As usual, there was a ton of good TV in 2014, and even a lot of great TV. Here’s my attempt to quantify it.
Even in a post-Breaking Bad landscape, it’s impossible for a hobbyist critic to keep up with all the excellent television being produced on half a hundred networks. I never began Hannibal, or a newly-resurgent The Walking Dead, or Orange is the New Black, or Andy Daly’s Review, or Amazon’s Transparent. Any one of those series would, and has, made the list of many a discerning critic. But I’ve seen what I’ve seen, and I like what I like, so the usual caveat applies: these are not the ten best shows of 2014, but my ten favorites.
And even from a diluted pool, it was a hard list to make. Only three shows from last year’s list returned, and some omissions surprised even me: on the Comedy side, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which had a sensational Spring if a slightly down Fall; New Girl, which recovered from a disastrous Spring and is now better than ever; and my beloved Parks and Recreation, which even in a weaker season is the most pleasant 30 minutes you can spend watching TV. Not to mention the unjustly-cancelled Enlisted, which will live on as one of network TV’s great one-season-wonders, and the hysterically uncomfortable Nathan for You, which raises orchestrated observational comedy to dizzying heights.
Leading off on the Drama side are Sundance TV’s The Honorable Woman, an electrifying British import which does more with the “spies in the Middle East” sub-genre than Homeland ever dreamed, and Mad Men, in the first half of its (ill-advisedly) birfurcated final season. Somewhere in between are genre hits Orphan Black, Sleepy Hollow and Vikings, all of which took a slight step down in their sophomore seasons. And then there’s BBC America’s The Musketeers, which deserves a mention simply for being a great deal of fun.
None of those shows made my Top 10. Here’s what did.
10. Manhattan (WGN America)
Best Episode: “The Gun Model“
By far the biggest surprise of the year, this period drama managed to find one aspect of World War II that had yet to be tapped — in the intertwined lives of the scientists living and working in Los Alamos. Like Mad Men, its spiritual predecessor, Manhattan’s rookie season was a slow burn, deliberately laying the groundwork for several explosive (no pun intended) confrontations in the final episodes. With a terrific ensemble cast, confident storytelling, and detailed production design, the series should be a must-binge for discerning viewers before it returns next fall.
9. Community (NBC)
Best Episode: “Geothermal Escapism“
So it turns out that Community is not actually dead (even though I eulogized it), but if its fifth season were to have been its last, it would have been hard to complain about how it went out. With mad genius Dan Harmon back at the helm, the comedy returned to irreverently ambitious form, taking swings at dystopian sci-fi, 1980s animation, a sequel to its hallowed “Dungeons & Dragons” episode, and even a few smaller episodes that emphasized real character development. Even losing Donald Glover and Chevy Chase didn’t really slow the show down, and it seems finally getting cancelled by NBC won’t either. Thanks, Yahoo!
8. The Americans (FX)
Best Episode: “Martial Eagle“
The second season of the best show you’re not watching improved on its already-excellent debut, deepening relationships and adding new, twisty layers of deception (and self-deception). But even more than the Cold War hijinks and intricate storytelling, The Americans features a nuanced, complex depiction of marriage — the battles Philip & Elizabeth Jennings fight on the home front, keeping their double lives from their children while wrestling with their ever-evolving feelings for each other, mean there is never a wasted moment on this show. Add in a pitch-perfect period soundtrack and real historical resonance, and you’ve got something really special.
7. True Detective (HBO)
Best Episode: “The Secret Fate of All Life“
No series took the internet by storm in 2014 like True Detective. For some, it may have ended up as less than the sum of its parts, but you didn’t have to dive down the Yellow King wiki-hole to appreciate the craft on display (that tracking shot in “Who Goes There!”), and the extraordinary performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. It was a dark, swampy, alluring concoction, richly atmospheric with style to spare. Whether creator Nic Pizzolatto can repeat his trick next year remains to be seen, but he’s already given us one of TV’s most indelible characters in Rust Cohle, whose high-minded, rambling nonsense was the envy of philosophy undergrads everywhere.
6. Doctor Who (BBC America)
Best Episode: “Listen“
The award for “Most Improved” goes to Doctor Who, bouncing back from self-immolation on Trenzalore with a brand-new Doctor (an acidic, daffy, delightful Peter Capaldi), a darker vision, and a renewed focus on character rather than the narrative pyrotechnics Steven Moffat is usually known for. The result was the series’ most consistent season in years, with a only a couple episodes I’d classify as clunkers — and even those were still pretty entertaining. Best of all, Jenna Coleman’s Clara was completely redeemed, becoming the driving force on more adventures than any companion before her. When the show was on — “Listen,” “Flatline,” the emotional season finale — it was really on.
5. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
Best Episode: I have to choose?
It’s astonishing, really, how quickly Last Week Tonight asserted itself as a force to be reckoned with — not in the “fake news” field well-tilled by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but in something approaching actual news. Thanks to the extended run time and loosened restrictions provided by HBO, John Oliver’s impish charm has been given free room to reign; his lead stories run as long as 15 uninterrupted minutes, scorching eviscerations on everything from our criminal justice system, to net neutrality, income inequality, and Russia’s abandonment of its gecko astronauts. LWT has become indispensable appointment viewing, with the power to enact real change, while still being screamingly funny. Hurry back, John!
4. Veep (HBO)
Best Episode: “Crate“
Armando Iannucci’s black satire keeps getting better and better, as Veep’s third season saw Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, continuing to earn all the awards) in full campaign mode, ducking the tough issues and pandering her little heart out. The jokes — and deliciously profane insults — whip by, with each member of Selina’s team getting standout moments, culminating in what may be the VP’s greatest triumph…before the rug inevitably gets pulled out from under her again. It’s TV’s best comedy, endlessly quotable, while providing a window into the cesspool of Washington, DC that somehow rings truer than the soap operas of House of Cards or Scandal.
3. Fargo (FX)
Best Episode: “Buridan’s Ass“
Despite its placement on my more personal list, Fargo was the best TV series I watched all year — even more impressive because it could have been a disaster. Why do a cover version of one of the greatest films of the ’90s? Creator Noah Hawley’s answer: because it wasn’t a cover, but its own beast, dark and strange and funny, gorgeously filmed, and completely engrossing. Every performance in the remarkably deep ensemble was perfectly pitched, from Billy Bob Thornton’s dry malevolence, to Martin Freeman’s craven whinging; Allison Tolman was a revelation, grounding the entire production with her innate decency. It wasn’t another story about antiheroes, but ordinary people, swept up in forces beyond their reckoning and fighting back. Not to be missed.
2. Sherlock (PBS)
Best Episode: “The Sign of Three“
Basically, it was a great year for Martin Freeman. The worst thing about this latest mini-season of Sherlock is having to wait two years for the next one; the best thing is literally everything else. Season 3 focused less on villains and casework, and functioned more as character study; each week’s mystery served to add new shades to Holmes & Watson’s relationship, as Sherlock first (rudely) comes back from the dead, than (brilliantly) serves as John’s Best Man. The chemistry between Freeman & Benedict Cumberbatch (himself having a nice 2014) is as strong as ever, and — above all — the show is just fun. It’s just so much fun. Sociopathy has never looked so appealing.
1. Game of Thrones (HBO)
Best Episode: “The Mountain and the Viper“
No, we don’t really know where the show is going next — if George R.R. Martin could stop making talk show appearances, attending conventions, and blogging about football, that would be great — but Season 4 of Thrones landed moment after massive moment, mining the remaining material from the series’ best book to incendiary effect. But even beyond the deaths (oh, the deaths) and brilliantly-staged battles, Game of Thrones‘s best moments remain its quietest: conversations fraught with meaning, monologues powerfully performed. It seemed like every other episode contained a hall-of-fame speech from Peter Dinklage, and others (especially Pedro Pascal, Maisie Williams, Emilia Clarke, and Charles Dance, but I could keep going) carried their respective storylines with panache and verve. Westeros has never been more vulnerable, but Thrones‘s raw power continues to make it television’s premiere experience, providing beautiful vistas, labyrinthine plotting, and water cooler moments galore.