After a gargantuan year in television that saw the rise of Netflix, the end of Breaking Bad and The Office, and massive sea changes on popular genre choices like The Walking Dead and Doctor Who, 2014 has quite a tall shadow to live up to, but with an impressive batch of shows both old and new on the horizon it seems as though it should be well prepared for the challenge.
From long-awaited returns (Sherlock) to new beginnings (Community), endings (Mad Men), and new challenges (Doctor Who), these returning series' show us that one of TV's most compelling storylines revolves around how the industry continues to move forward with imagination, intelligence, and guts.
Community (NBC, Thursday's at 8pm)
With Dan Harmon back in the driver's seat, there is hope among Community fans that the show's fifth season will be one of legend, but while that's still possible, those kinds of expectations may be unfair and born from an overly nostalgic view of the show's past.
For one thing, while Community has had more than its share of iconic and insane moments, Dan Harmon didn't have a perfect batting average - especially when it came to more grounded episodes - and his best work always relied on the confluence of an inspired idea and an extremely capable and game cast.
Can Harmon still make magic without Donald Glover and Chevy Chase, and can his return to Community possibly live up to the kind of hype that has been fueled by a dedicated fanbase that views him as something between a genius and a savior? We can't wait to find out, but no matter what, it should be interesting.
The Pete Holmes Show (TBS, Monday-Thursday nights)
Though most of the chatter about late night will remain focused on NBC's most recent changeover, Saturday Night Live, and speculation about David Letterman's future for the foreseeable future, The Pete Holmes Show chugs along despite non-great ratings.
So, what is it about Pete Holmes' show that has us hooked? Primarily, it's the enthusiastic way that the show ignores late night conventions - not as a modern poke in the eye to the sacred cow, but because the show has such a well-formed sense of self and what makes their show work (when it's working, which isn't always the case).
That's a rarer gift than many realize (and something that the shuttered Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell had going for it as well) and it's something that the Holmes show has in common with previous late night trailblazers. The only question is, will The Pete Holmes Show get a chance to continue maturing, or will it fade away before it has the chance to fully find its feet and its audience?
Sherlock (BBC/BBC America, January 5th/January 19th)
After two years away Steven Moffat's other show (or is it the other way around?) returns to explain what the world's greatest detective (non-Batman edition) has been up to since he faked his own death at the end of last season and in the first of three new episodes - "The Empty Hearst".
Despite the frustrating long gaps and the brief seasons, fans once again seem eager to take what they can get while observing Holmes and Watson's latest adventure. All credit for that goes to the creatives and the cast, but perhaps it also has something to do with fears that every last bit could be frighteningly close to the last bit thanks to the career growth of Sherlock's two stars.
Saturday Night Live (NBC, January 18th)
Saturday Night Live's season of transition has seen its fair share of stumbles with a batch of new featured players that have - for the most part - stubbornly refused to stand out from the shadows and a bit of controversy about the show's lack of diversity, but throughout season 39's first 10 episodes Seth Meyers has been there s a sign of stability, albeit one that is now about to fade away.
This isn't a bit of "sky is falling" panic, though. For one thing, SNL is SNL and standouts always push through to the light eventually. This season, it seems as though a trio of SNL's funny ladies are heading toward that, lead by the indisputably hilarious character work of both Kate McKinnon and Vanessa Bayer, and new Weekend Update solo anchor Cecily Strong.
Will those three (and the show's other standouts like Bobby Moynihan) continue to keep SNL's head above water? Can Strong take the reigns from Meyers without stumble? Will Taran Killam live up to his potential and will one of the rookies set themselves apart from the herd for more than an episode? We'll find out soon enough, but SNL will be fine because it always is.
The Walking Dead (AMC, February 9th)
Once again, the Walking Dead's batch of survivors finds themselves splintered and on the run. They have been cast back out into the wilderness by a human kind of monster this time, and while logic dictates that the odds of survival for many of the show's most beloved characters remains strong, we do wonder if some of the show's characters aren't fated to last long on the road.
We've already discussed five directions that we think The Walking Dead might choose, but it's clear that this mid-season break - perhaps more than any other before it - represents a key turning point for a show that could be on the cusp of either stagnation or something else.
House of Cards (Netflix, February 14th)
The rise of Netflix shook up television last year, allowing the streaming giant to quickly become an industry leader and a boogie man whose distaste for the standard development process threatens to - for better or worse - undermine that process.
To accomplish this, Netflix relied on fiercely original series' from notable creators to pair with their splashy Arrested Development re-launch; among them, House of Cards; a deeply cynical series from producer David Fincher that lacerated the political system, the media, and the sin of ambition with equal aplomb.
Now, as we wait for season two to kick-off, the mind aches trying to imagine what kind of monster Kevin Spacey's reptilian card counter will morph into as he tirelessly pursues political power, and how long it will take for him to finally get his just desserts.
Game of Thrones (HBO, March 2014)
Game of Thrones exists in the sweet spot of its existence right now - far enough away from its formative years, well ahead of its conclusion and the period where it loses some of its luster. There isn't likely a more buzzed about show on television, and it's not like there is a large collection of shows that can rival its standing among critics.
Can Game of Thrones maintain that splendor while also servicing it's seemingly ever-growing cast of characters? That's the challenge, but one that producers seem more than able to meet. Is a Red Wedding, Part II in the cards this season? We'll just have to wait and see.
Orphan Black (BBC America, April 19th)
Last year, Orphan Black and the stellar Tatiana Maslany stormed the shores of our consciousness with this conspiracy thriller about cloning, but as the show's second season looms, producers seem poised to give fans more of what they want with a synopsis that promises more intrigue, fresh clones from "The Sisterhood", and Sarah's desperate search for her daughter Kira.
With that in mind and with respect to the well-received premiere season, it seems entirely possible that 2014 could be the year that Orphan Black stops being considered an under-the-radar surprise and starts entering the zeitgeist as the next great un-missible sci-fi series.
24: Live Another Day (FOX, May 2014)
Following a three-year gap and seemingly endless chatter about a spin-off movie, FOX surprisingly announced the birth of 24: Live Another Day and the return of both producer Howard Gordon and series star Kiefer Sutherland, who will once again take on the iconic role of Jack Bauer.
True to form, details surrounding 24: Live Another Day have been scarce, but we do know that the show has ditched the real-time aspect for the event series' 12 episodes. Will this lead to even more action as Jack Bauer hurriedly works to save the world? We can't wait to find out.