There have been years when we’ve really had to stretch to find enough great TV shows to fill out a Top 10 list. Not anymore. Now, it’s a beastly task to pare down the vast amount of worthy programming to just 10.
The past year once again brought us a barrage of superlative fare from a variety of sources, including the broadcast networks, cable and streaming services (welcome to the party, Amazon). Some of the new offerings were so offbeat and creative that they actually rattled our notions of what “television” can be.
To help make the winnowing process slightly easier, we’ve limited consideration to scripted series, so no documentaries (“The Roosevelts”) or movies (“The Normal Heart”).
Here then is our 2014 Top 10:
1. “Fargo” (FX): Was it foolhardy to even attempt to mess with the Coen brothers’ snow-covered masterpiece? Yer darn tootin’. Fortunately, this superb anthology series paid homage to the film while managing to find its own homespun voice. Give ample credit to pitch-perfect performances by Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Allison Tolman, along with a potent blend of black humor, quirky Midwestern kooks and jaw-dropping twists.
2. “True Detective” (HBO): Go ahead and get hung up on the Yellow King all you want, but the triumph of Nic Pizzolatto’s haunting, down-on-the-bayou crime saga was that it was less of a typical – and tired – whodunit than a mesmerizing character study. Through all the dark poetry and bizarre chatter of time being a flat circle, we just couldn’t take our eyes off the magnetic Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, who were operating at the top of their games.
3. “Game of Thrones” (HBO): This epic medieval fantasy continued meeting television’s greatest challenge: to wrap its arms around George R.R. Martin’s sprawling saga and bring a big, imaginary world full of mystery, spectacle and luscious visual majesty to life. That “GOT” pulls it all off while deftly juggling intimate, character-based stories with wild, out-of-nowhere shockers, makes the results all the more mind-blowing.
4. “The Good Wife” (CBS): Cable’s highly praised dramas have it relatively easy compared with broadcast TV’s smartest legal thriller, which pumps out 22 episodes a year and still manages to hold fans in thrall. Even in its sixth season – a time when most shows are wheezing from creative exhaustion – Julianna Margulies and company keep finding ways to shake things up and go in exciting new directions. Not even the stunning death of Will Gardner (Josh Charles) could slow them down.
5. “The Americans” (FX): This sexy, suspenseful, unnerving, unpredictable and absolutely exhilarating Cold War-era drama delivered an extraordinary second season as it revved up the tension and dived deeper into the turbulent lives of KGB operatives Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys). Marvelous performances continue to blend with turbocharged storytelling. Now, if we can only get Emmy to pay attention.
6. “Masters of Sex” (Showtime): They say work and sex aren’t supposed to mix, but in Season 2 of this sizzling saga, pioneering researchers Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) took their mostly academic partnership from the laboratory to the bedroom. Things soon heated up, and an already terrific show boosted its level of emotional oomph while delving into provocative matters of human intimacy and connection.
7. “Orange Is the New Black” (Netflix): We wondered if this rollicking women’s prison series was a one-shot wonder. Fortunately, it came back with even more swagger – bolder, darker and tougher – to retain its binge-tastic status. The addition of Lorraine Toussaint as the villainous Vee was a master stroke, and the revelatory flashbacks brought us even closer to the colorful Litchfield jailbirds – sometimes heartbreakingly so.
8. “Transparent” (Amazon): The year’s most pleasant surprise was this emotionally powerful, groundbreaking tale of a father (the sensational Jeffrey Tambor) coming out as transgender to his gloriously dysfunctional family. Both funny and melancholy, the series floated along in novelistic leisure while delivering many shrewd observations about self-discovery, personal fulfillment and the often-toxic lies we tell to those close to us.
9. “Silicon Valley” (HBO): For years, Hollywood has been trying to tap into the heart of the Valley, usually with lackluster results. But Mike Judge and his band of merry collaborators somehow captured the rhythms, jargon and outright insanity of the tech world over eight hilarious episodes. It paid off in a refreshing blast of satirical snark that not only drew laughs from non-nerds but earned solid insider cred as well. More, please.
10. “The Affair” (Showtime): Extramarital relationships have fueled many a TV and big-screen production. But this moody, provocative drama distinguished itself by welding a romance to a crime mystery and creating a sly narrative structure that swivels between the widely disparate viewpoints of the man (Dominic West) and woman (Ruth Wilson). All this, plus deeply felt performances from the entire cast made it an “Affair” to remember.
▪ Best movies and music of 2014.