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Update 12/23: This feature was written in June, 2014 as TV seasons go from September to September based on the Emmys schedule. For slightly more updated TV Features check out our Best TV Episodes Of 2014 and all our Best Of 2014 coverage which includes commentaries on best performances, soundtracks and more.
Bad news if you’re a member of the Television Academy: balloting for this year’s Emmys closed on June 20th, with the nominees to be announced a few weeks from now, on July 10th. That officially brings to an end the 2013/2014 TV season, and if anyone was worried that the string of quality TV was starting to come to an end as some of the most famous dramas and comedies of recent years wrapped up their runs, they were sorely mistaken: the medium is in as remarkably healthy a state as ever.
Every year, at about this time, we put together our list of the best television of the previous season, and for 2013/2014, there was such a wealth of goodness that we felt compelled to extend our line-up from fifteen to twenty for the first time. It’s not surprising: quality television now has more outlets than ever, from mainstream broadcast networks to basic cable and premium channels to online-only services like Netflix and Amazon. But from comedy to drama, it’s truly a remarkable time to be a TV watcher.
You can find our (entirely subjective, much argued-over) ranking below. Who'll succeed previous victors "Parks & Recreation," "Mad Men" and "Top Of The Lake" in the top slot? Debate the winners and losers in the comments section below. And note, some spoilers are ahead, but they're clearly marked.
20. “Penny Dreadful”
There are a number of things wrong with “Penny Dreadful,” if we’re being honest. The pilot was a bit tepid, keeping its central characters enigmatic rather than intriguing (and actually not introducing a number of the regulars until the second installment). It’s had one of the more oddly structured seasons of television we can remember: at eight episodes, it feels like it’s wrapping up just as it’s getting started, especially as it’s taken more than one break from the central plot to focus episodes on extended flashbacks to fill out character backstories. And it’s about as silly as a show about Dracula, Frankenstein and Dorian Gray crossing paths in Victorian London sounds. But there’s a beautiful sincerity to its silliness: the cast, and creator/writer John Logan (who, as with several other shows on this list, was the sole writer on the project, having come up with the idea with “Skyfall” collaborator Sam Mendes) approach the material without winking at the audience, and with a real love of the horror genre, from the source materials of the title to classic '60s Hammer fare, ending up with a product that’s campy and operatic and enormously, enormously entertaining. The acting is superlative, with Timothy Dalton, Harry Treadaway and, above all else, Eva Green doing tremendous work (even Josh Hartnett’s pretty decent), and the craft throughout is impeccable: “The Orphanage” helmer J.A. Bayona did a stellar work at building the atmosphere, and the score, by “A Single Man” composer Abel Korzeniowski, might be the best on TV right now. At a time when certain other horror-focused shows (ones that are American Stories, if you catch our drift) are content with just flinging insanity at the screen and seeing what sticks, “Penny Dreadful” truly gets the richness of the genre: with psychology and sexuality and religion and, above anything else, a desire to stave off or defeat death underpinning everything. And, maybe most importantly, it features Timothy Dalton saying the word ‘chicanery.’
Best Episode: This past Sunday’s episode, “Possession,” might have been the best so far: a bottle-episode that manages to explore the characters while still moving the story forward, it was also the best showcase for Eva Green’s astonishing performance in a season that’s been full of them so far.
19. "Bob's Burgers"
Occupying territory so well covered by the all-conquering pop culture juggernaut that is “The Simpsons” it’s remarkable that Loren Bouchard’s “Bob’s Burgers,” over the course of just four seasons, has managed to carve out such a distinctive identity. The sweet, loopy, often surreal tone springs from a deep love for its characters, the Belcher family, their customers, neighbors, friends and nemeses, and perhaps what makes it so compelling is just how active an interior life every single one of our principals can display in tiny, slider-sized 22-minute mouthfuls. In fact, it seems to be a characterizing element of the show; that everyone comes to it via their own connection to one specific character—for this writer the show is all about Linda, the perpetually good-humored matriarch who is refreshingly herself, as opposed to merely a foil for the wacky hijinks of her husband or children, from her tippling to her sudden enthusiasms (deciding she’s psychic because she predicted a telesales call) to her tendency to break into (often hysterical) musical numbers at the drop of a hat. The family derives so much of their manic energy from her, and yet the warmth and genuineness of her love for them, and their love for each other, renders them totally impervious to outside judgements, which allows “Bob’s Burgers” to venture to places of awkwardness that other shows might fear to tread, always knowing there’s a safety net of affection into which these beloved screw-ups can fall without harm. Season 4 has seen the show grow in confidence and characterization, mining musical moments more frequently, experimenting a little with format (the finale was an epic double episode; the closing credits are getting more surreal and brilliant, as in the spot-on Bond song parody) and generally joyously expanding the microcosmic universe of this New Jersey seaside town with seemingly limitless invention and affection.
Best Episode: The finale double episode is probably the season’s biggest gamble, and it pays off, but as a single standout our (tough) choice is either “Uncle Teddy” in which restaurant regular Teddy gets his moment as a babysitter to the kids while Bob and Linda attend a burger convention or “The Equestranauts” which takes aim at the soft target of “Brony” culture and yet ends up again showing the foibles of others in a sympathetic light: everyone, after all, is just striving for the kind of unconditional love and acceptance that comes as naturally to the Belchers as breathing.
Comedy Central are on a hell of a roll at the moment: the network was for so long the house that “South Park” and “The Daily Show” built, but in the last few years, they’ve built up a slate of original programming that’s among the most exciting around right now. “Key & Peele,” “Kroll Show,” “Nathan For You,” “Inside Amy Schumer” and “Drunk History” are all stuffed with laughs (if sometimes being as hit-and-miss as the sketch show format tends to be), but the gem of the line-up is a show that aired with much less fanfare, and after being in a vault for almost a year: “Review,” or to give it its full title, “Review With Forrest MacNeil.” Created by and starring longtime comedy scene-stealer Andy Daly (“Eastbound & Down”), and directed by “Spellbound” and “Rocket Science” helmer Jeffrey Blitz, the show is a loose remake of an Australian show that keeps up the same central conceit: Forrest (Daly) is a reviewer, who reviews life experiences suggested by his viewers, from the seemingly innocuous likes of ‘Having A Best Friend’ and ‘Hunting’ to ‘Divorce,’ ‘Revenge’ and ‘Space.’ The first episode is gloriously funny, as Forrest, as always in his deadpan, slightly harassed manner, gets hooked on coke and tries to take a teenager to prom, but you wonder how much mileage there can possibly be in the premise. But the show escalates beautifully week after week, finding more and more humiliating and disastrous ways for the review to go, but crucially, there’s a cumulative effect, the series turning into a bleakly funny character study as Forrest is pushed closer and closer to breaking point by the show, and his malevolent producer (James Urbaniak, doing stellar work). The show seemed to burn itself down in its final episode, but despite lowish ratings, a second season has happily been commissioned.
Best Episode: The third, “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes,” which gloriously sandwiches, as the title might suggest, Forrest being forced to ask his beloved wife for a divorce, with a challenge to eat first fifteen pancakes, and then thirty. Not just the high watermark of the show, but one of the funniest half-hours of the whole year.
17. "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"
This year wasn't the finest as far as network sitcoms went: most fell flat, strong new arrivals like "Trophy Wife" were short-lived, one-time favorites like "New Girl" took a down turn, and long-running greats like “Parks & Recreation” and “Community” returned to form to some degree, without quite brushing against their former heights. But the undoubted standout among the debuting shows was “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” which came straight out of the gate with a remarkable degree of confidence. Co-created by “Parks & Recreation”’s Michael Schur and Dan Goor, and with a pilot directed by “Lego Movie” duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller (continuing their remarkable recent run of success), it essentially takes that “Parks & Rec”/”The Office” workplace comedy and sets it inside the titular NYC police station. It’s hardly a new concept (“Barney Miller,” et al.), but Schur and Goor brought across the easy likability, gag density and strong world-building from Pawnee to Brooklyn, with the new show being consistently funny and eventually, even a little heartwarming too. It wasn’t totally firing on all cylinders from the first, we’ll concede: early episodes depend on your tolerance for Andy Samberg, the “SNL” veteran’s man-child detective, as the biggest name on the show, being more central than most in the early run. But the series showed a fine capacity for course-correction, and gradually became more and more of an ensemble piece. And few series around have a better ensemble, with Andre Braugher, Terry Crews, Melissa Fumero, Stephanie Beatriz, Chelsea Peretti and Joe LoTruglio all doing stellar work, and maybe more importantly, gelling beautifully together, their enthusiasm for each other, and for the show in general, palpably coming off the screen. It’s not as furiously, gut-bustingly funny as some of the shows further up this list, but there’s such a warmth and generosity to the series that hanging out with the detectives became one of our greatest pleasures of the season just gone.
Best Episode: “Old School,” the eighth of the season, was where things really started to take off: pairing Samberg’s good-old-days-idolizing detective with Stacy Keach’s hardboiled crime reporter, who turns out to be a pretty unpleasant human being, Peralta’s reaction perhaps serving as the first real demonstration of the show’s great big heart.
16. “Silicon Valley”
Perhaps what’s most endearing about HBO’s new comedy “Silicon Valley” is just how traditional a sitcom it is really, featuring a small, enclosed community of people, sparsely populated at least initially, trapped in a “situation”: in this case a tiny tech startup in a town defined by the IT industry and dominated by Google surrogate Hooli. But the success of the show is down to two main factors: the sharp satirical eye for the excesses of that industry, with its flash-in-the-pan successes and delusions of grandeur (like the checkout guy convinced that his app for finding your car in the parking lot has a big future) and the surprising warmth of the characterization of even the show’s most self-unaware characters. From Thomas Middleditch’s archetypal geek/newly minted CEO, to TJ Miller’s self-styled would-be guru in a bathrobe, to the wonderful Zach Woods as baby-faced naif Jared, the show has constantly surprised us with how the relationships between these misfits develop so satisfyingly. But special MVP mention must go to Christopher Evan Welch, whose tragically early death just five episodes in was a real shock to discover just as we were starting to enjoy the show, and whose portrait of venture capitalist guru Peter Gregory is so indelible it’s hard to see how the show will reach its same heights next season. Though we are very glad that series creators Mike Judge, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky made the decision not to recast and reshoot, and instead let us enjoy Welch’s contribution, as sadly curtailed as it was. So we are a little worried that without him to spice things up the show could stray a little close to the middle of the road, but this first season has certainly earned our goodwill, so we’re rooting for it come next season.
Best Episode: “Articles of Incorporation” (episode 3) had a terrific balance between A and B storyline in which Richard has to buy the name “Pied Piper” from an aging farmer who represents the apotheosis of old-school masculinity as contrasted with Richard’s fey nerdishness, all while Peter Gregory gets his finest moment: seemingly distracted from a conversation with some desperate supplicants begging for a bridging loan or layoffs will ensue, he is transfixed by the sesame seeds on a Burger King burger that pays off in clever and surprising ways. It’s an episode that points to everything we hope the show will become, and to everything about the Gregory character that we will miss.