Top 10 lists rank among the more unusual aspects of movie and TV criticism, and as my colleagues Ryan McGee, Matt Singer, and Mike Sampson’s own 2014 favorites will attest, the end-of-year celebration format brings with it a unique mixture of personal favorites and artistic juggernauts. This year, I’m going with my gut, and picking the TV that gave me the most cause for discussion, polarizing or otherwise.
With so many great series to choose from, I couldn’t find room for ‘The Flash,’ which has proven consistently strong thus far into its debut season, while fellow newcomers like ‘The Knick’ and ‘Jane the Virgin’ have yet to become a priority among my many catchups. Add to that a number of other solid series like ‘Arrow,’ ‘Masters of Sex,’ or ‘The Americans,’ all of which have crafted some phenomenal (albeit occasionally uneven) work over the last year, and you’ll begin to understand why listing ten top TV series becomes a logistical nightmare, one that may spawn five or six additional lists before the year is out.
So with all that said, I present to you ScreenCrush’s Best TV of 2014 (according to me anyway), for which SPOILER WARNINGS should be stated at least once.
Marvel’s ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ABC
Don't run away on me just yet. Despite the show’s rocky beginnings and inherent limitations, ‘S.H.I.E.L.D.’’s 2014 episodes have truly unleashed an age of miracles in righting the course of Marvel’s ‘Avengers’-adjacent series. Say what you will about a show that required the release of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ to truly kickstart its story, but the latter half of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’’s first season (as well as the first half of its second season) have truly elevated the series to must-see TV, not just for comic fans looking for insight into future films, but also for lovers of the spy-vs-spy genre.
Formerly one-dimensional characters have grown steadily into compelling villains and worthwhile underdogs, and while the show’s ratings have certainly taken a hit from their 2013 premiere, the impressive integration of ‘The Winter Soldier’ and Marvel’s ‘Inhumans’ have made ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ destination television for 2014 and beyond.
In the interest of complete transparency, I only tracked ‘You're the Worst’’s progress through FX development for having gone to grammar school with breakout star Kether Donohue; the occasional run-in with her around town kept reminding me that ‘You’re the Worst’ might prove worthy of attention. Critical raves across the first few episodes naturally caught my eye as well, and eventually I caved and binge-watched the first few episodes.
While I’d initially dismissed the show as yet another of FX’s numerous attempts to create a successful romantic-comedy series (with ‘Married’ being a far less compelling, if more prominent example), ‘You're the Worst’ managed to coalesce its unique viewpoint on the modern relationship quickly. It soon established its own niche in the TV landscape, deconstructing contrived love stories from multiple angles while highlighting a dynamic cast including Desmin Borges and Janet Varney. I’m a bit worried for season 2, if only because “success” on FXX hasn’t yet been given the clearest definition. But few 2014 TV series proved worthy of attention so quickly.
Amid the current crop of small-screen adaptations of movies, few have proven more of an oddity than Bryan Fuller’s ‘Hannibal.’ Where last year, our morbid curiosity toward Mads Mikkelsen taking on one of culture's more iconic villains drew us into a darkly delicious and operatic take on well-worn source material, the second season truly cemented the NBC drama’s “remix” approach. In 2014, ‘Hannibal’ managed to transform Harris’ universe into an engrossing vivisection of the human soul, compounded by a visual palate that redefined the boundaries of television’s artistic capabilities.
Everything from its eerie tableaus to the elegance of Will and Hannibal’s final rain-soaked showdown cemented the unique perfection of Bryan Fuller’s vision, which subverted our expectations at every turn, and blazed a new trail for future movie-to-TV adaptations to come.
HBO has rarely made a misstep when it comes to comedy, and while previous years have brought us the brilliance of ‘Girls’ and ‘Veep,’ 2014’s under-appreciated ‘Silicon Valley’ gave creator Mike Judge a chance to return to the heights of such culture-defining fare as ‘Office Space’ and ‘King of the Hill.’ More than a mere dissection of the Internet age, ‘Silicon Valley’ provided a weekly master-class in comic delivery, with revelatory performances from the likes of the late Christopher Evan Welch, ‘Transformers 4’ scene-stealer T.J. Miller, ‘The Office’’s Zach Woods, and Kumail Nanjiani. ‘Silicon Valley’ turned potentially alienating comedic templates into instantly relatable required viewing.
Showtime’s ‘Shameless’ impressed me with one of its strongest seasons to date, one which forced its affably amoral characters to confront some much harsher realities than usual. Frank (cast MVP William H. Macy) faced the morality of his many vices, while Emmy Rossum’s Fiona nearly destroyed the family with her own genetic demons.
Lip also discovered his intelligence counted for little in a demanding college landscape, while the absence of Cameron Monaghan’s Ian allowed ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ star Noel Fisher a chance to shine; he brought complexity and vulnerability to a coming-out performance that few other series would dare to deem “comedic.” Whether ‘Shameless’ ever gets the award recognition it deserves remains to be seen, but its 2014 run brought both literal and figurative maturation to a show that few others could hope to replicate.
‘The Legend of Korra’Nickelodeon
I don’t recall precisely when I learned that ‘Avatar’ had earned a sequel series, nor do I remember my expectations of its initial seasons. The first book set a strong precedent, but some felt the second book to a step back in quality. Still, few predicted the depths of recovery and improvement that 2014’s third book “Change” would bring. Even more than its predecessor, ‘The Legend of Korra’ chronicles its titular character’s individual journey. That was never more clear or enthralling as when Book 3 forced its protagonist to confront the changes wrought by her tenure as Avatar and by not one but four dynamic villains.
‘Korra’ certainly ranks among the more unorthodox of my choices for this list, and we don’t yet know if the fourth (and final) book will quite reach the heights of its predecessor*. But no series since ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ has proven so adept at finding humanity in hardship, or fun in the fantastical.
*In fairness to those who've already seen today’s series finale, we won't spoil anything about the ending, but holy heck does “Day of the Colossus / The Last Stand” make some bold choices that show the depth of DiMartino and Konietzko’s love for their fans.
The inclusion of FX’s ‘Louie’ feels obvious on a top-ten list, but the ambitious impulses of its 2014 season cannot be denied. Not only did one-off episodes like “So Did the Fat Lady” offer thoughtful deconstructions of the male gaze that has become so toxic in pop culture, but stabs at serialization like the “Elevator” series or “In the Woods” broke with convention to remind us of the hopeful darkness that permeates the series. Some of the show’s plots were controversial, like Louie’s uncomfortable seduction of Pamela, but the 2014 run of Louis C.K.’s abstract narrative on love, parenting, and depression showcased an admirable willingness to experiment.
The culture of “hate-watching” has become more and more prevalent in recent years, and ‘Homeland’ has provided an easy target for it thanks to its early critical acclaim and occasionally questionable choices. ‘Homeland’ still managed to squeak out a few well-deserved Emmys from its second season, but the continued presence of Damian Lewis’ Nicholas Brody in season 3 seemingly cemented the notion that ‘Homeland’ had run out of creative steam.
Surprisingly, the show’s fourth season deftly reclaimed the dramatic weight promised by its first episodes, and restored ‘Homeland’ to its original focus as a character-driven counter-terrorism drama rather than a doomed love story. ‘Homeland’’s ability to sustain its renewed energy remains to be seen, but season 4 has rightfully returned the show to acclaim, and exchanged the odd sour note (hallucinatory Brody!) for a tautly-woven thriller with deep and involving characterizations, as well as a strong dissection of ethics in an increasingly ambiguous political landscape.
I’m always enamored of series with rich, conceptual origins. Damon Lindelof and Tom Perotta’s ‘The Leftovers’’ quickly became one of the more fascinating contemporary commentaries on our culture’s fear of the unknown. ‘The Leftovers,’ like Lindelof’s ‘LOST’ before it, leaves its audience with more questions than answers. So far, every attempt to ascribe some deeper mythology to its central Rapture event only creates more uncertainty.
Some series (particularly ones adapted from popular novels) become frustratingly easy to predict, but ‘The Leftovers’ smartly only followed its source material where necessary, leaving plenty of mystery for its upcoming second season. A cast that included Ann Dowd, Carrie Coon, and Amy Brenneman featured no weak links, and Lindelof continues to explore the ambiguities of life and loss like few other showrunners.
“Maps used to say ‘There Be Dragons Here.’ Now they don’t. But that don’t mean the dragons aren’t there.”
Effortlessly cool and quotable, FX’s ‘Fargo’ arrived on the scene as something of a curiosity, a new series with a name brand designed to ape the Coen brothers’ sensibilities with a unique visual palate. Just one episode into its incredible first season, ‘Fargo’ managed to strike at the dark heart and humor of our world in a way shows like ‘True Detective’ never did. Billy Bob Thornton’s surprising TV return aside, ‘Fargo’ also featured one of the most versatile casts on television, including Martin Freeman and Allison Tolman, and showcased darkly comedic turns from ‘Breaking Bad’’s Bob Odenkirk, Kate Walsh, Colin Hanks, Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele.
Nearly every aspect of ‘Fargo’ clicked into place early, establishing a subtle dread that infected its homespun sensibilities, until its final episodes teemed with genuine fear and suspense. Add in inventive action sequences like Thornton’s offscreen assault on the mob or the blizzard showdown, and it’s easy to see why ‘Fargo’ was my clear number-one choice for the best show of the year. I’m already doubly excited to see what Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons (and Ron-willing, Nick Offerman) do with a second season next year, but Noah Hawley’s work in reinventing the Coen’s classic film already deserves every bit of acclaim it gets.