5. “The Good Wife”
It’s rare for a show to peak in its first season: the creators and writers are generally still figuring out the show and their characters. Instead, the majority of shows tend to hit their heights before going off the rails somewhat by the time it reaches four, five or six, should they last that long. So it’s incredibly uncommon to find a series that improves every time, just as it’s incredibly uncommon to find a drama on network TV that remains consistently excellent across a twenty-two episode season. And yet: “The Good Wife.” We’ve always liked, nay loved the show, an uncommonly smart and well-written procedural, and yet could never quite find a place for it in this list in years past. But even before the fifth season wrapped, we knew it was headed for a top-five placing: from the off, it took the already rock-solid building blocks and improved everything exponentially, remixing the show entirely by, *SPOILER* only a few episodes in, seeing title character Alicia (Julianna Marguiles, who gets better and better every year) and young pal Cary defect from the law firm that the show called home for four seasons to set up show on their own, much to the disgust of Alicia’s friend and one-time lover Will (Josh Charles). Then, it shook up the status quo again two-thirds of the way through the season by killing off Will: what could have been a soapy development (Charles had asked to be written out) felt like a true shock in the way that sudden death actually does in real life, and led to the most powerful and truthful treatment of grief on television since “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” (that sounds like a backhanded compliment, but anyone who knows the latter show will understand that that’s not the case). *END SPOILER* This was already an almost unfathomably smart, witty and sexy show, but by taking enormous storytelling risks, creators Robert and Michelle King turned what was already a very, very good show into a truly great one.
Best Episode: Almost too many to choose from (at twenty-two episodes, this is almost double the length of almost any other series on this list), but the honor goes to “Hitting The Fan,” which sees Alicia and Cary leave Lockhart Gardner: one of the most furiously paced and dramatically charged hours of television we’ve ever seen.
4. “The Americans”
Last year, FX’s “The Americans” was one of the most promising new dramas as well, taking an ingenious conceit (of a pair of long-embedded Soviet spies disguised as the perfect nuclear family in Washington D.C, who find after over a decade of marriage that they’re really falling for each other, just as an FBI counter-intelligence expert moves across the street) and making something gripping, sensual and rich from it. This year, for its second season, it build on its confident start and improved exponentially, coming up with a more focused, and yet wider-ranging second run of episodes that suggested that this will be one that’ll join the TV drama canon by the time it’s through. That central idea remains amazingly potent in its ability to tackle marriage (the central couple, played by the phenomenal Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys, are on solid footing now, which doesn’t mean there aren’t speed-bumps), parenthood, double-lives and American values, but the show’s scope has expanded further: FBI neighbor Stan (Noah Emmerich), his Soviet lover (Annet Mahendru) and her colleagues at the embassy are all equally vital pieces of the puzzle. The show even successfully tackled the bete noire of many cable dramas and found a way to make the teenage child of the protagonists engaging and important to the whole. And it also raised its game as a thriller, the episode one murder of a couple in a similar position to our central duo setting the scene for a beautifully-plotted season-long arc that culminated in one of the most emotionally devastating, and thematically resonant wrap-ups we can remember, and felt so much more satisfying as a whole season than the first as a result. The series engages on a pulp level, but it’s also remarkably adult in the way it tackles its themes: this is deeply pleasurable, intellectually satisfying drama for grown-ups that can stand up against anything else that’s on right now.
Best Episode: That finale was a stunner, but we might just prefer episode nine, “Martial Eagle,” which mixes a brutally violent mission at a contra training base (only one other show here deals as well with the consquences and aftermath of violent, but we’ll get to that in a second), with the Jennings’s daughter Paige’s ongoing flirtations with religion, a plotline that should spell disaster, but is beautifully executed.
There is nothing—nothing—on television remotely like “Hannibal.” In fact, there’s never been anything on television like “Hannibal.” Which is all the more remarkable, because 1) it’s on network TV, and 2) because it’s yet another bloody serial killer show, and one that stars the already overused man-eating creation of Thomas Harris popularized by “Manhunter” and “Silence Of The Lambs.” But the small-screen “Hannibal” roared out of the gate last year, and became even more fascinating and individual in season two, ripping up the expectations of anyone expecting the show to retell the story we’d already seen, or indeed, stories that anyone had already seen. The season-one cliffhanger had, in an ingenious role-reversal, left the nominally heroic Will Graham behind bars, suspected of serial murders, with Lecter still free, and the duo’s uneasy love/kill relationship remains the beating heart of the show, even as they openly plot each other’s destruction, and it’s a pairing that’s quite unique for the genre, one that pushes right up against making them even Graham irredeemable. It’s a totally absorbing and psychologically complex examination of the seductive power of evil and what it is to kill, with everyone within the two’s orbit, even those who survive, being polluted and corrupted. And yet it never feels like a wallow: it’s leavened with a bone-dry gallows humor, and even when the show’s at its grisliest (and somehow, it finds a new way to horrify--and this is horror in the truest sense of the word--every week), there’s a curious beauty in it, one that it manages without losing sight of the consequences of the killings. But the beauty is important: this is the most formally daring and innovative show on television right now, directors like David Slade and Vincenzo Natali turning in work that’s borderline expressionistic in approach, a stunning fever nightmare, like an unholy meld of Antonioni, Argento and Goya. The acting is just as artful: Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen continue to astonish week on week. But it’s the imagery that we couldn’t forget even if we wanted to.
Best Episode: Undoubtedly the finale, “Mizumono,” a bloodletting so unspeakably tense (despite the fact that much of it had been revealed, boldly, in the season opener) that we only recall drawing breath once or twice across the full forty minutes.
2. "Orange is the New Black”
We’d hardly have credited the idea that season 2 of Jenji Kohan’s Netflix sensation could possibly have improved on the first, until we watched it. Layered, complex storytelling, that seemed designed this time out to be devoured in multi-episode sittings (though still rich enough that we weren’t manically racing to the end as we were with the disappointing “House of Cards” season 2, for example), the show impressed us even further this season with its refusal to rest on its laurels, introducing new characters and new notes into the environment when it could justifiably have gone back and revisited last season’s breakouts like Sophia or Pennsatucky without anyone feeling cheated. But instead Kohan and her increasingly confident, dazzlingly creative writers chose to fill out those roles which hadn’t had as much backstory last time out: cancer sufferer Rosa; chirpy romantic Morello; jokey, good-natured Poussey. And of course, we hit the new-character jackpot the form of the calculating personification of maternal malevolence Vee (Lorraine Toussant) whose power struggle and personal history with Red (Kate Mulgrew, also goddamn amazing this season) and corrupting, divisive influence over the other black women, especially Taystee, form the main arc this time out. And yet so many other balls remain in the air too: the meta-story of the prison administration; the return of Pornstache and the surprising twist that contrasts his passionate declarations of love for Diaz with Bennett’s cautious, secretive approach; not to mention the whole first Jodie-Foster-directed episode which is like a self-contained season in one single show. Fulfilling, meaty, frequently hilarious, often heartbreaking, sometimes vicious storytelling: “Orange is the New Black” is just superlative TV.
Best Episode: We’re tempted to opt for the very last one as only a show this good could get away with the enormous coincidence of the end and actually sell it as one of the most perversely hilarious/horrible moments. And the episode *SPOILER* with the revelation that Morello was in fact a stalker also vies for second place *END SPOILER*. But we’re going to give the the ribbon to the penultimate episode "It Was The Change", in which a storm and the prison's dodgy plumbing forces everyone to endure Lisa Loeb sing-songs in the canteen and in flashback we see Vee deal with both the onset of menopause and potential disloyalty in her ranks in astoundingly ruthless, Vee-esque fashion.
1. “True Detective”
Was there ever any doubt? (Well, yes, there was, as it happens: some bad-tempered arguments resulted in Playlist HQ over who would get the top slot, and the top five or six were in a very different order at one stage or another). But ultimately, we settled on HBO’s searing police procedural/character study, and it’s undoubtedly a worthy winner: even with other shows grabbing bigger ratings, nothing dominated the pop culture conversation in the way that “True Detective” did back in January, February and March of this year. With movie stars Matthew McConaughey (who won an Oscar while the show was on the air) and Woody Harrelson signing up, and Playlist favorite Cary Fukunaga at the helm, this always looked promising on paper, but even we were surprised by how hugely achieved the series felt from the first: a hugely atmospheric slice of Southern Gothic murder mystery that from the first, was as much about the people doing the investigation as the crime(s) itself. The dual-time structure allowed us to explore the contradictions and puzzles of Marty and Rust as they told their bleak, increasingly involving tale, and Nic Pizzolatto’s writing didn’t waste a syllable (those who criticize some of Rust’s monologues as being over-written don’t seem to have realized that this was entirely deliberate: that’s how he spoke, but notably not how anyone else on the series did), showing itself to be beautifully and carefully structured, and wrapping up in an entirely satisfying manner, even if it didn’t deliver the big twist that some were predicting--something that, we reckon, would only have cheapened the show. TV is famously seen as a writer’s medium, but “True Detective” felt like something else, Pizzolatto’s scripts melding with Fukunaga’s deeply atmospheric, gloriously cinematic work to create something better than the sum of its parts: everyone will remember that episode four one-take sequence, but the helmer never put a foot wrong at any point. And then, finally, the performances. This was a two-man show, no doubt, but what two men: McConaughey topping even his stunning recent big-screen renaissance, and Harrelson quieter and less showy, but just as rich and complex. We can think of no greater compliment for the series than to say one of our ideal approaches for Season Two would be a shot-for-shot remake, but with the two stars swapping over roles...
Best Episode: Episode Four, “Who Goes There,” had that remarkable closing sequence, but for us, the show peaked with episode five, “The Secret Fate Of All Life,” which featured both the confrontation with prime suspect Reggie Ledoux (brilliantly told through contradictory narration by Rust and Marty), and that beautiful jump through time to 2002.
Honorable Mentions: The show that perhaps came the closest to cracking the Top 20 without quite getting there was "Boardwalk Empire" -- the series had some fierce advocates on staff, but some found the just-wrapped-up fourth season to be the weakest, despite the welcome addition of Jeffrey Wright to the ensemble. Reliable favorites that continued to be strong without quite making a case for cracking the list included "Community" (on welcome return to form), "Parks & Recreation" (also on an upswing this year), "Archer," "Inside Amy Schumer" and "Key & Peele." Dropping off our list for the first time was "Justified," which continued to be solidly entertaining, but had a messier and less focused fifth run: here's hoping next year's final season sees it back on top form. "New Girl" similarly dipped down this time around, though we still enjoyed it, and "Scandal" also tipped over the edge into sheer ridiculousness in a less satisfying way than it had before. Across the pond, "Luther" disappointed slightly with its third season, but "Sherlock" had a solid return outing, although we didn't quite love it enough to crack the final list.
We enjoyed debuting shows "Sleepy Hollow," "Trophy Wife" and "Mom" without feeling compelled to shout them out, while "Looking" was a show we admired enormously without ever quite coming to love, and we never quite learned to love "Orphan Black" as a whole, though Tatiana Maslany remains astonishing in it. "Hello Ladies" had some advocates, but quieter ones, and AMC's "Turn" was thoroughly decent without ever quite hitting that next level. "Halt & Catch Fire" and the second season of "Rectify" were too early in their runs to make the grade this time: look out next year to see if they make the cut then. And keep an eye out for UK exports "Inside No. 9" and "Southcliffe," as and when they make it to the U.S, both are definite contenders for the next time around. We've heard good things about "Person Of Interest," "Bates Motel," "Adventure Time," "Vikings" and Sundance's "The Returned," but no one strongly vouched for them to make the grade this time around.
Dishonorable Mentions: Just to shoot down some of the inevitable 'but what about...' questions, there were a few shows that we definitively ruled out of the list this time around. "True Blood" long ago descended into silliness, and "American Horror Story" started off in that gear and has only continued that way. Still silly is better than boring, and "The Walking Dead," while fitfully interesting, has mostly stayed in that gear since the beginning. Although it at least doesn't make us want to shower, which is the result every time we tune into "Sons Of Anarchy," a series that seems determined to claim the title of 'The Favorite Show Of People Who's Favorite Movie Is 'The Boondock Saints'' And finally, we were most disappointed with the return of "House Of Cards," which made our list last year, and started strongly with its first episode, but which soon went wildly off the rails.
We're sure we're forgetting other shows, but you can argue the case for your own favorites in the comments section below.
- Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang