2014 has been yet another fantastic year for television, one that continued the nichification of the medium, with highly specific and underrepresented voices breaking through in every genre. There was a comedy explosion, particularly on cable, with dozens of new series presenting confident first seasons and several returning shows reaching new heights. The dramas didn’t disappoint either, with visionary creators bringing new life to familiar settings and taking greater risks with their returning series, deepening their worlds. Throughout the year, directors and cinematographers brought lush visuals, composers pushed the auditory envelope, and an astonishing number of actors gave fantastic, memorable performances. More than a few shows delivered spectacle on a weekly basis, while others went small, deriving incredible power out of stillness and self-reflection. Some series swept the audience up, week in and week out, and others built subtly, only showing their hand in their season’s final episodes. There truly was too much great television this year for any one person to see it all (95 separate series were nominated by our contributors!), so limiting the discussion to 10 or even 20 series would be ridiculous. Instead, here is Sound on Sight’s list of the 30 best series of what has been another wonderful year for television. (Kate Kulzick)
29. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (tie)
When John Oliver left The Daily Show to start his own weekly news satire program at HBO, many, this critic included, were skeptical. Did we really need another take on SNL’s “Weekend Update”? The answer, it turns out, was no, because Last Week Tonight had no interest in being just another “Weekend Update” or The Daily Show retread. Eschewing in-studio guest segments for lengthy, heavily researched exposés, the series quickly established itself as the must-see watercooler show of the summer, with its weekly in-depth segments going viral and becoming some of the most reliable comedy of the year. Along with these deep dives into topics as wide-ranging as FIFA, the Miss America Pageant, and Civil Forfeiture, the show embraced short-form comedy and satire with its recurring segment, “How is this still a thing?” (for example, “Dressing Up As Other Races”, “Ayn Rand”, and “Columbus Day”).
Each episode focuses on issues the writers feel are important, not just interesting, and the writing and Oliver’s delivery takes viewers on a carefully crafted rollercoaster, winning the audience over with humor that only makes the sucker punch at the end, should it come, all the more powerful. Yet the series never feels didactic, taking advantage of Oliver’s outsider status to offer American viewers a different perspective on US institutions or introduce issues concerning to those in other parts of the world, while also highlighting Oliver’s love of his adopted country. The series may uncover troubling areas of American society, but its tone is on the whole optimistic, confident that with these problems brought to light, there’s no reason they can’t be fixed. How long it can stave off cynicism remains to be seen, but in its first season, Last Week Tonight proved itself a more than worthy addition to the news satire genre and one of the best comedies of the year. (Kate Kulzick)
29. Agents of SHIELD (tie)
After a rocky debut in 2013, which found the series consistently landing somewhere between “bland” and “bad” as it aped the style of network procedurals and seemed determined to stay as far on the margins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as possible, turning in one unremarkable and inessential “done-in-one” episode after another, 2014 brought a massive uptick in the quality and consistency of Agents of SHIELD. The reinvention of the series brought about by the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier—which upended the status quo, forced the show to deal more directly with adapted elements of the Marvel Universe, and transformed cardboard cutout super-agent Grant Ward (arguably the show’s weakest character) into a smoldering turncoat villain—allowed the show to end its first season on a promising high note. That energy has carried over into the start of the show’s second season, as the characters find themselves rebuilding SHIELD from the ground up while dealing with the havoc wreaked by Ward’s heel turn. Improvements in the cinematography and musical score have helped the show create a more distinct visual and aural identity for itself, the action choreography has stepped up its game (as in the excellent May vs. May fight in “Face My Enemy”), and new cast members such as Nick Blood’s Lance Hunter and Adrianne Palicki’s Bobbi Morse (aka Mockingbird, a comic book Avenger whose presence is indicative of the show’s newfound confidence and ability in adapting elements from the Marvel Universe) have proved worthy additions to the cast, all of which has combined to transform the show from an affable afterthought to a consistently entertaining piece of genre storytelling. (Austin Gorton)
28. Silicon Valley
Geek comedy has gotten a bad rep from The Big Bang Theory, but fortunately for fans hoping for something more authentic, Silicon Valley has gone from little-known sitcom to fan-favorite in one short season. The geeks of Silicon Valley have stumbled upon the next billion dollar idea in the form of a compression algorithm and must manage to not send their start-up directly into the ground. This series wasn’t one of HBO’s most anticipated of 2014, but it wound up surprising quite a few critics as well viewers as the season rolled along. Featuring talented comedians Thomas Middleditch, Kumail Nanjiani, T.J. Miller, and Martin Starr, a tech show could easily rely on references to Steve Jobs and Google, but the writing here is clever and never afraid to skewer the big boys. More impressive is its willingness to lay into the character’s personal failings as highly-qualified engineers completely unready for success.
The show comes from creator Mike Judge’s personal history as an engineer in Silicon Valley in the late 1980s, capturing the frustration of working for tech overlords just like Office Space tapped into the minds of apathetic cubicle jockies in the ’90s. There is no shortage of raunchy laughs from the man who also brought us Beavis and Butthead. Sure Silicon Valley has its share of dick jokes, but they are easily the smartest dick jokes ever aired. Watching four engineers furiously scribble on a whiteboard figuring out how to jerk off every single person in a room could come off as immature, but the scene, a highlight of the season finale, absolutely kills it by blending math and vulgarity into a perfect television moment. I happened upon Silicon Valley by chance, and now I eagerly await season two. (Colin Biggs)
27. The Honourable Woman
The Honourable Woman hit American televisions at the perfect time. Not only did it help boost the quality of a typically dry period of the year (the summer), but as critics and viewers alike became more and more impatient with a haphazard Homeland, the room was wide open for a smart political thriller to break through. Continuing in the tradition of the stylized dramas of SundanceTV, The Honourable Woman was thought-provoking, unpredictable, superbly acted, and gorgeous to look at. Miniseries have the benefit of a condensed story that doesn’t need to worry about what might have to happen years down the road, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that every single minute of The Honourable Woman feels like it matters. Led on-screen by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Stephen Rea, the miniseries separates sequences of genuine thrills with fantastic character work surrounding lead Nessa (Gyllenhaal) as we follow her in both the present and past, when she had been held captive. Hugo Black writes and directs this enthralling look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without getting preachy in the slightest. Instead, the cast of characters in The Honourable Woman dramatize and humanize real-life tensions in a way that is accessible to the viewer, who will be taken in immediately by Black’s artistic vision.
In end-of-the-year retrospectives, it’s easy to forget a miniseries—however good—when looking at all the familiar, beloved series and all the new and shiny ones. The Honourable Woman’s place on this list is a testament to how powerful the form can be when done well. Great performers, creators, and series seem to find their way onto SundanceTV and those who still haven’t checked out what it has to offer couldn’t ask for a better way to dip their toes in than by sitting down with The Honourable Woman over a weekend. (Sean Colletti)
Since its premiere in 2010, Adventure Time has remained one of the most underrated series on television, earning scores of passionate fans but only limited critical acclaim. Not only must the series contend with the bias many have toward animation as a serious art form, but each episode runs only 11 minutes and this type of short-form storytelling is perhaps the most undervalued on television today. Those who did tune in, though, saw the series climb to new heights (literally, in “The Tower”), no small feat for a series in its fifth and sixth seasons.
Finn got a sweet new sword, twice (one as part of an exploration of fear and control in “Blade of Grass” and one made of a transformed time-loop-paradox Finn in “Is That You?”), met his absentee father, who abandoned him once again (“Escape from the Citadel”), and in “Billy’s Bucket List”, faced his greatest fear, the ocean. Jake met a civilization within his body (“Everything’s Jake”), was confronted with his abandonment of his family (“Ocarina”), and became an unknowing radio sensation across Ooo (“Jake the Brick”). But just as successful, if not more so, were the standalones- Marcelline and LSP’s take down of Breakfast Princess (“Princess Day”), an expressionist deconstruction of the hero’s journey (“Lemonhope”), a moving look at sibling relationships (“Little Brother”), and the surreal and utterly delightful “Food Chain”. Each episode is inventive and entertaining, telling complete stories—some hilarious, some profound—11 minutes at a time. Adventure Time is truly transcendent television. It’s one of the best series on the air, and a show that every fan of great storytelling should be watching. (Kate Kulzick)
25. Parks and Recreation
Arguably the best comedy on television, Parks and Recreation consistently turns in great episode after great episode but in its penultimate season, dedicated fans got everything they could ask for and more. The season kicks off with a trip to London where Leslie, one of the finest female characters on TV, is given an award while back in Pawnee she’s being threatened with a recall. Season six is just as fun, delightful and well written as its predecessors, but it also finds a nice balance between major life developments, both sad and delightful, and ridiculously funny comedy. Just look at “Filibuster”, were Leslie stands her ground the only way she knows how (in denim overalls and roller-skates), “Recall Vote”, where she and Ben face their uncertain future drunk and dressed like Buttercup and Westley from The Princess Bride, and “The Cones of Dunshire”, in which Ben cements his reputation as the dorkiest, best husband on television. All of those episodes, including Ann and Chris’ touching goodbye, are hilarious and true to the characters.
“Moving Up”, the season finale, features an epic time jump. Who would have expected something like that on a show like Parks and Recreation? What’s so wonderful about these final moments, besides getting to see Leslie be both an awesome mom and typically great at her job, is the fact that the series truly could have ended there. Three years in the future, Leslie has her dream job, her dream family, and her dream team, but knowing that viewers get one final season to say goodbye to some of the most exciting and well written characters on television just makes the moment all the better. (Tressa Eckermann)
Banshee is one of the lucky surprises of this year’s television crop. When Breaking Bad finished, I was feeling lost without a weekly stimulus to fulfill my storytelling addiction. Breaking Bad set the bar incredibly high, but Banshee has the potential to become a great replacement if it keeps up with its current quality of storytelling and character and mythology design. Banshee tells a story of Lucas Hood (Antony Starr), an ex-con and master thief that takes the role of sheriff in the town of Banshee, Pennsylvania. As the new Sheriff, Lucas Hood imposes his own brand of justice when violence erupts at every twist and turn. The behind the scenes team, including showrunners Jonathan Tropper and David Schickler as well as senior advisor Alan Ball (True Blood), have created a beautifully tailored show with a fully realized mythology. The overall look and style of Banshee is only further developed through the involvement of Emmy award-winning director Greg Yaitanes (House M.D.), who brought a lot to the stylized, eerie mood and grudgy feel of this already great show. The characters that live in Banshee make us want to be surrounded by the mythology of the universe for as long as we can. Banshee is the place where every character has clear reasons for their actions, whether good or bad: we always understand their motivations, which helps to create a solid web of really well built characters with distinct personalities, needs, and beliefs, forcing the audience to yearn to learn more and more of about each character every step of the way. (Chico Peres)
23. Bob’s Burger
Bob, Linda, Tina, Gene, and Louise. The Belcher Family may have been running Bob’s Burgers (the restaurant) for the past four and half seasons, but Ocean Avenue, the Wharf, and all its inhabitants have turned Bob’s Burgers into a true Simpsons successor. Bob’s Burgers brings to life its two-dimensional characters without relying on stereotypes. Bob, for all his shortcomings, is really passionate about burgers, and Linda has a penchant for turning everything into a musical. Both are enthusiastically supportive of their children and their activities, even those as wacky as the dueling eighties musicals in “Work Hard or Die Trying, Girl”. Tina has become the 21st century poster child for adolescence, with her awkward “ughhhhhhs” and passion for butts, and occasional boy-craziness, as in “Mazel-Tina”. Gene is his mother’s son, but in “Best Burger” he struggles with responsibility. Louise is still the precocious one, but in “The Kids Run Away”, she bonds with Aunt Gayle while hiding from a dental appointment. Each one of them calls everyone else on their faults, while being reigned in by them.
The most representative episode this year is “The Frond Files”. When the children write reports on how they feel about their school, the guidance counselor refuses to place them in public. Louise’s report is similar to Terminator, Gene writes the anthem “Farts Will Set You Free”, and Tina makes basketball zombie boyfriends. In the end, Bob and Linda are supportive of their children’s stories, and decide not tell the guidance counselor about the brownie he sat on. Because that is the kind of family the Belchers are: they care about each other because of and through their creativity. (Michelle Leibowitz)
One of the most ingenious comedies to arrive this year is Review (aka Review with Forrest MacNeil). The series has a clever take on the familiar show within a show premise, showing viewers only the final product of the show that the producers want their viewers to see, and does an incredible job interweaving serialized storytelling within its review segments. In the pilot episode, we are quickly made aware the simple premise that our host Forrest MacNeil reviews life experiences rather than different forms of entertainment, and as the episode progresses, it is made clear that each thing he experiences for his show can and will carry on to the next segment; so when he is asked to experience stealing, he now is capable of stealing and will utilize that skill. Although the Australian series that Review is based on, Review with Myles Barlow, originated the concept of reviewing life experiences, the serialized elements and the innocent curiosity in the lead character’s depiction are what makes the US version unique to the creators, Andy Daly, Charlie Siskel, and Jeffrey Blitz. The arc that the character Forrest MacNeil goes through in this first season is exceptionally well crafted and rewarding, especially when viewers binge watch the nine episode season. As well as featuring a great character portrayed by Andy Daly, the show also should be lauded for its incredible supporting and guest cast, which build the world and ground the reality of the show. One could not imagine a more perfect one-season wonder series finale than the season’s closer and with a second season order, there is no telling where they can go next with the premise. The hope is that more people will catch up with season one and watch season two as it airs because as far as great television goes, Review is definitely at the top. So to sum up, watching season one of Review: five stars. (Jean Pierre Diez)
21. You’re the Worst
It can be hard to convince friends to start watching a show you’re obsessed with, especially a rather low-rated one that ran during the summer. Nothing helps your case quite like a pilot episode that nails its tone with this wonderfully toxic exchange between two strangers outside of a wedding: “The balls to have a Catholic ceremony.” “When she’s already had two abortions.” “And can only orgasm through anal.” You’re the Worst chronicles the relationship of Jimmy (Chris Geene) and Gretchen (Aya Cash), the two having the exchange, as their mutual shittiness leads them down a loopy and unhinged path to what seems like a match made in heaven. From the conventional debaucheries of day drinking to the outright calamities of a game of revenge-sex one-upsmanship, the show has mad amounts of fun, reveling in detailing how Jimmy and Gretchen are simply terrible human beings. And sure the show is broad enough that it can make jokes like naming a barista character Venti, but it never shies away from subverting the fun it is having at the expense of the other characters to delve into the reasons behind Jimmy and Gretchen’s affection for each other and how their perpetual childishness threatens to dismantle that affection. Bolstered by lead performances from Geene and Cash that are elastic enough to sell the deep, melancholic emotional beats just as deftly as the more broad gags, a sharp visual palate, and an occasional split-screen gimmick that underlines both the isolation and closeness of the two leads, You’re the Worst is a dive into a fully realized world that shows what happens when affection causes the depravity of adolescence to clash with the realm of the supposedly responsible adult world. Who knew that two grade-A appalling partners would be the saviors of the rom-com from obsolescence? (JJ Perkins)