Top 14 TV shows of 2014
James R | On 31, Dec 2014
As 2014 comes to a close, we look back over the year’s best offerings on television. What’s fascinating about the current age of entertainment, though, is that the very definition of “TV” continues to change. Whether it’s a Minecraft video on YouTube raking in millions of views, or the resurrected Ripper Street premiering exclusively on an online retailer, what one person refers to as “television” can be something very different to another.
And so, from Vimeo’s first ever official show to dramas shown on Sky TV, we present our picks of the small screen from the past 12 months.
Here are the top 14 TV shows of 2014.
14. Hannibal Season 2
Predators and prey, hunters and hunted, carnivores and herbivores… Season 2 of Hannibal takes it relationship between Will and Mads Mikkelsen’s doctor and twists it to darker extremes, forging an all-consuming bond of respect and revenge that is coloured by the ever-shifting supporting cast and mouth-watering cinematography. Needless to say, the costume design is impeccable. Murder has never looked – or tasted – so good.
13. House of Cards Season 2
“Did you think I’d forgotten you?”
Kevin Spacey’s monologue at the start of House of Cards Season 2 is the best of the whole series, at once a shocking act of wall-breaking and a reminder of who exactly we’re dealing with. Thundering back into the station for 13 episodes, Beau Willimon’s show presents this wannabe president as an unstoppable train. Speeding ahead with a chilling smirk, it never fails to surprise you just how easy he and his wife, Claire (Robin Wright), make it look. It feels like the two of them could arrive at any destination they choose.
12. Rev Season 3
The coffers of St. Saviour’s are empty. The church seniors are looking to close the building. Adam and his wife (Olivia Colman) are losing their patience with each other. Sounds bleak? That’s because Season 3 of Rev is. And that’s a good thing. Rev’s strength has always been in its ability to take the serious with the silly: more sit than com, it’s drama first, entertainment second. The supporting cast (from Miles Jupp to Steve Evetts) occasionally slip into stereotypes but Holland and Colman always feel genuine – and it’s their marriage and Adam’s faith that fuel this run of increasingly dark episodes, which climax with a beautifully conceived Easter tale, complete with an inspired Liam Neeson cameo.
11. The Trip to Italy
“Rob can’t read poetry in his own voice because he lacks conviction.”
That’s Steve Coogan, playing Steve Coogan, talking about Rob Brydon, playing Rob Brydon. It’s par for the course for The Trip to Italy, which sees the pair team up to journey around Italy, eating, drinking and seeing who can do the best Michael Caine impression. Michael Winterbottom’s series should be insufferably smug, but plays its hand far too subtly for that. Like all the best inebriated conversations with your best friend, there are moments when the prattling seems to reach philosophical heights – maturity, via a long, immature detour. But the hilarious impressions take centre stage. It’s apt that these actors spend most of the time communicating through the medium of other people – showcasing their talent as well as their insecurity. That reliance upon pretending to be something they’re not is right at the heart of The Trip to Italy’s unique charm; a conviction as breathtaking as anything the Amalfi coast has to offer. Of course, that could just be the alcohol talking.
10. Homeland Season 4
Who knew Homeland still had life left in it? Freed from the Brody story of episodes past, Season 4 is a firecracker of a thriller, with Quinn and Carrie taking centre stage in Islamabad, facing threats from home as much as abroad. With Americans equally the bad guys and a whole new potential romance to complicate the cover-ups, it’s telling the season climaxes with a notably low-key final act, which focuses on character as much as contrived plotting. Gripping? Yes. Mature? That too.
9. Sons of Anarchy Season 7
Here we are, the final ride for Charlie Hunnam’s Jax and the California SAMCRO chapter. And Kurt Sutter’s drama pulls no punches, spares no bodies and doesn’t step down a gear, even after the feature-length opener. Bleak, sorrowful and solemnly brutal, the portentous air of this last run makes each episode seem not so much the calm before the storm, as a slightly smaller storm bookended by a really big storm and a lot of fog that’s probably hiding an even bigger one. Released directly to VOD in the UK, it’s TV’s loss – and our gain.
8. Game of Thrones Season 4
Could anything top the Red Wedding at the end of Season 3? Halfway through Game of Thrones’ typically sumptuous fourth season, we got out answer at Joffrey’s own nuptials. The biggest shocks, though, come from the violence of Prince Oberyn and Arya, who manage to be both playful and brutal in equal measure. The darkness faced by Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch is just a bonus; a showdown that reminds us that no matter anyone does, there’s still a long way to go in George RR Martin’s epic. And lots of unexpected deaths along the way.
7. Doctor Who Season 8
You could be forgiven for writing off Steven Moffat altogether after Matt Smith’s distinctly uneven time in the TARDIS, but Season 8 of Doctor Who has given the show an entirely new lease of life. Led by Peter Capaldi’s Doctor and a couple of episodes helmed by Ben Wheatley, the result is a distinctly dark and scary chapter in the Time Lord’s history, one that leaves Jenna Coleman’s Clara to step into the comedy space vacated by our former incarnation – and blossom into one of the most complex and moving companions in recent memory. On their own, our protagonists are excellent. Together, they’re sublime.
6. Arrow Season 2
While Season 3 of Arrow has just delivered a killer mid-season finale, Season 2 (released on DVD in September) has marked the peak of the show’s quality. Putting the series’ most complex thematic issue front and centre – Oliver’s new-found resolution not to kill – it tests it with old friends, new villains and unexpected betrayals. Emily Bett Rickards’ Felicity Smoak continues to prove the story’s MVP, but it’s the name-dropping of future bad guys (and setting up of The Flash) that brings the most excitement. After a slightly shaky first season, Arrow now knows exactly what it wants to be – and that confidence and ambition are thrilling to watch.
5. Penny Dreadful
When was the last time a TV show surprised you? Penny Dreadful, starring Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Timothy Dalton’s moustache, mashes up classic horror literature, such as Frankenstein and Dorian Grey to produce a piece of pulp art that sounds trashy but rings with class. How close will it stick to the stories we all know? John Logan’s script weaves it all together with a thematic taste for mortality, while Juan Antonio Bayona directs it with shadowy skill. The result is, in the case of Episode 2, utterly terrifying – and always genuinely surprising.
4. True Detective
Ernest Hemingway wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” Imagine Se7en remade for the post-Millenial age and you’re halfway to what makes True Detective so good. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson play detectives Rust and Martin, who find themselves peering into the dark abyss beneath Louisiana’s civilised, Christian surface. One alcoholic, the other violent, if these male archetypes recall Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt’s iconic partnership, the brilliance of Nic Pizzolato’s literary script is that the unbalanced Rust, all sunken face and prophetic hallucinations, is Morgan Freeman. Disturbing, full of questions and shot with cinematic style by Cary Fukunaga, True Detective is that rare TV show which meets its hype.
3. Orange Is the New Black Season 2
“Everything is different the second time around…” Orange Is the New Black may offer more of the same for its season run, but in this case, that only means more diversity: zooming out from Piper Chapman during her time behind bars, its ensemble-driven drama doesn’t manipulate or conform to stereotypes; it simply lines up human faces and gets to know them. Most importantly, though, it never makes a big deal out of it. It’s feminist, anti-racist but never heavy-handed; a piece of humanist art where equality is the aim but never an issue. Even with the bold opening one-two punch of the new and the familiar, you half know exactly what to expect from Litchfield’s ladies. And that’s no bad thing at all.
2. Happy Valley Season 1
Doctor Who director Euros Lyn and Last Tango in Halifax’s writer Sally Wainwright teamed up to create this police drama for BBC One. Sarah Lancashire stars as police sergeant Catherine Cawood, who comes face to face with the man who destroyed her family in the wake of a kidnapping. The show deals in extremes of violence ad crime, but does so with an eye for the mundane everyday life of Yorkshire; a juxtaposition that focuses on consequence as much as action, and on people as much as peril.
It’s hard to use the words “best TV show of the year” when there are so many best TV shows of the year. But Transparent, which follows Mort Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), a father who comes out to his kids as a woman, comfortably sits opposite the competition. Six Feet Under’s Jill Soloway and the cast judge the tone perfectly – half-hysterical, half-melancholic – creating a host of characters who engage because they all feel like actual humans, reinforced by the way each episode flows seamlessly into each other, more like chapters in a five-hour movie than individual stories. Sensitive and candid, Transparent is a deliberately opaque look at problems that are far from see-through – confirming Amazon as a creator of the kind of challenging and original content you would expect from HBO at its peak. After Netflix impressed with the progressive Orange Is the New Black, this – more than anything else in 2014 – feels like the start of something new. Transparent isn’t just the best TV show of the year; it’s the most important too.
Sherlock Season 3 – BBC
Crime-solving took a back seat to character in this impressively confident third run of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ detective stories.
Girls Season 3 – Sky Atlantic
Like its wonderfully drawn characters, Lena Dunham’s series about 20-somethings finding their way through New York life is increasingly mature.
The Flash Season 1 – Sky 1
The CW’s companion series to Arrow may not quite have the class of its bolt-firing cousin, but already has an impressive grasp of its own, lighter tone.
Nashville Season 2 – DVD
The country singing US series continues to entertain with its soundtrack, even if its on-screen drama occasionally wobbles.
Uncle Season 1 – BBC 3
There’s a lot to be said for BBC 3’s comedy output, with everything from Him & Her to Siblings inevitably tickling someone’s funny bone. Uncle joins the list of amusing sitcoms, with its predictable odd couple relationship (selfish uncle and innocent nephew) laced with a darkly comic edge.
Silicon Valley Season 1 – Sky Atlantic
If you’ve seen what Mike Judge did to cubicle culture in Office Space, imagine him unleashed upon the world of California tech start-ups. If you’re smiling already, this is for you.
The Leftovers – Sky Atlantic
Damon Lindelof’s sci-fi, which sees 2 per cent of the world’s population mysteriously disappear, evolves from a high-concept mystery into a complex study of grief that reaches a surprisingly moving climax.
High Maintenance – Vimeo
Vimeo’s first paid-for original series follows a pot dealer on his rounds, with each episode focusing on another one of his customers. Less a binge-viewing show and more a string of bite-sized snacks, it’s a polished, fascinating human drama.
Constantine – Amazon
Based on the Hellblazer graphic novels, this DC series is different thanks to its notably darker tone, not to mention the occult subject matter. The show’s biggest draw, though, is its casting of Matt Ryan as the titular exorcist – a performance that nails the tone of the comic books far better than most adaptations manage.