I’m kicking off my week-long look at the best (and worst) TV of 2014 with my rundown of the year’s top 10 shows. Even more than usual, 2014 was overstuffed with TV goodies, and winnowing the list of worthy series down to 10 was a near-impossible task. There were easily 20 additional shows that also could have made the cut, but the 10 below represent the most exceptional programs I watched over the past year. These cable, broadcast and digital series resonated with me more than any other in 2014, and have continued to awe, challenge and inspire me, weeks and months later.
10. Louie (FX)
Returning after a near 20-month hiatus, Louie remained the most surprising show on TV. Each episode offers something completely unexpected, from Sarah Baker’s knockout monologue in “So Did the Fat Lady” to the six-part “Elevator” arc. And while Louis CK’s batting average may not have been quite as astronomical as in previous seasons, it was still worthy of a spot on the list. Netflix and its ilk might be changing the notion of what TV is, but no one is redefining the medium on a weekly basis more than CK.
9. True Detective (HBO)
I was among the many that was disappointed by the season’s conventional ending, but as the months have passed, that feeling has been dwarfed by the appreciation of all that came before it. Over eight riveting episodes, creator Nic Pizzolatto, director Cary Fukunaga and stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson tackled the most tired of genres – the buddy detective drama – and completely reinvented it. And the fourth episode’s uninterrupted, six-minute tracking shot was TV’s most euphoric experience of the year.
8. Rectify (SundanceTV)
Almost every show on this list could be described as “unlike anything else on television.” But that goes double for Rectify, which ventured even further into uncharted territory in Season 2 as Aden Young’s Daniel continued his assimilation into society after spending 19 years on Death Row for the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend. It dares you to put the outside world on pause and immerse yourself in its staggering emotion.
I wrote about the season here.
7. You’re the Worst (FX)
This is the only comedy that cracked the list, though several shows — including The Mindy Project, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Black-ish and Archer — consistently made me laugh this year. You’re the Worst seemed like the kind of show I’d watch once, and then never glance at again. But I ended up falling for the abrasive Jimmy Shive-Overly (Chris Geere) and obnoxious Gretchen Cutler (Aya Cash) even harder than they fell for each other. Comedies aren’t supposed to be this assured out of the gate, but You’re the Worst had my number from the raucous, raunchy pilot. In a year when too many fantastic, low-rated comedies were canceled, You’re the Worst’s renewal was a glorious blessing.
I wrote about the show here.
6. Hannibal (NBC)
How can this show exist on broadcast TV? Is NBC even aware that they air it, or does someone else hack their airwaves every Friday at 10? Anyone who claims that broadcast TV has become mediocre and colorless has obviously never seen Bryan Fuller’s vibrant work of art, which puts most cable fare to shame. Fuller has taken a once-noble franchise that was driven into the ground by increasingly awful novels and even worse films, and restored its luster via a lush tapestry of visual and aural verve. It is a feast for the eyes, stomach and mind. Even if we know how the story will end (hell, Fuller revealed how the season would conclude three minutes into the premiere), Fuller has crafted a captivating journey, as we witness the psychological chess match between Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen).
5. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
The biggest surprise of 2013 wasn’t content to coast in Season 2; instead, it upped its game by deepening its depictions of all the Litchfield inmates we got to know in Season 1 — along with some we didn’t even realize we cared about (Rosa!). Even Taylor Schilling’s Piper — who last year seemed dwarfed by the likes of Kate Mulgrew’s Red and Uzo Aduba’s Suzanne — finally grew into her own this year. Lorraine Toussaint’s Vee proved a perfect wolf in sheep’s clothing, but almost everyone was given their share of unforgettable moments in the spotlight.
4. Transparent (Amazon)
Amazon, I didn’t think you had it in you! Sure, the pilot for Jill Soloway’s examination of a patriarch (Jeffrey Tambor) who decides to finally live his life as the woman who has always been inside him, was impressive. But the series managed to be even more moving, as it was able to be groundbreaking without putting Maura on a pedestal (instead, she’s just as flawed as everyone else). Every character and moment seemed vivid and real, a feat that was every bit as innovative as its subject matter.
I wrote about Transparent here.
3. Fargo (FX)
I watched the Fargo pilot almost a year ago and was bowled over. Speaking with FX Networks CEO John Landgraf soon after, I asked if the subsequent episodes could possibly measure up. He assured me they were even better — and boy was he was right. Noah Hawley took sacred ground — the Coen Brothers’ 1996 masterpiece — and crafted a sprawling story that felt both new and very much of a piece with that film. It was packed with superb performances, particularly Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and find-of-the-year Allison Tolman. And unlike True Detective, it stuck the ending, which honored the spirit of the show. You betcha!
2. The Good Wife (CBS)
This isn’t supposed to happen. A series A) in its sixth year B) on a broadcast network C) which loses a major cast member (RIP, Will Gardner) shouldn’t be reaching new creative heights. But nobody told The Good Wife that, because the show is as enthralling as it has ever been. Astoundingly, Will Gardner’s shocking death has turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to the show, and star Julianna Margulies, as it pushes its story and cast in wondrous new directions. I don’t know how long it can keep this up; but I’ll never bet against showrunners Robert and Michelle King, who are somehow pulling this off 22 times a year.
1. The Americans (FX)
I enjoyed the 2013 debut season of this series much more than some of my colleagues, but even I was astounded at the gargantuan creative leap it made in Season 2. Suddenly, the Russian spies working undercover as a married couple in ’80s America (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) were grappling with the gradual realization that their nuclear family was worth fighting for even more than Mother Russia.
It remains mindboggling so many viewers (and awards show voters) continue to overlook this show, which is a triumph on every level: from casting to scripts to production to costumes and wigs. It’s a spy thriller, a relationship drama, a family drama and a political drama rolled into one. And, oh yeah, it has several of the best music cues on television. In one series, The Americans packs in everything that television aspires to be. And the crazy thing is, I think it’s primed to get even better in Season 3, especially given the gutpunch of a twist in the season finale.
Check back on Tuesday for my look at the year’s 10 best performances.