Now that we’re past the halfway point of 2014, it’s time to temporarily rip ourselves away from our Netflix binges and poll our TV writers on their favorite shows of the year so far. This year, there was a clear favorite that wound up being nearly everyone’s number-one pick (we don’t want to ruin it, but you probably don’t have to be Rust Cohle to figure it out). But, in a True Detective-less world, any of these shows would be worthy of the top spot—that’s how great a TV year 2014 has shaped up to be so far. And if you’re wondering if the TV landscape is still getting better, 11 of these 15 series are in their first or second season. So, without further ado, we give you the 15 Best TV Shows of 2014 (So Far).
Network: BBC America
Last year, Orphan Black entered the TV rat race as a scrappy, offbeat, underdog. By the time its 10-episode season wrapped, the show, and particularly Tatiana Maslany’s performance, had become one of the breakout success stories of the year. With its second season, the show returned to the airwaves amidst a wealth of newfound expectations. The Sarah-Cosima scene in this year’s finale may be one of the its smaller moments, but its quiet intensity perfectly demonstrates what the show does best. Genre shows are only as good as the characters they choose to hinge their themes on and Maslany’s soulful performance here really highlights how Orphan Black often prioritizes its main character over its mythology. Watching these two characters connect on such an emotional level, you almost forget that this is a sci-fi show involving clones with one actress playing both roles.—Mark Rozeman
Rectify has a simple enough premise: A man sent to rot on Death Row is released from prison after 19 years. Sure, the big and small screens have seen their fair share of crime dramas, but Rectify’s plot isn’t what sets it apart: It’s the rest of it. Daniel Holden, arrested for the rape and murder of his girlfriend, finds himself back in his hometown, greeted by constant life-threatening hostility. The show explores the bonds between Daniel (played to perfection by Aden Young), his family and his enemies as they struggle to deal with Daniel’s homecoming. Superbly acted, the program successfully meshes the best bits of a TV show together, managing to be at times heartbreaking and suspenseful, while also beautifully incorporating moments of effortless humor. Rectify is thought-provoking and will make you care about the future of its characters—like all the best shows do.—Rachel Haas
Rivaled perhaps only by later episodes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the second season of Hannibal feels unprecedented in its scope and complexity. In the beginning, the show felt like a cable drama bursting to get out of its network confines, but—kudos to NBC—the show has subsequently been allowed both an artistic freedom and a level of experimentation that feels like an unchecked fluke in the network system. Bryan Fuller is certainly no stranger to the kind of economic concerns that ended his two previous shows (Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls) early in their run, and prevented his most recent pre-Hannibal project (The Munsters reboot Mockingbird Lane) from making it past the pilot episode. Yet, thanks to funding from French studio Gaumont and some great international numbers, Fuller and his team have found a loophole that allows them to keep resurrecting the show with full season orders. Film and television have always been a peculiar dance between art and commerce and it’s nice to live in a world that allows a group as brilliant as the Hannibal creative team the financial freedom to make something as brilliant, moving and disturbing as “Mizumono.”—Mark Rozeman
As shocking plot twists go, Jared (SPOILER ALERT) being the one who murdered his parents and his sister may rank as one of the most shocking plot twists ever. I didn’t even begin to suspect him until about ten minutes before the big reveal. But here’s the thing about big, shocking reveals—they can’t just shock for shock’s sake. It’s got to hold together. And the Jared reveal really did. Everything suddenly made sense—why Jared was swimming when his family was massacred, why Kate was meeting with him without disguise, and why he was so good at lying. A good finale offers a satisfying conclusion while laying the groundwork for the next season. The stunningly perfect season finale of The Americans did exactly that. Paige is in play. Philip and Elizabeth are at odds about Paige’s future. The FBI knows about Emmett and Leanne. I can’t wait for season three.—Amy Amatangelo
Last year when John Oliver stepped in to host The Daily Show in Jon Stewart’s absence, our Josh Jackson wrote that he “grabbed the mantle with both hands.” The same is true of Oliver in his new role as host of his own show, whether he’s skewering fireworks displays and FIFA or schooling us all on net neutrality. Being on HBO—in other words, on a network that relies on subscription revenue instead of advertisers—has given Oliver the creative freedom he needs to truly shine.
Network: Comedy Central
In just 10 short episodes, this show has gone from the most promising comedy on TV to a bonafide comic powerhouse. Stable, non-competitive friendships between two women are basically nonexistent on television, as are realistic depictions of young people, and the show’s secret weapon has always been the refreshingly authentic friendship at its core. Regardless of how Broad City’s next season turns out (and I suspect it’ll be pretty goddamn hilarious), Abbi and Ilana’s first year will stand as a real achievement in keeping it real.—Hudson Hongo
Network: Comedy Central
You’ve probably seen Andy Daly on Eastbound and Down and heard him as a guest on a multitude of podcasts including his own The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project. But now he’s moving on up and starring in his own show, Review, which premiered on Comedy Central this year. As the title suggests, it’s a show about reviewing things, just not movies or food. The show’s host and life critic, Forrest MacNeil (Daly) reviews life experiences based on audience suggestions. Based on an Australian show by the same name, the experiences in this atypical review show have MacNeil trying everything from stealing to cocaine addiction.—Dino-Ray Ramos
The loss of Rob Lowe (Chris) and Rashida Jones (Ann) proved to be a big test for Parks and Recreation this season—one the show passed with flying colors. They were, of course, given an appropriately mushy send-off, and once that was out of the way, their absence actually allowed other characters to step up to the plate and shine (this was a great year for Jerry/Gary/Larry and Donna, in particular). The season-ending Pawnee/Eagleton unity concert was a series highlight, and by episode’s end, we found out that next season we’ll be jumping ahead three years, where new adventures certainly await our favorite parks department.
Game of Thrones continues to give new weight to the word “epic.” There was no loose thread left hanging with this season. When we return it will be to many new beginnings: Stannis exerting his royal prerogative in the North. King’s Landing without Tywin’s strong hand to guide it. Bran and the Three-Eyed Crow. Arya on her way to Braavos. And the (thankfully!) continued adventures of Tyrion. This season may go down as the greatest the show will air. The novels continue to be very good after this point, but they’re also even more diffuse, and I can’t think of a pairing to look forward to that’s better than many of the ones we got to watch in Season Four.—Josh Jackson
I’ll admit it: I loved the first season of Orange is the New Black and watched the whole thing over the course of a few days like everyone else on the internet, but I was concerned about Season Two being able to sustain that level of quality, that the freshness of the series would be lost. That was really dumb of me, because season two shook things up at Litchfield in spectacular fashion: bringing in the villainous Vee to rekindle an old rivalry with Red and drive a wedge between Taystee and Poussey, sending Piper outside prison walls to testify against a kingpin and discover while on furlough that Larry has been sleeping with Polly, revealing in perhaps the year’s most shocking and heartbreaking episode that the affable Lorna Morello is actually completely batshit insane. So okay, Orange is the New Black, you got me. How’s Season Three gonna top this?
Season four was easily the most ambitious year of Louie, with the show abandoning much of its former structure and moving closer towards continuity and multi-episode arcs. We saw this this year with the Amia love story, the concerns over Jane and her school and the return of Pamela, delivered to us two episodes at a time so that these stories often felt like short films rather than episodes of TV show. But through all the structural changes, Louie retained the surrealism and dark humor that consistently makes it one of the best shows on TV.
This is hardly the first time that the tech world has been pilloried in one form or other. But in this post-Social Network world of ours, the hits are coming faster and funnier, including this fine new sitcom. Conceived in part by former Beavis & Butthead/Office Space majordomo Mike Judge, Silicon Valley scores even more points by making the satire so specific and so damn sharp. Silicon Valley is one of the few satires willing to show how the sausage is made with a startup, including every little stumbling block and wrong turn simply because it is damn hilarious. Moreover, like every series or film that Mike Judge has had a hand in, Silicon Valley makes us root for these little guys even as we’re laughing at their foibles and petty disagreements. They are everymen with the skills to potentially net them billions of dollars. The ultimate modern American dream expressed with Asperger’s-like mannerisms and wrapped up in a hoodie and a t-shirt.—Robert Ham
Being the obsessive Coen Brothers fanatic that I am, I feel safe in saying that I, perhaps more than most people, approached the TV adaptation of Fargo with no shortage of apprehension. And while the first episodes made for somewhat of a shaky start, it soon become apparent that this reinterpretation of the filmmakers’ 1996 masterpiece was in very good creative hands. What Fargo offered was neither glorified fan fiction nor a generic crime drama masquerading familiar beats under the guise of its prestigious title; rather, it managed to capture the spirit of Joel and Ethan Coen while simultaneously forging its own path. Whether it was the Walter White-ization of Martin Freeman’s Lester or the Marge Gunderson-ing of Allison Tolman’s Molly, every development managed to feel both surprising and utterly organic. In showrunner Noah Hawley, the show found not just a phenomenal writer, but someone who knew where to offer his respects to the source material and where to strike out on his own. For Coen Bros. fans, there are ample Easter Eggs to enjoy, including visual references to the likes of No Country for Old Men, Blood Simple, Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There (and those are just the ones I could make out). For those seeking merely a good story, however, there was that in spades.—Mark Rozeman
The beginning of the end of Mad Men brought with it lots of change. Sally’s a full-blown teenager who, as it turns out, loves her dad unconditionally. Don’s fighting his way back from leave, having threesomes with (and subsequently being left by) Megan in California while Peggy butts heads with Lou Avery. Ginsberg’s hacking off nipples. And when the excellent half-season came to a close with a moon landing, a farewell to Bert Cooper and a big power play from Roger that’ll make Sterling Cooper a subsidiary of McCann, all we could do was take a page from Bert’s book, whisper “bravo” and wait for 2015 to roll around and bring us the conclusion of one of the greatest TV series of all time.
I want to be sincere and tell you that I think True Detective is the best TV series ever made, and that I’ve basically held that opinion since the third episode. It asked the questions with a depth that satisfied me in an immediate, visceral way, and then again in a secondary, intellectual way. It’s a show that produced an automatic emotional response in each of its eight episodes, and one that I could spend the next week turning over endlessly with the other obsessives in our Internet habitat. And the way we interacted with this show was profound to me, because I see it clearly now in that inquisitive framework: Every show asks questions of its own characters. Most ask questions of the world. But there are very few that ask questions of the viewers. We were challenged, and we responded, and even if 98 percent of that interaction consisted of wild theories that never came true supported by a compulsive hunt for details that turned out to be irrelevant, it doesn’t matter. The results, in the final reckoning, emphatically do not matter. What matters is that our searching and our probing represented our urgent desire to connect. Both sides, art and audience, reached out to each other, and even if they sometimes failed to meet on common ground—even if the grasping was chaotic and slightly misguided—I still find it beautiful.—Shane Ryan