Once upon a time this would have been called best TV Series, but the world has definitely changed and the dynamic shift from traditional networks to cable and to Internet-only shows has forever changed the rules of the game. Now we can binge watch series whole seasons at a time as soon as they release. The main challenge for many of these shows is finding them; unless they appear on your suggested-to-watch list, you might not have even heard of some of them. Others of course, you’d have had to been in a deep coma for years to not be aware of their existence. As you’re relaxing around the fireplace and hopefully enjoying some downtime before the New Year begins again with a vengeance, here’s a roundup of some of our favorite shows of 2014.
11. The Americans (FX)
If you’re a fan of multi-episode story arcs and the spy or detective genre, then you should do yourself a favor and check out FX’s The Americans. It’s during the cold war at it’s final height (circa 1981) and the series follows two deep cover KGB spies posing as a true-blue American married couple in suburban Washington D.C. Created and produced by a former CIA officer, it gives a look into the cloak and dagger operations of the era. At it’s core, however, the series is about the family of the agents; they’ve been at this long enough to have raised two children and are trying to balance the secrecy of their true jobs with the real roots they’ve put down in their enemy country.
10. The Walking Dead (AMC)
I would have been flogged if TWD wasn’t included somewhere in a list of best-of series, and I do have to admit that in the latter part of this season the series has become interesting once again. After a deeply week latter half of last season and the beginning of this season (two season openers in a row we find our band of feisty zombie killers having found a seeming safe haven only for it to wind up being another trap – I know, stop me if you’ve heard this one before), and a number of character building episodes (full episodes of holing up in a house and character introspection and discovery get droll when done back to back). But then, midway through the season, it finally kicks back into gear with the band on the move and planning a rescue of some of their own. The last several episodes of the season are among the best we’ve had in a long while (perhaps since the massacre at the barn).
9. House of Cards (Netflix)
Let’s be clear at the start with this show, it’s not fast paced. Setting the bar for the current trend of “the slow burn” in dramas (basically meaning that you can stretch out the main story arc points over multiple episodes). It’s not to mean that the show isn’t a fascinating character study, and it has you sit on the edge of your seat waiting for the axe to fall or the train to strike. If you’re a fan of power broker or politics series, this is one that you can’t miss. If nothing else, this show is one of those that you know will wind up influencing future similar genre series for a long time to come.
8. Fargo (FX)
If you remember the 1996 original film of the same name, this series is “kind of” a sequel. Elements of the show will point back at what happened in the film, but it’s more of a homecoming to the familiar quirky charm of the characters. It should be noted that the same folks that will being you a apple pie are also capable of extreme violence and will wind up being for their own best interests, regardless of how many knit sweaters they happen to be wearing. Great cinematography, great cast, and if you’ve ever been told you have a dark or quirky sense of humor, this show may have been sent to you for the holidays.
7. Game of Thrones (HBO)
Game of Thrones has gotten past the stage of “that new series smell,” and now whether you like it or are starting to turn away from it will be based largely if you’re a fan of the books and if so, if you’re accepting of the series’ divergences. For me, I’m still very much a fan, but not as rabid as I once was. Death, politics, sex, wrapped in a Fantasy setting with more characters than you can shake a stick at, this show is still setting records for most watched episodes (and most torrented). If you’re a newcomer to the series, just be warned, don’t get too fond of any particular characters, as they may die with or without warning, even when they’re the main one on the poster (sorry Sean Bean).
6. The Newsroom (HBO)
In the past few decades, there’s no one else that’s been able to replicate the characters or dialogue that Aaron Sorkin has brought to the screen. The characters are smart, and the themes of the show topical for the day. Sure, as with his original series, West Wing, it’s not really going to appeal to adherents to the political far right, but for everyone else it’s a tragedy that this series has now wrapped up it’s news day with the close of it’s third season. It’s a series that follows a network newsroom, their personal dramas, and the world happens around them and their efforts to make a difference.
5. Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
Some have compared Orange to a female version of Oz, but beyond being a dramatic prison based series it’s focus is on the struggles of the individuals and their communities that form up behind the bars. In the most racially and culturally diverse show on the list (and in most series currently running) it shows the reality of the American melting pot. Many episodes involve exploration of backstories how the women found themselves in the prison, and in most cases they show them to be far more than the viewer expected them to be.
4. Mozart in the Jungle (Amazon)
This just hit recently onto the Amazon Prime viewing list and it’s simply amazing. It follows the members of the New York Philharmonic as a new (and young) conductor joins and turns their traditions on end. Most comedies these days are focused on camp and/or lowbrow humor; Mozart is more of the smart variety with a strong dash of drama. There probably hasn’t been a 30-minute comedy series this immediately engaging since BBC’s too short-lived Whites. Mozart’s tagline is “Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music,” and that really rather says it all.
3. Constantine (NBC)
Finally a comic-based series that actually stays close to the dark and gritty source material (as opposed to just waving hello at it from time to time). Arrow and Flash are fine in their own way, but they don’t have much in the way of teeth, and Constantine doesn’t hold back from killing characters or even innocents when the need arises. Many of the current comic series have been largely crafted to appeal to the CW-audience (which there’s nothing wrong with being a fan of, but for others there’s more to the dramatic range than interpersonal melodrama). Here Constantine is battling angels and demons alike. He would like nothing more than to be left alone, but they keep cropping up in his path.
2. Transparent (Amazon)
Transparent is a show that could only have been done in an honest and dramatic way in the last few years. Revolving around a family who discover that their recently retired father has come out as a transgendered woman, and how that revelation has in turn brought out the rest of the family’s guarded secrets. It’s not a popcorn fluff show, and it comes off as a rather honest depiction of the clumsy and awkward ways people do their best to discover themselves and to step out into the light. The entire cast is played (and written) with great skill, but the nod has to go to the show’s lead (Jeffrey Tambor) for carrying off the show to make it regularly reviewed as the one of the best new shows of the year.
1. Vikings (History Channel)
So whomever at History Channel first piped up and said, “Hey, let’s make a scripted show,” should be given a medal. In their first foray out of the gate they have created a historically based show that is beautiful, well written, exciting, and dramatic. For my money it’s got the best and strongest female lead (Katheryn Winnick) of any series currently out there. The ensemble cast follows the saga of Ragnar Lodbrok (Travis Fimmel) as they become the scourge of 8th century England and France.
Bill Watters is an event producer, photographer, reporter, and software engineer living in San Francisco. Currently loving writing about and photographing the national geek and fandom scene as well as the latest happenings on both big and small screen. @BillRW3