(Huge Understatement Warning): There’s a lot of great TV on right now. And as yesterday’s list of the Best New Shows illustrated, there are always more being added to the pack. To keep up with every year’s newest crop is a struggle, yet the shows listed here manage to do so with aplomb. Many of these great returning series are old timers, bucking the trend of shows waning in their later years. Others, though, are still relatively new, but have been able to avoid a sophomore slump by even improving upon their noteworthy first seasons. It’s rare, and it’s also a wonderful thing for loyal fans. Hit the jump for some unrestrained gushing.
12. Banshee [Season 2, Cinemax] — Cinemax’s twisty, brutally violent (but emotionally compelling) gangsters-in-Amish-land series Banshee returned for its second season with as much fury and manic trajectory as its first. This season also spent one particularly beautiful episode on the “what could have been” between its two leads, before ripping it to shreds (complete with an explosion). One of the best overlooked series of the year.
11. Sherlock [Season 3, PBS] — There were mixed feelings about Sherlock‘s third season, but frankly, it was a season that devoted itself to fan service, and it succeeded at that brilliantly. Though some of the twists went beyond even Sherlock’s own kind of reason, it continued to explore, above all, the closeness and nuances of the relationship between Sherlock and John Watson. And as always, the quick wit, quick pacing and exceptional cast made it a delightful watch regardless of any missteps.
10. Downton Abbey [Season 4 PBS] — After the Big Mistake of last season (which the writers couldn’t exactly help, since two actors wanted out of their contracts), Downton Abbey made a great comeback in its fourth season. It is still a full-on, often totally ridiculous soap opera dressed up in gorgeous 1920s garb, and its leaps in time are laughably bad, but Downton‘s reinvention in the wake of the deaths of two major characters infused it with some new energy (although it is always a safe bet for entertainment).
9.5. Mad Men, Part 1 [Season 7, AMC] — Luckily, Mad Men‘s half season gave me an opportunity to sneak in yet another pick. Look, I had grown very weary of Mad Men, and was sticking around just because, at this point, I’d invested too much time to turn back. But the show’s seventh, final season really showed growth and change, especially regarding Don. It was also the most surreal season yet, which I adored. For the first time in years, I can’t wait for it to return, and see how it wraps things up (or, more likely, doesn’t).
9. Veep [Season 3, HBO] — Veep‘s third season “went there” in a number of ways, particularly regarding the continual development of its minor characters. Its acidic wit and unflinching cynicism somehow avoids ever getting too dark, though. And while not everything was quite as sharp as its first two seasons, Veep continues to be one of the best-written and best-executed comedies on television.
8. Justified [Season 5, FX] — Hey guys, I finally caught up on Justified! And yes, I love it. The portrayals are scarily accurate, and like everything on the show, the cadence, word choice, and ear for real conversational patterns is always top-notch. Justified also managed to end things this season in a perfect way to set up its final run. It is one of the best-written dramas on television, and I mean of all-time.
7. The Americans [Season 2, FX] — I was ready to give up on The Americans after its first season, which I found lackluster and slow (and I like slow TV). Its second season raised the stakes immediately, though, and created some of the best, most emotionally complicated episodes and scenes of any show currently on the air. Though its finale left something to be desired, The Americans bucked the trend of a sophomore slump by turning it into a sophomore spectacular. Its third season should be highly anticipated.
6. Louie [Season 4, FX] — Every season, Louis C.K. finds a way to outdo himself when it comes to Louie. This season was the most Lynchian yet, existing in a heightened reality that is all Louie‘s own to explore. Several episodes took difficult topics head-on (like the plight of overweight women and dating, as well as a scene that many interpreted as attempted rape), but did so in a way that made sense within the show’s context. Louis C.K. never shies away from the awkward and the uncomfortable, and audiences are the better for it.
5. The Good Wife [Seasons 5 and 6, CBS] — Will you shut up and watch The Good Wife already? This is one of the best shows on TV, and has been for years. Its last two seasons (which include Season 6, currently running) have changed the game again. Every episode manages to be different, often in style, tone, and other major, unexpected ways. Further, behind its legal setting hides a political series that is deeply perceptive and challenging. Its writers are savvy, its cast is divine, and it is a show that deserves so much more credit than it is given.
4. Game of Thrones [Season 4, HBO] — As a book reader and casual pedant, I have a lot of issues with Game of Thrones. But what I can never deny is that the show is very, very entertaining. When the writing falters, the exceptional cast and gorgeous production values pick up the slack. Besides, the book and the show have diverged enough at this point that comparisons are largely useless. What matters is that Game of Thrones continues to weave compelling stories, and do so in ways that still shock, surprise, disgust, and occasionally delight audiences. That’s good TV.
3. Homeland [Season 4, Showtime] — No one expects the Spanish Inquisition. After two seasons that made fans wonder why they were still watching, Homeland rebounded in its fourth season by being utterly fearless in its storytelling. The main trajectory of the season was hidden through many smaller arcs, none of which viewers expected to end as quickly (and as violently) as they each did in turn. The show’s politics even became more metaphorical and visual than just having characters explain things outright. It also goes without saying that Clare Danes has been exceptional. Taught, tense storytelling has defined this season, as it did its first. Welcome back.
2. Rectify [Season 2, Sundance] — I cannot stump for this show enough. Gorgeous. Heartbreaking. Authentic. Frustrating. Essential. Ray McKinnon‘s Georgia-based series continues to explore the life of a man released from Death Row, after 20 years, on a DNA technicality, and the life he’s trying to rebuild. But there’s also the dark current of the crime itself, and what really happened that night (and why memory and bias are such slippery things). Rectify is haunting on so many levels. It is Southern Gothic, but also deeply philosophical. It is also the definition of slow TV, although its second season proceeded with an urgency that its first lacked.
1. In the Flesh [Season 2, BBC America] — In The Flesh is many things that shouldn’t work together: a zombie show, a crime show, a sci-fi show, a story about love and loss, and one about small town life. But it does work, from its desperately compelling lead actor, Luke Newberry (as well as the entire cast) to its realistic portrayal of small-minded fear and violence, to its incredibly haunting soundtrack by Keaton Henson. In The Flesh is constantly inventive and ever hopeful, even when it’s incredibly depressing. Its second season focused on identity and forgiveness, and explored them in such raw and beautiful ways. It’s frightening and lovely, and there’s nothing else on TV like it.
Honorable Mention: Orphan Black [BBC America] (which I’m not caught up on), Sons of Anarchy [FX], The Walking Dead [AMC] (which I haven’t watched), Bates Motel [A&E], Boardwalk Empire [HBO]
Yesterday’s list: Best New Series of 2014
Tomorrow’s lineup: Part 3, Netflix and Hulu Series, Miscellanea and More