In June, The A.V. Club’s Tournament Of Episodes exhaustively catalogued and accurately identified (with no room for further debate) the finest television episodes of the 2013-14 season, declaring The Good Wife’s “Hitting The Fan” the absolute best. Because that feature partially pulled from the past six-plus months of television, to once more exhaustively catalog and accurately identify (with no room for further debate) 2014’s best TV would be redundant. In an effort to keep things fresh and to avoid all redundancies, The A.V. Club instead presents this list of the series debuts that caught our fancy during the year to date. While some new favorites haven’t aired enough episodes to merit inclusion (sorry, The Leftovers—check back in December), here’s a handful of shows whose first seasons deserve appreciation, catch-up binges, and a season pass in 2015.
The CW is the last place you’d expect to find the most compelling science fiction currently on television—especially at midseason. But when The 100 premiered in March, the show quickly announced itself as exactly that. Set in a post-apocalyptic future where Earth was devastated by nuclear war—leaving only the humans on space stations unharmed—The 100 follows a group of 100 juvenile delinquents forced to investigate Earth’s potential for rehabitation. Splitting time between the teenagers on the ground and the adults (on a quickly deteriorating space station) who sent them there, The 100 deftly navigates both the struggle of kids trying to build their own society and the politics of the adults left behind. Throughout the season the “ground” stories became increasingly more exciting, eschewing most teen-drama convention (aside from one ill-advised love triangle) and focusing on interesting questions like who has the right to inhabit the land and the moral responsibilities of being a successful leader. Everything comes to a head in the fantastic two-part season finale, setting a whole new story in motion and proving that The 100 is just getting started.
One to watch: “Earth Kills,” which hints at just how dark and morally complex the show will become. [CR]
Broad City (Comedy Central)
Comedy Central’s original programming is consistently fantastic, but Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s Broad City is next level—a much-needed antidote to everything else on television, an unexpectedly poignant and timely love letter to female friendship, and a bitingly funny perspective on life as a young woman in a big city. It’s not just a great show; it articulates a moment. Of course, it helps that the show is wickedly hilarious, sometimes witty, sometimes gross, but never boring. Its protagonists, Abbi and Ilana—best friends in real life and in the show—are engaged in a relationship that they are both, in different ways, fanatically devoted to. And in their attempts to support each another, find themselves, and survive in the city, they hit a sweet spot of engaging comedy that feels more relevant than any other ongoing sitcom.
One to watch: “Stolen Phone” is a great introduction to the show—clear, contained premise, limited outside characters, and fantastic work by the two leads. [SS]
Woe to those who missed the boat on Enlisted. Rarely has a show been able to hit a trifecta of funny, sweet, and assured so early in its run—too bad it’s already been canceled. Based on the familial experiences of creator Kevin Biegel, Enlisted follows three brothers working on an Army base in Florida. Comedies have been made about war before, but Enlisted expertly homed in on issues faced not only by active soldiers, but the families left behind while their loved ones fight overseas. The ensemble—anchored by Geoff Stults, Chris Lowell, and Parker Young—gelled so well, even in the show’s few episodes, it was as if they had been working together for years. It’s a shame Fox buried this gem on Fridays, guaranteeing that few people would join the Rear D family.
One to watch: “Pete’s Airstream,” in which the show masterfully illuminates the pain of post-traumatic stress disorder without ever uttering the words. And yet it’s still a hilarious episode of television. [ME]
A fool’s errand: The potential title for a future episode of Fargo or the consensus on adapting the Coen brothers’ most beloved film for television? Prior to this April, it was almost certainly the latter, with a failed 1997 pilot (starring a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco) serving as evidence that Minnesota-nice noir didn’t fit the small screen. Flash forward—with an elegant visual transition—to June 2014, and a television audience breathlessly awaiting the fates of devilish con man Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), Faustian insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), and 2014’s most persistent and endearing law enforcement agent, Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman). Drawing on the feel of the Coens’ film rather than any specific characters or plot points, showrunner Noah Hawley ground 16 years of difficult men through the woodchipper, coming up with a compelling fable and a fictional population far richer and more allegorical than any Sopranos or Breaking Bad imitator. Much of that comes down to the setting evoked by the title, Midwestern ground previously trod by Jerry Lundegaard and Marge Gunderson, but no less ripe for the new representatives of good, evil, and the thin ice in between.
One to watch: “Buridan’s Ass,” and the whiteout climax in which being on the side of right is no better shield than a pillowy outer layer of down. [EA]
Looking is a model of TV romance. Airing in the Enlightened slot next to Girls, Looking carries its complex, push-pull human-drama torch with the story of the lives and loves of three gay men in San Francisco. Unlike many gay TV stories, the characters on Looking are well past coming out, and AIDS is a present but background threat. Instead they’re just trying to find love. Dom the 40-year-old man-child and Agustín the alienating depressive get little arcs, but the main story is that of Jonathan Groff’s game designer, Patrick. Torn between his unavailable boss and his working-class crush, Patrick’s feelings represent the tension between perception and self, the past and the future, and plenty else besides. What seems like such a mundane urban romance unfurls to reveal so much meaning packed inside, from the long tail of oppression to the life-changing wonders of peri-peri chicken. Directed primarily by showrunner Andrew Haigh, Looking makes expert use of immersive long shots to show San Francisco at its sweetest. Rather than just recording, the camera tells the story on Looking, making an everyday love story with a twist one of the most cinematic shows on television.
One to watch: There’s an extra kick in the way “Looking For The Future” upends the structure of the show, but even diving in cold, this gay Before Sunrise is a beautiful example of what Looking (and television) can do. [BN]
Penny Dreadful (Showtime)
Fabulously, decadently gothic, Penny Dreadful’s Victorian horror show is like nothing else on television—a moody costume drama with vampires, sharpshooters, and tubercular maidens. In the late 1800s, it would have been very good genre fiction. In 2014, it’s a marvelous oddity, one that follows the conventions of a form that was perfected over a century ago. At times, it’s uneven, but the sheer adventurousness of showrunner John Logan’s vision, as well as a transformative performance from Eva Green, makes it hard to stop watching. Above all, Penny Dreadful is just different: It’s willing to embrace exorcism as therapy, Freudian-themed sex as a form of demon possession, and Dr. Frankenstein’s creation as both a monster and a man.
One to watch: “Possession” is the show’s best episode, but it’s also just one episode before the end. Try “Séance” to get a sense of the show’s style without spoiling the plot—and it includes a 10-minute continuous demon possession that is absolutely arresting. [SS]
Television has become a woman’s medium, as the major film market continues to satiate the needs of teenage boys. There are strong heroines in all corners of the television landscape, but few have illustrated one aspect of womanhood as well as Playing House: The unbreakable bonds of female friendship. Playing House is a show about surrogate families created through this intense bond. Stars and creators Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair bring their real-world friendship to a fictional setting. Watching these two interact with each other on-screen feels so real and natural that it’s easy to assume that they would be doing the exact same things even if cameras weren’t rolling. But Parham and St. Clair are affable creators, giving away many of the best laughs on their show to their excellent ensemble, including Keegan-Michael Key and Zach Woods. Playing House feels lived-in, even in its first season. Let’s hope USA wants to come out and play for another season.
One to watch: “Let’s Have A Baby,” featuring the series’ most heartfelt scene as St. Clair encourages Parham as she gives birth to her first child. [ME]
It took a while for Comedy Central to find a spot for Review in its lineup, and it only takes a few minutes of the pilot to understand why. The show-within-a-show is an absurdist window into the human psyche that can go from hilarious to horrifying within the blink of an eye. Host Forrest MacNeil (Andy Daly) reviews experiences like making a sex tape and going to space for his viewers, but he also takes on mindsets, like having road rage or being racist. He doesn’t just try cocaine; he tries becoming an addict. As MacNeil commits himself more completely to the show, letting everything but the review fall to the wayside, the show gets more uncomfortable and more revealing about the human experience than either MacNeil or the audience could have anticipated. Daly isn’t an obvious choice for a leading man—with his radio-announcer baritone and an aesthetic that’s best described as “squarest dad at the picnic”—but there are few who are as adept at toeing the line between the bizarre and the sublime as he is. Daly’s portrayal of a man losing everything in the pursuit of truth contains some of the most satisfying and provoking comedy seen on television in years.
One to watch: “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes” has rightly been identified as a series highlight, but “Sex Tape, Racist, Hunting” is an excellent primer. [CF]
Silicon Valley (HBO)
Comedy has always had a home on HBO, but the network’s rise as a dramatic powerhouse often overshadows the hilarious programming that follows the latest hour of dragons, post-rapture stress, and/or gangsters. Not so in 2014: Veep’s third season was also the political send-up’s funniest, and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver is well on its way to transcending any comparisons to Oliver’s other fake-news work. Leading into those two shows for eight weeks this spring was Silicon Valley, Mike Judge’s return to series television that marks the poke in the iPhone that the tech industry has been begging for in recent years. More to the point, there are jokes in Silicon Valley, be they the sniping that occurs between the show’s central programmers or the eccentric declarations of venture capitalist Peter Gregory (the late Christopher Evan Welch, who gets one of the season’s biggest laughs by merely saying the name of a fast food chain). There’s always the chance that the feel-good bro vibes of the show could turn it into Entourage: Palo Alto Edition, but Judge and team are too smart to ever let that happen.
One to watch: “Optimal Tip-To-Tip Efficiency,” the season finale that made the phrase “elaborate, Emmy-nominated dick joke” a reality. [EA]
True Detective (HBO)
HBO’s much-discussed anthology miniseries has been overhyped, reviled, nominated for a few Emmys, and compared unfavorably to shows like Fargo, which took on the same sort of format but with a different tone. Underneath all the chatter is the show itself—a slim season of just eight episodes, pulled together almost entirely by powerful performances and meditative, rambling cinematography. At this point it’s hard to forget the fanboys while giving the show a chance—but the show is well worth it, regardless of what anyone else has written about it. True Detective offers a take on masculinity that is both critical of its pretensions and loving of its failings; it couches this in a sun-dappled Louisiana setting in which a monster is hunting down women and children. More than just a show, True Detective aspires to be a parable on morality, and when or if that lands, it’s like an arrow to the heart.
One to watch: “The Secret Fate Of All Life” is the show’s finest hour. It’s five episodes in, but it’s the easiest to watch, because a lot happens—in a show where the plot is nearly beside the point. [SS]
Vicious is a comedy about a group of elderly friends whiling away their days one-upping each other’s insults. Freddie (Ian McKellen as a pompous retired actor) and Stuart (Derek Jacobi as Freddie’s tittering partner), center the group by hosting in their baroque, over-designed flat and by setting the mood with their comical in-fighting. Freddie holds a grudge because Stuart still hasn’t come out to his mother, Stuart thinks Freddie’s full of himself, and so on. It’s like The Golden Girls crossed with The Honeymooners (in the “One of these days, Alice” sense)—only it’s British and cranked to 11. In ’70s sitcom fashion, the couple is contrasted against its opposite, Iwan Rheon’s fresh-faced youth, Ash, who enjoys the attentions of both the men. And then there’s the Samantha of the group, Frances De La Tour’s Violet. Not only is Vicious one of the purest comedies on TV—more concerned with its setup-punchline rhythm than yanking on the audience’s heartstrings—but it’s also the peak of the multi-camera format. With actors like McKellen and De La Tour, Vicious boasts full-bodied performances that land every little zinger with maximum finesse, and its throwback visual style fits its discarded characters like a glove. Vicious knows it’s anachronistic. That’s part of the point.
One to watch: The premise of every episode is a sitcom staple—the club episode, the dinner party episode—so why not start at the beginning? Meet Freddie, Stuart, Ash, and Violet in “Episode 1” as they launch the show with, what else, a funeral episode. [BN]