There have been many who have referred to the current era as a golden age for television and whether or not that is true, it is almost certainly the most saturated with quality programming. Years ago the big three networks maintained a monopoly and even 10 years ago, premium cable was the only alternative. Now nearly every network imaginable has delved into original programming and sometimes shows aren’t even coming from a network, with streaming services like Netflix and Amazon branching out into serialized comedies and dramas.
It’s impossible to keep up with everything that’s out there, but there are a number of shows that stand out ahead of the pack. There was no program like “Breaking Bad” in 2013 that stood far and away as the very best, but several made 2014 a memorable viewing year.
- New Girl (FOX)
I have only two network shows on this list and “New Girl” is the only sitcom that made it. “New Girl,” which began as a story where Jess (Zooey Deschanel) moves into an apartment with three single guys after a breakup, doesn’t have the most original premise, but it has a clear comedic voice, taking what would be cliched characters on a different show and finds ways to make them completely unique. After all, what other network sitcom would find a way for the characters to spontaneously engage in a session of the insane, made-up drinking game “True American”? Following a lackluster third season, “New Girl” has rebounded and gotten back to what makes it hilarious, primarily ridiculous situations where the characters ping-pong off each other.
- The Good Wife (CBS)
If you had told me a year ago I’d regard this show so highly I’d have looked at you cross-eyed, And even after years of hearing “The Good Wife” lauded as the best show on network television, it was still surprising to watch and confirm that statement. Despite the initial premise of political wife Alicia Florrick (Julianna Marguiles) leaving her cheating husband and restarting her legal career, “The Good Wife” is far from a Lifetime-esque, female-empowerment saga, but instead a compelling and often very funny narrative about the machinations of a group of ethically-challenged Chicago lawyers and politicians. Last year’s main storyline, where Alicia and other partners abandoned Lockhart Gardner to start their own firm, featured some of the best episodes of any show that season, on network or cable. The series lost some steam in the second half of the season with the departure of series regular Josh Charles, but the first half of the current season, where Alicia is now running for state’s attorney and her partner Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) has been indicted for assisting drug-trafficking clients, has gotten the show back to where it’s best, fast-paced and morally ambiguous.
- Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Every season, “Boardwalk Empire” engaged in a slow burn where plotlines simmered and then eventually came together to explosively boil over. In its final season, the story of Atlantic City politician-turned-gangster Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and the real-life mobsters he rubbed up against during the Prohibition Era, had a reduced episode order of eight episodes to wrap up the five-season saga, while also jumping ahead in the timeline from 1924 to 1931. Even with a condensed season, it felt like there were superflous elements that could’ve been left on the cutting room floor. Ultimately though, like past seasons, “Boardwalk Empire” came together very well in the end, in particularly paying off a season-long flashback narrative of Nucky’s early days in Atlantic City with an absolutely shocking closing scene in the series finale.
- Game of Thrones (HBO)
It seemed unlikely anything would top last season’s infamous Red Wedding for brutality and shock value, but “Game of Thrones” managed to up the ante on multiple occassions throughout the fourth installment of the series set in the alternate-Middle Ages universe of Westeros. Whether it was the Purple Wedding, where the petulantly loathsome boy-king Joffrey got his long-awaited comeuppance or the ultimate outcome of a duel to the death between Oberyn Martell and Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane, “Game of Thrones” could be grotesque in its violence, but never gratuitous. OK, maybe sometimes a little gratuitous. But it’s a brutal world these characters inhabit and each passing season makes clear no one is safe from an untimely exit.
- True Detective (HBO)
Based on sheer buzz and pop culture attention, no show was more visible in 2014 than “True Detective.” Not a traditional drama series and not quite a miniseries, “True Detective” was a closed-ended narrative dealing with two detectives (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) pursuing a serial killer in the Louisiana backwoods over the course of 20 years. I know some people were unhappy with the ultimate resolution of the plot, but the plot was never really the point. This was all about mood, as well as the acting from the leads, and an argument could be made that Harrelson and, in particular, McConaughey have never been better. A lot of McConaughey’s police interrogation scenes could have devolved into laughable parody, but his commitment and intensity make it work, resulting in one of the most memorable performances of the year.
- Girls (HBO)
I know a lot of people can’t stand Lena Dunham, the twenty-something showrunner and star of “Girls” because they feel she is emblematic of her generation, and not in a good way. One of the biggest misconceptions of “Girls” is some people believe the show celebrates the self-absorbed, obnoxious wanna-be Brooklyn hipsters played by Dunham and her co-stars, but nothing could be further from the truth. Dunham knows perfectly well her alter-ego Hannah Horvath is completely insufferable and a huge portion of the show’s laughs come from how completely oblivious Hannah and her friends are to their worst traits. This all pays off in the funniest episode of the latest season, where everyone gathers at a Hamptons beach house, gets drunk and start viciously airing out their grievances. “Girls” is also great in the way it finds equal time to develop interesting male characters, particularly Hannah’s boyfriend Adam (Adam Driver), who is slightly insane but in a lot of ways the most intelligent character on the show.
- Mad Men (AMC)
There is no single TV show I enjoy watching more each year than “Mad Men,” the 1960’s drama about mysterious ad executive Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his co-workers at Sterling Cooper & Partners. Aside from “The Wire” and “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” is the greatest series of the 2000s and one of the best shows of any time period, but now in its seventh and final season, it’s not at the absolute top of its game each week as in past years. In an absolutely idiotic programming decision, AMC opted to split Mad Men’s final 14 episodes in half, airing seven this past spring and the final seven presumably in April 2015. Though not every plot point in the first half completely worked (Ginsberg’s severed nipple anyone?) the show came through with two of its best episodes ever to close the half season. Don and his former secretary/protégé Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) have been at odds for most of the last few seasons, but that just made their office slow dance to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” a more powerful payoff. Equally effective was the final scene of the last episode, where Don is rendered speechless by a vision of his recently deceased boss/partner Bert Cooper performing a song-and-dance routine of the “The Best Things in Life are Free.” It’s a moment that could have served perfectly well as the series’ endpoint, but seven more episodes remain and, based on creator Matthew Weiner’s obsession over no spoilers leaking, the anticipation will grow even more heightened.
- Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
When Netflix dipped its toe into original programming in 2013, the Great White Hope for the streaming service was the political thriller “House of Cards,” starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. That series has its supporters (take a bow, EHC co-founder Steve Orbanek!), but it was outshown later that year with the premiere of “Orange is the New Black,” a dramedy in which white collar yuppie Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is sent to a minimum security women’s prison for years ago transporting drugs as a favor to her then-girlfriend (Laura Prepon), who ends up residing in the same prison. The first season was a solid outing, but struggled with Piper at its center since she ended being one of the least compelling characters, at least compared to others like Russian kitchen matron Red (Kate Mulgrew) or misunderstood whack job Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba). The writers seemed to have recognized this because in the superior second season, Piper was still a key character but the main plot revolved around many of the African-American prisoners and their conflicts with the newly-arrived matriarch figure Vee (Lorraine Toussaint). “Orange is the New Black” never fails to take its characters and their dire situations lightly, but also somehow manages to be the funniest show on television. Whether the prisoners are participating in a mock job fair or organize a misguided hunger strike, few series are as adept at blending comedy and drama.
- The Leftovers (HBO)
HBO’s “The Leftovers,” which is about the small-town survivors of a rapture-like event that wiped out two percent of the world’s population, isn’t for everyone and could be reasonably seen as the most depressing show on TV. The show pulls absolutely no punches in confronting the struggle and pain that comes from losing loved ones. At the center of the series is police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) who lives alone with his teenage daughter after his wife (Amy Brenneman) leaves him to join a cult that is characterized by its members taking a vow of silence as a form of protest against the citizens who have tried to move on after “the Sudden Departure.” The universe expands to include a woman (Carrie Coon, in the best performance on the show) whose entire family vanished, a preacher who seeks out evidence the departed were taken for their sins and Kevin’s father, the former police chief who has now been commited to a mental institution. The primary focus of the series is on these characters’ collective grief and their attempt to find some way to maintain their sanity. Creator Damon Lindelof was the co-showrunner on “Lost,” which often asked more questions than it answered. A lot of people watching “The Leftovers” wanted answers as well, but the series has little interest in solving that mystery because the resolution isn’t really the point. “The Leftovers” is rarely easy to watch, but no other show manages to be as compelling or thought-provoking.
- Fargo (FX)
No other show opened with a higher degree of difficulity or less likelihood of succeeding than FX’s “Fargo.” Based on a Coen Brothers’ film of the same name that is widely considered one of the greatest films of the last 25 years, it seemed unlikely a short-run series set in the same locale and with a similar plot as the film would be successful. Somehow, “Fargo” managed to not only to detach itself from its source material but also offered a viewing experience superior to the film. Structured like a miniseries with 10 episodes, “Fargo” opened with mild-mannered Bemidji, Minn. insurance salesman Lester Nygard (Martin Freeman) encountering the mysterious Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) and the pair joining in an odd partnership that sets the series in motion. The show eventually finds a pair of protagonists in poilce officers Molly Sorenson (Allison Tolman) and Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks) who investigate a murder case that involves both Nygaard and Malvo. “Fargo” is a slow burn that builds momentum as it goes along. It’s first few episodes are fairly unremarkable as the narrative is set in motion but it slowly gains steam to a point where everything comes to a head in the final few episodes. The linchpins of the series are the performances of Thornton, who embodies one of the most memorable villains of recent memory, and Tolman, who has the difficult tasking of basically filling the role that won Frances McDormand an Academy Award for the film version but somehow she manages to create a uniquely memorable character.