Though True Detective doesn’t appear on this list, one can’t discuss television in 2014 without addressing HBO’s gloomy mega-hit. The cult-like success of Nic Pizzolatto’s grisly, lugubrious procedural, which follows Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey’s agents of good on a decades-long hunt for a mutilator of children in the Deep South, seemed tied directly to its unexpected succinctness, a breathlessly efficient yet never hurried use of the miniseries format in eight installments. Structure, however, seems less and less important in television nowadays, and many of the year’s best shows approached storytelling in the episodic form from clever, distinct perspectives. Sherlock, with its three-episode structure, felt more harmonious than ever in its nuanced focus on Sherlock and Watson’s co-dependency; Louie remained gleefully chaotic in its jumble of storylines and splintered relationships throughout its 13 episodes this season; and BBC’s bracingly inventive In the Flesh, two seasons young, brandished honed satirical chops and an emotionally volatile dramatic narrative across six unrelenting and astonishingly lean hours.
Streaming continued to play a major role in the evolution of television, with Netflix producing and signing on for a startling amount of original programming this year, to say nothing of the still-thriving House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. Amazon came out of the gate strong with the underrated Alpha House and Jill Soloway’s moving Transparent, a comedy whose rattling sincerity is a rarity on television. The latter series is yet another paradigm of an increasingly common conception of the television season as an event, one that might have an encore, but doesn’t necessarily need one. New narrative challenges, as well as thematic concerns, can be tackled under the same heading, and the visual and dramatic worlds of these series can be comfortably reset after each season, a tactic popularized most memorably by FX’s unwieldy American Horror Story. At a time where the Marvel and DC universes are essentially bringing the episodic nature of television to the movie theater, TV seems to be drifting toward a newfound comfort with singular works by major artists in a variety of formats and with minimal narrative or conceptual limitations.
Perhaps nothing speaks to the reinvigorated state of television, and its liberating qualities as a visual artist’s medium, than Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, Cinemax’s very first out-and-out triumph. This story of surgeons doing exploratory surgeries and experimental operations serves as an imagistic laboratory for the auteur to work on all manner of shot composition, editing rhythms, and historical context and symbolism. Soderbergh’s visual signature is all over The Knick, and not an episode goes by where one doesn’t get the sense that he’s challenging himself technically with the same rigorousness and passion as the pioneering doctors the series depicts. Along with the announced return of Twin Peaks, Cinemax’s critical hit suggests many more big-studio outcasts may find fruitful exile in television, no longer just a repository for all the great stories that the movies don’t have the time or patience for. Similarly typified by a single directorial voice, namely Cary Fukunaga’s, True Detective ends with a cynic finding hope in the light, and one can similarly find hope for television in the shows on this list, even if, like The Knick, the subject matter of many of them often suggests a tendency toward the darkness. Chris Cabin
The maddeningly uneven second season of BBC America’s rollicking parable of the clash between science and religion veers from the merely utilitarian (“Governed As It Were by Chance”) to the positively inspired (“Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motion of Things”), all the more frustrating for its glimpses of antic genius. That Orphan Black snuck onto this list at all is thanks to the incomparable Tatiana Maslany. As a full complement of human clones (bickering, backstabbing, chasing, dancing, embracing, and even imitating each other), she manages to disappear fully into every role, an act of artistic daring that marks hers as perhaps the finest performance(s) on television. Matt Brennan
In the Flesh
Dominic Mitchell’s elegantly pulpy BBC drama strongly echoes the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in its depiction of zombies returning to their fractured communities and living as haunted copies of their former selves. It hangs amid the denizens of the fictional town of Roarton, Lancashire, drawing tension less from the expectation of teeth-to-neck clampdowns than from the intertwining of private dreams and wounds very much rooted in a people’s class aspirations. Cannier still is how it subverts the conveniences we crave from both zombie and terrorist dramas by casting the hero at its center as a gay man whose sexual awakening comes to seem like a pipe dream in a world where even the most sincere show of affection suggests an act of political manipulation. Ed Gonzalez
Olive Kitteridge offered a smorgasbord of some of the finest American acting of the year, of any medium. The players who made up the large, amazing cast were more than excellent though: They merged into a community, complementing one another as actors to offer the convincing illusion of people who’ve been stewing in one another’s respective juices for all their lives. That verisimilitude informed the miniseries with a rare and greatly poignant integrity, as it displayed a remarkable empathy for American disappointment without resorting to platitude or self-pity. Small stories of heartbreak circled one another, intensifying over time and on the rebound, occasionally weighing on characters to degrees that threatened or succeeded in surmounting them. Yet, Olive Kitteridge was ultimately life-affirming, as it embraced its heroine’s worldview that to hurt is to live. Chuck Bowen
Setting down a sturdy network police procedural within the city limits of comic-book culture’s most famed locale, Gotham breathes new life into Batman by refusing to take him so damn seriously. In fact, kindly, puckish Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) and the other future heroes and villains populating Fox’s playful reinterpretation exist primarily as foils for the incorruptible Detective James Gordon (Ben McKenzie). As Gordon wrangles his raffish partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue), and underworld temptress Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith), McKenzie’s wry grin becomes an emblem of Gotham’s foremost advantage, which is the delight it takes in reviving the source material’s bright, cartoonish charm. Brennan
Rather than merely expand on Joel and Ethan Coen’s classic dark comedy, this bloody and beguiling tale of Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), a travel agent who murders his belittling wife, refracts its source material, scattering familiar bits of Coen lore among Minnesota’s desolate expanses; one bathroom-set murder recalls the opening kill from No Country for Old Men. As Nygaard set himself against Officer Solverson (Allison Tolman) and Billy Bob Thornton’s devilish killer, Fargo’s creators found plenty to mock about undue greed, excused desperation, and crippling loneliness, but it’s not all a square dance at the gallows. The whole intricate, grisly ordeal ends with a loving family patched together amid the chaos—the quiet, sweet center to a violent winter storm. Chris Cabin