It's going to be tough to top the staggering array of high-quality TV shows that aired in 2013, which included Netflix's aggressive forays into original programming, top-tier dramas from England, and the triumphant end of AMC's Breaking Bad. It's been said time and time again, but it bears repeating: We're in the midst of a golden age of television — and fortunately, 2014's lineup is just as promising.
With so many new and returning TV shows hitting the air, which ones are your best bets? A guide:
1. Game of Thrones (HBO, April 6)
Game of Thrones fans have spent the past nine months poring over every minor update from the set of the fantasy drama. To be fair, there's plenty to obsess over; after a third season that included several of the series' most memorable moments — including the long-anticipated Red Wedding — Game of Thrones has set the bar very high. Fortunately, George R.R. Martin's source material lives up to the task; with major storylines ahead for characters like Tyrion, Jon Snow, and Daenerys, fans have more reason to be excited than ever.
2. Veep (HBO, April 6)
HBO's terrific satirical sitcom returns for a third season following protagonist Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) as she aims for the presidency. Veep's bleak vision of contemporary American politics is both darker and funnier than anything House of Cards can offer, and the stacked supporting cast — which includes Anna Chlumsky and Tony Hale — manages to nail every comedic beat the writers throw at them.
3. Silicon Valley (HBO, April 6)
King of the Hill creator Mike Judge returns to television with a series about a group of young programmers attempting to strike it rich with their own tech startup. With Silicon Valley, Judge delivers the same incisive look at soul-deadening corporate culture that turned Office Space into a cult classic — but with companies like Google and Apple serving as an even more pointed target.
4. Mad Men (AMC, April 13)
Mad Men is set to premiere the first half of its seventh and final season on April 13. Series creator Matt Weiner is notoriously secretive, but it's safe to report that the very strong season premiere picks up sometime after the events of the season six finale, which found series protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm) at a personal and professional crossroads. Despite AMC's irritating, mercenary decision to split Mad Men's final season over two years — the final seven episodes, which are being called "The End of an Era," will air in 2015 — Mad Men remains one of TV's most gorgeous and best-acted dramas, and no fan should miss the beginning of the end.
5. Fargo (FX, April 15)
FX's adaptation of the Coen brothers' Oscar-winning 1996 noir Fargo inspired a fair amount of skepticism. But in the months since the project was announced, there have been more than a few heartening signs that the network could actually pull this off. First, the Coen brothers themselves signed on as executive producers. Next, Fargo assembled a top-tier cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Bob Odenkirk, Kate Walsh, and Colin Hanks. Finally, FX revealed that Fargo would be a 10-part limited series — which, like the network's American Horror Story, will allow for a story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end.
6. Orphan Black (BBC America, April 19)
There were plenty of snubs at the Emmys last year, but none stung more than the omission of Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany, who played seven different characters over the course of the sci-fi drama's serpentine first season. Fortunately, Orphan Black's second season, which promises to double down on the first season's brainy thrills, will give everyone who missed Maslany's remarkable performance another chance to see her range.
7. Salem (WGN America, April 20)
WGN America is aiming high with Salem, its first original scripted series and a surprisingly graphic supernatural drama set during the witch trials that earned Salem its infamy. Salem is shot on an impressive recreation of 17th century Salem in Louisiana, and populated with a cast that includes Shane West as a roguish war veteran and Janet Montgomery as an icy villager with a seriously freaky secret.
8. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO, April 27)
Since taking over in 1999, Jon Stewart has become inseparable from his role as host on The Daily Show — but it was still hard not to feel a twinge of disappointment when John Oliver's three-month stint as guest host ended last summer. Fortunately, HBO has provided a win-win situation by offering Oliver his own weekly talk show. Expect more of Oliver's zany, political, distinctly British take on news and culture — but with HBO's total lack of censorship.
9. 24: Live Another Day (Fox, May 5)
Four years after it went off the air, Fox's hit thriller 24 is back for a limited "event series" that drops the original series' real-time format and moves the action over to London. 24 didn't end with the strength or inventiveness with which it began, but the idea of seeing Jack Bauer in a modern political context — alongside new actors like Game of Thrones' Michelle Fairley and Chuck's Yvonne Strahovski — is too intriguing to pass up.
10. Penny Dreadful (Showtime, May 11)
Showtime's upcoming horror series — which combines the origin stories of horror icons like Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein, and Dorian Gray into a single narrative — is still largely shrouded in mystery. But between The Walking Dead and American Horror Story, the genre is having a bit of a renaissance on television, and it's long past time for Showtime to get some skin in the game. Also intriguing: Penny Dreadful's eclectic cast, which includes Josh Hartnett, Eva Green, and Timothy Dalton.
11. Halt and Catch Fire, (AMC, June 1)
AMC's enigmatic new drama aims to do for the 1980s what Mad Men has done for the 1960s. Pushing Daisies' Lee Pace stars as Joe MacMillan, an early innovator in the burgeoning personal computer market whose success threatens the stability of giants like IBM.
12. Orange is the New Black (Netflix, June 6)
House of Cards got all the early buzz, but Netflix's sharpest and most groundbreaking original series turned out to be last summer's Orange is the New Black, which uses its women's prison setting to tell a story that's far more diverse than you'd normally see on television. Anticipation is at a fever pitch for the next batch of OITNB episodes, which pick up after the eventful finale of the first season. If you haven't yet succumbed to the show's charms, it's not too late to start binge-watching season one — what are you waiting for?
13. The Leftovers (HBO, June 15)
HBO's newest original drama, which is based on Tom Perrotta's novel of the same name, chronicles the fallout of a "Rapture-like event" in which two percent of the Earth's population suddenly disappears. The Leftovers follows the people who didn't disappear as they attempt to figure out what the inexplicable event means for their own lives. It's a rich, intriguing concept, and showrunner Damon Lindelof — who co-created Lost — is no stranger to crafting a sprawling TV mystery.
14. Rectify (SundanceTV, June 19)
After a brief and highly acclaimed six-episode run last year, SundanceTV's first original series — which tells the story of a Georgia man who was exonerated in the rape and murder of his ex-girlfriend after spending 19 years on death row — returns in June. Despite its CSI-worthy premise, Rectify isn't just another police drama; it's a quiet, thoughtful exploration of the unexpected and far-reaching consequences that one terrible crime can have for an entire community.
15. The Strain (FX, July)
FX's other big project comes with a similarly impressive pedigree. The Strain is based on Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's co-written vampire novel of the same name, but the project actually began life as a TV proposal. The story, which follows a group of humans attempting to combat a vampiric epidemic, will be carried over to the small screen by creator del Toro and a host of veteran TV actors that include House of Cards' Corey Stoll, Game of Thrones' David Bradley, Alias' Mia Maestro, and Veronica Mars' Francis Capra.
Shows that premiered this winter:
(Our original previews for each of these shows were originally published on January 8. We've left those curtain-raisers untouched, but appended updates to each item.)
16. Justified (FX, Jan. 7)
FX's stellar Justified is one of TV's most unjustly overlooked dramas, and the series returns for a fifth season in characteristically riveting fashion. Dim-witted criminal Dewey Crowe (Damon Herriman) is thrilled when a settlement with the government leaves him $300,000 richer. But his lucky break also attracts the attention of several shady family members, who come to roost in Harlan County. As protagonist Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) deals with this feast for Crowes, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) mounts an increasingly desperate campaign to free his fiancee Ava from prison, bringing him to as as dark a place as we've seen him since Justified's first season.
UPDATE: Justified's fifth season has been unusually uneven, but as always, it's impossible to turn away from the perfectly pitched performances of the series' central cast. Here's hoping the writing is back up to snuff when Justified returns for its sixth and final season next year.
17. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox, Jan. 7)
If you haven't caught up on the best new sitcom that premiered in 2013, this is your chance. Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which follows the officers of a dysfunctional New York police department, boasts a first-rate ensemble cast that includes Andy Samberg, Andre Braugher, Terry Crews, Joe Lo Truglio, and Chelsea Peretti. It's always a good sign when a new sitcom manages to find its footing early, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine has dramatically improved on an already strong pilot with just 11 episodes under its belt. Let's hope it maintains that upward momentum in the back half of its freshman season.
UPDATE: Brooklyn Nine-Nine finished as strong as it started, and ended with a few intriguing cliffhangers that set up for a promising second season. Along the way, it picked up a couple of Golden Globes, including Best Actor in a Comedy TV Series (Andy Samberg) and Best Comedy TV Series. Not bad for a freshman sitcom.
18. Parks & Recreation (NBC, Jan. 9)
Fans were disappointed when NBC delayed Parks & Recreation's sixth season, but look on the bright side — at least we'll have more episodes to watch in 2014. The back half of the season will pick up where we left off, as Leslie Knope seeks a way to hold on to her City Council seat while preparing herself for the departure of her friends Anne (Rashida Jones) and Chris (Rob Lowe). Parks & Recreation's sixth season hasn't been quite as sharp as the all-time great seasons that came before it — but even off its A-game, it shouldn't be missed.
UPDATE: Parks still feels a little aimless this year, but the show has managed a run of solid episodes even without Jones and Lowe, and has smartly moved underutilized characters like Donna (Retta) to the forefront. The latest overarching story sees Leslie contemplating a job that would take her to Chicago — a smart way to raise the stakes in the aging sitcom.
19. True Detective (HBO, Jan. 12)
HBO's stunning new series stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as two mismatched cops investigating a possible serial killer in rural Louisiana. On paper, the premise is pure cop-show cliche — but the execution is unlike anything you've seen before. True Detective alternates between 1995, when the crime took place, and 2012, as the two detectives reflect on what happened. It's clear that the case took a significant toll on both detectives — in particular, the physical change in McConaughey's character from 1995 to 2012 is startling — but the series unspools its secrets gradually, lingering in the meantime on questions of philosophy and morality. True Detective is less about investigating a crime than what happens to the people who investigate it.
UPDATE: True Detective's finale didn't quite live up to the promise of its early episodes, but the series set high ratings and earned mammoth buzz on the strength of its top-notch acting, strong direction, and twisty storytelling. It'll be fascinating to see what creator Nic Pizzolato has learned when season two premieres next year.
20. Shameless (Showtime, Jan. 19)
It may be based on a popular U.K. series, but Showtime's U.S. version of Shameless has gradually carved out its own unique identity, and largely on the strengths of its talented lead actors, William H. Macy and Emmy Rossum. The fourth season begins with the dysfunctional Gallaghers finally approaching the middle-class lifestyle to which they've always aspired — even as forces both internal and external threaten to tear them down.
UPDATE: Shameless' recently concluded fourth season was darker, more effective, and more acclaimed than ever. Expect more of the same when it returns next year.
21. Looking (HBO, Jan. 19)
HBO's new dramedy has been described by many critics as "the gay Girls," but that's an unfairly glib and dismissive way to approach a series that's clearly attempting to do its own thing. Jonathan Groff (recently of Frozen fame) leads an ensemble of young men adjusting to changing attitudes about homosexuality in both the cultural and political landscape as they navigate life in San Francisco.
UPDATE: Looking is lower key than virtually anything else on HBO (and perhaps a little too meandering), but there's still promise in the honest, human-sized adventures of Patrick Murray and his friends. Production on season two begins later this year.
22. Sherlock (PBS, Jan. 19)
The BBC's modern riff on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary detective, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson, has already premiered across the pond. But U.S. viewers won't get the chance to see how Sherlock Holmes managed to come back from the dead until Jan. 19. The third-season premiere earned series-high ratings and strong reviews in the U.K., and there's no reason to believe this twisty, clever thriller won't be just as much of a smash in the United States.
UPDATE: Sherlock's latest run of episodes offered exactly what fans wanted: Twisty mysteries, winking references, and no shortage of the prickly chemistry between Sherlock and Watson. Scripts for a fourth season have been officially commissioned, and a fifth season is also reportedly in the works.
23. Black Sails (Starz, Jan. 25)
Despite the billion-dollar success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, we landlubbers have been denied a pirates TV show for a variety of reasons: The production expense, the difficulty of filming on water, the challenge of conceiving an extended storyline. But Starz is attempting to right that wrong with Black Sails, an adult-oriented drama that introduces viewers to a band of pirates hunting down a massive treasure trove. The pilot is intriguing, and Starz clearly has a lot of faith in the drama's ability to find both its audience and sea legs; the network has already ordered a second season of 10 episodes.
UPDATE: Despite a solid premise and a gorgeous production, Black Sails failed to establish a clear identity for itself. Still, season one is only half of the story that Starz commissioned, and the long-in-the-works second season will be a fresh chance for a new impression.
24. Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond (BBC America, Jan. 29)
What kind of man creates a a character as indelible as James Bond? That's the question behind BBC America's enjoyably goofy-looking miniseries Fleming: The Man Who Would Be Bond. Dominic Cooper takes the title role in this (perhaps slightly exaggerated) life story of James Bond author Ian Fleming, who joined Naval Intelligence during World War II, an experience that eventually led him to create his legendary superspy.
UPDATE: Fleming turned out to be a fizzy, silly, utterly inessential project that was notable primarily for Cooper's lead performance. Still, Bond fans are probably better off watching Goldfinger again.
25. The Walking Dead (AMC, Feb. 9)
Every time it seems like AMC's zombie drama has hit a ratings ceiling, it manages to smash through again. Last year's season four premiere earned a towering 16.1 million viewers, which makes it the highest-rated cable episode in history. The Walking Dead is in the middle of its midseason break, leaving off with a cliffhanger that saw the death of both a longstanding hero and a longstanding villain. As always, the show remains frustratingly uneven — and as always, there's the hope it can lurch back to life this year.
UPDATE: The Walking Dead has left our heroes in characteristically dire straits, with a new threat that will surely make up the bulk of the show's story when it returns for a fifth season — and as the show's ratings keep climbing, get ready for AMC to double down with a spin-off, which will likely debut in 2015.
26. House of Cards (Netflix, Feb. 14)
Netflix's first big gamble on original programming debuts its second season on Valentine's Day, as newly appointed Vice President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) sets his sights on the Oval Office. As with the first season, Netflix plans to drop all 13 episodes at once, so anyone attuned to the show's relentlessly cynical view of politics should plan their binge-watch accordingly.
UPDATE: After a big shocker in its first episode, House of Cards' second season settled into a groove that saw Frank Underwood steamrolling all his enemies in his inevitable rise to power. The real question: What will be left for him to conquer in season three?
27. About a Boy (NBC, Feb 22)
Nick Hornby's novel — which was later adapted into a Hugh Grant-starring movie of the same name — has made its way to the small-screen courtesy of Jason Katims, the man behind both Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. David Walton steps in as Will, an unrepentant manchild who finds himself unexpectedly affected by a new neighbor (Minnie Driver) and her young son (Benjamin Stockham).
UPDATE: About a Boy has turned out to be a breezy, solid performer for NBC's typically beleaguered sitcom lineup. Expect a season two.
28. The Americans (FX, Feb. 26)
FX's tense Cold War-era drama, which follows two Russian spies posing as American citizens (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), earned stellar reviews but middling ratings. So if you want to find out what the fuss is about, now's your chance to get in ahead of the curve. In the wake of the high-stakes events from its season one finale, The Americans is poised to offer a similarly tense blend of espionage, political intrigue, and betrayal.
UPDATE: The Americans has remained every bit as nail-bitingly tense in its ongoing second season — though the ratings still aren't what they need to be to ensure its long-term future. Start watching now, before it's too late.
29. Vikings (History Channel, Feb. 27)
After a freshman season that earned impressively solid ratings and a loyal fan following, History's Vikings is returning for a second season that takes some impressively dramatic steps toward shaking up the show's status quo. Vikings returns as protagonist Ragnar Lodbrok (Travis Fimmel) adjusts to a position of leadership, setting a course for expanding his civilization's reach while juggling relationships with both his strong-willed wife and his pregnant mistress.
UPDATE: Vikings' second season is smarter and deeper than its first, and History is clearly thrilled to have found its flagship franchise — a third season has already been ordered.
30. The Red Road (SundanceTV, Feb. 27)
Last year, the Sundance Channel (which has since been re-christened SundanceTV) made a strong case for being the next great home for TV drama with Rectify, Top of the Lake, and The Returned. The Red Road — the network's second original drama — is similarly ambitious, with a story that simultaneously follows a troubled small-town cop (Martin Henderson) and a dangerous member of a federally unrecognized Indian tribe (Jason Momoa, best known as Game of Thrones' Khal Drogo).
UPDATE: The Red Road has its moments, but it doesn't stack up next to SundanceTV's earlier, more successful series. No word on a second season yet.
31. Hannibal (NBC, Feb. 28)
Just when it seemed like legendary Silence of the Lambs baddie Hannibal Lecter had overstayed his welcome, Bryan Fuller managed to breathe new life into the franchise with Hannibal, an impressively original take on the material that casts Mads Mikkelson as the titular cannibal in the years before he gets caught. The second season picks up after the dark coda to season one, which left Special Agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) in unexpectedly dire straits.
UPDATE: Hannibal has come back with a second season that's every bit as dark and distinguished as its first. Bryan Fuller has described a long-term plan for the series that sounds fascinating, so let's hope its passionate fans are enough to earn Hannibal a long-term home on NBC.
This article was originally published on Jan. 8, 2014 and last updated on April 7, 2014.
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