Update 12/23: This feature was written in June, 2014 as TV seasons go from September to September based on the Emmys schedule. For slightly more updated TV Features check out our Best TV Episodes Of 2014 and all our Best Of 2014 coverage which includes commentaries on best performances, soundtracks and more.
Bad news if you’re a member of the Television Academy: balloting for this year’s Emmys closed on June 20th, with the nominees to be announced a few weeks from now, on July 10th. That officially brings to an end the 2013/2014 TV season, and if anyone was worried that the string of quality TV was starting to come to an end as some of the most famous dramas and comedies of recent years wrapped up their runs, they were sorely mistaken: the medium is in as remarkably healthy a state as ever.
Every year, at about this time, we put together our list of the best television of the previous season, and for 2013/2014, there was such a wealth of goodness that we felt compelled to extend our line-up from fifteen to twenty for the first time. It’s not surprising: quality television now has more outlets than ever, from mainstream broadcast networks to basic cable and premium channels to online-only services like Netflix and Amazon. But from comedy to drama, it’s truly a remarkable time to be a TV watcher.
You can find our (entirely subjective, much argued-over) ranking below. Who’ll succeed previous victors “Parks & Recreation,” “Mad Men” and “Top Of The Lake” in the top slot? Debate the winners and losers in the comments section below. And note, some spoilers are ahead, but they’re clearly marked.
20. “Penny Dreadful”
There are a number of things wrong with “Penny Dreadful,”
if we’re being honest. The pilot was a bit tepid, keeping its central
characters enigmatic rather than intriguing (and actually not
introducing a number of the regulars until the second installment). It’s
had one of the more oddly structured seasons of television we can
remember: at eight episodes, it feels like it’s wrapping up just as it’s
getting started, especially as it’s taken more than one break from the
central plot to focus episodes on extended flashbacks to fill out
character backstories. And it’s about as silly as a show about Dracula,
Frankenstein and Dorian Gray crossing paths in Victorian London sounds.
But there’s a beautiful sincerity to its silliness: the cast, and
creator/writer John Logan (who, as with several other shows on this
list, was the sole writer on the project, having come up with the idea
with “Skyfall” collaborator Sam Mendes) approach the material without
winking at the audience, and with a real love of the horror genre, from
the source materials of the title to classic ’60s Hammer fare, ending up
with a product that’s campy and operatic and enormously, enormously
entertaining. The acting is superlative, with Timothy Dalton, Harry
Treadaway and, above all else, Eva Green doing tremendous work (even
Josh Hartnett’s pretty decent), and the craft throughout is impeccable:
“The Orphanage” helmer J.A. Bayona did a stellar work at building the
atmosphere, and the score, by “A Single Man” composer Abel Korzeniowski,
might be the best on TV right now. At a time when certain other
horror-focused shows (ones that are American Stories, if you catch our
drift) are content with just flinging insanity at the screen and seeing
what sticks, “Penny Dreadful” truly gets the richness of the genre: with
psychology and sexuality and religion and, above anything else, a
desire to stave off or defeat death underpinning everything. And, maybe
most importantly, it features Timothy Dalton saying the word
Best Episode: This past Sunday’s episode,
“Possession,” might have been the best so far: a bottle-episode that
manages to explore the characters while still moving the story forward,
it was also the best showcase for Eva Green’s astonishing performance in
a season that’s been full of them so far.
19. “Bob’s Burgers”
Occupying territory so well covered by the all-conquering pop culture juggernaut that is “The Simpsons” it’s remarkable that Loren Bouchard’s “Bob’s Burgers,” over the course of just four seasons, has managed to carve out such a distinctive identity. The sweet, loopy, often surreal tone springs from a deep love for its characters, the Belcher family, their customers, neighbors, friends and nemeses, and perhaps what makes it so compelling is just how active an interior life every single one of our principals can display in tiny, slider-sized 22-minute mouthfuls. In fact, it seems to be a characterizing element of the show; that everyone comes to it via their own connection to one specific character—for this writer the show is all about Linda, the perpetually good-humored matriarch who is refreshingly herself, as opposed to merely a foil for the wacky hijinks of her husband or children, from her tippling to her sudden enthusiasms (deciding she’s psychic because she predicted a telesales call) to her tendency to break into (often hysterical) musical numbers at the drop of a hat. The family derives so much of their manic energy from her, and yet the warmth and genuineness of her love for them, and their love for each other, renders them totally impervious to outside judgements, which allows “Bob’s Burgers” to venture to places of awkwardness that other shows might fear to tread, always knowing there’s a safety net of affection into which these beloved screw-ups can fall without harm. Season 4 has seen the show grow in confidence and characterization, mining musical moments more frequently, experimenting a little with format (the finale was an epic double episode; the closing credits are getting more surreal and brilliant, as in the spot-on Bond song parody) and generally joyously expanding the microcosmic universe of this New Jersey seaside town with seemingly limitless invention and affection.
Best Episode: The finale double episode is probably the season’s biggest gamble, and it pays off, but as a single standout our (tough) choice is either “Uncle Teddy” in which restaurant regular Teddy gets his moment as a babysitter to the kids while Bob and Linda attend a burger convention or “The Equestranauts” which takes aim at the soft target of “Brony” culture and yet ends up again showing the foibles of others in a sympathetic light: everyone, after all, is just striving for the kind of unconditional love and acceptance that comes as naturally to the Belchers as breathing.
Comedy Central are on a hell of a roll at the moment: the network was for so long the house that “South Park” and “The Daily Show” built, but in the last few years, they’ve built up a slate of original programming that’s among the most exciting around right now. “Key & Peele,” “Kroll Show,” “Nathan For You,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Drunk History” are all stuffed with laughs (if sometimes being as hit-and-miss as the sketch show format tends to be), but the gem of the line-up is a show that aired with much less fanfare, and after being in a vault for almost a year: “Review,” or to give it its full title, “Review With Forrest MacNeil.” Created by and starring longtime comedy scene-stealer Andy Daly (“Eastbound & Down”), and directed by “Spellbound” and “Rocket Science” helmer Jeffrey Blitz, the show is a loose remake of an Australian show that keeps up the same central conceit: Forrest (Daly) is a reviewer, who reviews life experiences suggested by his viewers, from the seemingly innocuous likes of ‘Having A Best Friend’ and ‘Hunting’ to ‘Divorce,’ ‘Revenge’ and ‘Space.’ The first episode is gloriously funny, as Forrest, as always in his deadpan, slightly harassed manner, gets hooked on coke and tries to take a teenager to prom, but you wonder how much mileage there can possibly be in the premise. But the show escalates beautifully week after week, finding more and more humiliating and disastrous ways for the review to go, but crucially, there’s a cumulative effect, the series turning into a bleakly funny character study as Forrest is pushed closer and closer to breaking point by the show, and his malevolent producer (James Urbaniak, doing stellar work). The show seemed to burn itself down in its final episode, but despite lowish ratings, a second season has happily been commissioned.
Best Episode: The third, “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes,” which gloriously sandwiches, as the title might suggest, Forrest being forced to ask his beloved wife for a divorce, with a challenge to eat first fifteen pancakes, and then thirty. Not just the high watermark of the show, but one of the funniest half-hours of the whole year.
17. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”
This year wasn’t the finest as far as network sitcoms went: most fell flat, strong new arrivals like “Trophy Wife” were short-lived, one-time favorites like “New Girl” took a down turn, and long-running greats like “Parks & Recreation” and “Community” returned to form to some degree, without quite brushing against their former heights. But the undoubted standout among the debuting shows was “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which came straight out of the gate with a remarkable degree of confidence. Co-created by “Parks & Recreation”’s Michael Schur and Dan Goor, and with a pilot directed by “Lego Movie” duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller (continuing their remarkable recent run of success), it essentially takes that “Parks & Rec”/”The Office” workplace comedy and sets it inside the titular NYC police station. It’s hardly a new concept (“Barney Miller,” et al.), but Schur and Goor brought across the easy likability, gag density and strong world-building from Pawnee to Brooklyn, with the new show being consistently funny and eventually, even a little heartwarming too. It wasn’t totally firing on all cylinders from the first, we’ll concede: early episodes depend on your tolerance for Andy Samberg, the “SNL” veteran’s man-child detective, as the biggest name on the show, being more central than most in the early run. But the series showed a fine capacity for course-correction, and gradually became more and more of an ensemble piece. And few series around have a better ensemble, with Andre Braugher, Terry Crews, Melissa Fumero, Stephanie Beatriz, Chelsea Peretti and Joe LoTruglio all doing stellar work, and maybe more importantly, gelling beautifully together, their enthusiasm for each other, and for the show in general, palpably coming off the screen. It’s not as furiously, gut-bustingly funny as some of the shows further up this list, but there’s such a warmth and generosity to the series that hanging out with the detectives became one of our greatest pleasures of the season just gone.
Best Episode: “Old School,” the eighth of the season, was where things really started to take off: pairing Samberg’s good-old-days-idolizing detective with Stacy Keach’s hardboiled crime reporter, who turns out to be a pretty unpleasant human being, Peralta’s reaction perhaps serving as the first real demonstration of the show’s great big heart.
16. “Silicon Valley”
Perhaps what’s most endearing about HBO’s new comedy “Silicon Valley” is just how traditional a sitcom it is really, featuring a small, enclosed community of people, sparsely populated at least initially, trapped in a “situation”: in this case a tiny tech startup in a town defined by the IT industry and dominated by Google surrogate Hooli. But the success of the show is down to two main factors: the sharp satirical eye for the excesses of that industry, with its flash-in-the-pan successes and delusions of grandeur (like the checkout guy convinced that his app for finding your car in the parking lot has a big future) and the surprising warmth of the characterization of even the show’s most self-unaware characters. From Thomas Middleditch’s archetypal geek/newly minted CEO, to TJ Miller’s self-styled would-be guru in a bathrobe, to the wonderful Zach Woods as baby-faced naif Jared, the show has constantly surprised us with how the relationships between these misfits develop so satisfyingly. But special MVP mention must go to Christopher Evan Welch, whose tragically early death just five episodes in was a real shock to discover just as we were starting to enjoy the show, and whose portrait of venture capitalist guru Peter Gregory is so indelible it’s hard to see how the show will reach its same heights next season. Though we are very glad that series creators Mike Judge, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky made the decision not to recast and reshoot, and instead let us enjoy Welch’s contribution, as sadly curtailed as it was. So we are a little worried that without him to spice things up the show could stray a little close to the middle of the road, but this first season has certainly earned our goodwill, so we’re rooting for it come next season.
Best Episode: “Articles of Incorporation” (episode 3) had a terrific balance between A and B storyline in which Richard has to buy the name “Pied Piper” from an aging farmer who represents the apotheosis of old-school masculinity as contrasted with Richard’s fey nerdishness, all while Peter Gregory gets his finest moment: seemingly distracted from a conversation with some desperate supplicants begging for a bridging loan or layoffs will ensue, he is transfixed by the sesame seeds on a Burger King burger that pays off in clever and surprising ways. It’s an episode that points to everything we hope the show will become, and to everything about the Gregory character that we will miss.
15. “Broad City”
You could make an argument that we still haven’t had the breakout web series that has made the kind of pop culture impact as the kind of TV series on this list (assuming we’re qualifying Netflix and Amazon’s output as more traditional television shows), but “Broad City” might be the next best thing, the web series that graduated to more traditional broadcast airwaves, and proved itself to be entirely worthy of the transition. Created by and starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, “Broad City” debuted on YouTube back in 2009, and eventually came to the attention of Amy Poehler, who shepherded a TV version, which was initially passed on by FX, before finally landing a home on Comedy Central, and proving the high point of their output this year. On paper, it’s another show in the “Girls”/”2 Broke Girls” mold—young twentysomething women in NYC, dealing with the sort of thing that young twentysomethings deal with. But “Broad City” is a very different show: looser, rawer, with an improv-y spirit that places it more in the mold of Tina Fey than Lena Dunham. Separated from the voice-of-her-generation hype that the latter had to deal with, “Broad City” manages to feel just as revolutionary, with two protagonists (Glazer and Jacobson, who are both hysterical) who smoke weed, chase the opposite sex, and do the sort of thing that would go unremarked if this was a male stoner-com, but feels like something very different here, in part thanks to their frank, don’t-give-a-shit approach to sexuality, which obsesses the pair, but will still always come second to their friendship. It’s not quite totally consistent, but at it’s best, it’s uproariously funny, and if nothing else, serves as a handy flip of the coin to “Girls,” with a more racially diverse, scraping-to-get-by approach to twentysomething life that’s equally as rewarding as Dunham’s show, in a very different way.
Best Episode: We were especially fond of episode eight, “Destination Wedding,” which sets the pair’s relationship into a new kind of context as they head to everyone’s worst nightmare, the out-of-town wedding.
No longer the new kid on the block (indeed, with fresh competition on the horizon in the form of the aforementioned “Broad City”), “Girls” moved into its (expanded, twelve-episode) third season no longer quite being on the tip of everyone’s pop culture tongues in the way that it did over the first couple of seasons. But for the most part, that was for the better: rather than being a figurehead for millennial angst, or lightning rod debates between the show’s defenders and people who don’t like Lena Dunham because they don’t find her attractive, the series could just quietly get on with the blend of sharp comedy and unexpectedly bruising drama that made its name, and proved to do so as well as ever. It wasn’t as stellar and unexpected as the first season, but the longer run somehow made it much more even and cohesive than the second (which was written before the first had aired), even if it didn’t entirely do all the characters justice—Shoshanna got rather short shrift this time around, and was much missed as a result. For the most part, though, it continued to dig further into its protagonists, making them as selfish and unappealing and yet strangely empathetic as ever. From the unexpected affair between Marnie (Alison Williams) and Ray (Alex Karpovsky) to Hannah’s (Dunham) flirtation with the corporate world and GQ, there wasn’t a duff storyline in the bunch, and as with last season, the show really begins to excel when it breaks into little stand-alone mini-movies or odd digressions (the addition of Gaby Hoffman as the unstable sister of Adam Driver’s character was an unexpected boon, as was her romance with Jon Glaser’s odd downstairs neighbor). Those aside, the show’s settled into a kind of rock-solid consistency, but that consistency certainly shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Best Episode: “Beach House” was a beautifully savage little away-day, but it was the season’s other major formula-breaker, “Flo,” which sees Hannah meet up with the other women in her extended family to visit her dying grandmother (“Nebraska” Oscar-nominee June Squibb) that lingers in the memory. Squibb, Becky Ann Baker, Dierdre Lovejoy and Amy Morton were all so good together that it actually made you long for a spin-off of sorts.
The runaway winner of this year’s “most improved” trophy, “Veep” had, over its first two seasons, been a show that was always worth a watch, but still felt like it was finding its feet, and rarely made a case for being appointment viewing. But season three was something else: creator Armando Iannucci and his team had raised their game exponentially this time around for a run of episodes that felt as tight, purposeful and gloriously sweary as his great “The Thick Of It,” rather than a slightly watered down imitator as it had sometimes felt before. Given new drive by a focused plotline that saw Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ frustrated, semi-incompetent Vice President running for President (and *SPOILER* eventually attaining, though only after the Commander-In-Chief resigns while she’s still third in the polls *END SPOILER*), the series proved faster and funnier than ever before, the fuck-ups and colorful insults flying at a lightning pace where early seasons had sometimes felt a bit turgid. And with real plot to get their teeth into, the cast excelled like never before: Anna Chlumsky, Reid Scott, Matt Walsh, Gary Cole, Kevin Dunn, Sufe Bradshaw, Tony Hale and especially Timothy Simons all finding new notes to play in their support team, and Dreyfus building on her exceptional work in “Enough Said” last year to give what may be seen in years to come as her most defining performance, one in which she’s capable of being borderline monstrous, then redeeming herself a few moments later. In places, you feel the show start to threaten the suspension of disbelief somewhat, and then you realize the ridiculous reality of politics and remember that the show has a long way to go before it tips over the edge. Plus, like “The Thick Of It” before it, it’s by some way the most quotable show on television, you unstable piece of human scaffolding.
Best Episode: Local bias might tip this U.K. resident towards episode seven, “Special Relationship,” which sees Selina on a state trip to the U.K., complete with tabloid skulduggery, breaking the Queen’s china, a scene-stealing turn from Christopher Meloni as a dim-witted personal trainer, the always-welcome Darren Boyd as an acerbic Deputy Prime Minister, and campaign manager Dan having an absolute melt down.
After an extended sabbatical (nearly two years passed between the third and fourth season), Louis C.K. returned with the latest batch of his much-acclaimed auteurist semi-sitcom. True to form, it was more distinctive, idiosyncratic and experimental than ever: after increasing experiments away from formula and towards a kind of serialization in the last batch of episodes, the new season was something else entirely: three-to-four feature length movies all adding up to a sort of predominant theme about masculinity, romance, fatherhood, childhood, and relationships between men and women. Ultimately, it added up to a season that courted controversy in a way that the show hadn’t before: Louie’s encounter with Yvonne Strahovski’s model, with Sarah Baker’s self-described fat girl, and his non-consensual grappling with Pamela Adlon, seemed to be planned directly with the intention of instigating the dozens of think pieces that followed in their wake; as some have suggested, C.K essentially trolling his viewers and the press. It also added up to something more uneven: structurally wonky, dominated by the 6-part “Elevator” run, less concerned with making you laugh (even by comparison to what came before), and a little more sentimental even (the ending to the “Pamela” three-parter never quite sat right with us). But a bold and playful season of “Louie” that doesn’t work 100% of the time is still going to be more interesting, thought-provoking, and better made than most of what’s on television. And every episode had something beautiful, unexpected or hilarious in it, from the refuse collectors invading Louie’s apartment in the season opener, to Ellen Burstyn’s performance and the extended motel-room flashback to Louie’s near-collapse of his marriage, to Pamela throwing out all of Louie’s furniture and the glorious, glorious return of Charles Grodin. Problematic? Yes. Uneven? Certainly. Like nothing else? Of course. One gets the instinct that C.K. is itching to head back to the big screen sooner rather than later, but as long as FX are giving him carte blanche, we’ll be tuning in to “Louie.”
Best Episode: It divided Playlisters, but we mostly adored the “In The Woods” two-parter, a “Freaks & Geeks”-ish coming-of-age flashback about young Louie’s flirtation with pot, and his betrayal of a beloved science teacher in favor of a skeezy drug dealer (Jeremy Renner, giving his best performance since “The Hurt Locker.” (YOU ARE INSANE THESE WERE THE WORST – ed.) Told you it was divisive…
11. “Game Of Thrones”
Near the end of season three, “Game Of Thrones” unveiled The Red Wedding, a brutal shocker that killed off a number of the show’s most prominent character, and instantly stepped into the annals of TV history. It seemed like a moment that the series would find difficult to top, even after shocking from the pilot, and one wondered if season four would just end up a long series of comedowns after that event. But instead, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss didn’t miss a beat, with a (mostly) eventful collection of ten episodes that shook up the status quo on the series in a big way, and, inevitably, left some of the most, and least, beloved characters dead by the end. On the one hand, giving a verdict on “Game Of Thrones” each season is a fool’s errand: the show’s reached a remarkable level of consistency, with Benioff and Weiss continuing to doing a remarkable job of adapting George R.R. Martin’s texts to screen while often improving on them, production values that can’t be beaten on TV (the fight for the wall in the penultimate episode had as much spectacle as most blockbusters this year), and a phenomenal cast who continue to be hugely pleasurable to watch, particularly with such fine writing. The series continues to serve some characters better than others—we’re yet to find much about Jon Snow interesting beyond the battle scenes, and Daenerys didn’t have much to do all season. And the show made its first major, major misstep in *SPOILER* the deeply problematic sex/rape scene between Cersei and Jaimie *END SPOILER*, something clearly botched on both the writing and filmmaking level, if the baffled response by the people behind it was anything to go by. But while misfired, it did also illustrate something that’s become one of the show’s greatest strengths: an unwillingness to let a character become entirely sympathetic or entirely villainous, testing your love for your favorites and reminding you of the humanity of the most hissable. It’s in this moral grey area that the show swims, and it’s that that makes it transcend pure genre and become what’s sure to be, by the time it’s done, one of TV’s most monumental achievements.
Best Episode: Finale “The Children” was a stunner, the most satisfying, thrilling and even moving season-ender that the show’s had to date.
One of the dicier propositions on paper, the Coen Brothers’ involvement (as Executive Producers) with the TV show version of their beloved, peerless 1996 film meant that we were always going to hope for the best with “Fargo.” Certainly more so than with the Edie Falco-starring version that the Coens did not endorse back in 1997 that never made it beyond pilot stage. But “Fargo” exceeded our cautious expectations, and after a rather tentative first few episodes which we mostly spent getting a bead on how much/how little relation to the story of the film this storyline had (answer: none really, bar some recurring motifs), it settled into its own thing, with a whole new slew of characters to fall for almost as hard as we fell for Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson. Featuring a breakout performance from Allison Tolman, and the best showcase that either Colin Hanks or Billy Bob Thornton have had in ages, it has the same recognizable affable noir tone of the film, and makes the brave and correct decision to round off the story by the end of the season, making season one feel like a self-contained entity. But we must say a lot of our joy, as “Fargo”-the-movie junkies, came from picking up on the sly ways the show referred to the film. From buried money, to pregnant policewomen, to DLR plates it nodded frequently to its precursor, but in Thornton’s implacable shapeshifting bogeyman hitman, and in Martin Freeman’s despicable, self-justifying protagonist, even more craven than William H Macy’s character in the film, the show also brought totally new elements that allowed it go both darker and broader when it needed.
Best Episode: All the latter episodes are pretty solid, but we’ll go with the one that really turned us on to the show properly: episode 4, “Eating the Blame” which tells the story of how Stavros Milos (and we love us some Oliver Platt) got his fortune: sheer dumb luck (or divine intervention, as he believes) saw him dig up a case of money buried by a fence in the snow with only a certain red ice-scraper for a marker…
9. “Rick & Morty”
Probably much to his relief at this point, Dan Harmon had a pretty great year. The iconoclastic and outspoken writer/producer’s “Harmontown” live show and podcast went from strength to strength, even spawning an acclaimed documentary, while he returned to “Community,” the show that made his name, and oversaw a creative comeback after the mediocre Harmon-free season four (the show looks to have come to an end after NBC cancelled it, but at least it was on the creator’s own terms). But his greatest triumph came with his latest show, “Rick & Morty,” which proved to be a legitimate hit, outperforming not just “Community,” but most of what the mainstream networks had to air against it, despite airing on the relatively small Adult Swim. It was also, when all’s said and done, our favorite comedy of the entire season. Co-created with Justin Roiland (based on a series of shorts by the latter), the show seems like it’s going to be something of a one-joke concept: essentially, what if Doc Brown from “Back To The Future” was an amoral son-of-a-bitch who used and abused his awkward, sex-obsessed Marty-ish grandson on a series of adventures across space and time. But the result was just tremendous: an endlessly inventive, gut-busting series of sci-fi comedy adventures that brushed with jaw-dropping wrongness in places (an exploding giant alcoholic Santa, Marty being molested by a jelly-bean in a fantasy tavern), and yet often finding unexpected heart underneath the insanity. Roiland’s freewheeling, semi-improvised comic style is a perfect fit with Harmon’s famous circular storytelling nous, leaving each episode as a deeply satisfying adventure that grapples with big, lovingly realized science fiction concepts, like a sick, drunken version of “Futurama” that appeals to people other than computer science majors. It’s Harmon without the stabilizers, and that it proved such a creative and commercial triumph must feel like an enormous vindication for him.
Best Episode: “Meeseeks & Destroy” gave us the most inspired comic creations of the year with the existentially-despairing genie creatures, but the more freewheeling and inventive “Rixty Minutes” was still unmatched.
8. “Mad Men”
There’s a weird narrative that’s set in recently among some that “Mad Men” has been on a downslide: season six wasn’t greeted with the same adulation as previous ones, and viewership’s been down for the first half of the final season, which wrapped up a few weeks ago. Nikki Finke went as far as to plead publicly for the show to be denied Emmys this year. To which we can only say: when you’re on the same side as Finke, it’s a pretty good indicator that you’re holding the wrong kind of opinion. Matthew Weiner’s show has never been one of instant gratification: it’s a novelistic slow-burn that might seem aimless or plot-free in places, but gradually and carefully shows its hand in unexpected and powerful ways, digging into its rich characters in ways that few others can compete with. And so was the case with Season 7A. The series picked up with Don Draper at a new low, essentially jobless and with his former partners looking to push him out completely of the company he built, while his wife was a continent away forging a new life in Los Angeles. His gradual semi-redemption wasn’t easily won, but he’s far from escaping into the light: there was a new darkness to the show, an ever-increasing sense that Don, Roger, and even their younger counterparts like Pete and Peggy, are running out of time, the era that they were comfortable with coming to an end as the 1970s fast approaches (best represented by the computer that instigated Ginsberg’s mental breakdown). And yet that comes with victories too: the series has never just been about Don, and Weiner and his team (which included, this season, “Chinatown” scribe Robert Towne) are more and more focused on the women, with Don’s daughter Sally and secretary Dawn getting particularly well-deserved showcases. Yes, the start was as slow as ever, but the show built and built until it peaked in a pair of episodes that are among the finest the series has ever had. And that series is one with a rhythm and tone that marks it apart from all the other great shows of the golden age of cable drama: one less immediately rewarding, perhaps, but just as nourishing once it all pays off.
Best Episode: Of those last two, it was finale “Waterloo” that once again showed off the genius of Weiner’s storytelling structure, as the characters reach a fork in the road while saying goodbye to one of their own, and watching mankind take a small step onto the moon.
7. “Masters of Sex”
So we don’t think there has been a single TV feature we’ve run recently in which we haven’t sung the praises of the brilliant but underseen “Masters of Sex,” and well, we’re just going to keep on doing it until everyone in the world is watching it. The exquisitely mounted (its period detailing rivals anything “Mad Men” has to offer) and impeccably played drama, based on real-life sexology pioneers Dr Virginia Johnson and Dr Bill Masters is everything you could hope for from sex-and-science drama: it’s perceptive about gender roles at the time (and now), especially with regards attitudes to sex and sexual freedom, it’s witty and insightful about sexual, scientific and academic hubris, and it’s totally on the money about relationships, be they budding, tentative romances or long, stale repressive marriages. Featuring a welcome weekly showcase for two of our very favorite actors in Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, we can see how the deliberate unlikeability, the un-heroism of Sheen’s character might have contributed to less than “Mad Men” numbers, but the uncompromising nature of his portrayal of his deeply fucked-up character (physician, heal thyself!) is actually one of the show’s best gifts–he becomes more fascinating as his attraction to Virginia peels away layers of stiffness and propriety that even he is not aware of. And beyond Sheen and Caplan is one of the very best broad ensembles on TV, with Beau Bridges, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson and Ann Dowd all reliably excellent, while Caitlin Fitzgerald as Master’s wife Libby, ex-soap star Teddy Sears as a philandering doctor and “Heroes”‘ Nicholas D’Agosto all have small breakouts in supporting roles. The show returns in July–please watch it, or we’re going to fill up the internet with more articles telling you why you should.
Best Episode: “Brave New World.” Midway through a season we’d already been beguiled and deeply impressed by, came episode 6, which broke our hearts to boot, with its depictions of the personal toll of two very different but equally dysfunctional marriages: Libby Masters (Fitzgerald) gets drunk with a pair of swingers in a Miami hotel and blithely makes up a false story about a dead husband and a pair of living children, while Margaret Scully, played by Janney, who deserves a(nother) Emmy for this moment alone, suffers the catastrophic humiliation of being turned away from the sex study when she reveals, without knowing how sad it is, that no, she has never had an orgasm.
6. “Breaking Bad”
Every year, we put this list together, and every year, someone yells at us for not placing “Breaking Bad” higher (yes, even when it ranked second two years ago). Unfortunately, the show’s final run, the second half of season five that aired last summer, wasn’t quite enough to make us put it atop the list and save ourselves the grief this time around. Ultimately, the conclusion somewhat backed up our major misgiving about the series: that it was ultimately borderline comic-booky in its focus on plot, and that it had somewhat peaked in terms of finding new things to say about its characters: neither half of season five saw us learning much more about either Walt and Jessie (the latter in particular was borderline absent for the final eight episodes). But all of that is not to say that the show wasn’t absolutely tremendous entertainment, as well made and acted as anything else on television, and that we weren’t absolutely gripped through each of the last eight episodes. Vince Gilligan & co put their foot to the floor from the first episode, taking the Walter/Hank confrontation teased in the previous season finale and putting it into play almost immediately, and there was an electric excitement to this final run as everything finally blows up, culminating in a desert showdown that’s almost unmatched in television history in its sheer level of tension, only to follow it up with a sudden time-jump (instigated in part by a terrific Robert Forster cameo: we’d much rather see a spin-off focused on him than on Bob Odenkirk’s Saul, much as we love the latter). Yes, we had issues with the series that some didn’t, right up to the end–the neo-Nazis felt like a rather generic and anonymous final adversary, especially after Gus, for instance. But who couldn’t find something to love about the writing, the directing, and more than anything, that gigantic central performance from the astonishing Bryan Cranston, who’ll be spoken of in hushed tones for a century because of the work he did here.
Best Episode: The sixth episode of the half-season, “Ozymandias,” was a definite highpoint of the entire series. Directed by “Brick,” “Looper” and future “Star Wars Episode VIII” helmer Rian Johnson, it opened *SPOILER* with the wrenching murder of Hank *END SPOILER*, and finally blows everything up in a relentless hour that feels both like it rushes by in fifteen minutes, and lasts an eternity.
5. “The Good Wife”
It’s rare for a show to peak in its first season: the creators and writers are generally still figuring out the show and their characters. Instead, the majority of shows tend to hit their heights before going off the rails somewhat by the time it reaches four, five or six, should they last that long. So it’s incredibly uncommon to find a series that improves every time, just as it’s incredibly uncommon to find a drama on network TV that remains consistently excellent across a twenty-two episode season. And yet: “The Good Wife.” We’ve always liked, nay loved the show, an uncommonly smart and well-written procedural, and yet could never quite find a place for it in this list in years past. But even before the fifth season wrapped, we knew it was headed for a top-five placing: from the off, it took the already rock-solid building blocks and improved everything exponentially, remixing the show entirely by, *SPOILER* only a few episodes in, seeing title character Alicia (Julianna Marguiles, who gets better and better every year) and young pal Cary defect from the law firm that the show called home for four seasons to set up show on their own, much to the disgust of Alicia’s friend and one-time lover Will (Josh Charles). Then, it shook up the status quo again two-thirds of the way through the season by killing off Will: what could have been a soapy development (Charles had asked to be written out) felt like a true shock in the way that sudden death actually does in real life, and led to the most powerful and truthful treatment of grief on television since “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” (that sounds like a backhanded compliment, but anyone who knows the latter show will understand that that’s not the case). *END SPOILER* This was already an almost unfathomably smart, witty and sexy show, but by taking enormous storytelling risks, creators Robert and Michelle King turned what was already a very, very good show into a truly great one.
Best Episode: Almost too many to choose from (at twenty-two episodes, this is almost double the length of almost any other series on this list), but the honor goes to “Hitting The Fan,” which sees Alicia and Cary leave Lockhart Gardner: one of the most furiously paced and dramatically charged hours of television we’ve ever seen.
4. “The Americans”
Last year, FX’s “The Americans” was one of the most promising new dramas as well, taking an ingenious conceit (of a pair of long-embedded Soviet spies disguised as the perfect nuclear family in Washington D.C, who find after over a decade of marriage that they’re really falling for each other, just as an FBI counter-intelligence expert moves across the street) and making something gripping, sensual and rich from it. This year, for its second season, it build on its confident start and improved exponentially, coming up with a more focused, and yet wider-ranging second run of episodes that suggested that this will be one that’ll join the TV drama canon by the time it’s through. That central idea remains amazingly potent in its ability to tackle marriage (the central couple, played by the phenomenal Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, are on solid footing now, which doesn’t mean there aren’t speed-bumps), parenthood, double-lives and American values, but the show’s scope has expanded further: FBI neighbor Stan (Noah Emmerich), his Soviet lover (Annet Mahendru) and her colleagues at the embassy are all equally vital pieces of the puzzle. The show even successfully tackled the bete noire of many cable dramas and found a way to make the teenage child of the protagonists engaging and important to the whole. And it also raised its game as a thriller, the episode one murder of a couple in a similar position to our central duo setting the scene for a beautifully-plotted season-long arc that culminated in one of the most emotionally devastating, and thematically resonant wrap-ups we can remember, and felt so much more satisfying as a whole season than the first as a result. The series engages on a pulp level, but it’s also remarkably adult in the way it tackles its themes: this is deeply pleasurable, intellectually satisfying drama for grown-ups that can stand up against anything else that’s on right now.
Best Episode: That finale was a stunner, but we might just prefer episode nine, “Martial Eagle,” which mixes a brutally violent mission at a contra training base (only one other show here deals as well with the consquences and aftermath of violent, but we’ll get to that in a second), with the Jennings’s daughter Paige’s ongoing flirtations with religion, a plotline that should spell disaster, but is beautifully executed.
There is nothing—nothing—on television remotely like “Hannibal.” In fact, there’s never been anything on television like “Hannibal.” Which is all the more remarkable, because 1) it’s on network TV, and 2) because it’s yet another bloody serial killer show, and one that stars the already overused man-eating creation of Thomas Harris popularized by “Manhunter” and “Silence Of The Lambs.” But the small-screen “Hannibal” roared out of the gate last year, and became even more fascinating and individual in season two, ripping up the expectations of anyone expecting the show to retell the story we’d already seen, or indeed, stories that anyone had already seen. The season-one cliffhanger had, in an ingenious role-reversal, left the nominally heroic Will Graham behind bars, suspected of serial murders, with Lecter still free, and the duo’s uneasy love/kill relationship remains the beating heart of the show, even as they openly plot each other’s destruction, and it’s a pairing that’s quite unique for the genre, one that pushes right up against making them even Graham irredeemable. It’s a totally absorbing and psychologically complex examination of the seductive power of evil and what it is to kill, with everyone within the two’s orbit, even those who survive, being polluted and corrupted. And yet it never feels like a wallow: it’s leavened with a bone-dry gallows humor, and even when the show’s at its grisliest (and somehow, it finds a new way to horrify–and this is horror in the truest sense of the word–every week), there’s a curious beauty in it, one that it manages without losing sight of the consequences of the killings. But the beauty is important: this is the most formally daring and innovative show on television right now, directors like David Slade and Vincenzo Natali turning in work that’s borderline expressionistic in approach, a stunning fever nightmare, like an unholy meld of Antonioni, Argento and Goya. The acting is just as artful: Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen continue to astonish week on week. But it’s the imagery that we couldn’t forget even if we wanted to.
Best Episode: Undoubtedly the finale, “Mizumono,” a bloodletting so unspeakably tense (despite the fact that much of it had been revealed, boldly, in the season opener) that we only recall drawing breath once or twice across the full forty minutes.
2. “Orange is the New Black”
We’d hardly have credited the idea that season 2 of Jenji Kohan’s Netflix sensation could possibly have improved on the first, until we watched it. Layered, complex storytelling, that seemed designed this time out to be devoured in multi-episode sittings (though still rich enough that we weren’t manically racing to the end as we were with the disappointing “House of Cards” season 2, for example), the show impressed us even further this season with its refusal to rest on its laurels, introducing new characters and new notes into the environment when it could justifiably have gone back and revisited last season’s breakouts like Sophia or Pennsatucky without anyone feeling cheated. But instead Kohan and her increasingly confident, dazzlingly creative writers chose to fill out those roles which hadn’t had as much backstory last time out: cancer sufferer Rosa; chirpy romantic Morello; jokey, good-natured Poussey. And of course, we hit the new-character jackpot the form of the calculating personification of maternal malevolence Vee (Lorraine Toussant) whose power struggle and personal history with Red (Kate Mulgrew, also goddamn amazing this season) and corrupting, divisive influence over the other black women, especially Taystee, form the main arc this time out. And yet so many other balls remain in the air too: the meta-story of the prison administration; the return of Pornstache and the surprising twist that contrasts his passionate declarations of love for Diaz with Bennett’s cautious, secretive approach; not to mention the whole first Jodie-Foster-directed episode which is like a self-contained season in one single show. Fulfilling, meaty, frequently hilarious, often heartbreaking, sometimes vicious storytelling: “Orange is the New Black” is just superlative TV.
Best Episode: We’re tempted to opt for the very last one as only a show this good could get away with the enormous coincidence of the end and actually sell it as one of the most perversely hilarious/horrible moments. And the episode *SPOILER* with the revelation that Morello was in fact a stalker also vies for second place *END SPOILER*. But we’re going to give the the ribbon to the penultimate episode “It Was The Change“, in which a storm and the prison’s dodgy plumbing forces everyone to endure Lisa Loeb sing-songs in the canteen and in flashback we see Vee deal with both the onset of menopause and potential disloyalty in her ranks in astoundingly ruthless, Vee-esque fashion.
1. “True Detective”
Was there ever any doubt? (Well, yes, there was, as it happens: some bad-tempered arguments resulted in Playlist HQ over who would get the top slot, and the top five or six were in a very different order at one stage or another). But ultimately, we settled on HBO’s searing police procedural/character study, and it’s undoubtedly a worthy winner: even with other shows grabbing bigger ratings, nothing dominated the pop culture conversation in the way that “True Detective” did back in January, February and March of this year. With movie stars Matthew McConaughey (who won an Oscar while the show was on the air) and Woody Harrelson signing up, and Playlist favorite Cary Fukunaga at the helm, this always looked promising on paper, but even we were surprised by how hugely achieved the series felt from the first: a hugely atmospheric slice of Southern Gothic murder mystery that from the first, was as much about the people doing the investigation as the crime(s) itself. The dual-time structure allowed us to explore the contradictions and puzzles of Marty and Rust as they told their bleak, increasingly involving tale, and Nic Pizzolatto’s writing didn’t waste a syllable (those who criticize some of Rust’s monologues as being over-written don’t seem to have realized that this was entirely deliberate: that’s how he spoke, but notably not how anyone else on the series did), showing itself to be beautifully and carefully structured, and wrapping up in an entirely satisfying manner, even if it didn’t deliver the big twist that some were predicting–something that, we reckon, would only have cheapened the show. TV is famously seen as a writer’s medium, but “True Detective” felt like something else, Pizzolatto’s scripts melding with Fukunaga’s deeply atmospheric, gloriously cinematic work to create something better than the sum of its parts: everyone will remember that episode four one-take sequence, but the helmer never put a foot wrong at any point. And then, finally, the performances. This was a two-man show, no doubt, but what two men: McConaughey topping even his stunning recent big-screen renaissance, and Harrelson quieter and less showy, but just as rich and complex. We can think of no greater compliment for the series than to say one of our ideal approaches for Season Two would be a shot-for-shot remake, but with the two stars swapping over roles…
Best Episode: Episode Four, “Who Goes There,” had that remarkable closing sequence, but for us, the show peaked with episode five, “The Secret Fate Of All Life,” which featured both the confrontation with prime suspect Reggie Ledoux (brilliantly told through contradictory narration by Rust and Marty), and that beautiful jump through time to 2002.
Honorable Mentions: The show that perhaps came the closest to cracking the Top 20 without quite getting there was “Boardwalk Empire” — the series had some fierce advocates on staff, but some found the just-wrapped-up fourth season to be the weakest, despite the welcome addition of Jeffrey Wright to the ensemble. Reliable favorites that continued to be strong without quite making a case for cracking the list included “Community” (on welcome return to form), “Parks & Recreation” (also on an upswing this year), “Archer,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Key & Peele.” Dropping off our list for the first time was “Justified,” which continued to be solidly entertaining, but had a messier and less focused fifth run: here’s hoping next year’s final season sees it back on top form. “New Girl” similarly dipped down this time around, though we still enjoyed it, and “Scandal” also tipped over the edge into sheer ridiculousness in a less satisfying way than it had before. Across the pond, “Luther” disappointed slightly with its third season, but “Sherlock” had a solid return outing, although we didn’t quite love it enough to crack the final list.
We enjoyed debuting shows “Sleepy Hollow,” “Trophy Wife” and “Mom” without feeling compelled to shout them out, while “Looking” was a show we admired enormously without ever quite coming to love, and we never quite learned to love “Orphan Black” as a whole, though Tatiana Maslany remains astonishing in it. “Hello Ladies” had some advocates, but quieter ones, and AMC‘s “Turn” was thoroughly decent without ever quite hitting that next level. “Halt & Catch Fire” and the second season of “Rectify” were too early in their runs to make the grade this time: look out next year to see if they make the cut then. And keep an eye out for UK exports “Inside No. 9” and “Southcliffe,” as and when they make it to the U.S, both are definite contenders for the next time around. We’ve heard good things about “Person Of Interest,” “Bates Motel,” “Adventure Time,” “Vikings” and Sundance’s “The Returned,” but no one strongly vouched for them to make the grade this time around.
Dishonorable Mentions: Just to shoot down some of the inevitable ‘but what about…’ questions, there were a few shows that we definitively ruled out of the list this time around. “True Blood” long ago descended into silliness, and “American Horror Story” started off in that gear and has only continued that way. Still silly is better than boring, and “The Walking Dead,” while fitfully interesting, has mostly stayed in that gear since the beginning. Although it at least doesn’t make us want to shower, which is the result every time we tune into “Sons Of Anarchy,” a series that seems determined to claim the title of ‘The Favorite Show Of People Who’s Favorite Movie Is ‘The Boondock Saints” And finally, we were most disappointed with the return of “House Of Cards,” which made our list last year, and started strongly with its first episode, but which soon went wildly off the rails.
We’re sure we’re forgetting other shows, but you can argue the case for your own favorites in the comments section below.
– Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang