Though each year presents itself with more misses than hits, television seems to get better and better. Narrowing down a list of 10 shows that represent the best a year had to offer is damn near impossible, not just because there are far more than 10 fantastic television shows, but because it’s absurd to think it’s possible for any one person to watch everything. Alas, here are my top 10 picks for 2014.
FUNNY OR DIE’S BILLY ON THE STREET (Fuse)
Seasons 1-3 available on Amazon Prime; Season 4 premieres in 2015
Billy Eichner’s nonsensical pop culture game show is on this list for one very important reason: it makes me laugh more than any other show on television. I could have chosen a standard comedy instead, such as the incredible third season of HBO’s foul-mouthed “Veep,” or the comeback season of NBC-turned-Yahoo sitcom, “Community,” but stating how superb those shows are feels rather obvious at this point in their respective runs. His “For a Dollar” segments are always the best part of any given episode, and few things are as funny as watching him argue with a money-hungry New Yorker over whether or not Denzel Washington played the Phantom in “Phantom of the Opera.”
The frequent “Parks and Recreation” personality broke out in a big way this year, both on the cult NBC comedy, and as part of a pre-taped segment at the Emmys that paired him with host Seth Meyers as they raced around New York City, disrupting the lives of varied passers-by with questions about this year’s most buzzed about nominees and snubs. In 2015, he’ll appear alongside comedienne Julie Klausner in a new Amy Poehler-produced sitcom for Hulu.
Seasons 1-3 available on Showtime Anytime; Season 4 begins January 11 at 10:30 P.M.
Former “Friends” star Matt LcBlanc plays a fictitious version of himself in a show about a husband-and-wife creative team who are coerced into recreating their acclaimed BBC comedy for an American broadcast network. What was once a show about a prestigious boarding school and its esteemed headmaster quickly becomes an insufferable show called “Pucks!,” about a public school hockey coach portrayed by LeBlanc, and his eagerness to bed the school’s lesbian librarian. The show is less about the show within a show, though, and more about the stresses its production is causing a cast and crew who are reluctantly taking part in a primetime disaster.
In its second season, “Episodes” went broad. It was less a satire on show business and more about the interpersonal relationships that existed amongst its core group of characters. In its third, and arguably best season, writers David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik found just the right balance of satirical and relationship humor to take their comedy above and beyond, making it one of television’s sharpest programs. This highly dysfunctional comedy became the best possible version of itself, and as a result, an absolute must-see program in Sunday’s overcrowded prime time landscape.
Season 1 available on iTunes; Season 2 airing Thursdays at 8:30 P.M.
Multi-camera sitcoms shot in front of a live audience are largely discredited these days, and yet, they remain some of television’s most popular shows (e.g., “The Big Bang Theory”), and they continue to repeat better than any single-camera comedy (e.g., “The Office”) that has ever made it into broadcast syndication.
CBS’ “Mom” is arguably the greatest family sitcom since “Roseanne.” Like the classic ’90s sitcom, the show manages to tackle serious issues without ever breaking a sweat. Alison Janney (“The West Wing”) and Anna Faris (“Scary Movie” franchise) portray a formerly estranged mother-daughter duo who are both overcoming years of drug and alcohol addiction and rely on their newfound co-dependency to remain above the influence. Meanwhile, Faris’ daughter is a high school senior who’s in danger of following in her grandmother and mother’s footsteps following an unplanned teenage pregnancy.
The show tackles more issues than any one blurb can detail, including – but not limited to – drug and alcohol dependency, teenage pregnancy, economic debt as a result of years of abuse, bastard fathers, prison sentences, and terminal cancer, and still, it somehow manages to be gust-bustingly funny. That’s quite an accomplishment if you ask me.
BROOKLYN NINE-NINE (Fox)
Season 1 available on Hulu Plus; Season 2 airing Sundays at 8:30 P.M.
“Mom” might be the bravest network sitcom, but it’s not always aiming to be the funniest. ”Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is, and nine and a half times out of 10, it succeeds at being just that. No other contemporary comedy on network or cable television has been as sure of its identity from the get-go. It mixes elements of the standard workplace sitcom and the modern day police procedural to assure even the casual viewer feels as though they’re watching something familiar, and it interlaces those components with easy-to-connect plot threads, such as interpersonal office relationships and ongoing criminal investigations. The stellar writing is further enhanced by a top-notch ensemble that includes “Saturday Night Live” veteran, Andy Samberg, former “Homicide” and “Men of a Certain Age” star, Andre Braugher, “Expendables” star Terry Crews, and comedians Joe Lo Truglio and Chelsea Peretti.
JANE THE VIRGIN (The CW)
Select episodes available on Hulu Plus; Season 1 airing Mondays at 9:00 P.M.
“Jane the Virgin” has no right to be anywhere near as good as it is. It’s a telenovela targeted towards teens on a network largely skipped over by both critics and Emmy voters. And yet, it has captured the hearts of millions, and garnered the best reviews of any new show this fall.
In less than 10 episodes, “Jane” has gone from a fantastical tale of a virgin who becomes accidentally inseminated by a man she once longed for, to a show about a murder-mystery, to a show about a woman reconnecting with her father. It’s funny, it’s smart, and it’s unique. It’s charming, it’s heartfelt, and it’s superbly acted. Furthermore, Gina Rodriguez has all the makings of a breakout star. Best of all, it’s not too late to catch up!
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (Netflix)
Seasons 1-2 available on Netflix; Season 3 premieres June 2015
Season two of “Orange is the New Black” feels like it aired ages ago, but that has more to do with the fact that Netflix releases all 13 episodes in one day, leaving fans to wait for nearly 364 days before their next binge of this critically acclaimed prison dramedy. Its sophomore run managed to be better than its first by expanding upon the supporting cast and not shining the spotlight on any one character for too long. Piper (Taylor Schilling) became less central, while recurring guest stars Lorraine Toussaint and Barbara Rosenblat gave career-defining performances as the villainous Vee, and terminal inmate Rosa.
Seasons 1-3 available on Netflix, Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime; Season 4 available on iTunes; Season 5 premieres May 2015
“Louie” had its strongest (and most experimental) season yet. The fact that it’s not number one on this list is a sign of just how damn good television was in 2014. The comedy stopped being funny, and it was still among the best half-hours on television.
The one-man show, which Louis C.K. writes, produces and directs mainly on his own, was less concerned with getting laughs this year. Instead, the show tackled multiple episode arcs, including two multi-part love stories and a two-parter about the comedian’s own childhood. Perhaps the best episode, though, was the standalone “So Did the Fat Lady,” an installment that found the comedian reluctantly going out on a date with a plus-sized waitress. In the episode, his date gives a lengthy monologue regarding a man’s impossible expectations of beauty, and the double standards women face out in the dating world. Actress Sarah Baker (“Go On”) was rightfully praised for her performance, and profiled by The New York Times.
THE AFFAIR (Showtime)
Season 1 available on Showtime Anytime and Showtime on Demand; Season 1 airing Sundays at 10:00 P.M.
Showtime’s “The Affair” could have easily fallen apart over the course of its first season, and frankly it still could. All it’d take is one misstep to throw the whole damn thing out of whack.
At this point, the show stands as one of this year’s best. Almost miraculously, it managed to avoid sinking under the pressure of its own restrictive storytelling structures. Too often, high stakes dramas are diluted by unbelievable characters, but creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi (“In Treatment”) have managed to tell a story about non-fantastical characters that are often unlikeable, but always real. Sharp characterization has been matched by equally sharp, adulterous performances by Dominic West (“The Wire”) and Ruth Wilson (“Luther”), and their on-screen spouses, as portrayed by Maura Tierney (“ER”) and Joshua Jackson (“Fringe”). The show stayed above water by going against what was expected of a potentially long-running drama, revealing the titular tryst to outsiders before its freshman run was even up. Hopefully, it can maintain its high caliber of storytelling the last two episodes of season one, and when the show returns next fall for season two.
TRANSPARENT (Amazon Prime)
Season 1 available on Amazon Prime; Season 2 premieres in 2015
Amazon finally broke out as a destination for original programming this year, and it do so in a really big way. “Transparent” is not only the best original series produced by Amazon Studios, but the best comedy and drama of the year.
“Transparent” is a transcendent masterpiece on the precipice of a socio-gender revolution. Jeffrey Tambor inhibits the role of Maura Phefferman with grace, subtlety and humility in the best new half-hour of 2014. The former “Arrested Development” star gives a fearless performance, and the performance of his career, as an elderly transwoman who realizes she’s been living her whole life dressing up as a man. He, alongside Gaby Hoffmann, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass and Judith Light, make the world of “Transparent” a world we’d like to pop in on, if only from time-to-time, as we get to know more about this family of lost souls. The first season ended even stronger than it started, and it’s hard to imagine this show going anywhere but up. Among both comedy and drama, the sheer quality was simply unmatched.
LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER (HBO)
Season 1 available on HBOGo; Season 2 begins February 8 at 11:00 P.M.
Much like “Billy on the Street,” John Oliver’s foray into late night probably shouldn’t be on a list of scripted comedies and dramas that hover around in fictitious worlds with fictitious characters, but there’s absolutely no denying that “Last Week Tonight” was the most consistent, and perhaps the most important new show of the year. Concerns about whether Oliver’s show would be too similar to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and the soon-to-end “The Colbert Report” were squashed mere minutes into episode one when the comedian broke into a 13+ minute discussion on concerns surrounding net neutrality. In the weeks that followed, the host and his writers utilized the privilege they had over Stewart and Colbert by having a commercial-free telecast to do more long-form segments, such as a piece on our nation’s broken prison system, and later on, a bizarre telling of an increasing problem with civil forfeiture. The show commented just as often on hot-button issues, such as the unnecessary extravagance of the FIFA World Cup, and later on, the unnecessary militarization of Ferguson’s police department during the first round of protests surrounding the killing of Michael Brown. His short-form pieces were just as great, such as his frequent “How is this still a thing?” segments, and his takedown of the United States’ continued celebration of Columbus Day.
The show is currently on hiatus through February 8, and its absence has been felt. In just seven months, the show became an unlikely phenomenon in the realm of investigative journalism.