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The Top Ten TV Series of 2014

The Top Ten TV Series of 2014

10. “Gotham (Fox): In September, on the basis of the pilot, I called “Gotham” “the perfect antidote to superhero fatigue.” That assessment stands; if anything, Fox’s police procedural/comic book mash-up has only grown on me as Det. Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) increasingly finds himself torn between pragmatic means and idealistic ends. As evidenced by the fine supporting cast, including Donal Logue as Gordon’s partner, Jada Pinkett Smith as underworld maven Fish Mooney, and David Mazouz as the young Bruce Wayne, “Gotham” unapologetically favors rakish charm over high dudgeon. Sure, it’s as insubstantial as bubblegum — that’s why it’s so much fun.

READ MORE: “Review: ‘Gotham,’ Fox’s Whiz-Bang Antidote to Superhero Fatigue”

9. “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (HBO): With “The Colbert Report” slated to end December 18, and Comedy Central flagship “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on the wane, John Oliver’s debut series once held out the promise of fresh life for “fake news.” Instead, the jovial Brit concocted a winsome half-hour of reporting and analysis dressed up as a late-night variety show, covering the militarization of police, payday loans, and net neutrality in greater depth than even the networks’ nightly news programs. The result is a wacky, impassioned, and tremendously funny revival of broadcast journalism, and the transformation of what used to be called “infotainment” into essential viewing.

READ MORE: “How John Oliver Beat Stewart, Colbert, and Broadcast News at Their Own Games”

8. “Orange is the New Black (Netflix): Reprising the flashbacks that defined its impressive debut, the second season of “Orange is the New Black” examines the forces that led Litchfield’s inmates astray, most potently in the heartbreaking “A Whole Other Hole,” which finds a deep vein of pathos in sweet Jersey girl Lorna Marello (Yael Stone). It’s this empathic attention to a swirl of structural injustices and human frailties that marks Jenji Kohan’s brilliant, bawdy ensemble dramedy as a true original, taking care to heed the call of Regina Spektor’s theme. “Remember all their faces, remember all their voices,” she urges. “Everything is different the second time around.”

7. “Masters of Sex (Showtime): Had the second season of Showtime’s period drama concluded with the incredible “Fight,” or even “Asterion,” a midseason triptych of time and regret that advances the narrative three years, it might well have earned a higher place on this list. If the latter episodes allow the supporting characters to drift, however, the charismatic thrust and parry between lead performers Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan retains its revelatory directness. The series’ scenes from a professional marriage treat sex as an admission of profound vulnerability, uncovering in society’s repressive mores a sublime erotic charge.

READ MORE: “‘Masters of Sex’ Is One of the Best Shows on Television”

6. “Please Like Me (Pivot): Combining kitschy, prankish style with easygoing emotional naturalism, the Australian comedy “Please Like Me,” from creator/writer/star Josh Thomas and director Matthew Saville, finds the humor in broken hearts and suicide notes, annoying family members and close friends. The result is a rambling, unexpectedly moving depiction of adulthood’s many indignities, from the absurd (unrequited erections) to the sober (mental illness), buoyed by genuine faith in humor’s power to salve even the deepest wounds. 

READ MORE: “‘Please Like Me,’ the Best TV Comedy You’re (Probably) Not Watching”

5. “The Americans (FX): Tightly wound, emotionally complex, and stylistically precise, creator Joe Weisberg’s portrait of Soviet spies posing as American suburbanites Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) disrupts the Cold War’s received wisdom. Indeed, as commitment to the cause threatens to ensnare the Jennings’ two children, and FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) watches his work torpedo his marriage, the series frames unshakeable conviction as the real enemy. The ideological and the intimate prove to be strange bedfellows, and “The Americans” wrings more tension from this cognitive dissonance than any thriller on television.

4. “Broad City (Comedy Central): Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s riotous buddy comedy might be described as slacker slapstick. Blending precise observational humor, farcical situations, and the unfettered rhythms of the viral video, the series gently satirizes the ruminative affect of “Looking” and “Girls” by throwing gasoline on the sparks sent up by its clash of comic strategies. The real wonder of “Broad City,” though, is how warmly it portrays the bonds of affection between Abbi and Ilana. An odd couple whose connection runs so deep you can scarcely imagine one without the other, their ribald chemistry promises a Platonic love affair worth watching for years to come. 

READ MORE: “House Style in the Golden Age of Comedy Central”

3. “The Knick (Cinemax): Steven Soderbergh’s forceful depiction of New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital at the dawn of the twentieth century recasts the period drama as a headlong plunge into the future. The result is a series that envisions “progress” (scientific, sexual, racial) as a bloody, bruising struggle. With kinetic camerawork and Cliff Martinez’s murmuring, electronic score, “The Knick” conceives of tortured genius Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), his African American deputy, Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland), and the other characters populating the hospital’s corridors as agents in the making of history, rather than dust motes in the march of time.

READ MORE: “Review: ‘The Knick,’ Steven Soderbergh’s Master Class in Historical Fiction”

2. “Transparent (Amazon): In nearly every sense, “Transparent” defies convention — or, more accurately, “Transparent” reflects and refracts convention through the prism of television’s new age. Creator Jill Soloway’s endearing family portrait, starring the remarkable Jeffrey Tambor as a trans woman with three grown children (Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, and Gaby Hoffman) and an ex-wife (Judith Light), is a streaming half-hour drama with comic flourishes; a present-day narrative that dallies lovingly in the past; a progressive examination of gender and sexuality without a whiff of ideological dogma. “Transparent” is, quite simply, a small miracle.

READ MORE: “‘Transparent’ and the New Queer Television”

1. “Mad Men (AMC): Revoke my credentials. Question my judgment. Toss a few insults in my direction. But whatever doubts I may harbor with regard to this year’s flawed, often frustrating half-season of “Mad Men,” the fact remains that, for me, no series so beautifully articulates longing as creator Matthew Weiner’s brilliant remembrance of things past. As ever, the narrative at first appears loose-limbed, even slack, only to emerge as a masterly, poignant whole. Indeed, with this season’s extraordinary conclusion — “The Strategy,” my choice for the best TV episode of 2014, and its gorgeous companion, “Waterloo” — “Mad Men” not only won my admiration, but also reaffirmed my love. 

READ MORE: “Flying Under Awards Radar, ‘Mad Men’ Still Soars

Honorable mentions: “American Horror Story: Freak Show” (FX); “Bates Motel” (A&E); “Girls” (HBO); “The Comeback” (HBO); “Game of Thrones” (HBO); “Homeland” (Showtime); “How to Get Away with Murder” (ABC); “The Leftovers” (HBO); “Looking” (HBO); “Louie” (FX); “Madam Secretary” (CBS); “Orphan Black” (BBC America); “True Detective” (HBO); “Review” (Comedy Central); “Veep” (HBO)

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