A.V. Club Most Read

News Newswire Great Job, Internet!
TV Club All Reviews What's On Tonight
Video All Video A.V. Undercover A.V. Cocktail Club Film Club
Reviews All Reviews Film TV Music Books
Features All Features Newswire Random Roles
Sections Film Tv Music Food Comedy Books Games Aux
Our Company About Us Contact Advertise Privacy Policy Careers RSS
Onion Inc. Sites The Onion The A.V. Club ClickHole Onion Studios

The best TV shows of 2014 (part 1)

Illustration: Dana Wulfekotte
Illustration: Dana Wulfekotte

When the viewers, creators, critics, and scholars of the future reflect on the television of the 2010s, 2014 will have a special shine to it. This year, there were more places to see original TV series than ever, yet that did nothing to dilute the quality of those series. Television is stronger than it’s ever been, as evidenced by the sheer volume and variety of programming The A.V. Club’s writers singled out as 2014’s best. TV Club reviewers came up with a list of more than 90 nominees, which was then whittled down to the absolute best shows (sorry, non-anthologized miniseries, telefilms, and one-off specials—maybe 2015 will be Too Many Cooks’ year) and ranked by A.V. Club staffers. This countdown of the top 35 TV shows of 2014 comprises streaming series and network staples, veteran dramas and freshman comedies, surprisingly good debuts and old favorites on the rebound. We’ll run down 35 through 11 today; come back tomorrow for the top 10, practically all of which can be watched on the device you’re staring at right now. You can get your TV virtually anywhere these days, but to know what shows are worth uploading to your many glowing rectangles, you have to read on.

35. Shameless (Showtime)

Shameless has always been Showtime’s shaggy, lovable little brother of a show, the one that could do great things if he just grew up and learned to apply himself. Season four takes that challenge of maturity and stares it in the face, finally giving the Gallagher family some real financial stability and then practically daring them to step up to the task of maintaining it. The heartbreaking fragility with which the family handles this slight, tenuous rise in fortunes results in the best season to date, and a particularly strong showcase for Emmy Rossum, who as family linchpin Fiona Gallagher is consistently giving one of the best (and most under-appreciated) performances on television. By finally letting Fiona have it all—and then having her tragically give it away so quickly—Shameless proves that maturity comes easy; it’s the actual growing up that’s hard. [Carrie Raisler]

Notable episodes:There’s The Rub,” “Iron City,” “Hope Springs Paternal

34. New Girl (Fox)

Heading into its fourth season, New Girl—like anyone coming off a breakup—had to learn how to get out there and have fun with its friends again. The romance between Nick and Jess had so upset the show’s dynamic that fans would have been forgiven for worrying, just as Schmidt had, that nothing would ever be the same. But once again, New Girl has proven doubters wrong. Not only has the show shaken off the emotional lugubriousness of the whole Nick-Jess affair—and in the same record time as it began—it turns out that getting the inevitability of their hooking up out of the way has actually been quite cathartic. Nick and Jess are always more fun when they’re haplessly dating other people (see: Jess’ adventures on faux-Tinder; her dalliance with a micro-penis mega-douche), and their past intimacy has now created an opportunity for needling and nurturing that’s unusual in TV relationships. And most obviously, removing their attention-hogging story has made more space for the other roommates—in particular, giving Winston a much-deserved chance to shine (or even just exist) as he attends police academy, and solidifying Coach as part of one of TV’s best comic ensembles. Now if this season could only similarly get over Schmidt and Cece. [Sean O’Neal]

Notable episodes:The Last Wedding,” “Background Check,” “Thanksgiving IV

33. The Leftovers (HBO)

Because of the way Lost ended, writer-producer Damon Lindelof will probably always be a bum to some TV fans, many of whom then took Lindelof’s work on the not exactly universally acclaimed Prometheus and Star Trek Into Darkness as confirmation that they were right to write him off. But Lindelof’s HBO adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s haunting novel The Leftovers has been a reminder of what made Lost so absorbing and so spine-tingling for so long. Exploring the lives of the people left behind in a New York small town after a rapture-like event, The Leftovers takes a complicated new world, populated by aggravating cultists and ordinary, broken folks, and breaks it down into shorter stories about people in crisis, figuring out who they’ve become and why it matters. The series is suffused with melancholy, but the alternately funny and thorny performances by the likes of Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston, and Ann Dowd—coupled with Lindelof’s sure hand throughout the first season—fill The Leftovers with a vitality that plays well against the mournful tone. This isn’t a show about solving mysteries; it’s about learning to live with them. [Noel Murray]

Notable episodes:Two Boats And A Helicopter,” “Guest,” “The Garveys At Their Best

32. Boardwalk Empire (HBO)

When Boardwalk Empire premiered, many a complaint was lodged against Steve Buscemi’s Nucky for not being intimidating enough, not believably commanding, not especially compelling. (In short, for not being Tony Soprano.) But the HBO drama’s final, somber season confirmed that, despite occasional forays into being more than “half a gangster,” Nucky’s story was never one of power. It was a tragedy, born of the compromises made out of greed and self-preservation, all stemming from a single, fateful choice. Skipping ahead to the Great Depression meant missing some colorful events from early mob history and, regrettably, leaving some of its best characters behind. (Arnold Rothstein, we hardly knew ye.) And telling the parallel story of Nucky’s decline and his childhood days working for the Commodore only underscored the feeling that this was all a coda—that, as for Nucky and Al Capone, Boardwalk’s best years were already over. Still, as the series ended by closing the loop on the intertwined lives of Nucky, Gillian, and Jimmy Darmody, Boardwalk Empire proved that, for all the flashy gangster drama that surrounded him—and for all the supporting characters who proved far more interesting—this was Nucky’s story all along. And it was as small and full of heartbreak as he was. [Sean O’Neal]

Notable episodes:Devil You Know,” “Friendless Child,” “Eldorado

31. Community (NBC)

It shouldn’t have worked. It shouldn’t have even happened: After being fired from the series he created, Dan Harmon was hired back on as showrunner for season five, a course correction following a critically disastrous year. Instead of dodging the messiness created in his absence, Harmon and his staff of writers chose to steer into the skid; while the run that closed out Community’s time on NBC wasn’t as consistently great as the glory years, the show found its voice again with impressive, and gratifying, grace. Faced with the departure of two prominent cast members (Chevy Chase before the season began and, five episodes in, Donald Glover) and the continued implausibility of the remaining characters spending time at Greendale Community College, Harmon used the flaws to explore growth, loss, and how sometimes it’s necessary to embrace implausible risk in order to find yourself. Thematic depth plus the usual high-concept tomfoolery (including a VHS video game from Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and an animated homage to G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero) rewarded long-suffering fans with something like closure. Whatever the online future holds, at least it won’t end with the gas-leak year. [Zack Handlen]

Notable episodes: Cooperative Polygraphy,” “Bondage And Beta Male Sexuality,” “G.I. Jeff

30. Orphan Black (BBC America)

Orphan Black was a sleeper hit in its first season, not gaining a significant following until the season ended and it became available on DVD and online. Once the masses caught on to Tatiana Maslany’s undeniable talent in playing multiple clones, often within a single episode, the second-season premiere became an event to anticipate. Thankfully the showrunners kept their heads about them and kept on with the stuff that made season one so outstanding: The plot followed the questions of why these clones exist and why Sarah Manning is an outlier, and the main characters (most of whom were played by Maslany) got a chance to breathe and grow and become more than just an acting showcase. Aside from a fan service clone dance party and some other small missteps, season two’s balance of character development with mystery tested Sarah’s relationship with her medically impossible daughter and with her clone sisters. Plus we witnessed the transformation of Helena from crazed villain to eccentric-but-lovable clone sister, and met the first in what promises to be a whole different batch of clones. [Laura M. Browning]

Notable episodes: Notable episodes: “Governed As It Were By Chance,” “To Hound Nature In Her Wanderings,” “Things Which Have Never Yet Been Done

29. Kroll Show (Comedy Central)

Nick Kroll clearly loves TV, and watches a lot of it, which ends up making Kroll Show both a kind-hearted tribute and a biting satire. The sketch series had a couple of nearly miraculous comedic moments in its second season: The silly one-off “Madison Chooses” spoofed Felicity with a ridiculous plot about college meal plans, while the serialized “Niece Denise” storyline followed the clueless women of PubLIZity (Kroll and Jenny Slate) through the low points of their friendship. Both Kroll and Slate—plus a gaggle of guest stars, from Zach Galifianakis to Amy Poehler and beyond—clearly have so much fun taking stabs at reality TV that it becomes almost transcendent. At its peak, Kroll Show matches the best sketch shows of all time. [Josh Modell]

Notable episodes:Krolling Around With Nick Clown,” “Cake Train,” “Blisteritos Presents Dad Academy Graduation Congraduritos Red Carpet Viewing Party

28. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox)

Brooklyn Nine-Nine came out of the gate exceedingly strong in its first season. Its cast was packed to the gills with largely untapped talent, capped off by Andre Braugher, a drama veteran who rejiggered his incredible deadpan for more humorous purposes. Just as its forbearer Parks And Recreation had done in the past, Brooklyn Nine-Nine only got better with a little time to mature. The will-they/won’t-they relationship between Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) and Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) started out as a plot device to be weary of, but it’s become an undercurrent that only highlights the chemistry of the two detectives rather than overwhelms it. Terry Crews, Joe Lo Truglio, Chelsea Peretti, and Stephanie Beatriz have each made strides with their respective characters, creating what is becoming one of TV’s top comedies. [Molly Eichel]

Notable episodes:Charges And Specs,” “The Mole,” “The Road Trip

27. Adventure Time (Cartoon Network)

In October, a Rolling Stone profile of Pendleton Ward revealed the unthinkable: The creator of Adventure Time was no longer running the show. But it’d be almost impossible to tell from the episodes that have aired this year, the series’ best yet. The parallel Adventure Time creative teams continue to generate outstanding work, a perpetual motion machine generating an awe-inspiring number of great episodes. The end of the super-sized season five saw a string of conceptually ambitious episodes that blew the world of Ooo wide open, deepening the stories of Lemongrab, Lumpy Space Princess’ doomed romance, and Ice King’s past as Simon Petrikov. And as Finn’s newly present father Martin complicates his son’s life, the ongoing sixth season has ventured into even more dangerous emotional territory: parenthood. Coupled with deep dives into the history of Ooo and the increasing visual confidence of episodes like the surreal, breathtaking “Food Chain,” Adventure Time appears ready to use its considerable heft and years of laying narrative foundations to do some of TV’s finest storytelling about grappling with the past and accepting the responsibilities of adulthood. And all that without the show’s own father at the helm. [Eric Thurm]

Notable episodes:Lemonhope,” “Breezy,” “Food Chain

26. Enlisted (Fox)

In a world where television shows are canceled before they even air, there’s a little respect to be gained when a network decides to let a show run (at least most of) its course before cutting its legs out from beneath it. In that sense, Fox did the right thing when it came to its military sitcom, Enlisted. Sure, it aired the episodes out of order, refused to give the show a decent spot in the schedule, then proceeded to switch the show’s time slot. Twice. But it did it all while broadcasting every single episode of the show, allowing the audience to follow the complete adventures of the Hill brothers—Pete (Geoff Stults), Derrick (Chris Lowell), and Randy (Parker Young)—an army family that ends up stationed on the same base, assigned to the same unit of scrubs. (“We are the Rear Detachment. Yes, we’re soldiers!”) It was a simple premise, with Stults’ hot-shot lone wolf, Lowell’s dangerously sarcastic middle child, and Young’s human puppy little brother, respectively; but simple doesn’t inherently mean unfunny, and Enlisted found both humor and genuine heart between this band of literal brothers and their unit of incompetents and sociopaths. [LaToya Ferguson]

Notable episodes:Randy Get Your Gun,” “Pete’s Airstream,” “Alive Day

25. The Knick (Cinemax)

The electrification of The Knick’s eponymous hospital factors heavily into the show’s first season, but even by gaslight, there’s a charge running through every frame of the show: in Steven Soderbergh’s direction, in Cliff Martinez’s pulsing electronic score, in the magnetism of Clive Owen’s Dr. John Thackery and the righteous fury of André Holland’s Dr. Algernon Edwards. The trials and errors of Thackery, Edwards, and their colleagues in primitive surgery looks downright alien to viewers in an era of electronic medical records and stem cell research, but that robs nothing from the thrill of watching them probe into the void. (Nor does it diminish the tragedy of their operating-theater body count.) That Soderbergh, Jack Amiel, and Michael Begler brought interior life to their ragtag ensemble (including Cara Seymour as TV’s most badass nun) is just gravy, as is their depiction of the Knickerbocker Hospital as both refuge and fortress. The real medical accomplishment here is The Knick’s revitalization of the medical drama, which had to be taken back in time in order to move forward with the rest of television. [Erik Adams]

Notable episodes: Method And Madness,” “Get The Rope,” “Crutchfield

24. Key & Peele (Comedy Central)

When Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi left Saturday Night Live right before its fifth season, the show was forced to test out some new muscles. It was uneven (SNL vet Jim Downey called it “a wobbling kind of machine”), but also produced some of the original cast’s most eccentrically ambitious material in years. While neither Keegan-Michael Key nor Jordan Peele left Key & Peele before their eponymous sketch show’s fourth season—that title just wouldn’t make sense if they did—and the wobbling wasn’t as pronounced, they did leave behind some of their most popular recurring bits. Like the never-ending car trip that served as the season’s framing device (in place of the interstitial standup segments of the first three years), Key and Peele hit out, admirably, for new territory. No new East-West game, scant traces of Obama and Luther—instead, Key & Peele spent an entire season crafting new sketches and characters that offered them the opportunity to showcase what makes it the best sketch comedy series since Mr. Show. Their peerless performing specificity elevates even lesser material and takes excellent sketches (the gay marriage briefing, the evil Make-A-Wish kid, the hilariously chilling Urkel scene) into classic TV comedy territory. [Dennis Perkins]

Notable episodes:Season Four, Episode One,” “Season Four, Episode Six” (their best Halloween episode yet), “Season Four, Episode Nine” (that aerobics sketch)

23. The Affair (Showtime)

Culture has consistently dealt with the subjectivity and unreliability of memory, from Rashomon to How I Met Your Mother. In 2014 we were treated to phenomenal examples that have made this exploration feel new: The wildly popular podcast Serial, HBO’s True Detective, and Showtime’s The Affair. The drama, following the extramarital trysts of Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson), grounds its characters in humanity, for better or for worse, but that humanity is skewed and changed depending on the perspective of who is telling their side of the story. Is Alison the sexpot free spirit or the damaged mourner? Is Noah the loving father or the lecherous adulterer? While an ambiguous crime drives the plot, the supporting cast (including Joshua Jackson and Maura Tierney) fleshes out the story, complicating the show in a way that gives Noah and Alison reasons to exist beyond their bedroom dalliances. [Molly Eichel]

Notable episodes:Pilot,” “Episode Four,” “Episode Five

22. Louie (FX)

After taking 2013 off to recover from the grueling process of making Louie’s third season, Louis C.K. returned this year with another round of episodes filled with formal experimentation and memorable performances. The series has always explored its protagonist’s relationships with women, particularly his daughters and various romantic interests, but this thread came into sharp focus in season four as C.K. took Louie to darker places in his relationships with women, for both comedic and dramatic effect. At the center of the season is the six-part “Elevator,” which took C.K.’s previous experimentation with longer-form storytelling to the next level; following that arc with the at times troubling, at times sweet three-part “Pamela” brought new depth and reflection to the series. The season featured Louie’s usual short-form comedy and drama as well, with the season-opening intrusion of garbage men on Louie’s sleep perhaps the series’ single most relatable sequence, while Jane’s decision to step off the subway became its most terrifying. This season saw C.K. take greater risks and become increasingly personal, and watching him grow as a storyteller and actor continues to be one of the series’—and television’s—true delights. [Kate Kulzick]

Notable episodes:Model,” “So Did The Fat Lady,” “Into The Woods

21. Girls (HBO)

To call the third season of Girls a return to form feels a bit hyperbolic and yet totally accurate. Its pitch dark, often meandering second season floated away from the tone that made its first season so appealing, and the middling reaction to it showed that while Lena Dunham’s self-serving characters can be grating, there’s a limit to how much the audience wants to see them steamrolled by their terrible choices. Girls’ third season immediately pushed Hannah (Dunham) back to the fore, refocusing on her neurotic quests for a career as a “real writer” and a functional relationship with someone who might not be built for one. In fact, all of Hannah’s relationships are in flux through these 12 episodes, never more than in “Beach House,” both Girls’ finest episode yet, and possibly the most impressive depiction of a crumbling friendship on television. It’s exemplary of what makes Girls work at its best: Its rewards are greater when its stakes are smaller. [Joshua Alston]

Notable episodes:Beach House,” “Flo,” “Two Plane Rides

20. Bob’s Burgers (Fox)

Bob’s Burgers blend of surreal humor and family warmth snapped into focus in 2014, as the show delivered its strongest season yet. Amid the everyday concerns of running the restaurant—a type of small-business realism that grounds the more surreal setups, and provides endless no-win scenarios—season four offered a streak of genre homages, slapstick, and pointed satire. But it’s the character growth that makes this series such a long-term payoff, with breakthrough moments during train robberies, school disasters, or the affable encroachment of Teddy into their lives. It’s one of the show’s best tricks: Aside from each Belcher’s singular, inherent oddness, Bob’s Burgers delights in building on relationships, whether it’s Tina’s soft spot for Teddy or Bob’s utter inability to drop his competitive streak. And despite occasional misses and a healthy nihilistic streak, that long, family-wide growth arc always wins the day, and makes Bob’s Burgers one of TV’s most satisfying comedies. [Genevieve Valentine]

Notable episodes:Uncle Teddy,” “The Equestranauts,” “Mazel-Tina

19. Game Of Thrones (HBO)

Early on, Game of Thrones stood out due to its multilayered narrative and commitment to making bold storytelling choices in its lush fantasy world. With each subsequent season, the show has recommitted itself to these qualities, but there’s no element of surprise anymore: We aren’t shocked by the result of the Purple Wedding, we know the battle between the Mountain and the Viper might not end like we hope it will, and we have every expectation that the attack on The Wall will be a Neil Marshall-directed spectacle on a scale rarely seen on television. Instead, the fourth season stood out due to how well the show’s formula continues to work. Entering into uncharted territory by deviating further from George R.R. Martin’s original novels, the series’ writers maintained the delicate balance of characters and locations for another year, editing and adjusting the source material in ways justified by the strength of the resulting episodes. The season’s final shot of Arya sailing off into an uncertain future captures the show at its best: characters we care about on adventures that make it excruciating to wait a week to see the next episode. [Myles McNutt]

Notable episodes:The Lion And The Rose,” “The Mountain And The Viper,” “The Children

18. Nathan For You (Comedy Central)

“Problematic” is a critical kiss-off nowadays, but Nathan For You is vital because it’s both brilliantly complicated and seriously troubling. Ostensibly a business makeover show, Nathan For You uses the commercial gimmick as a springboard: It’s part cringe comedy, part prank show, and part the story of a misfit so desperate for companionship he started his own reality show. His clients are marks, but they’re marks for schemes, tests of their social reflexes, and Nathan Fielder’s friendship. Because the Nathan character is so socially maladjusted and because Nathan For You is framed as a documentary, there are moments of real cruelty that can’t be ignored. Fielder is like a mad scientist provoking humans just to see all the beautifully weird ways they react. Much of the show’s power comes from these glimpses of humanity, the graceful and the awkward, the proper and the problematic. The “sketches” are more meticulously organized this season, exemplified by “Dumb Starbucks,” in which Fielder’s parody coffee franchise is technically considered art. With that, Fielder brings everything to the surface: producer and consumer shamelessness, artifice and sincerity, what it all means. It’s funny, thoughtful, and somehow touching, and it’s as fake as it is real. [Brandon Nowalk]

Notable episodes:Dumb Starbucks,” “Daddy’s Watching / Party Planner,” “Taxi Service / Hot Dog Stand

17. Jane The Virgin (The CW)

This critically acclaimed freshman series came out of the gate running, with charm, grace, and good humor to spare. Despite its ridiculous premise (a 23-year-old virgin is accidentally artificially inseminated) and heightened reality (one of the series’ chief assets is an omniscient voice-over known as the Latin Lover Narrator), Jane The Virgin is most notable for taking its telenovela setup and building a thoughtful portrait of a group of genuinely good people trying their best in a complicated situation. At the center is Gina Rodriguez as the eponymous virgin, who gives a tremendous performance that lends warmth and heart to this potentially wacky series. Rodriguez makes the sensible Jane fun, rather than a stick-in-the-mud, and the show’s assertion that Jane is a “virgin, not a saint” allows for a more well-rounded and relatable character. Honesty is a virtue on this series, not only for the protagonist and her family, but for the show itself, which has a refreshing disdain for drawn-out secret-keeping that pushes the series forward at an exhilarating pace. With its combination of earnest, believable pathos and laugh out loud humor, Jane The Virgin is the most addicting and lovable new network series in years. [Kate Kulzick]

Notable episodes:Chapter One,” “Chapter Four,” “Chapter Six

16. Looking (HBO)

Looking is about being young, naive, and not really knowing who you are. Looking is about being slightly older, slightly less naive, and yet still not really knowing who you are. Looking is about being unsure of where you belong but desperately hoping to find that one right someone to be unsure with together, because you need that one person to exist. Most of all, Looking—HBO’s gem following the lives of three gay men in San Francisco—is about how the people you encounter along the way shape who you’ll become. This is best illustrated in the outstanding “Looking For The Future,” an episode that chronicles a day in the life of new couple Patrick (Jonathan Groff) and Richie (Raúl Castillo) as they learn about each other and, as a result, themselves. It’s a resounding endorsement for the power of human connection, as well as the essentiality of telling stories about that connection. [Carrie Raisler]

Notable episodes:Looking For The Future,” “Looking For A Plus-One,” “Looking Glass

15. Veep (HBO)

Political TV mastermind Armando Iannucci had a lot of successes under his belt before he created Veep—most notably The Thick Of It and In The Loop—but it’s no small feat for a Brit to so accurately and incisively capture the U.S. executive branch. Focusing on the office most ignored by both pop culture and U.S. citizens in general, Iannucci poked fun at the office and the particular character in it, Selina Meyer. Julia Louis-Dreyfuss brings intense narcissism and sometimes-blind ambition to the role, and the ridiculousness her character suffers is always in the service of some greater political joke, which in season three involved a run at the White House. In particular, the so-called “abortion episode” is a perfect send-up of how women’s bodies have become politicized to the point that abortion isn’t even the issue anymore—it’s all just politics and approval ratings. Has the president called? [Laura M. Browning]

Notable episodes: The Choice,” “Debate,” “Alicia

14. Rick And Morty (Adult Swim)

In the world of Rick And Morty—the beyond-twisted version of Back To The Future brought to us by Community creator Dan Harmon and House Of Cosbys mastermind Justin Roiland (the latter of whom voices both main characters)logic and reason do not exist. Rick is young Morty’s alcoholic scientist grandpa, who drags the boy along on any number of whacked-out interstellar adventures. The creative and imaginative heights of this deceptively simply drawn animated show are stunning, as in a sequence when Rick upgrades the TV remote to feature an infinite number of alternate universes, showing worlds where detectives have baby legs, humans evolved from corn, and a guy selling electronics has ants in his eyes. Or Rick and Morty get trapped in a simulation inside a simulation inside a simulation on an alien Cigerian spaceship, scored to the sax solo from “Baker Street.” While your head is whipping around attempting to make sense of it all, Rick And Morty adds a huge dose of humor—especially with cranky Rick’s wisecracks and Morty’s dad Jerry’s cluelessness (voiced by Chris Parnell). The crazy means that Rick And Morty sometimes has to reach the end of the universe to find some heart—Jerry finally finds someone who understands him, and it’s a sub-standard clone of Rick; Morty’s parents would still be together in alternate timelines, despite their life choices in this one—but it always gets there eventually. [Gwen Ihnat]

Notable episodes:M. Night Shyam-Aliens!” “Rixty Minutes,” “Close Rick-Counters Of The Rick Kind

13. Orange Is The New Black (Netflix)

You Also Have A Pizza,” the sixth episode of Orange Is The New Black’s second season, takes its title from a monologue in which Flaca (Jackie Cruz) waxes poetic about what it feels like to be loved, a vision that includes a bath in warm chocolate pudding accompanied by The Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” It’s a remarkably nuanced reference for such a minor character, but Flaca’s affinity for Morrissey speaks to how deeply Jenji Kohan and her team think about all the women of Litchfield Penitentiary. The thoughtful approach yields rich, complex backstories for even the smallest fish in the bowl, and solidifies OITNB’s reputation as the show most likely to feature characters unlike any seen on television before. It’s also the show most likely to make novel characters feel like real people. Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba), who first appeared as a grab-bag of incongruous qualities, is fleshed out into a recognizable, even relatable woman. It’s a feat made possible by OITNB’s interest not only in what these women did to get to Litchfield, but who they were before they did it. [Joshua Alston]

Notable episodes:Looks Blue, Tastes Red,” “A Whole Other Hole,” “We Have Manners. We’re Polite

12. Rectify (SundanceTV)

In the months before everyone’s new favorite podcast Serial took its sweet time laying out a tantalizing true-crime mystery, Sundance’s slow-moving chamber drama Rectify returned for a second season to turn over a similar story, the questionable conviction of an 18-year-old for his girlfriend’s murder in the ’90s with no physical evidence. But where Serial flies at its story from every direction, Rectify comes from within, settling into its small-town rhythms. The season hinges on the question of Daniel Holden’s guilt, a question that becomes more prominent—and, yes, settled—the closer the season gets to its blurry ending. But Rectify is so much bigger than a tabloid paperback. It stretches wide across its blended family—including Clayne Crawford as Daniel’s too human brother-in-law—and deep into its history. It flashes to an out-of-time death-row stage like a Beckett way station, Daniel’s imagined sanctuary. Daniel’s roles as new member of an old family, unwitting celebrity, rape survivor, Socratic thinker, and above all a man warped and stunted by isolation positions him as a kind of alien in society. Rectify may be an investigation into Daniel’s soul, but more than anything, it’s a deeply felt, deeply thoughtful second chance at life. [Brandon Nowalk]

Notable episodes:Donald The Normal,” “Weird As You,” “Unhinged

11. Review (Comedy Central)

If Review had only introduced the phrase, “Being a racist: half a star” to the pop-culture lexicon, that would’ve been enough to lock down its place as one of 2014’s best. But Review’s producer-star Andy Daly gives so much more, starting with one of the great comic creations of the decade: Forrest MacNeil, a yeoman TV personality who delivers consumer reviews of everyday life experiences for his viewers, and in the process ruins his marriage, career, friendships, and health. Based on Phil Lloyd’s Australian series of the same name (in which Lloyd played “Myles Barlow”), Comedy Central’s Review relies heavily on Daly’s sunny-but-clueless screen persona, as he takes on new tasks in a spirit of curiosity, giddy with the possibilities of what it’ll be like to go to prom or to have sex with a celebrity. Then each episode takes a dark turn, leaving Forrest to put a positive spin on being institutionalized or accidentally killing a person. Review is a brutally hilarious show with a sweet center in Daly’s Forrest, a man who keeps smiling even as he begins to recognize the real message he’s broadcasting: “There all is aching.” [Noel Murray]

Notable episodes: “Pancakes; Divorce; Pancakes,” “Best Friend; Space,” “Revenge; Getting Rich; Aching”

Tomorrow: Spies, cops, lawyers, innovative uses for human flesh, hilarious layabouts, seemingly ill-advised adaptations, and scathing social commentary—yes, these (and many, many others) are the components that make up The A.V. Club’s picks for the top 10 TV shows of 2014. But where will they fall, and which will be declared the best? Stay tuned to find out.