Of all the year-end lists, this one is by far the hardest for me. There are fewer choices when compared to my lists of characters, episodes, or actors but it’s also the least defined. I don’t even entirely know what I mean when I say these are the best shows of 2014. I watch and love so much television that it’s hard to know what the “best” is. Are they the shows I loved the most? Sometimes. I do love all the shows on this list but different ways. Are they the best, most popular shows I watch as determined by the wide variety of television critics online? Again, sometimes. There does seem to be a consensus that many of these shows are good-quality television. So what I’m left with is a combination of the shows that I feel consistently did things well over the past year and the ones I have loved the most. I’ve left off many of the “big” shows of the year that may have been technically good but failed to emotionally engage me in the same way. I’ve probably overrepresented comedies or comedy-adjacent shows but apparently that’s what I most wanted to watch this year because this list just feels right to me. As always, this is a list that says more about me than it does about the state of television in 2014. Head to the comments to tell me what you think makes a show worthy of a place on a “Best of” list and let me know your choices for 2014!
The Good Wife (CBS) Since the start of season 5, The Good Wife has proven itself to be a show that doesn’t shy away from the unexpected. It continues to reinvent itself and head in new directions. This year saw some changes for the show – Will’s death being the most notable. Diane left Lockhart Gardner, Cary was arrested, and Alicia started a run for state’s attorney. None of these characters are in the same place they were a year ago and the show is better for it. It’s allowed characters to interact in new ways and in combinations that had been previously lacking. With a continued use of fantastic guest and recurring stars, it remains one of the best-acted and most compelling dramas on TV.
Enlisted (FOX) You know a show must be something special when it touches the hearts of so many people. Enlisted’s fanbase may have been small but like many other comedies that have come before it, fans were passionate about this show and what it meant to them. It gave the focus to a set of duties that is little-known to civilians and it provided a look into just how hard the transition from war to peace can be. There was a lot this show did right. It thoughtfully examined the effects of PTSD, provided a wonderfully empathetic male character in Randy, and did it all by being genuinely funny. Perhaps the thing it did the best though was the focus on the relationship between the Hill brothers. All so very different, especially in the way they expressed their emotions, but the bond was always there. “Hands on head” moments were a surefire way to make me tear up because it felt so real. The chemistry between Geoff Stults, Parker Young and Chris Lowell was perfect. I wish we could have seen more of this amazing show but the 13 episodes we did get were well worth the time and emotional investment.
Transparent (Amazon) I knew this was a show for me very early on in the first episode. The Pfeffermans may not be the most likeable family on TV but they feel achingly real. The kids are selfish and self-absorbed in a way that a lot of us are without necessarily realizing it but they have moments of incredible kindness and compassion. They make big, life-altering decisions on a whim. They mess up and fight with each other and hurt each other but they forgive and accept each other as they are. The acting is wonderful and it is a beautiful look at becoming who you are. Maura’s transformation is the heart of the show. Flashbacks speak to her struggles and process of discovering who she is and the present time shows the lightness that comes with embracing yourself. This show is about people in all their beauty and ugliness and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Jane the Virgin (CW) I’ve already written up why I think this is a show more people need to be watching, but since I wrote that piece I’ve only fallen more in love with the show. In a TV landscape often filled with unhappiness or unrelenting drama and angst, Jane the Virgin feels remarkably grounded for a show about a girl who was accidentally artificially inseminated and whose roots are a telenovela. The plot may be extraordinary and soapy but the characters are full and emotionally rich. It’s hard not to love Jane, Xo, and Alba and want happiness for all of them. Rogelio is a true joy to watch. His personality is large and over-the-top but he remains real by his love for his newly-found daughter and his affection for Xo. It’s a show that makes me happy to watch every week because no matter what is happening (and it’s often a lot), my connection to these characters will draw me in to this heightened world.
In The Flesh (BBC America) What a beautiful gem of a show this is. At only 9 episodes between two seasons (with the fate of more seasons still up in the air), In The Flesh is a twist on the popular zombie stories of late. It’s not a story of human survival after a zombie apocalypse but rather a story of how medicated zombies are reintegrated into the society on which they wreaked havoc. The cinematography is beautiful, the characters will break your heart and make you love them, and and it examines issues like bigotry, the way religion is used to create zealous movements, the effects of PTSD and other mental illnesses on both individuals and their loved ones, and accepting who you are and the person you’d like to be.
Orange is the New Black (Netflix) I loved the increased focus on inmates who aren’t Piper in season 2. I loved all the backstory flashbacks and I continue to be in awe of their casting for the child version of the characters. This season made me love some characters even more and fleshed out some background characters in wonderful ways. It continues to be a show about the communities we find and make for ourselves and the idea that we make a difference to those around us. It’s a show that honors the relationships women can share with each other and celebrates those friendships. We saw the love Poussey has for Taystee and the way Nicky acts as a fantastic support system for Piper and Lorna at different points through the season. We see Red’s family and how much they care about her. I may quibble over their placement in the comedy categories during awards season but it did also provide me with two of my favorite lines of the season in “It’s a metaphor, you potato with eyes” and “Scatter the nuns”.
Masters of Sex (Showtime) While the second season lacked a storyline as compelling as that of the Barton family in season one, there was still plenty for me to love. At it’s core, this series is about two things. First, it’s a look into the complicated relationship shared between Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson. They fought, came back together under the guise of research, and continue to develop that intimacy that led people to believe they were a couple. When he’s with Virginia, Bill is able to open himself up just a tiny bit and be vulnerable in her presence. It’s a luxury he’s never allowed himself with Libby and the gap between them only continued to widen this season. Second, it’s about the remarkable scientific work of these two pioneers. It’s always been this side of the show that I’ve connected with most deeply and this season didn’t let me down in that regard. It looked into their study of sexual dysfunctions and the development of a treatment. It allowed for a look into Lester’s life and the desires of a man that didn’t meet the norms of the time and a look into how Barb’s past shaped her current sexual life. It looked at the cultural desire to know more about sexuality but the deep repression and unwillingness to be frank about it. It was a fascinating season and while there were some missteps, it’s still one of my favorite shows on the air.
Looking (HBO) I am so ready for this show to be back in a few weeks. Like Transparent (and Enlightened before it), it’s a half-hour long show that doesn’t specifically set out to be funny. I’m pretty sure they are all classified as comedies for the sake of awards but it’s really just an exploration of the lives of the characters. It is character-driven rather than plot- or situation-driven and it does so well. As I wrote earlier this year, as great as Jonathan Groff’s character and acting are, the highlights of this shows for me will always be Raúl Castillo as Richie and Murray Bartlett as Dom. Richie expanded Patrick’s world. He’s a character who is incredibly proud of who he is, what he does, and where he comes from and I’ve always been drawn to characters who are so sure of themselves. I’ve loved the look into his past and his current life and Castillo and Groff’s chemistry is fantastic. Dom was the character who surprised me the most over the course of his show. In just a few episodes, he grew and changed as he reached for his dreams. He took risks and opened himself up and it was beautiful to watch.
Parks and Recreation (NBC) The back half of season 6 of Parks and Recreation may not have been as strong as some previous seasons but there were some fantastic episodes and even more great moments. And realistically, if you’ve been watching a show for six seasons, it’s really the characters you are the most interested in anyway and this show has always been good to its characters. This year saw Ann and Chris leave Pawnee (in one of the best episodes of the year according to both me and Katie), Pawnee and Eagleton become one, Tom starting a restaurant and Leslie and Ben starting a family. We also got to read Ron’s version of Yelp-style reviews for all the things he dislikes, a very drunk Ben try to climb over a fence, Andy’s adorably wrong guess followed by an enthusiastic reaction to Leslie’s pregnancy, Jerry finally get a friend and champion in Ben, another moving rendition of 5000 Candles in the Wind, and a surprise appearance by Jon Hamm. If you’re still watching this show, you know how special it is. It is a show that can’t help by take up residence in the hearts of those who love it because of what this show stands for. It’s a show about a strong, talented, and loving woman who wants to make her town and the world a better place. It’s about friendship and doing good things for one another. It’s about loving people and respecting them even when your worldviews are completely different. It’s about going after your dreams and not letting anything hold you back. There’s just nothing else quite like it and it will always be one of my favorite shows for that reason.
The Mindy Project (FOX) Looking back, The Mindy Project probably had the best year of any sitcom on television, especially if you are a fan of the relationship between Danny and Mindy. Above all else, Mindy Kahling was confident in the direction she wanted to take this show. Like so many of us know, good storytelling doesn’t need to stop once two characters realize their feelings for each other and commit. Danny and Mindy’s relationship had one false start but all it did was make Mindy more confident in what she wanted so that when they got together, it wasn’t going to be a temporary fling. If it hasn’t been apparent through the rest of these posts, I love relationships that encourage both of its members to grow and change. Danny has accepted Mindy for who she is and that has given her an opportunity to do the same, now that she’s no longer trying to hide certain aspects of her life or personality. This self-confident woman who knows what she wants and refuses to settle for anything less has turned into a character to admire and I love it. Danny’s still working on opening up and dealing with change but I expect it to come in 2015.
Honorable Mentions: The Americans, Playing House, Getting On, The Flash