Oh, Sons of Anarchy, you came so close. FX’s biker-gang opus had secured a spot on my year-end Top 10 TV list, until its heavy-handed series finale knocked it out of contention. But the fact that such a fine series — as well as other worthy candidates like the Cold War thriller The Americans, the turn-of-the-century hospital horror show The Knick and the feminist high jinks of Broad City — didn’t make the cut is a testimony to what a remarkable TV year 2014 really was.
10. THE GOLDBERGS
As The Wonder Years was to the ‘60s in the '80s, The Goldbergs is to the '80s in the '10s. Heartfelt and gut-bustingly funny, Adam Goldberg’s ABC sitcom inspired by (and featuring real home-video footage of) his childhood is totally rad.
9. BROOKLYN NINE-NINE
No series makes me laugh louder and longer than Andy Samberg’s Fox cop-com. The ensemble encompasses everyone from a classically trained actor (Andre Braugher) to an NFL veteran (Terry Crews), and they all score big. If you’re not watching this show, that’s a crime.
8. THE KILLING
The Show That Wouldn’t Die (it was axed twice by AMC) came roaring back to life with a six-episode farewell season on Netflix that was absolutely killer. Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman created one of the most touchingly believable partnerships ever seen on the small screen, both as actors and as TV detectives. And as a terrifyingly severe military-school dean, Joan Allen commanded attention.
Like Louie — only funnier — Marc Maron’s IFC comedy brilliantly cross-cuts between scenes of his career (interviewing fellow stand-ups for a podcast out of his garage) and his personal life. With wit so sharp it draws blood, Maron spares no one, least of all himself: a fortysomething comic who can’t make a romantic relationship work, can’t fix his deeply dysfunctional relationship with his family (including the perfectly cast Sally Kellerman and Judd Hirsch as his parents) and… well, still hosts a podcast out of his garage.
6. THE AFFAIR
Showtime’s seductive new drama keeps luring you in, even as you’re never quite sure what the hell is going on. As it toggles between the POVs of an adulterous author (Dominic West — no one plays ne'er-do-wells better than this Wire veteran) and his waitress paramour (the achingly fine Ruth Wilson), The Affair constructs a mystery that exists simultaneously in a futuristic interrogation room and in the deepest recesses of the human heart.
The penultimate season of FX’s Elmore Leonard adaptation kept the late literary master’s spirit thrillingly alive. Who'da thunk quintessential Noo Yawker Michael Rapaport would make such a believable Kentucky redneck thug? And the scenes between Timothy Olyphant’s Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens and Walton Goggins’ born-again criminal Boyd Crowder crackle with enough electricity to light up Appalachia.
Another Great Southern Drama, Sundance’s small-town amorality play unfolds at a hypnotically molasses pace, as former Death Row inmate Daniel Holden (the Emmy-worthy Aden Young) tries — and mostly fails — to reintegrate himself into the life of his family and community. Is he innocent? It doesn’t matter. But bless its heart, Rectify is guilty of finding profound pathos in the most seemingly mundane minutiae of everyday life.
3. RAY DONOVAN
Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight deservedly earn the attention of awards-show voters with their muscular work as an estranged father-and-son pair of Boston baddies who’ve pahked their proverbial cahrs in sunny Southern California. But the entire Donovan clan — Ray’s steely wife Abby (Paula Malcolmson), physically challenged brother Terry (Eddie Marsan), emotionally crippled brother Bunchy (Dash Mihok) and seething half-brother Daryll (Pooch Hall) — makes me cry every damn week. Every. Damn. Week.
An even niftier work of art than the Coen Bros. film that inspired it, FX’s 10-episode miniseries boasted magnificent turns by Billy Bob Thornton (as a stone-coldhearted killer), Martin Freeman (as a beaten-down Everyman who gets involved in crime that’s way over his head), Colin Hanks (as a humane single-dad lawman) and a star-is-born tour de force from Allison Tolman as the indefatigable and exquisitely named Detective Molly Solverson. And just when you think the ensemble couldn’t get any more spectacular, along come Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele (whose self-titled Comedy Central skit-com just missed making this list) as a couple of seemingly hapless but ultimately heroic FBI agents. In short: Should you binge-watch Fargo? You betcha.
1. TRUE DETECTIVE
It’s everything that’s great about TV rolled into one show. It’s a period piece like The Goldbergs, as it flashes back and forth between the present and 17 years earlier, when Louisiana cops Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) first encountered the twisted serial killer who would pull their lives apart. It’s got the station-house comedy of Brooklyn Nine-Nine as Rust and Marty butt heads with their bosses; the tantalizing mystery of The Killing; the adultery of The Affair (Marty cheats on his long-suffering wife, movingly played by Michelle Monaghan, and she retaliates); the bifurcated structure of Maron; the tangible Southern atmosphere of Justified and Rectify; and a cast that’s as arresting as Ray Donovan’s. And, finally, like Fargo, it tells a deeply satisfying, self-contained story, and there’s no guarantee that Season 2 — with a different cast and characters — will be nearly as great. But I can hardly wait until 2015 to find out.
Currently Senior Articles Editor for Closer Weekly, Bruce Fretts wrote TV Guide Magazine‘s wildly popular “Cheers & Jeers” column for 10 years. His work has also been published in the New York Times, Vulture.com, Fast Company, New York Daily News, Digital Spy, the Sundance Channel’s website and RogerEbert.com. You can follow him on Twitter @brucefretts