I feel like every year I start this column by saying “This was an amazing year of television”. Maybe if every year is an amazing year of television, then actually no year is. Or maybe it’s something like what Peter tells his therapist in Office Space – “Each day is a little worse than the one before it, so every day you see me you’re seeing me on the worst day of my life.” The current situation with television is the opposite of that – every year that goes by is a little better than the one before it, so every year is the best ever year for television. There are just more quality shows in more places than ever before, more than any human has time to watch. I think several of my Honorable Mentions would have made Top 5 a few years ago.
Usual disclaimer: I make no pretense of being even an amateur critic; I just like TV/movies and I like making lists of things. If you think my choices are ridiculous, you are probably right. Also, I don’t consider non-fiction TV for my lists, even awesome shit like Something Something with John Oliver.
- The Leftovers. This show snuck up on me in a big way. I was skeptical of the premise (2% of the world’s population vanishes one day, and everyone else goes a little bit insane over it) and not anxious for another sci-fi mystery from Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof. After the first couple of episodes, I was still not that into it and almost bailed at one point. Thankfully I stuck with it, and it gradually became my favorite show of the year. Incredible performances from Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon (who was the center of my favorite TV episode of the year, “Guest”) anchored a tightly-crafted meditation on the ways in which people cope with loss. It was depressing as hell, in the best way possible, and it stayed with me for weeks, popping into my head while I drove to work or took a shower. The best shows haunt your thoughts long, after you’ve turned off the television.
- The Americans. This show about two Russian spies living in America in the 1980s was on my list last year but came up even better this in 2014. It’s very difficult to create a good family drama, and very difficult to create a great spy show. Doing both at the same time seems nearly impossible, but this show pulls it off. I especially enjoy how the show weaves current events from the era (Reagan getting shot, the Iran-Contra affair) into the story in a believable way.
- Happy Valley. This British crime drama (available on Netflix) deals with the fallout from a kidnapping in rural Yorkshire. The main character is a middle-aged police sergeant (played by Sarah Lancashire) who is beset by past tragedies, family problems, and the soul-deadening weight of doing her difficult job day in and day out. The show is tense and thrilling at times, but the reason it stuck with me was its exploration of how being a good person and doing right by ones family and community can be both the most difficult and the most important thing in the world.
- The Good Wife. This show has been a mainstay of my top 10 lists for years and I’ve run out of good things to say about it. You know what’s weird? This is the only show on my list that airs on the major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CW). There’s one other in Honorable Mentions (Parks and Rec). That’s it – of my 25 favorite shows only two are network shows. Tough times for traditional broadcast.
- You’re the Worst. This acidic comedy, about two hateful people who sleep with each other and then grudgingly start a relationship, entertained me from start to finish. I don’t like comedies that don’t have some dramatic elements (pure joke delivery machines like Family Guy aren’t my thing). This show brought me in with the clever punchlines but kept me coming back by keeping me invested in the characters. I also like the idea that there’s somebody out there for everybody, even if you’re a complete jerk. Even assholes deserve soul mates! (see also: Bojack Horseman)
- Mad Men. One of my all-time favorite shows, Mad Men was hurt a bit by AMC’s dumb decision to split the final season up and only show seven episodes this year. Seven episodes isn’t inherently a problem (Happy Valley only had six) but these seven felt like half a season. I loved these episodes though, and can’t express how much I want to grab a bite at Burger Chef with Don, Peggy, and Pete. Also I want to know if Ginsberg was right about the computer talking to him.
- True Detective. It’s possible that the ranking I gave this show was hurt by the fact that it aired back in January and my memory of it is slightly fuzzy. I definitely raved about it at the time, thinking it had a strong chance at being #1 on my end-of-year list. The fact that I later saw six shows I liked even better says something about TV in 2014. Of special note is the amazing directing work of Cary Fukunaga, especially the astounding long-take scene in the fourth episode.
- Fargo. The world definitely didn’t need a TV version of the most overrated Coen Brothers film (don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan. It’s just not one of their best in my opinion). But creator Noah Hawley crafted an intricate tale that both paid homage and in some ways surpassed its film origin. Billy Bob Thornton plays one of the more memorable on-screen badasses of all time. You betcha!
- Orange is the New Black. I liked season one better, mainly because the season two “big bad” character played by Lorraine Toussaint didn’t really work for me. Still this remains one of the absolute best shows on television (or the internet, as the case may be). I love how the show manages to humanize and deepen even the most villainous people on the show (like the female warden) so that you really do feel compassion for people you never thought you could empathize with.
- I can’t decide! No that’s not the name of a show (not even a wacky game show). I really can’t decide. Seriously, any of the Honorable Mentions below could go into this spot, but none of them I liked unequivocally. I had Game of Thrones here, but then I thought about the things I don’t like about that show, so I replaced it with Bojack, then with Girls. Argh! Screw it, it’s a top 9 this year.
Honorable Mentions: Game of Thrones, Hannibal, Girls, Louie, Bojack Horseman
More Honorable Mentions: Justified, Olive Kitteridge, Review, Transparent, Silicon Valley
Seriously, Have a Few More Honorable Mentions: Masters of Sex, Chozen, Parks and Recreation, The Honourable Woman, Outlander
Cooks Honorable Mentions: Veep, Orphan Black, Boardwalk Empire, Broad City
Stretching a Bit Here: Archer, Arrow, Homeland (pending next week’s season finale), Downton Abbey
Why Did I Watch the Full Season of This: House of Cards, The Newsroom