That’s the question that anyone who decides to weed through the amount of shows that air every year has to ask themselves. Because the content of any top 10 list depends on the importance assigned to any number of factors – ambition, execution, emotional complexity, sheer entertainment value. With as much television as there is nowadays, you could make a number of variant top 10 lists and all of them would be valid, as the sheer volume of projects today has allowed creators to explore what television is and how they can best explore subjects that don’t fit into the constraints of cinema.
Rather than focus on one particular element in compiling our own top 10 list, TVHackr decided to try and hit on all of them, as the 10 shows we’ve selected exemplify the year in television that was 2014. Of the bunch, some have improved from past seasons, while others are as ambitious as anything you’ll find on television; some have a uniqueness that makes them stand out from the pack, while others are extremely well-executed while remaining familiar in some form or fashion. Simply, if you are going to watch any television that aired in the year 2014, this is what TVHackr would recommend you check out. As with the previous article, included below are the positions that every show was ranked for the past two seasons, an essential episode that captures the show at its best, and previews/sneak peeks/trailers for every show in our top 10.
10. Kingdom (The Audience Network)
Last Year: N/A (Two Years Ago: N/A)
Essential Episode: “Cut Day”
Kingdom might not be the most innovative drama on television, but it’s a damn fine representation of its genre and an example of the power that lies within scripted sports programming. A Shakespearian drama by way of Rocky, the series is all about the redemption that can come through competition, as it follows three MMA fighters and a gym owner looking to ascend to the peak of their sport, if only for a single moment. With nothing else to hang onto in their lives, they’ve turned to the ring for the sense of purpose and fulfillment that they’re otherwise lacking and the show manages to add pathos amidst the pounding thanks to a grainy aesthetic and a series of strong performances. In particular, Jonathan Tucker’s fiery turn as Jay Kulina, a fighter looking to fulfill his vast potential and win the approval of his father, manages to encapsulate the series at its most virile and sympathetic, with the violence he leans into masking the deep hurt he feels inside.
9. Bob’s Burgers (FOX)
Last Year: 15 (Two Years Ago: 10)
Essential Episode: “Mazel-Tina”
With each successive season, oddball FOX comedy Bob’s Burgers manages to grow just a bit more confident in its storytelling and the unique voice it’s been cultivating for five years. Perhaps the most inclusive, optimistic comedy on television, one in which family bickering is replaced by a sense of camaraderie and a celebration of what makes us weird, Bob’s Burgers is also one of the few current shows that addresses socio-economic difficulties, as the show chronicles a family struggling to make ends meet and often coming up empty when they have a chance to make financial progress. It’s a show where every character combination works, where gross-out gags are outweighed by heartstring tugs, where pop culture is celebrated rather than leaned upon like a storytelling crutch. In 2014, Bob’s Burgers tackled everything from a musical combination of Working Girl and Die Hard to underdog cheerleaders, television fan gatherings, and a town festival centered on turkeys with the same type of scrappy spirit and open-hearted lust for life that has defined the show since its inception
8. Shameless (Showtime)
Last Year: 12 (Two Years Ago: 11)
Essential Episode: “Iron City”
The world of Shameless has always been a little grim, but the show had previously been able to mask it thanks to how openly it embraced its identity as a dramedy. While awful stuff happened to the Gallaghers for the first three seasons of the Showtime series, there was always enough bite to the comedy it created to let you know that it was all going to be okay. That wasn’t the case, though, in season four and frankly, the show was all the better for it. After an accident that lands family matriarch Fiona in jail, the Gallaghers experienced their most harrowing time yet, as the remaining siblings had to scramble to keep the household afloat while tending to their own personal issues. The show made a series of bold choices in season five that took these characters to some unfamiliar and appreciatively unexpected places, all the while never trying to soften the emotional blow of the tough places in which they found themselves. That unapologetic storytelling might have wilted in a finale that pulled one too many punches, but for most of the season, Shameless was its best self and it was beautiful.
7. In the Flesh (BBC America)
Last Year: 7 (Two Years Ago: N/A)
Essential Episode: “Episode 6”
A lonely, affecting social allegory centered on prejudice and identity, In the Flesh is the most original reinterpretation of the long-standing zombie mythos to ever be put to film. Relying more on an unsettling atmosphere and institutionalized discrimination than an endless supply of weaponry, the series takes the air out of horror violence by putting a face to the “monsters” that haunt our dreams. In Roarton, England, the boogeyman has a (figurative) heart and wants nothing more than to blend in with the rest of the crowd, making the times the show indulges in acts befitting its genre all the more horrifying. While managing to keep Kieren Walker’s journey to self-acceptance in the forefront, the series managed to expand its scope in season two by exploring how The Rising impacted the whole of Roarton, including the Human Volunteer Force, and how the fear of a Second Rising led to the sanctioned subjugation of an entire group of people. It was an ambitious undertaking, this exploration of grief and how fear breeds hatred, but In the Flesh managed to keep its intimate storytelling from being swallowed up by the big ideas it tried to address.
6. Getting On (HBO)
Last Year: – (Two Years Ago: N/A)
Essential Episode: “Doctor Death”
The lack of space in the aesthetic of HBO melancholy medical comedy Getting On mirrors the claustrophobia felt by its characters. All guerilla camerawork and washed out fluorescent lighting, the series spent its second season exploring a crowded elderly care facility in Long Beach showing just how toxic an environment Billy Barnes was to its handful of employees. While Nurse DiDi weighed how much she valued herself against her overflowing household and need for a paycheck, Nurse Dawn’s fertility issues and personal awakening brought a tension to the floor that sometimes got in the way of the patients’ care. But it was the downfall of Dr. Jenna James that was the most intriguing element of Getting On this season, as the show managed to make the egomaniacal researcher into a sympathetic figure by focusing on her professional ambition continually hitting the glass ceiling that came with an underfunded facility. Once the season’s antagonist, Jenna slowly unveiled her humanity as her grip on Billy Barnes, whose resources she took advantage of for her personal gain, loosened significantly, making the second season crescendo impressively bleak and incredibly powerful in the process.
5. The Comeback (HBO)
Last Year: N/A (Two Years Ago: N/A)
Essential Episode: “Valerie Faces the Critics”
The return of The Comeback should have been awful. Any show that takes a decade away would bound to lose a step, especially given the enormous amount of changes to the entertainment industry since it was last on. However, the story of Valerie Cherish was an incredibly satisfying piece of television, as the former it girl was given a chance to shine on an HBO limited series created by her old nemesis. All she ever wanted to do was show people what she could do and have people acknowledge her for her talent, but it was a long road for Valerie, paved with marital strife from her obsessive desire for professional validation, a health scare for one of the few people who’s stuck with her through the entire journey, and a thin justification for cosigning a carnival mirror version of her time on Room & Bored. In addition to offering sharp commentary on sexism and ageism in Hollywood, season two of The Comeback was a touching a story of retribution, personal fulfillment, and overcoming obstacles, a season that managed to darker, funnier, and more touching than anything season one had to offer. Don’t stay away too long this time, Val.
4. Rectify (SundanceTV)
Last Year: 6 (Two Years Ago: N/A)
Essential Episode: “Donald The Normal”
Rather than utilizing the dreamy, poetic landscape it created in season one, a landscape that was the result of Daniel’s wonderment at the 19 years of small things that he missed while in prison, the second season of Rectify was a bit more plot-oriented, as it delved further into the case that had its protagonist sent behind bars. But Rectify is in no danger of becoming Law & Order: Atlanta, not when it remains content to luxuriate in the moment in lieu of pressing the gas pedal on the next legal revelation. Doubling down on the small town ennui while showing the impact that Daniel’s freedom has on the Holden family, Rectify is as unique a drama as you’ll find on American television, a hyper-literate melange of sad-eyed wonder, sunlit romanticism, and walls closing in terror. Most impressively, the show managed to take Ted Jr. to extreme emotional places during season two while humanizing him at the same time, proof that those who seem to be the greatest monsters have the most hurt to try and mask.
3. Looking (HBO)
Last Year: N/A (Two Years Ago: N/A)
Essential Episode: “Looking for the Future”
The story of three gay friends living in San Francisco, Looking is a different flavor of LGBT-oriented entertainment. Eschewing coming out stories and gay bashing for talk of bottom shaming and circumcision, this is as “post-gay” as television has gotten – a series about gay men whose lives and storylines don’t revolve around being gay. Quickly undoing pre-season talk of being “the gay Girls” with its warmth, underrated sense of humor, and slow burn storytelling, Looking is simply a gorgeous piece of television thanks to subtle, honest performances from the likes of Jonathan Groff and Raul Castillo and cinematography that brings out the best of San Francisco. Without the traditional touchstones of gay pop culture to hit, the series became a low-key slice of romanticism in an increasingly bitter television world, somehow capable of producing a Before Sunrise-esque episode centered around video game developer Patrick and bouncer/barber Richie five installments into an eight-episode first season. That confidence of character and attention to intimacy helped Looking become not just a great series for gay audiences, but a great series in general.
2. You’re the Worst (FX)
Last Year: N/A (Two Years Ago: N/A)
Essential Episode: “Sunday Funday”
Blisteringly snarky and deceptively vulnerable, You’re the Worst is a romantic comedy for those who don’t like romantic comedies. When misanthropic author Jimmy meets self-destructive PR rep Gretchen, he thinks the two are just going to be casual and that he can continue being the accented playboy that doesn’t “do” relationships; however, he and Gretchen begin developing feelings for one another, with those emotions challenging their preconceived notions on love, intimacy, and emotional barriers. You’re the Worst managed to keep its black heart beating strongly while going against as many romantic conventions as it could, as its initial surliness eventually gave way to a weary, guarded look at relationships that anyone who’s had their heart broken can relate to. With Jimmy’s roommate Edgar, a veteran who suffers from PTSD, adding a dose of optimism and helping to balance the tone of the show, and Gretchen’s unfulfilled best friend Lindsay pulling her toward a more hedonistic lifestyle, You’re the Worst is a strong ensemble that gives energetic writing just enough spark to become something truly special.
1. Veep (HBO)
Last Year: 5 (Two Years Ago: 8)
Essential Episode: “Debate”
What do you do when you get what you’ve always wanted? That’s the question that former Vice President Selina Meyer faces after a season of campaigning for the presidency that ended up with her getting the job only because of POTUS’ resignation. The moment she receives the news was as touching as normally cynical Veep gets – the culmination of years of working toward a specific goal that seemed to only be getting farther away. Every public faux pas, every half-baked assignment while she was Vice President, and every time she felt as if she wasn’t being heard were all worth it now that she had the opportunity to show the American public who she was as a leader. It’s that sprinkling of sentiment that helped the third season of Veep continue its meteoric rise up the television ranks; the show remained as verbally dexterous and as full of piss and vinegar as it had been for the first two seasons, its brand of all-encompassing political satire as timely as ever, but it started showing the makings of an emotional core that weren’t always present beforehand. For as many sight gags (Selina’s new haircut), guest spots (a game Christopher Meloni), and political digs as the show managed to work into season three, all of which highlighted just how intricately constructed the show actually is, Veep is ultimately a series about an underdog looking to fulfill their potential and find personal validation through their professional endeavors. We don’t know how good of a president Selina Meyer will be just yet, but her journey in getting there, from campaign bus to Saturday Night Live, from gun shows to Silicon Valley, was the best, most fulfilling thing on television in 2014.
Archer (from No. 20)
Reign (from No. 18)
The Americans (from No. 17)
Justified (from No. 16)
The Borgias (from No. 13)*
Masters of Sex (from No. 11)
Sleepy Hollow (from No. 10)
Moone Boy (from No. 9)
Orphan Black (from No. 8)
Spartacus (from No. 4)*
The Returned (from No. 2)**
Enlightened (from No. 1)*
*Series finale aired in 2013
**Didn’t air new episodes in 2014