Top 10 lists are tough. The top TV shows this year, and in the last several years, have been difficult to contain in just one short list. That was true so much so last year that I had to make three lists; this year, I’ve done that and expanded from ten to twelve. But these are less rankings and more guides to what was the best that television had to offer in 2014, and what you should definitely catch up on if you haven’t (this being said with the full knowledge that there are still several series I haven’t caught up on, either, like The Honourable Woman, in this category). Hit the jump to see a list of new series from this year that could one day become classics.
12. Welcome to Sweden [NBC] — Greg Poehler (yes, brother of Amy), crafted a really beautiful and lush series for NBC this summer, based on his real-life experience of moving to Sweden to be with his now wife. Co-written and co-starring the lovely Josephine Bornebusch as his on-screen girlfriend, Welcome to Sweden was a typical fish-out-of-water comedy that was gorgeously shot and crafted like an extended indie movie (and was bold enough to use subtitles when necessary). Though the first half of the series was better than its second half (which had more guest stars, including a very odd series of appearances by Aubrey Plaza), Welcome to Sweden is well worth the trip through all of its brief, ten episodes. (And a second season is coming).
11. The Flash [The CW] — The Flash is one of those rare superhero shows that has a wide enough appeal that it’s actually difficult to find anyone who doesn’t have something nice to say about it. It’s light, goofy and upbeat, while also being serious and even sad in all of the right moments. Grant Gustin is perfect as the title hero, and the show has balanced its Villains of the Week with callbacks (like Caitlyn’s fiancee), mysteries (what is the deal with Harrison Wells?) and insider jokes for fans of the comics (Gorilla Grodd!) The Flash has been a great addition not only to so many overly serious superhero shows, but also as a fun series that stands on its own.
10. Looking [HBO] — Looking was unfortunately largely overshadowed by Girls (with which it was paired) when it debuted on HBO last year. The story of young gay (hipster) men in San Francisco sounds like a niche show, but thanks to its realistic writing, its raw look and feel, and Jonathan Groff‘s frustrating and endearing performance, it (like The Flash) had a little something for everyone. It wasn’t exactly a comedy, but it never took itself too seriously. It was emotional, difficult, and often all too familiar in the ups and downs the three leads faced as friends. It deserved more than to be overlooked.
9. Review [Comedy Central] — Review was one of this year’s greatest gems, and another one that didn’t seem to make it on most people’s radars when it originally aired (it was later available on Hulu Plus). Andy Daly wrote and starred in the mock-review series, where his character Forrest MacNeil reviewed life experiences sent in by viewers. What made Review really stand out, though, was a narrative cohesion not usually seen in comedies. The insane antics Forrest gets up to have real consequences in his life throughout the series, including the disillusion of his marriage. The storylines get incredibly dark, particularly towards the end, but the show’s greatest episode, “Pancakes; Divorce; Pancakes” had some of the funniest scenes I’ve seen on TV in years. As Forrest would say: 5 stars.
8. Penny Dreadful [Showtime] — Possibly the biggest surprise series of the year, Penny Dreadful found a way to handle Victorian monsters and lore in a way that never felt patronizing or redundant. Every character was so well and deeply developed that they began to feel like family, particularly the stand-out character of The Monster (Rory Kinnear). Though Eva Green‘s tousles with the devil provided some great, gothic scene-chewing, it was the Monster who made Penny Dreadful something captivating beyond its vampire hunting (although that, too, was badass).
7. The Missing [Starz] — A BBC Production picked up by Starz, The Missing is a haunting tale told over two timelines, about English parents whose child is abducted while they are vacationing in France. Following the one writer / one director trend of shows like True Detective, The Missing‘s difficult story is made all the more haunting by a very cohesive, twisty narrative, and gorgeous cinematography. Designed to only be a miniseries, I snuck it in the Top New Series of the year because of how strong an entry it is to the crowded pool of crime shows.
6. Outlander [Starz] — Starz has really been beefing up its original programming (even regarding acquired shows like The Missing), and Outlander may even be the strongest of the bunch. Like The Missing, it is sumptuously and gorgeously filmed, and its star, Caitriona Balfe, is able to completely drive the story and hold her own among her many male co-stars. Outlander is one of the few series this year to feature such a strong female lead, and though it does deal some with romance, it should not be dismissed as a gender-specific show. This is one you will definitely want to catch up with before the second part of its first season airs in the spring of 2015. Just take a listen to the theme song by Bear McCreary, and you’ll already feel transported.
5. The Affair [Showtime] — This show, starring Dominic West and Ruth Wilson, is one of the most emotionally difficult series of 2014. It also has a novel narrative structure: each episode is split between West and Wilson’s character’s points of view, which, when juxtaposed like that, reveal much about their emotional states, and how that affects memory. Though a murder mystery that takes place in the present day (and jumpstarts the flashbacks) feels mostly ancillary to the show’s trajectory (it could really do without it just fine), it does help drive home the idea of unreliable narration, and the sinister even among the beautiful. The Affair also deals with married life in a unique and realistic way that can even make viewers feel bruised by the verbal fights and sadness. And yet, even in its darkest moments, it has a magnetism that is engrossing.
4. Silicon Valley [HBO] — Without qualification, the best comedy of 2014. Written by Mike Judge, Silicon Valley pulled together an excellent cast that made its quips and jabs at the tech industry land beautifully, especially in its final episode. It was the boldest comedy of the year, and also the unabashedly most hilarious. If you weren’t perfecting your pronunciation of “Aviato” or discussing Satanist chicken this summer, you missed out. Catch up.
3. The Moaning of Life [Science] — The lone unscripted series to make the list, Ricky Gervais‘ pal Karl Pilkington returned with his third documentary series where he explores the world with a very unimpressed attitude (except when meeting with conjoined twins). Karl’s Manchester drone is the perfect antidote to hyped-up travel series, and his childlike wonder at the weirdest things on Earth makes The Moaning of Life an honest, beautifully filmed, and often hilariously insightful trip. If you haven’t been introduced to the world of Karl Pilkington, this is a great place to start.
2. The Knick [Cinemax] — The Knick was another unexpectedly great series of 2014. It explored the gory world of early 20th century surgeries, but in a visually remarkable way. Its story didn’t take many unexpected turns, but it was often incredibly emotionally compelling. What made The Knick really stand out, though, was the clear, unmistakable direction by Steven Soderbergh. Soderbergh gave the series his trademark look and feel (and sound, which was so perfectly minimalistic), and it elevated it into art. The cast was also fantastic, and the show’s complicated look and portrayal of race was the best on television this year.
1. True Detective [HBO] — I don’t care about the backlash, or that this show rose and fell so fast in the public’s esteem that it was almost forgotten by the end of summertime: I loved True Detective deeply. I loved it more than anything else on television in so long I can’t even remember. I found it horrifyingly engrossing, spellbinding, masterfully shot, compellingly acted and truthfully written. It captured the zeitgeist and appeared everywhere, and really ramped up everyone’s belief in the McConnaissance. It introduced the one writer / one director approach that has been repeated a few other places, but never with such perfect cohesion. Its finale was batshit insane, as was befitting its Southern gothic roots. Time is a flat circle, so just like I said at the beginning of 2014, this is my best show of the year, bar none.
Tomorrow: The Top 12 Best Returning Series