Television is arguably the most exciting artistic medium of the 21st century. No other has gone through as much change, or been given such an incredible cultural boost, over the last 14 years, and the quality of the products produced deserves the recognition television has received. To that end, choosing the best of such a progressive and improving artistic genre is a difficult but aptly appealing challenge. Subjectivity comes into play with individual judgements as well as interpretation of other qualifications such as significance, diversity, and longevity. In other words, the list below doesn’t merely consist of our favorite TV shows, but what we perceive to be the best and most important landmarks of the year that was 2014. To balance that difficult equation, we’ve also included five more of our personal favorites not included on the “best” list. Check page three for those individual selections, but now, without any further ado, here is Indiewire’s list of the Best TV Shows of 2014.
10) “Bojack Horseman”
Some shows retread the same ground, but some shows grow deeper and richer as they go on. And by Episode 8 of “BoJack Horseman,” we were dealing with the latter situation. This unexpected favorite on the surface was rich with weirdness — primarily, the conceit that humans and anthropomorphized animals, with some of their animal qualities intact, co-exist in harmony. But despite that weirdness, on top of the show’s relatively crass sense of humor (nothing that wouldn’t fly on FX, for the record, beyond a few F-bombs), “BoJack” proved capable of making us really care about its characters, especially BoJack (Will Arnett) as he attempted to figure out if he was a good man or not. The official answer to that question may still be unsure, but we’re rooting for it to be yes.
9) “House of Cards”
Here’s the thing with “House of Cards” — to think of it as your typical drama is to both overvalue and undervalue it. David Fincher and Beau Willimon’s complex D.C. series features some great performances, and some of the most bonkers moments of the year, both on a character level and a plot level. Rather than aiming for a sober tone, the show is really more along the lines of highbrow camp with a touch of Shakespeare, a combination which we found very watchable.
While Season 2 wasn’t perfect (maybe franchising Freddy’s rib joint didn’t need to be the most important business deal of the year?), it did make some strong improvements from Season 1 — including shedding some non-essential characters and drawing Robin Wright’s Lady MacBeth more closely into the action. Given the final moments of the finale, we have no idea where the show might go next, in Season 3. But we can’t wait to find out.
8) “The Comeback”
This is one of two Hollywood behind-the-scenes comedies on this list, and both of them are really more like dramedies, because the most true stories about Hollywood tend to be the harshest. “The Comeback” has gotten some flack for not being quote-unquote funny, but to judge a comedy on the quantity of its laughs seems a lot like judging a drama based on the quantity of the tears jerked. Evaluated on the basis of its cajones, “Comeback” has drawn us into the intensity and desperation of life as an actresss “of a certain age,” trying to keep working while also trying to retain any sense of dignity, and Lisa Kudrow’s performance alone makes it impossible to look away. “The Comeback” might not be easy to watch. But you want “important” television? Here it is.
Here’s how good “Fargo” the miniseries was — we keep forgetting that it was “inspired” by a movie, even though that movie was amazing. Framed as a true crime tale, populated by a just-slightly-off cast ranging from Oscar winners like Billy Bob Thorton to sketch comedy stars Keegan-Michael Key and Joradn Peele to newbies like Allison Tolman, “Fargo” was an unexpectedly gripping and engaging 10-part tale that was like nothing else on television. Leaving aside all debates about miniseries versus regular series, news about the next installment gets us more and more excited — while also more appreciative of the first season’s magic.
6) “Parks and Recreation”
In a sixth season marked with plenty of down moments, “Parks and Recreation” still remained the most upbeat and inspirational program on television. Series regulars Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones left the show, taking their irreplaceable characters Chris Traeger and Anne Perkins (!) with them, but the show responded with a goodbye episode so moving it almost felt like a series finale. Add to that a pun-tastic “Farmers Market,” an epic gift-giving competition, an even more epic unity concert with musical guests like Ginuwine, a First Lady cameo and a season finale to beat all others this year, and you’ve got yourself one of the best, most consistent comedies on TV. Never forget creators Michael Schur and Greg Daniels are doing all of this on broadcast TV, too… at least for one more year.
5) “The Leftovers”
One of the most compelling aspects of Damon Lindelof’s post-“Lost” return to television was the giant “fuck you” he gave to the haters. Though we’re far from die-hard fans of the writer’s breakout island drama, it was admirable of him to come back with a story where, right away, he promised to never tell us the biggest secret. We will never find out what happened to two percent of the world’s population who randomly disappeared in “The Leftovers,” and that’s okay. The repercussions are what matter. Watching the citizens of Mapleton cope with this global crisis brought a distinctly human sentiment to Season 1 while Lindelof and executive producer/co-creator Tom Perrotta’s overarching design kept audiences on the edge of their seats. There were two episodes focused on one character, a perfectly-timed flashback episode (even if it was a dick move), and multiple mysteries stacking up — and being answered — throughout. Bravo to Mr. Lindelof for hearing fan concerns, but never backing away from what got us all addicted in the first place.
HBO’s top comedy only keeps getting better. The vicious, unrelenting insults build to a crescendo of artful vulgarity in Season 3, as Vice President Selena Meyer begins (and ends) her presidential campaign — as the stakes increase, so does the stress within each of the staff members. Showrunner and creator Armando Iannucci wisely takes advantage of the opportunities provided by the amped up drama to take it out, satirically, on all the power-hungry politicians involved. “Veep’s” third season is a textbook example of efficiency. Not one second is wasted as all the players move amongst one another in a ballet of blocking, perfectly matched by the quick-witted dialogue. It would all be tear-inducingly beautiful if you weren’t already crying from laughter — or balling from the cruel barbs tossed around like verbal grenades.
In a perfect world, there would be a dozen shows like “Orange is the New Black” on television. In this world, there’s just one, and it’s on Netflix. But we’ll manage. After two seasons, the story of a Brooklyn yuppie sent to jail thanks to one itsy-bitsy federal offense has become a narrative powerhouse by mining the general population of Litchfield for material. There are elements in the mix that vary in success — anyone who still cares at all about Larry, please raise your hand — but thanks to what’s become one of the strongest and most diverse ensemble casts working today, “Orange” has become a font of stories about crime and poverty and marginalization that normally go untold. The fact that those stories are rich with humanity and humor only makes the show better.
2) “True Detective”
Whether it’s a series, miniseries, anthology series, or simply one great season of television followed by years of lesser imitators, the first season of “True Detective” was something to behold in 2014. Kicking off the year with a bang in early January, the perfectly-cast freshman cop drama forced fans to check their understanding of the genre at the door. We’ve seen plenty of police procedurals where seemingly mismatched detectives become partners before, but creator Nic Pizzolatto’s spin on the pairing, combined with both Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey’s gonzo performancesm made for one helluva unique take. Director Cary Fukunaga brought significant style to the proceedings, as well, helping to create an eight-hour film chronicling a case that drove two friends apart only to bring them together again by their basest instincts. “True Detective,” at its heart, was a character study of two men we’d never met before, making the show itself a wholly unique experience everyone could appreciate. Here’s hoping, somehow, they can do it again.
1) “Mad Men”
For as annoyed as we were at AMC for deciding to split the final season of its landmark drama in two, it became impossible to remain jaded to the show after an utterly superb 2014 (half) season. Rather than settle into the expectation of being cut off midway through its 14-episode arc, Matthew Weiner found a way to make seven episodes feel like a whole. More importantly, he and his writing team gave viewers what many had been craving for years: hope. Season 7, Part 1 was perhaps the happiest in the history of the show, illustrating never-before-seen growth in its characters at an appropriately rapid speed. We grew sick of the antihero in 2014, and “Mad Men” — one of the shows responsible for the archetype’s revival — recognized as much, turning Don into a man worth rooting for in his latest iteration. Capped off by such memorable scenes as Ginsberg’s manic meltdown, Don and Peggy’s long-awaited revival, and everything associated with the moon landing, “Mad Men” accomplished more than enough in its abbreviated state to justify its break, even if its high quality only made us want the next episodes to come even sooner.
Check out the next page for our TV Critic and Editor’s personal addendums to the list.
…And Five More, From TV Critic Ben Travers
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”
My colleague Liz has written brilliantly about the importance of John Oliver’s HBO talk show, so let me lend my own support for this revolutionary program, albeit briefly: There is no show more important to our nation’s understanding of news than this one. Don’t miss it.
Showtime’s Emmy-winning drama got off to a rough start in its rebooted fourth season before blowing the doors off in the later episodes. Sometimes you have to trust in the people who’ve served you well in the past, and that’s exactly what fans of Seasons 1 & 2 need to remember even if they weren’t big on Season 3. “Homeland” is back, people. Enjoy the ride.
“The Honorable Woman”
Though it’s a close call between “Olive Kitteridge” and this SundanceTV/BBC co-production, I’ve got to give the edge to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s efforts in the best (official) miniseries of 2014. Progressive in all the right ways without sacrificing story, “The Honorable Woman” is a one-off endeavor worth taking.
Sometimes it takes a show three years to nail down its formula, and that’s exactly what happened with Elizabeth Meriwether’s FOX comedy. Frankly, it’s shocking the series was given that kind of time to find its footing, in a day and age when uneven sitcoms are cancelled faster than cable subscriptions. Don’t let the network’s patience go unrewarded.
John Logan’s first dip into the television pool was a fascinating journey for all, filled with frights, twists, and one show-stopping turn from the ever-astounding Eva Green. Her co-stars were none-too-shabby, either, and the Ireland-shot series’ impeccable art direction, set design, and general scenery added up to another new series worth keeping an eye on in 2015. Season 2 can’t come soon enough.
…And Five More, From TV Editor Liz Shannon Miller
“Game of Thrones”
Please, friends — put your pitchforks down because “Game of Thrones” didn’t make our top 10 of the year list. It’s on this list, at least. And the reason it’s here has more to do with the fact that “Game of Thrones,” in Season 4, did not run short on twists but didn’t really push beyond the stellar expectations set before in previous seasons. A solid performer, performing within expectations, might struggle to break through. But no matter what, damn did I enjoy the ride, and have no qualms about making it my personal #1 pick. #Tyrion4Lyfe
I do not love “Hannibal” for its murders. I do not love “Hannibal” for its grotesquerie. But I do love it for its acting, and its audacity, and its insanity. Things you find yourself saying, when you talk about “Hannibal”: “Fivesome with a Wendigo.” “Busby Berkeley-inspired human sculpture.” “Wait, did EVERYONE die in the season finale?” Its capacity for strangeness, for pitch-black comedy and for reinvention makes it genuinely one of the most exciting shows on network television maybe ever — a strange gift I don’t quite know how to appreciate fully. I just know that I can’t wait to see what happens next.
It feels like a disservice to sum up my feelings regarding “Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s” brilliant and talented ensemble cast, and the way it’s been able to balance on the tricky high-wire of being a comedy about police officers (especially these days), with an animated GIF. And yet.
This show gave us this moment. This show wins.
“Agents of SHIELD”
Here’s the deal — how many shows, these days, do you make sure to watch the night they air? Not that many, probably, thanks to our golden age of binge-viewing and DVRs. But whenever a new episode of “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD” would air, I’d watch it ASAP, especially after last April’s crossover event with the film “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which completely upended the show’s status quo, for the better.
Why? Well, I am a Marvel Universe fan, and have enjoyed how “SHIELD” works to fit into the overall universe being created by the Marvel team. But also, as I predicted earlier this fall, with the freedom to operate on its own terms “Agents of SHIELD” became a fun spy drama with superhero touches. Any show struggles to find its own voice, but “SHIELD” had to do so under the thumb of a massive blockbuster franchise. The fact that it finally has, after a season and a half? Worth celebrating.
Showtime’s freshman series featured some great performances and innovative structure — despite a few vaguely cliche plot twists, the result was incredibly compelling. How it evolves in future seasons remains to be seen, but as the show moves beyond its foundation of grief and adultery to dig into its underlying mysteries, it will hopefully continue to be an acting powerhouse and an intriguing drama.
Indiewire’s Year-End TV Coverage: