t'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 looking just as promising.
With so many new and returning TV shows hitting the air in the next six months, which ones are your best bets? A guide:
1. 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.
2. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox, Jan. 7)
If you haven't caught up on the best new sitcom of 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. House of Cards (Netflix, Feb. 14)
Netflix's first big gamble on original programming debuts its second (and possibly final) 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.
12. 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.
13. Vikings (History Channel, Feb. 27)
After a freshman season that earned impressively solid ratings and a loyal fan following, History Channel'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.
14. The Red Road (Sundance Channel, Feb. 27)
Last year, Sundance Channel 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).
15. 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.
16. About a Boy (NBC, Feb.)
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).
17. 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 in action.
18. Game of Thrones (HBO, Spring)
HBO hasn't even set a final premiere date for the fourth season of Game of Thrones, but that hasn't stopped diehard fans from obsessively 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.
19. Penny Dreadful (Showtime, Spring)
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.
20. Mad Men (AMC, Spring)
AMC's Breaking Bad came to an end last year, and we're nearing the time at which we'll have to say goodbye to the other show that enabled the network to break into the TV drama landscape: Mad Men, which is set to premiere the first half of its seventh and final season sometime in spring. Series creator Matt Weiner is notoriously tight-lipped, but it's safe to assume that the series will pick 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.
21. Fargo (FX, Spring)
(Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
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.
22. The Strain (FX, July)
(Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)
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.
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