2014 was the year there was officially too much great TV to watch. That’s not to say it was a chore to check in with all the programming that was available on the networks, cable channels, and the streaming service of your choice.
It’s just that, with all that there was to choose from, waiting for the cream to rise to the top took a little longer than usual. But eventually, it did.
Our favorite episodes of 2014 ran the gamut from a surprisingly energetic start to The Walking Dead‘s fifth season, to Broad City‘s harmonious merging of the perfect friendship and lava cake in the ER, to The Flash and Arrow delivering the superhero crossover event of the season (and many more, we hope). Beyond the undead, two insanely funny women, and men in masks duking it out, there were plenty other episodes that caught our eye.
Here are the best TV episodes of 2014:
Supernatural (CW) – ‘Fan Fiction’
‘Fan Fiction’ marked the 200th episode of Supernatural. That’s really all that needs to be said here. But thankfully, along with the milestone, the episode managed to weave in a fun story about Sam and Dean taking on an unwanted supernatural entity at a high school production of their lives. Along with the usual ghost busting, there were musical numbers (‘A Single Man Tear’ being the highlight, of course) and a clever homage to Rushmore.
The show has always succeeded whenever it winks at itself, and for it to continue to demonstrate such a deft touch during its 200th outing is rather remarkable. The show could have easily sat back and played clips from the previous 199 episodes, while ‘Carry On My Wayward Son’ played on a loop, but instead it managed to tell a very Supernatural-y story, mixing nostalgia with self-referential humor in a way that was as much fan-service as it was fan fiction.
Impractical Jokers (TruTV) – ‘The Permanent Punishment’
When it comes to hidden camera television, TruTV’s Impractical Jokers more or less has the market cornered. Thankfully, that hasn’t stopped the four lifelong friends of Q, Sal, Joe, and Murr from taking their public humiliation challenges to the next level. And in ‘The Permanent Punishment,’ instead of merely subjecting the unsuspecting public to their cringe-inducing challenges, the game ends with the losers agreeing to get tattoos. But there’s a catch: they don’t know what’s being tattooed on their body until after the (permanent) deed is done.
For a show that essentially lives and breathes on how far it can continually push the envelope, having one of the unlucky losers be forever branded with the bewitching visage of Jaden Smith makes this one of the most memorable episodes ever.
The League (FX) –’When Rafi Met Randy’
Jason Mantzoukas is one of the funniest actors on TV right now. His deranged energy is the highpoint of everything he pops up in, whether it’s in Broad City (where he shares an apartment, and seemingly everything else, with Badger (Matt Jones) from Breaking Bad), or his brief appearance in Neighbors, as a strangely calm yet still unnerving ER doctor. Basically, Mantzoukas takes funny things and helps make them funnier – which is saying a lot, considering the characters he plays, like Rafi, are usually about as unwanted and twice as creepy as a particularly infectious strain of flesh-eating bacteria.
So, when The League once again took time out to focus on the misadventures of Rafi and Dirty Randy (Seth Rogen) – this time telling their origin story in a mental institution – it wasn’t just the first standout episode in what was an otherwise lumpy season; it was a welcome descent into the sort of absurdist humor the show (and Mantzoukas) does so well.
The Walking Dead (AMC) – ‘No Sanctuary’
In the season 5 premiere, The Walking Dead went big – real big – and the results were impressive. ‘No Sanctuary‘ was the sort of episode that was always lurking in the undead-loving series’ bag of tricks. There’s plenty of world-weary survivalism baked into every hour of The Walking Dead, but here, Scott Gimple and his crew flipped the usual notion of “survival counts as a win” and transformed it into an hour of Rick, Daryl, and the others getting a definitive win against a group of highly organized, frighteningly efficient cannibalistic adversaries.
And as an extra twist, they secured that win by engaging in quick, brutal, and decisive action that was such a departure from the usual hemming and hawing of seasons past the show suddenly felt like it had been reborn. A wall-to-wall hour of action, the premiere not only cemented Carol’s place as the group’s certified badass, but it also launched the best run of episodes the series has had to date.
Penny Dreadful (Showtime) – ‘Possession’
Let’s be honest, as fun and talented as the ensemble of Penny Dreadful is, the show has essentially become a showcase for the many talents of Eva Green. This was made evident in the series’ second episode, ‘Séance,’ which spun several harrowing moments around the full-body performance Green turned in when a dinner party’s hapless dabbling in the dark arts unwittingly made Vanessa Ives’ inner demon show up as her plus one.
In ‘Possession,’ the Dreadful crew gave the floor to Ms. Green once more, as four weeks of demonic anguish were concentrated into a single hour that would make Linda Blair’s head spin. While Vanessa writhed about in her room, Sir Macolm Murray, Ethan Chandler, and Dr. Frankenstein were little more than glorified custodians, until Ethan’s impromptu exorcism chased the darkness away. For an episode that relied almost entirely on the believability of the casts’ performance, ‘Possession’ was the moment when everyone brought his or her A-game.
Broad City (Comedy Central) – ‘The Last Supper’
There may have been wilder more visually ambitious episodes during Broad City‘s magnificent and unruly first season, but instead of choosing the on-the-run madness of episodes like ‘Stolen Phone’ or ‘Destination: Wedding,’ it was the way Broad City went small for its season finale that caught our eye. ‘The Last Supper’ worked by making it all about the relationship between Ilana and Abbi, as the pair headed out to a swanky restaurant to celebrate the latter’s 26th birthday. The episode, directed by Amy Poehler (who also delivers a delightfully subversive and understated guest appearance as a chef in an argument with her boyfriend/waiter), runs the gamut from gross-out to oddly touching.
Some of the humor approaches Cronenbergian levels of body horror with the unexpected appearance of a condom, and Ilana’s dance with death, thanks to a shellfish allergy. But ‘The Last Supper’ also demonstrates the friends’ complete devotion to one another, even if it comes via an EpiPen adrenaline rush and a to-go order of lava cake.
Banshee (Cinemax) – ‘The Truth About Unicorns’
Cinemax’s extra-pulpy masterwork of sex and violence took an unexpectedly expressive turn halfway through its second season, with the Babak Najafi-directed ‘The Truth About Unicorns.’ The elegiac episode eschewed the usual beatings handed out and endured by the seemingly indestructible thief masquerading as Sheriff Lucas Hood, for an elliptical journey into Hood and Carrie’s past that was mixed with a lingering question of their future.
That seems like too much of a departure for a series that usually builds a narrative around the shedding of blood and clothing, but with editing reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s work on The Limey (which has since become another major draw of the series), and sumptuous cinematography to match, ‘Unicorns’ didn’t just explore new territory in the twisted Pennsylvania town; it set a new standard for Banshee by throwing what amounts to one hell of a sucker punch.
Arrow/The Flash (CW) – ‘Flash vs. Arrow’ & ‘The Brave and the Bold’
Yes, this crossover consists of two separate, more or less standalone episodes, and you could easily make the case for one being better than the other, but this is our list and we’ll play it like we want. You may prefer your superhero crossovers to be heavy on the obligatory fisticuffs that typically serve as the appetizer before the main course, and if that’s the case, then, ‘Flash vs. Arrow‘ may rank above ‘The Brave and the Bold‘ for you.
But the thing is, ‘The Brave and the Bold,’ with its focus on bringing Captain Boomerang to justice was, in many ways, the climactic heroes vs. villain story that was left off the table in the crossover’s first effort. In that sense, the two stories don’t just compliment one another by putting Oliver Queen and Barry Allen in radically different environments; structurally speaking, they offer all the elements of a complete story…in two parts.
Hannibal (NBC) – ‘Mizumono’
There’s no telling what’s going to be served up on any given episode of Hannibal. And for the season 2 finale, ‘Mizumono,’ Bryan Fuller cooked up a healthy portion of “things are never going to be the same,” which left the audience wondering not only how Jack, Will, and Alana were going to recover from their ill-fated confrontation with Dr. Lecter, but whether they would recover at all.
More so than any other episode of the normally blood-soaked series, ‘Mizumono’ made every drop of the precious red stuff count. Not only because it belonged in the bodies of characters we’ve come to care about, but also because it irrevocably changed the direction of the storyline. Like Hannibal says, he’s dismantling who he is and moving it brick by brick. And that’s exactly what this episode does here.
Mad Men (AMC) – ‘The Strategy’
So much of Mad Men season 7 was about watching Don Draper try and reclaim all that had been lost to him, thanks to his increasingly selfish and reckless behavior over the years. While his place at SC&P was up in the air at the beginning of the season, his journey back into the company he helped build was made all the more significant when Don found a way to mend his relationship with Peggy.
The Don-Peggy dynamic has long been central to what makes Mad Men one of the greatest shows in television history, and here, the interplay between them is underlined with a slow dance to Frank Sinatra singing ‘My Way.’ Coupled with the increasingly layered and affecting performances by Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss, ‘The Strategy‘ was such a fine hour of television, it almost made you forget the final season was cut in half.
The Americans (FX) – ‘New Car’
Season 2 of The Americans was as close to greatness as any television show is likely to achieve. The fact that this particular program accomplished such a feat after reaching similarly extraordinary heights with its first season is a testament to how well the show mixes its slow-burn family drama with the action of Soviet Spies mixing it up in Cold War America. That being said, it was incredibly difficult to pinpoint which episode would go on this list. In the end, ‘New Car‘ won out thanks to the heart wrenching moment at the episode’s end.
As always, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell turned in devastating performances as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, but this time the leads handed over the emotional reigns to Keidrich Sellati, who delivers Henry’s shame and remorse over breaking into the neighbors’ house to play video games with a conviction rarely seen in such a young actor.
Game of Thrones (HBO) – ‘The Watchers on the Wall’
What with the Purple Wedding and the all-too brief dual between the Viper and the Mountain, Game of Thrones had plenty of memorable moments throughout its fantastic fourth season. But Joffrey’s purple-tinged demise, and Oberyn’s shattered skull were just that: moments in otherwise normal episodes. In the season’s ninth episode – normally reserved for things like epic naval battles, and dramatic reductions in the ranks of House Stark – Game of Thrones brought back director Neil Marshall (‘Blackwater‘) to assemble the already ambitious series’ grandest effort yet: the epic battle between the diminished Night’s Watch and the swelling hordes of Wildlings under Mance Raider’s command.
The result was an action-filled special-effects extravaganza. There were more affecting or dramatically intense episodes throughout the season, but for sheer spectacle, it’s hard to match the episode-long Battle of Castle Black.
True Detective (HBO) – ‘The Long Bright Dark’
Of all the episodes of True Detective to choose from, there’s just something enchanting about the heavy-handedness of ‘The Long Bright Dark‘ that seems deserving of our end-of-the-year praise. After all, without the episode’s heady Rust-isms, or its winking real-life-buddies-playing-cops dynamic of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, there might not have been much interest in episodes like ‘Who Goes There‘ and ‘The Secret Fate of All Life.’
The season may have ultimately been divisive in retrospect, but you can’t discredit the way the premiere captured the collective imagination of the television viewing audience. Besides, there’s something magical about the way McConaughey says, “anything barbital” that gives this self-serious foray into darkness the right amount of Dazed and Confused cheekiness and quotability to warrant a spot on this list.
Review – ‘Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes’
The Knick – ‘Get the Rope‘
Silicon Valley – ‘Articles of Incorporation’
The Leftovers – ‘Guest‘
Fargo – ‘Buridan’s Ass‘