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The 30 best TV shows of 2014

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

It was another astoundingly good year for television. When I sat down to make my annual list of shows, I had so many potential options that I could have easily done a top 100 list and filled it with shows I mostly liked. It can be easy to forget that there's so much good TV, because there's so much trash out there, too. But the explosion of outlets offering programming has meant that many of them are cranking out incredible shows, sometimes by accident. (Indeed, this top 30 represents 16 separate networks or streaming services.) Consider this a list of shows worth catching up over your holiday break. And come back next week for even more shows that didn't fit on this list.

    The Top 30 TV Shows of 2014

  1. Mom (CBS)

    The latest sitcom from longtime comedy titan Chuck Lorre (he of Two and a Half Men and Big Bang Theory) might be the best thing he's ever put his name on: a wrenching exploration of never having enough cash and struggling with addiction that boasts two of TV's best performances from Allison Janney and Anna Faris. The show's second season is turning into a quiet knockout.

  2. Shameless (Showtime)

    This is apparently the "dealing with poverty" section of the list, because Showtime's story of the family Gallagher — Chicagoans always dancing just ahead of utter desolation — reached perhaps its most desperate, darkest moments in season four. Emmy Rossum has always been a treasure as eldest daughter Fiona, but even William H. Macy, long forced to play the show's weakest link in patriarch Frank, got some terrific material to play this year.

  3. Girls (HBO)

    Paradoxically, the "better" Girls gets, the more it slips down my list. The first season was slapdash and a little messy, while the second season was all over the place. But both performed much better with me than this third season, which had a quiet consistency and competence that was easy to appreciate but hard to get too excited about. Still, two episodes — isolated getaway "Beach House" and hospital visit "Flo" — stacked up nicely against anything else TV offered this year.

  4. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

    I am allergic to placing late-night talk shows on my list, alongside all of my precious scripted dramas and comedies. But John Oliver's new show was such a groundbreaking inversion of what we expect from the form — featuring long, thoughtfully reported pieces that were still gutbustingly funny — that it was hard for me not to include it. I can't wait to see what Oliver and company accomplish in season two, now that the kinks are worked out.

  5. Jane the Virgin (The CW)

    This show should not work. It should be a trashy, over-the-top, soapy mess. Its premise involves a virgin who's accidentally artificially inseminated, then decides to keep the baby. Many of its motivations beggar belief. But the show revels in just how preposterous it is by underlining its wacky plot at every turn, then daring us to get invested, because the characters and their world are so richly drawn. No new TV series had a bigger heart than this one, and that has served it well.

  6. Manhattan (WGN America)

    Though it got off to a slow start, this fictionalized account of the Manhattan Project built to an impressive head of steam by the end of its first season. Cool and collected, the series examined the process of chain reactions, not just in the world of nuclear physics, but in the way that people forced to live in close proximity to each other have a tendency to, well, explode. I'm positively ravenous for whatever season two might bring.

  7. Black-ish (ABC)

    So much of the media attention paid to this show has been about its diversity, about the fact that it's the first major network sitcom in ages to focus on a black family. But just as much should be paid to the uniquely hilarious comic worldview of creator Kenya Barris, who rarely settles for the obvious joke and has sharp, piercing insight into the ways parents and children relate to each other, and all of the ways that men both embrace and chafe against an outwardly comfortable existence.

  8. Getting On (HBO)

    There are few grimmer series than this HBO comedy — set in an elder-care ward — but there are also few more rewarding ones. Television isn't terribly good at looking directly at death, but the genius of Getting On is how it understands that to have to do so every day, without flinching, would eventually make you just have to search for any way out, even if it involved petty schemes and manipulations of office politics, as the show's characters indulge in.

  9. Homeland (Showtime)

    Yeah, the season finale was a major letdown. But the 11 episodes leading up to it had so much good stuff in them that I worry I'm underrating this one a little bit. Homeland used to be a weird, psychological thriller, and it's traded that in to primarily be an action-driven spy story. But it's really good at being an action-driven spy story, and it buries surprisingly acute critiques of American foreign policy in the middle of that storytelling. Season four was a definite rebound for a show that needed one.

  10. Adventure Time (Cartoon Network)

    Truth be told, I'm finding the show's increasing sprawl in its latest episodes a bit of a mess. But the back half of its fifth season — which concluded last spring — might have been the best stretch of episodes the series ever came up with, as protagonist Finn crossed definitively from childhood to adolescence, with all the attendant growing pains. With every new season, every new episode, Adventure Time's choice to tell this coming-of-age story metaphorically, rather than directly, seems more and more a stroke of genius.

  11. The Good Wife (CBS)

    The show squandered a bit of its momentum in the second half of its fifth season — I am someone who thought the aftermath of the season's big death was a huge mixed bag — but this is still one of TV's most thoughtful, complex series, offering up a panoply of fantastic characters and a willingness to experiment with storytelling that even much more consistent series could do well to learn from. And the start of the sixth season heralds a year that may be the show's most ambitious yet.

  12. Rick and Morty (Adult Swim)

    Wildly ingenious and funny, this Adult Swim riff on Back to the Future (with better misanthropy) was the series Community creator Dan Harmon turned to in the year he was kicked off that show. (He co-created this one with Justin Roiland.) And in so many ways, Rick and Morty feels like that earlier series unfiltered, the ideas of its creators spewing all over the place in glorious, animated wonder and in stories that are rarely predictable and always hilarious. What other TV show would feature a TV set that periodically lets you in on what's happening in alternate universes, entirely via those other universes' television programming? There isn't one, just this slice of madness.

  13. Louie (FX)

    The fourth season of this show was by far its most epic. At one point, creator, writer, director, and star Louis C.K. gave over several weeks to the story of his character romancing an Eastern European woman, a distinct break from the series' previous standalone nature. That resulted in the occasional sense that C.K. had bitten off more than he could chew, and was raising topics (like, say, violence against women) just to raise them, rather than to really discuss them. But it also resulted in some of the show's best, most brilliant episodes, like hour-long flashback "In the Woods" or ingenious slice of privileged life "Model."

  14. Looking (HBO)

    The rise of the art sitcom — loosely plotted half-hours that don't particularly care if they make you heartily laugh — reached a new apex in this chronicle of three gay men's lives in San Francisco. This is a show filled with great characters and bold storytelling that thinks nothing of tossing all of that aside for an episode that just portrays one long, eventuful day in the lives of two of them. It's a very small show with the experimental soul of a much larger one, and it will be fascinating to see what the series can do with more episodes to utilize in its second season.

  15. Fargo (FX)

    Here's another show that shouldn't have worked. Updating the Coen brothers' classic film seems an act of madness, destined for failure. But instead, series writer Noah Hawley dug in and found elements of the film that he could bring to what amounted to a miniseries remix of several of the directors' greatest films. And in so doing, he found a way to portray nothing less than the battle between good and evil in the middle of the frozen Minnesota wilds. This series was as thrillingly, heartstoppingly visual — all those empty snowscapes! — as anything in the history of television, and it backed it all up with vital characters, played by great actors.

  16. Olive Kitteridge (HBO)

    Miniseries are another TV oddity I have trouble stacking up against traditional TV, but I had to make room for this Lisa Cholodenko-helmed series, which was one of the quietest treats of the year. The series has as rich a sense of place — a small town in Maine — as any TV project you're likely to think of, and in Frances McDormand's work as the title character, TV might have found its performance of the year. Olive Kitteridge is not an easy woman to like, but McDormand all but forces you to recognize what's human in her. That's no easy feat, but both McDormand and Cholodenko made it seem easy.

  17. The Walking Dead (AMC)

    I'm as surprised as anyone to realize how much I'm digging this show this year. Yeah, it still has trouble telling stories larger than an episode or two, but those episodes are often brutal and brilliant, digging deep into what it would be to live amid the zombie apocalypse. The show has doubled down on its characters, something that wouldn't have worked even a year ago, and that gamble has more than paid off, as the ensemble is now filled with figures who are far more than fodder for the series' omnipresent "walkers." If this was where the show could go in 2014, maybe 2015 will bring even better things.

  18. Mad Men (AMC)

    AMC made a huge mistake in cutting the final season of Matthew Weiner's magnum opus about 1960s America in two. All Mad Men seasons take their time to set their beautifully designed and costumed dominoes in a row, before Weiner gleefully starts knocking them over, and this season was no exception. But then, right as the story was getting going, with two of the best episodes the series had ever managed, it stopped, going away for a year. That bodes well for the spring's final set of seven episodes, but it still made for a weird half-season of TV.

  19. Bob's Burgers (Fox)

    Fox has finally realized the buried treasure it's always had in this show, placing it after Family Guy, where it's done much better in the ratings. Those who are just getting caught up with the beauties of the family Belcher will have much joyfulness in store, even when only 2014 episodes are considered. This is frequently TV's most delightful show, creating a world filled with hilarious characters at every level. It's also the only series on TV that would dare stage a full musical version of Working Girl mashed up with a full musical version of Die Hard. So you have that to look forward to.

  20. Review with Forrest MacNeil (Comedy Central)

    Andrew Daly's remake of an Australian series sat on a shelf for a year before Comedy Central put it on the air. All that viewers were missing was one of TV's best shows. No big deal. The show's central conceit — a man reviews the tiny things that make up life itself on some sort of public access TV show — is so weird that it seems as if this will be a kind of ersatz sketch comedy with a single central figure. But as the season goes on, it becomes all the more apparent that Daly and company intend to take this idea deadly seriously. In so doing, they turn the show into one of TV's funniest comedies — and most moving tragedies. Sometimes in the same scene.

  21. Person of Interest (CBS)

    No crime procedural should be this smart. No science-fiction show should provide such enjoyable detective stories. And no action series should feature characters with this much depth. Person of Interest feels like the best show on TV literally nobody knows about — even though it's frequently one of TV's best-rated shows. The full scope of the series' ambition became apparent in 2014, when it pulled back the curtain and revealed that it wasn't just about the all-seeing eye of the surveillance state but also what it means that we're giving over more and more of our lives to machines. This is a CBS crime show your parents probably watch that's about rogue artificial intelligences using humans as proxies in a terrifying war. How cool is that?

  22. You're the Worst (FX)

    There are so many ways to read You're the Worst, a romantic comedy about awful people who can't help falling in love with each other. You can read it sincerely, seeing the journey of Jimmy and Gretchen toward couplehood as something ultimately good for both of them. Or you can see it through much more cynical eyes, finding the two so awful that you're happy to see them essentially quarantined away from the human race. The greatness of the series lives in that tension, in the fact that you can legitimately want these two to end up together, while still finding them a little bit hard to take. Creator Stephen Falk walked that line nimbly in the first season, even if nobody was watching.

  23. The Leftovers (HBO)

    The very definition of "not for everybody," The Leftovers was, nonetheless, my favorite show in all of television some weeks, particularly when it drilled down and focused on only one of its characters. This adaptation of Tom Perrotta's novel about a Rapture-like event that causes 2 percent of the world's population to simply disappear boasted an impressive commitment to its dark, occasionally nihilistic tone. But look underneath the surface, and there was a rich series here about learning to live with loss, tragedy, and, yes, depression. Co-creator Damon Lindelof has always been great at translating mental illness into the stuff of real drama, and he was at the peak of his powers here.

  24. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)

    Let's be honest: this series is going to completely fall apart someday soon. There were already signs of this in a generally terrific second season that, nonetheless, stretched itself so thin that it occasionally seemed to be trying to tell the story of every single person who'd ever been even tangentially connected to Litchfield Prison. But there's also something so admirable about that. The show's empathy stretches to each and every person within its frame, even if those of us at home might not extend our own sympathies so far. The show probably needs to contract a little bit for its long-term health, but it's still not hard to be blown away by its sheer reach and ambition.

  25. Rev. (Hulu)

    Here's the exact opposite of "too big," with Hulu's masterful British import, a series that keeps such an intimate focus that it can occasionally seem claustrophobic. That was never more apparent than in the show's third season, which followed its central character — the minister Adam Smallbone (Tom Hollander) — through a series of unfortunate events that seemed likely to lead to his defrocking. Too many stories about Christians fail to wrestle with the real, intractable problems of the faith, but Rev. revels in them. The third season concludes with three episodes of raw, real power that center on the difficulty — and necessity — of forgiveness.

  26. Broad City (Comedy Central)

    It was a great year for new comedies, particularly on cable and streaming sites. But of all of these series, perhaps none was funnier than Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobsen's tribute to young women, without any particular direction or plans, in a big city. It's not hard to compare the series to Girls — the two series' premises are so similar — but Broad City's lens is much more forthrightly comedic than the earlier HBO show. The series also grew out of a webseries of the same name, which means that the humor here often makes it seem as if the internet itself has risen up and created a TV show. The biggest surprise wasn't that a webseries could translate so perfectly to TV. It was that Glazer and Jacobsen had such total command of their vision in their first season.

  27. Rectify (Sundance)

    Empathy in all directions, part two. The first season of this series focused relentlessly on central character Daniel Holden, a man who, at 18, was sent to death row for raping and murdering his girlfriend, only to later have his sentence commuted when DNA evidence called into question his involvement in the crime. In those first six episodes, the show dug deep into what it would be like to re-enter society after almost 20 years away. But in this year's second season, with 10 episodes to play with, creator Ray McKinnon and his staff instead spread their focus in all directions, shoring up characters who had seemed like Southern stereotypes in season one and embracing weird, artsy storytelling that seemed to take place in a kind of half-remembered dream. It was at once more cohesive and less coherent, a combination that proved devastatingly perfect

  28. Transparent (Amazon)

    It's tempting to say that Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) has been living a lie her whole life when Transparent begins. After all, she's gathered the three children she fathered to tell them that she's begun a gender transition. But the genius of Transparent is in how it embraces the fact that nothing in life is truly a lie if it ultimately leads to you becoming the person you always were. There's so much richness and beauty in creator Jill Soloway's vision of the universe, in the ways that Maura and her children hurt and wound each other but always return to the family home, to the connection that has always existed and must always exist between them. This is a supremely hopeful series, the perfect antidote to a medium that sometimes seems to overdose on gloom.

  29. Hannibal (NBC)

    After the first season of Bryan Fuller's stunning reimagining of the Hannibal Lecter novels, it seemed as if the sky was the limit for telling new stories about the character. But even the greatest of believers in the show's future couldn't have imagined how sinuously, sensuously involving the show's second season would be. After sending criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) to prison for crimes committed by his friend and mentor Hannibal (Mads Mikkelsen), Fuller and his writers began untangling the bond between the two men, then knotting it up ever more fiercely all over again. By the season's triumphant conclusion, blood had been spilled, relationships had been shattered, and the TV year's harshest breakup came between two men who were never romantically involved. This is a dark, baroque vision of the evils people can do to each other — and the love that can lurk right alongside that darkness.

  30. The Americans (FX)

    What does it mean to be a spouse? What does it mean to be a parent? What does it mean to pledge allegiance to a country? The first season of this FX spy drama was solid stuff, but it was, in no way, a preparation for how fantastic season two was. This year, The Americans took its central characters — two KGB agents living in the Washington, D.C., suburbs of 1982 in a marriage of convenience that becomes surprisingly real — to a place few other shows would think to go. With their marriage safely solidified and finally "real," the two found they were suddenly much worse at their jobs. With something to lose in the field, they finally had weak spots that could be exploited. And that's not even mentioning how much the two worried about their children, who were increasingly enamored of the fruits of American capitalism. Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields have crafted a series about both the wonders and the costs of loyalty, and in a year for great TV, that consistency of vision pushed the show to the very top.



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