The best TV shows of 2014 (part 2)

The best TV shows of 2014 (part 2)

Illustration: Dan Henrick
Illustration: Dan Henrick

Welcome to part two of The A.V. Club’s best TV shows of 2014 countdown. Part one ran yesterday; what follows are the top 10 shows of the year.

10. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver (HBO)

It was no surprise that The Daily Show correspondent John Oliver landed his own show; at this point, The Daily Show is engaged in the agriculture of growing its own competition. But before the premiere of Last Week Tonight, the biggest question about the series was how Oliver would distinguish himself from the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert format already in place: tackling the headlines with a late-night news/talk format riddled with savvy jokes and delivered by a pointed persona. The answer? Last Week Tonight offers longer-form journalism, a few leisurely segments at a time, giving viewers a format less interested in punchlines and more interested in assembling damning cases. Last Week Tonight stories—which often go farther afield of American concerns than its predecessors, covering topics like the Indian elections and LGBT rights in Uganda—use only occasional comedic tangents. (If you’ve seen the Law & Order riff from the October 5 episode, you know it’s worth the wait.) By and large, though, the segment scripts just pile on the evidence, and let the slow-burn absurdity of civil forfeiture or the surreal deceit of the Miss America pageant speak for themselves. And since Oliver’s wisely chosen not to lean too hard on a persona, going instead for an old-fashioned radio commentator zeal, he feels both wry and naturally impassioned about his subjects. It’s an attitude that’s already come to define Last Week Tonight, and set this late-night satire apart as its own amazing animal. [Genevieve Valentine]

Notable episodes: “Episode 10” (key segments: wealth inequality/CIA public image), “Episode 18” (key segments: U.S. embargo of Cuba/Miss America), “Episode 20” (key segments: 2022 Winter Olympics, civil forfeiture)

9. You’re The Worst (FX)

The “worst period generation period ever period” gave The Newsroom its sanctimonious opening salvo in 2012; in 2014, it produced the year’s two funniest situation comedies. (Speaking of Will McAvoy and Atlantis Cable News: Is any collection of TV accolades complete without a celebration of The Newsroom coming to a halt?) You’re The Worst provides millennials with their very own Harry and Sally, who meet cute in the champagne-and-cigarette haze of a mutual acquaintance’s wedding: He (Chris Geere) gets tossed out after a noisy argument with an ex (who happens to be the bride). She (Aya Cash) boosts a bottle of bubbly and a food processor that turns out to be a blender. They have sex within the first five minutes of the pilot, disposing of traditional romantic comedy tension and propelling You’re The Worst to the front of the new TV rom-com pack, a class of shows that otherwise puts too much emphasis on the “rom,” and not enough on the “com.” The hysterical narcissism of Jimmy (Geere) and Gretchen (Cash) could only repel true feelings for so long, but by the time the show’s first season transformed into a love story, it wasn’t at the expense of Jimmy and Gretchen’s previous exploits in fake-mustachioed snooping or post-brunch shenanigans. Blossoming alongside that romance were the show’s secret weapons: Desmin Borges as the PTSD-stricken, heroin-addicted source of Your The Worst’s heart, and Kether Donohue as the scene-stealing, seemingly put together embodiment of its self-destructive impulses. Viewers didn’t need a Kate Bush karaoke cover to feel for these people, but it didn’t hurt; well before Donohue’s season-finale rendition of “This Woman’s Work,” creator Stephen Falk had already done the impossible: Squeezing relatable characters out of people who’d haunt Aaron Sorkin’s dreams. [Erik Adams]

Notable episodes: Sunday Funday,” “PTSD,” “Fists And Feet And Stuff

8. Transparent (Amazon)

The opening sequence for Amazon’s Transparent, scored by a lilting piano number, shows grainy video clips of family moments through the decades, establishing the quiet but stinging emotional intensity of this knockout new series. Showrunner Jill Soloway brings a home-movie intimacy to the world of Transparent, which focuses on the wonderfully flawed Pfeffermans, a family of L.A. secular Jews. Jeffrey Tambor plays Maura, the father of the family who, late in life, begins the process of coming out to her children as a transgender woman. Teasing out the humor of family dysfunction as well as the fragility of interpersonal relationships, Transparent transcends genre and expectations. The series probes sexuality, queerness, and gender identity in ways that make it one of the year’s more sexually subversive shows, but it never claims to tell the story of all transgender people. This is a specific story, Maura’s story, and that specificity makes Transparent a beautiful character piece that never moralizes directly at the viewer. Instead, it holds up a mirror to the Pfeffermans and let’s you figure them, and their imperfections, out for yourself. This first season—which runs for a total of less than five hours—makes you love the Pfeffermans and hate the Pfeffermans. Despite its nostalgic, cozy soundtrack and romantic camerawork, Transparent doesn’t obscure its story with sentimental veneer. The script revels in the Pfeffermans’ mess, and the cast—Jay Duplass and Gaby Hoffmann in particular—throw themselves completely into scenes that bounce between manic and melancholy. Even smaller arcs—like the unraveling of the friendship between Ali (Hoffmann) and Syd (Carrie Brownstein)—slice with their honesty. [Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya]

Notable episodes:Pilot,” “Best New Girl,” “Looking Up

7. Mad Men (AMC)

Mad Men has been at the top of its and everyone else’s game for so long, it’s too easy to take for granted how beautifully and perfectly crafted it is. What other show gives us so many interwoven themes to ponder with every episode? Cast adrift following a Hershey’s pitch inspired by a Pennsylvania whorehouse, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) spends the first half of the show’s final season (to be concluded in early 2015) slowly inching, then fighting, to get back to Sterling Cooper & Partners, his real home. As the ’60s draw to a close, loss becomes a major factor: Don loses his second wife, Roger (John Slattery) loses his daughter to a hippie commune, and Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) loses his mind. References to Shangri-La throughout these seven episodes underline how everyone is looking for their own utopia. Computers threaten to take over and man actually lands on the moon, but Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), Don, and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) are just as happy with their makeshift family in a brightly lit Burger Chef, enjoying a meal as intimate as any homemade dinner. Underneath its flower-power slogans, much of the radical ’60s was about an idealistic quest for happiness; they may not wear flowers in their hair, but our Mad Men have the same yearning, and will never give up the search, just like us. Before he leaves the planet, Bert Cooper (Robert Morse) tells Don how to find what he’s looking for via a shoeless soft-shoe in the season’s bewildering yet breathtaking final scene: “The moon belongs to everyone / The best things in life are free.” [Gwen Ihnat]

Notable episodes:A Day’s Work,” “The Monolith,” “Waterloo

6. Fargo (FX)

If television shows had degrees of difficulty attached to them, Noah Hawley would be in nearly uncharted territory with Fargo. Though he had the Coen brothers’ blessing, he was making a television version of a critically-acclaimed film no sane person would try to “mimic” over 10 episodes. But Hawley consistently proved the skeptics wrong, creating a world that felt spiritually—and, it turns out, narratively—linked to the world of Marge Gunderson in the best ways. Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) evolved into a deconstruction of the so-called “antihero,” as much a villain as Billy Bob Thorton’s agent of chaos Lorne Malvo when the series came to an end. Allison Tolman’s Molly Solverson quickly emerged as one of the year’s best characters, to the point where her limited role at the end of the first season became its only significant misstep. The series’ directors delivered a striking visual experience, using the frigid Calgary winter to craft a backdrop worthy of the story being told. Given how much the series could have felt like a pale imitation, the liveliness of its universe—the deaf hitman, the nymphomaniac widow, the grocery-store magnate with the dark past—was a consistent surprise, to the point where a second season flashing back to Lou Solverson’s (Keith Carradine) time on the force raises only enthusiasm. Hawley has suggested each season is a “chapter” in the larger book of Fargo, sitting beside the Coen brothers’ original achievement: By embracing the darkly comic tragedy of this universe, Hawley backed up that claim better than we could have hoped for. [Myles McNutt]

Notable episodes:The Crocodile’s Dilemma,” “Buridan’s Ass,” “A Fox, A Rabbit, And A Cabbage

5. The Good Wife (CBS)

If the mark of a stellar television show is its ability to adapt to change, then The Good Wife vaulted itself into the upper echelon between its fifth and sixth seasons, gracefully absorbing shock waves that would reduce lesser shows to rubble. The back half of season five found legal lion Alicia Florrick (a near flawless Julianna Margulies) acclimating to drastically altered circumstances, both as the founding partner of a start-up and as a woman dealing with the slow death of one romantic relationship and the abrupt death of another. That’s in addition to management coups, office swaps, and incarcerations, the kind of story choices that could easily come off as soapy or desperate—especially with a show that’s been on this long—but The Good Wife never feels less than measured and mature. The credit goes to executive producers Robert and Michelle King, who have built a model of Chicago with so many creatures in its ecosystem, each one of them as interesting, complicated, and well-drawn as Alicia. It’s a testament to the Kings’ deft world-building that Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) came into sharp focus in season six without stealing attention from Alicia’s biggest leap yet—a slowly negotiated run for State’s Attorney. When a machine is built as soundly as The Good Wife’s Chicago, it keeps working even when one of its pieces stop moving. [Joshua Alston]

Notable episodes: The Last Call,” “Oppo Research,” “The Trial

4. True Detective (HBO)

The distance between cultural obsession and cultural backlash continues to shrink, with the Serial podcast being the latest victim of the “Everything That Thing You Like gets wrong” media cycle. True Detective, the Serial of early 2014, has done itself no favors with questionable casting announcements and the general air of déjà vu hanging over the upcoming second season. But wherever the series goes next, let’s not lose sight of the first season’s considerable achievement. Here was a self-contained eight-hour crime story, suffused with existential dread and a compelling internal mythology, entirely written by one man (creator Nic Pizzolatto) and directed by another (Cary Joji Fukunaga), with A-list talent in the lead roles (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson). For many pundits, this signified a further blurring of the line between cinema and television, yet True Detective’s primary pleasures were pure TV: It existed as much in the spaces between the episodes, in the weeks of water-cooler theorizing about Carcosa and the Yellow King, as in the Sunday night hours themselves. While some were let down by the ending, that shouldn’t overshadow the fact that most of those hours were as gripping as any aired in 2014. True Detective will be remembered for the chemistry between its leads, its time-shifting structure and doom-filled atmosphere, a heart-stopping six-minute tracking shot, and a mesmerizing McConaughey showing us the universe in a Lone Star tallboy. [Scott Von Doviak]

Notable episodes:The Long Bright Dark,” “Who Goes There,” “The Secret Fate Of All Life

3. The Americans (FX)

TV’s most edge-of-your-seat spy thriller/most poignant marriage story ended a superb first season on the suggestion that Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) were all-in on nuptials that were once nothing more than a KGB smokescreen. This year, they discovered the hard work involved in being someone’s spouse, a connection that’s exponentially complicated when the family business involves deception, infiltration, and sabotage. (And tourism. No sense in maintaining a front for your illegal counterintelligence operations if the Jennings’ travel agency can’t stay afloat.) When Elizabeth asks to spend the night with one of her husband’s alter egos, she unearths memories that her steely killer’s visage was supposed to bury; Philip’s deepened commitment to his domestic roles leaves him questioning their mission more than ever—especially when a rogue asset endangers the lives of their children. These developments brought out brilliant new shades in Russell’s and Rhys’ performances—making both actors worthy challengers to the “most versatility on a single show” throne currently held by Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany—shades that were then cast upon great work from regulars (Noah Emmerich, Alison Wright, Holly Taylor) and season-two guests (Lee Tergesen and John Carroll Lynch) alike. The personal stuff on The Americans is so good, it’s easy to overlook its political context, but the second season kept the spy games in focus with twisty dealings based on true Cold War history. And in the end, it merged its twin domestic fronts in a chilling setup for season three, revealing that the greatest danger to Elizabeth and Philip never existed in the bedroom they share—it’s actually been sleeping down the hall this whole time. [Erik Adams]

Notable episodes: Behind The Red Door,” “New Car,” “Echo

2. Broad City (Comedy Central)

Broad City is ineligible to receive extra credit for finding its comic voice so quickly; co-creators Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson had two years to let their bawdy, streetwise sensibility incubate as they fumbled with fitfully funny web vignettes. But expanding a series of shorts into a cohesive half-hour comedy is no cakewalk. It’s as unnecessarily arduous as, say, scrounging up money for a Weezy concert, dealing with a roommate who self-pleasures in communal spaces, or transporting weed crosstown by squirreling it away in your vagina—just a few of the indignities Ilana and Abbi must endure as NYC twentysomethings biding time until their real lives start. Though Ilana and Abbi’s Manhattan misadventures are as desperate as they are gross, the pair never feels like part of the suffering underclass, thanks to a friendship sweet enough to cut through all the acid. Ilana and Abbi support each other without patting themselves on the back for doing so, and they avoid judging each other despite a relationship dynamic ripe for it, given they’re at a crossroads and don’t seem to realize it yet. Ilana is content as a pot-smoking slacker, while Abbi has sparks of ambition more often than urges to spark a bowl. Their friendship is bound to grow more complex and rewarding as Broad City grows older, and if Comedy Central keeps it around for a while, upending its increasingly bro-centric lineup in the process, it’ll be proof the network has grown up too. [Joshua Alston]

Notable episodes:Fattest Asses,” “Apartment Hunters,” “Last Supper

1. Hannibal (NBC)

In a year of gorgeous TV grotesquerie, Bryan Fuller’s sumptuous re-imagining of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter stories outclassed every last Yellow King, White Walker, and Guilty Remnant. Bookended by a blood-soaked pas de deux, the second season of Hannibal was a brutal show for a brutal 365 days, split between a red-herring resolution for the Chesapeake Ripper storyline and a match of wits between stylish psychopaths Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen) and Mason Verger (Michael Pitt). Standing strong among the viscera is the story of Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) rediscovering his humanity, falsely accused of Hannibal’s murders before going after the big, immaculately clothed buck himself. What could’ve been a rote killer-of-the-week procedural with a pop-lit pedigree has (in its own words) evolved into something more distinctly warped, a psychedelic, psychological meditation on life and mortality, perception and reality. Working within (not against) broadcast Standards And Practices, Hannibal does its strongest work by omission, splashing hemoglobin on fresh snow while strongly suggesting that the scariest monster is the shape you can just barely perceive, the cornered beast lashing out in all directions, trying to pin its heinous crimes on anyone within its radius. These qualities made Hannibal the best, most elegantly designed thrill ride on TV in 2014, and it initiated a season-three chase that could be one of the greats in 2015. [Erik Adams]

Notable episodes: “Takiawase,” “Su-zakana,” “Mizumono