We said hello to a prisoner, goodbye to a meth dealer, and made a hero out of a woman who rigged a national election and is sleeping with the President of the United States. OK, so the past year in TV doesn’t speak well of our national moral character. But boy was it good.
Winnowing it down to the 10 best series was a near-impossible task. How do you exclude Game of Thrones, when it produced the most shocking TV moment of the year with the Red Wedding? Should sprawling character pieces like the near-flawless Top of the Lake be included? And should a silly, sometimes slight comedy like Veep be excised to include yet another harrowing drama, Rectify?
It’s not an exact science, but here’s our best attempt at a balanced list: the most dramatic, funniest, most ambitious, most shameless, most enjoyable, silliest, scariest, campiest, and craziest shows of the year. (There could be 45 shows on this list. We only gave 10. Let the debate commence.)
Orange Is the New Black
Other shows were more emotional. Some were funnier. Certainly, a handful was less uneven. But for pure excitement, odd intrigue, audacity, and zeitgeist-seizing popularity, no series beat Netflix’s scrappy hit Orange Is the New Black this season. When the show began, it fit neatly in a box. It was blatantly a satire of white privilege, with Carrie Bradshaw-like Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) swapping the vintage pink tutu for a beige jumpsuit when she’s imprisoned on decade-old drug trafficking charges.
She charges into the experience with perky gumption, which gives way to paranoid terror, which gives way to acceptance and an endearing love for inmates. The show evolved tonally, too, becoming more profound, funny, terrifying and, strangely, both realistic and absurd as Piper makes friends and enemies with her fellow inmates. Featuring the strongest female ensemble on television to boot, no TV-watching binge ever left you feeling so satisfied.
It’s one thing when a phenomenal show is appreciated. It’s another when that show becomes a bona-fide phenomenon. What happened with Breaking Bad’s final season was something that’s never happened before on television. When the show premiered the first episode of its final season, 6 million viewers tuned in. That’s a whopping 102 percent increase over the previous series premiere … and nearly four times the viewers that watched the series premiere in 2008. Over 10 million people tuned in for its series finale.
Two things contributed to the stunning surge: after years of hearing “you should check out this Breaking Bad show…” millions of people discovered it on Netflix and binged on the entire series before the final season. Knowing that it would be the end, all of those converted fans tuned in to savor every last (uber-intense) second with Bryan Cranston’s Walter White. But then each successive episode of the operatic season was more gripping than the one before, crescendoing to one of the most talked about and gratifying series finales in modern TV history.
Just two years ago, if I told you the best comedy on TV right now was animated, you’d call me crazy. If I told you it was animated and not The Simpsons, Family Guy, or South Park, you’d have me institutionalized. That’s fine, as long as the prison I’m sent to airs Bob’s Burgers on Sunday nights. (Or is the jail from Orange Is the New Black.)
The show is about the Belchers, a lower class family who owns and operates a burger joint. They’re about as dysfunctional as you’d expect any hand-drawn TV family to be, but also may be the most loving. It’s a blissful marriage of dynamics: in one episode Bob fires his kids from the restaurant so they can have the summer vacation he never had, but they miss the grind of employment and end up working for hippies who run a marijuana farm instead. The show features the best voice talent, the most absurd writers, and the heartiest belly laughs on TV.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s crackling, crass Selina Meyer dances through the White House like a stick of dynamite. Watching her attempt to wring competence out of the bumbling buffoons that work for her—not to mention ignite the last embers of sanity in herself—is about as nerve-wracking as waiting to see where the stick will explode. Only it’s infinitely funnier when it finally happens.
The second season of Veep did two things extremely right: it tailored the show’s comedy and pacing to suit Louis-Dreyfus’s talents—she proves to be quite gifted at doling out profanities—and dialed up the crazy on the lunatics that orbit her. Armando Ianucci’s scripts are a master class in writing tight comedy, with “Helsinki” easily one of the funniest TV episodes of the year.
The Good Wife
A CBS procedural in its fifth season? Logic says it shouldn’t be the best drama series on broadcast television right now. Oh, but it is. One knock at the door (Walter White’s not the only one who knocks) in the show’s season premiere is the “moment where everything changed” for the characters on The Good Wife. It’s also the moment that sent the legal-drama-soap-opera hybrid on a transfixing tailspin of juicy betrayal, mindgames, tortured romance, and a hell of a lot of fun.
When Alicia (Julianna Margulies) and Cary (Matt Czuhry) leave to start their own law firm, all kinds of bickering, backstabbing, and emotional manipulation explode between the duo and the leftovers at Lockhart Gardner. The result is that the show craftily transforms itself from a series where you know who you’re supposed to root for—it’s called The Good Wife, after all—to one where you’re constantly conflicted over whose side you stand on. Skipping between the teams couldn’t be more fun.
There’s something to be said for quality family dramas, where the love is earnest, the story is poignant, and tears flow fast. There’s also something to be said about a family drama that is totally and completely deranged. In its third season, Showtime’s hit family drama Shameless slowed down the dizzying shifts in tone—bleak tragedy in one scene, outlandish farce in the next—and finally presented the Gallagher family for what they really are: flawed, well-intentioned, and hysterical.
Every episode still runs the full gamut of emotions. Its wild pacing is what makes Shameless so fun to watch. But it’s all grounded in the lead performance of Emmy Rossum, whose expressive doe eyes cycle through brittle heartbreak, forceful strength, and everything in between at lightning speed. For all of cable TV’s pretentious slow burners, the madcap circus of Shameless is a refreshing change of pace.
Parks and Recreation
No comedy ensemble is as tight as Parks and Recreation’s and no lead comedy performance as nuanced as Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope. The show proved this past year that a sitcom’s characters can be zany and quirky but still feel like real people. It proved that a protagonist can get everything she ever wanted—the dream job and the dream man—and not just escape being boring, but maybe even is more interesting than ever.
It seems that with each season of the NBC comedy, a new actor on the show steps up to become the most intriguing and most enjoyable supporting character. Chris Pratt as Andy, an irresistible cross between a puppy dog and man-child, did one better, making his character this season’s comedy stand out and bringing out new shades of fun from Aubrey Plaza’s April (bitter deadpan can only take you so far). This, admittedly, hasn’t been the best year of Parks and Rec—last season is too hard to top—but it’s still as charming as ever.
The season-three premiere of Scandal introduced enough jaw-dropping, well, scandals to provide fodder for multiple seasons of any other drama. He’s her what? Did their affair really just leak? And then, as Olivia would say, “handled” them all by the second commercial break. Scandal defies all the rules of what a broadcast drama should be. Its characters aren’t particularly likable. But you love them. It introduces and discards and then brings back and ignores storylines at an exhausting pace. You’re ready for more. The dialogue is almost laughably Shakespearean, with bombastic monologues that are only rivaled in ridiculousness by the speed of the interstitial banter. Yet Kerry Washington and her band of Gladiators nail every line.
Factor in an epic guest arc from Lisa Kudrow—that speech—and increased fierceness from scorned Lady Macbeth Bellamy Young as First Lady Mellie Grant, and Scandal would be the year’s best guilty pleasure. You know it—if you felt even remotely guilty when watching it.
American Horror Story: Coven
On American Horror Story: Coven, Jessica Lange plays a drunk witch. That’s about all you need to know to justify its place on any best-of list. Ok, fine. There’s the added pleasure of Kathy Bates as an antebellum racist roaming the halls of a New Orleans mansion again centuries after being buried alive. Angela Bassett is a Creole voodoo queen. Emma Roberts is a revelation in cattiness. The show has built the fact that Stevie Nicks is a powerful witch into its lore. It’s the best.
After two seasons of all-over-the-place tone, overreliance on gore, and writing that was just wacky when it was meant to be provocative, the third iteration of American Horror Story finally gets it right. It’s the perfect mixture of camp and horror, brilliantly celebrating the idea that every scare should come with a wink and a one-liner. You don’t know whether to scream or laugh. So you do both. And love it.
New Girl and The Mindy Project
Fox’s Tuesday night comedy block presents an interesting contrast in comedies. One is still figuring out what it wants to be. The other finally discovered it. Both are a delight to watch. The delight comes, mainly, in the quirky charm of the show’s leads. Much has been made about Mindy Kaling’s Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project, a girl who wishes her life was scripted by Nora Ephron as much as she takes pride in the successful career she’s had and keeps it to herself—excessive confidence by way of crippling insecurity. Perhaps more has been made of Zooey Deschanel’s Jessica Day on New Girl, a person unashamed of her love for polka dots and who marches to the beat of her own oversized cardigan-wearing, PETA-supporting drum.
Both characters manage to spin what could be irritating quirks into identifiable character traits. The difference between the shows is how they’ve handled the cast of supporting characters. It’s kind of a treat to watch New Girl’s increasingly expert execution of B- and C-storylines, with Jess’s roommates finally fully developed into characters you don’t just laugh at but care about. Similarly, it’s a fun experience to witness The Mindy Project experiment with the same thing. Is Chris Messina’s Dr. Castellano Mindy’s friend? Adversary? Frenemy? Confidante? Love interest? We’re still not sure. But, to the credit of The Mindy Project’s writing, we can’t wait to find out.