At the end of every great TV series—The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, 30 Rock—somebody usually jumps to declare the Golden Age of Television at an end, and somehow that prediction never manages to be right.
There's a ton of great TV around these days, from off-kilter comedies like Brooklyn Nine-Nine to unexpected dramas like Masters of Sex. More so than ever in the history of TV, the onus is on creators to be surprising, to be impressive and, most of all, to hold our attention.
A lot of this is a direct result of the stuff that (very reasonably) terrifies the people who run TV: the advent of streaming video on demand, the wars of attrition with cable providers, the mass exodus of young people to YouTube and gaming. All that stuff means that it's imperative for television content to be compelling enough to drag a potential viewer back from the new Uncharted game, or to motivate the writing of an angry letter when cable drops his or her favorite network.
And that means that this was a hard list to write, because so much new TV in 2014 was so good.
Fully embracing the for-the-ladies subtext of so much contemporary speculative fiction, Starz's soapy, high-wattage time travel fantasy is less another passenger on the bandwagon and more a different vehicle altogether. Battlestar Galactica mastermind Ron Moore runs this show with Caitriona Balfe in the lead and premium cable vet Tobias Menzies (he was Brutus in HBO's famously opulent Rome) as her foil (well, one of them). The show leaps around in time and in Europe, but its heart is in 18th-century Scotland, a venue with all kinds of romantic ambiance to take advantage of. And yet the show never takes the easy way out and rarely condescends to an audience immediately devoted to its twists and turns—a lot of contemporary sci-fi is just non-stop fan service, but Outlander is very sure of the story it wants to tell, and the better for it.
You’re the Worst (FX)
Perhaps I've been a reporter for too long, but the publicist-client scenes in this show are worryingly accurate. The rapper who ruins a photo shoot? The celebrities making constantly unreasonable demands? In the Cone of Silence that hacks and flacks sometimes share, I have heard all these stories and worse. The characters in You're the Worst, Gretchen Cutler and Jimmy Shive-Overly, clearly represent weeks of focus-group work about toxic behavior, annoying tics and bad habits, and yet somehow when you dump all their terrible traits into the two vats of sludge that form their personalities, Gretchen and Jimmy are weirdly likable at their best and love-to-hatable at their worst. Can they maintain a healthy relationship? Of course not. Can they derive some temporary joy and satisfaction from a selfish, compromised, insane one? Turns out, yes.
The Flash (The CW)
The Flash is such a great, no-brainer idea for a TV show, it's a little surprising it took this long for a network to try it out again—it's not actor John Wesley Shipp's fault, after all, that the 1990 CBS series premiered opposite The Simpsons—but much better late than never. Part crime drama, part teen soap, part coming-of-age comedy, The Flash is appropriately enthusiastic about covering all its bases. Not only does the CW series have a breakout star in lead actor Grant Gustin, but the network also smartly paired him up with Jesse L. Martin, who carries most of the series' dramatic weight. And if you're a nerd, you're in heaven: the show boasts straight-faced takes on classic model supervillains (there's seriously a guy named Roy G. Bivolo on this show who goes by Prism, which is a step up from his original nom de crime, Rainbow Raider), teasing allusions to other DC superheroes, and a full-blown crossover with the network's underrated comic book drama, Arrow.
Last Week Tonight (HBO)
In the great tradition of comedians stealing the headlines from journalists, John Oliver devotes every week to reporting the news about big money and its discontents, whether it's the absurd corruption of FIFA or life-threatening defects in GM automobiles, and more often than not, he does a better job than his blow-dried counterparts on real live news shows. Oliver has some unique advantages, of course: a lot of his work is riffing on the reporting of other newspeople, and without advertisers, he can jump up and down on what, for anyone else, would be a long list of potential partners. (Remember the last time there was a lengthy story on auto industry malfeasance on cable TV? Us neither.) But none of that should detract from what actually is an astonishing amount of old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting—sifting through documents, parsing statistics, and wading through bullshit—that Oliver turns into something not just fascinating, but hilarious.
Black Mirror (Netflix)
Unapologetically downbeat, politically engaged and composed solely of six self-contained episodes, U.K. gadfly Charlie Brooker's anthology series Black Mirror is like The Outer Limits off its meds; a crazily eclectic selection of sci-fi stories that explore the darker aspects of human nature in grim detail. Some episodes are merely satisfying; others, like the horrifying pilot The National Anthem and the season two scorcher Be Right Back, are doing something we'd never seen before on television. It took years for the series to make it stateside, and the bloom is off a few of its sharper observations, but the vast majority of it still glitters. If you've ever loved a Kurt Vonnegut short story or an angry tirade by Harlan Ellison, Brooker's enraged series about the moral limits of technology is definitely for you.
BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
Between this and Review, It was the year of the stealth tragedy: BoJack Horseman looked at first like another casualty of Netflix's scattershot programming strategy—you know the one, it gave us both the sublime House of Cards and the ridiculous Hemlock Grove—but the hilariously cheap animal jokes stayed funny and the high concept never got in the way of the astonishingly rich characterizations or the marvelous performances from Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Amy Sedaris and some high-caliber bit players, including Stephen Colbert and Anjelica Huston. By the end of the show, it's clear not just that creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg knew what he was doing, but also that he and Arnett had created a character as compelling in his own weird way as Rust Cohle or Don Draper: a damaged, vain, immature hero in desperate need of love he doesn't really deserve. It got harder to laugh at him, but we still couldn't stop ourselves.
With a sensitivity that actually seemed to annoy Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan, Jill Soloway has penned one of the best gimmick-free TV dramas in years, and one of the very few thoughtful takes on trans identity in mainstream culture. Improbably, it's also a very funny drama, or maybe a very serious comedy, that takes the opportunity of Jeffrey Tambor's complicated portrayal of trans woman Maura Pfeffernan to examine the lives of selfish, wealthy Angelenos, and, at exactly the moment when we're most strongly tempted to hold them in contempt, Soloway demands that we love and empathize with them instead. It's been a banner year for digital-only television, with Netflix garnering seven Golden Globe nominations this month and Hulu finally putting a nontrivial amount of money into big-ticket original series commissions. Amazon, more than any of its fellow upstarts, has been serious about crafting its own distinct aesthetic, and with Transparent, that consistency has paid high dividends.
Review (Comedy Central)
Comedy Central's mockumentary series Review is a nosehair away from being a horror show. The premise is hilarious: Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly, probably best-known for playing Terrence Cutler on HBO's Eastbound and Down) is a "life reviewer," a vocation he and his Machiavellian producer Grant (a terrific James Urbaniak) invented themselves, and he goes around reviewing whatever his viewers ask him to take on—stealing, cocaine, making a sex tape—and then the show gets very dark very quickly. The best episode starts off innocently enough, with the fatuous, oblivious Forrest reviewing the experience of eating 15 pancakes in a single sitting. "The world record for pancakes eaten in one sitting is 73 pancakes," he observes. "That is held by a Russian man whose life must be an unendurable hellscape of excruciating sadness."
Oh, Forrest. You don't know from unendurable hellscapes of excruciating sadness.
Silicon Valley (HBO)
Comedy, even good comedy, is hit-and-miss almost by nature, so it's that much cooler when something seriously virtuosic, namely Mike Judge's pitch-perfect tech industry satire, Silicon Valley, shows everybody exactly how it's done. Judge's work is consistently underrated—King of the Hill is rarely lauded as the seriously great show it is, and Idiocracy practically forecast its own box office failure—but here he's finally getting his due, mostly because he's addressing a topic everybody seems to have an opinion about (and on HBO). The characters, particularly the late, lamented Christopher Evan Welch in what should have been his breakout role as eccentric entrepreneur Peter Gregory, are very familiar to anyone who follows tech news. Even without Gregory, though, the creepy not-quite-Google ambiance of ubercompany Hooli, a hilarious turn by T. J. Miller as a pompous, no-talent joiner and Judge's own razor-sharp writing combine to make a consistently compelling half hour of television.
Penny Dreadful (Showtime)
One of the knocks on the fantasy TV boom is that a lot of the shows are childish and immature. John Logan's Penny Dreadful is anything but. The series uses as a springboard the flowering of the Gothic novel in the late 19th century—Dracula, Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray and several others were all written within the same few years. The show's cast is uniformly excellent, but Timothy Dalton and Eva Green are particularly good. Overall, it's a one of the most original shows to appear on television in years, and it's a refreshingly grown-up take on a drama subgenre that seems to be flirting with adulthood exclusively by including sex scenes you'd be ashamed to watch with your kids. Logan, by contrast, is interested in consequences.