The ongoing conversation about whether or not we are currently engaged in the golden age of TV (we are) often obscures the actual programming in favor of grand statements about the medium itself. It loses the trees for the forest. So while it's tempting to make umbrella statements about trends in the best entertainment of the year, I'm going to avoid that tendency. Reflecting our times, our dramas are getting darker, and, you know what, so are our comedies. That's it. Now let's get down to it.
Was it a good year? Hell yes. There was an amazing, ridiculous, unprecedented changing of the guard. 70% of my top ten is new in 2014. (And there are five more new shows in the runner-ups). But I'm doing what I said I wouldn't do again. The wave of remarkable TV hasn't crested yet. Let's look at what's riding it.
Runner-ups: "Bates Motel" (A&E), "Boardwalk Empire" (HBO), "The Honorable Woman" (Sundance), "House of Cards" (Netflix), "Key & Peele" (Comedy Central), "Orange is the New Black" (Netflix), "Playing House" (USA), "Sons of Anarchy" (FX), "Transparent" (Amazon) and "The Walking Dead" (AMC).
20. "Inside Amy Schumer" (Comedy Central)
19. "Halt and Catch Fire" (AMC)
18. "Game of Thrones" (HBO)
17. "Community" (NBC)
16. "Black-ish" (ABC)
15. "The Affair" (SHO)
14. "Bob's Burgers" (FOX)
13. "Parks and Recreation" (NBC)
12. "Mad Men" (AMC)
11. "Louie" (FX)
10. "You're the Worst" (FX)
There were a lot of programs this year that we could, for lack of a better phrase, "see coming." Shows by Steven Soderbergh and Cary Fukunaga are great? You don't say! The most out-of-nowhere, spectacular surprise was FX's "You're the Worst," the second-best comedy on TV this year, surpassing shows that have been in my top five before, including "Louie" and "Parks and Recreation," both of which had more inconsistent seasons than usual. The series started a bit overly familiar in its tale of two cynical souls in the city of angels who refuse to fall in love even as they do so, but it got funnier, smarter and more insightful with every single episode. From the beginning, Chris Geere and Aya Cash had that rare element in TV comedy with a romantic edge—perfect chemistry. By the end of the first season, I actually found myself longing for Jimmy and Gretchen to find happiness with each other. The most cynical show about love had done the impossible and turned its viewers into romantics. Well done.
9. "Veep" (HBO)
Another 2014 comedy that started a bit shaky, with a few episodes that felt a bit more mean-spirited than the show used to be, but that ended on as high a note as this great comedy has seen to date. The final arc of the third season of "Veep" captures the randomness of politics more cleverly than anything in years. In many ways, that's what the show has been about since the beginning: Politicians like Selina Meyer (played with increasing perfection by Julia-Louis Dreyfus, the best comedy actress on TV) plan and plan and plan, but their fates often come down a verbal miscue, an impossible-to-foresee error, or even the health of another politician. It is a field, especially during campaign season, that is destined for futility, and the writers of "Veep" capture the hilarious frustration within that futility with increasing precision. The scene in the finale in which Selina and Gary (Tony Hale) simply can't stop laughing at how fate has brought them to where they are is the best comedy scene of the year. It's not important that the future leader of the free world is having a laugh attack in the bathroom. That's politics.
8. "Olive Kitteridge" (HBO)
The most striking TV movie or mini-series this year was HBO's resonant adaptation of Elizabeth Strout's short stories, starring Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, and an ensemble of phenomenal character actors. In a career of great roles, Olive Kitteridge stands as one of McDormand's best, a woman so concerned about passing her depression down to her son that she locks her emotions away and becomes distant. And yet she's more keenly aware of the world around her than most of us. She may be the most unforgettable character of 2014. Precisely directed by Lisa Cholodenko, the brilliance of "Olive Kitteridge" comes in the spaces between, the moments when characters take in the world around them and assess their emotional response to it. Melodrama on TV is easy. It's been a foundation of the medium for years. The stunning thing about "Olive Kitteridge" is how it captures the valleys as completely as the emotional peaks.
7. "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" (HBO)
In a year when the structure by which we receive news and opinion seemed to be more fluid than ever, John Oliver made the greatest impact of any single person on the discussion of major issues like net neutrality, student debt and gun control. He took the structure of his mentor, Jon Stewart, and expanded on it, allowed greater creative freedom and in-depth analysis thanks to the less restrictive nature of HBO and the ability to work a story over a week instead of having to come up with something new every night. And no one understands virality like Oliver and his team, as more people have seen "Last Week Tonight" on Facebook walls or Twitter feeds than even subscribe to HBO in the first place. He went from a talented team member of one of TV's best comedy programs to, as crazy this sounds, a pioneer in the way people are receiving information. In an era in which our TV news industry is failing viewers with increasing alacrity, "Last Week Tonight" knows it isn't the answer to our lack-of-information age but could serve as the gateway drug to honest, informed conversation. It is entertainment that has cultural importance, and one gets the feeling Mr. Oliver is just getting started.
6. "The Knick" (Cinemax)
When it comes to influence, it feels like "The Knick" is a show that TV critics will be marking for years to come. Steven Soderbergh's dense, fascinating examination of turn-of-the-century medicine could eventually have an impact on auteur-driven television to the same degree that Soderbergh's "Sex, lies, and videotape" forever changed independent cinema. It is SO clearly an artistic venture in that it never feels like anything has been focus-grouped or shaped to meet an audience's expectations. "The Knick" is a strange, strange show, from Soderbergh's daring decision to use a modern score (by the great Cliff Martinez) to his regular use of low angles and lower lighting. It is a show that feels dangerous, much like the world it's capturing--a world that never feels safe, especially for women and minorities. Even powerful people like Cornelia (Juliet Rylance) and brilliant ones like Algernon (Andre Holland) are constantly reminded of their place in this fragile society. And Soderbergh tackles major, current themes, like the role of religion in a world that lets children die and hungry people starve. Now that I think about it, this should probably be higher on my list. But that's just the kind of year it's been. There have been numerous years lately in which it would be #1 by a wide margin. In today's era, it's #6.
5. "The Missing" (Starz)
Starz's first great drama comes from a classic template of television--the "What If" drama. What if your child went missing? How far would you go get answers, even after you knew there were no good ones to be had? What would it do to your marriage? Your career? Much like the first season of "The Killing," "The Missing" is about the ripple effect of unimaginable crime more than the mystery itself. As the first remarkable season has progressed, I've been, of course, fascinated by the inevitable resolution of "what happened" to Oliver Hughes, but the accomplishment of the show is in how it captures the fact that time doesn't stop to come to those conclusions. Everyone in the radius of a crime as horrible as the kidnapping of a child is forever changed, from the cops who investigate to the townspeople who watch their village upended by journalists. We are in an amazing time for TV mysteries, and what I like most about the current trend is the willingness for writers to get away from the whodunnit aspect that defined the genre and explore the tougher questions like why and what now?
4. "The Americans" (FX)
I love when a show fulfills its potential. I liked the first season of "The Americans" well enough, but it barely hinted at the dense, character-driven spy drama that this great program became in its second season. It went from a fun period piece to John Le Carre in season two, as the writers focused on the impact of espionage more completely and allowed their great ensemble to convey the minefield in which these characters exists. Right from the season premiere, in which a family is murdered, the stakes felt different. These people are just playing at being spies, like it feels so many characters are in espionage-driven entertainment, they are in a daily fight for their lives. They could be busted, and their families could be killed. The heightened narrative stakes were enhanced by superior filmmaking as well. Every costume choice, every bit of production design, and, of course, every song. The finale's use of Golden Earring didn't just callback to the '80s, it felt thematically resonant and intensified the action of the climax. "Where am I to go now that I've gone too far?" "The Americans" is a drama about that very question--about people who have run out of options and are just trying to minimize the damage of the inevitable.
3. "Hannibal" (NBC)
I can barely talk about the season two finale of network TV's greatest drama without feeling my heart race a bit. "Mizumono," the best hour of TV this year on any network, is a breathtaking episode of television on every level. Narratively, it is the final round of the mind games that have been played between Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) for two whole seasons. Every plot thread arriving at the same bloody location, almost to the degree that this could have been the series finale (although, blessedly, was not). The realization for this viewer in the shattering final scenes was that Hannibal had played me as much as Will. It's not that I thought Hannibal would be caught and everyone would hold hands as they skipped off into the sunset, but the horror of "Mizumono" left my jaw on the floor. Even I forgot the depths of Lecter's depravity. But it's not just about one episode. Overall, Bryan Fuller has taken Thomas Harris' legendary creation and delivered the most distinct show on TV. It's a black swan in a land of predictable network drama. It shouldn't exist. Fuller defies narrative expectations--it's a show about a murderous lunatic that features more conversation than any other TV drama--and there's just no space here to get into what Fuller and his team have accomplished technically. Every angle, every detail, every cut--it all has purpose. And that's what often separates good TV from bad--artistic intent vs. the quest for ratings. "Hannibal" may not get the numbers, but it's a show that people will be talking about for decades.
2. "Fargo" (FX)
Like "Hannibal," but with a lot less cannibalism, "Fargo" reworks already-amazing source material into a shape that it can only take on television. The precision of the Coen brothers film is given room to breathe in the weekly format, as its theme of the slippery slope of criminal activity gets futher, fascinating examination. "Fargo" is about how there's no turning back. When you commit a crime, when you ask someone to a crime--these are the moments that define you from that point on. And it's so consistently clever in its structure anc character exploration. Even the most minor players are memorable, while the foreground performers like Martin Freeman, Alison Tolman, and Billy Bob Thornton helped comprise the best ensemble on TV in 2014.
1. "True Detective" (HBO)
If you've made it this far, you can tell I love every TV program on this list. And so picking a #1 was remarkably difficult. Don't consider this a runaway winner like some of the best years of "The Sopranos" or "Breaking Bad." On the contrary, there's a part of me that thinks "True Detective" wasn't the BEST show of 2014. (Especially after that final scene that I like to consider a dream...much like the epilogue of "L.A. Confidential".) So why is it #1? In a year when my 1-7 really could have all taken the top spot, "True Detective" stands out for its historical importance. "True Detective" feels like it forever ended the "TV isn't as artistic or important as film" debate. It was a show that really had people talking in ways that no other program did this year. "Did you see that True Detective?" It was the show I was asked about more than any program this year BY FAR. It was the show that sparked conversation about the artistic potential of TV, and that discussion was heard in every corner of every network boardroom in the world. Therefore, it is the show that seems most likely to have the greatest impact on the form, as producers understand the value of allowing the artistic freedom HBO did to the creators of "True Detective." In a close year, the drama with the most potential to change the form? Maybe it wasn't that difficult to pick a #1 after all.