The best TV shows we watched in 2014
For most people, your early 20s are when the follies of youth gradually give way to the responsibilities of adulthood.
But not everyone. Remove the "responsibilities" part, throw on some absurdity, and you get Broad City, the brilliant Comedy Central breakout of 2014. Much has been made of how creators/stars Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer smashed the bawdy stoner comedy glass ceiling — a feat achieved without the tired tropes and pratfalls that haven't been refreshed since the days of Cheech and Chong.
But Broad City is also a laugh-out-loud love letter to the two-faced beast that is New York City: a fancy Manhattan dinner one night, and a day sifting through detritus as a janitor the next; a super-secret underground concert you can only afford by making money from a diaper-clad Craigslist housecleaning fetishist; or the excitement of attending a friend's out-of-town wedding trashed by the impossibility of leaving the city without encountering a crippling series of transportation nightmares. While the rest of this urban jungle's young adults are reaching for the next rungs of the corporate and social ladders, the girls of Broad City are riotously brown-bagging it on the stoop. --Mike Barry, senior editor of audience development outreach
In 20 years, people will brag that they watched NBC's Hannibal during its original run. It's the best, most innovative show on television, miles ahead of practically anything else, with its baroque, heightened aesthetic, its richly purple dinner scenes, and, above all, its blurring of reality and fever dream. Every scene is equal parts plot and emotional subtext, requiring viewers to go down the dark, unpredictable tunnels imagined by series creator Bryan Fuller.
And then there's the cast. Mads Mikkelsen has long surpassed Anthony Hopkins' iconic take on Hannibal Lecter. Alongside Hugh Dancy and Laurence Fishburne, among others, dialogue that could come across as ridiculous on a lesser show is transfixing, turning a series that could be derailed by a single mistake into something addictive. --Eric Thurm, writer
In a year in which some of the best television came from streaming services and premium cable networks, High Maintenance, Vimeo's first foray into original on-demand, paid streaming, seems right at home. But unlike voyeurisic prison dramedies and epic fantasies chronicling warring kingdoms, High Maintenance is only as escapist as sneaking a joint hit in a bar bathroom.
But that's part of its charm. It's a show about stoners — all of whom are loosely connected by the unnamed dealer who bikes around New York City delivering them weed — but High Maintenance is incredibly lucid. The best episodes are the ones that thoughtfully explore specific details of everyday life: a girl striking up a conversation with the cute guy in her spin class, two friends squealing in fear over a mouse in their apartment, or a chatty, gentle security guard longing for a date and a companion. Even when High Maintenance gets kooky, the show's strange climaxes feel more like extended daydreams than heady hallucinations. By always keeping its feet close to the ground, High Maintenance tells us more about ourselves than a trip to Westeros ever could. --Samantha Rollins, news editor
HBO's newest, most polarizing hour-long drama is relentlessly tragic and dark — but that's what makes it feel so visceral and honest. Co-conceived by Lost alum Damon Lindelof and novelist Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers is about the aftermath of an inexplicable cataclysm: 3 percent of the world suddenly vanish without a trace, and everyone left behind now struggles to make sense of their lives.
Instead of explaining the event — a wise choice, since Lindelof famously blundered the conclusion of Lost — The Leftovers focuses on survivor's guilt, resentment, and the need for catharsis. But the most powerful thing about this bleak fantasy is how closely it resembles our own lives. --Alan Zilberman, writer
This was a pivotal year for Mad Men. Picking up after its messiest, most meandering season yet — and setting the stage for the final batch of episodes, which will air in 2015 — the AMC drama had just seven episodes to reestablish its place in a very crowded lineup of deep, smart ensemble dramas.
Mad Men rose to the challenge. The half-season's string of episodes is among the strongest in the series' entire run. All of the show's most reliable qualities were on display: note-perfect production design, sharp writing, and one of the deepest, most talented casts on television.
But Mad Men didn't just rest on its laurels. Time and time again, it proved itself as the rare series that continues to innovate, even in its seventh season: a heartbreaking, standalone story about a field trip gone wrong with Betty and her son Bobby; a surreal mental breakdown for Ginsberg; the wrenching dissolution of the Draper marriage; and, most poignantly and remarkably, a swan song for Bert Cooper. The half-season ended with a moment of unabashed whimsy that could easily have fallen flat — and became, instead, one of the most surprising and touching moments in the show's history. That's the kind of riskiness and elasticity that makes Mad Men one of the premiere accomplishments of TV's much-heralded "golden age." --Scott Meslow, entertainment editor
The Mindy Project
Most TV shows suffer when the "will they-won't they" leads finally get together. But Mindy and Danny's relationship has added a new and exciting layer to The Mindy Project's third season, making the sitcom sharper and more entertaining than it's ever been. During its first and second seasons, Mindy thrived on making fun of romantic comedy tropes — and now that its leads are in a relationship, the show can demonstrate how detrimental those cliches are. The season has also proved there's still plenty of uncharted territory for TV shows to claim — the fourth episode this fall included broadcast TV's first (and brilliant!) discussion of anal sex.
The Mindy Project's ensemble cast is great, but its true success as a sitcom comes from the quality of its writing. Mindy perfectly balances laugh-out-loud gags with insightful social commentary: race relations, relationship woes, and fat-shaming are just some of the topics recently tackled. --Meghan DeMaria, staff writer
Frances McDormand's Olive Kitteridge doesn't say much in the four, hour-long episodes of HBO's eponymous miniseries — and you'll be thankful, because the few sentences she does hurl out of her tight-lipped, frowning mouth are sharp enough to pierce the skin.
Olive Kitteridge is based on Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer prize–winning book of the same name — a smart, engrossing character study of Olive and the residents of her sleepy, coastal Maine town. Husbands, children, neighbors, and coworkers orbit the cold yet caring protagonist, drawn to her despite themselves, only to be pushed away. "You were born kind," Olive says to her husband Henry, "and then you married a beast and you loved her." McDormand plays a beautifully flawed character, captivating enough to fill every moment of the series — but director Lisa Cholodenko also opens the spotlight to the talents of a cast that includes Richard Jenkins, Zoe Kazan, and Bill Murray. --Lauren Hansen, multimedia editor
You can gripe with certain episodes of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown. Sometimes it seems to miss a story, or take too much time correcting American misperceptions of another country or city. But this crew is doing something that should not be possible: making humane, nearly Terrence Malick–level beauty out of a travel and food show. In its third season, there were two episodes that really stood out. One was an exploration of The Bronx, which dwelled on the invention of hip-hop and found a number of joints that should (but won't) get people to leave Manhattan for a day.
But the true gem of this season was an episode on Iran. In a single hour, the series addressed the elite and popular-level hatred of America, explored the effect of what appeared to be a freelancing religious police, and highlighted the regime's paranoia of real journalism. Bourdain & Co. also made some of the most beautiful television of the year out of the streets of Tehran, the hospitality of common Iranians, and the country's mix of Persian and Islamic culture. It is not easy to communicate the feeling of an Islamic city as the call to evening prayer begins and ends — the unmistakable collective sigh that simultaneously enlivens and stills the streets. Bourdain's crew did just that, and it's a wonder. --Michael Brendan Dougherty, senior correspondent
As a teenager, I remember watching CW staples like One Tree Hill and feeling uber-embarrassed if my parents walked in during an episode. Underage drinking! Twenty-five-year olds playing 16-year-olds having sex! Talk about awkward family-time-viewing fare. I'm older now, and I should probably be embarrassed that I'm still watching a soapy-teenage drama on The CW. But I can't help it: when it comes to binge-worthy shows, Reign reigns supreme.
Set in France in the mid-1500s, Reign follows the teenage years of Mary, Queen of Scots, as she arrives in the French court to await her marriage to Francis II, heir to the throne. That part is historically sound — but from there, it's best to consider this show a period-piece fantasy with a hefty dose of camp. There's the obligatory love triangle, a murderously overbearing mother, and a covetable wardrobe for each of the ladies (though they look more like they just walked out of a Forever21 than a history book).
Reign is a guilty pleasure of the basest sort, best enjoyed in hours-long binges, outfitted in sweatpants and with a glass of wine close at hand to really empathize with the perpetually drunk characters. If that's your kind of show, add it to thy Netflix queue accordingly. --Sarah Eberspacher, associate editor
It was a mystery up there with "Who shot JR?" and "What's really happening on that Lost island, anyway?" The cliffhanger to Sherlock's second season, in which Benedict Cumberbatch's super-sleuth inexplicably survived after leaping to his seeming death from the top of a London hospital, was hotly debated by fans for months.
How did Sherlock Holmes cheat the Grim Reaper? We'll never know, thanks to the series' penchant for doing the exact opposite of what its viewers might expect. In its third season, Sherlock repeatedly defied expectations, devoting a surprisingly emotional episode to the bromance between its principal characters and shaking up the status quo in its refreshingly defeatist finale. By doing something different, Sherlock remained as unpredictable as its protagonist, and set itself apart from the rest of the cookie-cutter crime shows that clogged up the schedules in 2014. --Daniel Bettridge, writer
Too Many Cooks
Sorry, Kim Kardashian — Too Many Cooks broke the internet this year.
Too Many Cooks is a bizarre, brilliant takedown of pretty much every TV show from the past 30 years. As it jumps from genre to genre — cheesy sitcoms, Law & Order-esque crime dramas, sci-fi epics, murder mysteries — Too Many Cooks skewers everything in a surreal head trip of a short that pushes the boundaries of what comedy is — and shows what it could be. --Matt Cohen, writer
It premiered on Amazon this fall, but I've already watched Jill Soloway's Transparent, in full, no fewer than three times. The story of the Pfefferman family, which begins as Jeffrey Tambor's Maura comes out as a trans woman, is just that compelling.
Maura's story is expertly told as she navigates the steps of her new life, from informing the rest of the family to going out for a brunch with the girls. But beyond Maura, Soloway has created a complex family in the Pfeffermans, who are all dealing with their own issues. Sarah is figuring out her lesbian identity and reconnecting with an old flame. Josh's illicit, abusive relationship with his older babysitter as a teen has affected his current sexual and romantic encounters with women. And Ali, whose aimless, broken nature manifests itself in confusing sexual encounters, makes failed attempts at self-discovery that never quite pan out. --Kerensa Cadenas, writer
The Walking Dead
Last year, I wrote that The Walking Dead was the best show on television — despite spotty writing, ham-fisted acting, and plot holes big enough to drive a zombie-crushing firetruck through — because it was purely mindless entertainment. But over the past season, the show lurched in an unexpected direction: it got some brains.
With a few tweaks in tone and approach, the same dystopian hellscape that once bred facile musings on existentialism spawned deeper reflections on humanity. Nuanced villains and evolving protagonists undercut the simplistic good guys vs. bad guys dichotomy that drove the show's earlier seasons. And though bursts of gore remained a staple — it is a post-apocalyptic zombie show — empathic depth replaced sheer body count as the show's defining trait. Perhaps most importantly, the bleak nihilism that once threatened to render the whole show moot came with a smidgen of hope, propelling the characters and viewers forward every week. Unbelievable plot twists still abounded, and the dialogue, though much improved, was merely passable. But by finally tempering its glib violence with subtlety and pathos, The Walking Dead saved itself from becoming as shambling and listless as the undead. --Jon Terbush, associate editor