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The amount of television created in a year by broadcast networks, cable channels and online streaming services is impressively vast. As I said in a previous column: If we’re this close to living in the cliche of a 500-channel universe, with original content and content providers expanding almost exponentially, why would anyone restrict to 10 — a number better suited to the Big Three era of television — the number of shows a critic can praise? For more on why this list is so long, read this. Here, then, are the 31 best television series of 2014 (with a separate list of network-only shows to follow).
THR’s Complete Look Back at 2014
The Highest-Rated Broadcast Series of 2014 — and How People Watched Them
Hollywood’s Top 10 Legal Disputes of 2014
The Best New York Theater of 2014
Todd McCarthy’s 10 Best Films of 2014
The Most Viewed Trailers of 2014
1. Fargo. FX. Everything worked for a miniseries/anthology that almost no one thought was a good idea or a creatively fruitful one. But Noah Hawley‘s vision and writing combined with excellent acting from Allison Tolman, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks and so many others to make for last season’s most compelling, disturbing and darkly funny series.
2. The Americans. FX. Criminally overlooked, this Cold War/Reagan-era spy story of Soviets and Americans is both massively complex and intimate in scale, telling human stories and detailing the most interesting marriage on television. Top-tier writing and acting throughout.
3. True Detective. HBO. Maybe the best thing to say about this writerly gem is that season two, with a different cast, story and director, will need to be great in so many areas to equal what transpired this year. Instantly memorable performances by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.
4. Mad Men. AMC. Still remarkable after all these years, what Mad Men has managed to do with story, character and writing is, at this point, unequaled. Only the bar it sets for itself determines which episodes are better than others.
5. The Honorable Woman. Sundance TV. Three of the top five series here were minis (which makes the success of the other two all the more admirable). The Honorable Woman could very easily have been No. 1. Timely, fascinating and held together by Maggie Gyllenhaal, this was a tour-de-force from start to finish.
6. Louie. FX. This season, Louie decided to be even more challenging and audacious than ever before, knocking down preconceived notions of not only what it’s supposed to be about, but also the nature of comedy and the boundaries an artist can push against. That made for exceptional television.
7. Orange Is the New Black. Netflix. Bigger, bolder and yet more intimate and diverse in its storytelling than season one, OITNB‘s second se ason was simultaneously thought-provoking and entertaining, which is damned hard to do.
8. Transparent. Amazon Studios. Out of nowhere it arrived, unexpected, small, ambitious, touching — there was so much freshness here it made you realize how constricted most other series are.
9. Game of Thrones. HBO. It says something about how great this show really is when the biggest complaint is that there are only 10 episodes a season when there should be, must be, please let there be 13. More engrossing and epic than anything else on television.
10. The Walking Dead. AMC. The poster series for disrespected genre shows. Enormously popularity might be its own reward, but this creatively underappreciated existential zombie series has always been greater than its gore.
11. The Leftovers. HBO. Dark, brooding, unafraid to reveal that “the sudden departure” will never be fully explained — this bold series is a triumph for Tom Perrotta and Damon Lindelof, plus so many superb actors in the ensemble.
12. Orphan Black. BBC America. We have now reached a point where talking about the incredible Tatiana Maslany being snubbed for awards (all the awards) is no longer enough. There are other good actors here, but the primary point is this: Orphan Black, as a series, is overdue for recognition. It’s riveting and smart.
13. Jane the Virgin. The CW. Easily the feel-good story of 2014 and the highest-ranked broadcast network series on this list (and No. 1 on my best-network-series list), Jane does numerous difficult things exactly right in exactly the right way. A complex, highly entertaining series that quietly reiterates that network television can play in the big leagues.
14. Veep. HBO. Armando Iannucci‘s brilliance at skewering politics was evident ages ago (especially with The Thick of It) but Veep really drives that home. Hilarious, true and tragic in the combination of both. One of TV’s great comedies.
15. Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Fox. Stepping up to become the broadcast networks’ best comedy, B99 is funny via verbal and visual jokes, physical humor and, well, hell, pretty much everything. Each episode is time well spent.
16. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. HBO. I still think it should be an hour (my original review complaint). But ultimately this show ended up being so much better — and triumphantly so — than anyone ever guessed.
17. Silicon Valley. HBO. Brilliantly dead-on in its skewering of the tech industry, this freshman series rarely had a misstep (more female characters and a takedown of how females in tech are treated would be nice) and managed to make the easiest and most base of all jokes — the dick joke — work twice. It arrived fully formed and sure of itself.
18. The Missing. Starz. A superb miniseries, gutting in the same way that Broadchurch was a season earlier, it came out of nowhere to have its excellent writing and wonderfully nuanced acting receive acclaim (resulting in a second season).
19. Key & Peele. Comedy Central. While sketch comedy has its own Renaissance, this is the masterpiece.
20. Review. Comedy Central. My favorite comedy surprise of 2014, Review is a show about explaining life — in the most hilarious ways possible — thanks to intelligent, original writing and a fantastic performance from Andy Daly.
21. Rectify. Sundance TV. The first season was shot full of brilliance — in the writing, in the acting, in the Slow TV presentation — and the second season served as a kind of quiet exclamation mark to those achievements.
22. The Knick. Cinemax. Steven Soderbergh and Clive Owen immediately made the rebranded Cinemax — sister channel to HBO — a real player. The stark originality here and the virtuoso writing and acting made it one of 2014’s more welcome surprises even if, at times, you had to look away from the graphic bleakness.
23. Outlander. Starz. How do you take a super-successful romance novel series that primarily attracts women and turn it into one of television’s bigger genre surprises? Clans, kilts, love, action and being lost. Whatever the costume drama was shooting for, it managed to hit with impressive regularity.
24. The Game. BBC America. This original series set up life in England during the super-sensitive Cold War spy era of the early 1970s and became an excellent, brooding, thoroughly British but accessible gem. Intelligent and lovingly shot.
25. Girls. HBO. Season three ramped up the show’s soulful connection to all the characters, coalescing with the show’s trademark bold writing and emotional honesty to reach new heights.
26. Penny Dreadful. Showtime. The premium channel is known for more high-profile fare, but this very well might be the show to watch — the macabre reimagining of horror classics is utterly its own thing and brims with both originality and potential.
27. Archer. FX. Still insane and insanely underappreciated in its fifth season, with the Archer: Vice conceit letting it shift gears, this series goes beyond the constraints of animation.
28. Olive Kitteridge. HBO. With so many entries in the miniseries genre, this passionate, painful but truthful gem really defined why the miniseries was created in the first place — a long, good, brave and nuanced tale that needed room to be told.
29. Parks and Recreation. NBC. Heading into its final season, this send-up of small-town politics ramped up the feel-good aspects without ever losing its searing and silly wit. One of those shows that makes you want to know all its fictional characters.
30. Masters of Sex. Showtime. While the story sometimes faltered, the writing and especially the acting never did. This series never flinched from painful truths about the self, which made it much more than a show about sex.
31. Broad City. Comedy Central. Audacious and ridiculous, Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer‘s lo-fi, low-ambition comedy introduced two next-gen talents to the world and solidified Comedy Central’s incredible stable of quality shows.
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