Best Television of 2015: 'Bates Motel', 'Vikings', 'Reign', 'Narcos', 'The Flash' & more!

A full year of television has come and gone, and after watching a plethora of series – the time has arrived for Eclectic Pop to recognize the best and brightest. 13 series made the cut to be mentioned among the year’s best. They span the contributions of cable, streaming and network broadcasting. Below you will find zero straight-up comedies, loads of dramas (set in both the past and the present), a single superhero series and two horror programs. It’s an eclectic mix and we begin with the selection for the year’s #1 show…
Best Show: Bates Motel
For the third straight year in a row, “Bates Motel” proved to have no equal. The latest season of the A&E series focused on the escalation of Norman’s (Freddie Highmore) unraveling psyche, as his protective mother (Vera Farmiga) and vigilant brother (Max Thieriot) struggled to come to terms with what to do about it.

Mental illness is something a lot of shows vaguely discuss and fewer explore on a deeply seated level. “Bates” is unwavering in its pursuit of the topic as a significantly silenced issue facing families. While the domino effect of Norman’s affliction touched every character on the canvas in a unique way, the season also gave its characters a chance to explore themselves outside of their connection to him.

Balancing the overarching umbrella that connects them and the smaller nuances of their individual development is essential to the entire series and writers Kerry Ehrin and Carlton Cuse kept the ball rolling in explosively compelling ways.

“Bates Motel” gave viewers moments of dark humor, tragic drama and heartening romantic quests. It continued swimming in taboo thematic waters with its signature grace, careful to never push the envelope for the sake of sheer shock value.

“Bates” finds its power in restraint. In exploring the manifold of psychological layering that comprise a complicated and all-encompassing characterization.

Led by the remarkable talents of Vera Farmiga, it is a testament to the strength of its ensemble that every cast member can stand toe-to-toe with her and capably hold their own. The collective performances of Farmiga, Freddie Highmore, Max Thieriot, Olivia Cooke, Nestor Carbonell and Kenny Johnson, comprised the best work an entire cast contributed to TV in 2015.

The critical apathy for this phenomenal series is frustrating. There’s nothing this show is doing wrong to explain the indifference. It is flawless. In a climate where there has been an increasing call for female led series, “Bates Motel” is ferociously captained by one and not just any one either.

Norma Bates is a complex buffet of human emotion; a mother and entrepreneur trying to take care of her family under harrowing circumstances and Farmiga portrays her struggle with a stunning clarity that awes in every episode.

For that reason and many more, "Bates" earned the top spot on this list for the third consecutive year. Simply put, no other series deserves it more.

Best Horror Series: Penny Dreadful
The first season of Showtime’s horror series made a strong first impression and its second season managed to build on that sound foundation by striking a sleek balance between gothic gore, mystical mystery and towering romance.

Boosted by the phenomenal central turns of Eva Green and Josh Hartnett, “Penny” shined brighter than one could’ve ever anticipated. Of furthering surprise is that “Dreadful” is has proven to be a horror show with heart, a weird dichotomy that sounds strange on paper and only makes sense when watching.

Proving that point was the stand-alone episode “The Nightcomers” featuring guest star Patti Lupone, which catapulted the series to a newly realized creative pinnacle. A powerfully moving hour of television that earned a spot among the best the medium has ever presented.
Most Underrated Show: Tyrant
Another show ignored by critics, FX’s exotic Middle East drama brought the heat in a follow-up season that extended its attention from the inner conflicts of the Al-Fayeed family to the fight over their homeland in Abbudin. An aspect “Tyrant” manages to consistently get right is how it balances an operatic arc like Barry’s "death" with the larger real-life picture of geopolitics.

Backed by one of the most underrated ensembles on television, Adam Rayner, Moran Atias, Ashraf Barhom and Jennifer Finnigan continued giving incredible performances that sold all of the show’s big moments alongside its small ones. While showrunner Gideon Raff kept up the enthralling pace of its freshman season.

Best Comeback Series: The Blacklist
“The Blacklist” had an interesting 2015. In the midst of an undeniable sophomore slump, it managed to fight back and reclaim its former glory; proving it’s not impossible to surmount a second season slip-up. Anchored by the venerable James Spader as the series’ enigmatic protagonist and Megan Boone as its endearing heroine, “The Blacklist’s” comeback was not entirely unexpected.

Showrunner Jon Bokenkamp has proven to be highly adept at delivering what viewers want and succeeding at exceeding even those expectations. The reunion of the feisty/made-for-each-other Keens, proved to be one such example of long shot hopes that were rewarded in 2015.

Best Summer Series: Scream
When MTV announced it was making a television adaptation of the hit movie franchise, you could practically hear the chorus of skepticism ring out amidst the universe of pop culture. My how “Scream” proved the naysayers wrong.

By assembling a young cast of relative unknowns and pairing them with the highly familiar scenario of the slasher genre; MTV hit an unexpected home run.

Best New Drama: Bloodline
A picturesque location gives way to ugly secrets in this Netflix original. Charged by the tour de force performance of Ben Mendelsohn as the black sheep member of the Rayburn family; “Bloodline” simmers for quite a while before reaching the last half’s explosive boil.

For those missing the family drama ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters” supplied, “Bloodline” has the dose you’ve been missing. Just be warned that when the Rayburns get together for dinner, it’s a much graver affair.

Best New Historical Series: The Last Kingdom
BBC challenged “Vikings” and “Game of Thrones” by throwing down the gauntlet with their own historical drama. Well-paced, engrossingly directed and engagingly acted, “The Last Kingdom” did not outperform its rivals but made for an appealing entry to the genre, all the same.

Best New Foreign-Language Series: Deutschland 83
Brought to American audiences via the Sundance Channel, this new German series takes place in 1983 and follows the perilous espionage adventures of Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay), an East German soldier in his mid-twenties recruited to spy in the West.

“Deutschland 83” effortlessly switched gears between the activity of Martin’s family back home and his pulse-racing dual identity as Moritz Stamm. Thrillingly rendered; the series conveyed its cleverly veracious tagline (“over the wall, under the gun”) with gusto. Special thanks to Olivia (@Olivia_Lowry on Twitter) for suggesting it.
Best Historical Series: Vikings
In its third season, History Channel’s original series went from being a great show to a magnificent one. As showrunner Michael Hirst took the adventures of Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and his merry band to palatial new heights; captivating with its unapologetic grit and brazen depiction of the lurid.

“Vikings” has maintained a certain distance from getting too entrenched with a particular character, typically devoting most of its focus to an overall depiction of Viking life. 

In its third outing Hurst narrowed that scope, emerging with a more intimate portrait of its lead character, the subversive Ragnar Lothbrok. Played with startling impact by Travis Fimmel, Ragnar is fast becoming one of TV’s most complex characters. His breadth for inducing emotional whiplash is presently unparalleled. Simply put, you can like him or loath him all within the same episode.

Thanks to Hirst’s writing and Fimmel’s portrayal, Ragnar is not a character one can box into any one category. He’s neither a hero nor villain; anti-hero nor rogue and it’s perhaps for those reasons, he’s so essential to the show. If you needed any more evidence of his indispensability, the heart-stopping season finale which pulled off Ragnar’s “death” provided it.

Best Superhero Series: The Flash
Proving superhero series can be fun, “The Flash” continued its golden streak in 2015, completing its first season at the beginning of the year and kicking off its second in the last quarter. While “Daredevil” and “Arrow” skulked and sulked about, “The Flash” responded in uplifting revelry.

Thanks to the comedic chops of Carlos Valdes’ turn as Cisco and Jesse L. Martin’s sagacious portrayal of the paternal Joe; “The Flash” is on another tier. Vital to setting the series above its peers is the core relationship between Barry (Grant Gustin) and Joe (Jesse L. Martin).

While so many shows fail to depict any adult influence upon its younger set, “The Flash” embraces such an authority as one of its greatest cornerstones and assets. 

Best New Direct Stream Series: Narcos
This Netflix original premiered in late summer 2015 and quickly made a name for itself as a scorching standout. The most creatively consistent of Netflix’s stable; “Narcos” is a striking account of Pablo Escobar’s (Wagner Moura) rise to power as one of the most notorious crime figures in modern history.

Part enthralling history re-enactment, part crime thriller, “Narcos” does not stop there, throwing in a robust character study for good measure. The first episode is good, the second episode is great and by the third episode you are so busy watching the rest of them, you have lost track of which one is which because they have blurred together in harmonious concert.

Wagner Moura’s breakout performance as the infamous kingpin was one of the highlights of the television season. It’s a performance that never feels like the charismatic sales pitch other actors might have been tempted to turn in. Moura instead, substitutes campaigning for playing the various notes of a complex persona without being preachy. It is a tall order, and he and the series deliver.
Second Best Show: Reign
Currently in its third season, it is safe to say The CW’s costume drama has only gotten better with age. Powerful heroines, colorful villains, intriguing anti-heroes, enchanting romances and mind-blowing costume design, put “Reign” on par with any of cable’s historical dramas.

Overcoming the hurdle of having to kill off the mega popular Francis (Toby Regbo) in its first quarter, “Reign” managed to handle its historically dictated twist with a poignant fervor that hit all of the needed notes before moving forward.

The series has similarly maneuvered the evolving structure of its split focus between French and English court, a bold move which has not splintered any of its quality.

The change has also allowed the series to fluidly shift gears between the time period’s most commanding female power players: Mary Queen of Scots (Adelaide Kane), Queen mother Catherine de Medici (Megan Fellows) and Queen Elizabeth I (Rachel Skarsten). As a result, the series has offered viewers a trio of fascinating central characters to vigorously delve into.

Marrying brilliant writing and stunning production value with the outstanding performances of its cast; “Reign” continued to be a show worth hailing in regal regard throughout the year.

Hardest Show to Watch that was Still Worth Watching: Game of Thrones
The fifth season of HBO’s cult series was its most controversial yet. The understandable upheaval was brought on by a succession of brutal storylines that underlined the show’s capacity to venture into depictions of the vilest forms of human behavior. In a season of such darkness, highlights were hard to find.

It was well after “Thrones” had gotten off to its usually slow and gloomy start before it gave viewers an incentive to continue. That enticement would eventually come in the form of a standout sequence in “Dance of Dragons”, when Daenerys' (Emilia Clarke) dragon rescued her, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and company from certain death. The scene was positively exhilarating and a prime illustration of the type of moments, beleaguered viewers stay tuned for.