The year of television in 2014 was filled with more entertaining hours and half hours than any human being could possibly watch. It was the year prestige television began to slowly break free from the shackles of Sunday night, to pop up any time of the week (including the less-than-coveted Friday night slot).
Of course, if you’re a cord-cutter, there was plenty of great TV available to you at your convenience – which also meant, more so than ever before, many of the best shows were being discovered on the audience’s schedule.
That meant while many terrific shows were still became appointment television, some were just waiting in the wings, with entire seasons ready to be consumed as soon as they were discovered. This marks a peculiar time for television, as the (over) abundance of choices is also being met with the freedom to choose when, where, and how a series is consumed (i.e., in weekly installments, a little at a time, or all at once).
With so much to choose from and only so much time to devour it all, here is our list of best TV series of 2014:
The Graham Norton Show (BBC America)
It may seem like an unusual choice, but considering the current shake-ups in the U.S. late-night talk show arena, we thought now would be a great time to shed some light on a stalwart of the medium. Norton has been doing his thing over on BBC One and Two since 2007, and since the show has been offered as part of BBC America’s programming, those of us on the wrong side of the Atlantic can revel in the Irish comedian’s penchant for fast-paced, adult-oriented humor.
Over the years, Norton has honed his comedic and interviewing skills by utilizing a unique group-chat format that turns the conventional single-person question and answer session into more of a raucous party.
Noah Hawley didn’t just deliver a convincing Coen-esque crime drama set in the snow-strewn Midwest; he lovingly handcrafted what may be the next big thing in FX’s anthology department. Season 1 of Fargo was defined by terrific performances across the board. Allison Tolman’s gave the show both its brains and its heart as Deputy Molly Solverson, but the rest of the 10-episode series was rounded out with some spot-on characterizations that included Martin Freeman’s put upon Lester Nygaard and Colin Hanks’ uncomfortably nice Gus Grimly.
But wrapping it all together was Billy Bob Thornton’s scene-stealing performance as Lorne Malvo, whose line: “Lester, is this what you want?” underlined the themes of choice and morality woven into Hawley’s darkly comic and sometimes profoundly weird tapestry.
Arrow/The Flash (a.k.a. the DC TV Universe) (CW)
Thanks to the unprecedented success of the MCU, universe building is all the rage right now. So when The CW made plans last year to give Oliver Queen some help on the superhero stage, by paving the way for Barry Allen to become The Flash, the announcement was met with as much trepidation as anticipation. But since then, Arrow has grown into a consistently solid action-drama, while The Flash’s freshman season has made believers out of those who questioned whether or not a television budget could deliver the kind of special effects-heavy episodes needed to make such an ambitious program work.
So far, it’s delivered on all accounts. With their balance of character and action, both series have delivered strong, entertaining storylines that make great use of not only Stephen Amell and Grant Gustin, but also David Ramsey, Emily Bett Rickards, Danielle Panabaker, Carlos Valdes, and of course, the best dad on television right now, Jesse L. Martin.
The Honorable Woman (Sundance TV)
Hugo Blick’s enticingly complex and character-rich political drama starring Maggie Gylennhaal as Nessa Stein was a captivating but little-seen series. A co-production between the BBC and Sundance TV (which you can now access all eight episodes of on Netflix), the series weaves a compelling story about the dangers of secrecy that is in one instance a spy thriller and in the next a multifaceted character drama, dealing with the psychology of PTSD, isolation, and myriad other elements that won’t be revealed here for those who’ve yet to experience this top-notch, slow-burn effort.
What sets it apart from many of the other series on this list is that it tells a complete story from start to finish. So, for those of you looking to get your fix without having to worry about how it’ll all tie into the next eight, ten, or thirteen episodes, The Honorable Woman may be exactly what you’re looking for.
The Knick (Cinemax)
Steven Soderbergh’s retirement from film has produced one of television’s best new series with The Knick. Even without the filmmaker’s incredible contributions as director, cinematographer, and editor, the series likely would have had what it takes to be the kind of prestige programming Cinemax has been hankering for. It has Clive Owen leading an incredibly talented cast through a meticulously crafted recreation of 1900 New York City, and it’s further bolstered by being a medical drama centered on the many failures and few dramatic, life-changing breakthroughs the world of medicine saw in the early part of the 20th century.
With Soderbergh at the helm, however, The Knick became something else, something rich and unique; not simply because of the story it was telling, but in the way that story was being told. There is an economy in the director’s technique that has produced unconventional framing to signify the importance (and sometimes unimportance) of a scene, while long takes seem to go on forever, but never get old. All of this adds up to one of the year’s most brilliantly crafted series.
Happy Valley (Netflix)
Another British import plopped down on Netflix with little-to-no fanfare, Happy Valley takes the tried and true components of nearly every cop drama from the last 20 years and somehow makes them fresh and engaging again.
Led by the fantastic Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood, the series’ swift six-episode season revolves as much around Cawood’s fractured family life, as she struggles to raise her grandson with the help of her sister Clare (played by Downton Abbey‘s Siobhan Finneran), as it does around a kidnapping scheme gone horribly awry. Filled with uncompromising performances on both sides of the law, and the right amount of hope and humor to balance out its otherwise bleak tone, Happy Valley is the kind of binge-worthy television Netflix should be looking to acquire more of.
Game of Thrones (HBO)
There’s no other show like it on television, but that’s not why Game of Thrones deserves a spot on this list. It’s because, despite the sprawling nature of its massive narrative, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels, has done whatever it takes to hold the audience’s attention at nearly every turn. Whether it’s focused on Tyrion and Jamie discussing a cousin’s very Martin-like penchant for smashing beetles, or Brienne in an epic battle against the Hound, the show knows exactly what buttons must be pushed to make sure it stays part of the Monday-Saturday conversation.
There are few shows left in this age of DVR, streaming, and on-demand titles that manage to captivate millions of people on one particular night of the week. But as long as the map of Westeros keeps expanding, there’s a good chance that, for 10-weeks at a time, Sunday nights will belong to HBO.
You’re The Worst (FX)
Stephen Falk’s acerbic comedy about two self-destructive, misanthropic twenty-somethings, making a semi-honest go at a real relationship, became the most caustic yet oddly sweet romance of 2014. The series, starring Aya Cash and Chris Geere, as Gretchen and Jimmy, pushed the envelope with its frank depictions and discussions of everything from one-night stands to Sunday brunch.
But after a few episodes of bitingly sharp dialogue, You’re the Worst proved it had another gear by building a strong narrative around its two leads, while also developing strong threads for its stellar supporting cast, played by the amazing Kether Donohue and Desmin Borges. The series moves to FXX for its second season, so don’t forget to set your DVRs accordingly.
Broad City (Comedy Central)
Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer have made the flat-out funniest show Comedy Central currently has in its line up. And that’s saying something for a network that boasts Inside Amy Schumer, Review, and old favorites like The Daily Show, South Park, and (formerly) The Colbert Report. The show excels at making the smallest story element into the most absurdly humorous bit these two can possibly think of.
Between Jacobson’s knack for physical comedy and Glazer’s gleefully infuriating persona, there isn’t a bizarre, embarrassing, or potentially dangerous situation Broad City can’t make hilarious.
There is no other show on television that, week after week, inspires its audience to ask: How is a show this bloody and gruesome on network television? But that’s what Hannibal does: he (and the show that’s named after him) consistently delivers the impossible. There shouldn’t be a series this captivating set around a character who, through multiple films and iterations had become something of a joke, reduced to being a bad impression certain people did at parties. And yet Bryan Fuller has re-created Thomas Harris’ most famous character and breathed new life into the universe that became an obsession with the words “Hello, Clarice.”
Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as the titular cannibal cuts with surgical precision, but the show wouldn’t work if the audience didn’t also care about Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham (and his pack of stray dogs), Laurence Fishburne’s Jack Crawford, and Caroline Dhavernas’ Alana Bloom. With a cast like that, death has never looked as good as it does in Fuller’s gorgeous, surreal, and frequently nightmarish Hannibal.
Mad Men (AMC)
Mad Men is the kind of show that will earn a spot on many “Best of” lists long after Don Draper drinks his last drink and lights up his last Lucky. The series has been so consistently great over its seven-season run that not even the unnecessary ratings stunt of splitting the final season into two parts can diminish it. Because of the “7 and 7” split, the first seven episodes of the final season acted like a mini season, with a premiere that saw Don Draper clinging to what little he had left by doing what he does best: perpetuating a lie. But with time at a premium, the series didn’t waste an hour.
Each episode followed Don’s attempts to reconcile with those he let down – namely, Peggy and Sally – with the same kind of lyrical precision it had in previous seasons. The split season also meant that season 7 would ostensibly have two season finales, and ‘Waterloo‘ not only gave an emotional send off to Burt Cooper (Robert Morse), but it also set the stage for the final seven episodes to send Don, Peggy, and the SC&P crew into annals of television history.
The Americans (FX)
The Americans has taken the thrilling concept of Soviet spies in 1980s Washington, D.C., and somehow managed to make that the foundation of the most compelling family drama on television. Thanks to incredible performances from Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, and Noah Emmerich, not to mention Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati, the series is able to mine the vast emotional depths of its characters and still keep things balanced with moments of humor and action. Joe Weisberg and co-showrunner Joel Fields have a remarkable knack for setting incredibly high emotional stakes, within a much larger scenario, whose ending the world already knows.
But that hasn’t stopped The Americans from wringing every ounce of suspense from watching two Cold Warriors wage a war behind enemy lines, while their own war rages on inside their inconspicuous American home.
True Detective (HBO)
The Bridge (FX)
Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
Penny Dreadful (Showtime)