2014 in Review: The Best Shows

Television hit a critical mass this year. Even as I entered my 15th month without a DVR, I still found it nearly impossible to keep up with all the good shows I kept hearing about, including shows I’ve been meaning to start since I graduated from college. So, of what I watched (which still felt like a lot), here’s the best.

Jeff Daniels and Dev Patel in The Newsroom
10. The Newsroom (HBO)
The final season of Aaron Sorkin’s show started out extremely strong, then fumbled right at the end, with Don’s campus rape story representing the show’s nadir. Still, it produced “Run,” arguably the best episode the show has ever done. Despite the hiccups, I’m really going to miss great actors speaking Sorkin’s dialogue. When they’re both on their A-games (and not crusading), there’s nothing better on TV.
Standout episodes: “Run,” “Main Justice,” “What Kind of Day Has It Been?”

The cast of Community
9. Community (NBC)
Even as someone who enjoyed Community‘s lackluster fourth season, I really couldn’t have predicted just how quickly it would have bounced back in Season Five. Most shows are already phoning it in by Season Five, and here Community is, feeling rejuvenated. “Cooperative Polygraphy” is the show’s signature bottle episode, the best thing it had done since Season Three’s Ken Burns’ homage. But Season Five also brought back something that had been missing from Community for some time, even when Harmon was originally running the show: consistency.
Standout episodes: “Cooperative Polygraphy,” “VCR Maintenance and Educational Publishing,” “Basic Story”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep
8. Veep (HBO)
With apologies to The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, and the bevy of other Beltway-set shows, no other program has better or more consistently skewered the tragicomedy that is our nation’s political system than Veep. Although Selina finally found her way into the White House, she faced more pressure than ever. As with everything on Veep, anything that seems to be going well will soon turn into a nightmare. Her crate, used to make her seem more folksy, gives people the impression that she’s snooty. Her choice of words always comes back to bite her in the ass. But the best example is “The Choice,” which finds her having to constantly flip-flop her position on abortion to secure votes. It’s an orchestra of madness, and not too far off from our own ridiculous organizations.
Standout episodes: “The Choice,” “Debate,” “Crate”

Stephanie Beatriz, Craig Robinson and Andy Samberg in Brooklyn Nine-Nine
7. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)
Still my favorite half-hour comedy, Brooklyn Nine-Nine needed a little time to reach the lofty bar it set for itself with its tremendous debut season. But Season Two has reached that peak and set its sights even higher, thanks to hilarious subplots (like Boyle & Gina’s affair, which led to their own parents sleeping together) and great guest turns (including Eva Longoria of all people). But it’s the Will They, Won’t They? of Peralta and Santiago that remains the beating heart of this show.
Standout episodes: “The Bet,” “The Road Trip,” “The Pontiac Bandit Returns”

Kate Mulgrew and Lorraine Toussaint in Orange is the New Black
6. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
In many ways, Orange is the New Black took a significant leap forward in Season Two. It also gave us a picture of how the show could continue (and be just as good if not better) once Piper finishes her sentence. The main arc, with Taystee’s former foster mom (a remarkably evil Lorraine Toussaint) coming in and taking over Litchfield’s drug operation, provided a strong backbone to the season, but it was all the splintering relationships that gave it an emotional weight the first season didn’t have. But the less we talk about Larry and Polly, the better.
Standout episodes: “A Whole Other Hole,” “You Also Have a Pizza,” “Take a Break from Your Values”

A scene from True Detective
5. True Detective (HBO)
Hype is a bitch. When True Detective brought its flat circle full circle, it lost a bit of edge and became something we can’t handle in this age of TV: a show that was just good. But before then, this show really was something marvelous, and that incredible tracking shot might be the single best scene of any show this year. But really, let’s give praise where it’s due: Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were absolutely phenomenal here. The former gets all the glory, but the latter is doing equally fantastic work. In fact, I’d say neither of them had ever been better, even in film. So let’s not take this down too many pegs. In a year this good, True Detective was like a college football team that missed the playoffs: it peaked too early.
Standout episodes: “The Locked Room,” “Who Goes There,” “The Secret Fate of All Life”

Louis CK and Sarah Baker in Louie
4. Louie (FX)
FX doubled up its Louie output each week, and gave us twice as much genre-busting comedy and drama as we could handle. Though much praise has been lauded on its six-part “Elevator” story, I found it to be a little disjointed. But everything else was prime Louie, with “Model” best representing the cosmic joke that is Louie’s life. “Into the Woods” pretty much killed flashback episodes. No one else really needs to even try anymore. But it’s “So Did the Fat Lady,” starring the incomparable, joyful Sarah Baker, that was the season’s high-water mark. Her monologue about what it’s like to be an overweight woman in the dating world was hilarious, sad and loaded with truth. Aaron Sorkin should have taken some notes.
Standout episodes: “Model,” “So Did the Fat Lady,” “Into the Woods”

Billy Bob Thornton and Colin Hanks in Fargo
3. Fargo (FX)
It shouldn’t have worked. Whatever Noah Hawley’s intentions, Fargo the show would always live in the shadow of Fargo the movie. But boy did it work, and even better than expected. This miniseries was far more satisfying on the whole than True Detective. Billy Bob Thornton was absolutely chilling as con artist/hitman Lorne Malvo, but it was Martin Freeman’s transformation from henpecked nobody to murderous lothario that gave this show its rotten core. But the show also found room for sweetness, exemplified by the relationship between two cops (Colin Hanks and lovely newcomer Allison Tolman), and dark comedy, brought to you by Oliver Platt and Key & Peele.
Standout episodes: “Buridan’s Ass,” “Who Shaves the Barber?” “The Heap”

Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal
2. Hannibal (NBC)
Despite one dud episode (“Hassun”), which took the courtroom drama to gory ends and featured a guest star (Cynthia Nixon) who actually didn’t rise to the occasion, Season Two was even better than the show’s remarkable first season. Will becomes so consumed by revenge that he arguably becomes more of an animal than Hannibal. And Hannibal might be a better detective than Will. And their relationship took on even more complexity. The homoerotic subtext of the show became text as the season wore on. But that finale. No show had a more (literally) gut-wrenching episode than this one.
Standout episodes: “Takiawase,” “Su-zakana,” “Mizumono”

Matthew Rhys in The Americans
1. The Americans (FX)
Midway through March, it wasn’t really a contest anymore. FX’s spy series took the Season Two leap of all great shows, and never looked back. Compelling family drama? Intense action series? Heartbreaking relationship dissection? The Americans was all that and more, featuring absolutely brilliant acting from its main quartet (Matthew Rhys, Keri Russell, Noah Emmerich and Annet Mahendru), as their characters constantly tried to do the right thing, but found each decision harder than the last. But with everything going on, the show still found a way to bring in religion. It deserves praise for that alone, but instead of making religion something as reductive as evil or good, Christianity represented yet another way the Jennings were losing their kids to the American way of life, and gave Rhys his best episode yet.
Standout episodes: “New Car,” “Martial Eagle,” “Echo”

10 shows I didn’t really watch but probably would have loved: Black-ish, The Knick, Mike Tyson Mysteries, The Missing, Olive Kittredge, Peaky Blinders, Penny Dreadful, Review, Rick & Morty, Transparent

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