This was a great year of TV. It was a massively terrible year for network TV with few new hits and tons of stupid cancellations (6 shows on this list have already been cancelled or are in their final season) but it was still a great year of TV because, while the executives were making fools of themselves, the artists were firing on all cylinders.
Here’s my (slightly melancholy*) list of my favourite TV of 2014.
*melancholy because so many have been canceled or are limited series (I hate the idea of limited series; TV is about universe building not endless resets!)
1. The Mindy Project (FOX)
It’s hard to fully express how much Mindy Kaling has done for the floundering medium of network sitcoms. Set aside for a moment that she wrote many of the best episodes of the game-changing, NBC-saving Office (including “The Dundies”, the season two premiere on which the American version’s independent identity was built). Her fresh, funny, brazenly romantic eponymous sitcom is the current gold-standard network sitcom. I’ve loved it since the very beginning but 2014 (spanning the climactic end of the second season and the ambitious, expectation-defying beginning of the third) has been nearly flawless. A fun cast led by TV’s best couple (Mindy and the incomparable Chris Messina) and a strong focus on sharp script writing and character-based storytelling has led Mindy to the promised land where it looks like things will only continue to improve.
2. Shameless (Showtime)
Admittedly, season four was a little bumpy in the beginning (poor Debbie was being forced to carry way too much story), but the mid-season twist brought about the best episodes in the history of this truly brilliant series (which I consistently call my favourite on TV; I just had to give Mindy her props this year). Though the whole clan is my favourite ensemble du jour, the back half of this season really unleashed the full effect of series standouts Emmy Rossum and Jeremy Allen White (who’ve both long been outperforming everyone who keeps winning the Emmy categories in which they’re consistently ignored). I was a little let down by this season’s handling of Ian (meaning that Ian was almost entirely written out this year) but it’s hard to complain about anything this mesmerizing.
3. Big Brother (CBS)
Don’t roll your eyes. This season of Big Brother was Incredible. This season of Big Brother was why smart people are still watching Big Brother. After the disastrous season 15, the CBS casting directors went looking for two things when filling the season 16 house: good people and Big Brother fans. They found them. A whole house of them. And the result was a bizarre, neon-tinged, hyper-charming summer filled with amazing moments (Frankie winning the BoB on his own), unforgettable characters (Caleb, Donny, Devon), winning personalities (Cody, Nicole) and a near-perfect strategic game from arguably the best and inarguably one of the top-three best players of all time (Derrick). Good competitions, multiple ambitious twists that actually worked, the right winner, the best cast this show has ever seen and a much-needed reminder of why watching this show is worth being laughed at for watching this show.
4. Super Fun Night (ABC)
I went back and forth about putting this quickly canceled 2013/14 network show on this list. It was over for good just a month and a half into 2014, but those 8 episodes were fantastic, under-appreciated and really shaped the show as it will be remembered (mostly just by me, Super Fun Night‘s one and only truly passionate fan). Click Here to read all about how ABC should feel both guilty and stupid for cancelling this unexpected gem.
5. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
Binge shows tend to disappear from my memory pretty quickly so it took me awhile to recall why I finished this groundbreaking comedy’s second season convinced that it was even better than the genius game-changer I thought it was at the end of season one. Then I remembered that devastating Morello episode and Rosa’s cancer storyline and a backstory for Crazy Eyes and, best of all, a close focus on Taystee and Poussey as Samira Wiley took off running with the series in her back pocket. I wasn’t too into Vee and I missed Alex, but you can’t have everything.
6. Fargo (FX)
I DVRd this series when it aired in early 2014 and put it off forever, pretty sure I wouldn’t like it (stylized, stark, anthology- none of these are words I like much in my TV). As the final few weeks of the year began to run out, I finally gave it a shot mostly so I wouldn’t risk overlooking one of the year’s most popular shows when it came time to nominate the My TV Awards. The final series I watched all year turned out to be one of my favourites, thanks in huge part to the wonder that is Allison Tolman (who also notably appeared in two other shows on this list this year, because she’s the greatest). Moody and grim but also funny and surprising, this anthology series about cowardice and malice is just as much about heroism and determination. It also happens to feature career-best work from a pile of excellent people, is set to an awesome, memorable score and features Key and Peele as FBI agents because the world is a great place.
7. Survivor (CBS)
The only reason Survivor is all the way at number 7 instead of up around 3 with Big Brother is that the recently concluded fall season was horrible (one of the biggest duds in memory, saved only slightly by the most deserving player winning in the end). The season that came before it, however, was extraordinary, capping an unprecedented run of fantastically cast, cleverly twisted, emotionally riveting outings. The Beauty/Brawn/Brains twist sounded ridiculous at first but somehow managed to work to fantastic effect (likely because the season was so well cast it was somewhat fool-proof) and the matchup of sneaky, brazen cop Tony against calculating, emotional whizkid Spencer was the stuff of legend. Also, #ChaosKass.
8. The Goldbergs (ABC)
I love this endlessly heartfelt, slightly cheesy, totally nostalgia-fuelled ensemble comedy from autobiographical showrunner Adam Goldberg. The jokes are good, the soundtrack is even better, the hair and makeup are a well of comedy unto themselves and the cast is pitch perfect. I don’t completely love George Segal as Pops but it’s impossible to choose a favourite between the other ace family members: Hayley Orrantia’s wry Erica, Jeff Garlin as the gruff but loving dad, the adorable Sean Giambrone as the wide-eyed dork who grows up to write the show, Wendi McLendon-Covey as smothery mother Beverley or balls-to-the-wall Troy Gentile as scene-stealing big brother Barry (extra points to Stephanie Katherine Grant as Muscles Mirsky, TV’s reigning best best friend). I lied, I can pick a favourite, it’s Wendi McLendon-Covey. My favourite is always Wendi McLendon-Covey. In everything. But the others are amazing too.
9. Parenthood (NBC)
Speaking of kick-ass ensembles, one of the best is preparing to leave us for good as the Bravermans continue their final season (there are only 4 episodes left; cue the tears). This season has certainly had its dud episodes, in large part due to NBC’s cost-cutting measures that involve less screentime for the main actors (terrible episode “Aaron Brownstein Must Be Stopped” featured only one of the four main Braverman kids), and there has been way too much Ray Romano all year (I’m not Hank-opposed, I’d just rather watch actual Bravermans). That said, no one does dramedy like Jason Katims, his fantastic writing staff and this particular cast of extraordinary performers (including Dax Shepard who’s been particularly great in 2014 and perennial favourite Peter Krause who had better get another gig soon because I don’t like it when he’s not on my TV) and the heart-mashing pain of 2014’s Julia and Joel storyline has reminded me why I’m going to miss this show so much. Erika Christensen and, especially, Sam Jaeger have been killing it week in and week out and I won’t soon be forgetting those scenes where the non-Julia Bravermans try to let their erstwhile brother go (dagger. through. heart).
10. The Newsroom (HBO)
2014 was the year Aaron Sorkin left television (I think for good). We only got six episodes for The Newsroom‘s final season and they were very very flawed, despite mysteriously being six of the series’ most popular offerings (come on, people, season two was way better than this!). I didn’t like the handling of the leak story and I really didn’t like Neal being in exile all season, which is unfortunate because those two elements were pretty much the cornerstones of the final six. However, even at his weakest, Aaron Sorkin is still Aaron Sorkin and I will love him until my eyes can no longer read, my ears can no longer hear and my steel-trap memory has finally let go of the last vestiges of “you can’t handle the truth” (the most indelible of his indelible speeches). I will miss Jim and Neal and Will and, yes, even Maggie, and I’ll especially miss Don and Sloan (not so much Mac and Charlie) because, even when they weren’t perfect, they were great and interesting TV characters and I loved every second I got to spend with them (even when Will was lecturing his father’s ghost in a jail cell; ugh). But, mostly, I’ll miss Aaron. So, of course, this show is on this list.
11. Transparent (Amazon)
We could talk about how valuable it’s going to be in the long run for Netflix to have a serious peer to keep them in check, or we could talk about how Amazon likely is going to see their shows illegally streamed even more often than HBO and Showtime because people don’t want to pay for the service when they only have the one hit (plus Mozart in the Jungle, which should be So Much Better than it is). Or we could talk about Jeffrey Tambor completely redefining what you thought were his limits as a dramatic performer, or how showrunner Jill Soloway has managed to make a show about a transgendered person that’s still character-based rather than issue-based, important but never preachy. We could talk about the legendary Judith Light and the amazing Amy Landecker and, ohmygod, Alexandra Billings, or Gaby Hoffmann, oh Gaby Hoffmann, how great is Gaby Hoffmann?! But I want to talk about Jay Duplass because I’m crazy for the Duplass brothers but Jay (who acts less than his brother Mark) has always faded a bit to the background. In Transparent he’s transfixing- dark but charming and sexy but wounded and well-meaning but selfish and everything all at once. I’m similarly obsessed with Katherine Hahn this year so his arc with her as a sweet, sad rabbi was just about my favourite thing.
12. Girls (HBO)
I’m not usually the biggest Girls fan. I find the Girls difficult to relate to and end up investing all my interest in Adam and Ray (because Adam and Ray are amazing, guys. Just the best). But season three was really pretty special. As Hannah gets her life together (writing an E-book, working for GQ’s advertorial section, getting into the writer’s workshop), she starts to become someone I care a bit more about. But, more importantly, as the show finds its footing, it’s becoming less reactionary and more emotionally grounded, resulting in some of the year’s most brilliant half hours like “Flo”, “Dead Inside” and “Beach House”, the latter of which might just be the greatest episode of a cable comedy I’ve ever seen.
13. About a Boy (NBC)
Katims’ foray into the network sitcom has elevated the network sitcom to something that doesn’t resemble a network sitcom. It’s sort of like an hourlong dramedy, but a half hour on NBC. I’m so glad to see David Walton finally get the show he’s been searching for for years and Minnie Driver is a wonderful Fiona- so funny, so fresh, so sweet and fiery and honest. The Will/Fiona dynamic is one of my favourites on TV (“you’re my English Patient and I think you should win all the awards” gah!) and Benjamin Stockham’s sincere Marcus is a joy. Another magical adaptation from True Jack Productions.
14. Silicon Valley (HBO)
There is a scene in the first season finale of this weird, deadpan HBO nerdcom where the programmers embark on a sophisticated mathematical analysis to determine how long it would take for TJ Miller’s wacko entrepreneur Erlich to jack off every attendee at their TechCrunch Disrupt presentation. It’s a very long scene, filthy and filled with technicalities the average viewer isn’t meant to follow. It breaks all the rules of traditional entertainment, but it works because it’s riotously funny and perfectly illustrates the complicated dynamics of the group and how the mind of each individual character works differently to achieve the same goal. With a killer ensemble including standout Kumail Nanjiani, the late genius Christopher Evan Welch and, my favourite, lanky oddball Zach Woods, Silicon Valley is one of the best comedies on cable and, lately, that’s saying something.
15. Hannibal (NBC)
When he wrote his list of the year’s best TV episodes, my favourite pop culture writer EW’s Darren Franich wrote the following about showrunner Bryan Fuller and his endlessly ambitious, visually lush, intellectually robust adaptation of the classic cannibal story: “Take your limited series and your anthologies and your streaming bingables and your biannual 90-minute episodes—take everything about our splintering mediascape and shove it. Bryan Fuller is making motherfucking Television.”. Darren Franich is just about the smartest. Second, perhaps, to Bryan Fuller.
16. The Americans (FX)
Matthew Rhys is one of my favourite TV actors of all time. He was brilliant- smart, funny, layered, endlessly human- as Kevin on Brothers & Sisters. On The Americans he’s playing a character twenty times more complicated (plus a whole host of aliases), finally showing the critical community just how amazing he is. The second season of this hard-boiled show about Soviet spies in America was even better than the first, raising the emotional stakes along with the danger level by pulling the spies’ religiously curious teenage daughter onto Mother Russia’s radar.
17. The Comeback (HBO)
I didn’t watch this Lisa Kudrow mock-doc the first time around but I’d never heard anything but loud, unadulterated praise. It took me a few episodes to get into the swing of things this time around but I was hooked by the time Seth Rogen saved Val from having to do an on-camera blowjob in one of the most painful and funny scenes of the year. When Val and her husband Mark had it out in the penultimate episode, I was a true believer in the genius of The Comeback and Kudrow as more than just a member of TV’s most legendary sitcom ensemble. That perfectly beautiful ending was the feather in a searing, insightful, hilarious, heartbreaking cap.
18. Enlisted (FOX)
One of the most devastating cancellations in a long time, this wildly likeable show with its wildly likeable ensemble of ragtag soldiers on the lamest assignment available was so wildly mishandled by FOX it’s a wonder we got to see more than 3 episodes. Pushed late in the season, aired out of order, dramatically under-marketed, FOX just didn’t believe in Enlisted. Having actually watched this heartfelt, consistently funny, excellently acted show, I have to believe that the smart people who’ve smartly stood behind Mindy and New Girl and Brooklyn Nine-Nine were out sick whenever the subject of Enlisted hit the conference table. Somebody hire Chris Lowell immediately, please; I already miss him.
19. Orphan Black (Space)
Woo, Canada! This sci-fi series is our greatest export. Yeah, lumber, oil, whatever, it’s all about smartly constructed, ambitious TV featuring the single most impressive acting performance in any medium in a very long time (Tatiana Maslany, playing about 10 different clones) and also the brilliant Jordan Gavaris as TV’s best current sidekick. The end of season two proved that there’s no limits to what this show can do technically or mythologically and that’s just damn exciting.
20. Looking (HBO)
One of the biggest surprises of the year, this charming HBO comedy about a group of gay men in San Francisco has a Girls-esque tone with a little bit more romance and maturity. Beloved Broadway boy Jonathan Groff is a great leading man as the love-seeker Patrick while his two main love interests- the unsophisticated but golden-hearted and crazy sexy Richie (Raul Castillo) and Patrick’s complicated but entrancing boss Kevin (erstwhile History Boy Rusell Tovey)- come fairly close to stealing his spotlight. A nice ensemble rounds out the action (though Patrick is definitely the star of the show) with Murray Bartlett’s Dom and his Scott Bakula-guest-starring subplot standing out.
21. Veep (HBO)
I hated this comedy when it premiered 2 seasons ago but I fell pretty hard for it as Selena headed out on the campaign trail this past season and encountered the series’ best character building and self-referential jokes, culminating in a big twist that will throw season four onto a totally new path. Extra credit for a Zach Woods guest stint.
22. Homeland (Showtime)
This show was a homerun in season one and a bumpy but sometimes brilliant road in season two. By season three, it appeared that the glory days were all past with the series-defining Brody storyline already drawn out well past its shelf life. At the end of season three, Homeland was forced to kill off their best and most beloved character. I’ve never been a Carrie Mathison fan so the prospect of a Brody-less Homeland never appealed to me. But by taking the series in a completely new direction on a new mission in a new world of political tension, the showrunners rebooted and laid groundwork that could lead to years of new stories. A stunning two-part premiere included one of the most brutal and memorable scenes in recent TV history (the death of Sandy), leading up to a huge climax two thirds of the way into the season and a quiet, personal finale. New castmember Raza Jaffrey quickly became a favourite while ace supporting player Rupert Friend brought Peter Quinn up to fill the huge space left by the loss of Damian Lewis. A totally unexpected but wholly welcome turnaround.
23. The Good Wife (CBS)
This series was at its best in season two and had what might be its best episode (“Hitting the Fan”) early in season five but with the back half of that fateful season and the beginning of 2014, The Good Wife aired what will definitely be remembered as its biggest episode (and the biggest, best-kept twist on network TV in years)- the death of Will. The series will never recover from losing the great Josh Charles and the key relationships and tone he brought to the show, but it was a huge move, handled brilliantly, with an impeccable guest turn from the great, underrated Hunter Parrish. And it led to the introduction of excellent new character Finn and an expanded role for Cary via the wonderful Matt Czuchry (who always lived a bit in Will’s shadow). I hate that Alicia is running for State’s Attorney (she JUST started her new firm) but you’ve really got to hand it to the Kings, they’re ambitious storytellers.
24. Selfie (ABC)
Tragedy. Great, infuriating tragedy. I’ve already written a lot about Selfie but I think everyone should be writing more. This show was on a notable upwards trajectory and had a ton of growth potential both in terms of actual quality (John Cho and Karen Gillan formed a rock-solid base for the show) and the number of viewers it likely would have attracted once it got its feet under it. The pilot was atrocious so the early release strategy was idiotic but the quick cancellation was even worse. I’ve never been more convinced that the entirely wrong people are running the networks (how could they not tell that the pilot was bad and thus that release strategy would be really damaging? How come they couldn’t spot the improvement week to week after said terrible pilot?). You’ll never get anywhere if you’re chasing what’s already working rather what’s coming next and that’s clearly the mistake the networks are making over and over.
25. Girl Meets World (Disney)
Alright, so this show isn’t really good, per se. It’s not bad but it’s definitely still ironing out the kinks and suffering from a thick layer of Disney Channel cheese. But I look more forward to this show every week than almost any other because it makes me happy. Not just nostalgic-happy like the euphoria that came with Shawn Hunter’s appearance in the Christmas episode but actually happy because of what Girl Meets World is, not just because of what Boy Meets World was (though that too). Girl Meets World is weird and goofy and innocent in a way that I really think is good for the Disney Channel audience. Specifically the weird, though there’s also a lot of value in cool kid Lucas’ struggle to be taken seriously as smart and kind and generally more than handsome and athletic. For me it’s all about Farkle, Corey Fogelmanis’s baby Minkus character who is smart and strange and relentlessly himself, kind of like the original Topanga and Plays with Squirrels and Boy Meets World as an entity. Embrace the weird, because that’s where the happiness lives.
Honorable Mention- Hello Ladies: The Movie (HBO)
Out of character though it may be, I’ve placed every single HBO show I watch (which is pretty much everything except Game of Thrones) on this list, with the exception of True Detective (which I hated). I’ve always been a staunch network supporter (well, unless they’re being stupid like right now) but there’s something about the comedy tone the cable stalwart has established that I’m really digging (The Newsroom is the only HBO drama on my list but almost every single comedy is mentioned). Hello Ladies was actually my favourite of all the HBO comedies (naturally, it’s the one they cancelled- what is wrong with everyone?!). The actual run of the series was over in 2013 (hence this being an honourable mention) but the feature-length movie sendoff might have been my favourite thing about Hello Ladies. It made excellent use of Kyle Mooney and my beloved Nate Torrence (see also Super Fun Night), sending him off as the cutest, happiest couple ever with Allison Tolman (see also Fargo). It came full circle thematically and really grew the characters up (though it would have been nice to see that happen over time rather than all at once), setting up Stephen Merchant’s fantastically funny Stuart and Christine Woods’ wonderfully complicated Jessica for a beautifully bittersweet happy ending that was so full of real life it perfectly summed up the series. Two of the most enjoyable hours on TV this year, the Hello Ladies movie was a great, if too-brief, sendoff to a wonderful series that deserved a longer life.