There once was a time when it seemed like the only new TV shows receiving green-lights were dreary police procedurals, sappy hospital-set dramas for your mom, and programs about lawyers who sleep with each other more than actually solve cases. Over the last few years, however, the tide has changed, with hits like The Walking Dead (zombies = unexpectedly huge ratings) and House of Cards (Netflix’s game-changing, Emmy-nominated streaming success) redirecting the future of TV programming. But In 2014, everything changed. The 'All E.R./L.A. Law/NYPD Blue Wannabes Everything' era ended.
Our list of The Best TV Shows of 2014 is evidence that this past year upended television’s rule books. There's the dramedy that’s only available online and follows a transgender lead; the visually stunning period drama wholly directed by an Academy Award nominee that looks and feels like a motion picture; the prestigious one-off cable drama in which the stars of Surfer, Dude and Kingpin merge with the occult and “weird fiction” master Thomas Ligotti; and the weekly horror show ripe with gruesome, viscera-clad tableaus and murder scenes that airs on the same network as the happy-go-lucky singing competition The Voice.
While imagination-challenged Hollywood execs are busy milking comic book properties and preexisting franchises, the creative minds working in television have fully adopted an “anything goes” mentality. And when TV’s history books get revised 20 or so years from now, 2014 will be seen as the year when innovation reigned supreme. These 30 shows will be the prime examples.
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31. 24: Live Another Day (Fox)
30. Arrow (The CW)
29. Louie (FX)
28. Banshee (Cinemax)
27. Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (CNN)
26. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
25. Orphan Black (BBC America)
24. The Flash (The CW)
23. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
22. Penny Dreadful (Showtime)
21. Archer: Vice (FX)
Stars: H. Jon Benjamin, Aisha Tyler, Jessica Walter, Chris Parnell, Judy Greer, Amber Nash, Lucky Yates, Adam Reed
What do you do when an animated show starts to go stale? If you're The Simpsons, you phone it in until the end of time. If you're South Park, you hope you can ride current events to continued relevancy. But if you're Archer, well, you turn your team of moronic super spies into quite possibly the worst gang of coke dealers in history.
So, yeah, you have to hand it to Archer creator Adam Reed for knowing when to switch things up. By the end of Archer's excellent fourth season, the goofballs in ISIS had started to run out of new shenanigans and screw-ups. So, fuck it, Reed decided they should change businesses, even switching-up the name of the show itself. The result was a wackadoo season-long Miami Vice parody full of evil clones, charming dictators, FBI crossovers, and—by the end—Lana's brand new baby girl.—Nathan Reese
20. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
19. You're the Worst (FX)
18. Peaky Blinders (Netflix)
Stars: Cillian Murphy, Sam Neill, Helen McCrory, Tom Hardy, Noah Taylor, Paul Anderson, Iddo Goldberg, Annabelle Wallis, Charlotte Riley, Sophie Rundle
It wasn't until the end of Peaky Blinders' second six-episode series that Americans so much as realized it was even a thing. But while it's normal for excellent BBC shows to come and go without much fanfare in the states (take last year's fantastic The Fall), Peaky Blinders is finally gaining some traction due to a current lack of gangster competition, multiple big-name film actors, and slow-motion set-pieces set to the contemporary alt-rock of Jack White, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, and more.
While the first season saw Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) squaring off against vicious, sexually-repressed Inspector Chester Campbell (Sam Neill), the second ups the ante by adding Tom Hardy to the ensemble. Playing Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons, Hardy single-handedly raises the show's quality level in every scene in which he appears. While Neil was a big enough presence to face off with Murphy in his own right, Hardy has more weight than just about anyone on TV—premium, streaming, or otherwise.
For those disappointed by the cast of True Detective season two, or looking for more cool haircuts in the wake of Boardwalk Empire, well, here you go. —Nathan Reese
17. The Walking Dead (AMC)
16. Rectify (SundanceTV)
15. The Good Wife (CBS)
14. The Americans (FX)
13. Silicon Valley (HBO)
Stars: Thomas Middleditch, T. J. Miller, Josh Brener, Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani, Christopher Evan Welch, Amanda Crew, Zach Woods
Great shows based on the lives of everyday working people are nothing new. There’s Workaholics, The IT Crowd, The Office, Dilbert, and many more. Each of these comedies zeroes in on the horror and absurdity of the daily grind—meaningless meetings, evil bosses, and never-ending busy work. What they don’t do, however, is capture the over-the-top and mind-bogglingly self-serving culture of an entire industry in razor-sharp detail. Enter Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley. It depicts work life and the tech business perfectly, while also eliciting some of the best laughs television had to offer in 2014.
The lengths to which creator Judge was willing to go to make sure that the show accurately portrayed life in Silicon Valley are impressive. The Hooli campus—basically a fictionalized Google entity—offers its employees free rock-climbing, food, and shuttle service. When Richard (Thomas Middleditch), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), Erlich (T.J. Miller), Jared (Zach Woods), and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr)—the team behind the fledgling start-up that the show is loosely centered on—complete in the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, the set is an exact replica of the real conference. But really, though, the reason the show is so good is the writing. The deadpan, acerbic wit that has made Mike Judge an American treasure shines through. On top of that, writers like Alec Berg (Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm) are using the show to basically “take a shit on” the “self-important, pompous, powerful people” that have come to characterize much of modern-day Silicon Valley.
“We’re making a lot of money, and yes, we’re disrupting digital media, but most importantly, we’re making the world a better place through constructing elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility,” a techie who just stumbled into a millions of dollars of seed money says in the first episode. Making the world a better place is a recurring theme throughout Silicon Valley. The show's true genius is its attempt to deconstruct whether or not that real-life ethos is a myth.
Beyond all of this, all of the characters are brilliant. Whether he’s calculating nine times "f" (“fleventy-five”) or reciting hexadecimal code, Erlich, played by T.J. Miller, is always good for multiple laughs. Martin Starr outdoes himself as Gilfoyle. Richard, played skillfully by Thomas Middleditch, perfectly embodies an on-the-spectrum/borderline genius future tech god. Jared, played by Zach Woods, is the show’s secret weapon. His story deserves to be fleshed out in season two.
Silicon Valley is ultimately a takedown of one of the most important regions of the world, one that's constantly being criticized for its every decision and flaw, not least of which is its total lack of diversity and treatment of women. Needless to say, there’s only one female character on Silicon Valley: Monica (Amanda Crew). Judge addresses this shortcoming in the season finale, in which an elaborate metaphor involving men jacking each other off leads to a breakthrough in cloud computing. It’s not the most pleasant image, but as far as the real-life Silicon Valley goes, it’s probably accurate. —Lauretta Charlton
12. The Honourable Woman (SundanceTV)
Stars: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Andrew Buchan, Stephen Rea, Lubna Azabal, Janet McTeer, Katherine Parkinson, Tobias Menzies, Eve Best, Igal Naor, Genevieve O'Reilly, Lindsay Duncan
I love spy stuff. I love over-the-top spy action like Mission: Impossible and James Bond. I love hard-boiled, cigarettes-in-dark-rooms spy movies like A Most Wanted Man. I love Cold War spy thrillers (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) and goofy '90s spy movies (The Saint). FX's The Americans, also on this list, is one of my favorite TV shows airing right now. So, what I'm really trying to say is that The Honourable Woman was basically made for me. But even if spy movies aren't necessarily your thing, Hugo Blick's The Honourable Woman is worth a look. As good as a spy thriller as it is, it's even better as a human drama.
The mini-series, which should be available on Netflix soon, was produced for the BBC in the U.K. and SundanceTV in the States. (The spelling of "honourable" should tip you off to its origins.) Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal in a career-defining role as Nessa Stein, the head of an Israeli arms-cum-communications company, the twisty plot revolves around familial evils, double agents, and Israeli-Palestinian strife. Investigating all the subterfuge is a British spy played by Stephen Rea, whose name, Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle, is one of the great fictitious appellations of the new millennium. As powerful as Gyllenhall is, Rea's performance is just as mesmerizing in his portrayal of a dogged, quietly confident agent on his last case.—Nathan Reese
11. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
10. Veep (HBO)
Stars: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky, Tony Hale, Matt Walsh, Timothy Simons, Reid Scott, Sufe Bradshaw, Kevin Dunn, Gary Cole
Since its inception, Veep has been one of the funniest shows on TV. But while previous seasons chuckled at the incompetence of Vice President Selina Myers (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) with staid irony, the third season upped the show's comedy contingent from quietly cringe-inducing to outright hilarious.
While a good many set-pieces from previous seasons made me crack up, nothing approached the laughing fits caused by Selina's extended fly fishing metaphors or Silicon Valley Clovis tour. And then there's the ingenious twist ending, which left Myers in the position of the actual Commander-in-fucking-Chief. Like a flip-side of House of Cards' very similar events, it leaves someone hilariously, outrageously awful in the most powerful political position in the world. But unlike Frank Underwood, Myers is going to be a lot of fun to watch screw it all up.—Nathan Reese