Atwell, James D'Arcy and Enver Gjokaj -- and with the exception of one first-season Russian scientist I wanted to chuck out a window, some of the best villains I've seen in recent years. (And I am not one who cares for the current crop of TV villains, but the two currently powering the story-line -- and I'll say no more, so if you do tune in, you can enjoy the element of surprise -- are spot-on.) And Season 2, which wisely transplanted its leads from New York City to Los Angeles, has been a heady mix of Hollywood hedonism and female empowerment. (You've got to love a show that understands that only in Tinseltown, where looks triumph over logic, could a villain successfully hide a ghoulish scar behind a peek-a-boo bang.) The show is as no-nonsense as Peggy Carter herself, yet as beguiling as Hayley Atwell in her Forties frocks. It will be missed when it exits the airwaves, but hopefully will always be there for the (re)viewing.
3. Indian Summers: One of the highlights of 2015 didn't make it into my recent year-in-review -- because I didn't get around to seeing it till 2016. So let's correct a grievous wrong. Indian Summers was the best continuing drama I saw on TV last year, except I didn't see it till this year: a glorious piece of epic showmanship, remarkable acting, and sumptuous production values -- the kind that TV so rarely engages in anymore. I put off watching it for a time: I saw some reviews describe it as "a slow-burner" that "took a while to get going." It turned out to be nothing of the kind. Sometimes I fear that if a show doesn't boast a heavily-choreographed fight scene every fifteen minutes, it'll be labeled as "slow." (For the record, I found parts of Jessica Jones painfully plodding -- mired in the same story beats and tonal cul-de-sacs for episodes at a time -- but because there was always a well-timed smackdown to break up the monotony, no one seemed to mind much.) Indian Summers didn't take "a while to get going" at all; there was merely a lot to digest: characters, relationships, history, backstory. A half-dozen plots wove through each episode, intersecting capriciously and at times colliding inexorably -- how is that slow? It's 1932, during the final years of British colonial rule in India, and as the power-players take to Simla, at the foothills of the Himalayas, to rule and revel, the locals take to the streets to evoke a call for national independence. A lot of viewers compared it (sometimes unfavorably) to 1984's Jewel in the Crown; yes, they're set in similar periods, but they couldn't be less alike in terms of approach, focus or tone. It's the kind of series that involves you in both the personal and political entanglements, and although the historical events are familiar, the way they unfold -- and how they impact the lives of the principal characters -- is never less than engaging, and often engrossing. Extraordinarily well-played by a cast headed by Julie Walters (in a career-best performance, playing a nasty piece of work without ever asking for sympathy), with powerful turns by Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Jemima West, Nikesh Patel, Fiona Glascott, and Alexander Cobb. Exceptional viewing, and happily, returning to Channel 4 in 2016.
4. Elementary: Now in its fourth season, and I still see folks dismiss it as "just another CBS procedural." It's not. It's a delicious hybrid -- part absorbing character study, part sturdy whodunnit, enlivened by the crackling chemistry between Jonny Lee Miller (as Sherlock) and Lucy Liu (as Joan Watson). Creator Rob Doherty avoided the potential pitfalls of transplanting Sherlock Holmes to modern-day New York; far from it: he used the setting to inform the character. A superior Season 2 episode opened with Sherlock addressing his Narcotics Anonymous support group with uncharacteristic wistfulness: "I often wonder if I should have been born in another time. My senses are unusually -- what one could even say unnaturally -- keen. And ours is an era of distraction -- it's a punishing drumbeat of constant input. This cacophony which follows us into our homes and into our beds, it seeps into our souls, for want of a better word. For a long time, there was only one poultice for my raw nerve endings, and that was copious drug use. So in my less productive moments, I'm given to wonder: if I'd just been born when it was a little quieter out there, would I have even become an addict in the first place? Might I have been more focused, a more fully realized person?" And that's the particular genius of Doherty's Elementary. Outfitting and surrounding Doyle's late-Victorian creation with the wonders of modern technology doesn't simply make him more diabolically clever; it also makes him as tortured and stressed, as angry and isolated as eight million other New Yorkers -- and then as stunned when he stumbles into a friendship that helps him heal. And heal he does, as the character has grown remarkably in four seasons. Elementary had one misstep in Season 2: an attempt to drive a wedge between Sherlock and Joan that failed because of casting and chemistry. But otherwise, it's a show that's gotten more confident with each passing season, and easily the best performance I saw by an actor in 2015 was Miller in the episode "For All You Know," in which Sherlock was forced to consider that he might have murdered a young woman while he was using. As we head into the second half of its fourth season, Elementary seems firmly on a roll, with only the potentially over-the-top thesping of John Noble, newly added as Sherlock's father, a slight cause for concern. It's a show that's never dominated the TV landscape the way it deserved to, but if you've never watched, I'm told it makes for swell binge-viewing.
5. Unforgotten: After watching BBC's masterful adaptation of War and Peace, I remarked to a friend in the UK that things like that just don't get done over here anymore: those grand historical miniseries that used to be the bread-and-butter of sweeps programming. While admitting the superiority of British television in that respect, my friend countered that we in the States have our own genre series that the UK hasn't replicated or perfected -- chief among them, the newfangled police procedural that pairs old-fashioned detective work with the latest in forensic science. And indeed, those sorts of shows aren't as ubiquitous in the UK as they are here in the States; there was a time, from roughly 2002 to 2010, when the US airwaves were cluttered with CSI spin-offs and clones. Any new series would have to have a damn good hook to re-engage this procedural-weary TV viewer -- and indeed, ITV's Unforgotten, which premiered in the fall of 2015 and has already been picked up for a second series, makes a stale genre feel fresh again. On the surface, Unforgotten is what CBS's Cold Case would have been if each murder had taken six episodes to solve, but it's buoyed by a delicious conceit at its core. Unlike the other procedurals, we don't meet the suspects only when the police come to interview them. We meet them from the start. Even as the cold case is warming up, we're introduced to clusters of friends and family members, and became engaged in their personal stories -- without knowing, as yet, who among them might be connected to the crime. It allows writer/creator Chris Lang some wonderful reveals along the way, and further, by the time the police come calling, we've become so engrossed in the suspects' lives that seeing them disrupted -- and potentially destroyed -- becomes deeply distressing. The result is a show far more affecting than the average police procedural. And its ace-in-the-hole: star Nicola Walker, one of the most versatile yet underrated English actors, able to delineate and differentiate characters without ever stooping to the theatrical tricks lesser talents rely on. The ending of Series 1 was a little pat for my tastes, but Walker's empathetic performance, ably abetted by the winning Sanjeev Bhaskar, more than made up for any deficiencies. Darkly dramatic, wildly entertaining, and at its best, unforgettable.
Enjoy reading about TV's best? Check out two similarly-styled posts: Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss and My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders. Or if you prefer more detailed looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Judging Amy Season 6, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries -- not (necessarily) my top episodes, but the best whodunnits. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2, pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.