December 30, 2014

THE 10 BEST TV SHOWS OF 2014 and Other Small-Screen Thoughts


How long can television (or “television,” since programming is now viewed on a multitude of screens and platforms) stay as good as it is right now?  It used to be tough to find 10 TV shows in a year worthy of being considered “best,” but now the problem is deciding which superb shows to omit.  There are 15 (and a half) Honorable Mentions below, and any one of them could have been a contender for the main list.  The sheer breadth of quality and ambition now being aimed at small screens is amazing.

What’s even more remarkable is how low the viewership is for most of these excellent works–and the fact that for now, at least, it doesn’t seem to matter.  Only 2 of the Top 10 below are regularly watched by more than 2 million people in their initial airings (and the bulk of those watching tend to be older than 50), and while we all know that those numbers increase, sometimes quite a bit, when delayed and subsequent viewings and alternate platforms are added, these are still tiny numbers by the old economic standards of television.  Nevertheless, aside from a pair of one-time miniseries events, every one of this Top 10 has been renewed for another season.  it’s a complete turnaround from the way the television business has traditionally worked, and it marks the shift of the medium from an advertising-based model (still followed by the broadcast networks, which is why they’re suffering so much) to one based at least in part on subscription fees.  Those fees come in two varieties:  via individual negotiations with cable and satellite operators (for basic-cable networks) or as direct viewer payments, usually split with the operators, specifically for that network (pay-cable and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon).  In either case, branding is everything:  the cable/satellite operators have to believe that a fee is justified because a network’s brand is so strong that viewers will be disaffected if the network is dropped, or the subscribers themselves have to decide to pay for the service.

Branding is very different from viewership.  HBO subscribers may watch Game of Thrones in hordes, but they also appreciate the fact that the service includes shows like Olive Kitteridge and The Normal Heart, whether or not they actually watch.  The same is true for FX and Louie or The Americans, which are watched by a fraction of the numbers who watch Sons of Anarchy or American Horror Story. In addition, because subscription fees are worth the same amount no matter how old the subscriber is, premium TV feels much less pressure to cater primarily to young viewers in the way that the movies now do.  For perhaps the first time in American entertainment history, prestige and quality have a genuine economic value.  It’s given us not just a “new golden age” of television, but the most golden one that’s ever been.  Will it last forever?  Nothing does, and the basic cable networks, which still get a large part of their revenue from advertising (and thus by the number of viewers a show can attract) are particularly vulnerable.  If a la carte pricing ever becomes real, that will shake up the economics once again.  For now, though, it’s a great time to be watching.

The shows below aren’t divided into “comedy” or “drama,” or for that matter between “regular series” and “limited series.”  The lines between those categories have become too porous to mean much in a world where Orange Is The New Black is a “comedy,” and True Detective and American Horror Story find themselves considered as different kinds of shows for awards purposes.  These are simply the best TV events of 2014:

1.  THE HONORABLE WOMAN (Sundance):  Every thriller that involves espionage or international conflict ends up compared to the novels of John LeCarre, but Hugo Blick’s fantastic miniseries was truly as good as LeCarre at his very best.  Its emotions were as complex and unexpected as its plotting, its cast from star Maggie Gyllenhaal to the little-known supporting players was letter-perfect, and as dark as it became, it was the most exhilarating, enthralling show of the year.

2.  THE KNICK (Cinemax):  The informed, intelligent scripts, mostly by series creators Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, were enormously important and annoyingly underrated even by series fans, but what separated The Knick from the other excellent dramas this season was the filmmaking by Steven Soderbergh, who personally directed, photographed and edited all of its 10 hours (and plans to do the same in Season 2).  Turning the limited budget and shooting time to his advantage, and with more skill at lighting for high-def digital than just about anyone else around, Soderbergh created a visual experience that truly seemed to place the viewer in turn of the 20th century Manhattan.  The series also gave the oft-underused Clive Owen the role of his life, amid a crowd of lesser-known, equally well-cast players.

3.  FARGO (FX):  No idea this season sounded worse than the notion of re-imagining the Coen Brothers classic with a different storyline and characters, stretched out to 10 hours.  But Noah Hawley’s vision of the Coens’ vision was a triumph, one that respected the original and nodded to it, while forming an entirely convincing whole of its own.  Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman and Allison Tolman were indelible in the leads, and it’s just too bad they won’t be back for the next chapter of the story (a prequel of sorts, set decades before this season’s tale).

4.  TRANSPARENT (Amazon):  Vying with Netflix for the early lead among streaming platforms, Amazon needed to make a splash, and a dramedy about an aging father of adult children coming out as trans to his hugely dysfunctional family could have come off as desperate and exploitative.  Series creator Jill Soloway, though, had her finger on exactly the right tone for the material, simultaneously uproarious and deeply serious.  All the major members of the cast deserve mention, as Jeffrey Tambor, Gaby Hoffman, Amy Landecker, Judith Light and Jay Duplass (a writer-director in his own right who had barely even acted before) were each as spectacular as the next.

5.  OLIVE KITTERIDGE (HBO):  There’s a reason why HBO is still the watchword for “quality” on television, even if it’s facing more competition than it ever has before.  The network hired exactly the right people to do justice to Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, from screenwriter Jane Anderson to director Lisa Cholodenko, and together they gave Frances McDormand the chance to give a performance for the ages, heading a remarkable cast that included everyone from Richard Jenkins and Peter Mullen to Bill Murray.  The most enjoyably depressing 4 hours of the season.

6.  THE GOOD WIFE (CBS):  One day The Good Wife, already in its 6th year, is going to be canceled, and with the looming ends of Parks & Recreation and Parenthood, that will be the end of network television as anything more than an agglomeration of procedurals and soaps (with all due respect to Shonda Rhimes, who does soap better than anyone else in the business).  For now, we can glory in how smart and funny and twisty The Good Wife is.  Season 5 outdid itself, not just with the shocking twist of killing off a major character, but in the way series creators Robert and Michelle King used that development not as a cheap narrative thrill, but to deepen all the characters.  Juliana Margulies continues to do world-class work in the lead, and the series has the best crop of regulars and recurring guest stars on TV.

7.  LOUIE (FX):  By now, Louis C.K. is a veteran TV auteur, one of the first to explore the possibility that quality TV could be as experimental in form as in content.  This season was as exciting as any he’s done before, ranging from 30-minute gems (“So Did The Fat Lady”) to a feature-film length memory piece (“In the Woods”) to a serialized multi-part novelistic tale (various segments of “The Elevator” and “Pamela”).  He continues to be among the most daring innovators on small screen or large.

8.  GAME OF THRONES (HBO):  TV’s epic saga was better than ever in Season 4, thanks to some jaw-dropping plot turns and and an ever more assured sense of how to balance its gigantic cast.  Thrones doesn’t need dragons to be enthralling (although the dragons are pretty cool, too), and as the biggest hit on its network (not to mention this list), the only question is how much longer showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss will let it play on.

9.  THE AMERICANS (FX):  As good as Season 2 of The Americans was–and it was a chillingly plotted thriller carefully rooted both in character and its Cold War setting–the finale promised a Season 3 that may even be better.  (And if we’re all very lucky, Margo Martindale, freed from her CBS multi-cam sitcom captivity, will return to the cast.)

10.  YOU’RE THE WORST (FX this season, FXX in Season 2):  In the same year that both Hollywood and the broadcast networks proved themselves utterly unable to breathe life in romantic comedy as a genre (the dead and near-dead include Selfie, Manhattan Love Story and A To Z), Stephen Falk’s series reclaimed the genre by blowing it up.  Its protagonists (played with peerless chemistry by Chris Geere and Ava Cash) are for the most part horrible human beings, to each other and everyone else around them, who are revolted by the very possibility that they may be falling in love.  The writing is original and first-rate (“Sunday Funday” may have been the single best half-hour any comedy had all season), and it can’t return soon enough.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:  Breaking Bad, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, Orange Is the New Black, Parks & Recreation, Banshee, Silicon Valley, True Detective, Shameless, Manhattan, Sherlock. The Leftovers, Penny Dreadful, Parenthood, The Affair, The 100

SPECIAL HALF-SEASON RECOGNITION:  Mad Men (AMC), because even though the network has financial and scheduling reasons for calling the 7 episodes that aired in 2014 a “season,” it simply wasn’t one–just an intriguing, promising start to a story that won’t end until sometime in Spring 2015.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."