It’s been a fantastic year for TV watchers and an exhausting year for DVRs and broadband routers. Some shows that I’ve loved all along got even better, while some new surprises (“Fargo,” “Transparent”) bumped some older favorites off the list (such as “Veep”). Let’s get right to it — here are my top 10 shows for 2014:
1. “The Americans”
(FX) This exhilarating and exquisitely plotted espionage drama set in early-1980s Washington offered a near-perfect second round, especially as Keri Russell’s performance finally equaled and occasionally outpaced her co-star, Matthew Rhys. “The Americans” has everything we say we value in this “golden age of television”: high-tension storytelling, precise writing, big surprises, period details and deeply conflicted characters. The fact that it doesn’t have an Emmy — or twice as many fans — is a real puzzle. The show returns for a third season in January, leaving you just enough time to catch up.
(FX) Greeted with understandable skepticism by fans of Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 film, Noah Hawley’s 10-episode series took only what it needed from the original (setting and tone, mainly) and became a strikingly original work that stands on its own. Martin Freeman was brilliant as a loser acting on and even relishing in his worst impulses; Allison Tolman was even better as the small-town sheriff’s deputy determined to catch him. And hats (and toupees) off to Billy Bob Thornton, who delivered his best performance in years as a Mephistophelean hitman.
3. “Game of Thrones”
(HBO) The sense of sprawling, with so many parallel story lines, should be this show’s undoing; instead it’s what made it better — almost to the point that critics have run out of words and ways to praise it. “Game of Thrones” is so consistently brilliant at what it’s doing (chronicling the end of an epoch on a make-believe, medieval continent) that it’s entered the realm of permanence on the list of great TV shows of the early 21st century, up there with “Breaking Bad,” “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.” If you haven’t been watching it, fine, but know that you’re missing out on something that people will still be talking about years from now.
4. “The Walking Dead”
(AMC) The nihilistic, video-game pace of this wildly successful drama had grown tiresome (“Walking in Circles” became my pet name for it), but then a wonderful thing happened earlier this year, in the back half of season 4: After a disastrous showdown at the prison sent our survivors fleeing in different directions, “The Walking Dead’s” characters (and the actors who play them) began to show their real and deeper selves when they were on their own or in smaller groups. Standout performances included Melissa McBride (as Carol) and Norman Reedus (as Daryl); by the time the group was reunited at Camp Cannibal (I mean, Terminus) for Season 5 this fall, “The Walking Dead” felt like it was running on new fuel, even if it’s still the most depressingly hopeless show on my list.
(Amazon) Jill Soloway’s ensemble dramedy, about a father (Jeffrey Tambor) who comes out to his adult children as a transitioning woman, is on this list not only because it was so well written and performed, but also because of its excellent timing; it arrived just as our perceptions about the transgender experience are rapidly changing and catching up with other upgrades in civil rights and social respect. But rather than preach, “Transparent” bears no agenda other than to tell a great story about family whose idiosycracies are more typical than they seem.
6. “The Good Wife”
(CBS) The breakup of the Lockhart Gardner law firm and the shocking murder of Will Gardner (Josh Charles) put this drama back near the top of everyone’s list of favorite TV shows. Two other, big reasons: One, of course, is the writing — if you watch “The Good Wife” from a purely technical perspective, it rarely wastes a word (as a one-hour show on CBS, it can never afford to). The second reason is “The Good Wife’s” ability to remain relevant without seeming cheaply topical, especially in its story lines involving the unsettled legal ethics of our newly digital world. And although it might not make much sense to say so, I love “The Good Wife” because it never forgets that it’s a TV show, with all the drama and entertainingly implausible swerves that the format demands.
7. “Silicon Valley”
(HBO) When I heard Mike Judge (“Office Space,” “King of the Hill,” etc.) was making a half-hour comedy series about the high-tech world and its start-up culture’s slavish devotion to “disruption,” I yawned, imagining that there were no more jokes or stereotypes left to exploit in that particular nerdworld. Sometimes I love being wrong: Judge and company delivered a witheringly funny sendup of the real Silicon Valley. Even the extraordinarily hypersensitive tech culture admitted it was a spot-on show.
8. “Olive Kitteridge”
(HBO) What a pleasure to see Elizabeth Strout’s novel (winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2008) winnowed down and transformed into such a quietly moving and fascinating two-part movie. Frances McDormand stews and simmers as the title character, a sourpuss retired math teacher in a small New England town. “Olive Kitteridge” is like a love letter (minus most of the love) to those of us who’ve had quite enough of relentlessly positive people telling us to smile.
9. “The Roosevelts”
(PBS) Ken Burns and his collaborators keep a tireless schedule, routinely delivering quality, multipart documentaries to public-TV viewers, which have lately included dutiful slogs through the National Parks, the Prohibition era and the Dust Bowl. But the seven-part “Roosevelts” was an absorbing and even moving work of history on another level. I liked it not only for its facts and archival treasures, but also for its synthesis, which recognized and illuminated the complexities of Theodore, Franklin and, best of all, Eleanor.
10. “Orange Is the New Black”
(Netflix) Creator Jenji Kohan’s second season of the women’s prison dramedy was just as good, and sometimes a little better, than the first. Meanwhile, every business story about Netflix’s successful entry into the original-programming arena mentions “House of Cards” (snore) as the prime example of success, where it should be touting the far more interesting, more innovative “OINTB.”
Let me fix this list for you, Hank — you forgot “True Detective.”
Sorry to say, I’m still firmly in the “so what?” camp about the HBO show everyone else gave far too much praise. While I admired large chunks of “True Detective” on technical merits (I’ve watched all the episodes twice now), my ears simply couldn’t abide the excessively florid verbiage that creator/writer Nic Pizzalatto kept cramming into his characters’ mouths; it’s a real testament to the show’s stars, Woody Harrelson and especially Matthew McConaughey, that the dialogue didn’t come off sounding more pretentious than it did. I was also underwhelmed by the been-there-done-that aspect to the show’s basic serial-killer mystery and the overwrought displays of “dirty South”-style Southern-ness.
What else almost made this list?
Plenty, starting with the careful and beautifully imagined sendoff for HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” as well as strong comedies/dramedies from HBO with “Veep,” “Looking,” “Girls,” “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” and the long-awaited comeback of “The Comeback.” Also: FX’s “Louie” and “You’re the Worst” and the second season of “The Bridge.” On Starz, I loved “The Missing,” “Survivor’s Remorse” and “Outlander.” On Showtime, “Homeland” has self-corrected enough to become addictive again; I like “The Affair” more after its recent plot pivots, and I remain a big fan of “Shameless” and “Masters of Sex.” Still more, further down the list: AMC’s “Mad Men” and “Turn” (now subtitled “Washington’s Spies”); The CW’s “Jane the Virgin” and “The 100”; ABC’s “Black-ish,” Cinemax’s “The Knick,” Fox’s “Gotham,” BBC America’s “Orphan Black,” SundanceTV’s “The Honorable Woman” and a trio of Comedy Central shows (“Key & Peele,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Review”).
Some readers like the bad reviews better than the good reviews. What was the worst thing on TV in 2014?
It pains me to see Jimmy Fallon still getting high ratings for his obnoxious and increasingly stale “Tonight Show,” which relies far too much on vapid fawning over his guests, self-absorbed sketches and inane little games in which his guests must essentially prove that they can be a cool hang, too. I miss the notion that a talk show is about two people listening to each other and having something to say. That used to be known as a conversation.