The 20 Best TV Shows of 2014

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The 20 Best TV Shows of 2014

There is nothing like a good book, and music is indeed the universal language, but, damn, there are some excellent things happening on television right now. In fact, there are whole movements taking place, as series like The Good Wife, Scandal and Transparent took feminism and gay rights to the small screen, while other shows like True Detective, Fargo and The Leftovers made philosophy and religious critique cool again (really, they were always cool).

The Paste TV writers worked tirelessly to make the tough decisions, and the votes are in—with more than a few surprises. Not all good shows could make our list, and more than a few of our writers are weeping silently right now for some of their favorites, which didn’t make the cut. Nonetheless, we proudly present the shows that won big in our hearts, and on our Google spreadsheets. Here are the 20 Best TV Shows of 2014.

20. Masters of Sex

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Creator: Michelle Ashford
Stars: Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, Caitlin FitzGerald
Network: Showtime
I didn’t think Masters of Sex would get here. The Showtime series chronicling the human sexuality studies of Dr. Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson spent most of its first season, and some of its second, held back by mediocre writing, and cluttered with uninteresting tertiary characters. Still, the excellent acting by leads Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan—as well as some wonderful supporting performances from Alison Janney and Beau Bridges—made it an overall “good” series. But this year, in the middle of the season, Masters of Sex unexpectedly went from good to great, with a stunner of an episode (watch “The Fight” if you haven’t already), and an increased focus on the lives of its two main characters. By the end of the season, after a time-jump of several years, Bill and Virginia have finally opened up and admitted to each other that they’re having an affair, which means it’ll only get better from here.—Bonnie Stiernberg

19. The Americans

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Creator: Joseph Weisberg
Stars: Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, Holly Taylor
Network: FX
We’re still mad that The Americans was completely shut out of the Emmys. The series pulled off what many shows cannot—its stellar second season was even better than its first, as the threats Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) faced moved right into their home. The show works because of the amazing performances. Rhys and Russell slip in and out of accents and wigs, but they are always believable as Russian spies hiding in plain sight. Noah Emmerich’s Stan was heartbreaking, and—right up until the final moment—it looked like he might betray his country to save the woman he loved. Annet Mahendru’s Nina was simultaneously vulnerable and cunning. The stakes on The Americans are extraordinarily high, and each week was fraught with nail-biting tension. The season finale shocking plot twist about Emmett’s killer, and Leanne and their daughter was a doozy. But even more shocking was the KGB’s recruitment ideas for Jennings’ daughter Paige (Holly Taylor)—and the fact that Elizabeth thinks it’s a pretty good idea. The stage is set for an amazing Season Three.—Amy Amatangelo

18. Rectify

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Creator: Ray McKinnon
Stars: Aden Young, Abigail Spencer, J. Smith-Cameron, Adelaide Clemens, Clayne Crawford, Luke Kirby
Network: Sundance Channel
The only thing that prevents me from comparing Rectify to an epic poem is its lack of a hero. But that omission is what makes the show so maddeningly attractive. Just when we’re ready to champion the daily adventures of Daniel (recently released from death row), he says or does something that just gives you the willies. While the rest of this outstanding cast also escapes such lofty status, their characters did turn more interesting in the second season’s early episodes. But answers to a decades-old murder only became more elusive. That changed by season’s end, when there was discovery and substance to match the extraordinary performances. The show’s day-to-day storyline effectively keep its audience on edge.—Tim Basham

17. Key & Peele

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Creator: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele
Stars: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele
Network: Comedy Central
Few things can pacify those of us still mourning the loss of Chappelle’s Show, even now, eight years after the final episode aired. However, this season of Key & Peele proves that the baton has been passed, and hilarious sketch comedy is still one of the best ways to critique the major social issues of our time. No one group is safe from from this Liam Neesons-loving duo, and we watched as they took on the problematics of beloved pop stars like Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry, racism and alien attacks, and homophobia in the black community (no, there is no “straight section” at a gay wedding… nor are there required, scheduled performances of “YMCA”). Whenever something like Ferguson happens, many fans of comedy can’t help but wonder what skit Dave Chappelle would write, if Chappelle’s Show was still on. Knowing that we have a brilliant comedic duo continuously addressing these big issues (and of course the smaller issues, like the difficulty with text-message-tone interpretation), is important and exciting for those of us who like our entertainment served with a side of activism.—Shannon M. Houston

16. The Walking Dead

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Creator: Frank Darabont
Stars: Andrew Lincoln, Steven Yeun, Chandler Riggs, Norman Reedus, Lauren Cohan, Danai Gurira, David Morrissey, Melissa McBride, Scott Wilson, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Chad L. Coleman
Network: AMC
There’s a substantial rule to surviving in the Walking Dead’s universe: leave nothing for dead. Perhaps we should’ve taken note. This fifth season of AMC’s perennial hit has kept the tension alive. There is still the angst, cadaveric humans and existential narcissism—as if a meta twist on the “old days” fodder. But the default setting is no longer waywardness. When the show manufactures direction, like a new crew’s mission to save the world, there’s an awareness of both the practical and narrative futility. You can see on Glenn’s face the question, Save what world? But this season, instead of giving way to the machinations of chaos—as in the Governor’s Great Prison Battle For All Of Everything—the show is unambiguously more interested in the characters abetting the futility. It’s liberated the storytelling. The tone has been severe, without attracting malaise. The pacing has invited fire-hose zombie slayings and genuine Rick Grimes progress alike. These aren’t The Governor’s days. Even as its hero exercises excessive force, Season Five of The Walking Dead has little interest in mad men. When characters run each other down, or reveal great deceptions, cowardice, rage—or the gravitational pull of the situation is harsher than that of the people—they’re urged to pick a spoke between ruthlessness and desperation. Everything’s burning or ash, but no longer do humans and zombies stare with equal relation of self and purpose at the inferno. The determinism is the gasoline.—Kyle Burton

15. Broad City

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Creators: Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson
Stars: Ilana Glazer, Abbi Jacobson, Hannibal Buress, John Gemberling
Network: Comedy Central
For the last few years, Comedy Central has consistently presented us with great comedy duos: Key & Peele, Kroll and Daly, and now Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson. Broad City—one of the year’s best debuts—sets up its premise in the premiere’s opening lines, where Abbi and Ilana are desperately trying to become the boss bitches they are in their minds. This epic friendship is instantaneously contagious, and the brilliant plots, centered on the two twenty-somethings scraping by in New York City, makes this one of the great, promising new series of the year. And it is absolutely one of the funniest shows on television right now.—Ross Bonaime

14. The Leftovers

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Creator: Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta
Stars: Justin Theroux, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston
Network: HBO
No, this was not a show for everyone. And it’s true that the first few episodes so consistently furrowed one’s brow, that, for many, it didn’t even seem worth it to finish the season. Watching those early episodes felt a bit like trudging your way through all of the “So-and-so begat so-and-so”s in the Bible, just to get to those beautiful Psalms, or the book of Isaiah, or perhaps—more accurately—the book of Ecclesiastes, or Revelations. This year, no one show achieved such intoxicating sensations of pure hopefulness and near-simultaneous hopelessness in its plots and themes. Leftovers played like an epic poem of rapture (or non-rapture, since we still don’t know what happened on the day of The Sudden Departure), and, indeed, there was a hero… we think. The hero shifted with each scene in a way that we rarely see in TV, or even film. Justin Theroux’s Kevin Garvey was the good guy, turned bad, turned pitiable, turned very bad, turned good—oftentimes, all in one episode. And Liv Tyler’s Meg Abbot—along with Carrie Coon’s incredible performance as Nora Durst—made the series a terrifying, twisted, beautiful experience. Don’t even get me started on Ann Dowd’s Patti. Patti! These characters are so flawed and human, in a story that both challenges and embraces themes in organized religion, all while being exciting, violent, sexy, smart, and difficult. To borrow from another excellent show (The Good Wife), “This is Kafka in action,” (or even Derrida in action). So perhaps, this is a show for everyone, but everyone has to do a little work to get to the payoff. And the payoff—in this case, one of the most riveting season finales, possibly ever—is huge.—Shannon M. Houston

13. The Good Wife

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Creator: Robert King, Michelle King
Stars: Julianna Margulies, Matt Czuchry, Archie Panjabi, Graham Phillips, Mike Colter, Chris Noth
Network: CBS
By now, the virtues of The Good Wife are almost legendary. The show pulled off one of the biggest TV secrets of the year (RIP Will Gardner, sniff), has the best guest stars (the latest being David Hyde Pierce as Alicia’s wily political opponent, and, oh, just Gloria Steinem), and continues to defy TV stereotypes (Lemond Bishop, for example, is not your typical drug lord). It does this while weaving a complex tale of state elections, courtroom drama, personal strife, potential romances and office politics. In Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), the show has crafted one of the most multifaceted title characters in all of prime time. The winter finale ended with Cary (Matt Czuchry, who has been positively brilliant this season) pleading guilty to trumped up charges and facing a jail sentence. And here’s the sheer genius of The Good Wife—I really think he could go to jail. The Good Wife is just the kind of show to take that risk. The conventional wisdom is that network shows aren’t supposed to be this good. The Good Wife proves that it is that good, every week.—Amy Amatangelo

12. Hannibal

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Creator: Bryan Fuller
Stars: Mads Mikkelsen, Caroline Dhavernas, Hugh Dancy
Network: NBC
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—Hannibal’s presence on a broadcast network is nothing short of a minor miracle. After a stellar inaugural year, Bryan Fuller and company dared to up the stakes for their second go-around, taking major creative risks in the process. These risks came in the form of (among other things) sealing the protagonist in jail for a third of the run, killing off a major character, and ending the season with what I can only describe as the visual equivalent of a mic drop. Even in its weaker moments, the show always offered something memorable, whether it be an impressive visual, or an intense dialogue exchange. And while some viewers no doubt came to Hannibal purely for its inventive, if highly gruesome imagery (there’s certainly that in spades), chances are they ended up staying for the compelling writing, hypnotic performances, and luscious, evocative cinematography.—Mark Rozeman

11. Brooklyn Nine-Nine

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Creator: Daniel J. Goor, Michael Schur
Stars: Andy Samberg, Stephanie Beatriz, Terry Crews, Chelsea Peretti
Network: Fox
Brooklyn Nine-Nine was probably the funniest show on network television this past year. It may not posses the cleverness or bite of other comedies, and its attempts at dramatics or romantics often fall a bit flat. But when it comes to straight humor, nothing on TV is better. It is a joke machine of the highest order. Beyond the sharp, hilarious scripts provided by the top-notch writing staff, this is also the best cast in a sitcom today. Andy Samberg, who is completely enjoyable as ostensible lead Jack Peralta, may be the least impressive of an impressive bunch. You could take the three female leads—Melissa Fumero, Stephanie Beatriz, and Chelsea Peretti—and easily make them the new Ghostbusters (seriously, this is a great idea). Then, of course, there is the majesty of Andre Braugher, no-nonsense Captain Holt. Haven’t you always wanted to hear Braugher say the words “Kwazy Kupkakes?” Of course you have. You’re only human. The first season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine was a strong opening salvo from a new comedy. Season Two has only built on it. Here’s hoping it lasts a thousand years.—Chris Morgan

10. Louie

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Creator: Louis C.K.
Stars: Louis C.K., Hadley Delany, Ursula Parker
Network: FX
Louie took an unexpected step, even for a show that defies all expectation, in its fourth year. This season brought a slight rearrangement of format, with the inclusion of numerous multiple-episode arcs that pushed the, delightful, unusual dark comedy toward something one could daringly call continuity. What it failed (thankfully) to do, was push the show anywhere closer to television’s status quo. The idea that one of the biggest comedians in the world is producing something so artistically gratifying, so genre-bending, so simultaneously bizarre and truthful—as opposed to a run-of-the-mill sitcom—is something to behold, even in the Golden Era of television. Those of us who marvel at what Louis C.K. has created with this gem of a TV show have one man to thank, aside from the one behind the mic: John Landgraf, President of FX. If it has not been said enough, allow me: Thank you, sir.—Eric Walters

9. Veep

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Creator: Armando Iannucci
Stars: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Anna Chlumsky, Matt Walsh
Network: HBO
What’s funnier than watching Selina Meyer and her staff trying to stumble through the obstacle course of doublespeak and backhanded bullshit that is Washington D.C.? Putting them on the campaign trail. This season of Veep, their best yet, was a marvel, perfectly capturing the inherent insanity in trying to govern in the modern age, and the equally crazy disconnect that people in power have with the citizens they are supposed to represent. And at the center of this whole circus is career-best performances by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matt Walsh, Timothy Simons, and Anna Chlumsky.—Robert Ham

8. Transparent

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Creator: Jill Soloway
Stars: Jeffrey Tambor, Gaby Hoffmann, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass
Network: Amazon
There’s so much that could have gone wrong with Transparent. For one, an out-of-context image of Jeffrey Tambor in a dress is bound to attract some smirks. What’s more, on initial glance, the show’s content (marital discord, adultery, unplanned pregnancy) reads like a writers’ room whiteboard on a network soap. As creator Jill Soloway demonstrates, however, sometimes it’s all in the execution. Indeed, what’s immediately striking about the show, is how disarmingly intimate it all feels. In telling the story of an elderly parent’s decision to finally reveal her transgender lifestyle to her children, Soloway does not take any shortcuts in depicting the subsequent shockwaves the decision causes. In the process, she endows each character and plot development with the proper dramatic weight, without ever sacrificing a sense of levity. Maintaining such a tone is a proverbial tightrope act, and Soloway and her creative team somehow manage to keep their balance throughout each of the season’s ten episodes, without breaking a sweat. Hear that? That’s the sound of Amazon Studios throwing down the gauntlet in the online TV revolution.—Mark Rozeman

7. Parks & Recreation

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Creator: Greg Daniels, Michael Schur
Stars: Amy Poehler, Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, Paul Schneider, Chris Pratt, Adam Scott, Rob Lowe, Jim O’Heir, Retta
Network: NBC
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.—Bonnie Stiernberg

6. Game of Thrones

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Creator: David Benioff, D. B. Weiss
Stars: Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner, Rose Leslie, Richard Madden, Michelle Fairley, Alfie Allen
Network: HBO
If our own world history could be portrayed in film as dramatically as that of the Seven Kingdoms, every school kid would grow up to become a first-rate history professor. As this year’s season ended, the brood of Eddard Stark was scattered about the continents of their nameless world. And each of their tales appears to be as adventurous as the other, in what should be an incredibly wild ride in Season Five. As Bran’s three-eyed dream crow deposits him underground before the wizardly tree man, Arya sails off to Brazos and Tyrion to the Free Cities. And as Jon comes face-to-face with Stannis, the savior of his Night’s Watchmen, Sansa goes from the frying pan to the fire, with that snake Baelish. And where’s Rickon? Then there’s Dany and the Dragons, and Jaime and Cersei. It’s a cast of fatherless heroes and anti-heroes that Shakespeare himself would have cherished. There has never been a series quite like Game of Thrones, and its ending is, marvelously, a long way off.—Tim Basham

5. Silicon Valley

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Creator: Mike Judge
Stars: Thomas Middleditch, T.J. Miller, Josh Brener, Kumail Nanjiani
Network: HBO
While the rest of Mike Judge’s television shows have had a certain fondness for the subjects they lampoon, it’s the sheer anger of Silicon Valley towards the tech industry and its investors that infuses the show with life. This places Silicon Valley more in the style of Judge’s movies, which tend towards a caustic loathing of the entirety of broken systems. That isn’t to say that the show isn’t funny, but that its humor, even the wacky slapstick bits, is more cutting than any traditional sitcom. Silicon Valley isn’t cringe comedy, but it has the same level of antipathy towards much of its cast, which makes the show feel real in a way that sets it apart from other sitcoms. Above all, though, Silicon Valley simply finds its world absurd and hilarious, a counterfeit utopia so out of control that there’s always something entertaining going on. This isn’t just good satire, it’s good comedy, and the show’s success at both of these levels is what makes it one of the best of the year.—Sean Gandert

4. Orange is the New Black

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Creator: Jenji Kohan
Stars: Taylor Schilling, Danielle Brooks, Taryn Manning, Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, Danielle Brooks, Samira Wiley, Natasha Lyonne, Yael Stone
Network: Netflix
The biggest question looming over Orange is the New Black was a simple one—could the show do it again? In its first season, OITNB created an electricity and vivid sense of life inside the walls of Litchfield prison, one that almost seemed impossible to replicate. But Netflix’s runaway hit didn’t stop running in Season Two, and neither did creator Jenji Kohan. Kohan (whose previous show Weeds began strong and then, arguably, overstayed its welcome) proved that she has no shortage of compelling ideas for the vast cast of characters at her disposal this time around. Implementing an astounding villain in Vee gave Season Two a whole different, darker feel, all while continuing to share the spotlight (the show’s greatest strength) among numerous characters. Even more importantly, though, OITNB’s second season solidified its place as one of the most essential shows on television, acting as a vehicle for stories and viewpoints that are so often overlooked and so needed. The first season put OITNB on a list of shows to keep an eye on. The second season has elevated it to a spot that only the best programs inhabit, a show that is undeniably listed in the category of can’t miss.—Eric Walters

3. Fargo

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Creator: Noah Hawley
Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks
Network: FX
If you made a list of untouchable auteurs—that is, creators whose work should never be built upon or remade—the Coen Brothers would sit comfortably near the top. That did little to alarm Noah Hawley, whose reimagining of the Coen Brothers’ classic 1996 murder mystery took on the unthinkable, and succeeded brilliantly. At its highest moments, Fargo was myth-making in its finest form. That’s what this show was; a myth, a legend, a tall-tale in the Minnesota cold. Every great myth needs a greater villain, and Fargo had one of the best of the year. The pairing of Hawley’s twisted antagonist, Lorne Malvo, and the always enigmatic Billy Bob Thornton (giving his finest performance in years) was perhaps the greatest achievement of the FX drama. It was clear that Malvo was only human, and yet we were fully prepared for Hawley to reveal that he was something more. In the final moments, when Malvo’s outcome was all but certain, I couldn’t help but expect for him to rise again, as he always seemed to. In a mere ten episodes, this character went from unknown to larger-than-life. For all those new shows that struggle to build worlds and characters, please, watch Fargo and take note.—Eric Walters

2. Mad Men

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Creator: Matthew Weiner
Stars: Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, Jessica Paré, John Slattery, James Wolk, Kiernan Shipka
Network: AMC
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.—Bonnie Stiernberg

1. True Detective

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Creator: Nic Pizzolatto
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan
Network: HBO
Now, almost a year after the show premiered, it’s much easier to look at what True Detective actually is, as opposed to what its hype would lead you to believe it is. True Detective was never about its central mystery, the mcguffin of the Yellow King’s identity, rather it was a meditation on masculinity, obsession, and—perhaps above all else—craft. Because of this, the show’s content was a perfect match for some of the finest acting, production, cinematography, and editing on display, not just on television screens but in fact anywhere in 2014. True Detective excels both as a tone poem, creating an almost primordial world out of southern Louisiana, and as a character piece, casting a dark mirror against the buddy cop genre that Hollywood hasn’t let go of since the late 1980s. While it was all but impossible to ignore the fact that many of True Detective’s ideas were cribbed from elsewhere, that does nothing to detract from the show’s strong voice and overall originality. This Southern Gothic noir set primarily in the past, nonetheless felt more universal and timely than almost anything else made this year.—Sean Gandert

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